geezer cinema: c'mon c'mon (mike mills, 2021)

I had liked the two Mike Mills movies I had seen (Beginners and 20th Century Women), so I was looking forward to this. I'm also a bigger fan of Joaquin Phoenix than I realized. He was in Hotel Rwanda, which I liked a lot. He starred in Her, was in the only M. Night Shyamalan I enjoyed without reservation ... I even liked Two Lovers, which also starred Gwyneth Paltrow and was a romantic drama. He has worked with interesting directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Lynne Ramsay (and Mike Mills). If you asked me for a list of favorite actors, Phoenix would not come immediately to mind, but clearly I mostly like his work.

Phoenix does not give the only good performance in C'mon C'mon. He doesn't even give the best performance. That comes from the remarkable youngster Woody Norman. His role as a boy whose parents are struggling is central, and a poor performance could have made the movie unbearable. But Norman pulls it off and then some. (He is English, but you wouldn't know it from C'mon C'mon ... I can't easily recall another example of a young English actor doing such a great job with an American accent.) His rapport with Phoenix, who plays his umcle, is cranky, realistic, and both emotional and entertaining (even funny at times).

There are some other acting favorites of mine in C'mon C'mon. Gaby Hoffman's career has been strong, and at some point I need to forget that she is Viva's daughter. I always enjoy Scoot McNairy, and (spoiler alert) I was glad that it was Scoot and not Phoenix who played the bipolar character.

Phoenix plays a radio journalist, and Mills makes good use of a series of interviews with young people; these are real, and Molly Webster of Radiolab plays one of the interviewers. She and Phoenix and the kids add a touch of vérité to the proceedings.

C'mon C'mon is subdued and involving. It's another success for Mike Mills.

[Letterboxd list of my favorite Joaquin Phoenix movies]


get back some more

I finished Get Back on Sunday, when the final episode turned up. It's a treasure trove for Beatles fans. I'm not sure how much it would appeal to non-fans ... it's better than the average "behind the scenes" documentary, but I'm still not a big fan of the genre (I've always thought Don't Look Back was overrated). If I were to introduce someone to The Beatles today, I'd play the music and show A Hard Day's Night. Then I'd get to Peter Jackson's project. I don't mean this as a knock ... I am a Beatles fan, I gobbled up the entire thing and wouldn't mind doing it again.

Jackson deserves our thanks for showing the joy that was always part of the Let It Be sessions, along with the downsides. I've always thought the rooftop concert was odd, because they were having such a good time, and that didn't match the reputation of the sessions. Jackson shows us that it all made sense.

Rob Sheffield is the best at whatever topic he decides to write about. His book Dreaming the Beatles is essential. He wrote two pieces for Rolling Stone about Get Back. First was "‘Get Back’: Meet the Beatles Once Again, Courtesy of the Most Emotional Fab Four Doc Ever". Then, after we'd had the chance to watch all 8 hours, he gave us "24 Reasons We’ll Keep Watching the Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ Forever". Between the two, you'll get the perfect reading companion to the series. And there's this, from "24 Reasons":

The highlight of the rooftop concert: the joy of seeing Maureen Starkey, Ringo’s wife, bop her head to “Get Back.” Nobody on the roof is a bigger fan than Mo. She was a screaming girl back at the Cavern Club — she’s the only person here who ever stood in line and paid money to hear this band. (The first time she met Ringo, she was asking for his autograph.) She’s waited years for this gig. At the end, Paul looks over and says, “Thanks, Mo” — a beautiful moment that sums up what the Beatles were all about, but also sums up what they are about, even now, which is why this story refuses to fade into the past.

I also enjoyed the comments from my friend Tomás Summers Sandoval, not only because I enjoy his writing, but also because he watched with his kid. Since I wonder how the Beatles continue to be relevant to later generations, I found his family-based viewings particularly interesting.


lupin the third: the castle of cagliostro (hayao miyazaki, 1979)

This is the twelfth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 12 is called "Animated Auteurs Week":

When discussing auteurs, we usually stick to live-action filmmakers, which makes sense based on audiences' relationships with animation (outside of Japan, anyway). Here we take a moment to see creators who have made a name and signature style for themselves through an animated medium. Considered omitting Miyazaki since he is the exception to the rule, but it's for that same reason I had to keep him in.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by one of the following animated auterus: Ralph BakshiSylvain ChometDon HertzfeldtSatoshi KonHayao MiyazakiTomm MooreBill PlymptonIsao Takahata, or Masaaki Yuasa.

This was the first feature directed by Hayao Miyazaki, and it didn't do much for me, the first time I've thought that about one of his films (I've seen ten). I don't know much about the background of Arsène Lupin III, who starred in manga series going back to 1967. The Castle of Cagliostro presents Lupin in a more genial tone, apparently, which wasn't necessarily popular at the time but which has become more accepted as Miyazaki emerged as one of our greatest film makers. In this case, the characters didn't appeal to me, and I didn't really care about the plot. There is a good fight scene near the end that takes place within the works of a large clock tower, and the drawings of some of the secondary characters are intriguing. Ultimately, I just didn't care enough to get excited.

Popular choices for this challenge included Paprika and Millennium Actress, both by Satoshi Kon.


african-american directors series: king richard (reinaldo marcus green, 2021)

King Richard falls into two fairly predictable genres, the biopic and the sports movie. Sports movies often have a thrilling conclusion ... boxing and horse racing work this quite well. Biopics? They can get our attention if we are fans of the person in question. Both genres suffer, though, from restrictions. There is usually a beginning, a rise, a drop off, and then a finale that leaves the audience happy.

As a sports movie, King Richard does have a twist or two, mostly because the people we care about the most, sisters Venus and Serena Williams, are secondary characters, with their father, the titular King, being the focus of the film. It's not that Richard Williams is uninteresting, it's just that the reason we've heard of him is because of his daughters. You would be forgiven if the movie gave us more Venus and Serena and less Richard. Having said that, Venus and Serena are executive producers of King Richard, and they seem fine with the focus on their father.

Biopics usually fudge facts to make for more entertaining movies, and King Richard is no exception. It helps that Will Smith gives the kind of performance people will remember come Oscar time. But then, most stars of biopics get that kind of attention. In recent years, we've had Best Actor nominations for Gary Oldman (twice), Rami Malek, Michael Fassbender, and Bryan Cranston (not to mention Will Smith in Ali), while Viola Davis, Andra Day, Renée Zellweger, Cynthia Erivo, Margot Robbie, and Natalie Portman getting Best Actress nominations. Some of these performances are excellent, although there's a tendency to congratulate and actor for imitating their subject. The biggest problem with biopics is that the real lives of the characters matter, but making entertainment matters more, and when you opt for entertainment, you are likely telling something less than the truth about the actual human being.

King Richard holds our attention, albeit for too long a running time (144 minutes). But it doesn't help when you learn more about Richard, when you learn what was left out.

Saniyya Sidney as Venus makes up for a lot, though. She is the best thing about the movie. The result is a movie I am glad I saw, but not a movie I will rave about.


malcolm & marie (sam levinson, 2021)

Malcolm & Marie has rightly been praised for the efficiency of its production during a pandemic. Its positive and negative aspects are not driven by the context of that production, but it deserves mention, because Malcolm & Marie compares well to films that took more than two weeks to make. The acting by Zendaya and John David Washington is exemplary and often gripping. The setting (Feldman Architecture's Caterpillar House in Carmel) is fascinatingly perfect, and the black and white cinematography of Marcell Rév is eye-catching in a good way. As many have already noted, the film plays like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? directed by John Cassavetes.

So why didn't I like it more? On Letterboxd, Demi Adejuyigbe nailed it: "If theaters were still open this review would probably be about how someone would groan 'oh my god shut UP' or 'this guy fucking SUCKS' every few minutes and the whole audience would burst into applause". Malcolm & Marie runs for 106 minutes, and I'm going to guesstimate that the titular couple are tossing verbal daggers at each other for at least 95 of them.

This is fine at first, but it gets old fast. There is a certain realism ... I imagine most couples had a few similar up-all-night spats. But as my wife said, no one thought to film our spats, and if they had, the audience would lose patience pretty quickly.

Writer-Director Sam Levinson has proven capable of "Pandemic Cinema". His work on the two "additional" episodes of Euphoria (which also stars Zendaya, along with Hunter Schafer), shot during the COVID-induced hiatus for that show under circumstances much like Malcolm & Marie, was excellent. But the film feels endless.

I love Zendaya, and I'm glad I saw this movie. But it was a slog, even for a fan like me.


bruce springsteen & the e street band: the legendary 1979 no nukes concerts (thom zimny, 2021)

There is some discussion about just how legendary these concerts were (the film is made from two nights). It's kind of pointless, though ... Bruce and the Band are terrific, it's 1979, what more needs to be said.  The restoration is strong, the sound unstoppable (thank you, Bob Clearmountain), the performances are ... well, they're late-70s Bruce, if you were there, you know, if you weren't, here's a fine example. I remember when the Darkness on the Edge of Town reissue came out, including a complete live show from 1978, I said I was glad the video existed, especially because it let me know it wasn't just nostalgia that made me think Bruce '78 was the best ... it was the best. This No Nukes concert film is like that ... it reminds us just how great he was when he turned 30.


shadow (zhang yimou, 2018)

This is the eleventh film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 11 is called "Fifth Generation Week":

Beginning in the mid-late 1980s, the rise of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers brought increased popularity of Chinese cinema abroad. Most of the filmmakers who made up the Fifth Generation had graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982 and included Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Chen Kaige, Zhang Junzhao and others.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Fifth Generation film.

My favorite "Fifth Generation" movie I have seen is probably Farewell My Concubine. As for Zhang Yimou, his movies are always gorgeous, and I usually like them, but for whatever reason, I've never found him great (on my list of favorite directors, he is #97). Shadow ranks with his best, and yes, it's gorgeous, but that means less than you'd think. It's a definite case of Taste Preferences, and you love movies that look great, his films in general and Shadow in particular should be your cup of tea. As I once said of Zhang's House of Flying Daggers, it was "the Elvira Madigan of its day. Whether that's a compliment or a pan is up to your subjective judgment."

The look of the film is unusual ... it's shot in color, but the sets and pretty much everything else work on black and white tones, which makes Shadow different from what you normally see. Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding explained:

Once Zhang decided he was going to make a motion-picture version of a Chinese ink-brush painting, every department worked on every detail from it—to design of the sets to costumes to props. They were all what you saw on the screen, and there were screens and screens in the palace that were calligraphy on silk—like, waves and waves of them—and the interiors were all black, gray, and white, and so were the costumes, so that what you saw on the screen was actually what we shot in that regard.

Of course, we filmed in color, but that was the color of what we were filming, and with the skin and blood, there was some color-grading to make it all feel like it was of a piece. Basically, the departments, including FX, worked together to make sure what we built and what people were wearing was what we saw on the monitor and what we got in the movie. We had very little green-screen, so it was all a work of, “How do we create a Chinese ink-brush painting movie?”

No question Zhang got what he wanted, and it's a feast for the eyes. The action scenes are also effectively choreographed:

Shadow takes a long time setting up the various characters and their relationships to each other, and after a while, you might wonder where the action is. It's all necessary and pays off once the stories of the characters merge, but the film still feels a bit long. That pay off, though, is pretty spectacular. And the character arcs are Shakespearean, in a Titus Andronicus kind of way, especially in the final scenes.

(Other Zhang Yimou movies: Hero, House of Flying Daggers, A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop.)


music friday addendum: charlie bertsch, "listening for the future"

My review of Charlie Bertsch's new book, Listening for the Future: Popular Music for Europe is now up on The Battleground website. It begins:

Charlie Bertsch begins the illuminating introduction to his new book Listening for the Future by posing a question: “What do we ask of popular music? The book, which collects music reviews he has written for The Battleground, attempts to answer that question.

I hope you read my review, and then read Charlie's book, not necessarily in that order. Meanwhile, here is the bio I provided:

Steven Rubio has lived in Berkeley, California for almost 45 years. He has family roots in Andalucía, and he spends as much time as possible there. He recently saw Patti Smith at the Royal Albert Hall, which made for an interesting cultural juxtaposition. But he is also looking forward unironically to an upcoming Billie Eilish concert.