by request/film fatales #81: knock down the house (rachel lears, 2019)

Cori Bush. Paula Jean Swearengin. Amy Vilela. I'm embarrassed to admit I knew nothing about these women before watching Knock Down the House. They all ran for office in the 2018 midterm elections as part of the attempt to make the Democratic Party, and thus the U.S., more progressive. All three women are interesting, and what we learn of their personal stories informs their politics. All three (spoiler alert) lost their elections, which is probably why I hadn't heard of them.

Rachel Lears chose her subjects via a process whereby she worked with progressive organizations to find women like the ones featured in the movie. When she starts, she doesn't know which, if any, will win, but she is there, fly on the wall, giving us an intimate feel for what a grass roots campaign is like.

The problem with Knock Down the House (and, let's face, it's not really a problem), is that none of those women are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Since Ocasio-Cortez wins her election, which we know, and since she has become an instant attraction in Congress and in the country, her part in the film overwhelms the story of the other women. This is no one's fault. I doubt Lears could have predicted what happened.

But AOC (we've had FDR and JFK and LBJ ... they were presidents ... Ocasio-Cortez is a representative in the House, but she's known by her initials just like her predecessors) wins her election where the others don't. This results in an inspirational scene (one of many) that is guaranteed to make you get teary-eyed (I suppose if you are one of those people who hate her, you'd be crying about then as well): when AOC realizes she has won.

We know from her story, which Lears shows us effectively, that she wasn't born to be a politician. But she is so charismatic that she wins you over. And no matter how she was born, she seems like a natural politician in the best possible way. When she thanks the people who helped her achieve victory, it doesn't feel boilerplate, it feels real.

Of course, just as she has quickly become an icon for some, she personifies the enemy for others. But Knock Down the House isn't made for those people.

Bush, Swearengin, and Vilela are also vital progressives with big dreams. Like I say, this is no one's fault. But AOC is a star, and Rachel Lears is a film maker who knows what she's got. So of course she focuses most on Ocasio-Cortez.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

fool me once

I don't often get blatantly personal around here. As the motto for the blog says, I want you to read what I thought of Irma Vep and from that learn what I am like as a person. But something happened this weekend that is worth passing along, even though I'm the butt of whatever joke might exist. I'll be vague about names.

Yesterday afternoon, I get a notification on a social media site that a young musician I like has begun following me. There is absolutely no reason for this, but 1) I am gullible, 2) I am starstruck, and 3) I didn't have anything else to do. So I followed the person in return.

I get a request to take the discussion private, and I do. Over the next half-hour plus, we have a long private chat. They thanked me for my support, and asked how long I'd been a fan. Not long, I said, just a few months. They thanked me again, and asked how they could pay me back. I replied that they should just keep making music, and they said they were working on something.

I figured that was that, and told my wife I'd had a brush with fame.

But a couple of minutes later, they started the chat up again by asking how my family was doing during the pandemic. I wasn't sure why they asked, but mostly I just thought even famous people are bored during the quarantine, and this person isn't as famous as, say, Miranda Lambert. So I answered, and to be polite, I asked how they and their family were doing.

They said things were fine in their city (naming the correct city for the artist in question). And again I assume the chat is over. Until they say they are sure I have an amazing family. I mention a friend of mine who lives in that city, and they replied "Nice".

I could go on ... the chat certainly did, for another ten minutes. Finally they said we could be friends, but better to do it in private, because they couldn't spend all their time in public with their fans. OK, I said.

Then they gave me their cell number so I could text them. And yes, I am dumb enough that I gave them my number.

Sure enough, I get a text from them right away. The conversation moves to the phone, where it continued for another ten minutes or so. They asked for a photo, I sent one (yes, I am that dumb), they said I looked "handsome", and finally it was time for my wife and I to have dinner. So I said thanks for the chat ... earlier they had asked if my wife would mind that we were chatting, and as our conversation ended, they said they hoped after the pandemic we might meet, and they would like to meet my wife, if she'd want to.

I told my wife all of the above, and we laughed and tried to figure out why the person had followed me in the first place. Later, I began to tell the story in an email to a friend, and it was then that I finally got a clue. I went back to the original follow ... it wasn't from a verified account, but the artist had another account that was verified. I then looked up the cell number, and the area code was in an entirely differently place then they supposedly lived.

And friends, it was only then that I realized I'd been chatting to some anonymous person and not the musician.

I blocked them on social media and on my phone, and decided whatever, it was kinda fun. I also contacted the real artist to let them know someone was impersonating them online.

Yes, I fell for the above.

irma vep (olivier assayas, 1996)

I have liked the Olivier Assayas films I have seen (Summer HoursPersonal Shopper), especially the mini-series Carlos. And I love Maggie Cheung (fave: the must-watch In the Mood for Love). And Assayas recently said he was writing an Irma Vep television series. Since I've long been intrigued by Irma Vep, I decided to watch the movie.

Right off, I was surprised. It's a French film, and it stars a top Hong Kong actress, so I was prepared for subtitles. Except Cheung plays "herself", and the real-life Maggie Cheung spent ten years of her childhood living in England and thus speaks perfect English. It is said by the French people in Irma Vep that the "Maggie" of the movie doesn't understand French (the real Maggie does speak French, and I guess it's unclear if maybe "Maggie" just pretends not to speak French). Cheung speaks only in English in the movie, and so whenever anyone else interacts with her, they speak English, and she's the star of the movie and in a lot of scenes, so ... suffice to say, Irma Vep has some subtitles, but much (most?) of the movie is actually in English.

All of which is probably irrelevant, except it's hard to avoid the complications of Maggie Cheung playing "Maggie Cheung". It's the real Maggie ... at one point, we see a brief scene of her in The Heroic Trio, as if to prove this. All of the characters react to "Maggie" as if she were real. Some don't seem to know her work, but many do, and while the actual Cheung hadn't quite become an international star (actually, Irma Vep was probably when this happened), she's already a cult figure to some of the characters.

It gets more complicated. The plot, or at least the story that drives the movie, is that a fading French director decides to remake the early silent French serial, Les Vampires, the main character of which is named Irma Vep. For reasons that are never explained, he demands that Maggie Cheung play Irma. So, you have Maggie Cheung playing Maggie Cheung in a movie, Irma Vep, that is a remake of a serial with a character named Irma Vep. The words "Irma Vep" thus have multiple meanings here: there's the title of the movie itself, there's the hero of the serial, and there's the character Cheung plays in the movie within a movie.

In obsessing over all of this, I am missing a lot of important things about Irma Vep. It's a commentary on the state of French film making at the time, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, in a excellent essay on the film, keeps bringing up capitalism. And the way the film is shot (Eric Gautier, cinematographer, but also Luc Barnier, editor) often feels like a Maysles Brothers documentary, which further blurs the line between Cheung and "Maggie Cheung", since "Maggie" seems like a "real" person being caught by an unobtrusive camera. But for me, the way Maggie Cheung is used is the most interesting part of the picture. The "Maggie Cheung" of the movie is fetishized (and since the real Cheung plays herself, the movie by extension also fetishizes that real Cheung). "Cheung" as Irma Vep wears a latex catsuit that is extremely right, which invites viewers of the Assayas film to gaze at the Hong Kong actress. (The director of the movie's Irma Vep gets the idea for the catsuit from pictures of Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman.) The real Maggie Cheung is one of the screen's great beauties (she was named Miss Photogenic in the 1983 Miss Hong Kong pageant), but she is also one of our greatest actors, fully capable of playing "herself" playing "Irma Vep".

Irma Vep is a lot of fun, and it's also smart. You might watch it and get some entirely different, deeper reactions than I had. But, while not wanting to dismiss the other fine actors in the movie, or the work of Assayas, for me, Irma Vep is driven by the performance of Maggie Cheung.

foxcatcher (bennett miller, 2014)

Trivia question: What was the movie where a nose was nominated for two Oscars? That's right, it was Foxcatcher. Steve Carell got a Best Actor nomination for wearing the nose, and Bill Corso and Dennis Liddiard got a Best Makeup nomination. (Neither won.)

Carell's fake nose was the kind you often see in movies where an actor is made to resemble the real-life person they are playing. In this case, Carell was playing John du Pont. Carell is terrible, but I can't blame him ... it looks like he was just giving director Bennett Miller what he wanted. I liked Miller's Capote (with a great performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his Moneyball was a crowd-pleaser. But I didn't connect with Foxcatcher, and I can't help thinking that I wasn't supposed to.

It's the true-life story of three men, a rich guy (du Pont) and two Olympic-gold-winning wrestlers who are also brothers. One of the brothers, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), is presented as the sane one, and Ruffalo actually deserved his Oscar nod. The other brother, Mark (Channing Tatum), is the disturbed one ... he has problems deep in his soul, and du Pont knows how to play him. His story in the movie is tragic, and Tatum does his best, but his torments are mostly interior, which means we get a lot of scenes of Tatum trying to show us Mark is hurting. The film's concept of John du Pont is the real problem here, though. It may be true to life ... I have no idea. But Carell (directed by Miller) spends most of the movie staring down his big fake honker, acting odd without ever giving any insight into what bothers him beyond he doesn't get along with his mother. When he loses it at the end, you can believe he'd gotten that low, but it still comes as a surprise (if you don't know the real story) because du Pont is such a cipher. It's too big a hole for the film to survive. I ended up feeling like I'd just wasted 134 minutes.

Still, it did get five Oscar noms, it's #541 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century, and some people think highly of it. Put it in the Your Mileage May Vary category, but I didn't like it.

music friday: fillmore west, may 15, 1969

51 years ago today, three bands started a four-night run at the Fillmore West.

The opening act was Allmen Joy. You can get lost in this kind of excavation. The Allman Brothers Band were famously known as The Allman Joys in one of their earlier configurations, but by May 15 of 1969, I'm pretty sure they were already The Allman Brothers. Turns out, there was a local psychedelic band in the late-60s called Allmen Joy, and they were the ones who opened the show. There is even a bootleg of a show they played in Denver in 1967, of which this is one song, a cover of the 13th Floor Elevators:

Next up was The Youngbloods. Known today primarily as the band who had the biggest hit with the evergreen hippie anthem "Get Together", in 1969 they released their third album, Elephant Mountain, which some of us think was their best. That album included their finest track, "Darkness Darkness", heard here from a March 1969 show:

"Darkness Darkness" has been covered by a variety of artists, including Mott the Hoople, Eric Burdon, Richie Havens, Screaming Trees, Golden Earring, Robert Plant, Cowboy Junkies, and Ann Wilson.

Santana was the headliners. In May of 1969, they were recording their first album. They were managed by Bill Graham, who got them a spot at the Woodstock festival three months after this Fillmore West gig. The rest, you could say, was history. (The video quality on this isn't the greatest, but it includes the entire "Soul Sacrifice" ... in the movie, the song was truncated.)

Santana's first album had yet to be released. They were known in the Bay Area ... Graham made sure of that ... but unknown on the other side of the country. I believe they were the only band to appear at that famous concert who did not have a record out. Drummer Michael Shrieve had just turned 20 (Wikipedia says he was the second-youngest performer at that show).

If you haven't had enough yet, here is the version of "Soul Sacrifice" that Shrieve himself says is the best. (I agree, although Woodstock gets points for its iconic status.) I believe the maracas player's name is Rico Reyes.

I never saw Allmen Joy. To be honest, until I started this post, I'd never heard of them. Never saw The Youngbloods, although I saw Jesse Colin Young solo in 1974. Finally saw Santana in 1977.

geezer cinema: the gentlemen (guy ritchie, 2019)

This will be short. I am not a fan of Guy Ritchie. That's not fair ... this is only the third movie of his I've seen, and I liked Sherlock Holmes a bit. But I really didn't like Snatch. The Gentlemen falls somewhere between the two.

The Gentlemen has a nice cast, although none of them are seen at their best. I laughed a couple of times, and I think I was even supposed to. The movie jumps around, there's always something happening, so you probably won't get bored. But seriously, so fucking what. The Gentlemen is the kind of movie where one character (played by Hugh Grant) narrates most of the goings-on. Apparently, Ritchie doesn't believe in show-don't-tell. When you need a character to explain everything as it happens, you haven't done a proper job of setting up those happenings. I don't watch movies to listen to someone read me the script.

Someone put together a YouTube video (it stinks, no reason to link to it) titled "The Gentlemen 2019 - All Best Scenes". It runs 12 minutes and 12 seconds. The actual movie runs for 113 minutes. If that seems like an enjoyable ratio to you, by all means, check out The Gentlemen.

the florida project (sean baker, 2017)

The Florida Project is a fairly remarkable movie for one reason, and her name is Brooklynn Prince. I always say, when a film features a top-notch performance by a child actor, the director deserves at least some of the credit, and there are a lot of children in The Florida Project, so give it up for Sean Baker (Tangerine). The adults who co-star with child actors are also crucial, so give it up for Willem Dafoe, who was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar. Dafoe was particularly important here because almost all of the rest of the actors, adult and child alike, were first-timers. Dafoe interacts believably with the others ... he's skillful, but he doesn't stand out, doesn't make the others in the cast seem like amateurs.

Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch also deserve mention because they were willing to allow improvisation from the actors. Improv can be tricky, and it fails as often as it works. I imagine it's especially hard when your actors are new to the profession. And you can multiply that exponentially when some of your improv actors are little tykes like Brooklynn Prince.

Like Tangerine, The Florida Project is more slice-of-life than plot driven. Things happen, but a lot of the movie is given over to Prince and her friends wandering around having adventures. I was reminded of Zazie dans le Métro with Catherine Demongeot, who largely disappeared from movies after her debut as the title character in that film:

Brooklynn Prince as Moonee was a few years younger than was Demongeot as Zazie, although Prince is already building quite an acting resume. I was taken by the following blooper reel, because while like all such examples, Prince is screwing up, it's as if she is never out of character. Between her screen presence, her clear improv skills, and her overall precosity, Prince is basically the same in these bloopers as she is in the material that made the final cut:

The Florida Project is more serious than I'm suggesting. Dafoe's character has depth, and newcomer Bria Vinaite as Moonee's mom gives us a character who is equal parts heartbreaking and annoying. It is entirely believable that Moonee is her daughter.

#252 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

fail safe (sidney lumet, 1964)

Fail Safe was released in the same year as Dr. Strangelove, and the connection has never been broken. Both tell Cold War stories about the threat of nuclear war. Fail Safe is a solid film, but the word "safe" is relevant here, because the straightforward presentation of the movie compares poorly to Kubrick's film, which understood the absurd lunacy of the times. Fail Safe was perhaps unfairly maligned, or at least largely forgotten, because it paled in comparison to Strangelove (Kubrick's last great movie).

Watching it again (it was my wife's Mother's Day choice, as she had never seen it), I appreciated it on its own terms. It works the way good movies did, then and now. Lumet was generally good with actors, and he had a fine cast to work with (Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Dan O'Herlihy and more). It ratchets up the suspense ... the old "edge of your seat" kind of story, well-told. It presents a timely situation, and creates a crucial moral dilemma. The ending is startling (and the editing by Ralph Rosenblum was perfect in that ending). It's not quite by the numbers, but to the extent it is, that just means it uses tried and true methods to satisfy. If there was no Strangelove, Fail Safe might be remembered more as the fine movie that it is.

But we live in a world with Dr. Strangelove, and the lunacies of that movie make Fail Safe seem almost mundane. Fail Safe is as serious as its subject matter; Dr. Strangelove is a comedy. And it's Strangelove that does the better job of addressing the outrageous craziness of the Cold War in the nuclear era.

rip it up

Back when I was an English professor, I had a thing where I'd explain why I thought it was silly to treat rock songs as poetry. My main example was "Tutti Frutti". The words on the page, the words as they might appear in a poetry anthology, are more than a little silly. (There's also the eternal problem that no one can agree on exactly how to spell that immortal first line.)  My point, though, was that without Little Richard's impassioned vocal, the lyrics on the page were incomplete. The lyrics didn't belong on a page. They belonged on a record player.