shadows in paradise (aki kaurismäki, 1986)

This is the first official film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 1 is called "Past Hosts Week":

Starting off strong with a tribute to our past hosts. Without Monsieur Flynn, we wouldn't have the Season Challenge, and without kurt k, we wouldn't be as far along as we are now. Typically this type of challenge takes place towards the end of the season, but since this is an anniversary year, it seemed fitting to have it front and center.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from either Monsieur Flynn's Movies to See Before Your End Credits list or kurt k's Personal Canon list.

I like to think my movie viewing is pretty varied, but this week's film is a great example of what I hope to gain from taking part in this challenge. Shadows in Paradise is from Finland. In 2012, Yle, the Finnish national public broadcasting company, came up with a list of the best Finnish films of all time. Until I watched Shadows in Paradise, I had never seen a movie on that list. Clearly, the Season Challenge has helped me expand my horizons.

Actually, I have seen another Finnish film, Le Havre. As it turns out, that movie came from Aki Kaurismäki, the director of Shadows in Paradise. So I have now seen two films from Finland, both by the same director.

Much of what I wrote about Le Havre holds true here, as well:

A slight film that proudly displays its seemingly humble story.... Kaurismäki trusts in the essential humanity of his characters … no one is perfect or even particularly successful ... The humor in the film is so deadpan I barely noticed it, but that’s in keeping with the low-key charms of the movie. And the tone is far from the kind of dreary realism the above might suggest. In fact, there is a level of romance and fantasy that Kaurismäki wouldn’t get away with if he weren’t so skillful at making us like his characters without feeling manipulated.

Slight, humble, human, deadpan, low-key ... all can be said of Shadows in Paradise. I missed a lot of the humor, which is the norm for me, but David Thomson got off a good line when he wrote, "Kaurismäki can be very funny—so long as no one laughs." There are no laugh-out-loud moments, and no one smiles, much less laughs, in the film. But it somehow skirts dreariness, even though the main characters seem ready to break out of their admittedly dreary lives. Kati Outinen felt new to me, although it turns out she was in Le Havre, as well. She has an interesting, non-actorish face, and she was one of the best things about Shadows in Paradise. The movie goes by in only 74 minutes ... I was going to say "breezes by", but that's not an accurate description for how the movie plays. I liked it without being bowled over by it, which may be precisely what Kaurismäki was after.

rocco and his brothers (luchino visconti, 1960)

At this point, Rocco and His Brothers is considered a cinema classic (#170 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time). It is sprawling in more ways than one, running almost three hours and broken into five segments, one for each brother, blending an operatic feeling with the tail end of Italian neo-realism (there is a lot of Rocco in Mean Streets). Roger Ebert wrote, "It is a combination that should not work, but does, between operatic melodrama and seamy social realism, which at no point in its 177-minute running time seem to clash, although they should. We buy the whole overwrought package, the quiet truth, the flamboyant excess, even the undercurrent of homoeroticism that Visconti never quite reconciles. The excitement of the film is that so much is happening, in so many different ways, all struggling to find a fusion."

It's an accurate description of the film, but for me, the absence of reconciliation between the various parts of the package, the inability to "find a fusion", brings Rocco and His Brothers down a notch. There are individual scenes of great power, but there is also an imbalance of tone that Visconti can't or won't overcome. Alain Delon is once again the most beautiful thing on the screen (he was 25), and if you want to be kind you can say he effectively underplays his part. I'm never sure if Delon is acting, and while his prettiness makes up for a lot, it doesn't add depth to his character. Katina Paxinou is over the top as Mamma, close to stereotype as the Italian mother who reacts emotionally to everything, yelling and crying. I found myself wishing she would quit turning up on the screen.

Annie Girardot, on the other hand, is the best thing about the movie. She plays a whore who gets involved with two of the brothers, and her character is just as much a stereotype as Mamma. But Girardot shows the human side of her character, and Visconti gives her room. Paxinou is brought down by the stereotype ... Girardot overcomes it. She is so good, she even rises above an unfortunate rape subplot.

Rocco and His Brothers is influential, expansive, full of wonderful moments. It falls short for me ... I much prefer The Leopard. But that shouldn't diminish the real accomplishments of Rocco.

music friday: lou reed, 1980

We saw Lou Reed at the Old Waldorf (capacity 600) 39 years ago this week. In those days, you could buy "dinner seats" which put you right up against the stage, so there we were ... Robin said Lou's hands looked like her farmer grandfather. He was touring behind Growing Up in Public, not his best album, but coming up was The Blue Mask and the rest of his great work in the early-mid/80s. Here are two songs performed by Lou in 1980, one from Berlin (on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert!) and one the immortal "Street Hassle":

revisiting the beast from 20,000 fathoms (eugène lourié, 1953)

I have a phrase I use to describe movies, often from my youth, that are better than you might think: An All-Time Classic. It gets confusing, though, because often I use the phrase ironically: "Robot Monster is an all-time classic!" Lately, I've brought up The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms a few times, eliciting eye rolls from my wife, who can't always tell if I'm serious. But in this case, I mean it. I'll just cut-and-paste from what I wrote back in 2010:

This was a favorite of mine when I was a kid, and the surprise is that it doesn’t suck. The effects by Ray Harryhausen are fine, and the script is functional. Of course, it’s harder to appreciate this movie than it used to be, because it spawned so many similar (and worse) ones. But this was the first: the first movie where atomic testing unleashed a monster from the deep, even predating Godzilla. Besides the bomb and the monster, there’s the dedicated professor, the kindly scientist, and the scientist’s assistant who happens to be a woman (and who happens to like the professor). There’s the no-nonsense military man … there’s the monster rampaging through a big city … and then, to top it off, there’s Lee Van Cleef, only a year into his movie career, showing up in the last scene as the sharpshooter who saves the day and kills the monster. I’m sure I had no idea who Lee Van Cleef was when I was a kid, so that’s a nice added touch beyond the nostalgia factor.

Director Eugène Lourié got his start working with Jean Renoir, which is irrelevant but Renoir is always good when you're trying to promote an all-time classic. The movie was as good today as it was in 2010, and as it was all the other times I saw it back to when I was a kid.

geezer cinema: toy story 4 (josh cooley, 2019)

When I was a kid, I used to love to play with windup toys. I'd crank them up and watch them perform. Didn't matter what they did ... clap cymbals together, whatever. It wasn't what they did that interested me. No, what I liked was when they started to run down. They'd get slower and slower, and I'd imagine them begging me to wind them up again before they quit, but I never did. I wanted to watch them die. And in my little kid mind, that's what was happening, not that they were toys who ran down, but that they were things I knew that died. I'd even feel something resembling sadness when they quit moving. And then, if I wasn't too bored, I'd wind it up and start all over again. It wasn't about me ... it was about the toy, about the fading away.

The Toy Story franchise is not about kids, other than as objects of toys' affection. The movies assume that kids will grow up, that they will find new toys to play with, that they will eventually outgrow toys completely. The Toy Story movies tell the tale from the point of view of the toys. Andy is a young boy in Toy Story, by Toy Story 3 he is going off to college. We barely ever see Andy, or any other humans. Andy exists to illuminate the lives of his toys.

And the biggest fear of a toy is that they will be abandoned, that their person won't play with them anymore, that they'll get stuffed into the corner of a closet. Or worse ... the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3 is one of the most terrifying things you'll ever see in a "cartoon".

Toy Story 4 suggests that there can more things to aspire to than being some kid's toy. The need to belong is intense. It's pretty much the emotional basis of a toy's life. And you are always at the mercy of your boy or girl. This feeling doesn't disappear in Toy Story 4 ... much of the plot revolves around attempts to pair toys with kids. But alternatives also present themselves. Woody, the exemplar of the toy who does everything for his owner, decides to join his love, Bo Peep, to find new owners for stray toys. He finds meaning not through a human, but through a fellow toy.

This is perhaps too much to dump on a cartoon designed to make billions. It's more important to note how good Toy Story 4 is, how efficient the animation remains, how the voice actors have created full-blooded characters over the four movies. It's also important to note that Toy Story 4 is often funny, which you might not get from all my blathering. (My wife laughed out loud when the cat barfed up a hair ball.) You can just sit back and enjoy the movie ... deep analysis isn't required. But it's worth appreciating that they have now gotten through three sequels and still haven't let the audience down. That's quite an achievement.

le trou (jacques becker, 1960)

This is the first Jacques Becker film I have seen (if I don't count tiny acting roles in movies like Grand Illusion). As far as I can tell, Le Trou is a bit different from his other movies, so I can't make a useful judgement on him as a director based solely on this one. Becker was an assistant to Jean Renoir in the 30s, and you can't get a better education than that.

Le Trou ("The Hole") is based on the true story of an attempted prison escape. Becker uses mostly non-actors ... one of them was a participant in the actual events, as he tells us at the very beginning of the film ("Hello. My friend Jacques Becker recreated a true story in all its detail. My story."). Apparently the detail is very accurate ... Becker built a copy of the prison, helped by some of the escapees. Becker chose his actors well ... they give no sign of being amateurs (and, given the long acting resume of many of them, perhaps there weren't as many non-actors as is rumored).

Despite the longish (132 minutes) running time, Le Trou is compact. The escape attempt is shown in a step-by-step fashion over the course of a few days, which adds to the tension. Much as the prisoners are focused on their attempt, Becker remains focused throughout on the same thing. There is little about prison life, and we learn next to nothing about the prisoners. This isn't a movie about the prison system in France, or about the social milieu that leads men to commit crimes. Instead, the movie starts and ends with the escape attempt itself. These are men doing a job. The problem comes with the introduction of an outsider to their cell just as they are to begin digging. Trust is a key factor among the five. But mostly, Becker avoids anything he might find extraneous. The audience has nothing to hold onto except the escape. #885 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

shoplifters (hirokazu kore-eda, 2018)

This terrific movie was recommended by Bright Wall/Dark Room. They provide recommendations for people who support their site, and they claim those recommendations are personalized ... plus they come from real people, not algorithms. Weird thing is, outside of telling them when I joined that I'd like to know more about 21st century movies and listing five favorites, I've told them nothing. I assume the subsequent recommendations are rather random. Thing is, they are always good ... Shoplifters might be the best, but none are less than good. And when they recommend something I've already seen, it's invariably something I like.

For some reason, the name Hirokazu Kore-eda didn't ring a bell, so I thought I was discovering this great unknown-to-me talent when I watched and loved Shoplifters. Turns out I've seen two others of his films and liked them a lot, as well (Still Walking and Nobody Knows). At this point, I'm ready to say that Kore-eda is a name I will no longer forget.

In earlier comments, I'd written that Kore-eda "rejects melodrama". About Nobody Knows, I said that he "offers up a melodramatic setting and then refuses to sensationalize the material. There are scenes here to match any weeper, but the tugs at our heartstrings never bludgeon us. Kore-eda allows us to come to the melodrama on our own terms." This is true once again in Shoplifters, which could easily fall off the edge into cheap sentimentality. It never happens. It's a film that I think benefits from being spoiler-free, so I'll be vague here, but Shoplifters is about family, in this case a specific family that is unique. Without turning it into a lecture, Kore-eda invites us to consider what makes a family into a family. This particular family, who among other things shoplift (OK, that's a spoiler I guess), don't always walk on the "right" side of the law, but it's all in the name of closeness.

With about half an hour to go, though, the plot, which has taken a backseat to characterization until then, takes over. We learn more about the family as the outside world sees them, and it's quite a contrast with how we've come to know them. It is here that Kore-eda's refusal to get sentimental works best ... the harsh realities that ensue lead to well-earned emotions for the audience. Since I hate cheap sentiment, I am impressed that Kore-eda has now made three melodramatic movies that avoid being cheap.

The three female leads, Sakura Andô, Kirin Kiki, and Mayu Matsuoka, are particular standouts, but all of the acting is good, including that of the children. #444 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Here is a spoiler-ific trailer:

remembering valerie harper: rock rock rock! (will price, 1956)

That'll teach me. I thought I'd watch a movie with Valerie Harper, in memorial so to speak. I don't think I'd ever seen one, so the choice was open. I should have just watched a rerun on Rhoda.

I thought I knew what I was in for. I've seen more than one of these 50s rock and roll movies, most of which feature Alan Freed in some way. Just in 1956, Freed was in Rock Rock Rock!, Don't Knock the Rock, and Rock Around the Clock. They're never any good, but they do offer a chance to see some of the early rockers lip syncing their hits. This was just one of the areas where Rock Rock Rock! failed me.

Which rock and rollers turned up in Rock Rock Rock!? Chuck Berry ... can't go wrong there. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. The Moonglows. The Flamingos. The Johnny Burnette Trio. LaVern Baker. Berry did "You Can't Catch Me", a nice choice, although his guitar isn't plugged in. How about the rest? The Moonglows are best known for "Sincerely". They did two songs in this movie ... neither was "Sincerely". The Flamingos are remembered for their immortal cover of "I Only Have Eyes for You". I can't really blame the movie for missing that one, since it wouldn't be released for another couple of years. Instead, they did an obscure non-hit. The Johnny Burnette Trio had a single in 1956 of "The Train Kept a-Rollin'" backed with "Honey Hush". Neither turned up in this movie. LaVern Baker is perhaps best known for "Jim Dandy". Here, she sang that record's B-Side. Lymon and the Teenagers' biggest hit was "Why Do Fools Fall in Love". They got two numbers in Rock Rock Rock! ... neither was that hit, although in fairness, they did do "I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent". Those are the biggest stars in the movie, and only two of them gave us one of their hits. Not to mention the other acts who show up in Rock Rock Rock! "Alan Freed's band" did two songs ... Teddy Randazzo got four (he played the male lead ... Randazzo went on to write several classics, like "Goin' Out of My Head", but we got none of his famous songs in this movie, probably because he hadn't written them yet). Finally, there was Jimmy Cavallo and the House Rockers with two songs, an annoying little squirt named Ivy Schulman backed by The Bowties on one song, and "Cirino" with the same Bowties for another song.

But wait, there's more! The female lead was Tuesday Weld, who got two songs herself ... her songs were dubbed by Connie Francis.

What a mess.

As for Weld, I am a big fan. But this was not her finest hour. She was 13 when the film was released ... depending on how long it took to make it, she might have been 12 during filming. She got to share a kiss with Randazzo, who was 21. She later appeared in some fine movies. David Thomson once wondered if Weld would be more highly regarded if she just used her real first name, Susan. I bring this up so you won't think I'm trashing her. But she is pretty bad in Rock Rock Rock!

And Valerie Harper, the reason I watched this? It was her first movie. She's basically an extra, playing a teenager at a dance, on screen for maybe 3 seconds.

music friday: tedeschi trucks band, layla

Tedeschi Trucks Band makes me wish I was playing in a band. They always seem to be having fun, not in a goofy way, but in an adult way. They are generous with each other's playing, and show real affection for each other. Maybe they're not a family, but a musical community, although with Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks being married, there is some family in the mix. They are skillful players. Susan Tedeschi is a great vocalist, and Derek Trucks is one of the best guitarists alive. They work together so well, it makes sense that they played a concert one night where they recreated the set list from Mad Dogs and Englishmen ... as a band, the two ensembles have a lot in common.

I am not a big fan of concerts where the artists play an entire album. I've only been to one such concert, when Bruce Springsteen played The River. But Tedeschi Trucks pulled it off with Mad Dogs, and now they've done it again. Joined by Trey Anastasio of Phish (hello, Broad City Abbi!) and Dolby Bramhall II, they performed the classic Derek and the Dominos album Layla. A bit sacrilegious, although if anyone has the right to do it, it's Trucks, the heir of Duane Allman's stylings.

Here is the entire concert:

And if you just want a quick shot of Susan and Derek, here they are, joined by Derek's Allman Brothers buddy Warren Haynes, playing "I'd Rather Go Blind" for Barack and Michelle Obama:

geezer cinema: angel has fallen (ric roman waugh, 2019)

In 2013, having watched the first movie in the "Has Fallen" franchise, Olympus Has Fallen, I wrote, "Worth watching five years from now when you’re sitting at home, bored, and it shows up on TNT." Make that six years. OK, I wasn't at home, but I figure seeing Angel Has Fallen means I've fulfilled the promise I made in 2013, and I won't have to watch the first one again in five/six years.

There is nothing in these movies you haven't seen before. That was true of the first one, which was reminiscent of Die Hard, and it's true of Angel Has Fallen, which is reminiscent of the first one. You could binge the three movies and not really know when one ended and another began. Oh, there are little things, like Piper Perabo taking over the role of Mrs. Mike Banning from Radha Mitchell, and Morgan Freeman going from Speaker of the House in the first one to Vice-President in the second one to President in this one. If you like car chases and things blowing up, you'll enjoy the two hours you spend watching Angel Has Fallen. But five years from now, you won't remember which one this was.

There is one addition that helps. Nick Nolte turns up as Mike Banning's dad, and he has fun overacting and keeping the audience awake between explosions. Actually, he gets in on the exploding, as well, and has fun doing it. Nolte also appears in the post-credits scene, which for once is entertaining. (And it comes right away, so you don't have to stick around for all the credits.