transsiberian (brad anderson, 2008)

This is the eighth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "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 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 8 is called "Road Movies Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen road movie.

TransSiberian is reminiscent of other movies, purposely. First-time director Brad Anderson (who also co-wrote the screenplay) has cited several influences, including Strangers on a Train and Runaway Train. There's nothing wrong with this ... Anderson shows good taste if nothing else ... while the general thrust of the picture is generic, Anderson tosses in enough twists to maintain interest. What matters more is that Anderson gradually builds tension, until it's nearly unbearable (in a good way). I found myself gritting my teeth as the movie progressed.

The cast helps. Emily Mortimer plays a been-around-the-block American who gets caught, Hitchcock style, in something big to which she isn't to blame, and Anderson gives her character perhaps the biggest plot twist, which cranks the film into another gear. Woody Harrelson has said that he based his character on an autistic version of his character on Cheers. "I kind of thought, what if he were 'Woody,' but a version of Woody that's really into trains?" It's a perfect description of what he gives us here. Kate Mara is touching, and if Ben Kingsley and Eduardo Noriega are a bit too easy to figure out in advance, they are nonetheless effective.

TransSiberian doesn't necessarily raise itself above the standards for its genre, but it's good enough that you don't care.

sweet hours (carlos saura, 1982)

It seemed appropriate that I watch a Spanish film while I'm in Spain, so I chose this one. It's hard to believe I'd never seen a Carlos Saura movie before, but apparently it's true. It seems that Sweet Hours is a lesser-known work ... the IMDB only lists two critics reviews, although Kael wrote about it ("Another graceful, measured Freudian-fantasy game").

I found the film hard to follow until about halfway through, when the structure became more apparent. There are essentially three different situations. A writer is making an autobiographical play, which is in rehearsals; flashbacks show us how he experienced his childhood; and the writer falls in love with one of the actors in his play. Part of my initial confusion comes from the fact that the same actress (Assumpta Serna) plays both the mother in flashback and the actress playing the mother in the play. The similaries are intentional ... it's suggested that she is cast in the play because she reminds the writer of his mother. And they fall in love, which relates to what Kael called the "Freudian-fantasy game", for the writer's relationship when he was a young boy to his mother is always just short of sexual.

The incest angle could be creepy, but Saura doesn't play it that way, and no matter how obvious it seems to the viewer, the sexual nature of the mother/son relationship is always suggested, never explicit. The cinematography by Teo Escamilla is always elegant; the film looks lovely. Sweet Hours is insightful in a gentle kind of way, with implications that return to you after you've seen the movie. Not a classic, but a worthy movie that encourages me to finally check out more Saura.

october 12

October 12 in Spain is called the Fiesta Nacional de España. Cut-and-pasting from Wikipedia:

The National Day of Spain is the day of celebration on which the Spanish people commemorate the country's history, recognize and appreciate achievements, reconfirm their commitment to the nation's future. The day celebrates unity and fraternity, and also shows Spain's ties with the international community....
National Day of Spain commemorates the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus for Spain on October 12, 1492. The date is a key point for Spain's overseas influence and legacy to the world and to the Americas in particular. It symbolizes Spain's vast, common heritage with today's American countries, which made up the Spanish Empire, the first global power in world history.

I am from Berkeley, where, in 1992, Indigenous People's Day was instituted as a counter to the celebration of Columbus. So today, I am in a country that still celebrates Columbus every year, and in a couple of weeks, I'll be back in a city that has a different celebration. I don't know what any of this means.

travel notes

A couple of notes I posted on Facebook.

Mask wearing in Spain. We are pretty paranoid in general. We both have gotten five total vaccines... I think that means three boosters but I can't keep track. We wear masks at the movie theater. We wore masks on the flight over. But in Spain, they cancelled the must-wear mask law several months ago. So no one wears masks. 

And neither do we. Not sure why, but it is definitely liberating. I'm sure we'll go back to masks when we get on the plane home. But until then...

Unrelated: When we were kids, our dad would get up in the middle of the night, head for the kitchen, get a slice of bread and a piece of lunch meat, and eat it plain. It always seemed odd. Then I came to Spain and learned about bocadillos. Which are just sandwiches, but the basics are just a baquette sliced in half, with jamón, and nothing else other than some olive oil or tomato. And I realized that's what our dad was making all those years.

settling in at nerja

It's our fourth day (happy birthday to my wife!), and there are a couple of things that make it more special. Specifically, being recognized.

We often have breakfast at Anahî, and over the years there is one waitress in particular we look forward to. She wasn't there during our first couple of visits, but today she was working. Best of all: she remembered us! This is also true for the man who runs the mini market across the street from where we stay. It's kind of amazing that with all the people they see during the year, they remember us.

Meanwhile, my possibly disastrous medical situation is resolved. My insulin was lost on our plane trip, leaving me with only the two half-empty bottles I had on my person. Luckily, I returned to the Nerja Medical Center (I'd been there last year) and they wrote me a prescription. The Farmacia la Ermita did a special order, and today I picked it up:


flee (jonas poher rasmussen, 2021)

You can learn a lot about Flee by looking at the three categories for which it has received an Oscar nomination: Best Documentary Feature, Best Animated Feature, and Best International Feature. It is the first movie in Oscar history to get nominated in all three of those categories, and it is clear from those nominations that this is not a straightforward presentation. Animation draws attention to its unreal nature, while documentaries at least pretend to show "real" life. By choosing to animate his film, Jonas Poher Rasmussen is making a statement about the veracity of documentaries.

The film is also complicated by the possible untrustworthy source of its narrative. Flee tells the story of the pseudonymous "Amin", who is a long-time friend of the director, and who is a refugee from Afghanistan. Rasmussen wants to tell Amin's story, wants to give Amin a chance to tell his story, but Amin has good reasons to hide behind anonymity. We don't know exactly what he looks like, since he is animated in a style so close to rotoscoping that we might forget the face is probably not a match for the real person. We learn of his escape from Afghanistan as a child, and to some extent, that explains all of the ways Amin hides the truth. Rasmussen assumes he knows much of the story, but over the course of the film, he learns that Amin has never told people his entire true story. The revelations are new not just to the audience, but also to the director.

Once you realize that Amin will adjust his story to protect himself, you question the validity of what he tells us about his life. The emotional makeup of the character feels very real, and his reasons for protecting himself are obvious. We sympathize with him ... we don't turn against him when we see how his story is sometimes a bit sideways to the facts, just as Rasmussen remains Amin's friend even as he learns that some of what he has known isn't literally true.

It strikes me that my two favorite movies so far from 2021 are documentaries. Summer of Soul remains my top choice, but Flee is in the same league.

grand piano (eugenio mira, 2013)

This is the nineteenth 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 19 is called "Dee-lightful Week":

One of my favorite running weekly challenges. No real connection between these four artists other than the surface level name they partially share. At least you'll have plenty to choose from!

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring and/or directed by Dee ReesDee WallaceRuby Dee. or Billy Dee Williams.

A goofy challenge. Last year it was "Ray, Ray, Ray, or Wray Week" (I watched Aparajito), while the year before that it was "Leigh, Leigh, Leigh, or Leigh Week" (I watched Welcome to Me). I had intended to watch the Dee Rees film Bessie, but my recording kept skipping, so I switched to a Dee Wallace movie. Which is a bit of a misnomer. I spent the entire movie looking for the E.T. star and never recognized her. Turns out she had one scene as an interviewer speaking on a phone, so her face never appeared.

Grand Piano is a compact (90 minutes, including 12-minute closing credits) thriller that offers nothing new but is effective nonetheless. Elijah Wood plays a famed concert pianist who comes out of retirement and finds trouble during his concert. It's in the tradition of Phone Booth, another movie with an unseen sniper keeping the hero in place. While he doesn't show his face until the climax, the voice of the sniper is recognizable as John Cusack. (It's an offbeat moment of humor when the two characters finally meet ... Cusack's 6'2" frame towers over Wood's 5'6".) I'm unfamiliar with the Spanish director Eugenio Mira ... he gets the job done here. Screenwriter Damien Chazelle wrote 10 Cloverfield Lane and Whiplash, two good but problematic movies. Everyone is fine here, if you don't kind the lack of ambition to do anything out of the ordinary. As a fan of Halt and Catch Fire, I am always glad to see Kerry Bishé. Grand Piano does its business and goes home, which is sometimes just what is needed.

el verdugo (luis garcía berlanga, 1963)

I'm embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Berlanga, much less seen one of his movies, although in this clip, Pedro Almodóvar says all of Spanish cinema derives from Berlanga and Luis Buñuel.

El Verdugo (The Executioner) is his most renowned film (#265 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time). It's an often charming movie that gradually becomes unsettling, as the protagonist finds he has become the executioner, a job he never wanted. While El Verdugo is a comedy for the most part, it's not laugh-out-loud. The humor lies in the way our hero finds himself ensnared in a position he wants to avoid, and for most of the picture, it's enjoyable to see his options lessen. But at some point, he realizes, and we in the audience realize, that he really is going to become an executioner.

There clearly are subtle references to life in Spain under Franco, references that went over my head. Berlanga pokes fun at the complications of bureaucracy, but whatever is specific to Franco's Spain, I missed. (It suffered from censors' cuts.) Because of the lack of understanding regarding the social context, I was left with the characters, and they brought plenty of enjoyment on their own, albeit at their expense (as we watch them suffer).

The film was a Spanish-Italian production, with Italian actor Nino Manfredi as José Luis, the undertaker's assistant who falls into the executioner's job. The primary Spanish actors, Emma Penella and José Isbert, had long careers in Spanish film, although again, they were new to me.

The final scenes, wherein the new executioner has his first assignment, are cleverly staged and very disturbing, because while José Luis is in some ways unlikeable, Berlanga takes us deep enough into José Luis' predicament that we feel for him. It's masterful.