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.


film fatales #99: the headless woman (lucrecia martel, 2008)

The Headless Woman (2008) came between the other two Lucrecia Martel movies I have seen (La Ciénaga (2001) and Zama (2017). Of Zama, I wrote that "its pleasures have less to do with narrative thrust and more to do with the feel of each scene" and "Martel isn't really concerned with audience ease." It's not that her films are impossible to grasp, but she does require you to meet her more than halfway.

The most intriguing mirror of The Headless Woman comes from the 1962 B-movie Carnival of Souls. Martel has cited that film as an influence, and there have been some good analyses of The Headless Woman that take off from that point. (Check out Catherine Grant's video essay "The Haunting of The Headless Woman".) Both films begin with women in auto accidents who spend most of the rest of the film confused about, well, everything. María Onetto, who plays Vero, perfectly shows us the character's befuddlement. She's helped by Martel's script and direction ... Martel is not someone to present the audience with obvious points we can center on. Odd camera angles, where the characters are just off-camera, help us feel Vero's unsettling experiences. (Martel also uses a lot of static camera shots, which give us time to gather information off the screen.) Vero eventually seems to reconcile herself with whatever happened, although I found her revelations less impressive in that by that point, I was too unsure of what I was seeing to trust my sense that Vero had moved on.

The Headless Woman always keeps us in its world on a scene-by-scene basis. But, as with her other films, you can't count on an easy narrative. #650 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. #68 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

A Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.


film fatales #83: zama (lucrecia martel, 2017)

Lucretia Martel takes her time between fiction features ... Zama was her first in nine years, and only her fourth since 2001. But she's busy ... between 2001 and the present, she has also made more than half a dozen shorts and a feature documentary. Zama was highly anticipated.

I wrote about her La Ciénaga,"You need to settle into its rhythms, you need to accept that Martel isn't going to hold your hand, but there's a difference between wanting the audience to be uncomfortable and making a movie that did not connect with an audience. Scenes begin and end in the middle, you aren't always immediately sure where you are, but you aren't lost." Much the same could be said about Zama.

It helps to approach Zama without trying to squeeze it into pre-conceived notions. The more you try to figure out what is going on, the less you'll get out of the movie. Which isn't to suggest Zama is too obscure for enjoyment. It's just that its pleasures have less to do with narrative thrust and more to do with the feel of each scene. The title character is an official functionary somewhere in Argentina. He wants to leave ... he spends much of the movie trying to facilitate his release ... his desire is understandable, but Zama becomes something of a comical figure because his hopes are never going to be fulfilled, and at times, he seems to be the only person that doesn't realize this. The arc of his story is probably the easiest thing to latch onto, but Martel isn't really concerned with audience ease. Meanwhile, the subject of imperialism wavers between text and subtext, as the nobility exists on the backs of slaves it barely acknowledges.

Zama is comical, although his trials finally become too extreme for us to laugh at. And life for the slaves is not funny at all. Martel effectively blends subtle commentary and absurd bureaucracy, all the while condemning the ruling class for their perfidies. It's a fine movie for a patient audience. #61 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

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


empire of the sun (steven spielberg, 1987)

Another movie for "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 20 is called "Alternate Oscars Week".

The past couple years, the week before the Oscars has been saved as a Best Picture nominee category for that year's awards. But following last year's supreme blunder of a Best Picture winner, I say we skip the normal category (at least for this year) and check out some films that should've won instead. According to Danny Peary, of course, who suggests that the Academy usually gets it wrong anyway.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Danny Peary's Alternate Oscars: Best Picture list.

This was a bit tricky. When Week 20 came around, I couldn't find anything from Peary's list that I hadn't seen and was available for streaming. So I watched The Beast of Yucca Flats, which was my Week 32 pick, and at the time I thought I'd be in Spain by then and wouldn't be able to watch it on schedule. Whatever ... it's confusing, but it explains why I'm watching the Week 20 movie on Week 32.

I am a fan of Steven Spielberg's. I think I've seen more movies directed by him than by any other director, and I liked most of them. Four are canonical for me (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.), a couple of others come close (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Schindler's List), and many more I would watch again in a second (especially Minority Report). Only Hook was a stinker; for the most part, I find Spielberg reliable, and not just in a good-but-not-great way, because more than once he has given us greatness.

For me, Empire of the Sun is in the middle. There are some great moments ... face it, Spielberg specializes in Great Moments ... and Christian Bale, 13 years old and at the beginning of his career, is tremendous. As I have often said, when we see a great performance by a child, at least some credit needs to go to the director for eliciting that performance. (It's fine to say Bale turned out to be a great actor, but he was an unknown at the time of this movie.) Still, the film felt long (it is long, at 153 minutes, and I felt every one of those minutes). I'm not sure what could have been cut ... the various segments were all important, and the length gave the movie the feel of an epic ... there were multiple "almost endings" that were a bit much, but I may be nitpicking.

The thing is, I was aware when Spielberg was going for one of his Great Moments, but I wasn't awed by them the way I was in, for instance, Close Encounters. Despite its epic nature, Empire of the Sun is essentially a coming-of-age story that takes place in a notable historical period. I don't know how Spielberg could have done better ... trying to combine the intimate story of a boy becoming a man with World War II isn't easy.

Cinematographer Allen Daviau got a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his work here (Daviau sadly died just a few days ago). Everything in the movie is professional at the highest level. But the one thing that makes it stand out is Christian Bale.

This is almost a brilliant scene. The Americans have finally come to save the day, and Bale's character, Jim, who loves airplanes, is overcome with joy. It's beautifully shot, and Bale delivers. It is peak Spielberg. But then here comes the inevitable John Williams score, and while it is meant to reflect the grand emotions of the moment, it's just piling on. Spielberg couldn't resist.


the passenger (michelangelo antonioni, 1975)

What am I to do with Antonioni? L'Avventura remains one of my very favorite films. I liked the rest of the "trilogy" (La Notte and L'Eclisse) without loving them. Same for Blow-Up. Thought Red Desert was a drop-off from the trilogy, and found Zabriskie Point pretty awful. I long ago gave up hoping for another L'Avventura ... I just look for something I could at least like.

Well, I don't know if "like" is the word for The Passenger, for it is one of those movies that aren't exactly begging to be liked. Appreciated, yes. Respected, sure. But Antonioni plays with our expectations. He's got Jack Nicholson in the same year Jack won his first Oscar for Cuckoo's Nest, which featured his vibrant energy, and he forces Nicholson into a quieter character with a different kind of antagonism. Appropriately, it should be mentioned ... Nicholson is one of the best things about the movie.

Nicholson plays a journalist, Locke, who exchanges identities with a dead man, Robertson. Almost gets away with it, too. But you can't get much more existential than a man who escapes from his own skin, who doesn't want to be "himself" any more ... and it's significant that the dead man is almost accidental. Locke might not even have known he wanted out of his own life until the opportunity to change presented itself. Unfortunately, it turns out Robertson is a gun-runner, giving Locke more excitement than he was asking for.

Maria Schneider is around as a woman who takes part in Locke/Robertson's adventures. There's something off about her performance, which might be explained by this note from the IMDB: "Maria Schneider was suffering from excruciating back pain during filming, and would often be in a medicated muddle towards the end of the day when her pain medications kicked in. In one scene, Jack Nicholson had to physically prop her up." One sympathizes, but as I say, her performance is missing something.

It is one of the great mysteries of my movie-going life that I am so willing to rave about L'Avventura, with its ironic title, yet am generally resistant to Antonioni's other movies, in which, like with my favorite, "nothing happens". The Passenger fits right in ... there is the barest sketch of a plot, but I doubt The Maestro cared. (And this is when I trot out my oft-told anecdote about a friend who spent time with Antonioni ... my friend said people addressed the great director as "Maestro". Whether this was true, I can verify that my friend had both Antonioni and Monica Vitti in his address book, and this was long before email.)

I don't know why, but at this moment, I'm thinking more kindly of The Passenger than I am for his other non-Adventure movies.

And there's this famous penultimate shot, which is The Passenger in a nutshell: it's one of the most beautiful shots ever, it's hard to figure out how it was done, but while it's happening, a crucial plot point occurs off screen and we never find out what that plot point was. (The image is poor in this YouTube clip, which is sad. The Director of Photography was Luciano Tovoli.)

A sidenote: much of the film takes place in Andalucía, where my wife and I were going to vacation before the Virus changed everyone's plans. #144 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


film fatales #77: even the rain (icíar bollaín, 2010)

Another movie for "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." This is out of order. Week 23 is called "Gael García Bernal Week".

Gael García Bernal is perhaps one of the best performers working today that doesn't get nearly the amount of attention he deserves. And though his most well known performance is in an animated film, one needs to see this man perform in live-action to get the full effect. So, give some love to one of yours truly's favorite actors.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring Gael Garcia Bernal.

Even the Rain is a complex film that might seem fairly straightforward at first glance. Bernal plays a Mexican director, Sebastián, making a film with a Spanish producer about Columbus "discovering" America. They film in Cochabamba, Bolivia, for the usual reasons: it's cheaper.

It soon becomes apparent that the film Sebastián is making about how Columbus exploited the native population in many ways is replicating that exploitation. The people of Cochabamba go on a general strike (this is based on true events), and Sebastián is torn between support for the people and the problems he will have making his film (one of his primary actors turns out to be a leader of the revolt).

There are layers here. Sebastián wants to make his movie, he doesn't want to exploit anyone, but it happens anyway. And we in the audience can't help but wonder just how much the creators of Even the Rain paid the extras who came from the local area. It's not really fair ... they spoke to this in interviews ... but it's hard not to imagine Even the Rain following a similar path to Sebastián's movie. Unfair, but obvious without context. The filmmakers speak to this:

Meanwhile, much of Even the Rain is effective. Juan Carlos Aduviri, who plays the actor/revolutionary in his screen debut, comes from El Alto, next to La Paz. He grabs the screen ... it's believable that Sebastián wants him for his movie.

The parallels between the filmmakers and Columbus are interesting, although they are pressed on us a bit too hard. And I really have to believe that the filmmakers did right by the people. Perhaps the power of Even the Rain is that it raises such questions in the first place.

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


geezer cinema/film fatales #73: the rhythm section (reed morano, 2010)

Wow, people really hate this movie. It set some kind of record for worst opening weekend box office for a film playing in 3000+ theaters. The critical consensus at Rotten Tomatoes is 30% approval. Its Metacritic rating is 44/100.

Well, I realize it's damning with faint praise, but The Rhythm Section doesn't suck. Blake Lively is excellent (and in fairness, many of the critics who hated the film praised her performance). There's nothing special going on ... it's not the kind of movie you are dying to see, nor is it the kind of movie you'll want to push on your friends. But it's OK, certainly worth a look on cable on a Saturday afternoon.

Some people were disappointed, which accounts for at least part of the problem. If you had no positive thoughts beforehand, you wouldn't care if it stunk. But people like Blake Lively, and Reed Morano, who began as a cinematographer and who has an Emmy for her work directing The Handmaid's Tale, has a mild buzz about her. Yet The Rhythm Section doesn't quite succeed ... it's got too much character development to work as an action picture, but that development isn't all that interesting. There are a couple of good action scenes, both involving Lively, one fighting Jude Law and one with her driving in a car chase. It falls far short of greatness ... honestly, it falls short of goodness. But there are worse movies in the world, and I remain puzzled why The Rhythm Section is taking such abuse.

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


geezer cinema: pain and glory (pedro almodóvar, 2019)

Some artists make such a strong impression on me that I feel like I've seen more of their work than I actually have. Take director Pedro Almodóvar. Prior to Pain and Glory, I had seen three of his movies and liked them all. If you had asked me off the top of my head, I would have said I've seen a lot of his films, because I remember the ones I like. But I haven't seen that many. Or Antonio Banderas ... I've seen half a dozen of his films, but none where he was the star. I have seen a few more Penélope Cruz movies, and this is the third one I have seen that was directed by Almodóvar. Point is, they've all done work I've liked, yet I haven't really dug deep with any of them.

I loved Pain and Glory. I hesitate to say it's the best work of any of the three people I have mentioned, because I don't feel I know enough of their work. But Banderas certainly deserves his Best Actor Oscar nomination. He does a lot with a little here ... he is mostly subdued, but he communicates with the audience with his eyes, with the way he carries himself. Penélope Cruz is not a lead character here ... one happy result of Almodóvar using flashbacks is that Cruz plays Antonio's mother. I have found over the years that she is much better in Spanish movies than in English films. Meanwhile, Almodóvar's work here seems less outrageous than I remember from him. But he is 70 years old, and if Pain and Glory is autumnal, well, Almodóvar has earned it.

Pain and Glory is also nominated for the Best International Feature Oscar, where it is up against the best movie of 2019, Parasite.

Ultimately, I don't know that Pain and Glory quite lives up to the performance of Banderas. But he is so good, and the film is so quietly impressive, that the result is moving.