film fatales #207: battle of the sexes (jonathan dayton and valerie faris, 2017)

Battle of the Sexes tells the story of an event that resonated at the time it occurred, but is perhaps not well-known today. Former tennis great and hustler Bobby Riggs challenged top women tennis players (a la Andy Kaufman in pro rassling) to big-stakes matches. His first was against then-champ Margaret Court, who he beat, setting up a 1973 match with Billie Jean King that got tremendous hype, a big Astrodome crowd, and national live television coverage. King had no problem beating Riggs, and her victory was seen, not just as a win for women's tennis, but a win for women (this was at the height of the second-wave feminist movement).

It's a good subject for a movie, and Emma Stone and Steve Carell do well as the two tennis players. The directing team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton made a splash with their first feature together, Little Miss Sunshine, which garnered four Oscar nominations, with two wins. I was not in the majority on that one ... I thought its supposed touting of the power of being different was ultimately only a desire to redefine "normal". Battle of the Sexes is an improvement on that, although it didn't get any Oscar love, and lost money while Little Miss Sunshine was a hit. The problem here is that I don't know that Battle of the Sexes is necessary. The story is worth telling, and the stars are good, but in the end, a documentary about the event could be just as useful (there was a 2013 documentary titled The Battle of the Sexes that didn't get a lot of attention). This movie was enjoyable to watch but inessential.

the masque of the red death (roger corman, 1964)

It seemed appropriate to visit the films of Roger Corman on the news of his death at 98. I've probably seen Attack of the Crab Monsters more times than any of the others ... I could watch it again right now. And that film could easily stand in for much of Corman's work. But I thought I might honor his passing by watching one of his better films, The Masque of the Red Death (I'd choose either this or A Bucket of Blood as Corman's best).

Corman's Poe films are in general his classiest, and The Masque of the Red Death might be the creme of that creme. Masque was the penultimate film in the Poe series that began in 1960 with House of Usher. It gives the lie to any notion that Corman was an inept filmmaker ... he may have considered turning a profit to be the primary aim of a movie, but he wasn't incompetent about what turned up on the screen. (I just finished reading a book by Katharine Coldiron, Junk Film: Why Bad Movies Matter, and Corman only gets a brief mention ... Attack of the Crab Monsters might be awful, but compared to Plan 9 from Outer Space, it's Citizen Kane.) The budget for Masque was limited, of course, but it was still 20 times higher than that for A Bucket of Blood. And Corman was always a master of finagling to reduce costs ... a deal with the studio allowed Corman to film in England on a slightly longer shoot, and he was able to use sets leftover from the Oscar-nominated Becket. Nicolas Roeg signed on as the cinematographer, fresh off of second-unit work on Lawrence of Arabia ... the cinematography is one of the highlights of The Masque of the Red Death.

Vincent Price once again added his pleasingly hammy touch. Poe's story is short indeed, so another of his stories, "Hop-Frog", is worked in as a subplot. The build up is a bit draggy, and the final appearance of the Red Death lacks something ... Corman himself said he was dissatisfied with the sequence. The point isn't to dismiss the movie, which is better than just "Roger Corman's best", but it's a good movie without reaching the heights of a great movie.

let it be (michael lindsay-hogg, 1970)

It's about expectations. The basic footage for Let It Be was filmed in January of 1969. The film was released in 1970. Between the time it was filmed and the time it was released, the Beatles recorded and released Abbey Road, and then, in April of 1970, announced they were breaking up. The album and film Let It Be came out a month later. Thus, expectations were that the film would document the falling apart of the beloved group. That the film was recorded more than a year before the breakup, that the Beatles, having mostly finished Let It Be, then made Abbey Road, all factors that argued against the resulting film as being the story of a breakup, well, expectations ... all audiences of the film knew was that the band was finished.

Then, 50 years later, Peter Jackson, given access to all of the footage, created a massive 8-hour version, called Get Back. The take on Jackson's take was that it showed the Beatles in a much happier place than the original documentary. Since few people had seen Let It Be over the decades, we took Jackson's word for the positive feels, and indeed, Get Back is much more than a film about a band in crisis.

This inspired Jackson and Michael Lindsay-Hogg to finally re-release Let It Be. As he had with Get Back, Jackson used technology to clean up the audio and video ... it's been more than 50 years since I saw Let It Be on its release, but it's easy to imagine that the film has never looked or sounded better. But where Get Back was a reworking of the footage, the Let It Be re-release is "just" the original film, cleaned up.

But our expectations have changed. Get Back convinced us that the Beatles weren't in such a bad place at that time, and now we go into Let It Be looking, not for signs of a breakup, but for signs of a great band working together. And, of course, it's there. But again, as far as the basics of the film are concerned, nothing has changed. Only our expectations have changed.

Does Let It Be stand up? Sure. There are some great songs, fun moments, and the rooftop concert is iconic. Is it a great film, the way A Hard Day's Night is a great film? Not even close. Lindsay-Hogg takes his fly-on-the-wall techniques to an extreme, never stopping to explain anything. So the film begins with the band rehearsing on a sound stage ... later, the recording switches to Apple headquarters. We now know this is because the sound stage wasn't working for the band, but Lindsay-Hogg doesn't provide us with this context. Similarly, Billy Preston turns up, adding keyboards and spirit to the sessions, but Lindsay-Hogg makes no comment on this important difference in the band and the music. Let It Be without context invites us to insert our expectations into the experience, and so the film seems much different in 2024 than it did in 1970.

geezer cinema/film fatales #201: love lies bleeding (rose glass, 2024)

Love Lies Bleeding isn't exactly different ... it happily borrows from several genres. But things get a bit loony ... the genres aren't ones you think will match. The hype promises sex, violence, action, and lesbians, and the movie delivers. Writer/director Rose Glass (Saint Maud, which was the 100th Geezer Movie) and co-writer Weronika Tofilska don't play it safe, and the movie is the better for it.

The movie is a mess ... a likable mess, but a mess. I expected wall-to-wall action, which isn't Glass's fault ... my expectations were based on the trailer and word of mouth. I thought it took its time getting to cranked-up speed, and there's nothing wrong with that, once I adjusted to it. It delivered on the hype from the start, it's just that the lesbians and sex came first. Once the action begins, though ... whoa! The IMDB Parent's Guide puts it all on the table, with notes like "People are shot with bloody detail, grotesque wounds and disturbing sound effects" and "A woman beats a man and slams his head repeatedly against a tabletop". That latter doesn't even get it, but I'm avoiding spoilers. I'll just say that the make-up people and/or the CGI folks did some impressive work.

The relationship between Lou (Kristen Stewart), who works in a gym, and Jackie (Katy O'Brian), a bodybuilder, is intense and honest. Glass and the actors take that relationship in complex directions ... Lou's past stifles her, and Jackie turns into something scary when she begins shooting up steroids. The entire movie plays like a twisted blend of Thelma and Louise and the Wachowskis' Bound . Even when Lou and Jackie hit a rough spot, we root for them. It helps that Stewart and O'Brian have great chemistry. The supporting cast is also eclectic ... Ed Harris is the bad guy with a ridiculous long-hair wig, and there's Jena Malone (who is in everything, it seems) and Baryshnikov's daughter Anna (shoutout again to the make-up crew ... Anna's teeth must be seen to be believed, even though once you see them, you never want to see them again).

I never got the feeling Glass was out of control ... what makes Love Lies Bleeding a mess is partly the ambition Glass shows. She takes us to surprising places, and what happens to Jackie at the end is a perfect visual representation of female empowerment. (And Glass prepares us for that final scenario, even though we aren't aware of it at the time.)

Reading the above, I feel like the person who wrote it loved the movie, while I actually liked-not-loved it. I prefer Saint Maud for people wanting to check out Rose Glass. At the least, my words here tell me I liked it a lot.

all of us strangers (andrew haigh, 2023)

This was definitely a case where I was glad I didn't know much about the movie in advance. (And there will be spoilers to follow, so don't read further unless you've seen the film.) The fantasy elements surprised me in a good way. It's not "about" a fantasy ... it's about a lonely writer, emphasis on lonely. The scene is set immediately. We see the writer, Adam, who lives an apparently mundane life in a huge new high-rise in London. A neighbor, Harry, comes to the door, a bit drunk and more than a little lonely. He suggests that Adam and Harry are the only residents of the high-rise and wonders how Adam can cope (Adam replies, "With what?"). The two have a connection, but when Harry tries to invite himself in, Adam, who has a protective barrier over his face, turns down the offer and closes his door.

What follows is the fantasy, although it's not clear at first. Adam's parents died in a car crash when he was 12, and he returns to their old house to find Mum and Dad there, looking as they did in 1987. Everyone seems to understand it's not real, but they interact in familial ways, and all three comes to value Adam's visits. Meantime, Adam opens up to Harry, and they begin a romantic relationship.

I'll stop there. Even with spoiler warnings, I think All of Us Strangers is best seen without knowing exactly what is coming. Writer/director Andrew Haigh blends everything in marvelous, believable ways. Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal are heartbreaking as Adam and Harry, and Claire Foy and Jamie Bell give incisive performances as Adam's parents. It's a chamber piece, but I don't think it occurred to me until the end that there were so few characters. The film really sneaks up on you, making the ultimate ending all the sadder.

It's Oscar season,  and even before the awards are given, people are talking about the "snubs", such as Greta Gerwig being ignored for a Best Director nod even though Barbie got 8 nominations. But a movie like All of Us Strangers is a true snub ... it got zero nominations, and at least as long as the Oscars are still in people's minds, it will be as if this movie didn't exist. It's already #904 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century, for what it's worth.

geezer cinema: the zone of interest (jonathan glazer, 2023)

A lot of people find The Zone of Interest to be a powerful, unsettling movie. Five Oscar nominations, including Picture, International Feature, Director, and Adapted Screenplay (as well as Sound, which I think is appropriate). Winner of four awards at Cannes, 43 wins and counting overall. A 91/100 Metascore at Metacritic.

I didn't care for it.

The subject matter is important (banality of evil in Nazi Germany). The approach is intriguing (the commandant at Auschwitz and his family live next door to the camp). The use of sound is brilliant (the family might ignore what's going on over the wall, but we can always hear noises). Clearly, much of the audience is getting something from the movie. But I found the insistence on banality to ultimately be so banal that it was boring. And that might be the point, but it's always hard to portray boring on screen without succumbing to being a boring movie. The Zone of Interest isn't boring, because it's about Auschwitz.

But some of Glazer's decisions are puzzling. On occasion, the picture turns into a kind of negative image ... it looks almost like rotoscoping ... and I guess I'm dense, but I never understood why Glazer did that. Maybe I'm just not on Glazer's wavelength ... I hated his Sexy Beast, and didn't care for Under the Skin. As I once wrote, "I found little to like as I watched Under the Skin, although afterwards, I felt more kindly, blaming myself for not liking it instead of blaming the movie for being bad." The Zone of Interest is not bad, but I'm less ready to blame myself, having now seen three of Glazer's movies and not liking any of them. I've now seen 9 of the 10 Best Picture Oscar nominations, and I liked the other 8 more than I liked The Zone of Interest (to say nothing of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, The Boy and the Heron, or Godzilla Minus One).

film fatales #194: the miseducation of cameron post (desiree akhavan, 2018)

This is the twentieth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 20 is called "The Female Gaze Week":

The numbers, as you can probably imagine, are terrible. The Celluloid Ceiling reports that only 7% of the top 250 highest-grossing movies in 2022 employed female cinematographers. A lousy seven percent! Hearteningly, women continue making slow but steady inroads into the industry, but still, it could be a lot better. After all, a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences make for a far more varied and rewarding cinematic landscape; we should all consider ourselves blessed to see the world through someone else's eyes.

In that spirit, this week's challenge is to watch a film lensed by a woman. Lola Landekić's list, The Female Gaze, or: 100 Films by Female Cinematographers, is a good place to start, but any film with a female DP is fair game.

Chloë Grace Moretz has snuck up on me. I don't think of her as one of my favorites, although I loved her so much in Kick-Ass that I made her my Facebook avatar. But The Miseducation of Cameron Post is the 7th movie with Moretz I have seen, and while she's not always the lead, the movies are often quite good, and she usually stands out. About Kick-Ass, I wrote, "the #1 reason to watch Kick-Ass is Chloë Grace Moretz." She was one of the best things in Scorsese's Hugo, and she carries the action movie Shadow in the Cloud.

Moretz is the titular Cameron Post, a teenager caught making out with another girl at her prom, who is sent to a "conversion" camp. The film is more low-key than you'd expect ... the "camp" is creepy and quietly abusive of the kids, but the film is more a character study of young people than it is a diatribe against conversion therapy. In a scene where Cameron is questioned by an investigator after one of the kids tries to kill himself, she explains how the camp works on the teens. She says she feels safe, but that she doesn't trust the staff members. Asked if she thinks the staff has her best interests in mind, she replies, "No one's, you know, beating us. But you asked me if I trust them. And sure, I trust them to drive the van safely, and I trust them to buy food." Told that the investigator isn't there to examine the mission of the facility "unless that includes abuse or neglect", Cameron asks, "Yeah, but what about emotional abuse?" Moretz speaks softly, but her face speaks loudly ... she wears that emotional abuse where we can see it.

The challenge this week was to watch a film with a female cinematographers, and the reference to a female gaze is appropriate. But the collaborative nature of film making means I can't always separate the contributions of the various crew members from the writer and director. Director Desiree Akhavan co-wrote the screenplay with Cecilia Frugiuele, from a novel by Emily M. Danforth, with Ashley Connor as cinematographer. Who is ultimately responsible for the film? All of them, although it's the standard that we start with the director (this was Akhavan's second feature, although she has worked frequently in television). I think a director's job is partly to elicit good performances from the cast, and you get that here, not just from Moretz, but from almost everyone (Jennifer Ehle is a bit stereotypical as the villain).

The Miseducation of Cameron Post won't beat you over the head, and some might wish there was more of that kind of style. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, but there was no big fight to get distribution rights, and it wasn't ever shown much in theaters, meaning it lost money, even with a budget of under $1 million. It deserves more attention than it got. The Miseducation of Cameron Post hides in that place between good and great movies, it's worth seeing, and Moretz is once again a standout.

geezer cinema: the beekeeper (david ayer, 2024)

Patton Oswalt once wrote the following:

Jason Statham has never been in a great movie.

He’s also never been in a boring one.

Statham’s profile, collectively, is a promise to you, the weary filmgoer. It’s a promise that says, “I promise that you will not FOR ONE SECOND be bored during one of my movies. You won’t learn shit about the human condition, or feel a collective connection with the brotherhood of man. But if you give me $10, I will fuck an explosion while a Slayer song plays”.

I'm with Patton on this one. Well, I've never been a fan of Snatch (or most Guy Ritchie films, for that matter). But talking about quality, Jason Statham movies have a fairly narrow range. There's the dumb ones that are good time fillers, and there's the slightly better ones that are slightly better time fillers. The Beekeeper is the latter. David Ayer and writer Kurt Wimmer don't waste a lot of time ... the movie comes in at a reasonably economical 105 minutes, and something is happening in most of those minutes. They spend a few minutes setting the situation, show why Statham's character is pissed and desirous of revenge, and then spends the rest of the movie letter us enjoy that revenge. Even in his mid-50s, Statham retains believability with the physical skills he brings to the screen, and if his acting is largely restricted to looking angry, it fits parts like "The Beekeeper".

For some reason, Jason Statham is one of the kings of Geezer Cinema. The Beekeeper is the fifth Statham movie to appear under the Geezer category ... 4 of the 5 were picked by my wife, but I'm responsible for Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

geezer cinema/film fatales #192: saltburn (emerald fennell, 2023)

I kept reading that Saltburn was "divisive". I assumed that meant critics were split on its merits, or it was excessive in ways that would please some in the audience and piss off others. And now that I've seen it, yeah, it's excessive, and proud of it. I welcomed the excess. But I'm not sure of the purpose.

Writer/director Emerald Fennell gave us Promising Young Woman, an impressive and unsettling look at a woman taking revenge against men who assault women. At the time, I wrote, "Promising Young Woman makes you look forward to whatever Fennell comes up with next." And indeed, I was looking forward to Saltburn.

For most of the film, I thought I was watching a comedy. Not a ha-ha comedy, but an inspired look at the vapid lives of the rich. I'm all for portraits of the rich as insensitive dolts, and if Saltburn isn't exactly The Rules of the Game, nonetheless I was enjoying its Talented Mr. Ripley feel. Most of the rich people aren't evil ... they are just self-absorbed in the manner of those who don't have to worry about the commonplaces of everyday life. Barry Keoghan plays our representative into this world, Oliver Quick, who gets into Oxford on a scholarship and feels out of place among the rich kids. Through a variety of occurrences, Oliver ends up spending the summer at Saltburn, the family home of his classmate, Felix Catton.

I have no interest in spoilers ... just know that we, and Oliver, find out the "truth" about the rich Catton family. They are funny because they are unaware that they are funny. They are rich, so they can get away with being unaware. Fennell is expert at getting our hopes up that the Cattons will meet their comeuppance. And, to the extent Oliver is the impetus for that comeuppance, we root for him.

But the overall tone is uncertain, rather like Downton Abbey, which was always sympathetic to the workers but which nonetheless came down on the side of tradition. For Oliver becomes despicable himself by the end of the film, partly because he has always wanted to be like the rich. Fennell presents wealth as something to look down upon, then gives us a hero who embraces it, and doesn't appear to be ironic about it all. Fennell has said of the film's ending:

For those people who were still doubting whether they should be on Oliver’s side or whether he was our hero, the ending needed to have so much triumph, so much evil glee. It needed to be an act of territory-taking and desecration and joy ... My preoccupation is making an audience complicit, making them laugh when they shouldn’t maybe be laughing, making them squirm or feel complicated feelings. So the end needed to have that thing where you could not help but to be on Oliver’s side.

I agree with almost everything she says here. Making the audience complicit isn't easy, but it's worth the effort. But she fails in her ultimate desire for us to "be on Oliver's side". Because Oliver is, at best, no better than the rich people he wants to be. We like Robin Hood because he steals from the rich to give to the poor. Oliver takes from the rich and gives himself the prizes because he thinks being rich is a good thing.

Fennell's work, here and in Promising Young Thing (and in television work like Killing Eve) is audacious, and I still look forward to whatever she comes up with next. But Saltburn is a step down. Bonus points, though, for the use of "Rent" by the Pet Shop Boys.

geezer cinema: poor things (yorgos lanthimos, 2023)

Emma Stone is a much bigger star than I realized. I'd seen six of her movies before Poor Things, and if none of them knocked me over, a few were OK. She has a Best Actress Oscar, she was the highest-paid actress in the world in 2017, and in perhaps the most indicative fact about her popularity, she recently hosted Saturday Night Live for the fifth time:

Poor Things is my third Yorgos Lanthimos film. I liked The Lobster OK, didn't much care for The Favourite. I looked forward to this movie thanks to its mostly positive reviews, and I was rewarded ... the is easily my favorite Lanthimos movie as well as my favorite Emma Stone movie.

Stone is the biggest reason for this. She takes a role that could simply be Oscar bait and makes something wonderful out of it. She plays Bella, the creation of a Frankenstein-like doctor, with a baby's brain inside an adult body. Over the course of the film, Bella's mind grows as her experiences grow, and Stone is spotless throughout, believable as a baby, believable as an adult, with the transition being properly gradual. (Being able to represent the various stages of Bella is the Oscar bait ... making them seem real is the true acting triumph.) Here, she discovers dancing, and her joy is felt by us in the audience, although, in a recurring trope of the film, the man she's with (Mark Ruffalo) tries to control her actions:

The connection to the original Frankenstein tale is clear, and in many ways, Poor Things plays like a feature-length extension of the scene in Bride of Frankenstein where the monster meets the friendly blind man. But Lanthimos (and writer Tony McNamara, and Alasdair Gray, who wrote the novel on which the film is based) is up to more than just paying homage. Bella blossoms, she confronts society and insists on being in command of her life and actions. She does many things we might find abusive (at one point, she becomes a prostitute to earn money), but always she makes her own choices about what she will do. This frustrates the men in her life, who all want to put her in a cage that they can control.

But the film pulls back a bit from making too large a statement. The men tell her that society won't accept her, but most of that society is actually charmed by her. Her behavior, shocking as it often is, is rarely chastised by the elite people she comes across. Thus, Poor Things is a crowd-pleaser, because we see our own pleasure mirrored in some of the characters in the film. Poor Things works as a critique of the patriarchy, but it falls short as a critique of society as a whole (even though Bella eventually adopts socialism).

There will be stiff competition for the Best Actress Oscar ... not only do we have excellent performances from the likes of Margot Robbie, Greta Lee, and Natalie Portman, but Lily Gladstone looks to be entering the Best Actress race despite having more of a supporting role (and Gladstone's may be the best performance by any actor this year). But Emma Stone deserves to be talked about in their company. Of what I have seen, Poor Things is one of the 10 best films of the years.

[Letterboxd list of my top 10 films of 2023]