63 up (michael apted, 2019)

This is the twenty-fourth 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 24 is called "Top 250 Documentaries Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Letterboxd's Official Top 250 Documentary Films list.

The "Up Series", quoting from Wikipedia, is a "series of documentary films follows the lives of ten males and four females in England beginning in 1964, when they were seven years old. The first film was titled Seven Up!, with later films adjusting the number in the title to match the age of the subjects at the time of filming. The documentary has had nine episodes—one every seven years—thus spanning 56 years." I first watched films from the series in 2007 ... I thought 49 Up was going to be nominated for an Oscar, and decided to watch all of the series up to that point in preparation. (It wasn't nominated, and someone pointed out since it's a TV series, perhaps it will never be nominated.) I thought the series got better as it went along. but the idea has always seemed better than the result. At that time, I wrote:

The films are, or at least were, intended as a critique of British class society, but the films are least successful when they push that point. Far too often, interviewer and director Michael Apted asks leading questions designed to show off his notions about class … just as often, the replies are unexpected, thankfully. In 49 Up, more than in any other of the films, Apted is challenged by the participants. Many of them dislike having their lives interrupted every seven years … some think Apted and the series unfairly portrays their lives. A couple have quit participating over the course of the films, including at least two spouses.... Because it’s well-made, because the participants are likeable, because over the course of 42 years we get to know them, or at least get to know their “Up” personas, for all of these reasons, the Up series seems legitimate, even classy, and I think we might see more in them than really exists.

I found 56 Up to be the best yet, but the reason was largely because these films have a cumulative power, as we get further along in knowing the participants. We root for all of them. 63 Up continues this pattern, but the truth is, I can no longer say that each one is better than the one before. I think we get more out of each episode because of that cumulative effect, which speaks to the enormous power of the project, but that doesn't mean 63 Up is best, as much as it means every seven years we look forward to the films with increased anticipation.

It is possible that 63 Up will mark the end of the series. Michael Apted, who worked on the first film and directed the rest, died in 2021. Of the 14 original kids, one has died, and a few decided at some point to quit participating, although in every case but one, they later returned. The series has a remarkable lack of voyeurism ... it is often compared to reality television, but whatever the problems the participants have had over the years, our interest grows out of sympathy more than it does of gossip.

revisiting the 9s: children of men (alfonso cuarón, 2006)

[This is the thirteenth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

I first saw Children of Men in 2007, and liked it enough that I taught it in a class soon afterwards. As I wrote at the time:

Alfonso Cuarón is one of my favorite directors. Y tu mamá también is an all-time favorite, and Cuarón’s Harry Potter movie was the only one I thought was any good. Children of Men is a terrific movie, dark, stylish, emotional, interesting. Cuarón and his team manage to get across an awful lot of information in the backgrounds of scenes … very little about the future in this film set in 2027 is explicitly explained, but nonetheless the movie isn’t confusing, you pick things up in subtle steps. When special effects are called for, they are old-school … you don’t see fancy futuristic flying machines, instead you get astonishing single-take scenes that would make Orson Welles proud. I’ve never been in battle, but the use of camera and sound in the battle scenes for this movie come across as startlingly realistic, and more disturbing than heroic. There is some fine acting from the ensemble of actors, moments of wit and humor when it is least expected, and an effective combination of artsy touches and connections to our present times. There’s even a Pink Floyd in-joke, and at one point they play “In the Court of the Crimson King” on the soundtrack.

You can’t keep your eyes off the screen. Alfonso Cuarón creates a believable world and populates it with characters who fit into that world. There aren’t any false moments. I don't have any reason to give it a "9" instead of a "10". It remains as impressive on a third viewing in 2023 as it did when I saw it for the first time. And the depiction of the treatment of refugees is sadly still relevant.

triangle of sadness (ruben östlund, 2022)

With Triangle of Sadness, I have now seen 9 of the 10 movies nominated for a Best Picture Oscar this year (sorry, Avatar). I think Everything Everywhere All at Once and Women Talking are the cream of the crop (I'd include RRR, but it didn't get a nomination). I'd put Triangle of Sadness in the middle of the pack.

My guess is by next Monday no one will even remember that Triangle of Sadness got three Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay) and won none. Which isn't a knock on the movie ... there are more worthy/likely winners in those categories, and if the three nominations are a stretch, they aren't egregious. But Triangle of Sadness will eventually stand on its own, regardless of Oscar nominations, and based on what I've seen, it's a pretty typical Ruben Östlund picture. I've seen Force Majeure and The Square, and like Triangle of Sadness, those are odd movies, decent but not great, with just enough bizarreness to stick in your mind. I wrote about The Square, "You might call The Square smug ... at the least, it is quite proud of itself." I added, "None of the characters come off well, although they are pleasant enough on the surface and not exactly evil underneath." I'd say something similar about Triangle of Sadness. It's supposed to be an attack on class structure, it is an attack on class structure, but the rich people aren't mean enough. Which I can see as a good thing, but Östlund sets things up so we can enjoy the comeuppance of the rich, and then makes it less enjoyable because they aren't that awful despite their wealth. I may be asking for the wrong thing.

Force Majeure had an impressive avalanche, and The Square had some kind of monkey man who was also a work of art or something. The impressive avalanche in Triangle of Sadness is a colossal classy dinner served on a cruise ship during a storm that has some of the most ... what word am I looking for, "entertaining"? ... scenes of vomiting. It's not easily forgotten, for better or worse. It's even part of the publicity for the movie:

Triangle of sadness

Triangle of Sadness is too long ... it has three parts, and for me, the entire first part could have been cut without doing any damage to the film. (The Square was also too long.) It's another Ruben Östlund film that you'll remember with a combination of fondness and something less positive. With Harris Dickinson, Dolly de Leon, and Charlbi Dean (who died unexpectedly at 32 just after the film's release).

geezer cinema: operation fortune: ruse de guerre (guy ritchie, 2023)

Another Guy Ritchie movie. He's like Michael Bay, in that you recognize his films, even though they aren't usually any good. There's no question why Ritchie gets to make movies ... they usually make money, often a lot of money (his live-action Aladdin earned more than a billion dollars world-wide). I've seen five of his films, and only liked one of them (the first Sherlock Holmes). Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was tolerable, The Gentlemen less so, and I thought Snatch was a real dud.

There's that category I invented, Not for Steven, but I usually assign that label to movies by people like Terrence Malick, arty directors who know what they are doing and get what they want while not connecting with me. I guess Guy Ritchie falls into that category, although I'm not as certain he knows what he's doing, and I wouldn't call his movies arty. No, they are popular, and more power to him and his fans. But they clearly Aren't for Steven.

Operation Fortune lies in the middle of the pack. Jason Statham is in a lot of Ritchie movies, and I like Statham ... he's made some decent action pictures. Operation Fortune has the added advantage of Aubrey Plaza, who is a lot like Statham in that she's made some decent pictures, and every one of her movies that I have seen are better because she was in them. In fact, Ritchie often has large casts with recognizable people in smaller parts ... it's one of the best things about his movies (this time around, besides Statham and Plaza, he has Josh Hartnett, Hugh Grant, Bugzy Malone, and Eddie Marsan).

I found Operation Fortune incoherent and stupid, but there's always something happening and it's never boring. There are worse movies ... Ritchie has made some of them himself. Me, I'd go with the fact that Aubrey Plaza is once again the best thing in the movie, and if I hadn't seen it, I'd check out Emily the Criminal, which is a bit better and has Plaza in almost every scene.


comfort and joy (bill forsyth, 1984)

As I have mentioned before, it was more than a decade ago that I joined two others in a lengthy thread on Facebook for our 50 Favorite Movies. I told myself at the time that I was going to watch all of the movies the others had chosen that I had missed. With Comfort and Joy, I have finally fulfilled my promise to Phil Dellio. (Phil had Comfort and Joy at #30.)

Comfort and Joy is the third Bill Forsyth movie I've seen, after Housekeeping and Local Hero, both of which I liked. All three films are of a piece ... Forsyth has a recognizable feel. As Steve Fore said in a comment here re: Local Hero, "Fundamentally, Forsyth's films are fables, almost a kind of Scottish magical realism. They portray a world that is quite recognizable, but full of tiny wonders, and humanist in the best sense."

The word that comes to my mind is whimsical, but "Scottish magical realism" is a better description. All of the movies I've seen had something to get my attention. Local Hero has Burt Lancaster, and Housekeeping was based on a novel I liked. The only marker for Comfort and Joy was that Phil loved it, and that's enough ... Phil isn't Burt Lancaster, but he did have Sweet Smell of Success at #5 on his list. (I countered with From Here to Eternity at #37.) The cast is mostly unknown to me ... Clare Grogan, lead singer for the band Altered Images, has a big part. Bill Paterson is the lead, playing a local morning DJ named Alan "Dickie" Bird, and he has had a long and highly-regarded career. I've seen him in a few things without actually remembering them (he had the lead in the TV series version of Traffik). I know him best as Fleabag's father:

Amazingly, the plot turns on a bit of whimsy that turns out to be based on real life: the Glasgow Ice Cream Wars. The instigation for the plot comes when Alan's longtime girlfriend leaves him, and while the plot takes some fanciful turns, the humanism Steve Fore mentioned is ever-present. Alan is not a sad sack, he's sad, which isn't the same thing. The one place where Forsyth's essential kindness escapes him is with the girlfriend, who would be called a bitch except she is too lackadaisical to work up that level of meanness.

I'll let Phil have the last word:

Three reasons I love this film so much: 1) lots of driving scenes, many of them at night (all the drivers are sitting on the wrong side of the car, but that’s okay); 2) Claire Grogan from the band Altered Images; 3) jokes that leave me smiling for days--“Give us an autograph, Dickie.” My favourite in the entire film has to do with Mr. Softy.

geezer cinema/film fatales #163: catherine called birdy (lena dunham, 2022)

Watching Bella Ramsey on a weekly basis on The Last of Us has made me want to see more of her. So, Catherine Called Birdy, which I believe is Ramsey's first time "carrying" a movie (she is the title character). She shows her versatility as a 14-year-old in Lena Dunham's Medieval England world. Ramsey is the best thing about the movie, but she is not the only good thing. There is plenty of good acting, not just from Billie Piper and Andrew Scott as Birdy's parents, but also Lesley Sharp, Sophie Okonedo, David Bradley, and even Russell Brand in what amounts to a cameo. Dunham manages to recreate the times while fitting a modern-ish Birdy into the proceedings without making things into a modern coming-of-age story in costume.

Ramsey is a unique performer, intriguing ... she uses her eyes to suggest the intelligence behind her outward actions. She has fun with her role, and we root for her throughout. The film has won an award for Production Design (Kave Quinn), and while I don't really know what Medieval England looked like, everything seems pretty authentic (including the outhouses). Catherine Called Birdy is solid and enjoyable, and sometimes that's enough.

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]

all that breathes (shaunak sen, 2022)

All That Breathes is a documentary that can be described simply, but that would miss the point. It is about two brothers in New Delhi who rescue birds, black kites to be exact. On that level, it's an interesting and informative work. But it's about a lot more than just rescuing birds.

There is unrest, always in the distance, yet never seeming to be far away. The air is so polluted that birds fall from the sky. The ground doesn't seem much better ... early on, we see rats overrunning a area filled with, well, a little of everything. The trick Shaunak Sen uses is that none of this is foregrounded. Throughout the film, Sen focuses on the brothers, working out of their basement, searching for funding for a hospital, imagining a future outside of New Delhi. You are always aware of the unrest and the pollution and the ways everything is connected, because Sen never lets us forget, even while what we are seeing is primarily the brothers.

The film features some lovely cinematography, and we get to know the brothers, Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud, as the movie progresses. There is always something interesting going on, although much of it is depressing. The brothers know their work is a drop in the bucket, but they go on, for what else is there to do except try to better the circumstances of their environment.

geezer cinema/african-american directors series/film fatales #161: till (chinonye chukwu, 2022)

Among the Oscar nominees for Best Actress this year is Michelle Williams. About her performance, I wrote, "Michelle Williams, one of our finest actors, is not quite believable as a Jewish mother with artistic tendencies. Williams can be a straightforward actor ... she can also transform herself believably, as when she made herself into Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn. But, especially when Spielberg offers so many traditional (some would say stereotypical) Jewish characters, Williams stands out in the wrong kind of way."

Among the missing in the list of Best Actress nominees this year is Danielle Deadwyler, who plays Emmett's mother Mamie in Till. Deadwyler is what makes Till more than another biopic. She is outstanding in every scene, and displays the full ranges of her character's emotions. If ever there was an Oscar-nominated performance, it's Deadwyler in this movie.

As for the movie as a whole, director/co-writer Chinonye Chukwu sticks to her vision, which foregrounds the story of Mamie amidst the larger picture of the death of her son and the social ramifications of the case. Deadwyler is up to the challenge. But in the early part of the movie, as Mamie prepares to let her son vacation in Mississippi, we in the audience are aware of the foreshadowing ... we know what will happen to Emmett in the south. Yet there is a feeling that Mamie herself is with us in that foreshadowing. It's not just that she is worried for her son ... she should be. But that worry bubbles over, as if Mamie is more than worried, that she is certain what will happen. We know she wouldn't send Emmett on his vacation if she had that certainty ... clearly she wants her son to have some teenage freedom, she allows him to go on the trip. But as written, that hint of foreshadowing makes us wonder why she didn't stop him.

The film is scrupulous about getting the facts right, and I have no reason to doubt what we see. And once Emmett is lynched, foreshadowing is no longer a driving force, for the audience or for Mamie. The built-in drama moves the film forward, with Deadwyler at the center of it all. Part of me wonders why Emmett's mother is the center, here, but Deadwyler is so convincing, I was won over. If the film might have more accurately been titled "Mamie", in the end, the facts are there, and Deadwyler is memorable.

all quiet on the western front (edward berger, 2022)

The latest version of All Quiet on the Western Front reminded me of a couple of other WWI films. As I wrote at the time about 1917, "I'm not sure it's possible to make a pro-war movie about WWI." And there is the greatest of WWI movies, Kubrick's Paths of Glory, where the real targets of Kubrick’s attention are the highest-ranking officers of the French army. You get some of this in All Quiet in the late scenes with the general demanding that his troops spend the last 15 minutes before the armistice fighting for German "honor".

Tim Goodman pointed out that "You just can’t escape the odd, unsettling, eeriness of watching a movie set between 1914-1918 and see modern day similarities to Ukraine, 2023." This makes war seem inevitable and inescapable, and it's hard to imagine anyone watching All Quiet on the Western Front and feeling even a smidgen of hope. (Paths of Glory is similar, except there is a tacked-on final scene that tries to make the audience leave at least a little bit better.)

One of the best things about All Quiet is the insistence that there is no heroism possible under these circumstances. Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) is the closest thing to a main character, and he acts nobly for the most part. But World War I was a stupid war (even given the general stupidity of all wars), and there is nothing any of these soldiers can do that might be called heroic. They are like Sisyphus, endlessly pushing a rock up a hill, watching it roll back down the hill, and then returning to push it up the hill again. There was no point in what the soldiers were asked to do, and while Edward Berger doesn't go as far as Kubrick in damning the generals, they are the ones who send the soldiers to their meaningless deaths.

The film is nominated for 9 Oscars, including Best Picture. One nomination it definitely deserves is for Best Makeup ... the varieties of mud-caked faces are amazing. Felix Kammerer is great ... it's hard to believe this is his first film. I'm not saying any of the five Actor nominees are unworthy, but Kammerer is hard to forget after this movie. Best Picture? It's not an insult to say it's not as good as some of the other nominees ... I'd say a nomination is an appropriate reward for the quality of the film.

argentina, 1985 (santiago mitre, 2022)

Argentina, 1985 is a tremendous re-creation of a critical moment in the history of Argentina, the Trial of the Juntas against the recently deposed military dictatorship of the country. Director Santiago Mitre, writer Mariano Llinás, and all of the production crew took great pains to give their film a documentary feel, replicating the history by shooting in some of the same locations in which events occurred. They also subtly incorporate actual footage of the trial, unobtrusively adding to the impression that what we are seeing is what really happened.

This only goes so far, because the acting is so strong, not because the lead, the always excellent Ricardo Darín, is an exact copy of prosecutor Julio Strassera, or that the acting in general carries the same documentary feel we get from much of the film. In fact, the contrast between the actorly performances and the more straightforward representation of facts adds an interesting tension to what we are seeing. We admire the work of Darín at the same time we admire the work of the real-life Strassera.

The film itself is a standard courtroom drama. It's well-done, but not necessarily any different from a dozen other films set in courtrooms. But the real-life stakes of the trial make for something more vital than, say, To Kill a Mockingbird. And when Darín gives Strassera's closing argument (almost word-for-word with the actual statement), his abilities as an actor, combined with the dramatic impact of Strassera's words, leave most other movies behind, courtroom drama or not.