Tag Archives: The 8th Annual Letterboxd Season Challenge: 2022-23

Nóz w wodzie

As you have perhaps guessed by the title, Mary and I finally watched another movie in the so-called “weekly” letterboxd dot com challenge, about which I’ve said more than enough previously. This, the seventh in the sequence and representing the beginning of November[1], was Polish Film School[2] week. I had (of course) already seen most of these, but the first film by newcomer Roman Polanski caught my eye, and we decided to give it a whirl.[3]

Knife in the Water is the beautifully shot story of a middle-aged married couple who pick up a young hitchhiker and invite him on their overnight sailboat trip, while all three constantly pick at each other. Also, the hitchhiker has a fancy(?) knife.

Okay, that was a little dismissive. It’s a three-person character study of clashing personalities in tight spaces, even though the cinematography is ironically full of open skies and broad vistas most of the time. It’s not clear why the husband dislikes the hitchhiker so much, their initial encounter notwithstanding, and it’s even less clear why he invited the youth onto the boat, nor yet why the hitchhiker accepted. Nevertheless, the premise leads to simmering emotional and eventually physical tension that both promise to boil over before the credits… well, okay, it’s 1962 and end credits weren’t a thing yet. Allow me to correct myself to “promise to boil over before the screen fades to black.”

Was it good? I believe it was. Was it in fact the first Roman Polanski movie I’ve ever seen? It was not, but only because of Rosemary’s Baby a short while back. …which, come to think of it, shares this movie’s paradoxical claustrophobia.

[1] sigh
[2] Polish Film Movement might have been more explanatory, week title deciders
[3] To translate, I was able to find exactly one of the movie options on a streaming service I have access to, and it happened to have name recognition as a bonus.

Rosemary’s Baby

So we’ve, uh, fallen behind on this movie you’ve never seen that matches a theme each week website challenge thing. Week six, where last we left off in October, was something from their top 250 horror films, as rated by site users I guess? Anyway, I had seen the top five, and six and seven weren’t available for streaming, but number eight was Rosemary’s Baby, one of those classics where you more or less already know what happens because of cultural osmosis of so many subsequent references and homages, but you never know what’s actually going to happen, you know?

The jam is this: Rosemary and her financially successful but critically failed actor husband move into an old apartment building in Manhattan, one of those places where you already cannot believe how enormous the place is[1] even before you learn that it was at some point in the [recent?] past split in half from the apartment currently housing the elderly and somewhat kooky childless neighbors. Also, they (Rosemary and her husband) want to have kids.

The thing is, you know what’s going to happen next. I knew what was going to happen next. Everyone knows! My daughter knows, and she was born this year. It’s like Rosebud, you just… know. But at the same time, it was fun to pretend I didn’t know how it was going to turn out.[2] The things I found out along the way were things I didn’t know, but probably should have.[3] And at least one thing I found out but probably shouldn’t have known, which is I’m guessing this may be the first movie that did the trope where you solve the anagram that clues you in about whatever evil thing is going on by digging out a copy of Scrabble and just fiddling with the tiles. So add that to the list of countless tropes this movie has generated.

All in all: it’s very definitely a snapshot of a different time, but it’s mostly timeless, and also it’s mostly or entirely good. I understand why it is the eighth most well-regarded horror movie on this one movie website, is what I’m saying. Solid acting, solid script, solid atmosphere, exquisite final ten minutes. Would watch for the first time all over again.

[1] But at least it’s not like Friends where, how do they afford this? Because of the financially successful acting career and all, although also one of the Friends apartments would fit in the living room of this place, so
[2] And okay, I didn’t, not exactly.
[3] The next footnote is spoilers about things I found out.[4] So don’t read it if you care about spoilers for a 55 year old movie.
[4] Like, I didn’t know she had the world’s worst husband, who among other many sub-par qualities had as his go-to excuse for something that was, uh, pretty bad, his go-to excuse for it was “I went ahead and had sex with you even though you had passed out [after eating a drugged dessert that I insisted you eat even though because I knew it was drugged].” (Like, he didn’t spousal rape her, but he claimed he did, because the alternative was worse. …although I guess they don’t sound as close together in badness in 1968 as they do now? But credit where it’s due, even in 1968 she was all “that wasn’t cool, bro” about it before shrugging and giving up instead of not being concerned in the first place, like I expected in the moment. And I didn’t know, but absolutely should have, that when she went to a medical professional for help, he would immediately betray her. And I didn’t know that the relationship with her husband would play as so loveless and mechanical, which I at least believe was on purpose? There are things in the last scenes of the movie that make me think so.

Busanhaeng 2: Bando

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula is the second entry in the TtBCU[1], and even though it wasn’t on the list of Korean horror films for last(?)[2] week, I did the research and confirmed for myself that it counted (same director and writer as Train to Busan, and made by South Korean companies). So, that’s what we watched!

As discussed in the tagline, the movie is set four years after the events on the train, and in that time… well, the short version is North Korea was finally useful for something besides human misery. Since South Korea is on an isolated peninsula[3], they were able to use their otherwise pointless and/or actively evil military to contain the zombies, and then everyone else just stopped letting escaping boats in without incredibly onerous health checks of the kind that I think we’ve proven would not actually occur in the real world, but. And so, South Korea is a zombie-infested wasteland, and the rest of the world is all, “Huh. I guess that happened.” And the few people who did get out are mostly disliked refugees, so at least they got that part of how we’d behave correct.

Anyway, that’s all setting for a heist-and-redemption story precipitated by an army guy and his embittered brother-in-law being roped into a shot at 50% of the take on a truck full of money just sitting there, waiting to be taken by whoever can survive. It has every trope you’d expect and then some, but you know what? I liked it. (Arguably, that’s why I liked it?)

Thanks, Korean horror community!

[1] There is no TtBCU
[2] When I started this, we were potentially only a week behind. A lot of water has passed under the bridge between then and when I finished it.
[3] Hey, I see what they did there!

The Dark Tower (2017)

With this movie knocked out so quickly, we’re back on schedule, hooray! I mean, we are if we also watch this week’s movie this week, but at least it’s mathematically possible to. Anyway, last week’s movie theme was Stephen King adaptations, which, there are certainly many I haven’t seen, no matter what you might think. However, the most glaring hole is the troubled[1] Dark Tower adaptation from a few years ago, so, we acquired that and checked it out last night.

The problem, I think, is one of expectations. Because this is clearly and obviously not an adaptation of the book or series of The Dark Tower that Stephen King wrote. It has several identical character names, some of them attached to similar characters, even. But the driving arc of the movie is not merely different from but antithetical to the driving arc of the books. So you’ve got a fantasy movie with a built-in audience who you’ve immediately alienated, and what’s left is a movie that would appear to be impenetrable to a generic audience, even though that was not especially the case.

What I could see was a humorously slapdash attempt to make this movie the linchpin of the SKCU[2], even as the series is the linchpin of his library. And I mean, it was less a successful linchpin making and more a constant game of “spot the reference”, but it was also a fun game of that. I caught a lot of them, while being pretty certain I must have missed others. And this is not enough to make a good movie, by a long shot, but I kind of think that if they’d made a more concerted effort, it could have been pretty amazing.

Anyway, long story short: There’s a boy, Jake, and he is having apocalyptic dreams about a man in black who wants to destroy a tower, and every time he attempts this in Jake’s dreams, geologically mysterious earthquakes strike all around the world. But then Jake has a dream about Roland, who is a gunslinger, and who can possibly stop the man in black from succeeding. And then Jake gets swept up in events, and there’s a movie.

I said early on that all of the characters were subtly or dramatically wrong, and I stand by that. But if I didn’t know anything about the characters or their motivations in advance, these would have been acceptable. Idris Elba played his role well and somewhere near the two-thirds mark, they finally convinced me this really was Roland Deschaines, just from an alternate universe with a wildly divergent backstory. I guess what I mean is I liked the movie for what it was, but am sad that they squandered what it could have been.

[1] ie, it was a commercial and critical flop
[2] It is important here for me to note that there is not, in fact, a Stephen King Cinematic Universe.

Miracolo a Milano

The theme for week three of the letterboxd dot com challenge was Italian Neorealism. For the uninitiated (which includes me, for example), that is a specific period in post-war Italian cinema that focuses on reality and daily life stories with no heroes. So from the list available, we picked Miracle in Milan, which is pretty much the opposite of those things? I may have done a bad job.

It is also worth noting that, wait, why is it so far past your week two review? The answer is, haha, we’ve been sick and got behind. Hoping to catch up over a few days? We’ll see!

So anyway, this movie is weird[1]. Like really weird. There’s this kid, Totò, who after experiencing a bizarre childhood punctuated by a cabbage patch adoption and multiplication tables, comes out of the orphanage as a relentlessly cheerful and giving adult who immediately finds himself in a homeless encampment[2], and proceeds to organize it into a pretty cozy and happy shantytown. (I haven’t yet gotten to where the movie is especially weird, to be clear, but saying more would go deep into spoiler towne, whose inhabitants are far less cheerful a bunch than these were.)

I guess the neorealism part is in the characters themselves rather than the plot, which shortly after I ended my synopsis above (about 15 minutes into a 90 minute movie) goes so far off the rails my metaphor is impossible to complete, but the words “wishing dove” and “timely to modern eyes class warfare” are involved, as are the words “ghostly top hat stampede”. But the characters, I was saying, the characters have a lot of daily life reality. There’s the rich family that has fallen on hard times but still has a nanny (also now homeless, natch), who spends most of their time in the shantytown trying to bilk lire from the populace. There’s the really grumpy outsider guy who keeps getting in fights with everyone else. There’s the black man and white women who arrived at the same time and are clearly mutually interested, but who keep staying away from each other because I guess Italy also had miscegenation laws?[3]

And there are more. What I guess I am impressed by, as an avowed watcher of movies that would not want to be called films, is how many of the characters in a cast of hundreds were, okay, not fully realized, but at least memorable. I’m not sure if that’s just difficult to accomplish in more plot-centric movies, or if we’ve lost something along the way, but I bet it’s some of both.

All the same, I’m glad my entry into this subgenre of film history was as plot-dense as it was, because I’m not sure how much I would have enjoyed something that was all aimless and bleak like the description of Italian neorealism reads to me. I know I said “entry”, and while I use the term advisedly, one of the other movies we contemplated, The Bicycle Thieves, is by the same writer and director, and I can’t help being a little curious. (I mean, it will not be capital-w weird, I already know that much. But still.)

[1] Also, I never saw Life is Beautiful, but I can tell you with high confidence that `the guy who made it has this movie as one of his major influences. Seriously, look it up later and prove me right.
[2] If you see the wry humor in that, trust me, so did the filmmakers.
[3] That plotline ends in a way that would be spectacularly cringey if I were to describe it, but in its own context was both progressive and earnedly hilarious.

Goodfellas

Last week on the letterboxd dot com weekly movie, the theme was Remembering Ray, as in Liotta, who died earlier this year. Since Goodfellas is a  film knowledge gap for both of us, it was a no-brainer for the week.

The movie is a mostly straightforward biography of Henry Hill[1], a mafia outsider (in that he was only half Sicilian, and therefore not eligible to be the real deal) who nevertheless lived a lavish, crime-filled life from his teens onward as (along with also not-Sicilian Robert DeNiro) a hanger-on to Paul Sorvino as a godfather type and Joe Pesci as an up and comer in the family.

Only, nobody uses the word godfather, or mafia, or even mob. “Family” comes up a fair bit, but not in the way that any of the characters are related or talked about being related, because it’s not that kind of family. All the same, comparisons to The Godfather are inevitable, because, well. What I will say is that this movie is almost certainly a better depiction of mob life in the ’60s and ’70s. I mean obviously, the guy who wrote the tell-all autobiography probably knows better than the guy who wrote a book that he basically made up from start to finish, but still, you can tell that a movie made up of a series of vignettes about life, love, laughter, and larceny is going to be more true than a movie with foreshadowing, visual themes, and a throughline about inevitability.

All of which to say, yeah, I think The Godfather tells a better story. But I’m glad I finally saw this one, because I should have had it in my repository long since. The only really sad thing is that I can’t hit up Jeff and talk about it now.

[1] In addition to Goodfellas being one of those movies that everyone has seen, Ray is also in the starring role, which made the choice even easier.

La llorona (2019)

Earlier this week, I learned that letterboxd dot com[1] has a multi-year project where each week there’s a theme, and you watch a movie which a) fits the theme (okay, obviously) and b) that you’ve never seen before. Also earlier this week: the 8th year (season?) of this project of theirs started. After a brief discussion with Mary, we decided to go for it, and thusly, here we are.

Week one, Central American Independence Week, is to watch a previously unseen film from one of the following countries: Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala. La Llorona, then, is at first glance a slow moving court procedural in which an aging, arguably dying, Guatemalan general is on trial for genocide of the Mayan peoples in the early 1980s. That is, there is some time spent in court, but the majority of the first third of the film is the various members of his dead-eyed family wandering around their villa, berating the staff[2], resenting the protesters encamped outside their front door, and debating quietly among themselves whether the charges are true.

And that’s pretty much an entire movie in itself, of a certain character study ilk. Will the general’s wife learn about herself her complicity (or, if she already knows deep down, will she decide that it matters)? Will the general’s daughter make a choice to explicitly reject her parents for their unforgivable crimes (perhaps the least of which is, possibly, egregious interference in her personal life)? Will the general’s granddaughter become, by association, as dead-eyed as everyone else in the family or will she maintain her innocence? This could easily be the direction of the small slice of life that has been presented, unless, of course, you know what the llorona is.

Ultimately, the arrival of a single replacement maid to pick up the slack left to the housekeeper after the rest of the staff quit back in act one does not actually result in a different movie than the hypothetical one I described above. She just pushes the outcomes into a different groove than they otherwise would have proceeded along.

Recommended for fans of character-driven dramas that need to dip their toes into the horror genre, or for fans of horror who need to dip their toes into the character study genre.

For the curious: I chose the French poster of this movie because the version I watched was distributed by a French, um, distributor.

[1] A movie-based social media network, apparently? Like here, if people actually showed up, and also had their own review sites.
[2] Who for some reason want to quit now that their boss is on trial for the genocide of, to a first approximation, their people.