film fatales
film fatales #7: jeanne dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 bruxelles (chantal akerman, 1975)

what i watched last week

The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014). Another movie where my lack of advance knowledge probably increased my enjoyment. I try hard to avoid movies I don’t like, but I also try to watch things that are recommended from various sources, so I get a wide variety, and those sources aren’t always locked in to my preferences. The Babadook is an Australian horror film, the first feature from director/writer Jennifer Kent (an ex-actor). The cast was unknown to me (Essie Davis, the star, seems to be known mostly for her stage work). The film was partly funded via Kickstarter. It made my Netflix queue because it was #423 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. Well, this is one time the unknown film delivered. You could watch it as a standard horror film about a monster that comes from a book, and it definitely works on that level. But it is also ripe for detailed analysis, particularly from a feminist angle. (I agree with a commenter who thought it odd that this movie wasn’t on the Film Fatales list of “Recent Women-Directed Films That Everyone Should See”.) The main character isn’t the titular monster, nor is it the frightened and disturbed young boy who initially seems to be its target. No, this is a movie about a mother’s grief, and Davis plays the entire spectrum from holding-it-together to flat-out-losing-it in a moving and believable way. Kent’s eye is remarkable for a first-time director (with excellent work from Polish cinematographer Radek Ladczuk and book designed Alex Juhasz). She also worked hard to draw a strong performance from young newcomer Noah Wiseman, while also doing her best to avoid exploiting the child during emotionally intense scenes. The Babadook is better than a simple plot description might suggest, and I recommend it to most people (as the IMDB notes, it includes “Definite trigger warnings for anyone who had a violent or abusive relationship with parents”, so I can’t recommend it to everyone). 8/10.

The River (Jean Renoir, 1951). A bit of an oddity. Renoir, the Frenchman, teamed with Rumer Godden, the Englishwoman who had written the novel, for a film that took place in India. The movie is beautiful to look at (it’s Renoir’s first color film), and Renoir’s unstoppable humanism helps somewhat to turn the characters into people. But I found the film unable to move far outside the colonialist perspective ... the Indians are good people, but the movie isn’t really about them. The acting is highly variable; even if I thought The River was on the level of Renoir’s greatest films, the acting would prevent me from over-estimating its value. #173 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

We Own the Night (James Gray, 2007). A perfectly competent crime thriller that somehow has gotten a lot of critical acclaim. Director James Gray is the recipient of a lot of that praise. I don’t see it. The story is unoriginal ... two brothers, one a cop, the other on the wrong side of the law, come together to defeat bad guys. There’s nothing wrong with the movie, but I felt like I was watching a remake of a Hong Kong crime thriller that had itself been influenced by American crime thrillers. Eva Mendes does good work, but it’s an exaggeration to say her character represents some triumph for women in “guy movies”. She isn’t dumped on, which is nice, but the real story here is about the two brothers ... she is secondary. Somehow, this is #815 on the TSPDT 21st-century list. 6/10. I actually preferred Gray’s romance drama, Two Lovers, which also starred Joaquin Phoenix (and Gwyneth Paltrow).

Oculus (Mike Flanagan, 2013). Silly thriller that delivers some scariness without ever making sense (which probably doesn’t matter anyway). Karen Gillan is very tall and very red-headed, and her characters is more than a little batty (albeit with good reason). Katee Sackhoff plays a supporting role ... since she’s the reason I watched this, I wish she had more screen time, but she’s fine whenever she turns up. This wouldn’t be a bad movie to watch for Halloween, but it’s no classic. 6/10.

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