what i watched last week

By request: I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016).

Nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar (it lost to O.J.: Made in America), I Am Not Your Negro reminds those of us who remember James Baldwin how important he was (and hopefully introduces him to younger viewers). I remember reading The Fire Next Time when I was 10 or 11, and it turned on many lights for me, growing up as I did in a town with no black people. I don’t know that Baldwin’s fame has had the staying power of King, or Malcolm, or the Panthers, perhaps because while he was a vocal advocate, he was primarily a writer, not a speech giver. His autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain was still being taught when I was in college. Perhaps I’m wrong, and Baldwin is still remembered as an important figure. In any event, I Am Not Your Negro does a solid job of bringing Baldwin to our attention, using film clips and voice-over narration of his words read by Samuel L. Jackson, who effectively buries himself in the role (it took me awhile to realize it was an actor reading those lines). This is an efficient documentary that speaks to us today, as well as serving as a history lesson. #723 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 9/10.

Film Fatales #28: Jesus’ Son (Alison Maclean, 1999). Billy Crudup heads an impressive cast in a film based on a series of short stories by Denis Johnson. There is a casual realism to the tale of junkies and lo-fi criminals, partly due to the presence of so many characters who are neither junkies nor criminals. It’s a slice-of-life with no apparent agenda. It could use a little more spice ... this isn’t Sid and Nancy. Crudup’s character is named “Fuckhead”, and by his actions and his voice-over narration, I thought “FH” was a bit slow, which I don’t think was the intention. Among the supporting cast, many in what amounts to cameos, are Samantha Morton, “Mike” Shannon, Denis Leary (not as obnoxious as usual), Jack Black, Will Patton, Miranda July, Dennis Hopper, Kevin Carroll from The Leftovers, and Holly Hunter. Maclean deserves credit for a production that clearly had appeal to a lot of actors (this was only her second feature ... she has done a lot of work in television). I wanted to like this one more than I actually did. 6/10. (Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951). Revisiting a favorite. There is a long-standing discussion about whether Nyby actually directed The Thing (an editor, this was his first credited director’s job). Howard Hawks produced ... Nyby had worked with Hawks many times, and when people pointed out how Hawksian The Thing was, Nyby reportedly said that of course Hawks rubbed off on him from all their work together. The film makes an impressive example of the auteur theory as it applied to the studio system ... everyone thinks Hawks directed it because it’s recognizably a lot like many other movies he directed. You can enjoy The Thing without knowing this stuff ... it’s compact, manages to make individual characters out of the stock cast, and is more horror than sci-fi. It’s hardly worth comparing it to the John Carpenter remake ... they are quite different. 9/10.

As we watched it, my wife said the following has always been one of her favorite movie scenes:


film fatales #27: wanda (barbara loden, 1970)

When I was a film major in the early 1970s, I wanted to make movies that combined fiction with a cinéma vérité approach. My first short film was decent enough ... it told the story of a recently-divorced woman, and nothing much happened. It was, I can see now, a bit like Wanda.

In 1970, Wanda was historic. It was the first feature film written, directed, and acted in by a woman. It was a low-budget picture ... Loden shot it with a crew of four including herself, and the only other professional actor in the film was Michael Higgins. It got some attention in Europe, winning Best Foreign Film at the 1970 Venice Film Festival. But it was mostly ignored in the States, and other than the occasional praise from film critics, it was little discussed.

There are many reasons for this, but it needs to be noted, as the film has finally been re-discovered, that even if Wanda had gotten more publicity at the time, it is unlikely it would have become a cultural icon the way other low-budget films of the day like Easy Rider did. For Wanda is aggressively uncommercial. Loden made the movie she wanted, and what she wanted was more a realistic slice of life than something like Bonnie and Clyde, to which it was compared (both being about robbers on the run). In one interview, she stated, “I really hate slick pictures…they’re too perfect to be believable. I don’t mean just in the look. I mean in the rhythm, in the cutting, the music—everything. The slicker the technique is, the slicker the content becomes, until everything turns into Formica, including the people.” Later, she called Wanda an “anti-Bonnie and Clyde” picture.

Wanda is an admirable movie. Loden does an excellent job in the title role, and the look and feel of the film helps create a perfect vision of a woman with no prospects. Wanda’s life is one of desperation, but she acts in an almost casual manner, as if her acceptance of her life precludes any active attempts to change it. Bonnie and Clyde is partly about the heroes' desire to make their mark on the world, to be famous. Wanda is completely uninterested in this. And, to the extent Loden achieves her goals, Wanda the movie also seems uninterested in making a mark. Or rather, Loden wants an audience, but only if they come to her ... she is not going to mess with her vision just for a bigger audience.

Which is why I call Wanda an “admirable” movie. It isn’t often that we get such a successful film in terms of fulfilling the artist’s desires. But Loden’s anti-slick stance doesn’t leave a lot of room for a viewer to climb in. I was reminded of some of Agnès Varda’s films, like Vagabond and Cleo from 5 to 7, but they don’t close off the audience as they tell the stories of the central characters. Loden makes Wanda into an impressively unique film, but unlike something like Cleo from 5 to 7, I don’t have any strong desire to watch Wanda again right away. Once is enough, at least for now.

Wanda should be seen. And Loden’s life is interesting on its own (a good way to dive into this is via Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast, which recently featured an episode on Loden as part of Longworth’s “Dead Blondes” series). #383 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

Here’s an artifact of the times: Loden on The Mike Douglas Show, with Mike’s co-hosts, John and Yoko (the last few minutes are John and Yoko performing):

To give context to some of the questions, Loden's husband was Elia Kazan.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #26: to walk invisible (sally wainwright, 2016)

Not sure how to tag this ... Wainwright made it for the BBC and it aired in the States on PBS, but it’s a film, not a series. She works in television, having given us the excellent series Happy Valley. As is often the case, To Walk Invisible has one person I’ve heard of (Jonathan Pryce) and a cast of excellent actors who are unknown to me (although a few of them were also in Happy Valley). One other similarity to that earlier series: To Walk Invisible takes place in Yorkshire, as did the series, and I can barely understand what people are saying (friends from South England once told me they needed subtitles to understand Happy Valley).

To Walk Invisible tells the story of the Brontë family in the late 1840s, when the sisters first published novels under male pseudonyms. (Pryce played their father.) Their tormented addict brother Branwell is also an important part of the story, although given the time constraints (it lasts two hours), he takes up perhaps too much time. In fact, To Walk Invisible might have benefitted from at least one more episode, as events feel rushed throughout.

The focus is almost entirely on the sisters’ lives. You’re left to fill in the narratives for Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights on your own, which may be for the best, since I imagine anyone who wants to watch a story of the sisters will have already read the novels. To some extent, the novels come out of nowhere in To Walk Invisible, at least as specific individual works. The film shows how the sisters had to fight the sentiments of the time, reflected most clearly in their use of pseudonyms to hide their gender. And we are led to believe that they are excellent writers, especially Charlotte. But while their skills are made evident, and while their struggles to be recognized are a central theme of the movie, there is little reference to the fact that these weren’t just any novels, but were Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

In one respect, this is a good thing, because To Walk Invisible avoids the common fault of biographical stories that “explain” a book like Jane Eyre by showing examples of the author’s life that supposedly informed their creation, as if they lacked the imagination to come up with the work on their own. So we don’t get a scene of Charlotte seeing a woman in an attic. But it does seem odd that Charlotte could have been writing any old novel, given the lack of interest shown in the actual book she produced.

To Walk Invisible looks great, and sounds great if you can handle the accents. The acting is top-notch. There’s too much Branwell, and it’s too short overall. But as is, it’s a worthy accomplishment. 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #25: the intervention (clea duvall, 2016)

A group of mid/late-30s friends and family invite two other friends for a getaway, intending to have a “marriage intervention” for those two others, whose marriage seems to falling apart. The obvious comparison is to The Big Chill. There’s even a “Meg Tilly character” who is younger than the others. And Clea DuVall has said she was trying to capture that Big Chill feeling. But The Intervention operates on a much lower key than The Big Chill. The cast of The Big Chill was full of names. Kevin Kline was coming off of Sophie’s Choice. Glenn Close had an Oscar nomination for The World According to Garp. William Hurt worked with director Lawrence Kasdan on Body Heat. DuVall, on the other hand, puts together a fine ensemble cast, but they are more indie darlings than “BIG STARS”. Melanie Lynskey is probably the best known, although I’m not sure ... many of the actors have been in popular TV series, and Natasha Lyonne is a BIG STAR at my house, at least. But the scale is lower, and I think that’s useful. If The Big Chill often crumpled under the weight of making A Statement, The Intervention feels more like a story about a group of characters.

Honestly, the film I’m most reminded of is The Anniversary Party. In that one, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming wrote a script, knowing which of their friends they would be casting and tailoring the characters to their friends, so Kevin Kline plays the husband of Phoebe Cates’ character, who has quit acting to raise their kids, who play “themselves”. I love that movie, which I can’t say for The Intervention, which has a more generic feel to it. For some reason, I didn’t feel closely attached to the characters in The Intervention. I was watching them from a distance, even though I think we were supposed to climb right into the characters.

This is not the fault of the acting, which is fine, and DuVall’s directorial debut is efficient. It gets out of the way in 90 minutes, always a plus in my book. If DuVall continues to pursue writing and directing as well as acting, she has a promising future. But The Intervention is more a good debut than it is a great picture. 6/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #24: fat girl (catherine breillat, 2001)

This is my first Breillat film, and so any comparisons I make between this and her other films is limited to what I have read. I can’t simply ignore what I already know, but it seems mostly irrelevant except as it relates to the one movie I have seen.

Fat Girl is very much an in-your-face film. Breillat’s willingness to show sexual acts in a straightforward way makes them different from other films that are more intentionally erotic. There is, however, nothing ordinary about the ways the characters in Fat Girl use sexuality as expressions of their personalities, and the emotional impact of sexual acts is intense in realistic ways most films shy away from.

The three main characters are two sisters, one, Elena (Roxane Mesquida), 15 years old and conventionally pretty, and one, Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), 13 years old and the titular girl, whose prettiness comes from within, along with a college boy, Fernando, who meets the sisters during holiday. All of the characters are complicated, and Breillat is mostly uninterested in applying simple labels to them. The boy uses every trick at his disposal to get Elena to have sex with him, and we see his insincerity, but Breillat isn’t trying to vilify him. If anything, she’s vilifying men in general, for Fernando is presented more as a thoughtless and careless man than as someone with personally bad motives. Elena sees through him, but willfully denies what she sees because she thinks she wants what he is offering. It’s as if she knows in advance that he will break her heart (and more), but thinks of it as a necessary part of growing into womanhood. Anaïs, meanwhile, stands in for us, watching, mistrusting Fernando ... she’s smarter than her older sister, and doesn’t have the emotional attachment to Fernando that leads to trouble for Elena. Breillat shoots two key sex scenes between Elena and Fernando by focusing on Anaïs, who is in the room “sleeping”. When we experience Elena’s hurt, that experience is channeled through Anaïs.

The relationship between the two sisters is the best thing about Fat Girl. They snipe at each other, they know the right places to stick the knife, but they are also emotionally inseparable. They are the only people with whom they can be real.

Fat Girl has a shocking ending that I thought was senseless. In retrospect, after hearing Breillat talk about her film, I think I understand the way the ending puts the final point on the differences between the two girls, but I still believe it comes out of nowhere. The final line of the movie is powerful, but getting there is perhaps the closest the film comes to exploitation. #218 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #23 / oscar run: 13th (ava duvernay, 2016)

This documentary from Netflix joins ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America as Oscar nominees that were made for television. The subject matter is named in the title, which refers to the 13th amendment. This amendment intended to abolish slavery, but DuVernay’s film argues that the key phrase, “except as a punishment for crime”, left the door open for the continued oppression of blacks. Instead of slaves, whites could draw on a supply of black criminals, and they made sure there were plenty of such criminals to pick from.

DuVernay isn’t addressing slavery straight on, but using it to get to her key theme, that America’s prison system is abhorrent, and has grown rapidly in recent decades. Prisons have replaced plantations. She points particularly to Richard Nixon, who promoted himself as a “law and order” president. None of the subsequent presidents escape DuVernay’s wrath, with Bill Clinton receiving the most pointed attacks for his awful Omnibus Crime Bill, which did more to create prison overcrowding than anything else.

DuVernay marshals an impressive array of talking heads for 13th. It is no surprise to see former inmates articulating life in prison, nor is it unusual to see, for instance, Angela Davis, herself a former inmate, offer intelligent analysis. A few people from Nixon’s circle admit that they specifically singled out black Americans. There are even some surprises ... Newt Gingrich, of all people, adds a measured, reasonable voice.

A movie like 13th is a work of activism, and to some extent, an evaluation of the film demands that we examine how well it makes its points. DuVernay isn’t “fair” in the way old-school journalism believed in. The film is not objective. But it does use facts to buttress its points, and all of those talking heads make for quite a board of experts. It is arguably too short ... DuVernay packs the films with so much information, it is sometimes hard to process, and she might have been better off with a multi-episode television series.

There is one artistic move she makes that I found extremely irritating, although I haven’t seen many other people complain. Her talking heads regularly speak towards some space off camera, rarely looking directly at the viewer. It’s as if she saw Mr. Robot and decided she’d like to try something new. But there seems to be no reason for this. It is just distracting, which is certainly a problem when you are presenting so much information.

There is plenty to learn from 13th, and DuVernay is a passionate artist. But the overwhelming pile of information, and the distractions of the stylistic selections, detract from some of the power. Nonetheless, 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #22: 2 days in paris (julie delpy, 2007)

I saw this film and its sequel, 2 Days in New York, in the “wrong order”, having seen the latter four year ago. I don’t think it matters ... both are enjoyable, I might have gotten a bit more enjoyment from New York if I’d known Paris, but they are both standalones.

This truly is “A Julie Delpy Film”. She produced it, she wrote it, she directed it, she starred in it, she composed music for it, she sang one of the songs, she edited it, she cast her parents to play her parents in the film and used their house as their house in the film. (Roger Ebert claimed, “When a women takes that many jobs, we slap her down for vanity. When a man does, we call him the new Orson Welles.”) She has been a film actress since she was a kid, so it’s not like she was new to the world of film.  And 2 Days in Paris is a confident film ... Delpy has a feel for how to make a fictional movie seem almost like a documentary, which won’t surprise anyone who has seen her work in the “Before” series.

Adam Goldberg plays a fish out of water, visiting Paris with his French girlfriend and finding himself clueless and suspicious when, as can be expected, everyone speaks in French. He is not instantly likable ... I’m not sure the character ever becomes likable ... but gradually we see how this mildly irritating fellow not only suffers, but is to some extent our representative in the film (speaking only for Americans here). Goldberg also seems like a stand-in for another character, specifically Ethan Hawke as Jesse in the “Before” movies. As Mick LaSalle wrote, “Millions of men have been psychically dating Julie Delpy for years, thanks to ‘Before Sunrise’ and ‘Before Sunset,’ and we've come to accept Ethan Hawke as an acceptable surrogate. But Adam Goldberg in ‘2 Days in Paris’ takes some getting used to.” (In the sequel, Goldberg’s character is gone, and Chris Rock plays the love interest.)

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare 2 Days in Paris to the Linklater films. It has some slight similarities, but that is all. This film is pure Delpy. And she is very fair to her characters. Goldberg may be annoying, but no more so than Delpy’s character. I wish I’d seen this movie when it came out, because my love for Delpy has only grown over the years, and it would have been nice to see her take on the director’s chair. 2 Days in Paris is slight, but engaging, and convinces me I need to see some of her other work as a director. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #21: stories we tell (sarah polley, 2012)

How long does one have to wait before spoilers are no longer an issue? Stories We Tell is more than four years old, but part of me is still squeamish about revealing anything crucial. Suffice to say, there will be spoilers, and this is a movie where the less you know going in, the more you will get from it.

Sarah Polley is up to many things with Stories We Tell, which seems surprising if you just offer a brief description: Polley makes a documentary about her family, using interviews and home movies. Polley turns this seemingly simple exercise into a smart examination of memory, family, and the very act of making a documentary. She is so smooth with her craft that her ambitions never slow the film down, never seem pretentious.

Polley isn’t exactly offering a cast of unreliable narrators. But each of the interviewees (“storytellers”, they are called in the credits) gives the truth as they remember it, in many cases admitting that they aren’t sure their memories can be trusted. One person says that only people who were there can tell a story, and if one of them has passed away, as Polley’s mother did, we have to take the survivors’ word as true. He is at least open about his desire to make his truth into the truth. But Polley suggests that we all do this, that life is partly about turning our truth into the truth. Since Stories We Tell features the remembrances of so many people, the truth can’t be found. It isn’t cumulative ... we can’t just toss all of the stories into a salad bowl.

Polley is behind the camera ... she is the interviewer. She is the one trying to find the truth, and at first it seems she stands outside of the collective attempt to remember. But the film is hers ... more than one interviewee asks her pointedly why she is making the film, what she hopes to accomplish. She wants to turn the truth into her truth, but her methods prevent her from ever grasping “the truth” ... in fact, watching Stories We Tell, we despair of ever being able to grasp.

The one person who can’t tell her story is Polley’s dead mother, Diane. Perhaps for this reason, she is the center of the story ... all of the living offer their memories of her. Polley supplements this with home movies ... it would seem the Polley family took a lot of movies in their day, and as people talk about Diane, we see her acting as they remember. Mostly, we see her love of life, and love of fun. The stories and the movies make a powerful team ... the stories may be full of subjective experience, but the movies show how things “really” were.

Polley saves her knockout blow for the closing credits. At least that’s how it was for me ... I’m sure some people figured out Polley’s trick before I did. As the credits get to the actors, we see the various interviewees, all as the aforementioned “storytellers”. Then, suddenly, we see a list of actors playing other people. “Rebecca Jenkins: Diane Polley.” As this list went on (“Eric Hanson: Mark Polley, age 11”), the realization that the “home movies” were staged puts the finishing touch on Polley’s examination of documentary truth. We have reflexively assumed the movies were the objective counterpart to the subjective storytellers. Now we find that those movies are subjective reconstructions.

This does not feel like a cheat. On the contrary, with the revelation that Polley used “fake” home movies, we are forced into a further understanding of Polley’s theme. The storytellers weren’t the only ones trying to pass off their truths as the truth ... Polley herself turns out to be the biggest storyteller of them all. #185 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 9/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


best films of 2015

It’s something of a tradition for me to post a Top Ten list of year-old films, because I’m always behind on my movie watching. I’m going to keep it down to a Top Six this time ... there are too many tied-for-7ths to include. Obviously, this only includes what I’ve seen.

Best film of 2015: Mad Max: Fury Road.

Next five, in no particular order:

Least favorite movie of 2015: Survivor


film fatales #20: paju (chan-ok park, 2009)

After seeing so many Korean horror films (most of them quite good, of course), it was an interesting pleasure to take in a Korean movie whose horrors are implicit. Paju is many things, but at its heart, it is a character study, and while I assume I am missing some of the more local Korean reference points, it works fine in the simplified world of character.

Which isn’t to say that Paju is simple. Park draws on complex film techniques, most notably in her use of flashbacks, which are rarely identified precisely. The placement of those flashbacks leads more to uncertainty than to confusion, and throughout, Park is building a story for her characters that may be told out of order but which make an emotional sense. The relationship between the primary characters, Joong-sik and Eun-mo, is the heart of Paju, but external events drive the story ... in the “present”, Joong-sik is part of a team of activists fighting developers with something resembling guerilla warfare, while in the “past”, he is a horny young man who experiences something tragic. The key to the relationship between Joong-sik and Eun-mo lies in her sister, Eun-soo, who is married to Joong-sik (thus, Joong-sik is Eun-mo’s brother-in-law). Eun-soo does not exist in the primary “past” (Joong-sik hasn’t met the sisters yet) or in the present (Eun-soo is dead). We see her in the period between the two main periods, but we don’t know until the end why she disappeared. All of this leads Eun-mo to mistrust her brother-in-law ... she wonders if he was responsible for her sister’s death ... but their close relation gradually leads to love, which is a problem since she is still young.

Or so I think. As is often the case, I lost track of the plot on several occasions. But it mattered less than usual, because I was taken with the stories of the characters. And Seo Woo (or Woo Soo ... I am not aided by the fact that various sources list Korean names in different order, so she is Seo Woo on Wikipedia but Woo Seo on the IMDB) does wonders with the young Eun-mo, capturing the screen every time she appears. Also, I never got the feeling Park was using a fractured time frame just so she could show off or obscure. While at times confusing, the various flashbacks deepen our understanding of the characters, and so feel central to the film in ways that are not simply annoying. 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)