divines, watchmen

Film Fatales #40: Divines (Houda Benyamina, 2016).
 
Divines is an interesting movie, for me anyway, because it takes place somewhere I know little about (French suburb), and the lead actor, who happens to be the director's kid sister, is the best thing in the movie. It's also a different kind of gangster movie, much more a female buddy movie.
 
The buddies are Dounia (played by Oulaya Amamra, Benyamina's sister) and Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena). They are low-level hustlers who want to join a gang led by Rebecca ... with Dounia as the primary instigator, they work their way into the gang. What follows isn't particularly original, nor does the fact that many of the primary characters are women seem to make a lot of difference. It works because the writing is good, because the acting is especially good, because the locale is intriguing. Cinematographer Julien Poupard adds a lot to the power of the film, working closely with Benyamina (this interview offers an up-close look at their work together), resulting in a film that, as Poupard says, colorful but not to colorful. He also mentions the influence of Mean Streets, which hadn't occurred to me but which makes perfect sense.
 
Divines won awards at several festivals, and won César Awards for Most Promising Actress (Amamra), Best Supporting Actress (Lukumuena), and Best First Feature (Benyamina). Promising ... that's a good word to describe Divines, which makes one look forward to the future work of Benyamina et al. But there is no need to wait, for Divines is already a solid accomplishment.
 
By Request: Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009).
 
I've been trying to find something to say about Watchmen since I saw it last week, and I'm drawing a blank. It kept my attention for its long running time, and it was often visually dazzling. (I've read the graphic novel, but it was so long ago I can't rely on my memories for comparison purposes.) But it also wasted Carla Gugino, and while I could tell Snyder was reaching for grandeur and meaning, I was mostly impressed by the amazing mask worn by Rorschach. It's the damnedest thing ... the only thing I can compare it to is the rotoscoped faces in A Scanner Darkly.

 (Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

film fatales #39: a girl like her (amy s. weber, 2015)

Amy S. Weber is new to me. She comes out of advertising and educational films, and A Girl Like Her is only her second feature. The movie starts out looking like it will be the story of a victim of bullying who tries to kill herself, but the focus gradually changes to the bully herself. Weber has said that she wanted us to understand that bullying grows out of pain, that the victim is not the only person who is hurting. Weber does a good job of balancing this out ... she never lets us forget the victim. And she gets very good acting out of her three main performers, Lexi Ainsworth as Jessica who is bullied, Hunter King as Avery, the bully, and Jimmy Bennett as Jessica's friend Brian. (They are not amateurs ... Ainsworth and King have both won Emmys for their work on soap operas, and Bennett has been piling up acting credits since 2002.) To the extent that Weber wants us to feel the pain of the bully, she succeeds.

But there are serious problems with her approach. The film started as a documentary project, where youngsters would go to their schools wearing hidden cameras to show what their lives were "really" like. Gradually the documentary became a fictional narrative film, but Weber chose to retain the cameras, making A Girl Like Her more like a reality show than a fictional movie. The "found footage" makes up a good part of A Girl Like Her, and it is effective. But Weber also creates a character for herself, a documentary filmmaker named Amy, who gets permission from Jessica's parents to film their lives (the high school also gives her access). The secret footage from Jessica's hidden camera is important, but the rest seems squeezed in ... it's more distracting than illuminating. The character "Amy" also becomes the bully's confidant, which adds a creepiness that detracts from the attempt to show us that bullies are people, too. In essence, I never understood why the documentary angle was part of the movie. It allows for the big scene when Avery is confronted with her behavior, but I wish they had found a different way to give us that scene. "Amy" is far too important for a story about three high-schoolers. (The website for the film includes a couple of videos of "Amy" interviewing "Avery", "Jessica", and "Brian" showing how the characters are doing, a few months down the road. For me, it's several steps too far, but in fairness, it seems that many have been affected by the movie and what I see as its excesses.)

A Girl Like Her would be better as an hour-long afterschool special, with the documentary stuff eliminated. As is, it's just an interesting try.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


by request: film fatales #38: american honey (andrea arnold, 2016)

Andrea Arnold's earliest films were shorts influenced by the Dogme 95 movement. The two other features of Arnold that I have seen (Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights) didn't seem clearly attached to Dogme, and it could be that Arnold has moved on. Still, both of those movies strive for a "real" look and approach, and this is even more apparent in American Honey. For one thing, Arnold likes using non-professional actors, which runs the risk of amateurish performances but which also makes for the "real" feel that Arnold is after. Shia LaBeouf (Jake) and Riley Keough (Krystal) are the only professionals I could spot, while the cast is a large one, with plenty of roles for the amateurs. It works in American Honey, for a number of reasons. Arnold gets natural performances from her big cast, which makes the film as a whole feel accurate. Shia LaBeouf effectively buries himself in his role, not standing out because of his acting expertise (Keough stands out, but that is appropriate for her character). Finally, and most important, Sasha Lane delivers in the lead role. Like the other amateurs, she feels natural. Like a movie star, she has an intriguing look to her. You could imagine her moving from acting novice to movie star very easily (her character's name is Star).

American Honey tells the story of a big group of young adults (Star is 18) who travel America in a van, selling magazine subscriptions door to door. It's a sprawling movie (163 minutes) that doesn't seem all that interested in focusing on any of the group beyond the main characters. They are recognizably different, but it seems less important than how they seem as a group ... their identity is tied to the group. Since not a lot happens in the film, and since the group is more important than most of the individuals, Arnold is relying a lot on Star, Jake, and Krystal to justify the movie's length, and she doesn't always succeed. Star is the only character with an arc ... it's not exactly a coming-of-age story, but she is learning about herself and about life as the movie progresses, while Jake and Krystal aren't different at the end than they were at the beginning. A lot of the traveling scenes run together, and the movie could easily have been shorter while still doing justice to Star.

As with the other films of hers I have seen, Arnold films in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Arnold has said that she feels 4:3 is perfect for framing one person, and she is often focusing on one person, so 4:3 works better than a widescreen format. Since American Honey, which looks quite beautiful at times, features lots of shots of landscapes, the squarish ratio seems counterintuitive. But it certainly works for Sasha Lane.

Arnold also makes effective use of music. The group is always listening to music, which makes it easy to offer an appropriate soundtrack to their actions. (I confess I was thrown out of the film for a bit when Bruce Springsteen's version of "Dream Baby Dream" came on, since that song always makes me cry.)

The thing I liked best about American Honey was the respect it has for its young characters. Too often we see teens filled with all sorts of negative stereotypes, in movies that seem designed solely to look down on those teens. American Honey is honest about its young people, but it is never snooty. This is my favorite Andrea Arnold movie so far. #450 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


international women's day

Some of the women whose work informs and inspires me today:

Maureen Ryan, TV Critic, Variety. Sample piece: "‘Sweet/Vicious’ Canceled by MTV but Should Live on Elsewhere (Opinion)". "One of the greatest joys of this job is coming across something around the margins that does something cool, unique, or entertaining. When a show you’ve never heard of does all of those things, it’s like getting a jolt of joy straight to the nervous system."

Sleater-Kinney. All of them, in all of their projects. Special shout-out to Carrie Brownstein for her memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.

I think I was too scared to be open with the fans because I knew how bottomless their need could be. How could I help if I was just like them? I was afraid I might not be able to lessen their pain or live up to their ideals; I would be revealed as a fraud, unworthy and insubstantial. The disconnect between who I was on- and offstage would be so pronounced as to be jarring. Me, so small, so unqualified.

Dee Rees, Director, Mudbound.

Lana Wachowski, Director/Writer/Producer. Along with Lilly Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski, created Sense8.

Hall of Fame: Pauline Kael. "In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising."


film fatales #37: on body and soul (ildikó enyedi, 2017)

On Body and Soul marks the return to feature films for Hungarian filmmaker Ildikó Enyedi, who has spent the last 18 years working in television and on short films. Her prior features played at festivals around the world, and I can't find anything to explain her absence from the big screen. (She won a couple of Best Director awards for her last feature, Simon, the Magician.) This is her film ... she not only directed, but wrote it as well.

The IMDB description hints at the oddness of the setup. "When slaughterhouse workers Endre and Mária discover they share the same dreams - where they meet in a forest as deer and fall in love - they decide to make their dreams come true but it's difficult in real life." Enyedi never shies away from this oddness, but the movie and its actors underplay to such an extent that you don't always remember how much the plot resembles a fantasy. There is a suggestion of magic realism, but it's not like the deer show up in the slaughterhouse ... they stick to the dreams of the two protagonists, and the only real fantasy element is that they are sharing the dreams, and that the dreams are bringing them together.

It's actually a perfect setup for the budding romance of the two, who have a big difference in age (Endre is roughly twice as old as Mária) and share an awkwardness in public interactions (Mária is borderline autistic). You get the feeling the two would never find each other if they didn't share dreams about deer. The relationship itself is awkward, given their personalities and age difference ... in fact, for most of the movie, it barely qualifies as a relationship. The plot devices required to bring them together are rather clunky, and not at all magical.

Still, stars Géza Morcsányi, who had never acted on screen before, and Alexandra Borbély, by comparison a seasoned veteran (she won a Best Actress award at the European Film Awards for this film, joining a list of stalwarts such as Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert, and Charlotte Rampling), are excellent. Throughout, On Body and Soul threatens to emerge as something great, but it never quite gets there.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #36: mudbound (dee rees, 2017)

It's difficult at times to figure out what a director's contribution is to a film, since movies are such a collaborative art form. One assumption I make is if a movie has a bunch of good performances by the actors, the director should get at least part of the credit. Well, the director and the person in charge of casting. Mudbound has several actors who are perhaps lesser known than big stars, but who have a track record of good work. Garrett Hedlund will always be Dean Moriarty to me, which is silly, but he has a charisma that warrants a bigger profile. I may just be lucky, but I've seen several of Carey Mulligan's movies, and every one of them has been at the least good. Jason Clarke is always popping up in things where I first think "hey, it's that guy" only to realize he's more than that. Jason Mitchell is just getting started, but he made quite an impression as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton. Jonathan Banks really is a That Guy (IMDB says he has 167 acting credits). And, of course, Mary J. Blige has been nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar for her work here (she also has a nomination for Best Song).

So yeah, I think Dee Rees deserves praise for the universally strong performances in Mudbound. (Don't want to forget those heads of casting, Ashley Ingram and Billy Hopkins.) Honestly, I'm a bit surprised Blige got an acting nom ... she's fine, for sure, but she doesn't jump off the screen. Maybe that's why it works ... she underplays a role that could go into all sorts of excesses. And whenever she and Rob Morgan (who plays her husband) are on screen together, they avoid sentimentality and are more believable for it.

Mudbound looks great, which gives me a chance to tip my cap to history: Rachel Morrison is the first woman to get an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography.

Rees does a good job of showing us who these characters are. None of them are mere stereotypes.  The history of America is such that we always know things can take a dark turn, and in fact they do ... very dark. But we are especially affected by the darkness because Rees takes her time getting there. It hurts more knowing these people as intimately as we do. 9/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #35: first they killed my father (angelina jolie, 2017)

There is a big Hollywood name attached to this movie: director Angelina Jolie. But Jolie manages to helm a film that has little of the feel of Hollywood. It's easy to imagine a more mainstream approach ("mainstream" meaning "easy for U.S. audiences to watch"), but Jolie does nothing to make the movie easy. The cast is all-Cambodian, as is much of the crew, and the film is in Khmer. We can be forgiven for wondering what this rich white woman knows, what she can contribute to a story that seems to demand a Cambodian perspective. But First They Killed My Father never seems like anything but a Cambodian movie. Jolie doesn't disappear ... it's not like there is no director serving as a guiding force for the film. But she gives herself over to the material. Jolie read the original memoir by Loung Ung and reached out to the author, beginning a long friendship that eventually resulted in this film (the two collaborated on the screenplay). And while Jolie works to let the Cambodia story emerge from a Cambodian perspective, she is not just a typical rich white woman. She has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Cambodia.

The key artistic decision was to tell the story from the point of view of young Loung, who was five to nine years old during the period depicted in the movie. Jolie sticks to this point of view almost without fail, giving a strong, centered feel to the film. There isn't a lot of explanation here ... you learn a lot about Cambodia, but this may not be the best place to start if Cambodian history is your interest, because the insistence of the focus on what Loung experiences effectively narrows what we see. When you are living through troubled times and you are five years old, you might not know why things are happening, but you nonetheless experience them. Ultimately, First They Killed My Father is one of the finest movies about war from a child's perspective.

Special mention must be made of Sareum Srey Moch, the young actress who plays Loung. Like the movie itself, she offers greatness without exactly drawing attention to herself. You can't always see her acting, not because she seems amateurish, but because she seems naturally "real". Without her, the movie would still have good intentions, but with her, the movie approaches greatness. 9/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


what i watched last year

To copy what I said at this time in 2015: “A summary, sorted by my ratings. I tend to save the 10/10 ratings for older classics, so a more recent film that gets 9/10 is very good indeed. Movies that are just shy of greatness will get 8/10. I waste more time than is necessary trying to distinguish 7/10 from 6/10 … both ratings signify slightly better-than-average movies, where if I like them I’ll pop for a 7 and if I don’t, I’ll lay out a 6. I save 5/10 for movies I don’t like, and anything lower than 5 for crud. This explanation comes after the fact … I don’t really think it through when I give the ratings. They skew high because I try very hard to avoid movies I won’t like … if I saw every movie ever made, my average might be 5/10, but I skip the ones that would bring the average down. Anything I give at least a 9 rating is something I recommend ... might sound obvious, but if someone is actually looking to me for suggestions, that limits the list to 15.  So I’ve included links to my comments on those movies.”

10:
The Killer
Jules and Jim
Mad Max: Fury Road: Black & Chrome Edition
The Maltese Falcon (1941)

9:
Don't Look Now
Get Out
I Am Not Your Negro
Le Samouraï
The Magnificent Ambersons
My Neighbor Totoro
O.J: Made in America
Stories We Tell
The Straight Story
Sunset Blvd.
The Thing from Another World

8:
13th
20th Century Women
Andrei Rublev
The Dreamers
Fat Girl
Girlfriends
Hail, Caesar!
The Handmaiden
Hell or High Water
The Host
I Walked with a Zombie
Journey to Italy
Klute
Lady Bird
Melancholia
Okja
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
Persepolis
Real Women Have Curves
The Southerner
Terminator 2
Them!
Three
To Walk Invisible
Train to Busan
Vengeance

7:
10 Cloverfield Lane
2 Days in Paris
The Amazing Mr. X
Bad Kids
The Bare-Footed Kid
Bedlam
The Black Cat
Blade Runner
Doctor Strange
Don't Breathe
Drug War
The Fly
The Happiness of the Katakuris
Gimme Shelter
High Noon
Ip Man 2
Jesse James
Johnny Guitar
Lifeline
The Lobster
Love Actually
Marshall
My Night at Maud's
The Panic in Needle Park
A Place in the Sun
Punch-Drunk Love
Road to Morocco
The Set-Up
Some Came Running
Spielberg
Stalag 17
Stalker
The Thing
To Catch a Thief
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
The Unknown
Village of the Damned
Wanda
Wonder Woman

6:
The Best Offer
Biker Boyz
Colossal Youth
Cop Car
Genocide
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
The Haunted Strangler
In the Heart of the Sea
The Intervention
Jesus' Son
The Mad Monk
The Maltese Falcon (1931)
The Mirror
Rudderless
Shoot 'Em Up
The Time Travelers
The Vampire Lovers

5:
Return of the Fly
A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop
Zabriskie Point

4:
Anything Goes
The Ghost Galleon
The Screaming Skull

3:
The Corpse Vanishes
Final Girl

2:
Godzilla's Revenge
Spies-a-Go-Go

1:
Electronic Lover

Totals over the years:

2010: 86 seen (7.2 average rating)
2011: 125 (7.3)
2012: 113 (7.1)
2013: 110 (7.5)
2014: 127 (7.4)
2015: 136 (7.1)
2016: 82 (7.4)
2017: 109 (7.0)


film fatales #34: lady bird (greta gerwig, 2017)

Greta Gerwig's directorial debut is a confident piece of work, a love letter to Sacramento (something I never thought I'd see). Saoirse Ronan looks close enough to Gerwig to bring the autobiographical elements to the forefront, and the film is populated by solid actors who seem to be enjoying the dialogue they have been given.

Lady Bird is a coming-of-age story, and there isn't a lot unique about the approach. Much like Real Women Have Curves (about which more in a bit), Lady Bird is less about breaking the typical rules of such stories than it is with introducing new people into the story, which has long been a place for young boys to become men. It is startling that even in 2017, the idea of a woman writing and directing an autobiographical tale about a young girl's steps towards being a grown up, is somehow surprising.

There is much to like about Lady Bird, and I don't mean to damn it with faint praise. But the critical response has been monumentally positive. For awhile, it held the record for the best-reviewed film in movie history on Rotten Tomatoes (as of this writing, Lady Bird has received 211 "Fresh" reviews and only one "Rotten"). It is wonderful to see a movie directed by a woman getting such acclaim. And Lady Bird is very good. But I confess I can't see why it has gotten such overwhelmingly positive reviews. Perhaps part of this is the methodology of the Rotten Tomatoes site ... a review like mine here would be counted as "Fresh", even if I'm not ready to declare the movie one of the all-time greats. It's hard to dislike Lady Bird, and the Rotten Tomatoes system may just reflect the fact that few people have complaints about the movie. Not all 211 of those reviewers think Lady Bird is the best movie of all time, but they all like it more than a little.

There is one big complaint, something I referred to when I wrote about Real Women Have Curves. Michelle Cruz Gonzales said Gerwig plagiarized Lady Bird from Real Women, finding the similarities too frequent to ignore. I encourage you to read her piece ("An English Instructor Asks: Did Greta Gerwig Plagiarize Lady Bird?"), along with a follow-up, "Of Lady Bird, Real Women Have Curves, and Revisiting the Question of Plagiarism". I don't think Cruz Gonzales is convincing on the question of plagiarism, but her arguments are crucial in identifying reasons why Real Women Have Curves seems to have fallen by the wayside while Lady Bird collects rave reviews. They are both coming-of-age stories about young girls. They both focus on the relationship between the girl and her mother. And both girls have similar dreams of going to college in the East. But, as one commenter on her blog wrote, "This is not a unique story." What is unique about Real Women is that the story takes place in a Latinx environment, just as what is unique about Lady Bird is that it is not about a boy, as is often the case, but about a girl. But pointing to the similar problematic relationships the girls have with their mothers is not evidence of plagiarism, just a recognition of where family drama often arises.

Having said all of this, Cruz Gonzales and others are right: Real Women Have Curves deserves more attention and a revisit, while there is something a bit bothersome about Lady Bird's impressive critical consensus. If you like Lady Bird, you should check out Real Women Have Curves. But they are different movies, and both are very good. 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

 


film fatales #33: real women have curves (patricia cardoso, 2002)

Real Women Have Curves is an admirable, even necessary movie. I'm tempted to put that statement in the past ... Real Women was an admirable movie in 2002. But things have changed so little that even in 2017, there is something special about a movie that champions real women with real bodies, that tells an honest story of the Latinx community, that presents a working-class perspective.

Real Women Have Curves doesn't always escape the prison of relevance, but for the most part, its excellence overcomes any problems. Cardoso and co-writer Josefina Lopez, who also wrote the play on which the film is based, delineate the class structure under which its characters live, without being too heavy-handed. They are helped by the performance of America Ferrara, who made her movie debut here. Ferrara is sometimes too morose, but that's hardly a complaint ... she's playing a teenager, what do you expect. On the occasions when she breaks through, her smile lights up the screen.

In her essay, "From the New Heights: The City and Migrating Latinas in Real Women Have Curves and María Full of Grace", Juanita Heredia delves into the continuing importance of Real Women Have Curves:

Cardoso cautions young Chicanas/Latinas with these examples not to fall into the trappings of their bodies, which will change over time, to pursue a man; that is to say, rely on their biological role or “spitfire” image in exchange for their intellectual resources. Unlike many past Latina roles constructed primarily by Hollywood, Ana [Ferrara] prefers to follow a different path to achieve self-fulfillment, autonomy, and respect....
 
Cardoso breaks with the visual representation of subjugated Chicanas and Latinas on screen because she presents these women in regards to the politics of the body and mind across cultures, neighborhoods, and cities.
Still, there is something generic about Real Women Have Curves. Perhaps that's the point ... the movie demonstrates the way a standard storyline can be filled with someone other than white people. I can't say I've seen it all before, when the setting within the Latinx community makes the movie singular. But nonetheless, it felt familiar.
 
This is emphasized by a current argument about Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig's breakthrough movie. Michelle Cruz Gonzales asks, "Did Greta Gerwig Plagiarize Lady Bird?" She sees too many similarities in the plots of the two films to be just a coincidence. "I’ll still argue that Real Women Have Curves is a better movie and that Greta Gerwig stole it, colonized it, and will get all the recognition for creating something new, something unique." The problem I have with this argument is that while it is true the movies have similarities, they come in part because of the reliance on a traditional storyline. There were coming of age stories before Real Women Have Curves, and there will be more after Lady Bird. Their singularity comes from placing that storyline within a new context. Real Women Have Curves benefits greatly from this context. 8/10.
 
(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)