by request/film fatales #31: spielberg (susan lacy, 2017)

A friend pointed out that if a documentary about Steven Spielberg makes it into the Film Fatales category, there may be something wrong with the selection process.

There is a lot to like here. The interviews are interesting and, at times, revealing ... Lacy has made a career out of interviews, she's great. And Spielberg is one of my favorite directors. I've always liked Close Encounters the most of all his movies, and I love that it's a "personal" blockbuster. Something like Star Wars is only personal to the extent it reflects George Lucas' connection to the movies of his youth, but Close Encounters is "about" Spielberg.

The film is also long enough that Lacy can cover most of Spielberg's career, from stuff he made as a kid to Bridge of Spies. And we hear from enough different people ... fellow directors, crew members, critics ... that you get a good sense of what it is like on a Spielberg set (while he can seemingly picture and entire movie in his mind, he is also open to suggestions from co-workers).

It really is a solid overview of Spielberg's career, with the interview format (and Lacy's skills, and Spielberg's willingness to go the extra step in his participation) working well to attach Spielberg-as-person to Spielberg-as-artist. I'm convinced now that Close Encounters was not Spielberg's only "personal" movie.

With all of this, I feel I'm being picky to note that despite Lacy's proclamations that she didn't intend to make a lovefest, Spielberg doesn't always stand on the better side of hagiography. Lacy seems to know this. As Greg Braxton noted, "The tone of the documentary is primarily positive — it is clear that Lacy is a huge admirer of Spielberg’s work. ... Lacy acknowledged that some viewers and observers of Spielberg may find fault with the tone of the documentary. 'I am proud of the film,' Lacy said. 'Now I’m just nervous on how people will react. I know there will be those who will feel I wasn’t critical enough. But, hopefully, people will get past that.'" Braxton then adds a telling anecdote: "What matters most to her is Spielberg’s stamp of approval. When he called and said he loved it, 'I felt myself shaking. I was in tears and said, ‘You have to know what this conversation means to me.’"

I certainly sympathize. I am a big fan of his movies, and I don't know that I'd have the whatever to be anything other than praiseworthy in his presence. But I think that admiration detracts some from Spielberg. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

 


by request/film fatales #30: wonder woman (patty jenkins, 2017)

I realized when watching Wonder Woman that I knew very little about the character, beyond the "Wonder Woman!" song in the TV show. I also hadn't thought about any useful contextual things. The one thing that occurred to me as I watched was, why is Captain Kirk in this movie? It really didn't need a man in the role. Chris Pine was OK, and given his character was unnecessary, they did a decent job of making sure he never took over the action or the movie from Wonder Woman.
 
The casting of Gal Gadot was somewhat controversial, although the real controversy revolved around the way Wonder Woman was presented. Did she need to wear such a revealing outfit? I barely noticed, to be honest ... she didn't seem much different than Chris Hemsworth as Thor.
 
A lot of attention was paid to Gadot's thighs ... perhaps because it was easier to single out one body part than to discuss her as a complete human. In one brief moment, Wonder Woman's thigh jiggled, and this set off a complicated discussion about the importance of that jiggle. One Tumblr user spoke for many:

There were absolutely NO eye candy shots of Diana. There were Amazons with ageing skin and crows feet and not ONE of them wore armor that was a glorified corset. When Diana did the superhero landing, her thigh jiggled onscreen.

Did you hear me? HER FUCKING THIGH JIGGLED. Wonder Woman’s thigh jiggled on a 20-foot tall screen in front of everyone.

Because she wasn’t there to make men drool. She wasn’t there to be sexy and alluring and flirt her way to victory, and that means she has big, muscular thighs, and when they absorb the impact of a superhero landing, they jiggle, and.that’s.WONDERFUL.

Or, as Zoe Williams wrote, "Yes, she is sort of naked a lot of the time, but this isn’t objectification so much as a cultural reset: having thighs, actual thighs you can kick things with, not thighs that look like arms, is a feminist act."

What I liked about Gadot was her believability ... much as I love characters like Buffy and Starbuck, it was good to see a woman who actually looked like she could kick butt. More than that, I thought intelligence showed on her face ... unlike some amateur actors, she didn't look like a deer in the headlights. She underplayed the humor, which I found perfect. She made me inclined to like the movie. I admit to being surprised. I didn't expect anything from her. My mistake.
 
And I'm happy for Patty Jenkins, whose career is a microcosm of the difficulties women are up against. Her first feature had an Oscar-winning performance from Charlize Theron. It had a budget of $8 million and grossed $60 million worldwide. Jenkins didn't direct another feature until Wonder Woman, 14 years later. (In fairness, she worked a lot in television, and her work was highly-regarded.) Now she's on track to direct the Wonder Woman sequel. 7/10.
 
(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)
 




film fatales #29: girlfriends (claudia weill, 1978)

In some ways, a perfect Film Fatale selection. Low budget, directed, written, and edited by women, the story of a 20-something photographer and her relationships, mostly with her women friends.

Girlfriends could be remade with Greta Gerwig and released today, and it would fit right in. Low budget, charismatic lead performance, character-driven. More than one writer has noted the similarities between Girlfriends and Frances Ha. Katherine Maheux called it "the best movie Noah Baumbach never made". And then there's the TV series Girls. Lena Dunham has admitted the influence:

[T]his movie feels like my oldest influence, yet I saw it for the first time less than a year ago. I was dragged (because I was tired, not skeptical) to a screening at 92Y by a friend well versed in lost classics who said this was truly my kind of movie. And she was right—from the first shot, I was transfixed. By the complex relationships, the subtlety, the odd comedy that was awkward long before awkward was cool. It was the 1970s of my mother’s youth, which I discuss in Tiny Furniture through her journal entries. Claudia was at the screening for a Q&A, and I found her stories and general manner (tough but sensitive; third woman admitted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; great effortless hair) really transfixing.

It's interesting that a film which feels very much of its time would have such resonance 40 years down the road, not for the evocative presentation of the late-70s, but because it feels fresh like the 2010s.

Weill and star Melanie Mayron have had careers based more in television than in movies. Weill, who also works in the theater, directed It's My Turn in 1980, and then moved to TV, where she worked on everything from Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life to the (perhaps inevitable) episode of Girls. Mayron is probably best-known for the four seasons she appeared on Thirtysomething, but she also moved on to directing for television (her IMDB page lists 50 different series she has worked on). She is especially busy on Jane the Virgin, where she has directed 11 episodes while appearing in ten of them as Jane's writing instructor.

You won't hear me complaining about the value of TV work over movies. Still, it would have been nice for Weill to get more opportunities to create features. But it's good that newer talents like Lena Dunham and Greta Gerwig are able to credit Girlfriends as an important marker for their own work. 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


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.)