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.)


film fatales #19: tallulah (sian heder, 2016)

Debut feature from writer/director Sian Heder, who has worked on Orange Is the New Black. Tallulah focuses on three complicated women, all of them damaged, all of them different, all of them to some extent mothers.

Ellen Page is the titular Tallulah, a woman of the road who was abandoned by her mother when she was six. (Or so we are led to believe ... Tallulah tells us this story, and she lies frequently.) Her past allows for a simple explanation for her problems with committing to others. In fact, it’s a sign of the biggest problem with Tallulah, that there are lots of plot turns that seem to exist only to advance our understanding of the characters. Those characters are interesting, but it requires a healthy suspension of disbelief to get through the movie.

Tallulah is stealing leftover food from a hotel corridor when she is caught by Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), who is drunk and assumes Tallulah is hotel staff. She drags Tallulah into her room, which she shares with a toddler. She drunkenly leaves Tallulah in charge of the baby while Carolyn goes out with a man ... when Carolyn falls asleep in a drunken stupor on returning, Tallulah decides the baby is endangered by her mother, and so she kidnaps the tyke. All of this makes sense in terms of the characters, even if it’s all a bit much as “real” events.

It makes a kind of fragile sense that Tallulah ends up staying with the mother of her boyfriend, who has disappeared. Margo (Allison Janney) is a mess, too, with a husband who left her for another man. She has been alienated from her son (the boyfriend) for two years. She’s been a crappy mom, Tallulah has never really been a mom, and Carolyn thinks she’s a bad person because she didn’t want her baby. The interaction between these three (for the most part, Margo and Carolyn only meet with Tallulah, who is the connector) is, again, too obviously staged for maximum effect. But the characters make it worthwhile.

None of which would matter if the actors weren’t carrying the load. All three are great, creating characters whose flaws are off-putting but whose basic humanity is winning. I love Ellen Page, but Tammy Blanchard may do the best job here ... there is very little to like about Carolyn, but Blanchard makes us feel her overwhelming emotions so we think we understand her.

Tallulah is a decent movie, worth seeing for the acting. It’s not great, but it doesn’t really need to be. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #18: obvious child (gillian robespierre, 2014)

It’s unfortunate, but true, and must be gotten out of the way at the beginning. This is the “abortion comedy”. Gillian Robespierre, who created the original short on which this feature is based, isn’t happy with that description, for good reason, but there’s really no getting around it.

There are surely people who made up their minds about Obvious Child without seeing it, after hearing that description. And that’s why the easy catch-phrase does the film a disservice. Because while Obvious Child is a comedy, and while an abortion is a key plot point, it’s not a movie about abortion, it’s a movie about a group of characters, one in particular, stand-up comedian Donna Stern, delightfully played by Jenny Slate. Robespierre walks a very thin line here, in part by acting as if there is no thin line. Abortion in Obvious Child is both an important decision/action, and fairly mundane. Donna’s abortion isn’t nothing, but neither is it the key moment in her life. Mostly, the movie is a rom-com with a knowing attitude, including the Meet Cute and the ambiguously hopeful ending.

Slate dominates the film, no mean feat when she’s surrounded by fine character actors like Gaby Hoffman, Richard Kind, and Polly Draper. Donna’s stand-up comedy draws on her personal life, in a scary way if you’re one of the characters in that life (her boyfriend at the beginning of the film breaks up with her after she uses their relationship for its comic potential in her act). It’s a standard character, the comedian who is crying on the inside, but as with so much of Obvious Child, the similarities to genre expectations are more a jumping-off point than a template into which to stuff a movie. Slate is almost always adorable, even when Donna is nowhere near adorable, not in a Zooey Deschanel way ... more like Ilana Glazer on Broad City.

Broad City makes for an interesting comparison, because Obvious Child seems very much of a piece with many contemporary TV sitcoms with women characters at the center. Girls is the most well-known example, but it’s also reminiscent of Catastrophe and the newer Fleabag. Each of these shows has its own perspective ... if there’s a genre here, it’s pretty vague ... but Obvious Child would make a fine double-bill with any of those series.

The biggest problem with Obvious Child is that Donna’s stand-up isn’t particularly funny. The second longish stand-up segment is bad on purpose ... Donna’s personal life is crumbling in a non-funny way, and she can’t translate it into art. But her final set, where she talks about her abortion in a way that is on target in terms of the film’s presentation, isn’t any closer to being funny than the earlier disastrous appearance. Yet somehow we’re supposed to see it as triumphant.

Heck, it’s a small indie film with plenty of new talent, engaging material, and a wonderful performance by Jenny Slate. It’s not perfect, but the problems are minimal compared to the film’s accomplishments. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)