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.)


film fatales #17: suffragette (sarah gavron, 2015)

Abi Morgan created the excellent BBC series The Hour, so her presence as screenwriter for Suffragette got my attention. (She also created last year’s series River, which we just started. And, to be complete, Suffragette was also recommended by a friend, so it could be part of the “By Request” series.) This is my first chance to see Sarah Gavron’s work.

Suffragette is based on real events, and for the most part, it overcomes that handicap ... Gavron and Morgan want to tell the story of the suffrage battle in Great Britain, but they are also making a movie, and so the history and didacticism isn’t too overwhelming. The film looks dreary, which is as it should be ... even the best parts of England at the time were grimy, and Suffragette does a good job of adding a class perspective to its feminist core. Many of the main characters are working-class ... Carey Mulligan plays a fictional woman working in a laundry, and the home she has with her husband and son is tiny.

Much is made of the real-life Emmeline Pankhurst, who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union. Pankhurst and the WSPU believed in “deeds, not words”, practicing vandalism, running hunger strikes in jails. Pankhurst is an important part of the real story, and here she is played by Meryl Streep, who thankfully only has one short scene. Despite the hugeness of the topic, Suffragette takes a fairly compact approach, focusing more on the fictional characters than the historic ones. More of Streep would have changed the balance of the movie. Instead, we get a movie about an epic period in history, but a movie that itself is not an epic.

There is little to complain about with Suffragette, which is part of the problem. It is fascinating, even startling, to see the actions of the WPSU, but while the film doesn’t shy away from those actions, it is more a personal story of one suffragette in particular (as can be seen by the incessant use of close-ups, especially of Mulligan). Suffragette isn’t quite stately, but artistically it breaks no new ground, when the subject matter might be better served by some of the near-anarchic tactics of the suffragettes. It’s a well-made movie that we can enjoy with the hindsight of history, but there was precious little enjoyment for the women at the time.

Still, Mulligan is good, the basic story involves us, and if the film is too respectable, a movie can have worse faults than that. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #16: citizenfour (laura poitras, 2014)

This Oscar-winning documentary is a confident piece of work. Not in its subject matter ... Laura Poitras is necessarily paranoid, as is her featured “character”, Ed Snowden. But Poitras assumes she has right on her side. She doesn’t hide her point of view. This is just as well ... the bias is built in.

This is especially important because Poitras is essentially working with Snowden, helping him make his information public. I’m reminded of Under Fire, where a news photographer played by Nick Nolte agrees to falsify a photo to help a revolution in Nicaragua. He knows he has crossed a journalistic line; he does it anyway, although not without some soul searching.

Poitras is inclined to be on Snowden’s “side”. For that matter, so am I. While she is always present, she is never on camera, so it’s possible to forget her role in Snowden’s “crime”. But even if you think Snowden is a hero, and Poitras a champion of the public’s right to know, you have to wonder what parts of the story Poitras is leaving out.

Again, I am one who thinks Snowden’s actions were good. I just wish I trusted Citizenfour more.

On the other hand, just before writing this, I saw a preview for an upcoming film, Snowden, written and directed by Oliver Stone. It is safe to say I am not a fan of Stone’s work. I expect he, like Poitras, will wear his biases on his sleeve. I don’t expect he’ll recognize them as biases, though, and I bet he uses “based on a true story” as an easy way to make that story fit what he wants to say. Which I suppose isn’t that far from Poitras, but if I am a bit mistrustful of Citizenfour, I am over-the-top suspicious of anything with Oliver Stone attached to it. #427 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 #15: we need to talk about kevin (lynne ramsay, 2011)

We Need to Talk About Kevin is only Lynne Ramsay’s third feature as a director. This should not imply that the film has the feel of someone still on their learner’s permit, for Ramsay has very specific ideas about what she wants to put on the screen, and she has all the tools to accomplish her goals. Writing about her debut, Ratcatcher, I wrote that it was “an impressive debut that makes me want to watch Ramsay’s subsequent films.” Kevin is equally impressive, but for me, something is still missing. Ramsay is efficient and vague at the same time, leaving movies that are easy to admire but not so easy to like. (I pointed out about Ratcatcher that I didn’t think that was necessarily what she wanted, anyway.) We Need To Talk About Kevin is, in fact, very unlikeable, purposely so, which serves the purpose of forcing the audience to experience the fearful grating of the relationship between mother and son.

Kevin does need to be talked about, although ironically, no one in the movie ever actually does this. He is another one of those troubled teens who wipe out their schoolmates. On the one hand, we never get an explanation of why Kevin is a psychopath, yet even as the film seems to leave such analysis to the viewer, it points towards Kevin’s mother (Tilda Swinton) as somehow being the cause of the craziness. Whether Kevin is just a bad seed or a product of an unloving mother isn’t made clear, but both possibilities lay at least part of the blame on Mom (from what we can see, Kevin takes after his mother more than he does his father, leaving her responsible for his bad genetics).

Kevin is relatively sympathetic to Mom’s plight. Kevin is a truly monstrous kid, as a baby who never quits crying, as a youngster who refuses to be potty-trained, and as a teenage who regularly performs dastardly deeds. Mom is also burdened by Kevin’s ability to charm others into thinking he’s a fine fellow (Dad, in particular, falls for this, telling Mom “he’s just being a boy”). Ramsay pulls no punches: Kevin is sick.

But from the start, Mom is ambivalent about having a kid. If it takes her a long time to really hate Kevin (some might argue she never reaches that point), she can only pretend to love him ... all of her good intentions are constructed, not “natural”, and you get the feeling even Toddler Kevin knows that his mother doesn’t much like him.

The film seems like a mess, but it’s a studied mess, which is to say, it is no mess at all. As noted above, Ramsay knows exactly what she is doing, and the chaos of the splintered chronology of the movie reflects the inner turmoil of Mom. It also means the film is often confusing ... again, this is intentional ... Ramsay isn’t interested in a clear narrative as much as she wants to show us how Mom experiences her wretched life, an experience that isn’t any clearer to Mom than it is to the audience.

In my earlier review, I cited an excellent video essay by Tony Zhou, “Lynne Ramsay: The Poetry of Details”, which does a great job of showing one way to approach Ramsay’s movies. I remain intrigued by her work, I haven’t yet seen a movie of hers that seems a complete success. #359 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #14: diary of a teenage girl (marielle heller, 2015)

Diary of a Teenage Girl has a strong sense of place (San Francisco, 1976). At least it seemed that way to me, a lifelong Bay Area resident who lived across the Bay in Berkeley at that time. The various steps that led to this film show how tied to the area it is. Phoebe Gloeckner, who wrote the original graphic novel, lived in San Francisco in the mid-70s under circumstances similar to those depicted in the movie and personified by the titular teenage girl, Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley). Gloeckner calls her work fiction, but it is often interpreted as a form of autobiography. Marielle Heller, who also has ties to the Bay Area (her husband is one of the Lonely Island guys who came from Berkeley, and her father-in-law is artistic director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre), was taken by the book and turned it into an off-Broadway play. Gloeckner liked it and gave the film rights to Heller, who eventually wrote and directed the movie. Some of the above probably matters more than other parts, but given the way Heller uses fantastic elements in the film, it’s worth noting how it is rooted in a real place (and time).

What is far more important, of course, is how well Diary of a Teenage Girl locks into the life of a teenage girl. There aren’t many characters like Minnie Goetze, who is recognizably confused about life, and about her emergent sexuality, but who is also brazenly confident in some ways, not all of them “good”. As the film begins, Minnie tells us in a voiceover that she has just had sex for the first time (“I had sex today ... holy shit!”). Her excitement reflects the newness of the experience, but she already seems to have a handle on the situation. Minnie is not going to be a victim.

This is one reason that critic Mick LaSalle says the movie “is not a pleasure to sit through, not even remotely, not even by some stretched definition of the word ‘pleasure.’” Gloeckner/Heller (identifying the specific source for the material can be confusing) refuse easy answers, mostly by refusing black-and-white categorizations. The basic plot revolves around Minnie’s sexual exploits, and she is having sex with her mother’s boyfriend, who is at least twice her age (she is 15). Alexander Skarsgård plays the boyfriend as he is written: kinda lazy, actually and ethically, ruled by his dick and mostly unlikeable, yet even with all of this, he isn’t pure evil ... he is barely a “bad guy”. The reason for this is that the film (and Bel Powley) does a great job of nailing the actual mind of a teenage girl, and the boyfriend, like everything else in the movie, is presented to us through Minnie’s eyes. She gradually comes to understand what kind of person he is, but she is allowed the time to reach this conclusion for herself. It isn’t forced on us by pre-established morals. So yes, the film lacks pleasure, because it makes us feel uncomfortable.

Yet Bel Powley reaches out to us, so that our discomfort is attached to her own, and we can indeed take small pleasures from her growth by the end of the movie.

We could use more movies like Diary of a Teenage Girl, told from a girl’s perspective, honest, with artistic delights in the production, all on a budget of $2 million. (No, I’m not missing any zeroes.) Powley is new to us, but the supporting cast includes Skarsgård and Kristen Wiig in major roles, and Christopher Meloni in a fairly large cameo, and everyone is solid. Given the subject matter, I can’t say this is a movie for everyone, but it is an auspicious beginning for Marielle Heller. #495 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 #13: bridget jones's diary (sharon maguire, 2001)

I wrote about this for the most recent “Music Friday” post. Here is the main portion that dealt with the movie:

In the mid-1990s, English novelist Helen Fielding began writing a serialized newspaper column about a single woman in her 30s working her way through life in London. This column was popular enough for Fielding to construct a novel from them, called Bridget Jones’s Diary. Fielding’s work was compared to Nick Hornby’s, the chick lit to his lad lit. Her book was popular enough to elicit a sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, which wasn’t as good, although it had its moments.

Next up was a film version of Diary. This movie, starring Renée Zellweger as Bridget, was eagerly anticipated by fans of the book, although British fans were upset that an American was playing the English icon. (Zellweger was excellent, grabbing a Best Actress Oscar nomination.) The question was, could the movie capture the blend of self-awareness and humorous honesty that made the book a good read.

I just watched Bridget Jones’s Diary ... I think for the third time ... because it celebrated its 15th anniversary this week. It still holds up as an example of a good rom-com.

It’s interesting to think of the movie in the context of “film fatales”. To some extent, I’m stretching the category ... I don’t know how many women filmmakers were inspired by Bridget Jones’s Diary, and director Sharon Maguire hasn’t done a lot since. She began in television ... Bridget Jones’s was her first feature ... and she didn’t direct another feature for seven years, even though Bridget did very well at the box office. She didn’t work on the inevitable sequel (although she has directed the third film in the series, which is scheduled to come out later this year). Her only other feature was Incendiary, which was poorly received.

But as a manifestation of Fielding’s place in contemporary literature, Bridget Jones’s Diary is a fine companion piece, which some thought was better than the novel. A successful film, based on a novel by a woman, directed by a woman, with an Oscar-nominated performance by a woman ... I’m going to place in within my Film Fatales. #868 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)