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.)


film fatales #12: the gleaners & i (agnès varda, 2000)

Agnès Varda has always made films her own way, and her discovery of small digital cameras proved to be a blessing. No big crews, no expensive film, just grab your camera and hit the road. If you or I did that, we’d get at best an entertaining short home movie. But Varda is an artist, and this film, about “gleaners” (people who collect crops leftover after harvest), easily finds room for a gentle look at aging (Varda was 71 when she made the film), as well as an expansion of the notion of gleaning to include dumpster divers and, yes, filmmakers like Agnès Varda.

When I say parts of the film are “gentle”, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Yes, the overall tone is impish, as Varda shows ways to take pleasure in what we can find (“glean”) along the way. But if for the most part she avoids soap-box speechifying, we do find ourselves wondering why, in this day and age, people still need to get food from trash bins. But the gleaners are not pitiable. In fact, they are seen as members of society making the most of what the rest of us leave behind. Whatever condemnation we see is towards a society that so easily produces waste.

We even get the chef of a highly-rated restaurant who does his own gleaning for vegetables and herbs, saying that way, he knows what he is getting.

But what comes through more than anything is the joy Varda takes from the gleaners. At one point, she picks up a broken wall clock with no arms or hands. It would seem useless, but Varda puts it on a mantel in her house, telling us a clock without hands is perfect for her.

Not only does she connect her filmmaking to the act of gleaning, she also connects it to works of art from the past. She is inspired by a famous 19th-century painting by Jean-François Millet that shows peasant women working the field after a harvest. The connection to the post-harvest gleaners in the film is clear, but once she moves to those who are “urban gleaners”, her vision is expanded, as is ours in the audience. We, also, are gleaners. #392 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time, and #12 on the all-time 21st-century list. 8/10. (Other Varda films I have written about: Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond, and my favorite, The Beaches of Agnes.)

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #11: night catches us (tanya hamilton, 2010)

Here’s an example of the kind of film Hollywood and the Oscars ignores, which given I watched it the day after the Oscars means it points to some of the problems with inclusion that were highlighted in this year’s ceremony.

Night Catches Us features some major actors. Anthony Mackie is now known for his participation in the Marvel Universe, but even before Night Catches Us, he appeared in some big movies like The Hurt Locker. Similarly, Kerry Washington was still a couple of years away from the career-changing Scandal, but she had been in movies for a decade, notably in Ray. Toss in Jaime Hector and Wendell Pierce from The Wire, and you’re off to a good start.

The film was the first, and thus far only, feature film directed by Hamilton (who also wrote the screenplay). It played the festival circuit, bombed in limited release, and I’d say its best chance now at an audience is through streaming services (it’s on Netflix for a few more days). When your movie is five years old and you’re still hoping for Netflix, you’re fighting a losing battle. Which means nothing about the quality of the film. In fact, Night Catches Us was nominated for 8 Black Reel Awards, winning five: Best Film, Best Actor and Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Original Score.

It did not get any Oscar nominations. And no one really expects that it would ... a low-budget indie film made by and about black Americans that dies at the box office? This isn’t Straight Outta Compton.

Hamilton tells an interesting story, about Philly in 1976, about characters with Black Panther affiliations in their past. There are tense moments, but ultimately, it’s a character study. Hamilton uses old photos and newsreels to take us back to the Panthers, which helps provide context. While she isn’t avoiding a political statement, it’s not a Grand Message. She is after something “smaller”, showing how the lives of her characters reflect their times, which makes its own kind of political statement.

There is some good acting and some good dialogue. In the end, Night Catches Us is too slow ... even at 90 minutes it felt long. It is the kind of movie that deserves a bigger audience, and at times it feels like a miracle that it even got made. I wish it was better. 6/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


oscar nom/film fatales #10: what happened, miss simone? (liz garbus, 2015)

The most important thing about a good documentary is the subject matter. If you are making a movie about the life and career of a singer, it helps if that singer has something special that makes an audience want to know more. Nina Simone is certainly one of those artists. She made more than 40 albums, starting in 1958. In the late 60s, her albums regularly placed just under the top ten black albums. She had two singles in the R&B top ten. She was a classically-trained pianist. She introduced many rock standards, such as “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (written for her). Her compositions included “Mississippi Goddam” and “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”. Her vocals combined jazz and blues and pop in a unique way, such that you always recognized Nina Simone’s voice.

She also led an eventful life, including her serious involvement in the 60s civil rights movement. She lived all over the world, mostly after leaving the United States in frustration with life there: Barbados, Liberia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France. And she had the kind of volatile personality that would have been ripe for the social media that thankfully wasn’t there for most of her life.

What Happened, Miss Simone? details all of these things, but the presentation is straightforward, even old-fashioned. There is nothing in that presentation to match the revolutionary nature of much of Simone’s art. Nina Simone’s life is begging for a less-ordinary movie than What Happened, Miss Simone? Also, Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, is an executive producer, who appears frequently in interview segments. It’s not that the movie plays as an “authorized” biography, but you wish there was more outside representation.

Having said all of that, What Happened, Miss Simone? shines in its concert footage. During those performances, the decision of the film makers to stay out of the way is clearly the proper move. Simone’s singing and piano playing, along with old interviews she gave, and excerpts from Simone’s diaries, speak for themselves. And Simone is such a titanic figure, she bulldozes over most of my criticisms.

Nina Simone probably deserves a more complicated bio-documentary than What Happened, Miss Simone? But in the meantime, this isn’t a bad way to start. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)