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.)

film fatales #9: ratcatcher (lynne ramsay, 1999)

This was Ramsay’s first feature as a director (she also wrote the script). It is an uncompromising film ... Ramsay is an uncompromising filmmaker. (The word “uncompromising” turns up a lot in articles about her.)

Here, the great Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting discusses Ramsay as a poetic director:

The interviews with Ramsay in this video draw attention to something that affected the U.S. release of Ratcatcher: she is Scottish. I’ve always had trouble understanding the Scottish accent, and here, as with the first 20 minutes of Trainspotting when it was released in the U.S., the film is subtitled (unlike with Trainspotting, the subtitles exist throughout the film). I mention this only because I suspect this makes the movie feel different to an American audience than it would to one from Scotland. Subtitles may make a film seem more “arty” ... we associate them with foreign classics. And indeed, Ratcatcher is “arty”.

Since Ramsay isn’t one for explicitly explaining things, Ratcatcher isn’t always easy to follow. Zhou notes that she isn’t necessarily looking to narrative ... it is images that tell her story. But the setting isn’t clear, at least not to me. It takes place in Glasgow in 1973 ... there is no title card telling us this. It doesn’t hurt to do some research after the fact, I think ... there’s a garbage strike going on during the time of the film, and there is a subplot about families wanting to move from slums to newer housing. But perhaps I’m going too far ... Ramsay is able to convey the feel of this through the imagery. Old garbage piles up everywhere, and there’s a canal that looks like it’s been holding filth for a long time. She comes close to being anvilicious with all of this, but she definitely shows us the hopeless nature of the lives of the characters.

I only recognized one actor, Tommy Flanagan, who played Chibs in Sons of Anarchy. He is very good, but Ramsey gets effective performances from the entire cast, in part because she uses their faces to tell their stories, rather than burdening them with dialogue. The main character is a 12-year-old played by William Eadie, whose first film this was (he did not pursue an acting career).

I admit I rarely responded emotionally to what was on the screen. I’m not sure Ramsay was after that effect. The film is dismal and dreary on purpose, which is appropriate. One scene, where the boy and his “girl friend” take a bath together, is charming ... it is barely sexual, just two kids actually having fun for a bit, and there’s precious little fun to be had, so the scene is a welcome respite for the characters and the audience (although apparently it is this scene that provoked cries of exploitation). And there is another scene where a kid attaches his pet mouse to a balloon and lets it go to the moon. The kid is a bit slow, but Ramsay turns this into a lovely fantasy ... we see the mouse with the Earth in the background, then approaching the moon, and finally landing in a colony of other mice.

Ratcatcher is an impressive debut that makes me want to watch Ramsay’s subsequent films. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

film fatales #8: beyond the lights (gina prince-bythewood, 2014)

This is the first Prince-Bythewood film I’ve seen (among her other work are Love and Basketball and The Secret Life of Bees). She wrote the script for this, too, so it’s very much her production. The basic plot has something of a by-the-numbers feel ... young singer rises to the top, struggles with the lesser side of stardom, falls for a policeman, the usual. Toss in a mom who drives the daughter to succeed and you’ve got a movie. Prince-Bythewood does a nice job of showing things from the singer’s perspective, and there’s some good “beefcake is fair play” with Nate Parker, who looks like the former college wrestler he was whenever he takes off his shirt.

Mostly, Prince-Bythewood gets out the actors’ way and lets them show their stuff, which is a tricky move, since the plot turns are often melodramatic, which could take over the film. But nothing is going to get in the way of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who dominates the picture as the rising star, singing her own parts, giving a complex read of a character who is by turns confident, scared, and empty.

Minnie Driver does the Evil Mom with style, and Danny Glover, as the policeman’s dad, is properly subdued. But it’s Mbatha-Raw’s show. She’s the reason to watch. Other than her, there’s nothing special here. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

film fatales #7: jeanne dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 bruxelles (chantal akerman, 1975)

I admit to some trepidation as I approached this film, which runs for 3 hours and 21 minutes and which, to the best of my knowledge coming in, consisted mostly of a woman doing dishes and making dinner. A friend said I shouldn’t be scared, just set some time aside and take it in, and it turns out she was right. I might have taken 4 hours to watch it ... there are a couple of convenient places where a break can be taken without doing too much damage to the film. But watch it I did, and it is very impressive.

So much of what Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte present seems off-putting. There is no camera movement ... once the camera is placed, we see only what it sees until a new shot begins. Akerman doesn’t rely much on quick cuts, either, so Jeanne Dielman is static for much of its running time. Which doesn’t mean “nothing happens”, but the audience is forced to slow down to the pace of the film. At one point, I imagined my wife at a baseball game ... she’s not a fan, she finds it boring ... if she had to watch a 3 hour and 21 minute game, she might try to find something to grab her attention, but eventually I’d guess she’d just give up. You will be tempted to give up on Jeanne Dielman if you decide to watch it. And I wouldn’t blame you at all if you did decide you had better things to do.

But the boredom is necessary, as is the length of the film. The boredom is cumulative (which is another reason why a person might want to avoid it) ... you are more bored after half an hour than you are at the beginning, more bored after an hour than you were thirty minutes before. Much of the boredom is due to the repetitive nature of Jeanne’s life. She makes breakfast, wakes up her son, makes and drinks coffee, sees her son off to school, cleans house, goes shopping, entertains clients at home (she works on what seems to be a part-time basis as a prostitute), cleans up some more, makes dinner, welcomes her son when he returns from school, eats dinner with him, puts him to bed, goes to bed herself, and gets up the next morning to make breakfast again. She is very compulsive, always turning lights off when she leaves a room, then turning them on again when she returns. Her coats are perhaps the most interesting aspect of her compulsions. There’s a housecoat she puts on when she gets out of bed. There’s a coat-length kind of apron that she wears when she’s got good clothes on and wants to make sure they don’t get dirty. She has a coat she wears when she leaves the house. And every time she puts on a coat, she buttons all of the buttons, and when she takes it off, she unbuttons all of the buttons and hangs the coat up. The buttoning gets annoying after awhile ... OK, we get the point, she’s compulsive, do we have to watch the entire process every single time?

And then, in one scene in the second half of the movie, she forgets to do one of the buttons. It has about the same impact on the audience as Norman Bates turning up in the shower with a knife. I worried I was going to spend the rest of the movie wondering about that button, but luckily, her son notices, saying “your button” ... she fixes it, to the relief of everyone.

As the boredom accumulates, our understanding of Jeanne also accumulates. For whatever reason, she is defined by her routine. The film is broken into three segments, each showing us a day in her life, and by Day Three, you know that she is different. But if you started watching at that point, you might not notice anything was wrong at all. The differences are subtle, and the only way you can spot them is if you’ve been paying attention the first two days. I won’t say she’s going crazy ... whatever plagues her, it was there before we meet her, so “going” isn’t the right word. But once you see how she is changing, you realize what came before was far more troubled than you might have thought. Her insistence on routine is no longer quirky ... now it’s a sign that she is barely holding things together.

My favorite line came after the Potato Scene. She puts potatoes on to boil, but neglects them for too long. She throws them out, then finds she only has one potato left, so she goes back to the store and buys a bag of potatoes. When she returns, she starts peeling the potatoes, but she no longer has the obsessive precision we have seen previously. She seems frustrated by the potatoes, she stops and starts ... something is clearly wrong. Her son comes home and notes that her hair is a mess. She replies, “I let the potatoes cook too long.” I’d say it was the funniest line in the movie, if it wasn’t so obviously sad.

Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne is, to my mind, the best and most important thing about the film. It’s Akerman’s idea, and Mangolte has a strong effect on the finished product. But Seyrig is given an impossible task: to portray a woman (who is on screen for virtually the entire 201 minutes) who puts on an armor to prevent us from seeing the “real” her inside the shell, but gradually giving us peeks at what is going on in her head. The differences are subtle ... like I say, if you hadn’t already watched her for two hours, you might not notice right away that she was faltering by that third hour. This isn’t Carrie Mathison, leaping from one side of her bi-polarness to the other, always getting our attention (and ensuring that Claire Danes will always have Emmy-winning material). As Seyrig plays it, Jeanne is more like Edith Scob in Eyes Without a Face. Jeanne’s face is nearly as inexpressive as Scob’s Christiane, only Seyrig isn’t wearing a mask. She’s acting. And as the movie goes on and on, it is Seyrig that gives us the gradual, if minimal, progress in Jeanne’s life.

Jeanne Dielman let the potatoes cook too long, and that was one of the most important events in the movie. At the beginning, you can’t believe you’ll still be watching 3 1/2 hours later. But by the time she over-cooked those potatoes, they had me. #90 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)