blue is the warmest color (abdellatif kechiche, 2013)

It’s the movie with explicit lesbian sex, simulated but close enough to cause an uproar and to forever mark the film, no matter its other qualities. It won multiple awards, including two at Cannes. It got almost universal good reviews (“a masterpiece ... and the most emotionally moving film to come along in years”). One of the two leads, Léa Seydoux, was a future Bond Girl. It’s three hours long, and only 15 minutes or so constitute the famous sex scenes. It almost seems that there’s no need to see a film like this ... you may feel you know it just based on the hype.

But you would be missing at least one great performance if you passed, and acting always needs to be experienced ... you can’t just read about it. The actress in question is Adèle Exarchopoulos, and she was 18 when the movie was filmed. Her character, also named Adèle, is in every scene. She is a marvel. Kechiche works hard to disguise the fairly ordinary basic plot of Blue Is the Warmest Color: girl meets woman, girl and woman fall in love, girl and woman fall apart, life goes on. The explicit sex makes the movie seem more extraordinary than it is, but Adèle Exarchopoulos is what really raises the picture above clichés. She is completely believable in a naturalistic way ... she carries the film. This is not to take away from the work of Léa Seydoux, who is also very good as Emma. But what makes Blue Is the Warmest Color compulsively watchable is Exarchopoulos.

And it’s a good thing, because, besides the rather mundane plot, there is a problem, and it lies in those sex scenes. Kechiche may want to normalize lesbian sex by giving us a detailed, honest representation of it, but even at its most erotic, there is a feeling that Kechiche’s idea of the erotic is too driven by the male gaze. We are essentially invited to enjoy these two women having sex, and it’s a fine line between the voyeurism that suggests and the ways sex helps the women discover who they are. It’s Adèle’s coming of age story. Her growth as a person, which comes in part from her sexual relationship with Emma, is the key to the film. But too often the sex we see on the screen has an element of “Woo Hoo!” to it that is distracting at best.

Early in the film, Adèle describes a book she is reading for a class, The Life of Marianne by Pierre de Marivaux. “He explores sentiments but gets under her skin.” This could describe Kechiche in Blue Is the Warmest Color. He is interested enough in his characters and their “sentiments” to spend three hours presenting them to us. But his way of getting under their skin, as if we need the man to explain the women, feels off. And there are enough stories about the discomfort Seydoux and Exarchopoulos felt while making the movie to make us question the methods for making the film. (In fairness, both actresses say they formed a great friendship during the making of the movie.)

Then again, directors demanding greatness from their actors is nothing new. And perhaps I make too much of this, since the result on the screen, despite my misgivings, is strong. Right now, I could watch three hours of Exarchopoulos in anything, and if she rightfully deserves credit for her great performance, at least a little credit must go to the director who elicited that performance. #232 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.


beauty and the beast (jean cocteau, 1946)

I had mixed memories about this fantasy classic. I have never thought of myself as a Cocteau aficionado ... I tend to prefer more concrete narratives, if nothing else. I may have confused this with The Blood of a Poet, which is far more surreal. I had given Beauty and the Beast 7/10 at some point in the past, which I don’t recall. The point is, I wasn’t in the best frame for enjoying the movie.

Happily, my concerns were unfounded. The film begins with a brief prologue inviting us to approach the film as a child would. “I ask of you a little of this childlike simplicity, and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood's open sesame: ‘Once upon a time...’”. For whatever reason, I was able to pull a little of that childlike simplicity into my viewing, and it is an effective summons that allows an adult to experience this magical film on something resembling its own terms. It works because the magic world of The Beast is created out of technically simple but artistically profound elements. It isn’t just adults calling upon their childlike selves that can love the movie ... children as well are captivated by it.

Kids can latch onto the simplest aspects of the premise: the lowly sister who becomes a princess, the beast who loves on the inside, the magic that takes place whenever we are in The Beast’s realm. But the film is simultaneously for adults, who are entranced by the interplay between Beast and Belle. The Beast is outwardly monstrous, and at first he seems intent on verifying our first perception of him. Belle is virginal and giving, and at first she sees only the monster in The Beast. But she gradually sees what is inside The Beast. And, more importantly, she never gives in to who she is. Beauty and the Beast is not the story of a woman controlled by a man/beast. Belle is a living, breathing human character, who always tries to be the best person possible. She will act for others ... her plight comes because she wants to help her father ... but she makes her own decisions, with a clarity of mind that is impressive.

There is so much going on in Beauty and the Beast. The real world and the “beast” world look and feel different in surprisingly subtle ways. Jean Marais shows his personality in all his roles, making the connection between rogue and beast long before he turns into a prince. Josette Day blooms when wearing the gown The Beast gives her, but she maintains her individuality throughout. Everything, including the Beast World, is just close enough to reality to seem both familiar and magical.

Between the fairly standard narrative and the way magic is always close to reality, Beauty and the Beast connects with me in ways Blood of a Poet does not. I’m glad I re-evaluated this classic. #250 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.

the great escape (john sturges, 1963)

A perfect title for a movie that excels as escapist entertainment without offering anything more.

I feel like The Great Escape is remembered fondly by those who saw it on its release. It did well at the box office, and we watched it again mostly because both my wife and I recalled liking it long ago. It is very straightforward, constructed in an easy-to-understand manner, with an effective slow build until the actual escape (the film is too long at almost three hours, but once it gets there, it delivers). Whatever liberties are taken with the actual events, the downbeat ending is very much in tune with those events, and perhaps give The Great Escape slightly more resonance than other blockbusters. But it is a stretch to make too much of that resonance.

Bruce Eder thinks highly of The Great Escape:

John Sturges' The Great Escape could easily be the most under-appreciated movie of its genre and decade ... Beneath the fact-based heroics, the humor of many of the portrayals and Elmer Bernstein's rich, rousing score lay the elements of a classic tragedy. While ordinary viewers responded to the driving dramatic forces among the characters ... critics and scholars viewed the movie as an artless, empty blockbuster. They were looking for self-conscious subtlety and obvious artistic touches in a story that required only a straightforward, unpretentious telling. The Great Escape expresses its depth and drama through action rather than ponderous dialogue, and in that sense, was probably too true to its subject for its own good, at least in terms of achieving critical respect.

Eder’s description of the film is accurate, but he concocts a straw-man critic that I don’t think exists. The Great Escape is far from artless, but who exactly needed “self-conscious subtlety and obvious artistic touches”? Movies that emphasize action are not rejected by critics, who, as far as I know, hate “ponderous dialogue” as much as the next person. The Great Escape is what it wants and needs to be, and audiences respond to that. There is no need to “elevate” it beyond its clear virtues.

The “based on a true story” angle is about as close to real as it ever is. There was an escape. Americans were not an important part of that escape, but for box-office purposes, Steve McQueen and James Garner were signed up and given big parts. The most iconic scene in the film, McQueen’s chase on a motorcycle, never happened. McQueen asked for a motorcycle scene because he liked to ride. That no American tried to escape on a motorcycle is irrelevant ... it’s the best scene in the movie, the one people remember fifty years later.

The Great Escape is a fine adventure that holds your attention for nearly three hours. That is good enough. #807 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

the phantom carriage (victor sjöström, 1921)

I spent a lot of time in my formative years as a film major watching silent movies, and while I don’t see that many any longer, I don’t go running in the other direction when one turns up. Silent movies are often lovely to look at. The one thing that I usually find bothersome is the acting style that was prevalent at the time.

The Phantom Carriage was my first Swedish silent film, and that makes for a pretty small sample size. I can’t make any pronouncements about silent Swedes. But based on this example, not everyone was utilizing exaggerated body language and expressions. The acting in The Phantom Carriage is fairly naturalistic, not at all distracting to the modern audience. Sjöström also utilizes a variety of narrative tricks, most notably flashbacks piled on flashbacks, so of course I was confused part of the time. But, given the supernatural nature of the story, that was appropriate.

The phantom carriage of the title is driven by a servant of Death, and both the servant and the carriage are see-through, not of this world. If the special effects seem a bit amateurish today, they were likely quite impressive in 1921, and again, when the effects are a bit clunky, it merely adds to the supernatural feel. Since the cinematography is stellar, the look of the film never disappoints, even when the effects are lacking. “Lacking” is the wrong word ... it’s only lacking when compared to modern CGI, but The Phantom Carriage isn’t a highly-regarded film because of its special effects, it is highly-regarded because of its artful look at existence and morality.

You can easily see why Ingmar Bergman loved this film. Its influence is all over Bergman’s work. This is a good thing when it comes to the use of symbolism and stark photography. But I admit I thought The Phantom Carriage bogged down as it addressed the hoped-for rehabilitation of a drunk. It felt too much like a Message Picture, which is rarely my kind of movie.

Still, The Phantom Carriage works. Victor Sjöström not only directed, but also starred and wrote the screenplay. There is a confidence here that pushes aside most complaints.

#957 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

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.)

by request: star trek beyond (justin lin, 2016)

I asked my wife if she’d like to go to the theater to see Don’t Breathe, and her response was that I hadn’t even taken her to see the new Star Trek movie yet. So off we went to see a movie I would likely never see on my own.

Of course, one of the best things about having a request line is precisely that I’ll see movies outside of my comfort zone. In this case, that is a poor choice of words, for Star Trek Beyond is in the comfort zone of its audience before it is anything else. I am neither a fan nor a hater ... I never watched any of the various series beyond a scattered episode here or there, and have only seen a couple of Star Trek movies. I’ve always been a little jealous of the fans who have such a deep catalog to revisit, but nonetheless I’ve never become a fan.

Still, it’s impossible to have lived through the entire Star Trek run without being aware the basics, which is why even for a non-fan, Star Trek Beyond is comforting. As far as I could tell, the characters are the same characters they have always been, and the dialogue reflects this. Bones and Spock spar verbally, and spar some more, the crew is diverse without being particularly deep (the big deal here is when we find out Sulu is gay, but it is such an innocuous reveal that you might miss it if you weren’t looking for it). There’s action, and dialogue that passes for snappy. Hardcore fans can probably list the various ways this movie is different from the others, but I doubt there’s too much to say about that topic. In this, they are rather like James Bond movies ... some are better than others, but they all follow a template.

The people in the theater seemed happy enough, laughing at the familiar dialogue, clapping at the end of the movie. Perhaps they were moved. There was a brief shot near the end of a photo of the original actors, and it was a clear attempt to bring a tear or two to the eyes of the fans. Me, my favorite parts came when they somehow managed to work Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys into the mix. Simon Pegg not only played Scotty (“played Scotty” being sufficient to explain everything about the character), but co-wrote the script, and I’ll be damned if I can see any of Pegg in the finished product. I can say that I’d rather re-watch Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz than return to ST: Beyond.

So file Star Trek Beyond under “Not for Steven” and leave it at that. 6/10.

zazie dans le métro (louis malle, 1960)

I am not up to date on my Louis Malle. I saw a couple of his art-house successes without actually remembering them. When I was a kid, I saw Viva Maria! at the local theater. And I am a big fan of Atlantic City, especially Burt Lancaster, speaking one of my all-time favorite movie lines: “The Atlantic Ocean was something, then. Yes, you should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days.”

Zazie dans le métro is very much of a piece with other French New Wave movies of the time, and serves as a good reminder that Malle was a part of that movement, albeit more peripheral than central. This is certainly his most New Wave-ish film, at least within my limited knowledge of his work. The location shooting in Paris, the jump cuts and generally carefree tone, the use of actors who, to me at least, were lesser known (most notably young Catherine Demongeot in the title role), all give Zazie an off-the-cuff feel. Even Philippe Noiret, who eventually became known worldwide, was at the beginning of his career in this movie.

The film’s tone marks it off from what an American version might look like. Zazie is an eleven-year-old girl spending a weekend in Paris with her uncle, and she wastes no time getting into trouble. It’s a time-honored tradition on sitcoms to focus on a young rapscallion who is full of life but ultimately lovable, but Zazie is pretty much a brat, more like Junior the Mean Widdle Kid than Arnold from The Facts of Life. She may not be intentionally harmful, but she is aware beyond her years of what grownups want to do with her, and she’s not having it. She’s the perfect character for the New Wave style, anarchic, and the action is filmed like a cartoon rather than a realistic movie. She’s The Road Runner, and everyone else is The Coyote.

The film runs out of steam eventually, even though it’s only 93 minutes, but Demongeot is admittedly irresistible ... more than once, she reminded me of my grandson. Remarkably, it is not on the TSPDT Top 1000 list. 8/10.

picnic at hanging rock (peter weir, 1975)

Reminiscent of L’Avventura in both the mysterious disappearance of a character(s) and the ambiguous non-resolution of the mystery at film’s end. The similarities don’t reach too far, though. By the end of L’Avventura, everyone has given up wondering about the missing woman, while in Picnic at Hanging Rock, the mystery still matters after you leave the theater. Both disappearances serve as MacGuffins, in that the movies aren’t really “about” the mysteries. In Antonioni’s film, the disappearance is just a way to introduce the main characters, whose alienation is the central theme of the movie. In Hanging Rock, the disappearances distract us, at least a little, from the subtext that drives the picture. Weir relies on cinematography and the soundtrack to create an almost other-worldly ambience, such that the mystery feels ominous, and there is always the possibility that something extra-ordinary is behind the events. But what is truly unsettling is the undercurrent of sexual repression, between the schoolgirls, but also between the girls and the school’s headmistress. There are a couple of young men who also have their eyes on the schoolgirls, but you never get the feeling they’ve got a chance. Nothing is overt ... it’s like watching These Three, the Children’s Hour adaptation from the 30s where lesbianism is transformed into heterosexual infidelity. Meanwhile, Anne-Louise Lambert, as one of the missing girls, Miranda, is nearly angelic. Part of this is Lambert’s performance (and, to be honest, her looks), but just as important is the way she is photographed, as if she is simultaneously of this world and outside of it. You can see why people would obsess about her. #586 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.