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.)

what i watched last week

Mouchette (Robert Bresson, 1967). When I was a teenagers, I loved riding on bumper cars. I didn’t much care for the rides that went round and round ... made me want to barf. But bumper cars ... you could be as mean and violent as you wanted, in fact that seemed like the point of the ride. My only redeeming quality was if I felt someone was being a bully on some bumper car rookie, I would spend the rest of my ride smashing into them as many times as possible. I also liked to “accidentally” get turned around so I could blast into people head-on. The title character of Mouchette is one of the most glum people you’ll ever find in a movie. Depressed, hateful, all for good reason, her life is a disaster. She goes beyond not liking the popular girls at her school ... she waits for them when the school day ends and throws mud at them. But there is one brief scene where Mouchette is, if not happy, at least smiling: when she rides bumper cars. She seems to enjoy being hit as much as she enjoys crashing into others. I’m not sure what is weirder, that her one moment of happiness comes via bumper cars, or that Bresson allowed his film to show two minutes of joy. I once wrote about Bresson, “Bresson has an individual vision about film, and his films are very clearly ‘his’. He is one of the few directors who truly deserve the title of ‘auteur’.” Usually, this leads me to admire a film more than I actually like it, and that’s the case here, as well. (The one time he won me over was A Man Escaped.) #174 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

Secret Sunshine (Chang-dong Lee, 2007). Do-yeon Jeon does wonders with the leading role of Shin-ae,  a recently widowed mother of a young son. Lee’s approach is deceptively simple ... the presentation is straightforward, but events complicate our understanding of Shin-ae, who begins the film trying to deal with grief, only to find it nearly inescapable. There are similarities to the kinds of torments Lars von Trier loads onto many of his female characters, but Lee keeps things on a human scale, with room for light comic moments. Jeon is impeccable struggling through the trials life throws at her. There is an interesting examination of the role of religion and God in the film ... and they aren’t always the same thing. Lee is fair towards the church members, but he also gives time for more personal relations with God, all the while never taking a stand on whether or not God even exists. This is not a heart-warming movie, but neither is it a chore to sit through (although it probably runs longer than it needs to). #442 on the TSPDT 21st-century list. 8/10.

The Gleaners & I (Agnès Varda, 2000). 8/10.

Bridget Jones’s Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001). 7/10.

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.)

music friday: "all by myself"

Some filmmakers are better than others at using popular music in their movies ... thinking Scorsese and Mean Streets. Some reject the idea of a soundtrack, and many movies feature original soundtracks of mostly lyric-free music.

Once in awhile, the connection between song and music becomes unbreakable. You hear “Bohemian Rhapsody”, you think Wayne’s World. (This doesn’t happen with Mean Streets, which features too many great songs to force any one of them into our brains solely as Mean Street Music.)

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. But watching it for a third time, fifteen years after the fact, can’t duplicate the feeling of sitting in the theater in 2001, waiting for the movie to start, hoping it would be good.

The movie began with a voiceover, which effectively emulated the diary structure of the book. After five minutes or so, the credits sequence began. And even though it seemed obvious the minute it happened, it was also perfect, so perfect that I’ve never been able to hear this song without thinking of Bridget Jones:

That version was sung by Jamie O’Neal. Here is Eric Carmen’s original:

And, what the heck, one of the most honest songs ever written:

I just want a hit record, yeah
Wanna hear it on the radio
Want a big hit record, yeah
One that everybody's got to know

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.)

by request: eye in the sky (gavin hood, 2015)

We had a cancelled engagement to watch a movie, so my wife said we should just go the theater ourselves. She wanted to see Eye in the Sky, so off we went.

The old-timers whose names you recognize (Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman) were very good, as was the acting in general. Hood does well at ratcheting up the suspense, even though for most of the movie, nothing happens, or rather, we wait to see if something will happen. The plot revolves around a decision to send a drone strike into a neighborhood, and there are some enlightening moments, as British intelligence and military, working in two separate places in England, coordinate the action with American “pilots” manning the drone software out of Las Vegas. If you ever wondered what it might feel like to launch destruction from halfway around the world, only seeing your targets on a monitor, this movie will show you.

The military adds what amounts to comic relief, although the point is hardly funny: how much collateral damage is acceptable? While Mirren, a Colonel in charge of the operation, and Rickman, as a General talking politicians through the paces necessary to approve the strike, are willing both to accept responsibility and to attempt to derive “reasoned” solutions, the politicians keep “referring up”, refusing to make a decision until their higher-up has approved. Meanwhile, the U.S. Secretary of State impatiently gives his approval and goes back to playing ping pong in Beijing. (That is pretty much the only time the film seems to take a stand ... Americans are always ready to blast away, Brits can’t get off the pot ... literally in the case of the British Foreign Secretary, suffering from food poisoning in Singapore.) In his own way, Hood won’t get off the pot, either. Eye in the Sky is designed to work as a thriller, but it is resolutely apolitical about what is going on.

Does it work on its own level? Yes, although it depends too much on obvious attempts to tug at our hearts. When the notion of collateral damage seems too abstract, a darling little girl with a hula hoop is inserted into the picture. From the beginning, it is clear that the girl and her family are only in the movie to provide emotional appeals to the audience. The mission’s analysis devolves to “is this little girl more important that the dozens of people terrorists will kill if we don’t blow them all up first?” As one person says, “If they kill 80 people, we win the propaganda war. If we kill one child, they do.” It’s as if the Normandy invasion hinged on whether or not the Allies can move a little doggie out of harm’s way before they attack.

In the abstract, the technology in the film is fascinating. The title is quite accurate ... everything on the ground can be seen, in detail, from far up in the sky, and when a closer look is necessary, a few ingenious (and apparently almost ready for real-life prime time) miniatures step into play.

Sometimes a movie tries to do more than it achieves, and you give it credit for the effort. But I don’t think Hood is trying to say anything big here. If there were a political point to be made, the little girl would be relatively unimportant. But because Hood wants to grab the audience, the girl becomes central. It adds to the suspense, if you like that kind of emotional manipulation. But it limits the scope of the movie as a whole. I am not a fan of that kind of manipulation, but I’ll try to be semi-objective and say 7/10.

music friday: jeff pike's index

“Music Friday” is a misnomer here. Jeff Pike’s new book, Index: Essays, Fragments, and Liberal Arts Homework covers a lot more ground than just music. I didn’t do a statistical analysis, but I think music might have only been the third-most common topic, after movies and books. But it’s Friday, so I’m writing about it here.

I’ve been a longtime reader of Jeff’s blog, which can be addictive even when it riles me up (today he wrote about Dancer in the Dark, a movie I hate to be reminded of). The breadth of things he writes about is impressive ... the book’s subtitle is quite accurate (well, “liberal arts” is on target ... it never feels like homework). I thought the book would largely be an anthology of his blog posts, and there is some of that. But, to give one example, arguably my favorite piece in the entire book pre-dates the blog, so there is a lot of fresh-to-me material.

Index is also an accurate title, for the book is structured in A-to-Z fashion, from A.I. Artificial Intelligence to Neil Young’s Weld. I’m fudging things a bit here, because the truth is, the book literally goes from A to Z ... each letter gets its own short essay to introduce the “chapters”. Jeff had been writing these “letter” posts on his blog for awhile now, and I admit I was puzzled by them. But they make sense here, and in fact he does some of his best writing when digging deep into this or that letter.

As a longtime blogger myself, I couldn’t help comparing this book to something I might put together. What I noticed was how good the longer form pieces are (I tend to write long form only when it’s to be published elsewhere).

And I don’t know why I didn’t think of this in advance, but Index is an ideal bathroom book. The structure invites you to jump around, and the length of the essays are just about right for that environment. So Jeff, you’ll be glad to know you’re in there with Kael and Christgau and Marcus and David Thomson and, yes, Dellio.

Of course, I wanted to read about my favorite topics first. He is quite fair with Bruce Springsteen, writing about “Independence Day” and “Downbound Train”. I liked reading about The Replacements/Hüsker Dü from somewhere who was there (meaning Minneapolis ... I was “there” for Hüsker Dü in that I loved them and saw them several times in concert, but Jeff was “there-there”.) But perhaps my favorite essay had nothing to do with music, movies, books, television, or any other thing that might be called “liberal arts homework”. I’m referring to the long piece, “Strat-O-Matic Baseball, 1985-1993”, which as I noted above pre-dates the blog (although a related post, about the great Robert Coover novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., includes a brief mention of Strat). He captures perfectly the feel of being obsessed with that game ... rather, those kind of games ... I have played many over the years, going back to 1961, but I only had a short affair with Strat-O-Matic. I love reading about this ... for a long time, I found my attraction to the games something I should approach in a clandestine fashion, a feeling that was multiplied after reading Coover’s novel, which is frightening in its psychological accuracy. In the 1980s, the world discovered “fantasy” sports, and nowadays it is not unusual to participate in such games. (I played “rotisserie” baseball from 1987 until the present day, although it looks like 2016 will be the first year I don’t have any teams in almost 30 years.)

It’s easy for me to recommend Jeff’s blog. But I can now recommend Index with equal fervor.

by request: the americanization of emily (arthur hiller, 1964)

It takes a while for me to get to requests ... this one was made in October of 2014. But I get there.

The context is interesting. I wrote about The Sound of Music, which got the amazing (for this blog) total of 16 comments. The first comment offered Emily as an “antidote” to Julie Andrews' performance in Sound of Music. I responded that I remembered seeing that movie back in the 60s but not since, and that my memories were positive. James Garner has said this was his favorite of his many movies. Julie Andrews appeared here between Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, and she was reportedly happy to have a more “adult” role to show she had breadth.

The director was Arthur Hiller, whose career might be called “non-descript”. He directed 33 films, including the very popular Love Story. David Thomson referred to “a dozen consistently impersonal and unexciting movies”, calling Hiller “the kind of director who gets pictures done on time, on budget, without troubling or threatening anyone.” Thomson does praise The Hospital, which coincidentally shared a screenwriter (Paddy Chayefsky) with Emily. In fact, I suspect Chayefsky is responsible for what is best about The Americanization of Emily (I have not read the William Bradford Huie novel on which the film is based). The Hospital and Love Story are the only movies for which Hiller won a prominent award (his only Oscar nomination was for Love Story ... he lost to Franklin J. Schaffner for Patton). Hiller did win various lifetime achievement awards, and served as president of both the Directors Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He made his mark, but his films rarely caught fire.

I said Chayefsky is the reason Emily is good, but that’s only part of the story. Most notably, Garner and Andrews are very good in their starring roles. But what makes the script so good (again, I lack knowledge of the novel) is also what occasionally brings the movie down. My friend who recommended the film, quoting Sweet Smell of Success, said “it’s a cookie full of arsenic”, and that’s right on target. But there are too many speeches that, while full of arsenic, sound too much like soap-box lecturing. (Several of the "memorable quotes" listed on the IMDB are quite lengthy.)

Still, there is something to be said for a war movie that comes out in favor of cowardice. In some ways, Garner’s character here isn’t much different from Bret Maverick. I can see why I liked it when I was a teenager in the 60s. 7/10.

what i watched last week

Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015). Room is driven by the acting. This might be stating the obvious, since Brie Larsen won a Best Actress Oscar. More to the point, though, Room did not win the other three categories (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay) it was nominated in. Room is absorbing, but I don’t know that I’d recommend it to anyone who didn’t like the acting part of movies. The claustrophobia of the room is effectively presented, and the scenes where the two protagonists return to the “real” world are properly heartfelt. But too much of the time, the movie felt to me as a trick as much as a film. The second half of the movie, when the trick is gone, is ordinary ... OK, but ordinary. Larsen, a favorite of mine from Short Term 12 and United States of Tara, is quite good. I only saw one of the other four Best Actress nominees, so I can’t compare them all. But Larsen isn’t an embarrassment to the Academy. Probably the biggest mistake is that he co-star, Jacob Tremblay, get a nomination. He’s at least as good as Larsen. #396 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

City of Hope (John Sayles, 1991). The kind of movie the word “sprawling” was made for, City of Hope has a few dozen “main” characters and several intertwining plots about big city corruption. The cast is equally sprawling ... there’s an Oscar winner (Chris Cooper, Adaptation.) and a few Oscar nominees (Angela Bassett, John Sayles, and David Strathairn). There is a who’s who of B-listers and “hey, it’s that guy”s ... I don’t mean they aren’t any good, only that they are better known for indies and TV ... Vincent Spano, Tony Lo Bianco, Joe Morton, Frankie Faison, Gloria Foster, Tony Denison, Kevin Tighe, Barbara Williams, Joe Grifasi, Gina Gershon, Jude Ciccolella, Lawrence Tierney. It is quite involving, and, as Roger Ebert noted at the time, stylistically similar to Slacker. And the Paul Haggis movie Crash owes a lot of City of Hope. I noted when the latter came out that it might have been better as a television series ... the same might be said for City of Hope, which could certainly maintain interest over a longer period of time, given the large cast of characters. As with so many of Sayles’ films, I liked it but didn’t go crazy over it. (Lone Star is the one exception to that rule.) I think I probably overrated Crash when it came out, and I feel now like I prefer City of Hope, so I’ll give it a rating that reflects my recent thoughts. 8/10.

blu-ray series #30: my darling clementine (john ford, 1946)

At least until his 1960s films, I’ve never disliked a John Ford movie. And I don’t mean to damn with faint praise. It’s just that Ford is one of the most revered of directors, and he isn’t quite that high for me. But My Darling Clementine has always been my favorite John Ford movie, and one of my favorite Westerns of all time. (Rio Bravo is my favorite, with The Wild Bunch a close second, but Clementine certainly belongs in their company.)

The question is, why do I like this one so much compared to other Ford movies I’ve seen? For comparison, my other favorites of his films are The Searchers, Young Mr. Lincoln, and The Grapes of Wrath, with only 7 Women and How the West Was Won being pretty stinky (he can’t be blamed entirely for the latter, of course).

Ford had things he liked, and he was never shy about going back to the well. Most famously, he placed many of his Westerns in the Monument Valley (including Clementine), even when the result didn’t match the “true” story (including Clementine ... Tombstone is about 500 miles from Monument Valley). One can hardly blame him ... it was indeed a beautiful setting, and he made the most of it. Ford also relied on a stock company of actors that served him well over the years. But he had other habits I find more irritating than enjoyable. In particular, his rambunctious comic scenes are always more rambunctious than comic, at least to me. It is this, more than anything else, that makes me rank The Searchers just a bit below the best of the classics.

My Darling Clementine mostly avoids this. The humor is quieter ... Wyatt Earp just wants a shave, and keeps getting interrupted in his quest, and there’s a nice bit where the barber (proprietor of “The Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor”) sprays some cologne on Earp and everyone mistakes the smell for the wide-open spaces.

Another thing Ford loved was dance scenes. My Darling Clementine has one of his best ... it is, in fact, one of the two key scenes in the film:

There may be no sweeter movie scene that brings the classic Western theme of burgeoning civilization on the frontier than this one.

Of course, the other key scene is the shootout at the OK Corral, and it’s tense. But it doesn’t come until near the end of the film ... Ford trusts the picture to lead us gradually to the big moment.

For me, My Darling Clementine features the best parts of a John Ford Western, while minimizing the parts that I don’t like. Which I guess is why I like this one so much compared to his others. #141 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10.