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.

 


what i watched last week

L’Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962). This movie, like many others, benefits from the intelligent guidance of someone who “gets” the movie. You could say this is always true, but for many/most films, the pleasures are available from the start. It’s not that we wouldn’t benefit from watching, say, Goldfinger alongside an expert on Bond movies, and some films (the best Bonds among them) retain a lot of their pleasures on multiple viewings. But a movie like L’Eclisse has a built-in inscrutable surface, and that surface makes the movie a candidate for further viewings, perhaps especially after reading through some of the best criticism of the film. One of my flaws as a critic is that I resist works that don’t make themselves immediately apparent. When I hear that a movie must be seen more than once, I get cranky, thinking if that is the case, the movie hasn’t done right to begin with. I don’t think an inscrutable surface is evidence of depth. But I can go too far. You will get more out of L’Eclisse, the more you put into it. Antonioni doesn’t do all the work for you. Having said that, I remain puzzled why I find L’Avventura one of the greatest of all movies, yet find the rest of his word admirable at best, and barely watchable at worst. I find Blow-Up fun, if silly, and Red Desert only worth a single viewing, if that. #106 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968). Revisiting a classic film from a classic director. One problem is that I think Kubrick is overrated, and I think 2001, rather than marking his peak, marks the beginning of his decline. My favorite Kubrick films are Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), with Spartacus (1960) after that. I intended to write about this movie in a separate post, but I think it slides right in to my comments on L’Eclisse. 2001 has a built-in inscrutable surface, which makes it a candidate for multiple viewings. I think the cosmic themes of the movie are perfect if Kubrick wanted to seem deep ... there is no explanation, Kubrick resists explanations, but in a true cult-film pattern, the vagueness only increases the interest of its fans. I don’t like this, but perhaps 2001 is the kind of movie where the absence of explanations is the proper approach.

I was a big fan of 2001 when it came out. We all watched it more than once, usually when high. We didn’t see the “Star Gate” sequence as needing explanation ... we just laid back and let it wash over it. There is something to be said for that kind of response, and it’s true, I never liked 2001 as much as I did when I was young and high.

The special effects hold up remarkably well (not talking about the Star Gate). The enormity of the space vehicles is impressive, and everything moves slow ... I think if they zipped around, we’d see the effects as primitive in comparison to what is possible today. Instead, they are lovely and elegant. The Star Gate stuff is less impressive, but at the time, we were blown away.

I can’t say too much about the importance of the music. Most of us owned the soundtrack album, which we played far more frequently than we did any other music-only soundtrack. (I mean, we played A Hard Day’s Night more, but that was a Beatles album, not a soundtrack.) We’d hear the music, and see the scenes in our heads. Kubrick’s use of music was remarkably on target ... everything fit perfectly with what was on the screen. So when we listened to the soundtrack, we felt fond feelings about the movie, which led us to go watch the movie again.

On the other hand, Kubrick’s disdain for actors seems to being here. Actors like Kirk Douglas and Peter Sellers had such strong screen presences that they couldn’t be held down, and Malcolm McDowell dominated A Clockwork Orange. (One reason for that is that the other actors were awful.) In 2001, the most interesting actors are the guy who does the voice of a computer, and the ones who play apes. I understand that Kubrick is emphasizing the banal ... I suppose Keir Dullea is the perfect actor, in that case. The performances we remember most from later Kubrick are the ones where the director allowed the actor to do whatever he wanted ... McDowell, Jack Nicholson in The Shining, R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. There isn’t a lot of subtle acting in Kubrick movies, which may matter more to me than to others.

If you had asked me in the late-60s, I’d have given 2001 10/10. In more recent years, I’ve decided on 6/10. But, for whatever reason, I felt more kind this time around. #3 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 of all time, above, just to list the next three, Tokyo Story, The Rules of the Game, and The Godfather. Honestly, I’m feeling generous to 2001, but it is not in the league of those other three. I wouldn’t place it in the top five of 1968. (Monterey Pop, Rosemary’s Baby, and Night of the Living Dead come to mind.) 7/10.


what i watched last week

Tangerine (Sean Baker, 2015). A low-fi movie (shot on iPhones) that makes the most of its budgetary limitations. The acting is strong, from the excellent leads Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, to cult actor James Ransone, to old-school Clu Gulager, in his 80s, who turns up in one scene. Baker is more interested in slice-of-life than telling a story ... there are a lot of shots of characters walking and walking and walking (interesting in itself since how often do we see people walking in L.A.?). There’s a new way to enjoy a carwash that I hadn’t seen before, which gets to the main selling point of Tangerine: we see a sub-culture that rarely turns up in movies, treated with open-ended honesty and no condescension. What makes it all work is Rodriguez and Taylor ... even when nothing is really happening (which is often), it’s a pleasure to listen to them jabber away. It’s reminiscent of New Wave Godard. #351 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014). Perhaps it says something that when I heard there was a character named “Gamora”, I convinced myself I’d misheard the name and a giant turtle was somehow going to be in the movie. And when I realized I was wrong, I was disappointed. James Gunn piles on the entertainment value ... for the first half of the movie, if not longer, the movie is a combination of non-stop action and clever dialogue. It’s exhausting. Gunn steadfastly refuses to pause for any kind of reflection, but the action scenes aren’t good enough to carry an entire film, and the dialogue isn’t exactly Whedon-esque. Most of the snarkiest lines are given to a raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper that is only marginally less annoying than George Clooney in Fantastic Mr. Fox. When Gunn tries to elicit emotion from the audience at the last minute, it’s far too late, although Vin Diesel does what he can playing Hodor, er, Groot, a tree that says the same thing over and over (“I am Groot”, with which Diesel does some interesting things). I can think of so many things I liked better than Guardians of the Galaxy, including most of the other items in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that I have seen (including the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and Firefly/Serenity, which does a much better job of giving us entertaining characters with depth who toss around snappy dialogue. #955 on the 21st century list, which is just pathetic. 5/10.


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.)


by request: the last five years (richard lagravenese, 2014)

My friend Diana made three requests for musicals. If memory serves, the impetus was a discussion of non-singing actors taking on roles that required singing. I fear I’ve failed this assignment, probably due more to taste preferences than anything else. It took me three tries to get through Guys and Dolls (Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons), and I couldn’t finish Into the Woods (Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, and a bunch of others). The latter had actors who could sing, that is, it’s a bit inaccurate to call them non-singers (like, say, Marlon Brando was). When writing about Guys and Dolls, I tried to figure out just how far out of my preference zone such movies were. “It’s not that I don’t like musicals ... It’s not that I don’t like 50s musicals, although we’re getting closer ... But I’m not a big fan of Broadway musicals from the 50s that made it to the big screen.”

Like Into the Woods, The Last Five Years is not a 50s musical. But, also like Into the Woods, it’s a stage musical that was made into a movie. And stage musicals just don’t interest me. I’ve been to one, Pump Boys and Dinettes, and that was in the early-80s. The music is not my cup of tea. I know I often stress how much our taste preferences guide our opinions, but it’s especially true here, because I’m not sure I would recognize a good stage musical if I saw it. Let’s put it this way: I can’t imagine listening to the soundtrack to any of them.

So I don’t know what to make of The Last Five Years, at least in any kind of evaluation that is fair. The gimmick, whereby the two people in a relationship take turns singing songs, with one (Anna Kendrick again, as Cathy) working chronologically backwards from the final breakup, and the other (Supergirl’s Jeremy Jordan as Jamie) working chronologically in a “normal” fashion, is interesting, although it barely makes sense if you don’t already know that’s what is happening. Kendrick is a fine singer, and I suppose Jordan is good, too. And that’s the extent of what I liked.

I knew I was in for trouble when it became apparent early on that almost the entire movie is sung, rather than spoken. That’s not a killer on its own ... I liked The Umbrellas of Cherbourg quite a lot. But ... and again, I can’t say the songs were bad ... but they were not anything I would choose to listen to. A day after watching the movie, I can’t recall a single one of the songs.

So I’m put off by the decision to sing songs I don’t care for, and while I liked Kendrick, I found Jordan about as bland as Richard Beymer in West Side Story. I had a hard time paying attention to Kendrick’s songs, but Jordan’s just about put me to sleep.

By the time we got to the end of the movie, which showed the power of the chronological gimmick, I was too worn out to appreciate it. Jamie, who has come to the end of the relationship, sings about that end, while Cathy, who is now beginning the relationship, sings about possibilities. I could tell it was touching, deservedly so, but I was long past being touched, myself.

On the other hand, it only ran for 94 minutes.

I’m looking forward to Diana’s non-musical request, Fiorile, a Taviani Brothers film that has no singing, as far as I know. She has steered me in the right direction more than once on television series, and I liked the one Taviani film I’ve seen, so the future looks bright. 5/10.