divines, watchmen

Film Fatales #40: Divines (Houda Benyamina, 2016).
 
Divines is an interesting movie, for me anyway, because it takes place somewhere I know little about (French suburb), and the lead actor, who happens to be the director's kid sister, is the best thing in the movie. It's also a different kind of gangster movie, much more a female buddy movie.
 
The buddies are Dounia (played by Oulaya Amamra, Benyamina's sister) and Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena). They are low-level hustlers who want to join a gang led by Rebecca ... with Dounia as the primary instigator, they work their way into the gang. What follows isn't particularly original, nor does the fact that many of the primary characters are women seem to make a lot of difference. It works because the writing is good, because the acting is especially good, because the locale is intriguing. Cinematographer Julien Poupard adds a lot to the power of the film, working closely with Benyamina (this interview offers an up-close look at their work together), resulting in a film that, as Poupard says, colorful but not to colorful. He also mentions the influence of Mean Streets, which hadn't occurred to me but which makes perfect sense.
 
Divines won awards at several festivals, and won César Awards for Most Promising Actress (Amamra), Best Supporting Actress (Lukumuena), and Best First Feature (Benyamina). Promising ... that's a good word to describe Divines, which makes one look forward to the future work of Benyamina et al. But there is no need to wait, for Divines is already a solid accomplishment.
 
By Request: Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009).
 
I've been trying to find something to say about Watchmen since I saw it last week, and I'm drawing a blank. It kept my attention for its long running time, and it was often visually dazzling. (I've read the graphic novel, but it was so long ago I can't rely on my memories for comparison purposes.) But it also wasted Carla Gugino, and while I could tell Snyder was reaching for grandeur and meaning, I was mostly impressed by the amazing mask worn by Rorschach. It's the damnedest thing ... the only thing I can compare it to is the rotoscoped faces in A Scanner Darkly.

 (Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

man on the moon (miloš forman, 1999)

I wouldn't say I'm an expert on Miloš Forman, the Czech filmmaker who died last month. I can remember seeing Taking Off a long time ago and liking it, found Amadeus to be better than I expected, and loved One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. But that's only three movies out of an entire career, so I thought to watch another of his movies, Man on the Moon.

I came to this without any real opinion of Jim Carrey, or rather, I found him to be a fine actor at times but was not a fan of many/most/all of his comedies. I looked forward to seeing him here. As for Andy Kaufman, I experienced him the way many in the audience did, as a delightful oddball with an often-cerebral notion of what comedy could be. Also like most of us, I remembered him mainly for his Elvis impersonation and his Mighty Mouse routine, along with his rassling career. The video I've attached to this post offers an interesting comparison of Kaufman and Carrey-as-Kaufman, one that I don't think does Carrey any favors. Carrey is clearly trying to submerge himself in the character of Kaufman, and he gets credit for an energetic attempt. But watch the real Kaufman in the video ... what he is doing is often outrageous, always odd, but many times Kaufman himself is far from frantic. Carrey overdoes the bug eyes, which has the effect of making Kaufman seem a bit crazy. The real Kaufman comes across more as a thoughtful eccentric, and I don't think crazy is necessarily the best way to play him.

On the other hand, there's Courtney Love. Whenever she was on the screen, I couldn't keep my eyes off of her. For all of her overstated persona as a rock star, Love can be a subtle actress, which stands out in Man on the Moon in comparison with Carrey's near-mugging. For me, she walks off with the picture.

As biopics go, Man on the Moon is OK. I'm just not a big fan of biopics. 

 


revisiting five easy pieces (bob rafelson, 1970)

My ability to evaluate Five Easy Pieces is complicated by the fact that for ten years, I worked in a factory, a job that was a bit at odds with my upbringing (and my life after the factory). I didn't grow up in an upper-class family of classical musicians, although my mother was a musician who might have aspired to a higher class of living than we had. And in 1970, I didn't know this ... I became a steelworker in 1974, and it was after that when I really identified with Bobby Dupea. And once you start identifying with a character, your reaction to a movie is suspect.

Easy Rider got everyone's attention, but it was here that Jack Nicholson announced himself as a star. It's his movie ... I'm trying to remember if there's even one scene he is not in. His charisma makes Bobby seems much more likable than he should be. We root for Bobby, we see where his inner traumas come from, we understand his frustrations with the world. The question is, do Rafelson and screenwriter Carole Eastman offer us a dispassionate look at Bobby's world, or do they adopt his attitudes?

Bobby is better than the people he works with on the oil rig ... at least, that's how it's presented. He's better than his girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black). He's better than the family from which he tries to escape. The one balance to all of this is that Bobby is a rotten person, even with Nicholson's charisma, so presenting him as "better" only goes so far. It's hard to find anyone worthwhile in Five Easy Pieces ... Rayette, maybe Bobby's sister Partita (Lois Smith).

The key is the famous diner scene, when Bobby tries to get wheat toast with his breakfast. It's hilarious, it's memorable, it's iconic. And the reasons the scene sticks with us to this day are twofold: we get to see Bobby at his best/worst, and the waitress gets the abuse she so clearly deserves. Except she doesn't deserve it. She's just a poor schlub with a bad job, someone who has to take shit from customers every single work day of her life.

The scene is remembered fondly, but to give credit to Rafelson and Eastman, once you get past the delight of watching Nicholson is action, you notice ... well, as Bobby says to the hitchhiker who thinks he was fantastic in the diner, he didn't get his toast.

Maybe it's the sign of a great work that multiple possibilities present themselves. Or, more likely, I mistrust my own reaction to the movie too much. By the movie's end, if not already, Bobby is shown to be the prick he knows himself to be.

Meanwhile, there is great dialogue, the film looks wonderful, and there are several noteworthy performances, none better in my mind than Karen Black's. Her character is a stereotype, but she runs with it and turns Rayette into a living, breathing human being. And the anti-snob in me always loves the scene during the conversation among the intellectuals where she asks, "Is there a TV in the house?" Bobby's response is too on-the-mark ("Where do you get the ass to tell anybody anything about class, or who the hell's got it, or what she typifies? You shouldn't even be in the same room with her, you pompous celibate."). And the intellectuals are set up to be too easy of a target. But Black's reading of the line about TV cuts through all of that ... every time I've seen this movie, when she pipes up, I think I'd love to watch TV with her.

Of course, if I'm talking memorable performances, I can't forget Helena Kallianiotes as the ever-irritated hitchhiker, Palm Apodaca. You could make a Greatest Hits page of nothing but Quotations from Palm, although really you need Kallianiotes to get it right. Pretty much everything she says is hilarious.

I don't think I'll ever come to a final conclusion about Five Easy Pieces. But I'm guessing I'll always like to watch it. You keep on talking about the good life, Elton, 'cause it makes me puke.

When I feel worst about myself, I often think of this scene ... yes, I identify with it.

 


dogville (lars von trier, 2004)

Is it possible to reevaluate a film when you are seeing it for the first time?

Back in 2004, when Dogville was released, I had a few posts about it, including this one, which quoted Charles Taylor at length:

Women are von Trier's select victims. That alone doesn't make him a misogynist. What does make him a misogynist is the sadistic relish he takes in the drawn-out destruction of his female characters, which we see as if watching flies having their wings pulled off under a microscope.

At that point, I had seen two of von Trier's movies, and found myself agreeing with Taylor, enough so that I didn't see another of his pictures for more than a dozen years. The best thing I could say about the movies I'd seen is that they inspired some interesting commentary to my posts.

Then, I saw Melancholia. And I liked it. A lot.

And so I decided to give Dogville a try at long last. After I watched it, I tried to read some criticism that looked at his supposed misogyny in a different light, kinder to von Trier's possible intentions. The most convincing argument was that he didn't mean to make misogyny look good, but rather to show it for the vileness it was.

For half of Dogville's three-hour length, I was almost convinced. I didn't exactly love the movie ... certainly not like I loved Melancholia ... but it was interesting, especially the sets.

But in the second half of the movie, as the town of Dogville turned against Nicole Kidman's Grace, we saw her character raped. And then raped again. And then, while they didn't show every example, she was raped pretty much every night.

And my opinions from back in 2004 returned.

There was an ending that gave Grace the chance to choose her own future. And, during the credits, as Bowie's "Young Americans" played, we got a slideshow of photos by Jacob Holdt depicting lower-class Americans. Apparently, some people took this as anti-American ... some thought the picture itself was anti-American. I didn't understand the use of the photos in the credits, and I didn't get the supposed anti-Americanism. Mostly, I got the feeling the man who made this movie hated everyone, not just Americans.

What can I say? The arguments are old, now, and I don't feel like revisiting them. I watched Dogville, and thought it was on a par with Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, which is to say I didn't much like it. There is one good thing about Dogville, though ... Jennifer Kent worked on the film. She went on to make The Babadook, which I liked much more than I liked Dogville. #381 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, and #15 on the 21st-century list.

 


by request: the man who knew too much (alfred hitchcock, 1934)

This one comes in the middle of Hitchcock's British period ... his next film was The 39 Steps. I'm not a big fan of Hitchcock's 1956 remake with James Stewart and Doris Day, although it's been a long time since I've seen it. This earlier version seems marginally better, and it's hard to argue with its 75-minute running time. While it's short, it still has dead spots, and the leads (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) lack charisma.

The best thing about the film is Peter Lorre, making his first English-language film (he is said to have learned his lines phonetically). Lorre is given a scar on his face, and an odd haircut, but he hardly needs it ... he's Peter Lorre, after all, only three years past M. He dominates every scene in which he appears.

The Man Who Knew Too Much is OK, but it's not great Hitchcock. As for Lorre, he's better seen in M, or in his best Hollywood films, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca.

Here is the movie's most famous scene, an assassination attempt at the Royal Albert Hall that is intended to occur when the sound of cymbals will cover the sound of the gun:

 


gaslight (george cukor, 1944)

As far as I can tell, the term "gaslighting" didn't come into common usage until the 60s. But this is the origin, this and the play on which it is based. (There was an earlier British film of the play, as well.) Perhaps when the play was written, the idea was that one person was being "gaslit", but in more recent years, it feels more like a communal problem.

The key isn't just that "Gregory" (Charles Boyer) is manipulating his wife Paula (Ingrid Bergman) into thinking she is going insane. It's also that he keeps Paula separated from the outside world. She never has anyone else to offer other interpretations of events ... she must rely only on herself, and Gregory, who of course can't be trusted. She is saved by a Scotland Yard Inspector (Joseph Cotten) whose interest in the case is rather hokey. He convinces Paula that she is not insane, that her perceptions are accurate, setting up a final scene when Paula confronts Gregory (real name Sergius) and plays a bit of psychological abuse on him.

It would have been nice for Paula to figure things out on her own ... the fact that another man has to save the day doesn't make Gaslight a model of female empowerment. But Cukor and the writers are always more interested in maintaining a creepy suspense than in making an airtight plot. The inspiration for Gregory's chicanery (he's after missing jewels) is confusing if you try too hard to fit it into the film's timeline, and the Inspector's presence is especially obvious for existing primarily as a plot device. Nonetheless, Gaslight works, both as a kind of horror story and as a noir ... it's as fun to watch now as it was in 1944.

Gaslight was nominated for seven Oscars, winning for Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White (among the other nominees in that category were Laura and Since You Went Away). It was also nominated in many of the major categories (Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, and Black & White Cinematography), while Bergman took home the Oscar for her performance, besting the likes of Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck. One never knows exactly how the relationship between a director and an actor affects what we see on screen, but Gaslight takes full advantage of the ways Bergman can seem so emotionally committed to a role. Angela Lansbury, who got the Supporting Actress nomination, was making her film debut.

Gaslight doesn't disappoint, and its resonance with our times adds value.

 


by request: hostiles (scott cooper, 2017)

The trustworthy Wikipedia defines "Slow cinema" as "a genre of art cinema film-making that emphasizes long takes, and is often minimalist, observational, and with little or no narrative." By description alone, Slow Cinema would seem to be the exact opposite of what I like in movies. I don't like movies that are "too long" (a complaint, of course, that depends on the movie ... I don't complain about how long The Sorrow and the Pity is). I am a slave to narrative. But when I look at Best-Of lists of Slow Cinema movies, I find plenty that I like, often quite a bit. Like Kiarostami's Close-UpOnce Upon a Time in Anatolia, and Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman 23 Quay Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. So, to make an obvious point, if I like a movie, I don't care how long it is.

But if it's not as good as the aforementioned films, I usually find myself thinking about ways the movie could have been shorter, and I get impatient.

Hostiles is 134 minutes long, and there is no reason why it isn't closer to 100 minutes. I liked the movie more than Mick Lasalle did, but I can't resist quoting him, anyway:

One could say Cooper takes his time, but that would be understating the situation. Better to say that Cooper makes Liv Ullmann look like Michael Bay. Have you ever seen a movie directed by Liv Ullmann? If it’s subtitled, you can watch it on fast forward and not miss a single nuance. Cooper is even slower than that. Characters think before they talk. They think a long time. They think before they ask a cliched question — such as: How did you feel the first time you killed somebody? And then they think forever before answering: Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.

Scott Cooper is after something in Hostiles ... it's not like he turned in a 90-minute movie and the studio added 45 minutes behind his back. He wants the audience to slow itself down to the pace of the film, and he succeeds. He also tosses in the occasional violent scene to wake us up. And there is an underlying existential feel that didn't do anything for me, but which seemed to impress some of the people with whom I watched the movie.

It looks beautiful, and while the actors tend to muzzle their emotions, Rory Cochrane manages to effectively express melancholy (plus, it's Rory Cochrane! In a beard!). But it's awfully long for something so submerged.

 


local hero (bill forsyth, 1983)

I've only seen one other Bill Forsyth movie, Housekeeping, and while I have fond memories of that one, they may be influenced by my good feelings about the novel on which it is based. I get the feeling from reading other critics that Local Hero is a typical Forsyth saga, but I can't speak from experience about that. Suffice to say that Local Hero is full of subtle observations about people who aren't eccentric as much as they are familiar in their oddities. Forsyth takes his time getting from point A to point B, but we're never bored, because the characters in the town where most of the movie takes place are allowed the time to reveal themselves to us. We get to know them, and their town, just as Peter Riegert's Mac, who comes from Houston with a business proposition, gradually comes to appreciate them.

Mac represents a big oil company that wants to buy the entire town of Ferness in Scotland, in order to build a refinery. A standard version of this story would have the villagers being a plucky band who refuse to give in to the big oil company, but while the people of Ferness are plucky, they aren't interested in fighting the company. They just want to make sure they get as much money as possible in the deal. Forsyth pulls this off in an unassuming way. He lets us see the pleasures of living in Ferness, but he also shows how the people of Ferness don't have blinders about their situation. There aren't really any bad guys ... not Mac and his company, not the townspeople who are willing to sell for the right price. It's a character study where the town of Ferness is one of the characters, and Forsyth has a genial feel for all of his characters.

I haven't mentioned yet the biggest name in the cast, Burt Lancaster, and given that he is one of my favorite actors, it's surprises me that I've waited so long. But Lancaster has what amounts to an extended cameo as Happer, the head of the oil company. He is, though, the person who is able to connect the rich oil corporation and the small Scottish town. His eccentricity comes from his love of astronomy. It seems at first that he is more interested in what the skies above Scotland might reveal than he is about building his refinery, and by the end of the film, Forsyth has allowed Happer to have both. It's a happy ending in a movie that never moves too far towards anything else.

Local Hero is a movie that makes you smile, if not laugh out loud. This may work in its advantage for someone like me, who doesn't always enjoy "laugh out loud" movies. #608 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

 


creature features: the incredible shrinking man and zombieland

The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold, 1957). An acknowledged classic of 50s sci-fi. My memory was that the special effects were weak, and the philosophical conclusion silly. But I'm glad I gave it another watch, because I was wrong. Sure, the effects are not up to the standards of today, but they work in the context of the movie. We are regularly surprised by the gradual shrinkage of the man, and while his battles with cat and spider might be done better today, I don't think we'd do any more to improve the excitement. As for that "I still exist!" ending, it's not nearly as dumb as I remembered. Grant Williams does a fine job in the title role. The Thing from Another World and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are my two favorite 50s sci-fi movies, but The Incredible Shrinking Man isn't far behind. It's Jack Arnold's best film.  #874 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 movies of all time.

Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009). This is an enjoyable zombie movie, with some of the feel of Edgar Wright's films. The zombies are MacGuffins ... this is actually a road movie, with Woody Harrelson playing the grownup. All four of the main cast are good (including Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin), but it's Harrelson who walks away with the film as a badass with a Twinkie obsession. There's also a great cameo ... most reviews I've read tell you who the person is, but that seems wrong in a spoiler-ish way, so on the off chance you haven't seen this nine-year-old movie, trust me, you'll like the cameo.

 


film fatales #39: a girl like her (amy s. weber, 2015)

Amy S. Weber is new to me. She comes out of advertising and educational films, and A Girl Like Her is only her second feature. The movie starts out looking like it will be the story of a victim of bullying who tries to kill herself, but the focus gradually changes to the bully herself. Weber has said that she wanted us to understand that bullying grows out of pain, that the victim is not the only person who is hurting. Weber does a good job of balancing this out ... she never lets us forget the victim. And she gets very good acting out of her three main performers, Lexi Ainsworth as Jessica who is bullied, Hunter King as Avery, the bully, and Jimmy Bennett as Jessica's friend Brian. (They are not amateurs ... Ainsworth and King have both won Emmys for their work on soap operas, and Bennett has been piling up acting credits since 2002.) To the extent that Weber wants us to feel the pain of the bully, she succeeds.

But there are serious problems with her approach. The film started as a documentary project, where youngsters would go to their schools wearing hidden cameras to show what their lives were "really" like. Gradually the documentary became a fictional narrative film, but Weber chose to retain the cameras, making A Girl Like Her more like a reality show than a fictional movie. The "found footage" makes up a good part of A Girl Like Her, and it is effective. But Weber also creates a character for herself, a documentary filmmaker named Amy, who gets permission from Jessica's parents to film their lives (the high school also gives her access). The secret footage from Jessica's hidden camera is important, but the rest seems squeezed in ... it's more distracting than illuminating. The character "Amy" also becomes the bully's confidant, which adds a creepiness that detracts from the attempt to show us that bullies are people, too. In essence, I never understood why the documentary angle was part of the movie. It allows for the big scene when Avery is confronted with her behavior, but I wish they had found a different way to give us that scene. "Amy" is far too important for a story about three high-schoolers. (The website for the film includes a couple of videos of "Amy" interviewing "Avery", "Jessica", and "Brian" showing how the characters are doing, a few months down the road. For me, it's several steps too far, but in fairness, it seems that many have been affected by the movie and what I see as its excesses.)

A Girl Like Her would be better as an hour-long afterschool special, with the documentary stuff eliminated. As is, it's just an interesting try.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)