promise at dawn (eric barbier, 2017)

Whenever anyone recommends a movie to me, I put it on a list and tell the person that it might take a while, but I will get to it. I knew I was going to see an old friend today, and according to my list, she had recommended Promise at Dawn a few years ago. I finally watched it, and when I brought this up to her, not only could she not remember making the recommendation, she didn't think she knew the movie at all.

I didn't know the director, nor did I know most of the cast, although Catherine McCormack turns up, and Charlotte Gainsbourg is the female lead. The film is based on an autobiographical novel by Romain Gary, and it follows the "true" story for all I know (I kept waiting for Jean Seberg to show up, but no luck on that front). It's a decent look at the early years of a man who went on to some success, and it's worth a watch for most people. Sadly, I am not most people when it comes to portrayals of over-the-top moms, and Gainsbourg as Romain's mother was unbearable for me. This isn't on Gainsbourg, who is fine ... it's all on me, because I can't stand these kinds of mom (hits too close to home, I'm sure), and every time Gainsbourg turned up on the screen, I wanted to walk away from the film. I didn't care if her ministrations helped make Romain into the man he became ... I just wanted to strangle her. So don't trust me on this one. I didn't like it, but YMMV.

film fatales #176: atlantics (mati diop, 2019)

In Atlantics, Mati Diop relies on several genres that don't immediately seem to fit together. It begins with a love story of young people in modern Senegal, places those people within the specific problems of Senegal, deals with family disagreements, and then turns into something all together different. It's not seamless, but I don't think that is Diop's intention. She goes with what she thinks works, and leaves the audience to follow her instinctively. I admit to being confused at times, but I was always intrigued, and by the end of the movie, everything fit together.

Atlantics is the debut feature from Diop, who had directed shorts and had also acted (35 Shots of Rum). Her command of the interplay between genres is excellent ... perhaps even more impressive is the performances she gets from her cast, some of whom were appearing in their first movies. This is especially true of the lead, Mame Bineta Sane, who had never acted in anything before (and I can't find anything she's been in since). She is the center of the film, and she's wonderful, complex, photogenic ... I'd say this was a star-making performance except she doesn't seem to have done any work in films since.

I'm being a bit vague on how the narrative turns. It's best if you come to the movie cold, as I did. That contributes to some of the confusion, but it's worth the surprises it entail. #116 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century (#917 on the All-Time list).

film fatales #153: titane (julia ducournau, 2021)

This is the sixth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 6 is called "Top 250 Horror Week":

Recommended by kubrikonthefist.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Letterboxd’s Top 250 Horror Films list.

The headline writer for the San Francisco Chronicle had the proper amount of hyperbole in that paper's review of this movie: "‘Titane’ is really, really, really crazy — but it strikes a chord".

The less you know in advance, the better, although the basic plot is loony enough that it may not matter what you know. (An early pre-release blurb said only that "Following a series of unexplained crimes, a father is reunited with the son who has been missing for 10 years.") Titane is an example of body horror (Wikipedia: "a subgenre of horror that intentionally showcases grotesque or psychologically disturbing violations of the human body"). David Cronenberg is the name that usually comes to mind when the subject of body horror films comes up, but especially relevant to Titane, the movie I think of is Tetsuo: The Iron Man, which I really, really, really hated. That film deserves a second viewing, I'm sure ... I'd never seen anything like it at the time, and I think that threw me off. Tetsuo tells of a man whose flesh gradually turns into metal. Something similar happens to the lead character in Titane, but something about it seemed more delightfully outrageous than in Tetsuo.

Writer/director Julia Ducournau seems to have put her vision of the film onto the screen, which doesn't always happen, and which suggests producers who trusted her. This may account for the "really really really" aspects of the film ... Titane is only 108 minutes long, but it feels like if Ducournau thought something belonged, she filmed it, leaving us with a movie that is packed with more than I admittedly could take in. That obscure tagline turns out to be quite accurate, pointing us in the direction of the relationship between father and son, while hinting at those unexplained crimes (they are explained in the movie, but I'm not spoiling it here). Ducournau dares the audience to look past the horror to the basic theme of unconditional love. She piles on the horrors, she makes it very difficult to look past those horrors, but without those horrors, unconditional love would hardly have been tested. The acting of Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon makes that acceptance more believable.

Titane won the Palme d'Or at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

our mothers (césar díaz, 2019)

This is the first film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 1 is called "Central American Independence Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from one of the following countries: Costa RicaNicaraguaHondurasEl Salvador, or Guatemala.

Our Mothers comes from Guatemala, and tells the story of the trials of the soldiers who committed atrocities against the people during the Civil War. While the trials are always in the background (and eventually come to the front), the central story is of a young forensic anthropologist who thinks he has found his long-lost father who fought for the guerillas.

There in an inherent drama in this story, and the acting has an honesty that deepens the audience's involvement. But César Díaz, who also wrote the screenplay, seems intent on making a movie devoid of sensationalism. An honorable intent, letting the actors and the narrative convey the seriousness of what we are seeing. But the film is too often flat ... it could have used a little sensationalism. Events unfold slowly, and at only 78 minutes, there isn't much time to get to the core of things. The final scenes feel rushed, and we haven't been properly prepared for them. Again, Díaz is to be praised for treating his characters as human beings who have already been exploited too much. But the impact of Our Mothers is dampened.

holy motors (leos carax, 2012)

Holy Motors is one of the most acclaimed movies of the 21st century, ranked #11 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the21st century, and #285 on their all-time list. Director Leos Carax is an icon of his era. I had only seen one of his movies prior to Holy Motors, Mauvais Sang, which I saw so long ago I hadn't even begun this endless blog yet (I don't remember why, but apparently I didn't like it). Holy Motors has an intriguing, cultish cast, not just Denis Lavant (ever-present in the films of Carax) but also people like Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue. Best of all is Edith Scob, who was an icon herself for her appearance in Eyes Without a Face:

Eyes without a face

In Holy Motors, Scob, who by that time was in her 70s, plays a limousine driver who takes a man on various "appointments", in the manner of Mr. Phelps in the Mission Impossible TV series. Carax loves to make reference to films he has loved, and ... spoiler alert ... in the last scene, Scob's character puts on a mask that looks like the one from Eyes Without a Face. Honestly, the mask in the Carax film seems pointless, but it was nonetheless my favorite part of the entire movie.

Holy Motors is not the kind of movie you come to hoping for a clear narrative, or even a narrative at all. It consists of a series of scenes (of the "appointments") that are connected by the presence of "Mr. Oscar" (Lavant), who is (or may be) an actor. For each appointment, he changes his look (he has an entire makeup and costume workspace in the limousine) and takes part in some event that may (or may not be) "real". Lavant is remarkable, it is true, and a few of the appointments are more interesting than others.

Champions of Holy Motors speak to its visual beauty and innovative structure. And Carax is rewarded for not doing the same old thing as everyone else. Manohla Dargis wrote, "It’s an episodic work of great visual invention — from scene to scene, you never see what’s coming — that reminds you just how drearily conventional many movies are."

Holy Motors is in the time-honored tradition of Movies That Are Not for Steven. It seems that Carax has gotten exactly what he wanted from the film, which is more rare than it should be, and which deserves praise. I can't say Holy Motors is bad, which might imply incompetence, and Carax is in full control. I can only say that I didn't much like it.

beyond the hills (cristian mungiu, 2012)

This is the fourth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 4 is called "Romanian New Wave":

From Wikipedia:

"The Romanian New Wave is a genre of realist and often minimalist films made in Romania since the mid-aughts...

Aesthetically, Romanian New Wave films share an austere, realist and often minimalist approach. Furthermore, black humour tends to feature prominently. While several of them are set in the late 1980s, near the end of Nicolae Ceaușescu's totalitarian rule over communist Romania, exploring themes of freedom and resilience, others, however, unfold in modern-day Romania, and delve into the ways the transition to democracy and free-market capitalism has shaped Romanian society after the fall of communism in late 1989."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Romanian New Wave film.

In 1971, Ken Russell released The Devils. If you've seen any of his films (Tommy), you won't be surprised to know that The Devils was over the top, telling the "true" story of sexual possessions of nuns that result in exorcisms. Russell got the story from a book by Aldous Huxley. Russell includes scenes of torture, forced enemas, self-mutilations, and lots and lots of naked women. The film received an "X" rating in both the U.K. and the U.S., and was banned in several other countries.

That's one way to tell a story.

Cristian Mungiu is a Romanian director who takes his time releasing movies. His first feature came out in 2002, and he's only directed four films since then, one as a co-director. Among those films are 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which is a favorite of mine, and Graduation, about which I wrote, "Mungiu likes to plant his camera in one place for long takes. Often in Graduation, those takes are conversations between two people. There is an intimacy to this approach, although the characters often seem to lack that intimacy between each other." This was similar to 4 Months, where I described Mungiu's tendency to find "a place to put his camera that he thinks is appropriate for a scene," and leave it there for extended periods of time, letting the movie emerge from the stationary camera." Mungiu's film are not over the top ... he is the anti-Ken Russell.

Which makes Beyond the Hills particularly interesting, in that it, too, tells the "true" story of an exorcism. And those scenes are terrifying, but not due to the excesses of the director. We are shocked by those scenes because we see them through the eyes of a young woman whose friend is the victim of the ritual. Beyond the Hills isn't a story of an entire city gone mad, but instead is the story of a woman who doesn't fit properly into the life of a Romanian Orthodox convent. There are sexual undertones ... the two women have been in love ... but as with so much else in Mungiu's work, the undertones rise slowly to the surface. He doesn't need forced enemas to make his points.

Mungiu gives us two outstanding performances by the lead actresses, both of whom were making their film debuts, although they were not amateurs. Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur were co-winners of the Best Actress award at Cannes. Flutur has the showier role, but Stratan is the one who really draws us into the story. I said about Graduation that "Mungiu doesn't judge his characters, but neither does he let them off the hook." This is very true for Beyond the Hills. The priest (Valeriu Andriuta) is not a crazed fundamentalist, and we are led to believe he actually wants to break the woman free of possession. The results are sadly inevitable, despite the priest's intentions.

Three top-level films, with one true classic. Mungiu may take his time releasing movies, but they are worth the wait. #392 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. (Among the other films chosen for the challenge were 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.)

graduation (cristian mungiu, 2016)

Cristian Mungiu wrote and directed 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a film that made the list of my 50 favorite movies that I did some years ago. For that reason, I looked forward to Graduation, although I didn't know much about it in advance. It takes place in post-Ceaușescu Romania, and while the story it tells is a personal one, the lives of the characters are integrated into their society such that Graduation is never just a drama, never just social commentary, but instead a subtle combination of both.

Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is a doctor, honest, respectable. His daughter, Eliza (Maria Dragus) is about to graduate from school and only needs to pass final exams to receive a scholarship to Cambridge. Graduation seems almost idyllic at first, but that doesn't last long. We soon learn that Romeo has a mistress. Eliza is assaulted, and the trauma makes it hard for her to concentrate on those exams. Romeo is insistent on her passing, because he sees Cambridge as Eliza's way out of Romania (another clue that things aren't quite idyllic ... Romeo doesn't want his daughter to live in a corrupt society). She understandably does poorly on the first test, and Romeo decides he will do anything to help his daughter go to England. He sees her as pure ... he sees himself as an honest person in a corrupt society. But then he decides he will have to break a rule (or two) to aid Eliza. Everyone in Romania seems to know someone who can do a favor for someone in return for a favor. Gradually, Romeo is entwined in the very corruption he wants to direct his daughter away from.

Mungiu likes to plant his camera in one place for long takes. Often in Graduation, those takes are conversations between two people. There is an intimacy to this approach, although the characters often seem to lack that intimacy between each other. Those characters, especially Romeo, think of themselves as outside of the general corruption, but as events unfold, they are forced to confront their own involvement. Mungiu doesn't judge his characters, but neither does he let them off the hook. #976 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

a town called panic (stéphane aubier, vincent patar, 2009)

Another movie for "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 33 is called "Current Host Week".

Well, friends, we've reached the end of our journey, and what better way to end it off then with a little self indulgence. I was hesitant to do a list of this nature last year as I hadn't felt I'd earned it and I didn't even have a list like this made. But this year, I think I'm ready. So, take a look at the films that personally drive my love for the medium, and enjoy the final week of the challenge. To everyone who made it this far, thank you for participating, as I really couldn't do it without you all. Have a great summer, and I'll see you next Season!

This week's challenge is to watch a film from my I Like These Ones list.

A Town Called Panic is a fun and silly stop-motion animated film from Belgium. It's narrative defies logic, but in a good way ... you never know what will happen next, only that it will be absurd. It's not chaotic ... you could make a timeline of what you see ... but the connections are dreamlike. Once you quit worrying about it making sense, A Town Called Panic is a delight.

It helps if you don't mind a movie with characters named Horse, Cowboy, Indian, Policeman, Mailman, and the like. The characters are "played" by toy-like figurines, and everything is treated as if it were normal, which I suppose it is in their world. Aubier and Patar aren't looking for the emotional tug of the Toy Story franchise ... they're just having fun.

The movie lasts 75 minutes, and it actually seems a bit long. The looniness can be overwhelming. But, as Roger Ebert wrote, "Because the plot is just one doggoned thing after another without the slightest logic, there's no need to watch it all the way through at one sitting. If you watch it a chapter or two at a time, it should hold up nicely." It's the kind of movie an adult and a kid can watch and enjoy together. And there's even a character named Steven! #964 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

blu-ray series #11: certified copy (abbas kiarostami, 2010)

I’m familiar with Kiarostami because of his great film, Close-Up, which totally snuck up on me when I saw it. He won’t get that advantage again … I’m ready for excellence from the start. It helped Kiarostami that I held that earlier film in such high regard, because Certified Copy is so annoyingly tricky that I might have given up on it if I didn’t have positive expectations. I’m glad I stuck with it.

Close-Up had more layers than a dozen other movies. As I wrote at the time, “It’s all based on a true story … a man impersonates a noted filmmaker, is caught and tried for fraud, and another filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami, becomes fascinated by the story and films a documentary (Close-Up) as the trial takes place. There is footage from the actual trial (I think, anyway), but there are also re-creations of the events in the case. And in those re-creations, the actual people involved play themselves.” Certified Copy, a fictional film, is layered in a different way. The central theme is the relationship between an original and a copy, and whether a copy can be the equal, or even better, than the original. William Shimell (an opera star making his film acting debut) plays a British author who has written a book, Certified Copy, about this topic. Juliette Binoche plays … well, now I’m venturing into the spoiler zone. When we first meet her, she is attending a talk by the author.

The way Kiarostami uses layers here make the notion of spoilers irrelevant. I could tell you what “happens”, but it is never clear if what is happening is “original” or a “copy”. (I know this doesn’t make sense, and it isn’t even a particularly accurate description of the “plot”, but it’s the best I can do without giving a full plot summary with analysis.) Suffice to say that the relationship between the two main characters is never made entirely clear, which makes Certified Copy something of a puzzle movie. But the setting is a lot like Linklater’s Before movies … the two leads wander around an Italian town, jabbering away, and at times they seem to be playacting for other characters who cross their paths, and they always seem to be playacting for the audience … but then, isn’t that what actors do?

Honestly, I’m not sure what the heck was going on. But Binoche and Shimell are great together, and easy on the eyes, as well. #156 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. Best companion piece would be the Before Trilogy.

what i watched last week

The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, 2013). Not nearly as bad as I’d expected from the trailers. The anachronistic use of hip-hop is used sparingly (and for the most part works), and Luhrmann’s success is best stated in the film by Nick Carraway, who, when asked by Gatsby if his preparations for Daisy are right, replies “I think it’s what you want”. I believe that what we have here is The Great Gatsby that Baz Luhrmann wanted. Perhaps this is indeed an “unfilmable” novel. Luhrmann splashes through the big party scenes as if he was born for such work (which may well be true), and he can say that he’s been “true” to the novel … Fitzgerald did give us parties, after all. But, despite what film adaptations give us, The Great Gatsby isn’t about the parties, and what makes the book timeless is the prose, which is more elegant than the parties it describes. Luhrmann does what he can to foreground the prose, at times putting the actual words on the screen, and concocting a framing device that turns Nick Carraway into F. Scott Fitzgerald in far too literal a sense. Yes, Nick is Fitzgerald’s voice, and he carries the same ambiguous love/hate relationship to the rich that the author brings. But The Great Gatsby is more than an extended therapy session for an alcoholic. The cast is variable. Leonardo DiCaprio is fine … his charisma makes the public Gatsby believable, while he nicely plays the moments of uncertainty confronting Gatsby. Tobey Maguire’s job is impossible; he does what he can. Carey Mulligan is OK, but again, Daisy needs to be more than OK. She is a fantasy, not a real person, and Mulligan is too good at playing the real person to make the fantasy believable. The one actor I think was at a disadvantage compared to the 1974 version was Joel Edgerton as Tom. Bruce Dern nailed that role as if he personally had the right bloodlines. I thought I’d hate this movie, and I was wrong. But it doesn’t come close to the experience of reading the novel. For comparison, you could check out one of the earlier film versions of the book. Mia Farrow in 1974 offers a very different Daisy.

Thunder Road (Arthur Ripley, 1958). Disappointing cult film that has Robert Mitchum going for it, but not much else. The seemingly accurate portrayal of moonshiners in the South gives it some depth, and Mitchum is his usual laconic best. But the film drags, and the acting is something less than wonderful. I was looking forward to Keely Smith in a dramatic role, but unfortunately, she was pretty wooden. The film meant a lot to Mitchum, who provided the story, produced the movie, wrote the two featured songs, and may have even directed parts of it. But it’s better when you are imagining it than when you actually see it. For a follow up, try The Night of the Hunter, also with Mitchum, which made #31 on my Facebook Fave Fifty list.

The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg, 2012). Vinterberg gives us a blend of Kafka and Hitchcock in this story of a man falsely accused of child abuse. There is no mystery about the abuse … it didn’t happen … but the ways in which the accusations close in on the accused are frightening and quite real. Mads Mikkelsen, known here for his villain in Casino Royale and for playing Hannibal Lecter on TV, has the kind of good looks that are striking because they aren’t perfect. Combined with his villainous roles, this makes his kindergarten teacher rather ominous, but once we see how he is unfairly mistreated, Mikkelsen garners great sympathy from the audience. I don’t know if there is much more to The Hunt than Mikkelsen’s performance and the creepy atmosphere, but that is more than enough. For another Mikkelsen film, Casino Royale will do. I haven’t seen it, but Vinterberg’s The Celebration is highly regarded.

Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, 2013). Tom Hanks does his Oscar thing … for some reason, he wasn’t nominated, perhaps the attempt was too obvious, but he’s fine throughout, and excellent in the final scenes. I’d like to give a special shout out to Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Danielle Albert, who played a doctor in that final scene. She is so good, you want her to be your doctor the next time you end up in the emergency room. Barkhad Abdi deserves his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, playing a Somali pirate. Greengrass gives us an exciting recreation of events, although there are serious questions about how accurate the film is. But the film takes too long to get going, Catherine Keener is wasted (if you’re hoping for some Keener magic, here’s a spoiler: she’s in one scene at the beginning, and it’s not even an interesting scene). Greengrass and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Billy Ray make nods towards sensitivity regarding the pirates, but ultimately, we get 2+ hours of crazy black men and stoic white men, with the enormous might of the U.S. military saving the day. It’s like a well-made Top Gun, and that’s not a compliment. For a better film by Greengrass, try Bloody Sunday.