film fatales #193: fire of love (sara dosa, 2022)

This is the eighteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 18 is called "Golden Brick Week":

My (Adam Graff’s) favorite podcast about movies is Filmspotting (𝖘𝖊𝖙𝖍𝖊𝖓𝖘𝖙𝖊𝖎𝖓: Me too!). For me, the hosts have the perfect blend of genuine insight in their reviews and top five lists to participatory fun like their Massacre Theater segment where listeners guess movies based on their very bad acting of a scene to their March Madness when listeners spend the month determining things like who the best director working today is or what is the best movie of the 90s. The hosts are affable and thoughtful and stay focused on films throughout the podcast, without sacrificing a personal touch.

One feature of Filmspottting is their annual Golden Brick Award, intended to honor underseen films, which is presented to the best film of the year that is not mainstream, made by a relatively new filmmaker, and that shows a clear directorial vision or artistic ambition. This week, watch a movie that was nominated for a Golden Brick from Filmspotting’s own Letterboxd list and give them a listen if you haven’t already.

Fire of Love is an Oscar-nominated documentary about two French "volcanologists", Katia and Maurice Krafft, and their relationship with each other and with volcanoes. Both are fascinated with the latter ... one could say obsessed ... they make a fine team because they share that fascination. The "love" of the title refers to their love for each other ... the "fire of love" adds volcanoes to the picture. It feels like something Werner Herzog might film, and in fact, Herzog released his own documentary about the Kraffts, The Fire Within, that same year. I haven't seen it, but I have seen other Herzog documentaries, and he usually manages to work himself into the situations he is presenting. Sara Dosa, working with writers Shane Boris, Erin Casper, and Jocelyne Chaput (with Casper and Chaput also serving as editors) artfully hide themselves ... the film is almost entirely archival footage, much taken by the Kraffts, with no after-the-fact interviews. It feels as you are watching as if the Kraffts are the ones who made the movie, and I imagine if they could see it, they'd be pleased (they ended up dying in 1991 during a volcano eruption).

But Fire of Love also features a running narration, read by Miranda July. I found nothing wrong with July's reading, but the narration does tend to impose a direction to what we see. Between that and the editing, you come to understand that despite being at the center of the picture, the Kraffts are not the real authors of this film. Dosa hides herself, but in plain sight.

The Kraffts are very interesting, and their love of their work together helps to overcome the moments (and there are many) when you wonder just what these crazy people are going to do next. Dosa tries hard not to pass judgement on the couple, and mostly succeeds. I found myself wavering at times, but the Kraffts kind of invite that. Also, we get to watch from the comforts of the theater or our living room, while the Kraffts are often right next to the flowing lava. We risk nothing by watching the movie ... the Kraffts risk everything on a regular basis, and are aware of the possibilities. They just can't deny what they see as the beauty of the earth. And their footage offers remarkable evidence that the earth really is alive.

infinity pool (brandon cronenberg, 2023)

This is the eighth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 8 is called "Body Horror Week":

Prepare to be disgusted. Continuing this month of horror, let’s explore one of the subgenres that can really disturb and elicit a visceral reaction. Body horror features thrills based on the distortion, violation, and/or mutilation of the human body and has the power to make your skin crawl. From the godfather of Body Horror, David Cronenberg, to recent visionaries like his son, Brandon Cronenberg, and Julia Ducournau, there’s no shortage of filmmakers who use this subgenre to explore what it means to be human, to have corporal forms we can’t always control, and to have an identity that is based, at least partially, on how we and others perceive our physical selves.

This week buckle up for a wild ride and maybe don’t plan on eating dinner with your movie as you watch a body horror. Here’s a list from Maxvayne to help you out. The provocative imagery of Body Horror can help us think deeper about ourselves, but since this subgenre can also involve very real physiological reactions we respect anyone who cannot stomach these kinds of movies and offer up Body Swap movies as a lighter alternative with this list.

The list we picked from included lots of movies I really don't care for: Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tusk come to mind. I do like some of the films, with the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers at the top, but I realize I don't actually think of that movie as "body horror". The closest blend of "I liked it a lot" and "I'd call it body horror" is Ginger Snaps. My favorite movie by "the godfather of Body Horror, David Cronenberg", was A History of Violence, which wasn't body horror and didn't make the list. It's rare that I enjoy body horror movies, which is a good reason to take part in challenges like this, which expand your horizons.

So I feel like a good boy because I made it through Infinity Pool. But I didn't like it much. I'm not sure I was supposed to "like" it, anyway. Admire it, think about it, sure, but like? There's some intriguing acting, especially from Mia Goth, and the gradual revelation of the plot is well-handled. But the movie never grabbed me, and with an over-the-top film like this, being grabbed seems like the point. So chalk this up to my dislike of the genre.

geezer cinema: the creator (gareth edwards, 2023)

Not much to say about this one. I was disappointed, in that Gareth Edwards has done well so far. His first feature, the cheapie Monsters, was a revelation, his Godzilla was even better, and Rogue One was good for a Star Wars movie. The Creator isn't a total failure ... many people have noted how much Edwards got out of his low-for-blockbuster $80 million budget, but he'd shown his skills in that area when he made Monsters for under $1 million, doing FX on his computer. John David Washington has shown that he can be a solid lead in a big movie ... I just wish those movies were better. The real find is Madeleine Yuna Voyles in her first movie ... she was 7 years old during filming, she is possibly the best thing about The Creator.

The biggest problem is that the plot of The Creator lacks the kind of internal logic that allows us suspend disbelief. I don't always like videos like the one that follows ... sometimes I think it's too easy to just pick at things. But I can't really argue with this one (spoilers galore):

blackberry (matt johnson, 2023)

A couple of months ago, Amazon Studios released Air, which told the story of how Nike convinced Michael Jordan to sign a shoe contract with them. The film was directed by Oscar-winner Ben Affleck, who also played Phil Knight, the head of Nike. The budget was reported at around $90 million dollars, with Oscar-winner Matt Damon in the leading role, and Oscar-winner Viola Davis as Jordan's mother.

At about the same time, a Canadian based-on-true-life film, BlackBerry, was released. It told of the rise and fall of the company that created the BlackBerry. The film was directed by Matt Johnson (The Dirties), who also played the co-founder of the company that gave us the BlackBerry. The budget was reported at around $5 million dollars, and besides Johnson, starred Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton.

There's probably no point to this, but it strikes me as significant that an American based-on-fact film got a decent-sized budget and some Oscar-winning stars, while a Canadian based-on-fact film got a tiny budget and some strong but lesser-known actors. Granted, Michael Jordan has a huge presence in popular culture to this day, while no one remembers the BlackBerry. But there are ways in which Matt Johnson has some freedom that perhaps Ben Affleck did not, precisely because he wasn't working with $90 million of Amazon's money.

One thing I noted at the time about Air is that while Jordan gets our attention, he's largely absent from the film, which is about a company that makes shoes. Meanwhile, most of us likely couldn't tell you the names of the key players in the story of BlackBerry, but neither is there a hole in the film because Michael Jordan was unavailable.

Baruchel and Howerton are excellent, although Baruchel's hair is odd in ways I'm not sure exactly matches the hair of the person he is playing. After seeing this and The Dirties, I can say that for me a little of Matt Johnson's acting goes a long way, and he's pretty irritating here. But that irritation is appropriate ... while Baruchel plays Mike Lazaridis, who came up with the BlackBerry, and Howerton plays Jim Balsillie, the high-powered executive who makes the company thrive, Johnson plays the guy who was with his friend Mike from the beginning, and sees that Balsillie is taking his friend in an unforeseen direction.

BlackBerry moves right along ... it's an engrossing tale, and probably close enough to the truth to pass. In its own way, it's as good a film as Air, despite (or because of) the resources available to the film makers.

geezer cinema: wild rose (tom harper, 2018)

I am a fan of acting. Even a poor movie can feel worthwhile if there is a good performance to be seen. Oddly, though, I don't usually decide to watch a movie because one of my favorite actors is in it (and I have a lot of favorite actors, so many that it's something of a running joke at our house).

I have liked Jessie Buckley in everything I have seen her in. I thought she was a saving grace in I'm Thinking of Ending Things, a movie I didn't like. She was one of the best parts of the fine movie The Lost Daughter, and even better in the even more fine movie Women Talking. She was fun in the TV series Fargo. What I didn't know is that she is also a singer. Not a singer like, say, Gwyneth Paltrow, who is an actor with a fine voice, but a singer who first drew attention at the age of 18 when she was runner-up on a British talent show contest to see who would play Nancy in a revival of Oliver!:

I have watched the following clip on YouTube more times than I can count, and it's the reason why, although I was already a fan of Buckley, I decided to watch a movie she starred in, without knowing anything about the film:

Wild Rose tells the story of a young singer from Glasgow with a love of country music. She's got problems ... two kids before she was 18, a year in jail for a heroin-related crime. Her dream is to go to Nashville to hit it big. The film is a bit of an oddity ... the home life plays like kitchen sink realism at times, but the story is fairly generic. As with most such movies, it rises and falls on the performance of the lead, and Buckley is more than up to it. It's the kind of role that people call star-making, and certainly she's been busy in the subsequent five years, including winning a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical last year for her work as Sally Bowles in a West End revival of Cabaret. I wouldn't say she's a household name, yet, but hey, she's only 33. Meanwhile, kudos to director Tom Harper, writer Nicole Taylor, and the legendary Julie Walters, among others.

film fatales #159: take this waltz (sarah polley, 2011)

Thought I'd check out the only Sarah Polley movie I'd missed, ahead of hopefully seeing Women Talking tomorrow. It's my least favorite of the three I've seen, which is not an insult ... I think Stories We Tell is an outright classic, and Away from Her was also very good. Take This Waltz has a lot going for it, starting with Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, and Sarah Silverman. Polley paints a loving picture of Toronto (Luc Montpellier is the cinematographer) ... Polley idealizes Toronto, and the summer setting gives us a different Canada than we're used to (people have fans on in their homes because it's hot). The film is an effective rom-com (or better, rom-drama).

But there's one big problem, at least for me. Take This Waltz is about a married couple, Margot and Lou, still in love, but together just long enough to reveal a few empty spaces. The wife cute-meets a man who lives across the street, and much of the movie is in the will-they/won't they vein. The problem is that man, played by Luke Kirby, struck me as a creepy stalker more than a possible love partner. Williams does a great job of expressing the yearnings of her character ... I want her to find happiness. But I never wanted her to connect with this creepy guy.

I don't know who to blame. Polley, for creating the character? Kirby, for portraying the character? Me, for disliking the character? All I know is, while I understood why Margot was drifting away from Lou, she could do a lot better than Mr. Stalker Guy. (Not to mention, he works as a pedicab driver in Toronto, an excess of cute that never worked.)

mommy (xavier dolan, 2014)

Well, that was an experience. Mommy is fascinating, excruciating, honest yet extreme. It was not a comfortable movie to watch, but it's not meant to be comfortable, and it's worth the effort if you can get past the excruciating part.

Mommy takes place in Québec, and is in French. I had seen only one film by Xavier Dolan, The Death & Life of John F. Donovan, which was only OK (although it was much better than the reviews, which trashed it). Dolan was only 25 when he made Mommy, but it was already his fifth feature. I'm unfamiliar with the lead actors, although they have solid resumes ... I've just missed them. (To name them: Anne Dorval, Antoine Olivier Pilon, and Suzanne Clément.) The story sounds promising enough: a widowed mother has a teenage son with ADHD who is violent at times, and we watch as she does what she can to keep him from being institutionalized. (We get a note at the beginning of the film informing us of a fictional Canadian law that allows parents to put their troubled kids away.)

But Dolan makes a decision that right away puts us in the center of this intense family. He uses a 1:1 aspect ratio (i.e., the screen is square) and has lots of closeups, which puts us literally in the faces of the characters as they go through their at-times traumatic emotions. Think of how Sergio Leone uses closeups to fill the screen with faces. His larger-than-life wide screen compositions mean those faces are often placed in the middle of an expanse of territory. Dolan gives us the closeups, but removes the expanse. Between the aspect ratio, the intense family drama, and the excellent acting, Dolan drags us into his story, and there is no escape. It's not a horror movie ... you aren't waiting for the next jump scare. But you often want to leave the room, to let these people have their privacy.

It's almost giving too much away to mention that for a brief scene, the screen opens up. I won't spoil the occasion for the change, but it has a definite effect on the viewer.

It's unfair to single out one of the actors, but Antoine Olivier Pilon as the teen is uncanny. He makes you forget he is acting, even as he is chewing the scenery ... he feels like the person he is playing. It's not the kind of amateur performance some directors use to make a character seem "real", but Dolan and Pilon force us to see what is inside the boy, and again, it's not comfortable. #384 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

the territory (alex pritz, 2022)

The Territory is a documentary about the Indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau in Brazil, who live in a rainforest constantly threatened by encroachment from people who believe in "progress", which for the average person means "everyone dreams of having a home" and for the rich and powerful means "use the land to make lots of money". The Uru-eu-wau-wau aren't just fighting to protect their homeland, they are fighting to save the planet ... they know the importance of the rainforest.

Alex Pritz takes an interesting approach. He takes his cameras into the rainforest, and builds trust with the Uru-eu-wau-wau, with whom he clearly champions. But he also films some settlers, the ones who want a home of their own. He manages to gain their trust, as well, and it's a tenuous construction. He doesn't defame the settlers, he lets them present their case, and they do seem to trust him. But the viewer never forgets which "side" Pritz is on.

COVID had an impact on the making of the film. Pritz describes this in an interview:

Having spent months prior to the pandemic working with the Uru-eu-wau-wau to develop an Indigenous media team, the pandemic forced us to put this training into action. Through contactless drops, we delivered a new set of higher quality cameras to the Uru-eu-wau-wau villages and set up a new series of online workshops in cinematography, sound, and documentary storytelling. We hired a team of Indigenous cinematographers to film themselves as they isolated themselves deep within the forest, and the results were spectacular: by removing myself from the equation, we gained a firsthand perspective into the Uru-eu-wau-wau experience that never would’ve been possible if it were filmed by outsiders. The footage coming from the Uru-eu-wau-wau was unlike anything we had shot before: intimate family moments, intense scenes of action, and an honesty in the footage that helped us connect with the characters in newfound ways.

"Intimate" perfectly describes how much of the footage of the Uru-eu-wau-wau affects us. And the willingness of Pritz and his team to turn over some of the film making to the natives demonstrates how committed he is to their point of view. It's this, perhaps, that tilts the overall impact of The Territory in favor of the Indigenous people, even as he refuses to make the settlers evil ... they are misguided, uninformed, but we understand their point of view, as well.

geezer cinema/film fatales #151/african-american directors series: the woman king (gina prince-bythewood, 2022)

The Woman King delivers on everything promised in the trailer: great action, powerful women, inspiring story.

Tony and Oscar winner Viola Davis is as you've never seen her before, and it is inspiring to have a black woman in her mid-50s personify the action heroine. There are fine performances throughout the movie, so many that it's not fair to single out anyone in particular (but I'm going to do it anyway and mention Lashana Lynch). Gina Prince-Bythewood gives us strong and coherent action scenes (shoutout to fight choreographer Jénel Stevens). She pulls this off on a budget of only $50 million. Compare that to the $70 million she had to work with on The Old Guard, a solid actioner with Charlize Theron that was released on Netflix, and you'll ask yourself why after proving her action chops, Prince-Bythewood got a smaller budget to make a film centered on Black people.

But then there's the controversy, and while I tended to agree with Prince-Bythewood, who said "You cannot win an argument on Twitter", and I thought this was another case of people condemning a movie before they'd seen it, now I'm not so sure. The Woman King plays as intended if you don't know any of the history of Dahomey. But the more you learn about the history, the more problematic The Woman King becomes. (Julian Lucas has an excellent piece in The New Yorker that illuminates this.) The Woman King does acknowledge some of Dahomey's participation in the slave trade, but it deflects that history to make a "better" story. In the movie, the slave trading is connected to the Oyo Empire, who are the enemies of Dahomey, and the fight led by the Agojie (Amazons) is against slavery. In reality, Dahomey was complicit in the slave trade. As Lucas notes, "'The Woman King' chooses to make resistance to slavery its moral compass, then misrepresents a kingdom that trafficked tens of thousands", and "The film’s conceit is, charitably, an elaborate exercise in wishful thinking: Wouldn’t it be nice if Dahomey’s brave women warriors had also been fighters for justice?"

These are all worthy of discussion ... I have learned more about the history of Dahomey from reading about the protests against the film. As good as the movie is, I'm a bit surprised by the clunkiness of the responses from Prince-Bythewood and Davis to the criticisms. Davis claimed "Most of the story is fictionalized. It has to be." In the same interview, Julius Tennon (a producer on the film who also acts in it and is Davis' husband) says "It's history but we have to take license. We have to entertain people."

This may be why The Woman King, for all its excellence, isn't as good as Black Panther. The latter film is entirely fictional, and so the story can be reflective of reality without needing to copy it. The Woman King wants us to think it's based on fact, but then alters facts to "entertain people".

what i watched

The Kid Detective (Evan Morgan, 2020). Someone recommended this to me, although I admit I have no idea who that person was. I doubt I would have seen it if the mystery person hadn't suggested it. It's written and directed by Evan Morgan, who is new to me, and stars Adam Brody, who I know little about. There were a couple of That Guys in the cast (Tzi Ma, Peter MacNeill), and Sophie Nélisse, who impressed me as the younger version of Melanie Lynskey's character in Yellowjackets. Morgan plays around a bit with the detective genre, and things move along nicely. It's a good enough way to spend 100 minutes, but I suspect in six months, I'll have forgotten I saw it. Here are the first nine minutes:

Geezer Cinema: Downton Abbey: A New Era (Simon Curtis, 2022). This one is easy to summarize: if you loved the show, you'll love the movie (and you've likely already seen it). If you know nothing about Downton Abbey, you don't need to watch this movie. Curtis and creator/writer Julian Fellowes take care of the fan base from the start. If you are a fan, you'll enjoy seeing all of the characters get their moments, and of the new cast members, there's Dominic West and Nathalie Baye to enjoy. I've been with Downton Abbey since the beginning, and while I have my problems with its representation of the class structure, it does suck you in.