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".

geezer cinema/film fatales #150: breaking (abi damaris corbin, 2022)

Breaking, like so many movies, is based on a true story of a Marine war veteran named Brian Brown-Easley who is ready to go over the edge. He has a grievance with the VA about back pay, and he wants the world to know about it, so he goes into a bank and says he has a bomb. That's a setup for a fairly standard movie, but there are a few things that raise Breaking above the norm.

Most important is the performance by John Boyega as the veteran. I've been a fan of Boyega's ever since Attack the Block, made when he was just 19. He has since proven himself as a reliable addition to any cast. He is the center of Breaking, and he is the main reason it is not just another standard film.

Director Abi Damaris Corbin also delivers, in her feature debut as a director (she also co-wrote, with Kwame Kwei-Armah, based on a story by Aaron Gell). She's not a total mystery, although as I write this she doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. From what I gather, she's a bit of a prodigy, graduating from high school at 13 and from college at 17. Breaking is a confident film, showing no sign of inexperience (her 2017 short The Suitcase won several awards ... she's not an amateur). She has received comparisons to Kathryn Bigelow, which is mostly just lazy, but Breaking does make me want to see what Corbin does next.

Finally, the film features the last performance by the great Michael K. Williams. His work here is not revelatory ... it's more that he delivers just as we always know he will. It's always good to see Williams, and it's painful to know that we won't see anything new from him now.

film fatales #149: toni erdmann (maren ade, 2016)

Toni Erdmann is one of the most critically acclaimed movies of recent years (it's #363 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, #13 on the 21st-century list). I can see why. It's a lengthy comedy with plenty of insightful character studies, some fine acting by Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek, and many unique scenes. The story of an eccentric father and his workaholic daughter is simple on the surface, but there is nothing simple about the approach of Maren Ade, who wrote and directed the film.

And yet, I had problems with it. I'm inclined to think the problem is in me. The father's attempts to move his daughter away from a work life he sees as strangling her are well-meant, and it's easy to root for the free-spirited father in his quest. The daughter certainly seems to dislike her life. But while his actions, most of which involve ridiculous fake teeth, are funny at first, ultimately for me, I started to side with the daughter. I didn't envy the pressures her job put on her, I thought she could use some relief, but her father's antics made me hate him. I ended up wishing he would leave her alone, which I'm sure isn't Ade's intended point. Your mileage may vary, of course ... like I said, critics loved it.

film fatales #148: hester street (joan micklin silver, 1975)

Hester Street was the first feature for Joan Micklin Silver as a writer/director. I saw it and liked it when it came out, and returned to it almost by accident. I had begun reading the 1896 novel Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto by Abraham Cahan, and wanted some help putting it into context. I went to Wikipedia, which didn't have a page for Yekl, but which directed me to Hester Street, which it turns out is based on Cahan's book. Silver's main change from the novel is one of perspective ... the book is named after the main (male) character, while Hester Street moves Yekl's wife, played by Carol Kane (who received a Best Actress Oscar nomination), more to the front of the story.

The period recreation is excellent. It compares well to Coppola's work on old New York in The Godfather Part II, which is especially amazing considering Silver was working with a budget of $370,000. She does well with the setting, and gets a wonderful performance out of Kane. The representation of the Americanization process among immigrants is simplistic at times, but we root for Kane's character, and by extension we root for Silver as well.

Silver went on to a long and distinguished career that feels like it slipped under the radar to some extent. While Hester Street was a success, she didn't easily get financing for new projects. Her next release was a made-for-TV adaptation of the Fitzgerald story "Bernice Bobs Her Hair", which was well-received, and finally she got her second feature, Between the Lines, about an alternative newspaper. I remember liking that a lot as well, but after that, my memory fades. I think I saw her next film, Chilly Scenes of Winter (original title Head Over Heels), perhaps because it was based on an Ann Beattie novel and I was going through an Ann Beattie phase. But the truth is, I don't remember a thing about that movie, and I don't think I ever saw anything else by Silver. Which is my loss.

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]

revisiting the virgin suicides (sofia coppola, 1999)

In 2011, I wrote:

It’s an interesting movie, and I liked it a lot, as I did Lost in Translation, which makes Marie Antoinette all the more disappointing. Phil Dellio was reminded in a way of Dazed and Confused, but my comparison would be HeathersHeathers is more smart-ass than The Virgin Suicides, and wonderfully mean-spirited. Yet I think I liked The Virgin Suicides more. The tale is told from the point of view of a man looking back on life as a boy, yet Coppola does a terrific job of turning the idealized girls into real people, and gives us at least as much insight into their lives as to the boys. Of course, all the insight in the world isn’t going to explain the events noted in the film’s title. Coppola offers a fine blend of the real and the slightly surreal, and does a great job with the soundtrack.

I question my use of the word "like" in the above. I might think The Virgin Suicides is "better" than Heathers, but the truth is, I like Heathers a lot more, and have re-watched it several times. I agree with the rest of what I said in 2011. The Virgin Suicides was Sofia Coppola's feature directorial debut. The cast is interesting. Kirsten Dunst is a standout, of course. The film was one of the first for Josh Hartnett. You can get a hint of why the sisters had a difficult life when you note that their parents are played by James Woods and Kathleen Turner. Danny DeVito has a cameo as a shrink, who is part of the most quotable moment in the film, when he asks one of the sisters why she is in the hospital after a suicide attempt ... "You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets." To which she replies, "Obviously, Doctor, you've never been a 13-year-old girl." It's right up there with Winona Ryder in Heathers writing, "Dear Diary, my teen-angst bullshit now has a body count."

film fatales #147: after maria (nadia hallgren, 2019)

Documentary short about Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, focusing on the people whose lives were ruined. The personal angle is effective, equal parts heartbreaking and infuriating. It might be improved if it were feature-length, since the short running time (36 minutes) leaves no room for a broader context.

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatale movies]

geezer cinema/film fatales #146: where the crawdads sing (olivia newman, 2022)

Daisy Edgar-Jones, a young British actress I don't know, gives a solid performance in the lead, keeping our interest in ways the narrative doesn't always accomplish. Where the Crawdads Sing feels portentous, but not a whole lot happens, and it's ultimately not very interesting. It would probably look just fine if you were channel surfing and came across it ... it won't ruin your day. The cinematography is great, giving a solid sense of what a North Carolina marsh is like. I'd like to say more about it, but my guess is, five years from now, I'll forget I ever saw it. A few familiar faces turn up in the supporting cast (Michael Hyatt, David Strathairn, Garret Dillahunt, Eric Ladin ... look 'em up), and Taylor Swift contributes a song.

film fatales #145: bird box (susanne bier, 2018)

Bird Box has an unusual pedigree for a horror film. Danish director Susanne Bier was behind the Oscar-winning In a Better World and the Emmy-winning series The Night Manager. Bird Box is not your standard horror film; at times it seems a bit embarrassed about its genre, as if too many scares would be unseemly. The premise is good (people across the globe start committing suicide), and the beginning setup is strong. But things peter out rather quickly once the main characters gather together in a large house to protect themselves from whatever is out there (it's not explained, but if you look at "it", you see something marvelous and you kill yourself). Much of what follows is more a study of disparate people forced together than it is a horror movie. Which would be fine, but the characters aren't particularly interesting. Bier calls on a non-chronological presentation so she can fast-forward on occasion to the exciting stuff, perhaps because that's the only way to keep us wary, the way a good horror film does.

Plus there's a problem with the casting. Sandra Bullock is her usual fine self, but she plays a pregnant woman who eventually has her baby. Admittedly, Bullock looks younger than her at-the-time 54 years old, but not that much younger. It's not even a plot point, where we worry in part because she is having a child so late. No, it's just there, as if we won't notice.

The casting is good. Besides Bullock, there's Trevante Rhodes from Moonlight, and John Malkovich and Sarah Paulson and Jacki Weaver, as well as Lil Rel Howery and Machine Gun Kelly and BD Wong and Pruitt Taylor Vince and Parminder Nagra. To be honest, it's a bit surprising that such a cast and such a fine director don't make for a more lively movie. I kept thinking of the Quiet Place films, which are proudly frightening. You are scared shitless watching those movies, while Bird Box, with its intriguing premise, only offers scares in bits and pieces.

geezer cinema/film fatales #144: petite maman (céline sciamma, 2021)

About Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I wrote, "Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel as a painter and her reluctant subject are perfectly matched, and both deliver perfect performances." I also noted cinematographer Claire Mathon's excellent contribution to that movie. Sciamma and Mathon are working together again, and the result is a charming, gently magical film that once again shows Sciamma's talent with actors. The added factor here is that the main characters are eight-year-old friends, played by real-life twins Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz. I can find very little about these sisters, but it appears this is their first film, which is a credit both to Sciamma's ability to bring out their best and their own natural ways of getting into an audience.

A spoiler-free recap of Petite Maman is not easy, although there is a vague quality to the plot that might seem to be spoiler-free. But I think the film benefits from the gradual revealing of the story ... I am sure I would get a lot out of a second viewing, knowing what I do now (and at just 72 minutes, you could easily watch it twice in succession if you were so inclined). While the film is indeed magical in all meanings of that term, it isn't a film with a trick, like, say, The Sixth Sense, which grabs you the first time, and allows you to see how it was done on a second viewing, but after that leaves no reason to keep watching. No, Petite Maman is a lovely movie about grief and friendship and family and, most of all, childhood, beautiful to behold even if you don't connect with the magic. But you will.

There is a viral program making the rounds, Craiyon (formerly DALL-E mini), that features an "AI model drawing images from any prompt". I gave the prompt "portrait of petite maman on fire" and got this:

Portrait of petite maman on fire single frame

film fatales #143/african-american directors series: the watermelon woman (cheryl dunye, 1996)

The Watermelon Woman is a fascinating feature debut for Cheryl Dunye, who followed it with several features and, in the last several years, work on many television series, including Lovecraft Country. It is a selection in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". Which is true ... it was the first feature directed by a black lesbian. But the pleasures of The Watermelon Woman go beyond its historical status.

The film is about a budding director, Cheryl, played by Cheryl Dunye herself, who discovers a little-known actress in an old film who is listed only as "Watermelon Woman". Cheryl sets out to learn more about this woman, whose name turns out to be Fae Richards. Fae was a lesbian, and was said to have had a relationship with a white female director, Martha Page. Cheryl begins working on a film about Richards, and Dunye moves between Cheryl's work and her personal life. Gradually, we come to know Richards through old photographs, brief film clips, and interviews Cheryl does with people who knew Richards. (She even interviews Camille Paglia as herself, who says things like "If the watermelon symbolizes African-American culture, rightly so, because look what white middle class feminism stands for: anorexia and bulimia.")

The transitions between the quest for knowledge about Richards, the attempt to make a movie, and the presentation of Cheryl's personal life are not always smooth, but Dunye never loses our attention throughout The Watermelon Woman's short running time (90 minutes).

Dunye has one last trick up her sleeve, or rather, the trick has been there all along but we in the audience are never quite certain we've got the trick. During the closing credits, we see pieces of Cheryl's documentary about Fae Richards, taking us back to the still photos and movie clips Cheryl has collected. Except the credits end with the following statement: "Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is fiction. Cheryl Dunye, 1996"

The concept of the film is audacious, but perhaps even more impressive is the technical skills used to pull it off. The stills and footage were all shot by Dunye and her crew. They aren't just old items gathered for other purposes ... the clips from Fae Richards' old movies and all of the photos we see from Fae's past are faked. And they are pretty flawless. Maybe it's not super-Marvel CGI, but it's a different accomplishment that is equally noteworthy. That it is used in a work that has historic significance is the icing on the cake.