geezer cinema/film fatales #160: women talking (sarah polley, 2022)

Writer/director Sarah Polley has only made four features, starting with her debut in 2006, Away from Her, but it's only in the last week or so that I have caught up with her, first by seeing Take This Waltz, and now catching her new film, Women Talking, based on a novel by Miriam Toews. Her screenplay for Away from Her was nominated for a screenplay Oscar ... she wasn't yet 30 at the time. She has written all of her films (and now she has a book as well, Run Towards the Danger, which I am reading as I type this). Before beginning her directing career, she had been acting on screen since she was six, getting a feature role in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen when she was nine, starring in two Canadian TV series, Ramona and Avonlea, for eight years, and continuing as an actor until 2010. Women Talking is her first film in ten years, and it only solidifies my opinion that she is one of our best writer/directors.

I'm not sure what identifies a "Sarah Polley Movie". Her films are intelligent, the acting is usually excellent, they are filmed (and set in) Canada. Women are at the center of her movies. The films look great (Luc Montpellier has been the cinematographer for three of the films, including Women Talking). Their movies are very different, but the director Polley brings to mind is Ryan Coogler, who also has made four films, beginning with the fine Fruitvale Station, and who has yet to disappoint (although his career has gone towards the blockbuster, having made the two Black Panther movies).

I loved Stories We Tell so much that I thought of Polley as a great director, even if I'd only seen two of her movies. So it's easy to say that I was excited about her first film in ten years. And what a film it is. We saw Women Talking with a friend who was worried about the film ... he had read and loved the book, and wondered how it could be captured on film. Afterwards, he gave a thumbs up. Polley draws together her strong cast (unfair to single out only a few, but Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley and particularly Claire Foy are especially excellent), giving them dialogue that is quotable, if sometimes speechifying, and making each character distinct (Toews gets a lot of credit for this, of course). She turns a story that could be exploitive (the women in an isolated religious community have been systematically raped and beaten for decades) and makes the focus the women themselves ... the assaults are never far from our attention, but Polley doesn't show them endlessly. Women Talking is only partly about abuse and abusers. Polley's primary focus is on the group of women as they decide how they will continue to live their lives.

Most of the film is set in a single hayloft in a barn, and at times there is a stagy feel, as if Women Talking were based on a play. It's not intrusive, though. What does draw attention is the washed-out colors of the film, about which Polley has said,

I think once they start having this conversation in the hayloft they're already consigning the world they live into the past. It’s already done because they're having a conversation about it and how to change it. So for me, it was important that it feels like a faded postcard. That there be a sense of nostalgia and of a colorlessness. A sense that whatever it is, this world that they're talking about doesn't exist anymore because the very fact of them having the conversation is shifting that reality.

The emotionalism of the final shot of the film is reminiscent of Spielberg, showing us one more time that Sarah Polley's career as a writer/director already exists in the rare company of our finest artists.

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.)

geezer cinema/film fatales #158/african-american directors series: bessie (dee rees, 2015)

This is the fourteenth 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 14 is called "Queer, Black, 21st Century Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Letterboxd's Queer, Black, 21st Century: A Pride 2020 List.

Always good to see Queen Latifah ... she was arguably the best thing in Chicago, and the ensemble piece Set It Off is underrated. She is fine as Bessie Smith ... whatever the faults of biopics, they usually do a decent job of casting the lead. Latifah's singing as Bessie is strong. When we hear the real Bessie singing during the closing credits, we recognize the difference, but we don't decide Latifah was inadequate to the job. There are gems scattered throughout the cast: Mo'Nique steals scenes as Ma Rainey, Michael K. Williams never disappoints, and Khandi Alexander brings her usual intensity. The film keeps close enough to the real story. It won an Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie (it's an HBO production).

But it's still just a biopic. Director Dee Rees (Mudbound), who also co-wrote, doesn't make many missteps, and she lets her cast shine. But the film leaves too many holes in the story, or at least, it gives that impression. Events that might have a big impact are diluted when they seem to come out of nowhere. It's not that anyone acts out of character, but when, for instance, Bessie shows up with an adopted daughter, we haven't been prepared for such an occurrence, and this happens to often. This makes the movie move forward quickly, and Rees gets it all in under two hours. But at times, I wanted things to slow down a bit.

Bessie is well worth watching, and it doesn't do much damage to the true story for people who are learning about Bessie Smith for the first time. Lots of biopics do less.

film fatales #157: wings (larisa shepitko, 1966)

Larisa Shepitko studied under Dovzhenko at a film institute in Moscow, where she completed her first feature film. Wings was her first film after finishing at the institute. It shows a confident command of the medium. She was 28 at the time. She only completed a few other features, most notably The Ascent, before dying in a car crash at the age of 41. She still goes more unrecognized than she deserves. I have her at #9 on my Women's Directors Top 25 list.

Wings is the story of a World War II Soviet fighter pilot named Nadezhda Petrukhina, who has become a school principal. She is good at her job, but her thoughts often turn back to the time she spent flying, and she is dissatisfied when she compares her previous life to her current one. Nadezhda is played by Maya Bulgakova, who does a remarkable job of presenting an accomplished woman who mostly keeps her dissatisfaction to herself. The contrast between the drab institutional surroundings at her job and the airy, high-flying images of her time as a pilot, emphasizes what Nadezhda has lost. That her memories include the death of her lover, a fellow pilot, cast a darkness on those memories, doesn't erase the freedom those images of being in the air represents. (The cinematographer was Igor Slabnevich.)

This is a quiet film that doesn't overstay its welcome (coming in at 85 minutes). The Ascent may be her masterpiece, but Wings is an important picture in its own right.

a few 2022 movie lists

I'll probably watch a few more movies this year, but unless one is an all-time classic, these will likely remain the best movies I watched in 2022 for the first time. I gave all of them a rating of 9 on a scale of 10. Sorted by release year:

Best movies I re-watched this year (all 10/10):

  • The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  • Citizen Kane (1941)
  • A Hard Day's Night (1964)
  • Jaws (1975)
  • The Last Waltz (1978)
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The ongoing Geezer Cinema list. We watched 48 Geezer movies this year, beginning with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse back on January 4:

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

And this list of everything I watched this year:

[Letterboxd list of movies I watched in 2022]

film fatales #156: she said (maria schrader, 2022)

She Said is a pretty straightforward "based-on-a-true-story" journalism movie. Two intrepid reporters dig into a story that others seem to have ignored. The deeper they go, the more disturbing the revelations. The object of their investigations becomes increasing villainous, and the reporters start to fear for their own safety. But they never give up, backed by the power of a mega news corporation, The New York Times.

That you might have seen this before (All the President's Men is the obvious comparison) ends up being irrelevant. Part of that is the very ordinary structure of the movie. As Neil Minow wrote, "It is in no way a criticism to say that this is a solid, conventional film, skillfully made." She Said walks us through the investigation, becoming almost too painstaking at times in its desire to get the story right, without a lot of stylistic moves to distract us from that story.

Yet there is something very different in She Said than in the easy genre identifications of something like All the President's Men, and it's a difference so plain to see that you might miss it at first. The reporters who wrote the story (and later the book), Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, are women. The screenwriter, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is a woman. The director, Maria Schrader, is a woman. The cinematographer, Natasha Braier, is a woman. And all of these women, along with everyone involved in the making of the movie, is committed to the story that played a big part in the understanding of the MeToo movement across the larger population. The presence of these artists is crucial, and their ability to present the story without sensationalizing events is a plus ... as Minow said, this is not a criticism.

Thus, some time is spent on the home lives of Kantor and Twohey. It's hard to balance a job and a family, especially for wives/mothers. They both have supportive families, and there is never a sense that they are asked to choose between work and home. But while Woodward and Bernstein were able to break the Watergate story partly because they had the time and energy to take it on, here it's part of the story that the protagonists struggle to find that time. Yet the point isn't beaten over our heads ... it's just there.

Kantor and Twohey rely a lot on their editor, Rebecca Corbett. Yes, Andre Braugher is there as Dean Baquet, executive editor of The Times, and Braugher is at his usual best, but it's Corbett and her writers at the center of the journalism, and again, the point is there, it isn't necessary to beat us over the head.

And women are the core to the story. Yes, the writers are examining the misogynistic power of industries and Harvey Weinstein in particular, but She Said never moves too far away from showing us the women who suffered under this system. In all of these ways, She Said is properly different from many other journalism movies.

The film isn't perfect. The New York Times isn't perfect, and She Said mostly slides past the ways The Times itself was complicit in covering up for Weinstein for many years. But the story we do get is still powerful.

I knew nothing about director Maria Schrader going in. She's from Germany, and has far more credits as an actor than as a director. Her work here is impressive. And I can't say enough about the cast (casting director Francine Maisler). Patricia Clarkson as Corbett, Jennifer Ehle and Samantha Morton as women abused by Weinstein, Ashley Judd playing herself, and Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan as Twohey and Cantor are the names, but the casting is on target throughout. Mulligan and Kazan, in particular, have an easy rapport ... it's no surprise that the two are great friends in real life.

geezer cinema/film fatales #155: aftersun (charlotte wells, 2022)

Aftersun is the feature debut for writer/director Charlotte Wells, and it is remarkably assured. Wells has a vision and is not afraid to put it on the screen, meaning Aftersun works at its own pace, and Wells only reveals the minimum needed to understand the characters.

There isn't much of a plot. A young woman looks back on a vacation she took with her father when she was 11. It isn't always clear that we are looking at the past, nor is it clear that the young woman is remembering that vacation. Wells lets us figure out the details for ourselves, and the details are in the picture ... it would probably benefit from a second viewing. But that's not really necessary, thanks largely to the acting of Paul Mescal as the father and Frankie Corio as his 11-year-old daughter.

I always say, when a film features a good performance from a young actor, it's important to credit the director for eliciting that performance. Directing youngsters isn't easy. Here, Wells is aided by Mescal, who has a great rapport with Corio. In young Sophie, Wells has created a character that seems the right age, not too precocious, not too childlike. Corio is perfect in the role. She and Mescal are completely believable as a daughter and father.

You have to settle into the pace Wells provides. Not only do events occur at a leisurely pace, there are few "shocking" scenes to startle the audience. Sophie's transgression are minor, and the father's emotional difficulties are buried deep. This fits with what Wells is trying, but it is true that after 102 minutes, I was ready for the end. Aftersun is neither too long nor too short.

The film's pleasures are low-key, but they do exist. It helps, though, if you approach it in the spirit in which it was made. Aftersun is the antithesis of a blockbuster, and it suggests Charlotte Wells has a strong future ahead of her.

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]

what i watched

Been watching a lot of movies, but various things have kept me away from the keyboard, so here is a catching-up post, with a few movies getting less attention than they deserve.

African-American Directors Series: Soul Food (George Tillman, Jr., 1997). I watched the first season of the television series based on this film, and then lost track of it, as often happens. So perhaps I was affected a bit by this, since for me, the movie Soul Food plays like a TV series. The film features a fine cast (Vanessa Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long, Michael Beach, Mekhi Phifer, Irma P. Hall), anchored by young Brandon Hammond, playing Ahmad, the kid through whose eyes we see the story of a family unfolding. It's only the second movie from writer/director George Tillman, Jr., and it has a winning honesty, but there are few surprises.

Film Fatales #154: "The Murmuring" (Jennifer Kent, 2022). Not exactly a movie, this is an episode of the television series Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities. But hey, it's a bit longer than an hour, and it's directed by the great Jennifer Kent (The Babadook, The Nightingale). This one is closer to The Babadook ... it deals with grief, it has horror elements, it even stars Essie Davis. Andrew Lincoln of The Walking Dead co-stars, and Kent and her stars make no missteps. It's a welcome addition to Kent's resume.

Geezer Cinema/Film Fatales #155: Causeway (Lila Neugebauer, 2022.). All of these movies are carried by their actors. Causeway is a well-told tale about a soldier with PTSD who connects with another person with a backstory. But there isn't much new in the story or the telling. What raises Causeway above the norm is the acting by Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry (who is apparently incapable of anything but great performances). The odd-couple pairing of the two is both obvious and terrific. Lawrence and Henry make us believe in their characters, who don't know that we've seen similar stories before. Their stories are personal and fresh to them, and the stars convey this in many touching ways.

Dr. No (Teremce Young, 1962). I was feeling a bit under the weather, so I fell back on comfort food, watching this and From Russia with Love on successive nights. My memory often fails me, but I think this was the last movie I saw in a theater with my mother (I also remember it being a drive-in). I read all of the novels, and had quite the 007 obsession in my youth. At this point, Dr. No works mainly as an historical artifact. The movie is OK, we get to meet Sean Connery's Bond, Ursula Andress sets the standard for Bond Girls, but it needs hindsight to imagine that the Bond movies would still be going strong 60 years later. Things definitely took a step up with the next one, From Russia with Love.

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.