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.

revisiting the 9s/film fatales: control room (jehane noujaim, 2004)

[This is the eighth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

Apparently I never wrote about Control Room when I first saw it, so this is a chance not only to re-evaluate it but offer a few words, as well. Jehane Noujaim gave us one of the greatest documentaries of recent years, The Square, which began with the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 and was so locked into the moment that, after it won awards at the Sundance Film Festival, Noujaim continued to edit it to reflect more recent events.

Control Room is a cinéma vérité film that documents the work of Al Jazeera covering the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was filmed by Noujaim and Hani Salama, and offers the best of what cinéma vérité can offer. Of course, there are those who point to the editing process in cinéma vérité films as a way to construct reality while presenting it as unconstructed. In Control Room, there are parallel versions of this. Not only has the film been criticized for being biased, Al Jazeera itself is subject to the same criticisms. But, as one person says in the film, comparing Al Jazeera and mainstream U.S. news media, "This word 'objectivity' is almost a mirage". And Noujaim herself has said of the film, "I am not saying it is the truth, but it is our truth".

One of the more interesting characters in the film is Marine Lieutenant Josh Rushing, a spokesperson for the military in Iraq. Like all people in his position, he offers the kind of spin that his bosses want to hear, but he also comes across as genuinely wanting to understand Al Jazeera and the Arab perspective. Rushing later left the Corps and joined Al Jazeera English.

A second viewing of Control Room didn't convince me I'd underrated a classic, but it's not an insult to say it just misses being as great as The Square.

film fatales #142: the fallout (megan park, 2021)

I often come to a movie cold, knowing little or nothing about it. The Fallout was one of those. If I'd done any research at all, I wouldn't have been surprised that the first thing we see is a trigger warning. I didn't know what the triggers might be, and then the movie started with scenes of sisters getting ready for school. It felt harmless enough. All of which meant I was surprised, if not triggered, when events unfolded.

The Fallout is about a school tragedy, which unfortunately couldn't be more timely. The approach writer/director Megan Park takes is to examine, not the tragedy itself, but the aftermath ... the fallout, if you will. It's that aftermath that informs the movie, and Park and her actors give us a revealing portrait of young survivors. The Fallout's presentation is a bit muted, like if Euphoria was created by someone who wasn't obsessed with excess. We get lots of closeups of faces, which won't work if you don't have actors with the skills to draw out our empathy. This was the first time Jenna Ortega, Maddie Ziegler, and Niles Fitch have gotten my attention, and they are all actors with what should be bright futures. Ortega in particular has been getting raves about her "breakout" role. All of the young actors feel age-appropriate (the real-life Ortega is only a couple of years older than her character, and she is short enough that she certainly looks like a 16-year-old).

Park's directing debut is confident ... there are no signs of first-timers disease. She tells the story as she wants, gets the performances she wants, creates a believable world of high-schoolers, and even makes the adults seem true-to-life, neither ogres nor saints. (Ortega's parents are played by Julie Bowen and John Ortiz, and Shailene Woodley turns up as her therapist.) Park doesn't reach too far, which just adds to the powerful nature of what we see.

And, to further surprise me, in the credits I learned that the music is done by Finneas!

Here are the first seven minutes:

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]

film fatales #141: free solo (elizabeth chai vasarhelyi and jimmy chin, 2018)

Free Solo looks dazzling, and its subject matter, the "free solo" climb up El Capitan by Alex Honnold, is both inspiring and terrifying. The music by Marco Beltrami reaches a peak during the final segment when Honnold attempts his climb, adding immeasurably to the film and the spectacle. Honnold is a rather charismatic lead ... there's something a bit off-putting about him, and the case seems to be made here that he requires a certain distance from others if he is to accomplish his goal. In one of the film's most famous quotes, he says, "Anyone can be happy and cozy. Nothing good happens in the world by being happy and cozy." Honnold says things like this, but when he smiles, all is forgiven.

Honnold's then-girlfriend (now wife) Sanni McCandless has a lot to do with humanizing the film's representation of Honnold. They have an honest relationship, where she pushes him to be more open but understands that "happy and cozy" isn't what Honnold thinks will get him up El Capitan. When we watch Honnold and think "what the fuck", it's clear that a part of McCandless is thinking the same thing.

So it's gorgeous ... the logistics behind the cinematography must have been extremely difficult, which we see a bit during the movie ... great music, one-of-a-kind athletic performance. But ...

For all of McCandless' on-screen appeal, her role in the film never moves much beyond the supporting partner. OK, Free Solo isn't about her, and I'm not saying she is dismissed. But it feels like her most important role is to tell Honnold it's OK. Also, the film is directed by the married team of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, and certainly they made the decisions about how to present the documentary. But since Chin is part of the climbing team that photographs Honnold, we see a lot of him, and by the end of the movie, you'd be forgiven for wondering just exactly what did Chai Vasarhelyi do? I don't think there's anything intentional going on ... the secondary nature of the roles of McCandless and Chai Vasarhelyi are almost casual, and can go unnoticed. But the problem is there.

More important is the voyeuristic nature of what we are seeing. No one is suggesting that Honnold has a death wish, but we are reminded several times that Chin and his filming crew are worried about filming their friend falling to his death. We in the audience can't help but think about it, and if this was fiction, that would just add to the tension. But we're talking about a real person on the side of the mountain, and it's hard to escape the realization that, like watching an auto race for the crashes, part of the thrill of Free Solo is knowing what might have happened.

Having said all of this, I never quit being amazed as I watched Free Solo. It won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature ... I might have voted for Minding the Gap, but Free Solo is fine.

what i watched

A cold has kept me out of commission for most of the week, and turned my brain into mush. Here are some brief notes about two movies I watched.

Film Fatales #140: The Second Mother (Anna Muylaert, 2015). An effective combination of comedy and drama, with a performance from Regina Casé that is perfection, perhaps especially when her character is irritating. A film about class that sneaks up on its subject.

Geezer Cinema: The Adam Project (Shawn Levy, 2022). I have a fixation on Ryan Reynolds that has nothing to do with his movies. In fact, this is the first time I saw a movie where he was the star. Nonetheless, I'm aware that he has fans, that he is appealing, and he tends to play the same character a lot. I can't say this is a typical Ryan Reynolds movie, given I haven't seen most of them, but I get the feeling that is exactly what The Adam Project is. Reynolds slides right into his character, Walker Scobell is a solid teen actor, and a few of my favorites also turn up (including Mark Ruffalo and Catherine Keener). It doesn't amount to much, and the sappy ending is definitely not up my alley. Also, it's a time travel movie, and as is usually the case with such films, if you think about it at all the entire thing falls apart. (If a future You kills a present You, and future You dies because you were never born, how did future You exist to come back into the past to kill themselves?)

film fatales #139: the runaways (floria sigismondi, 2010)

This is the thirty-second 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 32 is called "Jukebox Musical Week":

Somewhat of a black sheep in the musical world, jukebox musicals have their place...for tourists. Wanna make a musical but know fuck all about writing music? Just retrofit some songs into the plot of your movie and you're golden!

As described above, the jukebox musical is one that does not have original songs, instead opting for a soundtrack consisting of (usually popular) songs. These can be from a single band or from a whole decade, but either way, somebody is ponying up for some usage rights.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen jukebox musical film. Here's a list for those in need.

I looked forward to this one ... I lived through the Runaways, didn't have much of an opinion about them, but I recognize their importance and thought their story might make a good movie, especially with Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning involved. And while I wasn't familiar with the work of Floria Sigismondi, her background in music videos would seem useful for a film about a rock band.

Sure enough, the best parts of The Runaways resemble music videos, and not in an annoying way ... they fit. But somehow I forgot that, despite the trappings, The Runaways was just another biopic. And I'm not a fan of the genre.

The focus of the picture is narrowed, for better or worse, because it's based on Cherie Currie's memoir. The Runaways is less a story of the band, and more the story of the rise and fall of the friendship between Currie and Joan Jett. It's an interesting enough story, and Stewart and Fanning give their all. But the whole thing is too formulaic, as is true for most biopics, which is one reason I'm not a fan. Yes, a lot of what we see "really happened", but it's stuffed into the film to make a narrative that audiences will recognize from all the other biopics they've seen.

Stewart was still in the middle of making Twilight movies, so her move here away from those films is powerful ... I imagine she impressed even more at the time than she does now, when we expect her to be great. Fanning gets most of the Oscar-bait scenes, and more power to her. But Oscar bait is all they are. Meanwhile, Michael Shannon steals every scene he is in as Kim Fowley, and again, we're used to him now, but he wasn't yet Michael Shannon in 2010, at least as I remember. And Fowley himself probably would like to be the center of a movie about the Runaways, but I didn't really need to see a movie called Kim Fowley.

The Runaways is as good as most biopics, which isn't all that. Good performances help, but then, that's usually true with biopics, which often result in Oscar nominations for the actors.

film fatales #138: the joy of life (jenni olson, 2005)

This is the thirtieth 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 30 is called "Lesbian Stories Week":

Another weekly theme based on the list of a Letterboxd user, this week we take a dive into films that include lesbian stories, either directly or through theming. I am not one to speak on if all the films included fit the bill or not, but I trust the list's creator (who seems to be getting a bit of unnecessary vitriol for having an opinion), and hope you all give one of these films a chance.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film featuring a lesbian story as dictated by Sarah's list.

The Joy of Life is an unusual movie, thanks to the methods Jenni Olson uses to, not exactly tell a story, but to present a vision of San Francisco. The documentary has three segments, although I suppose some might quibble and say there were only two. At the beginning, a voiceover narration by Harry Dodge offers memories of loves past and present. Olson is credited as the writer, so it's up to us to decide if those memories are Dodge's, Olson's, or completely fictional. The narration is accompanied by landscape shots of various places in San Francisco. Olson doesn't often specifically connect the narration to what we see, but there is a general feel for The City, in both audio and visual. The middle segment has the narrator breaking down the Frank Capra film Meet John Doe. The transition is smooth enough, but I can't say I ever quite knew why we were learning about that movie. Finally, there is an extended look at the Golden Gate Bridge as a place where people come to commit suicide.

The narration is purposely flat, although again I don't know why. In the first segment, we are hearing about the emotional life of a butch lesbian, and the unemotional narration feels off. The talk about suicide also exists at something of a disconnect, but in both segments, there is a palpable feeling that what we are seeing and hearing is important to Olson. The film is dedicated to Olson's friend Mark Finch, who himself jumped off of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns up in the middle of the film as a voiceover reading one of his poems, which makes the film even more San Franciscan.

The Joy of Life is experimental, and its "differentness" makes it important. It also played a role in the continuing debate about constructing suicide barriers on the Bridge.

geezer cinema/film fatales #137: mothering sunday (eva husson, 2021)

Before watching Mothering Sunday, we saw a preview for the latest picture in the Downton Abbey franchise. I watched Downton Abbey, even saw the first movie, even enjoyed it, but I never got over thinking that Julian Fellowes was a bit too fond of the upper classes.

Eva Husson never makes that mistake with Mothering Sunday. The upper classes aren't vilified (and it's only fair to note that the people in Mothering Sunday aren't as rich as those in Downton Abbey). They are characters with good points and flaws, just like the rest of us. The central romance, between the wealthy Paul and the maid Jane, is a problem for them both in that Paul is engaged to another wealthy person, and thus Paul and Jane will never be accepted openly. But not only do both of them recognize this, Jane can live with it just as much as can Paul, maybe even more so. Jane is eagerly observant ... it's no surprise that she eventually becomes a writer. She values her relationship with Paul, but it doesn't define her, nor does she let her place in the class system stop her from achieving her dream of writing.

The novel on which Mothering Sunday is based was written by a man, Graham Swift, but the film was written and directed by women (Alice Burch and Eva Husson respectively), and they explicitly offer a work that sidesteps the male gaze with a woman-centered perspective. We don't see Jane as Paul sees her, we see Jane as she might see herself. This is especially clear in the many scenes of nudity. The sex scenes are intimate without being exploitative, and the nudity isn't about how hot actors Odessa Young and Josh O'Connor are, but about how comfortable they are in their own skin. There is a lengthy segment where Jane, alone in Paul's estate, wanders the rooms, naked, learning about Paul's life, pausing at things that interest her. She's naked because they made love before Paul left, because it's natural, not because she is hot.

This perspective informs the film as a whole. I wish there was more to it ... I'm not generally taken with tales of the upper classes. But it's gorgeous to look at, and there is some impressive acting, with Odessa Young leading the cast (Colin Firth is particularly good in the stiff-upper-lip stereotype). It's a good movie, and very promising for director Husson.