geezer cinema/film fatales #79: emma. (autumn de wilde, 2020)

Sometimes a movie can be wonderful even if it is far from perfect. For me, the key is often acting. A great performance makes up for a lot, and a great ensemble is even better.

Emma. is a good movie ... I don't mean to suggest otherwise. Director Autumn de Wilde, with her first feature, and screenwriter Eleanor Catton (also her feature debut), make the old recognizable. They take great care to make their movie seem real to the time of Jane Austen's novel, but while doing that, they also make us feel as if Emma and her friends and family are people we know right now. It's not just a period piece, no matter how well they recreate the period.

But in the end, it's the acting that raises Emma. above the norm. I often say, if there are many good performances in a film, the director must get at least some of the credit, and so de Wilde deserves mention here, as well. I only recognized a few of the actors ... Gemma Whelan was Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones, and Bill Nighy ... well, I would say he can make anything good, but even he couldn't rescue the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Still, I love me some Bill Nighy.

I save my most fervent praise for two of the actresses, again unknown to me. Mia Goth (what a marvelous name for an actor) is quite winning as Emma's best friend Harriet. Goth has a way of smiling that jumps off the screen; you feel her happiness. Goth also has an advantage, in that Harriet is largely likable from beginning to end, so once we become attached to her smile, she has us in her grasp.

Even more impressive is Anya Taylor-Joy as the title character. She has remarkable eyes ... if Goth's smile is entrancing, Taylor-Joy's eyes take over the screen. More importantly, Emma is a complicated character, and between de Wilde, Catton, Austen, and Taylor-Joy, we see all of Emma's sides. She is not particularly lovable. She screws up and doesn't always seem to notice. It would be fairly easy to make Emma into something of a villain. But at the same time, Taylor-Joy makes us root for Emma. So when Emma gets her comeuppance, it is satisfying. But when she gets the true love happy ending, we're glad for her nonetheless. Emma isn't one thing or another, she's all things.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

(And here is a letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies.)


international women's day: film fatales #78: the edge of seventeen (kelly fremon craig, 2016)

The idea was to watch a movie directed by a woman for International Women's Day, and The Edge of Seventeen has been sitting on my DVR for far too long, so it was the winner.

First, to get what I thought was an obvious point out of the way, this movie has nothing to do with the Stevie Nicks song. It's a coming of age story, originally titled "Besties", not only directed by first-timer Craig but written by her as well. It begins as a story about two best friends, but something happens to split them apart, and it becomes more a story of one of the two, Nadine, played by Hailee Steinfeld. She is troubled, she is self-absorbed, she is a smart-ass ... standard stuff for a teenager growing up. And The Edge of Seventeen doesn't exactly break new ground in that genre.

But certain things raise it a bit above the norm. Steinfeld is great ... well, Nadine is a great character, so credit Steinfeld, but also credit Craig for writing the character. Most of the people in the movie turn out to have more depth than seems evident at first, and that's nice ... the perfect older brother has problems, too, the seemingly lazy teacher actually cares about his students (at least, he cares about Nadine), Nadine's mom, as played by Kyra Sedgwick, annoys both Nadine and the audience, but there is more to her as well. We root for Nadine, even though Craig/Steinfeld are not afraid to show her lesser sides. It's all recognizable to anyone who went to high school in the U.S., and mostly avoids too many stereotypes.

As is often the case in teenage movies, many of the actors are clearly older than the characters they play. Steinfeld was 19-20 (irrelevant trivia: her uncle is the Body by Jake guy), Haley Lu Richardson, who plays the bestie, was 20, older brother Blake Jenner was 24, potential Nadine's boyfriend Hayden Szeto was  30-31. It's not as bad as some, but it is noticeable, and requires at least a little suspension of disbelief.

There is nothing wrong with The Edge of Seventeen, and Steinfeld is a big plus. The movie is worth a look.

Here is the student film Nadine's boyfriend made ... the actual animation was by David Silverman:

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)


film fatales #77: even the rain (icíar bollaín, 2010)

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." This is out of order. Week 23 is called "Gael García Bernal Week".

Gael García Bernal is perhaps one of the best performers working today that doesn't get nearly the amount of attention he deserves. And though his most well known performance is in an animated film, one needs to see this man perform in live-action to get the full effect. So, give some love to one of yours truly's favorite actors.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring Gael Garcia Bernal.

Even the Rain is a complex film that might seem fairly straightforward at first glance. Bernal plays a Mexican director, Sebastián, making a film with a Spanish producer about Columbus "discovering" America. They film in Cochabamba, Bolivia, for the usual reasons: it's cheaper.

It soon becomes apparent that the film Sebastián is making about how Columbus exploited the native population in many ways is replicating that exploitation. The people of Cochabamba go on a general strike (this is based on true events), and Sebastián is torn between support for the people and the problems he will have making his film (one of his primary actors turns out to be a leader of the revolt).

There are layers here. Sebastián wants to make his movie, he doesn't want to exploit anyone, but it happens anyway. And we in the audience can't help but wonder just how much the creators of Even the Rain paid the extras who came from the local area. It's not really fair ... they spoke to this in interviews ... but it's hard not to imagine Even the Rain following a similar path to Sebastián's movie. Unfair, but obvious without context. The filmmakers speak to this:

Meanwhile, much of Even the Rain is effective. Juan Carlos Aduviri, who plays the actor/revolutionary in his screen debut, comes from El Alto, next to La Paz. He grabs the screen ... it's believable that Sebastián wants him for his movie.

The parallels between the filmmakers and Columbus are interesting, although they are pressed on us a bit too hard. And I really have to believe that the filmmakers did right by the people. Perhaps the power of Even the Rain is that it raises such questions in the first place.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)


geezer cinema/film fatales #76: portrait of a lady on fire (céline sciamma, 2019)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is exquisite in the way that love is in real life. It hurts, then it feels so good. Céline Sciamma takes her time telling her story, which perfectly matches the gradual process by which the two main characters fall in love. The film smolders, and, as Mick LaSalle wrote, "The last time I wanted two people to kiss this much, I was one of the people."

Comparisons have been drawn between this film and Blue Is the Warmest Color, and it's understandable, although much of the discussion seems to revolve around picking one or the other as "better". Sciamma addressed this point:

We can absolutely love both films. We do not live up to the exciting nature of this moment if we start reducing everything to questions of ‘good or not good; moral or immoral; voyeur or not voyeur,’ that’s not the point. The key is to understand what animates such images, and what they seek to impart.

The films do make for instructive examples of the differences between the male and female gaze. And "gaze" is the proper term for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, for much of the relationship between the two women is shown in how they look at each other. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel as a painter and her reluctant subject are perfectly matched, and both deliver perfect performances. Sciamma won Best Screenplay at Cannes, but the film relies on Merlant and Haenel. Backed by Sciamma's direction, the two actors draw us into their story. Luàna Bajrami is also excellent in a lesser but important role.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire looks great, as well, with cinematographer Claire Mathon making the most of what in many cases are scenes lit by candlelight.

Some of the best moments are almost wordless, including a remarkable final shot that stays with you long after the movie is over. And Sciamma uses music sparingly, which adds to the impact when it does occur, most notably in this, which I think is the best scene among so many great ones in the movie:

They are singing "non possunt fugere", Latin for "They cannot escape".

Simply put, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an excellent movie in every way. #193 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)


geezer cinema/film fatales #75: the photograph (stella meghie, 2020)

The Photograph is a movie about African-Americans, starring African-Americans, written and directed by an African-American, that is about love and romance. If not revolutionary, it at the least stands out among romances with white characters. The film is a bit generic, but adding black characters makes a big difference ... we're seeing something we don't often get at the movies.

The Photograph benefits greatly from its cast. LaKeith Stanfield is building quite the resume, and he is predictably fine here. Issa Rae is known for the HBO comedy Insecure, so The Photograph represents something different for her. She lights up the screen ... even with this cast, she is the best thing about the movie. Lil Rel Howery, Rob Morgan, Chanté Adams, and more ... everyone is at the top of their game.

Stella Meghie tells the story using lots of flashbacks. This again works primarily because of the casting ... when we see characters at two different times in their lives, the actors for each time frame are believably the same person.

The Photograph is low-key, and if you are in the right mood, low-key is probably for the best. But I found the film's pleasures to be mild. See it for the acting, see it for the still-unique concept of a black romance film, but for me, The Photograph rarely got beyond "I'm glad I've watched this". Sure be nice if Issa Rae's star got bigger, though.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)


oscars

Here are the Oscar nominated films I have seen, with the major categories listed. The movies in bold are the ones I would choose for the award, based on who/what was nominated.

Best Picture:

Best Actor:

Best Actress:

  • Saoirse Ronan (Little Women)
  • Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)

Best Supporting Actor:

  • Al Pacino (The Irishman)
  • Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes)
  • Joe Pesci (The Irishman)

Best Supporting Actress:

  • Florence Pugh (Little Women)
  • Laura Dern (Marriage Story)

Best Director:

  • Bong Joon Ho (Parasite)
  • Martin Scorsese (The Irishman)
  • Sam Mendes (1917)

Best Original Screenplay:

  • Sam MendesKrysty Wilson-Cairns (1917)
  • Rian Johnson (Knives Out)
  • Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story)
  • Bong Joon Ho, Jin Won Han (Parasite)
Best Adapted Screenplay:
  • Greta Gerwig (Little Women)
  • Steven Zaillian (The Irishman)
  • Anthony McCarten (The Two Popes)
Best Documentary Feature:
Best International Feature:
  • Honeyland
  • Pain and Glory
  • Parasite

film fatales #74: american factory (steven bognar and julia reichert, 2019)

This film will always be known as the first one produced by the Obamas' production company. It makes sense that they back it ... Bognar and Reichert make every effort to be fair to all sides. You could say it's a centrist film.

American Factory is about work, but it is more about clashing cultures, where the workplace is where the cultures meet. It takes place near Dayton, Ohio, where a Chinese company took over a former GM plant and remade it as a factory for making auto glass. The workers, many of whom lost jobs with GM, are initially glad to have someone running the plant and offering jobs, but over time, the American ideas about work clash with those of the Chinese. This comes across most clearly as the workers try to organize into a union (they fail).

I am not trustworthy about this topic. I spent ten years working in a factory, and that informed/poisoned my attitudes to this day. When the Chinese try to encourage a family feel among the workers and bosses, I get pissed just thinking back 35+ years to when I saw similar attempts at my workplace. I appreciate the desire of the filmmakers to show both sides, and I understand how the workers feel it necessary to accept less than ideal working conditions just so they can keep their jobs. But I can't stand the bosses. I think they are right about one thing ... the Chinese understand that automation is the future. In American Factory, they are seen as callous because they seem happy to lay off as many humans as possible and replace them with machines. But as someone with first hand knowledge of how shitty many factory jobs can be, and with a belief that there should be a way to support those workers as they are replaced (because the machines will do jobs no human should have to do), I find the whole thing frustrating. In my future utopia, no one works any more. I don't want people to get shitty jobs, I want people to get enough money to live without working. In other words, I am not trustworthy about this topic.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)


geezer cinema/film fatales #73: the rhythm section (reed morano, 2010)

Wow, people really hate this movie. It set some kind of record for worst opening weekend box office for a film playing in 3000+ theaters. The critical consensus at Rotten Tomatoes is 30% approval. Its Metacritic rating is 44/100.

Well, I realize it's damning with faint praise, but The Rhythm Section doesn't suck. Blake Lively is excellent (and in fairness, many of the critics who hated the film praised her performance). There's nothing special going on ... it's not the kind of movie you are dying to see, nor is it the kind of movie you'll want to push on your friends. But it's OK, certainly worth a look on cable on a Saturday afternoon.

Some people were disappointed, which accounts for at least part of the problem. If you had no positive thoughts beforehand, you wouldn't care if it stunk. But people like Blake Lively, and Reed Morano, who began as a cinematographer and who has an Emmy for her work directing The Handmaid's Tale, has a mild buzz about her. Yet The Rhythm Section doesn't quite succeed ... it's got too much character development to work as an action picture, but that development isn't all that interesting. There are a couple of good action scenes, both involving Lively, one fighting Jude Law and one with her driving in a car chase. It falls far short of greatness ... honestly, it falls short of goodness. But there are worse movies in the world, and I remain puzzled why The Rhythm Section is taking such abuse.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)


film fatales #72: honeyland (tamara kotevska and ljubomir stefanov, 2019)

Honeyland is a cinéma vérité portrait of a woman in Macedonia who is a beekeeper. Often with vérité documentaries, it is obvious that the people in the film are aware of the camera and crew. This never happens in Honeyland, and Hatidze Muratova, the beekeeper, is particularly "natural" in front of the camera. But it helps to remember that however it seems, there is a camera and crew that is present throughout the shooting of the film. 

While I usually prefer to know as little as possible going into a film, in the case of Honeyland, some advance knowledge would have been helpful. It was filmed over a period of three years, and while events occur over time, you couldn't build a real timeline based only the information in the film ... for all I knew, it could have been filmed over one year, or six months. It's not crucial to appreciating the film, but it's an example of how, absent context, Honeyland is often rather abstract. At one point, Muratova gets neighbors, a large family that sees her successes and decides to enter the beekeeping business as well. Muratova lives in harmony with her environs, but the family doesn't quite get how that harmony contributes to a balance that benefits all. Soon enough (or not ... again, I don't know how long this part of the movie takes in real time), the family's business fails while Muratova's suffers as well.

Honeyland is often gorgeous ... the Macedonia countryside is shown to great advantage. And the film makers do wonders with limited resources, working in an area without electricity, filming in Muratova's dark, cave-like home, at a location that is far removed from cities. Muratova herself is a remarkable character, without whom I'm not sure there would even be a movie.

But at several points, I wondered how Kotevska and Stefanov managed to maintain the hands-off needs of this kind of anthropological documentary. A young child almost drowns, and I was thinking, jeez, I hope if this turns really serious, they'll put down their cameras and save the little tyke.

Honeyland is nominated for two Oscars, Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature, which points to the breadth of its accomplishments. If part of what film can offer is a window into lives far different from our own, then Honeyland delivers.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)


film fatales #71: 35 shots of rum (claire denis, 2009)

Claire Denis (White Material) co-wrote and directed this film about four people who live in the same apartment building in Paris. I wouldn't say that Denis tells a story ... it's not that nothing happens, it's that she is interested in other things. As I wrote about White Material, "She doesn't bother too much with clarifying events for the viewer … she does not force-feed us as if we were stupid. It helps to let the movie wash over you, without attempting to impose your own structure. Eventually, the film becomes a whole ... Denis isn't as concerned with 'what happens' in a concrete sense; she wants to explore the inner perspectives of her main character ... It’s very idiosyncratic, but in a way that draws viewers in."

The same could be said for 35 Shots of Rum, which is a bit of an homage to Ozu's Late Spring, in that both concern a father and his young daughter trying to manage their lives together as the woman reaches the age when she could be striking out on her own. Denis takes her time. The relationships of the four people gradually become more clear (besides the father and daughter, there is a middle-aged women who once had an affair with the father and still carries a torch for him, and a young man with an eye on the daughter), but much of the emotional impact advances in subtle ways. They live relatively quiet lives, and what we see is mostly matter of fact. Much of what we learn about the people comes in quiet scenes that are sidelines to what was "really" supposed to happen. In a longish set piece, the four set out together for a concert. They never make it, but they do all end up in a restaurant, where little is said but small glances tell us a lot.

The father and his old flame dance together. The young people talk. Another couple starts to dance. The father switches to dance with his daughter. The young man cuts in. He kisses the daughter ... her reaction is uncertain. The father sees the kiss. He then dances with the restaurant owner as the old flame watches. Finally, they are all on a train back home ... all but the father, who we realize has stayed behind with the owner. None of this is blatant. Denis makes good use of The Commodores' "Nightshift":

The underplaying by the entire cast is perfect for what Denis is doing here. If you think nothing happens in the above scene, then 35 Shots of Rum is probably not for you. If you find the interactions fascinating, though, you will love this movie. #113 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. (Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)