film fatales #64: tig notaro: happy to be here (tig notaro, 2018)

Not sure if this qualifies as a movie ... where do you put stand-up comedy specials that run an hour or so? I'm calling it a movie, what the heck.

There is no confusion about the guiding light behind Happy to Be Here: Tig Notaro wrote it, directed it, and starred in what is essentially a one-woman show. Which is to say, it's a stand-up special. You don't come to Happy to Be Here worrying about the cinematography, you just want to know if it's funny. And comedy is perhaps more subjective than most genres. But Notaro isn't just about being funny. She deconstructs stand-up. Her jokes are of the shaggy dog variety, as she works her way around the topic, always threatening to reach the punchline, but never quite getting there. The punchline isn't necessarily the point. It's not that she frustrates the audience, but she messes with our expectations in a delightful way. She is not confrontational in Happy to Be Here ... she just wants us to join her on a journey as she tells us some stories that are funny. But the stories aren't the funniest part ... it's the getting there that matters.

The culmination is a long introduction to a special guest, her favorite group, the Indigo Girls. More than before, she plays with the audience, introducing the Indigo Girls only for nothing to happen, after which she teases us for thinking the Indigo Girls would actually show up, then teasing us for thinking they won't show up. This goes on for quite a while: introduction, no show, tease audience a couple of different ways, repeat. It would be a spoiler to tell how the routine ends up, and that in itself is a sign that Notaro is up to something different, for who would think a comedy special could have a spoiler?

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #63: daughters of the dust (julie dash, 1991)

This is the latest film I have watched in "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." Week 7 is called "Director Recommendations: Spike Lee Week":

Though some may consider Spike Lee divisive and controversial, his devotion and contributions to cinema cannot be denied. Though he does have quite a few words to say on different directors, usually on the critical side, he made it a point to make a list of films he deems important for anyone looking to make films, and that's what we'll be looking at this week.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Spike Lee's list of Essential Films All Aspiring Directors Need to Watch.

It's easy to see why Spike Lee finds this movie essential. It was the first feature film directed by an African-American woman that was distributed theatrically in the United States. Dash had a lot of trouble getting it made, eventually bringing it in for under a million dollars. The end result makes a case for independence ... Daughters of the Dust showcases a culture that has been mostly ignored in mainstream films, and Dash holds nothing back, playing with time/narrative, making the movie as authentic to the Gullah as possible, and foregrounding women characters without demonizing the men. Most of the people both in front of and behind the camera were African-American.

All of this could be a confusing mess, and Dash does expect her audience to follow along at her pace rather than ours. But even if occasional instances are confusing, there is an overriding feel for the culture that brings everything together.

The actors are well-chosen for their faces, and Dash's ability to get the most out of those faces. The actors are not amateurs, though ... they may be unknown to me, but they are professionals who add to the documentary feel of some of the movie by blending in seamlessly with the ambiance.

This was Dash's first fictional feature, and despite the critical acclaim, she hasn't been able to make more. She is quite busy directing television, including a biopic about Rosa Parks and episodes of the series Queen Sugar. And Daughters of the Dust lives on within the people who have seen it ... Beyoncé was influenced by the film when she made Lemonade.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #62: a woman, a part (elisabeth subrin, 2016)

This is the sixth film I have watched in "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 ... I already watched the Week 5 movie, Craig's Wife. This is from Week 31, because it won't be available to stream after the 11th. Week 31 is called "Contemporary Women Directors Week":

Last Season Challenge, there was a weekly challenge that focused on women directors pre-1960's. But this year, I thought we should focus on the women creating films today. Its no real secret that the film industry has not offered a lot of opportunity to women, though that seems to be slowly changing. So, in order to support these women currently creating films, we're gonna spend this week watching films directed by them. And hopefully someday there won't be such a divide in the industry that we won't need to push for more women helmed films, it'll just be happening already.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by a woman released in 2010 or later.

This is writer/director Elisabeth Subrin's first feature, although she has been making independent shorts for more than 20 years. Her experience means A Woman, A Part is missing the "first time out" problems that sometimes plague first features. This is a confident movie ... you never get the feeling Subrin isn't sure of what she's up to. I haven't seen her shorts, so I don't know how A Woman, A Part fits into her past work, but she offers an easy coherence to her story of a successful television actor, Anna, suffering from burn-out, and her attempt to get back to her roots in theater. The cast features several actors I know best from television: Maggie Siff (Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men), Cara Seymour (The Knick), John Ortiz (Luck), Khandi Alexander (The Corner, Treme). They are all great, which comes as no surprise. It's nice to see Siff in a leading role ... she's in virtually every scene, and she plays her part with a complicated balance of the character's uncertain neurosis about her profession and Siff's certain ability to make the most of this meaty part.

Subrin keeps things moving, and I suspect editor Jennifer Ruff has something to do with that. The film suffers from the dreariness of its main character ... Anna is mopey at times, she's coming off an auto-immune disease, she's abusing drugs, and she's not sure what she wants for her future. It's hard to complain, though. To properly give us Anna, Subrin knows she has to avoid any flashiness we might associate with a TV star. And Siff is so good, she gets us through the slower segments.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


geezer cinema/film fatales #61: hustlers (lorene scafaria, 2019)

I have to admit, I was hoping for more. Hustlers is perfectly acceptable, but I thought it would be really good, based on the reviews. Jennifer Lopez is fine ... like the movie, there's nothing wrong with her performance, but I was expecting something Oscar-worthy, and I didn't see it. (She's not even the main actress ... she's got a shot at Best Supporting Actress, but Constance Wu is the lead.) She has a star power the rest of the actors lack ... when she makes her first appearance at the strip club, wearing a thong, and men start throwing money at her, it's believable, and there is more to her in Hustlers than her ass. But again, not earthshaking.

I thought I would be watching a movie about women's friendships with each other, and it's there, but it's more toxic than I expected. They take care of each other when things are good, and when the financial crisis hits, they band together to support each other. Banding together means getting back at men, and the men deserve it, but there's less of a revenge angle than you might think. I don't know, it all felt a bit by the numbers.

Looking at the above, I see that I wanted one kind of movie and I got another. Ultimately, that's on me. Hustlers is OK, and you might think it is better than OK. I was disappointed, though. Shout out to Cardi B, who made the most of her brief appearances ... I wanted to see more from her.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #60: craig's wife (dorothy arzner, 1936)

This is the first film I have watched in a new challenge, "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." The challenge doesn't start until September 8, but I jumped ahead because Craig's Wife is leaving the Criterion Channel at the end of this month. Craig's Wife is from Week 5, "watch a previously unseen film adapted from or based on a stage play."

This is the first Dorothy Arzner film I have seen, so I can't speak to any career-long traits to her directing. While her treatment of Harriet, "Craig's wife", led me to find Harriet unlikable, George Kelly, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning play on which the film is based, apparently disagreed. As Molly Haskell relates,

Kelly was apparently horrified at Arzner's interpretation.

"I imagined Mr Craig was dominated somewhat by his mother and therefore fell in love with a woman stronger than he," [Arzner] said in the same interview. "I thought Mr Craig should be down on his knees with gratitude because Mrs Craig made a man of him. When I told Kelly this, he rose to his six-foot height, and said, 'That is not my play. Walter Craig was a sweet guy and Mrs Craig was an SOB.' He left. That was the only contact I had with Kelly."

Harriet is the tragic figure in Craig's Wife ... I just can't tell how sorry we are supposed to feel for her. I wanted her to get her comeuppance, but between Arzner's presentation and the acting of Rosalind Russell, I also felt sympathy for her. Harriet was striving for the only thing she felt was available to her as a woman of her time: security, which is represented by her home (the film could have been called "Craig's Wife's Home"), which she gets by marrying a man with money. She doesn't let her husband or anyone else get in the way of her home/security, which eventually leaves her alone in that home. It served her right and I felt bad for her anyway.

This was Russell's first top billing. I've never thought of myself as a big fan, but she co-stars in one of my favorite movies, His Girl Friday, and it may just be that I haven't seen enough of the movies she made earlier in her career. Billie Burke pops up, and for people of my generation, just hearing her voice brings memories of Glinda the Good Witch.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


geezer cinema/film fatales #59: blinded by the light (gurinder chadha, 2019)

The latest movie in the weekly trip to the theater that my wife and I have started since she retired. This was my choice, although I was really just making good on a plan we hatched with a friend back when Blinded by the Light was first announced, that we would go see it ASAP.

On seeing the film, Springsteen reportedly said, "I don't want you to change a thing. It's perfect." Which reminded me of an anecdote Pauline Kael told about the 1940s musical Night and Day, a biopic about Cole Porter.

"William Bowers, one of the three scenarists, said later that he was so ashamed of this picture that about a year after it came out he called Cole Porter, whose biography it purported to be, and told him how sorry he was, and Porter said, "Love it. Just loved it. Oh, I thought it was marvelous." Bowers says that he told Oscar Hammerstein how puzzled he was by this, and Hammerstein said, "How many of his songs did you have in it?" Bowers answered "Twenty-seven," and Hammerstein said, "Well of course he loved it. They only turned out to be twenty-seven of the greatest songs of all time. You don't think he heard that stuff that went on between his songs, do you?"

It's hard to imagine a subject for a film that would be more appealing to me than the story of a person transformed by a love of Bruce Springsteen. Oh, I had read enough advance reviews to know that Blinded by the Light would probably be kinda sappy, which isn't my favorite thing, but c'mon, it's Bruce! It has lots of his songs! He liked the movie!

And there was even an added attraction I had somehow missed: among the cast is Hayley Atwell!

It started out OK, although it takes awhile to get to Bruce. We learn about the hardships of growing up Pakistani in the England of Maggie Thatcher. We learn about how Luton appears to Javed (Viveik Kalra), a teenage resident (it sucks). We learn about the struggles of Javed and his hard-nosed father. It's a good setup for the scene where Javed is introduced to the music of Bruce Springsteen. Most people tell him he can't relate to Bruce, a white American who sings about girls and cars. But the setup makes it all obvious ... it's not just that Bruce is universal, it's that he speaks to Javed in ways that are quite on target.

It's when Javed's life is changed by Bruce that the film goes downhill. Granted, this is a good example of Your Mileage May Vary, because most of what I didn't like about the movie related to the style of the film. It's almost as if Chadha and writer Sarfraz Manzoor took this Made for Steven concept and used every trick in the Steven Hates This book.

I like that Bruce's songs inspire Javed, and the movie does a good job of showing that. But for some reason, it didn't occur to me that at times, Blinded by the Light would turn into the kind of musical I hate. It's one thing for Bruce's music to play while Kalra's face shows us the connection, and I even liked the way the lyrics sometimes turned up on the screen. But I really didn't need characters inserting Bruce lyrics into their conversations. It was enough to hear the music and see the actors working with the concept. It was over the top when those characters said things like "tramps like us, baby we were born to run".

Some of the joy Bruce brings to Javed is contagious, and effectively presented. But I didn't need to see "Born to Run" turned into a song-and-dance for Javed and his friends.

So figure it's just me and my taste preferences, and go see Blinded by the Light for yourself, because you'll probably think it's harmless fun. I'd watch a movie with nothing but Bruce Springsteen singing songs. But the last thing I want to see is a musical with other people singing his songs.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


top three of each year

I've been spending a little time at the Letterboxd website ... this is what happens when you're retired, I guess. A couple of fellows from Germany uploaded a list of their top three films of each year, and I got inspired enough to create my own list. It starts in 1924 and goes through 2018. Two years (1926 and 1929) only got two movies, so the entire list is comprised of 283 movies. The thing that interested me the most was the recent films, because when I make Top 50 lists or whatever, I always end up with lots of old movies and not enough new ones. By forcing myself to pick three from each year, I was able to give recent years some space. So, to take a couple of years at random, from 2018, Black Panther, Roma, and Springsteen on Broadway made the list, while 2005 offered A History of Violence, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Top three from 1924? Sherlock, Jr., Greed, and The Navigator (lots of Buster Keaton in the silent years).

You can check out the list here:

Top 3 of each year, 1924-2018


geezer cinema/film fatales #58: the farewell (lulu wang, 2019)

The latest movie in the weekly trip to the theater that my wife and I have started since she retired. This was my choice. I only recognized two names from the cast, Awkwafina and Tzi Ma, and knew nothing about writer/director Lulu Wang. What I did know is that the film has gotten excellent reviews, which is usually good enough for me. Having now seen The Farewell, I can say those accolades were well-deserved.

The Farewell is the kind of movie I often describe as being known for what it is not. While it is sentimental, it is not overly so, and that emotion does not overwhelm the film. It is touching but not smarmy. You might think a movie about a grandmother dying will be predictable, but The Farewell is surprising without seeming random. Events occur in a natural way, without ever falling into cliché. In essence, The Farewell is a movie that will be appreciated by most people, even if the premise doesn't sound like your cup of tea.

The acting has a lot to do with the film's successes. Awkwafina rises to the challenge of carrying a movie, although the supporting cast is very strong and she is never carrying things on her own. Even better is Zhao Shuzhen as the grandmother. While she is apparently a fairly big star in China, the 75-year-old actor is making what is, to the best of my knowledge, her feature film debut (at the least, it's her first American movie). Everything I say about the film's positive qualities is demonstrated in her performance: emotional, but also funny, touching, but also knowing, unpredictable in the way a character and an actor can make believable. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention Diana Lin, another actor I'd never heard of, who is excellent as a woman who holds her emotions in check.

There's no telling what went on during the making of the movie, but when an entire cast shines, I assume the director had a lot to do with it. Since Wang also wrote the dialogue, I'd say she is the number one reason The Farewell is so good.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series. I'm going to have to update this soon.)


political films

Another list. This time, we were asked to name our favorite political films, leaving us to define "political". There was a complicated point system that allowed for different numbers of movies in a response. In my case, I voted for ten movies, with points totaling 100 and no film getting more than 30 points. Here is my ballot, with points and a link to my reviews:

The Sorrow and the Pity 30 points
The Rules of the Game 20
The Passion of Joan of Arc 15
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days 14
The Lives of Others 13
The Battle of Chile (Parts 1 & 2) 3
Harlan County, USA 2
The Leopard 1
The Battle of Algiers 1
Wild in the Streets 1 (Oddly, I've never written about this movie, although I assigned it once in a class)

Here are the top ten in the final poll, with links when relevant:

  1. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
  2. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
  3. Election (1999)
  4. The Battle of Algiers (1966)
  5. Nashville (1975)
  6. All the President’s Men (1976)
  7. Paths of Glory (1957)
  8. The Rules of the Game (1939)
  9. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007)
  10. Do the Right Thing (1989)


overlooked

This post comes under the Pointless List category. Indiewire just posted "The 100 Best Movies of the Decade". Along with this, they "asked our panel of film critics to pick the one overlooked film of the past 10 years that they most hope people will find, rediscover, or reconsider in the future." What follows is ten movies I think fit under the parameters of their question. None of these made their Top 100 of the Decade. None made their Overlooked survey. Having said that, here are some movies from the 2010s that I seem to have liked more than others. Not sure that makes them overlooked ... you've heard of a couple of these, I imagine. Each movie includes a link to when I wrote about them. There is no particular order, except that I think The Square is the best movie on this list.