film fatales #88: leviathan (lucien castaing-taylor and verena paravel, 2012)

I can imagine this experimental film appealing to some people, so take this with a grain of salt. I did not find it appealing.

The concept is interesting: a documentary on commercial fishing off the coast of New Bedford, where parts of Moby Dick took place. Credit must also be given to the directors for not just taking the easy route of most documentaries. The film eschews things like linear narrative, dialogue or narration, or any contextual moments to help the audience find its bearings. It is perhaps best described as psychedelic, and I wish I'd taken some edibles before watching.

Wikipedia offers some insight into the production. "Over the course of filming Leviathan, Castaing-Taylor got seasick and Paravel went to the emergency room numerous times.... While filming, the director's first camera was lost at sea and they had to resort to their backup cameras, Go-Pros. The images produced by the Go-Pros created afterimages of haunting qualities due to the lack of clarity within the lens. According to Castaing-Taylor, 'It activated the viewer’s imagination much more.'"

It all sounds fascinating, but I barely survived the 87-minute running time. For me, the key was the total lack of context. I was rarely able to figure out such basic things as what am I seeing, or where is this scene, or why is this important. As I say, it may work on some abstract level, but I'm not sure I have 87 minutes of abstract in me at this point in my life.

There was a scene that summarized my reaction, far too easily, in fact. I actually knew what I was seeing for a change. One of the fishermen is sitting at a table in what looks to be an eating area. There is a jar of mayonnaise on the table, and a tin of chewing tobacco, among other things. The fisherman appears to be having a chew ... he occasionally spits into a cup. We hear what sounds like a television show, although we don't see it, and I'm not sure how they had a TV out on the sea. It's a one-take scene, with a stationary camera. It lasts for around 4 1/2 minutes. We watch the man ... we hear the TV ... the man spits ... he stares in the direction of what we assume is the TV ... he spits ... we watch him ... and gradually, after about 4 of those minutes, his eyes gradually close and we realize he is falling asleep. Everybody's a critic.

Some critics didn't fall asleep ... it's #83 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.)

geezer cinema/film fatales#87: the old guard (gina prince-bythewood, 2020)

A superhero movie with a difference, starting with the fact that if, like me, you came to the movie cold, you couldn't tell it was a superhero movie until things were well underway. Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights) gives us a movie that falls into one of my most-used genres, where a movie is praised for what it doesn't do. There are action scenes, but they tend to be more individual fighting rather than car chases. Time is offered to give depth to all of the main characters ... I usually balk at such things, because the efforts are half-hearted and I just want to get to the good stuff. But Prince-Bythewood pulls another switch on the standard superhero film, by making the characters matter. No one wears a costume, and they only have one super power (which does give them the chance to become really good at fighting).

The Old Guard has a strong cast, beginning with Charlize Theron in the lead. Theron is an Oscar winner with a solid pedigree in action pictures as well, from the sublime (Mad Max: Fury Road) to the not-so-sublime (Atomic Blonde). The Old Guard is in the middle, quite a bit better than Atomic Blonde without reaching the heights of Fury Road.

Theron once again does many of her own stunts, which makes her performance more believable. KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) is a standout as the second lead, and it was good to see Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) in a minor role. The plot is a little silly, and the movie drags at times (it clocks in at just over 2 hours). But you'll find yourself caring, not just about the action, but also about the characters. Which will be especially important when the inevitable sequel arrives.

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

geezer cinema/film fatales #86: relic (natalie erika james, 2020)

Natalie Erika James has done a little of everything in the film business, and now with Relic, she has directed a feature, as well. She is new enough that she doesn't have a Wikipedia page as of this writing, and her IMDB bio is equally blank. Relic should change all of that.

Relic is a horror movie, I suppose ... depending on your mood, you might be frightened at times. (At one point, I told my wife that the movie was scary because nothing was happening. She said no, it's simply that nothing is happening. Yes, replied, that's what makes it scary ... you don't know what is coming! I liked it a lot more than she did.) It is a slow movie, but it's also brief (89 minutes) and it picks up in the last half hour, where it most resembles a typical horror film.

There are three generations of women in the family that appears in the film: Edna, her daughter Kay, and Kay's grown-up daughter Sam. While the film doesn't tell us their ages, the ages of the actors suffices, I think: Robyn Nevin (77), Emily Mortimer (48), and Bella Heathcote (33). Edna lives along in a big house in the woods. There are mysteries about that house, but James doesn't get specific, and for most of the film, Kay and Sam just assume Edna is suffering from dementia (which may be true, but which doesn't necessarily explain events).

We in the audience are always disoriented. James and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff accomplish this mostly by using odd angles, with mirrors turning up in unusual places. We don't always realize we are looking at a reflection. And more than once, there is a shift in perspective that throws us off. A person opens a door, and we never know if the next shot will be from their point of view, or from the view on the other side of the door. It's very subtle, but it works, perhaps more so because we don't really recognize it as it's happening.

James draws a parallel between our unease and that of a person with dementia, never sure what is real or what actually happened. But, as with everything in Relic, James isn't about to state anything clearly and obviously. Thus, when the movie was over, my wife still thought nothing happened, and I couldn't really argue with her. It's not that kind of horror movie. But it insinuates itself into the viewer. James is a talent to watch.

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

This marks the 50th movie Robin and I have watched during our We're Retired Geezers, Let's Go to the Movies Once a Week program. We saw 32 in a theater before the quarantine began, 18 at home. Here is a letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies.

film fatales #85: cameraperson (kirsten johnson, 2016)

Cameraperson has a fascinating premise. Kirsten Johnson is a cinematographer with more than 50 credits to her name, mostly in documentaries (Citizenfour, The Invisible War, This Film Is Not Yet Rated). Cameraperson is her solo debut as a feature director, and it is quite personal. It begins with the following statement on the screen:

For the past 25 years I've worked as a documentary cinematographer. I originally shot the following footage for other films, but here I ask you to see it as my memoir. These are the images that have marked me and leave me wondering still.

I felt an immediate affinity with this approach ... after all, the motto of this blog filled with my thoughts on movies, television, music, and the like, refers to the entire project as my memoirs. Just for starters, though, Johnson has been a lot more places than I have. The film takes us, among other places, to Afghanistan, Rwanda, and Bosnia as well as Washington D.C., Queens, and Alabama. Most of what we see, obviously, relates to the films she worked on. (The IMDB page lists Jacques Derrida at the top of the cast list, although he appears only briefly; Johnson worked on the film Derrida.) But she also includes footage of her family, in particular her mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer's, and who eventually dies. Johnson is ever-present in the documentary footage ... we can hear her talking behind the camera, but we don't see her face until the end of the movie, when she is talking with her mom. Her presence, combined with the opening quote about memoirs, provide something of a theme for the film.

But Johnson's methods seem to reject structure. Even people who love the film admit it's hard to follow at first, because Johnson moves from one brief clip to another, with title cards telling us where we are. Because the clips are taken out of context (whatever the movie Derrida was like, all we see here is him crossing a street and making a philosophy joke), we're left "wondering still", and because the order in which she shows the clips seems haphazard, it's not easy to understand just what she intends with Cameraperson. By the end of the movie, though, we appreciate the skill she uses in putting together the "story", and while I'm still not sure what her intentions were, it's clear she has them. Cameraperson is not haphazard. #230 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.)

geezer cinema/film fatales #84: harriet (kasi lemmons, 2019)

Kasi Lemmons has had an interesting career. She began as an actor, appearing in such films as School Daze, Fear of a Black Hat, and Hard Target. The fine Eve's Bayou marked her directorial feature debut, and I was a fan of her Talk to Me. Now comes her latest, Harriet, which won many awards including six Women Film Critics Circle Award, one for Best Movie by a Woman. The movies I have seen of hers strike me as consistently good, if not great.

Lemmons (who also co-wrote the screenplay) does well by refusing to fall into the too-common pitfalls of biopics. As far as I know, Harriet sticks fairly close to the historical truth. While it becomes a bit repetitious, she never overdoes it. One problem is that Harriet Tubman was apparently too good at her job. It is said that she had a 100% success rate at conducting slaves to freedom, and the repetition combined with her skills mean the escape scenes eventually lose the kind of tension you expect in such cases. But Harriet rarely drags.

Another example of where the fidelity to real history causes a problem with the film is due to the fact that Tubman suffered a head injury when young that affected her the rest of her life. She would have headaches and seizures and fall unconscious. Tubman had visions during these times, which she attributed to God. That she was inspired is certain, and the film does a good job of showing how she used these incidents to make important decisions. But since the divine inspiration is never questioned in Harriet, it feels as if God, not Harriet, was the one saving those slaves. Tubman may have thought this was the case, but the power of her life as it comes down to us through history lies in her own very human qualities. Harriet Tubman deserves the credit, not the Lord.

Lifting Harriet above the usual is the tremendous, Oscar-nominated performance in the title role by Cynthia Erivo (Widows). Erivo is always believable as this woman whose commitment to freedom was unstoppable. She doesn't play Tubman as if she were just a person who might one day be on the twenty-dollar bill. Erivo gives us a Harriet Tubman who was a real woman, cutting through the historical figure. It's impressive.

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

film fatales #83: zama (lucrecia martel, 2017)

Lucretia Martel takes her time between fiction features ... Zama was her first in nine years, and only her fourth since 2001. But she's busy ... between 2001 and the present, she has also made more than half a dozen shorts and a feature documentary. Zama was highly anticipated.

I wrote about her La Ciénaga,"You need to settle into its rhythms, you need to accept that Martel isn't going to hold your hand, but there's a difference between wanting the audience to be uncomfortable and making a movie that did not connect with an audience. Scenes begin and end in the middle, you aren't always immediately sure where you are, but you aren't lost." Much the same could be said about Zama.

It helps to approach Zama without trying to squeeze it into pre-conceived notions. The more you try to figure out what is going on, the less you'll get out of the movie. Which isn't to suggest Zama is too obscure for enjoyment. It's just that its pleasures have less to do with narrative thrust and more to do with the feel of each scene. The title character is an official functionary somewhere in Argentina. He wants to leave ... he spends much of the movie trying to facilitate his release ... his desire is understandable, but Zama becomes something of a comical figure because his hopes are never going to be fulfilled, and at times, he seems to be the only person that doesn't realize this. The arc of his story is probably the easiest thing to latch onto, but Martel isn't really concerned with audience ease. Meanwhile, the subject of imperialism wavers between text and subtext, as the nobility exists on the backs of slaves it barely acknowledges.

Zama is comical, although his trials finally become too extreme for us to laugh at. And life for the slaves is not funny at all. Martel effectively blends subtle commentary and absurd bureaucracy, all the while condemning the ruling class for their perfidies. It's a fine movie for a patient audience. #61 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.)

film fatales #82: the nightingale (jennifer kent, 2018)

I didn't know what to expect from The Nightingale. I wanted to watch it because I loved Kent's debut as a director, The Babadook, but when a director only has one feature to their name, it's hard to construct any patterns. Now that I've seen her second feature, I'm not sure what patterns have emerged, because the two films are quite different. There is the obvious point, though, that Kent, who wrote her movies as well as directed them, brings a woman's perspective to her films. The Babadook was a horror story that focused on a mom ... The Nightingale is also horrific, but it's more reality-based. It's story is also seen through the eyes of a female protagonist.

The Nightingale is a brutal film, one that might play a lot differently with a man in charge (think Game of Thrones). Horrible things happen to the heroine, and Kent insists on letting us know what we are seeing and hearing. A look at the Parents Guide on IMDB (not recommended unless you've seen the movie) details enough events to warn off anyone with particular triggers. But it is never voyeuristic, never pleasurable. Kent takes us inside her heroine ... she doesn't shy away from what happens, but she always keeps her focus and ours on the character.

The movie is long and expansive ... it could stand to be a bit shorter (it's about 40 minutes longer than The Babadook). The length lends an epic feel to the film, and Kent uses the time to cover everything she thinks matters. The Nightingale is repetitive at times. But it overwhelms in the final analysis.

The conclusion is important. At its core, The Nightingale is a revenge drama, and the heroine gets some of the revenge she seeks. But Kent pulls back at the end, understanding that revenge is never going to completely fix what has come before. The finish is a bit anti-climactic, because we in the audience want the revenge. But it's an appropriate climax. And if you make it to the end of The Nightingale, you won't be able to shake its power. Special shoutouts to the leads, Aisling Franciosi and newcomer Baykali Ganambarr.

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

by request/film fatales #81: knock down the house (rachel lears, 2019)

Cori Bush. Paula Jean Swearengin. Amy Vilela. I'm embarrassed to admit I knew nothing about these women before watching Knock Down the House. They all ran for office in the 2018 midterm elections as part of the attempt to make the Democratic Party, and thus the U.S., more progressive. All three women are interesting, and what we learn of their personal stories informs their politics. All three (spoiler alert) lost their elections, which is probably why I hadn't heard of them.

Rachel Lears chose her subjects via a process whereby she worked with progressive organizations to find women like the ones featured in the movie. When she starts, she doesn't know which, if any, will win, but she is there, fly on the wall, giving us an intimate feel for what a grass roots campaign is like.

The problem with Knock Down the House (and, let's face, it's not really a problem), is that none of those women are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Since Ocasio-Cortez wins her election, which we know, and since she has become an instant attraction in Congress and in the country, her part in the film overwhelms the story of the other women. This is no one's fault. I doubt Lears could have predicted what happened.

But AOC (we've had FDR and JFK and LBJ ... they were presidents ... Ocasio-Cortez is a representative in the House, but she's known by her initials just like her predecessors) wins her election where the others don't. This results in an inspirational scene (one of many) that is guaranteed to make you get teary-eyed (I suppose if you are one of those people who hate her, you'd be crying about then as well): when AOC realizes she has won.

We know from her story, which Lears shows us effectively, that she wasn't born to be a politician. But she is so charismatic that she wins you over. And no matter how she was born, she seems like a natural politician in the best possible way. When she thanks the people who helped her achieve victory, it doesn't feel boilerplate, it feels real.

Of course, just as she has quickly become an icon for some, she personifies the enemy for others. But Knock Down the House isn't made for those people.

Bush, Swearengin, and Vilela are also vital progressives with big dreams. Like I say, this is no one's fault. But AOC is a star, and Rachel Lears is a film maker who knows what she's got. So of course she focuses most on Ocasio-Cortez.

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

film fatales #80: welcome to me (shira piven, 2014)

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." Week 28 is called "Leigh, Leigh, Leigh, or Leigh Week".

A play off of last year's "Lee, Lee, Lee, or Li" week, I initially struggled to find a fourth Leigh, but then I remembered Vivien Leigh whom I somehow forgot. Obviously these selected people have little in common with each other, but its just something I threw in for fun.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by Mike Leigh or starring Janet Leigh, Jennifer Jason Leigh, or Vivien Leigh.

This was harder than I expected. I originally chose something called Jake Squared, which featured Jennifer Jason Leigh, but after watching the trailer, I decided I really didn't want to see that one. So I went with Welcome to Me, which I had been thinking about watching for some time. It's a bit of a cheat, though ... Jennifer Jason Leigh is in this one, too, but her part is pretty small. (For one of my favorite Leigh films, check out The Anniversary Party.)

Welcome to Me is interesting, but not completely successful. Director Shira Piven, screenwriter Eliot Laurence, and star Kristen Wiig as Alice deserve credit for presenting a bipolar character without resorting to some of the stereotypes we're used to. Wiig is often just a little off (and sometimes, a lot off) ... she doesn't play the part as if she's begging for an Oscar. And the film doesn't make the mistake of making Alice overly lovable, or suggest that bipolar people are somehow "better" than the rest of us, even as they suffer. (I'm cheating a bit using the word "us" ... I, too, am bipolar, although I'm "II" and Alice is clearly Type I.) Alice is troubled, but she is also so self-absorbed that she is practically clueless about the possible problems of others.

But the film doesn't really go anywhere. Alice makes some marginal changes, but not enough to wake the movie up. It is funny at times (it's Kristen Wiig, after all), although you get the feeling they were trying for farce and not getting there. It is extremely sad at times ... in this way, Welcome to Me is rather bipolar itself. But despite the best efforts of all concerned, there are times when we are laughing at Alice as much as we are suffering for her.

All of this makes Welcome to Me an uncomfortable film to watch, and really, that's a good thing ... this isn't a run-of-the-mill movie about a crazy person. But the discomfort comes in part from the feeling that the material is moving beyond the grasp of the intentions of Pivan and crew.

Kristen Wiig is very good, and plenty of good names turn up, especially Linda Cardellini as Alice's best friend. Welcome to Me is OK, but that's as far as I'd go.

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

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.)