film fatales #45 and #46: the ascent (larisa shepitko, 1977) and the spy who dumped me (susanna fogel, 2018)

Obviously, these movies have nothing in common except they are directed by women, but I watched them on successive nights, so here they are, from the sublime to the not quite ridiculous.

The Ascent is the last film completed by Larisa Shepitko before her untimely death at 41 in a car crash. It's the first of her movies I've seen, and at first, I had a hard time giving it context. Then I realized that Anatoliy Solonitsyn, who plays a Soviet collaborator with the Nazis, was in three Tarkovsky films I'd seen (Andrei Rublev, The Mirror, and Stalker). I suppose it says something that I never mentioned Solonitsyn's name when writing about those three films ... it's not that he was bad, but I was doing everything I could to simply follow what was happening to notice his work.

I am not conversant enough in Soviet politics to know what specific effect state censorship had on movies in the Brezhnev era. But The Ascent would seem to be "acceptable" because the heroes are the Soviet people who fight the Nazis, and the worst characters are the collaborators. Meanwhile, Shepitko sneaks in a Christian allegory that seems obvious, but which escaped censorship. (Again, I don't know a lot about this, and I'm sure Shepitko had to deal with the State's expectations in various ways. But The Ascent seems like both a paean to Soviet values and a recognition of the power of religious belief.)

This time I won't make the mistake of ignoring the actors. Besides Solonitsyn, there are excellent performances by Vladimir Gostyukhin as a soldier who believes in survival, and Boris Plotnikov as the Christ figure. I don't want to over-emphasize the allegorical aspect ... I just can't pretend it isn't there. The Ascent has a remarkable look, white on white (it takes place in winter, in the snow), and Shepitko relies on near-constant closeups that don't just allow us to count the pores in a face, but seemingly to see into each character's soul. For me, The Ascent is better than any Tarkovsky movie I've seen, and I highly recommend it. #733 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

And then there's The Spy Who Dumped Me. It works as an entertaining throwaway, with one caveat, that there is a lot of shoot-em-up violence ... a lot of dead people who aren't important as people, which matters. I watch a lot of movies with plenty of nondescript characters getting killed in various ways ... it's not the mindless violence I'm objecting to. But The Spy Who Dumped Me suffers from a serious schizophrenia between those scenes and the comedy that makes the film entertaining. This isn't Bonnie and Clyde, where we laugh right up to the point when a man is shot in the face and we realize it's not a joke. It's just an action comedy with plenty of people dying.

The action scenes aren't bad, but they aren't special. What is special is the interplay between Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon. It's surprising that this is the first Kate McKinnon movie I've seen, since like much of America I'm a big fan of her work on Saturday Night Live. She doesn't disappoint here, and she and Kunis make a good team. Outlander fans will enjoy Sam Heughan as a spy ... he turns in a nice comedic performance. I want to like this movie, and it's OK ... I wish it were more.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


12 i missed, revisited

Ten years ago, following up on a meme of the times, I looked at "Twelve movies you haven't seen that you should have seen and are embarrassed to admit you have missed." Over the last ten years, I have managed to see all 12 (links provided when I could hunt them down ... a reminder that you can see every movie I ever wrote about on the blog here):

Tokyo Story.

Sunrise.

L'Atalante.

Children of Paradise.

Persona.

Ordet.

Contempt.

Andrei Rublev.

La Strada.

Pather Panchali.

Au hasard Balthazar.

The Mirror.

If I were to redo this meme, using the same methodology as before (basically, what movies from They Shoot Pictures, Don't They I haven't seen, ranked from the top), this is what I'd find. If I'm still around in ten years, I'll check again:

Sátántangó

Once Upon a Time in America

The Mother and the Whore

Hiroshima mon amour

Letter from an Unknown Woman

A Brighter Summer Day

A Day in the Country

Rome, Open City

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

Histoire(s) du cinéma

Beau travail

Come and See

Ten years ago, I also listed the top 12 American movies I hadn't seen. Here is an updated version of that (the ones in bold are repeats from ten years ago):

Once Upon a Time in AmericaLetter from an Unknown Woman, The Crowd, Only Angels Have Wings, Meshes of the Afternoon, Love Streams, Lost Highway, Stranger Than Paradise, Man of Aran, Heaven's Gate, Chelsea Girls, The Dead.

Finally, since this is easier than it was ten years ago, the top 12 movies from the 21st century I haven't seen:

Russian Ark, Werckmeister Harmonies, The Turin Horse, Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, Inland Empire, Zhantai, Silent Light, Syndromes and a Century, Good Bye Dragon Inn, Holy Motors, Songs from the Second Floor, Still Life.

 


    revisiting a cult classic

    I recommend The Babadook on a regular basis, especially as Halloween approaches, as I find it a superior horror film. I first saw it the year after it came out, and I'll mostly cut-and-paste what I said about it at the time:

    The Babadook is an Australian horror film, the first feature from director/writer Jennifer Kent (an ex-actor). ... You could watch it as a standard horror film about a monster that comes from a book, and it definitely works on that level. But it is also ripe for detailed analysis, particularly from a feminist angle. ... The main character isn’t the titular monster, nor is it the frightened and disturbed young boy who initially seems to be its target. No, this is a movie about a mother’s grief, and [Essie] Davis plays the entire spectrum from holding-it-together to flat-out-losing-it in a moving and believable way. Kent’s eye is remarkable for a first-time director (with excellent work from Polish cinematographer Radek Ladczuk and book designer Alex Juhasz). She also worked hard to draw a strong performance from young newcomer Noah Wiseman, while also doing her best to avoid exploiting the child during emotionally intense scenes. The Babadook is better than a simple plot description might suggest, and I recommend it to most people (as the IMDB notes, it includes “Definite trigger warnings for anyone who had a violent or abusive relationship with parents”, so I can’t recommend it to everyone).

    I was reminded of this movie a few months ago when I saw Hereditary. Both films are about grief, with strong performances by the lead actress. I prefer The Babadook, but your mileage may vary.


    film fatales #44: faces places (agnès varda and jr, 2017)

    This is the fifth Varda film I've seen, all within the time I've been writing this blog. I don't know what took me so long to get started on her work, and I'm puzzled why, even though I have loved every one her movies I have seen, she doesn't come immediately to mind when I think of my favorite directors. (For the record, the others of her films I have seen are Cleo from 5 to 7VagabondThe Gleaners and I, and The Beaches of Agnes.) The most recent of these movies, including Faces Places, have an impish quality that is quite appealing. Varda was in her 70s and 80s when she made those films, and the themes of aging and mortality are present, but Varda makes you want to live a better life, makes you want to appreciate what you have while you still have it.

    The film that preceded Faces Places, The Beaches of Agnes, was thought to be her last movie, but almost a decade later, she gave us Faces Places, co-directed by artist and photographer JR. The two of them travel the French countryside in a van that includes a photo booth. Villagers have their photos taken, and enormous prints come out of the side of the van, much like the photo booths in amusement parks. He then plasters the large photos on buildings, rock, anything, creating remarkable larger-than-life visions of the people. Seeing their photos on the sides of buildings, the villagers encounter a new way of looking at themselves. Varda is the one who picks many of the locations, and her fascination with the smallest items makes everything seem larger-than-life.

    Varda and JR make quite a team. You can't help wishing for more Agnès and less JR, but no one expected her to make another movie, and she was 89 when the film was made. And JR is a perfect companion, an artist in his own right whose ability to make artful magic out of everyday life is a good fit for Varda.

    JR spends the entire movie wearing a hat and sunglasses, and Varda presses him constantly to remove his glasses so she can see his eyes. (Eyes matter, here ... Varda is going blind, at one point getting an injection directly into her eye to help.) Near the end, Varda convinces JR to visit her old New Wave friend Jean-Luc Godard. When they arrive at his house, Godard has left a cryptic message for Agnès, but he is not there. She is clearly disappointed, as are we ... although the film focuses on "regular" people, we look forward to the appearance from Godard as a way to remind us of Varda's connection to the French New Wave. As the film ends, JR tries to find a way to give something special to Agnès, and suddenly, the obvious comes to him: he removes his sunglasses. We see his face as Agnès sees it, blurry, so that he maintains his mystery for the audience even as he makes a present for Varda. "I don't see you very well," she says, "but I see you." It's overwhelming, and Godard is forgotten for the moment. #339 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

    (Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


    film fatales #43: india's daughter (leslee udwin, 2015)

    A documentary about the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, an Indian med student, India's Daughter fills its 63 minutes with just the right amount of information, never losing the feel of outrage and anger while connecting the act to the larger Indian society. We also see the enormous reaction of the people who weren't going to accept what had happened (along with the repressive actions of the state against those people).

    The people who support the traditional Indian ways come off the worst, none more than defense lawyer A.P. Singh, who states, "If my daughter or sister engaged in premarital activities and disgraced herself and allowed herself to lose face and character by doing such things, I would most certainly take this sort of sister or daughter to my farmhouse, and in front of my family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight." Even so, some have complained that just by allowing such people to air their thoughts, Udwin is giving them a platform they don't deserve.

    The film's title also exposes some of the problems with the movie. While it is specific to India, enough so that the Indian government banned the film, there isn't an effort to connect the problem to the worldwide presence of rape. You can only do so much in 63 minutes, and again, Udwin is being specific to the case in question and its ramifications for India, so I'm not sure this criticism is useful. More important, though, is the insistence, reflected in the title, that this is a movie about a daughter. As Tanvi Misra wrote:

    The film shows Jyoti as an abstract symbol. She is “India’s daughter”—mourned by parents, and appropriated by both a cause and its opposition for their respective agendas. She is split in the imagination of her country. For the rapists and their lawyers, she failed her daughterly duties and bore the consequences. “India’s daughter” is supposed to have guarded her own modesty, which is linked to the prestige of the family. She was supposed to have been virtuous and virginal, protected and defined largely by male relatives....

    The other narrative strain in the film ... talked about how “good” Jyoti was. She was a good daughter (she had asked for her parents’ permission to go out that night), a good student (she worked very hard), and a good friend. In this telling, she was ultimately a martyr—sacrificed to rally a country behind a cause....

    I’m not saying that all these things about Jyoti—that she was a good student and devoted daughter—are untrue. I’m saying that they don’t have to be true for the crime committed against her to be just as heinous. The film shows this “good girl” and “bad girl” rhetoric—“India’s daughter” is either, depending on who’s talking about her—but not much else. In the movie, she’s a 2-dimensional figure. But Jyoti, the person, was probably much, much more when she was alive.

    India's Daughter is compelling, and you can't help but be angry over what happens to Jyoti, and how Indian tradition reinforces misogynistic patterns. It's perhaps unnecessary to ask for more.

    (Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


    film fatales #42: bombshell: the hedy lamarr story (alexandra dean, 2017)

    This is something of a Dual Film Fatale entry, given that it's a documentary about Hedy Lamarr directed by a woman.

    I was looking forward to a film showing how Lamarr's work as in inventor was buried underneath her image as a great screen beauty. And that topic is always in the background. But much more of the film than I expected is devoted to Lamarr's career as an actress. And that career is not the most interesting thing about Lamarr. I wanted a movie about an inventor who was also an actress, but what I got was a movie about an actress who was also an inventor.

    Obviously, the two go hand in hand. And the time spent on her acting career does establish a setting whereby Lamarr's intelligence might be ignored. Dean is kind enough to avoid much analysis of Lamarr's acting ... her fame came from her beauty, not because she was a great thespian.

    I'm wondering if they spend relatively little time on her inventions because they weren't as engrossing for the audience than just showing pictures and clips of her in her prime. I don't want to press this point too much ... Dean does not ignore the inventor in favor of the beauty ... but it's the inventions that make this story more than just another tale of a Hollywood goddess.

    Nonetheless, Lamarr's life story is a fascinating one, and a documentary is the way to go. The information is here. Lamarr was as smart as she was beautiful.

    (Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


    film fatales #41: morvern callar (lynne ramsay, 2002)

    Another intriguing movie from Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, We Need to Talk About Kevin). A common feature of every Ramsay movie I've seen is that I have to turn on the subtitles ... Scottish isn't my best language. I avoided this film for a long time, for the silliest of reasons: the title threw me off. I had no idea what it referred to ... a place, an alien being, what? Imagine my embarrassment when I found within minutes that Morvern Callar was the name of the main character.

    She is played by Samantha Morton (Jesus' Son, Minority Report, Mister Lonely), who for the most part gives great performances in movies I don't much like (Minority Report is an exception ... I like that one quite a bit). Unsurprisingly, Morton is excellent in Morvern Callar, and she is the perfect actress for Ramsay, who relies a lot on closeups and a lot less on dialogue. This demands a great deal from her actors ... in this case, Morton has to carry a film that doesn't seem to care much about narrative, and she has to do this without being able to explain everything with dialogue. As noted in the wonderful video Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos did for the late, great Every Frame a Painting, these are characteristic of Ramsay's work in general. (I link to that video every time I write about Ramsay ... it's that good.) This means Ramsay's movies, at least the ones I've seen, are very specific to her ... she seems to get what she wants on the screen, and leaves it to the audience to get it or not. Often, I dislike such directors ... I admire someone like Terrence Malick, but I don't like watching his movies ... as I once said, the only person who knows what his films mean is Malick, and he’s not telling. But for some reason, I'm willing to go along with Ramsay. I have yet to fall in love with any of her movies, but I've always found them intriguing and worth my time. #243 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

    (Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


    divines, watchmen

    Film Fatales #40: Divines (Houda Benyamina, 2016).
     
    Divines is an interesting movie, for me anyway, because it takes place somewhere I know little about (French suburb), and the lead actor, who happens to be the director's kid sister, is the best thing in the movie. It's also a different kind of gangster movie, much more a female buddy movie.
     
    The buddies are Dounia (played by Oulaya Amamra, Benyamina's sister) and Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena). They are low-level hustlers who want to join a gang led by Rebecca ... with Dounia as the primary instigator, they work their way into the gang. What follows isn't particularly original, nor does the fact that many of the primary characters are women seem to make a lot of difference. It works because the writing is good, because the acting is especially good, because the locale is intriguing. Cinematographer Julien Poupard adds a lot to the power of the film, working closely with Benyamina (this interview offers an up-close look at their work together), resulting in a film that, as Poupard says, colorful but not to colorful. He also mentions the influence of Mean Streets, which hadn't occurred to me but which makes perfect sense.
     
    Divines won awards at several festivals, and won César Awards for Most Promising Actress (Amamra), Best Supporting Actress (Lukumuena), and Best First Feature (Benyamina). Promising ... that's a good word to describe Divines, which makes one look forward to the future work of Benyamina et al. But there is no need to wait, for Divines is already a solid accomplishment.
     
    By Request: Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009).
     
    I've been trying to find something to say about Watchmen since I saw it last week, and I'm drawing a blank. It kept my attention for its long running time, and it was often visually dazzling. (I've read the graphic novel, but it was so long ago I can't rely on my memories for comparison purposes.) But it also wasted Carla Gugino, and while I could tell Snyder was reaching for grandeur and meaning, I was mostly impressed by the amazing mask worn by Rorschach. It's the damnedest thing ... the only thing I can compare it to is the rotoscoped faces in A Scanner Darkly.

     (Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

    film fatales #39: a girl like her (amy s. weber, 2015)

    Amy S. Weber is new to me. She comes out of advertising and educational films, and A Girl Like Her is only her second feature. The movie starts out looking like it will be the story of a victim of bullying who tries to kill herself, but the focus gradually changes to the bully herself. Weber has said that she wanted us to understand that bullying grows out of pain, that the victim is not the only person who is hurting. Weber does a good job of balancing this out ... she never lets us forget the victim. And she gets very good acting out of her three main performers, Lexi Ainsworth as Jessica who is bullied, Hunter King as Avery, the bully, and Jimmy Bennett as Jessica's friend Brian. (They are not amateurs ... Ainsworth and King have both won Emmys for their work on soap operas, and Bennett has been piling up acting credits since 2002.) To the extent that Weber wants us to feel the pain of the bully, she succeeds.

    But there are serious problems with her approach. The film started as a documentary project, where youngsters would go to their schools wearing hidden cameras to show what their lives were "really" like. Gradually the documentary became a fictional narrative film, but Weber chose to retain the cameras, making A Girl Like Her more like a reality show than a fictional movie. The "found footage" makes up a good part of A Girl Like Her, and it is effective. But Weber also creates a character for herself, a documentary filmmaker named Amy, who gets permission from Jessica's parents to film their lives (the high school also gives her access). The secret footage from Jessica's hidden camera is important, but the rest seems squeezed in ... it's more distracting than illuminating. The character "Amy" also becomes the bully's confidant, which adds a creepiness that detracts from the attempt to show us that bullies are people, too. In essence, I never understood why the documentary angle was part of the movie. It allows for the big scene when Avery is confronted with her behavior, but I wish they had found a different way to give us that scene. "Amy" is far too important for a story about three high-schoolers. (The website for the film includes a couple of videos of "Amy" interviewing "Avery", "Jessica", and "Brian" showing how the characters are doing, a few months down the road. For me, it's several steps too far, but in fairness, it seems that many have been affected by the movie and what I see as its excesses.)

    A Girl Like Her would be better as an hour-long afterschool special, with the documentary stuff eliminated. As is, it's just an interesting try.

    (Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


    by request: film fatales #38: american honey (andrea arnold, 2016)

    Andrea Arnold's earliest films were shorts influenced by the Dogme 95 movement. The two other features of Arnold that I have seen (Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights) didn't seem clearly attached to Dogme, and it could be that Arnold has moved on. Still, both of those movies strive for a "real" look and approach, and this is even more apparent in American Honey. For one thing, Arnold likes using non-professional actors, which runs the risk of amateurish performances but which also makes for the "real" feel that Arnold is after. Shia LaBeouf (Jake) and Riley Keough (Krystal) are the only professionals I could spot, while the cast is a large one, with plenty of roles for the amateurs. It works in American Honey, for a number of reasons. Arnold gets natural performances from her big cast, which makes the film as a whole feel accurate. Shia LaBeouf effectively buries himself in his role, not standing out because of his acting expertise (Keough stands out, but that is appropriate for her character). Finally, and most important, Sasha Lane delivers in the lead role. Like the other amateurs, she feels natural. Like a movie star, she has an intriguing look to her. You could imagine her moving from acting novice to movie star very easily (her character's name is Star).

    American Honey tells the story of a big group of young adults (Star is 18) who travel America in a van, selling magazine subscriptions door to door. It's a sprawling movie (163 minutes) that doesn't seem all that interested in focusing on any of the group beyond the main characters. They are recognizably different, but it seems less important than how they seem as a group ... their identity is tied to the group. Since not a lot happens in the film, and since the group is more important than most of the individuals, Arnold is relying a lot on Star, Jake, and Krystal to justify the movie's length, and she doesn't always succeed. Star is the only character with an arc ... it's not exactly a coming-of-age story, but she is learning about herself and about life as the movie progresses, while Jake and Krystal aren't different at the end than they were at the beginning. A lot of the traveling scenes run together, and the movie could easily have been shorter while still doing justice to Star.

    As with the other films of hers I have seen, Arnold films in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Arnold has said that she feels 4:3 is perfect for framing one person, and she is often focusing on one person, so 4:3 works better than a widescreen format. Since American Honey, which looks quite beautiful at times, features lots of shots of landscapes, the squarish ratio seems counterintuitive. But it certainly works for Sasha Lane.

    Arnold also makes effective use of music. The group is always listening to music, which makes it easy to offer an appropriate soundtrack to their actions. (I confess I was thrown out of the film for a bit when Bruce Springsteen's version of "Dream Baby Dream" came on, since that song always makes me cry.)

    The thing I liked best about American Honey was the respect it has for its young characters. Too often we see teens filled with all sorts of negative stereotypes, in movies that seem designed solely to look down on those teens. American Honey is honest about its young people, but it is never snooty. This is my favorite Andrea Arnold movie so far. #450 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

    (Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)