film fatales #52: leave no trace (debra granik, 2018)

Leave No Trace was Debra Granik's first fiction film since Winter's Bone in 2010, when I first noticed Jennifer Lawrence. Perhaps it's unfair, but Thomasin McKenzie, the young woman who co-stars with Ben Foster in this movie, is being compared to Lawrence, even though their performances in their respective movies with Granik are different. McKenzie is more subdued than I remember Lawrence being, which is appropriate for her character, a young teen who lives off the grid with her father, who suffers from PTSD. The movie is low-key yet intense, a combination that doesn't seem likely but which is organic and believable here.

That believable feeling is bolstered by the work done by the leads, but also by Granik's treatment of the material, director of photography Michael McDonough's subtle handling of the film's environments, and the editing by Jean Rizzo. All of them walk a fine line, distinguishing themselves without getting too showy. Like I say, low-key yet intense.

My favorite thing about Leave No Trace is the abundance of good people in the film. I'm not sure I ever got over the feeling that someone was going to act badly, because that's what we've come to expect from movies and television, but it never happened. Once again without overdoing it, the various characters try to help one another, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but always with good intentions. This is most notable in the father/daughter relationship, and we feel protective towards them, but as the film lets more people into its world, we meet more good people. The father sees this, but he ultimately can't accept it. His daughter, though, is growing, leading to the crucial statement in the movie, when she tells her father, "The same thing that's wrong with you isn't wrong with me." It's heartbreaking, and Foster's underplaying is particularly impressive ... he knows she is right.

This was one of my latest personal recommendations from Bright Wall/Dark Room. #385 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


lesser-known 1990 films

Catherine Stebbins asked on Twitter, "i need you to recommend me lesser known films from 1990". I went to MovieLens, which has stored 2,178 of my movie ratings, and asked it to sort those ratings by the difference between my rating and the average rating, where I liked it more than others.

Here are the top nine, with my rating and the average MovieLens user's rating, on a scale of 5:

Bullet in the Head (4.5, 3.52)

Arachnophobia (3.5, 2.76)

Pump Up the Volume (4.0, 3.5)

Close-Up (4.5, 4.07)

Total Recall (1990) (4.0, 3.6)

GoodFellas (4.5, 4.18)

An Angel at My Table (4.0, 3.74)

Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael (3.0, 2.78)

The Godfather: Part III (3.5, 3.45)

This "method" isn't perfect. I may have liked Roxy Carmichael more than the average person, but I didn't really like it anyway. Close-Up and GoodFellas are movies I liked more than the average person, but the average person liked them a lot, too. The first two movies on this list stand out, though, the first because while it is fairly popular, I am way ahead of everyone on it, the second because it's mostly junk but I liked it OK nonetheless. So what do we take from this? If you haven't seen them, watch Bullet in the Head and Arachnophobia.


film fatales #51: mikey and nicky (elaine may, 1976)

Mikey and Nicky shows the perils of creating a "Film Fatales" category solely on the basis of who directed the film. Because this movie plays very much like a Cassavetes movie, not one of his Gena Rowlands specials like A Woman Under the Influence but more like the ode to masculinity that was Husbands. Elaine May (who wrote and directed Mikey and Nicky) doesn't shy away from showing the toxic nature of that masculinity. But it remains very much a Guy Movie, and the rare female characters are treated badly.

The film is most famous for behind the scenes action. May was not new to directing ... this was her third film, after A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid ... and the final product looks and feels professional, again in the way that Cassavetes movies often do. But apparently it took a lot for May to get what she wanted on the screen, and it's not clear the result is what she wanted. Here's Wikipedia:

The film's original $1.8 million budget had grown to nearly $4.3 million ($16.6 million in contemporary dollars) by the time May turned the film over to Paramount. She shot 1.4 million feet of film, almost three times as much as was shot for Gone with the Wind. By using three cameras that she sometimes left running for hours, May captured spontaneous interaction between Falk and Cassavetes. At one point, Cassavetes and Falk had both left the set and the cameras remained rolling for several minutes. A new camera operator said "Cut!" only to be immediately rebuked by May for usurping what is traditionally a director's command. He protested that the two actors had left the set. "Yes", replied May, "but they might come back". May was even said to have hidden reels of film from Paramount in order to maintain control during postproduction.

It's only fair to note that May had the right idea, trying to get Falk-Cassavetes interaction. They always work well together, if self-indulgently. But clearly the studio had a different notion of what kind of movie May was making ... she was pouring herself into something big, they expected a small-scale character study with gangster undertones. For the audience, what matters is that Mikey and Nicky fails on most levels. It's not much of a gangster picture, it's certainly not what we think of as a "big" picture, and the interplay between Cassavetes and Falk only goes so far (and I like them together).

Still, it's hard not to think that May would have gotten better treatment and more respect from the studio if she were a man. The three films she made in the 1970s were personal in the way of many directors of that time. While I am not a big fan of The Heartbreak Kid, it has been a critical fave since its release. And if Mikey and Nicky (and, for that matter, apparently A New Leaf) involved battles between director and studio, well, let me introduce you to Sam Peckinpah. But May's career was seemingly destroyed by these three movies, Mikey and Nicky in particular. And when, a decade later, she finally directed another movie, it was Ishtar, which almost immediately was considered a monumental flop (and a lot more expensive than Mikey and Nicky). May is still alive, but she never directed another feature.

Mikey and Nicky was chosen as the first film on the new streaming service from Criterion.


(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #50: rbg (julie cohen and betsy west, 2018)

I laughed often during RBG, which tells you something about how the film is constructed. Cohen and West allow the audience to be charmed by Ginsburg. This is not a warts-and-all production. The filmmakers avoid hagiography, but only barely.

It helps that they have such an interesting subject. Ginsburg's work as a lawyer arguing gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court are featured (she won five of six), and the time is taken to explain why these were important beyond the immediate moment. We also learn how Ginsburg is not the flaming liberal of her reputation. The film suggests that when she joined the Court, she was ideologically planted in the center. Over time, she has moved left relative to her colleagues, but she herself hasn't changed.

I'm currently reading Rebecca Traister's Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger, and she argues that powerful women are more appreciated when they are in fact relatively powerless. About Ginsburg, she writes:

Ginsburg, whose fiery dissents have become the stuff of internet legend, and who has become known on the internet as the Notorious RBG, is in the minority of the Supreme Court. The pleasures of celebrating her toughness stem in part from her actual physical stature: she is a short, thin, octogenarian who has twice had cancer; the whole punch line of admiration for her is in part rooted in the improbability of her threat; she's like a little doll of female anger who we can all cheer for, even as she is outvoted again and again and again. It's extremely difficult to imagine the same kind of tattoo-inspiring admiration for her angry opinions if those opinions were actually reshaping the law.

But Ginsburg has said, "Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one's ability to persuade." Persuasion is her speciality ... she has persuaded many people in her career to make the right decision, and did so without anger.

RBG the film, though, could use a little anger. We are shown things that would make us angry, but they are usually presented as obstacles Ginsburg helps us to overcome, so even the anger turns positive in the movie.

There are many highlights. The footage of her as a young woman reminds us that she wasn't always 80+ years old ... it's one thing to read that, to think that, but here a picture does indeed say a thousand words, and Ginsburg is a more real person to us when we see where she has come from. Her lifelong love affair with her husband is a joy. Her friendship with the ultra-conservative justice Antonin Scalia has never made sense, but seeing the two old friends interact here, that friendship makes perfect sense. Watching her workout is inspiring. And it's fun to see her accept her new celebrity. I laughed hardest when Cohen and West sat Ginsburg down in front of a TV and showed her Kate McKinnon's impression of her on SNL. She laughs throughout ... she thinks it's quite funny ... when asked if she thinks McKinnon is like her, though, she laughs again and says no.

I know more about Ginsburg than I did before I watched RBG. It was an enjoyable film. It could have been harder-hitting, but that's not the film Cohen and West wanted to make. As far as I can tell, they have succeeded in what they set out to accomplish. Nominated for two Oscars (one is for a Diane Warren song, so it doesn't count).

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #49: mustang (deniz gamze ergüven, 2015)

Deniz Gamze Ergüven graduated from film school in 2006. Nine years later, Mustang became her feature debut as a director. Of this time, she has said, "If I had the body and the voice of an alpha male, it would be easier. It took nine years from leaving film school until Mustang was screened at Cannes, and those years were demoralising. It's difficult not to be affected. You work for the minimum, to have your roof and four walls, so you can write. It's not super fun." Because of this, or despite this, Mustang is a confident film, one that won numerous awards, at Cannes and elsewhere, and was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. The performances by the five young girl leads are very good ... they interact quite naturally as sisters, even though only one of them had acted before. I usually give credit to the director when that happens.

The girls aren't always recognizable as individuals. though ... I kept forgetting which one was which. (Ergüven has referred to them as "one body with five heads".) They made a bigger impression as a group. The best scenes are when the sisters are alone together. The narrative is dramatic, unflinching in exposing the oppressions of patriarchy at the core of Turkish society. It wasn't unanimously praised in Turkey. It is noteworthy that  the director was born in Turkey but raised in France. The film was submitted to the Oscars as a French film.

The score by Warren Ellis has gotten much praise; I confess I don't remember it, good or bad. What I will always remember is those five sisters. Ergüven tells the story solely from their perspective, and it's effective. The film is often compared to The Virgin Suicides, which makes surface sense but perhaps exaggerates the two films' similarities. (In an excellent analysis of the two movies, Beth Winchester writes, "This comparison isn’t unfounded, but to compare the two is an easy option and coasts over not just the importance of the factors that make them similar, but the crucial differences that ultimately make them two distinct stories rather than an original story and a rehash that came 15 years later."). #852 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


a couple of other lists

My favorite films from 2018. I am always behind on current movies ... of the 109 movies I saw this year, only 14 are from 2018. But here I go.

Black Panther is my favorite movie of 2018. Runners-up, in alphabetical order:

Honorable mention:

And, to compensate for always being behind, my updated list of favorite films from 2017. The top seven, in alphabetical order:

And honorable mention:

 


what i watched last year

To copy what I said at this time in 2015: “A summary, sorted by my ratings. I tend to save the 10/10 ratings for older classics, so a more recent film that gets 9/10 is very good indeed. Movies that are just shy of greatness will get 8/10. I waste more time than is necessary trying to distinguish 7/10 from 6/10 … both ratings signify slightly better-than-average movies, where if I like them I’ll pop for a 7 and if I don’t, I’ll lay out a 6. I save 5/10 for movies I don’t like, and anything lower than 5 for crud. This explanation comes after the fact … I don’t really think it through when I give the ratings. They skew high because I try very hard to avoid movies I won’t like … if I saw every movie ever made, my average might be 5/10, but I skip the ones that would bring the average down. Anything I give at least a 9 rating is something I recommend ... might sound obvious, but if someone is actually looking to me for suggestions, that limits the list to 14.  So I’ve included links to my comments on those movies.” (Movies in bold in the 9-10 range are ones I was seeing for the first time.)

10:
In the Mood for Love
Performance

9:
The Ascent
Black Panther
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Dunkirk
Faces Places
First They Killed My Father
Five Easy Pieces
Moonlight
Mudbound
My Neighbor Totoro
Pickpocket
Strong Island

8:
American Honey
The Babadook
Before Sunrise
Day for Night
Dressed to Kill
First Reformed
Gaslight
Gertrud
The Guilty
Gun Crazy
The Incredible Shrinking Man
India's Daughter
Listen to Me Marlon
Local Hero
Logan
The Look of Silence
A Matter of Life and Death
Memories of Underdevelopment
Private Life
Sorry to Bother You
The Spirit of the Beehive
Springsteen on Broadway
Supercop
The Thin Man
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Widows
Yellow Submarine

7:
Avengers: Infinity War
The Big Sick
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
The Brink
Cat People
Crazy Rich Asians
Creed
Darkest Hour
Divines
El Topo
Flying Down to Rio
Grand Hotel
Hell Is for Heroes
Hereditary
Hidden Figures
Horror of Dracula
Icarus
If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast
Lost City of Z
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Man on the Moon
The Man Who Fell to Earth
The Man Who Knew Infinity
The Man Who Knew Too Much
Morvern Callar
Ms .45
Nothing Sacred
On Body and Soul
Personal Shopper
Set It Off
Seven Days in May
The Square
Syndromes and a Century
Tarzan and His Mate
The Time Machine
Tropical Malady
Venom
Watchmen
Zombieland

6:
Atomic Blonde
Bo Burnham: what.
The Circle
Colossal
Diamonds Are Forever
Dogville
The Dressmaker
The Equalizer
The Equalizer 2
A Girl Like Her
Glastonbury Fayre
Holiday Inn
Hostiles
The Lion in Winter
Miami Vice
Murder on the Orient Express
Spring Breakers
The Spy Who Dumped Me
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael

5:
Behave Yourself!
The Black Scorpion
The Day of the Triffids
Dishonored Lady
Enemy
Margot at the Wedding

Totals over the years:

2010: 86 seen (7.2 average rating)
2011: 125 (7.3)
2012: 113 (7.1)
2013: 110 (7.5)
2014: 127 (7.4)
2015: 136 (7.1)
2016: 82 (7.4)
2017: 109 (7.0)
2018: 109 (7.2)


film fatales #48: private life (tamara jenkins, 2018)

The title is a bit ironic, given that the two main characters, a married couple in their 40s played by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti, have what passes for their private lives exposed to seemingly everyone they know. The couple, Richard and Rachel, are artsy professionals (Richard once ran a theater group before owning an artisan pickle company, Rachel is an author) who have been thinking about having kids for quite a while. Their efforts are what turn their private lives into public ones ... seemingly everyone they know has advice on what to do next, plus the process of trying to have a kid gets pretty invasive at times. Denis O'Hare has a nice supporting role as a gynecologist who spends much of his time looking inside Rachel, and along the way we learn, as everyone else already knows, that Richard only has one testicle.

Some of the stops on the road to parenthood are touching, some are funny, some are both. None of them work, until they finally decide to have an egg donor, and with that, I've probably already said too much. I'll leave the various twists to you, although Private Life is not a movie that relies on plot shifts to keep our attention.

What makes Private Life work is the "natural" presentation of the characters and their lives. Sure, we always know that Hahn and Giamatti are acting, but they slip so easily into their roles that we forget they are not real. Jenkins both wrote and directed Private Life, and so she gets the lion's share of the credit for the believable nature of her actors and their situation. It's not a screwball comedy, it's a low-key comedy (I refuse to call it a dramedy, but that's what it is) expertly pulled off by everyone involved. I appreciated the way Private Life is "real" but not bitter or spiteful ... these people have their issues, but they get along without devouring each other. I'm all for that devouring kind of movie, but I was glad this wasn't one of those. And the film ends on a perfect note of anticipation.

Private Life is too long, but one sympathizes with Jenkins' desire to get the details on the screen. Jenkins and Hahn are outside shots at Oscar nominations, if that's what you like to hear about. I doubt the movie is demonstrative enough to get that kind of awards attention, but it plays well for an evening with Netflix, and I mean that as a compliment.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #47: the dressmaker (jocelyn moorhouse, 2015)

Not much to say about this movie. The best thing is that it was easy for my wife and I to agree on when choosing something to watch. My wife has made a dress or two, of course. Kate Winslet and Judy Davis star, with Liam Hemsworth and Hugo Weaving in support. Winner of many awards in Australia, where it was filmed. Jocelyn Moorhouse had produced films like Muriel's Wedding and directed movies like How to Make an American Quilt.

Yet there isn't a whole lot to The Dressmaker. The most positive review on Metafilter (Kimberly Jones in the Austin Chronicle) gives it 3 1/2 stars out of 5, and concludes "its treats are modest but genuine." Winslet is solid, Weaving is fun, and Judy Davis steals every scene she is in. Some of the tidbits in the IMDB trivia section are fun ... Moorhouse described it as "Unforgiven with a sewing machine", and who wouldn't want to watch that? (We also learn that "Shooting of the film was interrupted several times as wild emus interrupted the scenes.") After seeing The Dressmaker, I'm left with the feeling that it is a good movie to watch with a group where no one will hate it. And given the number of bad movies that my wife and I could have chosen, I suppose I'm thankful we ended up with The Dressmaker.

For a better Kate Winslet movie, try Heavenly Creatures.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


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.)