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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

geezer cinema/film fatales #70: little women (greta gerwig, 2019)

Greta Gerwig's followup to Lady Bird shows that Gerwig hasn't lost her touch when it comes to critics. They loved Lady Bird, and now they love Little Women. (Little Women has a Metacritic score of 91/100, while Lady Bird's was 94.) Those scores are well-deserved ... Gerwig directs with a confidence that belies the fact that she is relatively new to directing.

Lady Bird was strongly autobiographical, and part of what Gerwig (who also wrote the screenplay) does with Little Women is turn a well-known, classic story into a backdoor version of autobiography. Jo, the central character, a writer, is played by Saoirse Ronan, who was also the lead in the earlier movie, and in this version of the story, Jo's attempt to make art out of the lives of her and her sisters results in a novel, Little Women, written by Jo. To a certain extent, Gerwig sidesteps Louisa May Alcott.

Ronan is excellent, as are all of the actors playing sisters: Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth. The grown ups are played by a fine who's who of venerable actors: Laura Dern, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Chris Cooper. Meryl Streep is even tolerable as Aunt March. And Gerwig does a beautiful job of showing the closeness of the sisters without being too sappy.

What is missing in all of these performances, though, is the quirkiness that Gerwig brings to her own acting. (Richard Brody brings up a lot of these points in his piece, "The Compromises of Greta Gerwig’s 'Little Women'".) Both Lady Bird and Little Women are intelligent and stylish films, but neither shows the goofy freedom of Gerwig in my favorite scene of hers, from Frances Ha:

As a director, Gerwig hints at this freedom, and these movies are both quite good as is. But if Gerwig ever writes/directs an entire movie like that dance in Frances Ha, it will be magnificent. It might look something like this:

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

movies 2019

The Letterboxd website makes it easy to compile lists like this, which I have done by hand in the past.

For instance, there is this list: "Movies I've watched in 2019".

And this list, "2019 ranked", movies from 2019 I've seen this year.

I saw 8 movies in 2019 that I gave my highest, 10-out-of-10 rating. Here they are, in alphabetical order, with links to the reviews on the blog:

I tend to hold off on giving a 10/10 to new movies ... guess I think they need to marinate for awhile. But I gave a 9/10 to one 2019 movie, and 8/10 to six more:

Lastly, here is the ongoing project my wife and I began when she retired. We see a movie a week, taking turns picking (she picked first, so you can figure out for yourself who chose what ... her first pick was John Wick 3, mine was Booksmart). We're up to 22 movies:

Geezer Cinema

film fatales #69: le bonheur (agnès varda, 1965)

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 14 is called "Masters of the West Week: Agnes Varda and Chantal Akerman":

Usually these categories consist of only one "master", but since we're celebrating an anniversary, I say let's take it up a notch. That's right, ladies and gentleman, this time around you get to choose from the filmography of not just one essential, inspirational French director, but TWO.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by either Agnes Varda or Chantal Akerman.

Among the films people selected for this week's challenge were Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, and several by Varda: Cléo from 5 to 7Faces PlacesThe Gleaners & I, and Vagabond. I went with Le Bonheur for the obvious reason that I hadn't yet seen it.

"Le bonheur" translates to "happiness", and rarely has there been a title that so straddled the line between straightforward and ironic. Le Bonheur is a pretty film, perhaps even excessively so, and with Mozart on the soundtrack, it all seems quite happy indeed. There's the husband and wife and two kids, one boy, one girl. Their lives seem bright ... they often picnic in nature, he likes his job as a carpenter, she's a happy homemaker and mother. None of it feels ironic at first, although I'm sure a second viewing would change that reaction. Midway through the movie, the husband begins an affair. He is happier than ever. He tells his mistress he loves her and she makes him happy, but that he also loves his wife, she also makes him happy, and she was there first. The wife notices her husband seems happier than ever. The film is overwhelmed with happiness.

Then something happens that puts a stop to the happiness. You knew it couldn't last.

Except by the end of the film, the mistress has essentially replaced the wife, and the central nuclear family is happy once again.

The husband is clearly a solipsist ... he is happy when he can do what he wants, and assumes his happiness is everyone's happiness. Varda doesn't take his side, exactly, but ultimately, she doesn't take sides at all. Le Bonheur is disconcerting because we keep waiting for someone to pass judgement on what we are seeing, and it never happens.

Here is how the film begins:

The husband is played by Jean-Claude Drouot. The wife and children are non-professionals played by Drouot's real-life wife and kids. There is a naturalness to the performance of Claire Drouot as the wife, but she never seems amateurish.

#925 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

film fatales #68: detroit (kathryn bigelow, 2017)

I've been a fan of Kathryn Bigelow's forever (her second feature, Near Dark, which happens to be my favorite, came out more than 30 years ago). Her Oscar for The Hurt Locker means she will forever be an important part of film history. I missed out on Detroit when it was released, but I rectified that last night, and I have now seen all ten features directed by Bigelow. I believe that is my personal high: most films I've seen by a director that is also all of their movies. (It's not that she's better than Jean Renoir, but I've got a couple of dozen of his movies I haven't yet seen.)

The core of Detroit is a long, excruciatingly tense reconstruction of the Algiers Motel incident, where a group of police and National Guardsmen terrorized a group of young people, mostly black, killing three of them. Bigelow uses a documentary, "you are there" style, showing how frightening the situation was to the victims. The Incident dominates the film ... context is provided, but ultimately, what matters is that we see what happened at the Algiers without flinching. It's a necessary, if uncomfortable, film. And it has obvious relevance today, when police killing of black citizens is as bad as it ever was.

Bigelow's decision to be a fly on the wall means some of the characters' actions are incompletely explained. Perhaps explanation is impossible. John Boyega (Attack the Block) is the one African-American among the invading force, a security guard caught up in events. Boyega does a great job of showing the confusion his character is feeling, but we never really understand his actions, the way we do with the racist cops. The racists are part of the problem, too, in that their characters are largely explained by saying "they're racists".

Some interesting names, many from TV, are in the cast, given varying amounts of things to do. Besides Boyega, there's Will Poulter (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch), Samira Wiley (Orange Is the New Black), Kaitlyn Dever (Justified), Anthony Mackie (Avengers movies), Gbenga Akinnagbe (The Wire), Chris Coy (The Deuce), and John Krasinski (The Office).

Near Dark remains my favorite Kathryn Bigelow movie, and I'm not sure she's ever made a complete classic. But her last three movies, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and Detroit, made at an age (57-66) when a lot of directors are past their prime, are indicative of her quality.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

film fatales #67: paris is burning (jennie livingston, 1990)

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 13 is called "New Queer Cinema Week":

The second in a series celebrating challenges from past seasons, this challenge comes to us from kurt k's Counterfeit Letterboxd Season Challenge: 2016-17. The original description:

"Pride season is finally starting! This is a week that I know a couple of people (including me) have wanted. New Queer Cinema is a movement that started mainly around the late 80's to early 90's, where a bunch of LGBTQ film makers started creating independent movies that often dealt with rejection of a hetero-normative and cis-normative lifestyle. These movies don't sum up every LGBTQ person's experience, but I would say that it speaks to us."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen New Queer Cinema film.

Paris Is Burning is a documentary about balls held by the LGBTQ community. It was filmed in the late-80s, and represents the ball culture of that time. To the extent it is an accurate representation, it serves as an important artifact of the culture. It is an artifact, though ... director Jennie Livingston was not part of the culture herself, although she was/is an out lesbian. She and her film are sympathetic to the people she shows us, but it matters for some that she's an observer rather than a participant, always the interviewer, never the interviewee.

Paris Is Burning celebrates the balls and performers. They are presented as artists who take pride in their work. Of course, the balls aren't the whole world, and when the outside world marks its spots, the film turns tragic, most specifically in the case of Venus Xtravaganza, who is one of the most disarmingly lovely people in the movie. She talks about her dreams, and also about the things she does to survive (prostitution being the main thing). We learn near the end of the film that she was murdered, a case that has never been solved.

Many of the people strive to emulate the straight world in their performances, which automatically has an ironic distancing effect. But Venus also says, "I would like to be a spoiled rich white girl. They get what they want, whenever they want it. They don't have to really struggle with finances, nice things, nice clothes, and they don't have to have that as a problem."

Livingston has never released another feature that she directed, although she has made shorts, taught, won fellowships, and was a consultant on the TV series Pose.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

film fatales #66: fleabag (tony grech-smith and vicky jones, 2019)

This is the National Theatre Live production, which is a straightforward filmed version of the play in its final run. It's a hybrid, offered solely because Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and her creation, Fleabag, have become iconic. (To avoid confusion for those who are unfamiliar with it, "Fleabag" refers to both the play/show and to the main character.) Fleabag was originally a one-woman stage show. Waller-Bridge converted it into a TV series of 12 episodes over two seasons, winning acclaim and lots of awards. She has a lot on her plate, and had moved on from Fleabag, but she completed the circle by returning to the stage for a brief run of the one-woman show. This was filmed and shown on movie theater screens ... like I said, it's a hybrid, part play, part movie.

Fleabag doesn't necessarily benefit from being stuffed into a genre, so I should just let it go and not worry if it's a Film Fatale or even if it's a film at all. It's Fleabag, most closely attached to the first season of the TV series, which was an expansion of the original play.

I don't have much to add to my earlier reactions to Fleabag the series. About the most distinctive aspect of the series, I wrote, "Fleabag makes frequent use of breaking the fourth wall. It works wonderfully, in part because Waller-Bridge has such an expressive face that she conveys multitudes even when she doesn't say anything. We become her partners in crime, so to speak, connecting to the character in much deeper ways than is usual for a 'comedy'." Seeing the stage play (via movie theater ... OK, I'll quit), I see why Waller-Bridge might have opted for breaking the fourth wall, for on the stage, Fleabag speaks directly to the audience pretty much non-stop. Waller-Bridge turns that direct speech into confidential connections that aren't non-stop but usually surprising, even when you expect them. The intimacy of the series is lessened a bit in the play with its constant narration. But Fleabag is out in the open in the play ... there's nowhere to hide.

It's all bare bones. I list two directors above, but I'm not sure even that is accurate. Vicky Jones directed the play, Tony Grech-Smith did the camera for the broadcast. I'll cheat, call this a movie, point us in the direction of Jones, and call this a Film Fatale.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

music friday/film fatales #65: who took the bomp? le tigre on tour (kerthy fix, 2010)

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 11 is called "Oscilloscope Laboratories Week":

Initially, I had this week marked down as A24 week, yet I feel they already get plenty of attention, especially 'round these Letterboxd parts. So, I figured I would shine the spotlight on a smaller studio developing and distributing some lesser known, yet still quality films from creators in it for the art of storytelling.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Oscilloscope Laboratories film.

If this Challenge is supposed to be a learning experience, than there may be no better example than this week, for I had no idea what Oscilloscope Laboratories was. The company was co-founded in 2008 by the late Beastie Boy, Adam Yauch. It seems to be best defined by a list of its productions, and it turns out, I had seen five of their movies: Wendy and Lucy, The Messenger, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Wuthering Heights (2011), and We Need to Talk About Kevin. The timing was good for Who Took the Bomp?, since I had spent the weekend attending Sleater-Kinney concerts, and Kathleen Hanna of Le Tigre was a charter member of the iconic riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. Who Took the Bomp? offers an intriguing backstage look at Le Tigre, as they took their final world tour in the mid-2000s. There is some strong concert footage, but what adds a special feel to the film is that Le Tigre, as a band and as individuals, are pretty funny. They are also dead serious ... this was a band rooted in left-wing politics, especially addressing gender and LGBTQ issues. It's a short, instructive, and entertaining film, and if it isn't much more than that, in the moment that feels like enough.

Here is one of Le Tigre's videos, "TKO":

And here, something from Who Took the Bomp?:

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

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.)