geezer cinema/film fatales #129: the lost daughter (maggie gyllenhaal, 2021)

The Lost Daughter is a complicated movie, and writer/director Maggie Gyllenhaal, working from a novel by Elena Ferrante, never shows a sign that this is her first time behind the camera. It's a film about women and motherhood, told from the perspective of a woman, and Gyllenhaal's guiding hand ensures that no matter how upsetting some of the main character's action are, we still see them as part of a continuum of stereotypes that still try to force women into roles concocted by men.

Olivia Colman has the showier role as a middle-aged professor, Leda, in the modern-day segments. Jessie Buckley plays the same character 20 years earlier, and for once, the back-and-forth timeline is useful rather than ostentatious. It's a bit like the Robert De Niro scenes in The Godfather: Part II, where we learn a lot about Vito Corleone when we see his formative years. Buckley's Leda is an often-overwhelmed mother trying to balance her family life and her academic work, and it's not hard to see how this eventually turned into the Leda played by Colman. As others have noted, though, Gyllenhaal is not judgmental. Leda/Buckley can be a mess, and she doesn't always act in the perfect way with her kids, but the portrait Gyllenhaal and Buckley present does not make Leda into a monster or an angel. She's a woman of many parts, like most real people.

If the earlier Leda scenes help us understand the later Leda, that doesn't change the fact that Leda/Colman does act at times in ways that are hard to accept. Gyllenhaal may think she is avoiding a judgmental approach here as well, but Leda commits one act which is meanspirited in a way that makes her unlikeable. And yes, it's a burden for women to have to always be likeable, but the Leda of 20 years ago never falls into meanness. We may feel we know why Leda steals and hides a little girl's doll, but it's a mean act nonetheless, and I felt it the film passes judgment in ways that it mostly avoids.

Ultimately, The Lost Daughter is an excellent film that announces a new writer/director talent that we might have thought we already knew. (Ironically, as I think of Gyllenhaal's accomplishment, I can't help but connect it to her character arc in The Deuce, where she begins as a prostitute turned porn actress who eventually finds some power by becoming a porn director.)


geezer cinema/film fatales #128: the power of the dog (jane campion, 2021)

This makes six Jane Campion movies I have seen ... second among women directors only to Kathryn Bigelow in terms of how many of their films I have seen (I've also seen six from Agnès Varda, who is probably my favorite woman director). I've never seen a Varda movie I didn't like a lot. I've been a fan of Bigelow for more than 30 years; I look forward to her movies and try to see them when they are released, but there has been an occasional dud (The Weight of Water). Campion is a different case. I haven't considered any I've seen to be classics (my favorite is probably An Angel at My Table), and I reacted so negatively to In the Cut that I need to see it again to figure out if I was just in a bad mood. She gets extra credit for the first season of Top of the Lake. Basically, Jane Campion has been involved with many films in my viewing experience, and while I don't always remember to include her, she certainly belongs in any list of my important directors.

A winner of multiple awards, The Power of the Dog has so much going for it. It looks beautiful (Ari Wegner is the cinematographer, with New Zealand standing in admirably for Montana). The music from Jonny Greenwood gets into your head from the start (the closed captioning makes frequent mention of "uneasy music playing"). At the least, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee are likely Oscar nominees, and Jesse Plemons is right there with them (plus it's always nice to see Keith Carradine). The film examines toxic masculinity so deeply that a Google search of "power of the dog toxic masculinity" gets six million hits.

And yet ... blame it on me, but despite all of the above, I wasn't quite engaged with the movie as it was playing. I threatened to doze off more than once, and it was only thanks to later reviewing of a couple of scenes that I really understood what had happened. Blame it on me ... but there was something about The Power of the Dog that lulled me. I felt almost encouraged to let my attention wander. The result was a movie that elicited a big "Huh?" from me as it ended. I worked at getting the information that would help my appreciation, and I now disavow my "Huh". But exactly why did that happen in the first place?

I'll avoid spoilers, but I want to point out the first dialogue we hear, from an unknown narrator. "When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother's happiness. For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?" We soon ascertain who the speaker is, and these lines are crucial to the film's ending. Beyond that, I'll say no more for now, but I suspect this is a movie that will reward a second viewing down the road.

[Letterboxd list of Jane Campion movies I have seen]

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]


ten best movies i watched this year

I'll probably watch a few more movies this year, but unless one is an all-time classic, these will likely remain the best movies I watched in 2021. All of them get my highest 10/10 rating. Sorted by release date:

 


film fatales #127: meshes of the afternoon (maya deren & alexander hammid, 1943)

Maya Deren is a crucial person in the history of avant-garde film. Born in Kiev, she came to the U.S. when she was five. She attended colleges in the Northeast, eventually receiving a master's in English Literature at Smith. During her lifetime, besides directing short experimental films, she was a film theorist, a photographer, a choreographer, and much more. Meshes of the Afternoon was her first film, reportedly made for $250. She won a Guggenheim fellowship. Her work influenced many future filmmakers.

In some ways, Meshes of the Afternoon reminded me of a lot of student films I watched as a film major in the early 1970s. My professor said of my first film that it was "old-fashioned" (it wasn't an insult), probably because I had a semblance of a narrative. Most of my fellow students made abstract, obscure films, and some were quite good. But they were new to making movies, they were young, perhaps they didn't know of the films of people like Maya Deren who had come before them. They saw their work as personal and innovative, and indeed, they were personal in the extreme, but there wasn't much new in what they did. Deren was doing similar things in 1943. The irony is that when I watched Meshes of the Afternoon in 2021, I wasn't startled the way viewers must have been when the film was made. Her influence was so strong, it filtered down so that 30 years later, young film school students made movies that seemed like hers. Since I saw their films long before I got around to watching Deren's, it seemed chronologically backwards, as if she was influenced by those students.

I am not a big fan of abstract films, and so one of the best things about Meshes of the Afternoon is that it's only 14 minutes long. But Deren was there in the early stages of avant-garde film, and deserves credit not only for her influence, but on the quality of her work. (Plus, she has a striking screen presence ... she is the star of this movie, and as the IMDB notes, she was known for "her ethereal beauty & dark, naturally curly hair".) Meshes of the Afternoon is required viewing for film scholars. I say this, even though I was such a scholar for 50 years before I got around to the movie. It's all over the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They website: #276 on the Greatest Films of All Time list, #284 on the site's user poll, and Deren herself gets a page dedicated to her work.

One last note: the original film was completely silent, and this is the version I saw (on the Criterion Channel). Later, a score was added by her third husband, (Alexander Hammid, who co-directed and co-starred in Meshes, was her second husband.)

You can find the entire film on YouTube:

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]


african-american directors series/film fatales #126: time (garrett bradley, 2020)

This is the fourteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 14 is called "'I've Been Meaning to Get to it...' Week":

Listen, we all let some films fall through the cracks; there's just too many movies! Here's your chance to see one that passed you by from 2020.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film released in 2020.

One of the larger lists of films to choose from: anything from last year that I haven't seen. (From the list they provided, I haven't seen more than 29,000.) It's my first encounter with Garrett Bradley, an interesting director who doesn't limit herself to narrow genre exercises. She won the Best Documentary Director at Sundance for Time (the first black woman to do so). Time was nominated for a Best Feature Documentary Oscar, losing to My Octopus Teacher, not a bad choice but it would have been nice to reward the more adventurous Time.

It's not easy to pin down the central theme of Time. The basic "plot" (if a documentary can be said to have a plot) is about Sibil Fox Richardson (aka Fox Rich), who is trying to get her husband released from prison. The two of them committed an armed bank robbery during a time of financial desperation. She did 3 1/2 years ... he got a 60-year sentence. Bradley intended to make a short about Rich, but was surprised when Rich gave her 100 hours of home videos she had shot over the years. Bradley used that footage to extend her short into a feature.

Rich is a fascinating woman, charismatic and seemingly capable of an endless combination of hope and calmness. Both are tenuous ... at one point, after an extremely polite phone call to someone in the legal system, she explodes after hanging up. But she lives by the concept of never giving up, and the film ends happily with her husband finally coming home to his wife and their six kids.

Bradley's techniques are impressive, and Rich is an ideal central character. But I wanted to know more specifics about the case. We see the family grow over the years, and the kids are turning out great, but based on Time, their successes are rooted in a strong mother and a belief in God and family. I accepted that explanation, because that's what Bradley and Rich give us, but I wasn't convinced, which is why I wanted more. Nonetheless, Rich is easy to root for, and it's hard to deny the pleasure that comes from the happy ending. #362 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.


film fatales #125: passing (rebecca hall, 2021)

Passing seems like a sure contender come Oscar season. Based on an acclaimed novel by Nella Larsen, Passing has some award-worthy acting from Tessa Thompson (Irene) and Ruth Negga (Clare), a good supporting cast featuring  André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård, Bill Camp, and Gbenga Akinnagbe, and a thoughtful approach from first-time director Rebecca Hall, who also wrote it and produced it. (Hall is an actor, most recently in Godzilla vs. Kong.)

Larsen's book is more accurately described as a novella, and Hall manages to get most of the book into the 99-minute running time. The film isn't fast-moving ... in fact, it gets a bit slow at times ... but viewers, both those who know the book and those who don't, may find events confusing at times. I watched with a large group of family, and most of us found a lot of the movie unclear. Everyone seemed to want more context, more background, more clear explanation of the characters and their actions.

Yes, but ... it's true that Hall lets the audience do some of the work of breaking down the story. She doesn't hand out in-movie CliffsNotes; she allows us to think for ourselves. I'm not sure this works ... as I say, most of my family were just confused. But Hall's vision, reflecting Larsen's, allows for ambiguity.

In the book, Irene is the clear narrator, and the unreliable nature of her perspective is clear. Once you realize the story is told solely from her perspective, you can begin to lose trust in her version of events. Hall doesn't go as far with this in her movie. Irene is the main character, but the perspective is more omniscient. We miss the ways the narrative is unreliable ... events seem more straightforward.

I liked the movie more after I thought about it. As I watched, I found my mind wandering, but reflecting back, I felt Hall had made some astute choices. Filming in B&W foregrounded questions about the tenuous concept of black and white "races" ... combined with the 4:3 Academy aspect ratio, Passing has the look of a film made in the 1920s, which feels appropriate. I can't say Passing is a movie for everyone, but I suspect it will look even better on subsequent viewings.


geezer cinema/film fatales #124: birds of prey (and the fantabulous emancipation of one harley quinn) (cathy yan, 2020)

This is the ninth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 9 is called "Leftover Candy Week":

While making this Season's Challenge, I reviewed some of the early years for inspiration. With the years prior to my hostile takeover, the LSC lists, especially the original, included a good amount of weeks dedicated to ideas from lists made by members of the Letterboxd community. So, I figured I'd tap into those Challenge's and I'm starting with this wonderful Candy Cinema list by Cole Thompson. There are a number of lists of this ilk on the site, but this one really nails the vibes it's looking to represent. If you're out of Halloween candy, here's one last piece for your eyes.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Candy Cinema film from Cole Thompson's list. (Films that have vivid colourful cinematography/production design/costume design/overall art direction as a strong presence in its filmmaking. They tend to use the full spectrum of colour or focus on one particular colour that dominates the film.)

Let's end the suspense ... Birds of Prey is an awful movie. Mick LaSalle's negative review, titled "Movies don’t get any worse than ‘Birds of Prey.’ This is the bottom", is very quotable. He called it "more than horrible. It should not exist. Money should never have been raised for it. The screenplay should never have been filmed. Margot Robbie shouldn’t have produced it. She certainly shouldn’t have starred in it. It’s just a terrible thing to inflict on audiences, who, after all, didn’t hurt anyone and just hoped to have a nice time." Definitely a case of "tell us what you really thought, Mick".

It took me about ten minutes to realize Birds of Prey sucked, so I guess you could say those first minutes were OK. And there's a fight scene near the end that is pretty good. But mostly, it sucked. In fairness, it's a fine choice for this week's challenge ... it has vivid design and makes good use of color. But mostly, I watched with my jaw open at the realization that I was watching a bad movie.

I liked The Suicide Squad, so if you're looking for a Harley Quinn fix, go there. Even better, watch Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui, and Maggie Cheung in The Heroic Trio:


geezer cinema/film fatales #123: worth (sara colangelo, 2020)

(This will be the last Geezer Cinema for a while ... we'll get back to it in November.)

Worth tells the based-on-a-true-story of the attempt to assign dollar figures to compensation payouts for victims of 9/11. The head of the compensation fund, Kenneth Feinberg, (Michael Keaton), takes a big picture approach, but the film doesn't just buy into this. Over the course of the film we learn about several of the individuals due compensation ... not a lot, but enough to remind us we're talking lots of people, not just one big group of people. One or two victims are singled out for more extensive examination. It's a well-structured film, starting with the view from the top and then showing the effects on those who aren't there.

The cast is impressive. Besides Keaton, there's Amy Ryan, Stanley Tucci, and plenty of "hey, it's that guys". And they do more than show up ... each delivers a solid performance.

There are a couple of flaws, though. First, the legal situation is never clearly explained. We know that the airlines want to cut a deal. We know there are concerns about the effect of everything on the economy. We know that some people feel they are being screwed over. But most of it whooshed over my head. I fell back on rooting for the victims, and that was good enough, but I still can't really tell you about the inner workings of the Victims Compensation Fund.

Also, Feinberg was a consultant on the film, which may explain why Worth is about him far more than it is about the victims. It's not that Feinberg's character is whitewashed ... he comes across as a decent guy who doesn't always get "It". But the central theme of Worth is how damaging the process is to people like Feinberg, not to the victims. Given that theme, Worth is fine, but I wanted more.

Worth is the first film I have seen directed by Sara Colangelo, and she does OK. I wouldn't be surprised if I never heard from her again, but it's just as likely she's got some great movies in her future.

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales]

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema]


film fatales #122: fast color (julia hart, 2018)

Julia Hart has had an interesting beginning to her career. Fast Color was her second movie as writer/director, working with her husband Jordan Horowitz, a writer/producer. She was already in her mid-30s when she started. They released two more films in 2020, and they are supposedly working on turning Fast Color into a television series, which makes sense, since it plays a bit like a series pilot.

Fast Color is a superhero movie, although a very low-key one that can be approached as just a mysterious fantasy. It features three women (Ruth, her mother Boo, and her daughter Lila) who have special powers. The powers aren't really explained, and they are used mostly to demonstrate how the family of women are outsiders. It takes place in a near-future where climate change is running rampant. We gradually come to know the three characters and learn something of their powers (which differ from each other's), before and ending that sets up future stories (hence the feel of a TV pilot). It's a low-budget affair, and the special effects are more arty than they are action-packed, but that works well here, and when the "fast color" effects turn up near the end, they are impressive and emotional. (I was reminded of the final scenes of Gareth Edwards' Monsters, which were also moving.)

The film is helped immensely by the lead actors, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint, and Saniyya Sidney, who plays Lila with a believable expertise that belies her age. David Strathairn, who seems to be in half the movies made in the last 40 years, is also good.

Fast Color isn't really a movie for fans of superheroes, although they might benefit from a viewing. And non-fans shouldn't be scared away by the premise. But in its own way, Fast Color really is about superheroes. The TV series should be engaging, if it ever happens.

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales]


geezer cinema: film fatales #121: shiva baby (emma seligman, 2020)

Shiva Baby grew out of a short student film created by Emma Seligman and starring Rachel Sennott. At 78 minutes, it still feels a bit like a short, but it's so packed with eventful scenes you could imagine it running for another half an hour. The film takes place in a 24-hour period, most of which occurs at a shiva. Seligman and cinematographer Maria Rusche do a great job of simultaneously giving the feel of claustrophobia while still finding plenty of space for intimate conversations. People are regularly leaving one crowded room for a less-crowded room where they can talk things out.

The film is steeped in Jewish culture (ironically, Dianna Agron, who plays a shiksa princess, is Jewish, while Rachel Sennott, who plays the lead, Danielle, is not), but it feels universal, a coming of age story with well-meaning but intrusive family and plenty of "experimenting" for Danielle. At times, Seligman inches close to stereotype, but never dives completely in, in part because Danielle is at the center of everything that happens, and we get to know her as an actual person. The cast is good across the board, although for the most part I never figured out exactly who was who (as I say, close to stereotype). Polly Draper and Fred Melamed are on target as Danielle's parents, who want the best for their daughter but don't always know what "the best" might be. Molly Gordon is a standout as Maya, Danielle's ex-lover ... there's a bite to her personality, yet in some ways I found her the most likeable character in the film.

Shiva Baby is relentless in locking Danielle into uncomfortable situations. And there is a baby that cries pretty much every time it turns up on screen, eventually making the soundtrack feel a bit like a horror film. Which Shiva Baby is, in an odd sort of way. At least until what I found to be a semi-happy ending.

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales]

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema]