film fatales #57: booksmart (olivia wilde, 2019)

I wanted to like Booksmart a lot more than I eventually did. It's stylishly directed by a woman, it centers on two female characters, it has a few good jokes, and has a couple of favorites of mine in Kaitlyn Dever and Jessica Williams. But it's not much of a movie. I wish it were better.

Part of the problem is that, as I've noted many times, I am not a fan of modern comedies. And there's my obsession with not knowing anything about a movie before I see it. In this case, I knew it had gotten good reviews, and I knew Olivia Wilde had encouraged people to see it as part of an effort to get more attention/funding/audiences for "movies made by and about women." What I didn't know is that it was a comedy. Which is another way of saying, your mileage may vary, but Booksmart is way out of my zone, not because it is about women, but because it's a comedy. You can take my words with a grain of salt. I did laugh a few times, and I found the film amiable ... I'm not sorry I saw it. But ...

I keep track of my movie ratings on MovieLens. There, I find that I have given 27 comedies my highest 10/10 rating. Here is the breakdown, by decade:

  • 1920s: 5
  • 1930s: 9
  • 1940s: 4
  • 1950s: 5
  • 1960s: 2
  • 1970s: 1
  • 2000s: 1

I can quibble with MovieLens' definition of "Comedy" ... if it were me, I don't think I'd include The Rules of the Game, for instance. And this little chart is not meant to establish a method for assigning greatness. It is completely subjective. But since A Hard Day's Night and Dr. Strangelove in 1964, I have given my highest rating to a grand total of two comedies: Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, and American Splendor. Booksmart was up against this ... I was never going to like it as much as I wanted to like it.

I liked it about as much as I liked Bridesmaids and Moonrise Kingdom and The Interview and The Favourite. I liked it more than I liked Tusk. If you liked those movies, you will probably like Booksmart. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series. I'm going to have to update this soon.)

film fatales #56: exhibition (joanna hogg, 2013)

This is my first Joanna Hogg film, and so I can't tell if its idiosyncrasies are typical of her work. Exhibition is a bit different, in any event. It's in the traditional of movies where "nothing happens" ... I'd say it's one of the leaders of that genre. Hogg tells the story of a middle-aged couple who have decided to sell their house after 18 years of living in it. He is an architect named "H" (at least I think he's an architect, we don't get a lot of detail in that regard), she is a performance artist named "D". Their house is suitably modernist, and is the setting for almost the entire movie. Tom Hiddleston has a couple of scenes as a realtor which amount to a cameo ... the relationship between D and H is pretty much the whole movie.

Some people seem to think of D and H's marriage as falling apart, but I didn't get that. They are in a rut, and they occasionally try to break through that feeling, but for the most part, they reminded me of my wife and I, and we just celebrated our 46th anniversary without falling apart. Something is missing from their lives, just like something is missing from the house, which is exquisite yet somehow barren. D and H are childless, and again, some think this is important, but I thought they were just two people who didn't want kids.

Exhibition is rather chilly, and perhaps some viewers will think that proves the couple are in trouble. It is true that the most intense sex scene in the film comes when D masturbates in bed as H sleeps beside her ... OK, maybe they are in trouble.

The leads, Viv Albertine and Liam Gillick, are not actors ... this was the only movie as actor for each. Gillick is a conceptual artist, while Albertine has done many things, beginning with her time in the seminal punk band The Slits. In her wonderful memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, Albertine writes about the making of Exhibition. She and Joanna Hogg were longtime friends, and Hogg asked her to star in the movie. Albertine said yes instantly, then had second thoughts after meeting Gillick. But she (and Gillick) stuck it out.

What I’m not confident about is my body, or my face. Joanna doesn’t want me to wear any makeup, and here’s the camera inches from my face (and thighs), god knows what kind of lens Ed Rutherford, the director of photography, is using. I have absolutely no control over what I look like. I feel like Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, when Stanley Kowalski grabs her face and holds it under a bare light bulb to see how old she really is (Vivien Leigh said that was the most painful scene she had ever filmed). On the first day of shooting I’m acutely aware of my age and the rarity of a movie camera lingering over an older woman’s face in films. Usually it’s a young woman’s face the camera loves, it almost caresses her: isn’t she beautiful, isn’t she perfect....

I couldn’t do the sex scenes if I had a boyfriend, it would be a betrayal. ... I haven’t been touched by a man for over a year, this is so strange, a man I don’t know touching me intimately, with another group of men I don’t know watching me, the microphone dangling over our heads and the blank shark eye of the camera lens recording it all. I’m half appalled and half aroused. ... By the time we get to the last sex scene, towards the end of the six-week shoot, I have to make a huge effort to get into it. I’m exhausted, all wrung out, I’ve given every last drop of myself. ...

One of the last scenes we shoot takes place in a country house. The room is cold and completely dark, there’s no bed, just a mattress in the middle of the floor. Joanna tells Liam and me to curl up together under a blanket. I put my head on Liam’s shoulder, he wraps his arm around me. I start sobbing uncontrollably. Joanna asks me what she should do, I say, ‘Keep filming, I’m not going to be able to stop.’ It’s the position we’re in that’s affected me so deeply. Just how Husband and I used to snuggle up together when we were happy. I cry continuously for the next four hours, the first time I’ve cried since the break-up of my marriage.

The visual style of the film, with shots through blinds and reflections everywhere, is a way of making the house into a character. It certainly has a bigger and more important role than does Tom Hiddleston.

Just because why not, here's a video of The Slits in 1979:

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series. I'm going to have to update this soon.)

film fatales #55: la ciénaga (lucrecia martel, 2001)

La Ciénaga is a damp movie. You get sweaty just watching it. It represents Lucrecia Martel's artistic rendition of her childhood. Wikipedia offers this description of the film's background:

Lucrecia Martel's screenplay for the film won the Sundance Institute/NHK Award in 1999; this award honors and supports emerging independent filmmakers. The jury suggested she re-write the script to follow a more traditional structure around one or two protagonists, but she chose instead to retain the script's diffuse nature.

Martel has said in media interviews that the story is based on "memories of her own family." She has also said, "I know what kind of film I've made. Not a very easy one! For me, it's not a realistic film. It's something strange, a little weird. It's the kind of film where you can't tell what's going to happen, and I wanted the audience to be very uncomfortable from the beginning."

La Ciénaga is believable in a way that might suggest realism, or at least a form of magic realism (Martel and her film are from Argentina). But it is neither. It's realism with a twist ... the situations are recognizable and seemingly mundane, but Martel presents them in an off-center way. That awards jury knew what they were talking about. They were wrong about what La Ciénaga needed, and Martel didn't fall for their suggestions. But if she wanted to make a more straightforward movie, a traditional structure would have helped. It's just that she wasn't interested in that structure.

You can overstate the oddness of La Ciénaga. I expected something like Un Chien Andalou, but it's not nearly as obscure. You need to settle into its rhythms, you need to accept that Martel isn't going to hold your hand, but there's a difference between wanting the audience to be uncomfortable and making a movie that did not connect with an audience. Scenes begin and end in the middle, you aren't always immediately sure where you are, but you aren't lost.

And the lack of audience comfort mirrors the discomfort of the characters. The adults drink to escape their boredom, the kids run around trying to make something out of their boredom, and the Amerindian servants are looked down on by the grown-ups and loved by the kids. No one is happy, although most of them aren't exactly sad, either.

Martel makes great use of sound. At times, La Ciénaga plays like a horror movie ... sounds, many of them from nature, constantly lead us to expect something ominous is about to happen.

"La Ciénaga" means "The Swamp", and that accurately identifies the milieu in which these characters exist. There is a filthy swimming pool that serves a reminder of this, although the metaphor is perhaps a bit too on target. But overall, Martel's first feature is confident and promising.

La Ciénaga is #107 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 #54: shirkers (sandi tan, 2018)

Shirkers is the story of a film that got stolen. Sandi Tan was a 19-year-old who, with two friends and teacher/mentor Georges Cardona, shot the footage for a feature-length movie. The three young women went off to college, leaving the film for Cardona to edit. They never saw him again, and the footage seemed to be lost. Many years later, Cardona's widow contacted Tan, telling her she had found the footage, which Cardona had kept all those years. There was no audio.

Tan does a great job of integrating that footage into a making-of documentary. It gives Tan a chance to regain what was once hers; it's also crippled by the lack of sound. The original Shirkers is lost to the world, but with the perspective that distance provides and the technical skills Tan had picked up over time, she gives us a new feature that is probably better than what she made as a teenager. There is a sense of loss, of course, but in the end, we can only guess at the quality of the original. There is no guess work involved with the documentary, which is intriguing and shines light on the precarious nature of the art we make.

Cardona seems to sneakily become the film's focus, which would be his final triumph if that's what he wanted (he is ultimately a cipher), but eventually it turns back to Tan and her friends, as it should. While Tan includes interviews with critics who make extravagant claims for the lost film, it feels hyperbolic. And unnecessary, since the film she eventually makes stands on its own. And if the original was charmingly amateurish, the grown-up Tan is an accomplished film maker (for one thing, she hides that fact that the footage is silent for most of the film, and I never suspected a thing ... maybe if I watched it a second time I'd see the signs).

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

film fatale: agnès varda, 1928-2019

I've rated and written about five Agnès Varda films here. On a scale of ten, I've given her 8 8 8 9 9. An all-time great film maker.

Cléo from 5 to 7. "Cléo from 5 to 7 isn’t quite as startling now as it must have seemed in 1962, but its essential, existential heart is just as large now as it was then."

Vagabond. Film Fatales #1. "Varda shows us how each individual gets Mona wrong, but she refuses to show us a Mona we can understand. It’s as if such a demonstration would be corrupted by value judgments."

The Gleaners & I. "But what comes through more than anything is the joy Varda takes from the gleaners. At one point, she picks up a broken wall clock with no arms or hands. It would seem useless, but Varda puts it on a mantel in her house, telling us a clock without hands is perfect for her."

The Beaches of Agnès. "The film feels almost tossed off, as if Varda gathered together some source material, filmed a few transition pieces, and had a movie. But after it’s over, when you start thinking about what you’ve seen, you realize how detailed is the film’s construction."

Faces Places."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."

film fatales #53: captain marvel (anna boden and ryan fleck, 2019)

Captain Marvel is a "film fatale" for more reasons than that it was co-directed by a woman. Two of the three screenwriters are women, the composer is a woman, a woman is co-editor ... none of this would be remarkable if it weren't for the fact that it is still far too rare. There's also the part where this is a Marvel superhero movie with a woman as the lead, although this isn't a first if you include television (say hello to Peggy Carter).

Captain Marvel succeeds in all of the Marvel basics: good action scenes, an enjoyable supporting cast (some, like Gemma Chan and Lee Pace, aren't easily recognized under their makeup, and while Sam Jackson and Clark Gregg are recognizable, that's because of the CGI work that made them younger), even an animal that isn't annoying (Goose the Cat, so much better than that damn fox in the Guardians films). I can barely keep track of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I am a regular viewer of the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., so it was fun seeing some of that show's plot integrated into the film (the Kree have been in the series, as has the Tesseract, not to mention Phil Coulson, although the show got better when it mostly detached itself from the MCU).

I've been a fan of Brie Larson since United States of Tara, and she's fine as The Captain, even if she's no Agent Carter (or Wonder Woman, for that matter). I've seen more of these movies than I realize, and for the most part, I like them OK, even if only one has been truly excellent. My rankings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe items I've seen:

Easily the best: Black Panther

Runner-Up: Agent Carter (TV series, but she's a character in a few of the movies, so I'm counting it)

OK: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.Ant-ManThe AvengersAvengers: Infinity WarCaptain America: Civil WarCaptain MarvelDoctor Strange, Iron Man, Venom (not sure why it isn't in the official MCU)

Not so OK: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Worst: Guardians of the Galaxy

As is known by now, Captain Marvel is a huge hit at the box office, and I'm glad for that ... puts to rest the notion that female leads can't do box office. Still, my favorite Brie Larson movie, Short Term 12, cost less than $1 million to make ... it would be nice if Marvel fans checked that movie out some time.

Some 4K trailer action:

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

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.)