film fatales #194: the miseducation of cameron post (desiree akhavan, 2018)

This is the twentieth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 20 is called "The Female Gaze Week":

The numbers, as you can probably imagine, are terrible. The Celluloid Ceiling reports that only 7% of the top 250 highest-grossing movies in 2022 employed female cinematographers. A lousy seven percent! Hearteningly, women continue making slow but steady inroads into the industry, but still, it could be a lot better. After all, a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences make for a far more varied and rewarding cinematic landscape; we should all consider ourselves blessed to see the world through someone else's eyes.

In that spirit, this week's challenge is to watch a film lensed by a woman. Lola Landekić's list, The Female Gaze, or: 100 Films by Female Cinematographers, is a good place to start, but any film with a female DP is fair game.

Chloë Grace Moretz has snuck up on me. I don't think of her as one of my favorites, although I loved her so much in Kick-Ass that I made her my Facebook avatar. But The Miseducation of Cameron Post is the 7th movie with Moretz I have seen, and while she's not always the lead, the movies are often quite good, and she usually stands out. About Kick-Ass, I wrote, "the #1 reason to watch Kick-Ass is Chloë Grace Moretz." She was one of the best things in Scorsese's Hugo, and she carries the action movie Shadow in the Cloud.

Moretz is the titular Cameron Post, a teenager caught making out with another girl at her prom, who is sent to a "conversion" camp. The film is more low-key than you'd expect ... the "camp" is creepy and quietly abusive of the kids, but the film is more a character study of young people than it is a diatribe against conversion therapy. In a scene where Cameron is questioned by an investigator after one of the kids tries to kill himself, she explains how the camp works on the teens. She says she feels safe, but that she doesn't trust the staff members. Asked if she thinks the staff has her best interests in mind, she replies, "No one's, you know, beating us. But you asked me if I trust them. And sure, I trust them to drive the van safely, and I trust them to buy food." Told that the investigator isn't there to examine the mission of the facility "unless that includes abuse or neglect", Cameron asks, "Yeah, but what about emotional abuse?" Moretz speaks softly, but her face speaks loudly ... she wears that emotional abuse where we can see it.

The challenge this week was to watch a film with a female cinematographers, and the reference to a female gaze is appropriate. But the collaborative nature of film making means I can't always separate the contributions of the various crew members from the writer and director. Director Desiree Akhavan co-wrote the screenplay with Cecilia Frugiuele, from a novel by Emily M. Danforth, with Ashley Connor as cinematographer. Who is ultimately responsible for the film? All of them, although it's the standard that we start with the director (this was Akhavan's second feature, although she has worked frequently in television). I think a director's job is partly to elicit good performances from the cast, and you get that here, not just from Moretz, but from almost everyone (Jennifer Ehle is a bit stereotypical as the villain).

The Miseducation of Cameron Post won't beat you over the head, and some might wish there was more of that kind of style. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, but there was no big fight to get distribution rights, and it wasn't ever shown much in theaters, meaning it lost money, even with a budget of under $1 million. It deserves more attention than it got. The Miseducation of Cameron Post hides in that place between good and great movies, it's worth seeing, and Moretz is once again a standout.

film fatales #193: fire of love (sara dosa, 2022)

This is the eighteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 18 is called "Golden Brick Week":

My (Adam Graff’s) favorite podcast about movies is Filmspotting (𝖘𝖊𝖙𝖍𝖊𝖓𝖘𝖙𝖊𝖎𝖓: Me too!). For me, the hosts have the perfect blend of genuine insight in their reviews and top five lists to participatory fun like their Massacre Theater segment where listeners guess movies based on their very bad acting of a scene to their March Madness when listeners spend the month determining things like who the best director working today is or what is the best movie of the 90s. The hosts are affable and thoughtful and stay focused on films throughout the podcast, without sacrificing a personal touch.

One feature of Filmspottting is their annual Golden Brick Award, intended to honor underseen films, which is presented to the best film of the year that is not mainstream, made by a relatively new filmmaker, and that shows a clear directorial vision or artistic ambition. This week, watch a movie that was nominated for a Golden Brick from Filmspotting’s own Letterboxd list and give them a listen if you haven’t already.

Fire of Love is an Oscar-nominated documentary about two French "volcanologists", Katia and Maurice Krafft, and their relationship with each other and with volcanoes. Both are fascinated with the latter ... one could say obsessed ... they make a fine team because they share that fascination. The "love" of the title refers to their love for each other ... the "fire of love" adds volcanoes to the picture. It feels like something Werner Herzog might film, and in fact, Herzog released his own documentary about the Kraffts, The Fire Within, that same year. I haven't seen it, but I have seen other Herzog documentaries, and he usually manages to work himself into the situations he is presenting. Sara Dosa, working with writers Shane Boris, Erin Casper, and Jocelyne Chaput (with Casper and Chaput also serving as editors) artfully hide themselves ... the film is almost entirely archival footage, much taken by the Kraffts, with no after-the-fact interviews. It feels as you are watching as if the Kraffts are the ones who made the movie, and I imagine if they could see it, they'd be pleased (they ended up dying in 1991 during a volcano eruption).

But Fire of Love also features a running narration, read by Miranda July. I found nothing wrong with July's reading, but the narration does tend to impose a direction to what we see. Between that and the editing, you come to understand that despite being at the center of the picture, the Kraffts are not the real authors of this film. Dosa hides herself, but in plain sight.

The Kraffts are very interesting, and their love of their work together helps to overcome the moments (and there are many) when you wonder just what these crazy people are going to do next. Dosa tries hard not to pass judgement on the couple, and mostly succeeds. I found myself wavering at times, but the Kraffts kind of invite that. Also, we get to watch from the comforts of the theater or our living room, while the Kraffts are often right next to the flowing lava. We risk nothing by watching the movie ... the Kraffts risk everything on a regular basis, and are aware of the possibilities. They just can't deny what they see as the beauty of the earth. And their footage offers remarkable evidence that the earth really is alive.

geezer cinema/film fatales #192: saltburn (emerald fennell, 2023)

I kept reading that Saltburn was "divisive". I assumed that meant critics were split on its merits, or it was excessive in ways that would please some in the audience and piss off others. And now that I've seen it, yeah, it's excessive, and proud of it. I welcomed the excess. But I'm not sure of the purpose.

Writer/director Emerald Fennell gave us Promising Young Woman, an impressive and unsettling look at a woman taking revenge against men who assault women. At the time, I wrote, "Promising Young Woman makes you look forward to whatever Fennell comes up with next." And indeed, I was looking forward to Saltburn.

For most of the film, I thought I was watching a comedy. Not a ha-ha comedy, but an inspired look at the vapid lives of the rich. I'm all for portraits of the rich as insensitive dolts, and if Saltburn isn't exactly The Rules of the Game, nonetheless I was enjoying its Talented Mr. Ripley feel. Most of the rich people aren't evil ... they are just self-absorbed in the manner of those who don't have to worry about the commonplaces of everyday life. Barry Keoghan plays our representative into this world, Oliver Quick, who gets into Oxford on a scholarship and feels out of place among the rich kids. Through a variety of occurrences, Oliver ends up spending the summer at Saltburn, the family home of his classmate, Felix Catton.

I have no interest in spoilers ... just know that we, and Oliver, find out the "truth" about the rich Catton family. They are funny because they are unaware that they are funny. They are rich, so they can get away with being unaware. Fennell is expert at getting our hopes up that the Cattons will meet their comeuppance. And, to the extent Oliver is the impetus for that comeuppance, we root for him.

But the overall tone is uncertain, rather like Downton Abbey, which was always sympathetic to the workers but which nonetheless came down on the side of tradition. For Oliver becomes despicable himself by the end of the film, partly because he has always wanted to be like the rich. Fennell presents wealth as something to look down upon, then gives us a hero who embraces it, and doesn't appear to be ironic about it all. Fennell has said of the film's ending:

For those people who were still doubting whether they should be on Oliver’s side or whether he was our hero, the ending needed to have so much triumph, so much evil glee. It needed to be an act of territory-taking and desecration and joy ... My preoccupation is making an audience complicit, making them laugh when they shouldn’t maybe be laughing, making them squirm or feel complicated feelings. So the end needed to have that thing where you could not help but to be on Oliver’s side.

I agree with almost everything she says here. Making the audience complicit isn't easy, but it's worth the effort. But she fails in her ultimate desire for us to "be on Oliver's side". Because Oliver is, at best, no better than the rich people he wants to be. We like Robin Hood because he steals from the rich to give to the poor. Oliver takes from the rich and gives himself the prizes because he thinks being rich is a good thing.

Fennell's work, here and in Promising Young Thing (and in television work like Killing Eve) is audacious, and I still look forward to whatever she comes up with next. But Saltburn is a step down. Bonus points, though, for the use of "Rent" by the Pet Shop Boys.

film fatales # 191: outside in (lynn shelton, 2017)

This is the sixteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 16 is called "Lin, Lyne, Lynn, Lynn, or Lynne Week":

This week, we pay homage to Benjamin Milot, LSC's previous host. Back in 2018, he came up with the idea of loosely grouping four or five prominent actors or directors based only on the similarity of their names. Not only did this create a clever title for a theme week, but it also tended to provide a wide range of films from which to choose, producing a creative cornucopia of cinema to sate any palate.

In that spirit, we continue his vital work. This week, you'll pick a movie directed by one of the following: Justin LinAdrian LyneDarren Lynn BousmanLynn Shelton, or Lynne Ramsay. Or, if you're up for a real challenge, choose one from each!

P.S. We know Adrian's last name is pronounced "line," but it looks the same, so don't fight it.

I had seen one other movie directed by Lynn Shelton, Sword of Trust, and much of what I said about that film applies to Outside In:

I wanted to like Sword of Trust ... But the best I can say is that I didn't dislike it. ... I never quit rooting for the movie ... Everyone does good work, but overall, I wanted a little more.

Once again, Shelton shows herself to be a good director of actors. But the basic plot (ex-con returns, faces problems) reminded me too much of the great, forgotten TV series Rectify, and it doesn't come close. Edie Falco does excellent work as a woman who wears her emotions on her face, and as always, I liked Kaitlin Dever. But Jay Duplass was a real problem for me. I've never been a big fan of his screen presence (this was the first movie with him that I had seen, but he turns up on my TV a lot), and his role as the ex-con seems ill-fitted to what Duplass gives us. I expected someone more hardened, and that could be on me, since he's not a typical ex-con. And I may have suffered from submerged macho syndrome, because while Falco's emotional turmoil moved me, I quickly tired of seeing Duplass performing a similar role. (Duplass also co-wrote the script with Shelton.) So now I've seen two of Lynn Shelton's features, I'd like to see more, but I haven't gone overboard on what I've seen so far.

film fatales #190: komeda, komeda... (natasza ziólkowska-kurczuk, 2012)

Documentary made for Polish TV in 2012, about jazz musician Krzysztof Komeda, who composed scores for many films, including several directed by Roman Polanski. Komeda is a worthy subject for a documentary, but this film isn't very captivating. We learn a bit about his life, we learn a bit about his work in jazz, we learn a bit about his composing for film, we learn a bit about Poland at the time ... but we never learn enough about any of those topics to actually illuminate them. Most importantly, we don't hear enough of his film work.

film fatales #189: proof (jocelyn moorhouse, 1991)

This is the fourteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 14 is called "Living in Obscurity Week":

Top 10 (or 50, or 100, or 250), Best of, and All-Time Greatest lists are all well and good, but sometimes the discerning movie-watcher desires the sweet thrill of discovery, of stumbling upon an obscure gem, of uncovering a magnificent concoction few others have. There is nothing wrong with those lauded collections of films—they are well-known and revered for good reason. But think about this: by some estimates, there are nearly 5 million films out there in the world! It's like a bucket of LEGO containing pieces of every size; all the little bricks sink to the bottom while the bigger ones rest on top. Movies, it seems, are no different.

This week, let's plunge our hands deep into the movie bucket and shun the measly 1% of films (if we're being generous) that get the most attention. However, 4.95 million films are a bit much to sift through. Luckily, Letterboxd makes our task easy: just pick a title from The Most Obscure Movie Recommendations List Ever as compiled by independent online film journal Bright Wall/Dark Room. Voila! Happy discovering!

Proof was the first feature for writer/director Jocelyn Moorhouse, and it was successful on the festival circuit, opening doors for Moorhouse's subsequent career. I've seen her later movie The Dressmaker, which was also highly regarded, although I felt it didn't add up to much. You could say Proof doesn't fit clearly into any genre, or that it crosses several genres, but in any case, it's just different enough to be surprising throughout. It's a study of a blind man, it's a buddy movie, it's a romantic triangle, and no one can every quite trust anyone else. Trust is at the center of the film ... the blind man can't trust what others say because he can't see evidence of what they are talking about. He takes photographs of everything, and then asks people to describe what they see. He compares their descriptions to what people said when the events took place, and can then know who is honest ... the photographs are his proof.

There's some nice acting going on. Hugo Weaving doesn't overplay his character's blindness, and is all the more believable because of that. Russell Crowe is impossibly young (he was 27), with a pleasing charisma. Geneviève Picot rounds out the triangle, and her character is written almost like a femme fatale from a noir picture. Picot makes it work.

Proof won't knock you off your feet, but it's a solid film and a strong start for Moorhouse.

film fatales #188: dance, girl, dance (dorothy arzner, 1940)

There's no denying the historical importance of Dorothy Arzner, a pioneer film maker who was the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America. For most of her career, she was the only woman directing mainstream Hollywood movies. All of the Arzner films I've seen are solid efforts (admittedly, I've only seen three). Some find Dance, Girl, Dance her best work, while I find a consistency in the movies I've seen, where none is notably better than the others.

Dance, Girl, Dance is ripe for analysis of its feminist subtext. Some of this comes from our knowing about Arzner's importance ... we want to find that subtext. She only made one more movie after Dance, Girl, Dance, and while she lived until 1979, her films were not rediscovered until the burgeoning feminist film theorists of the early 70s. It's good that she was rediscovered, and I've liked her movies. But I think there's a tendency to overestimate work that is noteworthy for its place in film history. That Arzner was a pioneer doesn't guarantee that she was an elite director. We should be thankful for the general quality of her movies, without thinking we need to praise them as classics on their own.

Here is the defining scene from Dance, Girl, Dance ... the feminist subtext moves to the front:

Maureen O'Hara plays a dancer with dreams of being a successful ballet dancer. Lucille Ball is a dancer whose dreams are more about money than art. Arzner is not critical of her female characters ... we understand the motives of both women. There's an imbalance in the movie, though, because while O'Hara is OK, Ball steals the film. When she appears, we root for her, even though I don't think we are expected to prefer her dreams to O'Hara's.

geezer cinema/african-american directors series/film fatales #187: the marvels (nia dacosta, 2023)

The Marvels is the 25th movie I've seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most of those came because my wife chose them to watch, and I find them largely interchangeable ... the two Black Panther movies are the best, Shang-Chi comes close, I'm not a fan of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania was the bottom of the barrel. The other 18, they are OK but I can mostly take them or leave them. I like Brie Larson, so the Captain Marvel movies are a tad more appealing to me, but I wouldn't overstate that difference. If I really hated them, my wife would have to watch them on her own, but if it's possible to accept a superhero franchise without either loving it or hating it, that's me and the MCU.

The Marvels has a few things going for it, besides Brie Larson. The other two Marvels, Teyonah Parris as Monica and Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan, are just as good.  Zawe Ashton is a good villain. The movie is a bit sillier than the usual, which is a nice surprise, and at 105 minutes, it is the shortest film in the Universe, for which I say, thank you.

I'd like to say more good things ... it's a woman-based movie, on the screen and behind the scenes (besides writer/director Nia DaCosta, there are co-writers Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik). But saying I liked it a bit more than the usual MCU movie doesn't mean I think it's great. Black Panther was great. The Marvels is better than Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.

film fatales #186: loving couples (mai zetterling, 1964)

Mai Zetterling was an interesting person in Swedish film history. She worked at roughly the same time as Ingmar Bergman, who wrote the screenplay for Zetterling's debut as an actor, in Torment (1944). She appeared in films as an actor for another 20+ years, until she moved to writing and directing. Loving Couples is her first feature as a director. It was controversial in its time for its sexual themes (including homosexuality) and nudity. The film is reminiscent of other, better, movies, but it stands on its own as well. Much of the film takes place at a celebration at an estate that brings to mind Renoir's Rules of the Game and Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night. There is a framing device with three women delivery babies in a maternity hospital that recalls Bergman's Brink of Life. If you're gonna have influences, it's good to choose the best movies. If in the end, Loving Couples will stick with me mainly because it made me want to watch those other movies, well, there are worse things for a movie to accomplish.

geezer cinema/film fatales #185: anatomy of a fall (justine triet, 2023)

It's not really accurate to call Anatomy of a Fall a procedural. A good portion of the film takes place in a courtroom, and over the course of the film, we learn more and more about what might have happened. The gradual unveiling is something like an episode of the old Perry Mason show, except the courtroom and the rules of the courtroom are French, and we aren't sure of the defendant's innocence, because while writer/director Justine Triet and co-writer Arthur Harari have made a film reminiscent of past courtroom dramas, the innocence of the nominal heroine isn't guaranteed. Apparently Triet didn't tell Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann), who played the defendant Sandra, if the character was innocent or guilty, only telling her to act innocent.

While there is a mystery to be solved, at its core, Anatomy of a Fall is a family drama. It's not what you'd call a good date movie ... the couple at the center of the story have their problems, and the emotions get quite raw at times. The acting is stellar throughout ... Hüller will get most of the attention, deservedly so, but young Milo Machado-Graner as her son is realistically secretive, and Swann Arlaud is very appealing as her lawyer friend. The intricacies of French courtrooms were puzzling to me, but there is no reason to doubt the veracity of the representation.

There is a fascinating subtext involving language. While almost all of the characters are French (and, obviously, the courtroom proceedings are in French), Sandra is German. She speaks French, but there is a hesitancy when she does. With her husband, and with her attorney, she speaks English ... it seems that when one speaks German and the other speaks French, they meet in the middle and talk English. Giving testimony during the trial, she is required to speak French, but eventually she doesn't feel she can get the meaning of her words across, and she receives permission to speak English. (When she talks to her son, she speaks English to him and he replies in French.)

Anatomy of a Fall is engrossing despite its long length (152 minutes), getting its intensity not from wild action scenes but from interpersonal relationships.