Emerald Fennell is only 35, and she's already had quite the career. As an actress, she's had parts in several movies while also catching attention on television in Call the Midwife and, as Camilla Parker Bowles, in The Crown. As an author, she has written a few children's books and one adult novel. She took over as showrunner for the second season of Killing Eve. And now she has written, directed, and co-produced her first feature film, Promising Young Woman, earning Oscar nominations for all three of those duties. She is, to coin a phrase, a promising young woman (I can't be the first person to come up with that).
Promising Young Woman takes full advantage of Carey Mulligan in the title role. The supporting cast is excellent, featuring actors who, in many cases, have moved beyond "That Guy": Alison Brie, Laverne Cox, Alfred Molina, Connie Britton. (There are plenty of That Guys, too, like Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, and Molly Shannon.) Fennell shows a sure hand with these performers, many of whom shine in small parts that are nonetheless well-defined. And since Fennell not only directed the actors but wrote their dialogue, she deserves double credit.
Promising Young Woman also feels very much of its time, and it will be interesting to check it out in ten years to see if it feels like the remnants of a time long past, or if it retains its timeliness. It's a revenge tale, and I'll avoid spoilers and stop there, but Mulligan is ferocious while giving us a sense of what is going on inside her character. I was reminded of another revenge story that didn't share a lot with this film but which came to my mind anyway, the short, cancelled-too-soon TV series Sweet/Vicious.
Promising Young Woman makes you look forward to whatever Fennell comes up with next. #755 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.
Here I go with another attempt at a Kelly Reichardt movie. I was, as I said at the time, "bored shitless" by Old Joy. I had an easier time with Wendy and Lucy, which had the benefit of a fine performance by the reliable Michelle Williams. I wrote of both movies that they had "a good feel for nature (and the beautiful cinematography to go with it), a lack of a narrative thrust, and the willingness to take the time to let the film develop (if “develop” is the right word)." That is the defining feature of the Reichardt movies I've seen ... she takes her time. First Cow begins with a slow shot of a barge on a river moving from left to right across the screen. It takes a good 75 seconds before Reichardt cuts away, and honestly, I have no idea why the shot is even in the movie. It looks nice, but even there, we're up against an interesting situation, for Reichardt has chosen to shoot her film at 1.37:1, while the long barge seems made for a widescreen. Next we see Alia Shawkat on the beach picking at things in the dirt, and I like Alia Shawkat and looked forward to seeing what she was up to. (Spoiler alert: this turns out to be her only scene in the entire movie.) Her dog alerts her to something odd in the dirt, which turns out to be two skeletons lying side by side.
I'll return to this opening later. For now, suffice to say that the movie really begins after that scene. We're in Oregon in the early 19th-century. The central character is a chef who picks up the nickname "Cookie". He soon meets up with a Chinese immigrant (King-Lu), and their budding friendship is the heart of First Cow. Reichardt offers this quote from William Blake after the opening credits: "The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship." Neither man fits in well in the community. They are reminiscent of the men in Old Joy, yet what I hated about that earlier movie was the relationship between the men. I find Cookie and King-Lu to be much more congenial, and I didn't mind the slow pace as we got to know them and they got to know each other. First Cow is 40+ minutes longer than the other movies, but it was less boring to me.
Eventually a plot arrives. Cookie looks back on the delicious buttermilk biscuits he had eaten in the past, says milk would make the dry "bread" of the camp a lot more enjoyable, but there's no milk in that neck of the woods. Except the richest person in the area has acquired a cow. There were supposed to be three, but the male and the baby died in transit, leaving only the mom. While he awaits the arrival of another bull, he at least appreciates that he can use the cow for milk. Of course, Cookie and King-Lu have figured out the same thing.
There's no need to say more ... even a low-key movie like this has spoilers. Meanwhile, Reichardt gives us what is essentially a Western, with many of the typical themes of the genre: man in the wilderness, on the frontier, civilization gradually making headway. It's all very subtle, and adds to the overall feel that First Cow is deeper than it appears.
Ah, but there's that first scene. Not sure how much of a spoiler this is, given that what I'm about to describe takes place in the first minutes of the movie. Although I was clueless about basic information like what Alia Shawkat was wearing, it becomes apparent that her scene took place in modern times. (I say "apparent", but I actually didn't even notice until later when I read about the film.) There are other possible connections between her scene and what happens in the 19th century, although Reichardt leaves everything ambiguous. Since I am regularly frustrated when something I watch says "five months earlier" after an opening scene, you'd think I would admire the way Reichardt lets us figure it out for ourselves. Since I didn't figure it out until long past the end of the movie, though, well, color me frustrated.
Still, I liked First Cow at least as much as I liked Wendy and Lucy. Kelly Reichardt has a very specific, personal style of film making, and more power to her. It really helps, though, if you know going in that she will force you to slow down to her pace.
This video essay by Thomas Flight does an excellent job of making a case for the excellence of First Cow. It makes me feel a bit dumb, but in a good way, because I learned from it. Don't watch it if you haven't seen the movie. #126 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.
This is the twenty-fourth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "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 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 24 is called "Southern Exposure: Jane Campion Week".
Though not as obscure as our Northern Exposure director, Jane Campion has made a name for herself, due in large part to her breakout hit, The Piano. The thing is though, as far as I can tell, a lot of people haven't viewed her work outside of that film. So if you've yet to see it, you're in for a treat, and if you have seen it, you get to see how a filmmaker develops. A win-win.
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by Jane Campion.
Sweetie was Jane Campion's debut as a feature director, after a few years making shorts. She's had a fine career, winning an Oscar for her screenplay for The Piano, which she also directed, helping Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin win acting Oscars. She created the television series Top of the Lake with Elisabeth Moss, and had her hand in a variety of movies over the years (I'm partial to An Angel at My Table). Sweetie was her idea ... besides directing, she also co-wrote the screenplay. And it's an odd one.
The family at the center of Sweetie is, let's say, dysfunctional. At first, the film seems to center on Kay, a young woman, shy and superstitious. She seems socially awkward at her work, and she begins a relationship with a new boyfriend, Louis, because of the tea readings of a fortune teller. There is something a tiny bit off in the way Campion and cinematographer Sally Bongers present Kay's life, but it's nothing you can put your finger on, and I settled in to what I assumed would be a quiet look at an unassuming individual. Kay's parents are just eccentric enough to suggest how Kay became Kay.
And then Kay's sister Dawn, called "Sweetie", turns up, and we see that this family is more than a tiny bit off. Sweetie is ... how to say it ... kind of crazy. As the film progresses, we learn that she has essentially demanded attention from her family since childhood, and she goes over the edge more than once in her interactions with others. The tone of the film wavers, at times a comedy, at times a family drama, often exhibiting a mean streak towards Sweetie. To the extent the movie sympathizes with anyone, it's more Sweetie's family than Sweetie herself, although the way her parents indulged her since she was a kid is a type of "explanation" for how she turned out.
Sweetie is different. Karen Colston and Geneviève Lemon are intriguing as Kay and Sweetie. I couldn't always tell what was intended by Campion and her co-screenwriter Gerard Lee, and the movie is not close to a complete success. But it's an interesting look at Campion when she was just starting.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Jason Woliner, 2020). I wrote of the first Borat movie, "Simply put, Borat is a mean-spirited movie. Nothing wrong with that, and Baron Cohen isn't making any claims to being kind." The same holds for this sequel. Most of Sasha Baron Cohen's targets are deserving ... America is a pretty fucked-up country right now ... but that can't hide the fact that Baron Cohen gets people to participate via subterfuge and then presents them in the worst possible light. Still, Rudy Giuliani is both deserving and fucked-up, and I don't mind a bit that he comes off like a pedophile. Meanwhile, Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova steals every scene she is in.
Geezer Cinema/Film Fatales #108: Nomadland (Chloé Zhao, 2020). It's an accident that these two movies ended up in one post ... there couldn't be two movies as different as these. Nomadland is based on a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder about aging nomads in America. It tells the story of people in their 60s and older who live outside of "the norm", traveling in vans and RVs, picking up seasonal work, and dealing with life as it comes. There is nothing mean-spirited about Nomadland. Writer/director Chloé Zhao treats all of the characters with respect, never condemning them or even being judgmental. The film is honest about the lives of these people ... they didn't necessarily choose the life of a nomad (Fern, played by Frances McDormand, lived in a company town that was shut down ... her husband was dead, she had nowhere to go, so she hit the road). The non-professional actors, playing versions of themselves, are believable, exhibiting great trust in Zhao to present their lives without too much negativity. What plot there is addresses Fern's growth over time, but in the end, we're left with a character study without much plot at all. Fern gets a job, works a bit, lives in her van, the jobs ends, she gets in her van and drives to the next job, and it starts all over again. She meets some interesting people along the way, but by the end of the film, it is clear that for whatever reason, Fern was never going to settle down. Repetitive without being boring, both casual and intense, Nomadland felt longer than its 108 minutes, but that wasn't a problem, because the time spent with the characters was a unique experience. McDormand's fearless, un-actorly performance fits so perfectly with her non-professional co-stars that the actress almost disappears.
This was my introduction to the work of Josephine Decker. Well, that's not quite true ... researching her credits, I saw that she directed an episode of the TV series Dare Me. The IMDB lists 18 credits for her as an actor, 16 as a director, 10 each as writer and editor, 4 as producer, 2 as cinematographer, and half-a-dozen more. So I'm embarrassed I didn't know her work, and I can't compare Shirley to what Decker has done in the past.
Shirley has an interesting premise. The title character is famed writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), and the film takes place after her most remembered story, "The Lottery", was published. Michael Stuhlbarg co-stars as Jackson's real-life husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman. As the film begins, Jackson is working on a new novel, Hangsaman (a real book). Hangsaman, as told in Shirley, is a fictionalized version of a true-life story about a college student who disappeared. Similarly, Shirley is a fictionalized version of Jackson's story. This is not one of those "based on a true story" movies ... the entire plot is built out of thin air by author Susan Scarf Merrell, who wrote the novel from which the film is drawn. Shirley adds a young couple who move in with Jackson and Hyman, and as Shirley-the-character obsesses about the missing student, she seems to feel a connection between the student and her new housemate. The young couple are inventions who never existed in real life.
Like I say, an interesting premise. And what Decker (and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins, who I know from Better Things) do is less about telling the story of an author and her work, and more to do with dragging the audience into Jackson's perspective. Things are often a little off, a bit unsettling, and I kept waiting for a full-out horror movie, although that never really happened. What we do get is like a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf for a new generation, as Jackson and Hyman squabble for the benefit of their guests.
It's more an interesting premise than an actually interesting movie. But the acting, especially from Moss and Odessa Young as the woman in the young couple, is excellent. Moss has the Oscar-bait role, but I thought Young was even better ... she couldn't fall back on the possible insanity of her character, but instead let us understand the depths of the woman gradually.
Many times I have said that while one great performance in a movie shows how good an actor is, when the entire cast comes through, it says something good about the director. All four of the key actors in One Night in Miami are excellent: Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X), Eli Goree (Cassius Clay), Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown), and Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke). Credit to all, but also tip your cap to director Regina King, who elicits those performances in one of her earliest works as a director. (It seems like many want to call this her debut as a director, but she has done a lot of TV, including a couple of features ... One Night in Miami is her first feature to play in theaters, or it would be if movies were in theaters right now.) The point is, King is no amateur, but ultimately it's beside the point: the film has great performances across the board and she directed it.
The setup, with a screenplay by Kemp Powers from his own stage play, is perfect. Four important American black men meet in a hotel room. The event took place in real life, but no one knows what happened in that room. So Powers can pretty much do whatever he wants. If he strayed too far from what we know of the four men, he would be called on that, but as long as he is honest in his portraits of the four, we are willing to be taken for a ride. Indeed, all four resemble what we imagine the real people were like, and the play is believable on that level. There are things missing ... we get no hint of Brown's problems with domestic violence, for instance ... and the timeline sometimes moves a bit away from what/how things really happened. But Powers gets to make his points about what it meant to be an African-American male in the early-60s without going too far afield.
Besides working with the actors, King has to deal with the staginess of the material, and she does a decent job, moving conversations out of the hotel room on occasion without being obvious about it. You never lose sight of the stage origins, but she avoids the problems that sometimes accompany stage-to-movie productions.
It can't be overemphasized how terrific the main performances are. I'm hard pressed to single out one over the others ... I'm hard pressed to figure out which characters are major and which are minor (I'd say they are all major), and it will be interesting come awards time which of the four end up in the running for Best Actor awards and which will be presented as Best Supporting Actor. But Malcolm X is probably the most interesting of the characters ... he's the one whose interactions with the other three are key to what we learn about all of the men. So it's possible that Kingsley Ben-Adir will contest the Best Actor awards, while the others, especially Leslie Odom Jr., will turn up in Supporting Actor lists. All of the actors have to deal with the fact that at least some of the audience remembers the actual people, so Odon Jr., for instance, isn't just playing a part in a movie, he's competing with our image of Sam Cooke. This is always the case with biopics and their ilk, of course. Ben-Adir and Goree have a double conundrum, because they are not only dealing with the images of Malcolm and Clay, but also of the indelible performances of Denzel Washington in Spike Lee's Malcolm X and Will Smith as the title character in Ali. Both actors are good enough so that, if we don't exactly forget about Washington and Smith, we accept these new and different interpretations of the characters.
The pacing is a bit uneven, with some scenes going on a bit too long (the "dispute" between Malcolm and Cooke being the most noteworthy example), but every scene matters, and even though in the end One Night in Miami boils down to four men talking to each other for a couple of hours, King keeps us from noticing the talkiness, varying the focus on the characters so nothing feels static. It's a fine job, one that makes you hunger for more films directed by King.
I can't resist one last note that is irrelevant, but I can't help myself. None of the four stars are unknowns, but Eli Goree is the closest to a new-to-us performer. Yet at our house, he is known for his work on The 100, and it was a delight to see him in a major role in a major motion picture. Here's a short scene of him in The 100:
This is the eighteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "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 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 18 is called "Contemporary Performers: Tilda Swinton Week".
Some actors are true chameleons, absorbing themselves into whichever role is thrown their way with a very high success rate. And I think its safe to say that one of the best modern examples of this talent is Tilda Swinton. She truly is a pleasure to see very time she shows up on screen, and fits pretty much any mold gracefully. Plus, she's involved in a healthy mix of mainstream pictures and smaller titles, so plenty of options to see her work.
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring Tilda Swinton.
In 1988, Cynthia Beatt directed a semi-documentary short, Cycling the Frame, that featured Tilda Swinton riding a bicycle around the Berlin Wall. A year later, the Wall came down. Twenty years after that, Beatt and Swinton returned to Berlin and took a similar bike ride, albeit this time traveling on both sides of what used to be the Wall.
Tilda Swinton has such a unique presence that you could imagine watching her in anything, good or bad, and finding it intriguing. But does that extend to a movie that consists of 60 minutes of Tilda riding a bike? Well, it's only 60 minutes. It's unusual, and not clearly a documentary ... Swinton speaks in voice over, but it appears she's reading from a script. I haven't seen Cycling the Frame, and nothing in The Invisible Frame made me want to check out the earlier work. It might have been more interesting if I had a sense for where Swinton was at various times. As it is, I never knew which side of the "Wall" she was at from one scene to the next. So I'm left with an hour of Tilda Swinton riding a bike.
This is the sixteenth "film" I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "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 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 16 is called "Black Women Writers/Directors Week".
A serious note to follow:
In the past year in America, racial tensions have reached a boiling point. BIPOC members of our society have suffered from social, political, and countless other forms of strife and injustice due simply to the color of their skin and the deep ceded racist ideals that exist in our society. This, of course, includes the film industry. Stories by black creators often don't get the attention or support that they deserve, especially so for women of color. I know the whole Season Challenge is created for fun, but I think it would behoove all of us to think more about the films we choose to watch and hold on high. With all that being said, let's use this opportunity to take in works by women of color, and to go forward with the idea of supporting their works in the future. Let us hear the voices that have gone criminally unheard and that offer unique experiences and perspectives. And, at the risk of sounding clichè, isn't that what cinema is all about?
The story of Lacey Schwartz encourages disbelief. Because we know from the start that Schwartz is black, we are puzzled that she made it so far into her life thinking she was white. It seems obvious to us. One thing Little White Lie does well is to put us in Lacey's young life, so that we start to understand why the "lie" took hold for so long.
She was raised "white" by two Jewish parents. The family was very much involved in the Jewish tradition, and Lacey had no other signposts to suggest to her that something wasn't as it seemed. Without ever saying anything specific, Little White Lie forces us to confront the constructed nature of "race". In the manner of "if it quacks like a duck, it's a duck", Lacey's parents and extended family all treat her as white and Jewish ... she "quacks" white. If anyone questions the way Lacey looks darker than the rest of her family, reference is made to a Sicilian ancestor.
None of this is possible without the deception of Lacey's mother (and probably father). Mom had an affair with a black man, who turned out to be Lacey's biological father. Mom didn't talk about it, Dad didn't admit he knew. There was nothing to discuss. And there is nothing in the film to suggest Lacey had a bad childhood. It's only later, when she realizes that unbeknownst to Lacey, her life was a "little white lie", that Lacey feels the resentment of someone who has been lied to.
There are a few scenes of Lacey confronting her parents, to find out the truth. There isn't much discussion of whiteness and blackness ... for the most part, it's contextual. One wishes the film was a bit longer, that more time was spent on the transition phase when Lacey realized the truth. But there is no denying that the film is fascinating. And there is a sense that the truth sets Lacey free. By any standard, she has had a good life ... Harvard Law School, a documentary film maker, a husband who is now a representative in the U.S. House, twin children. Her childhood, which was also good, was shadowed by a lie; the resolution of that lie allowed Schwartz to move on.
I liked the first Wonder Woman movie, especially Gal Gadot, and I was happy that Patty Jenkins was getting some attention. After directing Charlize Theron in her Oscar-winning performance in Monster, Jenkins worked in television for fourteen years before she got a chance at a second feature, which was Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman 1984 has both Jenkins and Gadot, and I was excited to see the sequel. Still, I'm a child of the critics, and so the mixed reaction to the film led me to lower my expectations considerably. Thus, I am happy to say that Wonder Woman 1984 does not stink.
But honestly, I hoped for much more. Gadot is just as good this time around, and Kristen Wiig (Welcome to Me) is excellent. The effects-laden battle at the end between Diana and Barbara is impressive enough. But, ironically for a movie with this title, there wasn't enough wonder in what we were seeing. The plot was relatively straightforward, but I couldn't shake the feeling that there were big holes in that plot. (In fairness, ten minutes after the movie ended, I could barely remember them.)
The method whereby Chris Pine/Steve Trevor returned was hokey, and has inspired some backlash among fans. (I want to know what became of the guy Steve "temporarily" replaced.) Meanwhile, WW84 is noisy enough to keep the audience awake, and the music by Hans Zimmer is good (has he reached the point where we call him "legendary"?). But awake or not, I felt like the movie was endless, and I have no idea why it need 151 minutes to tell its story. (But stay until the end, or at least until the extra scene about a minute into the credits ... it's a fun one.) Wonder Woman 1984 easily meets lowered expectations, but that's all it does.