film fatales #82: the nightingale (jennifer kent, 2018)

I didn't know what to expect from The Nightingale. I wanted to watch it because I loved Kent's debut as a director, The Babadook, but when a director only has one feature to their name, it's hard to construct any patterns. Now that I've seen her second feature, I'm not sure what patterns have emerged, because the two films are quite different. There is the obvious point, though, that Kent, who wrote her movies as well as directed them, brings a woman's perspective to her films. The Babadook was a horror story that focused on a mom ... The Nightingale is also horrific, but it's more reality-based. It's story is also seen through the eyes of a female protagonist.

The Nightingale is a brutal film, one that might play a lot differently with a man in charge (think Game of Thrones). Horrible things happen to the heroine, and Kent insists on letting us know what we are seeing and hearing. A look at the Parents Guide on IMDB (not recommended unless you've seen the movie) details enough events to warn off anyone with particular triggers. But it is never voyeuristic, never pleasurable. Kent takes us inside her heroine ... she doesn't shy away from what happens, but she always keeps her focus and ours on the character.

The movie is long and expansive ... it could stand to be a bit shorter (it's about 40 minutes longer than The Babadook). The length lends an epic feel to the film, and Kent uses the time to cover everything she thinks matters. The Nightingale is repetitive at times. But it overwhelms in the final analysis.

The conclusion is important. At its core, The Nightingale is a revenge drama, and the heroine gets some of the revenge she seeks. But Kent pulls back at the end, understanding that revenge is never going to completely fix what has come before. The finish is a bit anti-climactic, because we in the audience want the revenge. But it's an appropriate climax. And if you make it to the end of The Nightingale, you won't be able to shake its power. Special shoutouts to the leads, Aisling Franciosi and newcomer Baykali Ganambarr.

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


by request/film fatales #81: knock down the house (rachel lears, 2019)

Cori Bush. Paula Jean Swearengin. Amy Vilela. I'm embarrassed to admit I knew nothing about these women before watching Knock Down the House. They all ran for office in the 2018 midterm elections as part of the attempt to make the Democratic Party, and thus the U.S., more progressive. All three women are interesting, and what we learn of their personal stories informs their politics. All three (spoiler alert) lost their elections, which is probably why I hadn't heard of them.

Rachel Lears chose her subjects via a process whereby she worked with progressive organizations to find women like the ones featured in the movie. When she starts, she doesn't know which, if any, will win, but she is there, fly on the wall, giving us an intimate feel for what a grass roots campaign is like.

The problem with Knock Down the House (and, let's face, it's not really a problem), is that none of those women are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Since Ocasio-Cortez wins her election, which we know, and since she has become an instant attraction in Congress and in the country, her part in the film overwhelms the story of the other women. This is no one's fault. I doubt Lears could have predicted what happened.

But AOC (we've had FDR and JFK and LBJ ... they were presidents ... Ocasio-Cortez is a representative in the House, but she's known by her initials just like her predecessors) wins her election where the others don't. This results in an inspirational scene (one of many) that is guaranteed to make you get teary-eyed (I suppose if you are one of those people who hate her, you'd be crying about then as well): when AOC realizes she has won.

We know from her story, which Lears shows us effectively, that she wasn't born to be a politician. But she is so charismatic that she wins you over. And no matter how she was born, she seems like a natural politician in the best possible way. When she thanks the people who helped her achieve victory, it doesn't feel boilerplate, it feels real.

Of course, just as she has quickly become an icon for some, she personifies the enemy for others. But Knock Down the House isn't made for those people.

Bush, Swearengin, and Vilela are also vital progressives with big dreams. Like I say, this is no one's fault. But AOC is a star, and Rachel Lears is a film maker who knows what she's got. So of course she focuses most on Ocasio-Cortez.

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


film fatales #80: welcome to me (shira piven, 2014)

Another movie for "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 28 is called "Leigh, Leigh, Leigh, or Leigh Week".

A play off of last year's "Lee, Lee, Lee, or Li" week, I initially struggled to find a fourth Leigh, but then I remembered Vivien Leigh whom I somehow forgot. Obviously these selected people have little in common with each other, but its just something I threw in for fun.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by Mike Leigh or starring Janet Leigh, Jennifer Jason Leigh, or Vivien Leigh.

This was harder than I expected. I originally chose something called Jake Squared, which featured Jennifer Jason Leigh, but after watching the trailer, I decided I really didn't want to see that one. So I went with Welcome to Me, which I had been thinking about watching for some time. It's a bit of a cheat, though ... Jennifer Jason Leigh is in this one, too, but her part is pretty small. (For one of my favorite Leigh films, check out The Anniversary Party.)

Welcome to Me is interesting, but not completely successful. Director Shira Piven, screenwriter Eliot Laurence, and star Kristen Wiig as Alice deserve credit for presenting a bipolar character without resorting to some of the stereotypes we're used to. Wiig is often just a little off (and sometimes, a lot off) ... she doesn't play the part as if she's begging for an Oscar. And the film doesn't make the mistake of making Alice overly lovable, or suggest that bipolar people are somehow "better" than the rest of us, even as they suffer. (I'm cheating a bit using the word "us" ... I, too, am bipolar, although I'm "II" and Alice is clearly Type I.) Alice is troubled, but she is also so self-absorbed that she is practically clueless about the possible problems of others.

But the film doesn't really go anywhere. Alice makes some marginal changes, but not enough to wake the movie up. It is funny at times (it's Kristen Wiig, after all), although you get the feeling they were trying for farce and not getting there. It is extremely sad at times ... in this way, Welcome to Me is rather bipolar itself. But despite the best efforts of all concerned, there are times when we are laughing at Alice as much as we are suffering for her.

All of this makes Welcome to Me an uncomfortable film to watch, and really, that's a good thing ... this isn't a run-of-the-mill movie about a crazy person. But the discomfort comes in part from the feeling that the material is moving beyond the grasp of the intentions of Pivan and crew.

Kristen Wiig is very good, and plenty of good names turn up, especially Linda Cardellini as Alice's best friend. Welcome to Me is OK, but that's as far as I'd go.

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


geezer cinema/film fatales #79: emma. (autumn de wilde, 2020)

Sometimes a movie can be wonderful even if it is far from perfect. For me, the key is often acting. A great performance makes up for a lot, and a great ensemble is even better.

Emma. is a good movie ... I don't mean to suggest otherwise. Director Autumn de Wilde, with her first feature, and screenwriter Eleanor Catton (also her feature debut), make the old recognizable. They take great care to make their movie seem real to the time of Jane Austen's novel, but while doing that, they also make us feel as if Emma and her friends and family are people we know right now. It's not just a period piece, no matter how well they recreate the period.

But in the end, it's the acting that raises Emma. above the norm. I often say, if there are many good performances in a film, the director must get at least some of the credit, and so de Wilde deserves mention here, as well. I only recognized a few of the actors ... Gemma Whelan was Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones, and Bill Nighy ... well, I would say he can make anything good, but even he couldn't rescue the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Still, I love me some Bill Nighy.

I save my most fervent praise for two of the actresses, again unknown to me. Mia Goth (what a marvelous name for an actor) is quite winning as Emma's best friend Harriet. Goth has a way of smiling that jumps off the screen; you feel her happiness. Goth also has an advantage, in that Harriet is largely likable from beginning to end, so once we become attached to her smile, she has us in her grasp.

Even more impressive is Anya Taylor-Joy as the title character. She has remarkable eyes ... if Goth's smile is entrancing, Taylor-Joy's eyes take over the screen. More importantly, Emma is a complicated character, and between de Wilde, Catton, Austen, and Taylor-Joy, we see all of Emma's sides. She is not particularly lovable. She screws up and doesn't always seem to notice. It would be fairly easy to make Emma into something of a villain. But at the same time, Taylor-Joy makes us root for Emma. So when Emma gets her comeuppance, it is satisfying. But when she gets the true love happy ending, we're glad for her nonetheless. Emma isn't one thing or another, she's all things.

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

(And here is a letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies.)


international women's day: film fatales #78: the edge of seventeen (kelly fremon craig, 2016)

The idea was to watch a movie directed by a woman for International Women's Day, and The Edge of Seventeen has been sitting on my DVR for far too long, so it was the winner.

First, to get what I thought was an obvious point out of the way, this movie has nothing to do with the Stevie Nicks song. It's a coming of age story, originally titled "Besties", not only directed by first-timer Craig but written by her as well. It begins as a story about two best friends, but something happens to split them apart, and it becomes more a story of one of the two, Nadine, played by Hailee Steinfeld. She is troubled, she is self-absorbed, she is a smart-ass ... standard stuff for a teenager growing up. And The Edge of Seventeen doesn't exactly break new ground in that genre.

But certain things raise it a bit above the norm. Steinfeld is great ... well, Nadine is a great character, so credit Steinfeld, but also credit Craig for writing the character. Most of the people in the movie turn out to have more depth than seems evident at first, and that's nice ... the perfect older brother has problems, too, the seemingly lazy teacher actually cares about his students (at least, he cares about Nadine), Nadine's mom, as played by Kyra Sedgwick, annoys both Nadine and the audience, but there is more to her as well. We root for Nadine, even though Craig/Steinfeld are not afraid to show her lesser sides. It's all recognizable to anyone who went to high school in the U.S., and mostly avoids too many stereotypes.

As is often the case in teenage movies, many of the actors are clearly older than the characters they play. Steinfeld was 19-20 (irrelevant trivia: her uncle is the Body by Jake guy), Haley Lu Richardson, who plays the bestie, was 20, older brother Blake Jenner was 24, potential Nadine's boyfriend Hayden Szeto was  30-31. It's not as bad as some, but it is noticeable, and requires at least a little suspension of disbelief.

There is nothing wrong with The Edge of Seventeen, and Steinfeld is a big plus. The movie is worth a look.

Here is the student film Nadine's boyfriend made ... the actual animation was by David Silverman:

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


film fatales #77: even the rain (icíar bollaín, 2010)

Another movie for "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is out of order. Week 23 is called "Gael García Bernal Week".

Gael García Bernal is perhaps one of the best performers working today that doesn't get nearly the amount of attention he deserves. And though his most well known performance is in an animated film, one needs to see this man perform in live-action to get the full effect. So, give some love to one of yours truly's favorite actors.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring Gael Garcia Bernal.

Even the Rain is a complex film that might seem fairly straightforward at first glance. Bernal plays a Mexican director, Sebastián, making a film with a Spanish producer about Columbus "discovering" America. They film in Cochabamba, Bolivia, for the usual reasons: it's cheaper.

It soon becomes apparent that the film Sebastián is making about how Columbus exploited the native population in many ways is replicating that exploitation. The people of Cochabamba go on a general strike (this is based on true events), and Sebastián is torn between support for the people and the problems he will have making his film (one of his primary actors turns out to be a leader of the revolt).

There are layers here. Sebastián wants to make his movie, he doesn't want to exploit anyone, but it happens anyway. And we in the audience can't help but wonder just how much the creators of Even the Rain paid the extras who came from the local area. It's not really fair ... they spoke to this in interviews ... but it's hard not to imagine Even the Rain following a similar path to Sebastián's movie. Unfair, but obvious without context. The filmmakers speak to this:

Meanwhile, much of Even the Rain is effective. Juan Carlos Aduviri, who plays the actor/revolutionary in his screen debut, comes from El Alto, next to La Paz. He grabs the screen ... it's believable that Sebastián wants him for his movie.

The parallels between the filmmakers and Columbus are interesting, although they are pressed on us a bit too hard. And I really have to believe that the filmmakers did right by the people. Perhaps the power of Even the Rain is that it raises such questions in the first place.

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


geezer cinema/film fatales #76: portrait of a lady on fire (céline sciamma, 2019)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is exquisite in the way that love is in real life. It hurts, then it feels so good. Céline Sciamma takes her time telling her story, which perfectly matches the gradual process by which the two main characters fall in love. The film smolders, and, as Mick LaSalle wrote, "The last time I wanted two people to kiss this much, I was one of the people."

Comparisons have been drawn between this film and Blue Is the Warmest Color, and it's understandable, although much of the discussion seems to revolve around picking one or the other as "better". Sciamma addressed this point:

We can absolutely love both films. We do not live up to the exciting nature of this moment if we start reducing everything to questions of ‘good or not good; moral or immoral; voyeur or not voyeur,’ that’s not the point. The key is to understand what animates such images, and what they seek to impart.

The films do make for instructive examples of the differences between the male and female gaze. And "gaze" is the proper term for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, for much of the relationship between the two women is shown in how they look at each other. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel as a painter and her reluctant subject are perfectly matched, and both deliver perfect performances. Sciamma won Best Screenplay at Cannes, but the film relies on Merlant and Haenel. Backed by Sciamma's direction, the two actors draw us into their story. Luàna Bajrami is also excellent in a lesser but important role.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire looks great, as well, with cinematographer Claire Mathon making the most of what in many cases are scenes lit by candlelight.

Some of the best moments are almost wordless, including a remarkable final shot that stays with you long after the movie is over. And Sciamma uses music sparingly, which adds to the impact when it does occur, most notably in this, which I think is the best scene among so many great ones in the movie:

They are singing "non possunt fugere", Latin for "They cannot escape".

Simply put, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an excellent movie in every way. #193 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

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


geezer cinema/film fatales #75: the photograph (stella meghie, 2020)

The Photograph is a movie about African-Americans, starring African-Americans, written and directed by an African-American, that is about love and romance. If not revolutionary, it at the least stands out among romances with white characters. The film is a bit generic, but adding black characters makes a big difference ... we're seeing something we don't often get at the movies.

The Photograph benefits greatly from its cast. LaKeith Stanfield is building quite the resume, and he is predictably fine here. Issa Rae is known for the HBO comedy Insecure, so The Photograph represents something different for her. She lights up the screen ... even with this cast, she is the best thing about the movie. Lil Rel Howery, Rob Morgan, Chanté Adams, and more ... everyone is at the top of their game.

Stella Meghie tells the story using lots of flashbacks. This again works primarily because of the casting ... when we see characters at two different times in their lives, the actors for each time frame are believably the same person.

The Photograph is low-key, and if you are in the right mood, low-key is probably for the best. But I found the film's pleasures to be mild. See it for the acting, see it for the still-unique concept of a black romance film, but for me, The Photograph rarely got beyond "I'm glad I've watched this". Sure be nice if Issa Rae's star got bigger, though.

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


oscars

Here are the Oscar nominated films I have seen, with the major categories listed. The movies in bold are the ones I would choose for the award, based on who/what was nominated.

Best Picture:

Best Actor:

Best Actress:

  • Saoirse Ronan (Little Women)
  • Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)

Best Supporting Actor:

  • Al Pacino (The Irishman)
  • Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes)
  • Joe Pesci (The Irishman)

Best Supporting Actress:

  • Florence Pugh (Little Women)
  • Laura Dern (Marriage Story)

Best Director:

  • Bong Joon Ho (Parasite)
  • Martin Scorsese (The Irishman)
  • Sam Mendes (1917)

Best Original Screenplay:

  • Sam MendesKrysty Wilson-Cairns (1917)
  • Rian Johnson (Knives Out)
  • Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story)
  • Bong Joon Ho, Jin Won Han (Parasite)
Best Adapted Screenplay:
  • Greta Gerwig (Little Women)
  • Steven Zaillian (The Irishman)
  • Anthony McCarten (The Two Popes)
Best Documentary Feature:
Best International Feature:
  • Honeyland
  • Pain and Glory
  • Parasite

film fatales #74: american factory (steven bognar and julia reichert, 2019)

This film will always be known as the first one produced by the Obamas' production company. It makes sense that they back it ... Bognar and Reichert make every effort to be fair to all sides. You could say it's a centrist film.

American Factory is about work, but it is more about clashing cultures, where the workplace is where the cultures meet. It takes place near Dayton, Ohio, where a Chinese company took over a former GM plant and remade it as a factory for making auto glass. The workers, many of whom lost jobs with GM, are initially glad to have someone running the plant and offering jobs, but over time, the American ideas about work clash with those of the Chinese. This comes across most clearly as the workers try to organize into a union (they fail).

I am not trustworthy about this topic. I spent ten years working in a factory, and that informed/poisoned my attitudes to this day. When the Chinese try to encourage a family feel among the workers and bosses, I get pissed just thinking back 35+ years to when I saw similar attempts at my workplace. I appreciate the desire of the filmmakers to show both sides, and I understand how the workers feel it necessary to accept less than ideal working conditions just so they can keep their jobs. But I can't stand the bosses. I think they are right about one thing ... the Chinese understand that automation is the future. In American Factory, they are seen as callous because they seem happy to lay off as many humans as possible and replace them with machines. But as someone with first hand knowledge of how shitty many factory jobs can be, and with a belief that there should be a way to support those workers as they are replaced (because the machines will do jobs no human should have to do), I find the whole thing frustrating. In my future utopia, no one works any more. I don't want people to get shitty jobs, I want people to get enough money to live without working. In other words, I am not trustworthy about this topic.

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