african-american directors series/film fatales #104: little white lie (lacey schwartz and james adolphus, 2014)

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?

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film with a black woman writer and/or director.

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.

(List of Film Fatales movies)

film fatales #103: wonder woman 1984 (patty jenkins, 2020)

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.

(Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

movies 2020

Top 8 movies of 2020:

Da 5 Bloods

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

The Nest

Dick Johnson Is Dead

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

She Dies Tomorrow

Totally Under Control

(Letterboxd list of top movies of 2020)


Top 9 movies I watched for the first time in 2020:

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

French Cancan

The Wind

Apollo 11


Da 5 Bloods

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

The Shape of Water

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


Don't sleep on these movies I watched in 2020:

Sócrates4 Little GirlsFurieDrivewaysDivorce Italian StyleGraduation35 Shots of RumThe KillersAparajitoIrma VepCamerapersonThe PassengerL'ArgentHoneylandBabyteethThe LureThey Shall Not Grow OldThe Age of InnocenceThe Nightingale, The Vast of NightMidnight SpecialPain and GloryLa HaineIf Beale Street Could TalkThe Florida ProjectThe IrishmanMarriage Story1917Baby Driver

(Letterboxd list of movies I watched in 2020)

film fatales #102: jane eyre (susanna white, 2006)

This is the fifteenth "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 15 is called "Miniseries Week".

As we move into our holiday hiatus, I wanted to try something a little different. Instead of focusing on specific holidays this year, I want you to use this week (and the weeks in between this and the return from break if need be) to tackle a miniseries. They're essentially just long movies anyway. These things can range in length, from the runtime of your average film to over a dozen hours depending on what you're looking for. So don't feel too daunted with this challenge, and enjoy the break!

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen miniseries. Try looking here or here for starters.

It's part of every adaptation of a classic. The first thing everyone wants to know is, who plays the main characters? Indeed, that's how we keep them apart in our memories. I've seen at least three Jane Eyres, and while I could distinguish them by year (1943, 2006, 2011) or director (Robert Stevenson, Susanna White, Cary Joji Fukunaga), I remember them as the one with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, the one with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens, and the one with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. The approach taken by the film makers matters, the use of the original text is crucial, but to some extent, this Jane Eyre, like the others, is about the casting as much as anything. And yes, there are other characters besides Jane and Rochester, but no one remembers the adaptations by the actresses who played Mrs. Fairfax (for the record, Edith Barrett, Lorraine Ashbourne, and Judi Dench).

Both Wilson and Stephens look the part in this BBC mini-series version. Jane Eyre shouldn't be too pretty, and here Ruth Wilson is presented as a plain woman (which is no reflection on Wilson, a lovely-looking woman who is made up so her looks match the character). Toby Stephens (son of Maggie Smith) is suitably brooding, and as with Wilson, he does a fine job in his part. It's Wilson's show, but Stephens keeps up throughout the four hours. Wilson's performance belies the fact that it was only her second on-screen role (the other being a supporting character in a television series).

The production gets most things right. The story is fairly faithful ... the early parts of the novel are offered in a rather hurried manner, but nothing crucial is missing. Screenwriter Sandy Welch, a mini-series veteran, earned an Emmy nomination for her work here. The film looks properly gorgeous, and while it's out of my field of expertise, the costumes were well-received.

My wife is the Jane Eyre super-fan in our house, and she proclaimed herself satisfied. This version rewards both those who have memorized the novel and those who have never read it.

underrated movies from the 21st century

Something to watch in 2021 while you wait for the lockdown to end. One a year:

2000: Ginger Snaps
2001: Time Out
2002: Real Women Have Curves
2003: The Dreamers
2004: Baadasssss!
2005: Dave Chappelle's Block Party
2006: The Host
2007: Chop Shop
2008: The Beaches of Agnès
2009: Vengeance
2010: Mysteries of Lisbon
2011: A Separation
2012: Stories We Tell
2013: Exhibition
2014: The Raid 2
2015: The Lure
2016: Midnight Special
2017: Detroit
2018: Blindspotting
2019: Furie
2020: The Vast of Night

film fatales #100 and #101: two documentaries from 2020

Totally Under Control (Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, Suzanne Hillinger, 2020). Alex Gibney has dozens of credits as a director, including Enron, Going Clear, and Magic Trip. For Totally Under Control, an expose of the U.S. inadequate response to COVID-19, he called in two co-directors, because he wanted it to be finished before the 2020 election. Indeed, the film was finished just as Donald Trump tested positive for the virus, which was noted in the credits. The film makers had to deal with making a film during a pandemic, and one of their solutions was a complicated camera setup that allowed for interviews without fear of contagion. Totally Under Control is in the ripped-from-the-headlines school of documentaries, and it is impossible for it to tell the whole story, when that story isn't finished unfolding. Thus, the film, with its detailed timeline of events, will likely be more useful for historians looking to examine the period, than it is for us, who are living through it. Still, the movie is infuriating, as is intended.

Geezer Cinema: My Octopus Teacher (Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed, 2020). My Octopus Teacher tells the story of a man, Craig Foster, adrift in his own life who discovers new meaning in the waters off the coast of South Africa. It is a joy to watch, with beautiful underwater cinematography. Often I wondered how certain shots were achieved ... Foster is presented as a loner who swims alone, but clearly someone else has taken at least some of the photography. If you are like me, with limited knowledge of the world beneath the surface, just seeing the various animals is amazing. And I learned that some octopuses (most? all?) are rather small. This threw me off at times, because I assumed the star octopus was as huge as an alien monster, only to realize that it was much smaller than Foster. Foster falls in love with a particular octopus (there's no other way to put it), and in the process, learns about his life (hence, the film's title). Sometimes the film gives the impression that the octopus was only put on earth to illuminate the life of Craig Foster ... he does a lot of ruminating during the movie. But that's a bit unfair. The movie is properly titled "My Octopus Teacher" and not "Craig Foster Learns About Life", and Foster doesn't come across nearly as self-absorbed as I'm describing. In fact, he went on to co-found a project to protect marine life.

film fatales #99: the headless woman (lucrecia martel, 2008)

The Headless Woman (2008) came between the other two Lucrecia Martel movies I have seen (La Ciénaga (2001) and Zama (2017). Of Zama, I wrote that "its pleasures have less to do with narrative thrust and more to do with the feel of each scene" and "Martel isn't really concerned with audience ease." It's not that her films are impossible to grasp, but she does require you to meet her more than halfway.

The most intriguing mirror of The Headless Woman comes from the 1962 B-movie Carnival of Souls. Martel has cited that film as an influence, and there have been some good analyses of The Headless Woman that take off from that point. (Check out Catherine Grant's video essay "The Haunting of The Headless Woman".) Both films begin with women in auto accidents who spend most of the rest of the film confused about, well, everything. María Onetto, who plays Vero, perfectly shows us the character's befuddlement. She's helped by Martel's script and direction ... Martel is not someone to present the audience with obvious points we can center on. Odd camera angles, where the characters are just off-camera, help us feel Vero's unsettling experiences. (Martel also uses a lot of static camera shots, which give us time to gather information off the screen.) Vero eventually seems to reconcile herself with whatever happened, although I found her revelations less impressive in that by that point, I was too unsure of what I was seeing to trust my sense that Vero had moved on.

The Headless Woman always keeps us in its world on a scene-by-scene basis. But, as with her other films, you can't count on an easy narrative. #650 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. #68 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

A Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.

geezer cinema/film fatales #98: she dies tomorrow (amy seimetz, 2020)

This is definitely an Amy Seimetz film ... she wrote it, produced it, and directed it. She was dealing with her own anxiety issues and says "I was spreading my panic to other people by talking about it perhaps too excessively." That she took her own situation and turned it into a movie we can all relate to is an achievement in itself. That it comes to us during the pandemic, which she could not have predicted, and becomes a movie eerily appropriate for our time is a mystery.

She Dies Tomorrow can be frustrating ... just ask my wife, who watched with me but did not, it is safe to say, warm to it. The first part of the film is confusing even for those of us who liked it. Nothing seems to be happening, there is precious little dialogue, the camerawork is quirky for no clear reason. If you came in thinking you were watching a horror movie, you'd probably be checking your watch.

But She Dies Tomorrow sneaks up on you. First we learn the basic premise ... well, "first" is a bit of an exaggeration considering how long it takes to get us there. Then, after a short while, we learn the real premise, which will connect with those horror fans who are still with us. And when that real premise begins to expand, I admit I was laughing. If I had to put this movie into a genre, I might choose Comedy before everything else.

Of course, you can't put it into a single genre, because Seimetz is using a kitchen sink approach to genre. She isn't trashing genres, not at all. She just isn't limited by genre.

And so a character feels anxiety. And it spreads to other people. There are hints of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And it feels very familiar to anyone watching in 2020.

Plus, as Kurt said, just because you're paranoid don't mean they're not after you. Seimetz leaves everything unexplained. Absent the easy answers, we can dismiss what we are feeling. But the anxiety of watching She Dies Tomorrow doesn't leave you.

A Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.

A Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies.

geezer cinema/film fatales #97: never rarely sometimes always (eliza hittman, 2020)

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is the 66th movie in our weekly Geezer Cinema that we came up with when both of us were retired. Back then, the idea was to get us out of the house, but that doesn't happen anymore, so we watch at home (a couple of weeks ago, we saw our 65th, which meant we'd seen more at home than at the theaters).

I realized that over the last 66 weeks, I've shown a real taste for movies about young girls. Booksmart, Little Women, Emma!, Babyteeth, and now Never Rarely Sometimes Always, all about young girls, all chosen by me for Geezer Cinema. OK, I liked these kinds of movies long before we began Geezer Cinema, but it's fun to see how our selections differ from one another ... action pictures are more often chosen by my wife, movies about young girls more often chosen by me.

This is the third feature from Eliza Hittman, who also writes her films. She made the decision to cast Sidney Flanigan as Autumn, a 17-year-old in small-town Pennsylvania who gets pregnant and goes to New York City for an abortion. It's Flanigan's debut as an actor ... she was working as a janitor when filming began. Hittman saw something, and she sure was right ... Flanigan is excellent throughout the film. Also, Talia Ryder, who plays Autumn's cousin who accompanies her to New York, does not even have a Wikipedia page as of this writing. (She is also great.) The only name in the cast that I recognized was Sharon Van Etten, who plays Autumn's mom, and even there, I know her as a musician, not an actor.

Credit to the actors, and to Hittman, because she elicits such fine performances. It's not that Flanigan and Ryder ooze confidence ... that wouldn't fit their characters. But we never worry that the young actors are going to lose the thread.

Hittman's script, and the style she uses, avoids the kind of preaching you might expect from an "abortion movie". Never Rarely Sometimes Always is only peripherally about abortion. It's about the life of a 17-year-old girl in trouble. Hittman hints at possible traumas in Autumn's life, but that's all they are, hints. The trip to New York, and the procedure, is shitty ... the effect of the abortion is rough for Autumn, this is not a pretty movie. But something in Flanigan makes us believe she will survive. And her cousin will be there with her ... the relationship between the cousins is believable, you know Autumn's cousin has her back without asking. In fact, there isn't much dialogue at all between them. It's as if they are so close they barely need to talk.

[Letterboxd list of all the Geezer Cinema movies.]

film fatales #96: the lure (agnieszka smoczynska, 2015)

This is the eighth 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 8 is called Women Directed Horror Week:

When people think horror creators, a lot of the big names tend to be men. Carpenter, Hooper, Romero, Craven, Argento, etc. And sure, these men have created some fantastic works, but it often leaves horror films directed by women underappreciated. In an effort to combat this, let's round out October by observing the greatness that female-driven horror has to offer.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen horror film directed by a woman.

Well, this is an odd one. In the end, it's delightful, in a gory sort of way, but I admit for much of the film, I thought it was just plain loony. After seeing it, I felt positive, and thinking about it made my impression even more so.

I assumed it was a horror film ... that's the challenge, after all. The front of the Blu-ray box gives little hint of what is coming, although I see now that the mysterious, vague character is a mermaid. Reading the back of the box only prepared me for what seemed impossible:

This genre-defying horror-musical mash-up ... follows a pair of carnivorous mermaid sisters drawn ashore to explore life on land in an alternate 1980s Poland. Their tantalizing siren songs and otherworldly auras make them overnight sensations as nightclub singers ... [a] darkly feminist twist on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid".

It might be that last part that got me ... how could Disney fit into this? The answer is that he can't, because Agnieszka Smocznska, in her debut feature, is up to things that would never enter the Disney world.

Horror-musical ... I wasn't encouraged. But in fact, it works. Part of it is that while the mermaid sisters do cast a bit of a spell on people, no one treats them as anything other than beings with a special talent. There is no hatred of the other ... once it is learned they can sing, they get a job in a nightclub, and if their legs sometimes transform into a tail, well, all the more interesting.

In its fantastic way, The Lure tells a simpler tale than the above would suggest. One of the mermaids wants to become human, and both of the sisters are regularly confronted with the restrictions placed on young women who want to decide their lives for themselves. Yes, as mermaids they are accepted, but a mermaid who wants to be human is not.

Often a movie will be described as "Like X, only Y", so a movie like Midnight Special is "Like Close Encounters, only dark". I don't know how to make that work with The Lure. It's like Near Dark, only the story takes off from The Little Mermaid, and there's sex like in The Hunger, and oh yeah, its audaciousness is kinda funny at times. I often complain about movies that require multiple viewings to "get them". In the case of The Lure, I look forward to another viewing, just to take in its wonderful oddness.