film fatales #178: queen of katwe (mira nair, 2016)

Diversity in representation matters. Queen of Katwe is a pretty standard based-on-a-true-story underdog sports story, except the sport is chess. But it's different because the underdog, Phiona Mutesi, is a young girl prodigy from a Ugandan slum. You've seen movies like this before, but probably not with someone like Phiona at the center.

Mira Nair does a beautiful job of presenting the slum as a place not only of distress, but as a place people live. Nair doesn't prettify things, and a key part of the narrative is the attempts to get Phiona to rise out of the slums. But Nair gives the town's inhabitants their dignity.

Like all underdog sports stories, everything leads to the big final match. There's a formula to this, for a reason: it works. While you are watching Queen of Katwe, you are caught up in Phiona's story, you look forward to that final match. But Nair doesn't rise above the formula. The difference is in the setting and in the characters, but those differences are plugged into a tale that takes few chances. The film never reaches beyond the basics.

David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o add luster to the cast, and are excellent, but the real find is newcomer Madina Nalwanga as Phiona. You can't help rooting for her.


geezer cinema/film fatales #177: barbie (greta gerwig, 2023)

You probably know people like a friend of mine, of my generation (boomer), who refuses to see Barbie. She said she had "too much baggage" around Barbie, and mentioned that the trailer made her hyperventilate. I don't have her memories, and maybe that helps. I've been looking forward to Barbie since I first learned of its existence, because Greta Gerwig has directed two other movies, Lady Bird and Little Women, and both were quite good. I have no problem putting myself in Gerwig's hands.

There are a lot of people to thank for how good Barbie is. There's Gerwig's co-writer, Noah Baumbach, there's cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, there are all the people involved in the design of the film. You wouldn't call Barbie a blockbuster, although it is performing like one at the box office. But Gerwig and company manage to put a lot of stuff into two hours ... this isn't a "small" movie like, say, Lady Bird. (Gerwig's budgets have gone from $10 million for Lady Bird to more than $100 million for Barbie.) Gerwig has "adapted" well to her larger budgets, plus her films feel increasingly confident. I wouldn't argue that each is better than the last ... they are all equally good. But she certainly hasn't fallen.

Barbie is ripe for analysis, of course, and there is some difference of opinion about the final product. Gerwig does well to question the place of the Barbie tradition in the lives of the girls who have grown up in the time of that tradition, but she is also making a movie about a doll that is backed by the company that makes the doll. We're not talking revolution here, just a gentle nudge towards a female-centric perspective that offers a happy kind of feminism without ruffling too many feathers (right-wing pundits not withstanding). It's interesting to try and ascertain what Gerwig intended for her film ... she's certainly been available for interviews and promotions, it's not hard to find her hopes for the movie. I think Barbie is the movie Greta Gerwig wanted to make.

But not everyone is happy about Gerwig's vision here. Barbie is a pretty white movie (all of the pink colors don't hide this fact), even though we get America Ferrera and Ariana Greenblatt as a Latinx family, and Simu Liu as an Asian Ken, and Issa Rae as an African-American Barbie who is President of Barbieland. This may be unavoidable ... Barbie is white, after all ... but like everything else in the movie, Gerwig puts diversity out there without emphasizing it, so the audience might forget that there are other Barbies and Kens besides Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling.

Kathy Fennessy offers a dissenting view of the movie and Gerwig's career that I admit doesn't connect with me. In "On Greta Gerwig's Barbie: A Tale in Four Parts", Fennessy begins, "Greta Gerwig has been trying to sell out, as it were, for over a decade now." Her argument is that even when Gerwig was an indie-mumblecore icon, she was already looking ahead to the mainstream. She describes the progression of Gerwig's career from her indie roots to Barbie as inevitable and intended ... and as far as I know, Fennessy is not wrong. And she is on target when she writes, "subversion isn't the same as self-awareness. Barbie is one, but it isn't the other. Gerwig and co-writer Baumbach poke gentle fun at Mattel, but by her own admission, they had to run everything by the studio brass.... I appreciate the way the couple pokes the bear, but I wouldn't say they drew blood, and nor would I have expected them to get away with it if they tried."

But in an odd way, Fennessy seems critical of Gerwig's career, even as she also seems to praise it. "With Gerwig, there was always the sense that independent cinema meant a great deal to her, and so fans have felt disappointed by what seems like an about-face, even if it really isn't. Gerwig worked hard, she paid her dues, she repeatedly tried to sell out, and she kept trying until she succeeded." Fennessy isn't saying Barbie represents a sell-out for Gerwig, she's saying Gerwig was always a sell-out, she just had to wade through a career before she got the chance to finally do what she always wanted.

Honestly, I find Fennessy's essay astute, even as I contest what I see as a major point: that it matters one way or the other if Barbie/Gerwig is a "sell-out". It's not a revolutionary movie, but I don't think that was ever the intention.


film fatales #176: atlantics (mati diop, 2019)

In Atlantics, Mati Diop relies on several genres that don't immediately seem to fit together. It begins with a love story of young people in modern Senegal, places those people within the specific problems of Senegal, deals with family disagreements, and then turns into something all together different. It's not seamless, but I don't think that is Diop's intention. She goes with what she thinks works, and leaves the audience to follow her instinctively. I admit to being confused at times, but I was always intrigued, and by the end of the movie, everything fit together.

Atlantics is the debut feature from Diop, who had directed shorts and had also acted (35 Shots of Rum). Her command of the interplay between genres is excellent ... perhaps even more impressive is the performances she gets from her cast, some of whom were appearing in their first movies. This is especially true of the lead, Mame Bineta Sane, who had never acted in anything before (and I can't find anything she's been in since). She is the center of the film, and she's wonderful, complex, photogenic ... I'd say this was a star-making performance except she doesn't seem to have done any work in films since.

I'm being a bit vague on how the narrative turns. It's best if you come to the movie cold, as I did. That contributes to some of the confusion, but it's worth the surprises it entail. #116 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century (#917 on the All-Time list).


film fatales #175: a league of their own (penny marshall, 1992)

The IMDB calls A League of Their Own "The highest-grossing baseball movie." Not sure if this is true, but I can believe it. I imagine baseball movies is a niche genre, so if you can expand that niche, as A League of Their Own does with its feminist undercurrents, you might gross more at the box office than, say, Major League. I remember enjoying A League of Their Own when it came out, and revisiting it more than 30 years later, it retains its enjoyable nature.

Is it a classic? Maybe a classic baseball movie, but I don't know that I'd go further than that. There are some fun performances ... Madonna was never better in a movie, and I always like Lori Petty, while Geena Davis is iconic and Tom Hanks is ... well, he does get to say "There's no crying in baseball" and that's one of the most memorable quotes in movie history. The recreation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League is important, even necessary.

But there is nothing revolutionary about the approach of director Penny Marshall or writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. It's just Yet Another Sports Movie where our heroines rise above the barriers placed in front of them, leading to an inspiring and tear-jerking finish. It matters that the barriers in this case are historic and that the stars are women. But the revolution ends there, which limits the film to something more enjoyable than great. Of course, there's nothing wrong with enjoyable ... there's a reason for its continued popularity.


what i watched

The Bad News Bears (Michael Ritchie, 1976). Mildly entertaining movie about youth baseball and a beer-swigging, cigar-smoking coach. I wonder if I would have liked it more if I'd seen it in 1976. I'm guessing that back then, there was something refreshing about a bunch of foul-mouthed youngsters and their alcoholic mentor. In 2023, I felt like I've seen plenty of movies about characters like this. And the general plot (sports movie about underdogs who rise against the odds) isn't exactly unique. It's nice that Michael Ritchie mostly ignores the potential to make everyone learn to be better people. Sure, many of the kids are a little more confident at the end of the movie, but it's not overdone, and Walter Matthau's coach is still drinking beer and smoking stogies at the end of the movie. All of this makes The Bad News Bears a little better than the norm, but I'm surprised this movie led to two sequels, a remake, and a television series. And I cringed that the coach taught the curve ball to Tatum O'Neal's young pitcher. At least by the end of the movie, her arm was too sore to pitch.

Geezer Cinema/Film Fatales #174: Joy Ride (Adele Lim, 2023). An unexpected, raunchy delight from first-time director Adele Lim. Perhaps in 50 years this will seem as passe as The Bad News Bears does now, but in the meantime, it's a joy ride indeed watching the four leads break stereotypes, have lots of sex and fun, and discover something about identity in the process. Kelly Pau wrote an excellent piece about the film's "full-frontal subversion of sexuality for Asian women", concluding, "In an age where representation can easily become a tokenized marketing buzzword, 'Joy Ride' offers a more nuanced portrayal that upends the hypersexualization of Asian women characters. It's testament to how representation is not just a matter of putting people of color onscreen but also behind the camera, in positions of power and in the writers' room." It's often hilarious, and a real crowd-pleaser, if the audience at our showing is any indicator.


african-american directors series/film fatales #173: reggie (alex stapleton, 2023)

Alex Stapleton pulls off an interesting trick with the documentary Reggie, about the baseball great. On the surface, it seems like a warts-and-all presentation. Reggie says on several occasions that his desire to tell the truth often gets him in trouble, and we are reminded of his conflicts with manager Billy Martin and owners Charlie Finley and George Steinbrenner. But the warts are understandable in the context of the film, which is largely told from Reggie's own point of view. Yes, he had problems with those people, but it was because he told the truth and demanded that he be treated with respect and dignity.

Reggie comes across well throughout the film. He has a lot of important things to say about racism and baseball, and the stories of the experiences he had in the south playing in the minor leagues reminded us of how bad it was back then. (His struggles to be part of ownership reminds us that we still have a long way to go.) It's fun to see him hanging out with his old Oakland teammates, including the late Vida Blue ... he and Dave Stewart exchange memories about when Stew was a youngster growing up in Oakland and Reggie took him under his wing. It's also illuminating to see him talking with fellow legends like Hank Aaron and basketball's Dr. J, sharing as only people who have reached the pinnacle of success can do.

I felt like Reggie would be happy with how the movie turned out.  If someone without a lot of knowledge about Reggie watched this, they'd think he was an OK guy as well as a great baseball player. There's nothing wrong with that. But I felt, without really knowing what they might be, that I was missing other aspects of Reggie as a person and a ballplayer.


geezer cinema/film fatales #172: past lives (celine song, 2023)

Past Lives is a debut feature from Celine Song that belies its newcomer status. Song is a playwright, and Past Lives unfurls in a carefully constructed manner that always feels real. There are no missteps in the film.

Song worked closely with her primary actors to get believable performances from them. Greta Lee (Russian Doll) is the Song stand-in as a playwright, Nora, who was born in Korea, Teo Yoo is the Korean man, Hae Sung, who was her childhood friend, and John Magaro is her husband, Arthur. Song and the actors do great things with their use of language. Nora is bilingual, and her Korean reflects the fact that she spoke it until she was 12 but has become rusty over the years. Teo Yeo speaks fluent English in real life, but here, he struggles to get even brief amenities across, while Arthur knows about as much Korean as the Hae Sung knows English. When the three of them are together, the woman is the translator/conduit for the communication.

Past Lives has three sections, one from the Korean childhood, one twelve years later (when Lee takes over the role of Nora), and a third twelve years after that, when the three meet in New York City. The film (and its title) grows out of the Korean concept of In-Yun, that assumes if you meet someone, you have also met in past lives. In fact, when Hae Sung comes to New York, he is a part of Nora's past ... he knows things about her that Arthur will never know. Again, Song is very careful ... nothing about the relationships of the three people is completely predictable, but the ending feels like it had been obvious all along.

Comparisons have been made to Richard Linklater's Before trilogy, where seven years passes between each film in the series. Song fits all 24 years into one film, but the seemingly-casual presentation is reminiscent of Linklater. The films are more different than similar, though, because the main characters in the works are unique.

Past Lives is a good movie that improves once you think back on it.

 


film fatales #171: the house is black (forugh farrokhzad, 1963)

The House Is Black is a short (21 minutes) documentary about a leper colony in Iran, considered now to be a central movie in Iranian film history. It is the only film directed by Forugh Farrokhzad, an important poet who died in a car accident when she was only 32. Her approach is unique, including voice-over narration by Farrokhzad of her own poetry, along with other narration taken from the Old Testament and the Koran.

While Farrokhzad and cinematographer Soleyman Minasian do not shy away from the realities of what leprosy does to a body, there is no feel of exploitation. We get an honest look at the disease and its effects, but Farrokhzad insists on our also seeing the essential humanity in the people who appear in the movie. As the first lines of narration say, "There is no shortage of ugliness in the world. If man closed his eyes to it, there would be even more."

One wishes that Farrokhzad had lived long enough to give us more films. Over time, The House Is Black has only increased in reputation ... it is #241 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


film fatales #170: meek's cutoff (kelly reichardt, 2010)

I've yet to be bowled over by a Kelly Reichardt film. I didn't like Old Joy, and had a more positive reaction to Wendy and Lucy and First Cow. Meek's Cutoff is somewhere between all of those. It looks like a realistic portrait of what it was like on the Oregon Trail in 1845: dirt, dust, no water, boring. Ironically, I had no idea it was based in part on real life events (there was a real Stephen Meek who had found the Cutoff that bears his name). Honestly, it was irrelevant that the story was "real" ... what mattered was how effectively Reichardt gave us a wagon train of settlers fighting the elements and the uncertain skills of Meek, their guide.

Meek's Cutoff is the kind of film that does such a good job of presenting the crushing boredom of the situation that the movie itself becomes boring. I don't know that there is a fix-it for this. Give us some standard action and the verisimilitude at the heart of the picture would be ruined. Reichardt relies on the changing interactions between the settlers and Meek for provide some forward movement. There is also an Indian (that's his name in the credits, "The Indian") captured by Meek ... while he speaks no English, somehow it is communicated to him that they are looking for water, while the racist Meek just wants to kill him. There's a will he/won't he angle that provides a bit of suspense, but in the end, Reichardt resists making too much of that suspense. She focuses on the interplay between the characters and the growing mistrust of the settlers for Meek.

The film's ending emphasizes this. The group must decide who to follow, Meek or the Indian. As the Indian walks in the direction of what we assume he believes to be water, the settlers ponder what to do. And the screen goes to black, and the credits roll. I thought this was a cheat, but perhaps it's appropriate the ultimate result is left up in the air. For me, it was a final frustration with a film I never warmed to, although it didn't inspire the hatred I had for Old Joy. #927 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time (#117 on the 21st-century list).


revisiting the 9s/film fatales: portrait of a lady on fire (céline sciamma, 2019)

[This is the fifteenth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

I first saw Portrait of a Lady on Fire in 2020. At that time, I wrote, comparing it to Blue Is the Warmest Color:

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.

A second viewing only emphasized how intensely Sciamma and her actors convey so much desire just by looking at each other. Merlant's eyes in particular are dark and deep ... you could fall into them and never return.

I also quoted Mick LaSalle, who wrote, "The last time I wanted two people to kiss this much, I was one of the people."

We watched with friends who hadn't seen it before, and one of them said you always knew they were going to kiss. Yes, I said, but it's like Hitchcock saying that "suspense is when the spectator knows more than the characters in the movie." In his example, the audience knows there's a bomb under the table, and it is suspenseful because we know it will go off, but the characters are clueless to this eventuality. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the audience knows the women will kiss, but Sciamma draws out the exquisite expectation of that kiss, such that you start to wonder if maybe you were wrong. Spoiler alert: they kiss.

Is it "really" a 10 and not a 9? Probably ... if it was made in the 1960s, I wouldn't have feared rating it too highly because of its newness. Having seen only two of her movies (the other being Petite Maman), I am prepared to accept that Céline Sciamma is one of our finest film makers.