This is something of a Dual Film Fatale entry, given that it's a documentary about Hedy Lamarr directed by a woman.
I was looking forward to a film showing how Lamarr's work as in inventor was buried underneath her image as a great screen beauty. And that topic is always in the background. But much more of the film than I expected is devoted to Lamarr's career as an actress. And that career is not the most interesting thing about Lamarr. I wanted a movie about an inventor who was also an actress, but what I got was a movie about an actress who was also an inventor.
Obviously, the two go hand in hand. And the time spent on her acting career does establish a setting whereby Lamarr's intelligence might be ignored. Dean is kind enough to avoid much analysis of Lamarr's acting ... her fame came from her beauty, not because she was a great thespian.
I'm wondering if they spend relatively little time on her inventions because they weren't as engrossing for the audience than just showing pictures and clips of her in her prime. I don't want to press this point too much ... Dean does not ignore the inventor in favor of the beauty ... but it's the inventions that make this story more than just another tale of a Hollywood goddess.
Nonetheless, Lamarr's life story is a fascinating one, and a documentary is the way to go. The information is here. Lamarr was as smart as she was beautiful.
Another intriguing movie from Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, We Need to Talk About Kevin). A common feature of every Ramsay movie I've seen is that I have to turn on the subtitles ... Scottish isn't my best language. I avoided this film for a long time, for the silliest of reasons: the title threw me off. I had no idea what it referred to ... a place, an alien being, what? Imagine my embarrassment when I found within minutes that Morvern Callar was the name of the main character.
She is played by Samantha Morton (Jesus' Son, Minority Report, Mister Lonely), who for the most part gives great performances in movies I don't much like (Minority Report is an exception ... I like that one quite a bit). Unsurprisingly, Morton is excellent in Morvern Callar, and she is the perfect actress for Ramsay, who relies a lot on closeups and a lot less on dialogue. This demands a great deal from her actors ... in this case, Morton has to carry a film that doesn't seem to care much about narrative, and she has to do this without being able to explain everything with dialogue. As noted in the wonderful video Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos did for the late, great Every Frame a Painting, these are characteristic of Ramsay's work in general. (I link to that video every time I write about Ramsay ... it's that good.) This means Ramsay's movies, at least the ones I've seen, are very specific to her ... she seems to get what she wants on the screen, and leaves it to the audience to get it or not. Often, I dislike such directors ... I admire someone like Terrence Malick, but I don't like watching his movies ... as I once said, the only person who knows what his films mean is Malick, and he’s not telling. But for some reason, I'm willing to go along with Ramsay. I have yet to fall in love with any of her movies, but I've always found them intriguing and worth my time. #243 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.
Film Fatales #40: Divines (Houda Benyamina, 2016).
Divines is an interesting movie, for me anyway, because it takes place somewhere I know little about (French suburb), and the lead actor, who happens to be the director's kid sister, is the best thing in the movie. It's also a different kind of gangster movie, much more a female buddy movie.
The buddies are Dounia (played by Oulaya Amamra, Benyamina's sister) and Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena). They are low-level hustlers who want to join a gang led by Rebecca ... with Dounia as the primary instigator, they work their way into the gang. What follows isn't particularly original, nor does the fact that many of the primary characters are women seem to make a lot of difference. It works because the writing is good, because the acting is especially good, because the locale is intriguing. Cinematographer Julien Poupard adds a lot to the power of the film, working closely with Benyamina (this interview offers an up-close look at their work together), resulting in a film that, as Poupard says, colorful but not to colorful. He also mentions the influence of Mean Streets, which hadn't occurred to me but which makes perfect sense.
Divines won awards at several festivals, and won César Awards for Most Promising Actress (Amamra), Best Supporting Actress (Lukumuena), and Best First Feature (Benyamina). Promising ... that's a good word to describe Divines, which makes one look forward to the future work of Benyamina et al. But there is no need to wait, for Divines is already a solid accomplishment.
By Request: Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009).
I've been trying to find something to say about Watchmen since I saw it last week, and I'm drawing a blank. It kept my attention for its long running time, and it was often visually dazzling. (I've read the graphic novel, but it was so long ago I can't rely on my memories for comparison purposes.) But it also wasted Carla Gugino, and while I could tell Snyder was reaching for grandeur and meaning, I was mostly impressed by the amazing mask worn by Rorschach. It's the damnedest thing ... the only thing I can compare it to is the rotoscoped faces in A Scanner Darkly.
Amy S. Weber is new to me. She comes out of advertising and educational films, and A Girl Like Her is only her second feature. The movie starts out looking like it will be the story of a victim of bullying who tries to kill herself, but the focus gradually changes to the bully herself. Weber has said that she wanted us to understand that bullying grows out of pain, that the victim is not the only person who is hurting. Weber does a good job of balancing this out ... she never lets us forget the victim. And she gets very good acting out of her three main performers, Lexi Ainsworth as Jessica who is bullied, Hunter King as Avery, the bully, and Jimmy Bennett as Jessica's friend Brian. (They are not amateurs ... Ainsworth and King have both won Emmys for their work on soap operas, and Bennett has been piling up acting credits since 2002.) To the extent that Weber wants us to feel the pain of the bully, she succeeds.
But there are serious problems with her approach. The film started as a documentary project, where youngsters would go to their schools wearing hidden cameras to show what their lives were "really" like. Gradually the documentary became a fictional narrative film, but Weber chose to retain the cameras, making A Girl Like Her more like a reality show than a fictional movie. The "found footage" makes up a good part of A Girl Like Her, and it is effective. But Weber also creates a character for herself, a documentary filmmaker named Amy, who gets permission from Jessica's parents to film their lives (the high school also gives her access). The secret footage from Jessica's hidden camera is important, but the rest seems squeezed in ... it's more distracting than illuminating. The character "Amy" also becomes the bully's confidant, which adds a creepiness that detracts from the attempt to show us that bullies are people, too. In essence, I never understood why the documentary angle was part of the movie. It allows for the big scene when Avery is confronted with her behavior, but I wish they had found a different way to give us that scene. "Amy" is far too important for a story about three high-schoolers. (The website for the film includes a couple of videos of "Amy" interviewing "Avery", "Jessica", and "Brian" showing how the characters are doing, a few months down the road. For me, it's several steps too far, but in fairness, it seems that many have been affected by the movie and what I see as its excesses.)
A Girl Like Her would be better as an hour-long afterschool special, with the documentary stuff eliminated. As is, it's just an interesting try.
Andrea Arnold's earliest films were shorts influenced by the Dogme 95 movement. The two other features of Arnold that I have seen (Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights) didn't seem clearly attached to Dogme, and it could be that Arnold has moved on. Still, both of those movies strive for a "real" look and approach, and this is even more apparent in American Honey. For one thing, Arnold likes using non-professional actors, which runs the risk of amateurish performances but which also makes for the "real" feel that Arnold is after. Shia LaBeouf (Jake) and Riley Keough (Krystal) are the only professionals I could spot, while the cast is a large one, with plenty of roles for the amateurs. It works in American Honey, for a number of reasons. Arnold gets natural performances from her big cast, which makes the film as a whole feel accurate. Shia LaBeouf effectively buries himself in his role, not standing out because of his acting expertise (Keough stands out, but that is appropriate for her character). Finally, and most important, Sasha Lane delivers in the lead role. Like the other amateurs, she feels natural. Like a movie star, she has an intriguing look to her. You could imagine her moving from acting novice to movie star very easily (her character's name is Star).
American Honey tells the story of a big group of young adults (Star is 18) who travel America in a van, selling magazine subscriptions door to door. It's a sprawling movie (163 minutes) that doesn't seem all that interested in focusing on any of the group beyond the main characters. They are recognizably different, but it seems less important than how they seem as a group ... their identity is tied to the group. Since not a lot happens in the film, and since the group is more important than most of the individuals, Arnold is relying a lot on Star, Jake, and Krystal to justify the movie's length, and she doesn't always succeed. Star is the only character with an arc ... it's not exactly a coming-of-age story, but she is learning about herself and about life as the movie progresses, while Jake and Krystal aren't different at the end than they were at the beginning. A lot of the traveling scenes run together, and the movie could easily have been shorter while still doing justice to Star.
As with the other films of hers I have seen, Arnold films in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Arnold has said that she feels 4:3 is perfect for framing one person, and she is often focusing on one person, so 4:3 works better than a widescreen format. Since American Honey, which looks quite beautiful at times, features lots of shots of landscapes, the squarish ratio seems counterintuitive. But it certainly works for Sasha Lane.
Arnold also makes effective use of music. The group is always listening to music, which makes it easy to offer an appropriate soundtrack to their actions. (I confess I was thrown out of the film for a bit when Bruce Springsteen's version of "Dream Baby Dream" came on, since that song always makes me cry.)
The thing I liked best about American Honey was the respect it has for its young characters. Too often we see teens filled with all sorts of negative stereotypes, in movies that seem designed solely to look down on those teens. American Honey is honest about its young people, but it is never snooty. This is my favorite Andrea Arnold movie so far. #450 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.
Some of the women whose work informs and inspires me today:
Maureen Ryan, TV Critic, Variety. Sample piece: "‘Sweet/Vicious’ Canceled by MTV but Should Live on Elsewhere (Opinion)". "One of the greatest joys of this job is coming across something around the margins that does something cool, unique, or entertaining. When a show you’ve never heard of does all of those things, it’s like getting a jolt of joy straight to thenervous system."
I think I was too scared to be open with the fans because I knew how bottomless their need could be. How could I help if I was just like them? I was afraid I might not be able to lessen their pain or live up to their ideals; I would be revealed as a fraud, unworthy and insubstantial. The disconnect between who I was on- and offstage would be so pronounced as to be jarring. Me, so small, so unqualified.
On Body and Soul marks the return to feature films for Hungarian filmmaker Ildikó Enyedi, who has spent the last 18 years working in television and on short films. Her prior features played at festivals around the world, and I can't find anything to explain her absence from the big screen. (She won a couple of Best Director awards for her last feature, Simon, the Magician.) This is her film ... she not only directed, but wrote it as well.
The IMDB description hints at the oddness of the setup. "When slaughterhouse workers Endre and Mária discover they share the same dreams - where they meet in a forest as deer and fall in love - they decide to make their dreams come true but it's difficult in real life." Enyedi never shies away from this oddness, but the movie and its actors underplay to such an extent that you don't always remember how much the plot resembles a fantasy. There is a suggestion of magic realism, but it's not like the deer show up in the slaughterhouse ... they stick to the dreams of the two protagonists, and the only real fantasy element is that they are sharing the dreams, and that the dreams are bringing them together.
It's actually a perfect setup for the budding romance of the two, who have a big difference in age (Endre is roughly twice as old as Mária) and share an awkwardness in public interactions (Mária is borderline autistic). You get the feeling the two would never find each other if they didn't share dreams about deer. The relationship itself is awkward, given their personalities and age difference ... in fact, for most of the movie, it barely qualifies as a relationship. The plot devices required to bring them together are rather clunky, and not at all magical.
Still, stars Géza Morcsányi, who had never acted on screen before, and Alexandra Borbély, by comparison a seasoned veteran (she won a Best Actress award at the European Film Awards for this film, joining a list of stalwarts such as Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert, and Charlotte Rampling), are excellent. Throughout, On Body and Soul threatens to emerge as something great, but it never quite gets there.
It's difficult at times to figure out what a director's contribution is to a film, since movies are such a collaborative art form. One assumption I make is if a movie has a bunch of good performances by the actors, the director should get at least part of the credit. Well, the director and the person in charge of casting. Mudbound has several actors who are perhaps lesser known than big stars, but who have a track record of good work. Garrett Hedlund will always be Dean Moriarty to me, which is silly, but he has a charisma that warrants a bigger profile. I may just be lucky, but I've seen several of Carey Mulligan's movies, and every one of them has been at the least good. Jason Clarke is always popping up in things where I first think "hey, it's that guy" only to realize he's more than that. Jason Mitchell is just getting started, but he made quite an impression as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton. Jonathan Banks really is a That Guy (IMDB says he has 167 acting credits). And, of course, Mary J. Blige has been nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar for her work here (she also has a nomination for Best Song).
So yeah, I think Dee Rees deserves praise for the universally strong performances in Mudbound. (Don't want to forget those heads of casting, Ashley Ingram and Billy Hopkins.) Honestly, I'm a bit surprised Blige got an acting nom ... she's fine, for sure, but she doesn't jump off the screen. Maybe that's why it works ... she underplays a role that could go into all sorts of excesses. And whenever she and Rob Morgan (who plays her husband) are on screen together, they avoid sentimentality and are more believable for it.
Mudbound looks great, which gives me a chance to tip my cap to history: Rachel Morrison is the first woman to get an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography.
Rees does a good job of showing us who these characters are. None of them are mere stereotypes. The history of America is such that we always know things can take a dark turn, and in fact they do ... very dark. But we are especially affected by the darkness because Rees takes her time getting there. It hurts more knowing these people as intimately as we do. 9/10.
There is a big Hollywood name attached to this movie: director Angelina Jolie. But Jolie manages to helm a film that has little of the feel of Hollywood. It's easy to imagine a more mainstream approach ("mainstream" meaning "easy for U.S. audiences to watch"), but Jolie does nothing to make the movie easy. The cast is all-Cambodian, as is much of the crew, and the film is in Khmer. We can be forgiven for wondering what this rich white woman knows, what she can contribute to a story that seems to demand a Cambodian perspective. But First They Killed My Father never seems like anything but a Cambodian movie. Jolie doesn't disappear ... it's not like there is no director serving as a guiding force for the film. But she gives herself over to the material. Jolie read the original memoir by Loung Ung and reached out to the author, beginning a long friendship that eventually resulted in this film (the two collaborated on the screenplay). And while Jolie works to let the Cambodia story emerge from a Cambodian perspective, she is not just a typical rich white woman. She has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Cambodia.
The key artistic decision was to tell the story from the point of view of young Loung, who was five to nine years old during the period depicted in the movie. Jolie sticks to this point of view almost without fail, giving a strong, centered feel to the film. There isn't a lot of explanation here ... you learn a lot about Cambodia, but this may not be the best place to start if Cambodian history is your interest, because the insistence of the focus on what Loung experiences effectively narrows what we see. When you are living through troubled times and you are five years old, you might not know why things are happening, but you nonetheless experience them. Ultimately, First They Killed My Father is one of the finest movies about war from a child's perspective.
Special mention must be made of Sareum Srey Moch, the young actress who plays Loung. Like the movie itself, she offers greatness without exactly drawing attention to herself. You can't always see her acting, not because she seems amateurish, but because she seems naturally "real". Without her, the movie would still have good intentions, but with her, the movie approaches greatness. 9/10.
To copy what I said at this time in 2015: “A summary, sorted by my ratings. I tend to save the 10/10 ratings for older classics, so a more recent film that gets 9/10 is very good indeed. Movies that are just shy of greatness will get 8/10. I waste more time than is necessary trying to distinguish 7/10 from 6/10 … both ratings signify slightly better-than-average movies, where if I like them I’ll pop for a 7 and if I don’t, I’ll lay out a 6. I save 5/10 for movies I don’t like, and anything lower than 5 for crud. This explanation comes after the fact … I don’t really think it through when I give the ratings. They skew high because I try very hard to avoid movies I won’t like … if I saw every movie ever made, my average might be 5/10, but I skip the ones that would bring the average down. Anything I give at least a 9 rating is something I recommend ... might sound obvious, but if someone is actually looking to me for suggestions, that limits the list to 15. So I’ve included links to my comments on those movies.”
8: 13th 20th Century Women Andrei Rublev The Dreamers Fat Girl Girlfriends Hail, Caesar! The Handmaiden Hell or High Water The Host I Walked with a Zombie Journey to Italy Klute Lady Bird Melancholia Okja Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid Persepolis Real Women Have Curves The Southerner Terminator 2 Them! Three To Walk Invisible Train to Busan Vengeance
7: 10 Cloverfield Lane 2 Days in Paris The Amazing Mr. X Bad Kids The Bare-Footed Kid Bedlam The Black Cat Blade Runner Doctor Strange Don't Breathe Drug War The Fly The Happiness of the Katakuris Gimme Shelter High Noon Ip Man 2 Jesse James Johnny Guitar Lifeline The Lobster Love Actually Marshall My Night at Maud's The Panic in Needle Park A Place in the Sun Punch-Drunk Love Road to Morocco The Set-Up Some Came Running Spielberg Stalag 17 Stalker The Thing To Catch a Thief Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives The Unknown Village of the Damned Wanda Wonder Woman
6: The Best Offer Biker Boyz Colossal Youth Cop Car Genocide Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Guess Who's Coming to Dinner The Haunted Strangler In the Heart of the Sea The Intervention Jesus' Son The Mad Monk The Maltese Falcon (1931) The Mirror Rudderless Shoot 'Em Up The Time Travelers The Vampire Lovers
5: Return of the Fly A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop Zabriskie Point
4: Anything Goes The Ghost Galleon The Screaming Skull