geezer cinema/film fatales #144: petite maman (céline sciamma, 2021)

About Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I wrote, "Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel as a painter and her reluctant subject are perfectly matched, and both deliver perfect performances." I also noted cinematographer Claire Mathon's excellent contribution to that movie. Sciamma and Mathon are working together again, and the result is a charming, gently magical film that once again shows Sciamma's talent with actors. The added factor here is that the main characters are eight-year-old friends, played by real-life twins Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz. I can find very little about these sisters, but it appears this is their first film, which is a credit both to Sciamma's ability to bring out their best and their own natural ways of getting into an audience.

A spoiler-free recap of Petite Maman is not easy, although there is a vague quality to the plot that might seem to be spoiler-free. But I think the film benefits from the gradual revealing of the story ... I am sure I would get a lot out of a second viewing, knowing what I do now (and at just 72 minutes, you could easily watch it twice in succession if you were so inclined). While the film is indeed magical in all meanings of that term, it isn't a film with a trick, like, say, The Sixth Sense, which grabs you the first time, and allows you to see how it was done on a second viewing, but after that leaves no reason to keep watching. No, Petite Maman is a lovely movie about grief and friendship and family and, most of all, childhood, beautiful to behold even if you don't connect with the magic. But you will.

There is a viral program making the rounds, Craiyon (formerly DALL-E mini), that features an "AI model drawing images from any prompt". I gave the prompt "portrait of petite maman on fire" and got this:

Portrait of petite maman on fire single frame

film fatales #143/african-american directors series: the watermelon woman (cheryl dunye, 1996)

The Watermelon Woman is a fascinating feature debut for Cheryl Dunye, who followed it with several features and, in the last several years, work on many television series, including Lovecraft Country. It is a selection in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". Which is true ... it was the first feature directed by a black lesbian. But the pleasures of The Watermelon Woman go beyond its historical status.

The film is about a budding director, Cheryl, played by Cheryl Dunye herself, who discovers a little-known actress in an old film who is listed only as "Watermelon Woman". Cheryl sets out to learn more about this woman, whose name turns out to be Fae Richards. Fae was a lesbian, and was said to have had a relationship with a white female director, Martha Page. Cheryl begins working on a film about Richards, and Dunye moves between Cheryl's work and her personal life. Gradually, we come to know Richards through old photographs, brief film clips, and interviews Cheryl does with people who knew Richards. (She even interviews Camille Paglia as herself, who says things like "If the watermelon symbolizes African-American culture, rightly so, because look what white middle class feminism stands for: anorexia and bulimia.")

The transitions between the quest for knowledge about Richards, the attempt to make a movie, and the presentation of Cheryl's personal life are not always smooth, but Dunye never loses our attention throughout The Watermelon Woman's short running time (90 minutes).

Dunye has one last trick up her sleeve, or rather, the trick has been there all along but we in the audience are never quite certain we've got the trick. During the closing credits, we see pieces of Cheryl's documentary about Fae Richards, taking us back to the still photos and movie clips Cheryl has collected. Except the credits end with the following statement: "Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is fiction. Cheryl Dunye, 1996"

The concept of the film is audacious, but perhaps even more impressive is the technical skills used to pull it off. The stills and footage were all shot by Dunye and her crew. They aren't just old items gathered for other purposes ... the clips from Fae Richards' old movies and all of the photos we see from Fae's past are faked. And they are pretty flawless. Maybe it's not super-Marvel CGI, but it's a different accomplishment that is equally noteworthy. That it is used in a work that has historic significance is the icing on the cake.

the life of oharu (kenji mizoguchi, 1952)

The life of the titular Oharu may remind you of Job. Actually, I made that observation about another Mizoguchi film: "The family at the center of Sansho the Bailiff is filled with good people .... They suffer, oh do they suffer, like Job, or like Björk in Dancer in the Dark." Oharu (spoiler alert) loses her first love (played by Toshirô Mifune) to an execution. She is sent to be the mistress to a lord, meant to bring him an heir. When she succeeds, the lord sends her back home. Her father puts her out to be a courtesan ... she fails and returns home again. She goes to serve a family ... the wife tosses her out. She marries ... her husband is murdered. She tries to become a nun ... she is raped and thrown out of the convent. She becomes a prostitute, but she is aged and in rejected by potential customers.

It's all too much, and in some ways the comparison to a heroine from an early von Trier movie is apt. But Kinuyo Tanaka does remarkable things with Oharu. She feels the low points, at times she is overwhelmed, yet there is something about the actress that suggests inner strength. That strength might be almost comedic if Mizoguchi took a different approach. The film is on Oharu's side, and it paints a dismal portrait of life for a woman in 17th-century Japan. But I'm never sure about Mizoguchi's sympathies. #260 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

what i watched

Geezer Cinema: Kimi (Steven Soderbergh, 2022). I found the choices at the local theater to be uninspiring, so I opted for an in-home Geezer movie this week. Kimi has the feel of a pandemic movie, for good reason ... it was made during the pandemic, and it takes place during the pandemic. The character played by Zoë Kravitz suffers from agoraphobia, and you get the feeling the quarantine, while making it easier for her to just stay at home, nonetheless didn't exactly help her condition. Kravitz is great in the role, emotionally stunted in some ways and yet she believable rises to the occasion in the climax. There are a lot of That Guys (Jaime Camil and Jacob Vargas, Rita Wilson, and Robin Givens, who even though I knew she was in it I forgot to notice her). As he often does, Soderbergh does his own cinematography and editing using pseudonyms. Soderbergh is the King of Geezer Cinema for some reason. We watched Contagion back when we first started staying at home during the pandemic, and since then we've seen Logan Lucky, Haywire, and No Sudden Move, so Kimi makes #5. I usually like his movies (he is #51 on my most recent list of top directors), and my wife seems to share my enjoyment ... she has picked three of the five Geezer movies we've watched.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

Revisiting the 9s: Murderball (Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, 2005). [This is the ninth 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.]

When Murderball came out, I wrote:

The film makers don't always seem to trust their material (wheelchair rugby played by macho quadriplegics) ... the movie gives off a feeling of manufactured drama at times. But the stories of the athletes, and the (infrequent for a sports film) action-packed scenes of what is best described as bumper cars played by Mad Max refugees, tip the scales towards excellence. It's also interesting that real-life events conspire to prevent some of the more predictable drama ... I'm trying to avoid spoilers here ... perhaps that's why the film makers try to hype up other dramatic aspects of the narrative. But it works ... when things don't always turn out "right," the film feels far more "real" than when the hype takes over.

I don't have much to add after a second viewing 15 or so years after the fact. The main characters in the film capture our attention, and the film is engrossing to the extent that we care what happens to these people. But one thing about my reluctance to give the highest rating to more recent films is that this doesn't seem to hold for documentaries. If I am taken with a documentary, I'll go all the way with a rating (to cite a recent example, Summer of Soul). I think I may have rated Murderball a bit too highly at the time, and even then, I only handed out a 9/10. Now? I'm feeling an 8/10 coming up.

thief (michael mann, 1981)

Michael Mann has always been an interesting filmmaker. He has several Oscar nominations. He is highly regarded among his peers. And yet, after more than 40 years of Michael Mann movies, I still think his best work was the two television series he created, the innovative Miami Vice and the (even better, in my view) Crime Story. I've never hated a Michael Mann movie, and I've actively liked a couple.

So I was glad to finally see his feature debut, Thief, because I think it's his best film. His style is already evident, but Thief isn't an example of style over substance. Mann gives us a picture of a man who thinks he has found a way to finally get through the crap of his life. That the man is a thief matters in terms of our enjoyment because Mann called on several real-life thieves as consultants (and in some casts, gave them parts in the film), so while I don't know anything about stealing jewels, I'm convinced that what I'm seeing is real. Mann uses the actual equipment real thieves use, and breaks down heists in such detail that you almost think you've learned how to pull off the robbery yourself.

He gets great performances from his leads. James Caan is as good as he ever was, and the underrated Tuesday Weld delivers, as well. (I'm always reminded of what David Thomson once wrote about her name change: "If she had been 'Susan Weld' she might now be known as one of our great actresses.") Caan has said that outside of The Godfather, Thief is his favorite of his films. And he thinks that this scene is the best work of his career:

the color of pomegranates (sergei parajanov, 1969)

Gregory J. Smalley wrote, "If someone sat down to watch The Color of Pomegranates with no background, they would have no idea what they were seeing. None at all." He later added, "Many simple folk don’t like Pomegranates because they don’t like seeing something they don’t understand: they fear they are missing out on the meaning of the film. It’s their loss."

Call me simple.

Ranked #249 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

geezer cinema: doctor strange in the multiverse of madness (sam raimi, 2022)

I liked the first Doctor Strange movie, although I don't seem to have written about it anywhere. Strange was one of the few Marvel characters I actually read in comics, we having bought the entire first series in the hippie days when the Doctor fit with our mental proclivities. I can't really remember any more why I liked that first movie ... and I only liked it enough to have fond memories, not enough to actually watch it again.

Anyway, I didn't much like this new one. I was excited ... I'm a fan of Sam Raimi, at least the Sam Raimi of the Evil Dead movies, along with the return-to-form Drag Me to Hell (has it really been 13 years?). Sure enough, the occasional Raimi touch breaks through. But mostly, In the Multiverse of Madness is a CGI extravaganza, impressive in its way, but not my favorite genre. Elizabeth Olsen makes a great Big Bad, and I'm always glad to see Hayley Atwell. But Xochitl Gomez didn't do much for me. I liked the goofiness of the Multiverse, but I think Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did it much better.

My favorite Sam Raimi moment, and thus my favorite moment in the film, is the inevitable Bruce Campbell cameo, with its homage to Evil Dead Ash. He even (spoiler alert) shows up at the very end of the credits, one of the few times it's worth sitting around for ten minutes.

And for old times sake:

revisiting the 9s/film fatales: control room (jehane noujaim, 2004)

[This is the eighth 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.]

Apparently I never wrote about Control Room when I first saw it, so this is a chance not only to re-evaluate it but offer a few words, as well. Jehane Noujaim gave us one of the greatest documentaries of recent years, The Square, which began with the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 and was so locked into the moment that, after it won awards at the Sundance Film Festival, Noujaim continued to edit it to reflect more recent events.

Control Room is a cinéma vérité film that documents the work of Al Jazeera covering the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was filmed by Noujaim and Hani Salama, and offers the best of what cinéma vérité can offer. Of course, there are those who point to the editing process in cinéma vérité films as a way to construct reality while presenting it as unconstructed. In Control Room, there are parallel versions of this. Not only has the film been criticized for being biased, Al Jazeera itself is subject to the same criticisms. But, as one person says in the film, comparing Al Jazeera and mainstream U.S. news media, "This word 'objectivity' is almost a mirage". And Noujaim herself has said of the film, "I am not saying it is the truth, but it is our truth".

One of the more interesting characters in the film is Marine Lieutenant Josh Rushing, a spokesperson for the military in Iraq. Like all people in his position, he offers the kind of spin that his bosses want to hear, but he also comes across as genuinely wanting to understand Al Jazeera and the Arab perspective. Rushing later left the Corps and joined Al Jazeera English.

A second viewing of Control Room didn't convince me I'd underrated a classic, but it's not an insult to say it just misses being as great as The Square.

manchester by the sea (kenneth lonergan, 2016)

Kenneth Lonergan doesn't direct a lot of movies. Manchester by the Sea, his third, came 16 years after his first (You Can Count on Me), and he hasn't directed any since. He is also a playwright and a screenwriter ... it's not that he doesn't keep busy. But his film directing is something of a rarity. His films are also good, even Margaret, which I kind of loved and which is a mess. You don't always know what to expect from his movies, and they might irritate you, but they tend to stick in your mind.

Casey Affleck is in a lot of movies. I don't always like them, I never love them, and I hated that Jesse James movie. I don't have anything against him or his work ... it's more that he doesn't usually make much of an impression on me. Affleck won a Best Actor Oscar for Manchester by the Sea, and I finally see the point, because he is great in this movie. It's a tough part, because his character, Lee, is largely internal. But you see pain on Affleck's face. Lonergan has created a superb character, the kind of man who bottles up his emotions, and then occasionally just bursts into meaningless violence (he likes getting in bar fights). Lee is not an easy man to like, for the other characters or for us in the audience, but Affleck makes him feel real. Since Lee is going through a great upheaval in his life, the film is at times almost too somber to bear, and Lonergan doesn't leave much in the way of relief. Lee grows marginally by the end of the film, but it's not a transcendent growth. In Manchester by the Sea, the best that can be hoped for is to get through another day.

Michelle Williams is second-billed, but her part is small, at least in screen time (she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar). She makes the most of it, especially in this, perhaps the best scene in the movie:

Manchester by the Sea is #147 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

film fatales #142: the fallout (megan park, 2021)

I often come to a movie cold, knowing little or nothing about it. The Fallout was one of those. If I'd done any research at all, I wouldn't have been surprised that the first thing we see is a trigger warning. I didn't know what the triggers might be, and then the movie started with scenes of sisters getting ready for school. It felt harmless enough. All of which meant I was surprised, if not triggered, when events unfolded.

The Fallout is about a school tragedy, which unfortunately couldn't be more timely. The approach writer/director Megan Park takes is to examine, not the tragedy itself, but the aftermath ... the fallout, if you will. It's that aftermath that informs the movie, and Park and her actors give us a revealing portrait of young survivors. The Fallout's presentation is a bit muted, like if Euphoria was created by someone who wasn't obsessed with excess. We get lots of closeups of faces, which won't work if you don't have actors with the skills to draw out our empathy. This was the first time Jenna Ortega, Maddie Ziegler, and Niles Fitch have gotten my attention, and they are all actors with what should be bright futures. Ortega in particular has been getting raves about her "breakout" role. All of the young actors feel age-appropriate (the real-life Ortega is only a couple of years older than her character, and she is short enough that she certainly looks like a 16-year-old).

Park's directing debut is confident ... there are no signs of first-timers disease. She tells the story as she wants, gets the performances she wants, creates a believable world of high-schoolers, and even makes the adults seem true-to-life, neither ogres nor saints. (Ortega's parents are played by Julie Bowen and John Ortiz, and Shailene Woodley turns up as her therapist.) Park doesn't reach too far, which just adds to the powerful nature of what we see.

And, to further surprise me, in the credits I learned that the music is done by Finneas!

Here are the first seven minutes:

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]