film fatales #48: private life (tamara jenkins, 2018)

The title is a bit ironic, given that the two main characters, a married couple in their 40s played by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti, have what passes for their private lives exposed to seemingly everyone they know. The couple, Richard and Rachel, are artsy professionals (Richard once ran a theater group before owning an artisan pickle company, Rachel is an author) who have been thinking about having kids for quite a while. Their efforts are what turn their private lives into public ones ... seemingly everyone they know has advice on what to do next, plus the process of trying to have a kid gets pretty invasive at times. Denis O'Hare has a nice supporting role as a gynecologist who spends much of his time looking inside Rachel, and along the way we learn, as everyone else already knows, that Richard only has one testicle.

Some of the stops on the road to parenthood are touching, some are funny, some are both. None of them work, until they finally decide to have an egg donor, and with that, I've probably already said too much. I'll leave the various twists to you, although Private Life is not a movie that relies on plot shifts to keep our attention.

What makes Private Life work is the "natural" presentation of the characters and their lives. Sure, we always know that Hahn and Giamatti are acting, but they slip so easily into their roles that we forget they are not real. Jenkins both wrote and directed Private Life, and so she gets the lion's share of the credit for the believable nature of her actors and their situation. It's not a screwball comedy, it's a low-key comedy (I refuse to call it a dramedy, but that's what it is) expertly pulled off by everyone involved. I appreciated the way Private Life is "real" but not bitter or spiteful ... these people have their issues, but they get along without devouring each other. I'm all for that devouring kind of movie, but I was glad this wasn't one of those. And the film ends on a perfect note of anticipation.

Private Life is too long, but one sympathizes with Jenkins' desire to get the details on the screen. Jenkins and Hahn are outside shots at Oscar nominations, if that's what you like to hear about. I doubt the movie is demonstrative enough to get that kind of awards attention, but it plays well for an evening with Netflix, and I mean that as a compliment.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

if you're not in the obit, eat breakfast (danny gold, 2017)

Yesterday marked the 102nd birthday of Kirk Douglas, so I looked around for one of his movies I hadn't seen, and came up with this documentary about people who are 9o years old or more. Seemed appropriate, given the birthday.

Carl Reiner is the driving force, at least on the screen ... Danny Gold gets directing and co-writing credits, with Michael Mayhew also getting a writing credit, but the idea for the movie is stated by Reiner, who wondered why so many of his friends were not just 90 and older, but 90 and active and involved. So he set out to talk to them. Naturally, his friends are from show business, folks like Mel Brooks and Norman Lear, Dick Van Dyke and Betty White and Stan Lee and Tony Bennett. To expand the horizons, we meet people like Ida Keeling, who ran a 100-meter dash at the Penn Relays at age 100, and Tao Porchon-Lynch, holder of the Guinness World Record for the world's oldest yoga instructor, at 93. (She's now 100.)

The entire thing sounds like a setup for lots of syrupy talk about the wonders of old age, or, if not that, the horrors of old age. If You're Not in the Obit takes neither approach. Instead, we see people who have reached 90 or more and are still committed to the same things that have driven their lives for decades. Reiner was working in television in 1950. A writer on countless shows, Reiner has written (at least) half-a-dozen books since he turned 90. He is big on Twitter at the age of 96. He writes ... that's what he does, and that's what he still does. Tony Bennett has won two Grammys in his 90s. He sings because that's what he does (in his case, he also paints). There's Iris Apfel, who I admit I had never heard of. Wikipedia calls her "an American businesswoman, interior designer, and fashion icon." The film makes clear that she is still those things ... that's what she still does.

Most of these people have their health (and it is pointed out more than once that genes matters in these affairs), and most of them don't need to wonder where their next meal is coming from. At one point, Reiner goes to visit Kirk Douglas precisely because he has had health problems, most notably a stroke when he was 80. He fought to regain the ability to speak, and as we see in the film, he's still talking 20 years later. Yes, his speech is limited, but the brain is still clicking. He is still quite evidently Kirk Douglas. You could say that's what he does, what he has always done: be Kirk Douglas.

If You're Not in the Obit is invigorating, not because it offers platitudes about how to remain vital in your 90s (eat your vegetables, exercise, etc.), but because it shows us why these people want to take on life at an advanced age. They aren't 90 because they ate vegetables, although I'm sure they all have good diets. They are 90 and beyond because they are doing what they love doing. You don't need platitudes when you can just show these people doing what they do.

film fatales #47: the dressmaker (jocelyn moorhouse, 2015)

Not much to say about this movie. The best thing is that it was easy for my wife and I to agree on when choosing something to watch. My wife has made a dress or two, of course. Kate Winslet and Judy Davis star, with Liam Hemsworth and Hugo Weaving in support. Winner of many awards in Australia, where it was filmed. Jocelyn Moorhouse had produced films like Muriel's Wedding and directed movies like How to Make an American Quilt.

Yet there isn't a whole lot to The Dressmaker. The most positive review on Metafilter (Kimberly Jones in the Austin Chronicle) gives it 3 1/2 stars out of 5, and concludes "its treats are modest but genuine." Winslet is solid, Weaving is fun, and Judy Davis steals every scene she is in. Some of the tidbits in the IMDB trivia section are fun ... Moorhouse described it as "Unforgiven with a sewing machine", and who wouldn't want to watch that? (We also learn that "Shooting of the film was interrupted several times as wild emus interrupted the scenes.") After seeing The Dressmaker, I'm left with the feeling that it is a good movie to watch with a group where no one will hate it. And given the number of bad movies that my wife and I could have chosen, I suppose I'm thankful we ended up with The Dressmaker.

For a better Kate Winslet movie, try Heavenly Creatures.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

first reformed (paul schrader, 2017)

There is an obvious way to describe First Reformed, obvious enough that I suspect it's already been used many times. I think I saw it first from Mick LaSalle ... heck, I'll just quote him: "If you know Ingmar Bergman, it has a story something like 'Winter Light,' at least in the beginning, and then some things happen, and the film becomes like Bergman as imagined by the guy who wrote 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging Bull' and who wrote and directed 'Hard Core.'" It's the Taxi Driver idea I'm talking about ... imagine Travis Bickle as a Protestant minister.

Winter Light is a movie about a pastor having an existential crisis. First Reformed is a movie about a minister having an existential crisis. Writer-director Paul Schrader was raised in a strict religious household ... it is said he never saw a movie until he was 17. He began working as a film critic in the early-70s, then moved to writing for the screen, eventually adding director to his resume. Given his background and his subsequent filmography, it is no surprise that First Reformed addresses a man questioning his faith. What is canny is the way the film sneaks into another mode, so gradually that you don't realize it right away.

Ethan Hawke is the minister, Reverend Toller. Hawke was active in his church as a teen, but I'm not sure I'd project that into his character here. He is effective as an actor, although his character is something less than effective. Even as he is asked for help, we know via voice overs that he doesn't think he is doing any good, nor does he think he's being honest. When he is confronted with the crises in his own small parish, he is just as likely to identify with the person's suffering as to provide any useful help. Hawke plays this quietly, which allows the despair to show through his face.

At one point in Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle says, "I'm God's lonely man." Reverend Toller feels the same, but his relationship to God is different than is Travis'. You might say God is the Reverend's employer, and Toller isn't sure any longer what he is supposed to do in his job. He is fighting the black pit that surrounds the death of his son in Afghanistan, and is ready for one more push to send him into Travis Land. But again, you aren't really aware of this at first. I'm reminded of the first time I saw Taxi Driver. I was in a bad place personally, and I identified with Travis so much that I didn't realize how disturbed he was until late in the film, when he shaves his hair into a mohawk. I saw it a few days later, and it was clear to me from the start that this man had serious problems, much more serious than my own. But that first time, the reality of his life wasn't immediately apparent to me. The same thing happens in First Reformed. If I watched it again, I'd see the signs of Reverend Toller's dilemma, but the first time through, if anything I identified with him.

There is other fine acting in the film besides Hawke's, although his character dominates the movie. Cedric the Entertainer, going by his real name of Cedric Kyles, gives little hint of the humor in his standup work ... he makes a believable pastor. Michael Gaston is creepy, as he so often is. Amanda Seyfried didn't make much of an impression on me, which may have been the way the character was written. And Michael Ettinger, unknown to me, stands out in a small but significant role that features one long scene with Hawke that is the core of the movie.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention one "supernatural" scene that is believably beautiful. You'll know it when you see it.

This may be the best film Paul Schrader has ever directed, which isn't common for a director in his 70s. It stands on its own, but if you haven't seen it, you'll want to watch Taxi Driver as well. Even Winter Light.

God's lonely man. Like Travis, Reverend Toller keeps a diary. As did Arthur Bremer.

And Winter Light:


two more from nicolas roeg

Thinking about Nicolas Roeg, I decided to watch two more of his films, one an old favorite, the other a movie I admit I'd never heard of.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976). This was the fourth movie Roeg directed, and as such, it was a must-watch on its release, since the first three, Performance (co-directed with Donald Cammell), Walkabout, and Don't Look Now, were all big favorites of mine. I still love all of those movies, and when it came out, I loved The Man Who Fell to Earth as well. But over time I realized that I wanted to love it, but that it ultimately fell short. We went to see a re-release with a friend, and it felt very long. It was long compared to what I'd seen before, since the original U.S. release had been cut by 20 minutes. I can no longer imagine what that butchered version was like, and the one we have now is the real thing, all 139 minutes of it. It has a distinct style, which is no surprise; it looks gorgeous, which is no surprise. But the plot never excites. The setup is intriguing ... an alien from outer space comes to Earth looking for water for his dying planet. But the rest is fairly ludicrous, which reflects poorly on what seemed appealing at the beginning. There are some good performances ... Rip Torn, as always, Candy Clark doing what she can, David Bowie accepting that he was perfectly cast and going with it. And the critique of capitalism, which peeks out once in awhile, is welcome if by-the-numbers. I was quite taken with the literally alienated hero when I was 23, and I can still recall that feeling today. But the movie is too long, with plenty of memorable moments but not enough to make the film as successful as the Roeg films that preceded it.

Glastonbury Fayre (Peter Neal and Nicolas Roeg, 1972). This was new to me. It's a documentary of the second Glastonbury event from 1971 that eventually became the Glastonbury Festival we all know and love. It's haphazard in a rather charming way ... it's no Woodstock, as a festival or as a movie. It wouldn't be a Roeg move without full nudity, although in this case it isn't famous actors doffing their duds but rather numerous fair-goers. 1971 seems like a long time after the Summer of Love, but in the movie, it's as if the hippie dream never died. Roeg made this between Walkabout and Don't Look Now, or somewhat simultaneously ... it's hard to be sure. Traffic and Melanie are probably the best-known performers for American audiences, although there are also performances by acts more popular in the U.K. ... Arthur Brown, Family, Fairport Convention, Terry Reid, and others. No one turns in a great performance ... there are no revelations here. But it works as a time capsule. One last note: this may be the last movie I watch on FilmStruck, which is shutting down tomorrow. They had a Nicolas Roeg festival at the end, which is where I found this movie.

And here is what Glastonbury music videos look like today:


nicolas roeg

Nicolas Roeg died yesterday at the age of 9o. There was a time when he was my favorite director. His first three films as a director (Performance, co-directed with Donald Cammell, Walkabout, and Don't Look Now) remain tremendous. I didn't like his next two, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Bad Timing, as much, and then I mostly lost track of him, although he directed for another 27 years

I wrote about Performance a couple of months ago: "Revisiting Performance". I ranked it #10 on my 50 Favorite Films list back in 2012. In an earlier post:

Performance no longer seems like a very complicated movie. I showed it to a friend a few years ago who had never seen it, and he thought it was fairly straightforward. This is because the techniques of Performance, the things that made it seem so remarkable in 1970, are commonplace now. Fractured editing, uncertain chronologies, plots full of puzzles, these are all part of the standard bag of contemporary directors’ tricks.

Walkabout in 2011: "Walkabout is one of my very favorite movies, and is one of the reasons why, as a film major in the early-70s, I thought Nicolas Roeg was the best director. I recommend it highly to pretty much everyone reading this."

I discussed Don't Look Now in 2013:

In Don’t Look Now, there is a sense that nothing is as it seems, alongside a feeling that one could figure out the puzzle if you just gave yourself over to your gifts of second sight. Roeg plays with time … what the film calls “second sight” allows for flash-forwards as premonition, and the past never leaves us, either. John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) sees past events just as often as he sees the future, although he doesn’t believe in those premonitions, only in what happened in the past. The film is full of visual allusions, shapes that occur in multiple settings, motifs of water and broken glass, and the color red, always red. Venice is a character in the film, as well, but it is far from what you might see in a tourist brochure.

set it off (f. gary gray, 1996)

Had to watch this again after seeing Widows. There are obvious similarities between the two movies ... both involve four women turning into robbers. But it doesn't go a lot further than that. Returning to my comments on Widows...

I said Widows was a heist movie with a high-class sheen. Set It Off is most definitely not about the upper classes. In Widows, four fairly well-off women whose partners die in a robbery band together to pull off a heist of their own, because their men hadn't left them anything to live on. In Set It Off, four working-class and lower women who always need money realize they could make a score by robbing a bank. Only one of the four had a white-collar job, working in a bank, and she was fired, resulting in her joining her friends who work for a cleaning service. The women of Widows want to resume their good life ... the women of Set It Off want to escape from the low-rent drudgery of their lives.

Perhaps the biggest difference, though, lies in the four characters in each movie. In Widows, the four have never met before their husbands died. In Set It Off, the four are friends from way back. Widows shows women of disparate backgrounds coming together for one heist. Set It Off shows four women, distinct characters to be sure, who all come from the same background.

One noteworthy aspect of Widows is the cast and crew, filled with Oscar winners and a ton of "That Guys". It's a prestige picture, even though it's a heist film, because it has Steve McQueen directing and Viola Davis and Liam Neeson and more. Set It Off gets superb performances from the four leads, but they don't come pre-packaged as a prestige outfit. Queen Latifah was nominated for an Oscar, but that came seven years later. Director F. Gary Gray, who came out of music videos, had only directed one feature, Friday. Kimberly Elise, who plays one of the four, was making her first movie. Jada Pinkett was still mainly known for A Different World. And while Vivica A. Fox had a breakout year in 1996, that's because she was in Independence Day. Finally, while Widows had an abundance of riches in its supporting cast, Set It Off had Blair Underwood, John C. McGinley, and Ella Joyce (all of whom were fine). Oh, and Dr. Dre made his movie debut as a gun dealer named Black Sam.

The point being that expectations were different for Set It Off, which was happy to be a genre movie, than for Widows, which was after other things (like an Oscar for Viola Davis). I'm willing to say that Widows is the better movie. But Set It Off is more enjoyable, and there is nothing in Widows to match the camaraderie of the four bank robbers in Set It Off. Roger Ebert said it well. "The movie surprised and moved me: I expected a routine action picture and was amazed how much I started to care about the characters."

And, as I said to my wife when the song turned up, "Now you know where this song came from".

Finally, here's a making-of short that is actually interesting:

widows (steve mcqueen, 2018)

Widows is a heist movie with a high-class sheen. It's director Steve McQueen's first film since he won an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave. He wrote the script with Gillian Flynn, from a TV series by Lynda La Plante. The cast includes A-Level stars like Viola Davis (one Oscar), Liam Neeson (one Oscar nomination), Robert Duvall (one Oscar), and Colin Farrell (hey, he has a Golden Globe). It has a bunch of "hey, it's that guy" players, all of them actors we like to see: Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Carrie Coon, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Garret Dillahunt, Cynthia Erivo, Jon Bernthal. It's genre fare, but with pretensions towards more. And it's worth noting that McQueen doesn't beat those pretensions over our heads. But I can't help thinking that those pretensions get in the way of Widows at times. It wants to be a great heist movie, but also more than a heist movie. But because McQueen is relatively subtle in working social context into the story, I got a bit antsy at times, wishing we could get back to the heist.

The problem is that there is too much extraneous material in the film. I haven't seen the TV mini-series, but I imagine there was plenty of room for expansive examinations of character and place. But Widows tells its story in just over two hours, which isn't enough time to fit everything in. There's a political subplot involving Farrell, Duvall, Henry, and others that isn't clearly necessary, beyond showing that corruption runs deep in Chicago. Davis plays a mother whose son died in the kind of way that screams relevance, and in real life, such events are terribly relevant, but here it just gets in the way, which is unfair to the subject and to Davis, who as usual acts up a quiet storm. I'd say there's a good 100-minute movie hiding in Widows, except I don't really object to what I've called extraneous, and I imagine for many people, the social context is what they'll like best.

There is plenty to like in Widows ... my complaining gives the wrong impression, this is a fine movie. The actors are uniformly great, although the script doesn't always serve them well ... Carrie Coon and Jacki Weaver in particular aren't given enough to do, so their characters lack depth. The plot involves four thieves whose caper goes bad, leaving their four wives up a creek. Those wives, led by Davis as Veronica, decide to pull off a heist of their own, based on information left to Veronica by her partner (Liam Neeson), who was involved in the caper-gone-bad. As is usual in such movies, each of the four has a unique personality, and to the extent those characters move beyond the stereotype, they make the movie. Davis is probably incapable of playing a shallow character ... Cynthia Erivo is very charismatic ... Elizabeth Debicki, all 6'3" of her, has the best arc, going from insecure victim to powerful badass (it's fun to see her in victim mode early on ... she seems to shrink before our eyes ... then, as she blossoms, that 6'3" towers over everyone, although she doesn't have a scene with Neeson). Michelle Rodriguez isn't asked to do much more than be Michelle Rodriguez, which is fine but she doesn't stand out amongst the foursome because there isn't a lot to her character. Finally, Daniel Kaluuya devours the screen as a bad guy who is a real bad guy.

Widows is entertaining, and even if I've moaned about the bloat, the social context ultimately adds to the film. There are some Oscar nominations to be found here, Davis for sure, but I'd like Debicki to get some love as well.

If you want a double-bill, try this one:

syndromes and a century (apichatpong weerasethakul, 2006)

 For the third time, I'm going to take advantage of the fact that that Weerasethakul asks English speakers to call him "Joe". Now, if you had told me at some point I would have seen three of Joe's movies, I'd have thought you were a little nuts. They aren't "my kind of movies". Think Terrence Malick, only Thai. Joe's films move at their own speed, inviting you to meet them on their own terms. He doesn't insist on this process ... he has said more than once that he doesn't mind if people fall asleep during his movies. Oddly, I never feel like dozing off when watching one of his films. It helps that they aren't endless ... the ones I've seen all get in under two hours. Joe doesn't piss me off with his obscurities, the way other filmmakers do. I don't know why.

Syndromes and a Century is split in half, a fact I'm glad I knew in advance (I always try to remain clueless about a movie before I've seen it, and don't how this information snuck in, but it helped). Both halves tell similar stories about similar people. The second half uses some of the same dialogue as the first. And "nothing happens" in either half. (It should be noted that there is no moment marking the switch into the second part.) The movie, like all of his I have seen, is beautiful looking and eccentric. And besides the feeling of giving myself over to Joe's rhythms, I could see that he was playing with the ways memories work (and don't work). If he had told the story a third time, it would be similar yet different once again, the ways memories are.

I'll add that there are some funny things in Syndromes and a Century. A monk who once dreamed of being a DJ. A doctor who keeps liquor in a prosthetic leg. Even the way, during what seems to be a job interview to work as a doctor in a hospital, the prospective employee is asked what "DDT" stands for. ("Destroy Dirty Things?") In one scene, a sick monk tries to con a doctor out of prescriptions for drugs for other family members, making us question not only if these family members exist, or even if the monk himself is actually sick. If you can stick with this movie, you will find rewards. Just don't look for them in the narrative (or lack thereof).

Thai censors demanded that Joe cut several scenes. These included a monk playing guitar, doctors kissing, and monks playing with a toy UFO.

The other Joe movies I have seen are Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Tropical Malady. #55 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 film of the 21st century, #728 on the All-Time list.

Here is a scene (for lack of a better word) that culminates in a remarkable shot of a vent sucking up smoke:

the magnificent seven (john sturges, 1960)

A manly piece of entertainment based on Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. A lot of the men at the factory where I worked in the 70s and early 80s could name all of the Seven, just as they could name all of the dirty Dozen. (For the record, the Dozen were played by John Cassavetes, Tom Busby, Jim Brown, Donald Sutherland, Ben Carruthers, Clint Walker, Charles Bronson, Colin Maitland, Stuart Cooper, Al Mancini, Trini Lopez, Telly Savalas.) The Dirty Dozen was much more of a guy movie than was The Magnificent Seven ... the female characters in The Magnificent Seven were just as insubstantial as those in The Dirty Dozen, but the men in the Western were more than just the embodiment of masculinity, which you can't really say for the Dozen. I know my wife was happy to watch The Magnificent Seven with me, and I doubt she's ever seen The Dirty Dozen, or even wanted to.

The Magnificent Seven is expansive. The cinematography is often pretty, the Seven are distinguished from each other in fairly interesting ways, the other characters are stereotypical but mostly fun to watch, and, of course, there's the music. If you're old enough to remember cigarette commercials on television, then you'll recognize the theme from The Magnificent Seven in an instant:

Elmer Bernstein's score earned the picture it's only Oscar nomination ... it lost to Exodus.

The casting was also interesting. I was going to say it comes from a less-enlightened time when ethnicity was cast in unusual ways, but then I remembered we still suffer from this problem in 2018. Yul Brynner, a Russian, played the leader of the Seven, a Cajun (I think this was supposed to explain his accent). Charles Bronson, of Lithuanian descent, played "Bernardo O'Reilly". ("Irish on one side, Mexican on the other... and me in the middle.") Bronson was the only actor to play both as one of the Dozen and one of the Seven. The German actor Horst Buchholz played "Chico". The Russian Vladimir Sokoloff played a wise old Mexican. And Eli Wallach was the head bandido.

The story, of a village needing the help of gunslingers to fight off bandits, is hard to screw up, and if The Magnificent Seven isn't as good as The Seven Samurai, at least it doesn't embarrass itself. And it has the immortal Whit Bissell!