film fatales #195: saint omer (alice diop, 2022)

This is the twenty-third film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 23 is called "New Black Film Canon Week":

In 2006 Slate published a list of the 50 best movies by Black filmmakers, curated by Black critics, scholars, and filmmakers themselves. Since then, culturally significant and seminal films like Moonlight and Get Out have been released so this year they have updated and expanded the list to 75 movies. These movies span over a hundred years, several countries, a variety of genres and styles, and encompass different sizes of production budgets.

This week let’s celebrate Black filmmakers and watch one of these artistic treasures from Slate’s The New Black Canon.

Saint Omer has already been established as one of the best films in recent years (it is currently #291 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century). Alice Diop was a director of documentaries who attended the real-life trial of a woman who left her one-year-old child on the beach to die. Taken by the story, Diop decided to make her first fiction feature, basing it on the real trial. There is a character, Rama (Kayije Kagame), a writer attending the trial in order to write a book about it, who is a stand-in for Diop at the real trial. There's a certain meta quality to all of this, but Diop doesn't just rely on a documentary style to tell this story, and the acting, which is powerful throughout, is a constant reminder that we watching fiction. Rama identifies with the defendant (played by Guslagie Malanda) to some degree, which further complicates the meta aspect (since Rama is also a version of Diop).

Saint Omer is easy to follow, but the emotional and philosophical angles are complex. As the mother says, when asked why she abandoned her daughter, "I hope this trial can give me the answer". She tries to understand what she has done, the court and the spectators also look for understanding, and we in the audience look to Diop to explain everything. But she isn't trying to simply explain. It's a mystery without a solution, but it's not frustrating. Rather, Diop convinces us that we often can't understand what others do, or even what we ourselves have done.

creature features: dracula's daughter (lambert hillyer, 1936)

Although it came 5 years later, this was the actual sequel to Dracula, starting off with the deaths of Dracula and Renfield. It's slow moving, and not particularly interesting, but the subtext has fascinated analysts to this day. There were suggestions of lesbianism in the script, but by the time the film made the screen, the Code had taken care of that. So you have to look pretty hard to see it. But once you've seen it, you can't shake it. Dracula's daughter, Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), wants to be freed from the curse of being a vampire, but her impulses get the best of her time and time again. A couple of her victims are women, and the element of seduction which underlies so many vampire stories is here as well. It has also been argued that the isolation from society the Countess feels reflects the status of lesbians at the time.

All of this is enough to get us through the short running time, but don't exaggerate its greatness. Eventually, movies got more explicit, and subtext often moved to context. I saw 1970's The Vampire Lovers at a drive-in, and it was filled with nudity and horseplay among the women. But in fairness, it wasn't any better than Dracula's Daughter ... nudity didn't guarantee quality.

Here is a scene from Dracula's Daughter, where the Countess takes a woman off the street to pose for a painting:

And something from The Vampire Lovers:

high sierra (raoul walsh, 1941)

High Sierra was Humphrey Bogart's breakthrough role. He was considered a supporting player before this ... in fact, the credits have Ida Lupino's name atop Bogart's. His Roy Earle established what future generations think of as Bogie: hard-boiled with a soft center, caring about others while trying to hide it, commanding his scenes. It was also a breakthrough for John Huston, who parlayed his work as screenwriter here into his first directorial effort, The Maltese Falcon.

Bogart makes his gangster real ... we care about his fate. Lupino is perhaps best known today as one of the earliest female directors, but she's good here as Roy's moll. High Sierra is a solid gangster picture, with an unusual setting for the genre (much of it shot on location in the Sierras). It carries historical importance, and is well worth watching, although for some reason I never really felt I was watching a classic.

geezer cinema: the good, the bad and the ugly (sergio leone, 1966)

Watched this one for the billionth time. You run out of things to say. My opinion of this movie has risen over the years, and it might be favorite by Leone. But this viewing was remarkably like one I wrote about in 2009. Then, I talked about the new "Blu-ray" technology and high-definition TV. Substitute "4k Blu-ray" for "Blu-ray" and you'd have pretty much what I was thinking as I watched this new disc:

It’s a sign that a particular technology has become established when you notice its absence more than its presence. When Blu-ray first came along, I marveled at the look of every movie I watched … it was new and beautiful. The same was true for Hi-Def TV, which doesn’t quite match the exquisiteness of Blu-ray, but is enough of an improvement over standard definition that every show was a joy. As some point, though, that look became ordinary in a good way. Good, because I take it for granted. The only time I notice the picture now is when it’s not in HD. The Blu-ray of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly looks great. The movie itself is also quite something.

One other change from 2009: back then, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was #187 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. As I write this, it's up to #156.

My wife, who can at times be a bit of a spoilsport (a crime I am guilty of far more often than she is) said that the climactic shootout between the titular trio is lacking logic. Clint Eastwood is the one of the three who already knows where the money is, and he has already emptied Eli Wallach's gun without Tuco knowing about it. When the men finally shoot, Clint goes straight to Lee Van Cleef. My wife pointed out that Blondie could have shot Angel Eyes at any point. I said we were talking about one of the most iconic scenes in movie history, and when that's the topic, logic isn't the first thing that should come to mind.

One final thought. Clint Eastwood has developed a recognizable style as a director over the years, and when he makes westerns, someone will always say the Leone influence is clear. But you can't find two less similar directors. Eastwood is a minimalist, Leone is extravagant.

call me by your name (luca guadagnino, 2017)

This is the twenty-second film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 22 is called "Time Out for Romance Week":

It can be easy to balk at watching a romance movie since they all-too-often offer nothing beyond the trite paint-by-number genre trappings common to the Hallmark Channel. Sometimes they can also veer into sickeningly saccharine territory or can unrealistically portray love as a simple, lasting feeling between two impossibly witty and beautiful people that sets real-life people up for unrealistic expectations. However, since love is actually an enormously complex and powerful force that is different for every single person, it is a theme that drives many fantastic movies. The key is not to oversimplify it, but explore it for how much it can stir the soul in so many different directions.

This Valentine’s season watch one of these fantastic movies all about that complicated emotion from Time Out’s The 100 Most Romantic Films of All Time.

Call me a romantic: I've seen 79 of the 100 Most Romantic Films of All Time. It's clear why Call Me by Your Name is on the list. (It's 15th on the list, and the 4th-most recent.) It's subtle approach to love between two men may be a bit too safe, but the emotions displayed by actors Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer as the two are touching and real. Some have complained about the age difference between the two characters (one is 24, the other 17), but Chalamet is both believably 17 (he was 20 when the film was shot) and believably mature enough to make his own decisions. It's a coming-of-age story, but I didn't find it creepy.

But there's another reason that Call Me by Your Name feels differently now than it must have in 2017. In 2021, charges emerged accusing Hammer of cases of sexual abuse. Other accusations arose. Hammer was never charged, although the cases were opened for a fair amount of time. Hammer's acting career hit a wall ... he hasn't acted in a film since the accusations appeared. It's not my place here to figure out what did and didn't happen in those cases. But it definitely affects how I watched a movie about a 24-year-old man beginning an affair with a 17-year-old. That's not fair, but I can't just pretend it doesn't exist. So there's a creepiness to the film that I don't think I would have felt had I seen it in 2017.

Call Me by Your Name is #157 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

creature features: werewolf of london (stuart walker, 1935)

Universal's first stab at the werewolf genre, six years before Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolfman. While movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man were based on literary sources, Werewolf of London was basically invented out of thin air (it was the first feature-length werewolf movie). Much of the lore we think of when werewolves come to mind was invented here.

Werewolf of London is one of the few early Universal monster movies I had never seen. Like the others, it's quick, wasting little time getting to the good stuff. The makeup wherein the doctor turns into a wolf is similar to what Chaney Jr. underwent for The Wolfman. It's OK "for its time", even if it seems old-fashioned now. Overall, it's an OK film but no classic, eventually replaced in our minds with the version Chaney Jr. gave us. Henry Hull, who plays the lead, had a long career, with his last movie coming in 1966 (one of my favorites, The Chase). Valerie Hobson, who was Frankenstein's wife in The Bride of Frankenstein, once again plays the scientist's wife (she was 18 years old, working opposite much older men). Warner Oland, a Swede who played Charlie Chan in many movies, is also in The Werewolf of London ... he died a few years later. And Spring Byington turns up (in the 1950s, she starred in the radio/TV series December Bride).

african-american directors series: neptune frost (saul williams and anisia uzeyman, 2021)

This is the twenty-first film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 21 is called "Afrofuturism Week":

Afrofuturism is an exciting subgenre of science-fiction movies that has been gaining traction in the past few years with mainstream offerings such as the Black Panther and Spider-Verse films, as well as the TV show Lovecraft Country. Afrofuturism is all about centering and taking pride in the Black experience in alternate or imagined realities where Black people can define themselves, potentially without the influence of Western ideas or understandings. These stories can inspire people to build toward a better future and question the past and present social structures that create and maintain cultural and economic inequality between races. Common tropes include the use of African iconography, a rich color palette, and a focus on how technology and culture intersect.

This week, let’s escape the real world and venture forth into a world of new realities made possible by Afrofuturism with this list here.

From the examples I have seen, I think I had a mistaken sense of what made Afrofuturism. I'd seen the mainstream offerings, the Black Panther and Spider-Verse films and the TV show Lovecraft Country. If I'd looked at the suggested list more closely, I might have had a better feel for what Neptune Frost might be like. Touki Bouki ("unencumbered by the 'rules' of cinema"), Sankofa ("uses time travel to place a woman from modern times back into the horrors of the old South"), Fast Color ("a superhero movie, although a very low-key one that can be approached as just a mysterious fantasy"). The introduction above of Afrofuturism is a useful description of what happens in Neptune Frost: "centering and taking pride in the Black experience in alternate or imagined realities where Black people can define themselves, potentially without the influence of Western ideas or understandings" including "the use of African iconography, a rich color palette, and a focus on how technology and culture intersect."

That describes Neptune Frost, but in truth it's a film that defies ordinary description. Saul Williams and Anisia Useyman create a unique world, rooted in Burundi but taking place in a future connected intrinsically to technology. A community of young adults, dedicated to a different kind of world, use unexplained hacking skills to subvert the larger society while staying hidden (China and Russia are initially blamed for the hacks). The connection to "The Internet" eventually destroys them, or rather, the discovery of the community by the outside world allows the powers that be to destroy them. One person remains ... I don't know if this was meant as a positive ending, perhaps it's meant to be ambiguous.

Oh, and it's a musical.

Gender fluidity, colonialism, and yes, science-fiction ... it's a unique blend. Willliams and Useyman deserve praise for creating something new. Sometimes inscrutable, but always fascinating to look at ... I, at least, had never seen anything like it.

geezer cinema/african-american directors series: american fiction (cord jefferson, 2023)

American Fiction is based on Erasure, a novel by Percival Everett, and it's a model of how to adapt a novel to a film while retaining what makes the book interesting in the first place. It tells the story of Thelonious Ellison, nicknamed Monk (played by Jeffrey Wright), an African-American novelist and professor whose novels, which are heavily academic, don't get much of an audience from the readers who buy books. His agent says Monk needs to write books that are "more black", which Monk rejects out of hand. But when a new novel titled We's Lives in Da Ghetto, steeped in stereotypes (and thus "more black"), becomes an enormous best-seller, Monk decides to write a parody, which he calls My Pafology. A publisher gives him an enormous advance for the rights to the novel, after which a film producer offers even more money for the film rights before the book has even been published.

A crucial scene in the film occurs when Monk begins writing My Pafology (which becomes Fuck). Writer/director Cord Jefferson illuminates the scene from the book by having two of the characters (played brilliantly by Keith David and Okieriete Onaodowan) act out what Monk is writing, pausing occasionally to ask Monk just what he wants them to say. It's crucial, because it adds an honest, serious level to what is a mocking representation of stereotypes. One of the problems I had with the book is that Percival Everett includes the entirety of My Pafology, and he's far too good at it ... the book is as bad as it is supposed to be, and thus it's a burden to get through. Jefferson steps beyond the badness. (It helps that the book is only a few minutes in the movie, rather than ten chapters of a book.)

The characters, in general, are a bit nicer in the film. Issa Rae as the author of We's Lives in Da Ghetto gives the character substance ... she's not just a pulp writer out for a buck. And Myra Lucretia Taylor's family housekeeper Lorraine has a good relationship with Monk, whereas in the book, she doesn't much like him. Also, the relationship between Monk and his sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), which has a barbed feel in the novel, is more congenial as played by Wright and Ross, without losing an edge.

The film has received five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Supporting Actor, and Adapted Screenplay. I think it would be a worthy winner for Best Picture ... of the nominated films, I'd choose Anatomy of a Fall, and I'm on record as thinking the un-nominated Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is the best picture of the year, but American Fiction is very good. (Since I last listed my Top Ten of 2023, American Fiction has made the list, replacing Maestro, Barbie has moved up, and I changed the order of a few others.) Of the other categories, I've seen 4 of 5 Best Actors and think Jeffrey Wright is the best of those, I've seen all 5 Supporting Actors and would place Sterling K. Brown at or near the top, and I've seen all 5 Adapted Screenplays, and would vote for Barbie, although it's nonsense that it got placed in the "adapted" category.

It's worth noting that while fans of Erasure will want to see American Fiction, knowledge of the novel isn't necessary to appreciate the movie.

the tale of the princess kaguya (isao takahata, 2013)

It's true, when I read "Studio Ghibli", I tend to think "Hayao Miyazaki". But Studio Ghibli was founded by Miyazaki, producer Toshio Suzuki, and Isao Takahata. Over the years, Takahata was involved in some of the studio's greatest films: Grave of the Fireflies, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Kiki's Delivery Service, Only Yesterday, and others. One thing that separates Takahata from people like Miyazaki is that he performs many different roles in the movies ... he was even the musical director for Kiki. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was his final film before his death. The problem for me is that I don't know enough about the process of creating animated movies, so it's not clear to me what role Takahata plays in Kaguya. He is the director and co-writer, but to the best of my knowledge, he doesn't do the animation. I'd be happy to be better informed about this, but Takahata appears to be a titan of animated films without being himself an animator.

Which doesn't really matter ... The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a beautiful film, no matter who we credit. Takahata seems to be the guiding vision behind the film. It has the look of animated watercolors ... it doesn't really look like any other film that comes to mind. The story is based on an old Japanese story about a bamboo cutter. It is filled with fantastical elements, yet the story is straightforward. It is currently #350 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century (which had its most recent update on February 1). Nominated for an Oscar as Best Animated Feature (the winner was Big Hero 6).

I watched the English dub, with Chloë Grace Moretz as the Princess. She is fine. I don't want to be a broken record, but this movie really is beautiful, and wonderful to watch.

geezer cinema: the zone of interest (jonathan glazer, 2023)

A lot of people find The Zone of Interest to be a powerful, unsettling movie. Five Oscar nominations, including Picture, International Feature, Director, and Adapted Screenplay (as well as Sound, which I think is appropriate). Winner of four awards at Cannes, 43 wins and counting overall. A 91/100 Metascore at Metacritic.

I didn't care for it.

The subject matter is important (banality of evil in Nazi Germany). The approach is intriguing (the commandant at Auschwitz and his family live next door to the camp). The use of sound is brilliant (the family might ignore what's going on over the wall, but we can always hear noises). Clearly, much of the audience is getting something from the movie. But I found the insistence on banality to ultimately be so banal that it was boring. And that might be the point, but it's always hard to portray boring on screen without succumbing to being a boring movie. The Zone of Interest isn't boring, because it's about Auschwitz.

But some of Glazer's decisions are puzzling. On occasion, the picture turns into a kind of negative image ... it looks almost like rotoscoping ... and I guess I'm dense, but I never understood why Glazer did that. Maybe I'm just not on Glazer's wavelength ... I hated his Sexy Beast, and didn't care for Under the Skin. As I once wrote, "I found little to like as I watched Under the Skin, although afterwards, I felt more kindly, blaming myself for not liking it instead of blaming the movie for being bad." The Zone of Interest is not bad, but I'm less ready to blame myself, having now seen three of Glazer's movies and not liking any of them. I've now seen 9 of the 10 Best Picture Oscar nominations, and I liked the other 8 more than I liked The Zone of Interest (to say nothing of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, The Boy and the Heron, or Godzilla Minus One).