geezer cinema/film fatales #185: anatomy of a fall (justine triet, 2023)

It's not really accurate to call Anatomy of a Fall a procedural. A good portion of the film takes place in a courtroom, and over the course of the film, we learn more and more about what might have happened. The gradual unveiling is something like an episode of the old Perry Mason show, except the courtroom and the rules of the courtroom are French, and we aren't sure of the defendant's innocence, because while writer/director Justine Triet and co-writer Arthur Harari have made a film reminiscent of past courtroom dramas, the innocence of the nominal heroine isn't guaranteed. Apparently Triet didn't tell Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann), who played the defendant Sandra, if the character was innocent or guilty, only telling her to act innocent.

While there is a mystery to be solved, at its core, Anatomy of a Fall is a family drama. It's not what you'd call a good date movie ... the couple at the center of the story have their problems, and the emotions get quite raw at times. The acting is stellar throughout ... Hüller will get most of the attention, deservedly so, but young Milo Machado-Graner as her son is realistically secretive, and Swann Arlaud is very appealing as her lawyer friend. The intricacies of French courtrooms were puzzling to me, but there is no reason to doubt the veracity of the representation.

There is a fascinating subtext involving language. While almost all of the characters are French (and, obviously, the courtroom proceedings are in French), Sandra is German. She speaks French, but there is a hesitancy when she does. With her husband, and with her attorney, she speaks English ... it seems that when one speaks German and the other speaks French, they meet in the middle and talk English. Giving testimony during the trial, she is required to speak French, but eventually she doesn't feel she can get the meaning of her words across, and she receives permission to speak English. (When she talks to her son, she speaks English to him and he replies in French.)

Anatomy of a Fall is engrossing despite its long length (152 minutes), getting its intensity not from wild action scenes but from interpersonal relationships.

film fatales #184: the innocents (anne fontaine, 2016)

This is the tenth 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 10 is called "Nun for You Week":

Nuns have enjoyed a rich history in film, from being featured in classics like Black Narcissus and The Sound of Music, through the Nunsploitation era in the 70s, to today as filmmakers are still fascinated by nuns as characters. Nuns are so compelling and can be featured in a wide-range of genres because they represent a fascinating dichotomy between female-empowerment and male authority. Entering a convent could signify a woman wielding her own power over herself and choosing her own path for a life absent of and free from men with other women, but a convent is still run by a man and the Catholic Church is still a deeply patriarchal system. The suppression of sexual desires is also ripe for the power of romance to overcome, for both dramatic and comedic effect, with or without men. Nunsploitation films offer taboo thrills, but also often critique and question the authority of the Catholic Church. However nuns are depicted in cinema they almost always come from the imagination of someone who is not a nun and could never know what it is really like to be one, which has allowed them to take on a mysterious and almost fantastical role that is also a part of the allure.

This week’s challenge is to watch a movie featuring a nun as a main character. Here’s a list from NunMovieFreak to help you out.

I came to The Innocents spoiler-free. I knew there would be nuns, and that's about it. I'm happy to report that it's a very good film, emotionally wrenching, based on fact, perhaps loosely. It takes place in Poland at the end of 1945. A Red Cross doctor is asked to come to a local convent, where she discovers a very pregnant nun during delivery. To say more is to spoil, but the movie is extremely intense at times, and it doesn't paint a pretty picture. I knew none of the participants ... I'm new to director Anne Fontaine, and to the cast, with Lou de Laâge as the doctor and an excellent cast as the nuns (unfair to single anyone out, but Agata Buzek is a standout). The look of the film is expansive at times, claustrophobic at others (the cinematographer is Caroline Champetier).

Fontaine places women at the center of the story, which is obvious but you never know. Most of the men, with one exception, are brutes ... you're glad there aren't more of them. Fontaine is fair to the faith of the nuns ... the doctor is a non-believer, but everyone gets their perspective presented honestly. The Innocents is a film about faith, but it's also about the importance of sisterhood (no pun intended) and community. It's not an easy film to watch, but it's worth the effort.

cold water (olivier assayas, 1994)

Cold Water is my fifth Olivier Assayas film, and I still haven't seen a bad one. Set in 1972, the movie offers what feels like an accurate portrayal of teenagers at a certain point in time and place, and in fact Assayas was the same age in 1972 as the characters in this film. Assayas gets honest work from the largely non-professional cast ... they never seem like amateurs. He also seamlessly integrates Virginie Ledoyen as Christine into the film, Ledoyen being a pro who had been a child performer. She's very natural in Cold Water, and you don't get the feeling she's a cut above her castmates in skill.

Assayas also makes masterful use of music in Cold Water. There is barely any music in the first half of the film, which focuses on a couple of teenagers and their perilous relationships with parents. This, too, is honest ... the parents aren't just authoritarian morons, the kids are far from perfect. Then, at about the halfway point, a party ensues, created seemingly out of nowhere by a community of teens who meet at an abandoned ruin. They listen to music (this is crucial), they smoke weed, they start a bonfire, they talk and talk and talk to each other, and throughout, Assayas and cinematographer Denis Lenoir snake the handheld camera through the party. We only catch fragments of the conversation, except for key scenes with Christine and her nominal boyfriend Gilles, played by Cyprien Fouquet, who as far as I can tell has never acted since. Christine and Gilles are the teens we get closest to, and the acting styles of Ledoyen and Fouquet blend beautifully. The music is appropriately of its time, and it's all in English, which is likely what French teenagers listened to in 1972. Assayas says he's drawing on his own memories. He also says he essentially used the music in the long party scene to drive the narrative.

The music had another, unforeseen, impact on Cold Water. It features Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Nico, Roxy Music, Bob Dylan, Alice Cooper, Uriah Heep, and Donovan, and it's a bit murky how the rights to all that music were obtained. But once the film was ready to be released in the US, whatever rights they might have had no longer held. Which is why this 1994 film didn't get a real release in the States until Criterion put out their edition in 2018.

It takes its time getting to that party scene, but it's worth it.

infinity pool (brandon cronenberg, 2023)

This is the eighth 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 8 is called "Body Horror Week":

Prepare to be disgusted. Continuing this month of horror, let’s explore one of the subgenres that can really disturb and elicit a visceral reaction. Body horror features thrills based on the distortion, violation, and/or mutilation of the human body and has the power to make your skin crawl. From the godfather of Body Horror, David Cronenberg, to recent visionaries like his son, Brandon Cronenberg, and Julia Ducournau, there’s no shortage of filmmakers who use this subgenre to explore what it means to be human, to have corporal forms we can’t always control, and to have an identity that is based, at least partially, on how we and others perceive our physical selves.

This week buckle up for a wild ride and maybe don’t plan on eating dinner with your movie as you watch a body horror. Here’s a list from Maxvayne to help you out. The provocative imagery of Body Horror can help us think deeper about ourselves, but since this subgenre can also involve very real physiological reactions we respect anyone who cannot stomach these kinds of movies and offer up Body Swap movies as a lighter alternative with this list.

The list we picked from included lots of movies I really don't care for: Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tusk come to mind. I do like some of the films, with the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers at the top, but I realize I don't actually think of that movie as "body horror". The closest blend of "I liked it a lot" and "I'd call it body horror" is Ginger Snaps. My favorite movie by "the godfather of Body Horror, David Cronenberg", was A History of Violence, which wasn't body horror and didn't make the list. It's rare that I enjoy body horror movies, which is a good reason to take part in challenges like this, which expand your horizons.

So I feel like a good boy because I made it through Infinity Pool. But I didn't like it much. I'm not sure I was supposed to "like" it, anyway. Admire it, think about it, sure, but like? There's some intriguing acting, especially from Mia Goth, and the gradual revelation of the plot is well-handled. But the movie never grabbed me, and with an over-the-top film like this, being grabbed seems like the point. So chalk this up to my dislike of the genre.

revisiting the 9s: good night, and good luck (george clooney, 2005)

[This is the eighteenth 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.]

In 2006, I wrote about Good Night, and Good Luck:

George Clooney has crafted a concise account of a specific moment in time, kept the attention of the audience while dealing with material that could easily have been drab, made several important decisions as a director that greatly enhance the movie (the black and white look, the apparent accuracy of the depiction of newsrooms in the 50s, getting David Strathairn to play Ed Murrow), and brought it all home in less than 100 minutes. The focus of the film is remarkable, in subject matter (it's not about the entire career of Murrow, or of McCarthy for that matter, but only about the period when they crossed swords) and in settings (most of the film takes place in cramped quarters inside a news studio).

And Clooney's underlying argument, that today's press doesn't do its job, that today's Joe McCarthys are not called on their lunacy, that in fact today's Joe McCarthys are as often as not members of the media themselves, is a good one.

And yet (and how many films are there where I don't ever say "and yet"?) ... the precision, the conciseness, the focus, means that the film's vision of Edward R. Murrow is too narrow. There's too much hero worshiping, and Murrow's career was more complicated than what we see in this film. This makes the movie, in retrospect, seem a bit untrustworthy.

And while Clooney mostly makes smart moves as a director, his decision to include musical interludes is a bad one. The interludes are fine in and of themselves, and they might even work in a more surreal film. But here, with Clooney striving for the maximum in authenticity, it's just odd and confusing to see Dianne Reeves singing sultry tunes somewhere in the CBS studios.

The movie is nominated for six Oscars, and they are a mixed bunch. Best Picture? Possibly. Best Director? Also possible. Best Actor? Why not? Best Cinematography and Art Direction? It really shines in these areas, even if I'm not quite sure what "art direction" means. Best Screenplay? Here, I'd have to disagree ... much of the best dialogue in the film is taken directly from transcripts from Murrow's television shows, and I can't see honoring such a process with a Best Screenplay award (maybe if it was in the "previously published" section instead of the "written directly for the screen" section).

I don't have a lot to add, except that I think I was a bit hard on the film, meaning if it had come out in the 1950s, I would have already given it a 10. I complained about the music interludes, but this time, they seemed right. I still think Best Screenplay is a bit of a stretch, except everything in the film, real footage and speeches and "acted" material, is blended perfectly. Good Night, and Good Luck is an exceptional film.

secrets & lies (mike leigh, 1996)

This is the fourth 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 4 is called "Palme d'Or Week":

One of the three major film festival top prizes (the other two being the Golden Lion at Venice and the Golden Bear at Berlin, both covered in previous LSCs), the Palme d'Or has been awarded at the Cannes Film Festival since 1946. Originally called the Grand Prize of the International Film Festival, it was changed to a palm in 1955 to represent the city's coat of arms. It's one of the most prestigious awards in cinema, with past winners including Martin Scorsese, Federico Fellini, and Akira Kurosawa.

This week's challenge is to watch a Palme d'Or winner.

Secrets & Lies was nominated for 5 Oscars, major ones (Picture, Actress, Supporting Actress, Director, Screenplay), but 1996 was the year of The English Patient, a mediocre, overrated film that somehow won 9 Oscars. At least Cannes got it right. Secrets & Lies is a masterful picture about people, warts and all, stepping gingerly through family life. No one is perfect, but we feel close to all of them, and we want everything to somehow come out all right.

Oddly, the acting is both showy and realistic. Brenda Blethyn is all over the place in a sloppy sort of way ... of course she won awards for her work here. But the acting matches the character, a middle-aged woman with an "illegitimate" daughter who worries that life has passed her by while she keeps secrets (and lies about them). Blethyn also turns inward on a couple of occasions, which contrast with her general blowsiness in powerful ways. It's an actorly performance, but enormously moving.

It's probably a good thing the acting is so good, because the basic story is just that, basic. And there is nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with a story about families, secrets, and lies. But while the narrative seems a bit formulaic in retrospect, that doesn't matter as you watch the actors at work. Marianne Jean-Baptiste's character is the most internal ... she isn't given as many explosive scenes. But neither is the character entirely reactive to others, and as could be said for so many of the film's characters, the acting elevates the character as "written" (Mike Leigh famously doesn't exactly write his films).

Secrets & Lies is my fifth Mike Leigh movie, and while I've liked them all, I'd put Secrets & Lies at the top. #494 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

promise at dawn (eric barbier, 2017)

Whenever anyone recommends a movie to me, I put it on a list and tell the person that it might take a while, but I will get to it. I knew I was going to see an old friend today, and according to my list, she had recommended Promise at Dawn a few years ago. I finally watched it, and when I brought this up to her, not only could she not remember making the recommendation, she didn't think she knew the movie at all.

I didn't know the director, nor did I know most of the cast, although Catherine McCormack turns up, and Charlotte Gainsbourg is the female lead. The film is based on an autobiographical novel by Romain Gary, and it follows the "true" story for all I know (I kept waiting for Jean Seberg to show up, but no luck on that front). It's a decent look at the early years of a man who went on to some success, and it's worth a watch for most people. Sadly, I am not most people when it comes to portrayals of over-the-top moms, and Gainsbourg as Romain's mother was unbearable for me. This isn't on Gainsbourg, who is fine ... it's all on me, because I can't stand these kinds of mom (hits too close to home, I'm sure), and every time Gainsbourg turned up on the screen, I wanted to walk away from the film. I didn't care if her ministrations helped make Romain into the man he became ... I just wanted to strangle her. So don't trust me on this one. I didn't like it, but YMMV.

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).

you will die at twenty (amjad abu alala, 2019)

You Will Die at Twenty is a rare feature from Sudan, made under tense conditions. The first feature for director Amjad Abu Alala, based on a short story, the film was made in Sudan during the Sudanese Revolution. Since there was no real film industry in Sudan, Abu Alala had to rely on outside resources (it's hard to pin down, but at least five production companies  and eight producers were involved).

Which would be interesting trivia but nothing more, if the film wasn't good. And it's much more than good, the story of a mother who is told by an elder that her newborn baby, Muzamil, will die at 20. Whether we in the audience believe this premonition is irrelevant ... most of the village thinks it's true, and as we watch Muzamil grow, we see the burden this brings upon him and his mother. Those burdens are real, even if we find them misguided. Abu Alala doesn't choose a side. He respects the religious beliefs of the villagers but also shows us the impossible restraints those beliefs impose on Muzamil. The end of the movie is gently ambiguous.

Islam Mubarak is quietly powerful as the mother, while Moatasem Rashed and Mustafa Shehata shine as the young Muzamil and the teenager he becomes. The film is gorgeous to look at (Sébastien Goepfert is the cinematographer). Nothing we see on the screen reflects the difficult conditions under which is was made, and it most definitely does not look like a debut feature.

black orpheus (marcel camus, 1959)

Black Orpheus won an Oscar as the Best Foreign Language Film, beating among others the excellent German film, The Bridge. It had a big impact internationally, offering the first glimpse for many of the colorful brilliance of Carnaval and the enticing sound of bossa nova.

But since its release there have been criticisms, particular within Brazil, of the stereotypical presentation of Brazilian life. In Black Orpheus, people are dedicated to singing, dancing, and fucking. The favelas are romanticized ... life itself is romanticized. It's appealing, until you think about it too closely.

And the story, which transplants the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice onto Carnaval, is twisted too hard in order for it to make room for the legend. Things happen very quickly ... Orfeu is engaged to Mira, meets Eurydice, they fall in love almost instantly, spend the night together, and then Eurydice dies the next day.

The film might work better without the ties to Greek mythology, but it still remains a colorful but untrustworthy outsider's look at the culture of Brazil at the time.