charlotte and her boyfriend (jean-luc godard, 1958)

A 13-minute trifle from Godard, one of a handful of shorts he made before Breathless. There's not much to it ... Charlotte stops by the hotel room of her ex-boyfriend Jules, who proceeds to rant about her leaving him. We don't get a chance to know either character, so the whole thing is kinda pointless, and since almost all of the dialogue is from Jules, whose every other line insults Charlotte, there's a misogyny that isn't subtext but text. Anne Collette brings charm to Charlotte, while Jean-Paul Belmondo is uninteresting as Jules (perhaps because he was unavailable to dub his voice, so what we hear is actually Godard, and he isn't very compelling). Godard pays homage to Jean Cocteau in the opening credits, for what it's worth.


chambre 12, hôtel de suède (claude ventura and xavier villetard, 1993)

Quirky documentary made for French TV gives us Claude Ventura, returning to the sites where Godard's Breathless was filmed more than 30 years prior. Ventura wants to understand more about the film, so he rents a room, Chambre 12, at the Hôtel de Suède, where the famous long sequence with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg takes place. The hotel is about to be demolished.

Ventura works like a detective, trying to get at the truth of the making of Breathless (it was never clear to me exactly what co-director Xavier Villetard had to do with all of this). We aren't sure just why this matters to Ventura, but his obsession is clear. Those of us who love Breathless want to learn more about that classic film ... it's why we watch this documentary ... Ventura's personalizing of the process is part of what makes the film quirky. I don't know that it adds much depth for the viewer, and I don't imagine someone unfamiliar with Breathless will find anything of interest here.

Ventura works his way through the past. He interviews as many still-living participants as he can: Belmondo, Raoul Coutard, Claude Chabrol, and others. Twice he calls Godard himself on the phone and tries to get the director to talk about Breathless; twice Godard declines and hangs up the phone. Ventura searches out the film's locations, obviously including the hotel room where he stays. He even travels to Geneva, where Godard spent his formative years. He tracks down an old friend who now owns a bookstore. We learn a bit more about Godard, just as throughout this film, we learn a bit about Godard and a bit about the making of Breathless.

But Chambre 12 doesn't really serve as much of an introduction to Breathless. It's a film about our obsessions with the movies of our past, and I found it intriguing. And of course it's not a traditional documentary, for how could one make anything traditional in relation to Breathless?


film fatales #204: the blue caftan (maryam touzani, 2022)

Quietly smoldering triangle that takes some different approaches, although the end result isn't too far off from the norm. The main difference is that the triangle consists of a husband and wife and a young man who attracts the closeted husband. The catch is that the wife is dying of cancer. The wife is played by the wonderful Lubna Azabal, who starred in Denis Villeneuve's best film, Incendies.

Director/co-writer Maryam Touzani and cinematographer Virginie Surdej create an intimate environment that invites us into the budding threesome. There is the expected awkwardness ... the husband suppressing his feelings, the wife dying but wanting her husband to feel free when she is gone, the young man who gradually enters the lives of the others (he is an apprentice at the couple's caftan store). Nothing feels false, and we want the best possible outcome for all of the characters ... to the extent it is possible, Touzani rewards our desires.

The film feels long at 122 minutes. It's not that there is anything obvious that could be cut, but the low-key tension walks a fine line between intensity and torpor. But that's a minor complaint for a film that takes just enough liberties with romantic triangle tropes to make The Blue Caftan feel unique.


black girl (ousmane sembène, 1966)

This is the twenty-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 28 is called "World Cinema Project Week":

Martin Scorsese founded the World Cinema project in 2007 with the goal of preserving and restoring films from around the globe that otherwise would become neglected. They focus on films that do not get a lot of exposure in the West and that are at risk of becoming lost because of the lack of resources some countries have to preserve their own films. They continue to work on this endeavor to this day, so far ensuring that 54 films from 30 different countries have been preserved and accessible to a global audience through screenings, Criterion boxsets with 24 of the films on DVD and Blu-ray, and through streaming on the Criterion Channel.

Whether you’re Marching Around the World this month or not, let’s all enjoy one of the films preserved by the World Cinema Project and remember how inaccessible the voices and perspective of people around the world can be for even the most avid moviegoer. Michael Hutchins maintains an up-to-date list here.

Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project is one of the great gifts the celebrated director has given the film world. I've seen a handful of the films on the above list and most of them have been very good, with one classic-to-me, Buñuel's Los Olvidados. Black Girl is a perfect example of the treasures to be uncovered in the project. Ousmane Sembène was an esteemed writer from Senegal who wanted to expand his audience by making films. After two shorts, he wrote and directed Black Girl, which became known as the first Sub-Saharan African film to get attention worldwide. It tells the story of a Senegalese woman, Diouana, who gets a job with a white French couple, who later take her with them to France. Sembène uses a complex narrative structure that bounces between the present and Diouana's past life back in Senegal.

The essential examination in Black Girl is of colonialism and race, but Sembène draws a sensitive performance from first-time actor Mbissine Thérèse Diop as Diouana that personalizes the story even as it points to how colonialism affects its victims. The film is short, but the story of Diouana feels extensive, and ultimately heartbreaking. Sembène pulls no punches. #272 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


geezer cinema: the train (john frankenheimer, 1964)

John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, but also The Island of Dr. Moreau) had a long and varied career, with a few real highlights. The Train, like Seven Days in May, is very entertaining, with enough subtext to add depth without distracting too much from the basic intention to offer an intelligent action picture. I looked forward to seeing this movie, which seemed to have a decent reputation but which isn't talked about as much as Seven Days in May (much less Manchurian Candidate). And that reputation is deserved .... The Train isn't special, yet that gives it a retrograde enjoyment, as in the cliche of "they don't make them like that any more". Of course, they do still make big action movies, but in line with the retrograde feel, The Train is in black-and-white (reputedly the last big B&W movie), and Burt Lancaster is always good for the nostalgic angle.

Frankenheimer makes excellent use of Lancaster, who does all of his own stunts (on an off-day, Lancaster injured a leg playing golf, so Frankenheimer wrote a scene where Burt's character gets shot in the leg to explain his limp). They also used real trains throughout, no models ... when you see big trains crashing, often into each other, it's the real thing. It's perhaps especially impressive in the CGI era, when such extravagances are unnecessary.

The plot, based on a true story, is about French art treasures the Nazis have stolen. They are trying to get the masterpieces to Germany. Lancaster is a French railway inspector and Resistance fighter (as evidence of his star status, Lancaster does not use a French accent ... he's pretty much the only person in the movie who sounds like an American). The film is a combination of clever manipulations by the French to forestall the transfer of the art works and occasional action set pieces that usually involve one or more trains blowing up. The entire film is a bit long, but it holds its entertainment value throughout. The brutality of the Nazis is there but as a supplement, not the core of the film, and the general question of whether art matters more than the lives of humans is at least deep enough to make The Train a bit better than the standard war picture. Lancaster is at his action best, Paul Scofield as the main Nazi antagonist has a German accent, and Jeanne Moreau is wasted (her part is apparently Woman with a Few Scenes So We Can Say There's a Woman in the Film). #9 on my Letterboxd list of the best movies of 1964.


film fatales #202: trouble every day (claire denis, 2001)

Claire Denis (Beau Travail, 35 Shots of Rum) is a favorite director of mine, and I looked forward to Trouble Every Day, but I was aware that it is not as acclaimed as her other movies (it has the lowest Metascore, 40, of any film she has directed). I think that low Metascore is understandable, and Trouble Every Day isn't up to her best. But it's an interesting attempt to make an arty erotic horror movie ... I'm thinking of Park Chan-wook's Thirst, which is a better movie than Trouble Every Day but has a similar blend of sex and gore shown with arty excellence.

Trouble Every Day seems like it is going to be a vampire movie, but it turns into something different, which allows for subtexts that don't necessarily match those of vampire pictures. Denis shows a connection between erotic attraction and cannibalism that is unexpected. It's thought-provoking, but I'm not convinced it goes deeper than the basic connection. Once you get what Denis is doing, there's not much else to say about that connection, leaving an arty horror movie that isn't all that great.

The acting is variable. Béatrice Dalle (Betty Blue) brings her idiosyncratic presence to her scenes, but Vincent Gallo is too low-key ... he struggles with what he has become, but his struggle isn't moving because Gallo is inert. There is also a big plot hole at the beginning (not that horror doesn't often have plot holes): Gallo plays a recently-married man who, we assume, has become intimate with his new wife, but given what we learn of him in the movie, it's impossible for his wife not to have noticed long before. It's hard to suspend disbelief in this case.

Despite that Metascore, the film is #793 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, #103 on the 21st century list.


film fatales #198: coda (siân heder, 2021)

This is the twenty-fifth 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 25 is called "Good for Her Week":

Here at the Letterboxd Season Challenge, we support women's rights as well as women's wrongs. To quote Claira Curtis, "Is there really anything better than thinking “good for her” while a woman achieves her dreams or receives an end to her story that is actually satisfying? NO!!!"

This week's challenge is to watch a film from Claira Curtis' "Good for Her" Cinematic Universe.

Along with awards for Best Supporting Actor Troy Kotsur and Best Adapted Screenplay for director Siân Heder, CODA won the Oscar for Best Picture. By now, I've seen all the nominees, and while CODA was not the Best Picture of 2021 (that would be Summer of Soul, which wasn't nominated), there was only one nominated movie I'd place clearly above CODA (Drive My Car). (There weren't many nominees that were clearly worse than CODA, as well ... I'm a fan of Licorice Pizza, but it's not great, and I'd say the same about others, like The Power of the Dog, West Side Story, and Don't Look Up ... only King Richard of the nominees was an embarrassment in such lofty company.) Yes, as always there were films ignored for Best Picture (Petite Maman, Flee, Judas and the Black Messiah), but CODA earned its consideration ... it's a fine film.

So I have no intention of damning CODA with faint praise ... it's a successful, feel-good movie. It's easy to underestimate it, because in many ways it adheres to a formula (young girl blossoms, is held back by circumstances, but triumphs in the end). But it's really good in its formulaic efforts ... you root for the girl, you root for her family, you get choked up with emotion at the end. And none of the emotions are cheaply elicited ... CODA affects us without pounding us with obvious tear-jerking moments.

Of course, the main difference here is the representation of deaf characters (title is an acronym for Children of Deaf Adults). The deaf characters are played by deaf actors ... Marlee Matlin we know (she is herself an Oscar winner), and Troy Kotsur won an Oscar for this film. These characters are one of the reasons CODA isn't merely formulaic.

Not everyone in the deaf community was happy with CODA, but as someone outside that community, I'd say the overall response was more positive than negative. But I admit, even as I was watching it and liking it, I never thought I was watching a classic. OK, you're a fool if you think a Best Picture Oscar signifies a great movie, but I was surprised that CODA was good-not-great.

Young Emilia Jones was impressive as the girl ... she's new to me. CODA is worth seeing ... I don't want to suggest otherwise.

[Letterboxd list of my Top 15 Films of 2021]


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.


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.


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.