film fatales #62: a woman, a part (elisabeth subrin, 2016)

This is the sixth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "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 out of order ... I already watched the Week 5 movie, Craig's Wife. This is from Week 31, because it won't be available to stream after the 11th. Week 31 is called "Contemporary Women Directors Week":

Last Season Challenge, there was a weekly challenge that focused on women directors pre-1960's. But this year, I thought we should focus on the women creating films today. Its no real secret that the film industry has not offered a lot of opportunity to women, though that seems to be slowly changing. So, in order to support these women currently creating films, we're gonna spend this week watching films directed by them. And hopefully someday there won't be such a divide in the industry that we won't need to push for more women helmed films, it'll just be happening already.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by a woman released in 2010 or later.

This is writer/director Elisabeth Subrin's first feature, although she has been making independent shorts for more than 20 years. Her experience means A Woman, A Part is missing the "first time out" problems that sometimes plague first features. This is a confident movie ... you never get the feeling Subrin isn't sure of what she's up to. I haven't seen her shorts, so I don't know how A Woman, A Part fits into her past work, but she offers an easy coherence to her story of a successful television actor, Anna, suffering from burn-out, and her attempt to get back to her roots in theater. The cast features several actors I know best from television: Maggie Siff (Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men), Cara Seymour (The Knick), John Ortiz (Luck), Khandi Alexander (The Corner, Treme). They are all great, which comes as no surprise. It's nice to see Siff in a leading role ... she's in virtually every scene, and she plays her part with a complicated balance of the character's uncertain neurosis about her profession and Siff's certain ability to make the most of this meaty part.

Subrin keeps things moving, and I suspect editor Jennifer Ruff has something to do with that. The film suffers from the dreariness of its main character ... Anna is mopey at times, she's coming off an auto-immune disease, she's abusing drugs, and she's not sure what she wants for her future. It's hard to complain, though. To properly give us Anna, Subrin knows she has to avoid any flashiness we might associate with a TV star. And Siff is so good, she gets us through the slower segments.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


what i watched

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John S. Robertson, 1920). This is the fourth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 4 is called "Horrors Beyond Words Week":

With this week's challenge, we see how filmmakers were able to terrify audiences with nothing but imagery (and maybe a little score). Be on the lookout for some fascinating early film making techniques present within needed to make a successful horror flick without words.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen silent horror film. Paul D's list can help you get started.

Right from the start, there were problems. The print was crappy (I watched on Amazon), the score was crappy. (The movie is in the public domain.) The story still intrigues, but the film didn't linger enough ... you got Jekyll, you got Hyde, you got Jekyll, you got Hyde. The theme of good and bad sides of the same person was always there, but for me, it didn't seem all that powerful.

John Barrymore was excellent, although you have to accept that it requires skilled overacting to portray the transformation from Jekyll to Hyde without trickery. (There is trickery, but the initial scene shows what I mean.)

The cast included a couple of interesting actors. Louis Wolheim was famous for having his face smashed during a college football game, making him unmistakable in his later career as an actor. And Nita Naldi's brief career was kick-started with her role here as the "bad girl". She is very effective. Naldi famously posed nude for pin-up artist Alberto Vargas, and is reported to have introduced herself to her Blood and Sand co-star Rudolph Valentino with "Howdy, Rudy! Wanna feel my tits?"

Barrymore was known as "The Great Profile", and sure enough, we get plenty of profile shots of the master throughout Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This isn't where I'd start if I were introducing Barrymore to newcomers ... I might go with Dinner at Eight, although that is admittedly an ensemble piece.

Asylum of Darkness (Jay Woelfel, 2017). A few weeks ago, I watched an awful movie called Demonicus. Thursday, the director of that movie, Jay Woelfel, left a comment:

Hello, Steven, I am Jay Woelfel, Demonicus was a work for hire that was re-edited before release without my involvement. If you, or anyone else, is interested in me and my films where I really had some control you can find out much about me on www.jaywoelfel.com. My most recent film came out in 2017/2018 and is named ASYLUM OF DARKNESS.

I was delighted to hear from him, and decided to watch Asylum of Darkness, which you can stream on Amazon. Woelfel deserved a chance to show what he could do with his own project.

Asylum of Darkness is a vast improvement on Demonicus. It featured one of the last performances by the late Richard Hatch. The film was shot in 35mm, which gave it not just a professional look, but the look of the kind of pre-digital horror movies it replicates. There are good makeup effects, and plenty of gore ... and by "plenty", I mean plenty.

Woelfel is up to something here ... I have no idea what, but he has a vision, and he pulls it off. It becomes one of those movies that isn't for me, but which probably accomplishes what the film maker set out to do. The plot is completely confusing, and only partly explained by the insanity of the central character. The acting is OK ... in fact, kudos to them, because the need for confusion means they have little to grab onto. It's hard to establish a character when the person you are playing changes every few minutes.

I'm glad I got to see Woelfel's work in a different, non-Demonicus, light. And if you are a fan of gory, good-looking but nonsensical horror, I think you'll like Asylum of Darkness.


the story of a cheat (sacha guitry, 1936)

This is the third film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 3 is called "Cahiers du Cinéma Week":

The first in a series celebrating challenges from past seasons, this challenge comes to us from Monsieur Flynn's original Letterboxd Season Challenge: 2015-16. The original description:

"The top 100 most essential films of 78 French film directors, critics and industry executives. The list was compiled for and published in the French Cahiers du cinéma film magazine. Not surprising that I do tend to agree with them at most of these, especially given my somewhat French taste in cinema."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Cahiers du Cinema's 100 Films to an Ideal Library.

I believe the Cahiers du Cinéma top 100 was published in 2008. With The Story of a Cheat, I have now seen 80. (Highest-ranked film I haven't seen: The Mother and the Whore.)

This is the first Sacha Guitry film I have seen, which once again speaks to the usefulness of this challenge, which takes me places I haven't been. The Story of a Cheat is an innovative and enjoyable movie, if not unique then at least unusual. Though released in 1936, the film is in many ways a silent film with additions. Dialogue barely occurs ... everything we see is narrated by a man (The Cheat, played by Guitry) as he writes his memoirs. Real people act out the events in his story, interspersed occasionally with newsreel footage. It barely takes any time at all for this technique to seem perfect, with Guitry's Cheat in control of all the characters due to the presence of his voice overs. (The IMDB claims this was the first movie with voice over narration ... I'm not sure that's true.)

The Story of a Cheat is playful without being overbearing. I suppose there's a message, but honestly, I don't think it matters. It's better to simply enjoy the raconteur showing his lovable scoundrel nature. The Cheat, we learn, was one of an extended family of twelve ... when he stole a little money to buy marbles, he was forced to sit at the dinner table and watch everyone eat while his plate remained bare. The mushrooms everyone enjoyed turned out to be poisonous; everyone in the family died except The Cheat. When relatives stole his inheritance, he concluded that one would get on better in life if they were less than honest. The picaresque tale that follows demonstrates how, with scoundrels as well as the honest folks, life has its ups and downs.


demonicus (jay woelfel, 2001)

This is the second film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 2 is called "Sword and Sorcery Week":

A genre that may seem simplistic and finite, yet is actually filled with unlimited potential for entertainment and allegory. I would suggest trying to stray away from the Lord of the Rings series for this challenge, but really, if you live under a rock and haven't seen them, you probably should use this as an opportunity to do so.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Sword and Sorcery film.

If memory serves, I chose movies for this challenge by looking at suggested possibilities and selecting the shortest movies that were available to me, whether by streaming or my owning the film. Two movies on the Sword and Sorcery list came in at 72 minutes ... Demonicus was on Amazon. Voila!

It was pretty awful. On the one hand, challenges like this offer an opportunity to watch something that might not have otherwise gotten my attention. On the other hand, there's a reason I didn't know Demonicus ... it's a bad movie in a genre I tend to ignore, not because the genre stinks but rather because it's not my cup of tea. (Of the 161 films on the Sword and Sorcery list, I've only seen 8, including Demonicus.)

The plot isn't exactly complicated ... Wikipedia sums it up in two sentences ("A group of young students lost in the Italian Alps become victims of an ancient Gladiator curse. One of the students becomes possessed and hunts down the rest.") It got an R rating for gore. Apparently, there is a director's cut (!). I don't know which version I saw.

The acting is competent, which isn't guaranteed for these kinds of pictures. It cost $40,000, and I guess you could say that every penny is on the screen. Not much is known about the people involved. Director Jay Woelfel co-directed a brief 4-minute proposal for a new Battlestar Galactica put together by Richard Hatch (this was before the Ron Moore breakthrough). Actress Venesa Talor made some soft porn movies and made some records, including the immortal "Who Do I Have to Blow?" (she's a better singer than actor). That's about it. It's "better" than Robot Monster, but I won't ever watch it again, while I catch up with Robot Monster every couple of years.


shadows in paradise (aki kaurismäki, 1986)

This is the first official film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 1 is called "Past Hosts Week":

Starting off strong with a tribute to our past hosts. Without Monsieur Flynn, we wouldn't have the Season Challenge, and without kurt k, we wouldn't be as far along as we are now. Typically this type of challenge takes place towards the end of the season, but since this is an anniversary year, it seemed fitting to have it front and center.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from either Monsieur Flynn's Movies to See Before Your End Credits list or kurt k's Personal Canon list.

I like to think my movie viewing is pretty varied, but this week's film is a great example of what I hope to gain from taking part in this challenge. Shadows in Paradise is from Finland. In 2012, Yle, the Finnish national public broadcasting company, came up with a list of the best Finnish films of all time. Until I watched Shadows in Paradise, I had never seen a movie on that list. Clearly, the Season Challenge has helped me expand my horizons.

Actually, I have seen another Finnish film, Le Havre. As it turns out, that movie came from Aki Kaurismäki, the director of Shadows in Paradise. So I have now seen two films from Finland, both by the same director.

Much of what I wrote about Le Havre holds true here, as well:

A slight film that proudly displays its seemingly humble story.... Kaurismäki trusts in the essential humanity of his characters … no one is perfect or even particularly successful ... The humor in the film is so deadpan I barely noticed it, but that’s in keeping with the low-key charms of the movie. And the tone is far from the kind of dreary realism the above might suggest. In fact, there is a level of romance and fantasy that Kaurismäki wouldn’t get away with if he weren’t so skillful at making us like his characters without feeling manipulated.

Slight, humble, human, deadpan, low-key ... all can be said of Shadows in Paradise. I missed a lot of the humor, which is the norm for me, but David Thomson got off a good line when he wrote, "Kaurismäki can be very funny—so long as no one laughs." There are no laugh-out-loud moments, and no one smiles, much less laughs, in the film. But it somehow skirts dreariness, even though the main characters seem ready to break out of their admittedly dreary lives. Kati Outinen felt new to me, although it turns out she was in Le Havre, as well. She has an interesting, non-actorish face, and she was one of the best things about Shadows in Paradise. The movie goes by in only 74 minutes ... I was going to say "breezes by", but that's not an accurate description for how the movie plays. I liked it without being bowled over by it, which may be precisely what Kaurismäki was after.


film fatales #60: craig's wife (dorothy arzner, 1936)

This is the first film I have watched in a new challenge, "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." The challenge doesn't start until September 8, but I jumped ahead because Craig's Wife is leaving the Criterion Channel at the end of this month. Craig's Wife is from Week 5, "watch a previously unseen film adapted from or based on a stage play."

This is the first Dorothy Arzner film I have seen, so I can't speak to any career-long traits to her directing. While her treatment of Harriet, "Craig's wife", led me to find Harriet unlikable, George Kelly, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning play on which the film is based, apparently disagreed. As Molly Haskell relates,

Kelly was apparently horrified at Arzner's interpretation.

"I imagined Mr Craig was dominated somewhat by his mother and therefore fell in love with a woman stronger than he," [Arzner] said in the same interview. "I thought Mr Craig should be down on his knees with gratitude because Mrs Craig made a man of him. When I told Kelly this, he rose to his six-foot height, and said, 'That is not my play. Walter Craig was a sweet guy and Mrs Craig was an SOB.' He left. That was the only contact I had with Kelly."

Harriet is the tragic figure in Craig's Wife ... I just can't tell how sorry we are supposed to feel for her. I wanted her to get her comeuppance, but between Arzner's presentation and the acting of Rosalind Russell, I also felt sympathy for her. Harriet was striving for the only thing she felt was available to her as a woman of her time: security, which is represented by her home (the film could have been called "Craig's Wife's Home"), which she gets by marrying a man with money. She doesn't let her husband or anyone else get in the way of her home/security, which eventually leaves her alone in that home. It served her right and I felt bad for her anyway.

This was Russell's first top billing. I've never thought of myself as a big fan, but she co-stars in one of my favorite movies, His Girl Friday, and it may just be that I haven't seen enough of the movies she made earlier in her career. Billie Burke pops up, and for people of my generation, just hearing her voice brings memories of Glinda the Good Witch.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)