52 Films by Women – Week 8

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The Girl in the Book (Marya Cohn, 2015)

The Girl in the Book seemingly fell through the cracks of the collective consciousness in 2015.  I watched about 75 films last year, and kept abreast as best I could on many others but I never heard of it until I randomly saw it on Netflix.  The film only grossed $5,000 so I get the feeling that I wasn’t alone in missing it.

I really enjoyed this film.  Granted, I have a predisposition to liking a girl’s coming of age story, but I think this one holds up regardless.  The film depicts two parts of its protagonist’s life.  We primarily focus on Alice as a 29-year-old working in publishing (played by Emily VanCamp).  When a famous writer Milan Daneker (Michael Nyqvist) enters the agency, we’re introduced to 16-year-old Alice (Ana Mulvoy-Ten) and told her story of how she came to know Milan.  The reunion throws Alice’s life, which had reached a level of equilibrium into chaos.

While the other acting performances are neutral to flat, Emily VanCamp is phenomenal as the lead.  I believe every emotional turn that her character takes.  And more than just that, she feels like a real person.  Even when dealing with the emotional torture VanCamp avoids over acting, and keeps the performance grounded.  I felt a lot of nuance in her performance that would be easy to lose, and unfortunately her supporting actors lacked.

While I won’t go into spoilers, the plot of the film is easy to guess, especially if you frequent the genre.  The juxtaposition of the two timelines does give The Girl in the Book its own identity.  Supplement that with the fact that the genre is completely underserved, and the film should settle well into its role.  I think that the proximity and similarity to the better film Diary of a Teenage Girl may be what ultimately relegated this film to the depths of the Netflix algorithm.  It’s a shame that it ended up there.  Hollywood seems to have an unlimited capacity for male coming of age stories, but female ones, especially ones dealing with female sexuality fall through the cracks.  Marya Cohn put together a solid to good film depicting a struggle in another woman’s life, and deserves more respect.

The Witch

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The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)

A year after debuting at Sundance, Robert Eggers’s debut film The Witch finally made it to theaters.   I have a complicated relationship with horror films.  I love them when they are great, but can’t stand them otherwise.  I’ve been hearing enough great things about this one for months, so I was excited to give it a try.

This film was technically brilliant.  The cinematography was gorgeous, specifically the shots in the woods with the ominous darkness.  The camera moved deliberately, holding shots as necessary to build appropriate tension.  The camera work was mirrored with and equally if not more impressive score.  Taking ques from 2001 and the more recent masterpiece for Under the Skin, Mark Korven’s understanding of mood was the highlight of the film for me.

The other elements of The Witch didn’t impress me as much.  I found the acting to be perfectly serviceable, but nothing took my breath away.  Anya Taylor-Joy was the high point as Tomasin, but the rest of the cast was just forgettable.  The screenplay was another mixed bag for me.  I thought Eggers’s use of silence was superb; it built an amazingly tense mood which led into some genuinely frightening moments.  However, there were major story elements, including the ending, that fell a little flat.

The question that I’ve been wrestling with since leaving the theater is what’s my feeling on the film as a whole?  Still to this point, I’m having trouble reconciling the screenplay and acting with the technical film.  Technically, my default comparison for The Witch is to Under the Skin.  While it doesn’t live up to Under the Skin, the mere fact that it’s worth comparing to one of the best technical films of the decade speaks wonders in its favor.  And yet, I feel like I’ve forgotten the majority of the story at this point; it left no lasting impression.

Misgivings aside, the best guidance I have on my feels is that I keep recommending it to people.  It’s a palatable enough film that exemplifies how good horror films can be that I want it to be seen.  Not only do I recommend it, but I want to see it again when it comes out on home video.  I feel the need to examine it again for the love of the craft.

52 Films by Women – Week 7

This week I continued my exploration into Kelly Reichardt’s filmography with Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves.  With these films, Reichardt’s budgets increased from a couple hundred thousand to a few million dollars.  With this increase in budget the production value increased, and she managed to get some known actors.  The stories she tells also venture into slightly more traditional narrative, escaping the Dogme 95 feel of Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, but her style remained uncompromised.

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Meek’s Cutoff (2010, Kelly Reichardt)

With Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt produced her spin on a western.  Genre aside, it still feels much more like a Kelly Reichardt film than a John Ford film.  While most westerns revel in their masculinity, Meek’s Cutoff is definitively from the women’s point of view.  The film follows a group of three families and a guide as they wander the Oregon desert lost in desperate need of water.  After days of wandering to no avail, they come across a Native American whom they capture.  The men, specifically the guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) want to kill the man, but through the urging of their wives are convinced to use him as a guide in hopes of finding water.

Michelle Williams returns after her performance as Wendy to play Emily Tetherow the centerpiece of the film.  Despite portraying a woman in the 1840s she obviously holds a lot of social clout in the small community, but not in a way that feels anachronistic. Her quiet control is the highlight of the brilliant film.

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Night Moves (2013, Kelly Reichardt)

Night Moves is an interesting entry into Reichardt’s filmography.  It was still critically praised, but not well received from the public.  I get why this happened.  In 2013, Jesse Eisenberg was a major star, and Night Moves had a plot synopsis that could be a standard studio film.  Unsuspecting viewers wouldn’t be prepared for the pacing and extended silence that are the hallmarks of her films.

Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning star as environmentalists who destroy a dam.  Reichardt, like in all her films, is more interested in her character’s thoughts than the actual written plot.  This film does still include some traditional plot developments, specifically with a major turn in the last few minutes.  I’m still at this point not sure how I felt about that specifically, but I do think that the fallout on the characters was handled well.

And my new found love with Kelly Reichardt is unfettered.  I think she is one of the poster children for this project.  She makes amazing films, that I don’t think could be made by a man.  Her films have a quietness and intimateness that feel distinctively feminine.

I did also watch one more film by a woman director.  See my post from Tuesday to see my feelings on Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong.

Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong

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Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong (Emily Ting, 2016)

Emily Ting’s take on Richard Linklater’s classic Before Sunrise, is one of the most uneven films I’ve seen in a long time.  This is the kind of film that’s ostensibly made for me.  I love films that are nothing more than a pair of people talking.  The Before series, specifically Sunrise, are some of my favorite films of all time.  The issue with these kinds of films is that they are delicate creations.  While a week supporting performance or clunky dialogue in a scene can be overlooked when it comes to a larger film, the smaller character pieces live and die by these details.

Unfortunately for Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, it falls victim to some of these issues.  I found Bryan Greenberg’s performance as Josh to be very wooden.  At no point in the 80-minute run time did I Believe that he had the necessary charisma to keep Ruby (Jamie Chung) interested.  The writing, while not inherently flawed, requested a larger suspension of disbelief than I was willing to allow.  Fifteen minutes into the film, Ruby was willing to ditch her friends in order to spend more time with Josh.  Nothing in their small talk led me to believe that she would be willing to make that decision.

The film also had its high points though.  Jamie Chung’s performance alone was almost enough to carry Greenberg’s.  I genuinely believed her feelings towards Josh, even if I didn’t believe she would be feeling them.  I would gladly spend another hour walking around with Ruby learning even more about her.  The dialogue between the characters was also extremely well written when taken out of the context of if the conversations were reasonable given the relationship.  They touched on a lot of personal beliefs without feeling scripted, and the small talk was very insightful into who these characters were.  

For the type of film that Ting set out to create, dialogue is the most important item to excel.  It’s why I return to Before Sunrise time after time, and it’s what keeps Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong from being a complete mess.  That being said, story believability issues and poor acting by half the cast of two drain the film of most of it’s potential.  I’m still glad that I saw it, and would tentatively recommend it to anyone else who shares an enjoyment of the genre, but do not see myself revisiting it any time soon.  I do however look forward to what Ting’s career brings next.  It wouldn’t take much cleanup to turn this into something worth seeking out.

52 Films by Women – Week 6

Kelly Reichardt is an indie darling director who has been a large blind spot in my personal film catalog.  With this project, I was excited to finally have the excuse to dig into her work.  Fandor has 3 of her films available for streaming, and I caught up on the first two of them this week.

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Old Joy (2006, Keely Reichardt)

Old Joy is a very small simple film about a pair of old friends going on a camping trip and to a spring in the Oregon Cascades.  The men while obviously once close are in very different places in their lives.  Mark (Daniel London) is about to become a father while Kurt (Will Oldham) continues to live the hippie lifestyle it seems he once shared with Mark.

I loved Old Joy’s ability to avoid every trope that one would expect given this setup.  It wasn’t a comedy where Kurt convinced Mark to relive his old life.  It also wasn’t a moral tale telling Kurt to grow up.  Instead we just watch these two men interact in the way we actually expect two men would.  No revelations, just two days’ worth of conversations between two people who were once friends.  The simplicity of everything is what made the film endearing.  The raw truthful relationships were welcoming in a world of overwritten unbelievable screenplays.

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Wendy and Lucy (2008, Keely Reichardt)

Wendy and Lucy is a moving story of a woman drifter named Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her dog Lucy.  Wendy’s car breaks down in a small Oregon town on her way from Indiana to Alaska in search of work.  Strapped for cash, she gets arrested for attempting to steal a can of dog food.  She’s taken to the police station and processed.  When she returns she finds that Lucy is nowhere to be found.  Her bad luck continues when she learns her car is broken beyond repair and she’s stranded.

Reichardt follows Wendy as she eats through the last bit of her saved money in search of her companion.  She puts her goals on hold and slowly descends into desperation.  She relies on the kindness of one stranger, but is constantly betrayed by others.  I was in tears by the end as Wendy came to accept her predicament.

 

I’m now completely in love with Kelly Reichardt.  Both of these films shot into the top 10 of their respective years, and will end up in contention for the best of the first decade of the 2000s.  Meek’s Cutoff and the lesser regarded Night Moves are both available on various streaming services, and while I’m trying to diversify my directors, anticipate those as next week’s entries.

52 Films by Women – Week 5

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)

I missed the one week stint that A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night had in theaters locally, and despite my interest in the film didn’t manage to sit down and stream it until this week.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a black and white Iranian film from 2014 and the first feature by Ana Lily Amirpour.  While frequently plugged as “Iran’s first vampire film”, calling it a vampire film is a little misleading.  The film is more accurately a mood piece about a town where all is lost.  Action is severely down played for a vampire picture while the feeling of desperation is enhanced.

The cinematography, by Lyle Vincent, is the main selling point of the film.  The black and white composition is beautiful, and every single shot is a work of art.  The mood of the film permeates throughout each scene due in large part to Vincent’s work.

The screenplay, in contrast, is a bit of a mess.  Character connections, outside of the two leads, exist on surface level only.  I have a hard time believing in the world of Bad City, but I still give it a pass.  Amirpour didn’t try and create a realistic world, she set out to build a surrealist dream world, and in that she succeeded.

I very much enjoyed the experience of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and like many of it’s surreal peers I anticipate a second viewing in hopes of understanding it further.

 

The Emotion Driven Picture: 45 Years

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45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)

After seeing the high scores that 45 Years received near the end of the year, I was excited to spend part of my Saturday at the theater as it finally came into town.  Despite the acclaim, I managed to avoid almost any knowledge about the film, and what I had heard, a married man is informed that his original love who died tragically in an avalanche was found preserved  years later, was of little actual consequence to the purpose of the film.

Given a combination of that plot synopsis and my knowledge of Haigh’s previous film Weekend, I assumed that we would be getting a study of the man’s thought process as he came to grips with balancing his love for his wife with the love that he lost.  However, Haigh delivered a little twist on this premise.  Instead of watching Geoff determine how to handle this, we follow his wife Kate (the miraculous Charlotte Rampling) as she helplessly watches.

I found the decision to be brilliant.  I could sympathize with Kate’s struggles with her as she watches her husband become distant while she expends the energy to plan their wedding anniversary.  The helplessness of watching the one she loves in such obvious pain with no way to help.  What I found the most poignant in the performance and screenplay was the understanding of the pain that Kate was experiencing.  While Geoff is the one with a tangible reason to be upset, Kate feels just as much, but also struggles with the lack of concrete reason to complain.  Instead of leaning on her husband or friends for compassion, it eats away at her.  Eventually, we make it to the anniversary party.  After Geoff’s teary speech, we know that he still loves Kate, but the dance scene (to the well-chosen Smoke Gets in Your Eyes) leaves the remainder of the relationship with a level of ambiguity.

Charlotte Rampling was phenomenal, but I don’t think she has a shot at the Oscar.  The low-fi emotional character piece just doesn’t get the attention that it deserves by the Academy.  I’m a little surprised that it even got the nomination though obviously well deserved.  Maybe someday the emotion driven character drama will acknowledged on mass for it’s brilliance, but until then it’s up to women like me to sing it’s virtues.