A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Generally, this film capably sells itself as a foreign film, the setting believable as Iran, and the dialogue entirely in Persian (as imdb credits it, though I would have said Farsi). Yet with the content of the film, I could never imagine this product actually being produced in Iran, so it made sense to discover that it is in fact an American film, directed and written by an Iranian-American, and starring one. Being able to be both an Iranian film and not gives it the best of both worlds.

A decidedly slow-burning film, it focuses on a fairly small community who are all a bit on the outskirts of society. A drug-dealing pimp, a prostitute, a drug addict and his son, all exist in a morally challenging place. Enter into the picture a mysterious girl (Sheila Vand), who early on we discover is a vampire. In this role it reminds me a lot of Let The Right One In, less in showing the burden/tragedy of the affliction than in showing the type of cyclical bonds a person of this sort can manage. On the other hand, the actual horror is used more in line with a film like Teeth. The violence has a feminist symbolism in retribution for sexual violation.

The real standout here is the cinematography, in brilliant black and white. In this respect it almost shades toward Sin City and that graphic novel aesthetic, though retaining a sense of photorealism. The visual tone of the film, combined with score/soundtrack, really set a somber but engaging mood, covering over what is in reality a pretty thin story. Not a complete stunner but certainly a work with a lot to offer and showing great promise for its director.

B

Thelma and Louise (1991)

Cinephiles use terms like blind spots or shames to discuss films they, as cinephiles feel they ought to have seen but haven’t. While I have seen most of the big, acclaimed films, there are still (always) plenty of highly acclaimed classics that I’ve so far missed. I’m not sure what recently got me thinking about Thelma and Louise, but given my interests in film, this iconic feminist story was one that I certainly felt a lot of shame in overlooking. Of course, by this point the opportunity to watch it without knowing where it would end had long vanished.

Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) are sneaking away from their respective men for a weekend retreat. Thelma is meek/naive, so cowed by her overbearing husband she can’t even get up the courage to tell him she’s going. Louise seems stronger and world-wise. However, when Louise shoots a man who tried to rape Thelma, suddenly they become fugitives. It is a complex moment, from the man’s sense of entitlement because he got her drunk and danced, to Louise’s suspicion that a claim of self-defense wouldn’t be believed, since others who saw Thelma with the man would similarly imply consent. This seems relevant at a time when some suggest having women carry guns would solve the college sexual assault problem. But from certain instances under the “stand your ground” law, it seems Louise may be right and the law will find a way not to protect them.

While on the one hand the story plays out as desperation leading these two women further and further from the law, a kind of downward spiral common to stories about women turning to prostitution, in this case they are actually finding themselves increasingly free from patriarchy’s grasp. While hopefully not a call for women to disobey actual laws, it does act as an empowerment narrative about throwing off social restrictions and for not allowing themselves to be oppressed by men, whether it is sexual assault and harassment or being swindled by them. In this way the ending perfectly captures the spirit of living on their own terms. Weaving all of this into an engaging popcorn flick is a bonus. Though it has some heavy elements, it is a pretty lively movie, including probably my favorite exchange:

Darryl: Thelma, hello!
*Thelma hangs up phone*
Thelma: He knows.

It is a moment whose comedy arises out of the work the film has done building its characters and in the delivery by a mostly solid cast. The main exception to this is the trucker. I like the idea but that actor, and maybe the lines given to him, are just terrible. Basically the worst. But I guess by that point the film has descended into a bit more of a B-movie. It is a minor complaint in a strong film.

B+

Roman Holiday (1953)

This makes an interesting pairing with My Fair Lady (which I hadn’t seen when I first watched Roman Holiday many years ago). One is the story of the making of a proper lady while the other is in essence the unmaking of one. Indeed, when Princess Ann (Hepburn) was greeting people at an early reception, I was just waiting for the pronunciation “How DO you do?” In that scene, the saga of the shoe is a great physical bit to quickly introduce and make you empathize with the plight of the princess, the rigid formality of her role that she has to be seen as carrying off to perfection. It is no leap of the imagination then when she sneaks out to experience a bit of real Roman tourist life.

She becomes an ethical conundrum for journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) when the sedative she was given by a doctor before leaving kicks in and he feels compelled to keep her safe. Once he realizes who he has, he has to choose between a great career opportunity and being a decent human being to this charming if slightly naive young woman (because her role has isolated her, not because she lacks intellect…the film displays this by having her recite poetry). In context of our modern tabloid culture, we could think of this ending with an exploitative story of drug use or the release of explicit pictures. While the end scene (sorry, but spoilers for a 60 year old film) embraces the nobility of the choice of Joe and his photographer to let it just be their memory, the story that might have come from this is a rather sweet one, one that would make the Princess very relatable. Thankfully as the viewer we don’t have to wonder what if, because the film itself is in essence that story. We get to see her get a radical hairstyle, to eat gelato, etc. It’s quite a ringer.

B+

A Most Violent Year (2014)

I am famously sympathetic to Godfather Part III. It may not be the best executed of the trilogy, but focusing on the struggle of someone trying to do good in a bad setting resonates more to me than the exploits of tough, bad men going after each other. A Most Violent Year focuses on Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an upstart presence in a New York gas/fuel industry that is filled with deep-rooted entities that are much more willing to engage with demons to find success. Abel on the other hand has always tried to do things the right way, but finds his success and livelihood threatened and has to face hard moral choices. This story is heightened by its setting in 1981 New York, amid the crest of that era’s spike in crime generally, and of oil crises that make that commodity a metaphor for power. With a cast rounded out by Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo and Albert Brooks, this quasi-gangster film succeeds by being more about vulnerability than about power.

B

Beyond The Lights (2014)

To some degree, we are all expected to play our parts in society, to abridge our natural behaviors or desires in pursuit of greater success, professionally and socially. To an extent, this is probably a healthy thing, though arguably “professionalism” and “politeness” push things a bit far at times. For those associated with a group outside of privilege, the burden can be even higher because any slips and all the prejudices about the group seem to be reinforced in the eye of the observer. For Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Kaz (Nate Parker), their aspirations as pop star and politician, respectively, add even more bounds to their behavior.

The film opens with Noni as a child, totted by her mother (Minnie Driver) to a hair salon. Hair for black women has a highly symbolic role. Not only does Driver’s character express a lack of understanding for her daughter’s hair, the DVD featured a trailer for Black or White in which Kevin Coster expresses the same frustration over his granddaughter’s hair. A black girl’s natural hair was the focus of multiple jokes in the trailers for Annie and Chris Rock’s Good Hair made a feature film out of exploring black women’s hair culture. Here we cut from Noni as a child in a modest, simple dress and her original hair placing second at a talent contest to sprawled out in kinky lingerie with very artificial hair in a music video, breaking out as a pop star in the mold of Rihanna. Her stage manager mother is seen strictly managing her diet while actively cheering on blatant sexualization. This is the mold they are forcing Noni to fit into for success and we quickly see the toll as she attempts to leap off her penthouse balcony, saved by Kaz, a police officer working as protection for the evening. This is all in the first 15 minutes of the film, showing how efficient the film is in establishment.

If Noni’s ambitions have her acting less wholesome, Kaz is bound by the need to be perfect. With an eye to politics, he very much seeks to be seen as the perfect, “safe” black man that a dominant white society demands. Never mind that Barack Obama was very much that “articulate…clean” type and is still treated as a devil by half the country, that’s the best case scenario. Anyway, Kaz certainly doesn’t want to be associated with the “thug” R&B world that Noni inhabits, but naturally this incident throws them together and the rest of the film is about searching for true identity and trying to reevaluate how to succeed without sacrificing too much of that identity. This actually operates on some of the same levels as Dear White People though with a very different genre focus.

Mbatha-Raw is the standout here, having to deliver a wide range of emotions. Parker is a bit flatter in delivery but it isn’t the showy role. I’m not entirely sure I see the character as a dynamic politician heading forward. The music in the film is quite strong, saving the best for a key moment at the end when it needed an original song to actually make you believe the talent. In bridging strong romantic drama notes with this thematic richness about identity, Prince-Blythewood has made something that exceeds what you might expect from genre.

B+

Now, Voyager (1942)

In the words of that classic poet, Iggy Azalea, “I’m thinkin’ I love the thought of you, More than I love your presence.” Now, this is a bit strongly phrased but it represents a certain aspect of my interaction with Now, Voyager. I like the idea the film goes for more than I always love the execution. A fair part of this, likely, is just my not being on board with the less naturalistic style of acting that was the standard during that era of Hollywood.

We are introduced to Charlotte (Bette Davis) as seemingly an aged, neurotic spinster (I wasn’t entirely sure how old she was going to be as the make-up was somewhat disconcerting) who is almost completely broken. She quickly recounts a story from her youth when suddenly we see a mostly pretty younger woman who seems much more at ease socially, though even in flashback we see the domineering presence of her mother, who ultimately intervenes in her romance. If her mother is a malevolent force that has broken her self-worth, it is her sister-in-law who acts a savior in getting her away from her mother and we see Charlotte slowly blossom back into the sort of character she was in her youth. It all acts as a show of the way certain expectations can weigh on a woman, and how women can be the enforcers of that damage.

In her journey of self-rediscovery, Charlotte meets Jerry, whose family serves as an echo, with a hostile mother (Jerry’s wife) and an unwanted (to the mother) daughter who bears the brunt of her mother’s unhappiness. This all acts as a mirror for Charlotte, forcing her to see her own situation with greater clarity, as well as making her proactive in preventing the cycle to continue. What I find curious about this is how its message resonates to current discussions about parenting. There is a lot of backlash right now about the effects of a focus on promoting self-esteem, saying it produced an entitled generation whose members aren’t able to recognize their ordinariness. On the other hand, we hear about helicopter parents that protect their kids from any potential harm or mistake. Arguably this film is splitting the difference, supporting a focus on self-esteem, but doing so in a setting where parents are a bit less in control.

For me, the most resonant scene is one where Charlotte considers a potential engagement. There is decisive action but also a certain self-doubt about whether the choice is dooming her, to poverty, to loneliness, etc. This monologue pulls against the habit of defining a life, especially a woman’s life, in terms of a man, and for a 1942 film is pretty progressive. These are the moments that both work and make me wish the film was entirely of that level of engagement.

B

National Gallery (2014)

Normally, there are not many comparison points for Wiseman films except other Wiseman films as he is kind of a genre unto himself. National Gallery certainly fits firmly within his style, in this case featuring a variety of conversations about the artwork, both thematic and technical, and of the function of the gallery, the logic of restoration, of presentation, and the simple business conversations, all broken up with montage of the paintings of the gallery. But in 2014, Tim’s Vermeer presents a particularly interesting contrast point, and indeed, there is a discussion of a Vermeer in National Gallery.

One thing that appealed in Tim’s Vermeer is that it ultimately was less about art then about science or engineering. The most engaging aspects of National Gallery for me were also more toward the technical, both in the science of restoration (and simply analysis of paintings) and in some discussions about how lighting concerns (the conditions the painting was originally created to be displayed in compared to modern display conditions) would shape the artist’s tactics. This all spoke to me more than thoughts about metaphors or stories in paintings. This is curious because in film I tend to be very much the opposite, generally dismissive of craft except as service to the story and themes. Neither documentary thawed my remove from painting as an expressive medium really, but they have opened up far more interest in it as a technical craft. Now I just need more resources to do the same for film.

As much as I appreciate the Wiseman aesthetic, putting it in close contrast with Tim’s Vermeer reveals some of its weak points. Ultimately there is something rewarding about an 80 minute film that has a narrative arc of hurdles, breakthroughs, etc. compared to a 180 minute film that remains rather flat. I liked the film, but I’d definitely be more keen to rewatch Tim’s Vermeer than this.

B

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