Category: Films by women

The Babadook (Australia 2014)

See, . . . nothing under the bed!

See, . . . nothing under the bed!

Quite a few good films coming out of Oz in the last year or two I think. The Babadook is intriguing and I’m still thinking about it. There seem to be several references to classic haunted house/melodrama/demonic possession movies of the 1960s-80s though I worry that I might not recognise the modern references so I can’t really comment on how ‘fresh’ it is. But for a low budget Kickstarter-aided film from a relatively inexperienced director it is pretty impressive. There aren’t enough horror films made by women and it’s interesting that the most frightening scene in Jennifer Kent’s movie for me was the clutch of glammed-up young mothers at a children’s birthday party with their matching gift bags – very ‘Stepford Wives’!

The Babadook is that old standby, a magic or ‘possessed’ book, in this instance a child’s pop-up book with rather interesting drawings (charcoal or pen and ink?). The book finds its way into the decidedly Gothic old house of Amelia, the widowed mother of 6 year-old Samuel. Samuel’s father was killed driving his wife to hospital on the night she gave birth and Samuel’s upcoming birthday is a significant date. Amelia is sleeping badly and Samuel is a difficult child who is driving her to distraction with his fears about monsters. Neither of them need the further pressure of a new monster threatening to cause havoc and terror in the household. But once you’ve read the book, your fate is apparently sealed . . .

I was amazed to read that the film’s producer suggested that this was an ‘arthouse film’ and that this explained why it had only a limited release in Australia. The Guardian reported that the film made more in the first weekend of its UK release (on 147 screens) than in its entire release in Australia. Australian distribution seems to be in even more of a crisis than in the UK.

Samuel and Amelia are authentically weary souls in an often uncaring world – or is that just their perception?

Samuel and Amelia are authentically weary souls in an often uncaring world – or is that just their perception? Note the palette of blues, greys and greens.

It isn’t an art film for me, rather an intelligent genre film that marries the familiar tropes of the haunted house/demonic possession genre with the good old family melodrama. Apart from Samuel and the demon/ghost, the only other male character who appears more than once is the nice young man at the care home where Amelia works. Much more significant are Amelia’s sister and the older woman next door. Essie Davis is very good as Amelia and she joins Deborah Kerr (The Innocents), Nicole Kidman (The Others) and Bélen Rueda (The Orphanage) as a woman under pressure trying to cope with small children. The Babadook doesn’t have the budget of those earlier films and it doesn’t have the allegorical status of the latter two, but it is distinctive. I’m not sure how ‘Australian’ it is – or whether this matters. (In terms of its difficulties in getting a wide release in Australia, this seems contradictory – the more an Australian film is recognised by overseas audiences first, the better chance it is supposed to have with domestic audiences who respond to foreign commendations. At least, that’s how I read comments from Australia.)

The colour palette is drained and costumes have generally been chosen in muted colours. Added to that, the costumes look very old-fashioned (is this a period film?) and the actors in minor roles have unusual faces and expressions. Check out the trailer below. The television seems to play a bizarre range of violent cartoons and a selection of films that includes Mario Bava(!), George Méliès and a Barbara Stanwyck ‘woman in peril’ noir. (It appears to be The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, when it should be Sorry, Wrong Number?) The more I think about the film, the more references come to mind. Although the stories are different in terms of the ghost, there are strong connections to the Nakata Hideo film Dark Water (Japan 2002) which was in turn remade by Walter Salles for Hollywood. The social pressures on Amelia as a single mother are not as great as in the Japanese context but they are definitely there.

I think the film deserves its generally very good critical reception and I’m glad it seems to be attracting audiences. My only complaint would be that having imposed restraint for three quarters of the film, Jennifer Kent perhaps let go too much in the final quarter, changing the overall tone of the film.

Waiting For August (Belgium 2014)

Georgiana with her birthday cake and one of her younger brothers.

Georgiana with her birthday cake and one of her younger brothers.

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680Although this is a film produced in Flanders, all the action is actually set in Romania – and although the film presents itself like a documentary, it is actually a carefully-scripted observational study of a real family (the 2.35:1 ‘Scope presentation also suggests a fiction film). Writer-director Teodora Ana Mihai is herself a Romanian migrant who left the country as a child, growing up in Belgium and then California before film school in New York and a return to Belgium to work in the film industry. This surprising film is her second production and has already won four international prizes, including best documentary feature at Karlovy Vary and the Toronto Hot Docs festival. New prizes are being picked up all the time.

Georgiana is a teenager as Christmas approaches in the Romanian city where she lives with her six siblings in an overcrowded flat. Although she has an older brother who is 18, it appears that Georgiana is the de facto head of household as her single parent mother is in Italy earning the money the family needs as a cook for an elderly Italian family. Georgiana is expected to look after everybody, organising shopping, cooking and cleaning – and trying to achieve the more usual teenage goals of academic success, having fun and possibly finding a boyfriend. Soon it is her fifteenth birthday and the film’s title begins to make sense when we realise that it will have been eight months of struggle when mother finally returns at the height of summer.

Teodora Ana Mihai, <>

Director Teodora Ana Mihai

If this brief outline of the film’s plot suggests that this is going to be some form of ‘grim’ social realism, the reality is quite different. Somehow, Mihai manages to avoid jazzing up her story with dramatic incidents but still to make the everyday lives of the family members interesting. I confess that after the first twenty minutes or so – and feeling very tired – I thought that I might close my eyes and just let the film drift by. But that didn’t happen. Instead I gradually became more engaged with the characters and their daily struggles and minor triumphs. There are some moments of difficulty, e.g. when somebody tells Georgiana that the children should be in an orphanage, but these are faced and talked through with Mum on the phone or through a shaky video link on the computer. As the sun comes out in the spring, the children get to spend more time outside and Georgiana has more opportunity to talk to her schoolfriends about exams – and to catch the eyes of boys at the swimming pool.

The great strength of the film is seemingly down to three factors. The director clearly has a great rapport with these wonderful kids, the camerawork by Joachim Philippe is unobtrusive (and the sound is effective) and the seamless editing never draws attention to itself. This is the opposite of ciné vérité in which filmmakers provoke their subjects. Instead the camera seemingly just records the events as they unfold. The children are remarkably ‘ordinary’ – they don’t seem to play to the camera, but they do play and grouch like most children. This is a real family as explained in the director’s statement on the film’s excellent website:

. . . after many months of searching and numerous interviews, I finally met the Halmacs. Their story particularly touched me; fortunately, they agreed to share their everyday life with me and with the broader public. The Halmac kids literally claimed my empathy. Every single one of them is a real ‘character’, with a fascinating and well-defined personality that I just wanted to get to know better.

Having said that, I was of course also confronted with a crucial question: who was the main character in this story? Who was holding this family together in the mother´s absence? The answer came quite naturally: Georgiana, who was about to turn 15 when we started filming, had obviously taken over the parental responsibilities. She was the new point of reference for the rest of the siblings, despite her age.

As I started following Georgiana, I discovered an extremely strong, uninhibited teenager who accepted her new ‘head-of-the-family’ role with humility, without considering herself a victim. But she did possess the realisation that she — like the rest of her siblings — should have the right to a normal, more protected childhood.

I felt privileged to be allowed into their lives to tell their story of courage and resilience. After spending so much time together we all became like family, which gave this film its intimacy and, I believe, also its strength. Getting to know the Halmacs truly enriched my life.

At the end of the film when mother emerged from the airport to meet her children I had a tear in my eye. Waiting for August is already on screens in LA, San Francisco and New York and it is due to open in Belgium. I hope a UK distributor picks it up. At 88 minutes it’s a gem. Don’t miss it if you get a chance to see it.

Trailer:

Night Moves (US 2013)

NightMovesPoster

I expect that some audiences will be disappointed/baffled by Night Moves – because they won’t get the thriller they were expecting from promo material like the poster above. On the other hand director Kelly Reichardt’s fans will know what to expect and should ‘enjoy’ the film. I use the scare quotes because Ms Reichardt’s films are clever and satisfying exercises in constructing a certain kind of narrative around various themes. The big shock here is that Michelle Williams is not in the cast and, despite Dakota Fanning’s expertise, I did miss Ms Williams.

Night Moves is a film about ‘ecological activists’ and the title refers to a boat, a motor launch, with that name. If I understood the dialogue exchanges, ‘Night Moves’ does indeed refer to the Arthur Penn film noir from 1975 (there is a discussion of movie titles that I couldn’t completely follow but the previous owner of the boat was a film fan). I haven’t seen that film since it came out and I don’t remember much except that I think it was the film in which a character describes an Eric Rohmer film as being “like watching paint dry” – an ironic comment on some of the pauses in the Reichardt film? In this new film, the boat’s name might be seen as describing the central moment in the narrative when the three ‘eco warriors’ attempt to blow up a dam in Oregon (to protest about the excessive power usage in the US and the diverting of water for golf courses). This is the basis of the ‘thriller’, but mostly I think Reichardt doesn’t play it as a thriller. In fact, I think she plays it as a story about guilt with the central character Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) as a possible film noir hero, a form of  ‘doomed man’. Nick was with me and he disagreed – he didn’t like the film and was irritated by what Reichardt was doing with the thriller tropes.

This is a long shot I know, but at one point the location switches to ‘Medford, Oregon’. If you’ve seen Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, you’ll know that the witness who places Fred McMurray at the scene of the crime is a “Medford man. Medford, Oregon”. Since Reichardt used a similar kind of reference in Wendy and Lucy (a man reading a specific novel), I’m tempted to see these two references (i.e. with the boat’s name) to films noir as deliberate pointers. The three activists comprise Josh/Eisenberg, a worker on an organic family homestead, Dena (Dakota Fanning), a rich girl working in a bathhouse/hot tub establishment and Harmon (Peter Sarsgard), an ex-Marine whose ‘day job’ I didn’t catch but he is clearly the ‘professional’ here.

The trio on the road

The trio on the road

Kelly Reichardt sticks to her established methods in this film. She doesn’t explain everything about the characters. We have to slowly glean bits of narrative information. Equally she doesn’t spell out the theme and give us clear arguments to follow. We are shown the Pacific North West in all its Autumn glory in the forests, on the hills and in the valleys. We also experience the impact of the dams and flooded valley when ‘Night Moves’ is steered past the rotting tall trees whose roots are now deep underwater. When we get a debate about ecology and political action it is played obliquely at the breakfast table of the organic farm as well as via a campaign film screened on a sheet in a pop-up cinema. On both occasions, Josh is a silent observer – Eisenberg’s performance toned down and internalised so that it is hard to know what Josh thinks. The suspense in the film is evident in the act itself but don’t go expecting explosions the aftermath of the act happens off-screen. Instead, the real suspense comes afterwards and focuses on Josh – will he fall apart, can he go back to an anonymous life? I don’t want to give away any of the later plot points – suffice to say that we do get the ‘usual’ Kelly Reichardt ending which makes you think. I thought this one was especially effective.

I’ve read some interesting commentaries on the film and it is interesting that different audiences can produce quite different readings. One commentator clearly didn’t like it and thinks it has a very old-fashioned feel in terms of its subject matter. She also suggests that Dakota Fnning is underused and that Peter Sarsgaard is ‘lazy typecasting’. I think those are good points. I’d add that the intriguing Alia Shawkat is also wasted in a minor role. Reichardt and her writing partner Jon Raymond don’t seem that interested in the Harmon character who seems a little like a plot device (Sarsgaard is indeed typecast as a slightly sleazy character) and I did want to know more about Dena. Since Reichardt tells us very little about her three central characters, it is quite difficult to see the film as ‘character-driven’. Even Josh has no background, so we don’t know what he is giving up/can’t go back to etc. Is the film ‘dated’ in terms of its subject? Jonah Raskin, who was clearly around forty years ago expresses what might be a common response in some parts:

But the characters belong to a timeless time. I can’t imagine that an ecoterrorist in 2014 might do what Josh, Dena and Harmon do on screen. It’s also unlikely that they’d be able to buy hundreds of pounds of fertilizer to make a bomb.

Night Moves would have had a great deal more punch had it come out in 1970 at the time of the first Earth Day. Now, 44 years later, it feels like an artifact from another era.

Hmm! I can see what is being said here but I think that the 1970s feel is deliberate. I’ve already suggested that Reichardt is deliberately referencing a 1975 neo noir in Penn’s Night Moves. I think that she is also possibly evoking those paranoia thrillers from the early 1970s such as Pakula’s North West-set The Parallax View (1974), not in terms of similar stories but in that sense of a character who fears being followed and ‘found out’. I’ve not been to Oregon but I get the sense of a persistent possible alternative culture that has survived alongside US capitalism since the 1950s and possibly earlier. Reichardt and Raymond keep worrying away at how people behave in the region and this seems like a film that ‘fits’ a certain kind of auteurist take on the region. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt and music composer Jeff Grace both worked on Reichardt’s earlier Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and Reichardt does her own editing so there is a strong collaborative approach to the story. What will they choose next, I wonder?

Wendy and Lucy (US 2008)

Michelle Williams as Wendy

Michelle Williams as Wendy

Kelly Reichardt’s new film Night Moves opens tomorrow and it seemed an appropriate moment to go back to one of her earlier (critical) successes. Ms Reichardt is in some ways an ‘old school’ independent filmmaker in the US. I’d only seen Meek’s Cutoff, which I liked very much, before watching Wendy and Lucy, so researching what she did earlier and how she has presented herself as a filmmaker since the 1990s has been an interesting experience.

Go to IMDB and there is no ‘biography’ for Kelly Reichardt. You have to read the interviews and articles on the more indy-orientated websites to learn that she left what she describes as the “cultural desert” of her Florida childhood to go to university in Boston. Now she teaches film as well as making her own films – primarily with writing partner Jon Raymond in Oregon. Her formative experiences in the art cinemas of the Boston area and her own classroom explorations seem to have been with the films of Fassbinder, Ozu, Bresson etc. and is intriguing to think that she has mostly worked on very American stories.

Wendy and Lucy is set in small town Oregon with a very simple outline narrative. Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams) arrives in the small town in her beat-up Honda Accord with just her dog Lucy and a couple of bags of clothes. She appears to be on her way to Alaska where she hopes to find a job. But her journey is halted when first she discovers her car won’t start and then she manages to lose her dog. Much of the central part of the (quite short) film is taken up by the search for the dog – and a place to sleep when her car is impounded. It doesn’t sound much but the film is so skilfully constructed (Reichardt edits as well as directs) that it is always worth watching. Wendy is played by the astonishing Michelle Williams. I had to keep reminding myself that this is the same actress who can convince me that she is Marilyn Monroe. Here she is completely believable as the woman who suffers from one setback after another after making a single mistake.

Kelly Reichardt

Kelly Reichardt

Kelly Reichardt has discussed Wendy and Lucy in terms of Italian neo-realism. I can see the logic of this, though I didn’t think about neo-realism as I watched the film. I suppose I reflected on the use of long shots and the detailed observation of the minutiae of Wendy’s routines. I did think about European social realist filmmaking – but also about the American small town setting. On reflection, the images of the potential hostility of these small towns – even in the beautiful setting of the Pacific North West – is something that seems familiar from American literature as well as certain more mainstream films. Bizarrely the first film I thought of was Rambo (First Blood, 1982) and the initial reception given to the Sylvester Stallone character. I hope it’s not too fanciful but Rambo is a returning Vietnam vet entering a small town in Washington state. He is treated with mistrust and shown the door immediately. Wendy faces similar prejudices and also unwisely becomes entangled with the police. Reichardt grew up with a police officer father so it was odd that one aspect of Wendy’s arrest proved the only point when I doubted the ‘truth’ of the story.

At one point Wendy visits a fast-food restaurant and we see a man reading Ken Kesey’s 1964 novel Sometimes a Great Notion. This is an interesting element in the film’s mise en scène. Seen as one of the most important literary works coming out of the American North West, the book was adapted as a film directed by and starring Paul Newman and released at the end of 1970. Set in Oregon it features a family logging business – an ‘independent’ outfit that keeps producing lumber when the local unionised workforce goes on strike. This appears to be an admirable tactic in the context of US politics but from a UK perspective I found watching the film quite difficult despite the excellent cast. Perhaps I didn’t really understand it back then? What does it mean to Kelly Reichardt, I wonder? I mention the reference because Wendy and Lucy has been taken by many critics to be a commentary of some kind on American society in the latter part of George Bush’s presidency and on the cusp of the economic crash.

The film shows Wendy literally on the margins and finding it difficult to move forward. Several commentators have pointed to a crucial scene in which Wendy is given a small gift of a few dollars by the one character who has actually tried to help her. This is indeed an emotional moment. At other times we see Wendy counting the money she carries in a belt around her midriff. She isn’t actually destitute, she has enough to get ‘home’ to Indiana (?) where here notebook records that she started her journey. But apart from a phone conversation with her (rather unfriendly) sister we learn little about the life that Wendy has left behind. The small town at the centre of the story once had a mill, but now jobs are hard to find. There are still flashes of humanity in the responses to Wendy’s predicament but overall people seem to have ‘pulled up the drawbridge’. I should note however that some audiences have seen the film more from the perspective of Wendy’s loneliness than the evidence of insularity and lack of community shown by the townspeople (like all of us perhaps?).

Wendy and Lucy is of course a road movie and that raises expectations. Road movies are both supposed to ‘test’ their protagonists via new adventures and new relationships and to provide the means to escape and self-discovery. While the town itself is nondescript, the romance of Oregon is represented by the railway yards, the single track running through the trees and gorges, the sound of the train whistle and the camaraderie of the temporary camp for travellers. For an 80 minute film that at first glance offers a slight narrative, Wendy and Lucy actually delivers quite a rich viewing experience. I suspect that I will get more from it the next time I watch it.

Press Notes available here.

The official US trailer: