[What Did Jaci Think? Late March]

First off, I recently took the opportunity to participate in Directed by Women’s year-long communal blogging initiative, and I encourage all of you to participate by writing your own reflection, 365 words or less, on a film (or short! Or episode of television!) directed by a woman in the 21st century which you deem to be crucial. You can message me with any questions about the process; if my imposter syndrome can make it through, anyone’s can. I want to read your work!

I wrote about Rama Burshtein’s crucial romcom The Wedding Plan. I love this movie, as everyone should.

Onward! More Than Blue, a remake of a Korean film I have not seen, is an honestly absurd story about two friends who are secretly in love with each other. When K learns that, like his deceased father, he has cancer, he decides to keep it a secret and get Cream married off to a nice guy so she’ll be taken care of when he’s gone. Look, I’m not recommending that anyone see this, but I will freely admit that it features gorgeous people crying a lot while wearing beautiful sweaters, and the night I saw it that was exactly what I needed.

Pulling up the IMDb page for The Crossing, I was astonished to see it was the first feature from writer/director Bai Xue. I hope this is the beginning of a long career. The Crossing is the story of a teen girl who lives in Shenzhen and goes to school in Hong Kong. There are a number of crossings at work in the film: from child to adulthood, daily back and forth through customs, and from a side hustle in phone cases and screen protector application to smuggling phones from Hong Kong to the mainland. It’s a strong debut, a woman-focused film with elements of noir, and a frankly terrifying scene when she needs to get a broken screen replaced. I can’t wait to see what Bai Xue does next.

I’ve talked a lot about Us in the real world, so here I’ll just highlight a few things: 1) nominate Lupita you cowards 2) also please create an award for choreographer/movement consultant Madeline Hollander 3) there are a lot of ideas here and seeing it a second time pays off, seeing how everything ties together 4) I will read every piece everyone writes about this movie forever.

French near-future disaster movie A Breath Away provides an unexpected argument in favor of upzoning. After an earthquake, Paris is filled with a heavy, poison gas. If you’re on the top floor, you will survive (for now, at least). The story centers on a family, separated parents who are still very close, caring for their teen daughter who has a respiratory disorder which requires her to live in a bubble. They make some bad decisions, or so it seems to me, a sworn victim living outside of the movie, but it was fascinating as non-Hollywood genre films often are.

It’s very French in terms of how characters relate to weapons, and there are a few scenes where you can imagine how different an American film handling the same premise might be. This film keeps the story intimate in both character and location. Bonus: it features Romain Duris in full-on hot dad mode.

Giant Little Ones is a small Canadian film about a boy who has an undefined sexual encounter with his best friend on his seventeenth birthday, and then tries to figure out what (if anything) it means. His father is played by Kyle MacLachlan, an absent parent who doesn’t want to be, and who’s later-in-life coming out adds another wrinkle to this complex story about sexuality. It’s also complex on gender – our lead has a close friend who is AFAB, but MOC and maybe trans. While some folks will probably be frustrated by the lack of firm conclusions on either point, I appreciated a more fluid story. A lot of people don’t have answers to those questions by seventeen. When I was seventeen, I didn’t even know there were questions! Anyway. Also, Kyle MacLachlan made me cry, damn him. He has a lovely scene reminiscent of Michael Stuhlbarg’s speech at the end of Call Me By Your Name, though of course MacLachlan’s character made a different choice.

I didn’t know I was seeing Transit until it happened, and my regret about that is I didn’t have a chance to rewatch Barbara & Phoenix ahead of time. Transit is the end of that loose trilogy, also a WWII story, but set loosely, eerily, fittingly, in present day Europe. Even the tech – or lack thereof – is unsettling; there are surveillance cameras, for example, but no cell phones. Georg is trying to get out of the country with the assistance of two dead men, and as we learn eventually, he’s not even telling his own story. It’s haunting.

For home viewing, obviously Shrill, which I’m delighted to report has been renewed, thank you Hulu.

Also, I tried Operator, which has been in my Netflix queue for ages. I added it for Martin Starr, but it turned out to be a movie about how he didn’t deserve to be married to Mae Whitman, and also where Cameron Esposito scared the shit out of him (this part was deserved). Opening the IMDb page now I’m actually annoyed all over again by the movie, this time by the framing: “Joe, a programmer and obsessive self-quantifier, and Emily, a budding comedy performer, are happily married until they decide to use one another in their work.” No. They’re in a codependent relationship until he asks her to provide the voice for an automated phone system, at which point he decides he prefers interacting with the AI of his wife rather than with his actual wife, and she uses improv to process this bullshit. Whitman was really great in it (and Esposito was a treat!), but Starr’s character needed a lot of therapy and less sympathy from the film.

[What Did Jaci Think? Early March]

First off, for International Women’s Day I participated in a women-in-film dinner party with Screen Queens. Find out why I want to have dinner with Alice Wu here.

Also, the month started off with the 10th annual Nordic Lights Film Festival, & I tackled some of those titles here.

Onward!

The Legend of the Demon Cat was about three different movies in one, but it was gorgeous and it featured a lengthy flashback with Hiroshi Abe doing a lot of brooding, which was an unlooked-for treat.

My review of Captain Marvel varied depending on who I was talking to. For straight people: “For a Marvel film, it’s a solid B. Better than Wonder Woman, because she wasn’t motivated by a man.” For queer people: “It was so gay. SO GAY.” My main issue with it is that “Just a Girl” was a bad call for scoring a fight. Get some Liz Phair in there for fuck’s sake. Also, I genuinely wonder if all the MRA-types who are pissed about it being *~political~* insofar that it centers women even noticed that it was political insofar as it centered refugees. WAIT one more thing. De-aged Sam Jackson was fine with me except when he ran, and then it was serious TFA Harrison Ford vibes. Lucky for Fury, there are better building standards in the MCU.

In between two sold-out opening weekend shows of Captain Marvel, we spent all day at the Egyptian for the SciFi Fantasy Short Film Festival, always a treat. My faves this year were 10 Minute Time Machine (for its humor, its humanity, and its perfect ending), Who’s Who in Mycology (for its gorgeous, clever design), Brian & Charles (for its deeply awkward friendship and home-grown robot), Final Offer (for its navigation of bureaucracy), and The Restrictor (for its Nordic as fuck premise). Pro tip to everyone submitting to SFFSFF: I never want to see the first episode of your webseries or your pitch to make a feature. I just want to see a self-contained short. Thank you.

I didn’t entirely buy the answer to the mystery in Everybody Knows, but it’s such a great cast & such a lived-in setting, that it almost didn’t matter. Everybody does know everything about everyone all the way back, and the undercurrent of what they are and are not talking about was palpable. Plus it’s always a treat to see Ricardo Darin on the big screen.

Vietnamese martial arts film Furie features a straightforward Taken-style plot (apparently, though I’ve never seen Taken), but with terrific action scenes and, to my delight, *lady* gang bosses. Hai Phuong has left the gang life behind and is scraping together a living in the country as a debt collector – never the most popular person in a community – but when her young daughter is kidnapped she fights her way to and through Saigon to save her. It was extremely my jam.

Unlike First Man, where I wished I had seen it on a smaller screen, Apollo 11 demands the largest screen you can find. Created from original footage of the Apollo 11 mission, including 65mm, it’s just gorgeous. Like They Shall Not Grow Old, it becomes more immediate by sticking to the past, by using only original footage and news coverage and eschewing talking heads. It honors the work of everyone who contributed to the mission, sometimes through split screens tracking multiple teams at work in a given moment. It is obvious in retrospect, but I had never thought of the astronauts also as filmmakers. Apollo 11 is a time machine in the best way.

Captive State, I’m sorry to report, was boring, which is kinda bullshit for a movie that opens with an alien invasion. I saw it because I figured you can’t go wrong with John Goodman and aliens, and because I had an A-List slot free, but I almost walked out twice and really, I should have done it. The aforementioned invasion starts us off, we get some background details via emails/message boards under the credits, and then we’re about a decade post-invasion, the aliens have taken over, and another uprising is on the horizon.

It’s frustrating because there are so many hints of interesting worldbuilding – the semi-organic tracking system, the grimy tech of the near-future setting, the idea of the aliens as legislators rather than explicitly dictators – but it just doesn’t work. We don’t see enough of the aliens (though I dug their character design), we don’t get to know any of the characters outside of their role as cogs either for or against the machine, and it flat-out wastes Goodman, Vera Farmiga (a scene related to her is the second time I almost walked out), and even KiKi Layne (I was so excited to see her, and then she had one scene and nothing to do in it!). Disappointing.

Not disappointing, however, was Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, as long as you go in with expectations of cheese. It’s a teen Hallmark mystery, by which I mean it’s very white middle class, it fetishizes small-town living, and it’s overall pretty goofy, but it’s also damn fun and centers friendships between the girls. Also important: this Nancy is the soft butch detective of all our childhood dreams. She’s introduced while skateboarding! She’s often in flannel, plus there’s one scene where she’s in disguise as a plumber and another where she wears her dad’s suit coat! And at the end she talks about how she’s excited to have a break from detecting to talk about Instagram, nail polish, and boys, and everyone laughs because obviously she is not interested in any of those things. Bless.

I haven’t read a Nancy Drew book in twenty years (at least), so I have no interest in attempting to critique it as an adaptation, but as a teen girl centered mystery? Yes, this is my jam. Bring on Nancy Drew and the Mystery at the Lilac Inn, thank you very much.

[Nordic Lights Film Festival 2019]

In its tenth year, the Nordic Lights Film Festival made the jump from the Film Center to Uptown 2, a welcome change! It meant moving the festival off of MLK weekend to a post-award season date, but it also meant not turning anyone away, and, most thrilling to me, *leg room*. I’ve enjoyed seeing this festival grow, and I hope it will start drawing in some younger attendees as well.

The opening night feature, Woman at War, was the best of the series, and I’m glad to see it’s getting a regular run. It’s an Icelandic film about Halla, an eco warrior fighting against an aluminum smelting plant in her community. It opens with a great action sequence where she takes down the power source with an arrow and a cable, then flees the law with the assistance of a sheep farmer who may or may not be her cousin.

Though it deals with serious issues, it takes the tone of a fairy tale. Halla sees herself as a hero, and so she is, even at one point cueing her own score. All music turns out to be diegetic, causing a lighthearted moment right away when the action score heightens… and Halla runs past the band, sitting in the countryside, playing as they watch her go. They and a trio of Ukrainian folk singers both underscore and undercut her self-importance.

Halla’s heroism is also called into question by Juan Camillo Roman Estrada’s “foreign national”, a character who is repeatedly detained under suspicion of everything Halla’s done. I think the film intends this as a criticism of her lack of awareness of the unintended consequences of her actions, but it veered too close to being played for laughs for me to be fully comfortable with it.

In the end, though, it’s a clever, moving, beautifully shot film that features a 50 year old woman as a complicated action hero (and also as her own twin sister). We are blessed.

Wonderland was remarkably un-Christmas-y for all it was set at Christmas. Two friends – one of whom’s marriage may or may not be ending – spend the holiday on a farm, which is run by a young family presenting a Christmas experience as a way to earn more money. It’s messy, ultimately safe, but not too tidy, basically a rougher, Nordic Nancy Meyers movie.

I spent most of the runtime of Handle with Care desperately hoping that someone would get this guy into therapy. It’s a Norwegian film about a couple who adopts a young boy from Columbia, and when she dies in an accident, neither father nor son handle it well. But, you know, I’m Norwegian. I get it. Repress repress repress!

It stars Kristoffer Joner of The Wave, who reminds me of a leaner, Norwegian Norman Reedus. Kristoffer Bech, Cutest Child Alive, plays his son Daniel, and since we only see them after the death of the wife & mother it’s hard to tell if the strained connection (and often outright rejection) between them is a mourning issue (see above re therapy) or indications they had never really bonded. Basically, it’s very stressful and everyone should be in therapy, thank you.

East of Sweden should have been my jam, but it was deeply frustrating because the majority of the plot hung on two men lying constantly to a woman about what happened to the father of her child. While I get that, sure, one might not want to confess to either committing or witnessing accidental manslaughter while also dealing drugs or trying to get out of one country and into another without papers for either, but then! Maybe do not get involved with the dead guy’s girlfriend! Just don’t do it.

[What Did Jaci Think? Late February]

In case you missed it, I spun off this year’s Noir City into its own post. Enjoy that bitter little world over here.

Onward!

There will be more Nordic film soon when I post my coverage of the 10th Annual Nordic Lights Film Festival, but Silent Movie Mondays provided a terrific kickoff to it with the Norwegian silent epic Laila. Based on a novel, it’s the story of a Norwegian girl who is raised from infancy in a Sami community & finds herself torn between the two cultures when she grows up.

Though it deals in some tropes about the Sami people, it is surprisingly empathetic for 1929. I was a little nervous about a nearly three hour long silent film, but it is consistently interesting, both in terms of the story and the cinematography of the snow-covered landscape, and it even includes multiple, highly effective action scenes shot with sled-mounted cameras. Obligatory gay note: Laila definitely had more chemistry with a shopgirl than with either of the male suitors; she went into the shop & addressed her firmly with: “I like your face. Let’s be friends.” And it worked!

This year’s snow-capped survival movie, Arctic, is tight and tense, and is carried entirely by a gently competent Mads Mikkelsen. He’s been eking out an existence on the ice after a plane crash, but when a helicopter crashes nearby, leaving one woman badly injured, he decides to risk taking action to bring her to safety.

It’s not remotely a romance, which is a refreshing change, and they do not have a language in common (though she is in little condition to speak anyway). He is very tender with her, displayed in many small moments that I appreciated. He holds her gently before he lays her down in his shelter, almost but not quite a hug, not creepy or exploitative, but just a brief moment of human contact for a man who has been without it for so long. He finds a family photo on the helicopter and repeatedly puts it in her line of sight. The softness in the character, beyond what would be hoped for basic caregiving, was a lovely touch.

Fighting with My Family, the biopic of the rise of WWE star Paige, was an entertaining while by-the-books sports movie with a highly likeable cast. Wrestling is still unlikely to ever be my jam, but this movie did give me a greater appreciation for the hard work that these stars put in and the degree to which the whole production is just storytelling. Storytelling I understand.

Greta is a hoot, but the vibe in my theater was that it was wasted on the apparently straight audience. Because here’s the thing: it was pretty gay. Aside from the near camp of it, there are no boyfriends, very few men, and maybe one scene where men talk to each other? And their topic is the women! Chloë Grace Moretz and her roommate (scream queen Maika Monroe) met at Smith. I mean. What more do you need? Isabelle Huppert repeatedly confessing her love? Okay, you get that too!

The set-up is Greta leaves handbags around the city to trick kindhearted young woman into returning them and thus getting lured into her orbit as …a friend? An object of her overbearing affection? A daughter substitute? Perhaps all three. And it quickly turns into a stalking story, where the NYPD is just as useless as anyone might expect. People are free to stand on the street, eat at restaurants, chew gum in the hallway, and eventually dance in stockinged feet as a sedative takes you crashing to the floor. The ending was perfection and I was thoroughly entertained.

In the world of TV I attempted a show that shall not be named that many love, but I quit in the middle of the third episode. I realized I didn’t care about any of the characters and in fact I was irritated by all of them. I am not even going to ask if it gets better. It’s fine. We don’t all have to like the same things. I’ll just keep pretending I’m going to watch it someday and you can pretend that you believe me.

But what makes a character irritating? Who knows. Because I also watched Crashing through twice this month, even though at least half of those characters are actively, intentionally irritating (“You’re quirky” “Thanks, I try really hard!”). Crashing is also infuriating because it runs only six episodes, it ends at a major pivot point for everyone, and then, cruelest of all, THERE IS ALMOST NO FANFICTION. For the love. Please someone write me some decent Crashing fic before I die of waiting. Thank you very much.

[Noir City 2019]

Noir City rolled into town last month with 20 movies in 7 days. I saw all of them which was a first (usually they have some repeats and usually I skip at least one, neither of which happened). It was also possibly a terrible idea from which my apartment will never recover.

It did turn out that I had seen two titles almost ten years ago, but I didn’t realize it until twenty minutes in, when suddenly the endings came rushing back to me. This is easy to do with film noir – many films have titles that bear little connection to the actual story. Plus, many films have similar titles, lots of “night” and “murder” and “dark” and “city”, and even this series had one day where three of the four movies had “kiss” in the title. So, considering how long I’ve been attending, only two surprise repeats was pretty good.

I’m not going to write about all twenty because who cares, but my favorites were usually the ones that were gay or the ones who had particularly great women, surprise surprise.

Private Hell 36 is one of a few dirty cop movies this time around, but the best one because a) Ida Lupino and b) it was pretty gay. Jack (Howard Duff) and Cal (Steve Cochran) are partners, they drink out of the same cup, they’re constantly referred to as boyfriends (and aren’t bothered about it), and when one decides they’re going to steal cash from a crime scene, the other isn’t thrilled, but also he doesn’t put up a fuss. Be gay, do crimes, amirite? Ida Lupino, who cowrote the picture, is of course terrific, a nightclub singer who jams her unused cigarette holder in her bra & complains about how this is her first time losing a man to another man. Also, there’s this poster:

In The Crimson Kimono, the murder of a dancer at the top of the picture is almost incidental to the love triangle. Again, the two men are partners, but also they’ve been together since the Korean War (where one gave blood to save the other’s life!) and not only do they live together, they clearly are planning on doing so forever: they put their money into their home & they talk about how things will be easier when one of them makes sergeant. The marketing angle on the picture is that one of the detectives is of Japanese heritage, with taglines playing up “an American girl and a Japanese boy!” and though the text of the film argues that race is the challenge they need to get over to be together, the emotions are clear: the true issue is the betrayal of falling in love with someone new, a witness in the case. Also James Shigeta is a dreamboat. This is my jam.

Based on a play by Sidney Kingsley, William Wyler’s Detective Story is nearly a bottle story of a film, spending the vast majority of a single night in a single location: the squad room. Lee Grant’s unnamed shoplifter stole the show and my heart from the beginning, but moved me most at the end when a guy is getting fingerprinted and she tells the young girl who’s sweet on him not to worry, that it doesn’t hurt. Bless.

The primary plot involves Kirk Douglas chewing some scenery as he pursues a butcher of an abortionist who turns out to have a connection to his wife, but the real gold is all of the side characters, from the shoplifter to the other detectives (especially William Bendix) to a pair of burglars.

There’s a lot happening on screen all the time, and the whole picture feels very lived-in, both in the characters relationships to each other and to the set itself. There’s a bit where an officer keeps catching the gate behind him with his foot before it hits him, and in the moment you believe that he’s worked in that station for years. It reminded me of how the characters in After the Storm instinctively ducked when others opened the refrigerator. A beautiful detail.

You can’t have a film noir festival without some femmes fatales, and the best this year were Barbara Stanwyck (of course!) getting her claws into Wendell Corey in The File on Thelma Jordon (tagline: “no man really knows a woman like her, but every many goes for a woman like her!), also Jean Simmons in Angel Face, hard to watch now knowing how poorly she was treated on set by Preminger. Art doesn’t justify abuse, but Simmons deserves all the praise.

Other favorites: The Well, not technically a noir, but with a noir vibe. A young black girl is missing. We know she’s fallen down a disused well, but the town thinks a white unemployed miner (Henry Morgan) might have harmed her. Biases lead to rumors lead to incidents that are blown up into bigger rumors that lead to more violence, ever farther away from helping the actual child and when, deep in the film, one character asked, “what little girl?” the entire house gasped. You don’t get that experience at home.

Odds Against Tomorrow, a nicely structured heist movie starring Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan. They have parallel introductions, where you learn everything about each character by how they interact with children playing outside, the building staff (especially the elevator operator), and then the heist organizer (Ed Begley) himself. Extra points for young Cicely Tyson behind the bar, Gloria Grahame just in general, and Mae Barnes performing “All Men Are Evil”, which has yet to leave my head.

And a few classics: Pickup on South Street (always love me some Richard Widmark, and Thelma Ritter was perfection) and Pushover (Fred MacMurray, dirty cop!

Finally, I’ve recently been added to the staff recs wall at the Egyptian (a tremendous honor, for real), so here’s my Noir City pick