“A Fantastic Woman” makes the heroine’s transgender experience almost incidental to the tragic love story

Sebastian Lelio’s dramatic mystery “A Fantastic Woman” (2017, “Una mujer fantastica”, Chile, in Spanish with subtitles) is up for best foreign language film, and indeed it will keep you from lounging back into your seat.  The story works even if Maria is a cis female woman.  This time, we’ll, maybe “he’s a boy” still.

Orlando (Francisco Reyes), owner of a clothing company (although not of the “Phantom Thread” couture) and apparently separated from his wife, meets the singer Maria (Daniela Vega) at a nightclub. Soon she is moving in.

You’re not quite sure what Orlando likes. They undress, and the film is ambiguous as to what Orlando “knows” before sex.  But in the middle of the night, with her in bed, he becomes ill. He tries to walk and falls down the stairs. Marina drives him to the hospital, where he soon dies of an aneurysm (not clear if it is brain or aortic). The hospital staff and then detectives treat her badly, as is she might be a suspect for his going down the stairs. And his family doesn’t want her around, like for the funeral. Only the dog, Diabla, understands her and she scheme to keep her. Animals (and this include cats) know a lot more about us than we realize.

There is a scene where the police force her to undergo a physical examination. Her chest is more muscle than breast, and there is a faint visual hint of past waxing or laser work in the middle. You don’t really see if the sexual reassignment is complete. But you come away with thinking Orlando must have been passionate about her, even if he didn’t “know” when he took her home. He seems to have remained fully heterosexual.

The film opens with a shot of Iguazu Falls, between Brazil and Argentina; but the possibility of a honeymoon there plays only a minor role in the story.

The film is shot widescreen and is extremely well photographed, with many impressive shots of Santiago as well as the Falls.

The music score, composed by Nani Garcia and Matthew Herbert, offered a lot of feathery impressionistic passage work for a chamber group. In a final scene, Marina returns to singing, this time the moving Largo from Handel’s Xerxes.

There was an episode in the ABC series “Mistresses” in 2016 where a woman says to a transgender man, “I would never date a trans person” and the man orders her out.

Santiago scene, wiki

Iguazu Falls, wiki.

Name:  “A Fantastic Woman”
Director, writer:  Sebastian Lelio
Released:  2017   (Spanish)
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Alamo Drafthouse, One Loudoun, 2019/2/11
Length:  100
Rating:  R
Companies:  Sony Pictures Classics
Link:  official 
Stars:  4/5  ****-

(Posted: Monday, February 12, 2018 at 9:30 PM EST)

“Call Me by Your Name”: a charismatic gay teen and an “adult” writer: coming of age story uplifts but leaves troubling questions

Call Me by Your Name” is a gay love story, about a precocious teen and a 30-ish mature writer. The relationship develops gradually over a summer in Tuscany, and according to the novel by Andre Aciman, as adapted to the screen by James Ivory and director Luca Guadagnino, the tension and “suspense” keep up, too.  It’s harder to do this with a relationship over even several months than something that evolves over a short time like a weekend, as in my story “The Ocelot the Way We Is”, which happens over a weekend in the woods and is interrupted at the end with external catastrophe.  There is a sense of possible ruin here, too, but I’ll come back to that.

Oliver, played by Armie Hammer (one of the bitcoin “Winklevii” from “The Social Network” where he played both twins) arrives for the summer and stays in the home of antiquities professor Perlman (Michael Sthulbarg) almost in Airbnb style. The teenager Elio (Tomothee Chalamet) in fact yields his room to the guest and stays in a connecting room. The host family is Jewish, which the script makes something of but it really doesn’t affect the story.

But Elio is no ordinary teen. He is verbal and well-read, plays concert-level piano (like Nolan in my story) and transcribes piano pieces.  Presumably he composes also. He is particularly interested in his games with a Bach chorale which he transcribes in successive stages as if Liszt, Busoni, and even Poulenc might have treated it.  The soundtrack has piano music of a number of composers including Satie, Ravel, and John Adams.  Chalamet plays the music himself (except some of it sounds like two pianos.) The music credits rolled too fast, and I couldn’t note all the composers or composition names.  Much of the music was eclectic and impressionistic. (I did wonder about all the cigarette smoking, but that was more acceptable in the early 80s than it is now.)

Elio starts spending time biking into town with Oliver and, after Oliver notes his intellect, Elio confesses there is one thing he doesn’t “know”.  In fact, during the course of the film he gets laid heterosexually and seems to have been serious about girlfriends. But he also is starting to fall in love with Oliver.

Elio is 17, which in Italy would be over the age of consent.  Although the camera emphasizes the difference in ages, it is Elio who is a bit seductive and Oliver cautious. Were this to happen in the US where the age of consent is 18, there would indeed be a legal angle (which my controversial script “The Sub” raised when I was substitute teaching a decade ago).  Keep in mind that Elio is presented as extremely gifted and charismatic, almost as much as possible for any teen.  The film at one point shows a sign indicating the year of 1981, which was the first year that CDC reported AIDS, and you wonder at the end what might happen in the future, especially if Oliver had already been infected.  There is a curious scene in the middle of the film where Elio has a severe nosebleed, but that doesn’t go anywhere.  In the epilogue, Elio’s father actually becomes supportive of Elio’s direction in life, to come out.

Tuscany coast, Wiki .

Name:  “Call Me By Your Name”
Director, writer:  Luca Guadagnino, James Ivory, Andre Aciman
Released:  2017/12
Format:  1.85:1;  English, French, Italian, German; set in 1981 in Italy
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, 2017/12/20 late PM fair crowd
Length:  132
Rating:  R
Companies:  Sony Pictures Classics, Frenesy, Cinefacture
Link:  official 

The theater offered a 10-minute short before the show from Marriot’s “Storybooked” series about artist Paula Wilson, “Weaving Threads Between the Ancient and Contemporary”, filmed in the Andes in Peru, stressing barren landscapes with copper-red mountains as well as Inca ruins and weaved clothing.

(Posted: Wednesday, December 20, 2017, at 10:30 PM EST)

“Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House”: slow, stage-like back-story of “Deep Throat” whistleblower on Watergate

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House”, directed by Peter Landesman, and based on the autobiography of Mark Felt and John D. O’Connor (by this name, as well as “A G-Man’s Life: The FBI, Being ‘Deep Throat”, and the Struggle for Honor in Washington”.

Mark Felt was the FBI special agent who became the whistleblower who broke open the Watergate scandal.  Felt did not reveal his role publicly until a Vanity Fair article by O’Connor in 2005.

The film is slow-paced and studious, mostly indoors (actually the studios in Atlanta were used), often darkly lit, the furniture plain. It is rather like a stage play. Felt (Liam Neeson), shortly after the Watergate breakin in June 1972, becomes aware that the White House is interfering with the independence of the FBI, particularly in scenes with acting director Patrick Gray (Martom Csokas.  A few weeks before the 1972 election, he makes the famous (“Deep Throat“, as named after the infamous porno film, which I actually saw on Times Square in 1975) pay phone call to Bob Woodward (Julian Morris).  There’s no effect on the landslide in 1972, because Nixon is able to paint the protesters as essentially pinko radicals.

But after the election, moving into 1973, things unravel pretty quickly.  The film telescopes the final months of Nixon’s presidency, which I personally remember well because I was going through a major transition in my own life, having “come out” a second time.  I would start a new job at NBC that would lead to my moving into Greenwich Village the Monday after Nixon’s resignation.

Diane Lane plays Mark’s wife Audrey, and yet you get the feeling that their marriage has become an afterthought.  The script does mention all the scandals underneath J. Edgar Hoover, whose passing is honored early in the film (early 1972).  The script probably just barely hints at the idea that Hoover was likely homosexual himself.

The film never depicts Nixon with an actor, or even Carl Bernstein.

The film is not quite as eventful as “All the President’s Men” (1976, Warner Brothers) by Alan J. Pakula, based on the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

Name: “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House”
Director, writer:  Peter Landesman, Mark Felt, John O’Connor
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, 2017/10/6, late, small audience
Length: 105
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Sony Pictures Classics, Endurance Media, Playtone
Link:  official

(Posted: Saturday, October 7, 2017 at 10:30 AM EDT)

“Land of Mine”: Allies treat German teenage prisoners of war as personally responsible for what Hitler made them do

Land of Mine”, as a title in English, is a pun; the original title of this film by Martin Zandvliet is “Under Sand” (“Unter dem Sand”  or “Under Sandet”) tells us more, that this is a movie centered around landmines buried “On the Beach”.

In May 1945, just about the time that German surrenders, Danish NCO Sgt, Carl Ramussen (Roland Moller) is tasked by Allied lieutenant Ebbe (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) to supervise a task of captured German POW’s to low-crawl the beach and defuse every landmine with a careful procedure. The Germans had apparently expected D-Day on the Danish coast.

The prisoners are mostly teenage boys (they look young and physically vulnerable, even fungible) , and they are forced to work without food for a long time, and locked into their barracks a night, not even able to pee.  Ramussen says he is not their friend, and that he doesn’t care about them personally.

But what seems even more remarkable is that he talks as if he (and all the other Danes) hold the boys personally, each and every one, responsible for what the Germans (that is, Hitler) did. The treatment of the boys would violate the Geneva convention.

In time, there are casualties and death.  It’s horrible.  But the boys have maps, and one of the boys invents a tool to help find the mines faster.  The boys have been promised they can go home to Germany after they finish.

But when Ebbe returns, the Sergeant has finally started to have some empathy for the boys.  When Ebbe insists on keeping the survivors (after a horrible “accident” which may have been set up) the Sergeant has, for him, an unprecedented moral dilemma.

The film was nominated for best foreign language film at the Oscars.

Info Table:

Name:  “Land of Mine”
Director, writer:  Martin Zandvliet
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Cinema Arts Fairfax, 2017/3/11, afternoon, large audience (theater remodeled with reclining seats and digital projection)
Length:  100
Rating:  R
Companies:  Sony Pictures Classics
Link:  official

(Picture: Ocean City, MD, mine, 2010)

(Posted: Saturday, March 11, 2017 at 6:30 PM EST)

“Eat that Question: Frank Zappa in his own Words”: a composer who bridges classical and popular music and insists on his own message

Eat that Question: Frank Zappa in his own Words” (2016), directed by Thorsten Schutte, is a useful biography of composer Frank Zappa (1940-1993), comprising mostly of his own interviews.

As these talks were taped years ago (many around his 40th birthday, when he was already married for 14 years and had four kids, and still insisted on crusading for free speech or all) the film is shot in the narrow 1.37.1, giving it a bit of a home-movie look.

Zappa fused rock music with that of some prominent modern composers, especially, he says, Stravinsky, Webern, and particularly Varese.  That means, though, that his classical music is pretty radical.  Webern had been much more radical than Schoenberg and Berg, eschewing the remnants of opulent post-romanticism that had remained possible, even enhanced, with dodecaphonic atonality.

But a lot of his music is “practical”, or “gebrauchsmusik”, such as a piece with bicycles shown early.  Zappa often talks about how writing and composing is not “work” but self-expression. He notes the controversy over how composers have to get commissions to make a living.  The music “business”, he says, creates products, not music.  He admits that artists are viewed as “useless adjuncts”, until they do something commercial like write jingles for Coca Cola.

I would put all this together and say my own “amateur” large scale compositions are post-romantic (at least later in life, with the Third Sonata), and there really is no market in the “business” for post-romantic music today, even from “established” composers.

So Zappa would be critical of the mentality of hucksterism, where people demonstrate their power over others to do deals in business for the sake of money only (previous film).  Zappa would not get along with today’s; Donald Trump.

Toward the end, Zappa engages in “self-publishing” as he arranges for an orchestra in London too perform one of his works.  He did this for himself, and feels that it is OK that he paid for this himself, that it  did not have to be commissioned by others.

Zappa’s lyrics became controversial because of some occasional “bad words”.  Zappa testified before the Senate in 1985 about the Parents Music Resource Center, or PMRC, founded by Tipper Gore, concerning a proposed rating system for records,

Zappa’s politics were somewhat we would call libertarian today.

At one point, Zappa speculates that his whole compositional output is like one continuous work, or “process piece” (a term used in 2015 by composer Timo Andres in a famous tweet about the time of that composer’s “Blind Barrister” piano concerto, which I have not yet heard in entirety).

Name: Eat that Question: Frank Zappa in his own Words
Director, writer:  Thorsten Schutte
Released:  2016
Format:  1.37:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix DVD, 2017/1/21
Length:  95
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Sony Pictures Classics
Link:  official

Wikipedia picture of Zappa bust in Lithuania.

(Posted: Sunday, January 22, 2017 at 4:45 PM EST)

“The Hollars”: dramedy about a family that can’t afford to bypass the risks of “real life”


Name: “The Hollars”
Director, writer:  John Krasinsski, Jim Strouse
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  2016/9/3, Shirlington theater, Sunday evening, fair audience
Length 88
Rating PG-13
Companies: Sycamore, Sony Pictures Classics
Link: official site

John Krasinski has gotten media attention recently for the “break” that started his movie career and rescued him from bartending.

Indeed, his first major film, “The Hollars“, as a director is a slice of “real life”.  No spectators, except paying moviegoers, wanted.

John plays a 30-something artist John Hollar working as an editor for Routledge (a well known New York non-fiction book publisher) and trying to get his own graphic novel published.  He notes how hard it is to prove to others you have the talent.  His girl friend Rebecca (Anna Kendrick) is eight months pregnant.  It seems as though they haven’t tied the knot because he could have feelings for an earlier girl friend back in Mississippi (where John Grisham hails from). I have a situation a bit like this at the onset of my own sci-fi screenplay “Titanium” (where the finance disappears and “goes up”).

He gets a call at work (just like I did) of his mother’s illness, from his older brother, 40-something Ron (Sharlto Copley).  In fact, the first shot in the film has been Ron’s hairy bod, in the bathroom, confronted with his mom (Margo Martindale) on the floor, paralyzed.  We know that this film will not focus on pretty people or fantasy material.

What follows is a comedy about a dysfunctional family, with multiple affairs.  The brothers’ dad Don (Richard Jenkins) runs a plumbing contracting business, which is going broke and not paying its employees.   Ron has divorced his wife, and wants to spy on his two kids (even recreate the family bed) in the home of rival pastor Dan, Josh Groban (the most attractive male in the film, of course).

Rebecca even takes a cab all the way to Mississippi (you can do that, and I wondered about Uber) to rejoin John.

The only intellectual (besides the pastor) is the surgeon Dr. Fong (Randall Park).  Mom gets a lot of gratuitous attention from the kids, even a head shave, before her brain surgery.  But then all will not be necessarily well.

This is a drama about “real people” who don’t have the luxury of getting everything right before taking what seem like unwise risks.

Picture: Tupelo, MS after 2014 tornado, mine

(Posted: Monday, September 5, 2016 at 7:30 PM EDT)

“The Meddler”: helicopter parent of a young screenwriter sees a lot about “the business”


Name: The Meddler
Director, writer: Lorene Scarfia (dir, wr)
Released: 2016
Format: film (2:35.1)
When and how viewed: theater, Angelika Fairfax, light audience
Companies: Sony Pictures Classics, Anonymous Content, Stage 6
Office site: link

There is a scene late in “The Meddler” where lonely, recently widowed Marnie (a rather Hitchcock-like name, as played by Susan Sarandon) has really gotten into interacting with a bedridden old lady as a hospital volunteer, where she explains the career and job of her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne) as a television sitcom screenwriter. Writers pitch storylines (and loglines), get contracts to write scripts – often pilots and initial episodes of television series – and may get the work, and it may get released on commercial television or, if a movie, get money, get into the festival circuit, and finally get distribution.

It’s “Risky Business” (to refer to the 1983 movie with Tom Cruise), and there are more stable ways to make a living.

The film doesn’t mention that television writing may be harder than movie scripting, because scenes have to be of such precise length for commercial breaks.  Imagine writing for a soap opera (like my favorite “Days of our Lives”) for a living.


But the film does make a loop-the-loop trip back to New York to show the actual taping of a television sitcom Pilot, and how the work is done.  (I know a little about this, having worked “strike duty” when NABET was out in 1976, on the soap opera “Somerset”, while employed in I.T. by NBC.) She’s even careless to overlook double entendre in front of the TSA when returning to LA and says she had “shot a pilot”.


Anyway, Lori shows mom her home office, and says, “I need to write”.  And she begs to get her own life back. There’s actually a smartphone app based on the Twitter handle “#need-mom”, but this film didn’t “need” it.

Marnie is the opposite of me. (Lori is of my personality type – too bad I’m not hetereosexual.)  She needs social validation, so she has moved from New York (or New Jersey) to Los Angeles after her husband’s passing to “get to know her daughter”, and she certainly makes herself unwelcome.

It’s pretty predictable that the way out is to meet another man, the wiry ex-cop Zipper (J. K. Simmons. The nemesis band teacher from “Whiplash”).   Does Lori go on to earn an Emmy? I’d rather do an Oscar.

First picture: View of the 405 from Angelino Hotel in LA (my trip, 2012).

Second picture: NYC near the Park Central Hotel around 56th (mine, 2015)

Third picture: Over AZ desert (2012, from plane)

(Published: Thursday, May 5, 2016, at 5 PM EDT)