Sketch a Portrait of a Lady on Fire

First off, a small quibble on the title. The French is Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, or portrait of a young lady/girl. No big deal, but is it too much to ask to have the same title? Does everything have to be marketing? The movie’s in French, so stick to the translation.

That aside, I liked this movie. I very much liked it, though I’m not over-the-moon as so many critics seem to be. Peter Travers:

Some critics have referred to the film as “Call Me by Your Name with corsets.”  But Sciamma, whose exemplary work on Water LiliesTomboy and Girlhood mark her as a major talent, paints the movie with unrivaled delicacy and feeling. From the costumes by Dorothée Guiraud to the stunning camera work by Claire Mathon (who deservedly won the cinematography award from the New York Film Critics Circle), Portrait of a Lady on Fire is enthralling on every level. In her hypnotic and haunting film, alive with humor, heartbreak and swooning sensuality, Sciamma has created nothing less than a timeless work of art

A little much, methinks. Recalls how critics tripped over themselves with Much Ado About Nothing. Very different film here, of course. And not to give any more credit to the dismal Academy Awards than necessary, but the French didn’t even enter Portrait as their official submission — so they didn’t consider it some great masterpiece. Timeless, masterpiece — give me a break.

But did I mention I really liked it? 8/10

PS: That would put it in the top 5 of 2019, but I am annoyed at all this late release nonsense. When it’s time to make my 2020 list, I’ll decide where to put Portrait.

Comparison Notes: Phantom Thread, The Lighthouse, The English Patient, The Little Hours, Shakespeare in Love, Il Postino, La Cérémonie

Fresh & Fit, Queen & Slim

There’s a lot to like in Queen & Slim. The base story is not particularly original, but the film has a fresh feel and authenticity to the relationship of our couple on the run. The romantic development is nicely handled, and it’s got a good vibe.

Never did the film slip into corniness, but neither was it ever quite edge-of-your-seat, except during that first pullover scene. You’re invested into these two, but the whole journey isn’t as harrowing as it ought to be. The worst part was that the theory of the rope is played a little two often, and the conclusion is trite. There’s also a sense I had in a couple moments that the movie was pandering to a black audience. Michelle Goldberg, an opinion columnist, not a film critic, of the Times wrote:

I left a recent matinee of “Queen & Slim,” the mesmerizing new outlaw romance directed by Melina Matsoukas, astonished on two levels. The film itself kept me rapt; I cried through the end and left the theater with the dazed, disoriented feeling you get when a movie makes you momentarily forget everything else in your life. But as amazed as I was by the experience of watching the film, I was equally amazed that it got made at all.

Talk about overstating it. I wonder what one of the better Lars von Trier films would do to her. It’s almost like this was only the eleventh or twelfth movie she’s ever seen. That hackneyed ending should not make anyone who reads my blog cry.

(Minor) SPOILER ALERT: Side note: where did this title come from? Neither character is ever referred to as Queen or Slim in the entire picture. And I get the Queen thing, but Daniel Kaluuya isn’t particularly slim. He’s not overweight or anything, but neither is he a string bean. I really like the title, but can you throw me a bone sometime during the movie?


I was at a 7 for most of the film, rising to an 8 at times, but the conclusion was a letdown. A lot of lovely elements, including the settings and the music. A dance-club scene takes you under its beat. By the end the swampy story elements add up to a knock-down. 6/10

Comparison Notes: Thelma & Louise, Wild at Heart, Breaking the Waves

If A Star Is Born, I’d like to see it happen

A Star Is Born is more sketches of a movie instead of a movie.  It was like watching actors in acting school: here’s the intro bar scene, here’s the big conflict scene etc.  Each of these scenes works on its own, but one scene to another is pieced together in a forced, inorganic manner.  There is no natural flow to the movie.

Worse, “A Star Is Born” to me is supposed to be about a latent talent finding her voice.  Lady Gaga is clearly a star from scene 1 — which makes the film fail its entire premise.  There is no “birth” to be found.  Indeed, the perfection of her singing is a major part of what is wrong with this picture.  She’s never anything short of a pro.

More bad stuff: she’s got no character flaws.  Even her husband has only one.  It’s not exactly tricky screenwriting to put in a character flaw or two.  Lady Gaga’s character is perfect in all ways — which besides being unrealistic, is a little boring.

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I do marginally recommend A Star Is Born on the strength of Lady Gaga’s absolutely sublime songs and singing, and very good acting.  Her character is completely endearing, and I see an Oscar nod in the offing.  Bradley Cooper’s performance is strong as well, unlike his story development.

So to conclude… A Star Is Born is a borderline disaster with Lady Gaga’s performance as its saving grace.  I would much rather watch 2 hours of Lady Gaga on stage.  I guess there’s a way to do that called going to a concert.  6/10

Comparison Notes: Whiplash, Crazy Heart, Blaze, Love and Mercy, Ray, Walk the Line, Little Voice, Il Postino

Blaze of something less than glory

Telling your audience at the very beginning of the movie that the star of the film is now dead, and how he died, doesn’t help your plot development a whole lot.  That glitch is emblematic of the weight holding down Ethan Hawke’s Blaze.

Which is too bad, because Blaze had an impact on me.  It is richly textured and filled with outstanding performances, especially the central one.  On top of that, I loved the music.  It was a great portrait of a talented and tragically flawed musical soul with whom I identified.  But a movie is not a portrait.  It’s a movie, something Hawke doesn’t seem to fully understand.

How so?  The movie meanders all over the place, perhaps to echo the rambling nature of Blaze Foley.  It doesn’t work.  Focus on the story was badly needed, as some of the most salient aspects of the musician’s life were glossed over or outright omitted, while less impactful episodes were stretched thin.  And a theme of mine — the power of linear storytelling — is blaring in its absence.

Blaze is a very heartfelt and honest film, so I’d love to give it a higher score.  Maybe because of its meandering nature, I didn’t get the emotional connection I might otherwise.  I absolutely recommend it, but can’t get past 6/10.

Comparison Notes: The most direct comparisons are to Crazy Heart, then to Walk the Line, Ray (Jamie Foxx), and other musical biographies, but perhaps the better comparison is a movie like Leave No Trace — the idea of a character who has some strong personality vectors but is fundamentally flawed.

Film Brief: First Reformed

First Reformed has been compared to Taxi Driver; I think Big Night is a much better way of thinking of it.  A non-humorous, dark version of Big Night with no cooking, just a lot of drinking.

I’m on the fence a little with this one.  The story was overly simple, and lacked the profound heft that I think was being attempted.  No argument that it was compelling — not boring for a minute — and that the performances were good.  The main problem with First Reformed was that it was too easy to see where the story was heading.  Nonetheless, this is the second-best picture of the year so far, on the high end of 7/10.

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Note: First Reformed features a square frame, which I normally find a unnecessary distraction.  I think A24 has got some vested interest in the square frame — something other studios just don’t use and for good reason.  I must concede that it worked well with this movie.  The only distraction on this one was Landmark’s super-bright EXIT sign right next to the screen.

Comparison Notes (all recommended): the aforementioned Big Night, Inglourious Basterds, Breaking the Waves, The East, Safety Not Guaranteed, The Wrestler, The Machinist, Apocalypse Now

Who’s the Beast

Beast had me well intrigued for most of the going, but the final third was a muddling disappointment.  Or put another way, I liked this movie until I didn’t.  The concluding scenes are not so clever or original as I think the filmmakers, and most critics, believed them to be.  I will grant that the romance at the center is compelling.  A marginal thumbs-down; 5/10

Comparison Notes: the much to infinitely better: Lady Macbeth, Side Effects, Ex Machina, Under the Skin, Thelma, The Box