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Crazy Rich Asians movie review: Represention Matters but Charisma Sells

Coming to theaters is the much anticipated movie Crazy Rich Asians, the first all-Asian cast film sent into wide release since 1993’s Joy Luck Club has taken over the entertainment news, which may mean impressive box office numbers.  Great. It deserves them. Based on the best-selling Kevin Kwan novel, this Cinderella tale is filled with frothy luxury porn and brandishes its classic rom-com aesthetic like a badge of honor. It also has a cast that so overflows with charisma, each and every one of them would alone be the price of admission.

New York University economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) accompanies her longtime boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. From the moment she steps on the airplane, it becomes clear that Nick is not just well-off, but possibly rich beyond her imagination.  In fact, he is heir to the biggest real-estate fortune in Singapore and one of its most sought-after bachelors. Rachel has to navigate this new environment, which is filled with catty exes, gold diggers, and family members that don’t think she is worthy of the man she loves.  Most disapproving is Nick’s mother, Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh).  Most on Rachel’s team are her friends old and new, including her college roommate Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina), and her parents Neena and Wye Mun Goh (Cheing Muh Koh and Ken Jeong), and Nick’s cousins Astrid (Gemma Chan) and Oliver T’sien (Nico Santos).  Rachel knows though, that the most important members of the family to impress and get on her side are his mom and his grandmother, Ah Ma, the family matriarch.

What is clear from this collection of performers, is that when you have the first film with an Asian cast in over 20 years, the very best in the whole world is at the production’s disposal.  There is so much star wattage onscreen it’s nearly impossible to look away.  Constance Wu makes a great leading lady and everywoman, and Henry Golding is so hot it’s a wonder the theater seats weren’t bursting into flames. British actress Gemma Chan, who is known for her work on Sherlock, Doctor Who, and Humans, brings a balance of otherworldly grace and down to earth compassion to her role, making her entirely believable as Astrid. Awkwafina and Nico Santos steal every scene they’re in, which is as it should be for such flamboyant characters.  They both act as archetypal truth-sayers in an otherwise duplicitous environment. The most compelling performance, even in such impressive company, is Michelle Yeoh as the lioness of a protective mother. Her every word and look is terrifying, but also complicated in such a way as to elicit curiosity for her back story.  No one could have played her character as well or with as much nuance, and she keeps an otherwise unsympathetic character from devolving into caricature.

Lisa Lu, who plays Nick’s grandmother Ah Ma, is in part responsible for opening up American film and television to Chinese performers. She has been on TV since the 50s in the US, with roles on Have Gun Will Travel, The Big Valley, Mission Impossible, but is most known for the films The Joy Luck Club and The Last Emperor.

This is what happens when the tiny number of roles for Asian actors, way tinier than is usual in Hollywood, are distributed among the very best of the best.  Even given that, there are so many other exceptional Asian actors who are yet to have been given a chance to shine.   

What is clear from Crazy Rich Asians is there are several huge holes needing to be filled in the multiplex.  Whoever said (ahem, white boys in charge of Hollywood pursestrings, we’re looking at you) that diverse stories aren’t of interest or that a good rom-com can’t and doesn’t deserve to make money hasn’t seen Crazy Rich Asians.  True, there are tropes being leveraged in the story, but there’s a whole races of people who haven’t had their Prince Charming or Cinderella trotted out as the hundreds of white ones have been in the history of film.  There are a number of expected scenes recreated in this new release, but they should be welcomed by anyone who believes there are diverse versions of happily ever after, and they should be shown.  Makeover montage? Check. Race to the airport? Check.  Teary-eyed bride? Check. The list goes on and on.  Who cares? Even with the relative small budget of 20 million, audiences are treated to enough flamboyance and over-the-top glamor to keep them occupied.  There are also scenes that show some of the unique aspects of Singaporean culture, which is fascinating and fun to see.

Guess what? None of the white folks who sat through several hours watching an all Asian cast burst into flames or ran out of the theater screaming.  In fact, regardless of the race of the viewers, everyone walked out at the end with a smile on their face.  It’s time the major studios trust that a wider diversity, and better representation is not only good for society, it can also be good for their bottom line.  See Crazy Rich Asians this weekend and prove it to them.

A

The Miseducation of Cameron Post Review and Interviews: Real Life Horror with a Splash of John Hughes

The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a film based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Emily Danforth, is directed and co-written by queer American-Iranian filmmaker Desiree Akhavan.  This Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning indie tells a story that takes place in 1993 chronicling the misadventures of Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teen placed in a gay conversion camp called “God’s Promise” by her born-again Christian extended family, with the hopes of curing her of SSA, or “same sex attraction”.

Cameron is caught getting hot and heavy in the back seat of a car with her first love and prom queen Coley Taylor (Quinn Shepard) and gets whisked away to a camp.  There she and fellow campers are guided by therapist Dr. Lydia March (Jennifer Ehle) and advised by her brother, Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr), who believes he’s been cured of the sin of same sex attraction.  Cameron finds like-minds in fellow campers, or inmates depending on the perspective.  Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck) are just playing the game of getting through the experience so they can continue with their lives. She starts sneaking into the woods to smoke joints and figure out ways to seem believably changed and contrite for what none of them believe is wrong.  It’s like she’s found her soulmates.

What makes The Miseducation of Cameron Post, or TMOCP, so powerful? They found the perfect actress to play the lead with Chloe Grace Moretz.  At only 20 she is a veteran of the film industry, and Akhavan was lucky Moretz was actively looking for work with deeper meaning and more social resonance.  The actress has a genius for conveying emotion without speech, and Cameron as a character is an observer, and considers her place, though she knows she isn’t sinful, in a world where being gay is often seen as wrong. Akhavan said she had almost given up the project for fear of never finding their Cameron, until one day she got a Post-It that said “Cameron wants to meet”.  She now has the Post-It framed on her wall.

The co-stars are all beautifully cast, so much so that the film really feels like an ensemble piece.  Even those who don’t have as much screen time, like Ehle as the staunch Christian who believes she is doing god’s work realigning these kids to their Christian path, make an indelible mark on the story’s authenticity.  Gallagher’s Reverend Rick has more interaction with his charges shown on film, and his is a heartbreaking portrayal of vacillating commitment and confusion.  As Jane and Adam, Lane and Goodluck allow the audience to lean into the relief of found tribe, which is an aspect of the story that lifts an otherwise dark story with moments of sweetness and shared teen struggle reminiscent of 80s era John Hughes.

I spoke to both Chloe Grace Moretz and Desiree Akhavan about found tribe, their own experience of it, and how it influenced their experience of making The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

Said Akhavan, “It was always one of the main stories of the film, but I also think it’s heightened in the queer community.  I also felt that it’s in every teen film. You find your allies, and that’s one of the best things about getting older. You start to speak the same language with people. You stop trying to imitate, It happens at different ages for everyone. For me, it didn’t happen until I was 21. You stop regurgitating what you see around you, and you start imitating what you aspire to be. I discovered it for myself when I met Cecilia, the co-writer and producer of this film. We met at around 20 or 21, and we just spoke the same language. There was no effort. She believed in me, and I believed in her. We enabled each other to make our first films, first shorts, first features, and now TMOCP. It was just…someone sees me, and I know she felt the same way about seeing her. It was just the best…I mean, I wouldn’t be making movies if it weren’t for her. I wouldn’t be anything. Like, she’s my life partner, not romantically, but as a creator. She enables me and I enable her. Meeting her completely changed my life. I moved to London to be close to her and write this film. Her belief in me gave me belief in myself.

Her telling me, you know this is really early on and before I came out to my family. She drowned out the crazy in my head. She drowned out the voices that were like, “You should hang yourself!” And she was like, “No! You’re cool! It’s really cool that you’re queer! It’s really cool that you’re this thing that you have a lot of shame about. It’s so cool that you’re Iranian, tell me about your culture. Talk about where you’re from.” And so now I write to make her laugh. And that relationship is the thing that enabled and allowed my adult life to begin. That was one of the things that, when we were writing this, was so important to us.”

Moretz had her own experience with found tribe, which was in part informed by having two of her four brothers come out as gay.  “I think I was really lucky that the family I grew up in was really wonderful, but that changed. You are born with people that are supposed to be your family. And, you either choose to grow up into adults who are also friends, or you just stay family members who only see each other at functions. I remember there was a massive choice that happened, and it came through honesty. You know, there’s a lot of things you hide from your siblings, there was a big turning point, when I was 19, where I came clean with a lot of things in my life to my family. And through that and through my mother, I think when my father left when I was 13, things kind of compacted themselves and everyone became real quiet. You just don’t want to add fuel to a fire, and you kinda separate a little bit. There was a big shift when I was like, “I can’t do it anymore. I gotta talk to everyone. I gotta talk. We’re not talking, we’re just existing around each other.” And we chose to be honest with each other, and through that, we chose to be a tribe, we chose to be friends. And they’re my best friends that I choose above anyone that I know. Like, the first people I want to go to dinner with, or go to a concert, or something simple, or just call when something happens,  is them. Not just because we were born together, but because we choose to be there for each other at another level.”

One of the frightening aspects of the film is the truthful way it portrays gay conversion.  There are only 12 states in the US that have outlawed therapy for what is called “same sex attraction”, a therapy which denies biology, research, and to this day uses techniques that leverage shame, guilt, and fear to warp the minds of LGBTQIA kids and adults.  The statistics are terrifying,  especially as they relate to the longterm damage done to those who have gone through it.  Both depression and even suicide are common by-products.  Mathew Shurka,  of #BornPerfect, the National Center for Lesbian Rights Campaign to end conversion therapy, was subjected to gay conversion therapy before he started working to end it.  When I asked him one of the tactics he most remembers that he saw reflected in the film, he said, “Lydia’s character says, “Would you give a drug addict a parade?” And I remember specifically in conversion therapy how we were taught the ridiculousness of us celebrating pride. I had never celebrated pride, yet, I went into conversion therapy at 16, so I hadn’t had a pride celebration event yet. But, you know, I can’t avoid it. I’d hear about pride celebrations, I hear about gay people in pop culture. This was in 2004 at the time, so it wasn’t as visible as it is today. They would come up in conversation with the therapist, and it was always talked about as, “You’re basically not well and you’re celebrating that and you’re fighting for the rights it. It’s like their comparison was sick people were fighting for the right to be sick.” And it’s like, “Do you want to be a part of that or do you want to live,” what they called, “a healthy life? To have healthy relationships in a healthy life.” And at 16, of course I want to live a healthy life. 

The best aspect of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, is the balance director Akhavan finds between telling what is essentially a horror story of mistreatment and manipulation, and a charming, hopeful tale of coming of age. Audiences will see these kids embracing like-minded people as a support and a safe place from which to approach their futures. If anyone needs another answer as to why we need more diverse voices making films, here it is. 

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Half the Picture Documentary Review: The Struggle and Commitment of Female Filmmakers Beautifully Revealed

Documentarian Amy Adrion has created what amounts to a love letter to female filmmakers in her new film, Half the Picture, which supporters of women in film will love to know is now available on demand*.

I was at San Diego Comic-Con last week preparing for and conducting the panel Women Rocking Hollywood, that features women in film. After I would tell people what I do at the convention, I would ask film fans if they could name five female filmmakers.  Almost all were at a loss.

In the 90 year history of the Oscars, there have been 442 nominees in the directing category.  Only 5 have been women, and only 1 woman has won.  Did you know women now make up 51% of the audience at movie theaters?  Women outnumber men in box office numbers. To say they are decidedly underserved is an understatement.

Those of us in the trenches, the female film critics, the agents of female filmmakers and crew, the publicists of women in film, all know the startling, depressing statistics , and know they aren’t changing nearly fast enough.  If you want to know how truly problematic the disparity between men and women directing studio films in 2018 and the foreseeable future is, click here for some sobering numbers.

What Amy Adrion’s film does is gives airtime and a platform for some of the most talented, experienced, and often frustrated women working inside Hollywood and outside of it in independent film.  Don’t think, though, that the film is filled with women complaining.  It isn’t.  It really feels, as one watches it, like a celebration, or, for those don’t know who these women are, an introduction.  These fearless ladies are so passionate and so committed to their art, they repeatedly find a way to make it work, even under the most difficult circumstances.

As part of the film, we hear from a wide variety female film luminaries, including Ava DuVernay, **Catherine Hardwicke, **Gina Prince-Bythewood, Brenda Chapman, **Patricia Riggen, Jill Soloway, Miranda July, **Patricia Cardoso,  Martha Coolidge, Lesli Linka Glatter, Karyn Kusama, **Tina Mabry, Penelope Spheeris, and **Kirsten Schaffer, to name a few. All have created enduring, powerful, successful works on film, or are advocates committed to raising awareness and making lasting change in the industry. Sometimes their interviews are inspiring, sometimes heartbreaking, but they are always heartfelt and enlightening. None of these women shy away from expressing the difficulties and struggles inherent to their craft.  They bluntly speak of their challenges, while explaining why they keep at it, despite them.  It’s a testament to Adrion, who is often seen on camera, that she creates a safe space for these artists to speak their truth.

It’s also lovely to see, (if, as I’ve repeatedly suggested, you look on IMDB to confirm there are female members of the crew) and see the room in which they are filming these exceptional talents is filled with women.  There are female producers, directors of photography, composers, a female editor, and camera operators…even the titles are created by a female graphic artist.

I’ve repeatedly suggested supporters of equality for women in film look on IMDB to confirm there are some female members of the crew before committing to seeing a film in the theater. It’s lovely to see the rooms in which they film their interviews is filled with female crew. Half the Picture has female producers, directors of photography, composers, a female editor, and camera operators…even the titles are created by a female graphic artist.

Director Adrion choses to do a lot of interviews without fuss.  For viewers looking for thrills and glitz, or who aren’t particularly interested in the subject, it might not have enough tricks, bells, or whistles.  That, I think, was part of her method.  She gets out of the way, and lets the women speak for themselves. It has proven to have been a good choice, as in its initial release Half the Picture has been very well received.

I asked Adrion what her experience has been since she released the film:

“I’ve been humbled by the reception to Half the Picture.  After every single screening I’ve had women, and some men, come up to me and say, “I have this script, I have this documentary, I have this short film that I want to make and NOW I’m going to make it.”  They say that this film has given them the spark they needed to know that yes, it’s hard, but it’s not impossible. I’ve also had top festival programmers, agents and producers watch the film and tell me that it’s made them change the way they approach doing business.  That’s all I could have hoped for – people in the business actually modifying their approach based on what they’ve seen in the film, and creative people in the audience being inspired to make their own work.  That’s it, that’s the future, that’s everything.”

One of the panelists on Women Rocking Hollywood said she’d recently seen Half the Picture, and she found herself moved to tears, so relieved was she to hear she wasn’t alone in her experience.  I love that there’s a film that celebrates the work she and her sisters in film are doing,  and that we can hear them speak candidly about the challenges they face, which are both real and unacceptable.

For those who have committed to supporting women in film, this movie reaffirms why they have done so.  For movie lovers who wonder what all the parity and inclusion rider fuss is all about, it is an eye-opening, sobering look into an industry that needs a complete overhaul.

A

*Available on iTunes

**These women have been on my Women Rocking Hollywood panel at San Diego Comic-Con.

Night Comes On Review: A gorgeous study in loss and sisterhood

This weekend you can see the new release Night Comes On on demand.  The directorial debut of actress/writer/director Jordana Spiro (of the show Ozarks) is co-written by The Shade Room’s  Angelica Nwandu partly based on the experiences of Nwandu’s childhood. It would never had come to fruition without the Sundance Institute’s Directors Lab and other grants, showing once again the importance of supporting women in film working in the indie space.

The story centers on Angel LaMere (Dominique Fishback), who is released from juvenile detention just before her 18th birthday.  Angel’s life hasn’t been easy. She’s been the victim of sexual and domestic violence.  She and her 10 year old sister Abigail (Tatum Marylin Hall) have been raised in a life of poverty, and when Angel gets out, Abigail is in foster care.  Their father is responsible for the death of their mother, and Angel wants to exact revenge.

She embarks on a journey with her 10-year-old sister Abigail (Tatum Marylin Hall) that may lead to a disastrous, life-ruining act of revenge, or to self-discovery and redemption, acceptance of loss, and the embrace of comfort.  It’s a coming-of-age story reminiscent of Moonlight, even going so far as to represent the queerness of the lead character, and her struggle with a disintegrating love relationship.

There is an authenticity of feeling, and a sweetness between sisters that will create an impact lasting far beyond the film’s running time.  Whether audiences personally identify with the struggles these girls endure matters less than the fact that almost everyone can relate to a depth of love and feeling between family members, either chosen or biogical, as well as the need to identify and accept the difference between who we are and who we want to become, at any age.

Dominique Fishback is hot as blazes right now, with this film being so critically acclaimed but also as a co-star in the soon-to-be released highly publicized drama The Hate You Give.  She ably carries the film, showing sensitivity, ferocity, and nuance that will hold her in good stead regardless of the character she portrays.  Moreover, it is essential to making the audience so connected to Angel, her relationships, and her journey. There is a pervasive sense of both melancholy and hope to the film, and to both Fishback and newcomer Hall’s performances, and the suffering and loss their characters have in common, though expressed differently, is always at the root of their connection. Together, they create a story that is haunting, and gorgeous.  They leave an indelible stamp in the memories of all who watch their scenes together.

With Night Comes On, we are reminded that films with strong female characters, especially women of color, interacting with other women in a multidimensional way, are few and far between.  Also those who care about supporting women in film should note that there is a strong diversity of intersectional representation in not only the cast, but also the crew of the film.

In a summer of explosive blockbusters, there is a welcome modesty to Night Comes On.  It isn’t bluster, but truthful characterization that is at the foundation of this beautifully constructed, intimate story.  That suggests the sort of considered touch by new director Spiro that portents a great future for her behind the camera.  Here’s hoping both she and co-screenwriter Nwandu get a chance to prove themselves again soon.

A

Female Filmmakers at the movies: Leave No Trace & Boundaries

This week in movies sees the release of two films directed by women that focus on family. More specifically, they focus on father/daughter relationships. Leave No Trace and Boundaries are both road films, albeit of different sorts. Cinema Siren reviews them here, revealing who might enjoy them and who might want to avoid them.

REVIEW: Leave No Trace

I saw a screening of the new indie release Leave No Trace on the summer solstice. It was also in the midst of a protracted, unpleasant parade of bad news. Co-writer/director Debra Granik, who brought us the bleak, beautiful A Winter’s Bone, which made a star of Jennifer Lawrence, now brings us a father and daughter story of haunting beauty using nature as a backdrop, which stars award-winning actor Ben Foster, and may once again create a mega star in Thomasin McKenzie.

War veteran Will (Foster) has lived for years in the forests outside Portland, Oregon, with his teen daughter Tom (McKenzie). Their life is simple. They forage for food, play chess, and nightly hunker down to sleep in their tent. Tom studies, Will builds things, and they have discussions about nature. They also have near daily drills to teach Tom how to hide in the event someone wanders near their camp. We don’t know what has led Will to believe this is best for himself and his daughter, but we do know he has night terrors and no interest in living in an organized society of any kind.

When discovered, they are put through a system that attempts to do what’s best for them both as individuals and as a family. When Will finds he can’t assimilate, the two set off into the wilds of nature, potentially with catastrophic consequences. This is basically the road (less traveled) trip movie.

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McKenzie brings an honesty to the innocence and kindness of Tom, who straddles childhood and a forced parenthood required when caring for a man suffering with PTSD. Their relationship to each other and to nature is a meditation on family, and the struggle to find autonomy inside a life living with a mentally ill loved one. Director Granik has a way of showing harsh realities alongside the tenderness between people. She portrays suffering without sentimentality, but finds the hope in her stories and shines a light on that hope to create compassion in the viewer.

There is a moment where Will and Tom are in town, getting provisions, and Tom holds up a chocolate bar, asking their frequent question to each other, “Want or need?” The film, and the examination of the relationship between father and daughter, both of whom alternately play caretaker for each other, is couched in that question. Of course, we always want our parents and need our parents. We always want our children and need our children. When does the balance tip too far away from our own wants, and our own needs, and when is it right to choose ourselves?

This heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful ode to the nature of love and the love of nature comes right on time for anyone delights in thought-provoking fare and cherishes great filmmaking.

A

REVIEW: Boundaries

Boundaries, a new indie from writer/director Shana Feste (Country Strong) exists on the opposite side of the spectrum of father/daughter road trip flicks. At once frothy and acerbic in tone, it stars the ever spectacular Christopher Plummer and ever compelling Vera Farmiga as Jack and Laura Jaconi, who navigate their estranged relationship as she drives him down the West Coast to LA in a beat-up Rolls Royce, her son Henry (Lewis MacDougall) and a constantly growing menagerie in tow.

Jack has gotten kicked out of his retirement home for dealing weed. Laura needs money for an alternative high school for her weirdo son, who has been expelled for drawing a lewd, sexualized graphite of his teacher. He draws naked pictures of mostly everyone, exposing what says is their soul. Meanwhile, Laura is completely incapable of setting and keeping boundaries, as evidenced by her house full of stray creatures, and her willingness to engage with her lying, long-absentee father. She reminds him and all who’ll listen he is the reason for her emotional damage. They strike a deal that he will pay for Jack’s new school, and she will take him to LA. Jack ropes Henry into helping him sell $200,000 worth of pot, which they drop off to various quirky, free-spirited characters along their drive to LA.

The story runs a fairly predictable course, but it is foremost Christopher Plummer who is the raison d’être for the film. It’s not his best, but he’s great. With hundreds of roles over his career, that’s not saying much. No one is particularly likable, but that’s part of the point here. Relationships, especially parent/child ones, are messy, and often suffer from bad history. Farmiga is portraying a female character not often seen as onscreen, which is to say, tough, unlikeable, and unapologetic. Is she a mess? Yes. So is everyone in Boundaries. That includes the characters we meet along their journey, which offers an opportunity to watch Christopher Lloyd, Bobby Cannavale, Kristen Schaal, Yahya Abdul-Mateen, and Peter Fonda create lasting impressions, and expand upon what are relatively cliched characters as written. Fonda in particular, though, is likely responsible for the smear campaign currently in progress on IMDB. He tweeted some incendiary messages to the Trump camp, which motivated the web trolls to score the film 1 out of 10. Don’t believe it. Many a film lover will enjoy Boundaries, even if Fonda doesn’t know how to keep his own, pre-release.

There are many who struggle with messed up family dynamics, and deal with their dysfunction through humor, aware as they may be of their inability to truly deal with the underlying issues. Some families find a way to interact despite the bad blood and bad decisions that litter their collective story. To those I’d say, this film is for you.

B-

Nancy & Ocean’s 8 Movie Reviews: Women Rule these June Joints

Complicated, multi-dimensional female characters are rarely portrayed onscreen.  It is even less common to see one that leaves the audience conflicted.  Those making decisions in Hollywood think surprises in the form of complicated women can be bad for business.  The result is that the 51% of filmgoers, aka WOMEN, are mostly treated to some version of 3 or 4 basic stereotypes.  Enter two new feature films this weekend, both of which, to varying degrees of success, boldly go where women in real life already are.  Complexity.  It’s like the hashtag #itstime formed its own production company.

NANCY

With the new indie Nancy, writer/director Christina Choe, who won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for the film, explodes onto the scene as a filmmaker with intension, a strong point of view, and serious storytelling skills.

Nancy tells the story of the lead character (played by chameleon-like English actress Andrea Riseborough), who craves connection, and goes to great, often questionable lengths to get it.  In her own world, she is longtime caregiver to her sick, verbally abusive mother (Ann Dowd), but finds ways to create bonds, however tenuous, with people through the web.  When she sees couple Leo and Ellen (Steve Buscemi and J. Smith-Cameron) speak of their long-lost child they believe was kidnapped some 35 years before, Nancy starts to believe she is that child. Their meeting and interactions, and how their relationship develops, is the substance of the movie.

There is tension and awkwardness as we get to see Nancy attempt to speak to her potentially long-forgotten parents. The audience doesn’t know how truthful she is being to them or to herself.  We see her making mistakes, craving love, and making both very good and very bad choices. As Riseborough plays her, she seems at once unsure and earnest. Viewers can’t help but feel for her, and relate to some aspect of her frustration or feelings of yearning.

It is fascinating, given the praise the film got at Sundance, the beautifully written script, and the nuanced performances, that this movie gets anything but the highest marks from critics, but there you see yet another example of the gender-skewed ratings on Rotten Tomatoes.  If you want to see a film with a female lead that doesn’t fit the usual stereotypes and might even leave you unsure if you love or hate her, (you know, like scores of male characters in the history of film?) support this indie film and do it soon while it’s in theaters.

A

OCEAN’S 8

Someone somewhere got the memo that women can make bank in studio releases.  With that in mind, a female-focused spin-off of a Sinatra reboot (Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy) is being released this weekend, with some of the most compelling female A-listers onboard.  The film is as much a testament of the costars’ star power, as it was from the last set of films.  It’s so much fun, you barely notice its flaws.

Sandra Bullock stars as Danny Ocean’s sister Debbie, who, in the opening scene is being released from prison in a near exact replica of the scene performed by George Clooney in 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven. She has been hatching a plan for an extravagant heist in her 5 year on the inside.  She calls upon her sisters-in-crime and builds an expert crew to put her plan into action. With the help of BFF Lou (Cate Blanchett), Amita (Mindy Kaling), Tammy (Sarah Paulson), Constance (Awkwafina), Nine Ball (Rihanna), and Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), they go about stealing nearly priceless jewels at the Metropolitan Museum’s exclusive event, the Met Gala.  They need a victim, and self-absorbed celeb Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) fills the bill.

The sleekness, smart repartee, and coolness factor is all there, as it was for the male version of the series. What is added with having a group of women is not centered on cliches, silly girliness, or sap.  It’s a smart, gorgeous, well-acted flick that just happens to star women, and women being women in all the best ways.

The fact that it has no discernible villain, and doesn’t go far into the motivation of any of the characters, only detracts from the film if you’re thinking too hard.  The George Clooney vehicles had a bit more heart, to be sure, in that he had reasons that went way beyond just making a score. Bullock has a few secondary reasons herself, but the film skitters along the surface of them.  No matter.  Rihanna’s character walking the red carpet is such a vision, it’s almost worth the price of admission on its own.  In fact, the glamor and swagger the ensemble cast brings to their roles is as memorable as any created by the Soderbergh crew.

B

RBG Review: This Doc Shows Ruth Bader Ginsburg Giving Superhero Realness

I’m sure you all have heard about how audiences assembled for Avengers: Infinity War. The Marvel superhero movie has broken the record for the biggest opening weekend ever.  This weekend, another film, which features the closest thing to a real superhero we have in the US, is opening, and will make a great companion piece, especially if you crave an uplifting ending.  RBG, a biographical documentary on Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg, lands in theaters to remind people we should all aspire to be heroes in real life, and champions of truth, justice, and the American way come in all shapes and sizes.

Co-directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen go about showing how and why at age 84, Ginsburg has become such a pop cultural icon. A staunch supporter of women’s rights who helped change laws to promote equality between the sexes, the documentary follows the tenacious octogenarian from her struggles with sexism in college and as a young lawyer, to her current place on a right-leaning Supreme Court.  Showing examples of her influence through footage and audio recordings of a few high points of her career, viewers get a strong sense of how she helped create a safer, more welcoming environment for women in the workplace. The filmmakers also chronicle her life with her husband of 56 years, Martin, who supported her choices and celebrated her intelligence in a time when that was a far greater rarity among couples.

West and Cohen offer a view of her personal life and quirks, including Ginsburg showing the collection of collars she wears on the bench, many of which are sent to her by fans and well-wishers from around the country.  We see her determination and perseverance firsthand, as we watch her do planks and weights with her trainer, or hear her children talk about her penchant for staying up working through the night, often still getting only a few hours of sleep.

For inspiration, you can’t beat this film, or its subject.  It is also very gratifying to see the end credits filled with the names of women, who take the lead in every aspect of the production, from producing, to the score, editing, and cinematography.  Not only do the filmmakers highlight one of the most important figures in “herstory”, they embrace the opportunities she has expanded for working women by putting them in all documentary’s positions of power.  I challenge you to try getting through RBG without fan-girling.

A

The Rider: Art Exposing Life’s Heartache and Resilience

Sometimes there are films that remind us how grateful we are that independent films are released.  With my focus being female filmmakers, that is the world in which I largely dwell, since so few movies put out by the studios are woman-directed. In fact, only 3% of studio films released in 2018 have a woman at the helm.

Enter The Rider, which has gotten its director, US-based Chinese filmmaker Chloe Zhao, and the film itself, glowing reviews at festivals, and is coming to an arthouse theater near you.  It examines masculinity, redemption, and resilience with such grace and delicacy in fairly brands itself in your memory.   

A neo-Realist narrative written by Zhao, The Rider blends real life and fiction as it focuses on a group of young Lakota cowboys playing the rodeo circuit.  Real-life rodeo rider and horse trainer Brady Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn, who, just as Jandreau did himself, suffers from longterm damage caused by a near-fatal accident in the rodeo ring, when a horse he was riding kicked him in the head.  He is determined to go back to competing in rodeos.  It is his only means of support, and his prize money helps keep his family in the trailer his father rents for him and his sister.  With little formal education, and the reservation on which they live having few options for employment, he tries to lean into the well-meaning pressure his circle of cowboy buddies place on him to get back to riding.  His doctors, his family, and his body have other ideas.

The film, which is really about Brady’s journey to figure out if he can leave the rodeo, which could kill him, behind, features non-actors as his family and friends.  His real dad and sister (Tim and Lilly Jandreau) play his fictitious ones, and it’s amazing that they can be so real, and portray themselves so honestly, even in their weaknesses.  Lilly has Asperger’s Syndrome, and yet she portrays herself in a poignant, authentic way.  Lane Scott, a rodeo bull rider who was becoming known nationwide when he had a car accident that left him paralyzed and incapable of speech, is Brady’s best friend in both real life and in the film.  Their scenes together show a sensitivity, a bone-deep kindness that acts as the anchor for Brady’s introspection and movement through his own challenges.

I’m sure Zhao can be credited in part, not only for finding the truth in each moment, but also for committing to living on the reservation and getting to know the inner and everyday lives of those onscreen.  Being with and spending time around the Lakota people, she said, made a huge difference in her understanding their experience.

Zhao’s first feature Songs My Brother Taught Me was nominated for the Golden Camera Award at Cannes.  The Rider has been similarly received, gathering thus far 11 award nominations and wins at festivals around the world, including at Cannes.

The heartbreak of a life requiring drastic change and hard choices, the inspiring resilience shown by characters, and the examination of how, good or bad, close male friends express masculinity makes The Rider the sort of deep, meaningful film that reminds us why we are so lucky the independent film industry exists in the first place.

A

Tomb Raider & Flower Movie Reviews: Of Cinematic Daddy Issues and Self-destruction

Opening in our area this and next weekend are two films that seem very unlike each other, given that one is a small indie film with an up-and-coming ingenue, and the other is led by an Oscar winner in the prime of her career.  Upon further inspection however, Flower, starring Zoey Deutch, and Tomb Raider, starring Alicia Vikander, feature two women heading casts who will be carrying the weight of box office success, playing potentially unsympathetic characters driven by abandonment issues.  Both are fiercely independent, and are on quests that are at least in part very self-destructive. Both are also a sign of the times, in that they are not one of the cliched versions of womanhood that have been foisted on the public lo these many years.  Deutch’s Erica Vandross and Vikander’s Lara Croft fit into the growing trend of complicated female characters that not only don’t need saving, they don’t want it.  These are heroines that will right perceived wrongs the hard way, and they are more than willing to set the world on fire doing so.

TOMB RAIDER:

No doubt many still remember Angelina Jolie brought the popular video game heroine to life in 2001.  This reboot starring Vikander is an origin story, and therefore represents a pre-pistol Lara Croft, early in her work in becoming the female Indiana Jones, albeit as a twenty-something whose life is floundering in the face of personal loss.

Lara’s father Richard Croft (Dominic West) has been missing for years, and believed dead.  After finding clues that her dad was more than he seemed, and may have been seeking a mythological with power over life and death, Lara goes on a search for him, by following the notes he left behind he had demanded her to destroy in a video he created before his disappearance. Her travels lead to Hong Kong, where she partners with ship captain Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) in an adventure that involves a dangerous island and even more dangerous men.

The film isn’t as interesting as it could be, with a number of plot holes and dialogue weaknesses. In one scene alone, if a villainous character had made one alteration in physical choice, Lara Croft would have been dead, and the story would have been over.  The audience isn’t treated to back-to-back action set pieces, and perhaps that was a mistake, but what it lacks in plot, it nearly makes up for in character development.  Vikander’s Croft has to prove to herself she has the strength and courage to risk her life to find her father.

As the film progresses, what most strikes viewers of Tomb Raider is how complex the character is and how well we get to see her as she is reflected in Vikander.  That’s not to take anything away from Angelina Jolie’s version, it’s just that character development is essential to this, or any origin story.  Also the first incarnation of Lara Croft was a product of a time in which a female lead had to prove the character’s toughness more than their complexity in order to make it in a world full of male action heroes, not to mention her willingness to fight from inside a pair of short shorts, as she did in the original video game.

Despite the many dull or predictable moments, we find ourselves rooting for Lara Croft, and are left wanting to see more of her.  While it feels like the entire film could have been the first ten minutes of exposition of a more exciting cinematic journey, many members of the audience may find themselves still wanting to take the next, preferably more plot-driven one, with her.

C

Opens today nationwide.

 

FLOWER:

Rebellious, cursy seventeen-year old Erica lives and plays in the valley with her equally foulmouthed girlfriends. She has a dad in prison, and a best-friend mom (Kathryn Hahn) trying to please a new live-in boyfriend. As written by writer/director Max Winkler, she is like a female version of Joel from Risky Business, if Joel had Borderline Personality Disorder. She is the anti-manic pixie dream girl.  Flagrantly sexual, self destructive, and inwardly terrified, she entraps older men paying underaged girls for sex, by giving them all oral sex and then blackmailing them for money. She is saving up to pay for her father’s release, you see.  When her new stepbrother, mentally ill Luke (Joey Morgan), comes home from an inpatient drug rehab center and reveals he was molested by local high school teacher Will (Adam Scott), Erica springs into action to catch Will in the act.

Audiences are going to find Erica challenging.  She’s not a nice girl in any traditional way.  On the other hand, she’s damaged in a way most will recognize from someone in their own lives.  Writer/director Winkler and Deutch conspire to make us love her, want to understand her, and root for her in all her horribly misguided plans. Certainly Erica should make viewers ask why they might judge her for things that wouldn’t question or would be largely acceptable in a teenage boy.

The tonal shifts and plot twists will create a chasm in those who leave the theater loving or hating the film.  I belong to the former group, but there will be plenty who will commit to the latter.  If an unflinching look at a damaged nihilistic child coming of age making awful decisions being shown through a comedic lens, (think Heathers or Jawbreaker) appeals, you just might place Deutch’s work Flower at the top of your list for 2018. She and her co-stars will bring you depth, heartbreak, and joy in a scant 2 hours.

B

Opening today in New York and LA, opening in DC March 23rd.

On balance, with any luck, both films will find its fans. Of course Flower takes many more risks in terms of character and originality, but that is aided by its safely smaller budget, making Tomb Raider far riskier, with more riding on its financial success. Here’s hoping they do well enough to qualify as hits, so that we can see more of Deutch in other films, and more of Vikander, in a sequel that makes better use of story.  We could all use more of Vikander’s considerable talent in this decidedly badass role.  We now know her origin story, let’s see where the filmmakers, and Vikander herself, take it.

A Wrinkle in Time Movie Review: So Centered in Joy, Cynics Need Not Apply

Sparkle alert!  If you’ve seen any of the trailers for the highly-publicized cinematic rendering of Madeline L’Engle’s classic 1962 children’s novel A Wrinkle in Time, you know sparkle figures prominently. Director Ava DuVernay, who has the distinction of being the first women of color to direct of live action film with a budget over 100 million dollars, wanted to celebrate a story she saw as suffused with the joy, innocence, and optimism of childhood.  For children from around ten years of age through to children at heart in their nineties, it is a cinematic delight, but cynics and pessimists need not apply.  This sparkle is not for you.

Middle school student Meg Murry (Storm Reid) struggles with self esteem issues, as does every typical tween.  Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Murry (Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are famous physicists who are researching theories in intergalactic travel. After Mr. Murray, who has discovered something he calls tessering, which is a wrinkle in time that allows for inter-dimensional travel, disappears and has been gone for four years, Meg, her classmate Calvin (Levi Miller) and her genius little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), commit to a journey through the cosmos to find him.  They are aided by three celestial wise women.

The celestial guides, as in the book, are a manifestation of the triple goddess of maiden, mother, and crone, and give the film its strong spiritual underpinning. Reese Witherspoon’s Mrs. Whatsit, Mindy Kaling’s Mrs. Who, and Oprah Winfrey’s Mrs. Which serve respectively as each archetype.  They bring wisdom and comfort to the children as they travel through time and space.  They also warn of a darkness that has infiltrated the universe and threatens to destroy Mr. Murray, as well as the rest of creation.

This film is all about confronting fear and embracing our flaws, as well as harnessing the power of individuality and self expression.  It’s a message, as translated from the book by screenwriter Jennifer Lee and directed for the big screen by DuVernay, that is entirely devoid of cynicism, and is seated firmly in joy and the power of love.  Even the costumes are an expression of this, as evidenced by the technicolor makeup and bejeweled eyebrows.

I can certainly see why it might come under fire by critics, either for not following the book word for word, (an accusation all too common in any screen adaptation of a classic) or for the barrage of ever-changing hyper-colorized landscapes.

To be fair, the script is a bit heavy on sweetness, and even ventures into the trite at times, but perhaps we all need a correction from the near constant negativity and hate we are pummeled with by our current administration. What’s so wrong with a movie filled with messages of love, self-acceptance, and sparkle, led by a lovely, quirky girl of color?

Nothing, I say.  Put on your shiniest attire and tesser over to your closest theater.  You’ll be treated to a movie that embraces its own optimism and demands empathy.  We could all do well to take it in.

B