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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.

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

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