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Film Review: You’re A Wonder, Wonder Woman

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I just got back from seeing Wonder Woman, a movie that for me was by far the most anticipated of the year.  It isn’t because there aren’t some wonderful, highbrow, meaningful stories being released at Oscar season in October and November.  It’s because Wonder Woman is only the 4th live-action film with a budget of $100 million dollars ever directed by a woman.  I really wanted it to be exceptional.  I wanted it to be one of the best superhero movies I’d seen.  Thank Themyscira and all the goddesses, it is.  It’s fun, entertaining, and full of the sort of womanly power, strength, grace, and value we rarely see, especially in a superhero movie.

Directed by Patty Jenkins, who helmed the film for which Charlize Theron won the Best Actress Oscar, MonsterWonder Woman is in safe and skilled hands.  It is also in the hands of the first female director of a DC or Marvel feature film, and DC should be absolutely thrilled with the results, and with the exceptional buzz and positive reception it has gotten around the world.  Twitter and Facebook are filled with posts of little girls and little boys in costumes, striking the cross-fisted pose.  Patty comes by directing a story of military bravery with a strong female character, however based in comic book fantasy, honestly.  As you’ll see in the credits, she dedicates the film to her father William T. Jenkins, an Air Force pilot who won a Silver Star in Vietnam, and she grew up with a mother who was an environmental scientist.

Wonder Woman is essentially a mix of origin and fresh-off-the-island stories.  The action begins on the hidden island of Themyscira, where a world of Amazonian warrior women live and train to be ever stronger in battle.  From a young age, Diana (Gal Gadot) daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), is taken under the wing of consummate fighter Antiope (Robin Wright). It appears time passes far more slowly for this society, which is entirely devoid of the male sex, at least as inhabitants.  When pilot and spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes in the sea below the cliffs of her island home, Diana saves him, only to learn, along with the rest of the Amazons, that the outside world is in conflict, fighting “the war to end all wars”.  Diana determines to go with Steve to try to make a difference, and stop the war.  She believes the violence is, in part, the doing of Aries, the God of War, and she knows if she finds him and kills him, all will be right again. Ass-kicking, great one-liners, and dialogue in which a female character does not always defer to men, and their leadership or wants, ensue.

If the two-hour-and-twenty-one minute running time flies by as if transported in an invisible jet, the parties truly responsible are Gadot and Pine, who have great chemistry both individually and as a screen couple. There is, in Gadot, an innocence and genuine optimism that harkens back to the Christopher Reeves era Superman movies of Richard Donner. Indeed director Patty Jenkins says his work was a major influence for the feel of Wonder Woman, and for Diana’s lack of cynicism and fearless bravery.  Gadot is a genuine star, much like Reeves was, and the camera not only loves her, but she seems to strip herself of all pretense for it, which is in perfect service of her believability as the character.  Pine is essentially playing what every actress who loves old Hollywood would recognize as the wise-cracking dame.  He is Jean Arthur in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings.  Bless him, how can we not love his Steve Trevor, a WWI pilot who falls for a woman of substance and power? How can we equally not fall for Pine, with his pithy delivery, and a cynicism and world-weariness that crumbles before our eyes? He can be the Lois Lane to my Superman any day.

My screening partner and gal pal said she felt she was watching something very familiar and recognizable, but something she’d never seen before onscreen.  A perfect example of that is the consistent positioning of Diana as Wonder Woman at the front of every battle scene. She is the undisputed leader. In real life, there are women who lead in nearly every aspect of life, we just seldom see it unqualified on film. Also refreshing, is Diana’s reaction whenever Steve does something generally thought of as gentlemanly, like holding a door, or giving her his coat.  She sees his actions as being from one human to another, not what is expected from man to woman, and in a perfect world, this is as it should be. There is no sexual barter on Themyscira.  On the other hand, as a spy, Marvel’s Black Widow has been trained to use her sexuality as part of her bag of tricks.  Those tricks are entirely unnecessary for an ageless Amazonian warrior.

Of course some might argue there have been other strong female characters in Marvel movies.  What about Scarlet Witch and Black Widow? They are a part of a larger group run by men, and secondary, co-starring roles. When you give us Captain Marvel, directed by a woman, we’ll celebrate.  For that matter, give us a male-led superhero movie directed by a woman.  We want that, too.  Hopefully, box office success will result in an expansion of the Wonder Woman franchise, which can lead us to better circumstances for all women in film.

There are some nitpicks.  The last quarter of the movie flags a bit, and veers into the usual big blockbuster battle territory.  The film music should have utilized more of the guitar riff we’ve come to adore from the trailers, instead of some protracted periods with the more predictable orchestral passages used in the score.  That’s it, though.  It’s otherwise a 2 hour-plus delight.

On my way home from the screening, there was an old radio show from 1944 called The Judy Canova Show playing in my car.  She closed her show, as she always did, with the song “Goodnight, Soldier”, reminding people as she tirelessly did off the air, to buy U.S. War Bonds.  Her last words on this show were “Remember! Get into the war with your hands, as well as your heart”.  Wonder Woman was there in 1944, too.  Her first comic book cover was in January, 1942. 

She’s still fighting, only now she fights for women’s equality in Hollywood.  Kudos for all those involved at DC and Warner Bros. in making this woman-helmed and woman-led film so very entertaining, and for getting into the war for gender equality in Hollywood with their hands as well as their hearts.

A-

In area theaters. For why you should see this film this weekend, read this article.

SEEING WONDER WOMAN? See it Early and Support Women in Film!

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How excited are you about seeing a Hollywood film featuring the most popular and beloved female superhero? Maybe you think you’ll go soonish, or certainly, of course, see it while it’s in theaters.  Have you bought your tickets yet?  What are you waiting for, an invitation from Diana herself?  Let me suggest you go as soon as possible. Here’s why:

As you may know, Wonder Woman is directed by Patty Jenkins.  She is going to be only the 4th woman to be hired to helm a live action. film with a budget over 100 million dollars.  The 4th woman if you only count live action, or if you count animation features as well, the 6th.   That number is out of 361.  There have been 361 movies made with budgets over 100 million, and Wonder Woman will be the only the 6th movie ever with that big a budget to be helmed by a woman.

I’ll give you a moment to let that sink in.

Ok, why will going to see Wonder Woman early help?  Money talks in Hollywood, as with any money-making business. If lots of people go to early screenings and the movie breaks a number of box office records, it offers further proof that hiring female directors is as smart and financially sound a choice as hiring another male for the next movie with a big budget.

It might surprise you to know that the movie-going public, much like the general makeup of the population, is 51% female.  Women don’t avoid movies, and they certainly don’t avoid them if they have a female lead character. Unfortunately, in the US, they do have to contend with the fact that way less than half of the films released by studios in this country pass the Bechtel Test, meaning fewer than 50% have two named female characters that speak to each other and about a subject other than men.  Obviously since Wonder Woman partly takes place on an island entirely inhabited by women, this film will pass the Bechtel Test with flying colors!

Things are changing very slowly around the world for women behind the camera, but they are changing.  Just this year at the Cannes Film Festival, Sophia Coppola won Best Director for her remake of 1971’s The Beguiled.  She is only the second woman to ever win Best Director, with Russian auteur Yuliya Solntseva being the first for The Story of Flaming Years all the way back in 1961. This puts Cannes, the festival who turned away women in flat heels in 2015, ahead of the Oscars, which has only bestowed one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, the honor.  Lina Wertmuller for Seven Beauties, Jane Campion for The Piano, and Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation are the only other female directors ever nominated in the entire history of the Academy Awards.  Hurrah for Cannes!  The Academy has a lot of work to do, especially given recent snubs including Ava DuVernay and her glorious movie Selma, Jennifer Kent, the writer/director of genre-buster The Babadook, and Maren Ade and her very strange, yet delightful dramedy Toni Erdmann.

It may seem like this sort of campaign, the desire for a female-helmed superhero movie to do well at the box office, is trivial in comparison with heavier subjects like world health concerns for women.  The fact is that directors are able to bring attention to subjects and issues with smaller, Indie films, when they can make big, high-profile money-making movies as well.  Even Steven Spielberg will tell you, clout and box office success as a director get many a passion project made.  Female directors have important stories to tell that can change public perception about any number of subjects. For example, no one would have ever known the real-life story of brilliant female chess player from the Ugandan slums, Phiona Mutesi, had it not been for Mira Nair’s film, Queen of Katwe.

Numbers matter. They open up opportunities for women in front of and behind the camera, in the writer’s room and editing bays, and for any number of other positions ‘below the line’, like production design, art direction, and sound design. Gratefully for the fans and filmmakers of Wonder Woman, the film has gotten nearly universal praise by top film critics around the world.

So… you and your friends can be some of the first to talk about the beauty, grace, courage, and strength of the beloved superhero.  At the same time, you’ll be adding strength to the numbers of current and future women in film. You just have to buy a ticket, put on your Wonder Woman converse shoes, and head out to the closest multiplex. See you there!

The Wedding Plan Review: The little Hebrew-language Rom-Com that could

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You may not imagine that you’d be hankering to see a romantic comedy in Hebrew this weekend.  I’m here to tell you, this new indie, directed by Israeli-American director Rama Burshtein, and starring luminous stage actress Noa Koler as well as Israeli heartthrobs Amos Tamam and Oz Zehavi, will win you completely, and put a smile on your face that will stay stuck that way for hours.

32 year old Michal (Noa Koler) is an Orthodox Jewish woman who wants to find someone to share her life with, and wants the comfort and acceptance that comes with married life.  That’s not to say she isn’t entirely her own woman that dances to the beat of her own drum.  She has created a career of running a mobile petting zoo, which includes a snake and other creatures that would send most other supposedly feminine women screaming.  She has strong opinions and readily shows the depth of her feelings. When her fiancé, the man she thought would be her life partner, unexpectedly calls off the engagement only a month before the wedding, she is crushed.  Being of strong stock, she picks herself up and determines she’ll find Mr. Right in time to go ahead with the nuptials. She trusts god to find her the perfect match, with barely a month to spare.

This movie is a great example of what the future of Rom-Coms can deliver, embracing all the genre’s positivity and romance, but adding the twists, darkness, and raw emotion that gives it both staying power and immediate relevance.  Director Burshtein knows how to write the sort of determination-led magical thinking with which character Michal has approached her life and her future, which is no easy task.  It could have easily seemed hokey or entirely unbelievable, but because this is about her trust in god, it becomes like a fairy tale, the ending for which the entire audience is kept captive and hoping.

For her part, Koler is not only perfectly cast, but entirely believable, which is essential to the film working.  International audiences agree with me, since she won Best Actress at the Awards of the Israeli Film Academy, the Israeli version of the Oscars.  Watch her as she goes on blind date after blind date, awkward yet steadfast in her belief she is doing the right thing, all the while feeling a little insane. It will induce chair-squirming empathy, and no doubt some recognition of past experiences.  Her chemistry with Zehavi, who plays Yos, a famous pop star who takes a shine to her, and Tamam, as Shimi, the handsome owner of the wedding venue, is off the charts.  The way these actors bring their characters to life makes even the surprise ending make sense.

One of the most interesting aspects of seeing The Wedding Plan is the way it represents the culture of Orthodox Judaism so that those who know little about it are enlightened. I knew very little, but loved learning from the portrayals how powerful and independent women can be, even though the pressure to get married is so strong. There are also concrete bits of culture represented like, excuse my ignorance, that Orthodox Jewish women who are married must cover their hair.  (see married Rama Burshtein’s IMDB for lovely pictures of her in head wraps)  Burshtein, herself someone who became Orthodox after being raised in a secular family, has as a writer/director dedicated herself to promoting film as a tool of self-expression in the Orthodox community. She did so with her first narrative feature in 2012, Fill the Void, which won a total of seven awards from the Israeli Film Academy.

The Wedding Plan is in a larger number of arthouse theaters than is usually the case for foreign language films released in the US, but that doesn’t mean you should tarry in finding a screening near you.  Independent films survive and thrive on early word of mouth and ticket sales.  For the sake of all of us who like romantic, positive examples of cinema, go see it opening weekend.

A-

In area theaters now.

WAKEFIELD Review and Exclusive Interview with director Robin Swicord

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This weekend the new independent film Wakefield opens, starring the unstoppable acting juggernaut, Bryan Cranston. It is a performance where he spends most of the movie by himself, and yet it’s tense, exciting, and represents the sort of character arc that keeps audiences connected and engaged.  Writer/director Robin Swicord is best known for adapting literary works for the screen, including The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (for which she was nominated for an Oscar) as well as Memoirs of a Geisha, Matilda, and Little Women.  She wrote and stepped into directing The Jane Austen Book Club.  Wakefield she adapted from a short story by E.L. Doctorow, who wrote Billy Bathgate and Ragtime. While the script is tight, it’s absolutely the Bryan Cranston show, which is as it should be.

Howard Wakefield is coming home from work in the city for what looks to be the thousandth time, his face haggard as he stares blankly out of the train. When there’s a power failure, he has to walk the rest of the way home, and getting there, he winds up in the attic across from his house.  He spends some time staring out the window, watching his family from the dark confines of the cluttered out-of-the-way spot, and decides to stay there for a while, ignoring concerned calls from his wife Diane (Jennifer Garner).  He falls asleep, and then is afraid to walk in without a good explanation for Diane, with whom he had just fought, and he’s been having rougher and rougher patches. As he makes himself as comfortable as possible, hours turn into days, the days into weeks, and the weeks into months.  What he does up in the attic, how his identity crumbles, and his understanding of himself, those he loves, and the world changes, is the meat of the movie.

Cranston alternately grumbles, mumbles, analyzes, and philosophizes as he watches his family and inner circle react to his disappearance.  He undergoes a transformation both inside and out, and the audience is witness to it all.  There are few actors who could have pulled the role off, especially given Howard Wakefield starts out, at best, misanthropic.   He cackles as he plumbs the dark depths of his intellect for insults about his extended family.  Through the proceedings, Cranston is called upon to show minute incremental changes through his intonation, facial tics, and body language, instead of through any obvious dialogue.  It may seem lunacy for the character to intentionally put himself from is own world, when it is only steps away. The story, however, makes sense, in that it’s certainly possible someone could be seduced into watching the world from the outside and find themselves trapped between wanting to disappear from their life and finding the courage to change it, even knowing they are inadvertently hurting the ones they love.

Jennifer Garner shows up in a way that goes beyond the occasional flashback or display of her experience as Howard is watching through binoculars from across the street.  She must do much with little, and portrays a character, though well fleshed out by the script, as someone with more dimensionality than you’d expect, given how little dialogue she has to represent herself.

The real reason so see Wakefield is the tour-de-force performance Bryan Cranston brings to it. He travels through the spectrum of emotions, and essentially empties himself out to rebuilds himself in under two hours, and he is almost entire alone in doing so.  By the time you reach the ambiguous ending, you may or may not love Howard Wakefield, but you can’t help but be in his corner.  Where are his crazy choices leading? Wherever, you will want to be with him to find out.

B+

An Exclusive Interview with Director Robin Swicord

LC: Let’s talk about Bryan Cranston because I know he was your number one choice and it’s so wonderful that you would up having him because who could’ve done it the way he did?  He finds either sympathy or draws recognition from his audiences, which I think is his best quality. What sort of specific additions did Bryan add to it that you noticed enhancing the character development? Were they all physical or did he sometimes improvise words?

Robin: I know, no kidding. I can’t imagine another actor could have done what he did. I think that we were open to every kind of play on this. This is one of the unique opportunities that you get when you have a man alone in a room and he’s talking aloud and he’s behaving. Is that I can give him the script and he can do all of that and then he can do whatever he wants to besides. And in the editing room I can decide what I’m going to use of that depending on pace and tone and so forth. So I welcomed it all, I welcomed it from the very start in our first conversation and then when we went through the script moment by moment and line by line and beat by beat. We talked through everything in a long process that went over a couple of weeks, many hours a day, and during that time he would sometimes make suggestions that were really wonderful, you know. Some of them I would say, “we don’t have time for that, let’s slow the moment down,” but I didn’t necessarily say that to him. I just would kind of file that in my – I wrote down everything and I would kind of file these little notes – knowing that when we got to the stage things could be different. And they were, you know. Once you step on the stage and you’re in character and you’re wearing your beard and you’ve got on your distressed clothing, the impulse you had in talking through the script might be very different on this day. So allowing him to have the freedom to play and to not be constrained was part of our deal, it’s part of why I chose him and I think part of why he chose me.

LC: There aren’t a lot of locations, and that can sometimes be quite claustrophobic for a filmmaker, but it really doesn’t feel that way in watching the film.

Robin: Right, well I would say that the attic set was pretty claustrophobic there was only five days of it. The rest of it was on location at the house or in Altadena or South Pasadena or even further afield when we did the nature preserve, so it’s deceptive, but there actually are quite a few stages, I mean location changes for this. I don’t think that we ever felt claustrophobic, I never did, and in fact we finished shooting in the attic and then we went sort of across the lot to shoot the New York scenes and the bar scene and then we were done. Except for one day we had to go to travel down to shoot all the train station stuff. And so basically those last three days were so jam packed there was no time for nostalgia, but while we were on the New York set and shooting the stuff in the past, I heard that they had dismantled the attic and I felt a tremendous pang that I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.

LC: So when you only have 20 days to shoot,, it becomes quite a partnership, since apart from the other crew, it’s mostly you and Bryan… how many takes did you often do of the same scenes?

Robin: We didn’t do that many takes of the same scenes, although that depending on what it was. By budgeting stuff that you knew you were going to get very quickly, you could then buy time on the attic set for instance, to let him try stuff three or four different ways. And he tends to do that, he’s not a perfectionistic, he’s not “oh let me get that again because I said that word kind of wrong”… you know. If he wants to do another take, it’s because he has another idea. And so I tried to give him as much of that kind of time as I would but I always had my first AD to my left shoulder saying we need to be out of here in 45 minutes, then I would have to decide, right there on the spot how much time am I going to spend here or am I going to change camera lenses and do something different. So there was a lot of organization and there was a lot of minute-to-minute pressure and I tried not to pass that onto the actors and just let them feel that they had all the time in the world to do stuff.

LC: It really comes in handy that he’s done so much stage work because it translates to the speed of making decisions around who his is in character.

Robin: That’s right and he could be in the moment. If he was in character and in the moment he could just do what was his instinct. He could say the line and it would come out and it would have its meaning, emotional meaning and also literal meaning. And so knowing that he was well trained, that he had spent all this time in TV where you’re shooting eight pages a day, he was a seasoned actor, not a diva, it just meant we could ask the impossible of him and his attitude stayed great. And I would be thrilled to work with him in a situation where I wasn’t having to ask the impossible of him. But in this case his attitude was fantastic through every frame, he literally would do anything that we asked him to as long as it was telling the story.

LC: I see this character as starting out pretty unlikable and certainly self-destructive, so there’s quite an arc there. What kind of trial and error did you go through in making it work as you wanted to in terms of being both the writer and the director once it became something you were translating onto the screen? Was there something you really thought was going to work that you needed to nuance or shift in some way?

Robin: I had to work a lot with the voiceover. That was the part that changed the most for me. Both in terms of how much voiceover was in the film, and also which verb tense he was speaking in, and I had to for myself settle questions of: Who is he telling the story to? From which vantage point? From which point in time and why? And so I had to sort of wrap my brain around that both as a writer and then later as a director in the editing room and when I had Bryan in recording. I knew from the outset that I wanted to record the voiceover a number of times all the way through as one script so that at different points in time his understanding of his own character would shift and grow because that’s what happens with actors, they begin and they’re full of ideas that come out of rehearsal or out of a reading of the script. As they do the work, they begin to have other ideas because they’re alive, and in the moment, and creative. That’s what happens. So I wanted to be able to capture all of that and sort of memorialize all of that. So we did a voiceover before we started, we did some during production, we did one at the end of production. At one point, I called him and I gave him some new voiceover lines which he put on his phone and sent to me, and then we recorded it all again at the very end of post. So we had a lot of things we could choose from in order to create that voiceover. That was the thing that shifted the most for me.

In terms of going to the adaptation, I knew that you had to work on issues of alignment, because, as you say, he’s not a character that people fall in love with instantly. He’s doing and saying things that we might not do or say. But he’s also tremendously vulnerable, he’s emotional, he’s thinking thoughts that we’ve also had, he doesn’t want to go in the house because he fears that his wife will be angry, and they’ll re-engage in another fight. He doesn’t want that to happen. So that thing of evading conflict all of us have felt or done that. And so as long as he was doing things that an audience could say or feel, “I have felt that way, I might do that as well,” then we were creating alignment, and it didn’t matter whether you approved of him as a character or whether you would think that’s the guy you want to marry. If you could say, “I’ve been like that and I have felt like that,” then that was enough for me. And so we built on that and Bryan also built on that because as you’ve pointed out, he is a truth teller. He really… it’s authentic with him.

LC: To me it seems like he’s pretending to be someone and he turns into someone in the span of the film.

Robin: Right, he’s a man at the beginning who doesn’t understand and he’s actually dislocated from his true self.

Everything he is doing is really not the way he feels inside. That he’s taken on certain kinds of roles without being even remotely aware of it.

He begins to evolve. But first he has to go through kind of a feral animal stage, it’s almost like he has to go through the stages of being a human being again in order to grow up again into this person who I can’t say with any confidence really does know himself at the end. But at least he knows what he loves.

LC: I love that. I love the ambiguity, because you either leave the film being optimistic or cynical and it’s all in your own perspective. That is a way of hooking in the viewer in a way that would have been very difficult to do any other way than the arc of the story.

Robin: That’s right, it is meant to be a subjective film so that even the ending is subjective depending on how the audience feels that it ends.

LC: So often men inhabit women as directors just by the nature of there being so many more hired to direct than women, but not so often do women inhabit men – and I’m talking about the male gaze versus the female gaze. Do you think that the approach is as individual as the directors or is there some commonality to women writing and directing a film featuring a strong male lead? What’s your perspective on that?

Robin: I think that that is a brilliant question, I really do, and I feel that I’m going to come up short in giving you an answer because it’s such a big subject. I would have to really make a study of movies that are directed by women that are about men in order to even begin to understand that. I can tell you that from my personal answer is: I am not sure that a man would have made this movie. Because I am actually interested in the male gaze and the idea of men projecting onto women, and I don’t think that there are just a legion of men or male directors who share that same fascination. So I’ve come to it in a certain way and I’m not sure that another person would have.

I love so many different kinds of movies – I love movies about men, I love movies about women, I love movies about animals. I don’t necessarily think of myself as only coming from a place of being a female viewer or a female writer or a female director. I really am just a tremendous appreciator of art in general, and I come to film or books or poetry I’m engaging with, I come to that for personal reasons and not for reasons of gender. But inevitably, because we have different experiences, men and women, we are shaped by the culture that we live in. To see a movie about a man who initially is objectifying his wife, is going to have a different meaning for me because I have been objectified quite a bit in my life. Whereas man might say, “Oh here’s a man who’s objectifying his wife,” but his approach would feel completely different because he hasn’t had that experience. So the personal and the gender politics end up being entwined even though we would like to think that we can escape that.

LC: As a writer/director who really mentors female writers, I was looking at Hedgebrook and all of the work you’ve been doing, what are your thoughts on more women creating films where it does analyze men through male leads? Or should there be more of a focus to bring more women into leads, and women working with each other on screen and that sort of thing? How do you believe we have to proceed in order to change things?

Robin: I think that’s another great question. Personally, I just want to see more women writing and directing period. I honestly don’t care whether they give us female or male protagonists to study. I think that there’s no should involved. The only “should” should be that these obstacles need to be cleared from the path of the women who are creative and who want to be making films and have a gift to do that. And if we do that we can then over time begin to see, what is it that women want to say what is it that they want to explore? We don’t even know because there’s been so much pink and blue coding in Hollywood that the kinds of movies that I’ve been suggested to write are ones that my husband Nicholas Kazan, who’s also a screenwriter, would never have been offered because he’s male. Likewise he’s always being offered stuff that I would never be offered. There’s so much coding going on that we don’t even really know what is it that women have to say. We’re still in the stage of what is it that women are allowed to say.

LC: Right and that to me is the reason I’m so grateful about this movie because it does show that a woman can write a movie that stars a man, that’s about a man, that’s about a relationship, and about an emotional arc –

Robin: Well we can, we just have to raise the money ourselves.

LC: Well that’s so different in Europe, so many more women are making movies in England than they are in the United States. The rules and the laws are different there.

Robin: Right and those are businesses that are supported by the government. Like if we could apply for grants to the United States government and say we want to make Wakefield and that money were available to us as long as we had real movie stars in it then there would be no problem. If we lived in Denmark, half of all the movies financed by their government would be directed by women, that’s their law.

LC: Australia, too.

Robin: Yeah. So we just don’t live in that world. We live in a world that is supposedly dictated by a marketplace but this marketplace is run and conceived of and by people who have an unconscious bias against letting women in and so women have to come in the side door, through film independent and Sundance and through the way we put this together, it was going and finding independent financing from a group of Broadway angels. So there’s no such thing as getting a grant or one-stop shopping. Every single movie has to be scrounged together for different voices to enter the film business and that’s not to say that people shouldn’t – there’s a lot of artistic freedom in being able to do that, and I say more power to all of us who are doing that, but you know there’s no gender parity yet in the film world here because some people get to come in the front door and are given big budgets and can make movies under the umbrella of a studio and everybody else who’s representing a point of view that is considered to be new or different is having to put it together piece by piece.

LC: Can you talk a little bit more about the screenwriters’ lab that you have been involved with?

Robin: Hedgebrook is a wonderful women’s writing retreat that was started some-40 years ago by a woman named Nancy Nordhoff on Whidbey Island. She had a piece of property and she had a little bit of money, and she decided that she would build some cottages there, that she would invite women to come in and use that as a room of one’s own, a place to write. And she couldn’t take more than six people, but she was open to whoever showed up for that. And they created an enclave there in which you apply for a residency, and if you’re lucky you get one, and then for that period of time you’re allowed to write, or not, you can walk the property and think your thoughts or you can write in the privacy of your room. They provide the meals for you and in the evenings for about an hour there’s a kind of communal friendship between all the other people who are staying there at the same time.

It’s a very simple idea, it’s not different from other kind of writing places but what’s radical about it was that it is only for women and that half of the people that they invite are women of color. And so right away you’re encouraging diverse voices and I’m interested in encouraging diverse voices. So I was offered an opportunity to teach a master class there, which I enjoyed doing, but what I brought to them was an idea of doing a screenwriting lab, and I was able to through Humanitas, which is another organization that is interested in encouraging diverse voices, Humanitas gave them a grant. They put together a group of women writers called The Wolf Pack and they had financed this screenwriting project for the past three years. And we’ve grown enormously, we can still only take five or six people for one of these writing labs because that’s how many people the property can house, but we went from like 125 submissions the first year to 260 the second year and this year we expect there to be more. There’s a tremendous demand for mentorship and for getting your hands on the tools to become a better writer and that’s what this workshop offers.

For more information about Hedgebrook, go to http://www.hedgebrook.org/

Wakefield opens in area theaters this weekend around the country.  See it and support women in film.

Everything, Everything: Review and exclusive interview with director Stella Meghie

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An indie film adaptation of Nicola Yoon’s vivid, enthusiastically received YA novel Everything, Everything is coming to theaters this weekend. Directed by Stella Meghie, who blazed onto the scene helming a screenplay she wrote with Jean of the Joneses, Everything, Everything is a both a coming of age romance, and a dark fairy tale superimposed onto real life circumstances. It’s also a charming, potent little film.

Maddie (Amandla Stenberg) is turning 18. Her birthday won’t be like what most young women her age experience. She won’t be going out. She hasn’t left her house since she was a baby. She has an immune disorder that makes her so allergic to the outside world, it will likely kill her if she breathes outside air. She does have reason to celebrate, with the appearance of a new next door neighbor named Ollie (Nick Robinson), who has a smile as bright as his outlook is cynical. Too bad her mother (Anika Noni Rose), a doctor who cares for her, doesn’t think interest in the boy next door is good for Maddie’s health.

You know you’ve wanted Amandla Stenberg, she who ripped your heart out playing Rue in The Hunger Games, to be in every movie, because she can rock just about anything. She’s been called “one of the most incendiary voices of her generation”. She’s a musician, an activist, a writer, and director, and she’s only 19 years old. She also has three more movies she’s starring in coming out soon. She brings an authenticity to the character of Maddie, exposing vulnerability, and a blend of innocence, strength, and kindness, that elevates the part of the plot some might shrug off as a teen crush. None of it. She and equally hot up-and-comer Robinson have the audience rooting for the success of their first love. It’s certainly complicated, since they can’t touch.
One of the best elements of them together is the fact that, though they represent an interracial couple, it’s never mentioned or even part of the equation. They’ve got other stuff with which to concern themselves. It would be nice if the real world, the whole real world, followed their lead.

Director Meghie uses fanciful elements to portray Maddie and Ollie’s text-heavy interactions, and Maddie’s dreams of a life that encompasses more than just a few rooms,, and clothes limited to cotton whites irradiated for germs. She also highlights the formidable talents of award-winning stage actress Noni Rose, who navigates a difficult role requiring nuance in both the delivery of dialogue, and subtle unspoken actions.

Ultimately, Everything, Everything is about going beyond ‘what is’, to find the larger truth about yourself and your place in the world. It’s also a cautionary tale about how fear can lead to the sort of big mistakes that can hurt those you love the most. It’s not a big movie, but it’s a good one. Stenberg and Robinson are so very winning, they are reason enough to take this story to heart. Based on their work, and the skill Meghie displays as director here, we can expect great things for them all in the future.

B+

STELLA MEGHIE INTERVIEW:

I spoke to director Stella Meghie, who is a woman of color releasing a mainstream film, (huzzah!) about her experience helming Everything, Everything:

Cinema Siren: I think the best aspect of this film is the consistency of tone. (apart from the chemistry of the leads and Amandla’s authenticity) Can you mention some concrete choices you used to find that balance of innocence and romance/sexiness that you nailed so it wasn’t sentimental or corny? Did you have scrap anything you had already filmed?

Stella: It definitely was a balance I constantly had to find. Somebody told me I rode the line of corny and won and i thought that was the most true statement ever. While I was reading Nicola’s book and the reason I was interested in it, is because i thought it did a kind of interesting tone to it. I saw the story as a kind of Grimm’s tale and i really wanted all the emotion and chemistry to be real but I also wanted a grounded story. I did see it as a dark fairy tale so tried to set the tone with that in mind, with the music and the production design, and make this feel more like a romantic tale than a romantic drama.

CS: Interesting take, a little bit like Rapunzel, but a bit flipped, in that she’s in a sort of tower but she rescues herself. And of course (he) says he’s not a prince so there’s even reference to that in the movie.

SM: And of course the author of the book was very inspired by The Little Prince. Actually I think the first time I met her she was wearing a Little Prince t-shirt. That’s definitely in the book. I hadn’t actually talked to her about my feelings about that kind of tone, and later after she’d seen it, she said that’s how she’d seen the book and that’s how the story was. I thought that was really interesting that we both connected with that. Maybe that’s why we connected so much when we first met. I tried to elevate it as much as possible in the production design and music—I think not everybody was totally onboard the whole time, especially when we started using our music. That was interesting working with Ludwig Goransson I kept referencing movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is kind of more like a nightmare in the music having him help weave that tone together helped with a lot of the storybook notes he put into it.

CS: the score has a simplicity and sweetness to it. It, I think, lends a bit more of an indie feel to the movie, certainly not corny,

SM: Yeah he’s great and he just did more work for Childish Gambino so he’s the farthest producer away from corny. He’s much cooler than me, and it was interesting putting together the music in a balanced way and going as pop as Alessia Cara and as soulful as Alabama Shakes and just trying to get a modern feel.

CS: How did the cast come together? Did Nick Robinson and Amandla audition together, because I have heard you talk about their chemistry and you’re right, it makes the movie.

SM: NO they had not, I was definitely playing matchmaker! I met them both on the same day but separately. They were both actually going away on trips to Europe at the same time. I was not able to get them in the same room, but I joked they should meet in Venice and audition together! I met Amandla, we had a conversation, I really liked her as a person, and she ended up auditioning and she just really brought everything I wanted Maddie to be—she was innocent, inquisitive, but she could do the naivete and definitely had the whole package. Nick i’d seen in a few things, and was always impressed with him, and thought he could really be the next hot leading man. He’s definitely very thoughtful—I ran across town to meet him, and he very real. I could really see their two energies together. I just knew it would work. We cast them both and then they met for coffee. They told me they had hung out for three hours just chatting, and they sent me a picture of them together. I printed it out, and put it on my craft board, and said “YAY”!

CS: What I love about both of them is they are doing a lot more, as young people, than just acting. They both have very full lives, and are very passionate about all the other projects outside of Hollywood they are doing.

SM: Amandla everyone knows for her activism and her outspoken approach to what is important to her. She is passionate about all of it. Nick is the same. When you meet him, he’s just the most genuine, sweetest Portland boy you could ever meet. They aren’t really dazzled by Hollywood and the whole idea of fame and being personalities.

CS: Amandla seems built for the role, and Anika Noni Rose is great but has to play a very challenging character, I think. did you talk to her about how to nuance it?

SM: I think that was the most difficult character of the movie for sure. For me it was the character I was the most terrified about casting. Such a complex character means that when we get towards the end of the movie, if I didn’t get the right person, the movie falls apart! It’s not going to work! I really needed someone with real chops and i think that character i shifted from the book a little bit more than the other characters. I wanted her to be a little stronger, and Anika is always someone that’s on my mind that in the same breath can deliver strength and warmth, be able to handle a really hard shift. There were definitely scenes where she and Amandla had to go back and forth and figure out the right balance, or level of intensity. That was essential to get right.

CS: Are there any improvisations or accidents that wound up in the finished film?

SM: Definitely when they are driving in Hawaii, Amandla was playing music. I told her she could play music in the car and so she had a tape of a song and her and Nick were singing along to it. That wasn’t planned and it ended up in the film. She had put together a little Hawaii collection to drive to, and I remember saying, “don’t get too attached! don’t sing too much to it, we might not get the rights!” but we ended getting the rights and were able to keep it and I think it’s a really cool moment in the film.

CS: What would you say your aesthetic is as a director and how would you say you go about marrying it with this particular script?

SM: Overall I think my aesthetic is to make it pleasing to the eye. I’m very into interior design, fashion from my background and how I grew up, I’m always wanting it to have a certain level of polish. So then I look at the script and figure out what particularly speaks to that. For me when I was reading the script and I started closing in, I just started imagining this soft palette. And also i’ll just pull whatever I’m inspired by at the moment. This being a teen movie I was looking at a lot of Petra Collins photography because she captures youth, and it’s sometimes so pretty and so soft and i just wanted to have that pastel palette so I had just four colors that everybody had to play by and it was basically pastel purples and yellows, greens and blues. So we just tried to bring this soft quality to it all. Our production designer Charisse Cardenas was great, so was our costume designer Avery Plewes, and we just tried to create this consistency of color. At one point Charisse mentioned to me just how much green was in this movie and I just thought that’s one of the elements that consciously pulls the viewer from scene to scene to scene keeping things together. I did the same for my last movie, but the colors were much harsher and certainly more intense. I used red and gold and colors like that because the characters were much stronger and I wanted them to feel regal. They were not pastel people!

CS: Well, thanks so much and good luck with the movie!

SM: Thank you!

Their Finest: See This Fine Female-fueled World War II Indie Dramedy

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It’s always great to hear we will be treated to a movie co-starring Bill Nighy. He joins star Gemma Arterton and co-star Sam Claflin in a charming, bittersweet dramedy opening in arthouses this weekend called Their Finest, about a woman living in World War II London who takes a job as screenwriter for a propaganda feature film called Dunkirk. Exciting, as well, to know Their Finest is helmed by a female director, Lone Scherfig, written by women, Gaby Chiappe and Lissa Evans, and features a female scoring artist, editor, and production designer.  Thank Goddess, apart from a few flaws, it’s also really good.

Welsh gal Catrin Cole (Arterton) is married to a struggling fine artist (Jack Huston), and they live in a small flat in London circa 1940. She applies for and gets a job assisting screenwriter Tom Buckley (Claflin) by punching up what he called “the slop”, the female dialogue, on a morale-boosting film about Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. They are beholden to the British Ministry of Information, which is constantly guard-dogging their dialogue and storyline, to make sure it’s optimistic and patriotic enough. Their film includes a role for aging matinee idol and narcissist Ambrose Hilliard (Nighy), who is a consistent fly in the ointment, as are his agents, and the various members of the Ministry. Catrin deals with her own romantic entanglements and attractions, her husband’s displeasure at her becoming the breadwinner, and her desire to be part of creating a film with the power to inspire her fellow countrymen and women in their time of trial.

Arterton is so winning as Catrin Cole, she would be reason enough to see the film.  Her beauty, I think, seems to have been a limitation for her in the roles she’s gotten, because she is a very fine actress, and here she has the opportunity to show her range. Nighy nearly steals the film away with each entrance, which is perfectly in keeping with his character. Claflin plays a cynic who needs an infusion of idealism, but is trapped in a time when representations of idealism are hard to come by, especially with people being killed by bombs on a daily basis.

The movie has its share of sentimentality, and sometimes dips into the maudlin.  It also suffers from not fully leveraging the chemistry between the romantic leads. There are two secondary characters that are pretty one dimensional, although I appreciate having the 40s version, or really any version, of an “out-and-proud” lesbian, in  Rachael Stirling’s Phyl Moore. Huston, as Catrin’s husband Ellis, plays a role we’ve definitely seen from him before, but a war film about a married working woman, struggling to help pay the rent her painter husband can’t afford, has to have its unsympathetic sexist, and it fell to Huston to play him. To be fair, that was the experience of a number of women of the time.

Still, all the actors are magnetic for themselves enough to carry us through, especially Arterton, Claflin, and Nighy, who can always be depended upon to keep our attention, even given the diversity of the roles they inhabit.

You know how it goes.  It’s a delightful charmer, until it isn’t. This is, after all, World War II.  Have Kleenex on-hand, and be prepared for more than a little darkness.  Then expect to witness the formidable Brit perseverance and gumption that those who survived mustered from little more than a strong cup of tea.

B

The Zookeeper’s Wife: An Inspiring, Timely Story of Holocaust Rescuers

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Coming this weekend is a movie whose subject matter, which is based on a true story, will be compelling to many compassionate, loving people. The film The Zookeeper’s Wife asks, “What would you do? Would you risk your life every single day to rescue total strangers?” For Antonina and Dr. Jan Zabinska, who ran the Warsaw Zoo before and during WWII, the answer was yes. It was yes every day.  For myself, I’ve always been fascinated by the Holocaust rescuers of WWII, not least because of my own family history. My grandmother was part of the French resistance, and her brother was a Vichy collaborator, which led to them never speaking again after the war. I have always wondered what I would do in the same circumstances.  What is certain is that Antonina and Jan Zabinska fearlessly chose to do the right thing, and The Zookeeper’s Wife chronicles that choice.

Antonina and Jan Zabinska ran the Warsaw Zoo, and at the beginning of the German invasion found a way to save a number of the animals, as well as a way to give refuge and offer escape to over 300 jews.  They did so in part by courting Hitler’s chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (played by Daniel Bruhl) while hiding jews right under the Germans’ noses they smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto in bombed-out animal cages.  They called them their guests.  To find out how they succeeded with their plan, and the harrowing near-misses they experienced, you’ll have to see the movie.  Be warned, the cages were available and empty because many animals were killed by bombs, and others by invading nazis needing meat. For the sake of preparation, it’s best to know that part of the sad story up front.

The stars of the film are Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh as Antonina and Jan Zabinska, and apart from the shocking knowledge the whole story is true, it is their work, along with that of their co-star Bruhl, that offers the very best reason to see The Zookeeper’s Wife.  Those who have seen The Broken Circle Breakdown (which I called one of the best films of 2012) will recognize Belgian star and playwright Heldenbergh, who is deservedly a very famous actor in his home country. He has an old Hollywood leading-man quality and magnetism that brings Gregory Peck to mind. Daniel Bruhl has a tough job keeping Third Reich zoologist Lutz Heck from being seen as anything more than a threatening, manipulative, hateful villain. History has shown Heck did indeed steal the most valuable animals from the Warsaw Zoo, but Antonina and Jan let him, knowing it was likely the only way to save them. Bruhl finds a way to make us believe that Heck himself must see what he is doing as righteous and good.

The movie, however, belongs to Jessica Chastain, who perfectly embodies Antonina’s outward fragility and inner strength. She captures with complete believability Antonina’s compassion and skill with both the animals of the zoo and the terrified victims of the ghetto, with its inhumane conditions. She proves once again she is deserving of being at the top of Hollywood’s A-list.   

One very good reason to support The Zookeeper’s Wife is it’s written and directed by women. New Zealand-born director Niki Caro, best known for her breakout film Whale Rider and the upcoming live-action version of Disney’s Mulan, was drawn to the project immediately. “The fact that it’s set in a zoo was intriguing to me, because it’s really discussing what is human and what is animal, what is and isn’t a cage. In directing the movie, I was thinking of the tension between those two things, and a lot of the visual storytelling is occupied by that.” The story is based on the non-fiction book written by bestselling naturalist Diane Ackerman. Ackerman says, “Antonina’s story had slipped between the cracks of history, as radically compassionate stories sometimes do, especially stories about women.  I couldn’t let that happen to Antonina Zabinski. She was too important and represents a kind of heroism still taking place every single day on our planet.” Indeed, a number of earlier writings and reference to these events only speak about Jan Zabinski, incorrectly saying Antonina fled with their son before the bombing of Warsaw. The screenplay is written by Angela Workman, who believes the story is universal and timely. “We always say never forget, and we’ve heard that phrase before, and we tell this story to remember these people at that time, but even now, there are refugees everywhere. This a story about trying to help them, and save them.  It’s a story about people who are judged or perceived as “the other”, and recognizing that they are not “the other”, that we are all animals. We are all the same species”.

The film struggles to tell its story, however, in a way that keeps a committed audience.  Blame the editing.  It’s as if it can’t decide whether it’s a studio or indie film. It switches between an intensity and languidness of tone arthouse film fans will recognize from films like Sophie’s Choice, and the populist suspense of a would-be blockbuster, bringing to mind 2013’s The Book ThiefThe Zookeeper’s Wife would have benefitting mightily with a running time cut by a half hour, especially as some of the aspects of this true story are so difficult to watch. Replacing some of the longer scenes with shorter ones that get the gist of what’s happening across would have been better, although perhaps there was a fear that wouldn’t do justice to some heartbreaking minutiae included in the original book. No doubt it seemed essential to include some real-life characters like Henryk Goldszmit, a pediatrician who refused escape to stay with children under his care, ultimately accompanying them to Treblinka.  Is it better to cut that part of Diane Ackerman’s book out, or make the movie too long?

Even with that weakness, what remains is an important, well-told story, filled with great acting moments and beautifully realized scenery and environments. There’s great work by Oscar-nominated production designer Suzie Davies, who brings to vivid life both a vibrant European zoo in the 1930s, and the desperate, terrifying landscape of WWII-era Warsaw.

It’s important to mention the International Rescue Committee (founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein to rescue jews and other victims of nazi persecution) is partnering with The Zookeeper’s Wife and has created The Zookeeper Haggadah, a supplement for Passover Seder that honors Antonina and Jan Zabinska, and their bravery. You can download it at Rescuers.org, and it really is inspiring, just like the story itself.

Whether you are an animal lover, or a people lover, or both, The Zookeeper’s Wife is very sad, and in some parts very hard to watch, but it takes on subjects that are also very inspiring, and, as screenwriter Workman says, very timely.  When you see something going on in your world, in your country, do you stay silent and let it happen, or do you do something about it? If you’re fascinated by history, especially Holocaust rescuers, and the true stories of heroism by every day people they represent, this movie is definitely for you.

Sites for more information on Holocaust Rescuers:

From The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum site

https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005185

From The Holocaust Resource Center and Archives

https://fcit.usf.edu/holocaust/people/save1lif.pdf

From The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous

https://jfr.org/rescuer-stories/

Raw Review: Eat director Julia Ducournau’s new horror indie up

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There’s a new A-list of female directors building in the horror genre, and that’s a very exciting development. It includes Ana Lily Amirpour, Karyn Kusama, Jennifer Kent, just to name just a few, and it makes sense. If women writer/directors want to subvert expectation in the film industry, create an audience that isn’t skewed towards either sex, and tell a story that has room for layered meaning and depth, horror is a great place to do it. With that in mind, let me introduce you to a potential new entry into the horror film hall of fame.

Raw or as it’s called in France, GRAVE, has a lot to say about body image, self acceptance, society as consumptive, identity, and coming-of-age as a woman…and that’s a lot to say. Thank Goddess it’s being said through the writer/director voice of Julia Ducournau, who blends an auteur sensibility with the sort of deconstructionist horror that recalls the work of David Cronenberg.

16 year old wunderkind college freshman Justine (Garance Marillier) is starting school at a prestigious veterinary university. From the first night in her dorm, she is thrust into a world of excess and hazing, through initiations that, for one thing, lead to the life-long vegetarian eating a rabbit’s liver raw. Her sister Alexia, who is ahead of her at the same school, and who has been out of contact with the family, doesn’t help things. She’s the one who forces her into the various rituals, from being doused with animal blood to staying up all night binge-drinking and grind-dancing with fellow students. Justine finds herself starting to feel hungry for raw meat. When she doesn’t eat what she craves, her body turns on her in a number of ways, so she starts giving in to her desires. She gives in to her desire for raw meat, for sex, and anything else she feels compelled to experience. Alexia only spurs her on. Things take a dark turn when she has the opportunity to eat human flesh and takes it. Things get darker and more grotesque from there.

How far removed, beyond what is socially acceptable, are the merciless hazing, sexual politics, and peer pressure experienced at colleges, from the idea of people actually sinking their teeth into, drawing blood from, and eating parts of each other? Given the number of universities in the U.S. alone being called out for ignoring sexual assaults, and the leniency the courts show sexual predators, i’d offer, not very. That may or may not be what Ducournau is trying to say, but she does raise a number of questions, depending on your perspective. Certainly she is offering up an anti-heroine to the audience and asking us to, at least in part, remain on her side as she gives in to her impulses.

There’s one question that should resonate with everyone. Once we have gotten a taste of anything seen as “wrong”, or “immoral”, what compels us to continue having it, or worse, seek it out even more? What actions are completely unforgivable, or socially unacceptable, and who gets to decide that? Those are the sorts of themes that I find fascinating as approached by a young female filmmaker, because they are so far off the field of inquiry seen as acceptable for women writing and directing films. Why is that? Regardless of the answer, it’s refreshing to see it investigated onscreen. Those of us who love horror films that reflect societal issues should support it, no matter how much we may risk dry heaving in the process.

A

Beauty and the Beast Review: An All Female-led Design Team Brings New Beauty

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Anyone who is in love with the 1991 Disney animated feature Beauty and the Beast has been over the moon about the coming of a live-action version starring Hermione Granger herself, Emma Watson.  The fact that one of its producers, Don Hahn, also had that credit on the original lends some credibility in the “maintaining the A+ standard” department, as does the fact that all new music and songs are created by the same artist, Alan Menken.  Has this 2017 reinterpretation ably carried the torch from the 1991 classic, and added a new valuable chapter to the “tale as old as time”?

Let me put fans of the animated feature at ease.  It isn’t a frame for frame copy.  Director Bill Condon and his screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos expand on the story and add a number of scenes not in the animated version.  For example, the film starts with a set piece involving a spectacular ball at which Audra McDonald’s character, an operatic diva, is performing.  In fact, the same character sings at the end of the film, creating musical bookends, and showing Condon has respect for the importance of including and highlighting seasoned musical performers. One can’t get any more seasoned or celebrated than Broadway superstar Audra McDonald.  The rest of the film trundles along, passing back and forth between moments and scenes recognizable from the animated feature, and added elements only possible in live action, that will thrill and entertain both the uninitiated and longterm fans of the story.  Those who know Jean Cocteau’s 1946 masterpiece La Belle et la Bete will notice Condon added several references to a film for which he has a great affinity.  Look for hand-held lighting sconces that will harken back to the 1946 film.

The actors are all perfectly cast.  In particular, Emma Watson lives up to the fact that she is the visual embodiment of the live-action version of cartoon Belle.  She sings in a sweet, somewhat simple soprano, but captures the wry, clever, and curious quality we all know from the 1991 Belle.  Also particularly memorable are Luke Evans, who finds a way to step into the enormous walking ego that is Gaston without being a complete caricature, and Kevin Kline, who brings all his larger-than-life Broadway experience (and voice) to bear, yet finds subtlety and authenticity in Maurice, Belle’s father. In many ways, he is the heart of the film.

Since screenwriter Linda Woolverton wrote the 1991 film as well as winning a Tony for the Broadway adaptation,  building one of the strongest, most feminist characters in the history of Disney, I had concern about two men picking up the mantle for this new live action version.  Woolverton is responsible for Belle being so in love with reading and learning. She stood up for the character as the 1991 film was taking shape, keeping Belle powerful, kind, and curious, in ways no Disney princess had been before. This new film keeps her strength intact, as well as adding a sensitivity in the interactions with her father that further define her kindness and inventiveness.  She also remains fiercely independent, as fans know her to be, as well as fearless in ways that make her a role model once again for young girls meeting the character for the first time.

As to the two sore spots I see in this otherwise brilliant reinterpretation, firstly, I question the wisdom of choosing the first out gay character as Lefou, a sycophantic buffoon. The filmmakers stayed true to his character as portrayed in animation, in that he is just a “yes man” to Gaston, and clearly enamored with him, and Josh Gad does an honorable job playing him. However, does the first gay character have to make such incredibly bad choices, and follow the very bad example the lying, conniving Gaston sets for him? Also, I’m not sure there is quite enough time spent on the developing romance between Belle and the Beast, before she starts singing about how she’s falling for him.  These are legitimate gripes, to be sure.  One positive that repeatedly impressed me, though, in terms of casting, is the fact that they used what’s called “non-traditional casting.  There are people of all ethnicities cast in a variety of roles.  For example, the villager who lends Belle her books is a man of color, and why not?

While seeing Watson bring Belle to life is a winning reason to see Beauty and the Beast, it isn’t the best reason. For that you must look to the production design, and, happily, to women.  All the department heads of the design team on Beauty and the Beast are female.  This includes 4-time Oscar nominated production designer Sarah Greenwood, Oscar winning costume designer Jacqueline Durran, 4-time Oscar nominated set decorator Katie Spencer, and Oscar winning make-up and hair designer Jenny Shircore. Also the film editor is a woman, Virginia Katz. Essentially, if the way this film looks and feels is what draws you in and captivates you, it is a collaborative group of women working with Sarah Greenwood you have to thank. The stats on Durran’s interpretation of Belle’s ballgown alone should send you reeling, with the 180 feet of satin organza they used, along with 2160 Swarovski crystals.  Excess is one thing Disney does best, exampled by that dress, along with the chandeliers that measure 14 by 7 feet and are modeled after the ones in Versailles!

All in all, this new version of Beauty and the Beast is a wonderful addition to the Disney live-action canon, and will be enjoyed for years to come.  When the House of Mouse suggests you should be their guest, do take them up on it.

B+