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Bathtubs Over Broadway Review: Terrific Doc Celebrates Tractor Tunes and Sunscreen Serenades

On rare occasions, the truly bizarre and the utterly charming intersect. Just such a case can be made for Writer/producer/editor Dava Whisenant’s directorial debut, which mines the strange world of industrial musicals in the new documentary Bathtubs Over Broadway.These productions had their heyday in the 50s through the 70s, and were populated by talented performers and composers who created Broadway-level musical shows extolling the virtues and benefits of good salesmanship and manufacturing, in full-throated song and dance numbers about best-selling tractors, sunscreen, plumbing fixtures and more. Premiering at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, Bathtubs Over Broadway won Whisenant Tribeca’s Albert Maysles Award for Best New Documentary Director, and has gone on to win Audience Awards and Best Doc Feature in festivals around the country.The film follows Late Show with David Letterman writer Steve Young, an avid collector in search of cast recordings and film footage created over the years, often marked “Internal use only”, from what is largely a forgotten musical genre. Young even wrote a book about his obsession, “Everything’s Coming Up Profits”, which started by accident when, while scouring the used record stores for albums Letterman would use as part of a segment on his show, he started finding records from what sounded like very elaborate shows.  Corporations like Chevrolet, Purina, Lipton, Citco, Dupont, General Electric, McDonalds, and Ford were represented. Most stars of the cast, and the production crew including the musicians and writers, spent their entire careers creating them. Often their work was never seen by the greater viewing public. However, they sometimes included stars, including Chita Rivera, Martin Short, Tony Randall, and Florence Henderson. Choreographers like Bob Fosse, who went on to win 8 Tony Awards on Broadway, and 5-time Tony winner Susan Stroman worked on these big budget spectacles as well.  One comparison was that in the same month in 1956 when My Fair Lady, which cost $446 thousand to produce, went to Broadway, Chevrolet mounted a production that cost $3 million. In Bathtubs Over Broadway, we get to see some of where the money went, by way of cast recordings and vintage film footage, and let’s just say they have to be seen or heard to be believed.Young and his the collector friends are quick to point up the many merits of  “The Bathrooms are Coming”, a 60s tune that speaks of a revolution in plumbing fixtures. Young calls it perfection on vinyl. There is a film of another song from this American Standard production, called “My Bathroom”, with a blonde in pink chiffon singing into the mirror, “In my bathroom. In my bathroom. It’s much more than it may seem.  where I wash and where I cream. a special place where I can stay and cream and dream and dream and dream.” Not only does Young know every word, so too do the women who originally performed it. We know this because we are witness to him tracking them down and setting up a meeting. You’ll enjoy the new friends singing “My Bathroom” together, impromptu, in the hotel bar. They beam, feeling he truly appreciates the work they did so long ago.For all of what feels like it borders on ridiculous, there is no shortage of earnestness or enthusiasm here. What could be seen as a tongue-in-cheek hipster throw-away is treated with respect and dignity, from both Young and the filmmakers following him. Offered without cynicism, viewers get a peek at what is a passion for collectors, and what was for the performers a successful career in art, doing what they loved.There are two kinds of documentaries, from my estimation. One exposes wrongs or raises awareness about important societal or global issues, and the other shines a light on subjects to enlighten or educate a wider, or sometimes just curious, audience. Obviously Bathtubs Over Broadway is the latter. Movies like Errol Morris’s Vernon, Florida, about the eccentric residents of a small Southern town, or Ceyda Torun’s more recent Kedi, about Turkish street cats, are documentaries that more fascinate, and entertain, than inspire activism. Only a small percentage of movie fans watch docs as a matter of routine, in part because films of that genre can often be quite intense or depressing. Hooray, then, for one that, with its quirky heart on its sleeve, offers stories from the fringe.Steve Young says, as one of the wackier productions plays onscreen, “This exists at the far horizon where the adjectives of good and bad don’t apply any more.” There’s no question, though, that he and other dedicated fans of these industrial musicals love them unabashedly. Watching him express his gratitude to the stars and composers decades after they performed them, and seeing how appreciated they feel, is just the sort of exchange that makes Bathtubs Over Broadway such a delight. The last 10 minutes of the film will be get you more in the holiday spirit than any number of Hallmark movies.4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Jinn Review: Mother-Daughter Magic

Jinn, a new semi-autobiographical film by writer/director Nijla Mu’min, articulates the challenges many face in some form of other in their own lives, and it comes right on time. A coming-of-age drama about a teen grappling with her mother’s conversion to Islam and her own shifting beliefs,. It shows the sides of the religion not often displayed in the media or on film, especially the kindness and love asked of its followers in all interpersonal relationships.

Writer/Director Mu’min’s feature debut celebrates finding wholeness in a fractured world. Americans find themselves in a world where it is increasingly hard to have anything but a popular, easily accepted opinion, and that is especially true for women of color. It is in all forms of art where this struggle for acceptance and individuality finds safety. Jinn, a new semi-autobiographical film by writer/director Nijla Mu’min, articulates the challenges many face in some form of other in their own lives, and it comes right on time. The film is a coming-of-age drama about a teen grappling with her mother’s conversion to Islam and her own shifting beliefs. It shows the sides of the religion not often displayed in the media or on film, especially the kindness and love asked of its followers in all interpersonal relationships.

Summer (Zoe Renee) is 17. She is a proud black girl, a dancer who jokes with her friends, and navigates being close to both her mother Jade Jennings (Simone Missick), a meteorologist on local television, and her dad, and his new white wife. When her mom converts to Islam, Jade changes her perspective on her own life, as well as how she is raising her daughter. Summer, who goes to masjid with her mom, starts to shift her own beliefs around Islam, and chooses to convert as well. Trying to be a 17-year-old dancer using social media at the same time as settling into her new religion proves to be difficult and divisive in the mother and daughter’s new community.

Older adults who grew up before social media formed personas to the outside world, may not realize the challenges of representing a whole being with just a picture or 240 characters. It can often do more harm than good to try, but that is the environment in which kids become themselves today. Summer finds Instagram celebrity with just one picture, and realizes bringing the many parts of herself together won’t be easy. In her new relationship with Muslim classmate Tahir (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), she attempts to express her sexuality in ways acceptable in popular culture but not in Muslim culture. This leads to repercussions that make her question who she is, and who she can or should be.

The voice of the protagonist, spoken like lyrical in voiceover, is a companion to the viewers that helps guide them through Summer’s feelings, but it is Zoe Renee’s committed, single-focused portrayal of the character that pulls the audience in, and makes allies of them all. She carries a joy, always present just below the surface, that cannot be easily extinguished. Like all teens, she has both a purity and an attraction to the forbidden, but as a Muslim, she must find ways to express her full self in all its complexities without going against her new faith or feeling shame.

There is a beauty in the relationship between Summer and Jade that is central to the story, and makes the film feel like balm on a wound. Even as there are struggles between them, their love is never in question. It is in that anchor of cinematic truth that Mu’min and her cast succeed the most.

The Jinn of the title refers to a magical supernatural being of Muslim mythology made of smokeless flame that has free will, and sometimes tempts humans. Summer recognizes herself as a jinn of modern culture. She loves her magic and her free will, and the audience loves it too, rooting for her as she risks being rejected and ostracized, and as she finds ways to stay true to her own power while making choices that align with her new faith.

On Stevie Wonder’s 1976 classic album Songs in the Key of Life, there’s a track called Love’s in Need of Love Today. If the last few years have shown anything, it’s that we still need songs, poems, and films that remind us of that sentiment after all these years. Ultimately, Jinn is less plot-driven and works more as a character study, much like a song that evokes a feeling rather than telling a story. It is the sort of film that can get lost in all the bombast of the award-seeking winter releases, but it shouldn’t. A meditation on the complexities and beauty of becoming whole in a world that currently seems to thrive on breaking spirits of anyone seen as “other”, Jinn is a valuable addition to the coming-of-age genre.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Boy Erased Review: This New Drama Highlights the Hell of Conversion Therapy

Written for the screen, directed by, and co-starring Joel Edgerton, Boy Erased tackles the subject of conversion therapy camps and in-patient clinics that attempt to alter sexual orientation and gender identity.  Starring Lucas Hedges as Jared Eamons, the son of Baptist preacher Marshall (Russell Crowe) and his stay-at-home mom Nancy (Nicole Kidman), the film follows Jared as he navigates the Christian-based program run by Victor Sykes (Edgerton).  Sykes and his colleagues attempt to retrain the brains of the teenaged and adult subjects in the program, sometimes to disastrous results.

Garrard Conley’s 2016 book Boy Erased: A Memoir, brought further attention to what is still a widespread problem.  LGBTQ children and adults, generally from religious families who believe all but heterosexual monogamous relationships are a sin, are being subjected to conversion therapy across the country.  It is illegal to conduct these programs in DC and only 11 states, and in those, the laws only protect minors. The film touches on the experience of one victim who experienced conversion therapy, and how it impacted his life and his relationship with his family.

Lucas Hedges already proved his talent with his Oscar-nominated performance in Manchester By the Sea. As Jared, he shows his acting skills continue to expand, holding his own in scenes with Edgerton, Kidman, and Crowe. The story of his character is both heartbreaking and inspiring, and he brings us along as he struggles with his own identity, experiences confusion about his faith, and finds determination in the face of the bullying and abuse so prevalent in conversion therapy.

The film doesn’t shy away from showing the kinds of damage often done by these therapies, but it doesn’t condemn religion as it examines these methods.  Edgerton believed it was important to portray these characters as loving each other, even as that love leads to bad choices.  Russell Crowe’s Marshall Eamons really does believe he is saving his son from the fires of hell.  What Boy Erased shows, through the lens of one family’s experience, is how universally dangerous and ill-conceived these camps are.  It is a delicate balance, entertaining while educating an audience, and without the story devolving into a Movie of The Week or feeling like one of those Saturday Afternoon Specials of the 70s.  It is to the cast’s credit that it never goes there, probably for the very reason that these characters are anchored in real people.

One of my friends said they weren’t interested in seeing Boy Erased, because they didn’t think it would get much buzz, and the subject matter didn’t seem important.  I beg to differ.  It’s quite possible Joel Edgerton will get an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, and the portrayals by two Oscar winners (Kidman and Crowe) and Hedges, who will have an Oscar in his hands sooner or later, should make any number of film fans curious to see it.  Beyond that, the issue at its core is very important.  Many people don’t realize this sort of mental, emotional, and even sometimes physical torture is still going on in this country.  Both as an emotional family drama as well as an education to those who know little about conversion therapy, Boy Erased succeeds.

4 out of 5 stars

The Hate U Give Review: Starr Power

Opening in wider release this weekend is the film adaptation of The Hate U Give, the bestselling novel by Angie Thomas.  Director George Tillman Jr (Soul Food, Barbershop) brings to the screen the story of Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), who is the only eye-witness to the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer.  The movie shows a marked and perfectly timed shift from imaginary dystopian future worlds represented in film, to the all too alive-and-well dystopia many in our society experience as life on a daily basis. In The Hate U Give, it isn’t a society that makes children fight each other after being chosen through a lottery, it’s a society where the balance of power places whole communities in danger.  It’s the one we all live in now, whether we are aware of it or not, and it is expressed onscreen through strong, believable characters in such a powerful way that it should leave audiences considering how they too can help make positive changes.  It reminds us all that, without taking a stand, the danger and darkness for the marginalized will only continue to increase.

Starr is challenged by living in two very distinct worlds.  She has to exist as two versions of herself using what’s called ‘code switching’, which is a survival tactic folks in the the African-American community use by changing behavior to suit different environments. She uses it in an effort to navigate through her high school and home life.  As one of only a handful of people of color attending an exclusive private school, she portrays herself one way, never using slang, even as her white friends do.  She is there because one of her two best friends was shot in a drive-by shooting when she wasn’t even a teen, so her mom Lisa (Regina Hall) and dad Maverick (Russell Hornsby) wanted a safer environment for her and her siblings. Her second self is who she is at home, living in working-class Garden Heights with her close-knit family, where shootings are a regular occurrence, and working for the most powerful gang is a clear and ever-present way to make ends meet. There she can speak in the vernacular of her community, and enjoy hip-hop without feeling self-conscious, but she finds herself judged as “acting white”.  Everything gets thrown into turmoil when she witnesses her other best friend get shot and killed at a traffic stop.  Should she speak up and take a stand about what she saw, even if it means putting her family in danger from the local gang boss (Anthony Mackie) with whom her dad used to be associated?

There is a lot of tension and lots of questions start to form as viewers experience the story from Starr’s perspective. How does someone stay positive in such a risky world, one in which self-control or being a good person bears little effect on reality? When is it better to take a stand if it puts everyone at risk, even when it’s the right thing to do? The entire story is believable from the beginning, and we can’t help but root for such an eternal optimist and joyful teen.  There are lots of little moments of heartbreak, especially one of the opening scenes when Maverick gives his kids “the talk”, in which he has to teach them how to stay alive in the presence of the police. Russell Hornsby has been a fan favorite since his co-starring days on the TV show Grimm, and The Hate U Give offers him yet another opportunity to show his considerable acting talent.  The film, however, belongs to Stenberg.  She can speak volumes with just a look or small gesture, and she handles the dialogue, whether in voiceover or in scenes with co-stars, with an organic authenticity that brings the script to life.

This is the last screenplay by writer/director Audrey Wells, who passed away from cancer on the date of the film’s premiere.  She interpreted the novel and brought the important elements to the screen, and it is a part of her legacy about which she and her family can feel pride.  Also integral to the finished script, though uncredited, was Tina Mabry, which is a good thing.  Her specific contributions are not listed, but inclusion of a woman of color in the writing of a screenplay about a woman of color seems pretty important to the authenticity of dialogue, especially when the dialogue is one of the most successful elements of The Hate U Give. 

The name of the film is taken from a song by Tupac Shakur, “THUG LIFE”, as in ‘The Hate U Give Little Infants ‘Effs’ Everybody’.  As such, music is an important aspect of the film.  There are a number of songs integrated into the film from musicians including Tupac himself, as well as Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T, Travis Scott, with Arlissa for original songs and Bobby Sessons for the title track.  The score by Dustin O’Halloran is also very impactful, and offers a balance of peace and growing tension, much like Starr’s life. You can read an interview I did with him over that TheCredits.org. 

This is one movie anyone who loves YA or teen stories should see, but it is also for fans of well constructed, authentic-feeling dramas that get under your skin, yet leave you energized.  It is also an opportunity to support a film in which diversity, depth of subject, and skillful filmmaking come together to great success, one in which a female protagonist carries the film ably and the actress portraying her reaffirms her place in Hollywood.  May this lead to her getting every script with strong young women, not just those written for girls of color. 

5 out of 5 stars

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. 

A

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