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AFI: Roundup of the Women-Directed Foreign Language Oscar Entries

19 Nov

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Three of the women-directed entries for Best Foreign Language Film screened at AFI FEST in Los Angeles this weekend.  Take a look at my roundup on Women and Hollywood’s blog on Indiewire.

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Haiffa Al-Mansour’s Wadjda opens in the United States this week

15 Sep Wadjda movie, Saudi Arabia, Haiffa Al-Mansour

Wadjda is the first feature from award-winning director Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first woman from Saudi Arabia to direct a feature-length film.  It follows the story of a Saudi girl who enters her school’s Koran-reciting competition because she wants to use the prize money to buy herself a bicycle.  However, this is a country where bicycle riding is frowned upon for girls.  Since premiering last year at the Venice Film Festival, Wadjda has been winning awards at film festivals all over the world, including the Audience Award for Best International Feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival.  Although Wadjda is the first feature film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, it won’t be playing there any time soon.  Movie theaters are banned in the country.

Be Natural: The untold story of Alice Guy-Blache

21 Aug

By now you may have heard of this one.  It’s the documentary project on Alice Guy-Blache, who in 1896 became the world’s first female director (and one of the world’s first filmmakers, period).  She created her own movie studio and made over 1000 films over the next twenty years, pioneering film technology and developing techniques such as the close-up.  Yet she has been lost to history, as have so many of the women who trailblazed the film industry in its earliest years.

Now a couple of filmmakers, Pamela Green and Jarik van Slujis, are raising money on Kickstarter to tell Alice’s story in a documentary feature film.  They have raised over $70,000 but they need $200,000 for the project to get made.  They have five days to go in their Kickstarter campaign, and if they don’t raise the rest of the $200,000 in that time, they will forfeit the $70,000 already pledged.  Now is a great time to get yourself over to Kickstarter and throw in a few bucks for this incredibly important project!

Be Natural:  The untold story of Alice Guy-Blache on Kickstarter

Film Review: Sound of My Voice releases on DVD and Blu-ray today

2 Oct

Brit Marling in Sound of My Voice

Sound of My Voice is a science fiction-suspense tale about a beautiful young woman from the future who returns to the past where, sick and dying, she assembles younger versions of the people she loves to prepare them to survive the coming apocalypse.

At least, that may be what this film is about.  On the other hand, it may be a psychological thriller about a pleasantly-crazy lady living in a basement in the San Fernando Valley, teaching a bunch of gullible idiots to eat worms and kidnap schoolgirls.

Either way, it’s a good movie.

Aspiring journalist Peter (Christopher Denham) is at the end of his rope.  Determined to avoid a mediocre existence as a substitute schoolteacher, he must do something big with his life.  He and girlfriend Lorna (Nicole Vicius) plan to make their names filming an undercover documentary about a mysterious Los Angeles cult leader.  The two are initiated into the cautious circle of followers.  They smuggle in a camera and learn the secret handshake.  Peter and Lorna are set to expose the cult, but almost immediately things get real, and the two lovers find themselves divided over whether to get out or fall ever deeper in.

Brit Marling plays the clan’s leader, Maggie, whom we first meet as she assembles her devotees in the basement of a vacant home.  She points to a tattoo on her ankle:  “The number 54 refers to where I come from . . . 2054.  Your future.”  This Maggie is no raving mad Charles Manson-type.  Instead she’s a sweetly soft-spoken muse draped in white, a blonde goddess surrounded by a toga-party of misfit adults.  She doesn’t claim to be a returned Christ or ask her followers to give up their life-savings.  She wants only to be with the ones she loves and teach them to survive the dark days she knows are coming.

Marling co-wrote the script with Zal Batmanglij, who directed the film.  She also co-wrote and starred in Another Earth(directed by Mike Cahill), and both films premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Overall, the film intrigues as it moves ominously along.  Some unforeseen movements in the plot keep viewers on their toes, and the aspects of the cult that at first seem most ridiculous pay off in the end in a satisfying way.  The brilliant thing is that the film keeps us guessing.  Is Maggie a meticulous fake or a bonafide, legitimate time traveler?  The film gives just enough information to leave its audience hungry for more, and thankfully, more may be on its way, as the writers have promised that Sound of My Voice is just the first in a trilogy that will open up a much wider world.

Now, off to practice that handshake.

Final Verdict: Significantly better-looking than your average basement cult leader, Brit Marling gives an ethereal performance in a film that will leave you thinking about faith, skepticism, and the many alternative forms of sustenance that may be required to survive futuristic world crises.

 

Film Review: Ruby Sparks Asks Bold Questions About the Controlling Impulse in Relationships

20 Aug

Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano in Ruby Sparks

In Ruby Sparks, Paul Dano plays Calvin, a neurotic novelist whose best-selling first book was such a success that it has induced in him a chronic case of writer’s block. One night he becomes inspired to begin writing about a beautiful girl he has seen in his dreams. He writes a quirky, whimsical female character full of unrestrained life and names her Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). Soon he has fallen in love with his own creation and becomes more and more obsessed until one day, he discovers Ruby in his house, fully in the flesh and bustling away in his kitchen. But unlike the love affair in Lars and the Real Girl, Calvin’s relationship with his muse is not merely in his mind. In this perfectly toned “eureka” moment, shown in the trailer, Calvin realizes that everyone else can see and interact with Ruby: “She’s real.” Calvin is astonished — and utterly thrilled.

And so is the audience. Perhaps because they are a real-life couple, Kazan and Dano have wonderful on-screen chemistry as the film takes this set-up and runs with it, fully capitalizing on the comedy inherent in its premise. One of the greatest things about this film, though, is its unpredictability. Too many films, from rom-coms to action thrillers, follow a well-worn storyline. But with Ruby Sparks, there comes a moment, after the film’s first act, when you realize that you have absolutely no idea where the film is going to go from there.

Then it goes to an even more interesting place, as it starts to carry through on not only the comedic but also the more complicated implications of its premise – a man has created his ideal woman, and he can make her do, and feel, anything he wants. As Calvin begins to learn, Ruby is indeed “real,” but not only in the sense that she can speak, dance, play arcade games, and cook. The ideal woman is also a real person, and the difference between these two things is key to the most unexpected and riveting movements of the plot.

The film’s only flaws are a couple of scenes as Calvin and Ruby visit the home of his mother (Annette Bening) and step-father (Antonio Banderas). These scenes are integral to the development of Calvin’s character, and many in the audience will be excited to see Bening and Banderas in these odd roles, but their characters need to be more clearly realized.

Directed by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who also directed Little Miss Sunshine, this is the first produced screenplay by Zoe Kazan. It seems surprising that she has produced such a moving script for her freshman effort, until you consider who she is. Granddaughter of Elia Kazan (who directed such classics as On the Waterfrontand A Streetcar Named Desire), she is also the daughter of two Oscar-nominated screenwriters, Nicholas Kazan (Reversal of Fortune) and Robin Swicord (The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button). Ruby Sparks is good enough to make one wonder whether great story-telling may be genetic.

The film is playing now in select cities in the U.S. and will see an expanded American release this Friday.

Final Verdict:   Asking some very bold questions about the controlling impulse in relationships, Ruby Sparks is just the kind of smart, dynamic film you’d expect to come from the directors of Little Miss Sunshine.

 

The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen and the Female Superhero in Hollywood Films

22 Mar

Take a look at this interesting article on Wired.com today about The Hunger Games and female “superheros” in Hollywood films.  I haven’t read the books, but I’m going to see the film tomorrow.  Here’s hoping that Katniss is as empowering as they say she is!

Film Review: In the Land of Blood and Honey

18 Mar

After seeing the Rotten Tomatoes rating for In the Land of Blood and Honey, viewers might go into Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut expecting a boring, poorly-constructed love-story set in wartime.  They would be surprised to find that aside from being set in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, the film is none of these things.  Instead, In the Land of Blood and Honey is a fast-paced and truly riveting story about a woman trying to survive a genocide and a man who feels unwilling, but obligated, to participate in it. 

The history of Bosnia-Herzegovina is not pretty.  It’s also not simple.  From 1945 to 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina was a province of Yugoslavia inhabited by a mix of Bosniaks (Muslims), Serbians (Orthodox Christians), and Croats (Catholics).  In 1992, the province’s Muslim majority voted to break free of a Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia ruled by Slobodan Milosevic.  However, many Serbs in Bosnia – some still haunted by the 400-year rule of Bosnia by the Ottoman Empire, in which non-Muslims experienced oppression and discriminatory taxation — feared a Muslim-dominated country and wanted Bosnia to remain part of Yugoslavia.  A Bosnian Serb army was formed and proceeded to “cleanse” Bosnia of its Muslim population.  In addition to killing civilians, the Bosnian Serb army placed many Bosnian Muslim women into concentration camps, where they were systematically raped by the army’s soldiers.

Jolie’s film dives right into this history from the beginning, exploring the Bosnian War from the perspective of Ajla, a Bosnian Muslim woman, and Danijel, a Bosnian Serb army officer.  The two are seen together in the film’s opening scenes, on what seems to be their first date.  Almost immediately, the war begins and their budding romance is shattered.  Bosnian Muslim civilians are rounded up by the Bosnian Serb army.  The men are shot, and a chosen number of the women, including Ajla, are marched off to the rape camps.  When Ajla arrives at the camp, she finds that Danijel is its overseer.  Riddled with guilt over the army’s actions, Danijel attempts to protect Ajla from the other soldiers by claiming her as his personal property.  From here, the film follows the couple’s careful navigation of trust and distrust.

.Jolie’s decision to hire Bosnian actors for the film was a stroke of genius.  Sarajevo-born Zana Marjanovic plays Ajla, and with her bobbed haircut and adorable nose, at times she resembles a young Jennifer Grey.  She emanates a quiet strength as her character is thrust from her mundane life into a world of horror.  Goran Kostic, the Bosnian Serb actor who plays Danijel, will put audiences in mind of Daniel Craig, showing that same ability to express powerful emotion without overdone display.

Jolie has done a masterful job of incorporating historical information seamlessly into the plot, as when one character remarks that the war took place only 40 miles away from Italy, where sunbathers were relaxing on the beach.  Viewers learn that humanitarian aid planes came, dropped off food, and left empty, without taking any refugees out of the country.   This is not a movie for the faint-hearted, as there are myriad scenes of rape and violence, but overall it’s an incredibly moving look at how people behave during wartime,  and it does not end the way you think it will.

That said, one must wonder, what accounts for the poor ratings on Rotten Tomatoes?  Two things.

First, many critics seem to be upset that what was billed in the trailer as a love story is . . . not really a love story.  (See the comments section for spoilers that are important to understanding how the film’s big plot twist fits into this.)  To imagine that this film is a love story, one must have some very twisted and unfortunate ideas about love.  Thus, it’s best to simply experience the film for what it is:  a story about how two people navigate their different situations during wartime.  Anyone making the claim, after seeing it, that In the Land of Blood and Honey is a romance should have his head examined.  This includes, perhaps, the maker of the trailer.

The second issue that accounts for the film’s poor ratings must be addressed with utmost care.  If one looks through the audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, it will become clear that most of the negative reviews are written by those who express frustration that the film is “anti-Serbian.”  One reviewer charges that the film is a “one-sided story” about “bad Serbs.”  Another writes that “Serbs [are] represented as monsters.”  Yet another asserts that the film is “a senseless act of anti-Serbian nazism and satanization of Serbs.”  It seems safe to say that no group of people wants to be portrayed as purveyors of genocide, especially in a film that, because of its connection to a Hollywood powerhouse like Jolie, will get such broad international attention.

Yes, it is true that the film does not discuss what happened to Serbs under the the Ottoman Empire.  It does not remind us that many Serbs were themselves victims of genocide, interned in concentration camps along with Jewish people, by the Ustasha, back in WWII when Bosnia was part of a Nazi puppet state.  Today, Serbian anger stems from the fact that while the atrocities of the Bosnian Serb army in the Bosnian War are internationally known, the historical atrocities against the Serbs have been lost to most history books.

Yet Jolie’s film is hardly all black and white.  As he questions his role in the camp while also feeling obligated to be a good son to his father (who is a general in the Bosnian Serb army), Danijel is no monster.  Even a “bad Serb” like Danijel’s father (Rade Serbedzija) is given a monologue in which he recounts the killing of his family members by Bosnian Muslims.  These portrayals humanize the Bosnian Serb soldier, allowing viewers a deeper look into his hatred, not to mention into the ways in which violence begets more violence.

Further, while some critics denounce the film for neglecting to show “both sides,” it’s not clear what “other side” there is in a story of civilian women being placed in rape camps by an army.  Even if some Bosnian Muslims committed abuses against Serbs earlier in Bosnia’s history, these civilian women living in 1992 did nothing to deserve their torture.  They were innocents, and their story deserves to be told, over and over again, until people get the point that there is no excuse for using mass civilian rape as a tactic of war.

That said, all viewers should keep in mind that nothing in the film should be construed as equating the Bosnian Serb army with all Serbs everywhere.  The film does not charge that the entire Serbian population is responsible for the actions of the Serb army in Bosnia.  We shouldn’t forget that that same Serb army killed other Serbs as well.  Jolie would likely agree that as an American, for example, she should not get offended every time someone points out abuses committed by the U.S. military.  In that case, the proper response from an American is not to take offense because “Americans” are being shown in a bad light, but to direct attention to and hold accountable those who have committed abusive acts.  And Americans may soon enough have the opportunity to look critically at their own history.  Apparently, Jolie’s next film will be about the war in Afghanistan.

Final Verdict:  Though painful to watch, In the Land of Blood and Honey is an incredible film that asks its viewers to remember a war that many ignored.