Tag Archives: history

National Park Experience: A Film Series on Kickstarter

30 Aug

Directed by Amy Marquis, this project funds the first of ten short films following the personal stories of visitors whose lives have been changed by America’s National Parks.  The films are being timed to celebrate the upcoming 2016 National Parks Service centennial.

As explained on the project’s Kickstarter page, it looks like they’ll start with this one:

Love in the Tetons.* This September, something really special is happening in Grand Teton National Park: A wedding. But not just any wedding. The groom is a young Mexican-American from south-central Los Angeles, who had no connection with nature until an urban-youth program introduced him to the national parks and completely changed the trajectory of his life. The bride hails from a long line of migrant farm workers in Texas, but in 2006, at age 21, she left home for the first time to visit Kenai Fjord National Park in Alaska– an experience that empowered her to break out of the migrant-worker cycle. Today, she serves as both an interpretive ranger and the youth and diversity outreach coordinator in Grand Teton National Park. We’ll embed ourselves with their families, dig into stories about the generations of hard work and sacrifice that helped guide them to this special day in the Tetons, and reveal an important new vision of the “American Dream”– one that blooms out of our living, breathing national parks.”

Click here to go to the Kickstarter page for National Park Experience and support women filmmakers!

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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

Trailer: Documentary ‘Hit So Hard’ Features New Home Video Footage of Hole and Kurt Cobain

20 Mar

Most fans who loved Hole’s Live Through This album likely never thought much about Patty Schemel, the band’s lesbian drummer and the first woman to appear on the cover of Drum World magazine.  Our attention was focused on the grunge-love affair between Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain, two people so fascinating in their isolation and angst.  But it seems some history is told not by the victors, but by the survivors — especially when those survivors took video.

New documentary Hit So Hard: The Life and Near-Death Story of Drummer Patty Schemel features home video footage Schemel herself took from 1992 to 1998, while on tour with Hole and while living with Love and Cobain at their home in Los Angeles.  Its narrative documents Schemel’s own survival story, chronicling her rise to fame, her fall as the result of heroin and alcohol addiction, and her subsequent recovery.  It also includes a host of interviews with musicians such as Gina Schock of The Go-Go’s, Kate Schellenbach, drummer for The Beastie Boys andLuscious Jackson, Nina Gordon of Veruca Salt, Roddy Bottum of Faith No More, and Debbi Peterson of The Bangles  — not to mention interviews with Courtney Love Cobain, Melissa Auf der Maur and Eric Erlander of Hole.

It’s a film that should interest music fans who want to see their GenX idols in both their youthful glory and their middle-aged sobriety.  It’s also a reminder of those we lost:  the film includes never-before-seen footage of Kurt Cobain taken shortly before his suicide in April of 1994.

Directed by P. David Ebersole, Hit So Hard opens in New York on April 13th and in L.A. on April 20th.

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.

Whitney Houston Dead at 48. A Look Back at Her Films.

12 Feb

Whitney Houston died yesterday at the age of 48.  More than a crooner, Houston wowed fans with her acting ability as well.  Here is a look back at her film career:  

The Bodyguard (1992):

In her film debut, Houston stars as a pop diva who has been receiving death threats.  When her handlers call in a former Secret Service agent (Kevin Costner) to protect her, their uneasy relationship soon turns into love.  The film’s title song, Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” went platinum, winning the Grammy for Record of the Year.  The music video features The Bodyguard heavily, showing Houston sitting on a stage watching images from the movie:

 

Waiting to Exhale (1995): 

In this film based on Terry McMillan’s best-selling novel about four women and their relationships with men, Houston plays Savannah, a woman in love with another woman’s husband.  The film, directed by Forest Whitaker, opened at # 1 at the Box Office, and Houston was nominated for an Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress for the performance.  Her soundtrack single, “Exhale (Shoop Shoop),” hit # 1 on the charts.

 

The Preacher’s Wife (1996):

Here Houston plays Julia, the wife of a preacher whose struggling church is threatened when a real estate developer wants to tear down the property and put up condos.  The preacher prays to God for a miracle, and his prayer is answered as all prayers should be — in the form of Denzel Washington, who plays a guardian angel.  Things get interesting when he falls in love with Houston’s character.  Directed by Penny Marshall, the film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Music, and Houston won the Image Award for Best Actress.

 

Sparkle (2012):

Houston was to make her comeback in this year’s film, Sparkle, a remake of the 1976 film inspired by The Supremes.  Houston stars as the mother of three daughters pursuing singing careers in the 1950s.  American Idol winner Jordin Sparks takes the title role in the film, which was originally to be performed by Aaliyah, before her death in a plane crash in 2001.  There’s no trailer yet for this film, but recently Houston spoke about the project with The Insider:

Sony has said that the film will be released on August 17th, as scheduled.  As Houston’s fans mourn her passing, they can take comfort in the fact that soon, they will be able to see her on the big screen one more time.

 

Film Review: The Iron Lady

31 Jan

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) and written by Abi Morgan (Shame), The Iron Lady is quite a departure from the films for which these two women are most well known.  This biopic chronicles the life of Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep, Alexandra Roach), Prime Minister of the U.K. from 1979 to 1990, and takes its title from the nickname given to the leader by the Soviets for her vocal opposition to Russia’s growing power.  

The film’s opening scenes take place presumably in the present, depicting Thatcher as an elderly woman struggling with dementia and guarded in her home by her handlers.  Her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), who passed away in 2003, exists in the film as a figment of the old woman’s imagination.  Thatcher’s chats with him form a narrative scaffolding that allows for multiple flashbacks.  The important moments of Thatcher’s career are recorded, from her first (unsuccessful) run for Parliament to her 1979 arrival at 10 Downing Street as the nation’s first female Prime Minister.  The film dashes through the significant episodes of her reign — trade union strikes, the Falklands War, an IRA assassination attempt, her eventual resignation from the office of Prime Minister – with little time afforded the historical context in which these events occurred.

Alexandra Roach plays young Margaret, or “MT” as Denis calls her, while Meryl Streep plays Thatcher in both her middle-aged and octogenarian incarnations.  Roach shines with determination as the young Margaret assures Denis that she will not die washing a teacup.  As Thatcher in her political years, Streep is radiant in blue suit after blue suit, her hair coaxed into a high helmet that is only slightly less elevated than Thatcher’s real-life do.  As the elderly woman, Streep is flawless as ever, as in a scene when Thatcher visits her doctor.  When he makes the mistake of asking her how she feels, she counters that people today do too much feeling and too little thinking.  “Ok,” says the doctor, “Then what do you think?”  Streep delivers her lines with beautiful measure:  “Watch your thoughts, for they become words.  Watch your words, for they become actions.  Watch your actions, for they become habits.  Watch your habits, for they become your character.  And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.  What we think we become.  My father always said that.  And I think I am fine.”  Streep won the Golden Globe for best actress in a dramatic feature for the performance, and critics seem fairly certain that in a month’s time she’ll be holding up the Oscar as well.

Besides Streep’s performance, one of the chief pleasures of this film is its tour through 1980s British history.  Especially for those who are too young to remember the politics of that time, it’s an eye-opener.  What really brings this home is the use of real news footage from the era.  Video of mounted police trampling British protesters under their horses will remind moviegoers that today’s street battles over budget cuts are nothing new.  Even more powerful is a clip of the sinking of the HMS Sheffield by an Argentine missile during the Falklands War.  Twenty crew members were killed in the sinking, and as the film cuts to Thatcher in her office, it asks viewers to consider the difficulty involved in the decisions a powerful leader must make on a daily basis.

As far as the politics of the film itself, its treatment of Thatcher seems quite neutral.  Thatcher’s policies are neither celebrated nor condemned here.  Instead, Lloyd and Morgan seem to have wanted to focus on the story of a woman who was determined to do what she believed was right, despite her detractors, including those in her own party.  In that way, the film will be inspiring for all those who find themselves in positions of leadership, especially women.

At the same time, this neutrality is the film’s primary flaw.  It’s a biopic that is too on-the-fence regarding a woman who was anything but.  Thatcher’s policies were incredibly controversial.  Some loved her fiercely and others hated her deeply, and this film would have been better-served had its creators included more hints as to why.  Filmmakers are sometimes excoriated for inserting political opinions into their productions, but here we see what happens when the film itself casts no judgment upon its subject.  The Iron Lady becomes tedious in places, not because we’re not being told what to think, but because we’re not given enough to think about.  Why, for example, was Thatcher the target of an assassination attempt by the IRA?  What are the details of her war with the unions?  Why did Argentina want the Falklands in the first place?  What is the history of England’s presence there?

This lack of historical context may be the reason the film feels so uncentered, with no strong, central conflict to tie the film together.  One can’t help making a comparison to the other biopic about an iconic woman that is in theaters presently.  My Week with Marilyn, as a film, recognizes that a life like Marilyn Monroe’s is just too large to compress into two hours.  Perhaps The Iron Lady would have been more effective as both a biopic and a narrative if its creators had focused on one singular conflict in Margaret Thatcher’s life.  Because the most arresting scenes of the film come as Thatcher expresses her indignation over the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands, it is possible that a film focusing primarily on  her handling of the Falklands War might have allowed for more conflict while further delineating Thatcher’s character.  Sometimes a film can cast light on an entire life by focusing on one brief event contained in it.  (Think of President John F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days, which covered the Cuban Missile Crisis.)  My Week with Marilyn, in recreating just a small slice of Monroe’s life, allowed viewers to consider the star’s broader experiences, while at the same time offering them a more enjoyable movie.  In the case of Lloyd’s film, focusing on only one of Thatcher’s many challenges might have allowed us to better understand why they called her “The Iron Lady” in the first place.

Final Verdict:  The Iron Lady offers a brilliant performance by Meryl Streep, along with an informative, if rushed, tour through 1980s British history.  Its flaw is that its attempt at neutrality and lack of context leave the narrative without a strong central conflict.

 

In The Land of Blood and Honey (opens Dec. 23)

20 Dec

Written and directed by Angelina Jolie, In the Land of Blood and Honey follows the story of a Serb soldier and Bosnian Muslim woman during the Bosnian War. Instead of casting Hollywood actors for the film, Jolie cast local Bosnians who had lived through the war and used some of their personal stories in the film.  I’m really excited to see this, because like most Americans, I know so little about this history.