Category: Female Filmmakers

Festival Review: IFF Boston Screenings

Though my various work commitments kept me from experiencing the full festival, I was able to take in four films at the Independent Film Festival of Boston, and they were all varying levels of good! I’m kind of behind on blogging so I decided to compile all my festival reviews together into one post, so they’ll be short.

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First up was my number one priority, Obvious Child. Based on the short of the same name, the film stars Jenny Slate as Donna, an aspiring stand-up comedian who loses her boyfriend and her job back-to-back. After wallowing for a bit she allows herself a one-night stand with a cute but fairly strait-laced boy named Max (Jake Lacey), whom she meets at the bar where she performs. A short time later she realizes she is pregnant, and decides to get an abortion as she is not ready (personally or financially) to be a parent. In the weeks before the procedure she renews contact with Max and they sort of think about dating, but she struggles with telling him about the results of their first night together.

Obvious Child is basically the kind of pro-choice romantic comedy I wanted it to be- it’s just a genuinely enjoyable, relatable film with a hilarious performance from Slate and a lot of ladycentric positivity. It did a good job of stretching the premise of the short to feature-length without overcomplicating the story. The script treats abortion as a regular thing, something many women experience (in fact, all three main women characters in this movie have had it), and it isn’t seeking to become an “issue” movie. It’s just part of the story. Essentially, it’s all a showcase for Slate, who is so so so so funny and I hope she has an amazing comedy career. A neat bit of trivia about this movie is I know someone who was an extra! They filmed one of the later scenes at the Planned Parenthood where my friend Sammy used to work, and she’s in the background of some shots. Cool, huh?

 

dear white people

Two nights later I caught my second-most priority film, Dear White People. Set at a fictional Ivy League school, the film tracks the events leading up to a so-called “riot” at an on-campus party through the eyes of four black students. Sam (Tessa Thompson) is an aspiring filmmaker whose notorious radio “Dear White People” mocks contemporary race relations. Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is a quiet writer seeking a place to fit in- feeling cut off from both the gay and black communities but hoping to make friends at the school newspaper. Coco (Teyonah Paris), who doesn’t accept Sam’s aggressive stance, dreams of being a reality star, and works to create a persona to make herself more viable. Troy (Brandon P Bell) is a popular poli-sci major who wants to try comedy writing, but is pushed into more distinguished extracurricular activities by his father (Dennis Haysbert), the dean of students. Their fates become intertwined at an ill-conceived party held by an elite house full of white assholes, technically “hip hop” themed but really just an excuse for white people to mimic black stereotypes and in some cases don blackface.

Biting in its satire and liberally sprinkled with both regular jokes and meta-jokes, Dear White People is a telling glimpse into race relations on American campuses while also being a fantastic film in general. It’s funny and fast-paced, a little bit cheesy at the right parts and subtle in its analysis of the many intersections of race, class, gender, history, and prejudice. The protagonists are navigating a tricky environment, trying to find where they feel comfortable while understanding the pre-conceived notions held by their peers as well as their elders. The film is about all those deep-seated assumptions we all carry with us, so deeply ingrained in our society we don’t always realize they’re there. Writer/director Justin Simien tackles these issues with wit and heart, and an interesting juxtaposition of under- and over-statement. I loved the cast (who are all insanely attractive), the script, and the style, and came out of it thinking about my own experiences in college and those of my friends of color. Ultimately I loved it, but recognized that I’m not really who this movie is for. Which is actually great.

ALSO! I have to mention how excited I was to see Malcolm Barrett in a supporting role. He is one of my (many) favorite things about Better Off Ted.

 

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I followed up Dear White People almost immediately with Ti West’s The Sacrament, a big shift in both tone and cast diversity since it’s mostly about white dudes. This found-footage thriller stars Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, and Kentucker Audley as VICE journalists investigating a mysterious cult that began in the United States but moved to an unknown jungle location (presumably in South America) to build a utopian commune. Their leader (Gene Jones), known only as “Father”, is an intelligent Southern gentleman who preaches tolerance, togetherness, and living off the land. Their world seems like a paradise- indeed, many of their inhabitants call it just that- but, as with all cults I guess, there’s a seedy underbelly waiting to be exposed.

Generally employing the found-footage angle well (except for one big misstep at the end that really bothered me), The Sacrament builds gradually into a really fucked up finish, which I guess is Ti West’s basic style of filmmaking. It’s interesting for its showing-but-not-telling kind of approach, dropping hints as to what is really going on in the commune but rarely coming and saying it. The supporting cast is excellent, with the creepy-charismatic Gene Jones and the incredibly versatile Amy Seimetz. I thought the main characters were all kind of boring though, like there’s nothing memorable about them. They’re just these regular kinda bro-y white dudes, and I wasn’t especially invested in their plight. But the story surrounding them is engaging enough that I would recommend the movie as a whole. The final sequence is some intense shit, my god.

 

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The closing film of the festival was Mood Indigo, Michel Gondry’s latest feature. Based on the novel by Boris Vian, the movie focuses on Colin (Romain Duris), an independently wealthy layabout who coasts by on charm and magical realism. He meets and immediately falls for Chloé (Audrey Tatou), and they marry after six months together. They have a grand time living, hanging out with Colin’s multi-talented lawyer-chef Nicolas (Omar Sy) and other eccentric friends, but then Chloé contracts a mysterious illness and things take a turn. The film progresses steadily from a light-hearted romantic comedy into a hopeless tragedy, with the colors literally sapped away by the final scenes.

I’ve always loved Gondry’s visual sensibilities, his techniques and special effects and sheer imagination are just wonderful, so I’m always happy to see one of his narrative features on a big screen. Mood Indigo is whimsical as fuck, incorporating all kinds of weird cutesy effects- including stop motion animation, time lapse, forced perspective, and color shifts. I loved the bizarre lecture with enigmatic writer Partre, the animated food, the behind-the-scenes typists who wrote Colin’s story, the encroaching fungal growth that filled the house as Chloé’s illness worsened. I could tell its tonal switch didn’t work for a lot of the audience, who were surprised and confused by the totally downer ending. I had been warned it was a really sad movie so I was ready for it. I didn’t mind the shift so much, because to me it was an interesting experiment in style- we know how Gondry’s whimsical point of view can give us comedy and romance, but how does it reflect tragedy? How do these magical, saccharine elements work themselves into a sadder story? What did bother me was how shallow the whole affair felt, how little we actually know about these characters, and yet we’re supposedly meant to care about them and their problems by the end. It’s not like I hated it, but I enjoyed it almost purely on a visual level, recognizing that the story itself was barely there if you stripped away the stylish narrative techniques.

Movie Review: Wadjda (2013)

Wadjda

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

Once in a while I remember my ancient quest to see a film from every country with a film industry, a goal I very, very gradually work toward. A few months ago I found out about Wadjda, the first film directed by a Saudi woman, and likely the first feature shot entirely within Saudi Arabia. Pioneering filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour was inspired by her spunky niece to craft this tale about a bold schoolgirl, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), who dreams of getting a bicycle so she can race against a boy in her neighborhood (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). She schemes to make the money to afford it, selling contraband jewelry at school and eventually competing in a Quran-recitation contest for the top prize. Meanwhile, at home her mother (Reem Abdullah) struggles to please her husband, who threatens to find a new wife who can bear him a son.

Entirely focused on women’s day-to-day experience, Wadjda takes a seemingly simple premise and uses it to reveal a larger context. Al-Mansour stresses that though there are many limitations placed on women in Saudi Arabia, they still have lives to lead, and they aren’t passive. In this world, women’s domain is the kitchen, the bedroom, the classroom; their interactions are primarily with other women- mothers, daughters, teachers, coworkers, friends. These quiet, private spaces and interactions are the true focus of the film, with Wadjda’s schemes to procure a bicycle basically serving as a framing device. The relationship she has with her mother forms the core, as they navigate the harsh realities of a devout, patriarchal society that they must find small ways to combat. We root for Wadjda to get her bike because it symbolizes her irrepressible spirit, and because you can just tell she’s going to make it work. She represents the new generation, in which Al-Mansour sees hope for a more progressive culture.

It’s not all some exposé on gender roles in Saudi Arabia, Wadjda is primarily just a really great film. As the title character, Waad Mohammed is adorable and hilarious and downright plucky. She speaks her mind and pushes against conservative restrictions placed on her, but finds her elders are more and more stringent, likely due to her sort of in-between age. Her defiance is admirable but ultimately kind of pointless. Luckily, her mom is awesome and together they made me cry. Also her little friend is a sweetie and I’m pretty sure their relationship will be a more caring, open-minded one than Wadjda’s parents, if only because he seems to like her DGAF attitude. Their interactions are very funny, and feel realistic.

I know very little about life in Saudi Arabia, or Muslim culture in the Middle East, so I would never presume to understand what it is like for women living there. But I appreciated Al-Mansour’s seemingly even-handed take on it, as she is careful to show honest experience without condemnation or melodrama. For me, the glimpse into the private lives of these women was enlightening, and I couldn’t help but draw parallels to women in my own family, and especially relationships between husbands and wives, mothers and daughters. The director’s ultimate message seems to be that things are very tough for women in this environment- where they’re not allowed to drive or interact with men outside their families- but there’s no doubt they’ll persevere, and gradually things will get better. And maybe one day Wadjda will be president or something. You never know.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: I’m leaning towards something like Pan’s Labyrinth or Tideland mainly because the main characters’ ages are similar, but those are also way darker. Maybe something like Saved!, which is a little peppier and also deals with religious restrictions placed on young women.

Festival Review: The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2014) at 366 Weird Movies

Strange Color of Your Body's Tears

Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, part of the Boston Underground Film Festival.

I remember when Amer came out some years ago and it caught my eye first for its truly gorgeous poster, and second for its female co-director/co-writer, Hélène Cattet, since there aren’t a ton of women making horror films. I never actually got around to see Amer, but I did take advantage of BUFF’s screening of The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, the Belgian directing duo’s latest feature. Stylishly surreal, visually sumptuous, and employing a range of different techniques, the film is beautiful and weird in many ways but unfortunately suffers from a dragged-out pace and tedious repetition. I started out really engaged but ended up just feeling really uncomfortable for two hours. I wrote a longer response to it over at 366 Weird Movies, so check it out!

An aside: The best part of the screening was actually the short film shown before the feature, “Belagile” by local director Anastasia Cazabon. It’s got witches and a catchy lo-fi pop soundtrack and self-empowerment and psychedelic color schemes. Cazabon works at the Brattle Theatre (where BUFF takes place) and filmed part of it there, so it was neat to see a recognizable setting!

Movie Review: Bound (1996)

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Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from netflix.

Trying their soon-to-be-totally-famous hands at the sexy noir thriller genre, Andy and Lana Wachowski made their directorial debut with Bound in 1996. Gina Gershon stars as Corky, a hardened ex-con recently released from prison, trying to keep her head down as she does some home improvement for an unseen employer. The apartment she’s working on happens to be adjacent to that of mob lackey Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) and his girlfriend, Violet (Jennifer Tilly). Feeling an instant mutual attraction, the women soon begin a steamy affair, though Corky doesn’t think it’s anything lasting. Wanting to get away from her abusive criminal boyfriend, Violet enlists Corky in a scheme to steal millions in cash from him without spilling any blood. Their plan works at first, but over the course of one very intense evening it devolves into a homicidal mess that tests their newfound bond, and reveals Caesar’s true nature.

Situated primarily within the two neighboring apartments, Bound is a taut, serious bottle thriller, equally frank in its depictions of sex and violence. Contorting the typical straight man-woman-man love triangle by centering on two lesbians and one clueless heterosexual male, the story is compelling for its characters’ relationships as well as its sympathetic handling of queer themes. These ladies like to get naked together but they also like to get shit done, especially if that shit involves fucking over mobster assholes. Tilly and Gershon play their roles well, with the former blending vulnerability with iron resolution, and the latter affecting a convincing swagger to hide Corky’s deeper anxieties. Their own twisted morality shines like a beacon of truth amidst the brutality of their surroundings, the seemingly interchangeable male faces who work for the mob.

What is most impressive about this film is the use of space. 90% of the story takes place within these two apartments, one furnished and fancy, the other stripped-down and barren. Violet and Corky move quietly between these two disparate worlds, while the camera moves brazenly throughout each room, itself communicating action, tension, and fear. I could definitely see where some of The Matrix‘s distinctive visual style came from, as the Wachowskis’ camera creates a slick and thrilling atmosphere out of limited characters and settings. Because the film really distinguishes itself in its second half, when Violet and Corky’s plan is being carried out for better or worse effect, I felt the earlier portion of the film was weaker. There’s a little too much set-up, when this probably could have worked as a one-night story with a few flashbacks or something. It’s a really engaging film with some fun twists on the genre, but I probably would have liked it even better if the pacing or structure were handled differently.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: A classic film noir about screwing over a woman’s significant other for his money would suffice, something like Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Movie Review: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

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Seen: On my parents’ tv, on some HD movie channel.

Consider this: In three weeks, an asteroid will strike earth, ending all life on the planet. Everyone in the world has three weeks to live. What to do? I’d probably try to travel if I could, see Japan and Egypt and Vienna. Of course, time with loved ones would also be a priority, and watching every movie and reading every book I could. Lorene Scafaria’s characters in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World react to this news in a variety of ways: suicide, drugs, orgies, riots, relentless optimism, and the like. After his wife literally runs away from him, hypochondriac insurance agent Dodge (Steve Carrell) comes to the realization that his entire life has been meaningless. He meets a British neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley), who fears she’ll never see her family again, and the two end up on a road trip to fulfill their last wishes. Dodge hopes to find his long-lost first love and Penny hopes to find a plane to take her to England as the countdown to the apocalypse draws to a close.

I am a bit of a sucker for a road trip romance, I just like the story structure that generally accompanies road trip movies- making jokes, running into trouble, learning about each other  through forced close quarters, long shots of the open road, meeting kooky characters along the way, etc. Seeking a Friend follows some of these tropes, but with a central premise so fascinating that even the stereotypical elements in the script take on more weight. Scafaria explores various aspects of human nature through how different people might respond to the apocalypse, and it reads both humorous and utterly depressing. And generally pretty true. Of course everyone would eat everything, do drugs, and sleep with whomever they could. Of course many couples would dissipate or experiment or regret their whole history. Of course some survivalists would stock up on guns and food and huddle down in underground bomb shelters. And of course some people would meet for the first time and fall in love just before the world ends. I mean, why not?

The film is an at-times cutesy, at-times moving exploration of its theme, with a strong cast and a great script. I like sad-sack Carrell, he’s suited for the role of a quiet man whose mid-life crisis happens to include tracking down his first girlfriend while gradually falling in love with a slightly eccentric younger woman while an asteroid happens to be heading towards earth. I normally don’t like Knightley but she’s fine here, cinematically quirky but sympathetic and unglamorous. The cameos are great, from Gillian Jacobs and Melanie Lynskey to Martin Sheen and Derek Luke, with some fulfilling a comedic function and others moving the story along. Most of all I think I liked the conversations best, just the one-on-one interactions between Dodge and Penny as they get to know each other under these bizarre and terrifying conditions.

It’s far from a perfect film, but it made me cry so I guess they did something right. The music choices certainly helped.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: I would show it with one of my favorite road-trip romances, Wristcutters: A Love Story, which also has nice bits of surrealism and satire in it. For more Lorene Scafaria, there’s the enjoyable one-night comedy Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which she co-wrote. Lots of good tunes and driving in this one, too, so I guess she has a type.