January 12, 2017

52 Films by Women and a Broader Perspective

Ava DuVernay's debut film I Will Follow deserves a lot more attention.

This past summer, I lost my job and was out of work for several months. It was a rough year for a lot of reasons, but we were able to rebound and are doing well today. I mention this experience not to garner sympathy; I know that many others had it much worse. I’m a 40-year-old white guy, so our system is in place to benefit me. It’s been that way for too long, and our current landscape could get much worse. I hate to be cynical but do not see positive signs when I consider who’s leading this country. We're in the middle of the last gasp of a patriarchal structure that needs a major overhaul.

I live in Missouri, a state that has moved further to the right in recent elections. I’ve called my senators and representatives, but those efforts can only accomplish so much. I’m a film fan and manage this site, so I do have control over this small pocket of the Internet. During the past year, many film bloggers and other cinephiles participated in the 52 Films by Women project. I’ve decided that it’s time for me to join up and do the same. I may talk a good game, but my viewing habits still veer way too much towards movies by white guys. It’s time to fix those trends.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

Changing what movies I see may seem like a trivial move, but it’s a concrete way to gain a broader perspective beyond the world of movies. I support liberal causes and vote for progressive candidates, yet it’s easy to fall into typical patterns. The Hollywood system continues to give male directors a huge edge in access to major projects. Other behind-the-scenes roles are also dominated by men. Courtesy of Melissa Silverstein of Women in Hollywood, here are some painful statistics from a recent Celluloid Ceiling Study about 2016 representation:

  • Women accounted for just 7% of all directors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films, down 2% from 2015.
  • Only 13% of writers, 17% of executive producers, 24% of producers, 17% of editors, and 5% of cinematographers were women.
  • Just 3% of composers on the top 250 films were women.
  • A stunning 35% of films employed 0 or 1 woman in key roles.

I knew there was a serious problem, but these numbers are even worse than I expected. In particular, the small percentage of directors remains embarrassing for the industry. There’s still a perception that women can’t direct blockbusters; a glance at the men behind the Marvel, DC, and Star Wars films is an easy way to start. I’m hopeful that Patty Jenkins will help to change that perception with Wonder Woman this year. From top to bottom, we must use our dollars and voice to support movies from women or risk seeing few changes to the formula.

Michelle Williams stars in Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women.

A Personal Change

It’s easy for me to look at the numbers and decry the sexism that keeps them so low. That accomplishes little and is actually hypocritical given my own recent history. I may have supported Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women and Ava DuVernay’s 13th in recent months, but those examples are anecdotal. The trends aren’t any better for me when I retrieve the overall numbers. Here’s a sobering look at my movie viewing habits in the past three years.

  • 2016 – 101 films watched, 7 directed by women (6.9%)
  • 2015 – 101 films watched, 8 directed by women (7.9%)
  • 2014 – 129 films watched, 13 directed by women (10.1%)

Back in 2013, I made a similar conscious effort to see films directed by women and watched six in a marathon. Even so, my numbers from that year were not much better. I saw 136 films and still only watched nine directed by women (6.6%). Are you sensing a pattern here? This should help explain why I’m pushing myself further in 2017. I understand the issue but haven’t made any significant increases in my viewing habits. This trend needs to change.

It has some slow points, but Chantal Akerman's South is definitely worth seeing.

A Promising Start

During the first two weeks of January, I’m on track and have watched two interesting films. The first was DuVernay’s I Will Follow, her first dramatic feature. It’s a low budget affair that clicks because we care so much about the characters. Salli Richardson-Whitfield shines in the lead role as a woman grieving the death of her aunt. I’m not familiar with Richardson-Whitfield's other work and will definitely be on the lookout for her. It’s a quiet story yet connects with me because the characters feel real. I could empathize with all of them even when they’re struggling.

My second film was Chantal Akerman’s documentary South (Sud), which depicts the Texas town of Jasper following the murder of James Byrd. I’m sad to admit this was my first Akerman film. There are long stretches of time where Akerman just shoots the town and lands around it. Despite the beauty on display, there are moments that become a little tedious. The film stays afloat due to conversations with various citizens about the area’s racist history and the brutal killing. There are no easy answers to the problems, especially when economic struggles come into play. I definitely need to see a lot more of Akerman’s filmography.

I don’t mean to overstate the importance of this project. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to everything that’s possible. Given the awful political climate led by our president-elect, it’s easy to feel powerless. Changing my viewing habits is one way that I can make a small difference in how I perceive the world. I’m also planning to blog about these films whenever possible and look for ways to support them commercially. It’s one thing to talk about supporting female directors on social media and this blog. The real work comes on the business side. Money talks, particularly with conservative studio leaders. They need to see the commercial value in supporting diverse voices. It’s less idealistic but the most important move to change the game.

After losing my job last summer, I was calm for most of the time. There was just an unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach. That sensation has been present lately, particularly when I read the news. Horrifying decisions and statements are coming from our leaders, and it’s easy to throw up our hands. There’s still a lot for me to learn, and it’s time to do something positive. I’ve put together a watchlist on Letterboxd of films directed by women that I should see. I’ve also organized a Letterboxd diary where I’ll add each selection for this project as I watch it. If you have any recommendations of films to see, I’d love to hear them.

Learn more about the 52 Films by Women project at the Women in Film site. You can also see what others are doing on Twitter at #52filmsbywomen

December 29, 2016

Love & Friendship Review (Whit Stillman)

Lady Susan manipulate Lord James Martin in Love & Friendship.

It’s difficult not to spend this entire review of Love & Friendship just raving about Tom Bennett. His comic work as the foolish Sir James Martin energizes the material from Whit Stillman. The wide-eyed Bennett injects the broad dose of silliness this film needs to counter all the proper behavior. Martin is basically the David Brent of this society; people tolerate him because of his status. The difference is that Bennett keeps his character endearing despite a lack of decorum. While others whisper in the shadows, he talks loudly about everything on his mind.

The surprising part of Bennett’s success is how little he appears. It takes a while for Martin to arrive on screen, and he largely occupies the background. Stillman wisely recognizes that spotlighting Bennett would be too much of a good thing. There’s little depth to this guy, and that lack of self-awareness drives other characters mad. Martin has lots of money, and that makes him a valuable commodity in a place where marrying into wealth is essential. A guy that speaks of the “12 Commandments” and jokes about peas is not a fabulous house guest. On the other hand, Martin is such a contrast from the guys around him that even his dumb ideas are likable.

I must also spotlight the great work of Kate Beckinsale as the lead; it’s easy to forget how charismatic she can be on screen. Her Lady Susan brilliantly twists guys around her finger and looks for every angle. The inventive ways that she hides her lack of money keep even the more suspicious people from seeing the truth about Lady Susan. It wouldn’t be proper to actually pay the woman who assists her; it would only hurt their friendship! Beckinsale has starred in five (!!!) Underworld films, and it’s refreshing to see her in such a commanding role. When Lady Susan isn’t on screen, the other characters spend all their time talking about her.

Love & Friendship reunites Beckinsale with her Last Days of Disco co-star Chloe Sevigny, though it’s a much different relationship between their characters. Sevigny’s Alicia Johnson is a pal who marvels at hearing of Lady Susan’s deeds. The pair has a relaxed camaraderie on screen, but it’s mostly a secondary role for Sevigny. What’s interesting is the way that both speak openly about the dim-witted guys that surround them. There’s no guilt about wishing for Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry) to get a disease as soon as possible. It’s a man’s world, but the guys actually have little power.

Stillman is one of my favorite directors, and I’ve yet to dislike one of his films. That trend continues here, though I wasn’t as thrilled as I anticipated. This story is based on Lady Susan by Jane Austen, and Stillman doesn’t veer too much from the expected style. There are gorgeous costumes and country homes where characters look for marriage. The change here is that romance takes a back seat to the best situation. Lady Susan’s daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) still believes in love, but she’s young. Most characters are resigned to doing the best they can in the confines of this social construct.

I’m drawn to Stillman’s biting and witty dialogue, and there’s plenty on display in Love & Friendship. Lady Susan is the perfect character for Stillman to convey his usual style. The screenplay feels a bit like a throwback to indies from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Stillman injects his signature wit into the mix, and it’s a pleasant experience. Beyond the work from Bennett and Beckinsale, I don’t see as much that makes me want to dive back into this film. I’ve watched Stillman’s other four films many times, particularly Metropolitan. The Austen source material just wasn’t as enticing beyond the great work from Beckinsale and Bennett. Despite these reservations, I’m excited that Stillman has found success and can’t wait to see what he does next.

Love & Friendship is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and is definitely worth your time.

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December 23, 2016

Rogue One Review (Gareth Edwards)

Felicity Jones stars as Jyn Erso in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Rogue One: A Modern Take on a Classic Adventure Story

We’ve reached a point with our technology where films are rarely massive events that draw audiences from every spectrum. It’s become a niche world thanks to greater options in TV, gaming, and other pop culture zones. There still are a few exceptions, however. Star Wars was the type of film (and series) that created obsessive fans for life. Parents initiate their kids into the cult at a young age through the movies, TV series, toys, and books. Now that Disney owns the franchise, they’re focused on building a new group of young fans that never leave. They’re also rewarding the patience of adults like me that became attached to the original trilogy in the ‘80s.

Rogue One is the latest installment in a series that will keep drawing huge crowds as long as films are relevant. Don’t get me wrong; I’m right there with the excited viewers. It took me a week to see it, but I wasn’t going to miss this event. I’m a few steps below fans that dress up as the characters and analyze every small link to the expanded universe stories. Even so, my mind will forever remember every little part of the original films (particularly Star Wars). I’m 40 and definitely a major part of the audience, and I played into Disney’s hands by taking my seven-year-old daughter to see it. We had a great time, and we were hardly unwilling participants either.

It’s unnecessary to describe the plot at this point. The storytelling is effective, but it’s already well-known to anyone that’s interested. I managed to avoid the specifics before seeing the film, and that improved the viewing experience. I watched each trailer a few times and understood the basic premise. It’s difficult to create a story where everyone knows how it will end; George Lucas struggled mightily to keep us engaged in the prequel trilogy. Director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy do a much better job here. The sense of inevitability doesn’t hamper the momentum too much. Even if Star Wars had never existed, we would understand how this type of adventure will function. The characters know this is probably a one-way trip.

An X-Wing makes a daring move to fly through a closing shield in Rogue One.

Rogue One benefits from the strong emotional connection that we feel to the Star Wars universe. We care about the fate of the rebels without unnecessary exposition. The stakes are clear, and witnessing the Death Star’s destructive power early in this film just reminds us of that fact. On the other hand, the familiarity is a crutch when fan service goes too far. The random appearances of Dr Evazan and Ponda Baba (from the Mos Eisley cantina) cheapen the project. I’d also love to have someone make the executive decision to retire lines we hear in every Star Wars film. Those quotes wink at the fans yet also take us out of this story.

Even so, some cameos feel organic and build a believable environment. The shots of the original Red Leader and Gold Leader (from deleted footage) in the attack on Scarif fall into this category. They’re familiar yet also work in the context of this movie. Darth Vader also connects because he’s directly involved in this story. Plus, it’s hard to argue with seeing him wipe out a bunch of powerless rebels in a lightsaber fight. He’s more frightening here than in any moment in the prequels. I know the Death Star plans get away, but I still wanted to shout “throw the plans out the door!” to the frightened rebel. It shows how much Edwards succeeds with this film.

I can defend most of the creative choices in Rogue One, but there is one striking exception. I recognize that advances in digital effects are one key to this movie’s success. However, the CG creation of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin is a mistake. Despite looking convincing at times, it feels unnecessary and appears slightly unreal in the eyes. Re-casting this character would have made sense and not been questioned. While paying tribute to Cushing, the choice to build his face digitally is distracting. That’s also true with the appearance by Princess Leia at the end, but it’s at least a quick shot. Tarkin plays a much larger role in the main story.

Looking beyond my few qualms, I found plenty to love within this film. The opening scene is set on a gorgeous planet and introduces key characters well. It’s easy to get on board with Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) because the opener aligns us with her plight. Seeing her mother killed and father captured right in front of her would traumatize anyone. Jones under plays Jyn’s anger towards her childhood challenges well, and we can still see the emotional scars. There’s a lot riding on Felicity Jones’ shoulders, but she doesn’t perform like someone who feels the pressure.

Donnie Yen prepares to battle a group of stormtroopers in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

The most important thrill for me is enjoying the classic adventure story. Jyn and Cassian (Diego Luna) inadvertently pull together a mismatched band of committed rebels for the daring quest. Donnie Yen is great fun as a blind man with connections to the Force. The conservative rebel leaders want no part of their dangerous plans, so it’s up to this small band to do it. The odds against them are great, yet faith still means something. I don’t mean to get too cheesy when considering their plight, but it’s only been a few hours since the credits rolled. There’s a reason that Firefly is one of my favorite shows. I’m drawn to characters that try to do the impossible (it makes them mighty!). There are fewer wisecracks here, but the spirit remains.

Rogue One is the first Star Wars film to portray the mess of battling a powerful enemy on the ground. That sense of loss is evident in the slightly mad face of Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker). He’s killed civilians and committed brutal crimes to fight the Empire. There’s no black-and-white feeling in this story. The rebels commit murder in the name of liberty, and they often do the wrong thing. The deaths are largely bloodless, but we feel the weight of each one. It’s a Star Wars tale for the modern world, and it’s easy to make connections to the Trump era. Fighting an enemy with all the control takes sacrifice; hope is often gained through paying the ultimate price.

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