Tag Archives: female directors

Holler

Ruth (Jessica Barden) is a smart young woman who, in different circumstances, might have had a bright future ahead of her. As it stands, the future is besides the point because the present is already so tenuous. She’s barely attending her last year of high school because she and older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) are working at a frozen food plant trying to keep their family home from sliding back into the hands of the bank while their junkie mother (a very unglam Pamela Adlon) gets sober in jail. The siblings strip scrap metal for spare change but when Ruth’s acceptance to college could mean real change for her, the pair get serious about making money and agree to a dangerous (not to mention illegal) scheme with shady dealer Hark (Austin Amelio).

It’s easy to mistake Ruth for a woman twice her age; she’s certainly got enough burdens to add some real curvature to the spine. She’s a minor but talks as though she’s already seen it all, and with only the vague sense of a surrogate mother in boss/neighbour Linda (Becky Ann Baker), who can only turn so many blind eyes, she doesn’t exactly have a lot of positive influences or role models in her life. She’s smart but not optimistic enough to be ambitious. Her small, forgotten town in southern Ohio has no opportunity yet acts as a vacuum to the people born there. This is no place for the young, but it’s hard going on impossible to leave. Meanwhile, everyone’s TV or radio has Trump making empty promises about the return of the manufacturing economy, which everyone but him seems to know is already dead.

Writer-director Nicole Riegel, a former U.S. Army soldier, expands her 2016 short of the same name, reflecting on the people and places she grew up with, returning to her own struggling Ohio hometown and shooting on gritty 16mm film to give the film an authentic feel. In fact, she casts non-professional actors in supporting roles to lend a blue collar credibility to the film, but the entire cast comports itself very well, and there isn’t a complain to be made about the acting.

The story, perhaps, is a little worn. There are decades worth of blue collar movies about working class struggles. There is little dignity in the tough choices to be made – there are no working class heroes here, only people who are tired, poor, and desperate. It’s a bleak outlook for a young woman, one that Barden wears well, and the movie reflects her competence, its strongest moments are in her hands. Though it may be a little well-tread, it is a strong first feature for Riegel, who surely has more stories to tell.

In Case of Emergency

The first rule of ER nursing is: don’t call it an ER. They outgrew mere rooms long ago. They run emergency departments now, and they’re never not busy. They are the front line, meeting the needs of a community when they have nowhere else to turn. America lacks a socialized and humane approach to medicine; if an individual is lacking in insurance, or just can’t afford the co-pay, the emergency department is there as a catch-all, treating dental pain and heart attacks and overdoses and broken bones and colicky babies and psychiatric episodes. The emergency department isn’t necessarily the best place for any of those people, but sometimes they’re the only place.

Director Carolyn Jones also made American Nurse, a documentary I was compelled to check out during lockdown last spring when we were all feeling an even deeper appreciation of nurses and the hard work that they do. Nurses come in all kinds of shapes and sizes: some spend their days drawing blood, others sit and hold hands, some deliver meds and baths and kind words, and some guard the comatose bodies of post-surgical patients, coaxing them back to the land of the living. ED nurses are a different kind of beast. They live for trauma. They don’t wish it on you, but if and when you do go through it, they relish the opportunity to save your life and they will do everything in their power to do it.

Jones hears from nurses in seven different settings, but she gets some bonus content she never could have predicted. COVID-19 starts to overrun emergency departments around the world. Nurses are stretched to their maximum treating a virus that’s as bad as any they’ve ever seen. The toll is still being measured; the pandemic is still being fought.

For a limited time, you can stream In Case of Emergency here for free.

The Lie

I watched this movie several years ago, when it was called We Monsters, and starred German people. Then some American saw it and thought: I bet we can make this worse! And they were right. They always can.

Which is not a total write-off of The Lie. It’s got pretty middling reviews from other critics and I should say right upfront that I disagree with its ‘horror’ classification though it is 1 of 4 ‘Welcome To The Blumhouse’ supposed horror films released as a block to Amazon Prime for your Spooktober viewing pleasure. It’s a thriller. The horror is not so much in what happens but that it COULD happen – perhaps to you.

Pop quiz for parents: what wouldn’t you do to protect your child? If your kid, no longer a child but not yet an adult, made a mistake, a very bad mistake, would you urge them to confess? Force them to confess? What if the very bad mistake could ruin their lives? Would you turn them in? Or help them hide it? Would you lie to save your son or daughter prison?

Kayla (Joey King) did a very bad thing. She argued with her best friend and shoved her, out of anger. Intentionally or not, the friend fell to her death. As Kayla shakily confesses to dad Jay (Peter Sarsgaard), he drops his search and rescue attempt, he does not summon help. He immediately, without qualm or question, starts to cover up her crime. The first lie is told. When they bring Kayla’s mother Rebecca (Mireille Enos) into the fold, the cover up expands, the lies multiply. You tell lies to prop up the first lie, to divert attention, to plug up holes in the story, to improve plausibility, to create alibis, to misdirect, to suggest alternate theories, to feign innocence, to smooth out wrinkles, to put out fires, to gaslight cynics, to reframe the narrative, to deny knowledge – it’s an unending cesspool where one lie only and always begets another and another. And then even if you think better of the first lie, it’s too late, because you’ve already told so many more, and lots of those are illegal too.

This complicated spiral of causation has popularly been referred to as a web of lies, which in this case, almost sounds like a euphemism. This is an avalanche of lies. Cataclysmic. The parents have now implicated themselves, and yet neither hesitates. It’s for their daughter, so of course. Director Veena Sud does an excellent job of seeing this through to its ugliest conclusion. It is meant to make you feel uncomfortable, even if you don’t disagree with Jay and Rebecca’s actions. If the question is one of ethics, there is a right answer, and then there is the way you’d actually handle it, and the discrepancy between those two disparate answers creates a pit of dread inside your stomach that only grows as the film pushes forward.

The Lie is far from perfect, but I do think it’s worth a watch. We could all use an exercise in theoretical morals and their practical applications once in a while. To keep us sharp. Because you’ll never know when a sticky situation may be just around the corner, or one frustrated shove away. This movie exists for one reason, really: to ask “What would you do?” and then to leave you to sit with your answer, which may in fact be your first lie, and let the horror seep in.

Join our discussion on Youtube.

Smog Town

If you think your job sucks, trying being an environmental protection official in China.

In some industrial centres, the smog is so thick you practically need a knife to cut through it. A spork at least. Serious harm is being done to the environment, not to mention to people’s health, but that’s not the main concern of an environmental protection officer. I mean, I’m sure that’s in the official job description, but unofficially, though very seriously, the officer’s job is to make sure their region’s numbers are not among the worst in the country. Beijing keeps a very careful watch on each city’s pollution levels, pitting each regional environmental protection office against the others, and the price of failure is shame. Which, in China at least, is a pretty steep price.

Director Meng Han hangs out with us in Langfang, one of China’s most polluted cities. The officials are fighting an uphill battle, an upmountain battle really, with both hands tied behind their backs, and no shoes, and walking pneumonia. Because the environmental protection office must somehow reduce their numbers significantly without being allowed to touch any of the biggest polluters. Instead, the officials play cat and mouse with small time operations run out of people’s driveways and carports. Their emissions are negligible compared to large industries pumping out noxious fumes and degrading the land and sulllying the water, but this is the only kind of change the regional offices are actually allowed to pursue.

Meng Han’s documentary is really a Trojan horse; on the outside it looks like it’s about environmental protection, but once you crack its shell, you’ll find it’s really a commentary on the futility of the job, the hypocrisy of bureaucracy, and the sham lip service our governments pay to our faces about concern for the environment while always valuing profit and efficiency over everything else.

Given these restrictions, these laughable micro targets, our fight against climate change is destined to be a losing one.

This and other titles are screening as part of the Planet In Focus Film Festival – check out their lineup and buy your tickets (and watch at home!) here.

A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting

Kelly (Tamara Smart) opts out of the class-wide Halloween party but isn’t exactly thrilled when her mother books her a babysitting gig instead. Five year old Jacob (Ian Ho) is a bit high maintenance, with his 3-hour bedtime routine, but Kelly would likely have preferred a 5 hour routine, even a 10 hour one, compared to what she got. Which was a visit from the Boogey Man himself, the actual Boogey Man, and his trollies, who’ve come to kidnap Jacob, who has the ability to make nightmares come true.

Thankfully Liz (Oona Laurence) shows up, chapter vice president of the Order of Babysitters, charged with protecting special dreamers like Jacob against the Boogey Man (aka Guignol, played by Tom Felton), and his little monsters. The Order of Babysitters is James Bond lite – all the cool tech, fun gadgets, and special ops, but none of the booze or women. In fact, now that I’m hearing myself say it, scratch that, the Order of Babysitters is like James Bond 2.0: all the spy stuff without the misogeny.

The film looks slick and is packed with action-adventure, although when a battle of sorts is taking place at a children’s indoor playground, the worst part is just imagining the gallons of COVID-19 that probably lurks in your average ball pit. Ew. What I’m saying is, the peril is never too overwhelming, and the monsters are, with a few exceptions, actually pretty cute, endearing enough you have to struggle to remember they’re bad guys. Kelly is a great protagonist and well portrayed by leading lady Tamara Smart. Liz is a little more mysterious, having just been dropped into the action from literally out of nowhere. The Order of Babysitters headquarters is production design eye candy, and introduces us to some fun supporting characters, as every secret service needs an M and a Q, and whatever other alphabet R&D people are necessary to keep their organization running smoothly.

The Grand Guignol’s lair is where the real work goes down. Guignol is trying to extract something from Jacob’s dreams, but I guess someone didn’t hear about that infamous 3 hour bedtime ritual. I don’t know much about Tom Felton, and I’d wager he’s all but unrecognizable in this, but he is clearly enjoying the eccentricities of the role, he’s playing and flexing and savouring being larger than life. He’s generous enough as an actor no to steal the scene from our teenage protagonists but he is a true source of animation and energy.

A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting is half Babysitter’s Club and half Artemis Fowl, the best of both, an entertaining watch fit for the whole family.

The Magnitude of All Things

Grief is universal. We lose a close friend, a beloved pet, a family member, and we mourn. We don’t always do it well, or with dignity, or in the same way as someone else, but we allow ourselves to feel and to grieve the absence of that person in our lives. We might grieve the loss of objects as well: a child’s misplaced stuffed bunny, an album of photos lost in a fire, an old car that served us well, a memento lost to time, a memory that eludes us.

In The Magnitude of All Things, director Jennifer Abbott is granting us the space and the opportunity to grieve the loss of nature, of environment, of our healthy planet. We are watching her die; Abbott likens it to losing a loved one to cancer. There are many losses to grieve along the way: perhaps you’ve been moved by the bleaching of coral reefs, or the extinction of a species, or the destruction of the rain forest. But this disease is man-made, and it does have a cure. We’ve just been witholding it.

There is no lack of documentaries about climate change and the environment, but this one carves out a unique niche in exploring the emotional and personal aspects of climate change and what it means to us, not as a species, but individually, as animals that are part of an eco-system that is rapidly disappearing.

This title is available to stream as part of the Planet In Focus film festival – buy tickets here and watch at home.

BLACKPINK: Light Up The Sky

BLACKPINK doesn’t like to be thought of as “just K-pop” and while you can quibble about the “just” part, the “K-pop” is hard to argue.

South Korea’s government rather brilliantly decided to really invest in its arts some years ago, knowing that they could be the nation’s most important exports. With considerable funding and a business approach, today its video games, television series, and movies have global appeal and success; last year Parasite took home the top Oscar, the first time ever for a foreign-language film. However, one could argue that music, namely K-pop, is South Korea’s greatest triumph, and I’m not just talking Gagnam Style. BTS fever has replicated the same fervour as Beatlemania once did. BLACKPINK became the first K-pop group to play Coachella. South Korea has a well-oiled machine churning out pop acts, and Blackpink may be more than K-pop, but they’re certainly also representative of it.

Children as young as 11 may enter this special training academy of song and dance and while most will eventually be asked to leave for failing to make the grade, others may last as long as a decade in the system, honing the skills and the look for eventual distribution into a group. Nothing left to chance, nothing unorchestrated, individuals are evaluated on a weekly basis, and asked to perform as a group in a rotating roster until something gels and a foursome such as Blackpink is plucked from obscurity for pop superstardom.

This documentary weaves in home videos of each of the girls, audition reels, practice footage, and video from their massive world tour to recreate the massive few years they’ve just had. And of course, hearing from Jennie, Lisa, Jisoo, and Rosé, we get to know a little bit about the personalities behind the carefully curated personas. It’s nothing that YG Entertainment (the parent company that recruited, trained, and launched the group, among others) doesn’t want you to know, but if it’s not quite as “all-access” as billed, it’s still plenty informative and loaded with charm.

BLACKPINK: Light Up The Sky will give K-pop novices a look behind the scenes at the grueling selection process of putting together a group, and will please fans with previously unseen footage and personal interviews with each member. You can watch it now on Netflix.

Hungry for more? Check out BLACKPINK review and music on Youtube.

Conscience Point

Manhattan is famously unlivable in the summer, and the wealthy have used the Hamptons as their personal playground and easy summertime escape for generations. This cozy town had about 60 000 year-round residents, from diverse social and economic backgrounds. Many live below the poverty line, trying to eke out existence in a place that has skyrocketing cost of living. Their modest population quadruples in the summer months, making it very difficult to serve all people equally.

To the ultra-wealthy, the 1% of the 1%, the Hamptons is a rustic vacation spot offering rural charm and first-class amenities. The Shinnecock Indian Nation has been continually marginalized on their own ancestral land as newcomers change the landscape to suit their own needs, with an emphasis on opulence, consumption, and greed. Not much thought let alone respect is given to the Shinnecock land, its resources used up and artifacts neglected.

White people have edged Native peoples out of their land all over the world. Many years ago, local government “compromised” by leasing the Shinnecock 3000 acres of their own land to them for a contract period of 1000 years. In flagrant opposition to their own proposal, they then stole them back to build a commuter railroad between Manhattan and Montauk, the Shinnecock helpless to fight against the move since, as non-citizens, they weren’t even allowed to sue. That land now holds multi-million dollar homes and several world-renowned golf courses built on sacred burial ground, “borrowing” the Shinnecock name, and using a stereotypical “chief” as a logo.

Meanwhile, the regular citizens of the Hamptons can no longer afford to stay in their houses with monstrous property taxes. The working class who serve as care-takers for the massive estates and the service industry who wait on the ultra wealthy tourists commute in from increasing distances, priced out of living anywhere near where they work.

The Shinnecock Hills Golf Club is about to host of the U.S. Open and members of the Shinnecock Nation stage regular protests, hoping to bring their struggle to national attention. Filmmaker Treva Wurmfeld is in the thick of it, where profit and protest clash, values collide, and ugly inequality is exposed.

This and other terrific titles are available to stream through the Planet In Focus, an international environmental film festival.

Dick Johnson Is Dead

Kirsten Johnson is a documentary film maker who is grappling with her father’s dementia and his mortality. With her mother already gone and her father slipping away piece by piece, she decides to confront his death head-on by filming him in the various ways he might die (a fall down the stairs, an air conditioner falling on his head, etc). Dick, who is visibly declining in health but still relatively sound in body and mind, clearly shares his daughter’s dark sense of humour. Having given up his independence, he lives with her and her children in a New York City apartment where every day a new death is enacted.

Kirsten Johnson finds the thought of her father to be very painful and almost surreal. Perhaps she is training herself toward that eventuality, familiarizing herself with the concept of his death, shocking her system into, if not acceptance, then at least preparedness. Dick Johnson still has some vigour. He is game for this experiment, less for himself and more out of a parent’s attempt to soothe and prepare his child, even if she’s already in her middle age. It’s a balm he can offer even as the balance of their relationship has recently been recalibrated. But during an elaborate staging of his funeral where tearful friends make testimony and tribute to Johnson’s life, it’s clear that he is moved, appreciative if sheepish of all the attention which is not usually lavished upon a man whilst he is still alive.

It took me a while to appreciate this documentary, as it felt so personal and self-indulgent. However, our culture is so afraid of death that we seldom approach it in such an open and honest manner, and it was refreshing to reflect on what mortality, legacy, and memory really mean, and what they’re really worth. Unfortunately, daughter Kirsten will not likely get to direct Dick Johnson’s death when it really does come. If anything, I hope this film is a reminder that death is rarely controlled and goodbyes should never be put off.

The Glorias

Gloria Steinem is 86 years old; I wonder how she feels about getting the biopic treatment while she’s still alive. She was a leader for the American feminist movement in the 60s and 70s. She is a journalist, activist, and the co-founder of Ms. magazine.

At least four actors portray Steinem in the various stages of her life, including Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander. Director Julie Taymor clearly wants to impress us with a litany of Steinem’s experiences, influences, and achievements. There are a lot. So many they start to lose their power, they start to feel less real. Which is counter-productive to the goal of celebrating Steinem’s life. Reduced to a mere character, we never get a complete sense of who Gloria is as a person, Taymor gets trapped in an achievement-oriented cycle that feels more like separate segments in a shared universe than a narrative running like a river through a single life.

Individually, a lot of these chunks work. The talent is there, and the story-telling is inventive. Unfortunately, Taymor’s flair as a director doesn’t seem suited to Gloria’s no-nonsense attitude. There is almost certainly an interesting story here, I’m just not sure this script ever had a firm grip on it, despite Taymor’s accumulation of gifted actors and clever staging. It feels more invested in painting a fuller picture of history than it serves Steinem’s particular place within it.