Tag Archives: feminism in film

Seder-Masochism

When director Nina Paley’s father was on his deathbed, she and he had conversation about Passover that turned into a discussion about her long-ago decision to drop out of college to pursue her art, and how he wished she would have found a way to increase her savings.  It strikes me as a typical conversation between a father and daughter, particularly a Jewish father and daughter.  But it becomes much less typical when animated into a conversation between seder masochisma bearded dollar bill and a goat.  Those pieces form the heart of Seder-Masochism, a unique look at the story of Exodus from the perspective of a couple lapsed Jews.

In between, the story of Moses is told as a musical, with the Jews dancing their way through oppression in Egypt and then chaos in the desert to a collection of toe-tapping classics, one of which, naturally, is “Go Down Moses”.  Underlying the whole thing is the reality that in escaping from under the Pharaoh’s thumb, the Jewish patriarchy remained a source of oppression for women.  Paley admits that she had no idea how to seder masochism 2resolve the conflict between the Jewish God and the goddesses, but she does an excellent job of highlighting that conflict in the sunniest way possible.

The animation, all done by Paley, is unbelievably cheerful and bright, contrasting in every way with the subject matter.   That cheery art style, combined with the upbeat soundtrack, ends up making the film feel even darker as we see these awful events depicted as if in a Saturday morning cartoon, enhanced with the largely upbeat (and unlicensed) music.  Paley was up front about not having paid for the music in order to keep costs down while using the songs that best fit her vision.  The strongest scenes from the film, though, are those featuring the conversation between Paley and her father, as they are funny and starkly honest at the same time.

Whether or not you know anything about Judaism or Exodus, Seder Masochism is a well-made, charming, and surprisingly personal film.  And once Paley has completed the festival circuit this fall, she plans on making this movie available for free, so you’ll soon be able to see Seder Masochism yourself even if you aren’t able to catch it on the festival circuit.

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All About Nina

Nina is an acerbic stand-up comedian who boasts on stage about not dating because it sounds a lot better than admitting the affair with the married cop who hits her (Chase Crawford). She barfs after every set. So it seems like the perfect time to flee New York and purse her dream in L.A. of landing  a role on Comedy Prime (an SNL stand-in).

Nina (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has some professional success there, but her personal life suffers – and we know it didn’t have far to fall from. For the first time in her life, she lets a good guy (Common) get close to her but she’s flailing. Her new roommates (Kate del Castillo, Clea DuVall) model a new and healthy way of living but Nina can’t reconcile it MV5BZTE4ZjUxODEtNmNmZS00ZWU5LWIzODgtNTU1MjNhNzM1MzNiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTY4NjI3Mzg@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_with her own life, and I’m not sure she believes she deserves that level of happiness anyway. In fact, the closer she gets to good things, the more she sabotages them. Ultimately she’ll have a bit of a meltdown on stage that results in a viral video of some powerful truth-telling that her audience may not be ready for. Just about the only thing that video doesn’t threaten is her strength.

Director Eva Vives pulls together a terrific female-forward ensemble (Angelique Cabral, Camryn Manheim, Mindy Sterling),  to achieve this thoughtful look at what it means to live an authentic existence, especially for a woman in 2018. As her new boss Lorne Larry Michaels (Beau Bridges) tells her, the audience only thinks it wants truth – in reality they need it to be heavily curated.

[This reminds me of the very best stand-up comedy I’ve seen this year – Hannah Gadbsy, who has a special called Nanette. It’s on Netflix. It’s spectacularly funny but also very raw and angry and honest, which makes it a breath-taking, astonishing piece of art. Seriously. You should watch.]

Nina’s passion is motivated by pain. We are certain that her anger is covering for something, but she allows so few cracks that we don’t easily find a way in. Mary Elizabeth Winstead has a long cinematic history of being wonderful and this performance in particular is a brave kind of perfection. It’s like watching a pot boil, with its own internal tension despite knowing what’s coming. Vives sets up these emotionally intense scenes and allows Winstead to smash them out of the park. All About Nina will live to its name. It distills all the frustrations and rage we have as women, every struggle we have between delicacy and strength, independence and cooperation, self-interest and support. It’s a messy road, but beautifully walked.

TIFF18: Colette

When Matt and I were perusing the TIFF titles this year and came across Colette, we thought it must be this year’s Big Eyes (in which a husband, Christoph Waltz, takes credit for his brilliant wife’s, Amy Adams, paintings). We weren’t wrong, but we were giving Colette insufficient credit.

Colette (Keira Knightley) is a young country bumpkin who didn’t even know how to operate a snow-globe when she met her husband Willy (Dominic West), who dazzled her. He was a writer, worldly, enamoured with his own success and reputation. But the well is dry and they’re broke. To keep her husband happy and their household afloat, Colette sits down and writes a book about her own school girl experiences. Although Willy MV5BM2Y4MzdhMGUtNGE3My00NWZkLTkxMTEtMmU4ZThmNTZlZWQ3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjU3MTYyOTY@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1399,1000_AL_criticizes it for being too feminine and “full of adjectives” he signs his name to it and sends it off to be published. Of course it gets gobbled right up. Does Willy eat crow? He does not. He celebrates “his” success without a trace of irony and then gets mad at his wife for “implying” that she wrote it. Which, again, she did. This book does worlds better than any of his ever did so he’s eager to keep the gravy train going (imagine an actual gravy train! what a weird expression, especially since the carafe gravy is traditionally served in is called a boat). Anyway. He can’t help but lock her in a room until she produces another best-seller. It’s only logical! And she does. And when, oodles of success later, it begins to chafe and she suggests getting at least partial credit, her name alongside his, he bucks. Preposterous! Women writers don’t sell, he reminds her.

Living under those circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that she explores her options, by which I mean, sleeps with women. She is emboldened, solely by the women in her life, to assert herself. And though the laws and the norms of the day prevent her from claiming all that she may, they also inspire her to finally break free from the leash that kept her bound to a husband who viewed her as a meal ticket, their marriage as a business transaction. Even a long leash chafes.

Keira Knightley has earned herself the crown for period films long hence, but finally she has found one that is worthy of her – or, better stated, a film that can maximize her limited gifts has found her. She sparkles here, breaking outside her box to march up a hill of empowerment. Colette is familiar but not generic. It relishes the vibrancy of the period, but it also embraces its grittiness. The messaging here is anything but subtle but it doesn’t take a gentle hand to sit back and hear her roar.

TIFF18: The Front Runner

Jason Reitman has been busy lately. It’s been just four short months since the release of the bizarre but undeniably interesting Tully but the Oscar-nominated director was at the festival this year with a new movie and a very entertaining live read of the original Breakfast Club script to host.

Tully was the kind of movie that takes a couple of days to digest and decide how you feel about it. The Front Runner is a much more straightforward, Altmanesque look at three dramatic weeks during the doomed Presidential campaign of Gary Hart. I’m just young enough to be too young to remember Hart (played here by a fantastic Hugh Jackman) but even I know that his campaign was derailed after a story broke that he’d been cheating on his wife (Vera Farmiga).

When we first meet Hart, it’s 1987 and he’s the clear front runner for the Democratic nomination to run against George Bush. Hart just wants to talk about the issues and resists the distractions of talking about his private life and pandering to voters with cheap campaign stunts. His campaign manager (a rarely better JK Simmons) supports this approach and watching he and his staff debate strategy and plan campaign events while twelve things seem to happen onscreen at once is just a blast. Both Altman and Sorkin would be proud. Even as scandal begins to dampen everyone’s spirits, the pace rarely slows down. Intimate character moments of two people alone on screen tend to be so few and far between in this movie that it makes those moments resonate all the more.

I try not to read too many reviews before I post one but I can already see that critics have tended to respond to The Front Runner less enthusiastically than I have. On the one hand, I can understand why. It’s easy to get burnt out at this point on movies and conversations about how much political campaigns and political discourse has changed so much. Despite its clever dialogue, fast pace, and excellent acting, I can’t claim The Front Runner has much to add to the discussion nor does it give its audience much to debate or think about after.

I would argue that there is one very important subplot that keeps The Front Runner from being a classic case of all style and no substance. Hart’s scandal didn’t just affect Hart, his family, and his campaign. Young Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) was thrust into the public eye with little support from anyone except for one sympathetic Hart campaign volunteer (very well played by Molly Ephraim). A lesser movie wouldn’t have given Rice so much screen time (or at least have lost interest in her after the sex scenes).

Still, I’ll concede that maybe we didn’t need this movie. It’s less an Important movie than it is an impeccably made one. Which is really all I need. I plan on seeing again next chance I get.

Half Magic

Heather Graham has made a feminist movie about trying to get a feminist movie made,

Honey (Graham) meets two new friends at a female empowerment workshop where they compliment each other’s bodacious tatas and decorate their pussies. Candy (Stephanie Beatriz) is a self-styled “hope-ologist” who helps the ladies cast a spell for hot sex with someone who’s really nice to them (really, really low-bar stuff). Eva (Angela Kinsey) is a designer with access to fun parties and a failed marriage she’s still bummed about.

MV5BMTUyNjUzNTE0N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTEwMjkwNDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1498,1000_AL_But you know what? They should have been summoning their own self esteem instead. Nice men are fine, but it’s still assigning your own happiness to someone else. Agency, ladies!

Anyway, it’s nice to see a movie about female friendship where they actually love and support each other, and men are just a sidebar. And I think real talk about female sexuality is invaluable, and so rarely seen in movies. These women are old enough to know their bodies and their preferences. But like lots of women, they haven’t always gotten what they wanted, or felt comfortable asking for it. And that’s a real shame, isn’t it? That Heather Graham had to write material for herself, had to write what might be the only script that says things like: lick it!

Half Magic isn’t a great movie but it isn’t half bad (har har). It made me want to join these ladies for a glass of wine and some bawdy talk. That’s what it gets right: believable female characters. And it’s amazing how rarely I say those 3 words in that order.

 

Keepers of the Game

High school funding for sports, and girls’ sports in particular, is on the decline, but fundraising isn’t the only issue for the members of the Salmon River High team. As the first all-Native girls lacrosse team in their section, they’ve got something to prove, and 22KEEPERS-master768not just to their rivals, but to their own community as well. Lacrosse was born on their land, the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, but it’s a game traditionally reserved for men. Considered a gift from their Creator, lacrosse was meant as a way for men to settle disputes among tribes.  The community is split as to whether women should be allowed to play this sacred game at all. Some believe that like all surviving culture, theirs too must grow and change to meet the needs of the people. Others cling to tradition. But all agree that this game is medicinal and can be used for healing. When the girls play, they take it seriously; they too want to honour their culture. Is it really such an abomination to take up their Nation’s sport?

Lacrosse is Canada’s national sport (or its summer sport, hockey being our winter one), and it so happens that I grew up on the Canadian side of the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory. The fact that none of this was unfamiliar to me didn’t make the documentary any less watchable – that’s a real credit to the movie. I have a deep respect for Aboriginal people, for their values, culture and beliefs, but there’s still a big part of me that struggles to see any woman being shut out of, well, anything in 2017. So I’m going to remind myself of some pretty important cultural context: the 2012 Olympic Games in London were the first games in which every participating country included female athletes, and in which women were able to compete in all sports. The very first Olympics were of course men only, and when women did start competing last century, it was only in golf and tennis. Women didn’t curl or play hockey in the Olympics until 1998. Weightlifting, pentathlon, taekwondo, and triathlon weren’t added until 2000. Also new to women in sports this century: bobsled, wrestling, and BMX. And finally in 2012, boxing and ski jumping were added to make women competitive in every sport. Isn’t that crazy? Of course, just because those sports are now included doesn’t mean you’ll get to see them played. NBC still spends more time covering men’s sports than women’s, particularly in winter (women fare a little better in the summer because American women win more medals than their male counterparts – BUT EVEN THEN IT’S STILL NOT EQUAL). TV time for women’s sports are still mostly dedicated to thinks like gymnastics and figure skating rather than say, judo or shotput. Women’s beach volleyball seems to get quite a bit of coverage, but I’m not sure that’s about pride in athleticism so much as the REGULATION uniform of bikinis. Yes, American women do quite well in beach volleyball. In 2008 both the men’s and women’s teams medaled but more coverage went to the women’s teams. The women’s indoor team also medaled that year but it wasn’t covered at all. So before we get on our high horses about a culturally-held belief, we need to remember that the sports most associated with women today – figure skating, swimming, gymnastics, beach volleyball – are all sports in which women are non-aggressive and scantily clad.

Back to the movie. Director Judd Ehrlich does an excellent job of sitting back and letting the girls speak for themselves. It’s clear from footage that there is no lack of skill or athleticism, but the girls are also thoughtful and expressive. Ehrlich frames the documentary as one season’s push to defeat a rival team, win a championship, and change hearts and minds along the way, but this documentary, part of the programming at the Canadian Sports Film Festival, is also an exploration of culture and identity. School sports do not exist in a vacuum. The girls attend a public school where the curriculum is very light on, and sometimes misleading about Native culture. They are taunted with racial slurs. They play competitors that have racist mascots. The film is much more than the game. And thanks to nimble editing and savvy camerawork, it’s a thrill to watch, too.

 

 

Wonder Woman

It pains me to say this so I’m just going to spit it out first thing: I hated Wonder Woman.

The film opens with young Diana, the only child living in idyllic Themyscira, a secret island free of men, where all the women are trained to be warriors strong in mind and wonder-woman-movie-gal-gadotbody. Her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) is the fiercest of them all, the greatest warrior the Amazons have ever known, and she’s in charge of training. Though Diana’s mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) wants to protect her daughter and extend her childhood, Antiope teaches Diana in secret. Themyscira is hidden from mankind, but you never know when the enemy might arrive. Themyscira is lush and beautiful. Filmed on location in Italy, the production is fantastic. The opening scenes where the diverse population of Amazonian women are all training with Antiope are gorgeous. The fight choreography is top notch, with particular sequences slowed down to showcase athletic feats. But we all know utopia can’t last forever, and as soon as Diana (Gal Gadot) is grown, one man does penetrate their paradise: a pilot named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is shot down in their waters. Diana saves him from the wreckage but they’re pursued by Germans. An epic battle between Amazons and Germans unfolds on the beautiful beaches of Themyscira. The Amazons fight unlike anything anyone has ever seen, but the Germans are armed with guns and the Amazons suffer loss. Steve Trevor tells the women that the world is at war (WWI to be exact) and that millions of lives have already been lost. Aghast, Diana swears to accompany him back to where he came from so she can help bring peace, as is her sacred duty.

What did I hate so much about these first 20 minutes that sound so well crafted? I hated that it made me cry, and more than once. I wasn’t prepared to feel so emotional seeing Themyscira, a mythical land only for women, where all these badass ladies are just going about their business. I’ve never seen that on the screen before, and I thought: so this is what men feel when they watch a movie, when they see images of themselves being heroes. I felt proud, and moved. Each woman is highly capable and specialized but in WONDER WOMANbattle, there is no ego; they work together. The costumes are not sexualized as I feared, but instead they highlight muscular shoulders and toned legs. There can be no doubt that the Amazons are capable of truly anything. The fight sequences are among the best you’ve ever seen, the hand-to-hand combat precisely choreographed with as much grace as intensity. And it made me cry to see it. And I felt ashamed to cry, as a woman in 2017, ashamed that it’s taken this long to see a woman successfully take up the mantle of hero, and a woman behind the camera as well, capably directing a tentpole film. Patty Jenkins has so much unfair pressure placed on her shoulders but she’s made a movie that’s close to perfection, that far surpasses anything the DC Extended Universe has produced so far.

After such a soundly convincing start, I could relax and enjoy the rest of the film as intended, feeling confident that my entire gender wouldn’t be blamed if this movie was anything less than spectacular. It is fucking spectacular. Wonder Woman, though never called that in this movie, is a sight to behold. Gal Gadot is well-cast, which has proven to be of utmost importance in these franchises. We have to believe that she is a hero. Her comedic timing works just as well as her dramatic turns. And she’s got great chemistry with Chris Pine.

Wonder Woman is long overdue for a stand-alone movie as she is truly a phenomenal Chris-Pine-and-Gal-Gadot-in-Wonder-Woman-moviesuperhero. The action sequences in this film are among the best, a delight to watch, full of energy, strength and ferocity, as good and frankly better than the stuff we we’ve seen from other comic book movies lately. And arguably, the reason she’s so strong is because she welcomes her softer side. Believing in fighting honourably, while looking your enemy in the eye, Diana never picks up a gun. She runs toward machine guns with only a shield and her cuffs to protect her. And she fights from a place of love. Not duty, not fury, not patriotism or revenge. She fights because she loves. Male superheroes seem to think that love is a weakness, but Wonder Woman knows better: love is the greatest motivator you could ever have.