A Year of Female Filmmakers: May

This has been my fifth month of A Year of Female Filmmakers:

A Girl’s Own Story (1984, written and directed by Jane Campion) – Campion’s short, filmed five years before the release of her first feature film Sweetie. It was supposed to star Nicole Kidman (who was 14 at the time) in the main role, but she dropped out of the project because  of this one scene, where she was supposed to kiss a girl (anyhow, she and Campion collaborated 12 years later, when Kidman starred in The Portrait of a Lady). Even though only 27 minutes long, this is a complex coming-of-age story about three young teens growing up in the 60’s. Sexual experimentation, teenage pregnancy, sexual assault of under-aged girls – Campion manages to include it all in this mesmerising short, filmed in black and white and with extensive use of extreme close-ups that will, at times, remind you of Ingmar Bergman’s style.

Appropriate Behaviour (2014, written and directed by Desiree Akhavan) – remember that Persian girl that was in Hannah’s writing class in the last season of Girls? That’s Akhavan, the writer/director and actress of this hipster comedy/drama about a bisexual Persian Brooklynite who’s trying to rebuild her life after breaking up with her girlfriend, while also trying to find the most appropriate time to come out as a bisexual to her Muslim parents. It’s sort of a mixture of Girls, Obvious Child and Annie Hall; a must-see!

Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight (2011, written and directed by Eliza Hittman) – Hittman’s short revolves around a 17-years old Russian immigrant. It’s visually stunning, but at the same time deeply uncomfortable to watch, as it manages to portray adolescence in the most realistic way possible. It is a great short, very similar to her 2013 debut feature It Felt Like Love, and it’s available to watch here.

Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992, written and directed by Leslie Harris) – this film focuses on a life of 17 years old African-American high school junior from Brooklyn who’s one of the best students at her school, but is constantly in some sort of conflict with her teachers because of her rebellious nature and her abundant ego. She’s also dreaming of graduating early, leaving her poor neighbourhood and becoming a doctor – at least until she learns that she’s pregnant. This remains Harris’s only film to date and it is definitely one of the most underrated films I’ve seen recently. The portrayal of Chantal’s working class parents (one of which works nights and sleeps all days and vice versa, which leaves Chantal in charge of baby-sitting (and, to be honest, raising) her little brothers), who constantly argue about the money and the bills, is spot on and it is definitely something that is not shown often enough in American cinema. It is rare to come across an American film that tackles the problems of the working class families and of the racial minorities – problems that are too often ignored by the media and almost never represented on film. This is a low budget film that was shot in only 17 days, but the quality of it really doesn’t matter here. We need more films like this.

Down to the Bone (2004, directed by Debra Granik) – can someone please explain to me why Debra Granik doesn’t make more films? This was her debut feature, filmed six years before her breakthrough film Winter’s Bone (that shot Jennifer Lawrence among the biggest Hollywood stars, while Granik hasn’t filmed anything except one documentary since!) and it’s about a woman stuck in a stale marriage with two kids who is trying to manage her secret drug habit. This is without a doubt one of Vera Farmiga’s best performances I’ve seen so far.

Ana Maria in Novela Land (2015, written and directed by Georgina Riedel) – I had really low expectations about this one for some reason, but I ended up quite enjoying it. Edy Ganem as the lead actress does an amazing job in this Freaky Friday/Jane the Virgin switching-bodies comedy that makes fun of Mexican telenovelas just in the right way. The cast almost entirely consists of Latino Americans which is just another reason why I liked it, since they’re one of the most underrepresented ethnic groups in American cinema.

28 Days (2000, written by Susannah Grant, directed by Betty Thomas) – this film tries to tackle a difficult subject about addiction, but ends up being a bit superficial, if not even preachy at times. Sandra Bullock also wasn’t the right fit for the main role; she may be good at comedies, but she couldn’t fit less in this role that required depth and complexity.

Sunlight Jr. (2013, written and directed by Laurie Collyer) – I was kind of disappointed by this one. After seeing Collyer’s Sherrybaby last month, I expected this to be an equally good film. It certainly had a great cast (Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon), but even though they both deliver a solid performance, this clearly wasn’t enough to make the whole experience any better. The main problem, I think, was the script – it wanted to include too many things at once, without thoroughly exploring any of the problems it addresses. Even the main characters ended up being underdeveloped, especially Dillan’s. I appreciate that Collyer is trying to portray the stories of working class people in her films, but she fails to make them well-rounded characters because she’s too worried to make their life look like a living hell, trying to include every single thing that would make Watts’s life seem even more unbearable than it already is (as if the fact that her boyfriend is crippled due to an incident at a construction site and as if a place where she lives and works isn’t horrible enough; she had to include an alcoholic mother and a drug selling/stalker ex-boyfriend, both of which were kind of badly written, one-dimensional characters).

The Heat (2013, written by Katie Dippold)

Welcome to Me (2014, directed by Shira Piven)

Pitch Perfect 2 (2015, written by Kay Cannon, directed by Elizabeth Banks) – the first one was OK. The second one, not so much. I can’t remember when I last saw a film with so many stereotypes and racist jokes. The whole film was just plain offensive and I wanted to punch the screen every time the exchange student from Guatemala opened her mouth. How is it even possible to put so many stereotypes about Latin Americans into one tiny high-school a cappella member?

John Tucker Must Die (2006, directed by Betty Thomas)

Aquamarine (2006, co-written by Alice Hoffman, directed by Elizabeth Allen) – there is a fair chance that I would really like this film if I would watch it as a 10 year old. But since I’ve watched it as a 20-something, this wasn’t the case.

In Her Shoes (2005, written by Susannah Grant)

Catch and Release (2006, written and directed by Susannah Grant) – badly written and very, very poorly directed. Just awful through and through.

Ride (2014, written and directed by Helen Hunt) – I’ve never liked Helen Hunt and I certainly didn’t expect to like her second directorial feature. But I still didn’t expect that watching this would be such a shitty experience. Ride is a film about a stuck-up, workaholic and overly protective, obsessively controlling single mother, who suffocates her son to the point, that he drops out of college the first second he gets away from her for the summer holidays. And this is essentially all this film is about: him finding himself after he finally leaves the nest and experiences a little freedom and her finding herself when she follows him to California and also (probably for the first time) experiences a bit of freedom while trying to understand what his new lifestyle is supposed to be about. This is a film about the unimportant problems of hideously rich white people who forgot how to live because they were too busy making money and maintaining a certain lifestyle. And the lamest, most predictable ending ((spoiler alert! oh wait, not really, you’ll know after the first half an hour where the story is headed) where the son comes to the realisation that he really can’t just surf for the rest of his life and that he has to finish his education) is just a cherry on top of all the awfulness that this film is. Helen Hunt needs to learn what real life problems look like, because following your son around in a rented limousine and trying to learn how to surf isn’t one of them. And oh, let’s not forget that she thinks her problems are so very important that she expects her Latino limousine driver to be with her 24/7; even though he has a family and a life of his own.

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

I’ve been meaning to write this review for a couple of months now, but somehow didn’t find the time (or the energy) for it.

It is still a puzzle to me how this book ever managed to become such a hit, because to say that it is a complete trash of a literature wouldn’t do it justice. I avoided reading it for as long as it was possible, thinking that it was probably something that bored housewives in trapped, unfulfilled marriages read for entertainment. But when it became a number one book to read among my generation (I’m in my mid-twenties), I figured that there must be something else to it. And when they announced the movie adaptation I finally decided to give it a try. I barely managed to make my way through the first 100 pages; I have never in my life read something so badly written. I immediately took back every bad word I ever said about Twilight saga books, because compared to that, Twilight was almost like reading Dostoevsky. However, all badly written dialogues aside, it quickly became apparent to me what the real appeal of this book (and film) is. This is not a story about love between two individuals and it is also not about sex – this is, more than anything else, a love story about capitalism.

When Anastasia Steel, a virginal college student from a regular working class family, meets a 27 years old multi-millionaire (who built his business empire all by himself, I may add; although we never get the information what exactly it is he does) it is not a love at first sight. She does, however, fall in love – but with his money and his luxurious lifestyle. This may not be so apparent in the movie, but in the book she endlessly obsesses over his wealth and lists label names with a dedication worthy of American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman: Calvin Klein, Apple, Audi, Gucci, Cartier; to name just a few. Put that on top of the fact that one of their first dates includes a ride in his private helicopter and that he buys her a car as a graduation present, and I think you will agree with me that those are the things that are supposed to turn the readers on, not the sex. And in return for this new, fabulous life that he provides for her, she is more than willing to accept a few of his kinks (that would be a no-go if he was poor, or even if he was an average, semi-successful middle class guy). He may be a creepy stalker-type who likes to hurt women (which is explained by some cheap psychology about his traumatic childhood and unresolved mommy issues), but she is hardly a victim here. When every sane woman would run for the hills if a man would start to stalk her (there is quite a few scenes when I felt I was watching a film about some long lost brother of Ted Bundy – he keeps showing up wherever she goes, he’s tracking her phone, he completely isolates her from her family and friends after the graduation and shows up unannounced at her mother’s house when she leaves for a couple of days to “clear up her head”), she chooses to stay. Not only that: she finds his stalking (which isn’t considered creepy and problematic, but as him being persistent) romantic. There has been a lot of talk about this story “being liberating” for some women (which is something that the writer herself continuously brags about), but this couldn’t be less true. It is possible that it inspired a few desperate housewives to spice things up a bit in the bedroom, but the whole message of the book couldn’t be less empowering for women. It’s actually quite the opposite – it completely diminishes every single thing the feminists around the world have fought for in the last hundred of years. But how is it even possible that so many women identified with that? I found the only possible explanation in this quote from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex:

Indeed, beside every individual’s claim to assert himself as subject lies the temptation to flee freedom and to make himself into a thing: it is a pernicious path because the individual, passive, alienated and lost, is prey to a foreign will, cut off from his transcendence, robbed of all worth. But it is an easy path: the anguish and stress of authentically assumed existence are thus avoided. Therefore the man who sets the woman up as an Other will find in her a deep complicity. And a woman makes no claim for herself as subject because she lacks concrete means, because she senses the necessary link connecting her to a man without positing its reciprocity, and because she often derives satisfaction from the role as Other.

Engels was one of the first ones who tried to show that there’s a connection between gender and class subordination and said that inside of a marriage (or rather, inside of a heterosexual relationship, considering it is 2015) a woman represents the proletariat, while a man represents the capital. This couldn’t be more relevant in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, especially if we look at one of the most iconic scenes of the film, a negotiation regarding a “sex contract” between Anastasia and Grey. “There will be no fist fucking, but everything else is okay” – and she walks out of the negotiation feeling like a strong woman who holds all the cards in her hands. But it is actually he who is the winner in the situation, because he got exactly what he wanted: her. She is the proletariat who negotiated herself the smallest amount of freedom and feels like a winner, and he is the capitalist; the one who owns her completely, without her even knowing how little control she has in the situation. The only case in which she would walk out as a free, strong and confident woman is if she would tear the contract apart, tell him to go fuck himself and never see him again. So no; this story is not about women empowerment. It’s about women willingly becoming slaves (or sex toys, if you will) to men in order to climb up the social ladder and getting a glimpse of what a life among the 1% looks like.

As far as their BDSM sexual practice (that was mainly criticized for all the wrong reasons: for not being “kinky” enough, for not including enough nudity etc.) goes – this were hardly the things that bothered me the most (or at all). What I found repulsive, however, was the way in which BDSM was portrayed. As far as I know (and I admit, this is not really my domain) such sexual practices are mostly based on mutual respect between two partners. While here we have an “innocent”, sexually inexperienced girl who lets herself get trapped into being Grey’s submissive (without knowing what this actually means, or at least so it seems) and a man who doesn’t so much enjoy sex, as he genuinely enjoys hurting women (true, with their consent – which can be, as we can see, bought).  She is intimidated, but at the same time fascinated by him and by everything he represents, while he doesn’t value her at all as a human being: she’s a thing that he tries to conquer and control.

Dakota Johnson, who portrays Anastasia, actually does a good job and was, at least for me, one of the few things in this film that wasn’t completely awful. However, this was a really unflattering role and I hope she moves on to better projects after they stop filming these series, as Kristen Stewart did after Twilight. Jamie Dornan, sadly, does a pretty average job. Having watched the recent BBC series The Fall, where he plays a serial killer (who sexually abuses and strangles women – a role not so very different from this one!) I had high expectations about his portrayal of a sociopathic and sadistic multi-millionaire Dorian Grey, but he just seemed awfully awkward in his role. As for Sam Taylor-Johnson’s direction: I think that she did what she could with the material that was given to her. What amazes me though is that she got involved with such a project at all, considering her past work as an artist.

The only thing that I thought was really well done was the fact that the entire film looks like a 2-hours long commercial – this film is, after all, an ode to capitalism and consumerism and the fact that it actually looks as such was a really nice touch.

The Basics:
Directed by: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Written by: Kelly Marcel (based on the book by E. L. James)
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan
Running Time: 125 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 1

A Year of Female Filmmakers: April

This was my fourth month of A Year of Female Filmmakers and I am happy to announce that I’ve already seen 70 new-to-me woman directed films this year (which is almost twice as much as in 2014 when I saw only 36 woman-directed films, out of 340)!

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014, written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour) –  an Iranian vampire spaghetti Western that will at times remind you of French New Wave films (Godard’s Breathless) and early Jim Jarmusch (especially Stranger Than Paradise). If we got Only Lovers Left Alive and What We Do in the Shadows last year, this is the vampire film of 2015 that is showing us that – after some bad years, thanks to the Twilight saga – vampire movies are finally back and they’re in better shape than ever.

Monsoon Wedding (2001, written by Sabrina Dhawan, directed by Mira Nair) – one of Mira Nair’s best known films, revolving around a traditional Punjabi Hindu wedding in Delhi. It won the Golden Lion at 2001 Venice Film Festival.

Saving Face (2012, co-directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy) – a documentary about acid attacks on women in Pakistan. One of the most shocking and devastating documentaries I’ve seen lately – I cried through the whole thing.

At Five in the Afternoon (2003, written and directed by Samira Makhmalbaf) – film about an ambitious woman trying to get an education in Afganistan after the defeat of the Taliban by an Iranian writer/director Samira Makhmalbaf, the daughter of Mohsen Makhmalbaf and one of the most influential directors of the Iranian New Wave.

Boys Don’t Cry (1999, written and directed by Kimberly Pierce) – a dramatization of real-life story of a trans man Brandon Teena who is beaten, raped and murdered by his male friends after they discover he’s transgender. One of Hilary Swank’s best roles to date. (This was actually a re-watch, but since I last saw it when I was 16, I decided to include it on the list. I’m also not sure if I truly appreciated the brilliance of this indie film back then).

Wasp (2003, written and directed by Andrea Arnold) – Arnold’s Oscar winning short film about a single, working class mother who is determined to not let her four children be an obstacle in her pursuit of rekindling a relationship with an ex-boyfriend. It has some strong parallels with Arnold’s real-life childhood, since she herself was one of four children that were brought up by a single mother in a working class family in Dartford, England.

Sherrybaby (2006, written and directed by Laurie Collyer) – Sherry is a young woman who is trying to get her life back on track after being released from prison. She’s finally clean from heroin and ready to rebuild her relationship with her daughter; but this turns out to be a lot harder than she expected. There is not nearly enough American films that would portray the life of working class families, less alone put a woman protagonist in the centre of such a story (Debra Granik and Kelly Reichardt are the only woman directors who come to mind that make films about the difficult lives of the lower class –  but it would be great to see more stories like this being told – without any moralizing about the “wrong life choices” or false hope in a better future). This is an uneasy film to watch, but a great one nonetheless – and I should also point out that Maggie Gyllenhaal’s is absolutely brilliant as Shelly (this is my favourite work of hers, besides Secretary ). She manages to give the character, who tries her best at rebuilding her life when all the odds (and people) are against her, an unbelievable depth and complexity.

The Notorious Bettie Page (2005, written and directed by Mary Harron) – a biographical film about 1950’s pin-up and bondage model Bettie Page, starring Gretchen Mol (probably best known for her portrayal of Gillian Darmondy in Boardwalk Empire).  There’s hardly a person who hasn’t heard of Bettie, but we don’t know much about her life beyond her fame as a pin-up model. This film portrays this model icon in a completely new light: as an ambitious and naive Christian woman who leaves Nashville after a failed marriage and being a victim of a gang rape, who is trying to turn her life around in New York by becoming an actress. But when she gets an opportunity to work as a model, she puts her acting career on hold and it’s not long before she becomes a star in the underground world of bondage aficionados…

I Shot Andy Warhol (1996, co-written and directed by Mary Harron) – I knew all about Valerie Solanas shooting Andy Warhol in 1968, but up until now I knew almost nothing about Solanas herself. This film focuses primarily on her life as a prostitute and a feminist activist, whose attempted murder of Warhol was a result of her paranoid schizophrenia. Lili Taylor is outstanding as Solanas and Stephen Dorff is completely unrecognisable in the role of Candy Darling.

Mississippi Masala (1991, written by Sooni Taraporevala, directed by Mira Nair) – Mira Nair’s second feature film that is exploring the Indian diaspora and the interracial romance between an African-American (Denzdel Washington) and Indian American (Sarita Choundhury) in rural Mississippi.

Kama Sutra – A Tale of Love (1996, written by Helena Kriel, directed by Mira Nair)

Films that I didn’t particularly cared for:

  • And While We Were Here (2013, written and directed by Kat Coiro)
  • L!fe Happens (2011, written by Krysten Ritter, directed by Kat Coiro)
  • Laurel Canyon (2002, written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko)
  • The Voices (2014, directed by Marjane Satrapi)
  • 2 Days in New York (2012, co-written and directed by Julie Delpy)
  • The Sisterhood of Night (2014, written by Marilyn Fu, directed by Caryn Waechter)

Films I didn’t like:

  • A Case of You (2013, directed by Kat Coiro)
  • Post Grad (2009, written by Kelly Fremon, directed by Vicky Jenson)
  • Foxfire (1996, co-written by Joyce Carol Oates and Elizabeth White, directed by Annette Haywood-Carter)