A Year of Female Filmmakers: June-August

I haven’t been particularly successful with my blogging lately, but I finally finished my bachelor’s thesis and I hope I’ll have more time for writing reviews from now on. And since I haven’t posted any new-to-me women directed and/or written films for my Year of Female Filmmakers since May, here’s a list of films I’ve seen between June and August 2015.

Unexpected (2015, written by Megan Mercier and Kris Swanberg, directed by Kris Swanberg) – don’t let the low rating at IMDb fool you, because this is easily the best woman directed film that I’ve seen this summer. It’s co-written and directed by Joe Swanberg’s wife, and while this film doesn’t belong within the mumblecore movement, it is more than apparent that Kris is equally talented as her husband. Unexpected is a film about an unusual bond between two unintentionally pregnant women: between white, middle-class, soon-to-be-married high school teacher (wonderfully portrayed by Cobie Smulders) and African-American high school student from a broken, working class family (portrayed by relatively unknown, but very talented Gail Bean). As they try to plan their respective futures we are subtly introduced to the challenges and sacrifices that come with motherhood and how they vary depending on the social class we’re coming from; something that rarely finds it’s place in American films. Which was what I loved the most about this indie masterpiece. Films that from time to time do try to address social inequalities and different realities that we face depending on our race, social background etc., often end up being too melodramatic (preaching even), and mostly work as an ideological tool for the promotion of the myth that we know by the name of American Dream (work hard and you can achieve anything, regardless of your social background!). This film smartly avoids any such simplifications or moralizations and simply shows things as they are. This is independent cinema at it’s best. Rating: 8

Nights and Weekends (2008, co-written and co-directed by Greta Gerwig) – since I was just talking about the talented Swanberg husband-and-wife duo; this one was written and directed by Joe Swanberg in collaboration with the queen of contemporary independent cinema, Greta Gerwig (the two of them also star in the main roles). It is also as mumblecore as a film can get, which is why I know it won’t be for everyone’s taste, but if you consider yourself as someone who enjoys low budget films and naturalistic dialogues (that are often completely improvised), you should definitely check it out. Rating: 7.5

Fort Tilden (2014, co-written and co-directed by Sarah-Violet Bliss) –  if you’re not fond of films with unlikable characters you should probably skip this one. However, if you don’t mind spending an hour and a half in the company of the most self-indulged, narcissistic hipster millennials, this may very well be a perfect little indie feature for you. Rating: 6.5

6 Years (2015, written and directed by Hannah Fidell) – this is Fidell’s third feature film, focused on a seemingly ideal young 20-something couple who’s been together since they were teenagers. This is until unexpected opportunities present themselves and spin their relationship down a violent path… Fidell seems to grow with her every film, and while this film is still far from being perfect, it definitely delivers one of the most real portrayals of the suffocating young love and the impulsiveness that comes with it. Rating: 6

Unrelated (2007, written and directed by Joanna Hogg) – an English middle-age woman in the middle of an emotional crisis flees from her troubles and joins her bourgeois friends on holiday in Tuscany. A little too focused on middle class “problems” for my taste, but a good film nevertheless. Rating: 6

Kissing Jessica Stein (2001, written by Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt) – this is not entirely unlikable film, but I had quite a few problems with it. The narrative follows Jessica Stein, a relatively successful Jewish woman, who after a series of awful blind dates gives up on dating guys altogether. When she meets a bisexual  woman, who seems to be everything that she ever looked for in a man, the two begin a romantic relationship. Which is great – BUT, as it was the case with almost all American films about lesbians relationship in the 90’s, it doesn’t deliver what it should. Because, while she doesn’t know what exactly she wants from her (love) life in the beginning of the film, she grows as a person by the end of the film and comes to the realization that she needs a man to be truly happy. Which is why this film ends up being just another American semi open-minded film that is actually subtly perpetuating (conservative, patriarchal) heteronormative values. Rating: 6

Apartment Troubles (2014, written and directed by Jennifer Prediger and Jess Weixler) Rating: 5

The Falling (2014, written and directed by Carol Morley) Rating: 4

Jenny’s Wedding (2015, written and directed by Mary Agnes Donoghue) – this film, although released in 2015, manages to approach lesbian love story in such a conservative manner that it looks like it was filmed in the 50’s. I guess that if you’re trying to tell a story about a lesbian couple that plans to get married you should at least choose two actresses with at some chemistry between them. Because Katherine Heigl and Alexis Bledel looked like best friends who occasionally share a kiss, and not even remotely like two women in love. There was absolutely nothing sexual between them and even when there was some awkward touching involved they looked like two friends comforting one another. Seriously, this film got stuck in time somewhere and it got released at least 30 years too late. Rating: 3.5

Stockholm, Pennsylvania (written and directed by Nikole Beckwith) Rating: 3

Trainwreck (2015, written by Amy Schumer) – this film got generally good reviews, but I honestly don’t understand how anyone could find this film enjoyable. It also made me doubt in Amy Schumer and her “feminist values”, because what this film does is exactly the opposite from empowering women. Here’s my whole review. Rating: 1

Endless Love (2014, written and directed by Shana Feste) – way too melodramatic story for my taste with bad dialogues and not particularly good acting. Rating: 1

Hot Pursuit (2015, directed by Anne Fletcher) – this film is based on so many stereotypes about Latin-Americans and women in general that I don’t even know where to begin… and films like this are a perfect example of why Bechdel test really isn’t that much effective. Rating: 0.5

The Women (2008, written and directed by Diane English) – this may very well be the worst film ever made. Rating: 0


Trainwreck (2015)

I do not have the answer to why I thought this Judd Apatow movie will be any better than his previous films. Probably because the queen of contemporary stand up comedy Amy Schumer (whom I actually like!) wrote a screenplay for this so-called “feminist romantic comedy”. To be honest, I am still not completely sure what happened: was it the fact that she is used to writing short stand-up routines and not two-hour long movies? Or did she originally wrote something much edgier and controversial, but had to polish it up because the studios said so? Because for Amy who is always so unapologetically herself, to write a movie that quietly judges the borderline alcoholic party girl that she is… I just cannot and do not buy it. This has Judd Apatow (in collaboration with a group of other conservative male producers) written all over it.

Amy, the main character in the film, is a pretty obvious alter-ego of the real Amy Schumer who sleeps around, drinks too much, does not date (at least not in a traditional sense) and who seems to genuinely like her wild lifestyle, without ever feeling guilty or embarrassed by it. She also does not feel the pressure of conforming to social standards that supposedly apply to all 30-something women. The thought of marriage repulses her and she finds the thought of having children revolting – and this alone is a HUGE step forward in mainstream cinema because – for once! – there is a woman who does not aspire to be a wife or a mother. She is a single woman who does not dream of a big wedding and is not spending every waking hour dreaming about babies because “her biological clock is ticking”. But such a premise clearly cannot work in Hollywood – because the character that I just described only exists for the first quarter of the film. After that, the film chooses to take a big dump on the idea that such an Amy-person could ever exist in a real world.

But let’s start at the beginning. This film received mostly good reviews and got praised for it’s “feminist” central character. And while I admire some of the characteristics that the early version of Amy has, there is also quite a few things that I have a problem with. I do not know when being a feminist became equal to being sexually promiscuous. Because freely expressing one’s sexuality does not necessarily mean behaving like a college boy at a frat party. Not believing in a monogamous relationship also does not mean that your sex life is one night stand after another; because a person who lives like that is not so much sexually liberated, as it is emotionally damaged. And Amy seems to be just that. She is not emancipated and free; she is just terribly afraid of commitment. And it is not that she does not believe in monogamy: she is afraid of it, and because of this she rather lives the life of one night stands and morning walks of shame, all while secretly wishing for a prince (doctor) charming to ride with her into the sunset.

Moreover, this film seems to be trying to establish a female character that acts and thinks like a man; instead of trying to destroy the binary understanding of masculine-feminine, it perpetuates it by saying that, by acting more like a man, you are somehow more powerful and emancipated. But you don not have to become the worst version of a man to be their equal! And this does not apply just to the Amy character – perhaps an even better example of how women who are portrayed as “strong” and “emancipated” in films often behave like men is Amy’s unsympathetic boss, portrayed by (almost unrecognisable) Tilda Swinton. Of course it is important to overcome the persistent gender dichotomy of how men and women are expected to behave; but if “emancipated and strong” women characters only get portrayed as female versions of some Mad Men-like businessmen we have a problem. This glorification of male characteristics excludes all women (as well as homosexual men) who do not act tough enough, who are not prepared to sacrifice their personal lives for being even considered for a top position job, who do not take credit for other people’s work and do not throw their co-workers under the bus in order to climb to the top. Swinton’s character (apart for being very poorly written) is worryingly uninterested in the people she works with, she talks down to her employees, has very questionable morals and does not appear to posses even an ounce of compassion or empathy – and she lives for her career. Just remember Sigourney Weaver’s character in Working Girl, Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada or Sandra Bullock in The Proposal (to name just a few) – they could all be the same character; and they all look like capitalism’s wet dream, where women are thrown into a man’s world and need to even adapt or get the fuck out since they do not belong there in the first place. I am getting sick of seeing women portrayed in such ways – either as semi-emancipated (but actually super vulnerable and in need of a guy to set them straight), or as cold-hearted bitches who succeed in the business world not because they would be good at what they do, but because they successfully adapt to being a part of the male clique; and finally, as devoted housewives whose whole life revolves exclusively around their husband and children. And this film has one of each: we can find a housewife-type in Amy’s sister Kim, played by always brilliant Brie Larson, whose family life looks almost grotesquely happy.

However, let’s move to the biggest problem that I had with this supposedly feminist piece of cinema. Because quickly after the first half an hour Amy meets a sports doctor Aaron (Bill Hader) who turns out to be everything that was missing from her life; all that was keeping her from being truly happy. Yes, all she needed was exactly the thing she despised the most: a monogamous relationship with a guy! Of course, her being Amy, there is a few more bumps along the way, but they all lead to a grand (the most clichéd, nauseating) finale – where she puts on a dancing sequence with professional cheerleaders. Come on, Schumer, really? Not to mention that there is a whole sequence of her “turning a new leaf and becoming a better person” where she decides to throw out all the drugs and alcohol in her apartment. I will not even go into the fact that she gives every last bit of it to the homeless guy that she occasionally talks to in front of her apartment, with which she immediately degrades him into a bum and an addict and makes us think that him living on the street is somehow his and not society’s fault. Why doesn’t she offer him something to eat instead, or some warm clothes for when it gets cold during the night? Why doesn’t she let him use her bathroom from time to time? You know, treating him as an actual human being and not as a prop whose presence in the film does not have any other meaning but to prove us how she is actually a nice girl that we should root for because she acknowledges the existence of a guy that is mostly invisible to other people.

To conclude – Amy completely changes from who she was at the beginning and not only that: she changes herself for the guy’s sake. So, where exactly is there a feminist message? And what were all those ridiculous scenes with James LeBron? And why do white people in movies only associate with rich and famous black people? The only other black character in this film was her father’s male nurse, and even he seemed to be included just so Amy’s (oh so white) work colleague could deliver a stupid joke about how “she had a black boyfriend once”. Black people in this film are therefore either used as props for jokes that fall completely flat or as world famous athletes whose presence in a film is mainly for better publicity. Which is just plain disappointing.

The movie otherwise had some good jokes, but since I am a fan of Amy’s stand up, I already watched most of her shows on YouTube – long before this movie came out. Which is why even some of the good jokes did not make me laugh, because they were mostly just badly recycled stories from her stand-up routine. This was not at all what I had expected of her, or of any self-proclaimed feminist for that matter.

The Basics:
Directed by: Judd Apatow
Written by: Amy Schumer
Starring: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Tilda Swinton
Running Time: 125 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 2