Recent Movies and Series Directed by Women

Yesterday while driving I heard the stirring theme music of the movie The Piano (1993) played on CBC Radio 2. Memories flooded my mind. I recalled watching it in the movie theatre way back then. A deaf-mute unable to speak but can overwhelm others as she plays the piano to express herself.

I thought of Jane Campion, writer/director of the film, marvelled at her skills in conveying thoughts and emotions via the visual medium, and thought of other women directors who’d helmed many of my favourite films. I’ve had two previous posts on Women Directors here and here. Now taking stock mentally of the recent movies and series I’ve watched on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Kanopy while home-staying, I notice several of them are created and/or directed by women.

The Piano

Consider the following list with my capsule reviews an update of my previous Women Directors posts.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Amazon Prime) – Directed by Marielle Heller 

Director Heller and the screenwriters transport Mr. Roger’s child-friendly, essential human wisdom to realistic, adult situations. The film isn’t so much about Mr. Rogers but the real-life story of journalist Tom Junod’s life-changing encounters with Fred Rogers for a magazine assignment. Tom Hanks is ideal as Mr. Rogers, and Matthew Rhys is effective in playing journalist Lloyd Vogel.

Who’s Matthew Rhys, you might ask? I highly recommend you watch “The Americans” series. Or, if you’re an Austen spinoffs fan, he’s Mr. Darcy in the mini-series “Death Comes to Pemberley”, adaptation of the novel by P. D. James. And, if you were around to watch the original Raymond Burr detective series on TV, the Wales-born actor is the new Perry Mason in our time.

Little Fires Everywhere (Amazon Prime) – Created and screenplay by Liz Tigelaar, Directors Lynn Shelton and Nzingha Stewart. 

The 8-Episode mini-series is the screen adaptation of Asian American novelist Celeste Ng’s second novel. My full book review can be found here. The thematic elements of race, motherhood, family secrets, clashes of generations and values are visualized and made more acute as Kerry Washington is cast as an African-American artist playing against Reese Witherspoon as Mrs. Richardson, the gatekeeper of the white upper-middle-class community of Shaker Heights, OH. The artist Mia Warren in Ng’s novel isn’t black, but turning her into one makes the conflict of the story more timely and pressing.

Four episodes are directed by Lynn Shelton who sadly died in May, 2020. Another female director Nzingha Stewart helmed two.

Never have I Ever (Netflix) – Created by Lang Fisher and Mindy Kaling. Directors Linda Mendoza and Anu Valia 

Here’s a recent trend that’s encouraging. Movies and series are created to feature minority cultures in America. The talented Mindy Kaling, who wrote the screenplay and co-starred with Emma Thompson in Late Night (2019) plus many other credits, created this comedy series about high school girl Devi’s experience growing up Indian-American, something Kaling knows full well. Many LOL situations and dialogues throughout the ten episodes. Kaling scouted Maitreyi Ramakrishnan in Mississauga, ON, Canada, to play Devi. A fresh look into the multi-cultural humanity that our North American population comprises. In recent years we talk a lot about representation. This is a humorous and realistic look into a vibrant sector.

The Half of It (Netflix) – Directed by Alice Wu

Here’s another lens to look into our younger generation growing up bi-cultural. The full length feature directed by Chinese-American Alice Wu is this year’s Tribeca Film Festival’s Best Narrative Feature winner. A shy academic ace, Ellie Chu, earns her pocket money from writing essays for her fellow classmates. When one day, she’s recruited by the school jock Paul Munsky to be a ghost writer of poetic love letters to a girl he tries to date, Ellie begins to feel a moral dilemma. The characterization and storyline make this feature a contemporary twist on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Humor is situational with some poignant scenes, making the film all the more enjoyable.

Unorthodox (Netflix) – Created by Anna Winger, Directed by Maria Schrader

Inspired by the memoir of Deborah Feldman, who broke away from her strict Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, NY, and escaped to Berlin where she changed into a new persona and started a different life. I haven’t read the memoir but I know the four-part mini-series take the liberty to re-imagine how she goes about changing her life while in Berlin. The series is captivating as viewers are introduced to the Hasidic, male-dominated and authoritarian community. Again, there are many cultural sectors in our society and through films we get to know a little bit more of how others live and the struggles they go through.

Ophelia (Netflix) – Directed by Claire McCarthy

Adaptation of the book by Lisa Klein, screenplay by Semi Chellas, Ophelia is a re-imagined story of what happened in the royal castle of Elsinore and in particular, Hamlet’s sweetheart. Lots of liberty in tweaking and twisting but still interesting to watch, albeit a lightweight Hamlet compared to the original. Notable cast includes Naomi Watts as Gertrude, Clive Owen as Claudius. Hamlet is played by George MacKay before his titular role in the WWII movie 1917, and Ophelia is Star War‘s Rey Daisy Ridley.

Hamlet (Kanopy) – Film Direction by Margaret Williams, London Stage Direction by Sarah Frankcom

A filmed recording of the play performed in Royal Exchange, Manchester. This Hamlet is a fresh take with Maxine Peake as the emotionally devastated and revengeful Prince of Denmark. Only after watching that I Google search to find the first female to play Hamlet dates back to 1796 in London Drury Lane, then 1820 in New York. Several others had followed since. But this is my first time watching. Maxine Peake’s performance almost instantly cast away all my preset feelings. She’s high-octane energy; her voice, physical stage presence totally captivate, convincing yet delicate. She’s herself and not an impersonator. Modern costume makes it more natural and, love her haircut. Peake makes me look at her not as a female taking up a male role, but a superb actor playing the ‘Everest of roles’.

Women Directors of My Favorite Films

In 92 years of Oscar history, only five women have been nominated for Best Director:

Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties, 1976), Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, 2003), Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, 2009) and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, 2017).

How many of them had won? One. Kathryn Bigelow in 2010.

Does that mean there aren’t many women directors around? Definitely not. It just reveals how things are for these artists striving under the glass ceiling. The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative research is a good frame of reference for annual facts and trend of women in the film industry. According to their newest study entitled “Inclusion in the Director’s Chair: Analysis of director Gender & Race/Ethnicity Across 1,300 Top Films from 2007 to 2019” (Jan. 2020), female directors of top-grossing films reached a 13 year high in 2019: 10.6%, breaking an average of just 4.8% throughout the past 12 years. Maybe studios have begun to see women can be trusted to make profitable movies after all.

Yet, how many women are nominated for Best Director in the 2020 Academy Awards?

None.

This is not a post of protest, nor of analysis, but of reminiscence. I’ve made a mental inventory of some of my favorite films, ones that have stirred some ripples in the Pond, and found many of them are directed by women. Their works might not have made it to the ‘top-grossing’ list… but, this just shows where my interests lie.

Varda by Agnes
Agnès Varda in the director’s chair. Photo Courtesy: TIFF19

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Here they are in alphabetical order, with my favorite films bolded. Links are to my reviews:

Kathryn BigelowThe Hurt Locker (2008, Best Picture Oscar, Best Director), Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Bigelow is the only female to have won an Oscar in Directing. She has shown that when a woman takes on a military movie, she can master the conflicts both external and within.

Jane Campion – The New Zealand director is one of the five women in Oscar history to be nominated for Directing. The Piano (1993) is visually stunning and bold in its depiction of the yearnings of the human heart. Campion is the first (and only, so far) woman to have won the prestigious Palm d’Or at Cannes with this film. Bright Star (2009) is a lyrical portrayal of English poet John Keats and his muse Fanny Brawne before his untimely death at 25. A beautiful tapestry weaving together the visual and the word.

Nora Ephron – I miss Nora Ephron. It seems with her passing in 2012, romantic comedies aren’t the same anymore. Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998) will remain iconic from a period that still valued face-to-face meeting over the telephone or emails. And for some reasons, Meg Ryan seems to have gone out of sorts too. Hopefully she’ll make a come-back like Renée Zellweger did with Judy (2019).

Sarah GavronBrick Lane (2007) prompted my interest in the British director with her focus on a Bangladeshi wife in London; Suffragette (2015) depicts women’s personal struggles against a monumental period of British social history, but Rocks (2019) is the gripping, down-to-earth drama following a black teenage girl being left alone to fend for herself and take care of her little brother when their single mom deserts them, achingly real.

Greta GerwigLittle Women (2019) is a production that I’d enjoyed far more than Lady Bird (2017) for which Gerwig got a Best Director Oscar nom in 2018. It’s plain snubbing of her achievement in this year’s Academy Awards where the slate of Directing nominees are all males. Recognized at the Oscars or not, Gerwig’s Little Women will remain a definitive and worthy contemporary adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic.

Mia Hansen-Løve – In Things to Come (2016), the French actor-turned-director Hansen-Løve presents a woman at the crossroads of life. Isabelle Huppert plays a philosophy professor whose husband leaves her for a younger woman, while her elderly mother with dementia needs her constant care, her publisher finds her text book no more relevant, and her two children have grown and lead lives of their own. What are the things to come for her?

Mira NairThe Namesake (2006) is the movie adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel. A delightful and humane look at the generation gap within an immigrant family from India, and the clash the son has to face being caught between his present American life and his cultural roots.

Sarah Polley – Polley adapts Canadian Nobel Laureate Alice Munro’s short story for the film Away from Her (2006). At age 27, the Canadian actor-turned-director wrote the screenplay of an elderly couple facing separation as the Alzheimer stricken wife has to move away to live in a care home. Polley’s directorial debut sent veteran British star Julie Christie to the Academy Awards as a Best Actress nominee, and Polley herself for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Dee ReesMudbound (2007) is the adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel set in the American South at the end of WWII. Two military men, one white, Jamie, and one black, Ronsel, came back from Europe’s war zone to their home in Mississippi, each faces a different predicament. And for Ronsel, a decorated soldier who had fought under General Patton, home is a totally new battlefield.

Kelly Reichardt – Reichardt’s styling is naturalistic, casual but nuanced. Certain Women (2016) is a triptych of three short stories by Maile Meloy. Against the vast landscape of Montana, lives can be very ordinary, but Reichardt shows there’s no ordinary life. Similarly, Wendy and Lucy (2008) is a simple narrative about a young woman looking for work drifting through the Pacific Northwest with her dog Lucy. Reichardt has major stars in her cast who all look very comfortable being anonymous.

Lone Scherfig ­– Scherfig’s forte is her pleasant styling even when depicting a troubling story. Their Finest (2016) is England in her darkest hour during the Blitz in WWII but with the mood of a romantic comedy. And in 2009, Scherfig tells the story of an innocent teenage girl and her parents being duped by a man in An Education (2009). Carey Mulligan in her breakout role, landing her with a BAFTA win and an Oscar nom for Best Actress.

Agnès Varda – In her last film shortly before her death in 2019, Varda by Agnès, the French New Wave icon stated three crucial concepts in her filmmaking: Inspiration (the why), Creation (the how), and Sharing. The soft-spoken but astute artist has left us with a treasure trove of works, albeit not readily accessible in N. America. I’ve been able to watch several, including my favorites Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Faces Places (2017).

Lulu Wang – The premise of the Chinese American director’s real-life family experience in The Farewell (2019) could be shocking to Western viewers, but that just shows the divides separating us who are framed by different cultures: to tell or not to tell an elderly family member of her terminal illness diagnosis. What Wang has ingeniously achieved in her film is to bridge the chasm separating the two sides with a human touch that transcends borders. Amazing feat.

Chloé Zhao – I hope this is a new trend, that is, let Asian Americans, or any underrepresented Americans of various cultural roots, to have the chance to showcase deserving works. The Rider (2018) is a poetic narrative of a contemporary cowboy–a rodeo bronco rider– recovering from debilitating head injury. Chinese American director Zhao is an unlikely person to tell the story; yet this is her vision after befriending the Sioux community in a South Dakota reservation.

 

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‘Coco Before Chanel’ directed by Anne Fontaine

According to the French Ministry of Culture department that produces and promotes French cinema, 27 percent of French movies were directed or co-directed by women in 2017 compared to 20.8 percent in 2008. (source article here) An improvement, but they are still not pleased with the disparity and working towards a more equal representation.

For comparison, in Hollywood, according to the annual USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study (Jan. 2018), the figure is 4%, after examining 1,100 popular films. Now this result is found in the midst of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. For those interested to find out more, here’s a comprehensive report from Annenberg (July, 2018) comparing many more aspects of the film industry.

I just find these stats alarming. This is not a post to present an analysis of the issue, that warrants a thesis, but these figures just need to be shared. For Paris in July this week, I’ve chosen a film that showcases a woman succeeding in a man’s world, overcoming what looked to be insurmountable odds. Among its many accolades, I find this one notable: Best Movie About Women, given by the Women Film Critics Circle Awards (2009).

Another film from French director Anne Fontaine. Unlike Gemma Bovery in last week’s movie, this is a real-life heroine.

Coco Before Chanel (2009)

I’ve appreciated filmmaker Fontaine not doing a whole life biopic on the fashion icon, but focuses on her early years. What was her background? How did she overcome life’s obstacles to create a path for herself?  The intermingling of fate and choice is one important theme Fontaine had touched on in this cinematic account.

 

Coco Before Chanel

 

Gabrielle Chanel’s life is an extraordinary story, and Fontaine respects that. Before she became the world famous icon Coco Chanel, she was Gabrielle Chanel born on August 19, 1883, in Saumur, France.

The film opens with the camera following two young girls being driven to an orphanage. We soon find out they are sisters Gabrielle and Adrienne. What makes the scene sadder is that the driver of the horse-drawn cart in which the sisters are transported is their father. We never see his face. He doesn’t turn to say goodbye. He never visits.

That’s a short beginning. The next scene Fontaine shows us is fifteen years later in a cabaret where the sisters sing and dance. In there, Gabrielle (Audrey Tautou) meets Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), an older military man, paying passing interest in Coco, a name he’s created for her. Fontaine is effective to show us what Coco is like within just a few minutes of the cabaret scene. She’s a calm, self-assured woman, won’t sell herself to appease the guests; as a consequence, she and her sisters are fired. Looks like they’re happy to leave the place too.

They keep their day job as seamstresses but soon part as Adrienne is leaving with a man to live in Paris. Coco decides to go to Compiègne to look for Balsan. Balsan agrees to let her stay there in his country mansion temporarily but Coco has her resourcefulness to change Balsan’s mind. She learns to ride a horse on her own in a day, and soon breaks into the social circle of Balsan’s by distinguishing herself as a woman with style, talent and skills.

A raiser of race horses, Balsan’s social milieu and the horse races where members of the fashionable class exhibit their haute attires inspire the ingenuity of Coco. She begins to design hats for the ladies, and establishes herself as a unique contrarian. She wears a simple straw hat, alters a vest, a white shirt and a tie from Balsan’s closet to suit herself. Her style is “dresses without corsets, shoes with no heels, and hats with no feathers.”

Among Balsan’s business acquaintances is Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola), a young Englishman. Coco’s short, intimate relationship with him soon changes her outlook in love and life. After a sad incidence, Coco becomes more independent, confident with herself and her skills, and determined to move to Paris to open a hat boutique. With the financial help from Balsan, she begins that first step, and the rest is history.

Tautou has come a long way from her role as Amelie. She is suitably cast as Coco, reflecting the character of the self-made persona. The signature suits she tailors for herself exude elegance devoid of adornments; the simple hats she designs for herself well-match her cool subtlety. Fontaine captures Coco with meticulous care, from nuanced expressions to her confident posture. Of course, kudos goes to costume designer Catherine Leterrier who won, deservedly, a César Award for Best Costume Design and garnered an Oscar nom.

Composer Alexandre Desplat’s score adds to the enjoyment. Not an epic of extraordinary stature, but like the hat Coco wears, the film is stylish without overstating, composed and effective.

~ ~ ~ Ripples 

Coco Before Chanel is on Netflix.

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This is a review for Paris In July hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea.

PIJ2019 Tamara

Some Other Related Ripple Reviews of French Films:

Cleo from 5 to 7

Things to Come

I’ve Loved You So Long

 

‘Working Woman’ is yet another voice of the #MeToo Movement

Israeli director Michal Aviad’s “Working Woman” is a good reminder that even though the momentum of the #MeToo Movement might seem to have quieted down, there are still voices that need to be heard. Screened at international film festivals since last fall, the feature is now being released in selective theatres.

At the start of the movie, the roving camera follows Orna (Liron Ben-Shlush) as she walks briskly to a car her husband is waiting in. She has just come out of a job interview, exciting to be offered an opportunity to assist a real estate developer, Benny (Menashe Noy). There will be attractive financial rewards and career opportunities ahead.

As the husband parks the car on the road and we get to see the couple in their apartment in the next scene, a stationary camera captures all that is important, an establishing shot if you will. In one frame, we see the husband cooking, Orna clearing the table beside him, and not too far away but still within the frame, their children playing at a computer. We soon learn that the computer isn’t working properly, the kids want a new one, and Orna telling them not until the fridge has been paid off. Husband and wife then go on to talk about this new job she really wants to take, he not too sure about the irregular working hours.

In less than five minutes from the opening, we see Orna’s situation. A mother with young children to care for, a husband who is starting a new restaurant and a household that is cash-scrapped. Aviad’s camera work and succinct dialogues prime us with expectations.

Orna starts working as a personal assistant to real estate developer Benny on his flagship project, a skyscraper apartment by the seaside. He needs someone to organize his meetings, see the project through to completion and sell the luxury units. Being Benny’s protégé includes following him around, even waiting while he has a haircut. Orna has no experience in real estate but is a quick study; she has a knack for gaining trust from potential customers and the instinct for a fresh approach to getting things done.

A scene from WORKING WOMAN. A film by Michal Aviad. A Zeigeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber. Photo courtesy Zeigeist Films. 

Benny finds the ideal assistant in Orna. He soon promotes her to sales manager, noting her resourcefulness and creative thinking. His project by the seaside is now in good hands. But reaching that position and gaining her boss’s trust isn’t as smooth as Orna had first thought; it is becoming obvious that Benny appreciates not just her work skills but eyes her as a woman.

It first starts with commenting about her hair and telling her what to wear, then a kiss, for which he apologies. Other kinds of harassment follow, much like juvenile pranks. But a trip to Paris escalates his advances into a sexual assault. Orna’s pushback and outright ‘no’ means nothing to Benny. Aviad’s camera captures the scene matter-of-factly. The realism is disturbing to watch, not that Benny is violent but that it is obvious that the act is not consensual, his brute force the only means to subdue her in gratifying himself.

After coming back home from Paris, Orna is a different person. She is traumatized naturally, but when her suspecting mother asks what happened in Paris, she replies, “I made a mistake.”

That is a crucial statement. Such a mentality could well explain why she isn’t forthright with her husband, fearing his speculation on her part in the event, or maybe fearing his avenging Benny, making the matter worse. But we as viewers are witnesses to the scene. The ‘mistake’ definitely is not hers to shoulder.

Aviad’s storytelling is realistic and engrossing. Her handheld camera follows Orna like a shadow, the slightly roving movement accentuating the tension. Ben-Shlush’s acting is sensitive and nuanced. The screenplay spare and succinct. The 93-minute narrative feature is an effective and clear voice in stating a case of sexual harassment in the workplace, a powerful boss getting his way and taking advantage of a subordinate who needs her job for financial reason.

Fortunately, Aviad leads us towards a positive ending. We get to see Orna rise up from her challenging situation as she gains new strength to open for herself a way out.

Exclusive engagement of “Working Woman” will be screened at Landmark Lagoon Theatre in Minneapolis St. Paul beginning Friday, May 10th, 2019. Hebrew with English subtitles, 93 mins.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Jane Austen 200: Room or No Room, She Did It

Today is the Bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death. On July 18, 1817, suffering excruciating pain, Jane died of her illness at age 41. As a tribute, I’m reposting my article on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

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A Room of One’s Own is based on a series of lecture Woolf delivered at the two women’s colleges in Cambridge University on the topic of “Women and Fiction”.  It was published in 1929.

Woolf lamented the disparities women in a patriarchal society had to face throughout history.  The stream of consciousness flowed into torrents of incisive social observations and satirical commentaries.

She noted that women had long been deprived of equitable opportunities in education and employment. Men were rich, women were poor; men got to roam the country and travel the world, women had to be satisfied with the domestic.  Men were great writers, poets, playwrights, women had to concede to find fulfillment in “making puddings and knitting stockings”. Men had rooms to work, to rest, to create…women, the average, middle class women, seldom had a room of their own.

…to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century.

And sadly, Woolf had to utter this statement:

Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes.

Isn’t it true, Jane spent her most prolific years writing in a very public room in Chawton House.  In the midst of family activities, at a small and spartan desk, she revised Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, wrote Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion, and began Sanditon:

Jane's writing desk in Chawton

And isn’t it true that only in movies do we see the idyllic desk against a clear window, with soft light diffusing in, gently illuminating a lady dressed in elegant regency gown, writing on expansive papers and stationary, contemplating in solitude:

Room or no room, recognized or not, something happened towards the end of the eighteenth century that, according to Virginia Woolf, deserved much more mention in history than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses:  The middle-class woman began to write.

Woolf pointed out that not only did Jane Austen lack a room of her own, having had to write her novels in the very public sitting-room, she had to hide her manuscripts or cover them with a piece of blotting-paper, as observed by her nephew James Edward Austen Leigh in his Memoir of Jane Austen.

Ironically, there lay the genius of Austen, and the few woman writers around her time such as Bronte and George Eliot.  Woolf wrote:

…and we must accept the fact that all those good novels, Villette, Emma, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, were written by women without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman; written too in the common sitting-room of that respectable house and by women so poor that they could not afford to buy more than a few quires of paper at a time upon which to write.

Little did they know, it was in such a room that they were trained in the prerequisites of novel writing:

…all the literary training that a woman had in the early nineteenth century was training in the observation of character, in the analysis of emotion.  Her sensibility had been educated for centuries by the influences of the common sitting-room.  People’s feelings were impressed on her; personal relations were always before her eyes.  Therefore, when the middle-class woman took to writing, she naturally wrote novels…

Not only that, they wrote good novels.  With reference to Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf concluded:

Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching.  That was how Shakespeare wrote.

High praise indeed.

 

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Previous Post on Jane Austen 200:

Jane Austen’s Persuasion: A Bath Walking Tour

We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

On International Women’s Day, we need to talk about mothers. Motherhood, the role that can bring so much joy, and so much grief. No grief can compare to that of seeing your child self-destruct, and in the process, destroying others.

To start with, the wandering, free-spirited Eva (Tilda Swinton) before motherhood reflects an unsettling soul. Seems like she accidentally trespasses into the territory that calls for extreme commitment when she gets pregnant. While other expectant mothers fully embrace their swollen bellies, Eva faces her pregnancy with apprehension and awkwardness. Once Kevin is born, she knows full well that it is an irreversible life-long occupation.

Kevin screams all day and night as a baby, is incommunicable as a toddler, foul-mouthed, menacing and hateful as a child. The first thing he does to his newborn younger sister while visiting her in the hospital is to splash water into her eyes. This act will be repeated when he becomes a teenager, but it won’t be as harmless as water. Can’t his parents see it coming? I must give credit to Tilda Swinton, who has given us an audacious and engaging performance as Eva, but one, I’m afraid, that may not appear quite as sensible as it should.

If you are not a tiger mom, but has a tiger son on your hands, what are you to do? Wouldn’t you have sought professional help for your child, or counselling for yourself? Yes, we see Eva take Kevin to a doctor when he’s a non-communicating toddler, but what about all the years hence, until at 16 when all hell breaks loose? Ezra Miller as teenaged Kevin is a persona of a most disturbed young man; unfortunately, his self-absorbed, relentless evil scheming renders his performance two-dimensional.

I have not read the book by Lionel Shriver. We Need to Talk About Kevin was the Orange Prize Winner of 2005, an award honoring women’s writing. Shriver might well have depicted her characters and their inner turmoils with more depth, as a literary rendition can.

I knew of the plot in general before I stepped into the theatre. My expectation was that the film would be exploring the issues of parental responsibility and guilt from raising a wayward child despite all good intentions. I thought it would deal with the problem of evil, or the issue of nature and nurture, and the choices we can make in spite of our predicament.

But the film surprises me in that it has not delivered what could have been a study of any of the above issues. Maybe parental guilt, but still, not in depth. We only see the stunned look of Eva in every scene. Even before the tragic end, with overwhelming evidences of a terribly disturbed son, we hear little communication between Eva and her unsuspecting husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), who encourages Kevin’s interest in archery. (ah-ha… big hint)  Seems like director Lynne Ramsay’s goal is just to shock and disturb with exaggerated visuals and sounds, or its lack of to create mood. The ubiquitous red, another obvious hint. It is effective as an absorbing, suspenseful thriller, relentless in its portrayal of evil, but for the purpose of…?

The film has been talked about much in the UK. And on both sides of the Atlantic, many critics have given it high acclaim; others have pointed to its Oscar snub. While I had high expectation before I saw it, I left with a void of disappointment, which, I’m afraid, has extinguished my interest to read the book. If you have read it, I’d love to hear you tell me otherwise.

But on this very day, let us give kudos to all mothers who, regardless of results, stay true to their role and love in spite of everything. This we can see in the final scene and the last shot, the embrace in prison, probably the most meaningful in the whole film.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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History Made At The Oscars: Kathryn Bigelow Wins Best Director

The 82nd Annual Academy Awards has made history on several fronts.

Probably the most talked about is Kathryn Bigelow becoming the first woman to claim the Best Director Oscar. And lesser known is the fact that her film “The Hurt Locker” has also distinguished itself as the lowest grossing movie to win Best Picture. With $15 million spent on its production, “The Hurt Locker” has gained back $14.7 million in its domestic gross, and a total worldwide sale of $21 million, paltry compared to Avatar’s $2.6 billion. Bravo to the Academy voters.

Another major breakthrough at Oscars 2010 is Geoffrey Fletcher winning Best Adapted Screenplay for his work “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.”  He is the first African American ever to win a screenwriting Oscar.  Let me re-direct you to an inspiring post on Geoffrey Fletcher’s win from the blog Screenwriting From Iowa.

The Celluloid Ceiling

Does Bigelow’s win signify the turning of a new page for all female directors and woman workers in the film industry? Or is it just a one-time victory? Throughout Oscar history, there have only been three other women nominated for Best Director: Lina Wertmüller for “Seven Beauties” in 1976, Jane Campion for “The Piano” in 1993; and Sofia Coppola for “Lost in Translation” in 2003. None of them won.  It has taken 82 Academy Awards to arrive at this point today.

The annual ‘Celluloid Ceiling’ report compiled by Dr. Martha Lauzen at the Center For the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University tracks women employed in the film industry over the years. Her 2009 study records the following findings:

  • Women comprised of 16% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This represents a decline of 3% from 2001.
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  • Women accounted for 7% of directors in 2009, a decrease of 2% from 2008, and no change since 1987.
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  • As for behind-the-scenes employment of 2,838 individuals working on the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2009, women represented 2% of the cinematographers and 8% of writers.

Has Bigelow shattered the Celluloid Ceiling once and for all? The answer is yet to be seen.  Considering the gender disparity in the film industry, it remains a long and arduous journey for aspiring woman filmmakers.

But I admire Kathryn Bigelow for one thing: she downplays the gender issue and pursues the universal role of ‘director’, shunning being called a ‘female director’.  When accepting her Award, she did not even mention the history-making significance of her win but rather acknowledged the troops at war.

Of course, she won on her own merits and not on account of her gender.  So just let me help Barbra Streisand utter what is unsaid in her statement, the all important subtext:

“Well, the time has come … for us to recognize the excellent work of a director despite the fact that she is a woman.”

Bigelow, a painter turned filmmaker, was first trained at the San Francisco Art Institute and later won a scholarship for the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum in New York, “which gave her the opportunity to study and produce conceptual art that was critiqued by the likes of Richard Serra and Susan Sontag.” Later she re-directed her passion to film theory and criticism at Columbia University.

When asked about her movies not being “female”, Bigelow, gives a thought-provoking answer from the point of view of an artist [1]:

But you don’t get exasperated with this notion that your movies are not “female”?

No, because I respect it, and I understand it. The thing that’s interesting is that I come from the art world, or that’s where I was creatively, aesthetically, and intellectually formed and informed.

Certainly at the time I was there, there was never a discussion of gender per se. Like, this is a woman’s sculpture or a man’s sculpture. There was never this kind of bifurcation of particular talent. It was just looked at as the piece of work. The work had to speak for itself. And that’s still how I look at any particular work.

I think of a person as a filmmaker, not a male or female filmmaker. Or I think of them as a painter, not a male or female painter. I don’t view the world like that. Yes, we’re informed by who we are, and perhaps we’re even defined by that, but yet, the work has to speak for itself.

Hopefully the film industry can learn from the art world, such that we would never have to give a movie a gender, or stigmatize its filmmaker for being a woman.  Then we can comfortably call them all artists.

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[1]  CLICK HERE to read the full interview by Willa Paskin on Slate Magazine “What Kathryn Bigelow learned from Rembrandt.

The Hurt Locker (2008, DVD)

UPDATE March 7:  The Hurt Locker has just won 6 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director.  CLICK HERE to read Oscar Results 2010.

UPDATE Feb. 21:  The Hurt Locker just won Best Picture at the BAFTA Awards (British Academy of Film and Television Arts). Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win Best Director.  “I would like to dedicate this to never abandoning the need to find a resolution for peace,” she said in her acceptance speech. Mark Boal won Best Original Screenplay.   CLICK HERE TO READ MORE.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE ACCEPTANCE SPEECHES.

With The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow could well have shattered the stereotype of female filmmakers, if there even was an image established for them.  But a good guess is that they have generally been misconstrued as merely producers of romances, tear jerkers, simply put, ‘chick flicks’.  A look at Bigelow’s filmography shows a track record of action thrillers. But it’s with The Hurt Locker, a captivating work about a bomb disposal team in Iraq, that she has garnered floods of accolade.

Professor Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University studies women in the movie industry over the years.  She found that women represented only 9 per cent of Hollywood directors in 2008 – the same figure she had recorded in 1998.  In this male-dominated circle, Bigelow is only the fourth woman ever in the 82-year history of the Oscars to be nominated Best Director.  The other three were Lina Wertmuller (Pasqualino Settebellezze, 1975), Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993) and Sofia Coppola (Lost In Translation, 2003).  None of them won.

Recently, Bigelow made history by being the first woman to win the Director’s Guild Award with The Hurt Locker.  According to past trend, winners of the DGA usually went on to win the Oscar, with a few exceptions.  Bigelow could be making Oscar history as well comes March 7.  But of course, she has tough competition from her ex James Cameron.

The Hurt Locker focuses on an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team in Iraq in 2004.  In this urban guerrilla war zone, the signature weapon is the Improvised Explosive Device (IED), or, roadside bomb. What stands out in this film is the intense psychological tension captured by the camera, the excellent editing, and the poignant performance of the three specialists in the EOD team.  The nuanced playing out of their opposing psyche and the dynamics of their interactions are what fuel the riveting momentum.

Into this three-men EOD team the story zooms in on one character, Sgt. Will James (Jeremy Renner), bomb specialist, reckless maverick whose hubris and adrenalin cravings propel his dubiously heroic acts.  The quote at the beginning gives a hint of what is to come: “… war is a drug.”  Unlike other typical reactions to war, James embraces it.  The whole movie is a character study exploring such a psychological make-up.  And we are held on the edge of our seats as we follow the Dirty Harry of Baghdad clearing IED’s on the streets.

But the script excels in presenting a multi-layered character.  As the story progresses, we see a softer side to the tough bomb expert, and yet, all revealing is movingly restrained.  Renner’s performance is magically convincing.  He has me on his side as soon as he appears on screen.

Using relatively unknown actors, the film poignantly portrays the vulnerability of Everyman in the war zone. But they can’t be unknown anymore after this. Jeremy Renner (Sgt. Will James), Anthony Mackie (Sgt. Sanborn), and Brian Geraghty (Spc. Owen Eldridge) have left their impressive marks here. Pitching in, albeit for only short moments, are some more well-known actors, Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce and David Morse.

Impressively shot like a documentary, its every scene intense, drawing the viewer in like a participant, an onlooker. Great camera works, excellent editing, breath-taking pacing, and thoroughly human.

Unlike other war movies, there are few bloody scenes, no gratuitous war mongering or protesting. Bigelow in the special feature mentions that the film takes an apolitical, non-partisan stance.  Such a neutral, matter-of-fact depiction, focusing on the micro-level of three men handling the most dangerous job in the world, is no less powerful in conveying the danger, the sacrifice, and the courage needed to go through every single day in Iraq.  The film stands out among other war movies in its sensitive and sometimes even eloquent treatment of the raw emotions and the dynamics of personalities caught in a hurt locker.

The term ‘hurt locker’ refers to a situation of extreme pain and hardship.  The production itself could well illustrate the point.  Filmed on location in Jordan, cast and crew had to endure long hours in searing heat of 115 degrees, had to make do with scarce resources, and improvise in tough circumstances. It had been suggested that “no woman over 40 could possibly have the stamina to direct a feature film.” Overcoming such a sexist view is the challenge every woman director has to face.  Bigelow has proven herself to be admirably competent, crafting and delivering a superb production with an all male cast, (except a short appearance by Evangeline Lilly), in a land far from home.

The Hurt Locker ties with Avatar with 9 Oscar noms, including Best Picture and Best Director, but it gets nods in two categories that Avatar doesn’t, Best Actor and Best Writing, Screenplay written directly for the screen.

Jeremy Renner receives a Best Actor nod for his engrossing performance as Staff Sgt. William James.  A fusion of James McAvoy and Russell Crowe, Renner has proven himself to be a worthy contender in the Oscar race.

Mark Boal gets an Oscar nom for his very first screenplay.  This in itself is impressive, and a pointer to what makes a good piece of writing: write what you know.  His personal 2004 experience in Baghdad as an embedded journalist with a bomb squad is what makes the story, characters, and every single detail so real and poignant.

The DVD has some fascinating Special Features capturing the Behind The Scene moments, a Gallery, and commentaries from Bigelow and Boal.  Those who want to see the film before the Awards show will have to opt for the DVD. As a smaller, indie production, The Hurt Locker had only a short release in selective theatres.  Hopefully after March 7, it might get a chance to be put on the big screen again.  So, now you know who I root for comes Oscar night.

~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples

 

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Click here for an insightful panel discussion on the movie, Spoiler Warning though, from Canada’s National Post.

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Books and the Gender Issue

My review of Girl With A Pearl Earring has recently been linked to a book list. While I appreciate the link, I must admit it has stirred up in me some unintended ripples.  It’s the title of the list:  ‘101 Books Every Woman Should Read’.

Now I’m always wary about books that are labeled and geared towards one gender.  Like recently I came across a book entitled 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go… makes you wonder what exactly they’re luring you into. Imagine a book called 100 Places Every Man Should Go…

Anyway, back to the list of books every woman should read.  The range is eclectic with the titles neatly categorized.

Just let me list a sample from each of the categories:

The Classics: Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, Howards End by E. M. Forster, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Middlemarch by George Eliot, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf…

Children’s Literature:  Pippi Longstockings by Astrid Lindgren, The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll…

Books into Movies:  The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen…

Books Featuring Familial Relationships:  The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingslover, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Away by Jane Urquhart…

Books Celebrating the Strength of Women:  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorn, Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen…

Current Literature:  Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen…

Books about Finding Oneself:  Bee Season by Myla Goldberg, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers…

Stories of Real Women: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou,  Amelia: A Life of the Aviation Legend by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon, Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, The Story of My Life by Helen Keller, Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe by Laurie Lisle…

Banned or Challenged Books:  Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Of Mice and Men by John Steinback, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

Non-Fiction: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey, On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross,  A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

You get my point.  Sounds like any typical high school and college reading list, but why specify women?

Yes, they’re mostly written by women authors, and many with strong female protagonists.  They depict the journey of self-discovery, of overcoming odds, of seeking meaningful relationships and ideals in a hostile world.  In the non-fiction section there are influential books that have achieved significance in the area of writing, psychology, environmentalism, social justice.

But my query is:  If these books depict the inner journey of women, or portray the poignant reality of their struggles, if they have shed any light on the human race in terms of equality, justice, or existential meaning, are these not all the more reasons for men, or anyone, to read them?

Of course, for the sake of argument, one could point out that the statement “books every woman should read” doesn’t preclude that men should not.  But that’s just being contentious.

Books for women, books for men, why can’t books be just books?  Maybe it has to do with the writing of books, or, step back further, society’s view on male and female authors.

Posting on the Guardian blog, writer and editor Harriet Evans vehemently declares that:

“I’m fed up with seeing some of our best novelists written off as ‘chick lit’ — you don’t see the same belittling line taken with male writers…

It winds me up that books about young women are seen as frivolous and silly, while books about young men’s lives that cover the same topics, are reviewed and debated, seen as valid and interesting contributions to the current social and media scene.

And regarding the reading public, it has been noted that women read more than men, both in the U.S. and the U.K.  With that in mind, Evans goes on to state that:

The truth is, women happily read books (and watch films and TV) aimed primarily at men…. They read thrillers, travel books, biographies – and yet the majority of these books are marketed for men… But men rarely try women’s fiction, because they’ve been conditioned to think they can’t pick up a book with a pink cover.”

Indeed, worthy literature written by women authors are sometimes reduced to ‘romance’ or ‘chick lit’.  Jane Austen is a prime example.  Her incisive social satires, eloquent writing and sense of humor have often been swept aside while the romantic union of the protagonists at the end is given the main focus.  In this way, her work is conveniently labeled as ‘chick lit’, dreaded by male readers, until some brave souls dare to take up the challenge and are floored by her relevance and intelligence.

Virginia Woolf sharply observes in her Cambridge lecture series compiled in A Room Of One’s Own that historically, social norm has always been one that coops up women in the domestic while offering men the world.

Taking her view further, I can understand why the dichotomy, however arbitrary, in male and female writing, their difference in subject matters, subsequently, books for men and books for women.

I have a feeling that if the protagonist of The Catcher In The Rye is called Helen Caulfield, the book could well be dismissed as another trivial version of teen angst, schoolgirl blues, fussing over boys and growing up.  And likely we won’t see it on any reading list.

In Praise of Austen: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own


 A Room of One’s Own is based on a series of lecture Woolf delivered at the two women’s colleges in Cambridge University on the topic of “Women and Fiction”.  It was published in 1929.

Woolf lamented the disparities women in a patriarchal society had to face throughout history.  The stream of consciousness flowed into torrents of incisive social observations and satirical commentaries.

She noted that women had long been deprived of equitable opportunities in education and employment. Men were rich, women were poor; men got to roam the country and travel the world, women had to be satisfied with the domestic.  Men were great writers, poets, playwrights, women had to concede to find fulfillment in “making puddings and knitting stockings”. Men had rooms to work, to rest, to create…women, the average, middle class women, seldom had a room of their own.

…to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century.

And sadly, Woolf had to utter this statement:

Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes.

Isn’t it true, Jane spent her most prolific years writing in a very public room in Chawton House.  In the midst of family activities, at a small and spartan desk, she revised Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, wrote Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion, and began Sanditon:

Jane's writing desk in Chawton

And isn’t it true that only in movies do we see the idyllic desk against a clear window, with soft light diffusing in, gently illuminating a lady dressed in elegant regency gown, writing on expansive papers and stationary, contemplating in solitude:

Room or no room, recognized or not, something happened towards the end of the eighteenth century that, according to Virginia Woolf, deserved much more mention in history than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses:  The middle-class woman began to write.

Woolf pointed out that not only did Jane Austen lack a room of her own, having had to write her novels in the very public sitting-room, she had to hide her manuscripts or cover them with a piece of blotting-paper, as observed by her nephew James Edward Austen Leigh in his Memoir of Jane Austen.

Ironically, there lay the genius of Austen, and the few woman writers around her time such as Bronte and George Eliot.  Woolf wrote:

…and we must accept the fact that all those good novels, Villette, Emma, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, were written by women without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman; written too in the common sitting-room of that respectable house and by women so poor that they could not afford to buy more than a few quires of paper at a time upon which to write.

Little did they know, it was in such a room that they were trained in the prerequisites of novel writing:

…all the literary training that a woman had in the early nineteenth century was training in the observation of character, in the analysis of emotion.  Her sensibility had been educated for centuries by the influences of the common sitting-room.  People’s feelings were impressed on her; personal relations were always before her eyes.  Therefore, when the middle-class woman took to writing, she naturally wrote novels…

Not only that, they wrote good novels.  With reference to Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf concluded:

Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching.  That was how Shakespeare wrote.

High praise indeed.