Sundance: She is a Best Director

Here’s a video from the Sundance Institute in which filmmakers including Jane Fonda, Greta Gerwig, Kristen Wiig, Lesley Headland, Mindy Kaling, Ava DuVernay and others discuss the importance of female voices.

I found it interesting and inspiring.

Review: An Invisible Sign

You say the critics hated it? Yeah, I probably loved it.

An Invisible Sign got terrible reviews from all the critics. And, as often happens, I love the very movie the critics hate.

Spoilers ahead. Continue reading “Review: An Invisible Sign”

Bessie Release Announced by HBO

HBO’s biopic about Bessie Smith, Bessie is scheduled for release in the spring. The film stars Queen Latifah as the legendary blues singer.

Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith
Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith

The HBO synopsis of the film:

Queen Latifah stars as legendary blues singer Bessie Smith in this HBO Films presentation, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Dee Rees from a screenplay by Dee Rees and Christopher Cleveland & Bettina Gilois. With a story by Dee Rees and Horton Foote, the film focuses on Smith’s transformation from a struggling young singer into “The Empress of the Blues,” who became one of the most successful recording artists of the 1920s and is an enduring icon today. BESSIE also stars Michael Kenneth Williams, Khandi Alexander, Mike Epps, Tika Sumpter, Tory Kittles, Oliver Platt, Bryan Greenberg, with Charles S. Dutton and Mo’Nique.

Queen Latifah and Dee Rees were at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, where they discussed the film.

Queen Latifah and Dee Rees at Television Critics Association winter press tour.
Queen Latifah and Dee Rees at Television Critics Association winter press tour.

Rees, who wrote and directed the film, commented that Bessie Smith is part of a long line of women of color who reached success as female artists in a world dominated by men. Starting with Ma Rainey (played in the film by Mo’Nique) and moving through singers like Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and many others up to the present day, Bessie Smith represents women oppressed by the world around them, but triumphant in spite of it.

Queen Latifah said she was first offered the part when she was 22. She didn’t even know who Bessie Smith was at that time. She’s obviously learned since and will probably do a much better job playing her now than she would have at 22.

Here’s Bessie Smith, who was bisexual, singing the blues about a man.

As you can hear, Bessie Smith had a particular style, timber, and cadence to her singing. I hope Queen Latifah doesn’t try to match it exactly, but simply creates a sense of the truth of who she was as a woman.

Review: Selma

Selma manages to take the microcosm of the marches in 1965 in Selma, Alabama to tell a sweeping saga that remains painfully relevant today. By focusing on this singular moment in a long battle, a vast epic is revealed.

Much that is in the news today shouts unfinished to the battle fought by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his courageous supporters in Selma. For example, several members of the cast appeared on the red carpet for the opening of Selma wearing tee shirts emblazoned “I can’t breathe.”

A large crowd of African Americans attempt to register to vote.
A scene from Selma. David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stands in the center.

David Oyelowo stars as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He managed to portray King as very human with doubts and fears and failings while painting a portrait of King as a brilliant organizer, an astute politician, a moving orator, and an inspired showman. It is a stunning performance giving us a very real man who managed to achieve greatness. It’s a portrait both intimate and historic.

The story alternates between quiet moments and horrific moments of violence. The two opening scenes are good examples of this contrast. There’s Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) attempting to register to vote in an act of quiet determination. Then there’s the church explosion that killed 4 young black girls as they scampered down the church stairs discussing their hairdos. Mixed with these types of gut wrenching scenes are strategy sessions and arguments between civil rights movement leaders and meetings between Dr. King and government leaders.

I was impressed by the careful way King picked Selma as the perfect place to stage a massive demonstration for voting rights after President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) refused to take action on the issue with the speed King needed.

There were actually 3 marches in the attempt to go from Selma to Montgomery. The first became known as “Bloody Sunday.” About 600 people arrived for a demonstration march on Sunday March 7, 1965. State troopers met the demonstrators at the edge of Selma on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and chased, clubbed, tear gassed, and terrorized the demonstrators into a retreat.

The Edmund Pettus Bridge, by the way, was named for a head of the KKK. It bears the same name today.

The Bloody Sunday demonstration was televised. Thousands of people flocked to Selma in support. The second march was much bigger because of the publicity. When this group walked across the bridge, the state troopers moved aside. King stood looking at the situation for a long moment. He knelt to pray. As one, the marchers behind him did the same. Finally he stood up and turned back. He was waiting for a legal ruling that would protect the marchers and he got it the next day.

The third attempt was the one that made it over the bridge and all the way to Montgomery, where Dr. King gave a speech on the steps of the capitol. Finally, President Johnson was forced to act to remove restrictions on voting such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and other impediments meant to keep black citizens from voting.

The horror was visceral: the bodies of dead children amid the concrete rubble of a bombed church, the thuds of clubs and the screams of pain and terror as white men on horses attacked fleeing black men and women on the bridge.

The hate filled words of men like Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) and Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) were as terrifying as the scenes of chaos and attack. They are the same words we hear today. They are a reminder that for each victory like this one in 1965, there are still white men fighting to deny certain Americans their civil rights.

The music chosen as background in certain scenes was completely apt. The lyrics told the story as the story was being told.

The cast of the film was very large. There are many real people in this story whose names we know: Coretta Scott King, Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, J. Edgar Hoover, John Lewis, Malcolm X. Many other characters whose names are not so famous were also in the story. All were played by actors whose faces I’m sure you recognize. I’m not going to list all the actors in these parts, but I do want to acknowledge those excellent performances.

The film was written by Paul Webb and directed by Ava DuVernay. Cinematography was by Bradford Young. All 3 deserve Oscar nominations, as does the film for Best Picture.

The Trailer

AARP Interview with Laura Hillenbrand on Unbroken

The AARP Bulletin ran an interesting story with Laura Hillenbrand talking about her book Unbroken and her relationship with World War II hero Louis Zamperini.

Louis Zamperini inspects his bomber during World War II.
Louis Zamperini inspects his bomber during World War II.

The book is being made into a movie, directed by Angelina Jolie.

I thought this quote from Laura Hillenbrand from the AARP Bulletin article was worth repeating here.

“I wanted to tell the story of the Pacific war through the eyes of one man. He said, ‘Go to it!’ ”

It was a huge responsibility to have Zamperini and his fellow POWs share their stories, Hillenbrand says. “You have to do justice to someone’s most searing memory.” Often she spoke with men who had never described their ordeal. “They would weep on the phone,” she says.

Unbroken has given solace to families of veterans returned from the Pacific. Hillenbrand recalls that “I started getting thousands of letters and emails from family members who would all say the same thing: ‘I never understood my father or my husband or my grandfather, what he went through, why he was in so much pain, why he drank.’ People were able to find forgiveness, and that is terribly moving to me.”

There is much more interesting material in the article as well as a link to a radio interview with Hillenbrand.

Louis Zamperini image — War Department via Fold 3

Watch This: Trailer for Helicopter Mom

Helicopter Mom looks hilarious. The film stars Nia Vardalos, Jason Dolley, Mark Boone Junior and Skyler Samuels. It was written by Duke Tran and directed by Salome Breziner.

Here’s the description of Helicopter Mom.

Oh, how far we’ve come from the dark days of rampant homophobia. But teenager Lloyd Cooper (Jason Dolley) may think society—or at least his mother—has progressed a bit too far on this topic. Lloyd’s mom Maggie (a hilarious Nia Vardalos) says she would not only accept a gay son, she actively encourages it, as it would be “really cool” to have one. In fact, Maggie becomes so convinced that Lloyd himself is gay that she “outs” him to his entire high school. Like any good “helicopter mom,” who hovers over every aspect of her children’s lives, Maggie takes control of Lloyd’s social life, setting Lloyd up on dates with boys whom she has approved and filing for a gay student college scholarship. There’s just one wrench in her grand plans: Lloyd doesn’t even know whether he’s gay or not. But the mother is willing to accept her son for who he is—or at least who she thinks he is.

It looks like Helicopter Mom is hitting all the festivals right now. I’ll let you know if I see any news about where it might be seen or streamed later. The web site looks fairly up to date and has a funny behind the scenes video. It mentions where the film is currently to be seen as well.

Watch This: Unbroken Trailer

Unbroken is not the type of story I normally talk about here. My mission is to promote female driven entertainment. However, I have three most excellent reasons for being eager to see Unbroken.

The film stars Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson and Garrett Hedlund in the story of Louis Zamperini. Louis Zamperini was an Olympic runner who served in the Air Force in World War II. He ended up in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. His endurance under horrifying conditions, and his ultimate survival are both testaments to the human spirit.

This is a new trailer for Unbroken.

There is another trailer for the film, which was released during the Olympics. Louis Zamperini himself can be seen in that trailer. He died in July of 2014 at the age of 97 and never got to see the film.

Unbroken is scheduled to release on Christmas day. If you like to get out to a movie on Christmas Day, there are many tempting choices. (Two I’ve already mentioned are Big Eyes and Annie.) Unbroken will make you believe in the power of never giving up.

Angelina Jolie photo by Vince Valitutti – © 2013 – Universal Pictures

Wisdom Sharing: A Week with the Goddess Spirit

I spent last week at a conference in Ghost Ranch, NM. The conference, called Wisdom Sharing, featured Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem and Dr. Chung Hyun Kyung. The marvelous moderator, shown on the left above, was Dr. Melanie Harris.

The location is stunning in its beauty and spirit. The women who were the star attractions were brilliant – powerful speakers, activists for women’s rights, funny, and centered in a forceful but calm wisdom. It was one of the best weeks of my life. My photos are on Flickr.

The speakers were so inspiring and wise and brilliant

In addition to the many talks, wisdom circles, and other activities, we watched 3 documentary films. (Trailers for the 3 films are below.)

The first evening was the film Jesus and Buddha which features Dr. Chung Hyun Kyung who is a lay theologian of the Presbyterian Church of Korea, and is also an Associate Professor of Ecumenical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in the U.S. Plus, she’s a Buddhist. Or as she put it, it was both predestination and karma that brought her to Ghost Ranch and her friendship with the other extraordinary speakers.

The film for the next evening was Beauty in Truth, a documentary about the life of Alice Walker. The film was written and directed by Pratibha Parmar, who was also present at the conference. That’s her below, listening to one of the speakers. (I reviewed Beauty in Truth earlier this year.) Parmar worked with Alice Walker on the book Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women and the ensuing 1993 film Warrior Marks.

Pratibha Parmar

The last film we watched was Miss Representation. This film was partly supported by The Women’s Media Center and featured Gloria Steinem. It is about how women and girls are portrayed in the media. The Miss Representation website has many resources and ideas if you are interested in learning more or taking action.

Beauty in Truth and Miss Representation are both available from various streaming sources and are available for screenings in schools or gatherings. PBS broadcast Beauty in Truth and keeps it available. You can get DVD’s of Jesus and Buddha from Old Dog Documentaries.

Jesus and Buddha

Beauty in Truth

Miss Representation