Women-Directed/Photographed Films Coming to Theaters: December 2019

Actress Imogen Poots (l.) and director/screenwriter Sophia Takal (r.) on the set of Black Christmas, 2019. (Photo: Fortune Magazine via Kirsty Griffin/Universal Pictures)

Better late than never! Just as 2019 comes to a close: here are fourteen new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this December, all of which have been directed and/or photographed by women. These titles are sure to intrigue cinephiles and also provoke meaningful discussions on the film world, as well as the world in general.

DECEMBER 6 (in theaters), DECEMBER 10 (VOD): In Fabric (dir. Peter Strickland) (DP: Ari Wegner)Metrograph synopsis: “A lonely woman (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), recently separated from her husband, visits a bewitching London department store in search of a dress that will transform her life. She’s fitted with a perfectly flattering, artery-red gown—which, in time, will come to unleash a malevolent curse and unstoppable evil, threatening everyone who comes into its path. From acclaimed horror director Peter Strickland, the singular auteur behind the sumptuous sadomasochistic romance The Duke of Burgundy and auditory giallo-homage Berberian Sound Studio, comes a truly nightmarish film, at turns frightening, seductive, and darkly humorous. Channeling voyeuristic fantasies of high fashion and bloodshed, In Fabric is Strickland’s most twisted and brilliantly original vision yet.”

DECEMBER 6 (in theaters & on VOD): Knives and Skin (dir. Jennifer Reeder)IFC Films synopsis:Knives and Skin follows the investigation of a young girl’s disappearance in a stylized version of a rural Midwest town that hovers just above reality, led by an inexperienced local sheriff. Unusual coping techniques develop among the traumatized small-town residents with each new secret revealed. The ripple of fear and suspicion destroys some relationships and strengthens others. The backdrop of trauma colors quintessential rituals—classrooms, dances, courtship, football games—in which the teenagers experience an accelerated loss of innocence while their parents are forced to confront adulthood failures. This mystical teen noir presents coming of age as a lifelong process and examines the profound impact of grief.”

DECEMBER 6 (in theaters & on VOD/digital): Little Joe (dir. Jessica Hausner)Variety’s Cannes Film Festival review by Owen Gleiberman: “Just about every horror movie has an opening stretch — it could be 20 minutes, or even the first 45 — that inches along in a creep-out mode of anticipatory anxiety, building to the moment when the demon, the slasher, the monster, the source of the fear factor is revealed. These days, the film will then usually turn into a ride. But even if it doesn’t, the source of the horror always becomes tangible, visible, alive. It takes audacity, and a special skill, to sustain that early mood of premonitory dread over an entire film. And that’s what happens in Little Joe, an artfully unnerving, austerely hypnotic horror movie about a very sinister plant.

“Behind the opening credits, the camera hovers, at a skewed high angle, over rows and rows of flower seedlings — hundreds of them — arranged with antiseptic precision in some sort of glassed-in white-on-white tech bunker of a laboratory. It’s hard not to notice that the flowers look a bit phallic, and when viewed in closeup, the bulbs, with a bit of red poking out at the top, suggest Venus flytraps just after they’ve had a munch. Years of horror thrillers have geared us to survey a scene like this one and expect, down the road, the eruption of something ghastly: an alien, perhaps, or monster seed pods like the ones in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Little Joe wants us to be quietly unsettled by those plants. We look at them and wonder: Is this a nursery from hell?

“The answer is yes, sort of. Little Joe, it turns out, is a variation on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But it’s not the umpteenth remake; we hardly need another one of those. Instead, the Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner, directing her first English-language feature (and her fourth film to be shown at Cannes), picks up on the proverbial “Body Snatchers” theme — people turned into sinister conformist replicants of themselves — and updates it to our era in a singular and disturbing way.

“In Little Joe, Hausner works in a shivery and deliberate modernist spook-show style, one that calls up echoes of early David Cronenberg and the Stanley Kubrick of The Shining. She holds us in a refined trance, tantalized with fascination at what’s waiting around the corner. Keeping her camera moving with slow-glide voyeurism, she turns those plants into disquieting creatures even when they’re just sitting there being their innocent selves.

“The high-tech hothouse nursery where much the film is set is part of Planthouse Biotechnologies, a corporate plant-breeding laboratory in England that uses genetic engineering to create profitable new breeds. The seedlings glimpsed in the opening scene are the creation of Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham), a senior plant breeder with the company who has come up with the idea of a flower that gives off a scent so ambrosial it makes people euphoric just to sniff it. The flower she’s invented is pretty, but in a deceptively unspectacular way. It has a brown stem with a slight curve in it that looks like the sort of ‘designer’ lamp you can buy at Target, and the bud opens into a snowball of red tendrils that makes the flower resemble an exotic chrysanthemum. Alice takes one of the plants home, where she lives as a single mom with her son, Joe (Kit Connor), who looks to be about 12. Setting the plant on a table with a light over it, she even names it: She calls the flower — and the entire breed — Little Joe.

“The flower’s scent is indeed divine. People take in one smoky burst of that pollen (it happens when the plant spreads its tendrils), and it transforms their mood. They feel happy. But they also feel different. They no longer feel completely like themselves. They look and sound the same, but on some barely perceptible level they don’t act in quite the same way. They’re a bit placid, a bit neutral, a bit in their own zone. They’re no longer engaged — not really — with the outside world. But it doesn’t matter (at least, to them), because the new way they feel is just as good; in fact, it feels better. They want to keep feeling that way. And thanks to the effect of Little Joe, they do.

“If this all sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because Hausner, working from a script she co-wrote with Géraldine Bajard, has built Little Joe around a daring metaphor. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, made in 1956, with ordinary buttoned-down citizens being turned into emotionless ‘pod people,’ has sometimes been interpreted as a comment on the McCarthy era, but it was really a sci-fi allegory of the creeping social conformity of the 1950s. The 1978 version updated that same drone-of-conformity idea to the flaked-out weirdness of the post-counterculture ’70s.

Little Joe spins it into a startling satirical view of the age of psychopharmacological drugs. The plants in Little Joe are nothing more, or less, than a horror-movie version of antidepressants. And in terms of the film’s drama, what’s sinister isn’t just the change in behavior we note in various characters: first Joe, a sweet kid who turns quietly indifferent to his mother, then Chris (Ben Whishaw), Alice’s devoted assistant on the plant project, who’s got a crush on her but then seems to morph into an office drone.

“No, the really creepy thing is the loyalty they develop to the plant that’s transformed them. Once they’ve been converted to their new state of weirdly numb contentment, they become fiercely protective of their new way of being; no one is allowed to question it. And that’s the scathing allegorical thrust of Little Joe. It presents a landscape of medicated zombies who join in a cult of their own well-being, and who regard their new state as an ideology — not just a way to be but the way to be. Symbolically speaking, they’re addicts who don’t know it, hooked on the sinister interior aroma of mood-modification drugs.

“Hausner gets pinpoint performances out of her actors, and she needs to, since so much of Little Joe pivots around the subtlest of personality shadings. Emily Beecham, who’s like a more vivacious Claire Foy, plays Alice as beaming but increasingly troubled, a scientist who didn’t know she created a monster, and is now desperate to put that genie back in the bottle. Ben Whishaw is super-sly as the benign colleague who becomes a weasel without quite shedding his devotion to Alice. He’s not against her; he just wants her to join. David Wilmot is an arresting chameleon — now raging, now snake-oil smooth — as Alice’s office mate Karl, and Kerry Fox is superb as Bella, the mentally fragile Planthouse veteran who’s the first one to detect a shift in personality (in her dog). As for the film’s musical score, by Teiji Ito and Markus Binder, it’s practically another character: an Asian-flavored cacophony of drip drums, flute quavers, and shrieking tech that goes to work on your system.

“How you react to Little Joe may well hinge on your own beliefs about antidepressants — whether you think they’re an unalloyed force of good, a profit-driven conspiracy by Big Pharma (with the psychiatric establishment as their marketer/enablers), or something in between. But given how little direct criticism of our psychotropic-drug culture you can actually encounter in the media, it may be that a horror movie — albeit a shiveringly delicate and understated art-house one — is the ideal way to present the argument that we’re becoming a society of people too artificially addicted to well-being, regardless of the cost, to see anything outside it.”

DECEMBER 6: A Million Little Pieces (dir. Sam Taylor-Johnson)Chicago Sun-Times review by Richard Roeper: “You had to feel for James Frey. In January 2006, the School of the Art Institute grad turned best-selling author took arguably the most brutal verbal beatdown in the history of ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show.’ Granted, Frey brought it upon himself, when it was revealed his mega-successful addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces contained major exaggerations and fabrications. Oprah, who initially had championed the book, was not amused. She called Frey on the carpet in front of a studio audience and millions of viewers. It seemed excessive. It was painful to watch.

“A few years later, Oprah said she owed Frey an apology. By then, Frey had bounced back in a big way, with a seven-figure deal to write novels for Harper Collins. Since then, his career has continued to thrive, most recently with a ‘Story By’ credit for the acclaimed theatrical release Queen & Slim. Now, some 16 years after the publication of A Million Little Pieces, a film adaptation from director/co-writer Sam Taylor-Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey, no relation) is getting an understated release, and it’s reasonable to assume a good percentage of viewers will have little or no knowledge of the controversial story behind the source material. Not that it should matter. As a stand-alone work of cinema fiction, A Million Little Pieces is an effective blunt instrument of a film — a rough-edged, unvarnished, painfully accurate portrayal of addiction and rehabilitation.

“Aaron Taylor-Johnson (husband of the director) delivers a stunning performance as the self-destructive, hardcore addict James. There’s nothing Hollywood or glamorous about this work; Taylor-Johnson looks like a walking ghost as James wakes up on a plane bound for Minneapolis (he doesn’t even know how he got there), where he is met by his brother Bob (Charlie Hunnam), who takes James straight to a rehab facility. Hunnam delivers steady, powerful work in a small but pivotal role. We all know someone like Bob (perhaps we’re someone like Bob), who is worn out by James’ behavior but refuses to give up on him, because he’s family.

“James is hardly all-in with a 12-step recovery plan; like many an addict, he thinks he’s smarter than everyone else in the room and he’ll figure out his own path to recovery. While in rehab, he meets archetypes such as a stern but caring supervisor (Dash Mihok, best known as Bunchy on ‘Ray Donovan’), a possible love interest in the badly broken Lilly (Odessa Young) and a father figure in a man named Leonard (Billy Bob Thornton). The fine supporting cast, most notably Thornton, rescue these roles from overly cliched status.

“Sam Taylor-Johnson infuses A Million Little Pieces with a frenetic, jarring style capturing the fragmented, jagged, blurred-realities world of the addict, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson delivers a raw, bruising, commanding performance as a man who is either going to find a measure of peace in the day-to-day world of recovery or is going to wind up dead. There’s no third option. But as James Frey has demonstrated, there IS such a thing as a second act in an American life.”

DECEMBER 6 (in select cities); FEBRUARY 14, 2020 (wide release): Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Céline Sciamma) (DP: Claire Mathon)Slate review by Dana Stevens: “Why, Héloïse wants to know, does the portrait look so little like its subject? ‘There are rules. Conventions. Ideas,’ explains Marianne, unconvincingly. The face in the painting, Marianne’s first attempt at a portrait of Héloïse, is placid, rosy, and conventionally feminine in its inoffensive prettiness; the real Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), though even more beautiful, has an intimidatingly direct gaze and a serious, even somber demeanor. But given the purpose of the portrait—Heloïse’s mother plans to present it as a gift to the Italian nobleman whom Héloïse is to marry, sight unseen—it’s understandable why Marianne (Noémie Merlant) would soften Héloïse’s features and blunt the severity of her expression. In Céline Sciamma’s austere yet sensuous fourth feature Portrait of a Lady on Fire (which opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles before a wide release in February), this frequently altered painting becomes an index of the changing relationship between the two young women: At first distant, proper and ladylike, it slowly turns into something passionate, truthful, and almost unbearably intimate.

“Of course, another reason the portrait might not resemble Héloïse at first is because she never posed for it. Furious at her powerlessness to escape the arranged marriage, she walked out midsitting on the last artist who tried to paint her, leading him to destroy his work. Now her mother (Valeria Golino) tells Héloïse that Marianne has been brought in to be her companion on her daily cliffside walks; Marianne must soak in as much about Héloïse as she can on those walks, squirrel away sketches, and work on the portrait in private. There’s more backstory, but the information needed for the film’s stark setup is simple to grasp: two women, a canvas on an easel, a secret, the sea.

“The year, according to the production notes, is 1770, but no on-screen legend or other temporal marker clues us in to that date other than the women’s corseted floor-length dresses. The location is equally indeterminate: an isolated house on a high cliff by the ocean. (The film was shot on location on the coast of Brittany.) In the early scenes especially, the story seems to take place in a timeless, almost abstract space, like the films Ingmar Bergman shot with only a handful of actors on the Swedish island of Fårö. Though men appear, namelessly and briefly, at the beginning and end, Portrait of a Lady on Fire takes place almost completely in a world made up of women: the two leads, Heloïse’s mother, the young house servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), and in one scene a group of village women who sing a haunting a cappella song around a bonfire. But it’s the off-screen men who call all the shots in these women’s lives; those rules, conventions, and ideas that govern Marianne’s painting of an upper-class bride-to-be are the same ones responsible for Héloïse’s desperate sense of entrapment.

“To give away any more than the fact that the two women fall madly in love would be to deprive the viewer of Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s greatest pleasures: the stolen glances on cliffside walks, the conversations that end just as the truth is about to be spoken, the quiet contests of will over the content and meaning of that ever-changing canvas. Again and again Sciamma finds ways to deliver meaning cinematically rather than in words, whether through the placement of faces in the frame or a detail revealed obliquely in a mirror. In addition to being a swoon-worthy romance—a bodice-ripper in which corsets are not torn but slowly, lovingly unlaced—this is a meditation on feminism, art, and feminist art, as embodied by the portrait of the title but also by the embroidery being stitched by Sophie the housemaid—and, late in the film, by an extraordinary artistic collaboration the three young women undertake together. Without ever needing to spell it out, Sciamma makes clear that the weight of patriarchy means that this idyll by the sea may be these young women’s one chance to experience anything like real passion or freedom. That knowledge, on both the audience’s part and the lovers’, lends every moment of their time together—a fragment of music Marianne plays for Héloïse on the harpsichord, a shared reading of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—a kind of desperate poignancy.

“Adèle Haenel, the fierce-eyed, dark-browed beauty who plays Héloïse, may be familiar to audiences from her roles as an uncompromising AIDS activist in the 2017 French drama BPM or a young Belgian doctor in the Dardenne brothers’ The Unknown Girl. She’s also Sciamma’s romantic partner in real life and has already played the object of desire in the director’s debut film, Water Lilies. That real-life connection, whether you go in knowing about it or not, adds another layer to what’s on screen: the story of one woman attempting to render her love for another, not only with a paintbrush but with a camera. As Marianne, Noémie Merlant is also extraordinary: As she stands at the easel her huge dark eyes take in every detail of her beloved’s face, and though she didn’t do the painting herself (the portraits in the film are by the artist Hélène Delmaire), you completely believe she could have.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is that rare movie in which every choice feels thought through, meaningful, and right, from the costumes by Dorothée Guiraud to the cinematography by Claire Mathon. (When it comes to collaborating on feminist art, Sciamma walks the walk.) When the musical passage Marianne plays for Héloïse early in the film—the ‘Summer’ section of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—returns at the end in its full orchestral glory, there’s a sense of inevitable, if tragic, completeness. Just like the short time the lovers have together, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is minimal but perfect, without an image, a glance, or a brushstroke to spare.”

DECEMBER 13: Black Christmas (dir. Sophia Takal)Los Angeles Times review by Kimber Myers: “The biggest gross-out moment in Black Christmas isn’t the gory death of a sorority girl at the gloved hands of a masked killer. Instead, it’s the scene where a cop globs mayonnaise onto white bread. This PG-13 remake of Bob Clark’s 1974 slasher classic follows in the feminist footsteps of its predecessor, while still subverting audience expectations at each opportunity. Fans of the original — and those who like their horror movies deadly serious and brimming with blood — might not love writer-director Sophia Takal’s take, but Black Christmas is a fun film that gets its kicks out of literally smashing the patriarchy.

“Structural misogyny is alive and well on the Hawthorne College campus, whether in the form of white-male-author-loving professor Gelson (Cary Elwes) or the fraternities like Delta Kappa Omega where sexual assault is brushed under the beer-stained rugs. But Riley (Imogen Poots) and her sorority sisters at Mu Kappa Epsilon are fighting back, and their efforts have made them targets of a killer who is stalking the quad as campus quiets for the holidays. Sorority girls — ahem, women — begin disappearing, while Riley is getting creepy DMs from someone claiming to be Hawthorne’s long-dead founder who seems to have chosen her as his next victim.

“While Takal’s previous work — her stunning debut Always Shine and the solid ‘New Year, New You’ episode of Hulu’s ‘Into the Dark’ — focused on the pain women inflict on one another as a result of society’s pressures, Black Christmas is more concerned with men as its villains. Clark’s film wore its second-wave feminism on its ’70s-era blouse sleeves, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Takal’s Black Christmas is a women’s horror film for a new generation, full of cheeky pro-female T-shirts and casual talk about menstrual cups.

“But this version doesn’t just update the disturbing phone calls of the original for menacing DMs; it gives the sorority sisters the agency to fight back in ways Clark’s movie didn’t. The script from Takal and April Wolfe isn’t subtle in its message about the dangers of toxic masculinity and rape culture versus the power of female solidarity, but it also has fun with its feminist themes in ways that will have like-minded viewers cheering and the less-enlightened shaking their fists. While the commentary is pointed, their screenplay is often blunt, hammering home the film’s larger ideas. Beyond Riley, the sorority sisters feel largely interchangeable, and more characterization could have helped invest the audience more deeply in their safety and survival.

“The PG-13 rating for Black Christmas might seem like a ploy for a larger, younger audience, but the lack of explicit violence feels more like a deliberate choice for Takal. The genre often glories in the gory deaths of women, but Black Christmas cuts away from the kill shot.

“This doesn’t always work — sacrificing visual coherence and sometimes leaving the audience wondering exactly what just happened — but it subverts the usual visual pleasures and terrors of horror films in a manner aligned with its larger themes. This remains a horror film, but it’s a sometimes enjoyably goofy one that prefers to make its audience laugh than to make them scream.”

DECEMBER 13: Cunningham (dir. Alla Kovgan)Film at Lincoln Center synopsis: “One of the most visionary choreographers of the 20th century, Merce Cunningham could also be counted among its great modern artists, part of a coterie of important experimenters across media that included Robert Rauschenberg, Brian Eno, Jasper Johns, and his long-term romantic partner John Cage. This painstakingly constructed new documentary both charts his artistic evolution over the course of three decades and immerses the viewer in the precise rhythms and dynamic movements of his choreography through a 3D process that allows us to step inside the dance. Director Alla Kovgan has created a visceral experience that both reimagines and pays tribute to Cunningham’s groundbreaking technique.”

DECEMBER 13 (in theaters & on digital/VOD): Rabid (dirs. Jen Soska and Sylvia Soska) (DP: Kim Derko)Eye for Film’s FrightFest review by Jennie Kermode: “Remaking an iconic film is always a difficult proposition. Whatever you do, someone’s going to be unhappy, and even if it’s widely agreed that you’ve done a good job, you’ll only get limited credit for your work. For this reason, some filmmakers refuse to have anything to do with it – but where there is a fresh artistic angle to explore, the stakes change. The Soska sisters’ Rabid is less a remake and more of a reconstruction of the story in David Cronenberg’s original Rabid, approaching it with different priorities.

“Groundbreaking as it was, Cronenberg’s film had a plot that mirrored this, the traffic accident that precipitates the action (and foreshadows one of the director’s own experiments with somebody else’s material, Crash) coming out of nowhere. Here, we get the sense that Rose has been crashing all her life. Played this time around by Laura Vandervoort, she’s no longer a model but a fashion designer, an early hint that she will have more agency – but just as the Soska sisters acknowledge the advances that women have made, they introduce us to her as a bruised and uncertain young woman in a mercenary industry where ego is essential to survival. Because we get to know her before the crash, we understand it as something with more than superficial consequences. Rose’s facial disfigurement doesn’t just rob her of her beauty, it fractures her sense of identity.

“The solution to this is a trip to a private clinic working with experimental skin grafts. Rose isn’t rich – that myth about the fashion industry is knocked firmly on the head – but she is assured that, because she is such a perfect subject, all the costs will be met for in return for her ongoing availability for follow-up study. When after the procedure, her doctor takes her aside for a word about side effects, some viewers will experience flashbacks to Meryl Streep in Death Becomes Her: “Now a warning?!” But this film is nothing if not self-aware. It’s peppered with references to Cronenberg’s own work and much more besides. Indeed, it opens with a conversation about the dubious value of originality in art. Self-consciousness is an important aspect of the subject under dissection. Like Gene Tierney’s Laura or Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, Rose has the qualities of an archetypal, folkloric figure, enduring the same events over and over again in different places, in different forms.

“Whilst there is nothing here that awes quite like Cronenberg’s metro panic scene, with what we see of events playing out on a smaller scale to suit a still-tight budget and tighter on-set health and safety regulations, the new Rabid still delivers its share of shocks, this time in an atmosphere charged by reflections on the #MeToo movement and the way that violence functions as an everyday factor in many women’s lives. It’s lit in a style that plays with the clichés of fashion studio shoots, the huge empty apartment in which Rose stays with her foster sister Chelsea (Hanneke Talbot) taking on the qualities of a stage. Like the slick medical packaging around the ‘protein blend’ that our heroine is given to quench strange appetites, it has a distancing effect. In fashion, says Rose, you can be anything you want to be, but in accepting a new version of her old face she puts herself in a position where other identities are grafted onto her. Making one small concession after another, she gradually cedes her humanity, the physical changes that follow coming to seem entirely logical.

“Lingering on the sidelines, Chelsea is a witness unable to change events, with all the emotional baggage that brings. Moving closer as the narrative evolves is fashion photographer Brad (Benjamin Hollingsworth), whose persistent interest in Rose disquiets her despite her initial attraction to him, as if concession to that would inevitably entail a loss of power. Meanwhile, the shapes and coded guises of the fashion world move in and out of focus, abstraction passing comment on itself. Though some viewers seems to have missed it entirely, there’s a lot of humour here. It’s necessary for the film to retain its balance and remain engaging.

“It’s existential horror that really makes Rabid work and if this version has one major flaw it’s that it focuses too much on the physical towards the end, with aspects of the final sequence resembling certain video games and consequently losing their impact. For the most part, however, this is an impressive film, building on the original but speaking for itself. At a time when social norms are undergoing rapid shifts, it nevertheless succeeds in establishing a sense of otherness, in finding the edge.”

DECEMBER 13: Seberg (dir. Benedict Andrews) (DP: Rachel Morrison)Time Magazine’s Venice Film Festival review by Stephanie Zacharek: “Once you’ve seen Jean Seberg’s face, a marvel of secrecy and revelation akin to the shifting tones of leaves in afternoon light, you never forget it. Seberg is probably best known as the co-star of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 Breathless, a film that helped introduce the then-newborn French New Wave to the world. She plays the femme fatale Patricia Franchini, an American in Paris aspiring to be a journalist. Her handsome petty-criminal boyfriend, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, murders a policeman and retreats to Patricia’s apartment to hide, but in the end, rather than protecting him, she brings about his downfall. As Patricia, Seberg’s face is a charming but not fully readable mask of youthful self-assurance and ambition, half sweet, half cool, and framed by a sunray-colored pixie cut. She’s a gamine with a scheme, loyal to herself above all others.

“Kristen Stewart, her features so unmistakable and definitive, is all wrong to play Seberg—but only until you’ve watched her for, say, 10 minutes, or maybe 15, after which she and the mysterious, beguiling, ill-fated actress appear to meld into one bold, shimmering presence. This Stewart-Seberg human hologram is the center of British stage director Benedict Andrews’ Seberg, playing here in Venice out of competition. Seberg isn’t strictly a biopic; it’s a blunt portrait of a woman, a political activist as well as a movie star, whose life was kicked into a downward spiral by a devious government organization. The picture is potent and engaging; even its fictionalized elements ring with the spirit of truth. And Stewart is off the charts, though that’s hardly a surprise. She’s among the greatest actresses of our day, though to call her ‘great’ does a disservice to her subtlety—maybe it’s better to call her the master of the small gesture. The flicker of her eyelids is a dialect unto itself.

Seberg focuses on one period in the actress’ life, the late 1960s and early 1970s, during which she was the subject—and the victim—of an investigation launched by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program under the guidance of J. Edgar Hoover. Seberg, who was born in Iowa but made her name chiefly in European films, was by all accounts a thoughtful actor and human being, but her life wasn’t a happy one, and Andrews’ film offers some highly believable explanations for that. She attracted the FBI’s attention because she’d given money to several Civil Rights groups in the 1960s, as well as to the Black Panther Party. She was also involved in a brief extramarital affair with activist Hakim Abdullah Jamal (played here, with perfectly modulated expressiveness, by Anthony Mackie).

“Beginning in the late 1960s, after Seberg had come to Hollywood to make a film (the 1969 musical Paint Your Wagon), the FBI harassed, intimidated and spied on her, prying into her personal life and spreading damaging rumors. In Seberg, the two FBI agents assigned to the case are played by Vince Vaughn and Jack O’Connell: It’s O’Connell’s character, Jack Solomon, who comes to feel sympathy for the duo’s target, seeing that she’s being needlessly crushed in the gears of Hoover’s plan to eradicate black activist groups. O’Connell brings some deeply human shading to his characterization of this by-the-book government guy. In one of the movie’s finest scenes—presumably a fantasy, a small, glittering thread of wishful thinking—Solomon approaches Seberg in a Parisian bar, circa the early 1970s, presenting her with her FBI file. She looks at it with anger, with curiosity—and then she passes it back to him. This is the movie’s way of granting Seberg some of the dignity she was denied in real life. In the movie, if not in life, she knows the extent of what was done to her; she couldn’t have known the scope of it as she was living through it, and suffering.

“In 1970, when the bureau learned that Seberg was four months pregnant, they spread rumors that a leader of the Black Panther party had fathered the child. (In the film, Jamal is cited as the alleged father.) The rumors damaged not only Seberg’s professional reputation, but her personal life. She attempted suicide several times, and in 1979 was found dead in her car, not far from her Paris apartment. Her death was ruled a probable suicide. Her ex-husband, the writer Romain Gary, blamed the FBI for her death, claiming that the agency’s investigations caused permanent and escalating emotional damage.

Seberg doesn’t depict that end—the circumstances of the actress’ death are noted on a title card at the film’s close. That’s important, because Stewart plays Seberg as a woman full of life—she’s keeping Jean alive for us for the moments we’re able to watch her on-screen, and that time is precious. Stewart isn’t an impersonator or a mimic, which is why, in the early moments of Seberg, I found her a little wrong. Even with her perfectly bleached hair, and even though she’d perfected that elusive Sebergian half-pout, I looked at her and could see only Stewart, bold and brave in her stammering way. A little later, I saw how wrong I was. As an actor, Stewart is a vessel, not the driver of a vehicle. She didn’t ‘learn’ Seberg; she opened herself up to this sad, lost woman, allowing her to rush in, to fill every channel and vein. Stewart hears the language of ghosts, and she translates it for us. The words are all there, finding their way out through the light in her eyes.”

DECEMBER 20: Invisible Life (dir. Karim Aïnouz) (DP: Hélène Louvart)Film Forum synopsis: “Acclaimed Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz brilliantly recreates 1950s Rio de Janeiro in this tropical melodrama of two inseparable sisters: Eurídice (Carol Duarte), 18, and Guida (Julia Stockler), 20. They live restricted lives with their conservative parents. However, each nourishes a passionate dream: Eurídice of becoming a renowned pianist; Guida of finding true love. In a shocking turn of events, they are separated and forced to live apart. Karim Aïnouz’s first film, Madame Satã, a Jean Genet-inspired story of 1930’s Rio’s drag demi-monde, premiered at Film Forum in 2003. Invisible Life shares with it this director’s commitment to immersing himself in the emotional lives of his characters, visualized through rich, inventive, and lush imagery. Based on Martha Batalha’s popular novel The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, the film is Brazil’s official submission to the 2020 Academy Awards® for Best International Film.”

DECEMBER 25: Little Women (dir. Greta Gerwig)Polygon review by Karen Han: “In Greta Gerwig’s new film adaptation of Little Women, as the strong-willed Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) embarks on her writing career, her publisher (Tracy Letts) gives her some advice. If her main character is a woman, the story should end with her married or dead. The character must fall into a specific definition of womanhood, made more palatable for public consumption. Though Jo is living in the 1860s, similar rules still exist for female characters in popular culture today — hence the paper-thin female-led reboots of originally male-led movies, and facile ideas of what makes a female character strong. What makes Little Women particularly refreshing is that Gerwig treats the four March sisters as equals, rather than as right or wrong for wanting different things.

“Eldest sibling Meg (Emma Watson) is the domestic; among her sisters, she’s the best at taking care of the household. Unlike Jo, she wants to get married and have a family of her own. Jo is the most free-spirited sister, tomboyish and determined to have as much agency over her life as any man would have over his. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is the shy one whose passion lies in music, rather than in an attempt to fly the coop like her sisters. Youngest sister Amy (Florence Pugh) is arguably Jo’s opposite, embracing stereotypically feminine ideas of beauty and propriety. She’s haughty where Jo is hot-tempered.

“The film, based on Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, skips back and forth through time rather than unfolding chronologically. The sisters’ adolescence and young adulthood are shown in parallel, with Gerwig and editor Nick Houy making the transition between the two easily distinguishable by subtle shifts in color palette (the past generally uses warmer colors) as well as through characters’ hairstyles. As children, they’re bonded partially by necessity. They’re helping their mother (Laura Dern) make ends meet as their father (Bob Odenkirk) serves as a pastor in the Civil War. As young women, they’ve scattered, and they’re reckoning with where their desires in life have brought them, and with the expectations placed on women at the time.

“Gerwig gives each sister her fair shake. As the siblings grow into and through their teenage years, their disparate personalities and desires bring them into conflict, but Gerwig never allows any one March sister to come across as a villain. Their relationships with each other (and their lives in general) aren’t so black and white, and none of them are treated as foolish or lesser for what they want, even though they all want very different things. Even heartthrob Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), a force of chaos who captures both Jo’s and Amy’s attention, can’t tip the scales too far.

“That nuance is clearest in the dynamic between Jo and Amy, who lash out at each other, accusing each other of wrong or shallow choices. But Gerwig casts no such judgment on either of them. They’re both making the best of the patriarchal society they live in, with Amy understanding that she’ll marry for financial stability rather than love, and that her talent for art isn’t enough to grant her independence as a woman. And Jo submits to her publisher’s revisions to her short stories and novels because she knows there’s no other way they will get published, and earning money to help support her family is more important than her artistic integrity.

“Though most of Gerwig’s attention is on Jo, the evenhandedness with which she treats the whole family makes Little Women less a story about pursuing your dreams at any cost, and more about the value of kindness. One of the most affecting parts of the film is the burgeoning friendship between Beth and Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), an older gentleman who lives nearby. There’s little dialogue between them — they communicate largely through gestures. Beth is grateful for being able to come play the piano in his home, while he appreciates the simple comfort of her music. At the beginning of the film, it’s assumed that he’s a grouch and a recluse, but Beth’s kindness toward him reveals kindness in return.

“That may seem like a saccharine message, but Gerwig keeps the story in motion to the point where it’s difficult not to simply be swept up. The camera moves along with Jo as she rushes from one thought to the next, not only conveying a sense of her character, but a feeling of movement, growth, and freedom. The rush of youthful energy makes the film all the more affecting when it slows down, painting a comprehensive picture of the ups and downs of life rather than settling for something rose-colored.

“All their lives have meaning and importance, even if conventional pop culture wisdom or society might say otherwise. Meg isn’t lesser for wanting to get married, nor is Amy for being more stereotypically feminine, nor is Jo for being more stereotypically masculine in dress and behavior. As in Lady Bird, Gerwig allows her characters to be unconventional and selfish — that is, everything the stereotypical heroine isn’t supposed to be. It feels empowering to see four distinct women who all fall into different molds being treated respectfully, as though their decisions and personalities are all valid.

“Apart from one scene that feels like a belated, unnecessary recognition of the lack of racial diversity in the cast, the film doesn’t strike a single false note. It carries viewers through the lives of four very different women without picking any one to be the ‘right’ way of doing things. The cast is uniformly wonderful as well, with Pugh in particular perfectly embodying the way fits of youthful pique can get the better of us when we are denied the things we want. That degree of earnestness — and love for both the joyful and bittersweet parts of life — makes Little Women a pure joy.”

DECEMBER 26 (streaming on Netflix): The App (dir. Elisa Fuksas)PopSugar synopsis: “In this ‘Black Mirror’-esque thriller, an actor and industrial heir heads to Rome to shoot his very first movie, but while he’s there, he starts using a dating app, and that habit gradually develops into a self-destructive obsession.”

DECEMBER 27: Clemency (dir. Chinonye Chukwu)IndieWire’s Sundance Film Festival review by Eric Kohn: “At a time when movies can be reverse engineered to generate awards season buzz, Clemency provides a welcome alternative: a mature star-driven vehicle elevated by a brilliant performance that deserves all the awards it can get. As icy prison warden Bernadine Williams, Alfre Woodard embodies the extraordinary challenges of a woman tasked with sending men to their death, while bottling up her emotions so tight she looks as if she might blow. Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s second feature maintains the quiet, steady rhythms of a woman so consumed by her routine that by the end of the opening credits, it appears to have consumed her humanity as well. But over the course of the devastating process of preparing for another execution, Woodard injects the drama with the tantalizing possibility that humanity might creep back in.

“No matter the strength that Woodard brings to her role, Clemency is a tough sell from its harrowing opening minutes, in which Bernadine oversees the twelfth execution of her long tenure and witnesses it go horribly awry in front of a petrified crowd: Blood spurts, the body contorts, and Bernadine’s staff is traumatized. Chukwu captures the setup for this shocking accident in disturbing clinical terms, establishing a mood of the haunting psychological portrait to come.

“Bernadine was already a cold, humorless overlord, but the backlash to the execution only makes matters worse for the next victim in line. Anthony Woods (a restrained Aldis Hodge) retains his innocence for a homicide charge from years ago, and as the deadline for his execution looms, his frumpy, aging lawyer Marty (Richard Schiff, purposeful and wise) has started to lose his sense of commitment. In a series of tense exchanges with Bernadine, he rails against her lack of empathy for the prisoners even as he acknowledges the lost cause at hand. ‘You can’t save the world,’ she sighs. ‘That’s the problem,’ he replies.

“In Bernadine’s view, she has a responsibility to treat the death sentence in professional terms, but that philosophy is at odds with the job at hand. In a pivotal scene, she describes the mechanical details of Anthony’s planned execution while he cries in silence, and the disconnect establishes the extent to which Bernadine has learned to obscure her sympathies to a near-psychotic degree.

“All of which means she’s not exactly well suited to be a supporting wife to her frustrated husband (Wendell Pierce, in a calm, measured turn). Clemency stumbles into more conventional melodramatic plotting as it chronicles Bernadine’s troubled marriage, but the actors never overplay their arguments, and their troubles certainly make sense in the context of Bernadine’s mounting pressures at work. As media attention grows and protestors gather outside the prison, it’s inevitable that she’ll reach some kind of breaking point — but even she lacks the power to save Anthony from the likelihood that he’ll die soon enough.

“It can be a suffocating experience to sit with such downbeat circumstances for nearly two hours, and Clemency does push the limit. Even Chukwu’s insightful screenplay can’t justify a tangential conversation between Bernadine and the aging chaplain (Michael O’Neill), or the handful of redundant conversations as the movie creeps toward its final act. But that bumpy middle section gives way to the mortifying suspense of the climactic moments, as the clock ticks down to Anthony’s execution and the likelihood of a magical reprieve continues to fade.

“Meanwhile, the movie leaves room to explore Anthony’s own struggles, as he veers from utter despair to tentative optimism and back again. In a fleeting scene as Anthony’s estranged partner, Danielle Brooks delivers a devastating monologue that puts Anthony’s past in context, as well as the movie’s themes. While Clemency doesn’t overstate the role of race in its scenario, it inevitably becomes a subtle thematic foundation as Bernadine contemplates her role in Anthony’s imminent death. As with Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere, Chukwu’s movie bemoans the endless of cycle of broken families caused by a system that puts black men behind bars on autopilot.

“Beyond that, Clemency illustrates how systematic execution can destroy both ends of the equation. Woodard portrays Bernadine as a shell of a woman a few shades shy of robot. Going out for drinks with one of her peers, he says, ‘You suck at conversation!’ Throughout Clemency, it’s clear that Bernadine has lost touch with the essence of human connection because her job so often requires her to end it.

“Chukwu maintains an impressive command over her material, but Woodard herself becomes the movie’s central storyteller. The final shot is a galvanizing snapshot of her internal battle, and possibility that it might finally make its way to the surface. While the title of Clemency may refer to the literal prospects of escaping death row, it’s equally invested in a personal quest for the exoneration of the soul.”


DECEMBER 27 (airing on Showtime at 9:00 PM EST): Duran Duran: There’s Something You Should Know (dir. Zoë Dobson)Showtime synopsis: “With exclusive access, the band opens up about their extraordinary career and talks candidly about the highs and lows they have endured together over four long decades. This is the band at their most relaxed, intimate and honest. We spend time with John at his LA home; Simon pays a visit to his former choirmaster; Roger goes back to where it all started in Birmingham and Nick dusts off some of the 10,000 fashion items that the band have meticulously cataloged and collected over the course of their career.”

International Women’s Day: Celebrate with These 20 Films Directed by Women, Available on YouTube, Netflix, Hulu and More

Today is International Women’s Day, and because this blog is all about promoting the wide array of films made by women behind the camera, here are twenty films (both features and shorts) from a variety of eras, genres and cultures, all viewable instantly thanks to YouTube, other streaming services and cable TV on demand.

Suspense (1913, dirs. Phillips Smalley and Lois Weber) – YouTube

“Lois Weber and Philip Smalley’s Suspense might only clock in at barely over ten minutes, but for the earliest run of home invasion films, it is by far the most memorable, utilizing many cutting-edge camera tricks and establishing a seriously unique visual style along the way. […] The story revolves around a young wife, played by Weber, who lives on the outskirts of town. One day, her husband goes off to work. Unbeknownst to Weber’s character, the housekeeper chooses exactly that day to resign due to the remote location of the home. Due to this stroke of bad luck, the wife is left alone in the house, which is bad news because it’s the exact day a very random grifter shows up to terrorize her. After locking eyes with the villain, she calls her husband for help, and he frantically rushes home while the bad guy advances on the young wife and her child.

“When discussing this film, one of the most important details is that the camera work on display here is incredible. The memorable moments are almost too many to count. When the wife very first senses something suspicious is happening, she leans slowly out the window, only to see the vagabond look suddenly up at her in a moment that still carries chills to this very day. Her phone call to her husband splits the screen into 3 triangles, one of her, one of her husband, and one of the villain methodically breaking into the house. When the husband steals a car to rush to her side, the police follow him and he peeks back at them through his passenger side mirror. While many of the camera tricks had previously been utilized in other films, the hurried pace at which they cut together in Suspense is something new entirely.” (Sara Century, Syfy)

Mabel’s Blunder (1914, dir. Mabel Normand) – YouTube

“Mabel Normand was the first major female comedy star in American motion pictures. She was also one of the first female directors in Hollywood, and one of the original principals in Mack Sennett’s pioneering Keystone Comedies. Mabel’s Blunder (1914), made two years after the formation of the Keystone Film Company, captures Normand’s talents both in front of and behind the camera.

Mabel’s Blunder features Normand as a stenographer secretly carrying on a romance with her boss’s son – played by Keystone regular Harry McCoy. She becomes jealous when she sees McCoy taking up with an attractive woman (Peggy Page), and disguises herself as a chauffeur to spy on them as they rendezvous at a restaurant. At the same time, Normand’s younger brother disguises himself as his sister, and finds himself the subject of amorous attentions from her boss (Charles Bennett). In the end, Mabel discovers that her perceived love rival is actually McCoy’s visiting sister, and everything is sorted out for the better.

“Besides trading on the comedy staples of mistaken identities and misunderstood intentions, Mabel’s Blunder also features a double-dose of another standard of farce: gender-impersonation, with Mabel disguising herself as a man, and the unidentified young actor* playing Normand’s brother donning drag to impersonate his sibling. Normand had been impersonating males for comic result ever since her Biograph days. An early Keystone, Mabel’s Stratagem (1912), had also featured Normand as an office worker who is fired when her boss’s wife feels her husband is being too affectionate to his stenographer, and insists that he hire a man for the job instead. Mabel later dons male drag and gets the job – only to find herself now becoming an object of flirtation from the wife.” (Brent E. Walker, Library of Congress)

*Note: Al St. John played Mabel Normand’s brother, as per the IMDb listing.

The Ocean Waif (1916, dir. Alice Guy-Blaché) – YouTube and Kanopy

“Alice Guy-Blaché (French, 1873-1968), the world’s first woman film director, made films for Gaumont in Paris (1896-1907), then had her own studio, the Solax Company in Fort Lee, New Jersey (1910-1914). After Solax ceased production, she became a director for hire and went to work for The International Film Service, owned by William Randolph Hearst. The plot of The Ocean Waif adheres closely to the Hearst agenda: a romantic story, plenty of pathos but no brutality, a likeable hero and an innocent young woman, and a suspenseful plot with a dramatic and happy ending (‘the Mary Pickford school of narrative’). Blaché’s parody of the Pygmalion-type love story gives equal screen time to each lover’s point of view, but also skewers conventional class tropes. Doris Kenyon stars in the title role of an abused young woman who finds safety and eventually love in the arms of a famous novelist.” (Kanopy)

Craig’s Wife (1936, dir. Dorothy Arzner) – YouTube

“Columbia, to be quick about it, has been able to do quite well with [George] Kelly’s drama of domestic infelicity. Mary McCall Jr. has retained all that mattered of the original lines, Dorothy Arzner—Hollywood’s only woman director—has given them a full hearing without sacrificing camera mobility, and a supple cast headed by Rosalind Russell and John Boles has translated the whole into a thoroughly engrossing photoplay which has a point to make, keeps it constantly in view and drives it home viciously at the end. ‘People who live to themselves are generally left to themselves.’ That is Mr. Kelly’s story and Craig’s Wife makes the best of it.

“Since ten years have passed since the play was shown here, a brief reminder of its materials may be in order. Harriet Craig was a woman with a purpose—she wanted a home, symbol of permanence, position and security. To attain it she married and to retain it she had to obtain full control of her husband, modeling him into just another bit of house furnishing. Always it was the house that counted; dustless, friendless, a temple of material things which, if she guarded well, would be hers for the keeping.

“…The entire weight of the drama depends upon the malign effectiveness of its central character and Miss Russell, here enjoying her first real opportunity in Hollywood, gives a viciously eloquent performance. Mr. Boles, although sincere and natural in the rôle of the husband, is unable to keep his audience from jeering in that dramatically feeble moment of rebellion when he breaks crockery and spills cigarette ashes. That, admittedly, was more Mr. Kelly’s fault than Mr. Boles’s. The other players are uniformly splendid, with special mention of Alma Kruger as the aunt, Elizabeth Risdon as the housekeeper, Nydia Westman as the maid. Billie Burke as the flower-gathering neighbor, Thomas Mitchell as Fergus Passmore and Robert Allen as the niece’s suitor.” (Frank S. Nugent, The New York Times)

Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946, dir. Maya Deren) – YouTube

Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) silently follows Rita Christiani’s perspective as she enters an apartment to find Maya Deren immersed in the ritual of unwinding wool from a loom. Deren includes another expression of the external invading the internal with a strange wind that surrounds and entrances her as she becomes transported by the ritual. Ritual in Transfigured Time links the looming ritual with the ritual of the social greeting. Christiani enters a party, meets and greets, moving throughout the crowd like a dancer. Her movements become increasingly expressive and fluid, the ritual becomes a performance. Key themes in this film are the dread of rejection and the contrasting freedom of expression in the abandonment to the ritual.” (Wendy Haslem, Senses of Cinema)

The Hitch-Hiker (1953, dir. Ida Lupino) – YouTube

“With no major female characters, Ida Lupino’s 1953 film The Hitch-Hiker is somewhat idiosyncratic in her feature film directing career. Considered a director with a strong female identity, Lupino shows she can handle a gritty all male thriller just as skillfully as one of her mentors, Raoul Walsh. She was also admittedly an admirer of Allan Dwan, Fritz Lang and cinematographer George Barnes. The Hitch-Hiker, made in 1953, tells the story of two weekend fishermen, Roy Collins (Edmund O’Brien) and Gil Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) who graciously but unfortunately pick up hitchhiker Emmett Myers (William Talman). Myers turns out to be a psychopathic mass killer who forces the men to take him across the border to Mexico. The remainder of the film is a claustrophobic ballet of survival between the two hostages and the killer. Lupino keeps the trio in close quarters throughout the film enforcing the fear that escape is impossible. Much of the time the three men spend in cars and small backrooms, yet even in the openness of the Mexican desert Lupino’s camera confines the characters’ space.

“From the opening sequence, Lupino keeps you on the edge of your seat with the threat of violence about to explode at any moment. Filmed by the magnificent cameraman Nicolas Musuraca, it is filled with stark, contrasty black and white imagery that enhances the moody aridness of the brutal desert heat. What is amazing is how much Lupino accomplished with such a low budget, both in front and behind the camera. Like all of Lupino’s directed features, this was a no-frills production.” (John Greco, Twenty Four Frames)

Mister E (1960, dir. Margaret Conneely) – YouTube

“A domestic black comedy, Mister E expresses some of the edgier mischief and discontent that women of mid-century America could rarely express openly. This short film narrates the revenge acted out by a young wife, left at home while her husband is at a card game; by staging a rendezvous with a mannequin, this woman provokes an eruption of jealousy and violence before bringing about the desired marital tenderness.” (Chicago Film Archives)

The Heartbreak Kid (1972, dir. Elaine May) – YouTube

“Scripted by Neil Simon, May’s most critically and commercially successful film as director induces both laughs and shudders in its acerbic portrait of male egotism, selfishness, and cruelty. The Heartbreak Kid opens as nebbishy salesman Lenny (Charles Grodin) hits the road with his new bride Lila (played by May’s daughter Jeannie Berlin, who received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress) for their honeymoon in Miami Beach. Unconscionably annoyed by Lila’s whiny neediness before they reach the first rest stop, Lenny realizes that he’s made a mistake — and when he sets eyes on blonde socialite Kelly (Cybill Shepherd) at their beachfront hotel, he abandons the sunburned Lila in her room and sets out in pursuit of the shiksa dream goddess. ‘A first-class American comedy’ (Vincent Canby, The New York Times); ‘The culminating work of Hollywood’s Jewish new wave[,] as well as a hilarious riposte to [Mike Nichols’] The Graduate … a masterpiece of social pathology’ (J. Hoberman, The Village Voice).” (2018 Toronto International Film Festival)

The Slumber Party Massacre (1982, dir. Amy Holden Jones) – YouTube

The Slumber Party Massacre was conceived as a parody of the slasher and its gender dynamics (as they were interpreted in the early ’80s, of course) by screenwriter Rita Mae Brown, a lesbian activist and novelist. In the years that followed, Brown complained that her satirical script was stripped of its satire by a studio that was more interested in luring in the usual horror movie target market of teenage boys than in making some kind of feminist commentary. But her complaint misses the mark. Maybe this isn’t the movie that Brown envisioned when she was writing it, but under the earnest direction of Amy Holden Jones, The Slumber Party Massacre turned out to be a whip-smart slasher that totally works as both a genuinely well-done cheapie slasher film and as a twist on the standard slasher psychology. There is still plenty of satire here, but it’s affectionate, gentle satire—not really genre-busting, as Brown perhaps intended it to be. Indeed, its cleverness actually makes it much more fun than many inferior slashers, and in the end it’s more likely to bring new fans into the fold than convince anyone that the whole genre is worthless. The Slumber Party Massacre gives slasher fans every single thing they could possibly want from this genre, with a ton of bonus wit that makes viewers feel smart and the film feel like a ton of fun. And that’s something you just don’t get every day.” (Megan Weireter, NotComing.com)

Little Women (1994, dir. Gillian Armstrong) – Netflix

“‘Some books are so familiar reading them is like being home again,’ Jo March observes in the new film version of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel. She’s talking about Shakespeare, but we all know Little Women is a book like that, one of the most seductively nostalgic novels any child ever discovers. As the gold standard for American girlhood, it lingers in our collective consciousness as a wistful, inspiring memory. Ladies, get out your hand-hemmed handkerchiefs for the loveliest Little Women ever on screen.

“Gillian Armstrong’s enchantingly pretty film is so potent that it prompts a rush of recognition from the opening frame. There in Concord, Mass., are the March girls and their noble Marmee, gathered around the hearth for a heart-rendingly quaint Christmas Eve. Stirring up a flurry of familial warmth, Ms. Armstrong instantly demonstrates that she has caught the essence of this book’s sweetness and cast her film uncannily well, finding sparkling young actresses who are exactly right for their famous roles. The effect is magical. And for all its unimaginable innocence, the story has a touching naturalness this time.

“…The direction by Ms. Armstrong, who long ago summoned memories of Little Women with My Brilliant Career (1979), is sentimental without being saccharine. And the film maker is too savvy to tell this story in a cultural and historical vacuum. So this Little Women has ways of winking at its audience, most notably when the tomboyish, intellectually ambitious Jo March reveals that she has cut off and sold her mane of hair. ‘Jo, how could you?’ wails Amy. ‘Your one beauty!’ Well, this Jo is Winona Ryder and the joke is that she has beauty to spare, along with enough vigor to dim memories of Katharine Hepburn in the now badly dated 1933 George Cukor version. Ms. Armstrong reinvents Little Women for present-day audiences without ever forgetting it’s a story with a past.” (Janet Maslin, The New York Times)

Fire (1996, dir. Deepa Mehta) – YouTube

“In this film, Radha is unwavering in her devotion to her husband, Ashok, despite their sexless arranged marriage. For 15 years, she has been the consummate Indian wife, while Ashok, under the guidance of a spiritual leader, is attempting to rid himself completely of any form of desire. Meanwhile, Ashok’s brother Jatin has brought home his new wife, Sita, but is unwilling to give up his relationship with his Chinese girlfriend. Added to the mix are Biji, Ashok and Jatin’s infirm mother, who keeps a watchful eye over the family. Slowly, Sita’s presence causes the threads that held the family together to unravel.

“Each member tries to hang on to a semblance of allegiance to the deeply rooted traditions of Indian family life, while at the same time seeking expression for their own personal needs and desires. Unable to woo her new husband, the young and feisty Sita is the first to question the order of things. Her doubts are contagious, and soon Radha’s devotion begins to waver, too. Deprived of their husbands’ affections, the two women draw closer together in ways neither imagined.

“Director-writer Deepa Mehta has captured the shifting landscape of the entire Indian subcontinent, where both men and women are caught in the immense tension between the continuity of the extended family and the desire for greater freedom and independence. Lusciously photographed and passionately told, Fire ignites the senses and the emotions.” (Jinah Kim, Harvard University Department of History of Art and Architecture)


Frida (2002, dir. Julie Taymor) – Showtime (streaming or on TV via the Showtime on Demand channel)

“The tormented, turbulent and passionate life of legendary painter Frida Kahlo, an artist of unique and bountiful talent – and an icon of suffering who has become known in Mexico as the saint of the afflicted – was too big to fill a single canvas. She suffered for her art and made art out of suffering, merging art and life in autobiographical canvases that mixed Mexican folk art with European surrealism. Hard to capture on film. But Lion King director Julie Taymor, an artist with her own fame for stylish and audacious visuals, has knocked herself out condensing the breathless melodrama of that life into a film of overwhelming artistry, beauty and impact. The result is Frida, the greatest movie about an artist since Vincente Minnelli grafted the psychological turmoil of Vincent Van Gogh onto the screen in Lust for Life.

“Belying its $12 million budget, the film is a lush, sensuous triumph with wonderful music, sumptuous cinematography that matches [Salma] Hayek’s beauty, and a striking use of puppets, computer animation and collages that come to life, in locations ranging from the colonial city of Puebla and the Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan to La Casa Azul, Frida’s famous villa in Coyoacán, named for its azure blue walls. The film begins and ends in that house, with the stench of gangrene already upon her as her first exhibition is being planned in Mexico City. Forbidden by her doctor to leave her bed, Frida is carried through the streets by mariachis in the same four-poster bed where she taught herself to paint lying in a horizontal position. In flashbacks, we see her as a spunky teen, dressing like a boy to scandalize her parents; the horrific accident that left her crippled for years; and the bizarre relationship with Diego that began as fellow comrades fighting capitalism and led to an eternal love affair that brought her more torture than joy. Diego is played by Alfred Molina as a mad, excessive and violent hedonist with lusty appetites for food, fiestas and fornication. (On the morning after their wedding, Frida awoke to find Rivera’s ex-wife cooking his favorite mole sauce in her kitchen. The woman stayed for years!) By all accounts, Frida was a better painter, but in the early stages of their life together, she sublimated her own talent to be his muse and inspiration and play a supplemental role in his career.

“…Ms. Taymor manages to piece together the salient facts of a life charged by sex, politics and art with coherence and a strong allegiance to narrative, but at the same time she rubs the material with a brilliant patina of her own. Straightforward biography is superimposed with visuals, as the paintings of Kahlo and her husband Diego appear and dissolve. Kahlo devoted herself to the Buddhist theory that pain can produce beauty (‘I took my tears and turned them into paintings,’ she declared in her diaries), and Ms. Taymor knows the tricks of perspective to take all of these elements closer to Frida’s state of mind, in which art and life merge cinematically. The transition from Frida’s psychological pain to the surrealism with which her conscience finds its way to her canvases is daring but not pretentious, and there is always something amazing and luscious to look at. I have seen it twice, and I found awesome discoveries both times. I have heard this movie called everything from a masterpiece to pure kitsch – which would probably have amused the wicked, fun-loving Frida immensely. Julie Taymor’s vision of Frida Kahlo’s life and art is as prankish as its subject – an artful echo of a lyrical, sensual, voyeuristic, anarchic slapstick tragedy.” (Rex Reed, The New York Observer)

Sabah (2005, dir. Ruba Nadda) – YouTube

“In Arabic, sabah means ‘morning,’ and Sabah’s main visual metaphor is of a delicate flower stretching toward the morning sun. Played by one of Canada’s finest actors, Arsinée Khanjian, Sabah is a dutiful daughter in a close-knit, immigrant Muslim family who lives at home taking care of her mother. But something’s missing: having resisted an arranged marriage, she’s never known love. On her fortieth birthday her over bearing brother Majid (played by Jeff Seymour), gives her a photograph of herself as a little girl in Syria, standing by the seashore with their now deceased father. The photograph awakens a remembrance in Sabah, and like the influential Syrian filmmaker Mohammad Malas, Nadda uses memory as a formal device to lead Sabah toward her future.

“Fuelled by this long forgotten joy and sense of freedom, she secretly goes to a local pool. There, she meets Stephen, a Canadian non-Muslim (played by Shawn Doyle), who accidentally grabs her towel, her only protection in this foreign environment. Sabah takes a courageous first step toward her own happiness by gradually starting to talk to him. In doing so, she sets off a chain of events that eventually affects her entire family.

“…Federico Fellini once said, ‘The only visionary is the realist because he bears witness to his own reality.’ Nadda writes what she knows. Like traditional Arab writers, she weaves together aspects of her own life with those of her characters, mixing dream into reality. Born in Montreal in 1972, of Syrian and Palestinian parents, Nadda moved around Canada a lot while growing up. From those experiences, she says, ‘I developed an acute sensitivity and empathy. I’m able to identify with people and put myself in their shoes. And I can take that and put it in a film.’ Briefly living in Damascus at the age of sixteen, Nadda learned just how precarious a girl’s freedom in a Muslim country is: she was almost married against her will. From that moment on she says, ‘I enveloped life. When you’ve almost had your independence taken away from you, you never want to go through that again.’ Once, on the bus during her last year at York University she saw a Muslim woman in a burqua, completely covered head to toe; only her eyes were visible. Nadda wondered about the woman’s sexual urges and what would happen if she fell for the ‘wrong’ man. That moment gestated within her, slowly forming into what would eventually become Sabah.” (Noelle Elia, POV Magazine)

Mamma Mia! (2008, dir. Phyllida Lloyd) – Netflix

“Hanging a tale of a woman whose daughter might have been fathered by one of three attractive men on a bunch of ABBA songs sounds simple, but its simplicity is as deceptive as the masterfully crafted songs themselves. [Meryl] Streep plays Donna, a former singer, who has raised daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) alone at a fading resort on a remote Greek island. Sophie finds her mother’s diary from 20 years earlier and discovers that there are three men who might be her father. About to be married to boyfriend Sky (Dominic Cooper), she sends invitations to the celebration to all three on behalf of her mother but without telling her. Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård, as the possible dads, show up on the island where Donna is readying the wedding, helped by her two best pals (Julie Walters and Christine Baranski). The scene is set for songs, dancing and romance, all staged brilliantly, with many energetic and colorful performers, and beautifully shot.” (Ray Bennett, The Hollywood Reporter)

The Innocents (2016, dir. Anne Fontaine) – Netflix

“During a bitterly cold winter, tucked away in a provincial Polish village just after World War II, seven nuns are secretly pregnant. While the women sing in their barren church with faded blue stucco walls, a shriek echoes in the abbey, prompting one mischievous sister to race through the snowfall and into the woods for help. Some orphans lead her to the French Red Cross. There, she catches the attention of a young woman doctor, Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), who at first refuses to help the nun, following protocol, eager to please her male superiors with her hardened obedience. But the sight of the nun praying in the snow shakes some ice from Mathilde’s heart, and she comes to the rescue of another nun birthing a breech baby. Talk of science and faith dominate the conversations of Mathilde and French-speaking nun Maria (Agata Buzek). But both are struggling — Maria with her belief in God after the Russian soldiers who seemed meant to save them imprisoned them as prostitutes instead, Mathilde with the belief that she could ever be a respected woman of science in a male-dominated world.

“…Now, the idea of a woman’s loss of freedom isn’t necessarily fresh territory. Neither are nuns in a postwar Polish winter; Pawel Pawlikowski’s spare tale Ida (2013) already did a fine job with that, with a black-and-white palette of shadows that perfectly captured the isolation of both the season and the religious calling. But The Innocents departs with a surprisingly warm tone in both color and feeling. A calming natural light ribbons through every cold landscape, catching the almost translucent white skin of the nuns and the billowing navy and black of their habits — very Vermeer.” (April Wolfe, LA Weekly)

Raw (2016, dir. Julia Ducournau) – Netflix

It’s the cannibal movie that caused people to faint at a film festival – this is what people talk about when they talk about Raw, the extraordinary body-horror parable from French director Julia Ducournau. The incident, which happened at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, might cause folks to view this as some sort of cinematic dare, a splatter shocker designed to test the limits of the scary-movie marine corps. Consider this a disclaimer, and a reclamation: The story of a young woman (Garance Marillier) who develops a taste for certain off-the-menu delicacies is indeed intense. It’s also after much bigger game than merely thrilling folks who’ve studied Fangoria photo spreads with Talmudic-scholar fervor. Smelling salts are not required, but the ability to recognize a near-perfect movie when you see it most certainly is. If Get Out reminds folks that you can smuggle intelligent social commentary and timely conversation-starters in to theaters via explosive genre packages, then Ducournau’s feature debut doubles down on the notion. In terms of the female-body politic, it’s an art-horror dirty bomb.

“…Ducournau has referred to her movie as a coming-of-age story, and you can see this waifish character go from awkwardly tottering in high heels (a shot that spells out the movie’s ideas on femininity drag; don’t even ask about the Brazilian waxing sequence) to aggressively asserting herself over 99 blood-flecked minutes. Girl, you’ll be a man-eating woman soon, and though references to bulimia and trichophagia suggest control issues run psychologically amuck, Justine also discovers a sense of empowerment in this taboo line-crossing. She begins to take ownership of her body by consuming others’.

“None of which should suggest that Raw is simply a grad-school term paper smothered in gore. Ducournau knows how to make the vocabulary of horror filmmaking either finesse or bludgeon with a frightening degree of facility. Few movies have used pacing and composition to such an effective degree in the name of XX-centric dread (the film owes as much to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion as it does to the cinema of repulsion), or understood how to employ color so effectively – from a seven-minutes-in-heaven encounter involving blue and yellow paint to the crimson drop on a white lab coat that signals a Type-O deluge. There’s a hallucinogenic quality to the deadpan scenes of Justine coming to grips with this personal channeling of passion and perversity, and a shocking aspect to the carnage that feels invasive in a way most shock artists can’t conjure. You never get the sense that you’re not watching a master at work, regardless of how scant Ducournau’s filmography is. She is the real thing.” (David Fear, Rolling Stone)

The Party (2017, dir. Sally Potter) – Hulu

“In Potter’s pitch-black, claustrophobic comedy, a stellar ensemble including Kristin Scott Thomas, Patricia Clarkson, Timothy Spall, Emily Mortimer, Cherry Jones, Cillian Murphy and Bruno Ganz tussles for a lean 71 minutes. While too many plot details threaten to spoil a delicious denouement, here’s the gist: an eclectic mix of guests gather at Janet’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) elegant London home to toast to her new appointment as health minister, a seeming boon in an increasingly bleak political moment. But, by night’s end, their verbal sparring, accompanied by a slate of life-altering revelations (from adultery to a medical diagnosis), derails any hopes of a sit-down dinner. And then there’s that pesky Chekhovian gun…” (Olivia Aylmer, Vanity Fair)


Step (2017, dir. Amanda Lipitz) – Hulu

Step looks like a dance film, but it’s really a rollercoaster ride about expectations, drive, and achievement. The weight in each rhythmic stomp produced by the young women featured in this movie isn’t just to produce a sound in glorious sync, but to signal a togetherness in an often-brutal world. Amanda Lipitz’s inspiring, Sundance award-winning documentary follows three African American teenage girls in Baltimore as they wend their way through a senior year in which they’re not just contenders for a statewide step dance crown, but also the first graduating class at an all-girls charter school designed with the express purpose of sending its students to college. The competition in Step isn’t just to hit a stage and win a talent prize, but to beat the odds in life. Start figuring out now how to clap and dab away tears at the same time; it’s that kind of experience.” (Robert Abele, TheWrap)


Shirkers (2018, dir. Sandi Tan) – Netflix

Shirkers is a documentary about the production of an uncompleted movie, but it doubles as an upgraded version of the missing project itself. As a punk teen in early-nineties Singapore, Sandi Tan wrote a feminist slasher movie for the ages, an exploitation road movie designed to ruminate on the energy of youth, creativity, and alienation. The director, a much older American high school instructor with dubious motives, stole the film canisters for unknown reasons and vanished into the mist; two decades later, Tan has completed a fascinating personal look at her quest to uncover his motives, resurrecting the significance of her original intentions in the process.” (Eric Kohn, IndieWire)

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018, dir. Susan Johnson) – Netflix

“Romantic comedies have been forging a comeback, led by a recent boom on Netflix. The latest strong case for the genre’s revival is To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which embraces its rom-com trappings with a distinctly millennial self-awareness. Based on Jenny Han’s beloved YA novel by the same name, the movie centers on the life of Lara Jean Covey (X-Men: Apocalypse‘s Lana Condor), a shy high school student who’d rather watch Sixteen Candles on a Friday night than try to find her Jake Ryan in real life. Her widowed father (John Corbett) and protective sisters worry that she’ll spend the rest of high school with her nose buried in her treasured romance novels as opposed to socializing. That all changes when the secret love letters she has written to her crushes–who range from the jock she smooched during a game of Spin the Bottle in the seventh grade to the boy next door who also happens to be her big sister’s boyfriend–are mysteriously sent to their addresses. As might be expected, chaos ensues. But Lara Jean’s embarrassing predicament soon develops into an unlikely love triangle that encourages her to come out of her shell and embrace her vulnerability.

“In many ways, the story feels like the teenage rom-coms of years past that Lara Jean loves to watch–but its sensitivity and cultural consciousness improves on its predecessors. In one memorable sequence, Lara Jean (who’s biracial, Korean and white) watches Sixteen Candles on a date, leading to a thoughtful discussion of the film’s now-glaring racism. Other complex issues–like slut-shaming, cyberbullying and the death of a parent–are tackled with nuance. Equally refreshing is the care given in establishing Lara Jean as the heroine of her life. In a genre that frequently resorts to clichés, the movie resists reducing her to an adorkable, lovelorn lead. Much of this is thanks to Condor, who plays Lara Jean with a charming pluckiness that reads as both endearing and empowering.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is only one of a plethora of youthful rom-coms to hit Netflix this summer in the streaming giant’s bid to bring back the form. But its heartwarming and clear-eyed approach to first love and the challenges of coming-of-age distinguishes it from its contemporaries. Add it to your queue.” (Cady Lang, TIME Magazine)

Women-Directed/Photographed Films Coming to Theaters: September 2018


Cinematographer Anka Malatynska and director/screenwriter Clare Niederpruem on the set of Little Women, 2017. (Photo: IMDb)

Here are twenty-five new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this September, all of which have been directed and/or photographed by women. These titles are sure to intrigue cinephiles and also provoke meaningful discussions on the film world, as well as the world in general.


SEPTEMBER 7 (in theaters & on VOD): Alright Now (dir. Jamie Adams) (DP: Bet Rourich)Edinburgh International Film Festival synopsis:Cobie Smulders (‘How I Met Your Mother’) is on raucous and funny form in this British comedy, playing Joanne, lead singer of once-popular 1990s Britpop band The Filthy Dukes. After a drunken night out with her friend Sara (Jessica Hynes), Joanne finds she mistakenly enrolled in university. Determined to give the young students a run for their money as a party animal, she finds they aren’t interested in rock ’n’ roll. However, love and new beginnings might be on the cards for rocker Joanne.


SEPTEMBER 7 (streaming on Netflix): City of Joy (dir. Madeleine Gavin) (DPs: Taylor Krauss and Lisa Rinzler)Synopsis from the film’s official website:The film tells the story of the first class of women at City of Joy, and chronicles the process by which such a revolutionary place came to be, from its origins with the women survivors themselves, to the opening of the center’s doors.  Directed by first- time director, Madeleine Gavin, the film provides a glimpse into the lives of the women the center serves, and the unlikely friendship that develops when a devout Congolese doctor, Dr. Denis Mukwege (2016 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize), radical playwright and activist, Eve Ensler (Tony Award winning playwright of The Vagina Monologues) and a charismatic Congolese human rights activist, Christine Schuler Deschryver (Director of the City of Joy), join forces to create this safe haven in the middle of violence-torn Eastern Congo.”


SEPTEMBER 7: Hal (dir. Amy Scott)IFC Center synopsis:Hal is a long-overdue feature length documentary film celebrating the life and work of director Hal Ashby, set against a backdrop of a rapidly changing America, and an even more dramatic shift in filmmaking. While Ashby was once the toast of ‘New Hollywood’ his rise and fall became an archetypal story of art versus industry.

“Director Hal Ashby’s singular genius led to an unprecedented string of Oscar-winning films in the 1970s. His legacy is undeniable — Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and Being There and yet the obsessive and uncompromising nature that brought us these films became his downfall. On camera interviews with Oscar-winning actors Lee Grant, Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Louis Gossett Jr, Jeff Bridges and more recall how they were empowered by Ashby and granted collaborative freedom. Contemporary directors including Alexander Payne, Judd Apatow, Lisa Cholodenko, and David O. Russell attest to the quiet but powerful influence Ashby has had on their own filmmaking. Behind the camera colleagues Norman Jewison, Robert Towne, Haskell Wexler, and Pablo Ferro stand witness to Ashby’s brilliance as a filmmaker and the forces that led to his undoing. While on the outside Ashby embodied a quintessential peaceful vibe, internally he was dealing with deeper issues that he then transformed into the main themes of his work. Out of his anti-authoritarian inclinations leftover from a troubled childhood emerged a filmmaker dedicated to making prescient films that challenged racial stereotypes and gentrification; examined military authority; celebrated love that knows no color, age or race; explored sexual politics during a time of national crisis; championed a socialist folk singer; illuminated the plight of veterans and the cost of war; and revealed the dark underbelly of corporate control of American politics.

“In the 1980s, with the advent of the film franchise came a major shift in the Hollywood business model. While contemporaries Coppola, Scorsese and Spielberg rose to stardom riding the blockbuster wave, Ashby released a perplexing series of flops and disasters. The industry began to dismiss his brilliance amid rumors of drug addiction and cost overruns. His profound humanity, ability with actors, and genius in the editing room went from an Oscar-winning formula to a perceived liability. The latitude that directors were given in the 1970s was dissolved to make way for a different era in filmmaking, one that did not entertain Ashby’s process-oriented methods.

Hal explores the complex balance of art and commerce, the passions that drive an artist to create, and what this one artist was willing to sacrifice for his work. Hal compels us to re-examine why we make films, reminds us of what film can be, that it has a power to move and transform us.”


SEPTEMBER 7: The Hows of Us (dir. Cathy Garcia-Molina)Cosmo Honest Review synopsis: “George (Kathryn Bernardo) and Primo (Daniel Padilla) are schoolmates who fall in love. She’s preparing to get into medical school and he’s a musician waiting for his band to hit it big. Together, in a house they inherited from George’s grand aunt, they dream of great success and promise to support each other no matter what.

“But what happens when the dream of success doesn’t come for one of them? Primo doesn’t get the big break he’s been working for and turns into a difficult and arrogant artist who can’t even help with the bills. Faithful George stays true to her promise to support Primo through it all.

“That is until she reaches her breaking point and gives up. Dejected, Primo walks out and does not look back.

“Years later, he comes back a changed man. Can she still give him a second chance?”


SEPTEMBER 7 (NYC), SEPTEMBER 14 (LA): I Am Not a Witch (dir. Rungano Nyoni)The Guardian review by Mark Kermode: “In a remote Zambian village, a nine-year-old girl (Margaret Mulubwa) is accused of being a witch and given a stark choice: to accept her supernatural branding and live a tethered life as a sorceress, or to cut her ties with local tradition and be transformed into a goat that may be killed and eaten for supper. Thus begins this bewilderingly strange yet terrifically sure-footed feature debut from writer-director Rungano Nyoni. Born in Zambia and part-raised in Wales, Nyoni first made international waves with such award-winning shorts as Mwansa the Great (2011) and Listen (2014). Now, this daringly satirical parable of magic and misogyny, superstition and social strictures confirms her promise as a film-maker of fiercely independent vision, with a bright future ahead.

“Unsurprisingly opting to embrace her supernatural status, the young heroine of I Am Not a Witch is sent to the local ‘witch camp,’ an enslaved tourist attraction. Here, the women offer a sense of community and protection to the all-but-silent newcomer, whom they name Shula (‘it means “to be uprooted”‘). But when government official Mr Banda (Henry BJ Phiri) declares that ‘you are my little witch now,’ a strange form of celebrity looms. Soon, Shula is being paraded around local courts and TV stations, dispensing divine justice and hawking magical eggs – all for the profit of her garrulous keeper. ‘What if she’s actually just a child?’ asks the presenter of the Smooth Talk chatshow, a question that is met with stony silence from her ‘state guardian.’

“Nyoni was apparently inspired by real-life reports of witchcraft accusations in Zambia, and her research took her to Ghana, where she became the first foreigner to sleep in one of the world’s oldest ‘witch camps.’ Here, she observed first hand the daily rituals of these women whose fates have been sealed by ‘nothing more than hearsay.’ Yet for all its factual grounding, I Am Not a Witch is also a work of fairytale invention, unravelling the threads of its quasi-mythical narrative with anarchic aplomb. In particular, the motif of women restrained from flight by vast lengths of white ribbon has a touch of Charles Perrault or the brothers Grimm – a magical-realist conceit that brilliantly dramatises the down-to-earth reality of the ties that bind.

“There’s a hint of the absurdist tragicomedy of Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster too, as Shula faces a Kafkaesque choice between enforced conformity and metamorphosis. Brilliantly, Nyoni keeps her audience wondering whether they’re meant (or allowed?) to laugh or cry at this insane predicament, juxtaposing scenes of poignant despair with sociopolitical existential slapstick. Early accusations of witchcraft have an almost Pythonesque quality, while a sequence in which a show trial is interrupted by a mobile phone is pure farce. Fans of Chilean surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky will warm to a streak of deadpan humour that is drier than the arid plains upon which Shula dances to summon the rain.

“Having worked monochrome miracles on Ciro Guerra’s Amazon odyssey Embrace of the Serpent, cinematographer David Gallego here conjures a kaleidoscope of arresting tableaux: lonely Shula listening through a blue horn to the distant laughter of schoolchildren carried on the wind; a huge orange truck with women tied to outstretched reels, like some mobile fairground ride; the open mouth of a giant head looming towards us, while a frightened child huddles within. These images are hauntingly composed and dreamily sustained, the length of the shots heightening comedy and tragedy alike, with heartbreaking results. Meanwhile, music cues swerve from Vivaldi to Estelle, keeping the audience on edge and uneasy.

“At the centre of it all is a group of nonprofessional players, led by young Margaret Mulubwa, who was discovered during a location recce in Luapula Province. And what a discovery she is! With a face that can transform from innocence to defiance in an instant, Mulubwa is a mesmerising screen presence, her stoical countenance broken occasionally by a radiant smile that lights up the landscape.

“As for Nyoni, her ability to blend cruel humour, pointed satire and empathetic anger to produce something touched by tragic transcendence is astonishing. In interviews, she has described watching Michael Haneke movies as ‘my film school’ (perhaps those white ribbons are a homage?). Yet she has also talked enthusiastically about her love of the witchy 1996 teen fantasy The Craft. With such wide-ranging influences, who knows what this remarkable film-maker will do next? Having been spellbound by her audacious first feature, I can’t wait to find out.”


SEPTEMBER 7: Kusama: Infinity (dir. Heather Lenz)Film Forum synopsis: “Yayoi Kusama is the top-selling female artist in the world, best known for her colorful polka dot- and pumpkin-themed designs and her massively popular mirrored Infinity Rooms. Her work has pushed boundaries that often alienated her from her peers and those in power in the art world. Kusama: Infinity shows the artist overcoming the odds to bring her radical artistic vision to the world stage – growing up in Japan during World War II, life in a dysfunctional family that discouraged her creative ambitions, sexism and racism in the art establishment, and mental illness in a culture where that was a particular stigma. Kusama has created a legacy of artwork that spans the disciplines of painting, sculpture, installation art, performance art, poetry, and novels. After six decades of work, people around the world are experiencing her Infinity Rooms in record numbers, and Kusama continues to create work every day.”


SEPTEMBER 7 (NYC), SEPTEMBER 14 (LA): Nelly (dir. Anne Émond) (DP: Josée Deshaies)City Cinemas Village East Cinema synopsis: “A high-class prostitute by choice, Nelly Arcan’s colorful life is recreated in a multi-layered and stylish mix of make-believe and memoir, revealing Nelly’s alter egos: the neurotic writer, the vulnerable lover, the call girl and the star. Nelly shocked the literary world with her elegant phrasing and the lurid details of sex work in her autobiographical first novel, Whore, which became a critically acclaimed bestseller. Despite unprecedented success, Nelly’s remarkable life ended in tragedy.”


SEPTEMBER 14 (NYC/LA), SEPTEMBER 21 (wider release & on VOD): I Think We’re Alone Now (dir./DP: Reed Morano)Slash Film’s Sundance Film Festival review by Ben Pearson: “Is there anyone better at playing soulfully sad than Peter Dinklage? The ‘Game of Thrones’ star is front and center in I Think We’re Alone Now, a post-apocalyptic drama in which he plays the last man on Earth who discovers he’s not as alone as he thinks when a young woman (Elle Fanning) enters his life. Characters in similar stories might celebrate this miraculous opportunity for human connection, but Del (Dinklage) resents it – he actually prefers being by himself, even in such extreme circumstances. Like an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ extended to feature length, I Think We’re Alone Now wraps emotional exploration in a high concept premise. And like Rod Serling’s seminal sci-fi anthology series, this movie features a third-act twist – but this one almost torpedoes the entire story.

“This is the second film from director Reed Morano, the celebrated director of photography who broke out last year by establishing the visual style of Hulu’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ Here, Morano serves as both director and director of photography, and no surprise, her camera work is beautiful. But the director also captures an intimacy in the lead performances that gives the movie some much-needed life: since the cause of the apocalypse is never explained and frankly not much happens in this story, the audience is left to focus more on the actors than the plot. Luckily, Dinklage and Fanning are up to the task.

“Dinklage is solid as Del, an isolated man living in a New England town whose population has been wiped out. He spends his days in silence, methodically going through each house and retrieving batteries from remote controls and vibrators before burying the dead in a hill on the edge of town. But you get the sense that he’s doing this out of compulsion rather than any sense of respect – one of the film’s biggest themes is the idea of feeling lonely while being surrounded by others, and the way Del unceremoniously dumps each body into the ground makes it seem as if he’s almost happy to be rid of the people who overlooked or belittled him when they were alive. He’s certainly pleased with his life of isolation, fishing for food on the local lake and keeping up his duties as the town librarian by cataloguing books that he finds in dead people’s houses. He spends his nights watching movies on laptops, swapping each computer for a new one as its battery dies for the final time.

“But one night, his sleep is interrupted by a series of explosions: in the most gorgeous sequence in the movie, Del walks to the window and sees that a fireworks display has been set off across town. (Morano’s framing and the confusion on Dinklage’s face makes each explosion represent a different possibility for what may lie ahead.) That’s when Del meets Grace (Fanning), an energetic teenager who’s his polar opposite and who teaches him how to appreciate people. It’s a simple concept, but Morano spends a lot of time fleshing out their relationship and finding small moments that resonate: an emotionally wounded Del looking up at Grace, the two of them performing a small ritual for each new buried body, an argument over the lifespan of a goldfish, the sounds of a past life floating up from a photo album. It’s not without moments of humor, too: when Del tells Grace that batteries are the most important commodity the dead can offer, she jokes, ‘The necrophiliac in me would have to disagree.’

“But then that pesky twist comes along and nearly ruins all the good will the film has built up until that point. Without spoiling anything, the film’s final third raises an interesting thematic point – would you want to live in a world in which all negative emotions could be purged from your mind? – but it does so in such a rushed and unsatisfying fashion that the ending either needed to be reworked entirely or had another 20 minutes devoted to it to make it feel earned.

“Still, despite a premise that sounds overly familiar and a central relationship that could easily have tipped into eye-rolling territory, Morano, writer Mike Makowsky, and the movie’s lead actors have crafted a poignant and humanist showcase of growth and compassion. Quiet, reflective, and intimate, I Think We’re Alone Now is an exceptional exhibition for Dinklage and Fanning and a further illustration of the dynamic talent of filmmaker Reed Morano.”


SEPTEMBER 14 (streaming on Netflix): The Land of Steady Habits (dir. Nicole Holofcener)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis: “For 200 years, Connecticut has been called ‘the land of steady habits,’ initially for its political stability though richer ironies quickly emerged. By 2014, when Ted Thompson wrote the novel on which Nicole Holofcener’s new film is based, steady habits had become both a fair description and a caustic joke.

“Ben Mendelsohn plays Anders Hill, a middle-aged man who has divorced his wife, Helene (Edie Falco), and surrendered the comforts of affluent family life for… well, he’s not sure. Retired from work, freed from marriage, and largely abandoned by his adult son Preston (Thomas Mann), he seeks that liberating lightness he once had. But awkward dates prove unsatisfying, even with a woman as lively as Barbara (Connie Britton). Anders finds himself drifting towards adolescent adventures, trying to befriend his neighbour’s teenage son Charlie (Charlie Tahan), and joining in risk taking he should have outgrown decades ago. Played with flinty charm by Mendelsohn, best known as a character actor, Anders is the kind of man often found at the centre of films, novels, and plays. He is successful and idiosyncratic. His flaws somehow make him seem more attractive. But watch what Holofcener does with this character.

“Under the auspices of the woman who made such insightful social comedies as Enough Said, Please Give, Friends with Money, and Lovely & Amazing, Anders’s rakish masculinity wilts. As the film progresses, it turns a sharper gaze on its questing protagonist, revealing more about Anders than he might ever want you to see. Less funny but more penetrating than Holofcener’s comedies, The Land of Steady Habits emerges from a world similar to The Ice Storm‘s, where money won’t buy mindfulness, and a man’s grasp too often exceeds his reach.”


SEPTEMBER 14: Lost Child (dir. Ramaa Mosley)Cinema Village synopsis: “Fern (Leven Rambin), an army veteran, returns home in order to look for her brother, only to discover an abandoned boy lurking in the woods behind her childhood home. After taking in the boy, she searches for clues to his identity, and discovers the local folklore about a malevolent, life-draining spirit that comes in the form of a child; the Tatterdemalion.”


SEPTEMBER 14 (in theaters & on VOD): MDMA (dir. Angie Wang)Brainstorm Media synopsis: “Raised by her strict father in an urban neighborhood, Angie is accepted into a prestigious university in the early 1980s. The sudden jolt from hardship to privileged campus life proves to be a challenge. When her financial aid is cut, she uses her book and street smarts, along with the schools resources to synthesize the growing popular drug, Ecstasy. Angie becomes one of the west coast’s largest distributors of ‘X,’ cutting deals on campus and in posh nightclubs. Her dual life as the Asian ‘model minority’ coed and profit-driven drug dealer is further complicated by her desire to help Bree, a girl from one of the bay area’s most infamous ghettos who reminds her of her own dark past. Angie lives the high life until her recklessness instigates a sudden tragedy from which she may not recover.”


SEPTEMBER 14 (NYC), SEPTEMBER 21 (expanding nationwide): Science Fair (dirs. Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster)The Landmark at 57th Street synopsis: “Hailed by critics as ‘immensely likeable,’ ‘brilliant and quirky’ and an ‘ode to the teenage science geeks on whom our future depends,’ and winner of the audience award at Sundance and SXSW, National Geographic Documentary Films’ Science Fair follows nine high school students from around the globe as they navigate rivalries, setbacks and, of course, hormones, on their journey to compete at The International Science and Engineering Fair. As 1,700 of the smartest, quirkiest teens from 78 different countries face off, only one will be named Best in Fair. The film, from Fusion and Muck Media and directed by the DuPont Award-winning and Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaking team Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, offers a front seat to the victories, defeats and motivations of an incredible group of young men and women who are on a path to change their lives, and the world, through science.”


SEPTEMBER 14: Where Hands Touch (dir. Amma Asante)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis by Cameron Bailey: “Writer-director Amma Asante (Belle, United Kingdom) returns to the Festival with this complex story about a love so fierce it transcends the most terrible divides conceivable. The story of a biracial teen in Nazi Germany, Where Hands Touch offers a different sort of Holocaust narrative — one that’s been a long time coming.

“Rudesheim, the Rhineland, 1944. Lenya (Amandla Stenberg) has come of age during the chaos of war. Her mother (Abbie Cornish) has done her best to protect Lenya, but the racist credo of National Socialism has rendered her a pariah for the colour of her skin. Yet youthful ardour can bloom in the most unlikely places: Lenya is in love with Lutz (George MacKay), a young Nazi. Lutz toes the party line when it comes to antisemitism yet remains drawn to Lenya despite Nazi revulsion at the thought of a Black German.

“When that revulsion escalates to direct threat to her survival, Lenya and Lutz must face the seemingly inevitable outcome of their impossibly fraught romance.

“Asante has made an astonishingly bold and unnervingly timely film. Where Hands Touch foregrounds matters of the heart while prompting us to consider the slippery process of a nation’s radicalization. At the film’s core is Stenberg’s breathtaking performance. From her supporting role in The Hunger Games to her lead in The Hate U Give — also screening at the Festival — Stenberg communicates the myriad struggles of a girl becoming a woman with vulnerability and sophistication.”


SEPTEMBER 19: Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable (dir. Sasha Waters Freyer)Film Forum synopsis: “‘What is a photograph?’ Garry Winogrand (1928-1984) asks in his iconic, gravelly Bronx accent. Winogrand was a compulsive street photographer (although he hated that term), working for decades in NYC, then in Texas and California, to create a huge body of work (hundreds of thousands of images taken with his 35mm Leica) that comprise an encyclopedic portrait of America. During his lifetime he was celebrated (as a favorite of MoMA curator John Szarkowski) and reviled (especially for his book, Women Are Beautiful) and then more-or-less forgotten after his untimely death at age 56. Writes Jennifer Szalai in The New York Times: ‘(Winogrand) captured the fallout from the midcentury American moment – those few decades from the 1950s on, when placid, middle-class prosperity started to give way to something less affluent, more fragmented and harder to define.'”


SEPTEMBER 21: A Happening of Monumental Proportions (dir. Judy Greer) (DP: Alison Kelly)Cinema Village synopsis: “A series of touching comic tableaus – some raucous, some sad, some instantly identifiable – mark actress Judy Greer’s directorial debut. The nonstop comedy intertwines students, parents, and teachers, all trying to find their way through one rough day. The all-star cast finds Daniel, an account manager (Common) with a boring job gearing up for Career Day at his lovely daughter’s elementary school, while dealing with the fallout of an intra-office romance with his assistant (Jennifer Garner) and his nasty new boss (Bradley Whitford). The boss’s unfortunately nerdy son finds himself instantly entranced with Daniel’s daughter (Storm Reid), seeking advice from their school’s hip shop teacher (John Cho) and depressed music teacher (Anders Holm), without success. The teachers’ principal team – Allison Janney and Rob Riggle – spend their day trying to hide the school’s dead gardener from not only the staff, but also the students and their parents, who experience a Career Day they likely will never forget.”


SEPTEMBER 21: Love, Gilda (dir. Lisa D’Apolito)Variety’s Tribeca Film Festival review by Owen Gleiberman: “The great ‘Saturday Night Live’ performers have always been more than funny. They’re up there to make you laugh, of course, but it’s the way they make you laugh — the manic expressive rock-star shine of their personality, and how it channels their comedic spirit. (That’s something you hold onto long after the laugh is over.) And no one on ‘Saturday Night Live’ ever had a spirit that burned more brightly, or hilariously, than Gilda Radner.

“She poured her essence — her very being — into every character she created, and she did it effortlessly, without fuss. When she played Judy Miller, the hyperactive Brownie who made up insanely self-directed TV fantasies in her bedroom, Radner seemed to be channeling her inner child — but that, in a larger sense, is what she did in every sketch. She didn’t just create characters. She became them, and invited the audience to share in the euphoria she felt in submerging, and exposing, herself.

Love, Gilda, Lisa D’Apolito’s exuberant and moving documentary portrait of Gilda Radner, which opened this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, is a movie that captures the fascinating evolution and awesome range of Radner’s talent — the dozens of lovingly, crazily etched characters she did on ‘SNL’ (the dear old deaf crank Emily Litella, the head-cold nerd Lisa Loopner, the wildly cantankerous Roseanne Roseannadanna), and the way she hardly even needed to be playing a character; she could just be dancing with a hula hoop, and you felt the magic pull of her gift. In the early years, when Lorne Michaels had a two-and-a-half-minute space to fill that was too short for an official sketch, he would call on Radner to do a bit called ‘What Gilda Ate,’ in which she simply riffed on what she had to eat that day. Just standing there in front of the camera, with no props or characters to hide behind, she had the audience eating out of her hand.

“That may seem ironic in light of the revelations that would later come forth about her bulimia, but in fact, it’s not ironic at all. Radner was a sensualist who loved food; she also felt compelled, as a female celebrity of the late ’70s (and the first woman superstar of ‘Saturday Night Live’), to remain thin. The eating disorder that emerged from that conflict is captured, in Love, Gilda, with matter-of-fact honesty, but as serious as it was, it never shrouds Radner’s life force. Nothing does. The movie captures a woman who lived as if she never knew what was coming next. On stage, she went with the flow of her comic impulses, and off stage she went with the flow of her desire for bliss and comfort and salvation, and even with the flow of the cancer that killed her.

“Forty years later, her comedy looks more sublime than ever. As you watch Love, Gilda, though, it becomes clear that what made Gilda Radner special — and uproarious — was her spirit: open, smiling, generous, euphoric. She was that rare thing, a happy comedian (though, of course, she also had her demons), and Love, Gilda is a salute to the complex power of her happiness.

“The movie is a perfectly conventional documentary (chronological, full of the talking heads you’d expect — Lorne, Chevy, Laraine, etc.). Yet the reason that description doesn’t do it justice is that D’Apolito, working with the editors Anne Alvergue, David Cohen, and Kristen Nutile, has interpolated a range of still photographs of Radner, culled from throughout her life, into a mutating scrapbook that becomes a kind of visual psychodrama. That may sound like a version of what any decent documentary biography does, but the art of the form can come down to the precision of this photograph, employed at this moment, to express the subject’s shifting moods and circumstances. Love, Gilda is plain but beautifully crafted. It draws you close to Radner, presenting her rise through the world of ’70s comedy as a journey of discovery.

“The film pays due homage to her ’50s childhood — she was born in 1946 and grew up in an affluent Detroit family, idolizing Charlie Chapin and Lucille Ball, attached to the daddy who came home from his career as a hotel owner and watched her perform for hours. Even then, slipping into characters was what she did, not out of the usual comedian’s ‘insecurity’ but because it came as naturally to her as breathing. As a girl, she battled weight issues (she was put on dexedrine pills at 10), and she later dropped out of the University of Michigan to follow a Canadian sculptor she’d fallen in love with to Toronto. She wanted to be a homemaker.

“One of the charms of her career is that it all happened with a minimum of calculation. In Toronto, she stumbled into the cast of Godspell and dated Martin Short (at 22, four years her junior), which led her to Second City, which led to a phone call, out of the blue, from John Belushi, who was doing National Lampoon’s Lemmings and wanted her to be ‘the girl in the show.’ In 1973, this was called progress.

“Seventies comedy, especially stand-up, is often talked about as a noxious boys’ club, and God knows The National Lampoon was, but Second City had a far more gender-friendly vibe, and part of the beauty of the Radner mystique is that she possessed the gentle force and glow to casually defuse the sexism of the comedy world. She was accepted on her own terms, and when Lorne Michaels was getting ready to launch his late-night-TV live-comedy experiment, Gilda was the first one he cast.

“The celebrity came instantly, and she basked in it; it enhanced her glow. We see an extraordinary clip of the original cast members, all clammed up on ‘The Tomorrow Show,’ as Lorne Michaels — young, handsome, and dark-haired, but already a self-styled corporate mobster of late night — explains to Tom Snyder that he expects about two of them to last. (What a thing to say! In front of your cast members on national television!) Radner wasn’t fazed. Along with Chevy Chase, she was the first true star of ‘SNL,’ and it didn’t take long for the entire cast to become the Beatles of comedy. They were iconic; a generation grew obsessed with them.

Love, Gilda includes fascinating clips of Radner cavorting with Bill Murray on ‘The National Lampoon Radio Hour’; backstage glimpses of her ‘SNL’ writing partnership with Alan Zweibel; Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, and Melissa McCarthy giving impromptu readings of the journal she kept to the end; and an intimate panorama of her courtship with Gene Wilder. Their romance is quite touching (creatively, though, love really was blind: The one mistake Radner ever made in her career was costarring in her husband’s warmed-over Mel Brooksian duds, like Haunted Honeymoon). Her battle with ovarian cancer, which was first diagnosed in 1987, is long and brave, presented by the movie in all its everyday soul-shaping agony. For anyone to die as young as Gilda Radner did (she was 42) is tragic, but for a performer who gave this much to the world, with a spirit of such elation, to be cut down in this way seems beyond cruel. Yet by the end of Love, Gilda, you feel like you’ve seen a very full life.”


SEPTEMBER 21: Nappily Ever After (streaming on Netflix) (dir. Haifaa Al-Mansour)IndieWire article by Jenna Marotta: “Fifteen years ago, Real Women Have Curves director Patricia Cardoso almost made Nappily Ever After for Universal Pictures, with Halle Berry in the lead role. An adaptation of the bestselling first installment from Trisha R. Thomas’ eight-book series eventually found a home at Netflix. Berry’s onetime part went to Film Independent Spirit Award nominee Sanaa Lathan (Love & Basketball), also the project’s co-producer.

“As advertising executive Violet Jones — changed from Venus Johnston in the books — Lathan is a coiffure-conscious perfectionist who believes she’s engineered herself a happy ending. Yet life begins to capsize when her doctor beau presents her with a Chihuahua instead of a proposal, and she is taken off an important work account.

“Late one night, convinced she has nothing left to lose — and recalling her boyfriend’s criticism of ‘You never let your hair down’ — she shaves her head. The film’s tagline, naturally, is, ‘Let Yourself Grow.’

“Adam Brooks (Beloved) and first-time screenwriter Cee Marcellus penned the film, which co-stars Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters) and Emmy winner Lynn Whitfield (The Josephine Baker Story) as Violet’s parents, plus ‘American Gods’ lead Ricky Whittle and Netflix veteran Lyriq Bent (‘She’s Gotta Have It’) as her suitors.

“BAFTA nominee Haifaa al-Mansour became the first Saudi woman to direct a feature film with Wadjda (2014); last year, Elle Fanning starred in her English-language debut, IFC Films’ Mary Shelley. Additional producers include Tracey Bing (Southside with You), Jared LeBoff (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), and Marc Platt (La La Land), who was attached to the film when it was in development at Universal.”


SEPTEMBER 21 (streaming on Netflix & in limited theatrical release): Quincy (dirs. Alan Hicks and Rashida Jones)Deadline article by Mike Fleming Jr.: “Netflix has acquired Quincy, the documentary about legendary composer/producer Quincy Jones that was directed by his daughter Rashida Jones and Alan Hicks. Netflix has set a global release for September 21, and will give the film a limited theatrical release as well. The film is produced by Paula DuPré Pesmen and executive produced by Jane Rosenthal and Berry Welsh from Tribeca Productions and Adam Fell from Quincy Jones Productions.

“The docu is an intimate look into the life of an icon who has been a force in music and pop culture for decades, transcending racial and cultural boundaries. He started as a trumpeter, pianist and arranger for bandleader Lionel Hampton, and right out of college was arranging songs for artists including Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Gene Krupa, and Ray Charles. He has been a mentor to artists from Michael Jackson to Lesley Gore, Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith and collaborated with the likes of Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Miles Davis and many others.

“Jones was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has Emmys, Grammys, Oscars and Tonys on his mantle. Actually he has won 27 Grammys, second most in history. He was producer and conductor of ‘We Are the World,’ still the best selling single of all time, and Jackson’s solo albums Off the Wall, Bad and Thriller, latter of which remains the best selling album ever. On the movie side, he co-produced Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple and won an Emmy for scoring the opening episode of the groundbreaking miniseries Roots.

“Jones is an inspiring man to speak with and is an accomplished storyteller, and opened up for the daughter he shares with his ex, the Mod Squad star Peggy Lipton.

“‘It’s rare that somebody who has lived as much life as my dad is still interested in growing and knowing the next generation,’ Rashida Jones said. ‘He is such a man of action and accomplishments, but we were so lucky to spend real time with him, to let him reflect on life and the larger picture. I feel honored to be able to share that with audiences all over the world.’

“Said co-director Hicks: ‘There is really no one like Quincy, the sheer breadth of his work alone is unparalleled, but the story of him as a man has never been comprehensively told. It was a privilege to have his trust, allowing us to capture intimate moments giving insight into the fabric of the man.’

“Lisa Nishimura, VP of Original Documentaries for Netflix called it ‘a rare opportunity to be able to present the definitive story of someone who has for over seven decades, not just influenced, but altered the course of culture.'”


SEPTEMBER 24 (HBO), SEPTEMBER 28 (limited theatrical release): Jane Fonda in Five Acts (dir. Susan Lacy)TheWrap’s Sundance Film Festival review by Alonso Duralde:Jane Fonda in Five Acts could easily have been a 10-hour miniseries; it would take at least two hours merely to go through each of her 50 or so film performances. As a second-generation star, an outspoken activist, an entrepreneur and feminist icon, Fonda almost seems like a living metaphor for the uneasy and constantly changing post-WWII era.

“If she didn’t actually exist, Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin would have had to make her up as a character in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. But she does exist, and she’s still here, and documentarian Susan Lacy (Spielberg) digs deep into Fonda’s life to create a film (for HBO) that’s an audio-visual supplement to the actress’ fascinating 2005 memoir (My Life So Far), a frank examination of Fonda’s personal evolution, and a celebration of her role in popular culture.

“It’s a story of highs and lows, successes and regrets; yes, Megyn Kelly, Fonda wishes she hadn’t had plastic surgery, noting that she loves ‘lived-in faces,’ like the one on her dear friend Vanessa Redgrave, after whom she named her oldest daughter. Her relationship with her daughter also counts as a regret, but it’s taken Fonda a lifetime to understand her own mother, and she hopes that it’s not too late to make up for her own mistakes.

“The first four acts of the title refer to the men who guided Fonda through most of her life: her father, Henry, an iconic screen presence in his own right; her first husband, French filmmaker Roger Vadim, who guided her through her Euro-sex kitten period (and it’s a delight to hear her trill part of the Barbarella theme song); her second, activist Tom Hayden, whom she met during her own agitation against the Vietnam War and for the rights of indigenous peoples; her third, billionaire Ted Turner. The final act belongs to Fonda herself, who left her final marriage when she realized she was finally ready to guide her own destiny.

“It’s a whirlwind trip through the Actors Studio, Paris, Hanoi, Beverly Hills, Three Mile Island, aerobics studios and Montana, among other stops, and we see the progression from a little girl who felt distanced from her parents (dad cheated, mom was diagnosed with what we now know as bipolar disorder), to a young ingénue who had chops but not confidence, to a vocal spokesperson for causes that had meaning for her.

“Fonda admits that during the early years of her activism, she was ‘starving and speedy,’ eating very little and taking Dexedrine to suppress her appetite. And even as a vocal feminist, she still spent much of her life craving validation from men.

“While Jane Fonda in Five Acts in no way acts as a substitution for the book, it does allow for other voices; we hear from Hayden and Turner, friend and producer Paula Weinstein, and Fonda’s son (with Hayden), Troy Garity, who supplies some of the film’s most hilarious and poignant observations on its subject.

“It was surprising to see, at Sundance no less, interviews with Robert Redford about his decades-long friendship and collaboration with Fonda, particularly since Weinstein calls him out at one point; according to her, it was Redford not fighting for Fonda to get the role in Legal Eagles over the younger, newer Debra Winger that made Fonda realize that her years as a big-screen leading lady were behind her.

“But Lacy and Fonda aren’t afraid to go to the uncomfortable places: We see footage of angry Americans who demanded exile (or execution) for Fonda after her visit to Hanoi during the Vietnam War, and Fonda herself admits that allowing herself to be photographed with an anti-aircraft gun was a huge mistake and her one regret of the trip.

“She’s also got a lot to be proud of: Besides her work as an actress and activist, she produced Coming Home and The China Syndrome and 9 to 5 to tell stories she felt were important, and it would be hard to find someone working in movies now who is similarly committed to marrying issues and entertainment. And at the age of 80, she’s still getting laughs (opposite Tomlin) on Netflix’s ‘Grace and Frankie’ and showing up at Standing Rock and other hot spots to loan her spotlight to causes that need them.

“The movie opens with makeup artists attaching Fonda’s false eyelashes before her appearance at a recent Golden Globes, and that scene lets us know that the film’s subject is going to let us in on pretty much everything. Hers is a lot of life to try to capture in one movie, but Jane Fonda in Five Acts certainly covers her emotional arc with thoroughness and compassion.”


SEPTEMBER 28: All About Nina (dir. Eva Vives)Tribeca Film Festival synopsis by Shayna Weingast: “Nina (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) isn’t your typical brash stand-up comic. Her sets may be littered with frank sex talk, sarcastic cynicism, and vulgarity, but her act is no mere act. Having finally ditched her abusive lover (Chace Crawford), Nina hightails it to Los Angeles with the hope of finally making it big. Things begin to improve in her career, as well as in her love life—thanks to a new love interest, Rafe (Common)—but this hard-drinking heroine isn’t sure she can handle stability. Despite her budding successes, Nina struggles to reconcile being authentic and happy in both her career and in her personal life.

“As All About Nina’s fractured protagonist, Mary Elizabeth Winstead delivers an astonishingly raw performance, tearing into her part with the ferocity Nina deserves. The film’s strong supporting cast includes a revelatory Common, who portrays a man of utmost decency, patience, and love. Through these complicated and resonant characters, as well as its deft examination of timely matters like trauma, abuse, and sexism in the world of stand-up comedy, All About Nina offers insight into what it means to be a talented, creative woman today.”


SEPTEMBER 28: A Dangerous Idea: Eugenics, Genetics and the American Dream (dir. Stephanie Welch)Cinema Village synopsis: “A dangerous idea has threatened the American Dream from the beginning – the belief that some groups and individuals are inherently superior to others and more deserving of fundamental rights. Such biological determinism provided an excuse for some of America’s most shameful history. And now it’s back.

“The documentary A Dangerous Idea reveals how biologically determined politics has disenfranchised women and people of color, provided a rationale for state sanctioned crimes committed against America’s most vulnerable citizens, and now gains new traction under the Trump administration.

“Featuring interviews with social thinkers such as Van Jones and Robert Reich, as well as prominent scientists, A Dangerous Idea is a radical reassessment of the meaning, use and misuse of gene science. Like no other film before it, this documentary brings to light how false scientific claims have rolled back long fought for gains in equality, and how powerful interests are poised once again to use the gene myth to unravel the American Dream.”


SEPTEMBER 28: Free Solo (dirs. Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi)Angelika Film Center synopsis: “From award-winning documentary filmmaker E. Chai Vasarhelyi and world-renowned photographer and mountaineer Jimmy Chin, comes Free Solo, a stunning, intimate and unflinching portrait of free soloist climber Alex Honnold, as he prepares to achieve his lifelong dream: climbing the face of the world’s most famous rock… the 3,200ft El Capitan in Yosemite National Park… without a rope.”


SEPTEMBER 28: Little Women (dir. Clare Niederpruem) (DP: Anka Malatynska)Faith Films synopsis: “Sisters—and dreams—are unique in their ability to inspire, encourage and change the world.

“For 150 years, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has motivated women of all ages to dream together and celebrate family. Coming to theaters for the first time, a modern retelling of Little Women brings a new generation together with their mothers, sisters and friends.

“From girls playing in the attic to women living with purpose, the March sisters —Meg (Melanie Stone), Jo (Sarah Davenport), Beth (Allie Jennings) and Amy (Elise Jones) —are committed to always supporting each other. Yet, growing up sometimes means growing apart.”


SEPTEMBER 28: Summer ’03 (dir. Becca Gleason)Solzy at the Movies’ SXSW Festival review by Danielle Solzman: “With a fresh voice from writer-director Becca Gleason in her feature directorial debut, actress Joey King carries Summer ’03 from start to finish with one of the best performances to date in 2018.

“When her grandmother, Dotty Winkle (June Squibb), passed away, it’s Jamie Winkle (Joey King) who is left with the biggest burden of all. Not only did her grandmother expose some pretty huge secrets, she tells Jamie that one of her biggest regrets–and hopes Jamie can fulfill her dying request–was that she didn’t ‘learn how to give a proper blow job.’

“As Jamie deals with the newly discovered information, her mother, Shira (Andrea Savage) is freed of her anti-Semitic mother-in-law and celebrates with some drunk dancing. Meanwhile, her father, Ned (Paul Scheer), is dealing with the biggest blow to his life. Without giving away the film, there’s some strong emotions that come with coming to terms with what Dotty told him before she died.

“King ought to be considered a star on the rise with how she carries the film. In the past few years, the actress has grown up before our eyes. What she does with the role is provide a career-best performance in her young career. If King keeps making the same great decisions in tackling what projects she chooses, the actress will have a great career ahead of her.

“While King may carry the film, it’s veteran actress June Squibb who steals it within the few minutes of screen time in which she appears. The scene in which she gathers in her family prior to passing away is one of the funniest scenes in the film. What makes it even better is how composer Nathan Matthew David’s score makes for an awesome complement. There’s a dinner table scene that–without giving the film away–makes for some awkward hilarity and much credit goes to improv pros Paul Scheer and Andrea Savage. Scheer and Savage are perfect in the roles. There’s nobody else in the world who could bring what these two bring to the table.

“The film includes an underwater scene that’s beautifully shot by cinematographer Ben Hardwicke. Underwater scenes aren’t easy to pull off but Hardwicke does so in a way that captures King’s beauty in the water. Gleason and Hardwicke were also able to pull off one of the biggest scenes in the film by shooting from the right angles without showing too much.

“It’s filmmakers like Gleason who shows through her script and direction that there’s a crop of rising female filmmakers who have a voice to offer and need to be heard. In her feature debut, Gleason offers a fresh take on the coming-of-age genre. It may be one of the most unique takes by far even if the Atlanta area stands in for the city of Cincinnati, Oh.

Summer ’03 may not be a game changer for the coming-of-age genre but it’s a fresh take that provides for a lot of humor, emotion, and heart.”


SEPTEMBER 28: 306 Hollywood (dirs. Elan Bogarin and Jonathan Bogarin) (DPs: Elan Bogarin, Jonathan Bogarin and Alejandro Mejía)Quad Cinema synopsis: “At 306 Hollywood Avenue in Newark, former dress designer Annette Ontell lived for 71 years in a nondescript white house. After her death in 2011, her grandchildren Elan and Jonathan were left with her belongings, from toothbrushes to tax documents. Instead of throwing away this lifetime of detritus, Elan and Jonathan began a meticulous process of cataloguing and archiving everything Annette left behind. The result is this magical documentary, an inspiring look at the extraordinary stories and histories hidden away in the everyday.”

Saturday Night Spotlight #17: Gillian Armstrong

Since the late 1970s, director Gillian Armstrong (b. 1950) has been recognized internationally as the one of the most impressive directors in the film business. Her career began in the middle of the Australian New Wave (early 1970s-late 1980s) and success eventually brought her to Hollywood. For her impact in the film world Armstrong has received career-achievement awards from the Brisbane International Film Festival (Chauvel Award – 1995), the Women in Crystal Film Awards (Dorothy Arzner Directors Award – 1995), the Elle Women in Hollywood Awards (Icon Award – 1998) and the Australian Directors Guild (Outstanding Achievement Award – 2007). Although her name may not be among the most famous for most moviegoers, over the years Armstrong has shown that she can make work that ranks with the best dramas, comedies and documentaries being crafted by directors of any sex/gender.

My Brilliant Career (1979) – A romantic drama which is an adaptation (by screenwriter Eleanor Witcombe) of a 1901 novel by Miles Franklin (a woman writer who did not include her first name in publications), Armstrong’s first major feature film after working on smaller independent projects was quite the triumph, winning two BAFTAs for Judy Davis (who became a star for her performance as headstrong Sybylla Melvyn) as well as winning six awards from the Australian Film Institute, including Best Film and Best Director, and being nominated for the Oscar for Best Costume Design (by Anna Senior), the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film and the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or. In addition to being the product of women storytellers, Career was funded by producer Margaret Fink and executive producer Jane Scott. The film also stars Sam Neill, who would later become a major Hollywood player with roles in films like A Cry in the Dark (1988), The Hunt for Red October (1990) and Jurassic Park (1993), as well as Wendy Hughes, whom I know best as the charming Kathleen O’Neil on the Australian TV show “The Man from Snowy River” (or, as I know it, “Snowy River: The McGregor Saga”). Judy Davis worked with Gillian Armstrong again in the film High Tide (1987), a drama which I highly recommend.

Mrs. Soffel (1984) – Combining American and Australian talents for her first Hollywood film, Armstrong pairs Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson as lovers who run off into the early-1900s wilderness after Keaton helps Gibson and his brother (Matthew Modine) break out of the jail that her husband (Edward Herrmann) is the warden of. The cast also includes Trini Alvarado, Jennifer Dundas, Harley Cross, Terry O’Quinn, Maury Chaykin and Paula Trueman (later the elderly thief Mrs. Schumacher in Dirty Dancing). Armstrong’s cinematographer and editor, Russell Boyd and Nicholas Beaumon respectively, are well-known members of the Australian filmmaking community and Beaumon in particular has worked with Armstrong throughout her history, from My Brilliant Career to her upcoming film, Women He’s Undressed.

Little Women (1994) – A warm and sweet family film, Armstrong’s retelling of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel, here adapted by screenwriter Robin Swicord, stars Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst (her “Amy” character is played by Samantha Mathis after growing up) and Claire Danes as the March sisters growing up in New England during and after the Civil War. Released at Christmastime in the US, the film did very well at the box office and established Winona Ryder as a major star after she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance as the independent and high-spirited Jo March. Other Oscar nominations went to the film for Costume Design (Colleen Atwood) and Original Score (Thomas Newman). Many other popular actors also appear in the film, including Gabriel Byrne, Christian Bale, Eric Stoltz, John Neville, Susan Sarandon as the family matriarch and Mary Wickes in one of her final films, playing crabby Aunt March.

Oscar and Lucinda (1997) – Armstrong and screenwriter Laura Jones, who previously collaborated on the film High Tide, here adapt a Peter Carey novel set during the 19th century. When the lead characters meet, they both have their reasons for wanting to escape the confines of their oppressive societies (England for Oscar, who is a priest; Australia for Lucinda, who is a runaway heiress) and their shared love of gambling binds them on a decision to build a church together. Basking in the glow of Geoffrey Simpson’s lush cinematography, Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett play the title duo while Ciarán Hinds, Tom Wilkinson, Richard Roxburgh, Clive Russell, Barry Otto and Linda Bassett are their co-stars and Geoffrey Rush voices the film’s narration. As had happened with earlier Armstrong films, Oscar and Lucinda received an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design, this time for Australian couturier Janet Patterson. In 2001, Gillian Armstrong reteamed with Cate Blanchett for another period piece, this time the World War II-era drama Charlotte Gray (2001).