Retro Watch: 1994’s Little Women

Little-Women-1994

I decided to catch up with 1994’s Little Women as a way of preparing for Greta Gerwig’s forthcoming version. I saw it in the theaters when I was a teenager, but I’m sorry to say that it didn’t make much of an impression on me. The only reason I know I saw it is that my older sister, who remembers everything, tells me we went to see it in the theater with our mother.

I was 16 in 1994, which my mother probably saw as just the right age for a period romance. But it had to compete with the other movies burning into my adolescent cortex, a list that includes Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Reality Bites, The Mask, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall. 

Poor Little Women didn’t stand a chance.

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November Trailers Round-Up

There are a bunch of new movies coming out in November that are either written or directed by women–and they all look good to me. I’m going to try to see all of them, and since two will be available online, I think it’s do-able. A couple of them seem poised to do very well at the box office, as well as at the Oscars.

Here’s a complete list, with release dates:

Harriet   Dir. Kasi Lemmons – November 1 
Honey Boy  Dir. Alma Har’el – November 8 
Last Christmas WritersBryonny Kimmings and Emma Thompson – November 8
Charlie’s Angels Dir. & Writer: Elizabeth Banks – November 15 
A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood  Dir. Marielle Heller – Nov 22
Frozen 2   Co-Dir. Jennifer Lee, Writers: Jennifer Lee & Alison Schroeder – November 22
Queen & Slim  Dir. Melina Matsoukas, Writer: Lena Waithe – November 27 (Netflix Film)
Atlantics Dir. & Writer: Mati Diop – November 29 (Netflix Film)

Trailers after the jump . . . Continue reading “November Trailers Round-Up”

Review: Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

Ben Burtt and Richard AndersonBen Burtt and Richard Anderson recording the voice of Chewbacca.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound
Director: Midge Costin
Writer: Bobette Buster

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is the perfect for someone (like me) who wants to learn more about the process of filmmaking. It’s also for anyone who has ever paused while filling out their Oscar ballot to wonder: what is the difference between “sound editing” and “sound mixing”? (In a nutshell: sound editing is the process of adding or subtracting sound, including voice, music, and effects into a movie after it has been filmed; sound mixing is about synthesizing everything into one soundtrack, sort of like the conductor of an orchestra.)

Producer/Director Midge Costin, a sound editor who is also a professor at USC’s film school, gives this documentary an academic bent. It often felt like a distillation of a semester’s worth of lectures, with special guest appearances from legendary sound editors like Walter Murch and Ben Burtt. Making Waves covers a lot of ground, including the history of film’s transition from the silent era to sound, the studio system approach to sound effects, the use of music in film, the process of making particular sound effects, and technological innovations in sound design such as stereo and surround sound. With behind-the-scenes interviews, photographs, and footage of sound designers at work, Costin makes visible a process that most filmgoers don’t give much thought to, but which must be executed with precision in order for a movie to cast its narrative spell. Even silence must be engineered by sound editors, who subtract ambient noises to create an artificial — but psychologically powerful — sense of quiet.

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Criticism vs. Activism

Recently I’ve been wondering if I’m a critic or an activist, and where is the line, and is it possible to be both, or does activism undermine criticism? This blog obviously has an activist bent: I want people to make an effort to see more movies by women, in order to support women’s artistic careers. My criticism is colored by this desire, although I hope that bias is limited to my choice of review subjects. I’m not grading women on a curve. (Although I do grade a debut on a curve, male or female.) If it’s not obvious, I do continue to see movies by male directors, I just don’t review them on this site.

The truth is, I don’t see myself as either an activist or a critic. Of the two labels, I’m much closer to critic, but as a writer, I’m most comfortable writing fiction. As a movie critic, I tend to analyze film from a literary point of view, because I feel I have a good understanding of how a story is put together. I also enjoy writing about acting and costume design, because these are subjects I’ve paid attention to since I was a little kid. But it has taken me a long time to analyze the more technical aspects of filmmaking, things like camera angles and sound design. I’ve also never studied film formally. So, I often feel like an amateur when I write about it. Does every critic feel this way, or is this just an example of imposter syndrome–a species of self-doubt tends to afflict women more than men?

It’s hard for me to separate my criticism from an activist impulse because I doubt I would have taken the leap to writing about film if not for the Harvey Weinstein scandal. I knew the industry was hard on women, and I knew that most film critics were men, but I didn’t realize the extent of the damage to women’s careers and artistry. And, as cheesy as it sounds, another big inspiration was seeing Rey in the Star Wars films. I’ve told this story before, but I was seated next to a little girl at the screening of The Force Awakens and she was so shocked and delighted to see a girl as the lead that I felt kind of sad. She wasn’t that old–maybe 5?–and already she was conditioned to expect a boy at the center of a movie.

A lot of these thoughts were stirred up by This Changes Everything, the documentary that I reviewed yesterday. It’s taken me a while to gain confidence as a movie critic, and I often doubt myself, but I have to remind myself that I’m here because not enough women are writing about movies. And I’m staying here, because after a two-year media diet, in which I made sure that the majority of what I watched was written or directed by a woman, I have a lot more to say. When you bring the female gaze into your life, it changes you. I feel I can see more clearly the biases in the film criticism, and in the industry in general. I’ll be writing more about that in the coming months, and hopefully publishing my work in some larger venues. But this blog will remain my home base, my sketchbook, my first draft.

Geena Davis’s Documentary Explains How Hollywood Fails Women Filmmakers

geena meryl shonda

This Changes Everything
Directed by Tom Donahue

This straightforward documentary tries to answer the questions that kicked off my blog: 1) Why are there so few female directors? 2) What can we do to change that? Produced by Geena Davis’s Institute on Gender in Media, this in an activist work that concludes with a call to action for unions, studios, and individuals. For moviegoers, the challenge is to support female filmmakers by making sure that half the films you watch are either directed or written by women.

As someone who has been doing this for almost two years, I can tell you that it takes planning and deliberation to ensure that 50% of the movies you watch are made by women. You will have to seek them out, because they aren’t show in as many theaters as movies directed by men—and that’s one of the big reasons that women don’t advance in their directing careers. Their first films don’t receive as much publicity or distribution and then they don’t have a big box office. This makes it more difficult to secure financing for the second film or to be considered for studio jobs. Talent agencies are then less likely to promote female filmmakers. And so the vicious cycle goes.

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Catching Up: Extended Summer Edition

I’ve been neglectful of this blog because I finished a very rough draft of a novel and that took all my time for a few weeks. (Also, I’ve been freaking out about the climate crisis but that’s a post for another day–btw yesterday we set a heat record in NYC when it was 93 DEGREES.)  Amidst the artistic and existential meltdowns, I did manage to watch three new woman-directed movies:

hustlers

Hustlers
Writer and Director: Lorene Scafaria

To celebrate finishing a draft, Mike and I went out to see Hustlers at the Alamo Draft House. Although I’ve been aware of this movie since earlier this year, it wasn’t at the top of my list. After seeing The Big Short and Wolf of Wall Street, I felt like I was done with movies about Wall Street guys, even if this time it was from the perspective of the exotic dancers they socialized with. But then it got such great reviews and everyone was going nuts about J. Lo, saying that she was as good as she was in Out of Sight. So I went, I ordered a margarita, and . . . 

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Late to the Party

Recently, I’ve seen three really great movies directed by women, movies that everyone said were great and which I really wanted to see, but it took me a while to catch up to them — seven years in the case of one . . .

The-Farewell-Movie-1280x720The Farewell
Writer & Director: Lulu Wang

It’s heartening to see how well this one has done in the theaters. It was released mid-July and it’s still playing in many New York theaters. It is Wang’s second feature, a family drama about a young Chinese-American woman, Billi, who feels conflicted when she learns that her extended family living in China have decided to lie to her beloved grandmother, Nai Nai, about her health. Nai Nai is very ill and according to her doctor, dying of lung cancer, but Nai Nai’s sister tells her that she’s fine and will have a full recovery. Meanwhile, the rest of the family is told the truth. Nai Nai’s children are far-flung, having emigrated to the U.S. and Japan and so a plan is made to allow them to come back and say goodbye to Nai Nai: they pressure a younger member of the family to get married immediately so that there will be a wedding to bring everyone together. This makes for a very awkward family reunion. Everyone is sad but must pretend to be happy; meanwhile, there are long simmering tensions between the family members who have left China and the ones who remain.

I loved how attentive this movie was to family dynamics and how each family member  gets a moment and is allowed to reveal their perspective. There’s a low-key humor in every scene, and Akwafina is surprisingly, the perfect anchor. I’m used to her as a zany character but here she is observant and melancholy. The ending was stunning, and reminded me of the final scenes of Lady Bird, when Lady Bird returns to New York City and, without a quick series of images, you realize she has come to the end of a certain period of her life.

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