Directed By Women (December 2017)

As we draw to the end of another year in the film industry, the lid has been blown open on a long-held secret in Hollywood: It is an unequal work environment in which women are severely underrepresented and thus specifically vulnerable to exactly the kinds of sexual harassment and assault cases that have sprung forward in this last year or so. For a thorough extrapolation of the problem check out FiveThirtyEight’s extensive analysis of the 50 biggest movies of 2016 and how they reflect Hollywood’s gender imbalance. Or better yet check out this even more thorough analysis of gender imbalance in Hollywood film dialogue by Pudding (in case you haven’t realized by now, I’m a little bit of a stat geek). And once again, the solution is so very simple (and yet will require a wholesale culture change): hire more women in every cinematic field.

Unfortunately I have little actual power to change hiring practices in Hollywood besides this one thing: watching and championing projects that do prominently feature women in significant roles. This particular series is part of my continual pledge to try and watch 52 films directed by women every year.  In the name of accountability, I came short again this year and only managed to see 48. But that’s better than last year, and all the more motivation to do better again in 2018. And while I’m confessing things, I might as well also come out and say that I used this month’s slate to catch up on my best of 2017 list for next week. Without further ado here’s the round-up:


 

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DETROIT (2017) dir. Kathryn Bigelow

A lot of movies and TV shows this year have been declared the movie/show we “need right now”, usually as a response to the social injustices and ills of our day. The best of these movies, like Jordan Peele’s Get Out, have been successful mainly because they do not try and address the issue directly but instead circumnavigate it through allegorical means. All this to say that Kathryn Bigelow’s latest movie, which details the race riots of Detroit in 1967, is about as subtle in its storytelling and purpose as a history textbook. This is not to say that the movie is bad or that this story doesn’t need to be told, especially in the light of the ugly racism that has reared its ugly head again this year. For what it is, the movie is extremely well-told, well-acted, and viscerally intimate. But her curious choice to narrow in on one incident within the Detroit riots may have been useful in making the story shockingly intimate, but it inadvertently advances the (false) “few bad apples” narratives when it comes to law enforcement and racism rather than the systemic problem that it is. Elsewhere the movie sledgehammers its obvious message which may preach well to the choir but won’t win any new converts either. Ultimately it feels like a pretty good movie but a missed opportunity nonetheless.

Rating: ★★★½

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THE LURE (2015) dir. Agnieszka Smoczynska

It is safe to say that a horror musical about a modern day retelling of the Little Mermaid is definitely an original concept. Borrowing from the more sinister side of the fairy tale, it tells the story of two sister mermaids who use their siren song to – as the title of the film might suggest – lure you to your death. The movie works in much the same way, sending you into a fever dream that hypnotically draws you in under its spell, and is best viewed if you just let yourself fall under its hynoptic light. Each musical number is as infectiously surreal as the next ultimately creating what is perhaps the most interesting movie that I’ve seen all year. Of course there is little else besides the extremely well varied music videos tied together loosely as the plot and characters are paper thin but that little much matters when there is this much visual and aural flair on display.

Rating: ★★★★

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STEP (2017) dir. Amanda Lipitz

This documentary follows three students in an all-girls Baltimore charter school as they navigate their senior year before graduations. Their things that unifying them is that they are all members of their school’s step team and their future college careers are not givens. Illustrating perfectly the idea that it takes a village to raise a child, Lipitz spends a lot of time exploring all the relationships these high-schoolers have from their teachers to their coaches to their parents and friends, illustrating how each has an impact – positively and negatively – on their success. The documentary does not necessarily break any new ground, opting for being crowd-pleasing when it could easily have delved deeper into the social inequities that have afflicted these girls and their families in their uphill battle to become the first in their family to attend college. The end result is an uplifting if entirely forgettable experience, made all the more hollow by the conventionality of their individual journeys.

Rating: ★★★½

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OUR TIME WILL COME (2017) dir. Ann Hui

Admittedly my only encounter with Ann Hui’s work thus far has been her extremely intimate and lovely A Simple Life (2011). The only reason I mention this is because in this film, Hui abandons that intimate storytelling for something more akin to an classic epic while still maintaining a smallness to the relationships between the characters, to much lesser effect. Telling the story of the underground resistance under the occupation of the Japanese in 1940s Hong Kong, the narrative demands something more fraught with danger and yet never truly gets into a higher gear instead settling for much more subtle stakes. The production value is top notch and the acting is exemplary, but it frustratingly never evolves into anything compelling.

Rating: ★★★

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BAND AID (2017) dir. Zoe Lister-Jones

Band Aid is a directing debut by Zoe Lister-Jones that is straight out of the Sundance-indie playbook. Lister-Jones plays one half of a constantly arguing couple with Adam Pally who decide to turn their arguments into songs as a way to process their relationship. This admittedly eye-roll worthy premise is somewhat better in practice thanks to the compelling performances of Lister-Jones and Pally who have tangibly and explosive chemistry with one another, inspiring both genuine laughs as well as more heartbreaking material. It also helps that the absurd premise is grounded by a relationship that genuinely looks on the rocks with a problem at the heart of it that is complicated and weighty. How much you like the rest of the movie however, including the music, depends entirely on what your tolerance levels are for “adorkable” and awkward Sundance-style comedies.

Rating: ★★★½

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BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017) dirs. Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton

On the one hand, the depiction of the iconic exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs commits the cardinal sin of “based on a true story” movies by depicting all the characters as if they are acutely aware of their eventual place in history. There are many grand speeches mostly by supporting characters highlighting the dramatic ways that the outcome of this match may or may not change the course of history, and as such these supporting actors come across as exposition devices. On the other hand, the main actors in this are so good in this that it doesn’t much matter. Emma Stone, fresh off her Oscar win in La La Land, comfortably inhabits the role of the iconic King with the perfect mix of charm and gravitas showing her to be a well deserving holder of the Academy statuette. Steve Carell meanwhile manages an amazing feat in that his role as Bobby Riggs is extremely reminiscent to The Office’s Michael Scott and yet never did that once occur to me as I was watching the movie. Together the two provide all the explosive fire that this movie needs and more. While there is nothing terribly inventive about the filmmaking or the storytelling and the end of the movie would only surprise someone who’d never seen a sports movie in their life, it remains a consistently entertaining and compelling movie if only for the joy of seeing Stone and Carell at the top of their (excuse the pun) game.

Rating: ★★★★

 

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