Jan 26

Liked “3 Billboards”? Check Out “The Dressmaker”

[P.J. Hogan] adapts the Rosalie Ham novel, a neo-feminist soap opera, to salute the indefatigable brotherhood and sisterhood of women and gay men who struggle to find acceptance and love. Armond White, Out, regarding The Dressmaker

As highlighted in my recent post about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and another on 2017 films, I believe this film has had particular appeal to women and other outsiders. And if you liked Three Billboards, I think you’ll also like The Dressmaker.

Barely accessible via theaters when it came out in 2016, The Dressmaker has been seen mainly by home viewers taking a stab at a relatively unknown film that happens to star a stunningly good Kate Winslet.

As Jenna Marotta (Decider) points out, The Dressmaker not only deserves our viewing but “should be a cause célèbre as the woman-directed and co-written adaptation of a woman’s novel, starring, fittingly, a woman.” In addition, P.J. Hogan, co-writer with his wife Jocelyn Moorhouse, happens to be a feminist and LGBT-friendly scribe.

Marissa Martinelli, Slate, sets up the story line, which involves Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage (Winslet) returning to her small Australian town 25 years “after being cast out as a child for allegedly killing a schoolmate, a crime she barely remembers.” What really happened back then is only gradually revealed.

While the years and a well-tailored wardrobe have transformed Tilly from duckling to swan, not much has changed in Dungatar: not the uptight, sadistic schoolteacher who served as chief witness against her (Kerry Fox); not the plain, sullen shopkeeper’s daughter who sold her down the river when they were kids (Sarah Snook); and certainly not the father of the boy she killed (Shane Bourne), a town councilor with some nasty secrets and an extremely disturbing domestic life.

“The ghastly, gossipy townsfolk are appalled and agog to see her back,” states Angie Errigo, The List

This is a lot like Hang ‘Em High, with Winslet as the Clint Eastwood character, but armed with a Singer sewing machine instead of guns. Tilly’s magical ability to transform people with creative, stylish makeovers is the weapon she uses against them as, one by one, they fall under the spell of her Dior and Balenciaga-inspired new look, even as secrets and scandal boil up. The ensemble is incredible: with Hugo Weaving as the town policeman delivering his campest turn since The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Judy Davis priceless as Tilly’s deranged mum ‘Mad Molly’, bellowing a stream of screamingly funny one-liners; Kerry Fox as the evil queen bitch of the malicious populace; and Liam Hemsworth as the one decent, manly and, happily, drop-dead gorgeous guy in town.

Watch the trailer below:

Is it really vindictiveness that drives Tilly? Martinelli: “[She] never really seems all that interested in either redemption or revenge—just answers, really.”

Armond White (Out): “A sense of emancipation courses through The Dressmaker as Tilly confronts her oppressive past.”

The film uses both comedy and drama, notes Manon de Reeper (Film Inquiry), to highlight a variety of women’s and human issues, including “domestic violence and marital rape, misogyny, cross-dressing, even the use of medical cannabis by the elderly.” 

De Reeper’s critique conclusion is one I wholeheartedly support:

The Dressmaker is hilarious, touching, it’s visually pleasing, it’s well-written and has interesting characters, in particular the female ones, who are in control throughout the story…I daresay that if you want to watch a movie that attempts to break taboos (without punching you in the face with it), is a ton of fun, and if you enjoy a woman’s story told from a woman’s point of view, it certainly is essential viewing – even for men.

Dec 15

“Terms of Endearment”: Classic Mom-Daughter Drama

Wesley Morris noted recently in the New York Times that over the last 34 years, only two best-picture Oscar winners (”Terms of Endearment” and ”Chicago”) featured two or more major female characters who actually talked to each other. Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

It just so happens that Greta Gerwig, the writer and director of this year’s highly popular indie movie Lady Bird, recently revealed that one of her favorite movies is Terms of Endearment (1983), which, like Lady Bird, features a conflictual but loving mother-daughter relationship. 

The film was based on Larry McMurtry‘s novel, also titled Terms of Endearment, which came out in 1975 and is briefly summarized on Amazon: “Aurora is the kind of woman who makes the whole world orbit around her, including a string of devoted suitors. Widowed and overprotective of her daughter, Aurora adapts at her own pace until life sends two enormous challenges her way: Emma’s hasty marriage and subsequent battle with cancer.”

Vincent Canby, New York Times, describes the gist of Aurora and Emma’s connection in the movie adaptation:

The film is the story of a possibly smothering mother-daughter relationship that is immediately defined in the film’s very first scene: A young Aurora Greenway ([Shirley] MacLaine) insists on waking her infant daughter, Emma (later to be played by the equally incandescent Debra Winger), to make sure the baby hasn’t succumbed to crib death, while the voice of her off-screen husband tells her, in polite terms, to lay off the kid. Aurora’s problem throughout ‘Terms of Endearment’ is that she can’t.

“It takes all of perhaps five minutes to fall in love with the leading characters in ‘Terms of Endearment’ and from that point on,” states Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News, “the audience is just putty in the extremely capable hands of writer-director James L. Brooks.”

Watch the trailer below:

In a nutshell, over the course of 25 years a lot of interesting things happen. Emma marries Flap (Jeff Daniels), whom Aurora dislikes, and has a few kids. Flap is unfaithful. And while Aurora has a push-pull romance with Jack Nicholson‘s character, Emma fields interest from John Lithgow‘s. As in the book, Emma eventually is faced with cancer, an experience that, needless to say, intensifies the dynamics between her and her mom.

Just last May Joe McGovern, ew.com, wrote the following accolades:

The film won five Oscars including Best Picture, and holds up miraculously today as perhaps the very best huge-hearted Hollywood weepie of its era. Though Terms is often hilariously funny — in large degree thanks to the comic spontaneity of Winger’s performance — it’s the soulfulness and poetry of the movie’s final act which gives it unmistakable classic status.

And back in the day, Roger Ebert (rogerebert.com) had praised the film’s “ability to find the balance between the funny and the sad, between moments of deep truth and other moments of high ridiculousness.”

Back to the present: According to several reports earlier this year, producer/director Lee Daniels said he was in the process of planning a remake that will star Oprah Winfrey in the Aurora (or otherwise named) role. Stephen Galloway, Hollywood Reporter, noted it would take place “in the ’80s and include a storyline about black men who brought HIV/AIDS to their female partners.”

Daniels apparently stated, “I’ve got to tell stories that are important to me, and so many African-American women died. I want to make Flap…gay and infect the Debra Winger character. And then we explore the ’80s in a different way.”

As of this writing, however, not only has Oprah denied knowledge of such a development, but Daniels has offered no further updates.

Dec 13

“The Art of Misdiagnosis”: Investigating a Mom’s Suicide

All I can really do is write my own misdiagnosis of your life. Gayle Brandeis, author of The Art of Misdiagnosis

So states Gayle Brandeis, author of The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, in this brief trailer to her new book:

The book’s title takes its name from the documentary Brandeis’s 70-year-old mother Arlene was working on “about the rare illnesses she thought ravaged her family: porphyria and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.”

“Whether they were psychosomatically induced or not,” states Kirkus Reviews, “Arlene attested that the illnesses had been repeatedly dismissed or misdiagnosed by the medical community; even the author herself admits to suffering, as a teenager, from a combination of malingering and factitious disorder.” (See this link and this one for definitions of these conditions.)

In an interview with Mutha Magazine, Brandeis states the following about the origins of her book The Art of Misdiagnosis:

My therapist suggested writing a letter to my mom (such great advice!) and that became a thread of the book. The time around her suicide begged to be told in present tense. And as I dug through our old emails and files and the like, certain pieces jumped out at me as needing to be part of the narrative. It took a lot of time and finessing to fit the puzzle pieces together, but the pieces revealed themselves to me with bells on.

What was going on for Brandeis when she lost her mom? Melissa Wuske, Foreword Reviews:

Brandeis’s mother committed suicide one week after Brandeis had a baby. Those deeply contrasting experiences set the scene for the opening of this memoir: a daughter going through her mother’s things, trying to make sense of her death.

And this quest winds up involving a “compulsive, contagious need to know her mother and herself.”

As author Nick Flynn writes in his review: “John Cassavetes offers this: ‘When a character can’t find his way home, that’s where the story begins…’ Gayle Brandeis begins her story where it ends, then slowly—thoughtfully, painfully, lovingly—works her way back. It all circles around a handful of days, where everything happens—birth, death, truth, transformation.”

More about the overall process Brandeis experienced, from Kirkus Reviews:

Desperate for answers, she and her sister fruitlessly scoured their mother’s bedroom, which, much like the woman herself, appeared ‘lovely and elegant on the surface, total chaos underneath.’ The author’s reality soon became even more complex: she wrestled with the grief of her mother’s sudden death, processed her complicated history of paranoia, suspicion, and delusions, and nurtured her newborn. This frustration bleeds into the text as Brandeis recounts episodes where her mother’s inexplicable accusations wreaked havoc on her pregnancy and her marriage. The author then reveals her mother’s history of psychosis, which seemed to stem from the author’s pregnancies, with which Arlene became obsessed.

Author Caroline Leavitt‘s review:

Deeply compassionate, and breathtakingly brave, Brandeis’ memoir is a raw, unflinching trip down a rabbit hole, unspooling both the chaotic life of her mentally unbalanced mother, and how her mother’s obsession with physical illness crash-landed Brandeis’ own life—and health—from girlhood to marriage and motherhood. About the stories we desperately need to make of our lives in order to survive, and how the body sometimes speaks what the mind dare not, this is also an extraordinarily moving portrait of a troubled mother, and of the daughter who fearlessly, poetically, writes her way into discovering her truest self. Truthfully, I am in awe.

On her website Brandeis provides resources for others dealing with suicide. 

Nov 22

“Lady Bird”: Pre-College Teen Navigates Her Identity

A heartfelt coming-of-age story that perfectly captures the bittersweet transition from adolescence to dawning adulthood, [Greta] Gerwig’s directorial debut is a joy from start to finish, a warm, generous snapshot of teenage vulnerability and exuberance. Review of Lady Bird by Lara Zarum, Village Voice

Lady Bird isn’t a movie about any searing issue; it’s just a wonderful, rare character study of a young woman figuring out her identity, and all the pitfalls that follow. David Sims, The Atlantic

For what it’s worth, Lady Bird is the highest-ranking film ever on Rotten Tomatoes, with a perfect score.The 17-year-old lead character, as described by Sims:

Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is someone cursed with that familiar, often painful, gift of youth—absolute certainty. She feels everything strongly, expresses her opinions loudly, and both wounds and charms the people around her without meaning to. On the brink of adulthood, she’s resolute enough about her desire to go to college on the East Coast (far from her home of Sacramento) that she tosses herself out of a moving car when her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) tries to dismiss her ambitions. Another movie might frame that moment as frightening or foolish, but Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird celebrates Christine’s teenage will, no matter how extreme it can sometimes be.

Sims emphasizes the importance of the connection between Lady Bird and her mom:

Lady Bird is a powerful illustration of the temporary tenuousness of the mother-daughter bond in the later teenage years, and the surprising strength of that connection even during times of total conflict. Gerwig knows how easily children can wound their parents and vice versa, and the film’s best moments spring from those (often accidental) blow-ups.

As does Zarum, who notes “it’s in many ways Marion’s story, too”:

Gerwig nails this dynamic, the subtle manner in which Marion’s little criticisms, small and sharp as a pin, poke into a daughter’s psyche the way only a mother can; or the way weeks’ worth of argument and hostility can drift off like mist when, on a shopping excursion, mother and daughter both spot the right dress at the same time.

In her article “Why the Mother-Daughter Relationship in Lady Bird Feels So Real” (The Cut), Anna Silman states, “Lady Bird is a story of personal growth, but it’s also a story of attachment: of a mother and daughter struggling to navigate their boundaries at a time when a mother’s fear of abandonment and a daughter’s desire for independence are particularly at war with one another.”

Silman points out that many of the mother-child issues have presumably emanated from Marion’s upbringing with an alcoholic, abusive mother. Although we viewers know this from a brief remark cast off by Marion, her behavior seems to indicate a major lack of insight into the ways she’s developed as a result.

Other of Lady Bird’s fraught relationships include those with her older brother Miguel, whose girlfriend also resides with their family, her best friends—both real and wannabe, and a couple of first boyfriends.

A more secure attachment, on the other hand, is what Lady Bird has with her father (Tracy Letts), who’s depressive and currently unemployed but a giving and loving dad.

Some other plot elements include her love/hate connection to her hometown of Sacramento, her shame over residing in a section of the city that’s not the coveted wealthier one, and her eagerness to leave her Catholic high school for a good college in the East despite her lackluster academic performance.

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “Self-assured, fastidious, unusual, written with sass and directed with sensitivity and style, Lady Bird is a year-end surprise that lands in 2017’s pile of mediocrity like a stray emerald in a pile of discarded rhinestones.”

Watch the trailer below:

Aug 23

“Step”: Baltimore Girls Empowered Through Dance

Stories about young dancers hoping to make it in the world of dance are one thing. Stories about young dancers hoping to make it in the world, period, are something else. Step is a lively, heartfelt documentary of the second sort. Stephanie Zacharek, Time, reviewing Step

As described on Rotten Tomatoes, factual new film Step, directed by Amanda Lipitz, “documents the senior year of a girls’ high-school step dance team against the background of inner-city Baltimore. As each one tries to become the first in their families to attend college, the girls strive to make their dancing a success against the backdrop of social unrest in the troubled city.”

The turmoil surrounding Freddie Gray‘s death in 2015 serves as an intermittent backdrop. Peter Keough, Boston Globe: “Politics, though, is only part of what is being explored in ‘Step.’ Like ‘Hoop Dreams’ (1994), it tells the stories of young people from tough neighborhoods with a talent that might help them better their lives.”

What kind of school do the “Lethal Ladies” step team attend? Glenn Kenny, New York Times: “The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women was founded in 2009 to help underserved girls, predominately African-Americans, prepare for college.” Walter V. Addiego, San Francisco Chronicle: “The idea is to provide opportunities for girls who’ve grown up amid poverty, substance abuse and violence to break out of the cycle and make a better life for themselves. Admission to the school is by lottery, and the vast majority of its students go on to college.”

Step focuses mainly on three seniors: Cori, the academic achiever with high hopes; Tayla, the only child of a single mom who’s a Lethal Ladies superfan; and Blessin, the team leader whose home life, including a mom who’s depressed and often unavailable, is perhaps the most challenging. If you’ve been watching the TV competition So You Think You Can Dance, you’ve already gotten acquainted with Blessin, as her audition was recently shown. Although she didn’t make the cut, she and the Lethal Ladies performed on the show at a later date.

Walter V. Addiego, San Francisco Chronicle, describes the essence of Step: “Lipitz alternates sequences of the girls’ school days and home lives, and plenty of footage of the team’s practices, all concluding in the teens’ performance at the big regional meet, on which a lot of pride — both the school’s and that of the girls and their families — is at stake.”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter, elaborates

The film’s depiction of different types of mother-daughter relationships is filled with lovely moments, many of them colored by sadness. And the investment of the school staff in their students’ success provides another heartening element — among them the principal, Chevonne Hall; tough step mistress, Gari ‘Coach G’ McIntyre; and most of all, college advisor Paula Dofat, whose big-sisterly concern for Blessin is extremely touching.

The Trailer

Selected Reviews

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: “Not for nothing did ‘Step’ win a Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking at Sundance. Heartening and unashamedly emotional, it’s a certified crowd pleaser that doesn’t care who knows it.”

 Robert Abele, The Wrap

‘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…
Start figuring out now how to clap and dab away tears at the same time; it’s that kind of experience.

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: “Like them, the film is inspiring and funny and lovely, and you may find the words of one of the girls lingering: ‘If you come together with a group of powerful women, the impact will be immense’.”