A GAY GIRL IN DAMASCUS

AminaCanadian filmmaker Sophie Deraspe has made a stunning docudrama about a French woman caught up in an online scam during the early days of The Arab Spring. Is this effective filmmaking? Definitely! Is this ethical filmmaking? I'm not quite sure. (JLH: 3.5/5)

Review by Managing Editor Jan Lisa Huttner

A filmmaker's quandary: If you really believe in the relevance and resonance of a story, should you do everything in your power to grab people's attention, even if that means shaping your story to fit the moment?

A film critic's quandary: If you are reviewing a documentary that is relevant and resonant, should the importance of the story being told be diminished in any way by the quality of the storytelling?

These two questions haunt me the day after seeing A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile. What are Sophie Deraspe's responsibilities as a filmmaker? What are my responsibilities as a film critic?

Since one of my criticisms of A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile is that filmmaker Sophie Deraspe assigns herself a critical role in her 84 minute docudrama, but never tells us anything about herself and how she found herself so deeply involved in this story, I think I should start by saying a couple of things about myself.

I have been a professional film critic since 2004. In late 2003, the editor of a new Chicago-based publication called the World Jewish Digest asked me to write a 10th Anniversary Tribute to Schindler’s List for her December issue. The publisher liked it, so I became the WJD's designated film critic, writing regular reviews for every issue from March 2004 through September 2005. In October 2005, I moved to the JUF News where I continue to write regular film reviews as well as additional freelance features today (a full ten years later). I now do all the things a writer does these days--some compensated, some not--including blogging, speaking, self-publishing, and posting on social media.

In the decade plus that I have been writing reviews professionally, I have developed some rules for myself. My first rule is to go into new films as "blind" as possible, so I can assess what is actually on screen rather than what I go in expecting to see. My second rule is to focus my review on the first half of a film (the set-up) and never give away what happens in the second half. When I want to talk about the second half, I put my comments at the very bottom of my post, below a prominently-placed SPOILER ALERT warning.

In this case, I can honestly report that I went into A Gay Girl in Damascus knowing absolutely nothing about Syrian blogger Amina Arraf. I also knew nothing about either the 2010 film Catfish (which boasts an 80% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on an N of 145 critics out of the thousands now aggregated by RT's Tomatometer), or Catfish: The TV Show (a series inspired by the film which is now in its 4th season on MTV).

But once I am alone in the dark, what I see on screen is filtered through decades of prior life experience, which in my case includes not just thousands of hours of watching and writing about films, but graduate degrees in cognitive psychology, management experience in information services, and a lifetime of commitment to Feminist causes.

That person--the person who went into A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile blind--was deeply moved by the story she had seen on screen. I literally left the theatre shaking. Insofar as Sophie Deraspe set out to "hook me" (words I must put in quotes here because of the whole catfishing theme), then she certainly succeeded. But then I spent a good part of the next twelve hours on Google, and awoke this morning with qualms... I won't say any more about my qualms now. You will find those details below... under the SPOILER ALERT.

*************************

SandraBagaria

The primary POV in A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile belongs to a woman named Sandra Bagaria. Sandra is a French woman who now lives in Montreal. How long has Sandra been living in Canada, and why did she leave France in the first place? Who knows! At one point, Deraspe tells us Sandra is Jewish, but what that means to her--if anything--is also a mystery. In fact, Deraspe tells us almost nothing about Sandra--her background, her life, her beliefs, or her motivations--choosing instead to open her film with a reenactment of the moment Sandra Bagaria first connected with Amina Arraf online.

And so, in the first few moments of A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile we are introduced to two dark-haired women slowly stripping as they chat. They are standing in front of an open window shaded by a billowing lace curtain, so we don't see their faces, but we do see their bodies--young, supple female bodies with gorgeous breasts and prominent nipples. Yowza! Of course, I'm hooked! To say Sandra is also "hooked" would be an understatement.

The time frame here is critical. The Arab Spring began in Tunis on December 17, 2000. Amina's first post on her new Blog "A Gay Girl in Damascus" was February 19, 2011. So the Sandra/Amina relationship blossomed in period of intense international drama. As Sandra fell ever deeper in love with Amina, they discussed all this online while also trading jpgs. (Yowza! Amina's tits are nothing compared to her even more perfect ass!) Sandra was not Amina's only fan. Her online presence grew, and soon she was being interviewed--always online--by a journalist from The Guardian. After that, new members of the MSM picked up the story, and the "A Gay Girl in Damascus" Blog went viral.

As protests spread across the Middle East from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond, President Bashar Assad authorized a crackdown on Syrian dissidents. On June 6, 2011, Sandra received a message informing her that Amina had been abducted, presumably by men working for Assad. Sandra--rightfully overwhelmed with concern--launched an online campaign to bombard cyberspace with #FreeAmina demands. The worldwide search that followed reached as high as the US State Department. Kidnapping

But less than one week later--on June 12, 2011--a man named Tom MacMaster was outed in Edinburgh. There was no Amina. Tom MacMaster--a struggling novelist who had majored in Middle Eastern Studies at Emory University--had fabricated the whole thing... At this point, Sandra Bagaria became a raging fury. Why would someone do this to her? She had been publicly humiliated, so she must be avenged!

And so, Sophie Deraspe pivots her film from the Search for Amina to the Search for MacMaster just as The Arab Spring collapses. Syria splinters into zones controlled by militants of every confession--primarily Alawites (supporting Assas), Shias (supported by Iran), and Sunnis (supported by Saudia Arabia)--while Christians, Kurds, Yazidis, and others are caught in the middle. Millions of Syrians flee for the borders, flooding the neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Millions more--mostly women and children--are internally displaced inside Syria.

I literally left the theatre shaking... Effective filmmaking? Definitely! Ethical filmmaking? See below.

© Jan Lisa Huttner FF2 Media (7/24/15)

CyberLovers

Top Photo: Reenactment of "Amina" walking the streets of Damascus.

Middle Photo #1: Sandra Bagaria--the real Sandra Bagaria--demanding to know "the truth" about Amina.

Middle Photo #2: Reenactment of "Amina" abducted by Syrian goons.

Bottom Photo: Opening sequence, a reenactment of "Amina" seducing Sophie online.

Photo Credits: National Film Board of Canada/Sundance Selects

Q: Does A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile pass the Bechdel Test? RedA

Absolutely!

Regardless of who "the real Amina" turnout out to be (which is obviously not the same as she appears to be in the Deraspe's reenactments of the Amina/Sandra relationship), it goes without saying that both Sandra Bagaria and Sophie Deraspe are real people--now seen everywhere on camera, promoting their film at Sundance and beyond--and they are both women. So just on the basis of the Sandra/Sophie relationship, A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile passes the Bechdel Test.

In the course of the film, they also talk to other Lesbian activists as well as women journalists.

RealToReelPenny

What is "my problem" with A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile? I have so many problems with this film that I hardly know where to begin...

But start here: After spending most of the the past 24 hours researching and/or obsessing about A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile, I am shocked to find myself feeling sorry for Tom MacMaster!

The very fact that Sophie Deraspe begins her film as she does is proof positive that "sex sells," so I think we need to cut MacMaster a bit of slack. When all is said and done, he made the exact same move then that Deraspe is making now: using sex--in this case super-sexy Lesbian sex--to tempt jaded paletes "for their own good."

Let's all be honest now: Would there have been quite so much interest in "Amina" if she hadn't appeared to be such a dish??? Who wants to hear about what is really going on in Syria??? Much easier for all of us to stay in comfort zones increasingly defined by the non-reality of "Infotainment" and "Reality TV."

Read the coverage in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Tom MacMaster appears to be a reasonably credible guy with a sincere interest in Syria and The Arab Spring. And judged on its own merits, he appears to be a pretty good writer too. After all--creepy as it may all be--he certainly succeeded in snookering a whole lot of people, so what novelist wouldn't envy his imaginative verbal abilities? Who says publishers were right to ignore his prior efforts? We all know that the publishing business is totally driven by dollar signs, and it is almost impossible for a new author to break in without a powerful sponsor.

Yes, he hurt Sandra Bagaria, but he also made a lot of people care about what was happening in Syria for awhile, and that's not nothing. Now Sandra Bagaria is an Indie Heroine who gets to tell her side courtesy of Sophie Deraspe--who has certainly enhanced her own career prospects in the interim--but where is Tom MacMaster? He seems to have vanished from Google, and Wikipedia doesn't say... He has been cast as "the villain," and that seems to require that he be obliterated.

Meanwhile Bashar Assad rules an ever smaller portion of Syria and ISIS rules an ever greater portion of Syria, while more people flee and more people die. Given the circumstances, should we really cheer when Sandra Bagaria gets "closure"...?

Bottom Line: This one is on us. We are the ones who determine the rules of this game. Tom MacMaster played the game for a while. Now it's Sophie Deraspe's moment. "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Posted in Bechdel List, Reviews: A | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SAMBA

Samba_Movie_PosterSamba blends genres of romantic comedy and harrowing drama into one narrative about a Senegalese immigrant. The handful of sweet and comedic moments become few and far between by the film’s melodramatic third act. Overall, it is an easy watch with a good message. (BKP: 4/5)

Review by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky

Coming off of their success with The Intouchables, filmmakers Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledo (in collaboration with Muriel and Delphine Coulin) tell another tale of an unlikely bond. This time, it’s between aspiring chef “Samba” (Omar Sy) and an immigration volunteer “Alice” (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine opens the film on a visually interesting note, as the camera follows a wedding cake from the dance floor to the back of a hotel kitchen. This is where we meet dishwasher Samba. For the past 10 years, he has commuted a lengthy distance to work from his less-than-ideal living situation. But none of this fazes him; he is merely happy to be living in France. Everything changes when the French immigration authorities order Samba to return to his native country. Before his hopes for a better future are crushed, Samba seeks help from Alice, an immigration volunteer dealing with her own issues. The two embark on a journey of romance, trust and mutual longing for a better life.

Outside characters are introduced, some which serve a purpose, while others could have been left on the cutting room floor. At Alice’s immigration center, there’s “Manu” (Izïa Higelin), “Maggy” (Jacqueline Jehanneuf) and “Marcelle” (Hélène Vincent). But the one supporting character that provides the majority of comic relief is Samba’s best friend “Wilson,” (Tahar Rahim). His recreation of a 1990s Diet Coke ad is one of the highlights of Samba, giving a light-hearted touch to a film that deals with serious issues of race, class and immigration.

Sy and Gainsbourg are convincing in their roles of Samba and Alice, although their chemistry lacked a sense of romantic spark. When Samba concludes, you are left with an evenly matched pros and cons list. There are many touching moments and messages throughout which humanize the characters. Whether Samba is sending money home to Senegal to support his mother and family or Alice is ignoring her supervisor’s advice about emotional involvement with clients, the characters feel like real people. Tonal shifts and dramatic subplots get in the way of the film’s potential, but ultimately tie together to make sense. There are great moments, there are not-so-great moments, but the overarching theme is both sincere and inspirational.

© Brigid K. Presecky FF2 Media (7/25/15)

24SAMBA-master675

Photo: Omar Sy as "Samba" with Charlotte Gainsbourg as "Alice"

Photo Credits: David Koskas/Broad Green Pictures

Q: Does Samba  pass the Bechdel Test?RedA

Yes!

Alice has scenes with her female co-workers, “Manu” (Izïa Higelin), “Maggy” (Jacqueline Jehanneuf) and “Marcelle” (Hélène Vincent).

Posted in Reviews: Q-S | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

UNEXPECTED

UNEXPECTED (1)An inner city schoolteacher finds out that she is pregnant at the same time her career is in turmoil. Her star student becomes pregnant around the same time, and the two form an unlikely bond and friendship through their similar situation.

Boasting a female dominated cast, Unexpected is an enjoyable watch, with strong performances from both Colbie Smulders and Gail Bean. (JEP: 3.5/5)

Review by Contributing Editor Jessica E. Perry

 Unexpected, directed by Kris Swanberg, opens with the promise of delivering a satisfying indie, and aside from a few fumbles, does not disappoint.

“Samantha Abbott” (Colbie Smulders) is a teacher at an inner city high school that is closing its doors at the end of the year. Struggling to find a new job, Samantha finds a position available at her dream job. However, her career plans are derailed when learns she is pregnant.

What’s more, Samantha learns that her most promising student, “Jasmine” (Gail Bean) is also dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. The two women develop an unlikely friendship, their common situation bringing them together.

While Samantha’s pregnancy is unexpected, she is in a steady relationship and lives with her boyfriend “John” (Anders Holm). So her situation is not that of the stereotype of “unexpected” pregnancy that one might expect. Instead, the day after John learns Samantha is pregnant, he pops the question and the two get married at the courthouse soon after.unexpected-unexpected-21-jpg-20150722

Jasmine, on the other hand, has a boyfriend who soon proves himself unfit to be a father. But she vows to be a good mother to her child, doing for her baby what her mother was unable to do for her. With the support of her grandmother and immediate family, Jasmine knows all will work out. While Samantha, who has a much more secure home situation, is full of doubt.

The student and the teacher form an unlikely friendship. Samantha is determined to help Jasmine attend college, even in her current situation. And Jasmine’s confidence coaxes Samantha into a more appeased state about her own pregnancy and being able to keep her career after the baby comes.

Samantha's mother "Carolyn" (Elizabeth McGovern, who you probably know as Cora Crawley from Downton Abbey) delivers a charming performance, serving as a force of caring resistance to her daughter’s quickie wedding and unexpected pregnancy. Anders Holm is perfectly cast as the caring partner, equal parts endearing and understanding.

As a fan of Colbie Smulders I was looking forward to Unexpected. While there was nothing groundbreaking about her performance, it was a new character choice for Smulders, and she did not disappoint, delivering a strong and relatable performance. However, the stand out performance of the film was Gail Bean as “Jasmine”, who was unknown to me before this film.

Solid performances all around, with a predictable yet lovely storyline all the same, Unexpected is an enjoyable watch for a night in or a night out (it is available to watch both in theaters or on demand on iTunes).

© Jessica E. Perry FF2 Media (7/29/15)Unexpected

Top Photo: Samantha is worried she is pregnant, and is testing the signs.

Middle Photo: Samantha and Jasmine's friendship grows from their common situation.

Bottom Photo: John and Samantha talk about their baby on the way.

Photo Credits: The Film Arcade

Q: Does Unexpected pass the Bechdel Test?RedA

 100% yes!

The film revolves around Samantha and Jasmine’s friendship, boasting a female dominated cast. The two lead characters focus on things like the future, school, career, and their families.

Posted in Bechdel List, Reviews: U-W | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TRAINWRECK: Amy Schumer’s Summer

TrainwreckPosterA Message from Managing Editor Jan Lisa Huttner

This morning, Amy Schumer received a coveted Emmy nomination in the highly competitive "Best Comedy Actress" category alongside some of the most beloved female stars--Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Edie Falco, Lisa Kudrow, Amy Poeler, and Lily Tomlin--on the current television scene.

Her show--Inside Amy Schumer--also picked up six nominations for "Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series," "Outstanding Directing for a Variety Series," "Outstanding Original Music & Lyrics"(for the song Girl You Don't Need Make Up), Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series" (for Paul Giamatti as Juror #10 in the Twelve Angry Men parody), "Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy Series," and "Outstanding Variety Sketch Series."

YOWZA: That's a lot of Emmy Nominations!!!

So the FF2 Media Team has decided to go all out in our coverage for her new film Trainwreck.

We will provide three reviews of Trainwreck: from Jan in NYC on the East Coast, from Jess in LA on the West Coast, and from Brigid in Chicago in the Magic Middle :-)

Posted in Rants: Oscars/Awards | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TRAINWRECK (BKP)

AmyKimWriter Amy Schumer kicks off her movie debut with a bang, telling the hilariously relatable story about falling in love, caring for family and struggling to better yourself. In classic Judd Apatow form, the film is about 30 minutes too long; but what it lacks in structure, it makes up for in heart and humor. Highly recommended! (BKP: 4.5/5)

Review by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky

When we meet 30-something “Amy” (Amy Schumer), her life is far from put-together. She drinks heavily before one-night stands, cracks mean-spirited jokes at her sister and struggles with her father’s dwindling health. At work, her witchy magazine editor boss (played by a barely recognizable Tilda Swinton) tells Amy “You’re clever, but not too brainy. You’re pretty-ish, not gorgeous. You’re approachable.” With that, writer Amy is assigned a story that takes place in a world she knows little about - sports. Enter “Dr. Aaron Conners” (Bill Hader).

The two embark on a believably funny, awkward and sweet romance as Amy deals with her family and Aaron shoots hoops with his pal, Lebron James. With the same tone as other Apatow-directed comedies, like Knocked Up or This Is 40, there are more serious moments than trailers or promotional spots lead you to believe. The blending of different genres (romantic comedy, slapstick comedy and family drama) gives Trainwreck a great amount of depth and relatability. Life is not always funny, life is not always sad. Not all men are Crossfit-addicted buffoons and sometimes nerdy 11-year-olds are wiser than people twice their age.

There are some elements that could have been left on the cutting room floor, like a bizarre sexual encounter with an underage intern or Aaron’s star-studded intervention. The third act seems dragged out. Yet, despite all of these unnecessary scenes and celebrity cameos, the story remains strong and engaging. Schumer and Hader have undeniable chemistry that is a joy to watch from beginning to end. It is a refreshing change to have atypical actors in these roles, people whose humor and likability trumps their waistline or ruggedness.

With so many action films, sequels and reboots flooding the multiplexes, Trainwreck feels like a movie from decades past. It is a story that makes you laugh and cry, all while managing to do it without magical powers or the threat of the Apocalypse. Amy Schumer has made people laugh for years with her stand-up routine and Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer, but thanks to the highly-publicized Trainwreck, her talents are deservingly getting recognized.

© Brigid K. Presecky FF2 Media (7/17/15)

AmyAaron

Top Photo: Amy Schumer as "Amy" and Brie Larson as her sister "Kim"

Bottom Photo: Bill Hader as "Aaron" with Amy

Photo Credits: Mary Cybulski © 2015 - Universal Pictures

Q: Does Trainwreck pass the Bechdel Test?RedA

Absolutely!

Although she does have the typical “best friend/coworker” conversation about her boyfriend with the always-hilarious “Nikki” (Vanessa Bayer), Amy shares a tension-filled relationship with her sister “Kim” (Brie Larson).

Posted in Bechdel List, Reviews: T | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TRAINWRECK (JEP)

trainwreck-mv-2As a young girl, Amy’s father insists that monogamy is not realistic. From that moment on, she takes his words to heart until sports doctor “Aaron Conners” changes everything.

Written by comedian Amy Schumer, Trainwreck is 2 hours of non-stop laughs, with family and relationship situations drawn from Schumer’s real life experiences. (JEP: 4/5)

Review by Contributing Editor Jessica E. Perry

Written by Amy Schumer, Trainwreck--her first feature--is based loosely on comedienne Schumer's her own life experiences. Directed by Judd Apatow, the film is 122 minutes of laugh out loud moments, coupled with a surprisingly touching story of family, love, and finding yourself.

The film opens on two young girls and their father as he explains to them why Mommy and Daddy are getting divorced through a hilarious doll analogy. They repeat his mantra back to him "monogamy is not realistic, monogamy is not realistic, monogamy is not realistic..."

Flash forward to a now grown "Amy" (Amy Schumer) who took her father's words to heart. She goes through a slew of guys, never breaking her rule of "no staying the night." Her younger sister "Kim" (Brie Larson), on the other hand, does the exact opposite--playing house with her husband and adorable stepson.

Romantically, Amy's life is a mess and that is just the way she likes it. But work-wise Amy is doing well as a writer for the trash talking men's magazine S'nuff, and is even up for a promotion. Her boss “Dianna” (Tilda Swinton) assigns Amy a piece on sports doctor "Aaron Conners" (Bill Hader), even though Amy distains anything and everything sports related. Trainwreck

Staying on her usual path, Amy goes for a drink with Aaron and then proceeds--bold and a tad over-confident--to invite herself over to Aaron's apartment. The night goes as planned, but the morning after changes the game.

With coaxing from his friend LeBron James (with the NBA giant gamely playing himself), Aaron calls Amy the next day asking to see her again. From that moment on Amy and her ways are doomed. A relationship ensues and love grows.

All the while, Amy and her sister are focused on caring for their father "Gordon" (Colin Quinn) who has multiple sclerosis which has progressed to the point where he must be moved to an assisted living facility. The familial struggle and relationships between father and daughter, and sister and sister, give Trainwreck more substance than many of its standard RomCom counterparts.

I laughed so hard I cried. Amy was crass and hysterical, but she was also relatable. Bill Hader was a fresh take on the typical romantic male lead, and was as funny as expected. I will also say LeBron James was a surprise, delivering a solid comedic performance.

Yes, at a runtime of over 2 hours, Trainwreck is long for a comedy, and admittedly it felt that way. But I think we should all give the film a pardon for that, as Schumer succeeds in making us laugh out loud almost the entire 2 hours, breaking only for those touching family moments. See Trainwreck and see it now. You are in for a whole lot of laughs!

© Jessica E. Perry FF2 Media (7/20/15)

trainwreck-mv-6

Top Photo: "Amy" (Amy Schumer) and "Aaron" (Bill Hader) go out for the first time.

Middle Photo: Amy and her sister Kim (Brie Larson) having morning tea... and morning champagne.

Bottom Photo: LeBron James, playing the protective friend, asking Amy what her intentions are with Aaron.

Photo Credits: Mary Cybulski © 2015 - Universal Pictures

Q: Does Trainwreck pass the Bechdel Test?RedA

 Yes!

Amy and her sister Kim have many scenes together, revolving around life and family.

In addition, Amy and her hysterical boss "Dianna" (Tilda Swinton) have conversations together about work and Amy's possible promotion.

Posted in Bechdel List, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TRAINWRECK (JLH)

WhoMeComedienne Amy Schumer is feisty and adorable in her first staring role, but the film--which she wrote--was directed by Judd Apatow. And Apatow, as the reigning master of mainstream comedy, succeeds in softening all of Schumer's edges.

There are some laugh-out-loud moments, especially in the first half, but the long, slow slide into a predicable finale weighs the whole film down. (JLH: 3.5/5)

Review by FF2 Managing Editor Jan Lisa Huttner

I love Amy Schumer: I really, really do. I admit that I was a bit slow to warm up to her Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer (which has always been a bit too raunchy for my taste), but I have seen the light and I am now a regular. Many of this year's skits have hit the Bull's Eye. While 12 Angry Men parody was certainly audacious, I am particularly partial to the "I'm Sorry" bit (which really did make me laugh and cry simultaneously).

So, yes, I love Amy Schumer... But I'm not quite so fond of Judd Apatow... This puts me in a bind, because Apatow may well be the most powerful advocate for women filmmakers on our planet right now. Almost single-handed, Apatow made both Lena Dunham and Kristen Wiig MSM (mainstream media) phenomena, enabling both women to expand the range of "acceptable options" for women artists everywhere.

He clearly made a wise choice when he married comedienne Leslie Mann (although I have liked her best in her non-Apatow produced roles including "Laurie" in The Bling Ring and "Kate" in The Other Woman). In his own words: "My wife tends to challenge me when I'm working on the female roles...," so minimally he has been sensitized to issues of "Male Privilege" that many men in Movieland still prefer to ignore. WithTS

And the fact that Apatow and Mann are now raising two daughters--Maude and Iris--both of whom appeared in their semi-autobiographical film This is Forty--gives him a stake in the next generation. Feminist literature on women's equality suggests that the most powerful advocates we have are the fathers of daughters. I certainly benefited personally and professionally from the love of a supportive father. From my own first hand observation, fathers of daughters take the position: "No one tells my daughter what she can and can't be except me... And she never lets me stop her either."

But <insert BIG SIGH here> all of this is cover: I hate to say it, but the truth is that the most surprising thing about Trainwreck is how boring it is.

The first half is very promising: By day, "Amy" (Amy Schumer) is a hard-working writer for S'nuff, a glossy magazine for men helmed by a monster named "Dianna" (Tilda Swinton). By night, Amy is a "player," drinking, smoking, and seeking unencumbered sexual pleasure with a wide range of partners. Amy is living large in New York City--The Big Apple--and apparently loving every minute of it.

Then, one morning in a pitch meeting, Dianna throws Amy a curve. Dianna knows Amy hates sports, therefore she decides Amy is the perfect person to interview the NBA's new star: an Orthopedic Surgeon named "Aaron Conners" (Bill Hader). Thus the lady who has spent her entire life avoiding romantic entanglements is summarily thrown at "Dr. Right"--who is even better than any mere "Mr. Right" could ever be--and the movie goes downhill from there.

Dr. Aaron is simply too good to be true. In one scene he's playing one-on-one with LeBron James; in the next scene he's getting a philanthropy award from Doctors Without Borders. We know who this man is, so let's just say it out loud: this man--Dr. Aaron--is not a person, this man is a Jewish Mother's Dream. Please note that I am being deliberately ironic here. The mother having this dream isn't a real Jewish Mother either, she's a stereotype, just like Dr. Aaron is. To win him, Amy has to stop being herself and turn into a stereotype too. And so we see Amy Schumer--the same woman who put her own hotness on trial during the 12 Angry Men parody--transformed into a perky blonde cheerleader. The Horror! The Horror!

Schumer is certainly a team player. My gut tells me she subordinated her own instincts just as much as I believe Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo did when they wrote (or did they?) the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Bridesmaids way back in 2011. In both cases, my gut tells me they all deferred to Apatow, and once again I think the reward will be box office magic. But that doesn't make it fun... or at least not as much fun as it might have been if the person at the controls had had a bit more of an edge. WithLB

Trainwreck has its laugh-out-loud moments. Tilda Swinton as Dianna--the S'nuff editor--does a great job playing to our memories of Meryl Streep as "Miranda" in The Devil Wears Prada. TV commentator Marv Albert is also hilarious as himself in an intervention organized by LeBron James (who portrays himself as a stoic giant with a heart of gold).

And the whole sports subplot is a brilliant ruse to lure guys into a film that is not only a RomCom but an actual Chick Flick (in which two sisters bicker about and then cry about their dying Daddy until they finally collapse into a big moist group hug).

But the runtime--125 minutes--is a give away: there is a whole lot of dead air in Trainwreck. Stick a pin in this balloon and you won't hear a loud satisfying "pop," just a long slow hiss...

© Jan Lisa Huttner FF2 Media (7/17/15)

Coupling

Top Photo: Amy Schumer plays "Amy," a mess of a girl who learns to straighten up and fly right when she meets "The One."

First Middle Photo: Tilda Swinton as "Dianna" the editor of S'Nuff magazine.

Second Middle Photo: Orthopedic Surgeon "Aaron Conners" (Bill Hader) goes one-on-one with LeBron James (playing himself).

Bottom Photo: Dr. Aaron gets all lovely-dovey. Will Amy submit?!? I haven't a clue!!!

Photo Credits: Mary Cybulski - © 2015 - Universal Pictures

Q: Does Trainwreck pass the Bechdel Test? RedA

Absolutely!

In addition to her two key relationships with her editor/boss "Dianna" (Tilda Swinton) and her sister "Kim" (Brie Larson), Amy also has a work buddy named "Nikki" (played by Vanessa Bayer from Saturday Night Live). Some of the talk is about guys--of course--but most of it is about work in particular and/or life in general.

Chris Evert and  Marisa Tomei also have funny little cameos which don't affect the Bechdel Question, but are welcome moments nonetheless.

Posted in Bechdel List, Reviews: T | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ACCIDENTAL LOVE

PosterJessica Biel leads an all-star cast in a comedy flop about a waitress who tries to navigate life and love...  with a nail lodged in her head.

Screenwriting team consisting of Kristin Gore, Matthew Silverstein and Dave Jeser all still have their names attached, but director David O. Russell was somehow able to hide behind the name "Stephen Greene” on IMDb. (BKP: 2.5/5)

Review by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky

What strives to be a comedic political satire is actually a cringe-worthy mess of a film. When rollerskating waitress, “Alice” (Jessica Biel) gets engaged to her screwball boyfriend “Scott,” (James Marsden) a freak accident leaves her with a nail wedged into her head. Surgery? Not an option.

When the emergency room doctors discover that Alice does not have health insurance, they immediately halt the procedure. Instead of helping a person who cannot pay the bills, the doctors throw insults and munch on fast food. The in-your-face political commentary is humorous (at times) but quickly feels like a Saturday Night Live sketch that has run 100 minutes too long.

While Alice raises money and fights for her “nail-in-her-head” cause, she falls in love with a hunky congressman (Jake Gyllenhaal). Since Scott no longer wants to marry a girl with a nail in her head, the new congressman seems like a better, sexier Option Number Two. Meanwhile, as Alice becomes somewhat of a celebrity around Washington D.C., wacky characters come her way: a man with an anal fixation (Tracey Morgan) and a reverend with a painful, permanent erection (Kurt Fuller) --- to name a few.

The most interesting part of the film (written by Kristin Gore, Matthew Silverstein and Dave Jeser) is the endless amount of celebrity cameos. From Bill Hader and Beverly D’Angelo to Kirstie Alley and Catherine Keener, the talented comedians are always a welcome surprise. But with each “celebrity” appearance, the enjoyment dwindles further, with not even brilliant comedic talent able to save the weak script.

Maybe the high expectations of the film’s cast are to blame for the disastrous project that led to original director David O. Russell’s disownment in 2010, and a change to the film’s IMDb page with the director now credited as “Stephen Greene.” Originally beginning production in 2008 (with the title Nailed) the film stayed in distribution purgatory before its eventual release in 2015. Thankfully, the limited release will help ease the blow of Accidental Love’s disappointing turnout and save the cast and filmmakers the embarrassment.

© Brigid K. Presecky FF2 Media (7/10/15)

HospitalAL

Photo: James Marsden as "Scott," comforting fiance “Alice” (Jessica Biel) after she is denied surgery from her doctors (with M.D. cameo from Bill Hader).

Photo Credits: Millennium Entertainment

Q: Does Accidental Love pass the Bechdel Test? RedA

Barely.

“Alice” (Jessica Biel) has scenes with her mother “Helen” (Beverly D’Angelo).

Posted in Bechdel List, Reviews: A | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

MEET ME IN MONTENEGRO

meet_me_in_montenegro_stillMeet Me in Montenegro tells the story of two ex-lovers who are both down on their luck. By chance the two reunite in Berlin and lean on each other for support as their careers weather many ups and downs. A love story cleverly told, by filmmakers Linnea Saasen and Alex Holdridge, one of forgotten romance found again. (JEP: 3.5/5)

Written by Contributing Editor Jessica E. Perry

Loosely based on writer/director pair Linnea Saasen and Alex Holdridge’s lives, Meet Me in Montenegro tells the story of two ex-lovers who find each other again after years apart. The two wrote, directed, and starred in the film, cleverly bringing their own experiences to the screen.

Meet Me in Montenegro opens in flashback. With “Anderson” (Alex Holdridge) telling us how Montenegro was magic, until the girl he loved—the girl who made him feel alive—left without a word, leaving him alone in a beautiful seaside town.

As an American screenwriter, Anderson has been down on his luck. A script he’s been working on for years gets one last chance when an actor in Berlin agrees to a meeting. However, Anderson all but refuses to take the meeting because the girl who broke his heart lives in the very same city. But he’s broke and out of options, so reluctantly, Anderson jets off to Berlin.

While in Germany, Anderson is staying with an old buddy “Stephen” (Rupert Friend) and his girlfriend “Friederike” (Jennifer Ulrich). The couple is interested in exploring new things sexually with other partners. This B storyline runs throughout Meet Me in Montenegro offering the viewer a glimpse into another broken love story.

Stephen tells Anderson that the girl who broke his heart still lives in town. And while Anderson may have told himself that he moved on, the opposite proves true when he finds himself seeing a film at the theater she always went to on Friday nights. Amazingly (and a bit predictably) she—“Lina” (Linnea Saasen)—happens to be there. The two lock eyes, and so it begins…again.

Lina is an optimist, Anderson a realist, but life has got them both at a crossroads. Lina is a dancer and has been offered an arts residency in another country. Anderson’s script has been green lit by the studio, and his career is in LA.

So the two plan to spend their last days in Berlin together and then part once again. But as both of their careers are thrown into upheaval by forces out of their control, Lina and Anderson find themselves at a crossroads of choosing between love and their careers.

Alex Holdridge fumbled in a few areas of his performance as Anderson, but never enough to take me out of the film. Linnea Saasen’s performance, on the other hand, was engaging and compelling, giving the film its light.

Meet Me in Montenegro was a story seen before, but told from a different perspective. Was it superb? Maybe not. But do you want to stay with Lina and Anderson in their love story until the very end? Definitely.

© Jessica E. Perry FF2 Media (7/17/15)

Meet Me in Montenegro

Top Photo: Lina and Anderson contemplating returning to Montenegro.

Bottom Photo: Love rekindling

Photo Credits: ???

Q: Does Meet Me in Montenegro pass the Bechdel Test?

Nope.

Posted in Reviews: K-M | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

STRANGERLAND

ConsolationStrangerland, a high-profile new release from Australia, promises more than it can deliver.

Excellent performances from Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes, and Hugo Weaving are undone by a weak screenplay--by Michael Kinirons and Fiona Seres--which totally collapses in the third act.

Director Kim Farrant shows great promise, but she needs to keep a tighter reign on her screenwriters in future. (JLH: 3/5)

*************************

"All dressed up with nowhere to go." That was the phrase that kept repeating itself in my head--in an endless loop--during the third act of Strangerland.

It's a real shame, because the first two acts of Strangerland promise genuine tension. Terrific high profile actors create intriguing characters and I am totally invested in their fate... and then... splat! Despiration

Strangerland is set in the Australian Outback, in a town at the edge of nothingness. "Matthew Parker" (Joseph Fiennes) has moved his family here deliberately because of trouble in the recent past which--after much teasing--is eventually revealed midway through act two. Suffice it to say that his wife "Catherine" (Nicole Kidman) understands their predicament and is doing her best to make do, but their teenage daughter "Lily" (Maddison Brown) is furious.

Meanwhile their young son "Tommy" (Nicholas Hamilton) is caught in the middle. Matthew insists that Tommy monitor Lily's behavior, so Lily punishes Tommy by daring him to tattle. Sensing her power to make Matthew nuts, Lily's behavior becomes increasingly provocative.

Exhausted by the tension in her home--which is exacerbated by the unrelenting heat beating down on their town--Catherine takes to her bed. When she wakes up later than usual the next morning, the house is cool and quiet. At first she is relieved, but all to soon she realizes Lily and Tommy--assumed to be in school--have in fact gone missing! Where could they be?!?

Flirting

Top Photo: "Catherine Parker" (Nicole Kidman) seeks comfort in the arms of police detective "David Rae" (Hugo Weaving).

Middle Photo: "Matthew Parker" (Joseph Fiennes) rescues his wife after she has an emotional breakdown.

Photo Credits ©Parker Pictures Production Photographer Ross McDonnell. All Rights Reserved

Bottom Photo: "Lily Parker" (Maddison Brown) forces her brother "Tommy" (Nicholas Hamilton) to stand on the sidelines while she flits with some townies at a skateboard park. Photo Credit: Mark Rogers.

Q: Does Strangerland pass the Bechdel Test?

Yes.

In addition to early interactions with Lily, Catherine also pleads with a woman in the grocery store, throwing herself on the woman's mercy in the hope that the woman--who is of Aboriginal Australian/Indigenous Australian ancestry--can help her find her children. It's preposterous of course, and the woman quickly rejects Catherine's condescending assumption that she has "magic powers."

Posted in Bechdel List, Reviews: Q-S | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment