GOOD FORTUNE (2016): Review by Giorgi Plys-Garzotto

“Success unshared, is failure.” That’s John Paul DeJoria’s motto, and Good Fortune, Rebecca Harrell Tickell’s profile on this entrepreneur and humanitarian, proves that “JP” is as good as his word. While the overall message of the film, that capitalism can be reformed if every rich businessperson makes JP’s same contributions, is very flawed, taken as one man’s story of success Good Fortune is a heartwarming rags to riches tale. (GPG: 3.5/5)

Review by FF2 Contributor Giorgi Plys-Garzotto

JP goes through many career ups and downs, from selling encyclopedias door to door, to being fired from company after company, to finally becoming homeless after an investor fails to come through on seed money. After hitting rock bottom living on the streets, instead of getting a new investor, JP decides to take his products--a hair product line partnering with famous hairdresser Paul Mitchell--on the road. Selling these hair products just as he had once sold encyclopedias, he builds a national brand that is still a standard in hair salons.

We then see all the philanthropic pursuits JP uses his money for--like Elon Musk and other more recent Silicon Valley moguls, JP is passionate about global warming solutions, including sustainable communities and sizable donations to the Sea Shepherd Conversation Society, who intercept whaling boats to protect marine wildlife. He also made the John Paul Mitchell company one of the first to ensure fair treatment of its employees, and to stop using animal testing in developing their products.

While JP's life is interesting and admirable, it's hard not to construe the film as light-hearted propaganda for an updated American Dream, based on benevolent capitalists facilitating equal opportunity for all through charitable donations rather than, you know, pushing for legislation to raise their own taxes.

The B-roll portions of the documentary are structured like a filmstrip from circa-1940, updated with more modern editing techniques but mainly constructed out of grainy mid-century footage and almost corny graphics. These sections are even narrated by Dan Akyroyd in a voice reminiscent of an old-time news announcer. The film begins with a sharply stylistic filmstrip portion about the American Dream, moving into a more modern/ 40s fusion style as Akyroyd tells the beginning of the story of conscious capitalism. I found this choice to be almost a glib confession of the film's propagandistic purposes.

Despite the issues with the film’s message, though, I enjoyed learning about how JP developed El Patron after going on a tequila factory tour while on vacation, and seeing how his personal struggles to succeed inform the duty he feels to help others.

© Giorgi Plys-Garzotto (6/22/17) FF2 Media

Photo Credit: Paul Mitchell.

Top Photo: John Paul DeJoria.

Middle Photo: JP with the Dalai Lama.

Bottom Photo: JP guest starring on Shark Tank.

Q: Does Good Fortune pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

No, due to it being a profile of a male businessman, and the documentary format keeping the women interviewees from talking to each other.

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IN TRANSIT (2015): Review by Georgi Presecky

In Transit is a compelling documentary from Lynn True, Nelson Walker and Albert Maysles that examines the lives of passengers on a long-distance train trip. (GEP: 5/5)

Review by Social Media Manager Georgiana E. Presecky

The intrinsic value of the ABC drama Lost was its central idea: that strangers on a plane could crash on a deserted island, each with their own unique backgrounds, hardships and stories, and still find common ground. True and Maysles’ award-winning documentary is Lost in real life, telling the stories of various passengers aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which transports hundreds of people across the country.

The film seems to have a simple premise, but it quickly delves into these people’s lives: what they want, where they’re from and where they’re going - literally and otherwise. Passengers of all ages and multiple ethnicities are on board, playing cards and sleeping and reading and talking. These seemingly mundane activities serve to emphasize the slice-of-life aspect of True and Maysles’ vignettes. There’s an immigrant from China and a woman who’s nine months pregnant. There’s a man who quit his job the day before and the conductor from North Dakota. There are blue-collar workers, families and college students, all headed in the same direction for different reasons.

There’s something about transportation that humanizes people. The documentarians are catching these people in transition, stuck between two places. They all have stories, and they tell them openly and surprisingly well, but without too much starry-eyed sentiment. Passengers discuss not only their ambitions and their reasons for travel, but the details that make up a life - favorite movies, children’s names and hometowns. It’s a rare look at human nature - what we do when we have no choice but to kill time, surrounded by people who seem different than us, but might not be after all. You never know what the people in the seats around you on the train or bus or plane are traveling toward, or away from. But In Transit will reawaken your desire to ask.

You’d have to be fairly cynical not to be moved by the simplicity of this documentary. Its quick pace and effortless formula only lend to the beauty of the small moments and interactions it captures. It’s a refreshing reminder that life isn’t always as complicated as it seems, especially when the country is passing by through the window.

One passenger sought to console another with a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a word or song, if I can show someone they are traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain.” The stories of In Transit are not told in vain, and they will certainly help those who need to be reminded of humanity’s simple connections.

© Georgiana E. Presecky (6/22/17) FF2 Media

Top Photo: The Empire Builder is "the busiest long-distance train route in America."

Middle Photo: This passenger reflects on her travels.

Bottom Photo: Strangers on the train bond.

Photo Credits: True Walker Productions

Q: Does In Transit pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?

Yes! Many of the passengers are female and have much more to talk about than men.

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HARE KRISHNA! (2017): Review by Giorgi Plys-Garzotto

Full Title: Hare Krishna! The Mantra, The Movement and the Swami Who Started It All

A well known religious group, the Hare Krishnas have been criticized for cult-like behavior, though they have also been lauded for their rejection of materialism which contributed to the 60s countercultural movement. I found it boring, and the treatment of Indian culture by the largely white Krishna disciples interviewed in the film is highly questionable. (GPG: 2/5)

Review by FF2 Contributor Giorgi Plys-Garzotto

Anyone who goes to Union Square in New York will see a few things: the people with the cats on display collecting money for their shelter, the old men playing chess by the subway entrance, and a group of people sitting on the ground in colorful robes, burning incense, and chanting the words "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare.” According to the “swami” Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the sound of that sixteen-word chant causes transcendental vibrations that can change minds, lives, and the world. While I can’t say whether that’s true, the Hare Krishna movement has certainly had an impact on American culture, and New York city public transportation.

Like the group's well-known chant, the documentary is very repetitive, using very similar images and transitions, along with interviews that all say basically say the same thing about whatever aspect of the Krishna movement the movie is talking about at the moment. The main threads of the film are the spread of the movement in American culture, and the story of Prabhupada’s life, in India and coming to America, leading up to his founding of the movement.

The movie also gives background on the roots of the Hare Krishna movement in classical Hinduism, though it falls into the trap that most white people who idolize India do--one disciple actually says that everything in India is focused on devotion to God, as if ungodly Indians do not exist. As if India, a country famous for its multiplicity of faiths, languages, and regional culture, could be monolithically summed up in one poor understanding of the devotees of one Hindu god. Don’t let the Indian names fool you: the vast majority of the interviewees are white, having taken new names when they joined the movement. Maybe this kind of thing was fine in the 60s, but as a white person in 2017 I’d be pretty uncomfortable sitting in front of a camera and explaining India to people.

Ultimately, I saw this film as a documentary about how a man came from India to con a bunch of Americans into worshipping him as their leader. However, that certainly wasn’t the intention of the filmmakers: the coverage was starry-eyed with the kind of idealism that is antithetical to critical thinking. The film could also have been much shorter while still getting across the same information about the Hare Krishnas. All in all, pretty tepid, and politically problematic.

© Giorgi Plys-Garzotto (6/18/17) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Swami Prabhupada, founder of the Hare Krishna movement.

Middle Photo: Hare Krishna disciples recruiting.

Bottom Photo: Swami Prabhupada with George Harrison and others.

Photo Credit: Iskon.org

Q: Does Hare Krishna! pass the Bechdel test?

No, but there are a few women interviewees—not many, though.

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ROUGH NIGHT (2017): Review by Lindsy Bissonnette

Looking for a night of fun, friends, and pandemonium? Then Rough Night is an absolute must-see. Written by Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs, and directed by Lucia Aniello, this is the story of what happens when you mix five best friends, drugs, and jealousy into a bachelorette party, which goes horribly, horribly wrong in this comedy-thriller. Unequivocally hilarious, Rough Night is the girls-and-guys-night-out film to see. (LMB: 4/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Lindsy M. Bissonnette

“Jess” (Scarlett Johansson) is a career-driven political science major who is running for public office. Unfortunately, her ratings are plummeting because the general public finds her distant and “not fun.” Her fiancé “Peter” (Paul W. Downs), an empathetic and loving partner, is incredibly supportive of Jess’ dreams. He stays up when she has to work late, and even brings her favorite take-away home for her. Together, they make a great team, and they cannot wait to get married.

Cue “Alice” (Jillian Bell), Jess’ best friend from college. Alice has planned a bachelorette weekend in Miami to remember. She’s the is the clingy sweetheart of the clique.  The rest of the group includes “Blair” (Zoë Kravitz) a recent divorcée New York elite, and “Frankie” (Ilana Glazer) a full time activist who comes prepared with a half a pound of weed and a sarcastic-optimistic attitude. The only missing piece is Jess’ friend from Australia, “Pippa” (Kate McKinnon), a hippie go-with-the-flow but an outsider to the group, who is trying to make a good first impression.  Alice is immediately jealous of Jess and Pippa’s relationship, and spends the majority of her time trying to separate the two and prove that she is Jess’ best BFF.

While at dinner, Frankie scores some cocaine and the girls decide to all snort it together in celebration of Jess getting married. Then Alice, Blair, Frankie, and Pippa order Jess a stripper as a special surprise, and things spiral out of control from there, but you will have to go see the film for yourself to find out what happens.

Rough Night written by Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs, and directed by Lucia Aniello, is a great film. It crushes societal norms of what a bachelorette versus a bachelor party are supposed to entail, female sexuality, and the importance of friendship. The performances are fantastic, and most importantly, the pace of the film is perfect. In films like these the pace is incredibly important. It is easy to drown in lengthy exposition, or tired jokes and predictable plot, but Rough Night keeps you guessing, and keeps you laughing the entire time.

That being said, it does have its rough patches. Some of the dialogue is a little clunky and since the flow of the film is one of its strongest aspects, these few moments really stick out. But they are few and far between, and the rest of the dialogue is so brilliantly hilarious that you will soon forget those few moments. Rough Night is a must see and will leave you and your friends falling out of your chairs laughing.

© Lindsy M. Bissonnette (6/19/17) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Pippa and Alice eating some pizza.

Middle Photo: Blair, Frankie, Jess, and Alice at a club, with Pippa in the background trying to fit in.

Bottom Photo: The girls celebrating Jess’ bachelorette party in Miami.

Photo Credits: Macall B. Polay and Myles Aronowitz

Q: Does Rough Night pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Absolutely!
I would say 90% of the film is scenes between women talking about not men. Blair and Frankie talk about their past relationship, Jess and Alice talk about their days in college and their lives now. Everyone empathizes with Alice because her mother is ill. The list goes on and on.

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PRAY FOR RAIN (2017): Review by Stephanie Taylor

Feisty New York fashion reporter “Emma” (Annabelle Stephenson) returns to gang-infested Central Valley, California after her mother “Olivia” (Jane Seymour) delivers the news of her father’s death.

Determined to find out more details on his passing and the town’s severe drought, Emma begins her detailed investigation. Writers Christina Moore and Gloria Musca fill their story with drama, suspense and grade-A acting. (SAT: 4/5)

Review by FF2 Senior Contributor Stephanie A. Taylor

The beginning of the film has a noticeable disconnect between Emma and her hometown. The filmmakers blur the crowd as Emma stands - completely clear - outside of it. As time goes on, however, she becomes more a part of the community while attempting to figure out what happened to her father (who allegedly died in a tractor accident). Emma bonds with the community, including “Nico,” (Nicholas Gonzalez) the town's sheriff, and a childhood friend.

The suspense carries the film as Emma searches for clues by lurking around her father’s death scene and nothing deters her from seeking the truth. Once she discovers the cause of the town’s drought, she's even more determined to learn more and stop the bad guys.

Stephenson’s Emma is a true, convincing heroine. She’s held at gunpoint. She wakes up in a truck bound and gagged and somehow sets herself free. She doesn't use sex to get what she wants. But Emma isn't the only strong female lead. Seymour’s character Olivia shows as a jaded and frustrated woman who just wants a fresh start. The tension between the mother and daughter was very believable, with sincere chemistry between the actresses.

The plot certainly has twists and will leave you flabbergasted.

© Stephanie A. Taylor (6/19/17) FF2 Media

Top Photo: James Morrison and Annabelle Stephenson in Pray for Rain (2017)

Middle Photo: Annabelle Stephenson in Pray for Rain (2017)

Bottom Photo: Jane Seymour in Pray for Rain (2017)

Photo Credits: ESX Entertainment

Q: Does Pray For Rain pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Yes!

“Emma” (Annabelle Stephenson) has many scenes with her mother, “Olivia” (Jane Seymour) as they try to deal with the sudden family death and taking care of their now-barren farm.

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MAUDIE (2016): Review by Elly Levenson

In this understated BioPic, director Aisling Walsh and screenwriter Sherry White explore the dark circumstances that served as the starting point for the paintings of Maud Lewis. Though not well-known [yet] in the USA, Lewis --who lived her entire life in Nova Scotia -- is one of Canada's most beloved regional artists. (EML: 3.5/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson

There has always been something off about “Maud” (Sally Hawkins). Nearly crippled by arthritis, she is seen as a burden to her family, unable to take care of herself. Now living with her “Aunt Ida” (Gabrielle Rose), Maud seems to live in a somewhat ignorant bliss of the way she is viewed by her loved ones. However, when her brother “Charles” (Zachary Bennett) comes by to announce that he is selling their childhood home, Maud becomes incensed and begs Charles to allow her to keep the house for herself, which Charles adamantly refuses.

Determined to prove she can make it on her own, Maud takes it upon herself to apply to a cleaning lady position posted at the local grocery store by an angry widower, “Emmett” (Ethan Hawke). At first, Emmett is unimpressed by Maud’s appearance and refuses to hire her. However, after some outside pressure, Emmett decides to give Maud a chance. When he comes to pick up Maud to bring her back to his home, Aunt Ida is quick to give Maud an ultimatum: If she leaves now, she will be unable to return. Maud leaves anyway.

Back at Emmett’s, Maud quickly learns that her new employer is an ill-tempered man who takes to verbally and physically abusing her regularly. On her first day, Maud is confused by her duties, which leads Emmett to kick her out of the house with nowhere to go. However, Maud is determined to prove herself and make the situation work. She even agrees to go along with Emmett’s plan to have her sleep in his bed with him.

After an altercation with Emmett, Maud begins to paint lively nature scenes on the walls of the house. When Emmett asks her why she’s painting on the walls, Maud explains that she was told to make the place beautiful and that’s what she’s doing. Emmett doesn’t object, though he does give her some parameters.

One day, a woman named “Sandra” (Kari Matchett) comes by the house to settle a debt with Emmett. Though Emmett isn’t home, Sandra discovers Maud and more importantly, Maud’s paintings, and her interest is peaked. Following the encounter, Maud offers to help keep the books for Emmett’s fish delivery business in order to ensure that issues like this don’t arise in the future. After she convinces him that he is still the one in charge, Emmett allows Maud to take a more active role in the business.

Then Emmett and Maud go to Sandra’s to deliver the missing fish, and Sandra asks Maud if she can purchase one of Maud’s painted cards. Maud is shy at first and Emmett seems disapproving of Maud bringing in her own income, however, Sandra is insistent and Maud and Emmett finally agree.

Maud’s burgeoning success as a folk artist shifts her relationship with both Emmett and her family members, who now see value in her that they hadn’t seen before.

Where Maudie succeeds most is in Hawkins’ acting. Her quiet, yet strong portrayal of Maud Lewis is a performance that should be applauded. In a film where the protagonist could rely on likeability based on sympathy, Hawkins is able to create a character who feels independent and self-assured despite her circumstances. Without Hawkins’ masterful presentation of Maud, the film could easily have fallen into the typical trap of inspirational BioPics, feeling overly sentimental rather than genuine.

Overall, Maudie is an enjoyable, sleepy little film that gives the audience the chance to learn about a celebrated folk artist. Walsh uses her subject to portray the fact that hardships can sometimes lead to great achievement, particularly when those faced with struggles refuse to allow themselves to be victimized. Walsh’s style coupled with Hawkins’ performance creates a feeling of pride in Maud rather than sympathy for her circumstances. In Maud’s success, the audience finds pure joy which echo Maud’s own feelings. Her success comes not in a sense of vindication (proving everyone wrong) but in the expression of her own creativity.

© Eliana M. Levenson (6/19/17) FF2 MediaTop Photo: “Maud” (Sally Hawkins) paints cards, despite her near crippling arthritis.

Middle Photo: “Maud” (Sally Hawkins) and “Emmett” (Ethan Hawke) leave the courthouse.

Bottom Photo: “Maud” (Sally Hawkins) sits in the front room, which has become her workshop, following the success of her paintings.

Photo Credits: Greg Locke

Q: Does Maudie pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Yup!

Both of Maud's relationship's with women -- first with Aunt Ida and then with Sandra -- involve discussions about Maud's future.

When Maud meets Sandra, who becomes the first person to buy her work, they have an exchange about Maud’s art and Sandra’s outfit.

SaveSave

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CARS 3 (2017): Review by Georgi Presecky

The people who were young when Pixar released Cars in 2006 aren’t kids anymore, and screenwriters Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson and Mike Rich drive that notion home in Cars 3. (Get it? Drive?) The third film in this underrated franchise has veteran racer Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) pondering his next move as he finds himself unable to keep up with the competition. (GEP: 4/5)

Review by Social Media Manger Georgiana E. Presecky

It’s out with the old and in with the new in Cars 3, in which Lightning McQueen is no longer faster than fast. Though he’s come a long way since we first saw him as an arrogant rookie in Jon Lasseter and Joe Ranft’s first installment, his fellow racers are becoming more technologically-advanced and seemingly impossible to beat. Lightning refuses to believe he’s too old to stay in the game, sending him on a film-long quest to figure out how he can remain a part of the sport he loves.

This story unfortunately takes him away from the forgotten town of Radiator Springs, the most charming part of the original Cars. This delightful little community is what made that film, in my opinion, the most underrated of all Pixar’s genius offerings, and I’m thankful that its main street is immortalized at Disney’s California Adventure. In Cars 3, Lighting is barely there, splitting his time between the racetrack and a spiffy new training center owned by his new sponsor.

Instead of spending time with Sally (Bonnie Hunt), Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and the gang, Lightning learns a new lesson from his trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who has dreams of becoming a racer but never believed in herself enough to make it happen. The parallels between the relationship Lightning's relationship with Cruz and the journey he took with his old mentor Doc Hudson (the late, great Paul Newman) aren’t subtle, but that doesn’t make them any less meaningful. Lighting and Cruz work together to bring him up to speed (sorry, I can’t resist) in the world of racing, but she ends up learning just as much as he does. Some might say “yawn,” but I say they’re cynical.

Though the plot initially feels like a sad reminder of our society’s out-with-the-old tendencies, it quickly becomes a more hopeful, Pixar-y tale: sometimes in-with-the-new doesn’t have to be a bad thing. McQueen’s bright colors, cool moves and fast races will thrill today’s kids, as they did in the original. (We’ll just pretend 2011’s Cars 2 never happened.) But the idea of being left behind in favor of brighter, shinier new models will resonate with adults - especially young adults who were rookies when McQueen was, and suddenly find themselves on a grown-up racetrack. 

Disney-Pixar films are always beautifully-animated, and the Cars universe is another classic case of getting lost in a world of inanimate objects. We’re not inside Riley’s mind or Andy’s room, but I’d argue that those who can’t appreciate Cars 3 didn’t give the original film enough credit.

Maybe I’m just being sentimental. Many people don’t see what’s great about the Cars franchise when weighed against Pixar’s other great stories, and that’s OK. Not many saw what was great about Radiator Springs either, passing it by for what they thought were bigger, better roads.

© Georgiana E. Presecky (6/16/17) FF2 Media

Middle Photo: The Radiator Springs gang doesn’t play enough of a role in Cars 3.

Bottom Photo: Lightning and Cruz learn unexpected lessons from each other.

Photo Credits: Disney-Pixar Animation

Q: Does Cars 3 pass the Bechdel-Wallace test? 

Briefly. Decorated racer Louise Nash (Margo Martindale) and Cruz bond about the veteran’s glory days. 

By Managing Editor Brigid K. Presecky

Paul Newman's Doc Hudson is dearly missed in Pixar’s latest installment of the underrated Cars franchise. With Lightning McQueen now filling the role as mentor, a visit to this imaginative racing world is a treat that will entertain young moviegoers seeking relief from the summer heat.

Sure, the lovable residents of Radiator Springs like Miss Sally and Mater are as missed as much as the aforementioned Hudson, but Kiel Murry and Pixar’s team of writers make McQueen’s new adventures enjoyable all on their own. (BKP: 4/5)

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ASCENT (2016): Review by Giorgi Plys-Garzotto

Director Fiona Tan presents a photo-film meditation on Mount Fuji, which she narrates in character as a woman mourning the death of her partner. She walks us through Mount Fuji’s cultural significance to Japan, its physical terrain, and the awesome destructive power at rest within it. Ascent is a visual essay on grief and mortality. (GPG: 3.5/5)

Review by FF2 Contributor Giorgi Plys-Garzotto

Towards the end of Ascent, Fiona Tan’s character “Mary” remarks that film is like fire, and photography is like ice. Film flickers and moves, replaying an action, while photography captures and preserves a single moment. The viewer is tempted in this moment to compare Tan’s melding of the two mediums to the subject of the film itself, Mount Fuji—a mountain covered with ice and seemingly still, but filled with molten lava that can burst forth at any moment.

Further, these polarities also appear in Tan’s discussion of the past; what is past is over, inactive, but also still present with us, just as Mary’s partner, “Hiroshi,” (Hiroki Hasegawa) is forever lost to her, but still able to speak to her through photo and memory, as well as through narration as he helps her tell us the story, both of their love, and of Mount Fuji. From old Japanese legends, to Mount Fuji’s cultural significance during World War II and its aftermath, to Fuji’s most recent eruption (which moved the entire island of Shikoku several meters east), the journey through time gives Tan, through Mary, a starting point to talk about what it means to photograph, to remember, and to love in the face of time’s constant onslaught.

The task of a photo is to evoke rather than to show—to create the full experience of a film through a single frame. Tan achieves this through clever transitions and the throughline of her narration, along with the imposing shape of Mount Fuji present in almost every photo. The film speaks of the literal “ascent” to the top of Mount Fuji, but that’s hardly the most important sense of the word the film makes use of. The mountain itself is shaped like a giant up arrow, and has always symbolized a connection to the heavens and eternity in Japanese culture, making Tan’s use of it in a story about mortality and transience all the more poignant.

While you may not like Ascent if you’re not a fan of documentary or non-narrative film, anyone interested in history, art theory, or experimental film will find it an intriguing thought exercise, an unsettling reminder of death, and a moving portrait of grief. If you’re in New York, it’s also currently playing for free at Film Forum, so exorbitant Manhattan movie ticket prices are no object!

© Giorgi Plys-Garzotto (6/8/17) FF2 Media

Top Photo: An early photograph of a Japanese woman with Mount Fuji in the background.

Middle Photo: Mount Fuji, obscured by clouds.

Bottom Photo: Mount Fuji from an airplane.

Photo Credit: Antithesis Films.

Q: Does Ascent pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?

No.

Fiona Tan’s narration, along with Hiroki Hasegawa as "Hiroshi", are the only two characters in the film. However, we get plenty of insight into Mary’s interiority as a character, and she is definitely the main character as Tan’s narration is much more frequent than Hasegawa’s.

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MEGAN LEAVEY (2017): Review by Jan Lisa Huttner

Kate Mara gives a beautifully modulated performance as a young woman who finds her life's purpose as a member of the US Marine Corp's K-9 unit. Partnered with Rex -- a ferocious German Shepherd who is as much a canine misfit as Megan is a human misfit -- Megan goes to Iraq, saves lives, wins medals, and finds her way back from war.

A triumph for director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (making her feature film debut) in collaboration with screenwriters Pamela Gray and Annie Mumolo. Together, these women and the entire cast and crew deliver one of the best film of 2017. I am agog! (JLH: 5/5)

Review by FF2 Media Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner

Your name is Gabriela Cowperthwaite, and for over a dozen years, you build a career as a documentary filmmaker writing/directing/producing for ESPN, National Geographic, Animal Planet, Discovery, and History Channel.

Then you get your big break. After reading a 2010 story in Outside magazine about a killer whale named Tilikum, you take aim at Sea World and your film Blackfish quickly becomes one of the highest grossing documentaries of all time.

What do you do next? Do you go to Disneyland? No! If you are Gabriela Cowperthwaite, you set your sights on Kathryn Bigelow's celluloid ceiling busting film The Hurt Locker and head for Iraq!

Now don't get me wrong, I loved The Hurt Locker. I campaigned very hard for it, and I was jumping up and down screaming my head off with joy the night Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to receive a Best Director Oscar from AMPAS. But even so, there was always a worm in this apple -- a murmur of protest in my heart for giving the first Best Director Oscar to a woman who directed a film that had no women in it.

As I said in my review for WomenArts: "A distinguishing feature of the War in Iraq is the relatively large presence of women in combat and support roles (including the appearance of women’s names and photos in stateside death lists). Therefore, I am a bit surprised that Kathryn Bigelow didn’t show any female combatants in The Hurt Locker, even though she has created powerful women characters in almost all of her prior films. This is not a criticism of The Hurt Locker, just an observation." This review was posted on 7/7/09 (when Summit dumped it in mid-summer with no hope of success), so I never blamed Bigelow. I always blamed AMPAS and a world obviously hostile to films by woman, and worse yet films by women about women.

So kudos to Gabriela Cowperthwaite for using her Blackfish power to make the BioPic Megan Leavey! In her first narrative feature, Cowperthwaite takes us back once more to that heart of dessert darkness and rights the wrong. She tells a remarkable story of commitment, love, and redemption from the female POV, finally healing the hole left open in my heart by The Hurt Locker. What a dazzling, multifaceted act of faith!

Cowperthwaite's first step forward was casting Kate Mara (an actress who has also been working diligently at her craft for many years now) as her star. When we first meet her, Megan Leavey is a young woman who can find no niche for herself in the place that is supposed to be her home. So she does something that totally surprises her mother: she enlists in the United States Marine Corp. At first, the rigorous training absorbs all of Megan's angst, but even once she knows she will succeed physically, she is still searching for an emotional comfort zone.

Then Megan meets Rex and these two brittle, lonely souls connect. 

Rex is a bomb-sniffing member of the K-9 unit. He's more than a German Shepherd, he's a ferocious warrior who refuses to be manhandled. Ironically, Rex seems to have been waiting all his life for someone with a more gentle touch. Rex and Megan -- born for each other -- are deployed to Fallujah in 2005 and to Ramadi in 2006. On the ground in Iraq, they save many lives and win their share of metals. To learn how and why, you must see Megan Leavey for yourself.

Of course, there was another barely voiced problem with The Hurt Locker, many women -- even women who watched Bigelow the night she received her Oscar and cheered her on -- actually refused to see The Hurt Locker because they thought it would be too violent. (This is something I specifically addressed in my review for WomenArts). So kudos to Cowperthwaite once again for collaborating with Pamela Gray and Annie Mumolo (as well as actor Tim Lovestedt) on the Megan Leavey screenplay.

Gray and Mumolo have both written women-focused screenplays which combine style and substance. Mumolo is best-known for the heap of nominations she received for the Bridesmaids screenplay she wrote with Kristen Wiig. Gray, while not as well know, wrote one of my own all-time favorite films A Walk on the Moon. In their hands, the tragic story of American involvement in Iraq is humanized, with consequences for all to see.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (6/8/17) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Kate Mara as Corporal Megan Leavey, USMC.

Bottom Photo: Megan (Kate Mara) during a training session with Rex.

Photo Credits:  Jacob Yakob / Bleecker Street

Middle Photo: The real Megan Leavey with the real Rex. Photo provided by Megan Leavey herself for use by the NY Daily News.

Q: Does Megan Leavey pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test? 

Yes! When Megan and her mother Jackie (played by Edie Falco) squabble, it's never about a man.

Beyond that, we don't know much about Jackie. We don't know why she separated from Megan's father Bob (played by Bradley Whitford as a pretty nice guy), nor do we know much about her new mate Jim (played by Will Patton even though he is wasted on the edge of the frame).

Since these are three acclaimed actors, one has to believe that they are on board to support the project, because none of them really get to spread their wings. Still they add a solid platform--individually and collectively--for Megan's slow but steady maturation.

Credit for photo of Kate Mara with Edie Falco (above): Michael Tacket / Bleecker Street

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BAND AID (2017): Review by Eliana Levenson

In her directorial debut, director, writer, and star, Zoe Lister-Jones explores the complexities of gender dynamics and expectations in relationships through a couple struggling to hold their marriage together. (EML: 4.5/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson

A dripping faucet. A sink full of dirty dishes. “Anna” (Zoe Lister-Jones) and her husband, “Ben” (Adam Pally) argue in a whirlwind of quick, jabbing dialogue as they move throughout the house. It’s a fight we’ve all had before be it with siblings, parents, roommates or romantic partners and it is here where first time director Zoe Lister-Jones’ enters the narrative.

From the start, it’s clear this is a couple in crisis. Dealing with a miscarriage that they never acknowledge, Anna and Ben are teetering on the brink of a meltdown. They argue relentlessly, about everything, and yet, underneath it all there is still an undeniable affection for one another.

After a serendipitous jam session at one of their friends’ kid’s birthday parties, the couple decides to turn their constant arguing into creative expression by starting a band. Using their old instruments stored in the garage, the two begin using their fights as inspiration for untraditional love songs, that allow both to discuss their issues with the other in a healthier way. They invite their strange neighbor, “Dave” (Fred Armisen), to join the band as their drummer.

At first, all seems well and the couple is rekindling their passion for each other through their newfound love of creating music together. However, as Anna becomes more optimistic about the potential of their new musical venture, Ben pulls away, fearing that Anna’s only interest is the success and not the happiness. The couple’s differences in perspective on how to handle the trials they face both individually and together, makes it difficult for them to see eye to eye and even harder to find compromise and understanding. But, with a desire to keep their relationship together, the two are determined to find a way to understand each other.

There is something quietly remarkable about Lister-Jones’ exploration of gender through the lens of the banalities of a long-term relationship. As Anna and Ben struggle to understand each other, the audience can’t help but relate to the pitfalls of standardized gender dynamics. Anna constantly pushes Ben to express his feelings, while Ben fights against Anna’s emotional outbursts. Even as things improve in their relationship through their shared musical interest, there is a disconnect in their communication. It’s the classic, men and women are different and have to learn the language of the other, and yet Lister-Jones makes it feel fresh and interesting.

Band Aid is the type of film you come back to again and again, finding comfort in its genuinity and relatability. Whether in a long term relationship or not, the feeling of being misunderstood by someone close to you is something that everyone can latch on to. Lister-Jones’ directing is unobtrusive, allowing the audience to feel like they are part of these intimate moments between husband and wife rather than a voyeur spying on them.

But, while Lister-Jones’ directing is a force to be reckoned with, it is her screenplay that truly shines. Primarily conversational, and without relying on gimmicks, Lister-Jones’ dialogue is something to marvel at, even having some members of the audience question if the scenes were primarily improvised since they feel so natural. Yet, as Lister-Jones herself says in the after film talk back, the actors stayed fairly true to the page, a testament to the fact that the written dialogue was able to capture the nuance and honesty of normal conversation.

With a woman at the helm and utilizing an all female crew, Band Aid has set the bar for what women in film are truly capable of. Anybody who sees this film will never doubt that women are equally capable of creating universal stories with relatable themes and powerfully engaging storytelling.

© Eliana M. Levenson (6/2/17) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Writer/Director/Producer/Star, Zoe Lister-Jones on the red carpet for the Band Aid premiere at Sundance.

Middle Photo: “Anna” (Zoe Lister-Jones), “Ben” (Adam Pally), and “Dave” (Fred Armisen) have band practice in Anna and Ben’s garage.

Bottom Photo: “Anna” (Zoe Lister-Jones) and “Ben” (Adam Pally) perform their first song together, using toy instruments at a child’s birthday party.

Photo Credits: IFC Films

Q: Does Band Aid pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Yes!

While the film primarily focuses on Anna and Ben’s relationship, there are moments where Anna interacts with her female friends, allowing for more female voices to enhance Anna’s narrative.

For instance, at the infamous child’s birthday, Anna and her best friend, played by Hannah Simone of New Girl, discuss Anna’s mental state being around kids after suffering a miscarriage. This exchange is just one example of the incredible balance struck between comedy and drama as an incredibly stoned Anna tries to remember the safe word she and her friend discussed if she needed to be taken away from everyone talking about how great it is having kids.

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