March 7, 2008

Review- Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is the story of Guinevere Pettigrew (the amazing Frances McDormand), a down on her luck governess who spends one spectacular life changing day in the company of an American singer and actress Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) on the eve of the of World War II in London.

Miss Pettigrew gets dropped into Delysia's crazy high-society life as her new "social secretary", and helps her negotiates not one, but three men and her own desire to remake herself from her humble coal mining roots. Both women wind up transforming each other and each finds what she needs at the end of their exciting 24 hours together.

Adams plays the same type of effusive character that we grew accustomed to with last year's Enchanted. She just pops off the screen. I'm ready to see her play a different role and that's clearly coming later this year in Doubt and Sunshine Cleaning. She's a really talented young actress and is able to hold her own against one of the best in the business, Frances McDormand. What I love about McDormand is that every character she plays seems so incredibly different from the previous one.

The film is based on the 1938 novel by Winifred Watson, who, according to producers was a woman ahead of her time. "Her books were about women changing their lives, flouting convention, and addressing class tensions and extramarital sex." Gotta add her to my reading list.

I walked out of the film with a goofy little smile on my face liking it way much more than I expected to. Hope you enjoy.

Review: Girls Rock

I loved everything about Girls Rock! I loved that the movie told the story of girls who come together to embrace (or discover) their musical and creative sides. I loved that these girls found a place where they could truly be themselves with no consequences. I loved that women rockers who had been through what these girls are experiencing -- feeling like a freak and unsure of yourself and your place in the world -- were able to show them the light at the end of the tunnel. And, I especially liked that this was a film about something important and it was still fabulously fun and entertaining.

I remember how much it sucks being a girl who is not exactly made from the cookie cutter mold, and watching these girls struggle with identity made me so glad to be done with that. While many things have changed for the better since I was a girl (like the very fact that there is a rock and roll camp for girls) some things have gotten a lot worse namely the pressure to be thin and to conform. Rock camp is a space for girls to be themselves, to embrace their voices and to roar. (They actually make them yell as loud as they can.) It also helps them to develop communication and team type skills as their bands work together to write music and lyrics for the concert that happens at the end of the week. The camp also teaches self-defense and gives girls other tools to survive the boxes that girls get put in by our culture.

The statistics strewn the film just make you want to cry including the fact that women are only 22% of musical performers in music videos (but are a majority of the scantily dressed fans); and that teen girls spend $43 billion on fashion and beauty products.

Directors Shane King and Arne Johnson are incredibly respectful about their portraits of the four girls highlighted in the film. It's not often that I say this, but these guys really get it, and people who work with girls can take some important lessons from this film on how men and women can work together to help improve the lives of girls.

Here's what the directors had to say:

The persistence of the questions [about why men would be interested in making a movie about girls] has brought another issue to mind, and that is the embarrassment we have had to confront about the idea that a man would care about women's issues. It's perfectly acceptable for a straight white man to publicly protest the mistreatment of homeless people or a racist miscarriage of justice. But if a man speaks passionately about the mistreatment of half of the world's population- their lovers, daughters, nieces, mother, grandmothers, aunts, sisters- there seems to be some kind of shame attached. Like you're somehow "going to the other side" or being a weak man.

We care what happens to women...we want them to be full participants in our culture, not just because of fairness and equality, but also because life is richer when their voices are heard.

And so we embrace these questions about being men making this movie, because it gives us an excuse to talk in ways that men don't usually.
AMEN- Go see this film!

Film opens today in NY, LA, Seattle, Portland, SF and Chicago and will roll out in other cities this spring. For info on the film and where it is showing: Girls Rock!

March 6, 2008

DVD Review- I Could Never Be Your Woman

This should have been a review of an upcoming theatrical release, but sadly that didn't happen. (read some of the insanity here: I Could Never be Your Women Goes Straight to DVD) The good news is that the actual film is not the reason why I Could Never Be Your Woman didn't make it to your local cinema. The film is a fun, funny film from one of the best practitioners of her craft, writer/director Amy Heckerling. Heckerling uses this film to make fun of how fake Hollywood is (a hysterical plastic surgery montage opens the film) and what happens to women as they age in the business (not only onscreen, but also to people working behind the scenes)

The film stars Michelle Pfeiffer (looking fantastic) as the 40-year-old showrunner of an aging teen comedy show You Go Girl. The show within the movie stars Stacey Dash (one of Heckerling's favorites - remember her in Clueless?) as a 20-something trying to stretch out her career playing a teenager. Paul Rudd gets cast in a bit part (he's also part of the Heckerling posse) and he and Pfeiffer hit it off and start dating. Pfeiffer is mortified to discover their age difference and breaks it off, but after some funny back and forths (without making it too much of a drama) they wind up staying together.

More than anything this film deals with the challenges a woman faces as she ages all the while trying to raise an independent, strong daughter. This film was shot in Britain (for financing reasons) in 2005, so it's populated by funny (but mostly unknown) British comedic actors. The amazing revelation of the film is the performance of Saoirse Ronan who burst onto the scene this year in Atonement (she also plays the lead in the highly anticipated The Lovely Bones). This film was her first. Ronan is so funny, so smart and is able to play a pre-teen American kid to perfection. (I still can't believe how good her accent is.) The chemistry between her and Michelle Pfeiffer is fantastic and they even kind of look alike. What's also great, and has always been a hallmark of Amy Heckerling's work, is that does not write down to kids. She writes them as real, smart little people and that's what makes her adolescent characters so special. She gets it, especially when she is writing about young women.

One of my favorite scenes is when Pfeiffer meets her daughter's teacher armed with statistics about how boys and girls learn differently. She stands up for her daughter and tells the teacher that it is his job to make girls feel good about math and science, not scared of it. Another fantastic scene is when Pfeiffer is waiting to head into the network executive's office and there are two drones sitting next to her trying to think of a woman (over 30) they could cast in something. Every woman mentioned is dismissed as too old. After a minute
Pfeiffer can't take it and just lets them have it. It's a precious moment and one only a woman like Heckerling who has worked in the business for such a long time could get way with.

While I can't say it's perfect (I still don't understand the point of Tracey Ullman playing Mother Nature), it is so much better than some of the other films about women that recently made it into the theatres. I really enjoyed it and highly recommend it.

March 5, 2008

Reese Witherspoon: Hollywood Feminist of the Day

Reese Witherspoon celebrated Women's Month at the UN yesterday and helped launch an international campaign to end violence against women. She teamed up with Avon (she's their global ambassador) and UNIFEM and showed off the new "women's empowerment bracelet." (Will it have the same powers as Wonder Woman's bracelets?) 100% of the profits will go towards ending violence against women. Why can't we just give our money, why do we need jewelry to make us feel good about giving to such an important cause?

Full story: Witherspoon pitches fund to combat violence against women (AFP)

Bird's Eye View Women's Film Festival Kicks Off in London

The Bird's Eye View Film Festival, which celebrates women filmmakers, launches its fourth festival tomorrow night (March 6) in London. The program includes shorts, documentaries and features, and this year has a special feature that looks at the women focused comedies of earlier Hollywood. These smart women also conduct education programs and take some of the films on the road to other festivals and events to spread the word of the importance of including female voices and perspectives as part of the cultural discussion.

More information: Bird's Eye View

Festival director Rachel Millward answered some questions as she prepared for this year's festival.

Women & Hollywood: Why did you name the festival Bird's Eye View?

Rachel Millward: In the UK the term ‘bird’ is a derogatory term for women. It can be affectionate, like chick, but it doesn’t tend to be particularly respectful. So, this is all about seeing the world from the perspective of women – so it is, literally, a bird’s eye view. I think it works because it’s pretty tongue in cheek and shows that we’re fun and not precious or ranty.

This is massively serious to us, but to get our message across and to be true to who we are, we’re going to have a giggle while we get on with it… So it’s somehow disarming for a lot of people who would be put off by a ‘women’s/feminist film festival’ type title.
W&H: How do you pick the films to be included?
RM: We have about 600 shorts submitted from around the world and whittle that down to 20 – 6 for opening night. We get docs and features submitted too, but most of these we request from around the world. Researching other film festivals, putting word out etc. It’s a massive job but it’s a joy when you find such amazing talents!
W&H: What premieres are you particularly excited about?
RM: Hotel Very Welcome is our closing night – it’s a lovely, funny, laid back and painfully accurate movie about travelers in the East. Makes you cringe it’s so familiar! Expired has Sam Morton being her usual brilliant self. Sleepwalking Land is from Mozambique – a really beautiful and heart-rending tale based on Mia Couta’s magical realism novel. We always try to have a chunk of our programme showcasing women from developing countries.

The docs are amazing this year – Her Name is Sabine is a fascinating and frankly quite upsetting doc from the famous French actress Sandrine Bonnaire about her autistic sister going through various stages of treatment and care. All these are UK premieres.
W&H: I noticed that you have a focus on the early comedies of Hollywood. The recent trend in Hollywood has been away from comedies including romantic comedies that feature a female perspective. Do British comedies have more of a female perspective? And what message are you trying to send by showing these films that star strong women?
RM: No, there are hardly any British comedies with strong female leads. The stats here are just as bad as Hollywood. (6.5% films produced in the UK last year were directed by women, 11% were written by women – and if women aren’t writing, the likelihood of having real, complex, multi-dimensional and fabulous female characters is very very slim!). We’ve got a bit more women’s perspective in TV comedy now, since Smack the Pony did their TV sketch show which was encouraged by the Spice Girls success in music (our first girl band). But really, comedy is very much a boys game.

The comedy retrospective idea came about because last year our programme was full of these incredible dramas by women – really stunning and wonderful films – but all tended towards the harrowing/weepy/emotional. It made me think, and wonder why we didn’t get more comedies. So I thought it was a good plan to look back and see what women’s involvement in comedy film over the last century has been. We started with the pre-1930s silent films (in our ‘clowning glories’ retrospective) – there is some fantastically refreshing zaniness – really bonkers and ridiculous humour – all slapstick and physical. Then it moves into the era of classical Hollywood comediennes – the Screwball Women – who are far more glamorous and men-obsessed, but are also feisty, quick, intelligent, strong – they run the show! We just don’t see that anymore. I think Hollywood made films more for a middle aged female audience in those days. Now it’s all about the teen boy market – hence this kind of character just isn’t seen as relevant, I guess.

Looking back highlights what we don’t have now. We’re also using this retrospective to launch a new initiative for women writing comedy feature films – we’ll be bringing together female comic talent from tv, radio, theatre and standup and running an intensive ‘lab’ to generate feature film ideas, which will then get taken into development with a partner production company.
W&H: In the US less that 6% of the top 250 grossing films were directed by women, yet most people don't know about this issue. Is the situation as bad in Britain, and in general why do you think that it's important to focus on female directed movies?
RM: It’s the same situation here. Bad. As to why it’s important to focus on female directed movies (and I’d extend that to female-written too) well, I really believe that film has an enormous influence on our culture. More than that, it can actually affect the way in which we see each other and ourselves. So it’s absolutely crucial to get a balanced perspective on screen. If all I see are one-dimensional female characters, I’m missing the chance to explore life’s dilemmas and imaginative possibilities through the films I watch, because I can’t relate to the characters I see. And film is hardly offering men more insight into womanhood – but it can and should!
If you're anywhere near London this weekend, support the great work of this Festival!

March 4, 2008

Gender Imbalance in Best Picture Nominated Films from 1977 to 2006

Now that this year's Oscars are over and the critics agree that the ceremony and the awards themselves are out of date (the ratings this year were lower than the first night of American Idol), the Academy will have to struggle to figure out how to make the Oscars, and the movies more relevant.

Here's my answer: Make more movies about women. Not just crappy reductive chick flicks (I'm not saying all chick flicks are crappy), but movies about real women.

In this year's lead up to the Oscars there were several stories written (mostly in the British press) about how the Oscars had gotten so dark, and so male. (Imagine the conversation if Juno hadn't been included as a nominee.)

But is this year any worse than previous years, or did it just actually get some press this time around?

A new study by Stacy L. Smith and her colleagues at the Annenberg School of Communication at USC took a look at all the speaking parts in films nominated for the Best Picture award over the last 30 years (not including this past year) to see what the gender balance looks like. (This research is part of a larger research program on looking at gender roles in the media that is funded by actress/activist Geena Davis.)

The news is not good.

"Of the 6,833 single speaking characters only 27.3% were females." (The data set included anyone who spoke a line onscreen no matter how big or small their part was. The leading character counted just as much as the person who said one line.)
"Very simply, there has been no change in the frequency of roles for females in best picture nominated films in the last 30 years."
Smith spoke with Women & Hollywood about the research.

Women & Hollywood: How did this research come about?
Stacy Smith: We had been doing some other work on films and were curious about how these prestigious films might do in terms of gender balance. They often tackle controversial issues of historical import. We were looking to see where people are doing a good job and where there is room for improvement.
W&H: What did you learn?
SS: The previous 30 years don't look so great. Are things getting better? No, they're not. Now we have hard evidence to show that there is lots of room for improvement. Without the data it's hard to know. Any way you slice it up this representational portrait is out of balance.
W&H: Why did you decide to track the data this way?
SS: This is the whole bandwidth of characters from the most prominent to the least prominent not the amount of words they say. If we think about representation and that females should represent half the characters or half the space we want to make sure that it is across all characters not just the ones that have compelling lead roles.
Of the 150 films nominated for best picture from 1977-2006. Only 5 and a half of the films are directed by women.

These films are:
1986- Children of a Lesser God, directed by Randa Haines
1990- Awakenings, directed by Penny Marshall
1991- The Prince of Tides, directed by Barbra Streisand
1993- The Piano, directed by Jane Campion
2003- Lost in Translation, directed by Sophia Coppola
2006- Little Miss Sunshine, co-directed by Valerie Faris
"An analysis revealed a significant difference in the percentage of females depicted on screen by director sex. The proportion of females on the silver screen is significantly higher when a female is directing a motion picture than when a man is at the helm."
W&H: The data clearly shows that when a woman directs, the number of female speaking parts is higher.
SS: We just know that the numbers make a significant jump when the female is a director and that's a positive. It would suggest that maybe we need more female directors.
W&H: What are your hopes for this research?
SS: I spend a lot of time educating my students and sending them into the film industry informed is really important. It's about empowering them and giving them the courage to tell stories that are rich and multi-dimensional. This data suggests that there is a lot of room for improvement and it's important to educate the next generation of filmmakers about these issues so they remember issues of representation and diversity when they are creating their scripts and pitching their stories. The goal is not to deal with this on the back end in the research, but that the next generation of content creators are thinking about these issues when they tell the stories.

March 3, 2008

Amy Sherman-Palladino Makes Her TV Comeback

The NY Times ran a piece on Amy Sherman-Palladino the writer/creator of The Gilmore Girls on her return to TV with The Return of Jezebel James starring Parker Posey and Lauren Ambrose. The fact that she was called an auteur in headline is progress itself. Auteur is usually associated with male directors especially in the film business. It's much harder for a woman to be called an auteur in the movies (probably because there are so few female film directors.)

But on TV there has been a strong history of female auteurs including Diane English (remember Murphy Brown? I still miss it), Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (Designing Women), Susan Harris (The Golden Girls), Roseanne, and now Shonda Rhimes. One of the things I've always noticed about strong women (you know those pesky women with opinions and thoughts) in any business that we (I am one!) are quickly put into the bitch box. It's thanks to Tina Fey (on SNL last week) that we can all now embrace our inner bitch because "bitch is the new black."

Sherman-Palladino has one of those legendary stories that only happen in showbiz about being kicked off her own show in a contract dispute. She left the Gilmore Girls the season before its last, and those who loved the show know full well that her departure was the cause of its demise. Some shows just cannot survive without the "birth parent" on set. (Case in point- The West Wing. Show was just not as good after Aaron Sorkin left.) Btw she seems to get along fine with her creative partner and husband Daniel (but she is clearly the visionary getting the lion's share of publicity and the lion's share of the crap that goes with that.)

Some quotes from the piece:

Within the television industry Ms. Sherman-Palladino, a spunky, sarcastic writer with a penchant for gothic top hats and fishnet stockings, is recognized as a unique talent, but also a challenging one.
Ms. Sherman-Palladino said that she always provided pitches and outlines well in advance, and that the industry’s most esteemed show runners of that era were not expected to submit finished scripts. Joss Whedon never gave anyone a script,” she said. Aaron Sorkin never gave anyone a script.”
Could it be that there is a double standard between female and male showrunners? Really, that would mean we live in a sexist world and we all know that everything's equal now, right?
“It’s hopefully funny in a way that only girls can be funny,” Ms. Ambrose said. When an actor works in television, she said, “they own you, but when somebody like Amy’s in charge, who’s passionate and very determined, you go, ‘O.K., I’ll put my life for the next thousand years in her hands.’ ”
“The first few years at ‘Gilmore,’ ” Ms. Sherman-Palladino said, “I really spent way too much time talking to person after person after person, about marketing and support, and how we’re not just a chick show, we can do more than sell tampons. It never got us anything. It came down to when the audience discovered it, they watched it, and then all of a sudden everybody liked it.”
Hopefully now that it's almost a decade later and that women are appear and are leads in many hit shows, this new show will not get pegged as the TV equivalent of the chick flick.

Check out the full piece: Auteur Writes Herself Another Chance

Show premieres on Fox on March 14th.