Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Women who Shone at Sundance

Women directors picked up several of the top prizes at Sundance this year, and others picked up distribution deals.

Courtney Hunt's Frozen River won the Grand Jury Prize for Drama. Reviews for the film about smuggling illegal immigrants describe it as a "powerful must-see film" and domestic rights were purchased by Sony Classics.

Courtney Hunt celebrates with her Strong Female Lead Melissa Leo

Tia Lessin and her husband Carl Deal won the Grand Jury Prize - Documentary for Trouble the Water, their documentation of their first-hand experience of the New Orleans flooding.

Nanette Burstein's American Teen won the Directing Award for Documentary, and Paramount picked it up for $1 million. Burstein's first film On the Ropes had won Special Jury Prize for Documentary in 1997, and went on to be nominated for an Oscar. This year Lisa F. Jackson garnered that Special Jury Prize: Documentary for her hard-hitting The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo.

Meanwhile, in the World Cinema category, Anna Melikyan won the Drama Directing award for Mermaid, a dreamy fairy tale set in Moscow. Mermaid was the only Russian film at the festival. Irena Dol won for WC Documentary Editing of Pietra Brettkelly's The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins.

Although it didn't win any awards, Sugar, by Anna Boden with partner Ryan Fleck from Half-Nelson, was one of the most popular dramatic films, for its story of Dominican immigrants and their baseball star dreams. I was going to say it was probably the only film to get coverage at MLB.com, but Susan Koch's documentary Kicking It, about the Homeless World Cup, will be broadcast and distributed by ESPN.

Marina Zenovich made a splash with her documentary Wanted and Desired about the controversial filmmaker Roman Polanski. She cut two separate deals with Weinstein and HBO for distribution. A very different documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North was purchased by PBS for its POV series. The film covers a trip taken by filmmaker Katrina Browne and extended family members, decendants of trade dealers, tracing the slave trade.

The comedy Hamlet 2, co-written by Pam Brady (South Park, Hot Rod) and director Andy Fleming, was snapped up by Focus for $10 mill in the biggest deal at the festival.

Japanese filmmaker Aiko Nagatsu won one of three Sundance/NHK International Filmmaker Awards for her film Apoptosis. Nagatsu received $10,000 and NHK's purchase of Japanese television broadcast rights. She'll also get help from the Sundance Institute for further financing and distribution.

125 features were selected (from 3,600 submitted!) for the 2008 Sundance festival. Of these, exactly one in five (25) were directed/co-directed by women. Nine more had a woman writer. However, 18 of the 32 films that were in competition had a woman as director (16) or writer (14). Of these, the great majority were documentaries. Only Hunt's Frozen River and Melikyan's Mermaid were in drama categories.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Oscar nominations 2008

My friend Movie Moxie has several breakdowns of the Oscar noms. Congrats to the four female screenwriters!

As promised Monday, here is a list of the roles that earned nominations for the men and the women. For my description, I've tried to list their roles in order of dominance in the plot (or as far as I can tell from plot summaries of the films I haven't yet seen).

Performance by an actor in a leading role
(2 heroes, 2 anti-heroes,
2 pseudo-cops, 1 lawyer, 1 businessman, 2 family roles)
George Clooney in Michael Clayton - Attorney, fixer, and avenger
Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood - Miner, business owner
Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd - Murderer, barber, widower, father
Tommy Lee Jones in In the Valley of Elah - Investigator, father, veteran
Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises - Bodyguard, hero

Performance by an actor in a supporting role
(2 criminals, 1 secret agent, 1 lawyer, 1 family figure)

Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James - Criminal
Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men - Assassin
Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson's War - CIA agent
Hal Holbrook in Into the Wild - Avuncular figure
Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton - Attorney

Performance by an actress in a leading role
(1 world leader, 1 pop culture figure, 1 student, 3 family roles)

Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age - Queen
Julie Christie in Away from Her - Wife, love interest
Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose - Singer
Laura Linney in The Savages - Sister, daughter, writer
Ellen Page in Juno - Pregnant Teen student, daughter, love interest

Performance by an actress in a supporting role
(1 pop culture figure, 1 lawyer, 1 writer, 3 family roles
Cate Blanchett in I'm Not There - Singer
Ruby Dee in American Gangster - Mother
Saoirse Ronan in Atonement - Writer, sister
Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone - Mother, thief
Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton - Chief Counsel

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Year the Women Went

The docu-drama show The Week the Women Went airs tonight on CBC, taken from a BBC show of the same title. It will look at what happens when all the women in a town abandon their posts and it's only the men left to run things. While the results of this experiment remain to be seen, a similar trend is playing out on the big screen right now.

I first noticed it in No Country for Old Men and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, seen over the course of a single weekend. Although Devil includes a woman who comes between the brothers, she appears in only a few of the bloody testosterone-driven scenes. I thought No Country was barren of women, but that was before I saw There Will Be Blood this weekend, where females of any age are on the screen for maybe 10 of its 158 minutes. (A sharp contrast to Elizabeth Taylor's role in an oil epic from 50 years ago, Giant).

No Country and Blood are considered near-locks for Best Picture and Best Director in tomorrow's Oscar nominations, and Devil's Lumet will likely get a nod for director. Other Best Picture/Director nom favourites are Atonement, Michael Clayton and one of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Juno, Sweeney Todd, Into the Wild, and American Gangster.

Of course, male-dominated story lines are not a new phenom. As recently as 2005, ensemble piece Crash had to beat Capote, Brokeback, Munich and Good Night/Good Luck. But consider 2000, where SFLs like activist Erin Brockovich and the flying fighters of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were front-and-centre, along with the softer heroine of Chocolat.

The biggest female this year is of course strong female teen Juno, but even the perceived "period chick flick" Atonement spends at least half of the film in a men-only war zone.

So what else is out there right now?
American Gangster = male cop vs. patriarchal mafia head
I am Legend = I am Will Smith for about 85% of the film.
National Treasure = Man on a Mission with a bit of help from the ex-girlfriend and ex-wife
Bucket List = Old Men Bonding
Into the Wild = One Man vs Nature
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly = Man Alone in His Head, and Overcoming Odds
Lars and the Real Girl = Man who can't handle real women, so romances a blow-up doll

One film I wouldn't place in this category is Eastern Promises. Although the focus is definitely on the male world of a crime family, it is Anna, the midwife, who is the catalyst for the story, who pieces together the tragedy of what happened to the mother of an abandoned baby girl, and what is happening to other women like her, lured from Eastern European countries. One clue that Anna is significant is that she appears on the poster.

There are a few other films with one woman with decent screen time (i.e. eligible for supporting actress):
Michael Clayton = Man out to avenge the death of another man has to take on female Bad Gal (Tilda Swinton)
Sweeney Todd = Singing Vengeful Murderer with a daughter (Helena Bonham Carter)
Charlie Wilson's War = Man who colludes with men to support men's wars - abetted and abedded by wealthy Texas woman (Julia Roberts)
I'm Not There = Experimental bio-pic of Man with inspired choice to use Cate Blanchett in one of the iterations of Dylan

As discussed in my coverage of awards season, there are foreign films like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Persepolis that tell the stories of women. And smaller films like The Savages, Across the Universe, Away from Her or The Great Debaters, and at the other end of the spectrum, thrillers like Cloverfield, have balanced casts.

And then of course there are "chick flicks" like 27 Dresses, P.S. I Love You, or even the more elevated Broken English, which aren't usually about chicks achieving or even bonding, but about chicks on the path to get over one man and on to another.

So what's a female lead to do? Take a part in something like Mad Money and hope it doesn't suck? Act in and hope someone goes to see it? Go over to television? Write and direct your own film and hope that someone doesn't kill you because he's "having a bad day"?

I'll take a look at what roles are out there for women to play, after the nominations for best actress are reported.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Strong Female Cyborg


Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox, Monday nights)

Wow! Fun! The Terminator series has always set the bar high for strong female leads (think Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor doing pull ups and then taking her psychiatrist hostage to kick off T2) She's back, in the title, in a new iteration, with an excellent addition!

Teenage John meets a girl at school, Cameron, and she is unfortunately shot by a terminator sent to kill him. When John is saved a few minutes later by a truck smashing into the terminator, we presume it's his kick-ass mom. But no, it's his kick-ass cyborg protector, Cameron the teenage terminator!

And when she said "Come with me if you want to live," I was all in!

We've seen other female action heroes in the last 2 seasons, but Cameron has one thing they don't: worthy enemies and the ability to fight them. When Cameron beats up some (admittedly obnoxious) teenage boys to get their clothes, it doesn't really seem like a fair fight. And perhaps that's my problem with the Bionic Woman. We know she can beat these guys - she's got a freakin' bionic arm. But when Cameron has to take on the bigger, older male terminators, that's a battle worth rooting for!

Like Claire on Heroes, we know that Cameron can survive being hit or stabbed or shot. But what makes her much more fun to watch is that she fights back. Claire seems relegated to getting beat up or killed, and then healing -- pretty passive for a hero.

Lena Heady as Sarah Connor and Summer Glau as Cameron

Cameron is anything but passive. In fact, Sarah has to reign her in from killing. Yes, Cameron has robot issues. Sarah calls her "the tin man." When Cameron shoots an old friend of Sarah because "He was possibly lying," Sarah asks "Why did you do that?" Cameron replies "Because you wouldn't." So an interesting dynamic is born of Cameron being able to push the envelope in terms of taking actions that even Sarah, with her unique moral universe, will not.

Sarah's ability to draw the line at not killing other humans is part of how she defines herself, and the theme of identity plays large in the show. Sarah and John have to change their identities all the time to stay safe. The second hour starts with Sarah ruminating, "Through it all I knew who I was and why I'm here." But now she feels she's gone too far, taken on one alias too many: "Maybe if you spend your life hiding who you are, you might finally end up fooling yourself."

After going through a lot of trouble, Sarah obtains new identities for the three of them. Again, this is a profound action for her: "A new identity, a chance - you can't put a price on that."

But by the end of hour two, she despairs, "I don't even know what my name is." Cameron doesn't hesitate: "Sarah Connor."

Cameron has no self-doubts wracking her. She says that John taught her the phrase "Know thyself and thou shalt know all the gods of the universe." But her version is this: "Know thyself because what else is there to know?"

But Cameron also knows the future. She knows how strong and brave Sarah and John can be and will be, even when they doubt. And for Cameron, it's clear who Sarah is. Future John has told her: "You're the best fighter he knows." Bring it on!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Awards Season

Awards season pulls me back in!

The Golden Globes were announced rather than gala-ed last night, due to the Writer's Strike. Will the studios actually be so stubborn/greedy as to hold out to cancel Christmas The Oscars? (Academy board member Tom Hanks has urged the studios to get back to the negotiating table so that won't happen, but go ahead Dick Zanuck, blame it on the writers)

I was disappointed of course to see that Diablo Cody (Juno - pictured at left) lost out to the Coen Brothers (No Country for Women Old Men) for best screenplay. In most other awards, these two films are not in competition as No Country is an adaptation. In Best Musical/Comedy, Julie Taymor was up for Across the Universe but lost to Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd.

The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures had given Cody's script a tie with another female screenwriter Nancy Oliver for Lars and the Real Girl. They had also recognized Canadian Sarah Polley's Away from Her, Tamara Jenkins' The Savages, Mira Nair's The Namesake, and the late Adrienne Shelley's Waitress in the Best Independent Film category. They also co-conferred the "Freedom of Expression" award to the animated Persepolis, co-written and co-directed by Marjane Satrapi.

The New York Film Critics awarded Polley Best First Film, for her debut Away From Her and The Online Film Critics Society recognized Polley as Breakthrough Filmmaker. The Onliners also gave Cody the nod for best screenplay and New Yorkers gave Satrapi's Persepolis top Foreign Film honours.

Oscar nominations won't happen until January 22, but they have plenty of great women to choose from, as other announced nominations show. The WGA has nominated Cody and Oliver for original screenplay. Winners will be announced February 9. For documentary screenplay, three female co-writers were up: Elisabeth Bentley for Nanking (with Bill Guttentag & Dan Sturman), and Nicole Newnham and Bonni Cohen for The Rape of Europa (with Richard Berge).

Women abound in the Spirit Awards nominations (awards Feb 23). Tamara Jenkins (The Savages) is up for Best Director and Best Screenplay, and Julie Delpy (2 Days in Paris) for Best First Feature. The late Adrienne Shelly's Waitress is up for Best Screenplay, and three of the five nominations for Best First Screenplay are for women: Zoe Cassavetes (Broken English), Cody, and Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead).

Three women are also represented in Best Documentary category: Jennifer Baichwal's Manufactured Landscapes, Pernille Rose Grønkjær's The Monastary, and The Prisoner Or: How I Planned To Kill Tony Blair, co-directed by Petra Epperlein. Laura Dunn is one of three documentary directors nominated for the "Truer than Fiction" award for her eco-flick The Unforseen. Satrapi's Persepolis was nominated in the Best Foreign Film category.

Two of the three nominees in the Producers category are women: Alexis Ferris (Cthulhu and Police Beat) and Anne Clements (Ping Pong Playa and Quinceañera); and four of the pictures up for Best Feature have female co-producers.