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TIFF '07 - Days Three and Four: Make Way for the Ladies!

Days three and four found me sitting through three movies directed by women, which is an anomaly in the real world. It’s unheard of to have this much female influence happening in the world cinema all at once, and even though it is really nice to be treated to such displays of female power and intelligence, it still doesn’t make up for the fact that women in Hollywood (especially female directors) are still getting pigeonholed. Not many multiplexes are going to relish the thought of relinquishing their straight guy- and kid-friendly popcorn palaces to this current work directed, produced, starring, and, essentially made for women. Oh, and Many of these ladies are over 40.

While this mini-renaissance may have gained steam starting late last year, with three women over 50 (Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Meryl Streep) claiming three of the five coveted spots for Best Actress at the Academy Awards for the first time in what felt like forever, it looks like we can look forward to the return of stories about real, contemporary women (of all shapes and ages) to the big screen this season. It’s about damn time.

As good as some of these films were, though, I sat in the theater pondering on whether or not these well-made, good-intentioned films would actually connect with an audience outside of it’s target demographic. I can’t really see any teenage boys getting all revved up for The Jane Austen Book Club when they have the choice of seeing Superbad, but perhaps one or two of these deserving pictures can get some critical buzz behind them to garner some sort of noticeable box-office receipts.

Female directors do get the raw end of the deal for one misogynist reason or another when it comes to the success or failure of their films. Take for example Julie Taymor, whose Across the Universe (which I will see Tuesday) was recently taken out of her hands by studio executives after the director refused to edit and whittle her vision down to meet their demands of making the film shorter. If a lengthy, challenging film like this was directed by a man, he would be called an artist, but a woman standing up against a studio is probably going to be called something much nastier. There are signs that the old guard Hollywood boys club may be showing signs of weakness, and this is why these pro-female films should be supported, and celebrated -- even though one of them isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders.

Beware of spoilers ahead

Then She Found Me (dir. Helen Hunt, 2007)

Actors directing themselves can turn out really well because of their innate understanding of the medium, but more often they just turn into vain, preening bombs. I have never been a fan of Helen Hunt. At all. I really disliked her critically popular television series Mad About You, and I got really pissed off when she took Judi Dench’s deserved Oscar win for Mrs. Brown away from her for the capable, but schmaltzy James L. Brooks crowd-pleaser As Good as It Gets. I cheered when her annoying character got shot in the head in Bobby. I was fully prepared to bring my grudge into this theater and take it out on her. Then something quite impossible happened: Hunt won me over with this surprisingly assured, well-made directorial debut.

Taking a cue from an old New York master, Hunt seems to be channeling Woody Allen with her first film. Then She Found Me is a sweet little film about the travails of real people dealing with messy life situations. In the film (adapted from a 1990 Elinor Lipman novel), Hunt plays April Epner, a kindergarten teacher who we meet on the day of her wedding to fellow teacher Ben.

As much as I did not like many of Hunt’s critical successes prior to this movie, it is likely that she is able to direct herself in such a distinct, natural way because of her experience with working in this genre. This is familiar territory, as far as the delicate balance between whimsy, comedy, dramatics, and romance goes; only this time it doesn’t suck.

April is a 39 year-old adopted child with a sibling who was not adopted. She hears her biological clock ticking loudly, but the advice of her mother (the great character actress Lynn Cohen) is “adopt a baby”. It worked for her, so it will work for April, who feels it necessary to have her own, as she thinks that it will just “feel different”. The problem is that Ben thinks he made a mistake in marrying her and isn’t interested in doing anything other than leaving. To make matters worse, April’s mother dies suddenly. Not exactly the ideal time for conception.

Hunt does a really nice job of exploring what it is like for single women in their 30s to feel the pressure to have a child before they are too old. People are constantly asking freshly-separated April when she’s going to get pregnant (and isn’t it funny that it is somehow ok for people to assault women with this sort of intimate question in reality?). Going on 40, she realizes that it might not happen after all and she is trying to come to terms with it.

She meets Frank (Colin Firth, doing his wry, romantic comedy thing) at school the day after her husband leaves her and he becomes almost instantly taken with her. Talk about bad timing. Not only is she his son’s teacher, recently divorced, and on the edge of a nervous breakdown, now she finds herself reciprocating his affections, much to her dismay. The two fall hard and fast for one another.

Then an even bigger whirlwind of complication (or maybe more like a “typhoon” of complication) hits her hard: her biological mother comes from out of the woodwork to reconnect. At her mother’s funeral April notices a mystery man lurking in the crowd staring at her. He turns up again at her school with a proposition: he represents her mother, who requests to lunch with her the following day. Curious, and more than a little confused, April neurotically consents.

Bernice (Bette Midler), an uproarious television talk show hostess, barges into her long-lost daughter’s life with a shocking boldness, bound and determined to worm her way back into the woman’s life come hell or high water. Rightfully, April is skeptical, and perhaps since her life is in such an upturned state, she gives the mystery woman a chance. The relationship the two forge is the cornerstone of the film, and it is a genuinely funny and touching alliance.

When April finds out that her “one last time” with Ben has gotten her pregnant, he returns (the scene with both of her men at the ultra sound is especially well done). It looks as though the two might get back together, but when the pregnancy fails, it becomes clear that she is meant to be with Frank.

Hunt makes quite a few interesting comments on motherhood with this film, beginning with the notion that having children is not something only for the nubile, and continuing with the idea that sometimes it is ok not to have your own children at all. And she argues that that while kids can be fulfilling and rewarding, if they don’t end up happening, life moves on, and there are always options for people who feel destined to be parents.

The film overall is more than worthy of an audience’s love, and Hunt is aces in her role (there is a professional maturity in her that comes across nicely), but the filmmakers and studio should drop all plans for mounting any sort of awards campaign for it’s star, and concentrate their time, money, and efforts on securing a Supporting Actress nomination for Midler -- who could feasibly walk away with the gold next year if positioned correctly. If ever there was a time to be hading out “career achievement” or “make-up” Oscars, this is it -- Midler has not ever given such a clever, well-rounded and subdued performance.

Kudos must be given to Hunt for directing the legend in her best role in more than 20 years. Graciously, she allows the revered veteran to steal every scene she’s in. Midler continues to hold audiences in the palm of her hand after all these years, this time with her first actual “character role” since maybe her Oscar nominated, doomed singer in The Rose all the way back in 1979. She really disappears as Bernice -- she isn’t “Bette Midler” the outrageous, loveable wisecracker that everyone adores (even though her outrageously loveable character isn’t really too much of a stretch).

Often Midler’s acting ability can unfortunately get buried behind her other talents (singing, comedy, etc.), but here she proves that female performers over 50 still have a few tricks up their sleeves. One of the saddest causalities of the war on “women of a certain age”, Midler was, for years, one of the most bankable, watched performers of her time, and then sadly, like many actresses who hit that magical age, she stopped getting parts worthy of her talent. Midler, surely, is not losing sleep over her lack of acting gigs, but hopefully this showcase can serve as a wake up call for casting agents to start thinking outside the box.

Thankfully, Hunt gets it. It will be interesting to see if her next move will be as a director or an actress or something else altogether. Women telling intimate stories like this that don’t devolve into television movie garbage need to be given more money to tell simple, real stories about women in this age group (and they need to direct and star in them too). Because the star and director of this film is a woman in her middle age, the public probably won’t buy it, but it will be their loss. Preconceptions about this one should be disposed of right now.

The Jane Austen Book Club (dir. Robin Swicord, 2007)

While Helen Hunt impressed me greatly with her directorial debut, and I just had a huge rant about women being given money to direct and got all feminist on your asses, it’s going to be a little bit tough to disparage the good intentions of screenwriter Robin Swicord’s obviously heartfelt ruminations on the work of Jane Austen.

It’s not that Jane Austen Club is terrible or anything, it’s passably entertaining, but there is something that rings false throughout the entire film that is very distracting and artificial.

With a cast of some of the most unique actresses working, the problem with this film is that is completely stolen by the charisma of one man: Hugh Dancy as Grigg, the daffy nerd who becomes the titular book club’s lone male member. Why, with the gloriously earthy Kathy Baker (as the six-times married Bernadette), Maria Bello (as dog trainer Jocelyn), Amy Brennenman (as the newly-single Sylvia), and the very strong Emily Blunt (as Prudie), does Swicord let the audience’s affections all get directed towards the most prominent male figure?

This is not to belittle Dancy’s deft touch, who gives his best performance to date as the technology-loving goofball that all the ladies gravitate towards; he was able to do something that the rest of the mainly female cast wasn’t able to: create a really solid character. Blunt (one of the most promising young female actors working today), does her best with Prudie, the only one of the women to really rise above the tepid script.

What sets out to be literate soon turns overly pretentious and obsessed with being witty, even though it has some major moments of disorganization. One of the most glaring problems with the film is that none of these women seem real; they’re all archetypes or stereotypes for the most part. This is in no way a reflection of the rest of the game cast, who are more than capable of moments of greatness; it’s a reflection on the lame script.

Plodding along at a leisurely, awkward pace, the group reads the novels month by month but it feels as though years are passing by due to the directorial choices to meander on subplots that could have been completely left on the cutting room floor. And why was an entire sequence set to Aimee Mann’s song “Save Me”, which was a song written expressly for another movie: Magnolia? That was a definite misstep. I am thinking of Maggie Grace as Sylvia’s lesbian daughter -- who eats up way too much screen time to do basically nothing but whine and be oppositional.

In the end, everyone is making out, having sex, and in love. Not with each other, but neatly coupled off with a partner and finding true love in the end. Despite two really good performances (Blunt and Dancy), this last development was nauseating. Everything is wrapped up nicely, and even Bernadette -- who Ursula Le Guin (whose feminist science fiction is referenced smartly by Grigg throughout) would probably refer to as the “crone” of the bunch, overcomes the fact that she and her newfound Latin lover don’t even speak a common language, but heck, they’re going to give it a go anyhow.

The performers try their best and look like they might be having a great time doing it, but there is an artifice that hovers above the material that can’t be ignored. It made me wonder if the cast has actually read the novels or was just pretending to. That’s a bad thing to be thinking in a film like this. Just because you are doing a movie about a group reading a great author does not automatically guarantee that your film is going to be smart by osmosis.

In Bloom (dir. Vadim Perelman, 2007)

I think that in asking director Vadim Perelman what his favorite female performances were during an awkward Q&A session that followed the premiere of his newest film, the tightly-wound In Bloom, I might have either a) totally caught him off guard or b) deeply offended him by not asking a specific question about the new movie.

His answers, for the record, were: Wood in this film (maybe because she was standing right next to him); Anna Magnani in Open City; and Jessica Lange in Frances -- which came with no solicitation from me whatsoever, even though that happens to be one of, if not the number one personal favorite of yours truly. Like someone with impeccable taste in actresses, Perelman did not go with the stock answer, much like he doesn’t go with the obvious casting.

My goal in asking such a seemingly vague and out of context question was, of course, was to make the connection to the director’s reliable instincts (so far) in directing female performers to glory. He accomplished this with Jennifer Connelly and Shohreh Aghdashloo (in his debut House of Sand and Fog; and he does it again here with three more equally impressive ladies: Uma Thurman, Evan Rachel Wood, and Eva Amurri. Each woman plays an integral part in this elliptically-edited tone poem of a film about the traumatic after-effects of a high school torn apart when a student methodically decides to massacre his classmates.

As enigmatic as it is infuriating at times, the symmetrical nature of the film’s structure is plotted out expertly: We first meet Diana (Wood) and Maureen (Amurri), in a school bathroom talking like you would expect two girls of this age to be talking. Everything seems normal. When their freakazoid classmate barges in with an automatic assault weapon and demands that they choose who lives and who dies, and the anxiety goes through the roof. At the brink of the intensity, Perelman mercifully cuts away, preferring an unconventional narrative that is honestly a bit confusing at times but quickly finds its footing.

This is when Perelman chooses to cut away to the adult Diana (now Thurman), who is steadying herself for the 15th anniversary of the shootings, to be commemorated, complete with survivors on full display, at the school where the event took place. Diana is a nervous wreck, slugging through life as an art history teacher and trying desperately to inspire someone. Not even her much older professor husband or even her young daughter wants to hear it from her; much less her disinterested students. That Diana made out of this situation alive, Perelman draws the audience immediately into the elusive mystery of what happened in that bathroom on the day of the shootings.

The poetic nature of the film’s script, which slips nimbly back and forth through time periods and moments of nervousness, allows for Thurman and Wood to create a unique version of the same woman, even though the two could not possibly be any more different from one another. It makes for a compelling story, though, following the younger Diana as she become the older version, and the circumstances through which she becomes this other woman are extraordinary.

Perelman has cemented himself as a director of visually stunning, brutally emotionally honest pieces that are grounded in an ugly America reality (and showed off his prowess in working with adaptations of novels -- this time the source material is Laura Kasischke’s The Life Before Her Eyes. In Bloom is a movie that audiences and critics will probably love and hate, in equal numbers; not unlike the polarizing House of Sand and Fog.

In his first film, the director tackled an embarrassing facet of American culture -- racism towards people of Middle Eastern descent (as well as a slew of other hot-button issues), and In Bloom finds the proficient director handling another challenging, singularly American phenomenon: the high school shooting spree. By employing such dynamic elements to the film such as the fluid editing rhythms and the surreally-saturated color choices of yellows and reds that pop off the screen like radioactive particles during the obtuse, quick scenes of nature, this becomes something more than just another film about the loss of innocence.

As girlhood becomes fleeting and adult personalities are starting to blossom, the film shows the catastrophic, far-reaching repercussions of violence on a sensitive, impressionable mind -- and how something so horrifying can never be simply forgotten. It lives in the minds of the victims every day as they replay those crucial, irreconcilable moments over and over again in their minds during even the most mundane tasks.

Thanks in part to the duality of the characters of “Adult Diana” and “Teen Diana” (and also to the dichotomy of making the younger Diana a conventional Lolita while the Maureen is a well-adjusted Christian), viewers will be able to get a sense of who this girl really was, who she wanted to become, and what she will end up as eventually. It is rare to get such a complete back story on a character in a film, but every behavior is fully explained here.

The nuanced performances of the three women in this film will likely fly under everyone’s radar, but all deserve major consideration -- especially the resourceful, soulful Amurri and Wood as the victimized young women. Wood said at the Q&A that she wanted these characters to “not be talking about boys, and Ugg boots and stupid shit like that”, and she again shows a side to the teenage experience that is unique and skillful.

The Savages (dir. Tamara Jenkins, 2007)

Director Tamara Jenkins, who crafted a similarly off-kilter environment in 1998’s Slums of Beverly Hills, returns in tip-top shape with her newest offering The Savages; a film that shows her in a new light as a reputable auteur.

Opening with a winking shot of old ladies in sparkly blue uniforms doing a synchronized dance, and others doing synchronized swimming in a retirement community, Jenkins, without delay, puts us smack dab in the middle of the bizarre world of senior citizen Lenny Savage (played with astonishing humility by the great Phillip Bosco). Lenny is a dotty old man who is quickly losing it. His elderly, sick girlfriend of 20 years (with whom he shares a home) is hopelessly ill, and Lenny is starting to show signs of a quick descent into dementia.

When his long-time partner dies, the woman’s family contacts Lenny’s estranged children Jon and Wendy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) to come and pick him up before they throw him out. The dead woman’s family no longer wants the responsibilities that come along with taking care of a sick old person. Jon and Wendy don’t particularly want that responsibility either.

Still, the guilt-riddled Wendy and the practical Jon fly in from New York (he from Buffalo and she from NYC) to Arizona to prepare the old patriarch for the rest of his life, to be lived out in a low-income nursing home.

The intricacies of a fractured family’s dynamics play out over the next two hours in a poignant, often hilarious way, as the cast richly explores the mysteries of what binds a family together and how these relationships become strained in situations of extreme duress. In a crisis, these bonds can make or break the strongest families, and one astute thing that Jenkins subversively points out is that something like this can happen to any family. Sometimes the bonds that are necessary to get you through the day just miraculously appear out of nowhere.

Though the Savage kids are both a self-involved (he is a professor of drama while she is a struggling playwright/temp), they begin to rekindle their own long-ignored relationship as they clash over the way their father should be cared for. Wendy wants Lenny to reside in a sunny, tree-lined elderly care facility in the country (that would cost an arm and a leg), the opposite of her brother’s practicality -- he thinks that these fancy rest homes are designed to prey upon the guilt of people who think they owe their parents something for past mistakes.

Jenkins and her gifted cast have put together an insular film that subtly examines and questions the state of elder care in the United States and endowed it with larges doses of merciless, incisive wit (if you are easily offended, specifically by sight gags involving racism, I would say steer clear); a sense of hopefulness in the face of adversity; and a humanness that anyone who has ever had a sick relative will be able to connect with on a very personal level.

Linney and Hoffman deserve every bit of the critical adoration I expect they will receive and both are expertly suited to play these roles: he is a sad-sack schlub who is just a damaged little boy inside; she is an abrasive, opinionated aimless woman who can’t find her footing in life. Hoffman seems almost born to play a sensitive, grizzled old academic, and Linney shines in yet another delicate balancing act that requires her to hit soaring comedic and neurotic heights, and vanity-free unsympathetic lows. Their professional affinity for one another (and the material, and their jobs) is obvious, and their chemistry is off the chain. Each nuance, each gesture, and each word comes across as totally natural, never contrived. It is two of this generation’s best, handling a tricky subject with poise.

Tomorrow I will look, hopefully with some degree of rational depth, at David Cronenberg’s masterful Eastern Promises (after another viewing -- I want to make sure I love it as much as I think I do), in addition to seeing a whopping five more films, hopefully including Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding, Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and Butterfly, and Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park. Poor me.

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