Saturday, February 28, 2015

"Nebraska"

Last year's Best Picture nominee, opens with a police car picking up a dazed, disoriented old man trudging down the highway. His family is dumbfounded as the booze-addled, obstinate Woody (Oscar nominated Bruce Dern) keeps setting off on a 900 mile trek across, "Nebraska," to claim his bogus million dollar sweepstakes winnings.

Nobody seems to know why he is doing it. And Oscar nominated director Alexander Payne doesn't give any easy answers. Perhaps it’s to avoid his eminent morality. (He says that he doesn't have much time.) Maybe it’s a last ditch effort to do something with his wasted life. He seems to have little to live for being stuck in a marriage with a woman he doesn't even like. We don’t know how long he has been numbing himself with liquor, but it’s been a while.

All of this could be very depressing, but Payne gives us comic relief in the form of Woody’s ornery, long suffering wife (Oscar nominated June Squibb) as the foul-mouthed voice of reason, “I never even knew the son of a bitch wanted to be a millionaire. He should have thought about that years ago and worked for it.”

Woody’s responsible son (Will Forte) is called in to talk some sense into the old man. But when Woody won’t be dissuaded, his son sees a chance to bond with the father he never knew. He takes some time off from his meaningless job as an electronics salesman to join him.

We see the story through his son’s tired, exasperated eyes. Like him, we long to uncover some meaning in this cross-country road trip. Perhaps Woody needs to reconnect with his family roots. But there is no satisfaction in the family reunion. The image embedded in my mind is of the men in the family all sitting in the bland living room facing the television set. Even after their long separation, the two brothers barely relate to each other aside from some complacent muttering about which sports teams are playing.

We feel the son’s rising frustration as he attempts to find some redeeming value in Woody’s life. He asks his father if he is ever sorry that he married his wife. Woody answers, “All the time.” “But you must have loved her once?” Not really. It seems that Woody has settled for this life. The son becomes more agitated as Woody keeps running off to get sloshed at local dives, spouting off about his big windfall. Woody comforts his exasperated son, “Have a beer with your old man. Be somebody.”

The story livens up when his wife and other son come to “rescue” Woody. As the family deals with unresolved issues and greedy “friends” and relatives in his hometown, we see a little bit about what made Woody, woody. It is genuinely touching to see Woody’s squabbling wife finally stick up for him, explaining why he doesn't owe these people a damn thing!

Payne paints a stark portrait of family responsibility and the silent isolation and resignation of rural America.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal
reelinspiration.blogspot.com

"Nebraska," was also nominated for Best Screenplay (Bob Nelson) and Best Picture in 2014..



Sunday, February 22, 2015

Oscars: Breaking into the Men's Club


OK. I’m gonna put it right out front and center (like Octavia Spencer's prominent seat at the Oscars.) This year there is not one film with a female lead nominated for best picture.

The male dominated academy doesn't seem to consider personal female stories of great enough importance to be nominated for Best Picture. They neglected to nominate, “Wild,” the empowering universal story of a woman’s journey for self-forgiveness, while testing herself on a grueling backpacking hike across the Pacific Crest Trail. Yet they nominated, “Whiplash,” the personal story of a young male drummer suffering for his art. “Boyhood,” the favorite to win Best Picture, is a personal story as well. But deserves attention for director Richard Linklater’s audacity in filming over the course of 12 years.

The Academy favors films about the accomplishments of great men – like this year’s inspiring nominees, “The Imitation Game,” and, “The Theory of Everything,” about a mathematician and scientist respectively. But where are women scientists or mathematicians and their world-changing accomplishments?

As a society, we need more biopics about these incredible women. It is important that their accomplishments be recognized. A few examples: Rear Admiral Grace Hopper has a destroyer named after her to honor her accomplishments including inventing the first compiler, and developing the first high level computer language. Rosalind Franklyn was instrumental in discovering the double helix structure of DNA for which her former collaborators Crick and Watson won the noble prize. This is one time I wish I was wrong. But I when I googled, “Women Scientists in movies,” I found only lists of fictional scientists in SciFi films. Perusing the Best Actress nominations in the history of the Oscars, I found two movies about women scientists: “Madame Curie” (Marie Curie worked with physicist Pierre Curie to discover radium) back in 1943 and “Gorillas in the Mist” (1988) about Dian Fossey’s research with Mountain Gorillas in Africa. “Madame Curie,” was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Greer Garson), Best Actor, and Best Cinematography, yet this accomplished biopic didn't win any academy awards. “Gorillas in the Mist,” was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress  (Sigourney Weaver.)

Of course, great advancements don’t happen in a bubble. In the 1840s, Ada Lovelace worked on Charles Babbage’s early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. Her notes on the engine include the first algorithm carried out by the machine. She is often described as the world’s first computer programmer.


Cooperation is one of the themes of, “The Imitation Game.” It took a team sharing their different strengths to break the code of the German Enigma cipher and win the war. It took military strategy, math skills, relationship strengths, and being able to see the whole picture. “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do things that no one can imagine.” Mathematician Alan Turing (Oscar nominated Benedict Cumberbatch) doesn’t relate to the world like others do, but it is that different way of seeing things that allows him to create a machine to crack the enigma. No doubt Turing studied Ada Loveless’ work while at Princeton. He recognizes that Joan Clark’s (Keira Knightley) mathematical strengths would benefit the team. And it is also this woman who taught him to work together with the other team members in order to accomplish their goals.

The “Theory of Everything,” was based on the inspiring story of how Stephen Hawking, (Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne) was empowered and supported by his wife Jane (Oscar nominated Felicity Jones), and postulated the theoretical prediction that black holes emit radiation and researched a unifying theory of relativity and quantum mechanics while suffering from ALS disease that increasingly paralyzed him. While the movie doesn't cover the “Theory of Everything” or even Stephen’s scientific process in any depth, Director James Marsh illuminates the Hawkings' relationship and the world of science with spectacular poetry and wonder.

Now let’s get down to the Oscar snub. “Selma,” one of the best reviewed, most powerful films of the year didn’t garner its director, Ava DuVerney, a Best Director nomination. (Read more about this in my previous review.) Like, “The Imitation Game,” it celebrates the accomplishment of a great man. "Selma," is enriched by the feminine perspective that there is strength in collaboration. DuVerney realizes her vision of inviting the audience into the spirit of the Civil Rights movement from the point of view of its black protagonists. The movement (and resulting movie) was bigger than just one man. It was a community working together, and risking their lives, fighting for freedom for generations to come. DuVerney shows women as partners in the cause. Coretta Scott King enabled her husband to be the voice of the movement by supporting him financially while raising their children. Women and men lock arms and march bravely together.

While, "Selma," shows the effectiveness of collaboration and non-violent protest; "American Sniper," glorifies Chris Kyle as an indispensable, one-man killing machine. “American Sniper,” was produced to draw attention to the condition of vets returning from the war and that is certainly a noble purpose. But it is also a masterfully crafted propaganda movie (much like the, “Green Berets” during the Vietnam War which wasn't nominated for an Oscar.) In the film, there is no question that the American sniper, Chris Kyle, was justified in killing every Iraqi because every one of them was shown carrying a weapon. The theme of the movie is black and white. It is us against the evil terrorists. But what would you do if your neighborhood was occupied and soldiers were breaking into your house? I found it very disturbing when I started rooting for Chris to kill the evil Iraqis. The film has already had its desired effect, as a Facebook friend commented, “Kill everyone one of those evil bastards.” To me this is a misuse of the power of film.

I’m not ready to give up on the Oscars yet. The top runners for Best Picture: “Boyhood,”, “Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)," and, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” all deserve their nominations.

It is a miracle that Linklater was able to pull off this unprecedented feat of shooting the same actors over the course of 12 years. No theme is imposed on, “Boyhood,” aside from memories projected over the passage of time. There is no big turning point that inspires the characters’ growth, just living through life’s daily struggles.

Wes Anderson creates the intricate details in the whimsical, quirky world of, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” where the melancholy staff try to maintain bygone civility and loyalty amongst a backdrop of brutality, war and loss. The physical comedy is spot on and the action sequences thrilling and fun!

In Oscar-winning Director Alejandro González Iñárritu's, "Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” a comic book action star struggles to express himself as an artist, to find some relevance in his life, to prove that his life matters. It is a biting satire on the price of fame and how Hollywood clips the wings of its artists in their pursuit of profits.

All three films deserve their Best Picture nominations for brilliantly realizing their directors’ original visions. I just hope that next year the Academy chooses to empower women filmmakers by nominating them into the club.

Oscar blessings!
Jana Segal
www.reelinspiration.blogspot.com

OSCAR UPDATE:

Patricia Arquette won Best Actress for, "Boyhood" and gave an impassioned plea for equal rights for women in America.

The powerful performance of Best Song winner, "Glory," honoring, "Selma," along with the speeches by songwriters Common and John Legend moved many to tears.

Eddie Redmayne won Best Actor for, "The Theory of Everything."

Graham Moor won Best Adaptation for "The Imitation Game."

Alejandro González Iñárritu won Best Director, Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay (along with Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo) for, "Birdman."


Congratulations to all the winners! 

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Incredible Invisible Women Filmmakers

Motivated by Ava DuVernay’s recent Oscar snub (check out my review of her powerful biopic, "Selma") and the fact that only 5% of the 250 movies made in the Hollywood studio system this year were directed by women, I decided to find out what happened to all the women filmmakers. I started by scrolling down the movies I had promoted on Reel Inspiration through the years including my annual, “Most Inspiring Films” lists. Imagine my delight when I discovered that three of the films listed in first place were directed by women: my all-time favorite Reel Inspiration film, “Even the Rain,” (from 2010) was directed by Spanish actress/director Iciar Bollain. She used her experience as film actress to brilliantly capture the world of a film within a film. My favorite inspiring film of 2011, the documentary about horse whisperer, “Buck,” was directed by animal advocate Cindy Meehl. Of course, 2013’s Most Inspiring Film, “Wadjda,” was directed by a Saudi Arabian woman named Haifaa Al-Mansour. This was an incredible accomplishment because it was the first feature film ever shot in Saudi Arabia. This accomplishment needs to be celebrated. Scrolling down the labels on my blog, I found other female filmmakers who are making powerful, inspiring films. These women’s names deserve to be known and their voices heard.

Ava DuVernay, Iciar Bollain, Haifaa Al-Mansour
After reading an article about gender inequality in Hollywood that asked, “Where are all the Women Filmmakers?” I conducted my own research to find out if there were, in fact, qualified women filmmakers and why they weren't being hired for high profile studio productions. I started by looking up the women directors mentioned on Indiewire’s best indie films and Sundance breakout hits lists on IMDB to discover which projects were in the works and to see if they were getting the same opportunities as their male counterparts. These lists led to more lists: best horror films directed by women, lesbian filmmakers, documentary filmmakers, showcase films for actresses… The more I looked, the more women directors I uncovered. Yes, there are women directors out there.

Jennifer Lynch
Why hadn't I heard of these women? Why weren't more of them household names? The main reason is that women filmmakers have a difficult time finding enough funding for publicity and are lucky to get even limited distribution. Without proper PR campaigns, they aren't even a blip on most film journalists’ or reviewers’ radar. One bloody example is Jennifer Lynch. (Read more about her in my upcoming women in horror blog.) After some devastatingly bad press on her first film, "Boxing Helena" (when she was in her twenties) Jennifer has gone on to make some of the most intriguing, disturbing serial killer flicks, "Surveillance," and, "Chained." Despite getting more PR than most female filmmakers, hardly anyone saw her films. Why? Because they had limited distribution.
Debra Granik

Women with breakout indie films aren't being hired for big studio productions like their male counterparts. A good example of that is, “Winter’s Bone,” director/co-writer Debra Granik. (Independently financed by the filmmakers when their investor fell through, it cost $2 million dollars to produce and earned $14 million above that.) Despite being nominated for four Academy Awards (including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Granik) and launching the phenomenal career of Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence, Granik has been unable to get a project green-lighted in the studio system. Meanwhile, her male contemporary, Noam Murro (his indie drama, “Smart People,” made $2 million less) went on to direct the high budget film, “300: Rise of an Empire.”

Lexi Alexander
Studio executives use the excuse that female directors either don’t want to direct big action films or can’t handle the job. While directing a horror film is seen as proof that men are prepared to direct an action film, women horror film directors are overlooked. Another example that belies that theory is Academy award-nominated Lexi Alexander. Lexi is uniquely qualified to direct action films. She leveraged her experience as a Karate and kickboxing world champion to write and direct her engrossing Oscar-nominated short about professional boxer, “Johnny Flinton.” (Heralded by reviewers as the most authentic depiction of boxing on film.) Her skills as a professional stunt-woman enabled her to orchestrate brutally real and thrilling fight sequences for her film, “Green Street Hooligans.” She faithfully followed Hollywood’s formula for success. While Hollywood executives complained that female stories weren't “edgy” enough, her films were edgy. When they demanded sympathetic heroes, she gave them sympathetic heroes. And she made it work. Her films are brilliant. Unfortunately, this story doesn't have a happy Hollywood ending. When she was hired to direct the lesser-known Marvel comic, “Punisher: War Zone,” she was promised a $30 million budget, but ended up with $20 million. Executives claimed that investors got nervous because she was a woman. So she had $10 million less to publicize a practically obscure franchise. She gave fans what they wanted by staying true to the source (violence and all). But when the movie wasn't a box office hit, they blamed it on her being a woman.

Let’s examine the excuse that women don’t want to direct action films. First, many of the 250 big studio productions aren't action films. The list includes comedies and dramas. All but three of the so-called “chick flicks” and “weepies” were directed by men. It is true that Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman ever to win a Best Director Oscar (for the war film, “The Hurt Locker”), declined offers to direct the latest big action franchises. But it is absurd to think that this acclaimed director would choose to direct the latest Marvel Comic flick or big action sequel. Hasn't she earned the opportunity to direct a film that reflects her own vision – like the previous Oscar winners? (In all fairness, many renowned directors have found it so difficult to finance their vision in today’s corporate-run movie industry that they have started working in television.)

Scarlett Johansson
The recent success of female driven films PROVES that there is a market for films with female leads:
  • Jennifer Laurence beat the competition, grossing $335,123,000 in “The Hunger Games, Mockingjay, Part 1.” 
  • Angelina Jolie was “Maleficent” (penned by Linda Woolverton) at 8th place ($241,410,378).
  • “Interstellar,” blasted off to 16th place while featuring a strong woman astronaut and scientist ($186,666,000).
  •  “Gone Girl,” Rosamund Pike slayed as the unhappy wife in 18th place ($167,628,577) while retaining author/screenwriter Gillian Flynn’s vision.
  • “Lucy” captured 23rd place ($126,663,600) on Scarlett Johansson’s star power.
  • Shailene Woodley shined in at 24th ($124,872,350) in, “Fault in Our Stars.”
  • Meryl Streep’s bewitching presence conjured up 25th place ($124,388,000) for “Into the Woods.” 
  • “Tammy” showed off Melissa McCarthy’s strengths as a comedian/writer to earn 38th ($84,525,432). 
  • Nappy-haired little girl, “Annie” (starring Quvenzhane Wallis and co-written by Aline Brosh McKenna) found a home at 39th ($84,452,781). 
  • “If I Stay,” starring Chloe Grace Moretz and adapted by Shauna Cross from the novel by Gayle Forman hung in at 52nd ($50,474,843). 
While this list shows progress for lead actresses, it must be noted that NONE of these movies were directed by women. It is hopeful that half of these were written (or co-written) by women. 

Kathryn Bigelow
While it’s good to show that women can excel at directing high budget genre movies (Angelina Jolie joined the ranks in 26th place at the box office with the war film, “Unbroken”), I don’t think female directors should have to direct male-centric movies in order to get funding. They should be able to make movies that reflect their vision. Many female directors, such as Debra Granik, are opting to produce their own low budget shorts or documentaries, while awaiting studio deals. It is important for the health of our nation (even the planet) that women’s voices be heard. I am proud of Kathryn Bigelow for forgoing financial gratification to create projects that reflect her own vision and benefit our planet. She is currently collaborating with Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures, (who also worked on, “Zero Dark Thirty”) on an adaption of Anand Giridharada’s bestseller, “The True American.” She leveraged her clout to produce the animated PSA, “Last Days,” drawing attention to the connection between elephant poaching and terrorism. Bigelow elaborated, “For me it represented the diabolical intersection of two problems of great concern – species extinction and global terrorism. Both involve the loss of innocent life, and both require urgent action.”

Where are all the other female filmmakers? Women are making films. This year 36% of the films at Sundance were directed by women. So what became of the female directors who had breakout hits in the past? Some have feature films coming out in 2015, some are producing their own short films while trying to get their feature projects through the studio system, some have gone on to directing television (women directors swept the TV categories at the DGA awards this year), and some are choosing to make documentaries or low budget indies to stay true to their vision.

"Winter's Bone" by Debra Granik
The problem is that the films made outside the studio system aren't being seen because they don’t have money for marketing and distribution. Right now Hollywood is run by a handful of giant corporations that are only interested in testosterone-driven megahits that show a huge profit to stockholders. Businessmen are running the show. So they keep regurgitating the same tired formulas that have worked in the past. As result, movie attendance has gone down.

Recent box office receipts prove that there is demand for female driven films. Why not put some of that money back into smaller films with a fresh perspective? From a business standpoint, they cost less to make, so they are less risky. For example, “The Fault in Our Stars,” didn't have a large special effects budget so it cost a modest $12 million. The film was a huge success due to the author’s fan base and internet following. It ended up making 10 TIMES its budget. 

How do we encourage studios and investors to finance and distribute films by female directors? First, do a little research and discover your favorite women directors. Seek out their films. Then send Hollywood a message by attending them on opening weekend. Share them with your friends. Repeat.

Meanwhile, I will continue writing articles on the subject and seeking out female filmmakers to promote on Reel Inspiration. Look for my upcoming article celebrating “Women in Horror” month.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal
www.reelinspiration.blogspot.com

Monday, February 02, 2015

"Dallas Buyers Club"


Whether it’s drunken bull riding, doing drugs off of prostitutes’ bellies, or getting in barroom brawls – real-life Texas cowboy Ron Woodroof (played with devastating honesty by Best Actor winner Matthew McConaughey) is reckless with his life. That is… until he is diagnosed as HIV-positive and told that he has 30 days to live. The good ol’ boy is ostracized by his friends for being what he detests the most – a homosexual. It is 1985 and the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Ron soon finds that there are no government approved HIV drugs. The “lucky” AIDS patients are being used as lab rats. This is where he meets personable transgender AIDS patient, Rayon (appropriately named after a fabricated material rather than the spun silk she deserves). When Rayon tries to befriend Ron, Ron gets skittish and flees. But Ron isn’t about to lay down and die. He takes it on himself to track down alternative treatments. When he can’t afford the drugs on his own, he is forced to team up with street smart Rayon to bring in other patients. They bypass government regulations on selling illegal drugs by starting a Buyers Club where patients pay for memberships and get drugs for free. Rayon (Best Supporting Actor Jared Leto) is the heart and soul of the, “Dallas Buyers Club.” Through their shared struggle for dignity and acceptance, the men develop a grudging respect for each other. Ron Woodroof might be doing it for the wrong reasons (to provide drugs for himself and make money), but he ends up helping many AIDS patients and growing a little in the process.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

"Philomena"

Last Year's Best Picture nominee, "Philomena," is based on the nonfiction book, "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee," by journalist Martin Sixsmith. For 50 years, “Philomena,” (Judi Dench) longed for the son who was taken from her by the nuns entrusted with their keeping. Ashamed of being an unwed mother, she kept that secret all those years. She sets off on a journey to find her son with political reporter, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan). Martin isn't thrilled about doing a human interest story, but he needs the job.


As an ex-Roman Catholic, Martin voices an issue many can relate to – how the church shames people for having sex. “Why would God bestow on us a sexual desire that he then wants us to resist?” He can’t understand why Philomena would protect the very nuns who shamed the unwed mothers into indentured servitude and then sold off their babies. But Philomena’s faith is not limited to a flawed institution; it is built on God’s forgiveness.

Director Stephen Frears takes us on an “odd couple” road trip, steering clear of sappy MOW (Movie of the Week) pitfalls. Comic moments are accentuated by exaggerating their differences: Philomena’s small town naivety in contrast to Martin’s world-weary cynicism. Much of the humor comes from Philomena taking everything Martin says literally. When he politely asks her how she is, she goes on …and on…about her hip replacement. She is portrayed as a sort of "everymom." In the end, she doesn't want the story published because she is ashamed. While Martin finally understands the importance of sharing this “everymom” story - to help other mothers whose children were given up for adoption.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal
www.reelinspiration.blogspot.com

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"Captain Phillips"


In this thrilling, hard-driving action film, true-life sea captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks in his boy-next-door amicable best) is portrayed as a hard-working merchant mariner – responsible first to his duty (delivering cargo) and then for protecting his crew.

Cmdr Castellano and Capt Phillips of the USS Bainbridge
The film opens with Phillips expressing his growing concern about how with today’s economy his son won’t be able to find employment. This burden distracts him from seeing the negative impact of international companies: dumping nuclear waste off of the Somali coastline and illegally trolling for fish. (A theme that too many of us can relate to. In our daily struggle to keep a job, we don’t have the time or energy to register the impact of international trade on the rest of the world.)

In a ruthlessly realistic scene, we see the results: former Somali fishermen fighting over knat (an additive, green leaf) and to be hired for the only available job – a cargo ship pirate. It is only when Captain Phillips is thrown into a life and death struggle with the pirates (lead with fierce determination by Oscar nominated Barkhad Adbi) that he begins to understand their desperation. The movie isn't overly sympathetic to the pirates as it reveals that none of their bounty will be going back to help the rest of the village.

Capt Phillips was held captive by Somali pirates in this life boat 

As with the negative relationship between the global recession and global warming, there are no easy answers. “Captain Phillips” is a must-see for the rising tension in the action and in global trade.

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal
www.reelinspiration.blogspot.com

"Captain Phillips" also received well-deserved nominations for:  Best Adapted Screenplay (Billy Ray), Best Editing (Christopher Rouse), and Best Picture. Paul Greengrass was cheated out of a Best Director nomination. "Captain Phillips," was my pick for Best Picture in 2014.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"Nightcrawler" Thrilling Fable of the American Dream.

In my zeal to see the Oscar nominated films, I wasn’t in a hurry to watch, “Nightcrawler." From the trailer it appeared to be just another slick Hollywood thriller.  But since thrillers are more fun on the big screen, I figured I’d better catch it before it was pulled from the theater, replaced by the recent Best Picture nominees.

Nightcrawler,” is more than a thriller, it’s a fable about the American Dream.

Unable to find a job in this economy, Lou Bloom (award-winner Jake Gyllenhaal) is desperate to make a living. He is a wily night scavenger – stealing scrap metal or doing whatever he can to make money until he can find a way to get in the game. He tells a perspective employer that he works hard to get ahead, but he has to be in the game in order to win it. Like the American public, he has been sold the American Dream and will do anything to get it.  He happens onto a profitable way to make a living, videotaping gruesome crime scenes for the local news. He learns from another news videographer, (nightcrawler) that “if it bleeds, it leads.”  

An integral part of selling the American Dream are the images presented in the media. The viewers are the consumers buying the American Dream. Local news stations employ fear mongering to increase their ratings so they can sell more advertising, so corporations can sell more products to the consumer.

In, “Nightcrawler,” affluent people are the consumers that make the whole system work.  The media manipulates their fears to get them to watch the programs. The best-selling images show urban crime creeping into the suburbs. The local news station buys and sells images of bloody carjackings and home invasions perpetrated by minorities.

But writer/director Dan Gilroy pushes the envelope even farther by presenting the moral quandary:  How far would you go to get that money shot? When you get to the crime scene before the cops, do you get the graphic footage or do you help the victim? This is a metaphor for an important theme in politics today: capitalism vs. humanity.


The movie becomes even more frightening as we discover that Bloom will do absolutely anything to get the money shot.  His homeless “intern” Rick, (Riz Ahmed) isn’t a person to him at all, but a means to make more money. He doesn't take care of his one employee, but puts him in the line of fire. Through Rick’s eyes we see and feel the danger as their red Challenger speeds to the next crime scene.  Seen from his perspective inside the car, these are the most thrilling “chase scenes” I have ever experienced. My heart was in my throat through most of the movie. But what makes it scarier is that the female news editor (Rene Russo) has bought into this myth that we should do whatever it takes to make money. In this day and age, we reward sociopaths and accept them as players in our capitalistic society.  Only it’s happening in broad daylight.

If there is any justice in Hollywood, Dan Gilroy will win a Best Screenplay nod for his brilliant script. Why wasn't, "Nightcrawler,"- one of the most well-reviewed, entertaining movies of the year - nominated for best picture? I’ll leave that to you to figure out. Writer/director Dan Gilroy put together a great team that believed in his vision. Together they created the movie they wanted to make without interference from financial backers.  I call that inspiring.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal
www.reelinspiration.blogspot.com

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Long March to Freedom

The unwarranted controversy around Ava DuVernay's depiction of President Johnson in, "Selma," got me thinking about the challenge of writing a movie about historical figures. Being a writer, I know how difficult it is to write about a real person - especially someone who is as well-known and beloved as Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela. The sheer scope of their life stories is daunting. What do you include and what do you leave out? How do you capture the life of a person in two hours? As an artist, you hope to capture a glimpse of their spirit. A writer attempts to create meaning out of life events. That is a tall order for men who meant so much to so many people. A friend of mine admitted that he didn't want to see, "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," because writer William Nicholson chose to include Mandela cheating on his first wife and endangering his family. Similarly, writer Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay included this same weakness in their portrait of Martin Luther King. I believe that the writers showed great courage in sharing these great men's weaknesses. Illuminating the real men behind the legends is what makes these movies so powerful!

In both movies, their wives are portrayed as partners in the fight for civil rights. "Selma," makes it clear that Coretta enabled Martin Luther King to be the face of the civil rights movement by supporting him financially and caring for their children at home. The film concentrates on a shorter period in history to take a more personal look at Martin's and Coretta's relationship and the effect the struggles of the civil rights movement had on them. They risked their lives walking side by side at the peaceful demonstration in, "Selma" 

In, "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," Nelson’s story is contrasted with Winnie's tragic story. While Mandela was in jail, it was his wife Winnie who led the Apartheid and Free Mandela movements. The movie captures her growing hatred as she witnesses violence towards her people and she endures torture at the hands of their white oppressors. When Mandela is finally released from prison, Winnie demands that he use his power to overthrow the white government. But the visionary Mandela finds the strength and wisdom to transcend the urge for revenge or justice. He has learned that the only way for Africa to be whole again is through cooperation and forgiveness.

What makes these movies so inspiring is that their subjects weren't perfect, but they accomplished great things. These flawed men and women sacrificed everything to bring freedom to their people.

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal
reelinspiration.blogspot.com


OSCAR UPDATE:

"Selma," was honored with a Best Song Oscar for, "Glory," by songwriters Common and John Legend.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Celebrate Martin Luther King Day with, "Selma"


I went away from the screening feeling empowered to write an inspiring review of Best Picture Nominee,Selma.” I was deeply moved by the image of marchers from diverse religions, black and white, standing together against injustice and inhumanity. These people risked their lives for the rights we enjoy today. And the themes are still so relevant in this time of racial discord and disillusionment with those in power. 

After a two hour bus ride home, I was struggling to remember what I was going to write. I knew I wanted to include an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s closing speech at Montgomery, so I googled it. I was shocked to find that it wasn't King's actual words. I was appalled that the African-American filmmakers (including Oprah!) couldn't get the rights to use the speeches because of copyright laws. Doesn't Martin Luther King's legacy belong to all of us? The rights had been sold to a rich white man. Steven Spielberg will probably do justice to Martin Luther King’s life as he did with, “Schindler’s List.” But the symbolism is still down-heartening – a rich white man buying up intellectual property for his vision of Martin Luther King. I was so thrown that I couldn't face writing this for days. 

Then there was the unwarranted controversy around the accuracy of the film's depiction of President Lyndon Johnson as a deterrent to the march at Selma. Personally, I feel that filmmakers have a responsibility to be truthful in capturing important historical events. I listened to director Ava DuVernay‘s explanation that, "Selma," was her artistic vision. She suggested that people research it for themselves. I took up the challenge and found that President Johnson's involvement was not black and white. He was first and foremost a Southern politician. While he may have intended to pass the civil rights law, he was cautious not to lose too many voters. I believe that the movie is DuVernay's honest take on the events. Her vision is to invite the audience into the spirit of the movement from the point of view of its black protagonists. Yes, protagonists - plural. It was greater than just one man. It was a community coming together to figure out the best way to accomplish their civil rights objectives.

The movie shows how African-Americans were humiliated, threatened with losing their jobs, beaten or even killed for attempting to vote in the South. A group of civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo), decide that the best course of action is to fight for the unobstructed right to vote. King meets with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to request that he pass the Voting Rights Act. But the president’s goal is to keep a handle on the civil rights movement and he is interested in uncovering King’s next course of action. He claims that there is too much on his plate, including fighting poverty, to pass a Voting Rights Act.


The activists decide to bring attention to the issue by holding a non-violent demonstration in Selma, Alabama. As the protesters kneel down before Sheriff Jim Clark, a police officer strikes an elderly man who has difficulty kneeling. When two protesters intervene to protect the man, the police respond with a vicious attack. The protesters flee, but the policemen are unrelenting in their pursuit. One young man helps his family escape into a restaurant, where they pretend to be eating. The policemen track them down and shoot the young man in cold blood. Spurred on by this tragedy, the community rallies together. They organize a non-violent march from Selma.

Governor Wallace commissions Sheriff Jim Clark to teach them a lesson. When the peaceful marchers reach the end of a Edmund Pettus Bridge, Sheriff Jim Clark is waiting. He sics his armed state troopers on them. The nation watches, horrified, as the marchers are savagely beaten as white citizens cheer from the sidelines. Martian Luther King sends out a call to his fellow clergy to stand with him when they march again. Moved by the inhumanity, they come to show their support. It is inspiring to see black and white people from all religions joining arms and standing together.
 
The reason I wanted to include the excerpt from 
his Montgomery speech is that it still rings true today. Martin Luther King educates the nation on how after the emancipation, the Southern aristocracy was afraid of the freed slaves organizing with the poor whites for better working conditions, so they passed the Jim Crow segregation laws to separate them. The inherent message was no matter how low the white man was, the blacks were lower. (This is similar to the way our current politicians use undocumented immigrants as scapegoats, blaming them for causing the recession by taking the poor man’s jobs. Eighteen billion dollars was spent last year on immigrant enforcement. In Arizona, they passed a law that takes away our rights. Policemen can stop us on the street to ask for our papers. Of course, it is only brown-skinned people that they stop. Arizona has also disregarded the Voting Rights Act by requiring identification in order to vote.)

Witnessing the inhumane treatment of the marchers in Selma created more understanding of the plight of African Americans - which allowed President Lyndon Johnson to finally pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965. I hope that witnessing these events in, "Selma," will remind us of the difficult battle that was waged to achieve these rights, so we won’t allow them to be taken away.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal
www.reelinspiration.blogspot.com

I will be writing about Director Ava DuVernay in an upcoming Reel Inspiration post, "Women Directors." Meanwhile, read more about it in Scott Mendelson's excellent article, "Why Ava DuVernay's "Selma" Oscar Snub Matters."


OSCAR UPDATE:

"Selma," was honored with the Best Song Oscar for, "Glory," by songwriters Common and John Legend.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

"Spare Parts"

In Search of "Spare Parts" and the American Dream...

Carl Hayden Community High School Falcon Robotics Club


Overwhelmed by the myriad of Oscar nominated films in the Cineplex, I had overlooked the one little indie comedy on the marquee. The only thing I heard about it was that it was set in Arizona, but was shot in New Mexico to benefit from their tax incentives. (Don’t get me started…) Like the Hispanic families of the inner-city robotics team, I didn't have great expectations. But it was impossible not to be inspired by this true story of four poor undocumented high school students’ courage and determination to pursue a better life through robotics. They decide to compete against the country’s best including the reigning champions, MIT. It is awe inspiring watching them figure out how to make an underwater robot with an $800 budget, PVC piping and other, “spare parts.”

Spare Parts,” is based on an article, “La Vida Robot” in Wired magazine. Writer Joshua David explained, “I wanted to write about the amazing thing they had done. If no one tells the stories, the real stories of people trying to do amazing things and succeeding, then the stereotypes persist. I want America to be as good as it can be. I like to find stories that emphasize the people that make the country great.”

Sure, it looks like a TV movie of the week. The school seemed too bright and clean to be the tough school it is made out to be. Director Sean McNamara and screenwriter Elissa Matsueda give it a comic tone to showcase the strengths of comedian George Lopez and to make it accessible to a larger audience. And they succeed. This is the first laugh-out-loud comedy I've seen in quite a while.

The movie may have been even more powerful if they portrayed more of the true day-to-day prejudices and challenges that these undocumented teens faced. The computer teacher (Marisa Tomei) sums it up, “Every day in a hundred ways they are told that they are hopeless, that they are beyond hope.“ The filmmakers make it accessible to more people by not casting blame. But they do show the results of being treated like a criminal - that you start to behave like a criminal. The brother of one of the team members has bought into this myth and has become a delinquent.

These teens have come to this country with their families to pursue the American Dream. After being rejected for the military, an enterprising young man starts the robotic team in hopes that the competition will lead to employment so he can support his family. In a heartbreaking scene, his mother confesses, "I told you anything could be yours. I don't think I was right."

The teens show incredible courage by continuing to work towards the competition despite daunting challenges such as: supporting a family, protecting a delinquent brother, being tracked down by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), being homeless, and fear of being deported. Keep in mind this all happened in Phoenix, Arizona where Sheriff Joe Arpaio imprisons undocumented people in tent city while it is 110 degrees outside, in a state where ethnic studies (that promote self-esteem and success in school) are illegal.

“Spare Parts” is an empowering underdog story that shows we can do anything we set our mind to. But it is so much more than that. Actor Esai Morales hopes that this movie will broaden what it means to be an American and our definition of the American Dream.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

www.reelinspiration.blogspot.com

Read, "The Real-Life Teachers of "Spare Parts" on What's Wrong with US Schools."

UPDATE: News of what came of the Carl Hayden Community High School Falcon Robotics team.

GOOD NEWS: Tucson police revise immigration policy about asking for papers.

Read my thoughts on, "What's Really Happening on the Arizona/Mexican Border."

Read my review of, "Under the Same Moon."

For more information on the struggles of undocumented workers, watch the documentary, "Immigrant Nation."



Friday, January 16, 2015

"Enough Said"

At first glance, “Enough Said,” appears to be just another quirky little, self-deprecating romantic comedy. But writer/director Nicole Holofcener gives us something much more down to earth and real. It is actually a different kind of love triangle. Two recent divorcees, Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Albert (James Gandolfini), find comfort in sharing life’s changes until Eva unwittingly befriends her new beau’s ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and starts seeing Albert through his ex-wife’s disgruntled eyes.

I actually watched this film a second time for the warm feeling it left me. A recent divorcee myself, I found comfort in sharing their post-divorce challenges. Like Albert and Eva, I was reeling from the thought of my kid leaving for college. After coping with shared custody, empty nest syndrome hit like a ton of bricks. But Eva and Albert discover that sharing coping strategies and jokes makes it a little easier. I cringed as Eva allowed Albert’s ex to vent about him. But I understood how, after going through a broken marriage, she was afraid of making the same mistake twice. Like so many of us in the dating world, she set impossibly high standards so she wouldn't  be hurt again. When the conflict comes to a head, Eva and Albert must decide if sharing their messy lives is worth the effort. This isn't escapist romance. It’s down to earth, awkward, and sometimes comforting like sharing your life.

Love this movie! Enough said. 

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal
www.reelinspiration.blospot.com

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

"Her"

Through Theodore's eyes we see, "Her." 
In this SciFi romance, society continues in the direction that it is already heading during this cyberage – playing with the paradox of how we can be constantly connected through social media yet less intimately connected. We have replaced personal interactions with text messages. Even on a physical level sex has been replaced by safe cybersex. The art of letter writing has been lost with the advent of chat, creating an industry for personal correspondence writers. Writer/Director Spike Jonze explores this theme with his main character, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a professional letter writer who specializes in drafting touching, intimate love letters while being totally shut down by fear in his personal life.


Instead of creating a hollow, unfeeling world of SciFi technology, Jonze creates a world where people still strive for human connection. Using the rules of artificial intelligence as a guide, Jonze makes it seem totally feasible that an operating system could be conversational and interactive. After Theodore downloads his own personal assistant operating system (Scarlett Johansson), she introduces herself: “Hi, I’m here. I’m Samantha.” Theodore is taken aback by the beautiful imperfections in her voice. When she wakes him up the next morning, she surprises him by exhibiting a sense of humor. Programmed to anticipate his every need (while making no demands of him), it’s not difficult to believe that Theodore falls for “her.” "Her," really isn't a her at all, but a projection of himself and what he wants in a woman. When Theodore shares the news of this relationship with his ex-wife, she responds, “You’re dating a computer? You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real. I'm glad you found someone.”

One of the delightful things about their romance is that the filmmaker can’t rely on physical attractiveness to show us why these characters come together. We watch how they inspire each other to grow. Samantha actually helps Theodore face his fear, enabling him to have a real relationship. Jonze, Phoenix, and Johansson have created a uniquely heartfelt love story in, “Her.”

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal
www.reelinspiration.blogspot.com

OSCAR UPDATE:
Spike Jonze won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for, "Her," in 2014.


Monday, January 12, 2015

"12 Years a Slave"

Director Steve McQueen with Best Picture Oscar
Best Picture winner, “12 Years a Slave,” is based on the empowering true story of Solomon Northup, an African-American musician and freeman, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery.

There have been many movies about the plight of the slaves. But “12 Years a Slave,” by director Steve McQueen and Oscar award-winning adapter, John Ridley, transcends the others by illuminating the importance of not only surviving, but surviving with dignity. When Solomon (Chiwetu Ejiofor) is first kidnapped, he insists that he is a freeman. In an attempt to break his spirit, his captors beat him within an inch of his life. A fellow captive advises him that if he wants to survive, he must keep a low profile and not let them know he can read and write. The hopelessness of his situation finally sets in as other slaves fail gravely in their attempts to escape. He decides to cooperate, but continues exercising to keep up his strength so he is prepared when the opportunity to escape arises. But he soon observes that cooperation doesn’t save his fellow slaves from abuse. They are considered property and are whipped or killed at their master’s whim.

SPOILER AHEAD:

Solomon finally decides to risk everything to realize himself. He demonstrates his intelligence by engineering a way for logs to be carried across the river. The master is pleased and rewards him with a violin – a show of respect (and a possible way for him to earn money to buy his freedom). The white foreman becomes jealous and attacks him, but now Solomon fights back like a man. Later, the foreman returns to hang him. The master runs the foreman off, but leaves Solomon hanging from the noose barely able to hold up his weight on his tip toes. The master punishes the foreman for messing with his property, and sends a message to Solomon to stay in his place.

The film also examines the lives of the slaves who chose to please their masters. A spirited young slave, Patsey, (Best Actress winner Lupita Nyong’o) captures her master’s attention by cheerfully picking more cotton then the rest of the slaves. He watches her dancing in the slave quarters, entranced, longing to capture her jubilant spirit. When his wife protests, he insists on keeping his slave and suggests that his wife leave if she doesn’t like it. The wife finds little ways to belittle Patsey’s dignity like depriving her of soap. Believing she is entitled to special treatment as the master’s favorite, Patsey goes off to fetch some for herself. Furious at her for trying to escape, the master beats her. She pleads with him - explaining that she was just getting soap and that she has earned the right to keep herself clean. But this angers him even more. Egged on by his wife, he forces Solomon to beat her to demonstrate to both of them that he can do what he wants with his property.

Despite his captors’ best efforts to break his spirit, Solomon Northup never gives up his identity. By exhibiting his strength as a man, he plants a seed of thought – I am a man and no man’s property! By surviving with dignity, he liberates himself and others.

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal 
www.reelinspiration.blogspot.com

Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Wadjda," shows respect for Saudi culture while standing up for human rights.

A boy peddles up to ten-year-old Wadjda (plucky Waad Mohammed), snatches the hijab from her head and plays keep away. She tries to grab it, but he speeds off on his bike. She yells after him, boasting that she will beat him in a race - once she gets a bike.

Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour at "Wadjda" screening 
Wadjda,” is a deceptively simple story of a girl’s pursuit of money to buy a bike. But it’s more than that. Wadjda is courageously challenging Saudi patriarchal traditions. Saudi girls are forbidden to ride bikes because it is seen as dangerous to their virtue. Wadjda shouldn’t even be talking to the boy on the street because he isn’t in her family circle. She seems freer without the stolen hijab despite knowing that she will be admonished when she arrives at school. Cheeky Wadjda is always pushing the boundaries of what she can get away with. Under her black abaya, she wears white tennis shoes. When her principal (Saudi TV star Ahd) insists that she wear proper school shoes, Wadjda colors her tennies black with a marker.

There is great power in this. Society changes with small acts of defiance. When someone has the courage to stand up for themselves by performing the unjustly forbidden act, it liberates others to do the same. It is akin to a black teen sitting at a “whites only” lunch counter. This simple act of moxie has an impact on the boy. He is so intrigued by Wadjda’s single-minded pursuit that he lets her practice riding his bike. There is hope for the next generation yet.

Female writer/director, Haifaa Al-Mansour, gives us a rare peak into the home life of Saudi women. I was surprised to find that they enjoy shopping at malls for the latest fashions that can only be worn in front of family. It appears that Wadjda is allowed to express herself freely in the confines of her room.

Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assaf) seems to love her. He brings her a little gift when he has been away. But we soon discover that he has gone looking for a new wife. His parents are pressuring him to replace Wadjda’s mother because she can’t bear him a son.

Unfortunately, Wadjda’s mother (played by Saudi television star Reen Abdullah) is a product of the patriarchal society that is displacing her. She refuses to accept a job closer to home because the female employees don’t cover their faces. She forbids Wadjda from buying the bike. But she is too busy trying to hold onto her husband to notice Wadjda’s many financial schemes. She proudly helps her daughter prepare for a Quran recitation contest not realizing that Wadjda has entered to win money for the bike.

In the attempt to belong, Wadjda hangs her name on an empty branch of the family tree. Later she discovers that it has been removed because she isn’t a man. It becomes clear that this patriarchal society wasn’t created to benefit her or her mom. They must learn the delicate balance between respecting their beloved land while standing up for themselves.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Jana’s note: It is an incredible accomplishment that this film even got made. It is the first feature film shot in Saudi Arabia. What makes it even more ground-breaking is that it was directed by a Saudi woman! The director's journey is actually an example of the theme of challenging unjust Saudi patriarchal traditions, while showing respect to the culture. Director Haifaa Al-Mansour refrained from being in the presence of men not in her family circle by watching the shoot on a monitor from inside a tent and sending messengers back and forth or using a two-way radio to convey her adjustments to the actors. While standing up to unjust practices, the movie makes it clear that there is much about Saudi society that the director loves.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Most Inspiring Films of 2013!


It’s that time of year when I share my most inspiring films list. Imagine my surprise to find that I hadn’t done last year’s list! I hadn’t even written a review in over a year! And it was such a great year for film! So I’m making it right by catching up now. I will be posting the longer version of each of these reviews throughout the month. I hope to have the 2014 list finished in time for the Oscars.

There are some enlightening reoccurring themes on my most inspiring films list. The common message in the romances was overcoming fear to make room for love. Six of the films on my list were inspired by empowering true stories. The hero in each film stood up against human rights injustices in their own way. They let their light shine!

Marianne Williamson's words illuminate the theme beautifully, “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

I hope these films inspire you to shine in the New Year!

Movie blessings!

Jana

10) “Mud”

Writer/director Jeff Nicols slops through murky Mississippi backwaters and gritty, dirty life on the delta to make, “Mud.” Ellis (Tye Sheridon) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) set off on a Mississippi river raft adventure. While exploring a small island, they discover a mysterious fugitive called Mud (charismatic Matthew McConaughey). Ellis was recently sideswiped by his parent’s ugly breakup and his first crush with an older girl. So when Mud spins a yarn about his undying love for his high school sweetheart, Ellis puts his faith in true love and does what he can to reunite them. Through his example, they learn the power of loyalty in the face of human fallibility.

9) "Nebraska"

Woody’s family is dumbfounded as the booze-addled, obstinate Woody (Bruce Dern) sets off on a 900 mile trek across Nebraska to claim his bogus million dollar sweepstakes winnings. And nobody seems to know why, even Woody. Director Alexander Payne gives us comic relief in the form of Woody’s ornery, long suffering wife (scene stealer June Squibb) as the foul-mouthed voice of reason, “I never even knew the son of a bitch wanted to be a millionaire. He should have thought about that years ago and worked for it.” Woody’s responsible son (Will Forte) is called in to talk some sense into the old man. But when Woody won’t be dissuaded, his son sees a chance to bond with the father he never knew. We feel his son’s frustration as Woody runs off to get sloshed at local dives, spouting off about his big windfall. The story livens up when his wife comes to “rescue” Woody. As the family deals with unresolved issues and greedy hometown “friends” and relatives, we see a little bit about what made Woody, well…woody. Payne paints a stark, yet quirky portrait of family responsibility and the silent isolation and resignation of rural America.

8) "Philomena"

For 50 years, Philomena (Judi Dench) has longed for the son who was taken from her by the nuns entrusted with their keeping. Ashamed of being an unwed mother, she kept that secret all those years. Philomena finally sets off on a journey to find her son with political reporter, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan). Martin isn't thrilled about doing a human interest story, but he needs the job. Director Stephen Frears takes us on an “odd couple” road trip. Their differences are exaggerated for comic effect: Philomena’s small town naivety contrasting Martin’s world-weary cynicism. She is portrayed as a sort of everymom. An ex-Catholic, Martin can’t understand why Philomena would protect the nuns who shamed unwed mothers into indentured servitude and then sold off their babies. But Philomena’s faith is not limited to a flawed institution; it is built on God’s forgiveness. By the end, Martin sees the importance of this “everymom” story. By sharing her story, she gives permission for other mothers to seek out their children.

7) "Enough Said"
At first glance, “Enough Said,” appears to be just another quirky little, self-deprecating romantic comedy. But writer/director Nicole Holofcener gives us something much more down to earth and real. Two recent divorcees, Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Albert (James Gandolfini) find comfort in sharing life’s changes until Eva unwittingly befriends her new beau’s ex-wife (Catherine Keener). Albert and Eva are both suffering from the onset of empty nest syndrome as their kids prepare to leave for college. Sharing coping strategies and jokes makes it a little easier. But Eva is scared of making the same mistake twice and starts to see Albert through his ex-wife’s disgruntled eyes. When the conflict comes to a head, Eva and Albert must decide if sharing their messy lives is worth the effort. This isn't escapist romance. It’s down to earth, awkward, and sometimes comforting like sharing your life.

6) "Dallas Buyers Club"

Real-life bull-ridin’ playboy Ron Woodroof (Best Actor winner Matthew McConaughey) is reckless with his life - until he is diagnosed as HIV-positive and given 30 days to live. The good ol’ boy is ostracized by his friends for being what he detests the most – a homosexual. Ron finds out that there are no government approved HIV drugs. The “lucky” AIDS patients are being used as lab rats. Ron takes it on himself to track down alternative treatments. When he can’t afford the drugs on his own, he is forced to team up with street smart, transgender AIDS patient Rayon (Best Supporting Actor Jared Leto) to bring in other customers. They bypass government regulations on selling illegal drugs by starting a Buyers Club where patients pay for memberships and get drugs for free. Through their shared struggle for dignity and acceptance, the men develop a grudging respect for each other. Ron Woodroof may be doing it for all the wrong reasons, but he ends up helping AIDS patients and growing in the process.

5) "12 Years a Slave"

Best Picture winner, “12 Years a Slave,” is based on the empowering true story of Solomon Northup, an African-American musician and freeman, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. There have been many movies about the plight of the slaves. But “Twelve Years a Slave,” by director Steve McQueen and award-winning adapter, John Ridley, transcends the others by illuminating the importance of not only fighting to survive, but also fighting for your dignity. When Solomon (Chiwetu Ejiofor) is first kidnapped, he insists that he is a freeman. In an attempt to break his spirit, his captors beat him within an inch of his life. A fellow captive advises him that if he wants to survive, he must keep a low profile and not to let them know he can read and write. The hopelessness of his situation sets in as other slaves fail gravely in their attempts to escape. He decides to cooperate, but continues exercising to keep up his strength so he is prepared when the opportunity to escape arises. Despite the slave masters’ best efforts to break his spirit, Solomon Northup refuses to give up his identity as a man. Through his example, he plants a seed of thought – I am a man and no man’s property! By fighting to survive with dignity, he liberates himself and others.

OSCAR ALERT: Lupita Nyong'o won Best Supporting Actress and John Ridley won Best Adapted Screenplay.

4) "Her"

This SciFi romance explores the paradox of how we can be constantly connected through social media yet less intimately connected. In the new computer age, we have replaced personal interactions with text messages. The art of letter writing has been lost with the advent of chat, creating an industry for personal correspondence writers like Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix). Theodore specializes in drafting touching, intimate love letters despite being totally shut down in his personal life. Instead of creating a hollow, unfeeling world of SciFi technology, Director Spike Jonze creates a world where people still strive for human connection. Theodore downloads his own personal assistant operating system, (Scarlett Johansson). Programmed to anticipate his every need (while making no demands of him), it’s not difficult to believe that Theodore falls for “Her.” One of the delightful things about this romance, is that the filmmaker can’t rely on physical attractiveness to show us why these characters come together. Their affection is evident as they encourage each other’s growth.

3) "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom"

What makes this biopic so powerful is the courage director Justin Chadwick and writer William Nicholson demonstrated in choosing to show the much revered human rights leader’s weaknesses. It is important to convey that this flawed man sacrificed everything to bring freedom to his people. Due attention is given to Winnie who led the anti-Apartheid and Free Mandela movements while her husband was in jail. Despite Winnie urging him overthrow the white government, Nelson Mandela finds the strength and wisdom to transcend the desire for revenge or justice. Instead, he promotes cooperation and forgiveness as the means to heal South Africa.

2) "Captain Phillips"

In this thrilling, hard-driving action film, Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is portrayed as a hard-working merchant mariner – responsible first to his duty (delivering cargo) and then for protecting his crew. The film opens with Phillips expressing his growing concern about how with today’s economy his son won’t be able to find employment. This burden distracts him from seeing the negative impact of international companies: dumping nuclear waste off of the Somali coastline and illegally trolling for fish. We witness the results as former Somali fishermen fight over knat (an additive green leaf) and to be hired for the only available job – a cargo ship pirate. It is only when Phillips is forced into a life and death struggle with the pirates, that he begins to understand their desperation. Based on an incredible true story, “Captain Phillips” is a must-see for the rising tension in the action and in global trade.



1) "Wadjda"

“Wadjda,” by female writer/director Haifaa Al, is a deceptively simple story of a Saudi girl’s pursuit of money to buy a bike. Saudi girls are actually forbidden to ride bikes because it is seen as dangerous to their virtue. By pursuing this goal, Wadjda courageously challenges Saudi patriarchal traditions. In this patriarchal society, Wadjda doesn't know where she belongs. While father seems to love her and her mother, we soon discover that he is looking for a new wife. His parents are pressuring him to replace her mom because she can’t bear him a son. Her mother (Saudi television star Reen Abdullah) is a product of the patriarchal society that is displacing her. She forbids Wadjda from buying the bike. But she is too busy trying to hold onto her husband to notice Wadjda’s attempt to win money for the bike in a Quran recitation contest.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Most Inspiring Films of 2012!


If anyone is still out there, my apologies for not keeping up on my reviews. I have been seeing movies (my life blood) and "living" at the Loft Cinema, but my writing has consisted of composing cover letters for my job search. But it is that time of year that beckons me to write my most inspiring films list - and I couldn't resist!

 (Note: this is not a complete list by any means. I am not including the big epic motion pictures, "Anna Karenina," "The Hobbit," and, "Les Miserables." The trailers for, "The Impossible," and the documentary, "Chasing Ice," look pretty inspiring, but I haven't seen them yet.)


Honorable Mention: I didn't expect to have half as much fun as I did at the off-kilter biopic, "Hitchcock." Director Sacha Gervasi sets the tone from the opening scene with Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopklins) outrageous, tongue-in-cheek humor. Like some of Hitchcock's later works, the genre is hard to classify. The synopsis refers to it as a love story between Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, (the flawless Helen Mirren) during the making of "Psycho." But what would a movie about Hitchcock be without hints of suspense and other fiendish delights. I found the details of Hitchcock's unorthodox directing style especially alluring.

12) "The Kid with the Bike." While in search of his "stolen" bike, a boy discovers that his father has abandoned him. The hard reality sets in -  not all parents do what is best for their kids. This movie deals honestly with how that neglect affects a child and causes them to make bad decisions. And yet one understanding, committed adult can make a difference - even if they can't solve all the problems.

11) A twenty-something novelist with writers' block creates the perfect girlfriend in, "Ruby Sparks." Sure, it's reminiscent of, "Stranger than Fiction," but the love story actually works better here. What makes it stand out is how truthful the characters' relationship seems. There's one fight that sounded just like me and my ex-boyfriend. Ruby's reactions to this situation are so original and yet some how they don't seem contrived. They seem as real as she is. As a writer myself, the idea of a character coming to life for the author doesn't seem that far fetched. But what really inspired me was the theme that we "literally" (hehe) create our own world.

10) "The Sessions" is the story of a man in an iron lung (with the soul of a poet) who enlists the help of a professional sex surrogate to lose his virginity. I've heard nothing but good things about this festival crowd-pleaser. (Come to think of it, they were all men and Helen Hunt's naked body certainly would inspire more than just the main character.) Just the idea of a priest encouraging this arrangement and hearing the intimate details at confession is entertaining. And John Hawkes' self-deprecating portrayal makes it easy to believe that women could fall for him. If that doesn't give you hope, what will? One of the best feel good movies of the year.

9) In, "Moonrise Kingdom," a misfit scout escapes an absurdly corny New England camp to run away with his girlfriend – another troubled foster child. Hilarity ensues as they are pursued by a troop of weapon-wielding boy scouts and clueless adults. By making this delinquent adolescent couple sympathetic, director Wes Anderson finally delivers a film, in his definitive quirky style, that is accessible to movie audiences and highly entertaining.

8) A family accomplishes, "The Impossible," fighting terrible trials to be reunited after a tsunami literally tears them apart. Naomi Watts was nominated for an Oscar for her heart-wrenching performance in this true life story.

7) Believe it or not, "Silver Linings Playbook," is a feel good romantic comedy about the mentally ill. Ex-teacher Pat (Bradley Cooper) is released from the mental institution under the stipulation that he live with his parents and take his meds for his bipolar condition. Driven to win back his ex-wife, he attempts to recreate himself by seeing the silver linings in life (rather than by using drugs.) His dream is shattered when he discovers that his wife has a restraining order against him. He believes that if she could just see how much he has changed, she will take him back. He creates an unusual alliance with an equally messed-up woman (Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence)  who agrees to get a letter to his ex - in return for being her partner in a dance contest. She is suffering from a similar delusion that this contest will solve all her problems. By helping her, he in turn helps himself.  The movie seems to say that love may just be another delusion, but when shared it has the power to heal - like no pill can.

6) "Amour," A elderly couple shared a rewarding life together and a love of music. Their love is tested when the husband must cope with losing the cultivated partner he married to Alzheimers Disease and must decide whether to sacrifice his last days taking care of the love of his life. "Amour" was nominated for Best Picture and won best Foreign Language Film.


5) As an aspiring filmmaker, I couldn't resist, "Argo," the story of a CIA agent who used the guise of making a sci-fi flick in Iran to get to the embassy employees trapped there during the hostage crisis. Sounds like a Hollywood plot device, but it really happened! The real power of film lies in it's ability to educate and create understanding while entertaining. "Argo" succeeds on that level by sharing important insights into what motivated the crisis. "Argo" also nabbed Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay on Oscar night!

4) In, "The Other Son," two young men – one Israeli and the other Palestinian – discover that they were accidentally switched at birth during a raid in the Gulf War. This film transcends the usual melodramatic movie of the week by incorporating authentic Palestinian and Israeli attitudes and culture. The young men question their identities. Are they Jewish or Palestinian?  What makes you Jewish? Can a sworn enemy be accepted as a member of the family? Will they find that they have more similarities than differences?

3) I generally don't include big Hollywood epics, (Spielberg doesn't need my help anyway...) but, "Lincoln," is such an important movie. While dealing with a wife battling debilitating grief and the burden of the Civil War, Lincoln fights tirelessly to pass a law that will abolish slavery and hopefully end the war. This was not a popular cause. He even had opposition from his own party. But he did it because it was the right thing to do. Today's politicians could learn something about moral courage from this man. In addition to the timely theme, I enjoyed being transported back to the Civil War Era through authentic costumes and set design. I found the back-story about the first lady and Sally Field (as Mary Todd Lincoln) absolutely compelling. Best Actor winner Daniel Day Lewis refrains from chewing the furniture (which I usually enjoy) to give us a subtle, lived in performance of the determined and often witty Lincoln.

2) One film on my list isn't a film at all - but a play. I've included the National Theater Live production of, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," because it was one of the most moving big screen experiences I had this year. In director Marian Elliot's hands, Simon Stephen's stellar adaptation of Mark Haddon's award-winning novel is theatrical in the best sense of the word. We get a glimpse of the inner life of a teenage boy with high functioning autism. Christopher (Luke Treadaway in a devastatingly real performance) sees the world in terms of mathematical equations and must brave the terrifying world outside his home to investigate the death of the neighbor's dog that he has been accused of killing. Through his search, we come to a better understanding and acceptance of this courageous young man.


1) I was delighted when my favorite film of the year, "Searching for Sugarman," won Best Documentary.  A South African music critic sets out to find out what happened to the obscure American rock musician who became the voice of Apartheid. His compelling search leads him to rumors that this eccentric rock poet (who had the promise to be the next Dylan) had shot himself on stage after vanishing into obscurity at the failure of his first visionary album. I found it so inspiring that if you follow your calling – it can have a far reaching impact beyond your own awareness. I should have gone home and written a review, but I was inspired to write lyrics for a song!

Movie Blessings!
Jana Segal

Reelinspiration.blogspot.com