Sunday, June 28, 2015

Interstellar: Exploring the Wonder of Science

Interstellar,” touches on a dire concern of our time: the denial of science. As a result, the earth has become unable to sustain human life since all the crops (except for one variety of corn) have been wiped out by the blight. The last of our resources have been expended in growing corn. Our public school system has been reduced to crowd control and survival skills. Director Christopher Nolan and screenwriter Jonathan Nolan bring out the human side through the relationship between corn farmer/former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy). It’s not enough that he’s dealing with the imminent demise of the world, Cooper is called into the principal's office. But this time it isn't about his son getting into a fight. His science geek daughter, Murph, is reprimanded for insisting that there was once a space program. History has been rewritten to exclude the moon landing because it is thought of as a waste of time, effort, and resources. NASA was dropped with the economic collapse. Cooper mourns the loss, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder about our place in the stars, now we just look down and wonder about our place in the earth.”

Fortunately, NASA went underground and may be humanity’s only hope. Cooper is forced to make a heart wrenching decision between staying to comfort his children during their last days, or heading to space on the slim chance that he can find another planet that is habitable.  Murph is left with only a broken watch to await his return. 

Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne
We watch breathlessly as the crew blasts off into space. It is almost as if time is nonlinear as we shoot through the wormhole to explore another galaxy with them. Nolan seems to challenge the recent political travesty that science is expendable by staying true to the physical laws. Theoretical Physicist Kip Thorne was more than just a consultant on the set. He was brought in from the inception to develop the treatment with producer Lynda Obst (of "Contact").

Thorne worked closely with the VFX to help them visualize black holes in space. Their simulations were based on the equations he provided.

“Interstellar,” is a testament to the importance of science and the space program. But it transcends physical dimensions with lofty ideas and wonder.

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal

Saturday, June 20, 2015

"Hector and the Search for Happiness"

My guys loved “Hector and the Search for Happiness.” My eldest son had urged me to write a review of it back when it first premiered, but I had some initial resistance since it seemed to be yet another movie coasting on the New Age trend and overused plot devices.  At his insistence, I gave it another look.

Light-hearted novelistic narration (similar to “Stranger than Fiction,”) sets the tone. “Once upon a time there was a young psychiatrist called Hector (Simon Pegg) who had a very satisfactory life. His world was tidy, uncomplicated and he liked it that way.”  My teenage sons laughed during the corresponding montage of Hector’s OCD home life contrasting with his work life as a disconnected, doodling psychiatrist with neurotic and manic patients.

By all rights, Hector should be happy. He has a lovely, charming girlfriend (Rosamund Pike) who loves her Hector for his peculiar quirks. Clara seems content in maintaining his orderly life, while advancing her career. At a work party in her honor, the cracks show through. Her boss jokes that what he likes most about Clara is that she never takes off for maternity leave. When she raises her glass in a toast, “to making a difference,” her boss yells over her, “to making money!”

Back at his office, a psychic patient of Hector’s announces that she can see through his “psychiatrist tricks” and knows that he is just going through the motions. His other patients’ constant whining about trivial concerns finally gets to Hector and he loses it. He realizes that he isn’t helping them get any happier, so he decides to set off on a journey to find the secret to happiness.

His ever-supportive girlfriend gives him permission to “make the most of it.” She sends him off with a notebook with an inscription, “Hector’s search for happiness – a journey. Fill these pages.” The sketches of his experiences and his list of lessons on happiness become the framework of the story.

I released my resistance and uncovered deeper meaning on the second screening. Hector’s story demonstrated some of the same spiritual principles that I had experienced in my own journey. Once I expressed the intent to find out what I was put on this earth to do, the universe kicked in to teach me.  Likewise, once Hector expresses the intent to discover how to be happy, the universe reaches out to show him.

A world weary businessman offers to show Hector what real happiness is by sharing the pleasures that money can buy in Shanghai. Hector writes, “A lot of people think happiness means being richer and more important.” But it becomes clear that the businessman is only living for the next financial conquest. Constantly working towards a goal is a way of avoiding life - and happiness.

Hector takes the prerequisite New Age trek to a Buddhist temple in the Himalayas.  Hector asks the famous monk how he is able to be happy when he has gone through so much. The monk answers that he is happy BECAUSE he has gone through so much. Hector scribbles, “Avoiding unhappiness is not the road to happiness.” The monk takes Hector to see colorful cloth strips flapping in the wind. As he and the other monks joyfully laugh and dance under the colorful strips, he calls out, “Hector! Look at all of them!”  

But it isn’t enough to jot down lessons in his journal, Hector must experience them himself. Next stop Africa, to help his doctor friend care for the villagers. His journal entry reads, “Happiness is answering your calling.” But Hector has more to learn. He has to go through some brutal experiences to finally feel alive.  

Hector’s search for happiness takes him across the world.  But he only experiences the brilliant colors inside of him when he decides to take down the walls he built and be present in his life and work. His true happiness lies in sharing that authentic, messy life with Clara.  

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal

Friday, June 12, 2015

Artists Light the Path

Since my post on, "5 Flights Up," I have been ruminating on whether artists really make a difference in our world today. 

In a addition to enriching and inspiring our lives, artists make a difference by casting light on humanity. In, “The Salt of the Earth,” Win Wenders trains his camera on the Brazilian social photographer Sabastiao Salgado and his art.  

“A photographer is literally someone drawing with light. A man (or woman) writing and rewriting the work with light and shadows.”

Wenders took up this project because he was profoundly moved by Sabastiao’s haunting photographs and how they capture the light and shadows of humanity.  Sabastiao Salgado felt called to shine a light on the human faces of some of the most extreme historical tragedies (famine, genocide, slavery) of the last 40 years. Supported by his wife Lélia, he dedicated his life to traveling the globe as a witness to the slave conditions in Brazil’s Serra Pelada gold mines, famine in Ethiopia, and genocide in Rwanda (among others.)  His harrowingly beautiful photographs called worldwide attention to some of the most horrific atrocities of mankind.

What makes this documentary even more poignant is that it was co-directed by Sabastiao Salgado’s son, Juliano Salgado.  While Sabastiao’s wife encouraged him to follow his path, his son was left without a father.  By working on this film, Juliano grew to understand the importance of his father’s work.

But witnessing all that suffering eventually took its toll on Sabastiao.  Deeply wounded by the degree of human cruelty and bloodshed in Rwanda, Sabastiao was forced to give up his mission. But instead of defeating this courageous man; it inspired a revolutionary new path.  Returning to his family farm, he found that drought had savaged the land. What had once been a lush rain-forest, had become a stark desert.

His wife Lélia suggested that they try to replant the paradise that he had known as a child.  They cultivated a new way to reinvigorate the barren land. They successfully planted 100,000 native trees and other vegetation and eventually brought back the rain-forest!

Sabastiao Salgado journeyed the world – just to find his mission in his own back yard.

 Lélia and Sabastiao Salgado's farm today.
Another social photographer, Lisa Kristine, has taken up the lantern and is casting light on the human face of slavery.  Working with Free the Slaves, Lisa braved hell on earth to witness and document the lives of modern day slaves. At TEDx Maui, she shared her devastating photos and stories.  I was shocked to find that there are currently over 27 million people enslaved – double the number of people taken from Africa during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Families have been enslaved for generations for debts as low as $18. Many have been enslaved so long that they don’t know they are slaves. It was all they have ever known.

In the brick kilns of India and Nepal, whole families work 16 hours in scorching heat without water or restroom breaks. They essentially live in ovens. While photographing the kilns, Lisa’s camera stopped working. To revive it, she had to give it air-conditioned breaks. She recognized the sad irony that her camera was treated better than these people. In another part of India, families are enslaved in the silk trade. It is their job to dip their hands into the toxic dye. One father said that they hoped to someday to have their own silk business, so they could get paid for “dyeing.” In the Himalayas, children carry huge slates of stone on their backs. On Lake Volta, children are forced to work all night untangling heavy fishing nets petrified that they will topple their little fishing boats and drown because they can’t swim.  In Ghana, mothers carry their babies as they pan for gold while wading in water poisoned with mercury.  In Kathmandu, women and children experience violent abuse as sex slaves. In our own backyard, as many as 300,000 American children have been sold into the sex industry.

As a representative of Free the Slaves, Lisa descended a narrow mine shaft alongside men with tuberculosis and mercury poisoning forced to work 72 hours in the dark.  In addition to the torturous conditions, she found hope piercing the darkness like mine lanterns. Manuru, who had inherited his uncle’s debt, valiantly worked with tuberculosis and an infected leg. Free the Slaves has given him hope that one day he will be freed and receive an education.

Lisa felt humbled by these people’s quiet dignity and endurance.  “This sort of determination in the face of unimaginable odds fills me with complete awe. I want to shine a light on slavery.  I told the workers that I wanted to illuminate their stories and their plight. (That) we will be bearing witness to them. We will do whatever we can to make a difference in their lives. If we can see each other as fellow human beings, then it becomes very difficult to tolerate atrocities like slavery. I hope these images awaken a force in those who view them, people like you, and I hope that force will ignite a fire and that fire will shine a light on slavery. For without that light the beast of bondage will continue to live in the shadows.”

These artists light a path through the darkness. Do they make a difference? That depends on whether we take up the lantern.

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal

Friday, June 05, 2015

"The Hundred-Foot Journey" to Foody Paradise

From a young age, Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal) was schooled in the art of savoring traditional Indian cooking by his mother. She taught him that food has a soul that holds cherished memories. When his family loses their restaurant and his beloved teacher in a political riot, the Kadams flee India for France. Papa Kadam (Om Puri) sees it as a sign when their brakes give out outside of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. A kind stranger, Marguerite, (Charlotte Le Bon) tows them to the village and shares the bounties of her garden with the hungry migrants. They can taste the soul in the local produce. Ignoring the protests of his frustrated children, Papa Kadam immediately sets up an Indian restaurant featuring his talented son as head cook.

The Hundred-Foot Journey” across the street leads to Madame Mallory’s (Helen Mirren) acclaimed French restaurant (where Marguerite also works as a sous-chef). Their rivalry escalates to all-out war. Despite being on opposite sides of the warring factions, Hassan and Marguerite can’t deny their common passion for food. They put great care into their cooking. Food is more than nourishment, it is love: comforting, healing, and sensual. Sharing it bonds families and communities. It can even bridge cultures. But they get so caught up in the competition for fame and success, that they lose track of love.

This film is a foody’s feel good paradise. But it has more to say. It touches on our fear of outsiders and celebrates what immigrants bring to their host country. It shows how people from different cultures can find common ground.

curry omelette
In an interview about the film, executive producer Oprah Winfrey expanded, "Food blends cultures and allows us to have just a little peek into someone else's life... It is about a hundred foot divide between cultures." Winfrey chose the book on which the film is based as a "favorite summer read" in 2010. She said, "It’s about human beings coming to understand other human beings and more importantly, after you get to experience or step into somebody else’s shoes or see them for a real human being, how you understand that you’re really more alike than you are different.”

Partaking of this sweet confection, we get a chance to savor the pleasures we all enjoy: lush vibrant landscapes, delectable cuisine, funny family quirks, and the thrill of a first kiss. The very act of sharing cultural traditions removes the barriers that separate us.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Artist Haven "5 Flights Up."

Every day Albert (Morgan Freedman) takes his little dog out for a stroll through their gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood, then struggles to climb “5 Flights Up” to his beloved apartment/art studio and even more beloved wife, Ruth (Diane Keaton). When the dog suffers from a ruptured disk and has to be carried downstairs, it seems like it’s time for a new place with an elevator.  Their real estate agent/niece insists that they take advantage of the current escalated value in their trendy Hipster neighborhood.

Set on the weekend of their open house, not a lot happens in this pleasant little film. They worry about their dog. People traipse through their apartment trying to picture Albert’s art studio without “all that junk” (his paintings). Ruth tries to arrange for a showcase of his life’s work. When the gallery owner claims that it isn't hip enough, she loses it. She explains that he is an artist and he isn't about to adjust his vision for the latest trend.  I glance around the theater and see smiles all around.  It is delightful to see this charming couple still supportive and in-love after 40 years together. I love the way Albert and Ruth live life on their own terms – creating a haven where Albert can paint and Ruth tends her garden up on the roof.

Unfortunately, that liberty is threatened when a manhunt for a suspected terrorist causes gridlock on a nearby bridge and the couple feels pressured to sell before the media induced fear forces apartment prices down. Societal pressure to pursue financial gain encroaches on their happy home. 

My fiancé Dan and I try to create a haven where he can work on his humanitarian projects (Dan also plans to plant a heritage garden) and I can write my love projects, draft reviews of meaningful films, and be there for my teenage boys. I hope we are as happy as Ruth and Albert in ten years. 

One of the things I love about movies is how everyone brings their own stuff to the theater that they project onto the big screen.  A simple story like this leaves space for you to ruminate about similar experiences: long term relationships, selling your apartment, N.Y. City, your pooch, and for me – the struggle of being an artist in this profit driven society.

In this day and age when accumulating wealth is valued above all else, where do artists fit in? OK.  I admit it.  I’m upset that our governor has cut millions from education – forcing schools to drop art and music classes. Our city council plans to shut down our award-winning public access station (where I made my micro-budget movies and at-risk kids created cable programs). The city invests in street cars that connect sports bars, but cuts funding for events that connect our diverse community - like the Family Arts Festival and Tucson Meet Yourself. Beautiful architecture and historic buildings are torn down to make room for ugly office buildings.  I wonder if they will eventually close down everything that makes Tucson a great place to live. I understand that people are struggling just to make a living, but by throwing away the arts we are losing something that enriches our daily life and gives it meaning. Art is an expression of hope.  Art is important. End of rant.

I’m grateful that we still have The Loft, where we can catch up with this happy, loving couple in their artist haven... just, “5 Flights Up."

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Welcome to (the Real) Me

At first glance, this quirky indie comedy appears to be a send-up of our obsession with fame and pop psychology showcasing Kristin Wiig as a ditzy, narcissistic lottery winner who buys her own talk show, aptly titled, “Welcome to Me.”

This satire, by director Shira Piven and screenwriter Eliot Laurance, has so much more to say than the trailer lets on.  The movie opens with Alice Klieg (Kristin Wiig at her funniest) playing a worn out VHS recording of an Oprah Episode and affirming along with her hero, “Everybody comes to our beautiful planet earth to do something great, something unique, something that only you were born to do.” 

Director Shira Piven
Fortified with this belief, she heads off to the convenience store with her pink umbrella to buy her daily lottery ticket.  When she wins 86 million dollars, she doesn’t seem surprised at all. She is more interested in reading a prepared statement about how she realized her vision, than celebrating or spending her winnings. When her big moment is interrupted (she confesses her use of masturbation as a sedative), she has a meltdown. She reads another prepared statement to her psychiatrist about how she will no longer be needing his hurtful services since she will be living her new life as Millionaire Alice.  He encourages her to get back on her meds. Instead, she finds an outlet to express herself by hiring a failing infomercial company to produce her talk show – about herself.

What appears to be a vanity project, is really about a woman who wants to be seen and understood.  In the first episode, she shares how she created her own success with her positive affirmations. In a cooking demonstration, she “bakes” a meat cake from her high protein diet to show that she is capable of controlling her illness (currently called borderline personality disorder) without depending on mind numbing meds.  

I love how every detail of the set design shows what it’s like to be in Alice’s world. On stage is a replica of her bedroom with her collections organized by the colors of her moods, representing her need to control her world.  She finds comfort in her swan collection, so she shares that with her audience by riding in on a swan boat. 

Then there are the performance art segments of her show, which serve as unsupervised psychodrama. She watches from the stage as “actors” portray the traumatic events in her life. She gets so caught up in the recreations herself that she starts yelling at the people who hurt her.  When the actors get it right, she furiously points it out to the audience – as if to say, “See! See! Look what happened to me!” She has a desperate need to express herself, for others to know what she is going through. The good with the ugly and inappropriate.  She rends the walls of her soul laying open gaping wounds.

She develops a following – mostly because of a morbid fascination. Her fans can’t look away from the train wreck that is her life. She also gains their respect for the way she courageously bares her wounded psyche.  There are glimpses of genius as she portrays the truth that the rest of us are unwilling to face in ourselves or society. The audience watches until it gets too painful to continue.

After the hilarious set-up, sadness sat heavily at the bottom of my stomach.  It brought out the hopelessness I felt (still feel) when my son was “diagnosed” with a mental illness and the way he has been stigmatized by it and put on mind-altering drugs – numbing away his uniqueness and creativity. My smart, creative son who had all the promise in the world.

I love the way, “Welcome to Me,” shows that someone with mental illness is capable of having a caring relationship and is worthy of love - that they also have positive traits and talents we can admire. This movie does much to create understanding of mental illness…and raises questions about how we as a society deal with it. 

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Women Share, "Every Secret Thing."

My heart raced through the pre-show of the New York Film Critics premiere of, “Every Secret Thing.”  As I watched the trailer, I was blown away by the diversity of the cast and the number of prominent female characters. My excitement grew as the host introduced the women who drove the project: producer Frances McDormand, director Amy Berg, writer Nicole Holofener, and Actresses Diane Ladd and Dakota Fanning.  

Since only 5% of studio productions are directed by women, there was a lot riding on this production.  So few films, especially thrillers, are directed by women. The rare women who succeed in getting studio distribution have the unfair responsibility of representing all female filmmakers.

In the post-film discussion, the women spoke candidly about what drew them to the project – the irredeemable characters. The actresses shared how they rarely get to play complex women.  They were proud to be creating genuinely flawed characters – to challenge societal norms requiring mothers to be depicted as kind and nurturing.  And these women succeed at being brutally honest in their depiction. The audience audibly gasped as the rejected tween girls approach an unattended baby and take it from its stroller. Documentary filmmaker Amy Berg brought to the project her strength for unearthing the bitter truth.  She desiccates the mythology of motherhood – foraging through parenting decisions for far reaching consequences. What she uncovers is our hunger for nurturing, and how a lack of nurturing can have a negative impact for a lifetime.  

Director Amy Berg
Admittedly, this was an ambitious first narrative feature for documentary director Amy Berg. There was the challenge of dealing with the shifts in time and balancing the different characters’ perceptions of the past traumas. I would have liked to have seen more of the abusive home life that led to the abduction. The director shared how she formed the prerequisite thriller plot twists in the editing room. At times they felt a bit contrived. These are the kinds of mistakes that you learn from and improve with each movie you make. I hope she gets the chance to grow her unique voice.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Monday, May 11, 2015

"Belle" Director Amma Asante Proves: What is Right Can Never Be Impossible

 Painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her sister-cousin exhibited at Scone Palace in Scotland
In 1761, Dido Elizabeth Belle was born the daughter of a British slave and Captain Sir John Lindsay.  She was raised by aristocratic grandparents with the privileges afforded one of noble blood. What makes this story so incredible is that her beloved grandfather was the justice of the appeals court that officiated an insurance dispute by the captain of the slave ship Zong  - a case that may have led to the emancipation of British slaves.

Writer/Director Amma Asante makes Dido’s story acceptable to mainstream audiences by dressing it up as a lavish historical costume drama, embroidered with romance, its delicate fabric interwoven with threads of relevant themes.

When Belle’s sister-cousin comes out in society, her grandparents entertain suitors.  Dido (Gugu Mabatha-Raw) is prohibited from dining with the rest of the family due to her position in society as a black woman. For the first time, Belle questions her position in society. She asks her Papa (Tom Wilkinson), “How can I be too high in rank to dine with the servants, but too low to dine with my family?”  He explains that it is the nature of order. There is an interesting dichotomy here.  Belle recognizes the injustice of that rule. But that very evening, she admonishes the vicar’s son John for breaking social etiquette by speaking directly to her - the lady of the house - when he is of a lower social standing.  Formed by her privileged upbringing, Belle upholds the very social hierarchy that suppresses her.

The vicar’s son John (Sam Reid) arrives to study law under her grandfather, the justice of the appeal court.  Dido overhears a case that her Papa is trying in which a slave ship captain is suing the insurance company for the cost of the slaves that he threw overboard to reserve water for himself and the crew.  This lights a fire in Dido to learn more about the injustices of her people.  Dido is inspired by the law student as he challenges their social system by standing up for the drowned slaves.

To shelter Dido, her grandfather forbids John from speaking to her. He encourages her to marry a gentleman for his family name to preserve her rank. This is another interesting dichotomy, as the judge is expected to rule on the merits of the case on the basis that the slaves are property or cargo, while he fights to maintain his beloved Dido’s place in society. Meanwhile, Dido’s sister--cousin is having difficulty securing a husband because she didn't inherited her father’s fortune. She realizes that ladies aren't allowed to work to earn money, nor can they inherit it if they have a brother. So essentially they are property. Everyone in this society is enslaved by the confines of their class.

While “Belle” is set in 18th century Britain, it shines a light on important issues of our time. There are parallels between Britain’s class system and our own. In America, class is distinguished by the distribution of wealth. There is a great divide when CEOs are paid $10,000 an hour, yet refuse to pay workers a living wage of $10. While Britain’s colonial economy relied on the slave trade, our market-based economy relies on paying slave wages. The lower class competes for poverty wages because the other jobs have been sent overseas where we exploit starving children and the destitute.  Right here in America, the people who harvest our food work brutal 13 hour days on an empty stomach. That brings up the question: Do we really have to exploit desperate people to show a profit?  Are we enslaved by a system that values profit over human life?

When I post a meme on Facebook to create awareness and inspire action, inevitably a “well-meaning” friend will leave a comment that there is nothing we can do, that it has always been that way. Their comments not only deflate the cause, but make me feel hopeless and powerless. That is one of the reasons I love the movie “Belle;” It inspires hope with its theme, “What is right can never be impossible.”  The movie (and history) proves this thesis. In the 18th century,  Britain’s economy was based on the slave trade.  While we had to fight a war to end slavery, Britain passed a law to abolish it. And their economy didn't come crashing down.

What was the driving force? Amma Asante's thesis is that it is was love. Belle assures her grandfather that he is brave. When he argues that there are rules in place that dictate how we live, she counters with, “You break every rule when it matters enough, Papa.  I am the proof of that.”

Amma Asante was empowered by her (sur)name sake, the Ghanaian warrior queen Yaa Asantewaa, to overcome great obstacles to get, “Belle” to the screen.  This low budget costume drama became a surprise hit grossing $104,493 on opening weekend.

“Belle” is proof that, “What is right can never be impossible.” 

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

"Still Alice"

I have some resistance to watching movies on Alzheimers since witnessing my friend Grace lose herself to the disease. I can only imagine how heart wrenching it was for her husband of sixty years to watch helplessly as the women he loved slipped away. I was so touched by their devotion that I moved in to allow them to spend their last days together in their home. This fueled strong feelings of frustration, shock, fear, hopelessness, anger and deep LOVE. I found writing about it therapeutic. Sensing that other people might find strength in their commitment, I drafted the screenplay, “Walking with Grace.” I struggled with how to show the reward in caring for someone in this devastating situation. “The Notebook,” did an amazing job at that. Whenever I happen onto that movie on TV, I get sucked into it again – because of the husband’s unflinching commitment to the love of his life. It chokes me up every time.

Since then, there have been several movies on Alzheimers. Most focus on family members coping with the loss of their loved ones.  I felt the subject had pretty much been covered.  Then I watched, “Still Alice" for Julianne Moore’s Oscar nominated performance. (She went on to win a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar.) Julianne conducted in-depth research with Alzheimers patients to really get into the mind of her character. After building relationships with them, she asked what they would like her to include about the disease. She incorporated their thoughts and feelings into her part. Those insights on how a patient deals with their loss of self is what sets this movie apart and makes it so powerful.

This is the poignant story of a brilliant linguist who recognizes that she is losing her ability to understand the meaning of even simple words. That awareness is the painful part. She sees her identity fading away and can’t bear the idea of living as a shell of her former self. She struggles to hold on to her connection with her precious words, her loved ones, and her life. “I am struggling to be a part of things, to stay connected to who I once was,” she explains. She comes to the realization that she must live in the present and enjoy her last moments with her loved ones because, “This might be the last year that I am totally myself.” She pleads with her husband to spend time with her now while she is still present, while she is, “Still Alice. “

This theme has even more impact when you discover that it was being demonstrated on the set every day. Wash Wastmoreland co-directed with his husband Richard Glatzer after Glatzer was diagnosed with the degenerative disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). (Glatzer passed away in March of this year.) What a love project! Despite his inability to speak, Glatzer was fully present and in the moment as he communicated to the actors on his ipod, 

These amazing men remind us of the importance of loving and living fully in the moment. 

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

"A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night"

To be honest, I left the theater feeling a bit confused. “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” was billed as an Iranian Vampire Western. But the style was more like black and white French new wave – from the smoking cigarettes, the “Rebel Without a Cause” outfit of the protagonist (Arash Marandi), his 57 Ford T-Bird, even the striped shirt the aloof vampire girl (Sheia Vand) wears under her abaya. 

Shot in the California desert, it seemed to be more about an Iranian in the West, than a Western. Aside from the avenging outsider, there were none of the fixers of a Western - no shootouts, no barroom brawls.

All I could recognize as Iranian was the Farsi language and how the young vampire wears an abaya. In Iran, women must cover their bodies to keep men from sinning. Perhaps the film is commenting on how when, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” she is seen as a temptation. But in this dark fairy-tale, the girl is actually empowered by the abaya. She sports the abaya like a superhero cape, giving her the power to walk the streets unseen as she plays avenging angel, preying on predatory men.

Perhaps it is a commentary on modern Iran. The setting is Bad City – which is certainly how Iran sees America. The streets are full of “American vices”: prostitutes and pimps, a free-spirited transgender person, drugs, and violence. Sex, drugs, and Rock and Roll. I suppose this could be a cautionary tale on the dangers of becoming too Americanized. 

Director Ana Lily Amirpour 
In an interview by Roger Corman, writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour spoke about how the movie was really about her and the loneliness she feels. It is about her Iran as seen by an Iranian expat in America. The setting is a lonely postindustrial living ghost town with a crumbling infrastructure, surrounded by stark desert with ominous oil pumps drawing black liquid from the earth. While great wealth is being made just outside its boundaries, the town doesn't benefit from it. Billboards taunt the citizens with products that few can afford. It seems that all the good has been sucked out of the town. The inhabitants are like ghosts of their former selves – before they became desperate drug addicts and street walkers preyed on by the bottom-feeder pimp/drug dealer. The loneliness is palatable as the characters are isolated by the secrets they keep. The vampire seems to feed on that loneliness.

The story takes a  bittersweet turn when this sad avenging angel vampire searches for some hint of hope for mankind as she follows a street urchin and warns him not to be bad like the other men in the town (or he might be her next feast). She makes a fleeting connection (over a shared love of rock music) with a young man who is trying to hold onto his last vestige of humanity as everything around him tries to suck it out of him. The film shares a similar theme with the, "The Babadook." This unlikely couple finds comfort in the shared connection of accepting their dark side.

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal 

Friday, April 17, 2015

On the Wrong End of the FOOD CHAIN

I have attended the Arizona International Film Festival for ten years now. I've seen it grow into a world class festival by screening excellent independent films from Tucson and around the world. After watching several fascinating films in 2014, my ever-inquisitive fiancée, Dan Stormont, insisted that we get passes again this year. Thursday we attended the opening night screening of the enthusiastically received local documentary, "Many Bones, One Heart" (by Leslie Ann Epperson) about Tucson's All Souls Procession. Leslie really does Tucson proud! We have already gotten our money's worth in the first weekend of this two week fest.

Dan and I attend numerous films and lectures on the importance of creating a sustainable food system as research for Dan's blog on THE PINEAPPLE PROJECT (a humanitarian project to get agricultural information, such as what grows best in their area, to subsistence farmers so they can be more successful.) So we were glad to see the documentary Food Chains on the festival program.

We were deeply moved by this powerful documentary on how our farm workers are treated in this country. We were shocked to see how little things have changed since 1960 when CBS aired Edward R Murrow's documentary, Harvest of Shame. In this country that Murrow calls "the best fed country in the world," the people who harvest our food are working a brutal 13 hour day, and still aren't making enough to adequately feed and house their families.

This movie shows the courageous efforts of a group of farm workers who are rallying support for "Fair Food." This organization is standing up to grocery store chains demanding that they pay enough to provide workers a living wage and refuse to buy produce from farmers who abuse their workers. What struck me was how easy it would be to correct this problem. If we pay just one cent (one cent!) more per pound for fruits and vegetables, it would double the pay of farm workers from $10,000 to a living wage of $20,000 a year. We just need to create more awareness of the problem. Food Chains does an admirable job explaining one of the most important humanitarian issues of our time. Watch this film to see how you can help. This is doable, folks!  This is one problem we can solve. 

We want to thank the Arizona International Film Festival for creating more awareness. 

Please, help us get the word out by sharing this with your friends! 

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal 

Dan was inspired to write about it on his blog too! 
by Dan Stormont

On the day after Thanksgiving in 1960, CBS News aired a documentary by Edward R Murrow entitled Harvest of Shame.

It documented the plight of a crew of migrant farm workers in the United States as they worked their way up the east coast from Florida to New Jersey. It showed in painful detail the long hours, hard working conditions, desolate housing, lack of education, and meager incomes earned by the farm workers brought in to harvest the crops. They often went hungry while harvesting the food that graced American families' Thanksgiving tables.

The documentary also addressed some of the causes of the farm workers' situation, like farmers who were being squeezed themselves by the large food producers and distributors who were controlling the price of crops. Farm workers had difficulty organizing to demand better working conditions. The law was rarely on the side of the farm workers. As Murrow noted, "The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do."

Nearly 55 years later, things must be better right? In some ways they have improved slightly and there have been some gains (often followed by comparable losses). However, as the recent documentary Food Chains demonstrates, many farm workers are toiling in the fields for long hours while still not earning enough to own a home, save for the future, and care for their children. Far too many are still going hungry while picking the produce we eat. The big food producers, wholesalers, and retailers are still controlling the markets and exploiting farmers and farm workers alike.

Nothing is more important than a sustainable food chain. We all rely on it. But, right now, the food we buy at the supermarket is being harvested by people who are earning below poverty wages. Surely, we can afford one cent more per pound of produce to improve the lives of the people who harvest our food? That's how much it would cost to double the wages of farm cent a pound.

Seek Food Chains out. Watch it. Think about what it is saying and about the human stories being told. Then, take action! Don't buy food at stores that refuse to pay enough for farm workers to make a living. Demand action from your representatives. This isn't's just humanity. And it is ensuring a viable, sustainable food chain for all of us!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

You Can’t Get Rid of the Babadook

In the opening scenes, “The Babadook,” appears to be another child possession thriller with the primary question being whether the child is troubled (a bad seed) or whether supernatural forces are at work. Writer/Director Jennifer Kent masterfully creates a chillingly claustrophobic home atmosphere capable of attracting the family's greatest fear, The Babadook.

While grieving the death of her husband, Amelia (Essie Davis in an Oscar worthy performance) struggles to raise a son with behavioral issues. Since the tragedy, her son Samuel’s (Noah Wiseman) childhood fears have intensified. Checking for monsters under the bed and in the closet has become a nightly ritual. The situation gets worse when a children’s Gothic picture book called, “Mister Babadook,” pops up. Assuming that it is a story about coping with the childhood fear of monsters under the bed, Amelia begins reading it to Samuel. The director takes this familiar domestic scene and infuses it with a sense of dread. It soon becomes evident that there is no happy ending in this bed-time tale. The storybook child doesn't make friends with the monster, but understands that it is here to stay. “If it’s in a word or it's in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”

The book unleashes an evil being that only Samuel can see. “I’ll kill the monster when it comes,” he tells his mom, “I’ll smash its head in.” He constructs a crude trebuchet to protect them. As his behavior becomes more erratic and violent, mother and son become isolated from family, friends or any kind of support system. Tired to the bones, Amelia grows seriously depressed, trapped in this impossible situation with a strange child she doesn't understand. The movie breaks an industry taboo by showing the darker side of motherhood – the idea of a mother resenting or disliking her child.

This is particularly unsettling for the mothers in the audience who have been deprived of sleep by a sick or colicky baby. As mothers, we are suppose to put on a brave face for our children. But when you are depressed, you are not thinking rationally. You are barely able to hold it all together. There are times when you are so utterly exhausted that you don’t feel anything, much less love for your screaming, demanding infant. You feel shame because mothers are always supposed to be strong for their children, lovingly sacrificing their own needs to protect them. What makes this horror story groundbreaking is that we get a rare glimpse into the mind of the female protagonist as she is caught in this downward spiral of grief and depression. The tension builds as Amelia, trapped by motherly duty, is pushed beyond her limits, becomes angry and completely loses it. The realization that it can happen to us, makes it all the more harrowing. 

Writer/Director Jennifer Kent
Writer/Director Jennifer Kent shared her objective in making a horror film. “I think where horror excels is when it becomes emotional and visceral. It was never about, ‘Oh I wanna scare people.’ Not at all. I wanted to talk about the need to face the darkness in ourselves and in our lives. That was the core idea for me, to take a woman who’d really run away from a terrible situation for many years and have to face it. The horror is really just a byproduct.”

I was blown away by this film. I left the movie theater still trying to process it. I asked a horror fan in the lobby what he thought of it. He said it wasn't really his kind of horror. I wondered why. Certainly, there weren't the blood and guts of a slasher flick, but there were plenty of jumps and starts. And I felt a lingering sense of dread throughout. He said he preferred things more black and white. Good vs. evil. That was one of the things I liked about it – that it wasn't that simple. It required reflection on the part of the audience. Even the monster’s origin wasn't painted out for us. The horror comes from the tragic situation – how their grief unhinged the little family as they became increasingly isolated.

Kent forgoes shocking violence in lieu of artistry and delving deeper into authentic emotions. She pushes boundaries by showing us the inner world of a female protagonist and cracking open a societal taboo by shining a flashlight on the dark side of motherhood.  She explores the themes of loneliness and isolation and shares how to cope with that isolation by facing our dark side together.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal 

Look out for my review: "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night," by Ana Lily Amirpour.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Savoring "The Lunchbox"

The Lunchbox” is a breakthrough film for India because it steers clear of the usual showstopper musical numbers and emoting melodrama popular in Bollywood productions. Instead, it delivers a taste of bitter-sweet “slice of life,” spiced with pinches of humor. Multiple layers are delivered in the tiffin lunchbox.

Director/Writer Ritesh Batra started off doing research for a documentary on the Babbawala, the 125 year-old tradition of delivering tiffin lunches from homes and restaurants to the work place. The lunchboxes represent the countless generic Mumbia workers who cram onto trains to commute to their jobs every day. In fact, the lunchboxes make the same commute. Famous for its efficiency, it is said that only one in a million lunchboxes is ever lost. That story is told in, “The Lunchbox.”

Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a lonely housewife, takes her auntie’s advice and recipe (shouted down from the apartment above) to win her husband’s love by sending a very special meal in his lunchbox. When it comes back empty, Ila anxiously awaits his return. When he says that it was OK, that the cauliflower was very good; she realizes that someone else has eaten the meal and sends a note thanking the stranger for the compliment of “licking it clean.” She also sends along her husband’s favorite dish. The lunchbox is delivered to Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a grouchy widower, who only wants to be left alone until his imminent retirement. He uses the excuse of going to lunch to avoid teaching his eager protégé (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). The lunchbox is returned empty with a note saying only that there was too much salt. Auntie (the voice of Bharatic Achekar) isn’t having any of his rudeness, and sends down a basket full of hot chilis to include in the next day’s lunch.

Auntie’s little lesson succeeds in teaching him empathy for others. To relieve his burning mouth, Saajan buys a banana from a street vendor and notices that other employees can only afford a banana for lunch. When he sees that his pesky protégé only has a banana and apple for lunch, he ends up sharing his precious lunch with him.

Is it a miracle or just an error that the lunchbox was delivered to the wrong address? It is certainly a miracle that these two lonely people, lost in the modern world, connect over a good meal and details of their lives scribbled on scraps of paper. The director sets up hints of a miracle with magic realistic flourishes - like the fly that connects their two worlds. In the scene transition, the director cuts from Saajan swatting the pesky fly in the marketplace to Ila swatting one at home.

This same device is used with ceiling fans. Ila tells how Auntie’s husband had been in a coma for 15 years. One day he woke up and started staring at the oriental ceiling fan. Ever since he has stared at that fan all day, every day. He wakes up in the morning and stares at the fan. One day the power goes off causing the fan to stop and uncle’s heart slowed down. Auntie believes it is the fan that keeps him alive, so she has a generator installed that day. As Saajan reads about it, the power goes off at work and all the ceiling fans stop. It is a shared metaphor for being trapped in a meaningless existence. “Uncle Deshpande stares at his fan. My husband stares at his phone as if nothing else exists. Maybe nothing else does.” Saajan writes back that things have changed since her uncle was a worker. “Everyone works so they can have what everyone else does. If Mr. Deshpande woke up and went to work these days, he would go back to his ceiling fan.” 

The rush-hour commute represents how people are too busy working to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Their motivation flashes by on billboards – like the billboard that honors those who excel at the university. But if you pause to look closer, you will see that the honorees don’t look happy. Everyday, the lunchboxes commute like the workers. This lunchtime ritual is the highlight of their day when workers get a taste of home or at least of the old ways. The miraculous appearance of that special lunch nudges Saajan out of his solitude. His protégé’s expression of pleasure for the wonderful lunches teaches Saajan to appreciate them too. During the crowded train commute, the protégé finds a way to enjoy more time with his girlfriend by cutting the vegetables for their dinner.

When things become unbearable with her distant husband, Ila writes Saajan about moving to a place her daughter heard of in school. She shares her fantasy with Saajan. “In Bhutan everyone is happy. They don’t have Gross Domestic Product, only Gross National Happiness.” Saajan tells his protégé that he is thinking of going to Bhutan, rather than the retirement town of Nasik. His protégé responds that he has only been to Saudi Arabia, but, “Sometimes the wrong train will get you to the right station.”

This time the wrong train delivered “The Lunchbox” to the right station. And it was delicious. 

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Why do I do what I do?

You could say that I started attending AIVF (Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, now IFA) with the goal of finding an indie filmmaker to produce my screenplay. But what I found were indie filmmakers anxious to produce their own scripts, so I helped develop them.  Meanwhile, I saw a need for more advanced training for Tucson Filmmakers, so I organized workshops. I got caught up in helping our film community grow.

Now here’s the part that drives people crazy… It wasn't about the money. In order to provide workshops that were affordable enough for Tucson filmmakers, I couldn't pay myself. Did all this “networking” lead to paid jobs? No. I spent hours, then years, promoting films with my reviews, organizing film contests and networking events. I didn't make any money, but it was rewarding.

In this capitalistic society it seems the only thing people value anymore is the pursuit of money. I know how blessed I was to be a stay at home mom while developing my art. But it is really heartbreaking when your own children are disappointed in you because you’re not more “successful” by society’s standards. They don’t seem to  value my role as a mother. One question I hear a lot is, why aren't there more successful women filmmakers?  I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me some things are more important than money:  living a full, balanced life, raising creative children, building a film community, empowering filmmakers to make meaningful films, and writing (and sometimes directing) my love projects.

How come I never succeeded in getting my screenplays produced? Perhaps, between being a mom and pursuing my other passions, I didn't have the single-minded ambition needed to sell my script. Or perhaps it was because I wasn't willing to write something more commercial. All the stories I chose to write were love projects.  I never could wrap my mind around writing high concept movies for money.

One of my first love projects was, “Walking with Grace,” about a sweet elderly couple I had taken care of while attending grad school. When Grace’s husband couldn't deal with her mind deteriorating from Alzheimers, I moved in full-time to allow them to spend their last days together in their home. This story was very dear to my heart.

I spent an embarrassingly long time working on it. One reason was that people thought my story was depressing.  I workshopped it at the Frederick Douglas Creative Writing Center in New York City; writing draft after draft, trying to make it more upbeat. But what it came down to was that people couldn't understand why a young woman would sacrifice her life to take care of “strangers.” What was so hard to understand? I loved them!  I finally did a major rewrite changing my character into their granddaughter.

And I did shop it around. For years. I researched possible actors and production companies.  I pitched it at screenwriting conferences. I made phone calls.  I sent off query letters. Even got a hand-written letter from Hume Cronyn explaining how the story was too depressing because it hit so close to home. People suggested that I put it away and work on something more commercial. They said that once I had a big hit, I could parley that into the power to get my love project done.  I pitched it to the perfect producer - the producer of the family drama “Christy.” He made a special effort to encourage me. He said that it was good writing, but that no one would do a film about old people. (I still cringe at my lack of determination as I watch numerous Alzheimer movies flash across the screen: “Away From Her,” “Savages,” “Amour,” my favorite, “The Notebook," and the recent, “Still Alice.” It’s practically become a genre!)

At least I had the rare opportunity to see my screenplay performed as part of the staged-reading series at DamesRocket Theater. I watched, in the sold-out theater, as professional actors gave full-out emotional performances. A 50 year-old man was moved to tears because it reminded him of his father. That experience was so satisfying that I was finally able to put the script away and start concentrating on something new. Someone suggested that I might have a better chance selling the script if I adapted it into a novel (they were onto something there), but artistically it was time to move on.

I critiqued my mom’s (Lorna Kerin Beall) historical fiction book, “Model-T Biscuits,” and helped her draft a cover letter to market it. I even pitched it at local writers’ conferences when she couldn't afford to attend. Eventually, I was inspired to adapt this cherished family story to the screen. It was really a love project working with my mother and staying true to her vision. I think people could feel the love as they read it. We ended up winning first place at the Santa Clarita Family Film Festival and the Moondance Film Festival.

My mom, Lorna Beall, and me
 When Julianne Moore won an Oscar for her portrayal of an Alzheimers patient in, “Still Alice,” my boys asked why don't I sell, “Walking with Grace.” I just shook my head and smiled. I think Best Foreign Film winner, “Amour,” and, “Still Alice,” have it covered. But in this day when paying for defense is favored over healthcare or housing, when big business trumps the environment, we need more movies with themes of giving and responsibility. Maybe there’s hope for “Grace,” yet.

So I continue to write my love projects and encourage others to do the same.  Because, like the Dali Lama said, “The planet does not need more ‘successful people.’ The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.”

Go ahead. Ask me why I do it.

One word...Love.