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.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

"Chef" and "St. Vincent" Serving Up Saintly Fare

So many films, so little time. While I was compiling my list of the most inspiring films of 2014, I discovered that I had neglected to review any comedies. (Really, can you blame me with redundant studio offerings such as, “Dumb and Dumber to” and “Horrible Bosses 2?”) Where were the all the humorous independent films? Skimming through the movies of 2014, I uncovered two charming indie comedies that were barely blips on my radar: Jon Favreau’s, “Chef,” and Theodore Melfi’s, “St. Vincent."

I had mixed feelings about seeing, “St. Vincent,” because the movie poster made it seem sorta cheesy and cheap. Perhaps the marketing team thought pictures of the stars would sell it. Perhaps they didn't want to give too much away. To tell the truth, I have been struggling with the same problem. How do you promote a simple story without giving away all the comic surprises? The trailer shows Bill Murray as a hedonistic, anti-social grouch who his tired, stressed-out neighbor (Melissa McCarthy) hires to babysit her son (Jaeden Lieberher). As we watch Vincent’s inappropriate, selfish behavior we can’t help wondering how he ever earned the title, “St. Vincent.” The movie doesn't make excuses for Vincent’s bad behavior. (Though he has heard, “It is what it is,” in response to his misfortunes one too many times.) But through the boy’s eyes we discover the good in him as well. (It's not hard to like one of Bill Murray's richest performances. I think he should have been nominated for an Oscar for this one.)  Somehow this old curmudgeon brings out the good (however begrudging) in others. Perhaps his calling as a saint is to bring out the humanity in others.

I had a similar problem with, “Chef” - how to serve what is fresh about the chef’s creation without making it seem like serving leftovers? How about a small sample to whet your appetite? Somehow in his quest for success, Chef Casper (Jon Favreau) has lost his passion for food and life. The restaurant owner forces him to cook his safe, signature dishes for a famous food critic. When the critic pans the uninspired meal, the chef completely loses it. The confrontation goes viral on YouTube. He sets off to rediscover his passion and creativity by opening a food truck. The leisurely cross-country trip gives him a chance to finally be a father to his son (Emjay Anthony).

It's easy to chuckle at the bumbling antics of these flawed men, but what really chokes you up is how much father (or father figure) and son really need each other.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Celebrate "Women in Film" at TUCSON LUNAFEST!



To purchase tickets in advance call WOSAC at (520) 621-5656. Advance tickets are not available at The Loft Cinema. Presented by WOSAC and The University of Arizona Department of Gender and Women’s Studies. Featuring an exciting raffle for fabulous prizes, including jewelry, gift certificates to fine dining and services, and the traditional, handmade, annual Lunafest quilt! Raffle tickets are $5 each or 3 for $10.

Proceeds from Tucson Lunafest 2015 admissions and raffle ticket sales will benefit WOSAC (The Women’s Studies Advisory Council) and the Breast Cancer Fund.

Get ready for an entertaining and enlightening evening of short films made by, for and about women. This annual nationally-touring film festival brings the best short films from around the world together for one special night of cinematic excitement! This year’s program of EIGHT brand-new films will compel discussion, make you laugh, tug at your heartstrings and motivate you to make a difference in your community. Incredibly diverse in style and content, Lunafest is united by a common thread of exceptional and inspiring storytelling – by, for and about women.

This year’s films at LUNA FEST:

A Good Match
Ann and Alex have split up, but does that mean it’s over with Alex’s mom, too? Ann wants to give the relationship another try.

Flor de Toloache
A group of women daringly challenge gender social norms as an all-female mariachi band.

Miss Todd
In 1910 New York, Miss Todd works to understand the principles of flight, but she has more than gravity holding her down.

Being a teenager isn’t easy, especially for Nayla, a Muslim American girl who wants to join her new high school’s cheerleading squad.

Chicas Day
Today is a girls’ day out, everything is allowed. But don’t forget that this is just a game …

Lady Parts
In an industry dominated by men, Lady Parts Automotive brings a woman’s touch.

A story about feminine exploration.

A documentary portrait of Cornwall’s grandmother of punk, or, how to be a rebel at 82.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

"Whale Rider" Retelling Our Stories to Include Heroic Girls

Writing about, "McFarland USA," brought to mind Niki Caro's enchanting film, "Whale Rider." I was delighted for a chance to finally review the film that planted the seed of thought that became Reel Inspiration.  (I started  Reel Inspiration to promote diverse films that inspire, challenge, empower, and create understanding.)

As I mentioned in my previous review, Niki Caro is drawn to projects from cultures unlike her own. As an outsider and a “pakeha” (a New Zealander of European descent), Niki studied the Maori language for a year before approaching the Ngati Konohi tribe about adapting their beloved book, “The Whale Rider” (by Witi Ihimaera) to the screen. Niki was only interested in doing the story if it was in collaboration with their community. When she met with Maori leaders, she spoke in their native tongue about what a privilege it would be to bring their story to the screen. The tribe elders took special care in studying her previous work and blessed it before starting production.

Director Niki Caro
In an interview with Ryan Mottesheard of Indiewire, Niki elaborated, “And I think they felt very satisfied that the film, their film, was in the hands of a filmmaker, somebody who could actually get it up on the screen. Somebody who was absolutely there to serve their story.”

As promised, Niki worked very closely with the community. A Maori adviser was always present during the production. What resulted was a movie that reflected their culture and traditions in a way that they could take pride in.

Whale Rider,” is a retelling of the Maori legend of their first chief Paikea, the whale rider. Ever since the time when Pai’s (Keisa Castle-Hughes) ancestor Paikea came to Whangara on the back of a whale, the first born son in every generation of her family has become leader of the tribe. Disappointed by his artistic son, Pai’s grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) sets his hopes on Pai’s twin brother to lead the tribe out of the darkness of the modern world. Devastated by her brother’s death in childbirth, Koro blames Pai and wants her sent away. But Koro’s wife (Vicky Haughton) refuses, insisting that he acknowledge his granddaughter. Raised by her grandparents, Pai bonds with her grandfather over the ancient teachings. At thirteen, she excels at reciting the legend and can hear the whale songs of her ancestors calling her. But her grandfather is so invested in the tribe’s patriarchal traditions that he can’t see it.

The signs are all there. While working on their boat, Koro uses the rope that starts the motor as a metaphor for their family legacy. Each thread that makes up the rope is one of their ancestors. “Woven together they make us strong.” When he tries to attach the rope to the motor, it breaks. But Pai fixes it by tying all the pieces together. Excited, she calls out to her grandfather, “Its working! It’s working!” But instead seeing this as a sign of her gifts as a leader, he sees it as a threat to their culture. Instead of encouraging her tenacity, he admonishes her, “I don’t want you doing that again. It’s dangerous.” (This is akin to fathers who “protect” their daughters while encouraging their sons to take risks and grow.)

When it becomes clear that his son will not give him a male heir, Koro tells him to go and take his daughter Pai with him. But while driving up the coast, Pai hears the whales calling her back. She knows she is needed at home. When she returns, she finds that her grandfather has set up a cultural school for boys in hopes of finding the tribe’s next leader. Her wise grandmother honors Pai by having her lead the welcoming song. But Koro insists that she sit in the back because this is for the boys.

When Kora catches Pai defeating a boy with the Taiaha (fighting stick,) she is sent to live with her uncle. Her grandfather blames her for the tribe’s troubles. He claims the problems started when she was born and now she is making it worse by interfering with the boys’ schooling. He trains the boys to be warriors, but that isn’t what the tribe needs. The tribe needs Pai’s gifts to tie them together as a community, to encourage each of them to use their strengths to benefit the whole.

Creating the character of Pai was an act of love by novelist Witi Ihimaera. He wrote, "Whale Rider," in response to his daughter's complaint that the boys were always the heroes. “Whale Rider” is more than an inspiring movie for girls. It shows us that a father can demonstrate strength by empowering his daughter. And, like the threads woven together to form a solid rope, our community is strengthened when we all share our unique gifts.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Watch the complete movie, "Whale Rider" on Hulu. 

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

"McFarland USA" Cultivating a New Kind of American Dream

After watching the trailer for “McFarland USA,” I wasn't in a hurry to see the film since it was so similar to, “Spare Parts,” a movie I had recently reviewed. Until… I discovered that it was directed by Niki Caro, who helmed one of my all-time favorite inspiring films, “Whale Rider.

I couldn't help wondering how a film so different in style and tone reflected Niki’s vision as a filmmaker. What was the common thread between “Whale Rider,” the re-imagining of a Maori legend about a teenage girl challenging the tribe’s patriarchal traditions and, “McFarland USA,” a seemingly formulaic sports flick about a coach encouraging a group of poor migrant Mexican-American farm workers to become champion runners? 

I settled into my theater seat and sighed as, “McFarland USA,” opened with a familiar plot device. The star football player defies the coach’s authority. Coach White loses it and hurls a cleat at the locker near the teen - only it bounces off and hits the teen in the face. The coach’s weakness is set up very economically to prepare for the inevitable character arc (growth). When the coach and his family drive into the poverty-stricken Mexican-American farming town of McFarland, it is clear that this is his last chance. As his daughter looks out of the window, she thinks they got off at the wrong exit: “Are we in Mexico?” I caught myself rolling my eyes when the Idaho family becomes unhinged by the idea of eating the foreign Mexican food. (Really? Lol. This is America!)

Director Niki Caro 
At school, a fellow teacher tries to recruit Coach White (Kevin Costner) for a community project by delivering the obligatory speech about how these poor farming kids are invisible and live in a state of constant hopelessness (reminiscent of the “they are invisible” speech in, “Spare Parts.”) That hopelessness is symbolized by the prison across the street from the school. I wondered to myself, is there really a prison there or was that yet another contrived plot device?

Around the time the coach first notices a student dashing home, a miracle happens. We are introduced into the world of the migrant farm workers. Immersed in their culture, home life, and community, we (like the coach) start really caring about these kids.

While researching for this review, I read that director Niki Caro had been looking for a project with the same qualities as, “Whale Rider,” when Disney approached her about, “McFarland.” In an interview with Bryan Abrams she recalled, “Here was a story that was true, based in a real community, based on real people, and it offered me a way I could work as I had on,” Whale Rider,” which is to work with the community and with the people. Basically, all I do is light up what I think is beautiful.”

The part that interests this New Zealand-born director is working with communities unlike her own. “The way I work when it’s not my own culture is I try to be very accurate and faithful to the way lives are lived and not impose my will. I was very keen to portray the Mexican-American culture, but I realized that we made a very American movie, a profoundly American movie that happens to have a lot of Mexicans in it.”

The migrant workers in McFarland epitomize the American Dream in their struggle to make a better life for their children. But they create their own version by balancing work, family and community. The opening set-up pays off as Coach White and his kin grow as a family and become a part of the community. The coach joins three of his runners for dinner to explain the advantage of running. But he ends up learning from them. Their mother gives him some enchiladas to take home and a lesson on being a family man. “How are you going to be a family if you don’t eat together?” She points out how her husband works hard for long hours, but is present every night at dinner with his family. Family is a priority.
The original McFarland track team with Kevin Costner 
The team learns something too. As coach and team gain a mutual respect, they also learn to respect themselves. Using the incredible strength it takes to work long hours in the fields, go to school, and then run 8-10 miles a day, they can accomplish anything. Inspired by their determination and heart, we root for them to win while we, in turn, learn the value of hard work.

It is clear in both, "Whale Rider," and, "McFarland USA," that Niki Caro's vision is cultivating community. By casting light on the customs and traditions of each community and its people, Niki cultivates a rich, fertile film experience that grows understanding.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Watch, the complete movie, "Whale Rider." 

Saturday, February 28, 2015


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 offers comfort his irritated 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

"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 throughout 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” 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) back in 1988.

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 difference of perception that allows him to create a machine to crack the enigma. No doubt Turing studied Ada Loveless’ work while at Princeton. That may be how he was able to recognize that Joan Clark’s (Keira Knightley) mathematical strengths would benefit the team. And it is also Joan 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. But "Selma," concentrates on the community and collaboration. DuVerney realizes her vision by 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. That is certainly a noble purpose. But it is also a masterfully crafted propaganda movie (much like John Wayne's Vietnam War film, “The Green Berets," which wasn't nominated for an Oscar.) In, "American Sniper," there is no question that 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 terrorists. The film has already had its desired effect, as a Facebook friend commented, “We need to kill everyone 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. This accumulates into something very moving over the course of the film and their lives.

Wes Anderson creates 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


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

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. Why aren't more movies starring women, 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.”

Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Where are all the other female directors? Women are making films. Woman are breaking into the boys' club of animation. Storyboard artist Vicky Jenson directed, "Shrek." Jennifer Lee parlayed her scripts, "Wreck It Ralph," and, "Frozen," into a directing gig for, "Frozen." Jennifer Yuh Nelson is working on, "Kung Fu Panda 3," after the huge success of her first film, "Kung Fu Panda 2."  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? Gina Prince-Bythewood shined a light on celebrity with, "Beyond the Lights." Amma Asante overcame daunting challenges to get her black heroine, "Belle," on screen. Some have feature films coming out in 2015 ("Twilight's" Catherine Hardwicke directed, "I Miss You Already;" while, "Whale Rider's," Niki Caro helmed Disney's, "McFarland USA"), some have produced their own short films while seeking funding for feature projects (Mira Nair, Lynne Ramsay), MANY have gone on to directing television (Jane Campion co-created the thriller masterpiece, "Top of the Lake." Lesli Linka Glatter, Jill Soloway and Lisa Cholodenko 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 (Debra Granik, Kelly Reichardt, Marjane Satrapi.)

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.

"Winter's Bone" by Debra Granik
Recent box office receipts prove that there is a 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 success due to the author’s fan base and internet following. It ended up making 10 TIMES its budget. That's just good business.

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

For more female filmmakers, read, "10 Female Directors Who Deserve More Attention from Hollywood."

Attention Filmmakers! Apply for the HBO fellowship for women and diversity.

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.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Thursday, January 29, 2015


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

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

"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

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 tale. 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


"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

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."


"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

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