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 DuVernay, 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. DuVernay 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. DuVernay 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 nearly 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

Women were among the first silent picture directors. Director Alice Guy-Blache is actually credited as the first to develop the art of  narrative structure. But when businessmen created the Hollywood Studio System, women directors seemed to disappear.
Alice Guy-Blache

Motivated by Ava DuVernay’s Oscar snub and the fact that less that 7% 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 at discovering 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. 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 FilmWadjda” was directed by a Saudi Arabian woman named Haifaa Al-Mansour. This accomplishment is even more incredible because it was the first feature film ever shot in Saudi Arabia. In fact, she directed the first 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 directed powerful, inspiring films. These women’s names deserve to be known and their voices heard.

(UPDATE: "2014 Most Inspiring Films" included, ""Welcome to Me," "McFarland USA," "The Babadook," "Belle," and the film that inspired all those impassioned blog posts, Ava DuVernay's "Selma."  The 2015 list featured "Suffragette," and my number one choice, Deniz Gamze Ergüven's "Mustang." )

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, spiritual cinema visionaries, 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. 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.  Despite making $16 million on her small budget movie, being nominated for four Academy Awards (including Best Picture 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 featuring a strong woman astronaut and scientist ($186,666,000) originally conceived by producer Lynda Obst with Professor of Theoretical Physics Kip Thorne.
  •  “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? Why are so few of the best-selling novels written by women, adapted to the screen by women?  Six of the movies on the list above were written (or co-written) by women. But keep in mind that this list was taken from the top 52 hits from Box Office Mojo's list of 100 movies (as of  2/16/15).

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.” Bigelow announced on January 30, 2016 that her next film would be a drama about the 1967 Detroit Riots.

Where are all the other female directors? Women are making films....

Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Despite the fact that the first animated film EVER was created by a woman, Lotte Reiniger, women are finally breaking into the "boys' club" of animation. Brenda Chapman became the first woman to direct an animated feature at a major studio (Dreamworks) with "Prince of Egypt" in 1998. She went on to co-direct the Oscar winning "Brave" in 2012. 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 was the first female to be sole director of an animated feature (the mega-hit "Kung Fu Panda 2.") She is currently working on "Kung Fu Panda 3."

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 shines a light on celebrity with "Beyond the Lights." Amma Asante overcame daunting challenges to get her black heroin "Belle" on screen. Some have feature films coming out in 2015. "Twilight's" Catherine Hardwicke helmed "I Miss You Already" and is set to direct the $50 million dollar epic "Loulan." Patricia Riggen ("Under the Same Moon") directed the true story of  "The 33" miners trapped underground. Andrea Arnold ("Fish Tank") is filming "American Honey." Oscar winner Sofia Coppola ("Lost in Translation") is in post production on "A Very Murray Christmas." "Whale Rider's" Niki Caro directed Disney's "McFarland USA" and is currently shooting "The Zookeeper’s Wife." Celine Sciamma ("Tomboy") has "Ma vie de courgette" coming out in 2016.  Amma Assante is currently shooting the provocative racial drama "A United Kingdom." Some have produced their own short films while seeking funding for feature projects (Mira Nair, Lynne Ramsay, Mary Harron). This plan has proven successful for Mary Harron  who announced on February 1, 2016 that she is collaborating with "American Psycho" scribe Guinevere Turner on the Manson-Followers film "The Family."

Darnell Martin
MANY acclaimed female directors have found better opportunities in television including: Darnell Martin, the first black woman to direct a studio production ("I Like It Like That"). Oscar winner Jane Campion ("The Piano") 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. Happily, actress-turned-director Lake Bell ("In a World") is currently in pre-production for "What's the Point?" after directing television. Other qualified women directors are choosing to make documentaries or low budget indies to stay true to their vision (Kelly Reichardt, Marjane Satrapi, and Julie Dash to name a few.)

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 have international appeal to 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 a result, movie attendance has gone down.

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.  "Winter's Bone," independently financed by the filmmakers when their investor fell through, was produced for just $2 million and earned $14 million above that. That's 7 TIMES its budget. That's just good business. 

"Winter's Bone" by Debra Granik
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 reviews celebrating two women making new strides in horror: Ana Lily Amipour ("A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night") and Jennifer Kent ("The Babadook.") PLEASE, SHARE! 

Check out the many strong female characters in my "Most Inspiring Films 2015."

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

For more information on Women Filmmakers:

The best and bravest article I've found clarifying the issue: The Women in Hollywood Speak Out.

Watch the video: "Celluloid Ceilings: Women Directors Speak Out"

 "10 Female Directors Who Deserve More Attention from Hollywood."

"100 Women Directors Hollywood Should Be Hiring"

Research that proves Hollywood is still a "man's club."  

Ava DuVernay expands distribution cooperative for women filmmakers and filmmakers of color.

This year a writers lab for women over 40 was established. 

"Why 2015 Film and Television Was a Major Win for Feminism"

"Watch: A Celebration of the Top-Grossing Women-Directed Films of 2015"

Stephanie Allain, who champions films from directors of color, speaks out. 

The Best Films About Women in 2014

"Beeban Kidron: The Shared Wonder of Film"

"Everything You Need To Know About The Hollywood Pay Gap"

"Celebrating Women in Classic Film: The Silent Directors."

"The History of Women in Animation. The Mothers of a Medium."

Women Documentary Filmmakers

The Director List (including women indie, documentary and television directors.)

 "85 Films By and About Women of Color."

"Female Directors Make History at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival."

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

"Hollywood Sets Up Its Lady Superheroes to Fail"

"Two women-led media companies are committing greater resources to funding and distributing films made by women".

"Diversity doesn't just happen': Six women in film discuss the challenges ahead

ArcLight Cinemas Spotlights "Exceptional" Women-Directed Docs in Summer Series

"Heroines of Cinema: These 10 Female Filmmakers Prove Why Hollywood Studios Should Change Their Tune"

"Guide to Cult Female Filmmakers"

"Female Directors Pick Their Favorite Films Made by Women"

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