Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Artist Haven "5 Flights Up."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Welcome to (the Real) Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Women Share, "Every Secret Thing."


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

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

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

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

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Monday, May 11, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

"Still Alice"

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

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

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

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

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

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal