The September Issue (2009)

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To a lot of us, fashion seems like a fluffy and superficial profession. But to countless fashion insiders everywhere it is a deadly serious business. This is a business where people know the difference between puce and plum, and where hemlines and necklines are of utmost importance. And that cute handbag you just bought from Target? Quite likely it’s a knock-off of a pricier designer handbag a fashion editor claimed was the “must have” of the season.

And there is probably no more important fashion magazine than American Vogue. At the helm is the British ex-pat Anna Wintour and Vogue is the bible to fashionistas everywhere. And no issue of Vogue is more important than the mammoth September issue, chock full of fashion and beauty layouts, articles, celebrity profiles and yes, lots and lots of advertisements.

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Documentarian RJ Cutler (The War Room, which focused on the 1992 Clinton presidential campain) turns his unblinking camera lens to the creation of the 2007 September issue of Vogue in the documentary The September Issue. The September Issue follows Wintour and crew as the September Issue begins with some nuggets of ideas to a fully-formed magazine on the newsstand.

The September Issue begins with Wintour reflecting on the power of fashion and how it can make some people nervous. Known mostly for her whippet-thin figure, swingy bob and dark sunglasses, it was a bit jarring to hear Wintour speak. Sure, she’s not warm and fuzzy, but there is a reflective side to her that makes her quite human.

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During the film we see Wintour meeting with staff to discuss the issue. We see her jetting off to London, Paris and Rome to attend fashion shows and meet with designers. Wintour can make or break a designer with one raised eyebrow so I wouldn’t be surprised if even established designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Karl Lagerfeld felt a bit nervous about meeting her. But when Wintour likes a designer she is behind that person 110%. Wintour was an early supporter of Thakoon (one of Michelle Obama’s fave designers). Her support of him, dare I say it, is almost sweet.

Wintour is also the editor that put celebrities on the covers of Vogue over models, and the chosen celebrity for this September issue is British actress Sienna Miller. Sienna comes to the Vogue offices and is outfitted in beautiful couture gowns, many which will end up in the magazine. However, the staff is flummoxed by Miller’s hair, which is growing out awkwardly, and not quite up to the magazine’s standards. Later, Wintour is not happy with Sienna’s photo layout shot by legendary photographer, Mario Testino, and the design staff scrambles to make a viable cover.

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Though Wintour is at the top of the Vogue heap, she is not alone in making Vogue what it is. In September Issue, we get to meet editor-at-large (literally) Andre Leon Talley, the cape wearing and Vuitton-loving male Auntie Mame who seems to be employed to kiss Wintour’s skinny ass. I can’t imagine what Talley actually does for the magazine, but he definitely added a fun element to the movie. If he didn’t exist, a Hollywood  would have to create him.

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And then there is the brilliant creative director Grace Coddington. Coddington started out as a fashion model in the swinging sixties. But after suffering a horrific car crash, Coddington turned her talents to fashioned a role behind the camera. Coddington is the yang to Wintour’s yin. If Wintour is all about commerce and wondering if it will sell, Coddington is all about art and creating beautiful and over-the-top fashion layouts that are all fantasy.

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Not surprisingly, Wintour and Coddington don’t always see eye to eye. As the issue is being put together, Coddington is creating a 1920s Parisian cafe society fashion layout inspired by the designer Galianos. Coddington’s vision is pure magic, yet Wintour is not pleased with one of the photos, and wants it deleted. Coddington is not happy. This layout is her baby. Yet, I could see both their points. The shot is gorgeous, yet it doesn’t quite work with the rest of the photographs. The offending photo is cut.

However, Coddington does get to make one final decision. During a last minute photo shoot for another layout, Coddington taps the documentary’s cinematographer, Bob Richman, to join the model in a photo. He happily obliges. Wintour takes a look at the resulting photo and wants to airbrush Richman’s slight pot belly. Coddington nixes the idea, saying, “Everybody isn’t perfect in this world.” Richman’s belly stays in the picture. Finally, after months of preparation, the September 2007 issue of Vogue is released. It weighs over four pounds and is over 800 pages, the largest issue in Vogue history.

RJ Cutler’s “fly on the wall” film making style is what helps make this movie so interesting. You get to see everyone in their element without film maker commentary. I was stunned to see the staff look at the mock ups on a huge wall where pictures and layout can be moved by hand rather than doing it on a computer. I was also pleasantly surprised to see how un-Botoxed and unmade-up the staff was even though most of them, like their leader, is very, very thin. Also, I was surprised how plain the Vogue offices are. I was expecting something ostentatious and grand, but the offices are quite non-descript.

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But most of all, I was surprised how much I didn’t despise Anna Wintour. Sure, she isn’t at Vogue to make friends, but she isn’t the vicious harpy the media makes her out to be. Yes, she’s reserved and exacting but so are a lot of people in any cut throat business. And I doubt any negativity thrown Wintour’s way would be applied to a successful man. But still, Wintour does show some vulnerability as when she talks about her siblings, all of them in more serious professions, who are quite “amused” by her career.

September Issue is a fascinating look at both a legendary magazine and the talented people who make it happen. It is the “must have” for both fashion and film lovers.

The Spotlight

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***There is a good chance there will be a writers’ strike via the WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) according to Variety Magazine.*** (H/T Tari Jordan)

Move ticket prices are getting higher, and Hollywood Reporter tells us why.

Summer of 2017 movie preview courtesy of Entertainment Weekly.

Women directed films that are must-sees in 2017!

Geena Davis celebrates the 25th anniversary of A League of Their Own’s release.

Salma Hayek’s Beatriz at Dinner sounds like my kind of film, one that connects with my “Power to the People” mindset.

Talent agent Sandy Gallin dead at 76.

New documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent celebrates the eminent chef and his connection to California cuisine and the renowned restaurant Chez Panisse.

Will Netflix end its mail order DVD service in the age of streaming?

Director John Waters new summer camp for adults, Camp John Waters.

 

 

 

 

Food, Inc. (2008)

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You think food can’t be scary? Guess again. Food, Inc., the Oscar-nominated documentary, proves the food we put in our bellies can be more frightening than any ax-wielding horror flick bad guy.

Made by film maker Robert Kenner, Food, Inc. shows a disturbing and ugly vision of how food gets to our grocery stores. And it’s not the simple farmer who is providing us with our eggs, veggies, meats and grains. It’s huge corporations who are often very cozy with the government, and it’s profits that win out, not the well-being of the American citizens.

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The seemingly innocent vegetable, corn, is huge crop to agri-business. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find out that corn, especially the unhealthy high fructose corn syrup, is found in many of the things we eat. Sure, we expect it to be in our soda, but I certainly didn’t expect to find it in a loaf of supposedly good for me whole wheat bread. Corn is also the primary food source for animals like cows even though they are grass eaters. And why is corn such big business? It’s because it made cheap to produce by the government and therefore very profitable for agri-business.

Cows and chickens are brought up in conditions that are positively barbaric. Both are often raised in claustrophobic close quarters, pumped up with hormones and anti-biotics and literally living in their own excrement. Vegetables are often treated in ways that look like science experiments gone awry.

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Not surprisingly, this is not good for us. E coli, something we never heard of decades ago, is constantly in the news. If it’s not beef tainted with E coli, it’s spinach. And in one absolutely heartbreaking segment, a young mother tells her story of losing her son to E coli tainted food.

And it’s the smaller farmers who are working for large agri-business who are often suffering under the draconian regulations of their bosses. Not surprisingly many of the agri-businesses profiled, Tyson, Perdue, Smythfield and Monsanto, refused to be interviewed for Food, Inc. If you see this movie you’ll know why. They don’t come across too favorably.

Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, two cheerleaders for eating locally and organically, are interviewed. However, often eating locally and organically isn’t always feasible. Not everyone has access to farmer’s markets, and buying organic can really bruise the wallet. To emphasize this Food, Inc. introduces us to a struggling working class family where buying off the dollar menu at a fast food joint is more economically sound for them than buying whole grains, vegetables and fruits at the grocery store.

However, all is not lost. Despite its dire warnings Food, Inc. has moments of hope. One person featured is Joel Salatin, an independent farmer in Virginia, who refuses to do things agri-business wants. His farm is operated in a way that is both humane to livestock and Salatin’s employees. Salatin is also probably one of the most fun and entertaining characters in the movie.

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Furthermore, average American citizens are demanding grocery chains carry organic food. People are planting their own backyard gardens. And community gardens are now being built in urban areas where McDonalds, KFC, and convenience stores are the only food options.

The whole idea of eating locally, organically and in a sustainable manner has often been seen as an elitist, hippie, lefty thing. But the food we eat shouldn’t be an issue of money nor should it be a political issue of left vs. right. Food is a human issue that concerns us all. And Food, Inc. opens a dialogue that is definitely food for thought.

 

 

American Teen (2008)

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Directed by award-winning film maker Nanette Burnstein (On the Ropes, The Kid Stays in the Picture) the documentary American Teen was filmed in Warsaw, Indiana over the course of the 2005-2006 school year. Warsaw appears to be the type of place that Hollywood loves to mythologize, the typical Midwestern town where the biggest event is the upcoming homecoming game and the rest of the world barely exists.

For an entire school year, Burnstein focused her camera lens on five Warsaw high school students during their senior year. All of them fall into familiar archetypes that you will recognize no matter how long ago you grabbed your diploma-the princess, the jock, the geek, the rebel and the heartthrob.

First we have Megan Krizmanich, the school’s queen bee. She’s pretty and popular, the daughter of a surgeon and student council president. She’s also a “mean girl” who even turns her venom on her own friends.

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Jake Tusing is the kid no one notices in high school. He’s a band geek and addicted to video games. He’s also got a lethal case of acne and a mouth full of braces but that won’t deter him from finding a girlfriend.

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Colin Clemens is the star basketball player. Instead of being the stereotypical jerk athlete, Colin is nice all-around guy. But underneath his easygoing nature, is desperation. He needs a scholarship to pay for college.

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Hannah Bailey is the rebellious alternative girl. Hannah is artsy, creative and plays guitar in a band. Her biggest goal in life is to get out of Warsaw.

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Mitch Reinholt is the dreamboat. Like Colin, he’s a jock and runs with the cool crowd. He has a killer smile and on a superficial level seems to be just another vapid pretty boy, until he falls for Hannah.

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During the school year, the kids have moments of pure joy, and moments of self-doubt. They have their triumphs and tribulations. All of this is captured by the unblinking eye of Burnstein’s camera.

Early in the school year, Hannah is dumped by her boyfriend. This causes her to go into a tailspin of intense depression. She misses so many days of school that graduation hangs in the balance. Megan’s bitchiness goes out of control. When she gets her hands on a friend’s compromising photo, she e-mails it to everyone at school. Her friend is deemed a skank and becomes the school pariah. Told by his dad that he needs to get a scholarship to afford college (or go in the Army), Colin becomes a selfish player on the court, and causes conflict with his team mates.

Jake awkwardly looks for a girlfriend, and finally finds one among the freshman girls. But she dumps him for the band’s studmuffin, and Jake goes through a cringe-worthy attempt to find a new girlfriend.

At one of her gigs, Mitch finds himself attracted to Hannah, and they start going out. However, later on he caves into peer pressure. After all, their separate castes should never even talk to each other, let alone date. So Mitch breaks up with Hannah via text message.

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Family also comes into play in American Teen. During the movie, we find out that Megan’s family suffered a horrible tragedy. She also feels a great deal of pressure to get into Notre Dame, the alma mater of most of her family, including her successful father. Colin’s father embarrasses his son by working as an Elvis impersonator part-time. It doesn’t take much to embarrass one’s kids, but being an Elvis impersonator really takes the cake.

But it’s Hannah’s parents who truly broke my heart. Her father is distant and her mother is a manic depressive. When Hannah tries to convince both of them the importance of going to San Francisco to study film, her parents tell her that she shouldn’t expect much out of life. When Hannah’s mother coldly says to her, “You’re not that special,” I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I can only imagine how Hannah felt.

During the film we see kids ignoring the teachers, hanging out with their friends, yawning during class, drinking too much, talking about sex, dancing at prom, and sending text messages. These kids pretty much do what a lot of us did in high school. Okay, some of us our too old to have sent text messages in high school. And interspersed throughout the film, are several animated segments that convey the dreams and desires of these kids.

At the end, we see Colin, Megan, Hannah, Jake and Mitch graduate and go on with their post-high school lives. We also learn what they are up in the two years since they graduated, but I’ll refrain on sharing this information.

For the most part, American Teen, is engrossing, suspenseful and affecting. I ended up caring about these kids, even Megan, who I wanted to smack most of the time. However, just because this is a documentary doesn’t mean that some parts didn’t seem staged. For instance, after she feels she is backstabbed by another student council member over the prom theme, Megan defaces his house with toilet paper and homophobic graffiti. Would she have done this without the prodding of the ever present cameras? I’m not sure. Then again, in a time where kids expose their crazy revelry on various social media and on YouTube, I shouldn’t be surprised to see a scene like this. And anyone familiar with reality TV shows know that what is supposed to be “real” can be as easily manipulated as any fictional TV show or movie.

In the end, American Teen gives us the old adage that the more things change the more they stay the same. Pretty much anyone who went to high school will be able to relate in some way to these kids and the cliques that define them.

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American Teen’s Nanette Burnstein

Live Nude Girls (2000)

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I doubt you think “union organizer” when you hear stripper. When you think of stripper you probably think of breast implants, drug addiction, exploitation, slutty, uneducated, lap dancing and so on. The stereotypes of stripping aren’t exactly positive. But if you watch the Live Nude Girls Unite you just might be surprised.

Narrated by Julia Query and filmed by Vicky Funari, Live Nude Girls Unite tells us about the long journey Ms. Query and her fellow strippers took trying to unionize the Lusty Lady, a strip club in San Francisco. Just like any other working person, the strippers wanted fair wages, health insurance and progressive work policies. However, they were often seen as dirty girls who deserved their bad lot in life.

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But Query and her fellow strippers to not let prejudice and stereotypes deter them. Nor do they get discouraged when Lusty Lady’s management tells them they’re not working “real jobs.” But just like working in an office or in a factory, stripping for 10 hours a day is work. Yet there is this idea that sex workers do their jobs because they enjoy it, not because they are trying to get paid. Perhaps earning a paycheck isn’t as sexy to the customers.

Some of Query’s fellow strippers strip because it gives them the flexibility to raise their families or because they are in school. Sometimes they strip to earn extra income. Query strips simply to make ends meet. She’s a lesbian, a feminist, a grad school dropout, a stand-up comic and a nice Jewish girl. Her mother happens to be Dr. Julia Wallace, an advocate for sex workers. During one moment in the film we see a segment from 20/20 where Barbara Walters accompanies Dr. Wallace as she passes out condoms and counsels prostitutes in New York City.

Live Nude Girls Unite shows the strippers’ working conditions, and informs the viewers why they decided to unionize. A couple of non-strippers who work at the club join the unionizing efforts. The film shows them meeting with lawyers and union organizers, and negotiating their contract, which was not a simple task. We also get to see the workers picketing the Lusty Lady with the hilarious chant “2, 4, 6, 8, don’t go in to masturbate.” Working to unionize the Lusty Lady was difficult and at times the workers were disappointed, but they refused to back down, and their tenacity is inspiring.

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Live Nude Girls Unite also shows a very personal side. Despite working to unionize the strip club, Ms. Query has yet to inform her mom of her job. It is one thing for Dr. Wallace to pass out condoms to hookers, it’s quite another to find out your daughter is a stripper. Dr. Wallace reacts in a way we expect any mother to react, and for a while she and her daughter were estranged.

Made on a G-string budget, Live Nude Girls Unite lacks the polish of other documentaries, but that’s part of its charm. It is honest and gritty, and you really do find yourself cheering the strippers on. Live Nude Girls Unite whether you work a job where you keep your clothes on or strip down to your birthday suit, you deserve a workplace that is fair and just.

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Filmmakers Vicky Funari and Julia Query

Reel Women: Female Film Directors Past and Present

“If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies.” – Kathryn Bigelow

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In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow, the director of the critically-acclaimed film, The Hurt Locker, made history when she became the first women to win the Oscar for best director. She’s also a slew of other directing awards including the very prestigious Director’s Guild of America award for best director.

In honor of Ms. Bigelow I’ve decided to dust off a feature I initially wrote about women film directors from the silent era to the modern age way back in college, and posted on a defunct blog ending it with Ms. Bigelow’s triumph. I’ve updated this piece to reflect women film directors as of 2017. Enjoy!

As anyone to name a film director and most likely you’ll hear the names Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Cameron and Tarantino. It is rare that the first name you hear is a woman’s. Why is this? Well, men do dominate the film industry. And mostly men have won the best director Oscars…Kathryn Bigelow being the only anomaly. Or maybe we haven’t had a slew of women directors being nominated for directing Oscars (let alone winning) because only recently have women gone behind the scenes to direct movies and need time to catch up to the big boys. Well, not exactly.

Women have been a part of Hollywood since the silent movie era. Many of these women, like Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, are known for their work in front of the camera. However, women have been calling the shots behind the scenes since before the advent of the “talkies” in the late 1920s. They worked as producers, editors, screenwriters, and yes, directors. Many of these women held very creative and influential positions. One of the highest paid directors of the silent era was a woman. Furthermore, women directors were not afraid to make socially-conscious films.

Just as many actresses like Barbra Streisand and Penny Marshall have turned their talents to directing so did actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Film noir actress, Ida Lupino, directed both films and TV shows in the 1950s and 1960s. And she wasn’t afraid of focusing her camera lens on controversial issues.

So far very few women have been nominated for directing a feature film. These women include Lina Wertmuller, for the Italian language film Seven Beauties (1975), Jane Campion for The Piano (1993), Sophia Coppola for Lost in Translation (2003), winner Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2009).

The following a just a few notable female film directors and their work.

Silent Era to 1930-Alice Guy Blaché 

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Parisian-born Alice Guy Blaché (1875-1968) was the first female film director in the history of film making. She was also the first director, male or female, to bring narrative film to the silver screen. From 1896 to 1920 Ms. Guy Blaché directed over 400 films. She made her first full length film, The Life of Christ, in 1906. The Life of Christ was a big budget epic that included 300 extras. That same year, her film La Fee Printemps (The Spring Fairy) was one of the first films to be shot in color. In fact, many of her films used a great deal of the best special effects of that time period.

Ms. Guy Blaché was the first woman to own and run her own film studio, the Solax Studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. After Solax stopped producing films, Ms. Guy Blaché went to work for William Randolph Hearst’s International Film Service.

By the early 1920s, Ms. Guy Blaché stopped making movies, but that did not stop her from giving lectures on film making. She was pretty much forgotten by film historians until she published her memoirs in 1976.

Some other films by Ms. Guy Blaché:

The Cabbage Fairy (1896)

The Dangers of Alcohol (1899)

A Fool and His Money (1912)

A House Divided (1913)

Dream Woman (1914)

The Divorcee (1919)

Tarnished Reputations (1920)

1930 to 1950-Dorothy Arzner

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Born in California, Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979) directed seventeen films between 1927 and 1943. She was the only female director to work with the major actresses of her day, including Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn. In fact, Ms. Arzner’s 1933 film, Christopher Strong, was the first film to bring the legendary Katharine Hepburn to public awareness.

Though Ms. Arzner initially wanted to work as a doctor, she soon turned her ambitions to movies. She began her career with Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, the parent company of Paramount. After starting out as a typist, Ms. Arzner soon climbed the ranks to screenwriter, and then editor. One of the most famous films she edited was Rudoph Valentino’s Blood and Sand. She was able to leverage this work into directing her first features Fashions for Women and Get Your Man in 1927.

Ms. Arzner’s success as a director lead her to direct one of the first “talkies,” The Wild Party featuring “It Girl” Clara Bow. And between 1927 and 1932, she made eleven features for Paramount until striking out on her own as an independent film director.

As a director, Ms. Arzner tackled many thorny topics including working women and female independence. Her work was often seen as melodramatic, but did reflect on women’s roles both in the home and outside in ways that films directed by men did not.

Ms. Arzner stopped directing movies in 1943. However, she did direct commercials for Pepsi and taught filmmaking at UCLA in the 1960s. And there are reports that director Todd Haynes wants to do biographic on Ms. Arzner’s life and how she affected motion pictures.

Some other films directed by Ms. Arzner:

Anybody’s Woman (1930)

Working Girls (1931)

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

Craig’s Wife (1936)

The Bride Wore Red (1937)

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

First Comes Courage (1943)

1950 to 1970-Ida Lupino

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Ida Lupino (1918-1995) was born in London and was encouraged by her parents to enter show business. She got her start as an actress. She mainly played tough yet sympathetic characters, and jokingly referred to herself as a “poor man’s Bette Davis.” Some of Ms. Lupino’s most notable roles were in the movies Drive by Night and High Sierra. In 1947, she left the studio system to become a freelance actress. Soon after Ms. Lupino began to focus her talents to behind the camera. Her first directing job came about when Elmer Clifton fell ill during the filming Not Wanted. Not only did Ms. Lupino end up directing the movie, she also shared writing credit.

Not content to direct what we’d call “chick flicks,” Ms. Lupino often directed tough action films. Her films also focused on controversial themes like rape, unwed motherhood and bigamy. She had her own production company and often directed films with no big name stars or huge monetary support from the studios. Her films were the precursor of independent cinema.

In the 1950s Ms. Lupino began to direct TV shows, including The Fugitive, Gilligan’s Island and Bewitched. She was the only woman to direct an episode of The Twilight Zone. In the 1970s, Ms. Lupino returned to acting in small roles. Of women working behind the scenes, she claimed, “I’d love to see more women working as directors and producers. Today it’s almost impossible to do it unless you are an actress or writer with power…I wouldn’t hesitate right this minute to hire a talented woman if the subject matter was right.”

Some other films directed by Ida Lupino:

Outrage (1950)

Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1950)

The Bigamist (1953)

The Hitchhiker (1953)

The Trouble With Angels (1996)

1970 to the Present-Kathryn Bigelow

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Born in 1951 in San Carlos, California, Kathryn Bigelow started her career out as an artist. She worked as a painter, and later got her Master’s degree in film at Columbia where she studied mainly film theory and criticism. She worked briefly as a professor until turning to film directing.

Bigelow’s first film was a 20-minute short called The Set Up. In this film two men fight each other while two others provided voice commentary about the images they are watching. Bigelow’s first full-length feature was a biker movie The Loveless (1982), which she co-directed with Monty Montgomery.

Bigelow has directed both film and TV. Some of her television credits include the notable drama Homicide: Life on the Streets (1997-1998) and the mini-series Wild Palms (1993). Probably one of the most popular of her movies is the action-packed Point Break (1991) starring Keanu Reeves and the late Patrick Swayze.

Bigelow has won widespread critical acclaim for the Oscar-nominated The Hurt Locker, a movie set in Iraq about bomb diffusers. Made on a minuscule budget with mostly unknown actors, Bigelow won a much deserved best directing Oscar on March 7th, 2010.

Bigelow has been considered an anomaly of female directors because her movies often focus on action and suspense, not romance and relationships like the films of the late Nora Ephron or Nancy Myers.

Other films by Kathryn Bigelow:

Near Dark (1987)

Blue Steel (1990)

Strange Days (1995)

The Weight of Water (2000)

K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Women continue to make in-roads as film directors. A few names are Allison Anders (Grace of My Heart), Lone Sherfig (An Education), Tamara Jenkins (The Savages) and Mira Nair (The Namesake), Amma Assante  (the soon-to-be-release Where Hands Touch), Oscar-winning documentary film maker Caroline Waterlow (OJ in America) and the late Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, Julia and Julie). And Ava DuVernay directed the Oscar-nominated Selma (2014) but wasn’t nominated for a best director Oscar, which didn’t sit well with a lot of people including me.

And just like Ida Lupino and Penny Marshall, actresses are also sitting in the director’s chair. A few of these include Jodie Foster, Angelina Jolie, Sarah Polley, Julie Delpy, Drew Barrymore, Lena Dunham, and the late Adrienne Shelly.

There are countless women now directing films that I couldn’t possibly name them all, but I look forward to learning their names and about their work.

The Book Was Better: In the Company of Legends by Joan Kramer and David Heeley

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Starting in 1980 and lasting until 2005, documentary filmmakers Joan Kramer and David Heeley focused their creative eye on the best and brightest of Hollywood’s golden age. Beginning with Fred Astaire and including documentaries on other film greats like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda, Kramer and Heeley’s documentaries (many shown on PBS) won countless awards. They also allowed viewers to see these movie stars as they really were beyond the calculated machinations of the old studio system.

Now Kramer and Heeley are sharing their notable filmmaking careers, the stars they covered and all the hard work that went into making these documentaries in their hugely entertaining and fascinating book In the Company of Legends.

Kramer and Heeley’s documentaries showcased these stars film legacies, often bringing on other stars to talk about their peers’ notable work. But these documentaries recognized so much more than a movie star’s career. They also covered the anecdotes, opinions, ideas, friendships and odd quirks that made these stars so much more interesting than the glossy veneer of the studios’ publicity machine. And finding the innate humanity behind these movie stars is probably why Kramer and Heeley’s documentaries were so successful and why In the Company of Legends is such a great read.

While reading In the Company of Legends I couldn’t help be reminded why I love classic movies and the stars that made these movies so legendary. What a body of work these amazing talents left the world.

I also really appreciated the sensitive and respectful nature of Kramer and Heeley’s treatment towards their subjects. They are reverent without debasing themselves and their subjects. They never slip into embarrassing and unprofessional squealing fandom. Kramer and Heeley are both fair and firm (not exactly easy considering some of their subjects could be a bit challenging).

While it was fun to take a walk down a celluloid memory lane, I also loved the various personal stories the authors share about the stars. These stories showed more personable and relatable aspects of the stars. Sure, Katharine Hepburn could be a bit prickly, but when someone accidentally dropped some raspberry sauce on her couch, she just turned over the couch cushion-no muss, no fuss. Jimmy Stewart at the time was frail and a bit insecure, but once he put his toupee on top of his head, he regained some confidence and reminded everyone why he was a true star. The regal Audrey Hepburn made couturier Hubert de Givenchy a household name, but loved to kick back in simple sweaters and trousers (and being Audrey Hepburn, made them effortlessly stylishly). And my mom, a long time fan of the late Paul Newman, will be thrilled to know he was a funny, down-to-earth man, and fully devoted to his wife, Joanne Woodward.

I also learned about the lifelong friendships these stars had with each other. Jimmy Stewart and his wife Gloria were friends with President Reagan and the first lady, Nancy Reagan. Judy Garland was close to President Kennedy and would sometimes sing her signature song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to him. The oddest and most surprising friendship had to be the one Katharine Hepburn had with Michael Jackson. And she wasn’t exactly thrilled with his vulgar stage moves, and let him know it! Does that surprise you?

Through the In the Company of Legends I also learned about legendary movie mogul Lew Wasserman of MCA/Universal, the controversial theater troupe The Group Theatre, which was accused of being rife with Communists, and character actor John Garfield who you probably best know from the movie “Gentleman’s Agreement.”

Inspired by Kramer and Heeley I will probably treat myself to a classic movie binge some upcoming week-end. And I’m thrilled my local library carries several of Kramer and Heely’s work. You know I’ll be checking them out soon.

As much as I enjoyed reading In the Company of Legends, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of a loss. I know we will never go back to Hollywood’s golden age and the studio system, which is probably a topic for another book.  However, I do feel a sense of melancholy on how fame has been so cheapened in this day of insipid bloggers, reality show cretins and other assorted D-list celebrities. In the Company of Legends reminds the important of talent and hardwork that leads to lasting and deserving fame. One I hope our society can get back to. But nevertheless, thankyou  Joan Kramer and David Heeley. In the Company of Legends is a book I will treasure and turn to again.

Originally published at the Book Self

The Spotlight: Special Oscar Edition

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Some interesting Oscar news,facts and potpourri. Enjoy! UPDATE: ADDED CONTENT COURTESY OF CBS SUNDAY MORNING!!!!

CBS Sunday Morning’s broadcast this morning was devoted to movie and Oscar-related goodness!

The best Oscar speeches since Cuba Gooding Jr.

Vox ranks every Oscars 2017 nominated film.

Oscar predictions according to Huffington Post.

And the New York Times Oscar quizzes and predictions

Here are the top ten most memorable Oscar speeches of all time according to Rotten Tomatoes.

Is Seth Meyers thirsty for an Oscar? Take a look at this trailer and find out.

Bust Magazine on Kathryn Bigelow, the first and so far, only woman to win a best directing Oscar.

Bitch Media takes an entertaining, yet thoughtful take on how the Oscars will or will not distract us from our modern messed times.

USA Today wonders if politics will overshadow the Oscars.

Syrian cinematographer Khaled Khateeb banned from getting into USA to attend Oscars.

Slate Magazine on how the Oscars this year could make history.

The Spotlight

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Movie studios’ plans for the home movie rental  business.

AFI (American Film Institute) 100 Best Movie Songs. My favorite? “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Henry Mancini. My favorite version? Audrey Hepburn’s, of course. I miss her every day.

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Is your movie a “Chick Flick?” Good luck in getting it screened in India.

Yes, I know we’re only two months into 2017, but Thrillist has a list of the best movies of 2017 so far…

Movies that created a buzz at this year’s Sundance.

Here’s a gallery of actors turned directors and their debut films.

The documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” about James Baldwin is still timely in 2017.

How Indian film director Mira Nair’s body of work richly portrays the complexity of mixing cultures.

Bitch magazine’s list of the best movies from 1999-2016.

The worst movies of 2016 according to the Razzies. And 10 people who actual showed up to pick up their Razzie. Hmm, I knew there was a reason why I like Sandra Bullock.

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Girls Rock (2007)

“Girls have got balls. They’re just a little higher up that’s all.” – Joan Jett

At Rock and Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Oregon, girls between the ages of 8 and 18 get a week to form a band, learn to play an instrument, write a song and at the end of the week, perform in front of 700 people.

The documentary Girls Rock follows the young campers and their camp counselors, known as band managers, during an intense week. Not only do these girls learn how to rock, they also learn self-defense, anger management and how to cope with shaky self-esteem. The campers come from all races and backgrounds and embody every musical stripe.

Filmmakers Arne Johnson and Shane King focus their camera lens on four individual campers. Laura is a 15 year-old Korean adoptee who loves death metal and whose parents can’t quite figure her out. Amelia is an energetic spectacle-wearing eight-year-old who writes lyrics about her dog Pipi. Palace, a sweet-faced and tough-minded seven-year old is far wiser than her years (she’s the one looking fierce on the movie poster above). And then there is troubled Misty, who has struggled with meth addiction, gang violence and juvenile hall.

The film makers allow the girls to speak for themselves showing them as real girls with dreams and problems that often don’t get addressed as much as they should. A week at Rock and Roll Camp for Girls gives our young heroines a chance to be “100% exactly who they are.” Cool mentor rock chicks like Beth Ditto from The Gossip and Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein (who also emotes as several characters on the TV show Portlandia) offer sage advice to the campers. They remind the girls they can take up space, scream as loud as they want, make mistakes and triumph at the same time.

Intermingled with scenes from camp are some disturbing factoids. Girls are expected to “be sexy” themselves at very young ages, eating disorders are huge problems, and not surprisingly, girls are filled with feelings of self-doubt. Not to mention, riot grrrl third wave feminist rockers of the 1990s like Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth were soon over-shadowed by barely legal pop tarts like Britney Spears. Is it any wonder young girls think they have to be thong-wearing airheads to be accepted? When camper Laura casually mentions, “I just accept that I hate myself,” it breaks your heart.

The girls have a lot to work out both personally and musically during the short week at Rock and Roll Camp. But in a small segment in time these girls master their instruments and their songs. They figure out the mundane, like finally deciding on a band name and the more significant, like working as a team. But most importantly, they learn to believe in themselves and all they can accomplish.

Girls Rock culminates at the end when the girls finally perform in front of family, friends and fellow campers. I was absolutely delighted how much these girls achieved in just a week. They are truly an impressive bunch, and I found myself applauding and well as getting teary-eyed. Perhaps most of them won’t end up playing sold out shows at Madison Square Garden, but Rock and Roll Camp gives them lessons that will last a lifetime. Do girls rock? Yes, they certainly do. And Girls Rock is probably one of the most important “chick flicks” I have ever seen.