THE GOLDEN ERA

WeiTangBioPic stars Wei Tang as Chinese writer Xiao Hong. Focusing on the turbulent 1930s, when left-wing intellectuals lived in the heightened exhilaration of internal upheaval & Japanese invasion, Xiao Hong somehow keeps publishing despite pregnancies & romantic complications. (JLH: 4/5)

Suggestion for non-Chinese audiences: Read about Xiao Hong on Wikipedia before you go!

Directed by Ann Hui. Screenplay by Qiang Li. Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku. NOT YET SEEN BY RICH.

Who knew that in the midst of internal dissention between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, China produced at least two critically important feminist authors who made vital contributions to world literature? I certainly didn’t. This was the great joy of watching Ann Hui’s new biopic The Golden Era, starring Wei Tang as Chinese writer Xiao Hong in the turbulent 1930s. The relationship between “Xiao Hong” (Wei Tang) and her writer/mentor “Ding Lin” (Lei Hao), while not the focus by any means, is critical to the success of the film. Xiao unfortunately had a short, feverish life, dying of Tuberculosis in 1942 while Hong Kong was under intense Japanese bombardment. Ding Lin, who lived a long life, was more politically active than Xiao, but less poetic. She was a commander of the Red Chinese Mao’s forces and spent time at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the late ‘80s.

In the beginning of the film, the main character Xiao Hong informs the audience of her premature death through narration, along with third person characters detailing the long, three-hour epic following the course of her life. This beautiful, poetic young woman from a wealthy family lost her mother when she was young and grew up under the control of an oppressive father. When he tried to marry her off, she ran away with her student boyfriend “Xiao Jun,” (Shaofeng Feng) but continued to write even as she struggled through pregnancies and desertions. Although a majority of the film concerns her romantic life, Xiao chronicles her time with her powerful mentor, “Lu Xun” (Zhiwen Wang).

The five main characters are Xiao Hong, Xiao Jun, Lu Xun, her husband “Duanmu Hongliang,” (Yawen Zhu) and her friend Ding Lin. For an American audience, it’s difficult to watch when you aren’t familiar with the people and are trying to sort out the story and the characters at the same time. I enjoy long biopics, stemming from my love of Academy Award-winning Reds starring Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton, so although The Golden Era was disconcerting at times, it drew me in and made me want to read Xiao Hong’s books.

Ann Hui’s previous film A Simple Life was a small, intimate drama whereas The Golden Era is an epic about artistic and intellectual fervor of mid-1930s China. It was evident that she didn’t have the budget to do what she really wanted or needed to do. Where Reds had big, elaborate scenes with hundreds of people marching on the Winter Palace and crossing Central Asia, Ann Hui chose not to do that for this film. For example, during one scene where Xiao Hong is pregnant and trying to catch a ferry out of Hong Kong, she runs and passes out, but instead seeing of thousands, if not millions, of people around her, all you see is Xiao Hong alone on the dock. I don’t know if it was a decision on the director’s part to keep focused on her central character or if she just didn’t have the budget to do what she really should have done. Overall, I liked it a lot and thought gorgeous, talented Wei Tang did a incredible job. Going into the film with little knowledge of the content, I was fascinated, yet somewhat disoriented with figuring everything out. Although it’s hard to watch, it’s definitely worthwhile.

Comrades

Top Photo: Wei Tang stars as Chinese writer “Xiao Hong.”

Bottom Photo: Comrades in the fight against the Japanese.

Q: Does The Golden Era pass the Bechdel Test? DigitalStampA

Yes!

Although most of the personal story concerns Xiao Hong’s relationships with men, there are critical scenes with other women, most especially with Lei Hao as “Ding Lin.”

The Golden Era received 5 nominations for Taiwan’s 2014 Golden Horse Film Festival: Best Feature Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress (Wei Tang) & Best Supporting Actress (Lei Hao). So I’m not the only one who found their bond critical!

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THE HACKER WARS

Opens tomorrow in NYC. Review coming soon.

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PRIVATE VIOLENCE

Opens tomorrow in NYC. Review coming soon.

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WATCHERS OF THE SKY

Opens tomorrow in NYC. Review coming soon.

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GETT

RonitGettFull Title = Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

Searing Part 3 of a trilogy in which a woman from a large Moroccan-Israeli family must literally beg a Rabbinical Court to grant her a divorce–called a gett–from an over-bearing, oppressive, unyielding husband.

Brutal indictment of the Israeli government, which still allows Rabbis to wield so much patriarchal power in the 21st Century. (JLH: 4.5/5)

Written by, directed by & starring Ronit Elkabetz (in collaboration with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz).  Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku. Not yet seen by Rich.

NOTE: I received a review copy of Gett in connection with two screenings of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem at the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival on 10/13/14 and 10/14/14.

A full review of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem will posted when the film is released in American theatres in 2015.

Note that Gett received the 2014 Ophir Award for Best Picture from the Israel Film Academy in September 2014, meaning it will be Israel’s candidate for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2015. Click HERE to read my thoughts on the 2014 Ophir Awards.

Click HERE for more on Part One of this Trilogy = To Take a Wife

Click HERE for more on Part Two of this Trilogy = Shivah

TheJudges

Top Photo: “Viviane” (Ronit Elkabetz) appears in court day after day but is rarely allowed to speak.

Bottom Photo: The Rabbinical Court consists of three [male] judges = 1st Deputy (Rami Danon), Main Judge (Eli Gorstein) and 2nd Deputy (Roberto Pollack).

Photo Credits: Amit Berlowitz/Courtesy of Music Box Films

Q: Does Gett pass the Bechdel Test? DigitalStampA

This is a tough one, but I am going to say yes…

Although all of the Rabbinal Court Judges are male, both of the attorneys are male, most of the witnesses are male, and Viviane’s husband is male (d’uh), three women are also called as witnesses and two–Viviane’s sister-in-law (Keren Mor) and Viviane’s neighbor (Evelin Hagoel) are particularly memorable.

While it is clear that in context neither of them is allowed to speak directly to Viviane–since the Rabbinical Court requires them to speak only to the Judges–it is equally clear–from their facial expressions and body language–that they are speaking directly to her.

I am reminded of the wonderful book Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America’s Heartland which tells the true story behind Susan Glaspell’s essential drama A Jury of Her Peers. According to the authors–Patricia Bryan & Thomas Wolf–two women accompanied Margaret Hossack to court and sat by her side every day, even though they were not allowed to either testify or serve as members of the actual jury.

As I said, this is a judgment call, so I am making it: Yes, in my mind Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem definitely passes the Bechdel Test.

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ADDICTED

Addicted1Review of Addicted by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky

Addicted is the painfully weak film about a sex-crazed mom losing control of her life. Based on Zane’s novel, the screenplay by Christina Welsh and Ernie Barbarash lacks narrative, realism, and any resemblance of substance.

“Zoe Reynard” (Sharon Leal) can’t seem to find happiness in her marriage to her loyal, successful, architect husband “Jason” (Boris Kodjoe) or their life with the two perfect children in a beautiful, sprawling house. The high school sweethearts remind each other of their affection everyday, with Zoe saying her love for Jason is forever to which he replies, “always has been,” and she says, “always will be” – which should have been followed up with “… or until a sexy, Spanish painter comes along.”

Feeling unfulfilled her marriage, Zoe tells her therapist that having sex with her husband two or three times a day still isn’t enough and is looking for something more. Her wish is granted and Zoe, an art gallery owner, meets a drop-dead gorgeous painter, “Quinton” (William Levy) who immediately seduces her and weaves her into his disturbing web.

What follows is an hour and a half of soft-core porn, scene after scene, as Zoe creates lies and excuses for leaving the house and missing her son’s soccer games. When sexy-artist Quinton declares his love for her, scared-off Zoe moves on to a random man she meets in a nightclub. Therapist “Dr. Spencer” (Tasha Smith) makes her realize that sex can be an addiction and that reflecting on the past is the best tool to change the present. The audience I was surrounded by was hooting and hollering at the screen, clearly engaged in the story, but to me, there was no story at all. The plot itself is eye-roll worthy at best, along with the mediocre acting and cheesy dialogue. Although Zoe is an Olivia Pope wannabe – career-driven, successful, and seemingly put-together – she’s a one-dimensional character with no redeeming qualities.

What may have worked in the novel unfortunately failed in this Bille Woodruff-directed film. It may be the 50 Shades of Grey for a different demographic, but it wasn’t racy enough to be eye opening or dramatic enough to care in anyway. The only positive things about this film was for the obvious reasons: William Levy, Boris Kodjoe, and so on and so on. But besides their physical appeal, there’s nothing else there.

addicted3

Review © Brigid K. Presecky (10/11/14)

Top Photo & Bottom Photo: Sharon Leal as “Zoe” and William Levy as “Quinton”

Q: Does The Addicted pass the Bechdel Test?

No. The completely unlikeable protagonist talks to her therapist about her husband and her extra-marital lovers (when she should have been at her son’s soccer games instead of making the grandma raise her children).

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BOTSO

Surprisingly dull doc about Wachtang Korisheli (nicknamed “Botso”) a man who has lived a very full life, but needs more adept storytellers to do it justice.

Botso was born in the Republic of Georgia when it was under Soviet domination. His artistic parents fell afoul of Stalin, but he escaped & became a much-loved music teacher in California.

Directed by Tom Walters. Screenplay by Hilary Grant. Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku. NOT YET SEEN BY RICH

Q: Does Botso pass the Bechdel Test?

No.

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WAITING FOR AUGUST

Dumb Jan: I thought I was watching a moving–albeit too tidy–feature about a Romanian family, but it turns out Waiting for August is a documentary! Now all my original objections are amplified.

Seven kids stuck in a small apartment with no parents? “Fly-on-the-wall” doc suffers from Hawthorne Effect with heavily edited “heart-warming” footage. Sorry, but good intentions are not enough :-( (JLH: 3/5)

Written & directed by Teodora Mihai. Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku. NOT YET SEEN BY RICH.

Q: Does Waiting for August pass the Bechdel Test? DigitalStampA

Yes.

Georgiana Halmac–who is the oldest sister in a family of seven–speaks mostly to other female characters including her two younger sisters, her school friends, and an elderly neighbor. But most significantly Georgiana speaks frequently with her mother Liliana on the telephone, on Skype, and finally face-to-face (when it is August at long last and Liliana returns from Italy for some vacation time with her family).

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YOU’RE NOT YOU

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 8.25.50 PM3-Hankie Weepie earns them by dealing honestly with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Excellent performances by Hilary Swank as the “perfect” woman stricken by a catastrophic diagnosis and Emmy Rossum as the rebellious college student who becomes her caregiver (and then grows to become more).

Could have been awful, so kudos to director  George C. Wolfe plus screenwriters Shana Feste and Jordan Roberts. Based on a novel by Michelle Wildgen. (JLH: 4.5/5)

Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku. NOT YET SEEN BY RICH

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In the opening scenes of You’re Not You, gorgeous “Kate” (Hilary Swank) lives in a lavish home with her incredibly handsome husband “Evan” (Josh Duhamel), and they appear to have it all.

It’s Kate’s 35th birthday and they are expecting dinner guests. But while they are flirting over perfectly placed appetizers, Kate inadvertently knocks a glass over. Maybe everything really isn’t quite as perfect as it appears to be? Later, her friends persuade Kate to play for them at her grand piano, but midway into the Chopin her hands unexpectedly tense up. The music turns dissonant; time stops; and then these ominous words appear in white type on the all black screen: “18 months later”…

That breaking glass was a symptom of ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), best known in the USA as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. “18 months later,” Kate is in a wheelchair and Evan has spent the interim period working every day and taking care of Kate every night, consistently reassuring her–and himself–that everything is going to be fine. Kate, meanwhile, has tried her best to stay calm and controlled, but she knows that ALS is a progressive, degenerative illness that has no cure. After 18 months of living with a fixed smile on her face, Kate finally asserts herself–seemingly for the first time–by firing her stifling caregiver. Evan is aghast. Who will care for Kate while he is at work? Kate firmly announces that is her problem, and she sends Evan away.

emmy4The time has come to meet “Bec” (Emmy Rossum), a college student who drinks too much, takes drugs, screws around with married professors, and lives her life in total disarray. Bec says she wants to be a singer, but when she finally gets an opportunity to show off her talents, her nerves get the best of her. She ends up drunk and humiliated, hiding out in the Ladies Room instead of singing on the stage.

Then Bec sees Kate’s ad, so she applies for a job as Kate’s caregiver. When Kate asks Bec if she has any qualifications, ferocious-looking Bec turns surprisingly gentle. Yes, she explains, she cared for her grandmother in a nursing home, so she knows what to do. Evan is appalled, but Kate is impressed. Bec is her choice, and she’s prepared to accept the consequences of that choice. Kate truly believes she has finally found the right caregiver.

For the audience, Act II becomes a crash course in personal care. Most women will probably recognize all the coaching required. Many men probably won’t have a clue. Kate must teach Bec how to do almost everything around the house. These personal touches are done with warmth, and shed light on the realities of Kate’s disease. Kate calmly and carefully gives Bec cooking lessons, then just as calmly, she tells Bec how to help her on and off the toilet. As Bec gains in confidence, Kate slowly takes off her saintly mask and stops pretending all she can do it acquiesce in the face of her horrible illness.

Every cast member goes beyond stereotypes, making their characters really feel like living, breathing people. Duhamel is perfectly cast as Evan, and Jason Ritter plays the role of Bec’s love interest. There are also wonderful, albeit limited, scenes with Francis Fisher as Kate’s mother and Marcia Gay Harden as Bec’s mother. They both play versions of “the mother from hell,” and yet both actresses are compelling.

You’re Not You might sound predictable, but it was an incredibly moving, well-done film and that’s a tribute to both lead actresses as well as the team behind-the-scenes. I love Hilary Swank, but although she’s very good, she’s the “ill character,” so most of her trajectory revolves around her disease. You’re Not You therefore becomes a showcase for Emmy Rossum who, much like the young Tom Cruise in Rain Man, is the character who must subtly change, evolve, and become a full and responsible adult.

I cried my way through most of Act III, and I did so gratefully. Swank and Rossum took me on an emotional journey and when Rossum finally did her big song at the end, my heart told me she had totally earned it. Brava!

emmy3

Review © Jan Lisa Huttner (10/08/14)

Top & Bottom Photos: Emmy Rossum as “Bec.”

Middle Photo: Emmy Rossum as “Bec” with Hilary Swank as “Kate.”

Photo Credits: Alan Markfield

Q #1: Does You’re Not You pass the Bechdel Test? DigitalStampA

Yes! Absolutely!

The heart of the film has to do with the relationship between Kate and Bec, which begins in dependency but grows in depth as both women find it a source of mutual sustenance. Conversations about men–when they occur–are almost always on the periphery.

This become clear when the two mothers–Kate’s mother (Frances Fisher) and Bec’s mother (Marcia Gay Harden)–make their short but significant contributions in Act III. Both of these women are well-intentioned and both of them think they are fighting for their daughters, but neither of them has learned to listen.

Kate and Bec both grow by listening to–and being heard by–each other. Ultimately, by validating the voice Kate never dared to use before, Bec finds her own true voice as well.

Q #2: Who is Shana Feste?

I have seen four movies by screenwriter Shana Feste and she’s gotten better and better with each one. Her first film, The Greatest, had a terrific cast, but I absolutely hated it. The second, Country Strong, with Gwyneth Paltrow, had elements I really liked, but I still couldn’t recommend it. The third was the remake of Brooke Shields’ Endless Love and I thought it was quite good. But in this recent film, You’re Not You, Feste has given her actors good, strong material.

It was right to have the opening scene cut abruptly to 18 months later instead of tracking Kate’s gradual decline. The acting only added to the already-strong screenplay. I haven’t read Michelle Wildgen’s novel, but even if it was good, I’m sure there were still ways to botch the adaptation. Me, I think Shana Feste is learning her craft, and this is her best yet.

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DRIVE HARD

ThomasJaneAbsolutely awful “Action/Comedy” about a former race car driver–now the henpecked owner of a driving school in Australia–who gets tricked into serving as a “wheel-man” after a mysterious stranger pulls a heist at a bank.

We hung on until the end, suffering embarrassment for two good actors–John Cusack (aka thief) & Thomas Jane (aka wheel-man)–who are caught in a crude mess. (JLH: 1/5)

Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith with screenplay by Brigitte Jean Allen, Chad Law, and Evan Law (in collaboration Brian Trenchard-Smith). Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku.

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Drive Hard starts in a domestic space guaranteed to set men’s teeth on edge.

“Peter Roberts” (Thomas Jane) is having breakfast with his wife and daughter. His wife “Tessa” (Yesse Spence) is immaculate in chic professional duds. His daughter “Stacy” (Francesca Bianchi) is a tween in a very starched and proper private school uniform. Peter, on the other hand, is a shlub who seems to get his satisfaction in life–such as it is–by refusing to cut his hair. Of course Tessa is too busy to take Stacy to school and of course Stacy is embarrassed by the possibility that any of her school chums will see her Dad drop her off. And… my heart started to sink…

Peter’s next stop is his driving school (which turns out to be another female-dominated space). But this day is different. When he arrives (after dutifully dropping Stacy just the right distance from her school), Peter learns a mysterious stranger is waiting for him. He doesn’t want a lesson from any of the women who work there. He wants his lesson from Peter aka “The Boss.”

This mysterious stranger in his black leather jacket and baseball cap also has an American accent (just like Peter), and as they drive around the Australian Gold Coast, the plot machinations begin. “Simon Keller” (John Cusack) has come looking for Peter because he knows that inside that shaggy henpecked exterior, Peter is actually an F-1 champion! Yowza! JohnCusack

And so we spend several minutes toodlin’ around–with Simon always veering towards the American side of the road rather than on the Australian side of the road–until Simon finally asks Peter to make a small stop so he can run a quick errand. At which point, Simon deftly steals $9 million dollars worth of  Bearer Bonds. Let the chase–complete with obligatory macho hijinks–begin!

Bottom Line: This bank heist/road trip flick set in Australia is so bad that I could barely watch. My heart goes out to John Cusack and Thomas Jane — two terrific actors who must have hated every minute of this gig. NOT RECOMMENDED!

TheMustang

Top Photo: Thomas Jane may simper at home but he’s a demon behind the wheel. Yech!

Middle Photo: John Cusack is the wise-cracking, pistol-snapping “bad buy” with a heart of gold. Oy!

Bottom Photo: Since the humans are so totally unbelievable, it obviously falls to the cars to provide whatever semblance of reality exists on screen :-(

Photo Credits: Mark “Tubby” Taylor (IMDb sic)

Q: Does Drive Hard pass the Bechdel Test?

No!

There are a couple of mother/daughter scenes–as Peter’s wife and child await word of him after he disappears–but the totality of their [limited] conversation revolves around him. Same thing for the ladies who work for Peter at the driving school.

Really, folks: The only real objects of interest in this film are the cars, and they exist in a “For Guys Only” universe :-(

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