Lives of Girls and Women. Movies reviewed: Acts of Dishonour, The Kids are Alright, Hey Hey it’s Esther Blueburger

This week I’m talking about the lives of girls and women.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – there are way too many movies that use female characters only as walk-ons, tokens, eye candy, the straight man for joke scenes. This isn’t an isolated phenomenon, there really has been a slide from when movies had male and female characters, to now, where there are male characters and their female appendages.

There’s a fun technique some people use now, to decide whether or not a movie can be said to be a movie with women in it. It’s called the Bechdel Rule, named after the cartoonist and graphic novelist Allison Bechdel. And the rule is: does the movie have two female characters? Do they ever talk to each other? And when they talk, is it about something besides a man? It’s surprising how uncommon movies passing these three rules are. So let’s look at some that definitely pass this test.

“Hey Hey it’s Esther Blueburger”

Dir / Wri: Cathy Randall.

12 year old Esther (Danielle Catanzariti) lives in Adelaide, Australia, with her eccentric, computer geek twin brother and her nice, middle-class, but detached, parents. She goes to a private girls school in pigtails, a plaid skirt, shirt and tie, and an old fashioned straw hat. She looks like a Jewish Anne of Green Gables, but with black hair, not red. She’s a bit of an outcast in this hierarchical, conformist, school of rules, bullies and guards, and she has no friends, except her brother and a little duck she adopts.

She sits in a toilet stall and asks, Are you there God? It’s Me Margaret… I mean Esther. So she hangs out near a public high school built on the grounds of an old zoo, looking in at the kids who get to do dancing and karate and drumming instead of singing in a choir.

When something terrible happens at her school, Esther rebels. She’s befriended by Sunni (Keisha Castle-Hughes), an older tough girl from the public school who lends her a spare uniform. Esther becomes a stealth student at another school. She tries new things, pierces an ear, starts to wear makeup, express herself, creates a brand new personality. But at the expense of her truer, better self?

“Hey, Hey It’s Esther Blueburger”, is a nice, cute, coming of age story, a sort of an Aussie Holden Caulfield about a young girl finding herself, and learning about the world. The movie doesn’t always work – it’s formulaic, and wavers from after school special, to light comedy, to fantasy, to more serious drama – but I enjoyed it. It’s also really well made – what’s with these Australian movies? One made in North America would just churn out something like this as a cheap knock-off; but the Australians put so much work into the look of this movie, with stylized, almost choreographed scenes, repeating colour images, running visual themes… the art direction is noticeably superior, and the editing, direction, everything, are all really good. And Catanzaritti is terrific (if sometimes too terrific) as a young girl growing up.

“The Kids are All Right”

Dir: Lisa Cholodenko

…is a real honey of a movie. It’s about a nice Southern California family, with two kids, Joni and Laser, and two mommies, Nic a doctor, and Jules, a housewife. Both kids have the same anonymous donor as their biological father, with each mother giving birth. So… as part of their agreement, the sperm bank keeps a record of the donor, and when Joni turns 18, she decides to initiate contact, mainly because 15-year-old Laser wants a chance to meet his dad. That’s where the plot thickens. All of their lives are suddenly disrupted with the introduction of Paul. Let me say who’s playing whom, so you can get an idea of this movie: Nic and Jules is Annette Bening as the uptight doctor, in maybe her best role ever; Julianne Moore, going against type, as an insecure, bumbling, apologetic mum; and Mia Wasikowska (who was Alice in Wonderland) as the gentle Joni. The third wheel dad/sperm donor is Mark Ruffallo, a motorcycle riding, college drop out, organic farmer restauranteur, who hits on every pretty woman he sees – quite successfully, it seems. He’s a do-er. He’s still the 19 year old sperm donor, but in his 40’s now, and suddenly wants to settle down and fly right… sort of.

Normally I’m not a big fan of light family dramas, but this movie has such good acting, is so funny, is such a good story – I really liked it. And it wasn’t actors playing roles, Nic and Jules really are this middle class married lesbian couple, with all their quirks and foibles and embarrassing squirmy personality traits — like they get off watching gay male porn! — that transcend the usual stereotypes, but let a few choice ones in, too. Great movie!

Act of Dishonour

Dir: Nelofer Pazira

A much graver story, Act of Dishonour is a Canadian movie that takes place in a polyglot and diverse Afghan village, a village at peace. Mejgan, played by Nelofer Pazira who also wrote and directed, is a woman returning to Afghanistan to find out about her past, and also to work on a Canadian movie being shot there. The Hazera are returning to the village as well, as are people who had fled to the west, to Kabul or to Iran, or are returning from a Taliban prison. And members of the Taliban still live there too. Kids are being educated again, allowed to watch animated movies at school, buut women are still kept sequestered away.

Meanwhile, a pretty, 15 year old girl who dresses in red and weaves and dyes cloth behind the clay walls of her home, is hoping to get married soon, and she sometimes sees a boy her age who she would like to marry, but needs a burqa to wear to her wedding. So Mejgan makes a deal – she’ll give her a bright purple burqa if the girl agrees to appear in a movie scene.

Here’s where the subtle irony comes in: A decade ago, Pazira starred in a great movie about the oppression of women in Afghanistan, called “Kandahar”. In that movie the burqa was a symbol of oppressed women and their lack of freedom. But in this village it’s a symbol of honour, tradition and beauty.

The smug director, though, is set in his ways – there’s no way he’s going to play a part in this subjugation of woman – he will not give a woman a burqa! A day or two later the Canadians will be moving on to Kabul, but what are the consequences of what they’ve done?

Acts of Dishonour deals with the stubbornness of earnest Canadian visitors, the violence of the fundamentalists, the ethnic unrest, and the concept of foreigners versus locals, (which doesn’t necessarily mean westerners) and how even the appearance of sin or dishonour to a family’s name can lead to revenge, death, or even the threat of honour killing.

I’ve only seen two movies about contemporary Afghanistan – both involving Pazira – and together they give a good before and after view of the Afghan war, (not to say that it’s over now) bookends of a decade of conflict. It’s not a gripping thriller, or a melodrama; it’s a subtle film, nicely shot — stark cold, plain, realistic — that gives a glimpse into the lives of the people there and some of the intractable conflicts and violence they face. It makes a nice metaphor about Canadians’ generous, earnest intentions for Afghanistan… and how divorced from reality they sometimes end up being.

So there you are, three interesting movies — Canadian, Australian, and American — all with at least two female characters, who talk to each other, and not just about a man. That’s a solid “three” on the Bechdel scale.

History! Films Reviewed: Max Manus, Summer Camp, Crash and Burn Karaoke, Covered, I Went to the Zoo the Other Day, Women Without Men

There are a whole lot of history-related movies opening in Toronto this weekend, both mainstream releases and films at the Images Festival. First, a new Norwegian movie, an historical spy drama called “Max Manus”, directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg.

Max Manus and his buddies all live in Nazi occupied Norway after the country fell to a Blitzkrieg invasion. The Quisling puppet government is in power, but Max and his friends’ biggest worry seems to be that they’ll soon ban Django Reinhart’s European jazz as ideologically incorrect.

So they form an amateur resistance group, coming up with cool nicknames, distributing propaganda flyers, and having fun time of it… until Max gets caught by the Gestapo when they find some explosives hidden in his apartment. This is where his legendary reputation begins. He escapes (in a beautifully shot sequence) by diving out the second story window onto the street below. He soon becomes known as the “window jumper”. And this is also where the movie becomes more interesting, with Max and his friend Greygers eventually walking across the Swedish border and from there onward to Scotland, (where the King and army live in exile) to become… saboteurs!

Max Manus (the movie) is a real throw-back to old-school war resistance stories, the sort of things you used to find in old british boys’ comics. So you get lots of shootouts, Max hiding in doorways wearing a black toque, or paddling past giant war ships in a wooden rowboat to plant these little underwater magnetic explosives. Cool!

Max’s nemesis is the diabolical Siegfried, the young Nazi head guy who keeps capturing and torturing the resistance fighters, but whom Max has always managed to evade. The movie itself is a very earnest — not camp, not melodramatic — look at a national hero, who I have to admit, I’d never heard of before the movie. For a historical drama, it’s a bit to historical, with not quite enough drama. I think because he’s a national hero, it would have been almost sacrilege to have him hopping out of beds with femme fatales; but I would have liked it pouring on a little more

intrigue, double-crossing, and steamy romance, to fight off the occasional boring factor. Anyway, I had fun, so go see Max Manus — if you like earnest, wartime Norwegian espionage historical dramas.

Images is an annual film festival in Toronto that “showcases moving image culture”, or as I would say, shows art movies. Beware: these are not conventional narrative movies – they’re works of art shown on a screen. I have to keep reminding myself that they’re not movies, they’re art—but I still end up gravitating toward the stories. Also beware, that the pace is slower, I mean much, much slower than a commercial movie you might go to.

Toronto’s Ross McLaren’s works are featured this year. “Summer Camp” is a fun one – it’s a strange piece made up of found footage – black and white glowing rotoscopes of old CBC Toronto audition tapes from the late 60’s. This piece has teenage kids sitting on a stool reciting hokey monologue scripts about the fat cook at a mythical summer camp. Eventually you start anticipating each line you hear over and over: “She was so fat she could hardly get up the basement stairs.” “She’s always saying, Do this! Do that!” “She made me eat porridge!” Then there’s an improv part where they talk to their “brother” (a CBC actor) who says he’s dying of cancer and has three weeks left to live– they’re supposed to cheer him up. So you get to see the auditioning teenagers looking really uncomfortable to be talking about – or denying – death. Toward the end it starts to get really funny when one of the auditioners challenges the whole premise. I don’t know what it is about watching found footage for an hour, but I just ate it up.

Crash and Burn Karaoke, another movie by McLaren, is a real must-see. I’ve seen it lots of times but I love this one. It’s grainy black and white footage he took at a seminal punk concert in a Toronto club in 1977, by the Diodes, The Dead Boys, Boyfriends, and Teenage Head. The movie — with music not synched — has the guitarists (and audience) writhing on the stage, pogoing around, twisting their arms, snarling, drooling. There’s actually a very long shot of — I believe it’s Steven Leckie — with non-stop spittle and drool hanging out of his mouth. At Images, it will be presented in the form of Crash and Burn Karaoke, with lyrics appearing on the screen.

John Greyson has made a short film called Covered: It’s a report on a Gay/Lesbian film festival in Sarajevo that got closed down by right wing protestors. I wavered back and forth between loving and hating this movie. Loving the extremely wide bias and vivid images of stuffed birds, wooden birds, bird bones, alternating with pissed off filmmakers, and assorted musicians simultaneously playing off-key guitar on separate youtube clips… but not at all liking the long, written-out mock quotes by “Susan Sontag” that appear on the screen, or the voice of someone – is it Greyson himself — laboriously repeating the – is it Bosnian? — narration, on the soundtrack, in the manner of an elocution lesson. This is a movie, not a magazine article: I found the written and spoken words interrupted the flow, and distracted from the film’s visual beauty and its message of the danger and indifference of established politicians in the face of threats to marginalized groups. Too much of the film’s meaning relies on a steady stream of written narration in the form of subtitles and constant, superimposed texts.

Hamilton director Luo Li’s hour long film, called “I Went to the Zoo the Other Day”, is a beautifully-shot, black and white film filled with pictures of the Toronto Zoo. A couple are at the zoo. The camera follows them around the fish tanks, the elephants, tigers. We listen to their conversations – all in Serbian with subtitles!

They make comments and tell stories. Like a story of the guy who leaps in to save a drowning animal; or the middle-aged woman who considers some of the zoo animals as her own children, and carries their pictures in her purse. These stories are talked about, not shown. All the animals in this movie look really old – maybe Director Luo Li purposely found extra wrinkly elephants, middle-aged looking gorillas, lazy boa constrictors, surly-looking camels.

Half the time you’re watching the animals through bars or glass walls with the viewers reflected on them… then it’ll switch perspective, and you’re suddenly watching people from inside the glass — what the animals must see looking out. Who’s in the zoo, us or them?

Sometimes I wish the couple in the movie would speak English, so I could forget about reading the subtitles and concentrate on the amazing images – is Li deliberately using a language to increase dissociation or alienation between the viewers and the actors? It works, but why do it? I think the unnecessary putting up of walls between film and viewer is a mistake. Since neither the filmmaker, nor the intended audience, nor the topic, is related to Serbian, why use it? It seems gimmicky.

In any case, the acting is excellent, the stories are good, and the visual side of the movie is amazing – really nice images, from a mosaic of fish through an aquarium window, to the relaxing apes, the milling people. Every shot is perfectly composed and constructed, and pleasing to watch, edited together at the pace of a leisurely stroll through a park. It ends with scene filmed through the windshield as they drive down the highway, with just a recording of whale music providing the soundtrack.

Another event at the festival which I definitely want to go to is the One Take Super Eight, put together by Alex Rogalski of Regina, Saskatchewan, in its first Toronto version. It’s a grab bag of three minute, unedited, super eight movies shown one after another for the first time. From the camera, to the lab, directly to the screen – unseen by anyone. Could be good, could be awful, could be god-awful… might be awful good.

Women Without Men, is directed by video artist Shirin Neshat, based on the novel by Shahrnoush Parsipour. I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival last year, and it’s being featured at Images and being released commercially as well.

Women without Men is a Farsi-language film (shot in Morocco) adapted from the popular novel of the same name. It tells a story about a handful of women in Tehran who manage — during that brief period of nationalist Prime Minister Mossadegh’s government (in the fifties) — to escape a life dominated by men.

An upper-class woman, married to a general, leaves her husband to live in a house in a fruit orchard she has bought. A prostitute who is driven crazy by her work and a young woman who is supposed to become the second wife of a man she doesn’t want to marry, both find there way to her Eden-like orchard. Another woman leaves her home to join the street politics she hears outside, and eventually joins the Communist Party. Through a series of complex, circular scenes the epic gradually unrolls its magic-realism style plot. Certain scenes remain in your mind long after the movie ends, such as party-goers quoting Camus and reciting classical Persian poetry, and women exchanging remarks in a harrowing, foggy bathhouse.

I enjoyed this film but, never having read the novel, it was tough. I found it difficult to keep track of all the characters and plot turns. It also surprised me that the movie was not always successful visually (since the director is a photographer and video artist). I found the excessive use of CGI’s, faded tints and almost sepia tones throughout the movie distracts from, not adds to the drama. Still, the film provides a glimpse at Iranian women’s history and the richly cosmopolitan, intellectual culture seldom seen on a screen.

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