Saturday, December 6, 2014

Reverend’s Reviews: Girl (& Bird) Power

Whereas women still don’t receive equal treatment in some parts of the US when it comes to employment opportunities, pay (when compared with men who have had similar education and experience) and/or access to healthcare, things certainly have improved over the last 50 years. Mary Dore’s informative new documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry takes viewers back to the pivotal 1960’s and 70’s when American women first organized and acted up for their rights. It opens this weekend in New York City and on December 12th in Los Angeles.

“There was no Internet; there was mimeograph and stamps,” says one now-elderly participant in women’s rights efforts that gained even greater momentum when they dovetailed with the civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam war sentiment and the gay rights movement, which was then in its infancy. They encountered not only great resistance from men, including FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (who termed the women’s rights movement “a national security threat”) and even some more left-leaning men’s organizations, but also from other women who regarded their pioneering sisters as “shameless hussies.”

Lesbians received similar condemnations from heterosexual women within the movement. “Why are we reviled by our own people?,” one survivor asks in the film. Rita Mae Brown, the lesbian author of Rubyfruit Jungle and other works, comes across as refreshingly circumspect about the movement and declares “it was a lot of fun” despite the hardships they faced. Ultimately, abortion rights (or “reproductive justice”) became the unifying issue for the various, often disparate women’s organizations that had formed across the US by the 1970’s, leading the Supreme Court to legalize abortion in 1973.

Dore focuses on a relatively brief but momentous period of time in She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry. The director includes a quick glimpse of some archival footage from the suffragist movement of a century earlier, and my partner and I would have liked the film to incorporate more of that historical background. Not unlike modern-day LGBT people, women then and now continue to build on the foundation laid by those who fought for equality long before us. Dore’s film serves as an important reminder of where we have all come from.

I finally got a chance the other day to see Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), even though it has been in local theatrical release since mid-October. This existential dramedy about a former superhero movie star yearning for fulfillment has begun to rack up awards this week, including Best Film of 2014 at New York’s Gotham Independent Film Awards and Best Actor honors for star Michael Keaton from both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review. An Academy Award nomination for Keaton is a well-deserved virtual certainty and would be the actor’s first.

While I generally enjoyed Birdman and was very impressed by the technical prowess with which director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros, Babel) and his team make the film appear to consist of one uninterrupted shot even though the story takes place over several days, its screenplay by Inarritu and three other writers left me rather cold in the end. I found it more insider-ish and mocking than emotionally engaging despite the characters’ excellent, generally rapid-fire dialogue. Actors and other artists as well as industry types may find more to identify with in the film, which could be why it has been so well-received at film festivals and industry screenings. It is also a valentine to Broadway and the legitimate theatre, which may explain why NYC-based critics groups have embraced it (an initially-vile theatre critic in the film is redeemed in the end, which could also help explain the critical kudos).

In addition to Keaton, genuinely great performances are rendered by Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts and Amy Ryan. They help make the movie unavoidable, just don’t expect to be blown away by it unless you are an actor and/or New Yorker.

Reverend’s Ratings:
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry: B+
Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): B

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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