2017 Washington Jewish Film Festival: In Between

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It is the time now for women to come and speak up. Until now, we were listening to men, and they were the ones to run everything. -Maysaloun Hamoud (writer/director)

Arab-Israelis make up about 20 percent of Israel’s citizenry. They share the same ethnicity, language, and culture of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; many identify as Palestinians rather than Israeli. This film (written and directed by 35 y.o. Maysaloun Hamoud- pictured below) tells the story of three 20-ish Arab women (two Muslim and one Christian) who have left their hometowns to work/study in Tel Aviv. They find themselves stuck between traditional Arab society (which values modesty, virginity, arranged marriage) and a more open/Westernized Israeli society (w/ dating, alcohol, drugs).

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Laila (Mouna Hawa) is an attorney sharing an apt. w/ close friend, Salma (Sana Jammeieh). Into their world enters Noor (Shaden Kanboura), a hijabi Computer Science major who is prepping for finals. We can see that the pals are dismayed to be stuck w/ this new roomie. Though Noor is religious, she is NOT judgmental re: Laila and Salma’s smoking, drinking, and parties w/ a diverse group of friends. She focuses on studying and keeping in touch with her fiance, Wissam. She cooks for him when he comes over to her new place. Wissam keeps pressuring her to move up the date of their wedding. He does NOT approve of her new building or roomies (who slowly become her friends). 

Laila (who loves to flirt) starts seriously dating a man, Ziad, who had his eye on her from a wedding they both attended. Ziad is VERY attracted to Laila, particularly b/c she is an uninhibited/beautiful/strong woman. Salma quits her restaurant job, after she and a fellow Palestinian coworker are yelled at by their (Israeli) boss for joking around (in Arabic) in the kitchen. She also has to deal w/ dinners set-up by her wealthy parents to introduce her to single men. 

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[1] …the movie is also very much about sisters doing it for themselves. There’s an automatic solidarity whereby women– at least young women of similar ages– are all automatically soulmates; and men, it almost goes without saying, are swine. Despite those stereotypes, the movie holds interest by virtue of believable acting and believable situations. 

[2] The three women characters were believable, warm, expressing solidarity to each other despite their very different personalities and lifestyles. The theme of personal conflicts between tradition and modernity is not new. What makes this film different is that the issues are very real and current and those outside the tradition don’t see it. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

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That Hamilton Woman (1941) starring Vivien Leigh & Laurence Olivier

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A promotional poster for the film

Indeed, it’s difficult to separate the “real Olivier” and the “real Leigh” from their parts here—and the parts that had made them who they now were: he the more conservative and guilt-ridden son of a parson, she the reckless flibbertigibbet who nevertheless had a shrewd eye for power and manipulation. 

-Molly Haskell, The Criterion Collection

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Closeup of Emma (Vivien Leigh) and Nelson (Laurence Olivier)

It was 1940, Britain was in peril. Hoping to enlist the Americans in the fight against Hitler, producer/director Alexander Korda hatched the idea for this film. Cables went back and forth between London and Hollywood (where the soon-to-be Mr. and Mrs. Olivier were living temporarily, awaiting the finalization of their respective divorces). Korda had both actors under contract; he offered them bonuses, as well as the opportunity to recoup some of the money lost after their failed stage production of Romeo and Juliet. The production had to be done quickly- five weeks. Churchill would later say that it was his favorite movie.

So, your nephew sent me to you with his paintings and the bric-à-brac because he’s broke! -Emma exclaims to Sir William Hamilton 

A housemaid turned wannabe fiance to one British gentleman, Emma Hart (Leigh), is suddenly shipped off to Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray). He is a middle-aged widower, even-tempered, and a collector of great works of art. Sir William admires beauty. As he wishes, Emma learns languages, singing, dancing, etc. Her doting mother, Mrs. Cardogan-Lyon (Sara Allgood), is her loyal companion through it all. In time, Sir William marries Emma (making an honest woman out of her); they live in a palatial seaside home in Naples, since he is Ambassador to Italy. Though she could not be presented at court in England, the clever/vivacious Emma becomes a close confidante of the Queen of Naples. 

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Nelson (Olivier) and Emma (Leigh) meet for the first time

One day, a British battleship arrives in Naples, and Cmdr. Horatio Nelson (Olivier) meets with Sir William re: docking and affairs of state. Emma bursts in on them, worried about a party she is planning. Her husband doesn’t mind, BUT Nelson insists on speaking to the ambassador in private. Emma starts to wonder if her life of is frivolous.

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Emma (Leigh) and Nelson (Olivier) at the opera

They told us of your victories but not of the price you paid! -Emma exclaims to Nelson (after seeing his wounds)

Five years later, Emma meets Nelson (now a lord, thanks to his MANY victories in the Napoleonic Wars) again. She is glad to see him alive, BUT also shocked by the fact that he has lost the sight in one eye and an arm. Emma wants to help, she tells Nelson, and uses her influence w/ the queen to get more troops for the war. They talk, plan, attend plays, and become close friends. Rumors start to spread…

[1] …when it comes to the cinema, her acting technique on screen is every bit as expert as Laurence Olivier’s. (In fact, Olivier himself admitted this when he saw her as Scarlett O’Hara.)

[2] Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier make a terrific pair and of course have great chemistry together, which really complements this true story. The actors give great performances, and I think the film really tries hard not judge the actions of Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson which caused a tremendous scandal in their own time. Anyone who likes historical drama and wants to escape into another world for a few hours is bound to enjoy.

[3] Although the film was made by Hollywood, it is British to its core and fiercely patriotic. It was intended as an anti-Nazi propaganda piece… The Nazi allegory is most clearly seen in the scene when Sir William explains to his wife that the British Empire is periodically attacked by military adventurers, in Nelson’s line “We are alone but unafraid” and his speech denouncing the idea of negotiating with dictators… I imagine that it was quite a stirring film for the Britons of the day. 

 

-Various excerpts from IMDB reviews

Matewan (1987) starring Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, & David Strathairn

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Director John Sayles at AFI Silver Theater on May 17, 2017.

I’d never seen this movie (part of DC Labor Film Fest this year) before, though I’m a BIG fan of independent director John Sayles. On this blog, you’ll find reviews of Passion Fish and Casa de Los Babys– two of his more female-centered works. In my view, Sayles was a “masculine feminist” even before the term became popular. He writes BOTH male and female characters who are multi-dimensional living inside stories which are realistic.

Now, you may be thinking- HOW does Sayles keep doing his own high-quality, yet rather low-budget projects!? He explained that his day job is “writer for hire”- he worked on movie and TV scripts, many of which didn’t get made by the big Hollywood studios. “In the past 15 years or so, studios seem to want their leads to be like Tony Soprano,” Sayles explained in the Q&A session after the film. (Most of the audience laughed at this part.) 

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Union organizer Joe Kennehan (Chris Cooper) addresses the miners.

Matewan is based on true events which occurred in a rural town in 1920s West Virginia. Some of the character names are real; others are amalgams of several people. When I first saw the trailer for the film two weeks ago, it reminded me of the Western genre (which Sayles was inspired by). The cinematographer here was Hollywood veteran Haskell Wexler (d. 2015); he won two Oscars, one for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and the other for Days of Heaven (1978)- considered one of the MOST beautiful films by critics and fans alike. The music is also a crucial element here; there is a blending of different styles.

A stranger- Union organizer Joe Kennehan (Chris Cooper in his first film role)- arrives in the town of Matewan. (Cooper plays the lead in Sayles’ Lone Star, which also stars a young Matthew McConaughey.) He gets a room at a boarding house run by a widow, Elma Radnor (Mary McDonnell- lead in Passion Fish), and her teenage son Danny (Will Oldham, then just 17 y.o.) Danny recently went to work in the mines, though he’s NOT yet 15 y.o. His real passion is preaching. 

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Few Clothes (James Earl Jones) is a representative/leader of the black miners.

Joe meets w/ (white/native born) coal miners at the local restaurant. These workers, struggling to form a union, are up against the Stone Mountain Coal Company operators and thugs from the Baldwin-Felts agency (basically guns for hire). Black and newly-arrived Italian immigrants, brought in by the company to break the strike, are caught in the middle. A tall, burly black miner- nicknamed Few Clothes (James Earl Jones)- boldly comes to this meeting. He’s an advocate for the African-American men brought in to work recently from further South. The local white miners don’t want to include the black men (or Italians) in the union; they consider these two groups to be a threat to their livelihood. (Well, some things NEVER change! And yeah, Italians were NOT considered “white” at this time in American history.)  

You think this man is the enemy? Huh? This is a worker! Any union keeps this man out ain’t a union, it’s a goddamn club! They got you fightin’ white against colored, native against foreign, hollow against hollow, when you know there ain’t but two sides in this world – them that work and them that don’t. You work, they don’t. That’s all you got to know about the enemy. -Joe explains to the white miners

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Police chief Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn) readies his pistol in his office.

I’ve met Mr. Felts. I wouldn’t pee on him if his heart was on fire. -Sid Hatfield tells the men from the Baldwin-Felts agency

This film contains some colorful characters, including stone-faced cop Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn). Kevin Tighe (a veteran of film and TV) and Gordon Clapp (who later made a name on NYPD Blue) play the main villains. Sayles is in the small role of a fiery, anti-union Baptist preacher. Producer Maggie Renzi (herself of Italian heritage) takes on the role of Rosaria, wife to one of the Italian miners and mother to several kids. Sayles and Renzi have been creative and life partners since their days as students at Williams College. Sayles also met Strathairn at Williams; they’re good friends. Local people (NOT professional actors) were used in MANY of the scenes of Matewan; they give authenticity to the film, as does the setting.

I think ALL the actors did a fine job; I esp. liked the characters played by Jones (what a great get for young filmmakers) and Renzi (who spoke in Italian). Cooper was the first actor who auditioned for the role of Joe; he had ONLY done theater before. Sayles revealed that several well-known actors also went in for the part, BUT he and Renzi kept thinking back to Cooper. As for Jones, they wanted someone like him, b/c they thought there was a small chance of the man behind Darth Vader taking on a supporting role. Well, you NEVER know until you try!