Birds of Passage (2018): Shortlisted for Academy Award – Best Foreign Language Film

It’s set in a community that doesn’t belong to you, but it speaks about us. This is a family film… We talk about the conflicts between the traditional community and modernity. We also talk about the conflicts between women and men, and the real and the spiritual world, and this is something that touched us in a very deep way. -Cristina Gallego, co-director/co-writer

We wanted to make a genre film, but this gave us the opportunity to put a twist on the genre film- a genre like the gangster film or noir film… which has developed into the glorification of criminals, a celebration of violence. -Cirro Guerra, co-director/co-writer

Few films have captured quite so powerfully the tension between the old and new worlds — a feat “Birds of Passage” accomplishes while simultaneously allowing audiences to channel the Wayuu’s surrealistic view of their surroundings, where spirits walk the earth, and wise women interpret their dreams. -Peter Debrige (Variety)

What first comes to mind when you think of Colombia? Aside from the actors and beauty pageant winners turned models, I bet it’s the drug trade! This movie, set between 1968 and 1980, is mostly spoken in the Wayuu language of the indigenous people of Colombia’s northern Guajira peninsula. Spanish is also spoken, as well as bits of English. The filmmakers are a young (under 40 y.o.) formerly married pair from Colombia, Cristina Gallego and Cirro Guerra. They worked with a team of about 80, incl. 30% of Wayuu actors, non-actors, and crew.

We are first introduced to Zaida (Natalia Reyes), a beautiful young woman of a high-standing Wayuu clan (which is a matrilineal society). When Zaida leaves her traditional one-year seclusion and is ready for marriage, she catches the eye of Rapayet (Jose Acosta). He’s a confident young man who has been working among the alijunas (outsiders, incl. those who speak Spanish and are non-indigenous) and comes from a less prominent family. He was raised by his highly respected uncle, Peregrino (Jose Vicente), a “word messenger.” In this society, it is forbidden to cause harm to a messenger. Rapayet and Zaida do a fast-paced mating dance; he declares: “You are my woman” at the end. We suppose that he could be thinking of family prestige and also genuine attraction.

Ursula (Carmina Martinez), Zaida’s formidable mother, explains that Zaida’s hand will only be available w/ a large dowry (incl. cattle, goats, and 5 necklaces). Ursula looks down on Rapayet, thinking he can’t come up with it. Rapayet sees the chance to get the dowry fast by selling marijuana to a drug-dealing American, Bill (who may or may not be connected to the Peace Corps). Rapayet’s business partner/best friend is a jovial, hard-partying Afro-Latin man, Moises; previously, they smuggled alcohol and cigarettes only. It turns out that (high in the hills) is a big crop of marijuana; the land is owned by a cousin of Rapayet’s, Anibal. When he sees just how much money can be made from the gringos, he’s up for the (dangerous) business.

[1] The landscapes of the film are stunning, and I particularly appreciated the cinematography. But perhaps my favourite thing about the film was it’s heavy use of spirituality and what I can only describe as “magical realism” transposed into film. I thought it was brilliantly done.

[2] It is very easy to look at cultures in real danger of extinction and place them in a pedestal, but “Birds of Passage” very intelligently avoids this by portraying these Wayuu people as greedy, ambitious, lustful and definitely not above using their cultural norms to get their own sinful way, as any other group.

[3] It is gripping and intense and handles its subject material in the best of ways. It is obvious that the creator of the film did everything he could so that the movie feels realistic and interesting to the viewer. Its beautiful and colorful visuals, the exceptional sound design and the strong and immersive soundtrack made you feel as a part of a whole and the film never felt boring or cliche. It is masterfully crafted and really well-paced.

-Excerpts from IMDB comments

 

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Seeing Allred (2018)

Incredible film. Saw it at Sundance and the audience jumped to their feet in a standing ovation when it ended. Not to be missed.

Someone who fights for truth, humanity and justice in the way Gloria Allred does, all while being continually misrepresented and misinterpreted, deserves your utmost attention…

To be honest, it’s stunning to me that Allred is still very necessary in 2018 America, but she clearly is. Anyone who can look objectively at what’s happened in and to the country in the past two years knows that.

At this time in American history, we all need to be reminded that women like Gloria Allred made it possible for women to be believed and heard and have their day in court.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

This riveting and educational documentary (streaming on Netflix) is directed and produced by women. It focuses on the petite (5′ 2″) dynamo of victim’s rights law, Gloria Allred, who is NOT always seen in a positive light. Some think of her as TOO loud, strident, and a seeker of media attention. Gloria grew up the only child of working-class Jewish parents in Philly; her father was a door-to-door salesman (possibly 1st gen American) and her mother was an immigrant from England. In HS, she met her best friend, who describes her as “very popular w/ boys, smart, loud, and bossy.” In college, she was among 7% of female students- WOW! She met a handsome, witty, frat boy- Peyton Bray; they quickly married and had a daughter, Lisa Bloom (who grew up to be a noted/successful lawyer in her own right). It soon became apparent that Peyton had mental health issues- he was bipolar. Gloria, NOT telling anyone the real reason, left for her parents’ house w/ 4 y.o. Lisa.

Like MANY women of her day, Gloria became a teacher; she worked at an all-boys HS w/ nearly all African-American students. At the same time, she commuted to NYC as she worked on an English Ed. degree at NYU. The focus of her dissertation was civil rights. One of her profs asked: “What about your rights- the rights of women?” Gloria hadn’t thought much about this before!

Being of a “positive” nature, she decided to move to LA, saying: “If I was going to be poor, at least I was going to be poor in the sunshine.” She taught in Watts; teachers were in high demand after the riots (or uprising, as some called it). On a vacation to Mexico w/ a female friend, Gloria met a doctor who asked her out on a dinner date and raped her at gunpoint. That wasn’t the worst of it; she became pregnant and nearly died after getting a “back alley abortion” (before Roe v. Wade).

Gloria and I grew up in the pre-feminist era. …I think we were both rebelling in our own quiet ways, hoping nobody would notice. -Gloria Steinem

At that time, a lot of women were afraid to be called ‘feminist,’ but I wasn’t, b/c I thought being a feminist was great. -Gloria Allred

Gloria got into community organizing work. Lisa recalls attending women’s rights rallies as a very young kid. During this time, Gloria met a successful businessman, William Allred, who encouraged her to go to law school. Gloria marched for the passing of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment), and volunteered w/ NOW (The National Organization for Women) when she became a lawyer. The group met w/ the governor; they soon started getting a LOT of media attention.

I though to myself: What should I be like? I decided that I should be strong- that I should show no fear. -Gloria on taking on the role of a women’s rights lawyer/spokesperson at NOW (w/o any role models to follow)

In school, Gloria questions why Lisa and her classmates are NOT reading anything written by women or African-Americans. Her two (male) law partners (who seem reserved and risk averse) are concerned/surprised when Gloria stages a sit-in at the DA’s office. Gloria sues to be a member of the (then all-male) Friar’s Club- she wins! A Loyola prof explains that Gloria was talking re: sexual harassment when NO one else would; some people said she was loud, pushy, and loved attention, BUT such criticism wouldn’t come upon a man.

Starting in 2014, Gloria begins representing MANY of the Bill Cosby accusers; she does this pro bono (for free). Some of you will recall that during the O.J. Simpson trial, she was an advocate for the Brown family. After 19 yrs of marriage, Bill (along w/ 3 others) was convicted of fraud; Gloria doesn’t like to elaborate on this issue, even when pressed by the filmmakers. She has had “more difficult personal challenges” than his betrayal and a (high-profile) divorce.

Although I’m often on the opposite side, I admire what she is doing. -Alan Dershowitz

We see some of Allred’s (famous/infamous) clients. Kelly Fisher, a former supermodel, sued ex-fiance Dodi Fayed after he left her for Princess Diana. Fans of soap operas may recall Hunter Tylo (The Bold and The Beautiful), who was fired by Aaron Spelling from Melrose Place after becoming pregnant. Scott Peterson’s former mistress, Amber Frey, claimed she never knew he was married, as he had created an alternate persona when they were together. Most of Gloria’s cases deal w/ regular people who have faced some sort of employment discrimination.

No, no. I don’t have time. -Gloria on whether she wants to date and fall in love again

In 2015, when marriage equality was passed in California, it was a victory for Gloria, her law partner Mark (who was among those who argued the case), as well as one of her oldest/closest girlfriends. Gloria was ahead of her time when it came to the LGBTQ+ community. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Gloria was a delegate at the DNC; she supported Hillary proudly (of course). During the Women’s March, Gloria is confronted by an burly, intimidating, anti-gay Trump supporter who gets up in her face. A group of diverse, young women come closer and form a circle of support around her; they ask her to speak about this moment in history. Gloria concludes: “We must fight on!”


The Awful Truth (1937) starring Cary Grant & Irene Dunne/His Girl Friday (1940) starring Cary Grant & Rosalind Russell

The Awful Truth

Before their divorce becomes final, Jerry (Cary Grant) and Lucy Warriner (Irene Dunne) BOTH do their best to ruin each other’s plans for remarriage. They divorced (hastily) b/c they suspected that cheating was going on; Lucy learns that he lied re: going away to Florida and Jerry is VERY disturbed upon learning that she was stuck (overnight) w/ her (suave/French) music teacher. It’s up to the audience to decide IF they actually cheated! Lucy meets an earnest Okie oilman- Daniel Leeson (Ralph Bellamy)- while living w/ her outgoing auntie at a fancy hotel. Jerry visits their pet dog (a fox terrier), Mr. Smith, as was decreed by the judge; the dog (obviously) doesn’t like the couple being apart. One night, while Lucy and Daniel are out at a fancy club, they run into Jerry and his date- a wanna-be actress named “Dixie Belle Lee.” She is young, blonde, and Southern; she reveals that she changed her name (b/c her family disapproves of show business). They all watch (w/ bemusement) as Dixie Belle happily screeches out a song; at certain points, her skirt blows up (a la Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch). One day, BOTH the music teacher and Jerry show up at Lucy’s hotel and confusion ensues! Jerry seriously begins seeing a socialite- Barbara Vance- who is covered in the society pages. Jerry tells Lucy that he’s going to meet the parents; she barges in on them, calling herself Jerry’s “sister.” The Vances, a humorless bunch, look on w/ horror as Lucy does her own impression of Dixie Belle, complete w/ a burlesque-style dance.

Much of the film (adapted from a Broadway play) was improvised by its director, Leo McCarey, and the cast each day. This caused Grant much anxiety, BUT it became a big hit. After a time, Grant realized that McCarey was deliberately creating nervous tension in him to enhance the performance. By keeping the cast slightly off balance, the director was building scenes from spontaneous moments between the actors. There is clever/fast dialogue, physical humor (incl. w/ the energetic dog), and great chemistry between the leads. The supporting actors do a good job, too; they add to this screwball comedy.

His Girl Friday

It all happened in the “Dark Ages” of the Newspaper game- When to a reporter “Getting That Story” justified anything short of murder. Incidentally you will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press of Today. Ready? Well, once upon a time… –Opening title card for the film

Having been away 4 mos, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), walks into the offices of The Morning Post, where she is a star reporter; her purpose is to tell her boss/editor, Walter Burns (Grant), that she is quitting. She got a divorce in Reno (from Walter- who admits he “wasn’t much of a husband”) and had a vacation in Bermuda. Hildy wants to “have a home” and “live like a real human being,” instead of chasing after stories. She plans to take the 4PM train to Albany, where she will be getting married the next day to an earnest/doting insurance agent, Bruce Baldwin (Bellamy- yet again the guy who doesn’t get the girl). Walter doesn’t want to lose Hildy, as a reporter or a wife, so he does whatever he can to delay her trip and convince her that she belongs w/ the paper- and him!

You’ve got an old fashioned idea divorce is something that lasts forever, ’til death do us part.’ Why divorce doesn’t mean anything nowadays, Hildy, just a few words mumbled over you by a judge. -Walter explains to Hildy

What were you when you came here five years ago – a little college girl from a school of journalism. I took a doll-faced hick... -Walter says

Well, you wouldn’t take me if I hadn’t been doll-faced. -Hildy retorts

Well, why should I? I thought it would be a novelty to have a face around here a man could look at without shuddering. -Walter replies

He forgets the office when he’s with me. He doesn’t treat me like an errand boy, either, Walter. He treats me like a woman. -Hildy comments re: her fiance, Bruce

This (fast-talking) screwball comedy influenced MANY films that came after it, from rom coms to workplace comedies. There are jokes aimed at the behavior, looks, and speech of journos (who were almost ALL men that time). I’ve seen this film several times over the years; I recently learned that Hildy was first written as a man (in the play- The Front Page). For the film, the studio (producers) decided to change it to a woman, so there could be a romance (instead of bromance) element. In the middle section of the film, Hildy is at the helm of the story, and we see things from her POV. The other reporters covering the case admire Hildy for her talent (writing); they even bet on how long she’ll last as a housewife! The female Hildy was a rarity for Hollywood; she had a career, was confident, smart, and independent-minded. She wears cool hats, coats, and (menswear-inspired) skirt suits. Grant (then in his 30s) looks great (as usual); he projects charm, humor, and mischievousness in his scenes. Walter (who rarely shows vulnerability, BUT is still easy to relate to) is one of Grant’s MOST known/loved characters.

Possessed (1931) starring Joan Crawford & Clark Gable

The script is sharp and believable, the direction good and there are some incredibly lavish settings. Also Crawford and Gable are just great in their roles and both of them look incredibly beautiful.

It’s in these early Crawford films that you really see what the shouting was all about. She is beautiful, vulnerable, strong, sweet and, most importantly, a powerful screen presence. And she can show you all those sides of herself in the same scene.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

If I were a man it wouldn’t frighten you! You’d think it was right for me to go out and get anything I could out of life, and use anything I had to get it. Why should men be so different? All they’ve got are their brains and they’re not afraid to use them. Well neither am I! -Marion declares to her mother (before leaving home)

This is a short (76 mins) and simple story re: Marion Martin (Joan Crawford), a young woman working at a small factory town. She dreams of the good life, so rejects the cement worker who wants to marry her, Al Manning (Wallace Ford), and leaves home for NYC. Marion meets wealthy lawyer- Mark Whitney (Clark Gable)- and becomes his mistress. Three yrs. go by and we see Marion in her spacious apt, wearing fancy clothes and jewels. Though she yearns for the status/respectability of marriage, Mark doesn’t want to marry again. He was scandalized when his ex-wife cheated on him w/ their driver. One day, Marion (who goes by “Mrs. Moreland” and is assumed to be a widow) learns that Al is coming to the city on business. Al admits that Marion leaving him was the best thing that happened in his life; he worked hard and became a contractor. Al wants to take Marion out. Marion is deeply in love w/ Mark, BUT also worried about her future. Does Mark love Marion and will he change his mind? Or will Marion settle for Al this time around?

Marion is the hero of her own story; the audience wants her to get a happy ending. Notice how kindly Marion speaks to the unsophisticated mistress of one of Mark’s party guests; she realizes that they are in the same boat. Gable (w/o his trademark mustache) is only 30 y.o. here. He does a good job, though (as MANY critics have said), he doesn’t have much range. Crawford was just 25 y.o. in this movie, yet she commands the screen w/ her confidence, physical grace, expressive eyes and- of course- voice! I was surprised b/c I’d ONLY seen her in ’40s & ’50s films. This film was made before the Hays Code came into effect; it deals w/ mature subject matters in subtle ways.

RBG (2018)

People ask me “Don’t you feel uncomfortable being compared to a rapper?” Why would I? We have a lot in common like being born and raised in Brooklyn. -Ruth Bader Ginsburg

If you’re not watching #RBGMovie you are missing one of the great multi layered love stories. Love of the law, love of knowledge, love of equality and above all, love of marriage as a true partnership, bursting with mutual respect. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an American original. -Tom Harrington (CBC Radio)

The love story between Ruth and Martin Ginsburg is nothing less than awe-inspiring. I love how she tells about her undergraduate years at Cornell where there was a four to one ratio of boys to girls. “Every mother wanted to send their daughter there because, if you couldn’t find a husband there, you were hopeless.” She reveals that during her freshman year, she never dated the same boy twice. That is, until she met Marty, who was the first guy that recognized she had a brain. -Excerpt from IMDB review

He was okay playing second fiddle. In fact, he joked about it… -Nina Totenberg (NPR legal correspondent) on Marty, a very successful tax attorney in NYC, who moved to DC when his wife’s career took off. 

The film traces RBG’s life from her childhood in Brooklyn through her years struggling to be taken seriously as a young female law student  and practicing attorney, and through her tenure on the SCOTUS and emergence as a pop culture icon. The storyline is mostly linear, but includes frequent jumps backward, forward, and even sideways as it examines different aspects of her life, personality, and public image. There’s a mix of historical photos, videos, but the main draw are the interviews. We hear from Ginsburg’s children, childhood friends, colleagues, admirers and a few detractors, as well as fellow feminist icon Gloria Steinem, former Pres. Bill Clinton, and Ginsburg herself.

Some of the cases RBG argued before the SCOTUS:

  • Frontiero vs. Richardson (1973): A young newly-married woman from Alabama, Sharron Frontiero, working in the U.S. Air Force, sues for gender discrimination when the housing stipend is denied her (unlike male co-workers).
  • Weinberger vs. Wiesenfeld (1975): A widower and father to baby boy, Simon Wiesenfeld, sues the Social Security Administration for sole-survivor benefits (then called “a mother’s benefit” and only avaiable to women). When the case reached SCOTUS, RBG had Simon come sit w/ the lawyers (putting a masculine face in front of the all-male justices).
  • Califano vs. Goldfarb: Leon Goldfarb, a widower, who applied for survivor’s benefits under the Social Security Act had his application denied (even though his wife Hannah had paid Social Security taxes for 25 years).
  • Edwards vs. Healy: Challenging the Louisiana law that allowed women to opt-out of jury service.

You may remember these (high-profile) cases that RBG presided over:

  • U.S. vs. Virginia Military Institute (1996): VMI boasted a long and proud tradition as Virginia’s only exclusively male public undergraduate higher learning institution. The U.S. brought suit against Virginia and VMI alleging that the school’s male-only admissions policy was unconstitutional insofar as it violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
  • Ledbetter vs. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007): Over her 19 yr. career at Goodyear, Lilly Ledbetter was consistently given low rankings in annual performance-and-salary reviews and low raises relative to other employees. Ledbetter sued for gender discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging that the company had given her a low salary because of her gender.

A granddaughter, Clara Spera, who recently graduated from Harvard Law School, explains that this was the first year that the graduating class was 50% male and 50% female (WOW). Jane and James (her adult children) recall how their mother rarely laughed, stressed education and personal responsibility, and was a horrible cook (LOL). Her husband, Marty, worked hard by contacting people from the business and legal communities to get RBG (then aged 61) to the top of the list for Supreme Court justice in 1993. Pres. Clinton was very impressed by her interview. RBG, who even won the admiration of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), was confirmed 96-3 in a quite partisan time. This is a MUST-SEE documentary (for people of ALL ages)!