MEDIA

BAM! POWFest strikes a blow for gender equality in filmmaking

The 9th edition of the Portland Oregon Women's Film Festival features special guest Catherine Hardwicke and a vast array of female-created content

In a year when attention has been drawn to the continuing lack of diversity in the film industry like never before, an event like the Portland Oregon Women’s Film Festival would seem more vital and necessary than ever.

The stories come fast and fairly furious. The pay gap between male and female actors continues to exist, from Jennifer Lawrence to Gillian Anderson. Hollywood and its vaunted Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences remain largely a “straight, white, boys’ club.” And, of course, #OscarsSoWhite.

And yet, some people you’d think would embrace the notion of a film festival devoted exclusively to works by women directors have expressed skepticism or outright hostility. Three years ago, I interviewed POWFest’s guest of honor, Penelope Spheeris, and apparently annoyed her by daring to get her take on the hurdles female filmmakers face. And earlier this year, director Marjane Satrapi railed against the notion of a female-centric festival when I interviewed her.

These women have a point, to a degree. In a perfect world, there would be no need to carve out an artistic space dedicated to any particular race, gender, or religion. And it’s as reductive to ask female artists only about their experience as women as it is to obsess about their red carpet gowns to the exclusion of all else. The dangers are twofold: movies by women can get ghettoized, and audiences can be induced to watch substandard stuff because of political correctness.

Director Catherine Hardwicke, the guest of honor at this year's Portland Oregon Women's FIlm Festival, on the set of "Twilight."

Director Catherine Hardwicke, the guest of honor at this year’s Portland Oregon Women’s FIlm Festival, on the set of “Twilight.”

However, this isn’t a perfect world. Steps do need to be taken to ensure a level playing field, and to spur a risk-averse industry into acknowledging the artistic and financial power of appealing to an audience as diverse as the world we live in. That’s where Executive Director and POWFest founder Tara Johnson-Medinger comes in. She puts it best: “I think it is important for any underrepresented community to have a space to have their voices heard. Until we truly have achieved equal representation in the director’s chair, the need for POWFest (along with the many other women-centric film festivals) is there.”

After laboring in the Hollywood salt mines for years, Johnson-Medinger and her husband, both Oregon natives, moved to Portland in 2002. “I was really ready to leave L.A. and network television. I became disenchanted with ‘the industry.’” Before long, she found her calling, starting the production company Sour Apple Productions in 2004 and taking over POWFest in 2009. “I recognized that there was a need for this kind of festival in Portland and I felt like this is where I want to take my life’s work – helping put the spotlight on women’s voices in the industry.”

Over the years, filmmakers such as Gillian Armstrong, Oscar-winner Katherine Bigelow, Amy Hecklerling, Alison Anders, and Spheeris have been guests, providing inspiration and instruction to attendees. This year’s honoree is Catherine Hardwicke, whose career has spanned Sundance success with her 2003 directing debut “Thirteen” to franchise blockbuster mania with 2008’s “Twilight,” which holds the record for the biggest opening-weekend box office haul for a female-directed film.

Both of those films will screen during POWFest, as will Hardwicke’s most recent feature, “Miss You Already,” a well-crafted friendship melodrama starring Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette as best pals dealing with major life events. The filmmaker will be in attendance for all three screenings, and will also conduct a master class with attendees on Sunday morning, drawing on her roots as a production designer for movies such as “Tank Girl” and “Three Kings.”

A scene from "Ex-Girlfiend," one of the short films playing in this year's POWFest

A scene from “Ex-Girlfiend,” one of the short films playing in this year’s POWFest

The heart of POWFest, though, is its short film selection. This year’s assortment, divided into five programs, put to rest any outdated notion that female filmmakers only make movies about a certain range of topics or in a certain style. The “Quirky” and “Dark” programs, which both screen Friday night, contain several well-crafted, twisted gems. Lauren Ludwig’s “Ex-Girlfiend” is a hilarious web series about an undead woman who haunts her former boyfriend, much to their mutual chagrin. “La Fille Bionique,” aka “Bionic Girl,” as a cleverly designed, Michel Gondry-esque mini-musical about a woman who creates a robotic clone of herself in order to avoid dealing with the outside world. And “No Breath Play” is a hilarious depiction of BDSM gone wrong.

Those three are all in the “Quirky” set. The “Dark” stuff is really pretty dark. (It should be clear that both are not intended for young audiences.) Young girls are confronted with unpleasant realities in the Icelandic “Sub Rosa” and the Australian “The Aquarium,” while “Vessels” takes a look at the horrific lengths a transgender woman will go to in order to meet society’s physical expectations.

It’s inspiring to see talent from around the globe represented, with films from Armenia, Portugal, South Korea, Cuba, Iran and more represented, in addition to the nations mentioned above. Women all over the world have stories to tell, and POWFest is a marvelous showcase for them.

The two non-Hardwicke features in this year’s POWFest both dare to tackle tough issues. “The Girl in the Yellow Shoes,” from Argentine director Lujan Loioco, follows the sexual awakening of a young teenage girl in a small town beset by workers building a new luxury hotel. “The Armor of Light,” a documentary directed by Abigail Disney (Walt’s grand-niece) follows a conservative evangelical minister as he wrestles with whether his pro-life beliefs require him to preach against the epidemic of gun violence in America.

A shot from the scandalous 1915 silent film "Hypocrites," part of POWFest's closing night program.

A shot from the scandalous 1915 silent film “Hypocrites,” part of POWFest’s closing night program.

For students of film history or early 20th century feminism, or the merely curious, the festival’s closing night double feature might be its highlight. The first decades of filmmaking were open in ways that were later restricted by the growth of the studio system, the Production Code, and so forth. This includes the prolific careers of female film pioneers, two of whom are spotlighted.

Lois Weber has been credited as “American cinema’s first genuine auteur.” Her career peaks include the 1913 one-reeler “Suspense,” one of the first films to employ a split-screen technique to demonstrate simultaneous action, and the 1921 feature “The Blot,” in which she used natural light and real locations to tell a story of genteel poverty. Weber’s most notorious film, though, is the one POWFest is screening: 1915’s “Hypocrites,” a critique of religion that features the earliest surviving non-pornographic full-frontal female nudity in film history.

Alice Guy-Blaché was even more of a cinematic pioneer. Her filmmaking career began along with the movies, in the final years of the 19th century in France. She made hundreds of films, most only minutes long, during the art form’s infancy, eventually relocating to New Jersey. Only three of her features survive, among them “The Ocean Waif,” a parody of melodrama with a sly feminist undertone.

It was Guy-Blaché who, according to most sources, gave Weber her start in the film business, and it’s this all-too-necessary sort of networking that POWFest engenders, not only by exhibiting films and bringing audiences in contact with their makers. Johnson-Medinger has also spearheaded “POWGirls,” a mentorship program for young women filmmakers aged 15-19. Several of the results of POWGirls’ 2015 workshops will be screened during POWFest, and the program aims to provide talented, motivated teens with the tools to pursue a career in film.

The third prong of Johnson-Medinger’s attack on gender inequity, after exhibition and education, is starting to take shape as well. With the backing of Portlander Vicki Mee and the Faerie Godmother Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation, she’s been able to expand POWFest’s resources and staff, with an eye towards creating a fund dedicated to helping talented women behind the camera bring their ideas to life and, ultimately, to a theater near you.

These three components, says Johnson-Medinger, “really do feed into each other. Strong media education helps create solid production which will translate, ideally, to a well-received film in front of the audience. One key is mentorship–the importance of passing on your knowledge.” Whether that knowledge comes from a veteran director like Hardwicke, a passionate producer and organizer like Johnson-Medinger, or any of the other devoted and talented artists swarming the Hollywood Theatre this weekend, it’s sure to inspire.

(The 2016 Portland Oregon Women’s Film Festival runs from Thursday, March 3 through Sunday, March 6 at the Hollywood Theatre. Visit powfest.com for a full schedule.)

PIFF best bets for Friday & Saturday, Feb. 26 & 27

The festival's final two After Dark selections are a sly indie thriller and an endearing portrait of a video game champion

And now, the end is near…

The 39th Portland International Film Festival is drawing to a close, and if that leaves you feeling like Col. Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” don’t worry. There will still be plenty of marvelous movies coming our way, and ArtsWatch will be there to help you negotiate them. In the meantime, there are a couple more PIFF picks to draw your attention to. The final entries in the PIFF After Dark sidebar (one of the fest’s highlights, for sure) may not be terribly international, but they’re both mighty entertaining, perhaps serving as a bit of a palate cleanser after a couple of weeks dominated by some dark, depressing flicks. (There are also encore screenings on Sunday and Monday.) Enjoy, and with any luck we’ll still be here to commemorate PIFF’s 40th birthday next year!

The Invitation 2 copy (1)

“The Invitation”: There’s a new trend in American independent film, at least according to the adage that three examples equal a trend: the dinner-party-meets-genre movie. Low-budget auteurs have always liked the single setting and ensemble cast aspects of a story that revolves around the inherent drama of people getting together, eating, talking, drinking, and eventually baring their souls.

Now these movies come with a twist. “It’s a Disaster,” a weekend brunch is interrupted by a comical apocalypse. In “Coherence,” a get-together gets weird after a passing comet disrupts quantum reality. And in Karyn Kusama’s “The Invitation,” a reunion of old friends grows tense as it gradually becomes apparent that the hosts are members of a malevolent cult. Or are they?

Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend (Emayatzy Corinealdi, who shines here and in the upcoming “Miles Ahead”) are driving through the Hollywood Hills on their way to the beautifully appointed home of his ex-wife, who Will hasn’t seen in a couple of years. A startling encounter with local wildlife gets their evening off to an unnerving start, but that’s nothing compared to what lies in store.

The gathering hosted by Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman) features some faces familiar to Will and some that aren’t, including a mysterious older guy (John Carroll Lynch, who does banal yet foreboding better than almost anyone). As the night progresses, Will’s suspicions mount—or is he just paranoid and unnerved being back in the house he shared with Eden before the death of their young son drove them apart?

Well-acted and effective, this is a nice comeback for Kusama, who had a breakthrough debut with 2000’s “Girlfight” before, like so many female filmmakers in Hollywood, having trouble getting attached to worthy follow-ups. And it has a killer final scene.

(United States, 99 min., in English) Fri., Feb. 26, 11 p.m., Cinema 21.

Man Vs Snake 2 copy

“Man vs. Snake”: Not to be confused with “Men and Chicken,” also in PIFF, this offbeat documentary focuses on a battle for arcade video game supremacy. The game in question is “Nibbler,” a less-than-iconic Pac-Man rip-off in which players guide an ever-growing snake through a maze, trying to avoid eating their own tail. What made Nibbler unique in video game lore was that it was the first one to feature a nine-digit score readout, which meant a player could conceivably score one billion points.

The hero of “Man vs. Snake” is Tim McVey (not to be confused with Timothy McVeigh), who did just that as a sixteen-year-old in 1984. McVey grew up just down the road from Twin Galaxies, the arcade in tiny Ottumwa, Iowa that somehow became the repository of gaming’s official records. (The story of Twin Galaxies and its eccentric, obsessed owner, Walter Day, would make a great documentary on its own.)

Twenty-five years later, McVey comes out of retirement after it emerges that some Italian guy may have broken his Nibbler high score. Directors Andrew Seklir and Tim Kinzy, who worked together as editors on TV’s “Battlestar Galactica,” follow McVey’s training regimen (he’s not in great physical shape, and breaking a billion points means playing for at least 36 hours straight) and introduce us to his challenger, a punk-rock-loving, dreadlock-sporting Canadian named Dwayne Richard.

If all this calls to mind the 2007 documentary “The King of Kong,” that’s not surprising. (Donkey Kong champion Billy Mitchell lends expert commentary in “Man vs. Snake.” But the saga of Nibbler has its own rough charm, and you’ll be left shaking your head in admiration and/or befuddlement at the things people do for notoriety.

(United States, 92 min., in English) Sat., Feb. 27, 11 p.m., Cinema 21, with directors Andrew Seklir and Tim Kinzy in attendance.

 

PIFF best bets for Thursday, Feb. 25

Two award-caliber French films and a meditative film essay from Jem Cohen are today's picks

Welcome to the penultimate edition of ArtsWatch’s daily recommendations during the 39th Portland International Film Festival. (We’ll do one final roundup of the final weekend’s titles tomorrow.)

Today’s highlights include a pair of the most-nominated films at tomorrow’s Cesar award ceremony, a/k/a the French Oscars. Arnaud Desplechin’s “My Golden Days” is up for 11 awards, while Jacques Audiard’s “Dheepan” has nine nods. There’s also the latest from experimental indie filmmaker Jem Cohen, whose previous winners have included the Fugazi documentary “Instrument” and the meditative “Museum Hours.” In other words, just the typical array of fascinating flicks we’ve come to expect from the Northwest Film Center.

 

deephan

“Dheepan”: French auteur Jacques Audiard (“The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” “A Prophet”) is one of the most talented and exciting filmmakers working today, crafting one great film after another. (Even his last effort, the messy “Rust and Bone,” has its share of great moments.) So it’s a tad strange how little attention his latest film, “Dheepan,” has received since winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year. It may not be his best work, but its mix of topicality and the director’s neo-realist genre aspirations packs a real punch.

This immigration tale, about a former Tamil soldier from Sri Lanka given a fake family and identity who flees to France with a fake family and a new identity, only to find more violence in his new home, is very au courant, but thankfully it never resorts to didactic speechifying or lazy melodrama. Instead, the film delivers a more experiential, immersive style that plays like Paul Greengrass (“Captain Philips,” the “Bourne” films) taking on “Taxi Driver.”

Dheepan is the new name given to the protagonist (Jesuthasan Antonythasan, who’s fantastic), this film’s version of Travis Bickle. He’s a broken man right from the beginning, but the film yearns for him and his ersatz family to make good on this opportunity. It’s not to be (or maybe it is, depending on how you read the final scene), and though the film is shot like a docudrama, certain sequences take on a kind of dream logic. But that’s nothing new for Audiard, who often adds touch of spiritual poeticism to his films. This is a great film that doesn’t deserve to get lost in the shuffle, but just might. See it if you can. [Erik McClanahan]

(France, 115 min., in Tamil, English, and French with English subtitles) Thu., Feb. 24, 5:45 p.m., Empirical Theater at OMSI; also Fri., Feb. 25, 5:45 p.m., Whitsell Auditorium.

counting1

“Counting”: I happen to like boring movies. Not “a story badly told” boring, but the kind of boring where narrative is pushed aside in favor of wordless reverie. Jem Cohen’s “Counting” is this kind of boring – relaxing-boring. It’s less like taking in a story and more like taking a bath.

Cohen’s camera crawls across the globe, from New York City to Moscow, to Istanbul and beyond, bookended by cryptic chapter titles. Nothing really happens, although a lot does: a radio plays, construction workers begin their day of labor, an open air market bustles with activity, a casket is carefully wheeled into a funeral home, political protesters chant in unison, a cat licks its paws. At times it evokes that touchstone of cult experimental film, “Koyaanisqatsi,” pulsing with the chaos and vastness of life on earth. At other moments it’s a humble traveler’s scrapbook, concentrating hard on little details like a paper cup of tea abandoned on a Turkish sidewalk.

To many readers, this will sound terribly boring, but fans of experimental filmmakers such as Chris Marker will appreciate its visual ebb and flow. (Cohen describes the film as a reaction to the passing of Marker and an attempt to channel his impressionistic cine-essay techniques.) [Lily Hudson]

(United States, 111 minutes, English) Thu., Feb. 25, 8:30 p.m., Whitsell Auditorium; also, Fri., Feb 26, 8:30 p.m., Regal Fox Tower and Sat., Feb 27, 3 p.m., Whitsell Auditorium.

My Golden Days

“My Golden Days”: The original French title of Arnaud Desplechin’s film translates as the more evocative and specific “Three Souvenirs of My Youth.” It’s both a sequel and a prequel to his 1999 breakthrough film, “My Sex Life (or How I Got Into an Argument),” in Mathieu Amalric played Desplechin’s on-screen alter-ego, Paul Daedalus.

It’s nearly twenty years later, and Paul is preparing to return to Paris from Tijikistan after several years working there as an anthropologist. There are irregularities with his passport, however, and so he ends up in a room with a government employee (André Dussollier), to whom he relates the second of the “souvenirs,” flashbacks to Paul’s youth which take up the bulk of the film. (The first is a brief but potent memory of his tyrannical mother.)

As a teenager, Paul (Quentin Dolmaire) is enlisted in a slightly dangerous mission while on a school trip behind the Iron Curtain, back when there was an Iron Curtain. He and a friend smuggle travel documents to Russian Jews trying to emigrate, their low-grade spy antics presented with wry, youthful amusement rather than real tension.

In the third and longest segment, Paul pursues his studies in Paris, as well as relationship with the lovely Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet), as the Cold War comes to an end in the background. Both the young, fresh-faced leads are fantastic, and they’re each responsible for one of the film’s 11 César award nominations, tied for the most this year with “Marguerite,” which also played during PIFF. The ceremony is tomorrow, so this is your last chance to get a head start on that César office pool! [Marc Mohan]

(France, 123 min., in French with English subtitles) Thu., Feb. 25, 5:45 p.m., Cinema 21; also Sat., Feb. 27, 5:45 p.m., Whitsell Auditorium.

PIFF encore screenings announced for Feb. 28 & 29

Film fest fanatics fearing the pangs of withdrawal will have two extra days to wean themselves of daily cinematic treats.

The Northwest Film Center has announced two days of encore screenings featuring films from the 39th Portland International Film Festival. The schedule is as follows, with all screenings at the Whitsell Auditorium:

 

February 28 – Sunday 12 p.m.
ADAMA

 

February 28 – Sunday 2 p.m.
ROAD TO LA PAZ

February 28 – Sunday 4:30 p.m.
SCHNEIDER VS. BAX

February 28 – Sunday 7 p.m.
BEST OF THE SHORTS
February 29Monday 6 p.m.
MARSHLAND

February 29Monday 8:30 p.m.
RAMS

Full program descriptions are available at www.nwfilm.org. I’ve seen “Road to La Paz” and “Rams” and can recommend both.

PIFF best bets for Wednesday, Feb. 24

A Turkish film about a boy and a dog and an Albanian one about a woman living as a man are today's international cinema highlights.

The 39th Portland International Film Festival is undergoing Balkanization. No, it’s not breaking up “into small, often hostile units” (thanks, Merriam-Webster!), despite the behavior of some of the wearier festival-goers. But our recommendations for today’s viewing hearken from Albania and Turkey, so it seemed appropriate to trot out the term. One is about a boy and his dog. The other is about a woman living as a man who decides to live as a woman again. Details below.

Sworn Virgin

“Sworn Virgin”: Slight and fine-boned, with dark cropped hair, Mark (Alba Rohrwacher) grew up in the Albanian countryside. When he arrives at his sister’s doorstep in Italy, his stroppy teenage niece asks him, “Are you a fag? Or a cross-dressing lesbian?” The answer is more complicated.

Laura Bispuri’s quiet but absorbing feature examines the fascinating Balkan custom of the sworn virgin. In exchange for a pledge of lifelong virginity, women are permitted to assume the name, dress and lifestyle of a man. For Mark, this voluntary social queerness has more to do with escape and less to do with following an inner longing; drinking whiskey and carrying a rifle sounded more appealing than being married off as chattel (who can blame him?). Scenes of Mark’s brutal upbringing in the frostbitten village are interspersed with his new, more spacious life in Italy, where his defenses begin to thaw and the burdens of an ill-fitting gender identity finally become too much to bear.

What does Mark really want? To wear a lacy black bra instead of a binder? To have sex with a man? “Sworn Virgin” declines to pass judgment on the political implications of Mark/Hana’s transition-in-reverse. Instead, it’s a sensitive exploration of the bodies we live in and the connection they have to our souls. [Lily Hudson]

(Albania, 90 min., in Albanian and Italian with English subtitles) Wed. Feb. 24, 6:15 p.m., Regal Fox Tower; also Fri., Feb. 26, 8:30 p.m., Whitsell Auditorium.

Sivas

“Sivas”: Call me corny, call me old-fashioned, but there’s something primally satisfying about a boy-and-his dog tale. That’s exactly what this Turkish drama is, but it’s a well-executed, sensitively acted, example of one.

The movie tells you right off the bat that no animals were harmed in its making, which both puts you at ease and warns you that some fake, but realistic-looking, animal violence is in the offing.

The setting is the windswept Anatolian steppes, where we met the adolescent Aslan. (His name means “lion” in Turkish, so when a relative refers to him as such, it’s not necessarily a Narnia reference.) The title critter is a burly sheepdog who loses a dogfight and is left for dead afterwards. The barbaric practice is presented by first-time director Kaan Mujdeci without any explicit moralizing, but Aslan’s rescue of the dog and ensuing friendship serve as an implicit but thorough critique of it.

Aslan tries to use his barely domesticated pet to impress a female classmate who’s playing the princess in an upcoming school play–he also tries to finagle the role of the prince for himself–and these efforts culminate in another dogfight, one that, despite the opening notice, may be tough for animal lovers to watch.

Simply but strikingly photographed and evocative of its place and culture, “Sivas” could have mustered more narrative satisfaction, but the charms of Aslan and his canine companion are enough to make it worthwhile. [Marc Mohan]

(Turkey, 98 min., Turkish with English subtitles) Wed., Feb. 24, 6:30 p.m., Empirical Theater at OMSI; also Fri., Feb. 26, 6 p.m., Regal Fox Tower

 

PIFF best bets for Tuesday, Feb. 23

As the film festival's final week continues, Tuesday's picks include a dark Greek comedy and the latest star turn from Juliette Binoche

As the 39th Portland International Film Festival heads down the home stretch, there’s still a truckload of fantastic cinema to digest. Well, maybe not a truckload, now that movies come on digital hard drives instead of bulky canisters of celluloid. But you get the picture. Here are couple worth catching tonight:

Chevalier

“Chevalier”: Greek writer-director Athina Rachel Tsangari’s previous film “Attenberg” played PIFF a few years back and was, like the best of other recent successes from the country (“Dogtooth” being the pinnacle), a bizarre, alien and at times darkly funny comedy.  That film looked at two transgressive women, whereas this more acutely focused, meaner comedy of manners follows a group of middle-aged fellas who can’t relax without competing. To the victor goes not so much the spoils but bragging rights for being “the best man” and then getting to wear a chevalier ring on your pinky.

There’s a lot of talk these days about filmmakers and the industry in general needing to better present stories representing a more diverse swath of humanity. And for good reason. There’s still a massive amount of movies being made following white male protagonists. And “Chevalier” doesn’t qualify as anything new from that perspective, seeing as it follows all rich, white men. But therein lies the reason it works so well. Whether through kismet or coincidence, the time is right to watch a highly-skewering character and social-study-cum-black-comedy that shows, in highly entertaining detail, just how silly us dudes can be–especially when our pride is on the line.

I really took to its bleak but often hilarious worldview. In a way, it’s a litmus test movie, something like “The Wolf of Wall Street” and its ilk. Whether or not you actually like these guys and how you read the comedy (or if you even find it funny at all) will depend on the viewer. I thoroughly enjoyed laughing at them. [Erik McClanahan]

(Greece, 99 min., in Greek with English subtitles) Tues., Feb. 23, 8:30 p.m., Roseway Theater.

"L'Attesa" di Piero Messina

“L’Attesa”: Juliette Binoche continues to age with the sort of grace and dignity that French women seem able to conjure with relative ease. She’s the undeniable highlight of this somewhat overwrought drama in which, as in 2014’s “Clouds of Sils Maria,” she plays potently opposite a much younger actress, in this case the rising French star Lou de Laage.

The setting is the grand Sicilian estate where Anna (Binoche) lives, and where Jeanne (de Laage) has arrived without warning to visit her boyfriend Giuseppe, Anna’s son. But Giuseppe doesn’t arrive, and Anna’s efforts to stall Jeanne begin to seem quietly but insistently excessive. Maybe that mysterious opening scene set in a somber church has something to do with his absence?

This is the directing debut of Piero Messina, who was the assistant to Paolo Sorrentino on his Oscar-winning “The Great Beauty.” Messina borrows some of Sorrentino’s baroque but elegant visual style, but only Binoche is able to communicate the intense feeling beneath his characters’ emotionally muted surfaces. The story’s finale is virtually the opposite of a shocking twist, but narrative suspense doesn’t seem to be the goal. Adapted from a Pirandello play, and containing more religious allusions than this non-Catholic was able to digest, “L’Attesa” is about as exciting as its title’s English translation (“The Wait”) would imply.

But that Binoche. This film may not be as intellectually satisfying as “Clouds” or 2010’s “Certified Copy,” but the pleasures of watching a mature performer at the peak of her abilities never get old. [Marc Mohan]

(Italy, 100 min., in Italian and French with English subtitles) Tues., Feb. 23, 6 p.m., Cinema 21; also Thur., Feb. 25, 8:30 p.m., Regal Fox Tower.

 

 

“How to Be Single” Tries to Cash In on Feminist Irreverence and Fails

Kourtney Paranteau thinks that "How to Be Single" is a great example of how not to make a movie.

by KOURTNEY PARANTEAU

 

The past year proved one in which female sensibilities, particularly in comedy, rose to a prominence never before approached.  The reigning popularity of Amy Schumer, “Broad City,” and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s return to the Golden Globes podium all signaled a new level of attention towards truly funny, unabashedly feminist humor.  Christian Ditter’s “How to be Single,” from this vantage point, felt readily poised to catch the momentum laid out before it.  However, the film, at nearly every opportunity, plays out like a cash grab capitalizing on pop culture’s warming to the tastes and voices of female narratives.  

(L-r) REBEL WILSON as Robin and DAKOTA JOHNSON as Alice in New Line Cinema’s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures’ and Flower Films’ comedy “HOW TO BE SINGLE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Barry Wetcher

(L-r) REBEL WILSON as Robin and DAKOTA JOHNSON as Alice in New Line Cinema’s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures’ and Flower Films’ comedy “HOW TO BE SINGLE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Photo by Barry Wetcher

Buoyed by the reputation of Rebel Wilson’s brash persona, Dakota Johnson’s other big feature (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) and Leslie Mann’s overall likeability, the film, by its skin alone, holds a fierce amount of promise. “How to be Single” quickly squanders, though, any timeliness or contribution to a genre riddled with disappointingly reductive routines when it comes to imagining the lives women lead while predominantly around only each other.  

Alice (Johnson), recently out of a relationship, takes a job as a paralegal and attempts to traverse the Big Apple for the first time as a single, alongside her friend Robin (Wilson) and her older sister (Mann).  The film’s home base is a pick-up bar where a semi-attractive bartender preys on unsuspecting young women and dispenses mediocre advice and casual sex to Alice.  Lucy (Alison Brie), another bar regular, pops in and out of “How to Be Single” as a love-obsessed young woman who uses the bar’s Wi-Fi as she toggles between internet dating sites.  

Brie’s Lucy feels like an updated and more forgivable Charlotte of Sex in the City and her presence breathes the only spark into an otherwise ignorable plot.  Whenever the narrative finds Lucy (only to soon forget her) the central characters are revealed  as even duller, hackier and bigger wastes of times from the last time we saw  them.  Brie, on the heels of the much more successful “Sleeping With Other People” (Leslye Headland, 2015), seems to be finding a voice that can be heard even through the clutter of pointless excitations the rom-com genre often becomes stuffed with.  

Because, at its heart and despite the light protestations of its title and rhetoric, “How to be Single” is a romantic comedy–and if it were titled “How to Spend Your Time While You’re Single to Make You More Dateable Later On,” the title would be hundreds of times more honest.  Based on a book by the same author as the equally deplorable “He’s Just Not that Into You,” “How To Be Single” is a disgusting narrative masquerading as a guidebook. It tells women who want partnership to continue taking it on the chin until the right guy comes along.  

Never actually confronting the possibility that singledom has perks, the film spends nearly all of its depicted nights out dancing, drinking to excess and sleeping on couches, without any characters washing their faces, let alone moisturizing.  Ditter’s film makes single life out to be an exhausting peril of bandage dresses and taxicabs.

Johnson’s Alice cannot even unzip her own clothing without help, and watching the actress struggle to disrobe over and over again resonates as more embarrassing than relatable. Wilson’s Robin never becomes anything more than an exemplar of excessiveness.  She drinks the most, talks the loudest, has the most sex and the most fun, and dresses extravagantly, but her character lacks any sense of interiority and her physicality as an overweight woman appears to have been used by Ditter to cheat his way into explaining female pleasure.

The usual complaints over popular media’s depiction of youth in New York City all remain; Alice’s apartment outperforms her salary, the central characters lack diversity, occupations feel like accessories, and the prospect of romance overrides the gratification of friendship.  This familiar list of gripes, however, is continually overshadowed by how hollowly “How to Be Single” reverberates. Besides the scarce appearances of Alison Brie, the film’s one contribution to an otherwise desolate landscape is the truly casual sex its characters are able to have without guilt, humiliation, or walks of shame.  Beyond this amendment and a handful of jokes clearly written by a punch-up artist, “How to be Single” disappoints even within its disgraced genre.  

Instead of exploring the space women share or occupy together prior to or in place of a heterosexual, romantic partnership, “How to Be Single” ends up as a frantic tale of how to complete oneself for the enjoyment of a male onlooker, despite its flimsy gestures toward independence and solidarity among the female sex.  Like a meal comprised only of carbohydrates, Ditter’s film takes up space but without much flavor or color, and the craving which brings you to the table is only satisfied for a moment.

 

(“How to Be Single” is currently playing in theaters nationwide.)