Tag Archives: Hilary Swank

New Shows + Movies by Women — September 4, 2020

I could go on some spiel right now, but let’s be real: we’re going to be talking about “Mulan” this week. Nobody wants to counter-program against it and most streaming services are backing off this week when it comes to new major releases. There are several controversies to discuss regarding it, and they’re all worth addressing.

We’ll go in order: new series first, then movies, then documentaries. Just be aware that with fewer releases and a lot to discuss about “Mulan”, that one film is going to take up about half this week’s article:

SERIES

Away (Netflix)
showrunner Jessica Goldberg

“Away” features Hilary Swank as an astronaut commanding the first crewed mission to Mars. It wouldn’t be a space adventure without things going wrong along the way. “Away” also balances this against the struggles her family faces during her years spent away from them.

Showrunner Jessica Goldberg started as a playwright, and has since written and produced on “Parenthood” and “The Path”, as well as directing and showrunning on the latter.

You can watch “Away” on Netflix with a subscription.

The Sounds (Acorn)
showrunner Sarah-Kate Lynch

The story of a Canadian couple in New Zealand should be about tourists and locals taking turns saying, “I’m sorry, didn’t see you there,” after bumping into each other. Yet “The Sounds” is about the disappearance of a woman’s husband just after he signs a major business deal. You see, the sustainable fishery he’s started might not be so sustainable. Locals oppose it, the deal seems to contain more than it appears, and nobody can figure out if Maggie’s husband is missing or dead.

Showrunner Sarah-Kate Lynch previously wrote on Australian TV show “800 Words”.

You can watch “The Sounds” on Acorn TV with a subscription.

MOVIES

Mulan (Disney+)
directed by Niki Caro

“Mulan” is Disney’s latest live-action adaptation of one of their animated properties. The story follows a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to fight in the army. The $200 million production marks the largest budget ever afforded a film directed by a woman. More than 50 films by men have exceeded that mark. When Zack Snyder has directed three times the number of $200 million films than all women have, you’re doing it wrong.

Of course, 2020’s “Mulan” comes with a heap of controversy. Director Niki Caro is one of those few directors who never makes a bad film. The New Zealand director burst onto the scene with “Whale Rider”, her second feature in 2002. Movies like “North Country” and “McFarland, USA” – not to mention downright astounding work on “Anne with an E” – have only solidified just how good she is.

At the same time, she’s a white director telling another culture’s story within the framework of that culture. Similar criticism followed “Whale Rider”, a Maori story she adapted (both as screenwriter and director) from Witi Ihimaera’s book. While Ihimaera approved of the choice, and the film is generally perceived as treating Maori culture respectfully, the question of why a Maori filmmaker wasn’t chosen is still valid (Caro pointed this out at the time as well).

Disney did pursue Taiwanese director Ang Lee and Chinese director Jiang Wen to direct “Mulan”, but after they fell through, it’s not as if those are the only two directors that region of Asia has to offer.

That controversy has gotten somewhat lost in comparison to star Liu Yifei being quoted as supporting the brutal police occupation of Hong Kong. Pro-democracy protesters have been fighting for Hong Kong to retain a number of civil rights, and the 2019-20 protests were sparked when the Hong Kong government attempted to pass a bill that would have allowed extradition to China. This risked Hong Kong’s relative autonomy and becoming subject to China’s heavily criticized legal system.

In response to protests, Hong Kong police have regularly assaulted pro-democracy activists. There have also been allegations of police disappearing and murdering protesters. Liu’s support of the police spurred a Boycott Mulan movement in response, though it’s difficult to know if this boycott movement will extend outside the spheres of certain social media platforms. One of the core demographics for “Mulan” is families who may not have even heard about the controversy.

In an interesting move, “Mulan” also experiments with a new releasing strategy. Not only will viewers have to be Disney Plus subscribers, they’ll also have to pay another $30 on top of this to access “Mulan” right now. Viewers will then be able to access the film as long as they keep their Disney Plus subscription, so it’s not just a brief rental.

Charging $20-30 during an initial rental/purchase window isn’t anything new for films that would’ve hit theaters during COVID-19. Invariably, they become less expensive to rent a few months later, and/or become accessible through a basic streaming subscription. It seems reasonably fair – this approach mirrors the cost of 2-3 cinema tickets and assumes that many renters will be families. So what’s different this time?

This approach generally hasn’t layered a theater-level pricing on top of a pre-existing subscription cost. Disney is trying to bank on enough demand that they can double dip. First you need the subscription, and then you need a $30 purchase point on top of it. Is this fairer to do for a $200 million film? My greater worry is risking it becoming normalized for all the $50 million movies and eventually shoestring-budget indies out there.

You can watch “Mulan” on Disney+ with both a subscription and $30 extra spare cash.

Kandasamys: The Wedding (Netflix)
directed by Jayan Moodley

You don’t see a lot of films about Indian South Africans in the U.S. In fact, it’s not really widely taught here that South Africa is home to 1.3 million people of Indian descent. This is the result of enslavement of South Asian peoples from the 1600s-1800s, later programs of indentured labor, and then immigration. This all combined into a number of Indian communities growing in South Africa, often around the coastal city of Durban.

Director Jayan Moodley brings a stand-alone sequel to her 2017 film “Keeping Up with the Kandasamys”. The plot centers on a big wedding and the often controlling desires the different families have about the shape of it.

This is Moodley’s third film, and both “Kandasamys” films have been successful releases in South Africa.

You can watch “Kandasamys: The Wedding” on Netflix with a subscription.

DOCUMENTARIES

Love Fraud (Showtime)
directed by Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady

This is a four part docu-series about the search for Richard Scott Smith. Using a range of aliases, he instigated relationships with women online. He’d advance each relationship as far as he needed to then steal substantial amounts of money from them. As this caught more attention and former partners and their families tried to track him down, he eventually disappeared.

Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are responsible for some of the most important documentaries of the last two decades. They most famously teamed together for “Jesus Camp”, covering a camp that trains children to become the next Billy Graham. They also directed “The Boys of Baraka”, “Detropia”, and “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You”, which focused on the famed TV writer’s activism.

Grady tends to direct almost exclusively with Ewing, while Ewing has branched off from time to time, such as with the upcoming “I Carry You With Me”, about a gay Mexican couple who emigrate to New York. The two are also finishing a yet-to-be-titled documentary that examines the threats and intimidation tactics used against journalists.

Part of the reason I write this feature is because the success of women directors rests in part on some of them becoming household names. There’s no woman director that people in the U.S. regularly bring up in the same conversation as Spielberg, Scorsese, Cameron, etc., despite there being women who absolutely belong in that conversation. And I get it – maybe this isn’t a wise point to bring up in the documentary section, where there’s less interest, but screw it – Ewing and Grady are two names you should know and who absolutely deserve to be in those conversations.

The first episode of “Love Fraud” premiered on August 30, and there will be a new episode released every Sunday through September 20.

You can watch “Love Fraud” on Showtime with a subscription (the first episode is available free).

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

Trailer of the Week — “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”

Kaguya

What does Japanese animation offer that American and European don’t? The space to breathe. The space to exist in a world not made for the screen, but for its characters. American animation stresses constant motion. Visual cleverness is prized.

Anime, on the other hand, stresses the moments in between the action. A moment so still you can close your eyes and feel the breeze on your face, that a character’s contemplation will spark your own…that, you’ll only get from anime.

Beauty will often be found in background details, while the motion of the wind through an entire field might be represented by a single, black line and a soft sound. It’s this artistic restraint and reliance on the power of suggestion that makes anime so unique and powerful, that lets viewers access the otherworldly and surreal where Western animation would add fidelity to the point of overexplanation.

Western animation is often so detailed and action-packed, characters barely get to breathe. It can be beautiful in its constant motion, and it certainly lends itself to humor, but it always leaves us keenly aware we’re watching a movie.

Because anime is so based on suggestion, it can often give us that feeling of remembering a dream upon waking up. Our brains might scrabble for the details for a moment, but it’s the impression we’re left with that’s important, the unique feeling we can only access in that moment of opening our eyes, reminiscing about something that never existed.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is told in a boldly illustrative style, and I’ve been looking forward to it ever since it opened to rave reviews in Japan a year ago. Even in a one-minute trailer, you can see the sheer power of performance in its hand-drawn style, the birth of resolve in a character’s eyes, the absence of detail in a moment of anger reflecting what that panic and vengeance really feel like.

The Homesman
Hilary Swank. Tommy Lee Jones. Meryl Streep. Miranda Otto. Hailee Steinfeld. John Lithgow. Tim Blake Nelson. James Spader. William Fichtner.

It’s like the Western drama version of The Expendables, but I’ve already checked – Annette Bening’s not acting lead in anything this year, so it’s unlikely Swank wins an Oscar for this.

If there’s an American corollary to anime, it’s probably the Western. After the days of actors like John Wayne and Gregory Peck saving the girl, Italian director Sergio Leone took Japanese samurai narratives and filmed them in Spain as American westerns. He took the cinematic tendencies for stillness, introspection, and a uniquely Japanese form of postwar regret from directors like Akira Kurosawa and translated them into a Eurocentric perspective that took everything inward and painted it onto the landscape. He created a Purgatory for lost souls, the outward projection of self-punishment for characters whose ethical null-states didn’t allow them to feel penance.

The Western never looked back and, if you think it’s dead today, when was the last time you watched a post-apocalyptic movie or TV show?

Some Westerns still take place in the Old West, though, and that makes me happy, because they give actors a chance to stretch their wings. The Homesman is still unique among them, however, because Westerns typically involve men who haven’t bathed in a week shooting and beating the snot out of each other. I can drive down to Tully O’Reilly’s any Saturday night for that.

No, what makes The Homesman unique is that it’s centered around women in the Old West. Quick, name the last Western you saw dominated by female characters. Yeah, neither can I, and that’s a problem.

It’s directed by Tommy Lee Jones, whose debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, was overlooked several years ago.

Congratulations!
The trailer for Mall premiered recently. One of our contributing writers, S.L. Fevre, appears in the film, and it looks like it has potential. Congratulations!

Others
Wetlands looks too consciously gross to be my kind of movie, but the NSFW trailer is rather brilliant, and the film’s been heaped with critical praise on the festival circuit. The Canal is a promising trailer in a year starved for good horror movies. While it looks visually interesting, it’s going to live or die on the predictability of its story. Finally, Kelly and Cal looks like it could be something of a comeback for Juliette Lewis, as a suburban housewife who develops a relationship with a wheelchair-bound neighbor half her age.

Worst of the Week
I suppose this is becoming a tradition, and there are a lot of contenders this week, but if we’re going to do this, let’s be fair about it.

While internet thriller Open Windows looks like it’s never actually seen anything resembling the internet in its life, it does feature a pair of actors in Elijah Wood and Sasha Grey who remain intriguing.

Wood has shown generally good taste in independent projects – even when they aren’t successful, he’s interesting in them. Regardless of Grey’s past in adult film, her work with Steven Soderbergh in The Girlfriend Experience is a triumph of Hal Hartley influences, sexual psychology, and cinematic language displaced from the early 1990s. Wood and Grey are interesting because they’re both actors who became icons of very different industries, and are largely hamstrung in their future careers because of it. That alone makes a movie with the celebrity stalking premise of Open Windows intriguing, even if the trailer is a complete disaster.

So this week, it’s Drive Hard, which stars John Cusack and Thomas Jane in the only roles I’ve never wanted to see them in – Cusack as a race car driver/bank robber (this cliché is being done to death right now, and no one’s going to do it as well as Ryan Gosling) and Jane as…his driving instructor? Chaffeur? It’s hard to tell what exactly, because the trailer communicates very little actual story, focusing on the movie’s comedy instead. Except there are no laughs, and the audio is so off (I’ve checked different versions; it’s definitely the trailer cut) that their lines sound mumbled and unimportant.

And in case you’re sad that this isn’t a sequel to Nicolas Cage’s Drive Angry, first of all, what’s wrong with you? Second of all, don’t worry, the man’s still at work – you can always check out his starring role in the long-awaited film adaptation of Left Behind. Yes, you just read that right: binging, boozing Nic Cage is the star of Left Behind. Come to think of it, that’s probably why he gets, you know, left behind.