Read my interview with the director of "Respect," the new biopic about the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin: https://awardswatch.com/interview-respect-director-liesl-tommy-on-aretha-celebrating-black-women-and-her-hitchcock-moment/
Aug 23, 2021
Jul 20, 2021
Chances are you have not seen one of the best films of 2018. It was not released until May of this year. The film, Dead Pigs, is written and directed by an Asian woman, Cathy Yan.
The truth is that far less verbiage is devoted to films made by women, and as a result, audiences miss some outstanding work. Ask any female film critic who wants to write about these movies how difficult it is to place an interview. Read the reports of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (https://annenberg.usc.edu/research/aii). Its research found a direct correlation between the dearth of female critics and the coverage of movies made by women. Even more egregious is the lack of coverage devoted to female directors of color.
After pitching a review of a female-directed film earlier this year, to two different venues, and being told by both editors that the movie was not widely distributed, and that they would be skipping coverage, I felt angry. The writer-director, a woman from an underrepresented group, made a very popular art house film just five years ago. Her next movie did not do well, but she had not written the script. If she were a male director, these venues would have reviewed her film based on her initial success.
I decided to begin a website that would feature one long-form review a month of a film made by a female writer-director. My next review, which will publish this weekend, is about Dead Pigs. Last month's review was of Haifaa Al Mansour's A Perfect Candidate.
I hope you will visit the website soon: https://www.awomanspicture.com/
May 30, 2021
|A still shown in Tulsa Burning, Stanley Nelson's new documentary, of the Greenwood section of Tulsa.|
African-American filmmaker Stanley Nelson has dedicated his career to documenting the history of Black Americans (and Native Americans) in such films as Freedom Riders (2010), the story of Black men and women, accompanied by whites, who boarded buses together in order to desegregate interstate transport, and Freedom Summer (2014), about the Mississippi voter registration drive in the summer of 1964. Most recently, his Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015) chronicled the formation and history of that political party, including its continued influence on the radical left.
In Tulsa Burning, Nelson depicts the present search for the bodies of Black men and women killed during that Oklahoma massacre in 1921, who were buried in mass graves, and the circumstances that led to the white mob violence that leveled the Greenwood section of Tulsa. Dubbed "Black Wall Street," it was one of many all-Black communities that were founded when African-Americans migrated north during Reconstruction.
With a brilliant score by Branford Marsalis, scores of archival photographs, and interviews with the family members of those murdered at Greenwood, and other family members of Blacks who survived, Nelson provides a comprehensive picture of the massacre, its cover-up in the white press (the Black press reported it), and the lingering effects of the seizure of Black land after the massacre. The latter has led to a demand for reparations in Tulsa, as it has across the United States, in Black communities and among Native Americans.
"In the News" (to the right of this column) provides links to Part I of my past on-camera interview with Stanley Nelson, and my print interview with Marco Williams, a Black filmmaker who executive produced Tulsa Burning.
May 5, 2021
A still from Stanley Nelson's documentary, The Black Panthers, Vanguard of the Revolution (2016).
I have just updated a few non-working links, added to "The Craft of Filmmaking" and to "Recent Features." I hope readers will appreciate my new Biden-era "Save Us From the Centrists" list.
Jan 4, 2021
|A still from Miss Juneteenth of mom and daughter, Turquoise and Kai.|
My list is quite short this year (fewer films got release dates), but these five depictions of the quest for identity are all outstanding. My criteria for choosing these movies is derived from my latest book Cinematic Quests for Identity: The Hero’s Encounter with the Beast (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). A key point in my theory is that heroes do not have a “coming of age” or a “middle-age crisis”—these patriarchal ideas are derived from Western literary tradition and so reflect the experience of men. Cinematic heroes embark on quests many times in their lives in order to search for meaning and live a conscious existence.
Several of the films are proof of that lifelong search for meaning, and chronicle the childhood wounds that so often form the heroic character; these often inform the classic tales of the hero’s journey, in literature and at the movies. We are reminded this year that survival itself is an heroic task: in the wake of 300,000 souls in the U.S. and millions worldwide who have perished in the pandemic, is an ocean of sorrow and longing. Three filmmakers on the list this year, veterans Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne and relative newcomer Chloe Zhao are returnees; their work is consistently focused on the quest undertaken by largely uncelebrated heroes, disenfranchised by poverty, ageism or racism, or cultures marked by institutionalized violence.
(Please note that the movies are listed in alphabetical order by title. I try to resist ranking beyond the compilation of this list. Excessive ranking is counter to the aim of film criticism, the purpose of which is to further an appreciation of the art form through a consideration of all movies.)
House of Hummingbird, Kim Bora (Subtitled)
This accomplished debut feature set in South Korea centers on Eun-hee, a young woman who confronts class discrimination, an abusive family and other more ordinary teenage woes. Then she suffers the sudden loss of the only person who understands her predicament. The film is not only a beautifully rendered quest film, it is a reminder of the terrifying fragility of youthful individuation. Excellent performances anchor what some may feel is a slow-moving story. Ozu fans will love it. (Scroll down for a longer review on Facebook.)
Miss Juneteenth, Channing Godfrey Peoples (Appropriate for young audiences)
The Beast of individuation, the equivocal figure in every hero’s journey, is sometimes a relative or guardian, and in the young, female quest, it is often a loving but overbearing mother. In this unusual film, both mother and daughter are grappling with their identity. Turquoise, the youthful mother, was almost a beauty queen and the recipient of a college scholarship, but now she ekes out a living as a waitress, worried about paying for Kai’s education. Under the delightful female gaze of this African-American writer-director, what emerges is a cinematic quest story in which a girl, on the verge of adulthood, sends her mom on a path to individuation. “Miss Juneteenth” is significant for other reasons, not the least of which is that the characters are Black—and that Turquoise’s nostalgia for her storied girlhood is so often portrayed as the sole province of white women.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Liza Hittman (Appropriate for teens; family viewing to discuss matters of abortion, rape, male aggression)
This film is ostensibly the story of a 17 year-old girl unable to get a legal abortion in her own state, and the journey she and her friend embark upon to get her to New York City—but Autumn’s tale is centuries’ old. Instead of a single Beast of individuation, Hittman substitutes a hostile environment rife with male aggression, turning Autumn’s rape and her subsequent individuation into an archetypal female quest. The silent acknowledgment that Skylar and Autumn share of the necessity to endure is devastating, and further proof, as if women needed any, of the neverending story of our loss of innocence. Hittman even touches upon the delicate matter of how mothers are sometimes complicit in crimes committed against their daughters.
Nomadland, Chloe Zhao
Like Zhao’s first two films, this one is a conflation of documentary and narrative film, the title and the characters derived from Jessica Bruder’s eponymous book. The underlying political and social commentary in this movie informs all of the young filmmaker’s work, but here there is a certain severity that undermines the narrative. It is somewhat overcome by Zhao’s celebration of an uncommonly old female hero who leaves nothing behind when she embarks on her last adventure. Fern’s late-in-life search for meaning has been a long time in coming; all heroes harbor one terrible childhood wound that is revisited over the years so that they may continue to live consciously. Fern has always lived by her own rules, and now only one path allows her to maintain that independence. The individuation is bittersweet, but then so is senescence.
Young Ahmed, Dardenne Brothers (Appropriate for teens; subtitled)
These Belgian filmmakers have been writing and directing quest films for over 20 years; among their most memorable are “la Promesse” (1996) and “Rosetta” (1999) that feature young, working class heroes. “Young Ahmed” follows that tradition, portraying a 13 year-old boy who comes under the influence of an extremist imam. Ahmed goes on to taunt his family with his sudden misogyny and his strict adherence to the imam’s beliefs. When he must pass certain barbarous rights of passage, it becomes apparent that Ahmed is on the path to self-destruction. Male quests for identity are marked by violent transformation because under patriarchy men and boys, unlike women and girls, must prove themselves physically, in playground battles and fields of battle. This film, anchored by a terrific performance, is a potent warning to adults about how easily children are influenced, and often harmed, because their passions are as great as their potential for self-sacrifice.
Nov 2, 2020
|A still of Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn in Robin and Marian (1976).|
I could barely see the stage from my seat, and was surprised when I spied my editor, in a stunning Chanel suit, rushing toward the back row. Robin was an irascible woman, but whip smart, and a thoughtful editor. She had presided over the ceremonies in various capacities over the years, and that year was no exception. Robin told me that the person she hired to manage the green room had called to say he had the flu. It was a half-hour before the start of the show, and she asked if I would help her manage it by taking his place. I knew nothing about running a green room, a theatrical term for the place performers wait to be called onto the stage.
I had a five-minute lesson on green room etiquette, after which Robin led me to the off-stage space. I was told that no one, not even the recipient of the “best director” award, was permitted to have more than one guest. Five minutes later, the "best director" arrived, accompanied by a six-person entourage. With a stare that she also used on writers who argued with her edits, Robin instructed five of his guests to proceed to their reserved seats. For the rest of the evening we worked together, catching snatches of the ceremony and leading award recipients onstage.
Sean Connery and his wife Micheline entered the green room about 10 minutes before the event began, and nearly everyone rose as though royalty were in their midst. The couple seemed not to notice, or perhaps they were accustomed to it. Robin greeted them, introduced me, and then waited while they circled the room, speaking to other award winners. It was obvious from Connery’s voice that he had a cold. After Robin settled the couple in a quiet corner of the room, I offered the actor a few cough drops that I had in my purse. I had recently recovered from a bout of the flu. He graciously accepted them, popped one in his mouth, and thanked me for noticing that he was “under the weather.”
Then he asked if something stronger could be had. “Scotch, gin or rye, Mr. Connery?” His reply: “You don’t have to ask me that, do you? ’Have a Glenfiddich?” I knew the barman was British, and told him there was a good chance of it. I asked if he liked his scotch “neat.” His retort: “Ah, lass, you will make some man a good wife.” Micheline elbowed him at that point, and winked at me. It was not a remark any American guy would have made in the 1980s, at least not within hearing distance of a woman.
An obvious inveiglement in Connery’s remark stopped my impulse to wince. Feminist or not, I figured few women could resist this man’s charm. I could not, especially when he asked what I thought of “the film,” the one for which he was receiving the award. It was not one of Connery’s best roles, but I remarked on a scene I thought was particularly good. I added that my favorite of his roles was Robin Hood in Robin and Marian (1976) where he co-starred with Audrey Hepburn. He smiled. “So you prefer an aging warrior to a secret agent?” he asked. “I do,” I replied.
Remembering his scotch order, I went to the bar. After I handed Connery his glass, he took a long sip of scotch. Then Robin walked over and tapped his shoulder; he gave the glass back to me in order to rise uneasily from the low slung chair. Arthritic knees, I thought, and the effects of his cold. “When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools,” he said, reciting a line from “King Lear,” my favorite Shakespeare play. And I remembered Lear’s line from the same scene: “What, a prisoner? I am even the natural fool of Fortune.”
With an impish grin, Connery said, “Ah, girl, for sure we all are.” Then he and Micheline were gone. I slipped backstage to hear his acceptance speech, and Robin caught my arm. The board president had invited me to the cocktail hour to thank me for what I had done that evening, but I was glad to have the excuse that a friend was meeting me for a late supper. After trading lines with Sean Connery, a cocktail party seemed utterly mundane.
Oct 21, 2020
All the links on this website should be working now because the Film Journal International website has been restored: http://fj.webedia.us The magazine ceased publishing in December 2018, and then in June, its content disappeared.
I have removed all the links to my work for Biography.com because that website removed all my reviews and features (and those of others) when they stopped film coverage altogether. I will soon be restoring some with links to PDFs on Google Drive.
Best news (besides the fact that the Democrats will boycott the committee vote on Amy Coney Barrett) is that my Rotten Tomatoes Approved Critic profile is restored along with more than a decade of links to my reviews: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/maria-garcia/movies
Aug 31, 2020
In my last two "Cinema" columns for Ambassador, instead of interviews with living filmmakers, I was compelled to write about film professionals who are dead, namely Federico Fellini and Ennio Morricone. This was a somewhat new endeavor for me. I have written two long-form pieces about my favorite actress, Anna Magnani, one a review of a retrospective of her work at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and another in a year when there were so few Italian films released in the U.S., I could indulge myself by devoting a column to my favorite Magnani roles.
I occasionally write about recently released classics on Blu-ray, mostly for Cineaste, for instance my recent review of John Ford's The Last Hurrah (1958). I always enjoy revisiting Ford, one of America's great directors, and researching stories about the production, especially when I feel that the movie is under-appreciated as this movie undoubtedly is—who can resist a cast that stars Spencer Tracy, and includes such Ford regulars as Basil Rathbone, Jane Darwell, Donald Crisp and John Carradine?
With the Fellini and Morricone columns, my writing was focused on the work, the cinematic legacy, a comfortable circumstance for a film critic. With the 100th anniversary of Federico Fellini's birth this year, there was no way to avoid writing about him. His portrayal of women has always made his films problematic for me, and in revisiting his work in the course of my research, I found my opinion had not changed. Much of his oeuvre is dated, but the performances of his wife, closest collaborator and star, Giulietta Masina, are vibrant and worthy of more critical consideration than they have been afforded. Their collaboration gave me the "hook" for my piece. (It appears here: https://www.niaf.org/niaf_magazine/ambassador-magazine-vol-31-no-4-current-issue/)
With the Ennio Morricone column, which will appear in the upcoming Fall issue of Ambassador, the research was daunting, in part because of the length of the composer's career in film. I had the advantage of being able to read some newspaper articles in Italian, and that gave me anecdotes that did not appear in the American press, but it was necessary for me to conduct more database research than usual. While I consider myself well-informed on the subject of film music, I am not a musician. And, to write about the maestro, who was also a classical composer, I had to explain the reason his music was considered so innovative, without the benefit of a web-based platform. (Ambassador appears online but as a PDF.) In other words, I could not provide readers with musical or video clips.
I found myself rewriting the introductory paragraphs for two weeks before realizing that I needed some of the vocabulary of a music critic. Of course, I did more research, and that yielded an intriguing quote from Morricone in an interview published 25 years ago, in which he said that he began each of his compositions with "a brick from Bach." As a passionate early music "fan," I listen to Bach often, and started speculating about the nature of the maestro's "brick" in Bugsy (1991) and Cinema Paradiso (1994), two of my favorite Morricone scores.
I was not exactly "off and running" after that—Red Smith was not exaggerating when he said that writing is an endeavor in which you "open a vein and bleed"—but I had the structure for my 1300-word article. In retrospect, I found a way to comment on the life of two iconic figures with some biographical research, although in the end mainly through their work. One of the benefits of being a film critic is that the research, in addition to reading interviews and reviews (and sometimes the more painful task of rereading your own published pieces), entails screening the work of talented filmmakers like Giuseppe Tornatore and Barry Levinson.
Jun 7, 2020
|Yet another iteration of Box Office's abandonment of Film Journal International's content has left dozens of writers with broken links and audiences without the comprehensive coverage of that magazine.|
Like others who do creative work, I also discovered that the pandemic did not really free up time for me to pursue projects that were delayed by the exigencies of earning a living. I never had that two-week pause many received during the depths of the pandemic; my husband and I were both working, he at locations away from home. Sitting 6 feet apart at the dinner table, and having to sleep in separate rooms, our only consolation was that we were still able to pay our bills. Uninterrupted sleep was rare--and still is as the phased "reopening" of the city feels rushed and ill-advised.
Nothing stifles the ability to write more than anxiety. It is a romantic notion that the vast majority of writers are half-mad or heavy drinkers who continually ask their editors or publishers to extend their deadlines. Actually, just the opposite is the norm. Most of us stick to a strict routine of writing every day, and the slightest interruption of that routine--having to work in the afternoon rather than the early morning, for instance, or having too much work or too little--can cause tremendous disruption, to the point where an 800-word piece that usually takes a few days to write can stretch to weeks of revision.
Yesterday, Governor Cuomo announced that New York City saw "only 35 deaths." That flattens the curve, yes, but what of those 35 families who could not be beside their loved ones as they struggled to survive? And what of the families of the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who died? Have they "recovered"? The misery of loss, so many iterations of loss, hangs over the city. Four hundred thousand New Yorkers are expected return to work on Monday. Does that mean we have recovered?
I've not lost anyone to COVID 19, but the rush to "recovery" feels forced. I have trouble remembering what I wrote just a few weeks ago, and I have not touched the book I began in February. Finding my way back to my routine does not yet seem possible. The undertow is still there.
Mar 20, 2020
|My Winter 2019 interview with Jared Lamenzo|
See updates to "Favorite Interviews" that includes my interview with master organist Jared Lamenzo who also heads "Friends of the Erben Organ," an organization formed to restore the historic instrument in Old St. Patrick's Cathedral here in New York City.
|Luca waiting for the 11 AM pet and scratch.|
Critics are being offered Vimeo links for review, but magazines and newspapers are warning their freelancers that pages will be cut. This is true not just for those of us who write for print venues, but for online periodicals as well. Budgets, too, will be trimmed. Streaming services may be flourishing—it is hard to know when so many are private companies—but in a few weeks’ time, if not already, many Americans will tire of working at home. Frayed nerves are likely in households where spouses are suddenly working in the same room, and children and perhaps extended family, are also at home. I am accustomed to writing at home—in fact, I am challenged by my part-time educator position where I have to write in a cubicle. Now the latter will move to online modalities. I’m learning new skills.
I posted a list of films on my Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/MariaGarciaNYC) for the age of viruses, but I feel as I did after 9/11. Somewhat adrift. Frontline healthcare workers are at risk, but they have purpose, as does the cleaning crew at my college—last week, Mickey, one cheery soul among that group, admitted that the absence of students made her sad, but that it was nice to be able to clean something and have it stay clean for a few days! So many have lost their jobs in New York City that of us struggling to adjust are lucky. While full-time and part-time educators, especially longstanding ones, are being tested by online course delivery, we, too, have purpose. But what of the purpose of the cinema, of the film book I am researching and writing? Learning is a lifelong pursuit, and I am in the privileged position of conducting research, of contributing to film scholarship . . . and I have a family that includes two cats. Eleven AM, right about now, is neck-scratching time. COVID 19 hasn’t changed that! The wisdom of our beautiful, furry companions: live in the moment.
Dec 23, 2019
|A still from "Honeyland," one of my picks for "Best Quest Films of 2019"|
My yearly selection of “best quest films” (in alphabetical order) is based upon the criteria I discuss in my recent book Cinematic Quests for Identity: The Hero’s Encounter with the Beast (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). Quests for identity and individuation are undertaken many times in a person’s life; at the movies (and in real life), all are heroic endeavors because the search for consciousness and meaning is a dangerous psychological and spiritual undertaking in patriarchal societies.
I should note that the rating of films is not the purpose of film criticism, nor of any scholarly or journalistic endeavor. Film criticism should educate audiences to the art form by pointing to movies that in some way possess cultural value. For me, that is the purpose of my yearly list. (My filmmaker interviews are indicated by links.)
Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts
Jia Zhangke’s Ash is the Purest White (http://fj.webedia.us/features/crime-and-passion-jia-zhangkes-ash-purest-white-time-spanning-story-love-and-betrayal)
Deon Taylor’s Black and Blue
Laura Bispuri’s Figlia Mia (Daughter of Mine, pg. 62, http://www.niaf.org/niaf_magazine/vol-30-no-1/)
Michela Occhipinti’s Flesh Out (pg. 63: http://www.niaf.org/niaf_magazine/vol-30-no-4/)
Tamara Kotevska’s Honeyland
Alex Holmes & Victoria Gregory’s Maiden
Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets
Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Cineaste’s Winter 2019 issue, now on newsstands)
Tom Harper’s Wild Rose
Best Quest Film with no U.S. distribution: Bora Kim’s House of Hummingbird
Oct 19, 2019
Aug 4, 2019
|Photo Credit: David Shankbone (2007)|