Films by Women: Four Movies (and a Box Set) to Watch from August (2020)

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Films by Women: Four Movies (and a Box Set) to Watch from August (2020)

The "52FilmsByWomen" hashtag isn’t a new invention, but in the last few years it’s gained increasingly urgent relevance. Created and disseminated by Women in Film, a nonprofit outlet established to achieve parity and transform culture, the tag translates into a simple pledge: Watch one movie directed by a woman each week for an entire year. Most years, completing that pledge would be the least one could do. Today, it’s a means of pushing back against rampant gender bias in the film industry.

To help those interested in putting their viewing habits to good use, Paste is highlighting some of August’s best new movies directed by women to view at home:

Lucky Grandma

lucky-grandma-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: August 11, 2020 (Blu-ray)
Director: Sasie Sealy
Stars: Tsai Chin, Corey Ha, Michael Chau
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Rating: NR
Runtime: 87 minutes

The gag at the center of Sasie Sealy’s Lucky Grandma is all about starting over again. Grandma (Tsai Chin), who smokes like an industrial chimney over the protests of her dutiful son, is widowed after decades of wrapping up her identity in her marriage to her late husband, and decides to find herself by taking a bus trip to a casino. She wins big. She wins bigger. Then her scorching hot streak comes to an end and she forfeits her winning. Bad luck. But the guy next to her on the ride back kicks it and leaves a sack of cash right next to her, so she takes it and runs afoul of his associates, hoodlums belonging to a local gang. Enter Grandma’s new life caught betwixt two rival criminal outfits at war with one another.

Chin doesn’t need to be talked up as a great actress, but her performance in Lucky Grandma is a great turn in her career’s latter day. Grandma doesn’t muck about. She’s grouchy, she’s stubborn and she’s determinedly unconcerned with what people think about either of these qualities. She’s also really, really good at negotiating with thugs, haggling her way to a cheaper price tag on her gangster bodyguard, Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha), to protect her from the toughs trying to scare the money out of her. “Old people say the darndest things” is one of indie cinema’s hackiest comic subgenres: Take any workaday vulgarities and put them in the mouths of any septuagenarian or octogenarian actor, and boom, that’s low-hanging fruit for arthouse cinemas patronized by audiences ranking in the same age groups. But Lucky Grandma is better written and directed than most of these movies, demonstrated by the variety in Sealy’s technique and in Grandma’s brief. She isn’t a caricature. She’s a person tangled up in a rough circumstance.

The film doesn’t nudge viewers in the ribs to make sure they’re in on the joke because Sealy’s craftsmanship doesn’t require it. Lucky Grandma has eccentricities, of course, but they speak for themselves without belaboring the point. Instead, they’re hilarious on merit instead of insistence, and unimpeachably human regardless of the noirish absurdities of its plot. That doesn’t take luck to pull off. It takes skill. —Andy Crump

She Dies Tomorrow

she-dies-tomorrow-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: August 7, 2020
Director: Amy Seimetz
Stars: Kate Lyn Sheil, Kentucker Audley, Kate Aselton, Chris Messina, Jennifer Kim, Tunde Adebimpe, Jane Adams
Genre: Drama, Comedy, Thriller
Rating: R
Runtime: 84 minutes

Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), for inexplicable reasons, is infernally convinced that tomorrow’s the day she’s going to meet her maker. Making a bad situation worse, her confidence is catching: Through an eerie, fatalist game of telephone, her friends and family, and even total strangers with whom they interact, come to believe they’re going to die tomorrow, too. It’s almost like they’ve been gaslit, except they’re the ones soaking themselves with lighter fluid, sparking off a chain reaction of macabre determinism in which each person afflicted by the curse of languages sees the end coming for them in 24 hours or less. Whatever force has Amy so assured of her impending doom, whatever entity has lodged in her mind pictures of her passing, director Amy Seimetz keeps its presence minimal. She’s focused on outcomes and not on confrontations. There’s no resisting death, after all. Everybody has to go sometime. Jason (Chris Messina), brother to Jane (Jane Adams), Amy’s bestie, even says as much while washing the dishes with his wife, Susan (Katie Aselton), both of them having caught Amy’s bummer pathogens from Jane when she crashes her sister-in-law’s birthday dinner party. He glances at the window over the kitchen sink and sees the same sight as Amy just 20 minutes prior: vivid flashing lights, red and blue at first, then yellow, green, violet, each color interspersed with split second jolts of images that to the naked eye are best described as “uterine.” Jason’s going to die tomorrow. Susan’s going to die tomorrow. Seimetz and editor Kate Brokaw cut to Tilly (Jennifer Kim) and Brian (Tunde Adebimpe), Jason and Susan’s dinner guests, smiling and crying as they, too, see the lights. Viewers will gravitate toward their own characters with whom they can identify, whether they’re pissed or petrified. Mercifully, She Dies Tomorrow’s exploration of inevitable human fate expresses more about death than angst and ennui. We’re inclined to put off tomorrow because tomorrow guarantees a new round of soul-crushing devastation. Thinking about tomorrow, however, prepares us to resist the crush. Counting days inflicts only as much anguish as we allow. Maybe we’ll die tomorrow. —Andy Crump

Lingua Franca

lingua-franca-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: August 26, 2020 (Netflix)
Director: Isabel Sandoval
Stars: Isabel Sandoval, Eamon Farren, Lynn Cohen, Lev Gorn
Genre: Drama, Romance
Rating: NR
Runtime: 95 minutes

Caregiver Olivia (Isabel Sandoval) sits at the table in her ward Olga’s (Lynn Cohen) kitchen. On the outside, she’s still. On the inside, she’s shuddering. The soundtrack to her day is the wannabe tough man rhetoric of Donald J. Trump, spoken in his nasally, grating voice back at a 2016 rally in Arizona. “It is our right as a sovereign nation,” he whines, a plea to his audience that indulges their white fragility, “to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish here.” Trump’s pitchy racism follows Olivia when she leaves the apartment, walks New York City’s streets, attempts to escape the hatred. She finds a coffee shop and sits down. The buzzing stops. But it doesn’t really stop. The naked bigotry espoused by the white supremacist in chief hounds her no matter where she goes, and the best she can do is block out the noise for a brief pause as she goes about her days. Her experiences as a Filipino immigrant and a transgender woman are Lingua Franca’s; the movie is a statement piece, a political piece, a personal piece and a meticulously crafted mood piece about Olivia’s struggle to belong in a nation that actively doesn’t want her and doesn’t acknowledge her humanity. And Sandoval is the best kind of filmmaker, one with the confidence to know where to put her camera, guided by Isaac Banks, and the wisdom to just leave it there. The static shots let Olivia breathe, and in her case emphasize her personhood just by affording her the chance to exist on screen. Lingua Franca has a lived-in sensibility facilitated by Sandoval’s empathy and understanding of what Olivia’s going through. It’s the film’s best quality: a firsthand knowledge driving an earnest request to be seen and respected, as an American and as a woman. Olivia isn’t asking for much. There’s no reason to deny her. —Andy Crump

The High Note

the-high-note-movie-poster.jpg Release Date: August 11, 2020 (Blu-ray)
Director: Nisha Ganatra
Stars: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ice Cube, June Diane Raphael, Zoe Chao, Eddie Izzard, Bill Pullman, Diplo
Genre: Drama, Comedy, Romance
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 113 minutes

The entertainment industry is not kind to women over 40. Often movies, including the recent biopic Judy, love to tell the story of an aging star clinging to her (it’s almost always her) last grasps of fame. Oh, let’s all look on her with pity. How sad that she cannot accept her fate and fade gracefully away. Delightfully, The High Note is not that kind of movie. Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) is a megastar. Yes she’s over 40 with no recent hits, but she still performs to sold-out crowds and is coming off her extremely successful tenth world tour. Caesars Palace wants to lock her in for a decade-long residency. The movie doesn’t necessarily view a Vegas residency as selling out, but it’s definitely not a desired outcome (sorry Mariah, Celine, et. al.), and she is also keenly aware that only five women over the age of 40 have ever had a number one hit. Enter Grace’s assistant, Maggie (Dakota Johnson), or Margaret as Grace insists on calling her: a walking encyclopedia of music trivia, but what Maggie really wants to do is produce and she’s secretly produced an alternate version of Grace’s live album. Happily, a burgeoning romance takes a backseat to the main thrust of the story—the friendship and working rapport between Grace and Maggie. Professional fulfillment for both Grace and Maggie is the crux of the conflict. How often does a movie just allow a woman’s career aspirations to take center stage? Light, fluffy and sugarcoated, The High Note feels like a throwback to another time when studios produced movies with the sole purpose of putting a little spring in viewer’s step. That we would all leave the movie theater (or, as is the case now, the virtual movie theater) smiling. That also makes it seem a little more like a Hallmark movie and less like a major theatrical release, but it still comes close to dependably hitting the right note, even if it doesn’t quite end on the high. —Amy Amatangelo

The Complete Films of Agnès Varda

agnes-varda-complete-films-boxset.jpg Release Date: August 11, 2020 (Criterion Blu-ray)
Director: Agnès Varda

Long before social media compelled us to document every moment and excavate every corner of our lives, Agnès Varda relentlessly documented and excavated hers. The whole of Varda’s output—some 59 films, anywhere from six to 226 minutes long, a melange of caricatures and travelogues and odes and self-portraits (all self-portraits, really), some films pieces of other films, others mirrors of others, not to mention her countless pre-film introductions of post-film appendices, some films revisiting earlier films, some films revisiting people from her husband’s films, one film featuring Stephen Dorff, peak Dorff, for a powerful fleeting moment—reflects the fascinating detritus of her well-lived life. She was less an auteur than a self-styled “gleaner,” someone whose language comprised the things she utilized, the stuff she used that would otherwise go to waste. She spoke of a world of balanced proportions born from simple sympathy. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, as her 1977 narrative was titled—there’s a kind of harmony in that.

The Criterion Collection’s box set, The Complete Films of Agnès Varda, feels swept up in that search for harmony. It’s as comprehensive as “complete” can get by shedding the weight of anything unnecessary. In pleasantly monochrome packaging devoid of the whimsical clutter of Varda’s films, the box set presents a sense of balance, the generous notion of a life fully resolved between poles: youth and old age, lust and longevity, indulgence and its hangover, the beginning of life and the end of it, having one boy (Mathieu Demy) and having one girl (Rosalie Varda) and knowing their lives are a reflection of one’s own—Varda’s life feels complete through collecting her life’s work. That we think we have all of it to look back upon convinces us we know what lies outside of her frames. We’re willing to believe that if she’s lying to us about who she is, she’ll let us know. “I’ve always been interested in on-screen and off-screen and even what surrounds it—the life that surrounds the images,” she said in 2012 (quoted in Criterion’s accompanying book, followed by select photographs taken throughout her career). On-screen and off-screen, all that is and isn’t in frame: that’s pretty much everything. Agnès Varda has always been interested in everything. —Dom Sinacola

Read the rest of the full box set review.