Kansas City Choir Boy: Love and Inspiration

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on October 21, 2015.

Love lost and inspiration found hover like the angel of death over Kansas City Choir Boy, an intricate one-hour operetta with music and lyrics by Todd Almond and starring Almond, Courtney Love and a troupe of sirens and musicians. In less time than it takes most performances to set their wheels in motion, Kansas City Choir Boy navigates the entire course of a relationship. It’s theatre not to be missed.

The story is simple. A musician (Almond), holed up in a Midwestern motel room, sees a TV news report that Athena, a former lover (Love), was murdered in New York. He spirals to a fantasia of remembrance, playing through their courtship, love-play, and Athena’s decision to find her fortune in the big city.

Yet, under Kevin Newbury’s careful and sure direction, this simple thread creates a complex web. Almond’s songs are musically adventuresome, and his lyrics match them; they are filled with well-worked references and call-backs to fire, stars and light, imagery that is mirrored in Victoria “Vita” Tzykun’s LED-rich set design.

Almond is immediately likable and relatable as a performer. He is tall and handsome and unprepossessing, and he moves with unselfconscious ease. Love has never been better. Her rounded, grounded portrayal of Athena is the center of the operetta’s wheel. Her husky voice holds melody perfectly, and gives earthy realism to her stately bearing. More than anything else, you sense that Almond and Love are having fun on stage: they enjoy being performers.

Kansas City Choir Boy details its love story in a way that brings to mind the central scene of Godard’s Contempt, in which Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot enact the beginning, middle and end of their relationship in a single walk through the unfinished doorways of their house, clad in sheets that make them look like Greek gods. “I love you totally, tenderly, tragically,” Piccoli says in that film. “When I say I want to fade away, I think you misunderstand,” sings Love, over and over, at Kansas City Choir Boy’s climax.

Thanks to Beth Morrison and Beth Morrison Projects for producing the show and bringing it on tour. It is hard to produce theatre that strays from the mainstream, but that’s the theatre that most needs support and is most rewarding. Kansas City Choir Boy is especially rewarding, and this is a show lucky theatre-goers will remember for a long time to come.

Kansas City Choir Boy plays through November 15. Tickets are available online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, by calling CTG Audience Services at (213) 628-2772, in person at the Center Theatre Group box office (at the Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles) or at the Kirk Douglas Theatre box office two hours prior to performances. The Kirk Douglas Theatre is located at 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City, CA 90232. Ample free parking and restaurants are adjacent.

Top image: Todd Almond and Courtney Love in “Kansas City Choir Boy” at the Center Theatre Group/Kirk Douglas Theatre. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Carrie the Musical: Better Than Blood

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on October 14, 2015.

Carrie The Musical is an invigorating revival of a show that succeeds because of its newfound intimacy. Staged in an immersive environment by Brady Schwind – the fabulously rococo Los Angeles Theatre has been transformed into a high school stage within a stage – Carrie brings the audience into the action with a mix of bravado and theme-park ride.

Stephen King’s well-known novel, on which the play is based, tells the story of a bullied teenage girl, entrapped by her mother’s religious dogma of sin and salvation, whose telekinetic powers wreak vengeance on her tormenters. King’s power in horror has always been that he allows the inside to come outside, and he will take his readers to places we hope can’t be real, but are. Children die. Abuse is rampant. Blood can come from everywhere.

This Carrie begins with blood, menstrual blood, visible manifestation of the inside coming out and a foreboding image of what’s to come. Emily Lopez, in a stellar performance as Carrie, has her first period in the high school gym shower, and the other girls, mean as mean girls can be, mock her. Carrie is meek and reserved, a mousey outsider who attracts torment. Her normally modest clothing and fundamentalist, Bible-induced attitudes, learned from her mother, only add fuel to the fire. Thanks to inventive staging, half of the audience is seated on risers that move throughout the show, at times backing away, at other times closing in to create a feeling of claustrophobia for Carrie, heightening the impact of her scenes.

The book has been modestly updated, in ways that sometimes work, sometimes don’t. All of the characters have cell phones, which didn’t exist in when the play premiered in 1988. It’s a nice touch that Carrie begins to shift her self-image when she looks at an iPhone selfie. But other attempts at updating don’t work: a throwaway line about gender fluidity falls flat.

The songs (music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford, who collaborated on the classic 1984 film Footloose) function, often well, but none are memorable. They do not have the raw, nerve-touching aesthetic of today’s best stage musicals, and I wish they did. The music is well-rehearsed and perfectly performed, and Cricket S. Myers’ sound design is a model other LA theatres can learn from.

In contrast to the songs, the performances are memorable. The cast is energetic and committed. Kayla Parker as Sue Snell bravely frames the story; Valerie Rose Curiel, as Carrie’s main school antagonist Chris, is a tightly wound “perfect” cheerleader with sublime unrepentance. Other notable cast members are Jon Robert Hall and Ian Littleworth, who bring subtlety and strength to their roles.

Strongest in the cast is Misty Cotton as Carrie’s mother. With a mane of red hair and an Old Testament temperament, she preaches the gospel of Jesus and sin. Cotton’s performance is the center of the Carrie wheel: she is strong, passionate, convicted of her own brand of justice, and the cause of Carrie’s psychic trauma. The show would not work without her, and hers is a performance not to be missed. When Cotton, aghast at her daughter’s emergent sexuality, says that she wishes she had not had her, you can imagine that the subtext is “unsex me here.” Lady Macbeth has nothing on Carrie’s mom.

The Shakespeare analogy goes deeper, too. Some theatre pieces offer nothing but surprise; that’s what happens when you see a new play. But other theatre performs repetition compulsion. When we see Macbeth or A Winter’s Tale, we know exactly what is going to happen, and many of us even know the lines. Still we buy our tickets. There is pleasure in seeing an old story told again.

So it is with Carrie. In case anyone didn’t know the story with its over-determined set-pieces, audiences are greeted in the lobby by blood-splattered prom queens, and the magnificent Los Angeles Theatre is decked out in its vase subterranean ballrooms and vestibules with the detritus of high school gone wrong: creepy locker rooms, abandoned showers, a pig that has given its last.

The pleasure of an old story comes with the fusion of inevitability (Carrie must do what she does, and there will be blood) with surprise (how will the blood be spilled?).

In Carrie the Musical, spilled blood may be what gets patrons in the door, but it is the variegated performances, inventive staging and psychology that keep us there. As with any theme-park ride, be prepared to fasten your seatbelt.

Tickets on sale through November 15. Information here: http://www.experiencecarrie.com/

Top image: Emily Lopez, as Carrie (left) and Misty Cotton as Carrie’s mother, in Carrie the Musical. Photo by Jason Niedle.

How to Go Off-Script—and Win With Your Pitches and Persuasive Presentations

You’re up. It’s your turn to present, and the success of weeks or more of work rely on the outcome of this meeting. Do you fire up your Prezi and read closely from your notes, or do you take a chance and go off-script? If you want really great pitch advice, ask a performer. Better yet, ask an improviser, a performer whose content is unrehearsed, and whose craft is responding to other performers and the audience.

Alright, when given the chance to present your own work, you’re going to do at least a bit of preparation. Still, the improviser’s perspective can be an advantage; a glimpse at how being nimble can help you win your audience.

Joe Berkowitz gives us great insight in his article “7 Tips for Pitching Ideas, from World-Class Improviser Jason Mantzoukas” written last month for Co.Create.

As Berkowitz writes, “It turns out some of the same problems that plague improv performers—not reading the room, seeming rigid and overly rehearsed—are the same ones that sink great ideas during formal presentations. One person who will never have problems in either of those areas, though, is Jason Mantzoukas.”

Berkowitz goes on to describe Mantzoukas’s seven lessons in context with scenarios from his past pitches and performances. To paraphrase each of the lessons so vividly illustrated in the article:

  1. Use a fresh pitch for each situation.
  2. Be prepared to give the audience more of whatever they respond to.
  3. “Don’t just listen to your audience’s feedback; incorporate it.”
  4. If you can own up to losing your way, there’s a way to win your audience back.
  5. Bring a visual aid to make your vision clear.
  6. Meet your audience where they are; your content will resonate.
  7. Assert yourself when necessary.

This is a great list of ways to be more persuasive when speaking and presenting. As Berkowitz quotes Mantzoukas:

“…More than anything I want, when I walk out of that room, I want people to feel like we together just had this great meeting where we talked about this show that we’re all excited about. Rather than, ‘Oh, I just heard someone talk about something at me.’ I want it to have been more of a ‘with me’ conversation.”

Isn’t that what we all want when our Prezi ends? I encourage my readers and audiences to own their presentations, and I think these are really great examples of how to do that effectively, and win.

Why I Joined CreativeFuture

The Creativity Paradox: the creative work that brings us together is made by people who are often isolated and lonely.

Movies, TV shows, theatre, dance, visual art, music, books, news blogs–all the expressive arts are made to be experienced as a community. Even if you read a book or watch a webisode in the privacy of your tablet, the experience brings you into the community of the audience and allows you to share your reactions with others.

But the people who make these creative works labor alone, or at best, in tiny groups. Writers of all kinds—novelists, screenwriters, journalists—must do that most unhuman thing: staple our butts to the chair and force words through our fingers. Other kinds of artists, such as those who work in film and television, work in small and frequently transient groups.

There is a reason for this: creativity cannot be birthed in a crowd. Yet the side-effect is that creative people, because they labor alone, often feel alone.

In the United States, more than 5.5 million people work in creative pursuits. This is an immense number: more than the number of teachers, attorneys, and physicians in the US—combined. Yet, because we are so isolated in our work process, and largely separated from each other, we creative people do not see ourselves as a gigantic class, which, in fact, we are. And we are an important class, because creativity is the engine of our society. A rich culture lifts all of our lives.

For the past five years, I have devoted myself to forging opportunities for creative people to link together, to gain information to succeed more fully, and to express themselves with power and passion. As a reader of Cultural Weekly, you have been part of this experiment.

So when CreativeFuture asked me to join as their COO, it was a pleasure to say yes.

CreativeFuture is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the creative community. We hold the position of creative people in the public discourse; we believe that creative people deserve to lead sustainable lives and that piracy of our work diminishes our ability to do that. CreativeFuture moves with the same motive we have been expressing in these virtual pages, expanding our reach considerably.

Among CreativeFuture’s present and future plans are to mobilize and bind together the creative community through social action, information, and conversations; to enable curricula that expand education about creativity and creative rights beginning in kindergarten and continuing through college; and to love and appreciate our audiences for their support and reciprocity.

Bottom line: creative people have the right to determine how, when, and where their work should be shared. That is not always easy in the digital landscape.

The digital revolution has not realized all of its promises. Yes, it is easier to create and distribute work today, but, as Jeff Zucker quotably said in 2008, we have traded analog dollars for digital pennies. The studios and major publishers may have found a partial way through this maze – and now may be minting digital dimes instead of digital cents. But by and large, artists are only getting mills. (Trivia point: a mill is a tenth of a penny, and five-mill coins were minted in the US until 1857.)

While the digital ecosystem has up-shifted creation and distribution, it has down-shifted the possibilities for artists to lead sustainable lives. Piracy is a big factor, because when audiences become accustomed to getting work for free, the concept of creative value degrades. By the way, you should know that the sites from which work can be illegally downloaded for free are for-profit businesses – they make hundreds of millions of dollars a year in advertising revenue, so they are, in fact, making money off the hard work of artists who, in turn, are making no money at all.

Some technology-centered companies, like Amazon and Netflix, have been digital boons and have dramatically increased the opportunities for today’s storytellers. However, not all Silicon Valley-type enterprises are created equal. Many have attitudes toward artists that are very different. You can tell that by their language: they call our work “content.”

Well, we do not make “content.” Content is about tonnage and volume: data that number-geeks can analyze. Content is about YouTube ingesting 300 hours of “content” per minute. But what the creative community makes is art: music and movies, television and books, games and architecture, dance and theatre.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom about traditional studios and publishing houses, they respect the artists and make contracts wherein creative rights are clearly defined and protected. I have been on both sides of the studio equation. I’ve had my rights and income safeguarded and I have had the pleasure of sending million-dollar checks to writers and directors because of box office bonuses and residuals. My current publisher, Macmillan, sends me quarterly royalty statements that are transparent and easy to follow – when they sell books I get money.

Let’s be clear and stand up for what we know to be true. Creative work has value because it manifests the culture in which we all live and breathe, and the better our culture is, the stronger and more human is our society.

I’m proud to become a member of the CreativeFuture family. I hope you will join us. Go tocreativefuture.org/take-action/ or, even easier, text ICreate to 52886 and get a one-step sign up link. We will send you great stuff from time to time and your voice will be amplified along with others.

I look forward to continuing to serve you, members of the vibrant and extraordinary creative community.

Image: Courtesy of, By and Copyright Icy & Sot, street artists we have profiled in Cultural Weekly.

More evidence of the value of taking risk

Disruptive creativity often takes the contrarian course.

That’s the take-away from the publishing industry, as  Boris Kachka reports in this story from Vulture – click here to read

This little (nonprofit) publishing house-that-could has something that the manor houses can’t buy, which speaks to the value of taking risk.

As Kachka writes:

“I think of success as being able to say yes to something that doesn’t necessarily look like a commercial winner,” says Fiona McCrae, Graywolf’s publisher since 1994, over yogurt and decaf on one of her monthly visits to New York. “Knowing something is good and having to say no, that seems to me the bigger failure.” An affably owlish Brit, McCrae started out in London’s legendary literary Faber & Faber before transferring to its small American spinoff in Boston. Three years later, she heard that Graywolf’s founder was resigning.

McCrae stepped up to the plate. This idea–of investing in author development and backing sometimes experimental work–has helped elevate this small publisher to dizzying heights at a quantum pace. “Publishing just over 30 books a year, Graywolf has had authors win four NBCC awards, a National Book Award, two Pulitzers, and a Nobel Prize — all in the last six years.” McCrae and company’s vision and dedication have resulted in not only sales and happy authors, but in critical acclaim. This case study in creative innovation and disruption is worth following for Graywolf’s next move, and as a way to reflect on your own continuing business growth. What Graywolf has discovered in publishing, I have found true in many other businesses, from independent films to social impact start-ups. For example, since the 1970s Miramax has brought the unique voice of independent films to worldwide audiences. Similarly, U.K. publisher Bloomsbury picked up J.K. Rowling’s first book–after she had been rejected by 12 others.

Vision and the will to say ‘yes’ bring great creative works to life.

Mindy Kaling’s New Memoir “Why Not Me?” and Straight Talk about Hard Work

Mindy KalingOn flights between appearances, a first-person narrative can be a refreshing way to learn about a new perspective. After reading Megan Garber’s review of Mindy Kaling’s new memoir Why Not Me? in The Atlantic, it tops my list for my next trip. For me, the theme of Mindy Kaling’s book is the most important message for those preparing for a creative career. Mindy Kaling is sharing the not-so-secret, yet somehow ever-revolutionary truth that hard work is the way to success. I admire her unique brand and her message of encouragement to young creative people who seek out accomplished female role models.

As Megan Garber describes in her review of Why Not Me?, Mindy Kaling says she has done the work to earn her confidence. In describing the preparation for a successful career, Garber quotes this passage of Kaling’s book: “I swear I’m not that Tiger Mom lady!” Kaling protests, just so we don’t get the wrong idea. “I don’t think you need to play the piano for 11 hours with no meals! Or only watch historical movies, then write reports on them for me to read and grade!” And yet “the truth is,” she notes, “I have never, ever met a highly confident and successful person who is not what a movie would call ‘a workaholic.’ We can’t have it both ways, and children should know that.”

This truly resonates with me, because as I emphasize with audiences at my own appearances about creative work, the only reason successful people achieve is because they have reached for even more. For my part, I have made over 30 films because I have tried to make 300. I believe Mindy Kaling has also known the particular satisfaction derived from working through the night in service to the vision of a spectacular project.

And as Mindy Kaling breaks it down: “People talk about confidence without ever bringing up hard work. That’s a mistake. I know I sound like some dour older spinster on Downton Abbey who has never felt a man’s touch and whose heart has turned to stone, but I don’t understand how you could have self-confidence if you don’t do the work.”

Congratulations, Mindy, I wish you and The Mindy Project all the best in your new home with Hulu!

Top photo courtesy of Mindy Kaling. Book cover courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Virtual Synesthesia: LA Phil Does musical Outreach

What is it like to experience live classical music for the first time? From the Slate.com Future Tense blog, Lily Hay Newman reports on this mashup of classical music and here-and-now technology as the LA Philharmonic brings new meaning to “concert in the park”. LA Phil is offering the public the opportunity to experience this virtual reality (VR) presentation of the beginning of Beethoven’s popular Fifth Symphony via a vehicle called Van Beethoven. Part of Conductor/Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel’s Immortal Beethoven Festival, Van Beethoven is offered to the public at various Greater Los Angeles locations from September 11 through October 18.

Newman, a classical music enthusiast, explains the unique value proposition of a concert film: “I can be right next to the musicians, or look at them from angles that would never be possible in real life. I can also face the conductor, in this case L.A. Phil music and artistic director Gustavo Dudamel, as he conducts – something that is almost never possible in a live concert. If you know a little bit about how playing instruments and conducting works, this is all fascinating.”

While Newman goes on to say that donning VR goggles alone doesn’t necessarily mint classical music lovers, she acknowledges it’s a step in the right direction.   “…I would think that for most people, getting up close and personal with musicians as they play isn’t going to make classical music more accessible by itself. You still don’t know the difference between an oboe and a clarinet.” If the outreach effort is successful, it will reach people with classical music limited exposure and inspire a curiosity and appreciation for the art form. As Newman continues, “As orchestras around the country attempt to put together compelling programs for new audience members, they often rely on recognizable and relatively short pieces to keep concerts moving. But this is only the first step in exposing people to the true joy of classical music.”

I talk frequently about the challenge creatives face in finding their audience, that tribe of enthusiastic fans that return again and again to find out what’s new and contribute to the dialog. I think it’s a fascinating lab experiment for a world class orchestra, cutting-edge technology and a humanistic touch, and I imagine LA Phil has more in the works, to reveal the “joy of classical music” Newman describes. This effort is reminiscent of others across the country, such as Detroit Institute of Arts Inside|Out campaign (see link, below). As the arts are limited in their ability to pull new patrons into their brick-and-mortar locations, they’ve adopted the initiatives other nonprofits, such as health care, use to get their services to meet people where they are. To that end, I say Bravo, LA Phil team!

 

A link to Lily Hay Newman’s piece from Slate.com: http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2015/09/08/los_angeles_philharmonic_experiments_with_virtual_reality.html

Even if you’re not in the area to enjoy the show, the LA Phil website has details about VR apps. Visit this link for dates and FAQs. http://www.laphil.com/vanbeethoven/dates

For more about the Detroit Institute of Arts Inside|Out campaign, follow this link. http://placemaking.mml.org/how-to/dia-inside-out/

Please share your experiences if you experience Van Beethoven!

Image and video courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Gaming the College System

Benefiting From a Behavior-Driving Application

What if playing around can lead to positive behaviors that can reduce environmental risks, such as reducing the drop out rate for first generation college students? Gamification is the term given to using game technology and tropes to drive desired behaviors among specific groups, and a recent story in the Chronicle of Higher Education points to some promising results.

Ball State Achievements appAuthor Sarah Brown reports that Ball State University (located in Muncie, Ind.) has released a smartphone app that gives small incentives to students at risk for dropping out. As Sarah Brown writes, “The university is in its second year of offering a mobile application called Ball State Achievements, designed for students who come to Ball State on federal Pell Grants. The app essentially gamifies their college experience; they earn points for engaging in specific aspects of campus life, which can then be cashed in to purchase items in the university’s bookstore or on-campus Starbucks. There is also a leaderboard within the app where the students can compete to earn the most points.”

This is an interesting application of behavioral science and technical innovation, and it appears to be as effective in the U.S. as smartphone app-driven initiatives I’ve read about elsewhere. Gamification has been leveraged by NGOs against TB in the developing world, for example, by working on specific behaviors like effective hand washing to avoid the spread of the TB causing bacterium. (Read Marie-Christine Boeve’s fantastic article on other developing world initiatives courtesy of The Guardian, published Sept. 25, 2014)

One reason I’m paying attention to this college application of the gamification trend: more diversity on campuses means more voices to contribute to this evolving human narrative, whether in the arts or the sciences.

So, I wonder: If a smartphone app can help first-generation college students stick with the culture shock and challenges of freshman year, what type of benefits could a behavior-driving app bring you and your organization?  

READ SARAH BROWN’S FULL ARTICLE FROM THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION.

Top image courtesy of designer Tyler Varnau.

 

My TIFF List

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on September 2, 2015.

TIFF (the Toronto International Film Festival) is my very favorite of all film festivals. The studios use TIFF as a launch-pad for fall awards-season movies, so the festival has glamour and stars. At the same time, you get the opportunity to look through global windows of films you will not see anywhere else.

Along with great curation—a cinema-lover’s mix of Hollywood red carpets and unique movies from all over the world—the festival is impeccably organized. Films screen within easy walking distance of each other, and the industry panels are just a few blocks away.

I never know what I will see at TIFF, but I know what I will hope to see. I just never get to every film on my list. Or even half the films. The lines may be too long, or the times may conflict, or I may run into a friend from London or Paris or Rome and decide to catch up.

But every year, I resolve to see as many films as I can. Here is my alphabetically-ordered TIFF list, with comments extracted from the TIFF program guide, and a few trailers along the way. If you’re going to TIFF, please let me know what’s on your list, and maybe I’ll run into you outside the Bell Lightbox.

AMAZING GRACE

I’m a sucker for music documentaries,and I loved Sydney Pollock’s work.

The late director Sydney Pollack’s behind-the-scenes documentary about the recording of Aretha Franklin’s best-selling album Amazing Grace finally sees the light of day more than four decades after the original footage was shot.

In January 1972, Aretha Franklin gave two days of gospel performances at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles, recording what would become her bestselling album, Amazing Grace. The sessions were captured by a film crew led by Sydney Pollack, but the footage wound up shelved in a vault and has remained one of the lost cinematic treasures of twentieth-century music.

ANOMALISA

This film first caught my attention as a Kickstarter campaign. Now it’s ready, and it has a great and strange title. Charlie Kaufman, the celebrated screenwriter of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation and director of Synecdoche, New York, and Duke Johnson venture into the world of stop-motion animation with this fable about a motivational speaker seeking to transcend his monotonous existence.

HARDCORE

How much fun will this be? A cybernetic super-soldier kicks, punches and parkours his way across Russia to save his wife from a psychotic paramilitary psychic bent on world domination, in this non-stop, white-knuckle, crackerjack thrill ride.

HEART OF A DOG

Renowned multidisciplinary artist Laurie Anderson returns with this lyrical and powerfully personal essay film that reflects on the deaths of her husband Lou Reed, her mother, her beloved dog, and such diverse subjects as family memories, surveillance, and Buddhist teachings.

HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT

True cinema history. Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, James Gray, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and others discuss the importance of the epochal book that transcribed the week-long 1962 interview between Alfred Hitchcock and French New Wave luminary François Truffaut.

In 1962, François Truffaut conducted a week-long interview with Alfred Hitchcock, going through the master’s career film by film. The resulting book, Hitchcock/Truffaut, remains one of the most influential cinema publications ever written. It was a project of lasting importance for Truffaut: seventeen years after the book’s first publication in 1967 and just before his own untimely death, he went back and prepared an updated edition. This documentary deepens the legacy of the project, bringing in contemporary directors to discuss the galvanizing effects of both Truffaut’s book and Hitchcock’s films.

JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE

I was entranced with the Amy Winehouse documentary, and I can’t wait to see this one. Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Amy Berg (Deliver Us from Evil) delves into the life of late rock legend Janis Joplin.

OUR BRAND IS CRISIS

Directed by the ever-intriguing David Gordon Green (who shot a video for my upcoming filmmakers’ resources project, being launched soon), this movie features Academy Award winners Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton in a story inspired by true events, in which rival American political strategists work to fix a Bolivian presidential election.

Our Brand Is Crisis would be cause for cynicism if it weren’t so stubbornly hopeful — and so entertaining. This wry drama, telling the fact-based story of American strategists hired to bolster an unpopular Bolivian presidential candidate, encapsulates the ethical chasms of twenty-first-century electioneering.

PARCHED

In a rural Indian village, four ordinary women begin to throw off the traditions that hold them in servitude, in this inspirational drama from director Leena Yadav.

This year has seen a cultural shift that puts more women at the active centre of Indian films. At the vanguard of this trend stands Parched, in which director Leena Yadav turns her lens on a group of ordinary women who, like the desert lands they inhabit, thirst for more than what life has given them. The film is lensed by Academy Award-winner Russel Carpenter, a visual artist of the first order, who also shot a video for my soon-to-be-launch resources project.

RETURN OF THE ATOM

This incisive and often savagely funny documentary chronicles the black comedy of errors that transpired when a remote Finnish island was selected as the site of the first new nuclear power plant in the West following the Chernobyl disaster.

Filmed over the course of more than a decade, this vital new documentary by Mika Taanila and Jussi Eerola examines the now-notorious construction of a nuclear power plant on the remote Finnish island of Olkiluoto.

SPEAR

We haven’t seen a great, cinematic exploration of autochthonous Australian world in a long time, and I’m looking forward to this one. In Spear, a young man reconciles ancient tradition with the modern, urban world in this debut feature from Stephen Page, artistic director of Australia’s renowned Bangarra Dance Theatre.

SPOTLIGHT

Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Michael Keaton star in this true story about a team of Boston Globe reporters who uncovered a massive scandal of child abuse and cover-ups within the local Catholic Church.

An urgent procedural concerning one of the most painful scandals in recent memory, the latest from writer-director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) tells the true story of how the Boston Globe revealed the Catholic Church’s cover-up of widespread child molestation within the Massachusetts priesthood.

THE ASSASSIN

A beautiful assassin (Shu Qi) is sent to kill the powerful lord who was once her betrothed, in this sumptuous martial-arts epic from Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien (Flight of the Red Balloon).

“Exquisite,” “astonishing,” and “masterful” are only some of the superlatives one could apply to The Assassin, a work so magnificently accomplished that it restores one’s faith in the power of filmmaking.

THE LOBSTER

If there were an Academy award for best premise, The Lobster would take home the statuette. Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz and John C. Reilly star in the deliciously bizarre new film from Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, ALPS), about a curious hotel where the residents are charged with finding a new mate within 45 days — under penalty of being transformed into animals should they fail.

Winner of the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes, the new film from Lanthimos is another journey into one of his singular universes.

TRUMBO

The Red Scare and blacklist are a black mark on America’s history, and one that has relevance and resonance today. In this film, Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) stars as the famous screenwriter and Hollywood blacklist victim Dalton Trumbo, in this engrossing biopic co-starring Helen Mirren, Elle Fanning, Diane Lane and John Goodman.

A fascinating portrait of one of the most emblematic figures of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Trumbo stars Cranston as the prolific screenwriter who paid a terrible price for his political convictions.

VICTORIA

I was hooked the moment I saw the trailer: Victoria looks like a cross between Run, Lola, Run and Birdman: It is a 140-minte action thriller all composed in a single, seemingly continuous take. A beautiful young Spanish nightclubber in Berlin becomes wheelwoman for a quartet of bank robbers, in this stunning heist thriller shot in a single extended take.

WHERE TO INVADE NEXT

You may not love Michael Moore, but he is always entertaining… and no one makes political documentaries like he does. Academy Award-winning director Michael Moore returns with what may be his most provocative and hilarious film yet: Moore tells the Pentagon to “stand down” — he will do the invading for America from now on.

YOUTH

Two old friends (Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel) reflect on their past, present, and the beauty and absurdity of the world during a vacation in the Swiss Alps, in the lovely and heart-warming new film from Academy Award winner Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty).

Top image from Parched, directed by Leenz Yadav, courtesy Toronto International Film Festival.

Mad Max: Go Outside the Box for Greatness

Mad Max Fury Road is a great movie, and not just because it holds you riveted and breathless for two hours. It’s great because director George Miller took outside-the-box chances, such as making Furiosa, the character played by Charlize Theron, the main character instead of Mad Max. He also called on Eve Ensler, the creator of The Vagina Monologues and founder of VDay, to consult on what would become one of the most feminist movies we’ve seen in years.

Eve and I are friends from when I was at National Geographic Films, and we discussed doing a film together. She and I recently talked about Mad Max Fury Road and Eve’s work in the world.

Adam Leipzig: Eve, I always knew you were badass, but when I found out you consulted on this movie you became super-badass in my book.

Eve Ensler: It was so thrilling to be asked. I had given the keynote speech at a human rights conference in Sydney and George Miller heard my speech. They were in pre-production. He does this wonderful thing where he sends a recording of his voice in email form. He told me about the film, and said it would be wonderful if I could work with the “wives” and talk to them about my experiences with sex trafficking, being in multiple war zones, what happens with sex slavery and rape trauma, what it would mean if you were carrying the baby of a rapist. He asked me to talk about what that kind of sexual terrorism does to your body and how it forces you to leave the landscape and disassociate from yourself, and the Stockholm Syndrome, how over a period of time you become attached to your perpetrator, and what it would mean to struggle with leaving your perpetrator.

AL: I have loved Max Max from the beginning, from 1979 when I saw the film on opening day, and the critics savaged it.

EE: Me too. I do not like action films, but Mad Max really established something else, because it was so indie, political and allegorical.

AL: The Road Warrior, which was released in 1981, is a movie every film student should see about 10 times because it is perfectly made, every shot, every cut.

EE: That was his best movie until this one. People are calling Mad Max Fury Road a masterpiece. It’s a rock-body-opera.

AL: You worked with the cast where they were shooting in Namibia, and right after that you went to City of Joy, the community of women survivors of violence you’ve established in Buvaku, Congo. That’s one of the the things I most admire about you — that you took your success from The Vagina Monologues and used it to create an empowering place for women who have had some of the most traumatic experiences in modern history. What was that like, to go from the Mad Max movie set to the real world of City of Joy?

EE: It was shocking. The landscapes were all too familiar. Bukavu is such a sacred place, and also so anarchic in terms of poverty, lack of electricity and water, and a town of 50,000 that now holds a million, and constant, constant influxes of terrible violence. On arriving I felt like, the future is here.

eve ensler city of joy

V-Day Founder Eve Ensler at Panzi at the opening ceremonies of the City of Joy, Democratic Republic of Congo, 02/05/11. (photo: Paula Allen/vday.org)

AL: Did you do workshops with the Mad Max cast?

EE: We worked for hours each day. I told them lots of stories, they asked questions, I had them read things, we went into deep issues around rape and trauma. It wasn’t similar to other workshops I’ve done, because it was very specifically focused.

AL: Did you feel the resonance of that work when you saw the film?

EE: George wanted to create women who are not victims, and he certainly accomplished that. The backstories are indelibly imprinted on those actors. You believe they are traumatized. In some ways, they are living the best lives in that world because they are being kept as breeders, so they are untainted in a world where everybody is in dire circumstances. On another level, the comforts they are receiving in terms of having water and being protected are at the price of being sex slaves. There are many allegories to where we are today: so many women today are sex trafficked so they can make a living to support their families, so many women are being forced to give up their freedom to survive.

AL: It is quite related to your work, which is also about women not being victims.

EE: Absolutely. When you first see the women in the film, they are chanting, “We are not things! We are not things!” As soon as I read that in the script, I said, I’m in. That is the call of our times. How are we going to organize as women and men to rise up against the neo-liberal, capitalist, racist patriarchy, which is destroying us, and what are we willing to give up for that liberation?

AL: What do you think needs to be given up?

EE: If we really are going to bring in the new world, everyone has to be committed on some level to giving up their comforts, so we can have a world where everybody has water, everybody is fed, everybody is living in comfort and has food on the table, everybody has medical support. That’s what the movie is looking at. We live in a world where 85 people are making the same money as 3.5 billion, there is a tiny percentage that have everything and the people below have next to nothing, as in Mad Max, where people barely get any water and are told not to get used to it because they’ll get addicted to it. It’s the same system we are in now.

AL: The landscape of scarce resources and the few vs. the many goes back to those first Mad Max movies. It was a clear political agenda, and very much an art house film agenda. One of the reasons I so admire The Road Warrior is that it was the first film that combined the art house with commercial filmmaking. For that reason it is a landmark piece of cinema.

In the same way, there is a relationship to your work. When you first started doing The Vagina Monologues, it could not have been more art house. In fact, it wasn’t even in a theatre. It was at the fringe of the fringe, but it became extraordinarily commercial — not because you were seeking success and fame, but it happened.

EE: Because it resonated with so many people. I just now got this article sent to me, a new Gallup poll:

While International Women’s Day this Sunday will focus mostly on how the world thinks women are doing, it’s important to understand how the women of the world think they are doing. The best way to find this out is to ask them.

This International Women’s Day, more than one in four women worldwide — or about 620 million women — rate their lives positively enough to be considered “thriving.” The life ratings of the rest — or about 2 billion women — place them in a category of “struggling” or “suffering.”

AL: Things come full circle. A few months ago there was a performance by the WordTheatre at Guerrilla Atelier, a considered lifestyle space here in Downtown LA’s Arts District. A group of men read your poem The Man Prayer. It begins:

May I be a Man
Whose confidence comes from the depth of my giving
Who understands that vulnerability is my greatest strength
Who creates space rather than dominates it

I sent you a photo of it, I think you were in Paris at the time, and you emailed me back about how moving it was to see that.

EE: Yes. And now I have been reading the press around Mad Max. There are some so-called “men’s rights” groups, which I think are fairly reactionary, who are boycotting the movie. They are saying women are not equal to men, women have no logic. They’re angry that I was a consultant on the film. They feel feminism is destroying Mad Max.

AL: Oh, give me a break.

EE: It is astonishing. Here is what’s amazing about the film. Charlize Theron’s character has a real mission. Any violence that occurs does not feel gratuitous because she is directed toward her mission. When you see a female action character, who is capable of fighting on equal ground with the men, who is the most powerful fighter in this film, when you see that, as a woman, allegorically, metaphorically, in all ways, it changes your idea of yourself. You actually believe you have agency over your life, you can fight with men as an equal partner — in some cases she is saving Mad Max, in other cases he is saving her. You never feel women are crippled, or disabled, or incapable of defending themselves. That alone is so empowering.

Charlize’s character is taking the wives to the green place called the Land of the Many Mothers. Another thing that is astonishing is when they get there, there’s a reveal. I don’t want to spoil it for people, but the reveal of who they are is something I have never seen before in a film.

AL: Its antecedent is in Monique Wittig’s 1969 novel Les Guérillères.

EE: It has never been in a movie. These women are fierce and capable. I do not believe in violence. Yet as a metaphor for women fighting and standing up for what they believe in, and joining forces with other women and men to rally forward, it is incredibly powerful.

AL: As every movie franchise is rebooted, it goes back to its origin story. Mad Max Fury Road feels as though it grapples with the origin story of men’s violence against women.

EE: Going back to our origins, where the collective unconscious sets up what propels us in a particular motion, and what story is at the basis of our consciousness — that’s what determines our reality right now. This film is so powerful because it rearranges the whole cellular makeup of that story. Even to utter the words “feminist action film” is to transmit a new idea into the collective unconsciousness.

Feminism has never been excluding of men or at the expense of men. When women are liberated and equal, men will be liberated as well.

Top image: Charlize Theron, at right, leads the wives on a quest for freedom in Mad Max Fury Road. Photo courtesy Warner Bros.