WEEK IN WOMEN news roundup: Women warriors continue to feel the Force in ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi,’ woman-directed animated film ‘The Breadwinner’ brings Afghan girl’s struggle to life with help from Angelina Jolie, ‘Wanda’ and ‘Lives of Performers’ added to National Film Registry

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Daisy Ridley stars as Rey in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." Lucasfilm photo

Daisy Ridley stars as Rey in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Lucasfilm photo

Growing up, Daisy Ridley couldn’t help but notice that women were a rarity among cinematic action heroes.

“As a girl growing up in London, I obviously knew there was a disparity,” the English actor said in a Boston Herald story.

Although female film action heroes are still in the minority, Ridley is discovering firsthand the power the right character can have on audiences. After debuting on screen as Rey, a scrappy scavenger with a mysterious pass and a great affinity for the Force, 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” she is reprising the character in the follow-up, “The Last Jedi.”

The response was “beyond anything I could imagine. It’s not like, ‘She’s a girl.’ It’s just great characters,” Ridley said.

As the Associated Press reports, writer-director Rian Johnson’s second installment in the third “Star Wars” trilogy rocketed to a debut of $220 million at the North American box office this past weekend, according to studio estimates Sunday. That gives “The Last Jedi” the second-best opening ever, slotting in behind only its predecessor, “The Force Awakens.”

The Disney blockbuster became just the fourth film to open above $200 million domestically. Aside from “The Force Awakens” ($248.8 million), the others are “The Avengers” ($207.4 million) and “Jurassic World” ($208.8 million). Accounting for inflation, the debut of 2012’s “The Avengers” would roughly tie with “The Last Jedi.”

“The Last Jedi” is off to a similar start overseas, too, with $230 million in international ticket sales, said Disney. That brings its three-day global haul to $450 million, according to the AP.

The opening also gave the Walt Disney Co. the opportunity to flex its muscles on the heels of the deal announced Thursday for it to purchase 21st Century Fox for $52.4 billion. As part of the deal, Disney will take control of 20th Century Fox, one of Hollywood’s six major studios, according to the AP.

Going back 40 years to the first “Star Wars” movie, the space saga was groundbreaking in its portrayal of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) as a woman capable not only of handling herself but also of leading an intergalactic rebellion. But for too long, Leia was essentially the only woman in all of “Star Wars’” “galaxy far, far away.”

With the new trilogy, “The Force Awakens” helmer J.J. Abrams and Johnson have made room for more women besides Rey. Played by Fisher, who died last December during post-production, Gen. Leia Organa is back to lead the Resistance in “The Last Jedi,” and after making a striking debut in “The Force Awakens,” Gwendoline Christie is reprising her role as the formidable First Order heavy Captain Phasma.

“I was very much taking a cue from Leia and Leia’s place in these movies going back to the original trilogy, and the impact she had on me as a kid — when she was literally the only female character,” Johnson told the Los Angeles Times. “I remember the scene in the Death Star: ‘Into the garbage chute, flyboy.’ That had a huge impact on me. And carrying Carrie’s spirit into this movie felt really right.”

But “The Last Jedi” also introduces new women warriors: Resistance mechanic named Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and the selflessness of her sister, a rebel gunner named Paige (Veronica Ngo) — whom the L.A. Times describes as the first female Asian characters to get significant screen time and heroine turns in the “Star Wars” films.

And Laura Dern makes her “Star Wars” debut as purple-haired Vice Admiral Holdo, one of Gen. Organa’s top officers orchestrating the Resistance’s military efforts against the First Order.

“It just feels right, especially now,” said Johnson, 44, of the diverse heroes — many of them women — who lead the charge in the eighth “episode” set in a galaxy far, far away. “It’s a sea change you feel happening. The fact that it is powerful for folks who haven’t seen themselves [reflected] on screen, as heroes and also villains, all types of characters… to see how much that matters to people, and how emotional that is, has been really impactful.”

In speaking to the AP about “The Last Jedi’s” vast opening weekend, Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis credited the diversity of the cast with helping the movie appeal to such a wide swath of the moviegoing galaxy.

“The results speak to the power of representation,” said Hollis. “The film really reflects our world and beyond. It becomes something people can see themselves in, whether they see themselves in Rey or Finn or Poe or Rose or Captain Phasma. They can relate to all those characters.”

In Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, Parvana (voice of Saara Chaudry) and Shauzia (Soma Chhaya) pass as boys in the animated film "The Breadwinner." Cartoon Saloon photo

In Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, Parvana (voice of Saara Chaudry) and Shauzia (Soma Chhaya) pass as boys in the animated film “The Breadwinner.” Cartoon Saloon photo

Nora Twomey brings ‘The Breadwinner’ to the big screen with Angelina Jolie’s help

While women directors like Patty Jenkins (“Wonder Woman”), Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”), Dee Rees (“Mudbound”) and Angelina Jolie (“First They Killed My Father”) have earned acclaim for their live-action films, women directors Nora Twomey (“The Breadwinner”) and Dorota Kobiela (who co-directed “Loving Vincent” with Hugh Welchman) have received widespread praise for their animated feature films.

As I noted in my review, “The Breadwinner” is the latest in a series of visually magnificent and emotionally rich films created by the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, which produced the equally magical “Song of the Sea” and “The Secret of Kells.” Both of the studio’s previous releases received Academy Award nominations for best animated feature, and “The Breadwinner” certainly should continue that streak.

After co-directing the fantastical “The Secret of Kells,” Cartoon Saloon co-founder Nora Twomey marks her solo feature film directorial debut with the more realistic and harrowing “The Breadwinner.” Adapted from the best-selling children’s novel by Deborah Ellis, who co-wrote the script with Anita Doron, the story is at once sobering and stirring.

“I have never had huge ambitions when it comes to directing,” Twomey told Vanity Fair. “But when I read this book, I knew I had to do it. I called my partners [at Cartoon Saloon] into the meeting room the next day.”

The film is set in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2001, as the city has fallen under the harsh rule of the Taliban, which is particularly severe for women and girls, who aren’t even allowed to step outside their homes without a man accompanying them.

It follows the bright and spirited Parvana (Saara Chaudry), an 11-year-old girl who routinely accompanies her father, Nurullah (Ali Badshah), to the marketplace. A learned former teacher who was crippled in the last war, Nurullah peddles household goods as well as his skills at reading and writing – until the Taliban break into the family’s home one evening and drag him away.

With his unjust imprisonment, Parvana and the rest of her family – her fragile and heartsick mother, Fattema (Laara Sadiq); headstrong older sister, Soraya (Shaista Latif); and innocent toddler brother, Zaki – are left in dire straits. Without a man to accompany them, they can’t go into the shops or well to get food or water, and when Parvana tries to sneak into the marketplace to buy provisions, the shopkeepers won’t sell her anything for fear of Taliban retribution.

Desperate to provide for herself and her family, Parvana cuts her hair short, dresses in the clothes of her deceased older brother Sulayman (Noorin Gulamgaus) and ventures out disguised as a boy. Not only is she able to buy food and draw water without being harassed or beaten, but by pretending to her father’s nephew, she also revels in her newfound ability to roam and play without keeping her eyes down and her face covered.

Twomey told Vanity Fair she didn’t realize how daunting the adaptation would be until she and her partners already had acquired financing. After all, “The Breadwinner” is set in a country she had never been to, during a time when photography was forbidden.

“I don’t think I realized the enormity until it was too late,” Twomey said of the project, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Fortunately, actor, filmmaker and activist Angelina Jolie, who has visited Afghanistan and funded two primary schools for girls there as a United Nations high commissioner for refugees special envoy, signed on to the project after reading Doron’s script and viewing early artwork overseen by art directors Reza Riahi and Ciaran Duffy.

“[Angelina] offered a very wise, gentle, guiding hand,” said Twomey, adding that Jolie also sent the cast and crew a series of inspirational video messages to motivate them during production. “She understood what we were trying to do, and her sensibilities were so close to the film.”

Over the about four years between “The Breadwinner’s” screenplay and sound-design stages, Twomey spoke to as many Afghan people as possible, including members of the Afghan Women’s Organization, people who left during the Communist regime, people who had been part of the mujahideen, people who fled from the mujahideen, and people who fled the Taliban.

“We were relying on what people said—not just for authenticity in storytelling, but for the visuals as well,” Twomey told Vanity Fair. “Their impressions of the marketplace, the way people carried themselves, even the amount of eye contact that a young girl would be allowed to make in Afghanistan during that time without it being seen as confrontational.

“We heard about children normalizing the most extraordinary of situations—situations that, to my ears, sounded horrifying.”

Although the circumstances were tragic and specific, the director said the central theme of “The Breadwinner” is universal.

“We hold on to the people we love and try to just get through the day. That was the beat around which I built the whole film,” she added. “This beat of family life, finding food, getting sustenance to those you love, going out and trying to earn some money, and getting up to do the same thing tomorrow. … At its heart the film is about hope. There is nothing more hopeful than young people, what they can endure, what they can express, and what they can achieve.”

As I noted in my review, “The Breadwinner” is often sorrowful and scary, with an ending that uplifts but doesn’t quite satisfy. Twomey’s gorgeous animated film also succeeds as a resonant coming-of-age tale that pays homage to the soul-strengthening power of family and storytelling. To read my review, click here.

Writer, director and star Barbara Loden appears in the 1971 film "Wanda." Bardene International photo

Writer, director and star Barbara Loden appears in the 1971 film “Wanda.” Bardene International photo

‘Wanda’ and ‘Lives of Performers’ added to National Film Registry

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden has announced the 2017 selections to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, as I reported on my BAM’s Blog.

Selected for their cultural, historic and/or aesthetic importance, these 25 motion pictures range from an early film of the New York subway in 1905 and the musical biopic “La Bamba” to the holiday action thriller “Die Hard” and “The Goonies,” the adventure tale of a band of misfits.

“The selection of a film to the National Film Registry recognizes its importance to American cinema and the nation’s cultural and historical heritage,” Hayden said in a statement. “Our love affair with motion pictures is a testament to their enduring power to enlighten, inspire and inform us as individuals and a nation as a whole.  Being tasked with selecting only 25 each year is daunting because there are so many great films deserving of this honor.”

Spanning the period 1905 to 2000, the films named to this year’s registry include Hollywood blockbusters, documentaries, silent movies, animation, shorts and independent and home movies. The 2017 selections bring the number of films in the registry to 725, which is a small fraction of the library’s vast moving-image collection of 1.3 million items, according to a news release.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, the selections skew significantly toward movies made by and centered on men. But there are at least three interesting selections by women directors on this year’s list. Dancer, choreographer, and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer’s 1972 experimental film “Lives of Performers” is considered a stark and revealing examination of romantic alliances that examines the dilemma of a man who can’t choose between two women and makes them both suffer.

Charlotte Zwerin’s insightful 1988 documentary “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser” blends together excellent interviews with those who knew the jazz pianist-composer best and riveting concert performances, many shot in the 1960s by Christian Blackwood.

Film and TV actor Barbara Loden wrote and directed the affecting 1971 character study “Wanda” about an uneducated, passive woman from the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania, where the cinema verite-like film was shot. The title character possesses critically low self-esteem, leaves her kids and husband and then drifts aimlessly into a series of one-night stands and a dangerous relationship with a bank robber. Today, many consider her low-budget study of loneliness and personal isolation one of the finest works of independent cinema during the 1970s.

Other films on the list of this year’s selections are the 1939 aviation adventure starring Cary Grant, “Only Angels Have Wings”; Elia Kazan’s 1947 study of anti-Semitism, “Gentleman’s Agreement”; Stanley Kramer’s 1967 groundbreaking drama “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” featuring powerhouse performances by Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier; the 1989 inspirational fantasy “Field of Dreams,” starring Kevin Costner; “Titanic,” James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster about the great maritime disaster; Christopher Nolan’s 2000 breakthrough thriller “Memento”; two very different films starring Kirk Douglas, the historical epic “Spartacus” and the film noir “Ace in the Hole”; the 1979 documentary-styled “Boulevard Nights” depicts the struggles facing Chicano youth in Los Angeles; and the 1978 version of the quintessential superhero, “Superman,” directed by Richard Donner, who also was the director of “The Goonies.”

The library also announced that 64 motion pictures, previously named to the National Film Registry, are now freely available online at loc.gov/collections/selections-from-the-national-film-registry/about-this-collection.  Follow the conversation about the 2017 registry on Twitter at @librarycongress and #NatFilmRegistry.



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