In Theaters

Fighting for recognition can grow tiresome, especially for those who have had to do so seemingly forever. Yet nothing is gained without making the effort, difficult and frustrating though that may be. Nevertheless, when the attempt succeeds, there’s a tremendous satisfaction that comes from it, not only in terms of realizing a goal, but also in setting a precedent that many may have thought could never be set. So it was for an ambitious crew of adventurers who took on a challenge of global proportions (and implications), as seen in the uplifting new documentary, “Maiden” (web site, trailer).

In 1989, 24-year-old Tracy Edwards undertook a task that had never been tried before – fielding an all-female sailing crew for an entry in the Whitbread Round the World Race (now known as the Ocean Race). The arduous yachting event, which at the time covered more than 30,000 miles and was conducted in six legs over eight months, is the world’s longest race of any kind. And, given its sometimes-treacherous conditions, such as those of the South Ocean just north of Antarctica, it tests the mettle of even the hardiest of sailors.

In light of the foregoing, one can only imagine what the neophyte crew was up against when taking on this challenge, not just to be competitive but to even survive the ordeal, one that has had its share of fatalities. What’s more, in a sport that was heavily male dominated at the time, the all-female crew wasn’t taken seriously, often comically derided by chauvinistic journalists who saw the effort as a novelty, a side show or a warm, fuzzy human interest story.

With the backing of King Hussein of Jordan, the crew of the sailboat Maiden embarks on an epic global journey in the Whitbread Round the World Race as seen in the inspiring new documentary, “Maiden.” Photo courtesy of Tracy Edwards and Sony Pictures Classics.

These were the obstacles Edwards was up against when she began her campaign to launch her entry in the race. These hurdles were difficult enough in and of themselves, but, to make matters worse, they made it virtually impossible to find backers for this expensive proposition. And, if all this weren’t enough, those who knew Edwards had doubts about her ability to follow through on this enormous commitment, including her own mother, who didn’t hesitate to remind her once wild child daughter that she rarely saw anything through to completion.

So how did Edwards find herself wanting to take up such a daunting challenge? After an idyllic childhood with loving parents, Tracy experienced a series of upsets in the wake of the unexpected death of her father. When her mother remarried to an abusive stepfather, the teenager began a turbulent adolescence, eventually leaving home to be on her own. By her own admission, Tracy lived the life of a party girl, holding various short-term jobs and spending much of her time having fun. But, when she took a job as a hostess on a charter boat, her life took a radical turn.

Tracy discovered a love of boating, something that at last gave her a sense of direction. And, through a chance encounter with a VIP guest on one of her charter excursions – King Hussein of Jordan – she developed a lasting friendship with the monarch, who admired her drive and enthusiasm and urged her to pursue her dreams. In fact, the King would one day come to her rescue by providing the sought-after funding she needed to launch her entry in the Whitbread. With the monetary support she needed in hand, she was on her way, but many more challenges would lie ahead.

Crew members of the yacht Maiden (from left, Angela Heath, Mikaela Von Koskull, Michèle Paret, Tracy Edwards, Amanda Swan Neal) take on the challenges of the high seas as the first all-female team entered in the Whitbread Round the World Race as depicted in the engaging new documentary, “Maiden.” Photo courtesy of Tracy Edwards and Sony Pictures Classics.

To get the project afloat, Edwards needed two things: a boat and a crew, both of which proved to be challenges. For starters, yachts are expensive. And, in a sport where virtually all of the participants at the time were men, finding experienced sailing women was difficult. However, given Edwards’s resolve, she was determined to find what she needed, and, before long, with the ample guidance of land-side project manager Howard Gibbons, those needs were met.

The crew came together more easily than expected, almost as if it evolved into place. The members had varying degrees of experience, mostly from little to none, but they all had tremendous enthusiasm for the project, not just for the precedent it was setting, but also for the grand spirit of adventure that this undertaking represented. Edwards was also fortunate to land an experienced first mate, Marie-Claude Kieffer Heys.

As for the yacht, Edwards secured a used vessel that needed work – a lot of it. However, given her access to an enthusiastic team of refurbishers (i.e., the ship’s crew), she had much of the help she needed to make the boat seaworthy and, she hoped, competitive. After months of hard work, the craft was ready to embark on its global journey, an odyssey for which it was christened Maiden.

However, even with a crew in place and a boat ready to sail, the Maiden team still had problems to solve. The biggest challenge was a leadership conflict between Tracy and Marie-Claude, one that led to clashes and often left the crew unsure who was really in charge. It became apparent not long before the start of the race that this arrangement, as ideal as it may have looked on paper, was not going to work in practice, and so Marie-Claude was let go. While this change may have been good for morale, the first mate’s departure left a gaping hole in the crew, one that had to be filled if the effort were to go forward. With this being Tracy’s project, she stepped up to take Marie-Claude’s place, thus saddling herself with the dual role of skipper and first mate, a double dose of responsibility for someone who was not all that experienced at sailing in the first place.

And so, not long thereafter, it was time to shove off. The crew left the port of Southampton on September 2, 1989 on the initial leg of the race, crossing the Atlantic from the UK to Punta del Este, Uruguay. It was the first phase of five more to follow that took Maiden to Freemantle, Australia and Auckland, New Zealand before returning to Punta del Este and Southampton with a stop-off in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida in between. During the journey, the crew would face countless ordeals from howling winds and gargantuan waves to massive icebergs and life-threatening shipboard leaks. There was also the tragic news of the death of a crew member of another boat who was swept overboard and into the icy waters of the South Ocean. And, even with all this, the challenge of the race itself persistently lurked in the background, continuing to test the skills and competitive spirit of the crew even when their very survival was on the line.

Mikaela Von Koskull (left) and Jeni Mundy (right) steer the racing yacht Maiden through often-unpredictable waters in director Alex Holmes’s new documentary, “Maiden.” Photo courtesy of Tracy Edwards and Sony Pictures Classics.

These circumstances undoubtedly pushed the limits and abilities of the Maiden crew (as well as those of all the other entrants). The harshness of these conditions might easily prompt many to ask, “Why would anyone want to endure something like that?” However, it’s at times like these when one really gets to see what he or she is made of, and, for the crew of Maiden, they had much to prove, not only to a skeptical world, but also to themselves.

Pulling off a feat like this calls for a boatload of confidence, a self-assurance that it can indeed be accomplished. That’s where a fervent belief in one’s abilities and convictions comes into play. Were it not for the ardent belief in themselves, the crew of Maiden may have never left home port, let alone embarked on such an incredible journey, one whose demands were both literal and figurative.

A venture like this is not something one can approach casually. It takes vision, an ability to see what needs to be done and how to reach the sought-after goal. And, given that something like this had never been attempted before, there was no rule book for how the Maiden crew could arrive at its destination. Edwards and company had to devise a plan all their own, one that called for them to innovate, to push through limitations and break down supposedly insurmountable barriers, none of which would have happened if they didn’t believe they could.

Such envisioning factored into their plan in many ways. For example, in the run-up to the race, Edwards needed to work out the logistics of this effort, with funding arguably being the biggest challenge. She believed in the validity of her venture despite all of the rejections she received, a conviction that encouraged her to keep asking for support. Somewhere in her mind, she knew that someone would come through as long as she believed in the notion that it was OK to keep asking, a request that was finally fulfilled when she turned to her old friend, King Hussein.

That kind of belief conviction proved essential during the race itself as well. Given the harsh conditions the crew often faced, especially during the leg from Uruguay to Australia, Edwards and her shipmates were pushed to their limits. At times like that, their personal fortitude (and their personal belief in it) was severely tested, a time when survival was an even bigger reward than winning. Had it not been for such firmly rooted beliefs in themselves, the crew of Maiden may not have come through their ordeal safe and sound – or at all.

None of this would have happened, however, were it not for the spirit of cooperation involved. Even though Maiden’s entry in the race was Edwards’s brainchild, and even though she carried the lion’s share of the burden in organizing the venture and formulating the team’s strategy, this was a collective effort, one in which each crew member made significant contributions, from the skipper all the way down to the ship’s cook. By pooling their efforts, the women of Maiden realized the outcome they sought – to succeed at something that had never been attempted and that many skeptics openly scoffed at. Their story is truly one of inspiration, one that proves we can accomplish anything we try when we put our minds to it.

The crew members of the sailboat Maiden (from left, Tracy Edwards, Mikaela Von Koskull, Michèle Paret (back turned), Jo Gooding, Claire Warren, Angela Heath, Sarah Davies, Amanda Swan Neal, Dawn Riley, Sally Hunter, Jeni Mundy, Tanja Visser) walk the deck of their vessel in the new documentary, “Maiden.” Photo courtesy of Tracy Edwards and Sony Pictures Classics.

Although a little slow at the outset, this inspiring and entertaining documentary is more than just a laudatory exercise about taking on the untried. It’s also an engaging, beautifully photographed adventure saga about an arduous task that supremely tests one’s wits and endurance, regardless of gender or any other defining characteristic. This riveting, spellbinding tale depicts the triumphs and the perils of this venture, often characterized by an edge-of-your-seat quality, a trait rarely seen in documentaries. But, as expected, there is also the film’s pervasive uplifting message, one sure to inspire viewers, particularly young women looking for role models to spur them on to their own personal greatness. And, in that regard, there are few who can top what Tracy Edwards achieved.

The recent rise of the #MeToo movement has had a tremendous impact on society and its outlooks, changing how women are viewed and opening up opportunities that were not previously available. Yet, were it not for the accomplishments of courageous souls like Tracy Edwards and the crew of Maiden, there may not have been the foundation needed to build such an initiative. The achievements of the current movement’s forerunners deserve recognition, even years after the fact, for helping to launch the successes that are emerging now. Indeed, with the sails unfurled, there’s no telling where this voyage will take us.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Surveying One’s Own Personal Turf

Many of us would probably like to think we’re true to ourselves, being honest and forthright and acting in line with our truest intentions. But are we? What if we let other considerations creep into play, like feeling the need to be overly sensitive so as to cause no offense? Perhaps we might also feel a little competitive with others, succumbing to peer pressure and comparing our situations to theirs, fudging things a bit in the process to appear on par with them. Or maybe there are additional, hard-to-spot concerns that get in the way and cloud our thinking. Such are some of the issues faced by a group of outwardly blissful but inwardly insecure suburbanites in the wacky new comedy, “Greener Grass” (web site).

Ah, Suburbia, the land where all is perfect and the promise of everything wonderful is always unquestionably fulfilled. So it is (or so it would seem) in an upper middle class version of this modern-day utopia, where every mother is an ever-smiling soccer mom, all residents have (or are working on getting) perfect teeth and everybody is so polite that they make Canadians appear downright rude. Life is beautiful.

Or is it? In “Greener Grass,” the filmmakers follow the lives of two couples, Jill and Nick Davies (Jocelyn DeBoer, Beck Bennett) and Lisa and Dennis Wetbottom (Dawn Luebbe, Neil Casey). They live in a hyper-pastel community that resembles the neighborhood in “Edward Scissorhands” (1990) with touches of “The Stepford Wives” (1975, 2004), Martha Stewart and David Lynch thrown in for good measure. They reside in impeccably appointed homes, get around by driving brightly adorned golf carts and watch pleasantly innocuous TV shows like “Bald Guys and Bouquets.”

Jill and Nick are the publicly proud (though privately anxious) parents of Julian (Julian Hilliard), an awkward 7-year-old having trouble fitting in (and controlling his bladder), and Madison (Abigail Kurtz, Allison Kurtz), a newborn whom everyone adores (perhaps a little too much at times). Lisa and Dennis meanwhile are mom and dad to Bob (Asher Miles Fallica), whom they’re having a devil of a time raising, a problem that makes them want more children – and at almost any cost.

Jill and Lisa are (supposedly) best friends, though at times it seems they know little about each other (such as Lisa not knowing that Jill was going to have a second child until she actually sees her friend holding the baby in her arms, something she ”just noticed”). And, despite their allegedly close friendship, they’re also somewhat competitive with one another (though ever so pleasantly, to be sure). One thing’s for certain, however: Lisa envies Jill’s life and quietly (and perhaps somewhat less than consciously) reshapes her own existence to emulate (some might say replicate or even steal) her friend’s reality. But, then, that’s not entirely unexpected; after all, isn’t keeping up with Joneses one of the presumptions of suburban life?

Writer-directors Jocelyn DeBoer (left) and Dawn Luebbe (right) star as suburbanites Jill and Lisa, respectively, in the wacky new comedy, “Greener Grass.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

As their lives play out, Jill and Lisa go about their daily affairs with one another and their fellow suburbanites, such as Kim Ann (Mary Holland), a home-based purveyor of designer knives who’s divorcing her husband, Rob (Jim Cummings), and goes out her way to make sure everybody knows about it; Marriott (Janicza Bravo), an African-American hairdresser who could stand to sharpen her skills (and not by the methods she’s currently using); and Miss Human (D’Arcy Carden), the local primary school’s politically correct first grade teacher, an ever-vigilant, hypersensitive worrywart who’s terrified of being seen in a bad light, one that could earn her a reputation as something as unthinkable as “a Native American giver.” These interactions are anything but ordinary, but one can always be sure that they’re eminently courteous.

However, despite such pervasive and overarching pleasantries, will life play out as hoped for? Are there unexpected surprises that await the cheery residents? Or is Suburbia not everything it’s supposedly cracked up to be? In a land where the grass always seems greener over the neighbor’s white picket fence, one might ultimately find that it’s not as green anywhere as originally thought.

Having grown up in Suburbia, I can appreciate the bitingly cynical view taken by this strange little film. The pretense, hypocrisy and obliviousness displayed here may be more than a little exaggerated, but, at its core, the film aptly depicts qualities I often found in the daily existence of this “artificial” reality.

Why “artificial?” That’s because of the often-disingenuous nature of this lifestyle, one that all too frequently defies common sense and causes one’s head to spin. This cinematic indictment of those principles takes no prisoners, calling suburban life on the carpet to expose its “euphemistic” attributes as the phony, sham-like qualities they frequently are.

Perhaps the biggest such disclosure is how readily this lifestyle dispenses with integrity. Given how often the characters in this film qualify their actions and intents by considerations that fly in the face of integrity and authenticity, such as their preoccupations with insincere politeness and political correctness, the further their outcomes stray from what they hope to achieve. With matters going awry at seemingly every turn, it should come as no surprise that things often don’t turn out as planned. This should be a potent cautionary tale to those of us – suburbanites or not – who let ancillary concerns creep into the realization of our hoped-for objectives.

Even self-defense class is characterized by extreme politeness in the version of Suburbia depicted in the new off-the-wall comedy, “Greener Grass,” coming to theaters this fall. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Understanding this is crucial for maintaining and holding onto our personal power. When we compromise our beliefs for the sake of other considerations, such as the approval of others, even when that calls for us not being genuine with ourselves, we pay a potentially high price. We may end up giving away our power as a consequence, leaving us frustrated with our outcomes – and ourselves.

One of the factors that can seriously interfere with our well-being under these conditions is the impact of peer pressure. It tends to run rampant in Suburbia, and, in the depiction of it here, it’s on steroids and out of control. In the interest of not causing offense, however, its influence can become effectively paralyzing, especially when everyone in the community is bought into it. With their actions and intents colored by this consideration, these suburbanites imprison themselves in a mindset where this concern overrides virtually everything else they hope to achieve. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with showing a little courtesy to one another, it can get out of hand when it reigns supreme. That’s perhaps best illustrated in the film on several occasions when golf cart operators approach an intersection from all four directions simultaneously and no one wants to be the first to proceed after they all stop. The fear of being discourteous in this situation (and essentially everything they do) is so overwhelming that no one can carry on with individual pursuits, leaving them stuck, unfulfilled and, very likely, flush with trepidation. Is that any way to live one’s life?

Destined to be a cult classic, this off-the-wall metaphorical comedy takes viewers in unexpected directions from start to finish. Despite occasional editing/pacing issues, a tendency toward being episodic, some overly silly or underdeveloped bits that don’t land as well as they could, and a few too many protracted and repetitive reaction shots, this insightful debut feature from writer-directors DeBoer and Luebbe otherwise serves up an array of insightful, wickedly funny, truly outrageous laughs about life in Suburbia and the false promises often associated with it. Be prepared for something weird, and you’ll be rewarded.

“Greener Grass” has primarily been playing at film festivals, such as the recent Chicago Film Critics Film Festival, where I screened it. However, the picture has secured a distributor and will be receiving a theatrical run this fall. Check local listings for availability.

If ever we doubt our circumstances, we should look to ourselves first for clarification. We should ask ourselves questions like “Are we being true to what we seek?” and “How might we be sabotaging our lives (and for the sake of what)?” The answers could go a long way in giving us clarity about our thoughts, beliefs and intents regarding what we’re doing and why. They might even show us how to spot the errors in our ways – and help us find where the grass truly is greener.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

The Prescience of the Past

They say that those who don’t learn from the past are destined to repeat it. When we hear that, we typically think in terms of historical events and how we may end up unintentionally mimicking them in our thoughts, words and deeds if we fail to pay attention.

But does this principle apply only to the happenings of everyday life? Could it be that cautionary elements in the art of our past can also be similarly, if unwittingly, copied and brought to life at a future time? And what if those artistic creations carry implications for the real world, offering us admonitions about what might transpire in real life?

In 1927, German film director Fritz Lang released a silent science fiction film that went on to become a cinematic classic, “Metropolis.” This phenomenally ambitious offering set the standard for a fledgling genre in a still-emerging art form. Its remarkably prescient themes have since gone on to inspire countless other works, including such films as “Blade Runner” (1982) and “Snowpiercer” (2013) and episodes of TV shows like “The Cloud Minders” (1969) from the original “Star Trek” series. The picture has left quite an impact – and an even more impressive legacy.

Based on the novel by Thea von Harbou, the film tells the story of  a gleaming futuristic city whose population is sharply divided between its downtrodden, overburdened working class and its privileged city planners. When the son (Gustav Frōhlich) of the master planner (Alfred Abel) falls in love with a working class prophet (Brigitte Helm) who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate the differences between the classes, chaos erupts on a grand scale, threatening the city’s well-being, if not its very existence.

In telling this story, “Metropolis” raises a variety of issues and themes that will seem eerily familiar today. The widening gap between the haves and have-nots, the role of technology in our lives, the protection of our environment and even the ominous, looming specter of artificial intelligence all factor into how the picture plays out.

If any of that sounds familiar, it should. Indeed, if there are messages that we should heed today, these are chief among them, despite their origins in the past. I find it ironic that these notions didn’t arise from actual events in Lang’s or von Harbou’s lives but from the prognostications of these legendary storytellers envisioning what could happen in the future if the people of their time (and now our time) failed to address them.

It’s interesting that this film has begun resurfacing of late. It’s almost as if it’s coming back to remind us of the lessons of the story, to urge us to heed its warnings before it’s too late. After all, there are more than a few uncanny parallels between the time when the film was originally made in 1920s Germany and the America of today. If ever there were a time to pay attention to these cautions, now is it.

In addition to recent screenings on cable channels like Turner Classic Movies, the film has been showing up at theatrical venues, such as Chicago’s Music Box Theater, where I recently had the pleasure of seeing it with a new original soundtrack performed live by composer/musician David DiDonato. The picture is also available in three versions on DVD and/or Blu-ray from distributor Kino Lorber, the 2010 restoration, the 2002 restoration, and the 1984 restoration with a rock soundtrack by composer Giorgio Moroder and various pop artists. Thus there are ample opportunities to catch one of the greatest films ever made.

“Metropolis” was so ahead of its time in so many ways that one can’t help but think it’s something that really must be given credence as something than more than just a movie. As Mark Twain is alleged to have said, “History never repeats itself, but it often rhymes.” And, given what happens in this story and what’s transpiring today, that’s poetry we can live without.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.