From ‘Amazing Grace’ to ‘Diane,’ women shone in April movies

The Queen of Soul performs gospel music in 'Amazing Grace.'

Monitor critic Peter Rainer found that the best films in April all featured women in leading roles. Here are the ones that impressed him the most.

In ‘Amazing Grace,’ Aretha Franklin soars to the heights

“Amazing Grace,” featuring Aretha Franklin at the height of her powers, is one of the greatest concert documentaries ever made. It reaches so far into transcendence that watching it becomes an almost ecstatic experience.

Why We Wrote This

Among April’s highlights, Monitor film critic Peter Rainer highlights “one of the greatest concert documentaries ever made,” featuring Aretha Franklin at the height of her powers. Of “Amazing Grace,” he writes, “It reaches so far into transcendence that watching it becomes an almost ecstatic experience.”

And yet the film almost didn’t get released. Some brief background: Shot in 1972 over a period of two days in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in South Los Angeles, it features Franklin, backed by the Southern California Community Choir and the Rev. James Cleveland, recording a live gospel album before an audience mostly made up of parishioners. The album, “Amazing Grace,” went on to become the most popular gospel album of all time, but the movie, for technical and legal reasons, only lately emerged from limbo.

Franklin, whose father was the legendary Baptist minister C.L. Franklin, grew up in the church, and the album, coming at a time when she had recorded 11 No. 1 rhythm and blues hits in the previous five years, with five Grammy wins, was an attempt to return to her roots. As the film testifies, she never really left them. Her voice is a balm of sanctity. We don’t see the rehearsals that preceded the filming, but there’s a moment in the documentary when she suddenly stops and asks for a second take. I heard absolutely nothing wrong with the first take, but I was reminded of Fred Astaire, who reportedly would look at the footage of one of his dance numbers and ask that five frames be trimmed. And he would be right.

It’s tempting to view “Amazing Grace” as a time capsule of the ’70s civil rights era, but that designation seems insufficient in the face of such immediacy. I have only one regret. Elliott has described how he reluctantly cut Franklin’s rendition of “God Will Take Care of You” from the film, and surely, with 20 hours of footage to work with, there must have been other sacrifices. If ever a film deserved an expanded director’s cut on DVD, “Amazing Grace” is it. Grade: A (Rated G.)

‘Diane’ is a quiet pleasure

Mary Kay Place has quietly and resolutely been doing sterling work in the movies and television since her “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” days, but “Diane,” in which she plays a widow in rural Massachusetts, is perhaps the first time she has had a full-scale role that is worthy of her. She plays a woman whose life is bound up in sacrificial service to others. Diane is a bit like a New England version of a character in a Chekhov or Sholom Aleichem story – a holy sufferer.

She endures much sorrow, including a drug-addicted son (Jake Lacy) and the slow fade of her dying cousin (Deidre O’Connell), but she is sustained throughout by what can perhaps be best described as a dogged state of grace.

The film was written and directed by Kent Jones, a noted documentarian (“Hitchcock/Truffaut”), film critic and director of the New York Film Festival, making his dramatic film debut. He has a fine way with his cast, which also includes such stalwarts as Estelle Parsons, Joyce Van Patten, Phyllis Somerville, and, best of all, Andrea Martin (who is not in the film enough). Despite his extensive cinema literacy, I never felt l was watching a pastiche of other filmmakers’ movies.

There are some deficiencies. The narrative is set up so that the lead characters expire one by one, which can make for some pretty dreary longeurs, and the scenes with the son don’t share the lived-in verity of Diane’s scenes with her friends and family. But it’s a rarity, and a real pleasure, to find a movie that presents without condescension rural working-class people, especially women. Grade: A- (This film has not been rated.)

‘Working Woman’ brings serious, #MeToo lens to office stories

Movies about beleaguered women in the workplace have generally been spoofs, like “9 to 5,” or feature tyrannical female bosses, like “Working Girl” or “The Devil Wears Prada.” The distinction of “Working Woman” – which was directed by Michal Aviad from a script she co-wrote with Sharon Azulay Eyal and Michal Vinik – is that it doesn’t gussy up, or melodramatize, the story. It’s a steadfast piece of work, shot mostly in long, hand-held takes, and this approach reinforces the inescapability of the protagonist’s plight. In some ways, “Working Woman” is a species of horror film.

Orna (Liron Ben-Shlush) is the mother of three children and wife to Ofer (Oshri Cohen), who is struggling to manage his new restaurant in Tel Aviv, Israel. To earn vital money for the family, Orna takes a job as the assistant to Benny (Menashe Noy), a real estate magnate, who soon makes inappropriate advances, including pushing in for a kiss. Orna’s dazed rejection – she points out that she is married, as is he – is met by his profuse apologies and a promise this will not happen again. Of course, we know otherwise.

Benny, in a fine performance by Noy, is no two-dimensional Hollywood goblin. If he were, it might be easier to dismiss him as an aberration. It is his very humanness that is his most chilling aspect. I wish Ben-Shlush, who somewhat resembles an Israeli Juliette Binoche, were a bit more expressive in the part of Orna. And the film’s narrative is too diagrammatic; all the accusatory pieces fit too neatly into place. Because what came before is so starkly believable, the film’s quick fix denouement diminishes both the severity of what we have been witnessing and what surely must follow.

Still, this is one of the few films about sexual harassment in the workplace that has the feel of authenticity. With quiet, incremental force, it brings home the helplessness and terrors of being trapped. Grade: B+ (Not rated. In Hebrew, French, and English, with subtitles.)

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