#52FilmsByWomen 2017 Film # 10: Love You to the Stars and Back

Who took a pledge to watch 52 films directed by women this year? This guy! Full-length & short films are eligible as long as a woman directed it; co-directing credits count too. We’re going to jump ahead to the 10th movie on my list, which is Antoinette Jadaone’s Love You to the Stars and Back.

TL;DR: Love You to the Stars and Back is a hilarious romantic comedy with lovable leads at its center, that doesn’t forget the emotional pain at its core & treats cancer with the nuance it deserves.

After the success of Vince & Kath & James, it’s fascinating to see what Julia Barretto & Joshua Garcia’s next movie would look like. Better known as JoshLia, they are one of the best, if not the best, love teams working right now. Both of them are oozing with charisma & romantic spark that can remind you how great it feels to find yourself falling in love in the first place.

Thankfully, their latest movie Love You to the Stars and Back has them working with Antoinette Jadaone – best known for her funny yet tempered romantic comedies, like the influential hugot-inducing That Thing Called Tadhana (That Thing Called Destiny) – and it results in one of the best movies of the year.

Nica is a stubborn teenager who has a close relationship with her deceased mother (Carmina Villaroel). They both share a strong belief in the existence of aliens, & her mother believed that once she passes, she will be taken by extra-terrestrials. Their bond is why she isn’t happy with her father (Ariel Rivera) having a new partner (Maricar Reyes). But when Mika finds out her stepmother is pregnant, she takes it as the final straw. She sneaks out of their house & goes on a road trip to Mt. Milagros so she can be abducted by aliens. While stopping by an open field to pee, she finds out there’s a man near her pooping. She flees to her car out of panic, but accidentally runs over the man’s foot while he’s trying to explain what happened. After seeing him lying on the ground in pain, she offers him a ride. She finds out his name is Caloy (Joshua Garcia), a happy-go-lucky man with leukemia going on a bike ride to meet his absentee father for the first time. At first, they get on each other’s nerves, but slowly they’ll form a bond that will change their lives forever.

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That’s a lot to go over, but the movie lays it all out masterfully. It takes its time to introduce both leads by spacing out their scenes neatly, allowing us to understand the pain they’re going through. It always linger in the background, even as their initial encounter leads to some of the funniest scenes written by Jadaone, events brought by the leads’ clashing egos that escalate into pure chaos. It even softens the blow of Star Cinema’s usual third act problems: taking shortcuts to the script in order to provide a happy ending. She injects enough looseness the road trip genre allows her without turning the movie into a series of sketches. But once the comedown from the hilarity sets in, it dives deep in their emotional scars brought upon by their dysfunctional families while finding solace in one another & opening themselves to hope.

This is especially true of Caloy, who has to deal not just with his lack of paternal love, but the effects of leukemia on his body & relationships. Thankfully, the movie handles it all with finesse. Using cancer would be an easy way to turn this into a cheap tearjerker, but the movie smartly avoids that impulse by working hard to get those tears. It reveals how much his sickness has taken its toll on his family’s dynamic. It’s excellently handled, but Caloy’s story slowly takes over the movie’s narrative that by the end, Nica’s story becomes an afterthought. It’s a shame since there’s interesting emotional territory it ignores. There are some faint traces of it in the movie, but it’s undeveloped compared to how Caloy’s story is treated.

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It’s great that Julia Barretto & Joshua Garcia are becoming excellent actors in their own right, since they can cover the gaps left by the script. It’s also a more dramatic movie compared to Vince & Kath & James, & they stepped up to the challenge. Julia Barretto is excellent as another one of Jadaone’s strong-willed, witty female protagonists, while Joshua Garcia plays the same charming, happy-go-lucky joker in Vince & Kath & James, but with better dialogue. Both of them harness the sadness their characters feel & it pays off in its dramatic scenes, where their worries & disappointments are on full display without devolving into an overblown melodrama; the handheld cinematography shot with close-ups helps a lot. Not only that, their chemistry continues to be off the charts. It’s still chaste – they don’t even kiss! – but every longing stare & touch are full of romantic tension, it’s hard not to feel kilig. It’s like watching a powder keg on the verge of explosion.

It’s impressive to see how Joshua Garcia & Julia Barretto are turning into great actors themselves, but Antoinette Jadaone’s impressive material & command of tone certainly helps. It’s a symbiotic relationship, one that I hope we’ll see again soon. Love You to the Stars and Back isn’t just a charming, hilarious romantic comedy that doesn’t ignore the leads’ emotional realities, but a confirmation that a love team will not rise to greatness without highly capable people leading them.

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#52FilmsByWomen 2017 Film # 3: Across the Crescent Moon

Who took a pledge to watch 52 films directed by women this year? This guy! Full-length & short films are eligible as long as a woman directed it; co-directing credits count too. The 3rd movie on my list is Baby Nebrida’s Across the Crescent Moon

Across the Crescent Moon was one of rejected entries for the Metro Manila Film Festival 2016 & was released this year without any fanfare or a huge audience clamoring for it to stay in theaters.

Let’s keep it that way.

It’s a movie made with the best of intentions, but almost every aspect of filmmaking fails it completely. That’s not even counting the horrible & confusing message at the center of this godawful movie.

It tells the story between Abbas (Matteo Guidicelli) & Emma (Alex Godinez). Abbas is a Muslim SAF agent married to Emma, a Christian woman who converts to Islam. Her conversion didn’t sit well with her Islamophobic mother Mita (Dina Bonnevie). This all changes when her younger sister & the rest of her friends are kidnapped by human traffickers. Now, it is up to Abbas & the rest of the SAF (Special Action Force) team to rescue all of them.

It takes a long while to get to the main conflict of the story, though. We are treated to a few action scenes, but the first half is dedicated to showing Emma’s life as a member of an ordinary Muslim family & the affluent Christian life she left behind. It is presented in the broadest, most annoying way possible. Conversations with her mother devolve into witless, screaming matches about religious intolerance. There are scenes of Emma learning about the Islamic way of life, but it turns into a lecture Emma & the audience has to listen to. These scenes are disconnected from the main plot. They aren’t used so we could know more about Emma, Abbas & the rest of their families besides their backgrounds, because the characters are flatly written caricatures. Subtlety just doesn’t exist in the world of Across the Crescent Moon.

There’s even a pointless scene set around Mita’s birthday party that goes on forever, showing us footage of everyone having a good time eating & dancing, while telling the audience once again about her strained relationship with Emma without adding any new wrinkles to their dynamic. At the same time, Emma’s younger sister (Jerene Tan) ask both of her parents’ permission about their planned beach trip in full detail. We see her get rejected by her mother, & get permission from her more lenient father (Gabby Concepcion), while they also talk about Emma’s strained relationship with her mother. It is mind-numbingly repetitive & useless.

That’s not even counting the blatant product placement for Tanduay products & Cobra energy drink, the latter of which has Matteo Guidicelli as its spokesman.

When we do get to the meat of the story, it just emphasizes how inept this whole endeavor is. The action scenes are a bunch of rote, badly edited, shaky cam nonsense that do not thrill in the slightest. What’s worse is these scenes play as pure propaganda, since it supports President Rodrigo Duterte’s fight against crime, specifically drugs. One of Duterte’s speeches is played through the TV & Mita approves of his agenda & Ku Aquino is even playing General Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, where Abbas’ operation to save the victims of human trafficking fall under him. It creates a narrative that supports Duterte’s agenda without poking through the very visible cracks within it.

This creates a morally dissonant movie, where there are pleas for acceptance among Muslims amid negative stereotypes while supporting Duterte’s war of drugs, which has caused numerous deaths & human rights violations. Apparently, pleas for humanity appeal only to Muslims, but not to drug users suffering from addiction. It doesn’t help that for a movie that shines a light on the plight of Muslims, there are no actual Muslims in the cast. It even has Rez Cortez even plays a Saudi Arabian man with a stereotypical voice; which should be noted is listening to a PowerPoint presentation about their booming human trafficking scheme.

And none of the actors are good enough to save the horrible script. Matteo Guidicelli is terribly miscast here. He just can’t make the horrible script work for him. Not only that, he looks less like a local Moro whose parents are supposed to be Christopher de Leon & Sandy Andolong, & more like the Spaniards who colonized Mindanao. Dina Bonnevie, Alex Godinez & Gabby Concepcion do get a chance to ham it up, but the dialogue they’re spewing is so dire & lifeless, it just makes it all worse.

All the movie has is its excellent presentation, with high production values, clear cameras, & crisp audio, but that barely makes for an average film. Once you dig slightly above its shiny surface, Across the Crescent Moon reveals itself to be a shrill melodrama, bland action movie, & Duterte propaganda all wrapped into a single movie. It wants you listen to its message, but blunders through it by being terrible. But if the message is as muddled as this, that might be the one good thing about this movie’s existence.

#52FilmsByWomen 2017 Film # 6: Kita Kita (I See You)

Who took a pledge to watch 52 films directed by women this year? This guy! Full-length & short films are eligible as long as a woman directed it; co-directing credits count too. The 6th movie on my list is Sigrid Andrea Bernardo’s Kita Kita (I See You). 

Kita Kita (I See You) has two problematic premises baked into its story.

Alessandra de Rossi is Lea, a tourist guide working in Sapporo, Japan. Her engagement of two years with her Japanese fiancee ends, once she finds he’s cheating on her with her friend. On her way home, she loses her sense of sight due to stress. While she’s alone, angry & blind, she meets Tonyo, played by Empoy Marquez. He’s her Filipino neighbor who wants to befriend her, since he’s all alone & homesick in a foreign land. She’s adamant at first, but once Lea lowers her defenses & Tonyo reveals his sincere, funny side, they become close enough to be a couple.

On the surface, it looks like a novel, innocuous spin on the hugot-filled romantic comedy, complete with a tourist-friendly destination bound to be visited by the movie’s fans & a romantic theme song sung by a well-regarded singer. That’s true. However, it is part of a long line of Filipino movies using the lead’s failure to meet the Western beauty standards to explore what “true beauty” is. You know, the one on the inside: kindness, integrity, & intelligence. It stretches back to the movies of Rene Requiestas & Zorayda Sanchez, and now comedians like Kiray Celis, Vice Ganda, & this time Empoy Marquez continuing this tradition.

While these movies allow those who look like ordinary people to star in their own movie, it can be a mean-spirited & hypocritical affair. It allows the audience to laugh at a person’s supposed shortcomings while feeling morally superior for siding with the protagonist. It indulges in the exact thing it demonizes.

These tropes can be tempered with the characters making the jokes themselves without bordering on self-hatred & making them self-aware, likable, capable human beings who fight back. But if the movie isn’t careful, it can tilt into the other direction & become hateful in other ways. A great example is Vice Ganda’s movies, where it goes out of its way to mock everyone that it often punches down. God knows we don’t need more jokes mocking people with dark skin.

The second one happens late in the film. It recontextualizes the rest of the movie & it turns Leo into a bit of a creep. To explain it would spoil the movie, so it would be better to skip the next paragraphs between the spoiler tags

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It turns out Tonyo lied about when they first met. After a bad breakup in Tokyo, he decided to go to Sapporo while on a bender because that’s the name of the beer he’s drinking. While taking a selfie with a Sapporo beer can, he accidentally captures Lea walking behind him.

That’s when he decided to follow her & hang out near her place. Lea mistakes him for a lowly beggar, so she always gives him food as she goes to work. While Lea is in a bad mood due to her fiance, she snaps at him, telling him to clean himself & fix his life. That’s when he realizes he needs to change. He looks for a job & a place to stay in Sapporo.

That doesn’t mean he stopped following her or intruding in her life. We find out that he’s the one who saved a kid from going to the fountain, the one who gave her the boquet of flowers in front of her house, the one in the banana suit, & the one who told Lea her fiance was cheating on her.

It turns Tonyo into a well-intentioned, opportunistic stalker. He tracked her down constantly, intruded on her personal life, bothered her constantly & introduced himself under false pretenses. It was nice of him to be there for Lea during tough times & telling her about her fiance’s cheating, & this part of Tonyo showing his gratitude to Lea, but this is still alarming, manipulative behavior. What makes it worse is the movie makes it out as a lovely, romantic gesture, when this kind of behavior would probably get arrested in real life.

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But the movie finds a way to soften these problematic elements by focusing on the burgeoning closeness between the central couple. With the two of them alone in Sapporo & Lea blind, no one can comment on Tonyo’s facial features constantly except themselves. And when it does, it does so sparingly. The first time it’s even mentioned is halfway through the movie, with Empoy making a cheeky joke describing his appearance to Lea. It was able to sidestep the “issue” with Empoy’s appearance without overwhelming the narrative with jokes directed at Tonyo.

The movie isn’t as successful at toning down Tonyo’s shifty behavior. While the movie makes it clear he did it all out of good will & gratitude towards Lea, it still doesn’t call him out about how he acted. Tonyo may be aware about his looks compared to Lea, but he’s not that aware how his behavior crossed some lines.

Despite these, the movie is ridiculously funny & charming it makes easy to forget its flaws. The script by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo has set up a wonderful premise filled with funny jokes grounded in each of the characters’ behavior & flaws that pay off at the end. It’s a small, grounded tale that pulls the audience in through pure emotion. Both of the characters aren’t as three-dimensional as expected, given the film’s devotion to focusing on their love story.

It helps this movie has excellent performances from Alessandra de Rossi & Empoy Marquez. Both of them rarely play parts in romantic comedies, if at all, yet this should prove they have the chops to headline their own movie. You can always rely on Alessandra de Rossi for a great performance, and this is no different. She has a warm, friendly presence befitting her role as a tourist guide, & she shows Lea’s pricklier side without creating any disconnect. But the biggest surprise here is Empoy Marquez. It’s no surprise that he’s funny, but his charisma in this movie is off-the-charts. His ordinary looks belie his charms, using his wit & confidence to become closer to Lea & reel us deeper into their love story. Together, they have a unique chemistry that should make other love teams jealous.

It even smoothens out the movie’s choppy editing, a result of Spring Films pulling out of MMFF 2016 to make it shorter. The pacing is rushed, making Lea & Tonyo’s growing relationship feel hollow. But it only reinforces the strength of their performances, as it fills the gaps left by the script & the editing. If anything, it makes the romance at the forefront of the story more potent. It proves that the only thing you need to make a good, memorable romantic comedy is a unique premise with a ridiculously likable, charming couple at the center, but it isn’t enough to make it a classic.

#52FilmsByWomen 2017 Film # 1: Curiosity, Adventure & Love

Who took a pledge to watch 52 films directed by women this year? This guy! Full-length & short films are eligible as long as a woman directed it; co-directing credits count too. The 1st movie on my list is Sunshine Lichauco de Leon and Suzanne Richiardone’s Curiosity, Adventure, & Love. 

Jessie Lichauco is a perfect subject for a documentary.

As of writing, she’s 105 years old, living in an ancestral home recognized as a historical building by the Philippine government near the Pasig River where she has lived most of her life; a body of water that’s been used by Filipinos a long time ago as a place to get their food, to conduct their businesses, or  to travel within what is now known as Metro Manila.

She was born in Cuba, orphaned when she was still a child, & sent by her relatives to a convent school in St. Augustine, Florida; which coincidentally is where Ponce de Leon searched for the fountain of youth. She met a Filipino lawyer named Marcial Lichauco – the first Filipino to graduate at Harvard University – while he was on a mission to convince the American leaders to grant independence to the Philippines. Both of them hit it off & started a whirlwind romance. When she was invited by Marcial to visit the Philippines, she traveled halfway around the world during a time, when a woman doing something like this is unorthodox, in order to be with him; she did this while she was 18 years old. They got married that same year.

She was here during the Japanese occupation & managed to avoid the wrath of Japanese soldiers against Americans. During the war, she turned her temporary house into a makeshift hospital, helping those who are wounded, hungry, & homeless. After the war, she became more involved in philanthropic work. She focused on helping children in need, joining organizations that focus on helping those who are abandoned, neglected, or orphaned like Association De Damas De Filipinas, or personally putting them through school.

Thankfully, we live in a universe were not only does Jessie Lichauco is alive & doing well, she has her own documentary featuring her outstanding life.

The whole movie features interviews from Jessie Lichauco herself, who’s still as sharp, charismatic & witty as ever. She relays anecdotes from her past without losing her youthful spirit.

And the stories she tells are fascinating & inspiring, because of her place in Philippine history. She has lived an unconventional life:  she ended up marrying a Filipino diplomat & living in the Philippines during the time of American occupation up to the present. Philippine history is humanized from her stories, from the country’s struggles during the World War II & its growth afterwards, with Jessie Lichauco as our main narrator. She tells stories about the vibrancy & hospitality of Filipinos when she first entered the country, & how Marcial & Jessie went on adventures around the world for eight years before they decided to settle down & have a family. She talks about surviving the brutality of war & her willingness to help those in need, even if it’s a Japanese soldier.

The movie shifts to her life as a philanthropist, mother, & a diplomat’s wife after discussing her life after World Wad II. She raised her children in a home with a loving, warm environment. She opened her home not just to foreign dignitaries, where she preferred to take them in order for them to know Filipinos better, but also to those in need.

All of these are intercut with archival footage & photographs, & interviews from historians like Carlos Celdran, World War II veterans, her children, her grandchildren & those she have helped, personally & through her foundation. It’s a conventional documentary for an unconventional figure & it mostly works. It keeps the movie focused around her & her work. However, it loses some of its steam once it talks about her life after the war, since the movie opens the floor to so many people. This decision makes sense, since it shows the effects of her kindness & philanthropy, but it loses Jessie Lichauco’s magnetic presence in the process.

It’s still a fascinating look at a woman who lived her life with the values mentioned in the title. It may have been coincidence this ended up as my 1st entry for #52FilmsByWomen, but I couldn’t think of a better way of starting my list with this lovely look at an inspiring woman whose humanity should be something to aspire to.

If you are interested to learn more about her or can’t watch this movie anywhere, this episode of CNN Philippines’ Profiles should suffice:

#52FilmsByWomen 2017 Film # 2: Baka Bukas

Who took a pledge to watch 52 films directed by women this year? This guy! Full-length & short films are eligible as long as a woman directed it; co-directing credits count too. The 2nd movie in my list is Samantha Lee’s Baka Bukas (Maybe Tomorrow). 

There’s no question that Philippines is flooded with romantic movies. What’s exciting is they currently vary in tone & execution, thanks to the success of the Filipino independent scene, the major studios being more often to experimentation to create something unique yet palatable to all audiences, & those studios hiring writers & directors from the independent scene to make their own spin on a studio-approved romantic movie. This is how we got the formulaic delights of movies like Vince & Kath & James, the influential hugot-inspired leanings of That Thing Called Tadhana, the daring experimentation of 2 Cool 2 Be 4Gotten, or something push the studio template into exciting directions without breaking the template like Can We Still Be Friends?

Even if we are getting more romantic movies, it’s unfortunate that it’s still pretty much a heterosexual affair. While we do get movies like The Third Party Bakit Lahat ng Gwapo May Boyfriend? (Why Does Every Handsome Guy Have a Boyfriend?) from major studios, those are the exceptions from the rule. There are more romantic movies focusing on LGBTQ characters in the Filipino independent scene, which we should all be thankful for, but the number of movies coming out from that scene doesn’t quite match the number of romantic comedies with cishet couples at the center, & majority of those films are about gay couples. There still isn’t enough diversity in the kinds of stories that are getting made.

This is why a movie like Baka Bukas (Maybe Tomorrow) stands out so much. It’s one of the few movies to focus on a lesbian couple. It builds off on the foundations of the current slate of romantic movies while setting off on its own path, even if the results are mixed.

Alex (Jasmin Curtis-Smith) is a lesbian whose relationship with Kate (Kate Alejandrino) just ended. She’s a creative working on multiple jobs & projects, one of which is pitching an idea for TV series focusing on a lesbian couple. She hasn’t told her best friend/rising actress Jess (Louise delos Reyes) about her sexuality yet. She even hid her previous relationship to Jess & told Kate she’s hiding it from her mother, instead of her best friend. When she finally comes out to Jess, it comes as a shock to her. It also forces Alex to confront her true feelings to Jess, which she’s been hiding for a very long time. When she comes clean to Jess, they try to be a couple, which turns serious the longer they stay together.

It’s a premise full of promise, but is hampered by the the couple at the center of the movie. Don’t get me wrong, Jasmin Curtis-Smith & Louise delos Reyes are both great in their respective roles. Both are great at capturing the confusing situation they found themselves in & portraying each of their respective struggles & it’s easy to buy them as long-time best friends. But together, they have romantic chemistry so forced, it might as well be non-existent. Even odder is Jasmin Curtis-Smith has better chemistry with Kate Alejandrino compared to Louise delos Reyes. This works to the movie’s advantage when both of them are figuring out how to navigate their new relationship status, but it fails them when they’re supposed to fall for each other. The impression that it started as a whim between two best friends never goes away.

It’s such a shame, since the stiff romance, which is the movie’s main focus, drags an insightful, personal movie along with it. It presents a non-stereotypical lesbian couple in a world where homosexuality is only tolerated, but not fully accepted or understood – alternatively called current-era Philippines – probing its flaws by adding social satire in a very intimate movie. Alex’s pitch is daunted by concerns & questions about how advertisers might be wary to support a show with a lesbian couple at the center, how coming out isn’t a “thing” anymore, & how they’re wary of showing two women kissing in romantic manner. Meanwhile, Jess is daunted with concerns on how her relationship with Alex might affect her career as a respected actress & how she views herself; since she’s only dated guys.

But its best insight has to be the process of “coming out” is a constant process. Members of the LGBTQ community will have to decide whether to reveal or hide their gender, & if they’re willing to deal with the consequences. This is not only reflected in Alex’s story, but in another one where her co-worker/friend Julo (Gio Gahol) wonders if their other co-worker/friend David (Nelsito Gomez) is gay, since Julo has a crush on him & David hasn’t really been forward about his gender.

The setting also provides a chance to explore the world of trendy, upper-class creatives. It really shows with its gorgeous, softly lit cinematography by Sasha Palomares, making it look like it was filtered through VSCO filters, & the spare, synth-heavy score from Denise Santos with help from BP Valenzuela. And while that’s a setting that’s already been done before, Baka Bukas finds a way to make it an important part of the story.

Jess finds herself way out of her league with Alex & her friends. To Alex’s friends, Jess is an uncool outsider who peddles cheap entertainment, wears a sparkly dress to a hip club, & only uses Instagram filters instead of editing her pictures through Snapseed & VSCO. While it is a slobs vs. snobs fight between upper-middle class citizens, it pokes fun at the arrogance of people like Julo & David, who look down on anything uncool or made for the masses. Yet it becomes clear that the movie doesn’t really dive deeper into this conflict, since the movie presents their horrible behavior without fully admonishing it or exploring it further. If it’s a way to feature these types of people in this setting, it doesn’t work since the movie is exploring different issues thoughtfully, while this aspect feels undercooked.

Add a rushed, ambiguous ending, & the whole movie ends up being a frustrating mess. We should still be thankful this movie exists. Its aims are admirable, it has a shiny, bright exterior, & it has lots on its mind, but it can’t overcome the dull romance at the center of this movie. Maybe someday we’ll get our great lesbian romance for the modern Filipino era.

 

Guy with Internet Access’ Journey to #52FilmsByWomen 2017: An Introduction

As a film buff, one can never watch enough movies. I won’t seek out mediocre-to-bad movies regularly, but I’ll still watch it if it was presented to me. You can gain something from seeing terrible and hate-watching can be fun.

However, it’s easy to continue consuming the kinds of movie I want to watch. I tend to seek out movies with novel premises or those made by my favorite directors; like Wes Anderson or Antoinette Jadaone. It’s not a bad idea. I should watch movies I enjoy,  but it does create a movie diet that’s exclusive to my own tastes.

So as a way to expand my horizons, I’ll be taking the #52FilmsByWomen challenge. I will be watching 52 movies directed by women for the whole year. I will not count rewatches, but short films & films co-directed by a woman will count. The number is derived on the number of weeks in a year, but sadly I wouldn’t be able to watch a movie made by a woman every week. I will catch up before the year ends & that’s a promise!

Besides, this challenge is worth it. It’s a way for me to move away from the classic movie canon, which is a sausage party. I can watch movies focused on women’s stories made by women, humanizing women’s issues by putting a face on facts & statistics. I can also watch movies maligned for being “girly” like Filipino romantic comedies – our equivalent of superhero movies in terms of box-office revenue – which are mostly directed by women.

So I hope you all will join me in this journey, which will definitely be fun & insightful. I can’t wait to discover a movie I’ll preach to no end.