Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in movies

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Welcome to 'Cherchez La Female', a blog about women in films

The title should be 'Cherchez la femme' which means "look for the woman". In film noir a man tends to lose his good sense around a woman and do things that get him into trouble. So if something bad happens to a man, a woman must be at the bottom of it. But that domain name was already taken, so I changed the French 'femme' to the English 'female'.This blog will find and explore the power and influence, good or bad, of women in movies. Enjoy.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Noah: The Patriarchal Merry-Go-Round goes round and round….

Noah is Darren Aronofsky’s most financially successful movie to date. By the end of its first week the movie had made $200M in the domestic box office and that is very impressive. In Noah, the director who has distinguished himself for his uniquely creative depiction of sensitively crafted characters experiencing deep internal struggle has left his fans far far behind. In Requiem For A Dream he depicts the dark world of drug addiction and how it affects 4 people. In Fountain of Youth he depicts a man’s processing grief about his wife’s impending death from cancer. In Black Swan he depicts the ferocious ambition, internal reality and self-denial of a professional ballerina. However, there is not a minute of Darren Aronofsky’s unique signature in his direction of Noah -- and nothing of his understanding of the human spirit, including the female human spirit.

Oh sure, Noah has all the required emotional and eye candy Aronofsky’s other films do not. We get violence, we get explosions, we get spectacular visual effects. We get stone monsters demolishing crowds of attacking humans while great spouts of water tear the earth under them apart. We get lots and lots of fighting, and mayhem, a huge ship, lots of animals and a powerful struggle between God’s chosen and God’s abandoned. The wow factor can’t be denied. But it tells us nothing more than the original story said, with one-dimensional female characters thrown back to 1950 (and by extension, male characters), and a tacit acceptance of patriarchy as the norm.


Noah (Russell Crowe) is supposedly the only good man left on earth. God – who is not addressed as God here, but is called “The Creator” – has decided to drown all other humans including children, infants, and girls because they failed to live up to his expectations in some way that Noah has not. Noah however is far from being a godly man. He is a control freak patriarch who has little use for the opinions of his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connolly) his sons or his adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson). Their job is to obey just as his is to obey “The Creator”. So the heavenly patriarch controls the earthly one and somehow, we are to believe, the new world will be better off for it.

In interviews Aronofsky has said that he is an atheist and is not interested in portraying the Biblical point of view. By calling God, “The Creator”, he is trying to distance himself from the Bible. It seems he hopes, even though the story is taken from the Bible, the audience will see it as a science fiction fantasy pro-environment film and not put any religious interpretations on it. But you can’t take a story, that in its time and place, depicted a patriarchal God and the price of going against his will, into something generic that is not supposed to mean what it was created to mean but still keep the same story. If you do, you should change the characters’ names and change the story to reflect something, in which you, and the audience, can find some meaning.

To make Noah relevant today Aronofsky tries to introduce the consequences of environmental damage that can and have brought on ferocious storms and various upheavals of the earth we are currently experiencing. But in 5,000 B.C. when Noah supposedly lived, there were too few humans, with too basic a technology, who could not possibly have committed enough environmental damage to create that kind of destruction. In any case, the 40 days of rain and the waterspouts emerging from the earth are not connected to any environmental damage humans created. It was all done by the hand of “The Creator”, planned and engineered by him in Heaven.


Noah’s wife plays the role all women play in a world controlled by men – a background chorus of wailing and moaning. They try to stay the hand that will bring down the blows on everyone’s head. They beg men to be reasonable, to care, to be temperate, to stop and think about what they are doing. Their even-temperedness and wisdom is brushed aside by God’s man Noah, who is too busy denying his feelings and accommodating God’s vendetta to listen to silly women. Nowhere in this parable does God have a clue that this might be one reason why the human race is unbalanced and has lost its way. Nope, women exist to weep about the follies of men, make babies and be ignored – before the Great Flood and after.

The main conflict is with Tubal Cain (Ray Winstone) who represents the worst of mankind. Tubal Cain thinks he is the center of the universe much the way a 3-year-old does. But Noah is the better man because, supposedly, God speaks to him and only him. At least with Tubal Cain we have a patriarch whose superiority has limits within his own head and existence. But with Noah we get a “superior” patriarch who cannot be ignored and who transcends time and space because he speaks for God. Isn’t Noah the more dangerous one?


The dialogue is Biblical, or as Biblical as Aronofsky was able to convey it. No one has conversations. Everyone makes pronouncements. Everything that comes out of Noah's mouth is “a lesson.” We are to listen to him and nod in awe. According to Noah one of humanity's great crimes is to kill and eat animals. But if this was a reason for the Great Flood it seems to have passed way over Jewish and Christian heads. We haven’t even come close to rectifying that one. The idea probably died with Noah and his dysfunctional family who went on to produce more dysfunctional families.

Aronofsky says he’s been working on this story for 10 years and what has he accomplished? He probably filled his bank account nicely and drew an audience who likes their mayhem and special effects, and does not like to think about what they are watching, but feels more spiritual for doing so.

Noah trailer:

And for the truly adventurous:

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Wadjda: Saudi Arabia Drops Its Veil

Under ordinary circumstances Wadjda would be a well-made foreign film about a young girl who wants a bicycle -- a charming coming-of-age story we’ve seen many times before. But Wadjda was not made under ordinary circumstances. It was written and directed by Haifaa al Mansour who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. It is the first feature film ever made in Saudi Arabia, and it is about growing up a Saudi girl, and life among Saudi women.

Wadjda is one of those movies that mark a turning point in the social order and in the history of film-making. In this case, the outside world gets a glimpse into one of the most exclusive, secluded, least known societies – from a member of that secluded society.


The film thrusts us into a sudden intimacy that humanizes women who, until now, the media has portrayed as one-dimensional objects of pity and injustice -- victims completely oppressed by the male population. Wadjda broadens this view and shows us the individualism, resilience, sorrows, joys and complexities inside the world of Saudi women, through the passion of one very determined little girl.

Wadjda (played by Waad Mohammed) lives a middle-class life in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She is the only child of her father’s only wife, but she has grown up smart, spunky and very much loved by both her parents. The outside world is reaching out to her in the form of CDs, radio and fashion. The niqab, the full-length black dress of Saudi women that leaves only the eyes uncovered, still must be worn outside the home. But inside their homes they wear anything they want. If women are supposed to be demure, reserved and submissive this hasn’t been impressed on Wadjda because she says and does whatever she wants.


Her best friend is a boy, Abdullah (Abdullrahman al Gohani), who adores and respects her as much as he teases her. In her first 10 years of life it has never occurred to Wadjda that she is secondary to anyone. But as she advances on puberty, she is finding out. She can beat Abdullah at anything, but when she wants to outrace him bicycling she learns how difficult her country’s customs and beliefs make it for her to own her own bike. But this is a girl who pushes envelopes and will use her own two-wheel bike to do it.

Her greatest obstacle is in the form of her all-female school’s headmistress, Ms. Hussa (Ahd). Hussa’s job is to educate girls in reading, writing, arithmetic and religious studies. Her main job to prepare them for their proper and legal roles in Saudi society, in which women are circumscribed by how much of them strange men can be allowed to see.


Mansour herself had to direct the movie from inside a van and largely through cell phones because men and women are not allowed to mix in the workplace.

Mansour doesn’t blame the men. She sees them as victims of the same customs and restrictions. They too have been brought up to believe they are the protectors of the women in their family and totally responsible for their safety from other male’s prying eyes. It’s been less than 100 years since Saudi Arabia emerged from a society that had not changed in the last 1,000 years. The land is very harsh. It’s almost all sand with no fresh water within its borders. Life was hard and tribal warfare could have tragic results for weak men and unprotected women. Wahhabism, the strict form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, doesn’t allow for much freedom of thought or action.


In spite of this, Mansour shows us there is room for normal, human decency and men who seek it out. Wadjda’s father takes a second wife and pushes Wadjda and her mother to the sidelines of his life. He loves them deeply but his family’s expectations pressure him. He can’t leave his family line without male heirs.

Men aren’t allowed to look at or be alone with a woman who is not family, but work around the restrictions somehow. Men may control society but women get their way also through the natural respect that comes when people want genuine communication.

Performances are great all round, especially from first time actress Waad Mohammed. Haifaa al Mansour may have learned filmmaking furtively but she has a steady, professional control that gives the film the nuance and panache that makes it outstanding.


Wadjda has official support from the Saudi Arabian government who submitted it for Oscar consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film Category. One of its sponsors is Prince Al-Waleed bin Talel of the Saudi royal family, a champion for women’s freedom. The actors, men and women, are from Saudi Arabia’s thriving TV industry that satirizes the country’s restrictions and is very popular. That tells us, cracks are showing. Slowly, things are changing. With so much media technology in the country opening the window to how the rest of the world lives things may start changing faster.

Wadjda is a sweet look into a foreign world with the startling revelation that Saudi Arabians are as human as the rest of us.



The movie is not yet available on DVD, but here are good books to read on Saudi Arabia.

    

Links:
Haifaa al Mansour interview on PBS, 
Princess Ameerah al-Taweel and PrinceAl-Waleed bin Talel working to advance cause of Saudi, interviewed by Charlie Rose 
Wadjda charms the Venice Film Festival,

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Summer of Surprisingly Strong Female Films

Usually the summer movie season has no surprises. People don’t want to work hard or think hard. As much time as possible, is spent outdoors. But while the big ticket movies like the action/blockbusters films were predictably short on interesting, diverse, unique or important female characters, a few small films came up from under to show us that a revolution may indeed be shaking the male bastions of Hollywood. They are The Heat, Frances Ha and In a World. All of them were made with small budgets and not expecting to get major attention. The Heat, a female buddy film, but a male buddy super action film, White House Down, in its opening weekend.


The Heat
Sandra Bullock and the totally shameless (in a good way) Melissa McCarthy play two incompatible cops stalking crooks in Boston. Sandra Bullock is the well-educated, well-groomed, college-educated FBI agent strategist and Melissa McCarthy is the coarse, foul-mouthed street-fighter cop patrolling the scummiest part of Boston. Forced to work together by their bosses and the circumstances of the case – after much mayhem – they become dear friends.

It’s a play on the male buddy movie, except these are women saving the world and fighting and bonding through their high-action jobs. The satire is obvious and it’s meant to show the film industry that whatever men can do women can do too. Whoever thought women can’t match the comedy, action or dysfunction of two macho guys forced to work together, with bullets flying all around them, is proven wrong. The movie is hilarious. The two women know they’ve got boundaries to push and they push these, no holds barred, as far and fast as they can go.

Melissa McCarthy is especially delicious as the sleazy, violence-prone, low-life cop. She even gets to break hearts. In a couple of scenes, guys she’s bedded one night, who’ve hoped for a ring around their finger one day, come whimpering for more loving. She pulls no punches on being a love ‘em and leave ‘em type – like a lot of tough, loner, hero detectives/cops who just ain’t the hanging-around-for-breakfast kind. Yeah, break their hearts baby!

Directed by Paul Feig of Bridesmaids fame who knows how to bring out the best in the worst in women.


Frances Ha
Starring as a wanna-be successful, professional dancer in New York’s tough, competitive, entertainment market, indie actress Greta Gerwig does something astonishing. She carries this film on the force of her personality. The wrong actress could have killed the movie. Greta Gerwig makes it sing. It has a lightweight plot and it asks the audience to be sympathetic to someone who seems to be a born loser, but she’s such a charming and lovable loser that we can’t help loving her and being willing to share her losses.

Frances Ha does not try to prove anything to the male world. She is unapologetically feminine. Her issues and ways of trying to solve her problems are feminine. The revolutionary part of this film is that her main interest in life, besides being a dancer, is her long, dear friendship with her BFF, Sophie as played by Mickey Sumner. Yes, men are in the picture, but Frances doesn't sweat their loss as much as she sweats the loss of her girlfriend…. who is her true muse and the fire in her belly.

Directed and co-written by Gerwig's longtime collaborator Norm Baumbach off screen and on, this is a charming film about female friendship, heartbreak and loss, and the things that matter to Frances Ha. It also features Mickey Sumner who is Sting’s daughter and Grace Gummer, the progeny of Meryl Streep.


In a World
This is a screwball comedy with a bit of rom-com on the side. Directed, written and starring Lake Bell as Sarah Solomon, a talented voice artist who can barely get by using her talent because male voices are so much more wanted in the industry. Her father, played by the thunder-voiced Fred Melamed, is one of the industry’s most successful voice talents and he definitely thinks the industry belongs to men and should continue to do so.

When her talent becomes obvious and she starts getting serious contract offers her father and his peers try to protect their turf by launching an all out attack to take Sarah's job. Although this enters the realm of serious feminism the story is kept so light and goofy audiences just smile throughout. Lake Bell is the “new” woman, which means she is more like a real woman than Hollywood would have us believe. Her rough and tumble tomboy type habits leave her unbothered with grooming or sitting up straight.

The rom comes with Lewis, her sound engineer played by Demetri Martin her unabashed but someone overlooked admirer who helps her in her challenge against the male voice giants.

A nice, quiet, funny, revolutionary film that gives women their due. In a World hits the truth about misogyny in the film industry but ya gotta love Lake Bell for it anyway.

Here's hoping the mainstream movie industry picks up the ball and we see women and women's concerns portrayed more and more in this spirit.



  


Links to Interview Videos: Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy on The Heat, Greta Gerwig on Frances Ha, Lake Bell on In a World

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Byzantium: Nothing comes between a girl and her mother

It’s a pity Byzantium has become buried under all the summer blockbuster bang-ups and cacophony, because it captures the war between men and women perfectly, and in a very entertaining little nutshell. It’s a vampire film that questions allegorically, if men and women help or hinder each other’s survival. Luckily it’s directed by Neil Jordan who has shown in his other underground gem, The Company of Wolves, and his hit Interview With the Vampire that he has a real talent for aligning allegory with everyday life. The result is that Byzantium becomes a very rare thing these days -- an intelligent, adult vampire movie. It was adapted by Moira Buffini from her play, A Vampire Story.

Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are a team of outcasts permanently wandering in an underground world. They look barely 10 years apart in age so they tell people they are sisters. They are actually mother and daughter vampires who are over 200 hundred years old.
Clara is as tough and ruthless as they come. Not a grain of sentimentality crosses her soul. Over 200 hundred years of dealing with the dark side of the male world she has become solely a predator and does the nastiest things to make the world safe for her and Eleanor. Ironically, her deep love for her child adds even more strength to her ruthlessness. Think mother bear, or mother T-Rex.

Eleanor is just the opposite. She has a soul and a conscience and a deep desire to cooperate with human beings. Clara hunts in the most vicious, bloodthirsty way, often on her tricks. Eleanor takes only the lives of people who ask for death because they are either too old or sick for this world. Eleanor has never met any other vampire except Clara and she carries the secret of their history and existence heavily on her shoulders. She is as sweet and sensitive as Clara is a bossy, controlling bitch.
Jordan uses powerful imagery to envelop us in these womens’ world -- dark, brooding with intense bursts of color as if the town they lived in was under the earth. Scenes from the present overlap scenes from the past. Mother and daughter may look and talk very modern, but their 200 years shadows them wherever they go.

The story encompasses the alienation and angst of being different, which has already been handled in other vampire movies, but in Byzantium it has a neat little twist of its own. The vampires in this world are not created by other vampires but by a special secret. Late in the 18th century when the young, raped, beaten and dying human Clara discovers this secret she also discovers that such knowledge and power is supposed to belong only to men. She can either die a helpless wretch, or she can take this taboo power on herself, even if it means making male vampires her permanent enemies. When her daughter turns 16 Clara also has her made into a vampire.


So is Clara at fault if she becomes a monster? How many women would not become monsters (especially such gorgeous, powerful and alive monsters) if they wanted to survive badly enough and could get the tools to do it? What should Clara do when the male vampires start catching up with her, and her own daughter turns into a stranger who starts to unravel the defenses Clara has so carefully constructed?

Gemma Arterton is convincing and powerful as the animalistic Clara. Rape made Clara a whore in “decent” society but she turned that lemon into lemonade by turning her badly-acquired sexual knowledge to then control and manipulate men. Arterton is a major star in the making. She played the kidnap victim of the title in The Disappearance of Alice Creed and showed that nobody puts Alice in a corner. Now she shows us how powerful women can be when they claim their sexuality as their own.


Saoirse Ronan shows us how powerful our humanity can be when we claim it as our own. Her eyes and face express such deep pools of human experience that she easily comes across as both a teenager and a very wise, old soul.

The question now is – is it possible for Ronan to become a big star without an in-your-face-sexuality, or as with Arterton, where the sexuality is strong but is not for the benefit of men -- in today’s Hollywood? Byzantium's dismissal and lack of understanding among so many male reviewers says probably not.








Links: Neil Jordan interviewed on Byzantium by Vulture Magazine, Video interview with Neil Jordan, Germma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Before Midnight: Emotional Celine and Rational Jessie

I had no plans to review Before Midnight because director, Richard Linklater had made its forerunners such exemplary examples of male and female complexity, individuality and equality that I thought there would be nothing to say. It would have been already said about Before Sunrise in 1995 and Before Sunset in 2004.

And then comes Before Midnight and – wham! – we are shot back in time to 1970, maybe even to I Love Lucy. Yes I know I Love Lucy was funny, but it was based on a certain prejudiced idea of men and women that's totally false and dates it back to its time.

The first two-thirds of Before Midnight are fine. Celine and Jessie, who we met on the first magical night of their meeting in Before Sunrise, and who went on to acknowledge their special love and connection in Before Sunset have now been married for 9 years and have kids in Before Midnight. Granted that the giddy hopefulness of two movies where the principles are falling in love, as we want them to, is not quite the same as the hard work of staying in love after being married. Things were rosy in the first two films, things had to be practical and less romantic after 9 years of marriage. That’s fine. The problem was how that practical, less romantic reality was handled.


In Before Midnight Celine and Jessie are just as verbose as they were in the first two films. They seem perfectly matched emotionally and intellectually and can voice their perspectives in a language that both of them and their audience understand. Linklater’s genius lies in being able to make movies that hinge mostly on dialogue but still maintain all the excitement and attention of more action-based films. He zeroes in on the power of language and thought and uses these skillfully to provide us with the necessary tension that a film demands. He knows how to express emotion and tension through intelligent discourse. Celine and Jessie also put voice to what the audience has thought in such situations but has not necessarily voiced. Ergo, rapport.

Finding such perfectly matched actors in Julie Velpy as Celine and Ethan Hawke as Jessie was also an act of Linklater’s genius. They are so well suited to the dialogue and to their roles it’s hard to think of them as acting. They communicate the way people who really know each other well communicate.
So where does Before Midnight stumble? To make them a quarrelsome, long-married couple who’ve learned a thing or two about each other since we last saw them, their wonderful understanding and communication had to be broken. So, in the last act they get into one big mother of a fight. Okay, that’s natural. The descent of romantic love into married love is natural. It’s a hard landing for a lot of us. But this was done by falling into the cliché of how men and women have been portrayed in movies. It dates back to the time when only the men were influencing the production.

The couple and their 3 children (their own twin girls and Jessie’s son from his first marriage) are in Greece having a wonderful vacation. Greece still looks glorious even if financially it is going to hell. Jessie’s son must return to Chicago to live with his mother and Jessie goes into a deep crisis because he, Celine, and their twins live in France. The son is 14 and Jessie wants to be closer to him so that he can be more of a hands-on father than the present distance allows. Celine immediately jumps to the conclusion that Jessie will want to move to Chicago, which she does not want to do. That’s okay so far. Par for the course with today’s complicated relationships. But instead of understanding Jessie’s dilemma and trying to come up with a solution that they both could live with Celine disappears into PMS, pre-menopause mode – or whatever men think those term means.
All her insecurities blast out. She’s afraid she’s getting old and fat, she thinks Jessie is on the verge of leaving her, she's an overworked, under appreciated housewife and domestic slave, Jessie has a life, she has nothing, he is plotting to turn her into a submissive drudge. Anything Jessie says to calm her down and reassure her is twisted into attacks on her so that nothing he says is right. It’s then up to Jessie to remain sane and stable. Jessie projects such pure adoration and obvious respect for her intellect and input into the relationship that we instantly know she's wrong. This is a man who actually listens to what his girlfriend/wife has to say – all the time.

Her assault is so unbelievable that twice he tells her that she is totally crazy – “You’re the Mayor of Crazytown!” - and we believe him, although there was no evidence of this in the other 2 movies. What's worse Celine's attitude disparages women who actually do have these problems. If she can be so totally wrong in assessing her relationship with Jessie, this must be something all women say just to annoy a guy.

I can see where the two might get into a fight, but while Jessie gets all the focused, rational arguments with a few zingers of truth in his attacks, Celine comes off as a blubbering, irrational, emotional, self-centered, egotistical idiot and neurotic woman who can’t realize with a good husband she has. She makes mountains out of molehills and brings up things from years past that have nothing to do with anything that’s happening now. Jessie's son calls her twice. She takes the calls but does not hand them over to Jessie who is begging her to give him the phone. Why? She seems not to notice, or not to care how important it is for Jessie to talk to his son.

At one point she yells “I don’t love you anymore” and stomps out. She expects an exclamation like this to be accepted even though if Jessie had said anything close to that he would never have been forgiven. Thank goodness that the husband, who she cuts down like a dog, has the strength of mind and heart to finally land the right set of compliments that calm her down. Isn’t that how all the comedians and men in sitcoms and romantic comedies survive life with women? Don’t they always have to be the strong ones who sacrifice their pride – because when it comes to arguments women are never wrong, you know?


Watching this film it’s hard to imagine Celine and Jessie ever having sex. While her insightful and analytical mind was so refreshing to hear in the first 2 movies, she doesn’t seem to be able to turn it off in bed. She has to interrupt romantic moments to discuss and analyze every feeling, and suspect every move.

My friend (who did not see the first 2 movies) said, “I didn’t realize she was such a bitch,” assuming she must have been like this in the other movies too.

I was hoping to see a wiser depiction of marital conflict. A wordsmith like Linklater (with help from Delpy and Hawke) should have come up with dialogue that more equally balanced the fears and disappoints marriage can bring. Things simmered down in the end somewhat artificially but, given Celine’s paranoia and that nothing was settled, there is no reason they will not flare up again. You know what it’s like trying to reason with a woman!

Before Midnight still has a lot of the old magic to it, but in dealing with Celine's anger it is just not fair.



  

Links: Before Midnight movie trailerVideo interview with Richard Linklater, Julie Velpy and Ethan Hawke, Before Sunrise movie trailerBefore Sunset movie trailer.

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Company You Keep: Is With Some Amazingly Strong Women

In many ways The Company You Keep is very much of an old school film. Director and star Robert Redford, yet again, reprises his need to remind the public that the sins of the ‘60s and ‘70s will not go away unless they are owned by the public and by the government. This time Redford does it in the form of a chase thriller, a very popular genre. It does not allow for much creativity, but it keeps the audience’s eyes glued to the screen with the old what’s-gonna-happen-next ploy. What does make The Company You Keep unusual is that a sizeable number of women glue the story together.

Adapted from the 2003 novel by Neil Gordon, the story harks back 30 years when students rebelled against the Vietnam War on campuses all over America. The strongest of these protest groups was the Students’ Democratic Society (SDS). Its militant outgrowth, the Weather Underground, commonly known as the Weathermen (both men and women) committed several violent crimes and hid successfully from the police for many years.

Robert Redford was on top of the box office then, and he has cast other big stars of that era to now play the activists of that time – people who are considered to be too old to be cast as leading stars today. Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott, Richard Jenkins and Robert Redford himself. To capture the interest of youth, Shia LaBeouf was cast as reporter Ben Shepard who wants to uncover the truth before the FBI gets to it.


The story involves the arrest of Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), one of the Weathermen involved in a bank robbery and killing of a guard who has been hiding out as a mom and housewife. This leads to Jim Grant (Robert Redford) a supposedly-law-abiding lawyer and family man who also has a secret from that time period when he was known as Nick Sloan. He has to now run and uncover the truth before he too is arrested and tried for murder. Ben Shepard and the FBI (Terrence Howard) run after him. This is where the chase comes in.

One by one, important women keep popping up. Sharon Solarz, the catalyst who starts the crisis, – Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), the mover and shaker of the Weathermen group and the one who holds the plot’s vital secret – Diana (Anna Kendrick) the FBI agent who first provides reporter Shepard with key information setting him on the track of the truth – Rebecca Osborne (Brit Marling), the daughter Nick Sloan gave up for adoption long ago – and Isabel (Jackie Evancho), the daughter Jim Grant now has to raise. All of these actresses play integral, fully-fledged, intelligent, active and memorable roles. Not one is a standard, supportive, one dimensional, stand-by-our-man female.

Any or several of these characters could and would have been male in the usual round of movie casting. There’s no reason to have 2 children who are daughters and the membership and leadership of the Weathermen was mostly men. Even Mimi Lurie, who for purposes of plot had to be female because she was Nick Sloan’s old love interest, could have been shoved to the back and a notable man could have supplied the tension the role of Mimi provides.

As good a news as this is, the plot has major problems. Although a chase thriller does provide the entertainment an audience expects, its main purpose is keeping you guessing what’s going to happen next. The circumstances are secondary. All sorts of people who have a reason to run and are being chased can fit into a plot like this. Who they are, what time frame they live in, what they actually did or did not do, and for what reason is not really important. The only thing that matters to an audience is what is the fugitive going to do to get away this time and how fast is his pursuer coming after him. Stopping to think about anything else is intrusive.

However, the circumstances of The Company You Keep is about a lot of things the audience should be thinking about. They bring back the political perspective of the ’60s and ‘70s and reflect it on today’s political environment. Who was right and who was wrong? What was it all about and why does it matter and why should we care? A smattering of this is thrown in but again; the audience can’t really stop to think about it because the cops have almost caught up to Nick Sloan and he has to run again.


What we learn from those impassioned political acts of olden days is mostly superficial and kind of banal. Sharon Solarz’s perspective on the old ideals changed because she had a family. Nick Sloan hammers Mimi Lurie with the fact that they had a daughter together and raising her, and not political ideals, should have been the most important thing in their lives. It seems like settling down and passing 30 doesn’t mesh with seeking political change even if it will improve the world. Things like democracy, justice and freedom are made to seem like they are only for the young, naïve, single student.

This is not an encouraging message for today’s dissatisfied youth, who until now have been driving the criticism against banks, corporate corruption and the devastation its greed can produce. While waxing nostalgic for those ideals, The Company You Keep says ‘wait, after 30, when you have kids, you’ll need those corporations to give you a job.’ Somehow I don’t think that’s what it wanted to say, but between the lines that’s what I heard.


So, there you have it. A great movie for exploring the role of women, a knuckle-whitening thriller, but very superficial in dealing with Robert Redford’s favorite subject and probable reason for making it – and while supporting the ideals of political activism and the willingness to fight for them, dismissing them at the same time.

P.S. Regarding the casting of women, a friend of mine who is shooting his first independent film ran into his first WTF. Women are key in his film, but the venture company funding the film told him investors don't care who’s cast for the female roles because female roles are irrelevant.  They are interested only in who’s cast for the male roles. Sad, sad, sad.








Links: NYTimes Talks with Robert Redford and Shia LaBoeuf, Author Neil Gordon, Info on the Weathermen

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Spring Breakers: A lot more than meets the eye

At first glance Spring Breakers seems the kind of film that most sophisticated, enlightened, educated, equality-aware, politically correct viewers would disdain. That would be a mistake. The director, Harmony Korine is an artist and auteur whose work is worth seeing even if you hate it. Either way it makes for a very animated evening of lively conversation. Though it appears to be a shallow beach movie, with the requisite misogynistic male-oriented demand for tits and ass, and accompanying shallow characters, it is anything but.

Harmony Korine, whose previous work like Gummo and Mister Nobody was on the arthouse circuit for years has made a very accessible film with appeal both for brain dead and brain hungry people. Korine is basically a social anthropologist who focuses on outlier societies the Starbucks crowd usually disdains and he sees the whole of the American story in them.

The story begins with 4 gorgeous, shapely, angst-driven teenage girls in a Christian college whose passionate, desperate dream is to go to spring break in St. Petersburg, Fla. If they have any other dreams they are not obvious. Of the 4 only one, Faith (Selena Gomez) seems capable of depth or inner conflict. She truly wants to be a good person, with Christian sensibilities she takes seriously, but she just wants to let loose (in other words, be normal).

The other 3, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) are sociopaths – and as such, have a single personality completely in tune with their more adventurous souls. Their Christian college and upbringing may have kept their consciences artificially propped up to this time, but basically their consciences are non-existent and their hedonistic selves can’t wait to be born.

Because they are short of funds the 3 decide to rob a diner. Faith isn't told because they kinda know Faith probably wouldn’t approve. They’ve seen it all on TV, the movies and video games. They know how much attitude and virility works to get you what you want and they have no problem robbing those suckers.


Here is where Korine’s style really starts to take shape. The discordant, dreamlike perspective of the 3 girls fills the screen as if they are on a planet of their own. The camera angle that shows the job smoothly done – like a pop video – complete with music. We follow the getaway driver, Cotty letting Candy and Brit off at the front door of the diner and then as she drives slowly in their stolen pickup truck around to the back door, seeing what Cotty sees through the diner windows – Candy and Brit mercilessly, in their balaclavas, brandishing fake guns, bullying and robbing the diner and its patrons, bags full of cash then seamlessly exiting the back door, diving into the back of the pickup and driving off whooping, hollering, drunk with power. They are so into themselves and man, are they cool!

So, still without clueing Faith into what they have done they gleefully make off to their St. Pete’s mecca. Faith surmises that St. Pete’s with its raucous, debauched portrayal of manic youth spewing, gyrating, blasting its way out of their college-restrained rationalist catharsis is “the most spiritual place I have ever been” – and all 4 girls dive into the beer, sweat and slobber of it. Even though there are titty shots galore and plenty of obviously shameless youths swimming in beer orgies we actually get very little depiction of sex. If the 4 girls ever get to be the little sluts they dream of being, we don’t really know. They sure love teasing though, and work the power of their bodies on to overload.


The St. Pete’s spring breaking crowd splatters onto the screen in full splendor – the constant, numbing, pounding energy, in high-powered pink and turquoise filters high on alcohol and pot, cocaine and whatever, repeated over and over again. It’s all candyland for big kids who’ve had their sweet tooth indulged all their lives.

Then the story takes a darker turn. After they are arrested at a particularly rowdy party, Alien (James Franco) a really, really bad dude bails them out, and they get to see how really bad he and they can be.

Franco at first seems to not be the best choice for Alien. He has a soft, vulnerable side that is a probably a permanent part of his personality. I doubt he can be really as scary edgy as Alien was supposed to be. But then it became obvious that Korine was exploiting this soft part of his personality. A mushy Franco makes Alien as absurdly surreal as the girls spring break/dive into hell is supposed to be. As he tells the girls, he is the living representation of the American dream and through crime, fear, violence he has acquired himself all the material goods everyone in America wants, and he has done it on his terms.


At this point the only character in the film with a moral compass, the only one who does not want the life of pleasure at any cost, Faith, leaves. We are left with various degrees of bad characters to watch take the next step. Will the other girls acquire a conscience and still be saved? Will Alien turn good? Will all of them get the violence and/or being caught by the cops they deserve? See the movie because it’s none of those things.

So how does the depiction of female characters in Spring Breakers rate according to finely-honed feminist standards?

Are the girls individualistic and multi-faceted? No, but they represent a specific social group so I didn’t think they needed to be.

Are they sexually exploited? Some might think so. Shallow guys can see the film and see plenty of boobs without once thinking there might be more to the movie. But I think not because the whole sexual cornucopeia is an accurate representation of a real-life phenomenon, within a specific time and location, in which certain young men and women really do behave this way.


Are the girls victimized? An emphatic – no! They give as good as they get.

This film is not feministically correct. It has all the reasons for disappointment in human nobility and nature that humanity actually deserves.

One question. Girls seem quite eager to take their tops off as a sign of rebellion and freedom. But guys don’t expose themselves any more than they could do publicly anywhere, even though that would also be shocking. Why are so many gay men so eager to go stark naked and publicly show off all their equipment, but straight men will avoid doing so at any cost?


All I can say is that Spring Breakers is normally a movie that would never have appealed to me. I don’t like excessive violence and I don’t like seedy, psychopathic gangsters. I don’t care for shallow, soulless teenagers and in fact being of a certain age I have no affinity with modern teenage angst and its immature obsessions in general. I don’t even like tourist Florida. But I was completely hooked on this film. I as thoroughly engaged and not bored for a second. I am also thankful for having discovered Harmony Korine this late in the game.

       Links: Harmony Korine video interview with The Guardian and movie trailer clip