Designing Women

GTY-Jessica-Chastain-ml-170530_12x5_1600If you’ve been following the film festival circuit, you no doubt have heard the fascinating observation from Cannes Film Festival jury member, Jessica Chastain about the current role of women in films. If you are unfamiliar with Chastain’s comments, the basic gist is that it is uncommon to find a female character whose main motivation is not simply reacting to what the male characters do. This complaint is not unfamiliar territory for Hollywood; however, Cannes is a renowned international film festival. In fact, most of the films that screen there are not from American filmmakers. Additionally, many of these films do not even get distribution in the United States, including the winning films.  My point being, the inferiority of women’s roles in film is often attributed to the American film industry, but Chastain’s comments open the conversation to a global stage.

What makes Chastain’s words ring even more true than most is the genuine way she presented herself. She introduced herself as someone who loves movies, and then discussed the unique experience of viewing 20 movies in 10 days, which is the process for the Cannes jury members. Having that broad and expansive experience allowed Chastain to make a relevant and sustained observation that with few exceptions, women in film are “mostly passive and empty shells of characters,” rather than resembling any woman she’d encountered in real life.

And, to put an even finer point on things, all of this occurred on the eve of the release of the American film Baywatch, a film supposedly all about the women starring two men, Zac Efron and Dwayne Johnson, and some women presumably – I don’t believe the trailer or promotional posters gave any names of the female stars.

Speaking of Johnson, just to prove I am not simply a bandwagon feminist, please take my review of another of his films, San Andreas, a film I enjoyed actually, but contained plenty of blatant and institutional misogyny…and also raked in $474 million globally.

Here’s the interesting thing though. Money is not necessarily where the sexism is. As I mentioned, the Cannes Film Festival is not the destination for films that generally rake in the box office dollars. Cannes is more of a home for the prestige pictures that hope to play in awards circuits. In many cases, these films represent a more accurate picture of how artists see the real world. Blockbuster films present, in many cases, a fantasy that can and often does include well-developed female characters.

Top grossing film of each of the past three years:Rey-Star-Wars-Rogue-One-mother

2015: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (female protagonist, Disney)

2016: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (female protagonist, Disney)

2017: Likely to be a battle between Beauty and the Beast (female protagonist), Wonder Woman (female protagonist), Star Wars Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (female protagonist) – Disney, Warner Brothers, Disney.

Best Picture for each of the past three years:

2014: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (male protagonist fighting with another male who wants to be the true protagonist)

2015: Spotlight (a bunch of male protagonists uncovering criminal conspiracy of men molesting boys)

2016: Moonlight (three separate actors portraying one male protagonist)

So what does all of this mean? It means that as an art form, the studios, auteurs, actors, writers, and directors who are responsible for the underlying reputation of the business are compelled to depict the stories that matter most to our culture from an overwhelmingly male perspective. It’s not that these artists or the system is sexist, but rather the society of which they wish to reflect is.

Fortunately, the art that imitates life has an impact and the response from Jessica Chastain is evident of this. As our Cineplex’s continue bombard us with the traditional summer fare, take notice of the entertainment the film industry thinks we want to see and how the stories are portrayed. More importantly, after the blockbuster season, be aware of the films that are selected as the year’s best and think about if they represent the society and culture you want to live in!

 

The People’s Critic’s List of the Best and Worst Films of 2014

Interior of a Movie TheaterShould I get my annual ANGRY SIDE NOTE out of the way now? OkI still have yet to see Selma, American Sniper, Inherent Vice, and Foxcatcher appear in a theater anywhere near me. It’s not due to lack of trying, and it’s not due to North Korea. Year after year, films vying to qualify for Oscar eligibility will open their films in the minimal markets (LA and New York) and then choose some obsequious and noncompetitive weekend in January to open wide to audiences; this stupid phenomenon continues to persist.  Last year, films like Spike Jones’s Her, The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, and August: Osage County all opened in minimal markets and opened wide later in January.  I continue to champion that films should have to be widely released in the year that they wish to be nominated.  Audiences should have access to all academy qualified films and an opportunity to share their points of view before the “so-called” powers that be cast their votes. In fact, the one movie I should NOT be able to see, The Interview, opened in a local independent theater for a limited four day engagement! But hold on Foxcatcher, better cool your heels for a while and let the riff-raff pass, I guess. The films listed below all played fair and deserve to be seen and commended.

2014 has been a pretty bland year for movies.  Oscar nominations will be announced Thursday, January 15th, and I haven’t seen a more lackluster field of eligible films since 2011 when The Artist went on to win BEST PICTURE! Regardless, some good films were released this year, so once again – an important announcement is being made right now.  While no Top Ten List can ever satisfy everyone, great care has been taken to analyze each film on my own particular set of criteria ensuring reliability!  So without further ado, I present The People’s Critic’s Top 10 films of 2014.

The Ten Best Films of 2014

Noah10.  Noah – Darren Aronofsky’s films are as diverse as it gets, and so while it is surprising to see his name attached to a high budget Biblical epic, it also is not surprising. Noah delivered in ways that seemed to go mostly unnoticed by audiences. This film came and went pretty quickly last spring and didn’t even come close to recouping its estimated $125 million budget. Still, Aronofsky’s take on the tale of Noah is spectacularly fascinating and truly more original and innovative than any other film of its kind in the last ten years.

 

The Imitation Game9.  The Imitation GameThe Imitation Game is an absorbing look at the life of British mathematician and cryptologist, Allen Turing as he attempts to thwart the Nazis by breaking their seemingly unbreakable Enigma communication codes. The film hinges very heavily on its performances, which are all excellent. Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing and Keira Knightley as his fellow codebreaker are especially great, and the film feels and looks very authentic, especially in its depiction of the many layers of World War II, most notably the pivotal role of intelligence in terms of how the war played out as well as the impossible decisions that must be made as a result. This film does justice to the wondrously incredible story at its core.

wild8.  WildWild is a surprising film of perseverance and beauty. Unlike many films of this genre, Wild spends more time examining the human instinct and its conflict with reason. This is what makes it most compelling and oddly most relatable. Quite honestly, this film resonated with me more than director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Oscar darling from last year, Dallas Buyers Club. Reese Witherspoon is on top of her game here as reluctant adventurer,Cheryl Strayed, and there is great strength in Wild and great heart.

 

Grand Budapest7.  The Grand Budapest Hotel2012’s Moonrise Kingdom was a nearly perfect cinematic experience, and it was Edward Norton’s portrayal of Scoutmaster Ward that made the film so enjoyable from start to finish. With Grand Budapest Hotel, director Wes Anderson capitalizes on this character-driven amusement again with Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave, legendary concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel. Never has an Anderson film had more fun with foul language, dark subject matter, and true human consequences. This elevates The Grand Budapest Hotel to the height of Anderson’s achievements.

Boyhood6.  Boyhood – While this film is my #5 film of the year, it is my #1 must see for everyone and perhaps the greatest cinematic experiment that I have had the pleasure of seeing in my lifetime. The plot is simple, the direction is appropriate, but the concept is fascinating, Richard Linklater and his small but talented cast headed by the newcomer and suddenly very familiar Ellar Coltrane follows its characters over a 12 year period as they simply live the life they lead. The experimental piece is that the movie was also filmed over 12 years allowing the cast to age along with the characters. This is a wonderfully successful film with great heart and a great use of music as well, including the added bonus of “Post-Beatles Black Album” playlist that is a must for any Beatles fan.

Get on Up5.  Get on Up – What is funk? Well take Get on Up, subtract last summer’s tepid Jersey Boys, and what you’re left with is solid gold, toe-tapping funk! And what we have here is a funk filled film. In the theater where I saw this film, two women were dancing in the aisles during one of the scenes. That speaks volumes to the power of James Brown’s music and the way that Tate Taylor utilized it. But an equal amount of credit must go to Boseman for his performance. He expresses the complexity of James Brown with every dramatic scene and he embodies the physicality of Brown in every performance scene. This is a performance on par with Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray, although Boseman does lip-sync to Brown rather than sing.  Still, you can’t dance-sync and Boseman is electric on his feet! I’m not sure how Oscar voters decide who to nominate, but it’s criminal if Boseman is overlooked this year for Best Actor.

Captain America4.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier – I know people are tired of hearing me crow about this film, but it is phenomenal. And just to piss those same people off just a little bit more, I was not that impressed with Guardians of the Galaxy. Too many films of this genre are born into intergalactic conflicts and absurdly fantastic plotlines, but the best of them are grounded, at least partially, in reality. The motive for Captain America has always been protecting his homeland from threats, and it is a credit to the Russo brothers and writers Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely to put him in an environment where he is doing that very thing. This is a throw-back to the old conspiracy thrillers of the 60s and 70s. Chris Evans brings the perfect balance of charm, bravado, and idealism to the role of Captain America, and Robert Redford puts forth a very real and noteworthy performance as Pierce, no doubt inspired by how Tommy Lee Jones treated his role as Colonel Phillips in Captain America: The First Avenger. I’m so ready for Captain America: Civil War, but I’m not sure it will surpass the impressive nature of this film.

gone girl3.  Gone Girl – David Fincher certainly has fans of the novel in mind in his adaptation of Gone Girl. While Flynn adapted her own novel for the screenplay, Fincher captures the novel’s tone beautifully keeping the audience at the edge of their seats for the film’s entire 149 minute running time. Comparisons to Hitchcock have been made in the past and while techniques vary, Fincher’s pacing, camera work, and tremendous use of score are very reminiscent of the great master of suspense. And then there’s the acting! Affleck and Pike are perfect in this film. The nuances, layers, and personalities of Flynn’s characters are fully realized in both lead performances. Mystery thrillers are far more dependent on proper characterization than virtually any other genre and these performances make way for some of the most satisfying twists since The Usual Suspects.

Birdman2.  BirdmanBirdman is a captivating film from start to finish. Stylistically, its long, choreographed shots sweep the viewer into the world of Michael Keaton’s character, Riggan Tompson, a former Hollywood star on a personal search for lost glory. Director, Alejandro Iñárritu expertly uses the medium of film to emphasize the often overlooked majesty and tension of theater, in essence earning the film’s subtitle, “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” Birdman is a triumph of the art form and is certainly one of the most ambitious movies of the year.

interstellar21.  Interstellar – If you’re tired of me shouting about Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you’re probably also tired of me screaming about Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Interstellar is the most immersive film of the year, eclipsing even last year’s Gravity in terms of cinematic experience. Nolan does not treat the audience with kid gloves and allows us to observe and appreciate the film without needless exposition or over-explanation. Clocking in at 3 hours in running time, the film actually moves with a deliberate and intrepid pace. Like successful cinematic space operas of the past such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or even Star Wars, Interstellar is enriched with thoughtfulness, theoretical rhetoric, and intensity! The film is also quite beautiful and awe-inspiring. Nolan, one of the last filmmakers still shooting on 35mm film, uses the technique to his stunning advantage. Darkness, color, perspective, and beauty are all heightened by Nolan’s camera work, and the film resonates with a voracity that feels appropriate for a quality depiction of interplanetary space travel. Like most Christopher Nolan films, the true strength of Interstellar is not in its cast but in its atmosphere and ambition. For a science-fiction film, Interstellar feels very authentic and while the film’s final act may challenge some viewers, everything works. This is a big movie and deserves to be my pick for the best film of 2014!

The Five Worst Films of 2014

So now that the best films are identified, it’s time to mention the five worst films of the year. This task was unfortunately tougher than usual since so many disappointing films opened this year. Still, I managed to whittle it down to five real stinkers.

Transformers5.  Transformers – Age of Extinction – This is a loud, long, and dumb movie, and while a niche exists for this kind of thing in the summer, but Transformers: Age of Extinction does not fill that vacancy with high quality entertainment, but rather strives for mediocrity with momentary flashes of obscene and immoral product pandering in the style of the famously satirical Wayne’s World scene, only completely without any sense of irony. This is an upsetting movie in so many ways, but there were still four movies that were worse!

Divergent4.  Divergent – How the hell did people like this movie? Most of the film is an excruciatingly long and played out training set-up piece for a lackluster climactic finish. Director Neil Burger is at least partly responsible for the flavorless and wishy-washy performances in this film. His direction involves running back to the well of successful YA novel adaptations and hand picking the qualities he thought worked in other places. There is no shortage of young adult novels that encourage the individual and warn against conformity; Divergent is one such novel. However, this film ignores those lessons and aims to have absolutely no originality or individuality from its acting right down to its execution.

Tammy3.  Tammy – This film was allegedly inspired by a dream that writer/director Ben Falcone had about his wife, Melissa McCarthy. I wish that this terrible nightmare of a film stayed inside his head and never had the chance to enter mine. I felt embarrassed for everyone involved in this movie from the moment it started all the way to its absurd and horrendously offensive conclusion. McCarthy has done better work in every single other film she’s been involved in and this film unfortunately is the only one that bears her name as “writer.” McCarthy is a force on the screen when the material is good, but Tammy will forever serve as a reminder for what happens when it is not.

Transcendance2.  Transcendence – I decided to watch Transcendence in my home theater while confined to my basement during a severe storm and tornado warning. What I thought I was doing is passing the time with an interesting film. In reality, what I did was give the tornado a run for its money in terms of devastation and calamity. Transcendence basically says to the viewer, “Hey remember that terrible movie from 1992, Lawnmower Man? Well, here’s another version that’s even worse.” If you like love stories with disembodied voices, watch Her, not this train wreck of a film. First time director, Wally Pfister is actually Christopher Nolan’s favorite cinematographer, but once he’s in the director’s chair, it’s a disaster. I thought this was sure to be the worst film of the year, but then my wife took me to…

The Best of Me1.  The Best of Me – So Nicholas Sparks has the rare distinction of penning the source material for a film that appears on this list two years in a row! Last year, Safe Haven started the list of worst films at #5. This year he move all the way to the top with The Best of Me. The Notebook was a successful film and put Sparks on the map in terms of his films being cinematic successes. Now every time one of his books is adapted, someone is trying to recreate that Notebook magic, and never has that been more apparent than with this film. We have the young couple who falls in love, we have a girl’s family who hates the boy, we have the same couple later in life, no longer together due to circumstances that came up. We have clichés all over the place. And then there’s the ending that basically alienates the core group of fans who would normally have liked this movie, making it basically impossible to like no matter who you are. Thus, given that this film should appeal to absolutely no one, it clearly deserves the top spot on the list of worst films of the year!

What do you think the best and worst films of 2014 were?  Sound off below or on my Facebook Page.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

BirdmanDirector: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Writer: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifinakis

The “critic” is somewhat eviscerated in the new film Birdman. At the risk of seeming gauche, I will review it anyway!

Alejandro González Iñárritu may not be a household name, but the man has had some tremendous success with films like Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel which was nominated for 6 Oscars in 2007. All of those films feature separate events and storylines that entwine to bring multiple unlikely characters together. In his new film, Birdman, Iñárritu takes a sort of departure from that format to follow one central character in his personal search for glory.

Michael Keaton pays Riggan Tompson, a former Hollywood star, famous for playing Birdman in a successful trilogy of superhero films from the 1990s. Tompson’s career has dried up since then, but he hopes that by producing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play of his own adaptation, he will once again feel relevant.

The film follows Tompson seemingly through one uninterrupted shot as he handles the pressures, complications, and stresses of live theater as the production courses its way from rehearsals, to previews, and ultimately to opening night. Whether it’s the battle of egos between himself and co-star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) or the battle of emotions between Tompson and his assistant/recovering addict/daughter Sam (Emma Stone), Tompson clearly has his hands full. He also has everything riding on this production and Iñárritu communicates this with a frantic energy that results in a film as unpredictable and erratic as the jazzy score that accompanies it.

Fittingly, this film about actors acting happens to have some great acting. Keaton easily surpasses the initial, shallow Batman comparisons and makes Tompson’s struggle relatable. Emma Stone is biting and angsty as Tompson’s daughter, and Zach Galifinakis makes the most of his screentime by downplaying is normal persona. Also great are Edward Norton and Naomi Watts who act as foils to one another in terms of their perspectives on being career actors.

Birdman is a captivating film from start to finish. Stylistically, its long, choreographed shots sweep the viewer into Tompson’s world. Iñárritu expertly uses the medium of film to emphasize the often overlooked majesty and tension of theater, in essence earning the film’s subtitle, “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” We are delighted to be reminded of the pitfalls and trappings of performance art, especially since audiences are often only privy to the final, polished product.

But Birdman is not just a film about ignorance, nor is it just a film about reclaiming glory. Birdman is mostly about perception. In one scene, an ego-maniacal Edward Norton says to Keaton, “popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” This resonates with Keaton as his dilemma seems to be between those two very things – the popularity he experienced in his past and the prestige that comes with being viewed as relevant in the eyes of those he cares for. This quest for relevance is truly where the movie excels, and it is the key to unlocking the truth of the film’s final scene. Birdman is a triumph of the art form and is certainly one of the most ambitious movies of the year.  A

Birdman is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 59 minutes.