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!

 

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The Jungle Book (2016)

JungleDirector: Jon Favreau

Screenwriter: Justin Marks

Cast: Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Scarlet Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o, and Garry Shandling

I mentioned in my review of 2015’s Cinderella that, “remakes, sequels, and formula retreads have littered Disney’s productions over the past few decades, but as they say, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”  That statement remains remarkably true with this year’s The Jungle Book.

Director Jon Favreau hops the fence from Disney’s Marvel studio productions to Disney’s, Disney studio productions; I imagine he’s eyeing one of those Star Wars spinoffs so he can pull off the Disney hat trick.   As usual, Favreau brings his time-tested bag of tricks along with him to make The Jungle Book far better than it might have been in someone else’s hands.  The Jungle Book retells the classic Rudyard Kipling story that also inspired the 1967 Disney animated classic as well as a Disney live-action film in 1994.  After the death of his father at the jaws of the fierce tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), orphaned child Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is taken in by a pack of wolves and raised as one of their own.  As Mowgli ages, his human instincts and ingenuity begin to manifest, causing the fearsome Khan to threaten the pack with his terror if the “man-cub” is not surrendered.  For his own good, Mowgli’s wolf-mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) entrusts panther, Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to escort Mowgli through the dense jungle and deliver him to the man-village for his own safety.

Yes, this is a faithful retelling of a story that has been told many times over.  So why do it and why is it worth seeing?  As was the case with 2015’s Cinderella, when one decides to tell a familiar story like this, it is important to have a purpose. Fortunately, that is precisely why Favreau’s version is successful. From the very start, we are immersed in the jungle landscape with standard-setting visual effects that leave all Jungle Book predecessors in the dust.  Furthermore, that “Favreau bag of tricks” results in style, fun, and pointed humor that makes the film feel fresh and exciting.  Case in point, opening the film with a neurotic hedgehog frantically claiming any object he finds as “mine,” voiced by Garry Shandling in what is likely his final role (the film is also dedicated to Shandling in the end credits).  Additionally, the landscapes are breathtaking and the narrative is full of life despite its having only one human character!  Like his work on Elf, Favreau brings a fantasy world to life by relating it so well to our familiar world.  Mowgli’s metaphorical journey resonates with audiences of all ages because like all good films based on a classic piece of literature, there are layers of appreciation for the central themes including relationships, integrity, and persistence.  Of course, unlike Zootopia from earlier this year, these themes are more or less just “there” and not executed expertly enough to support the kind of conversation and discussion the story has in book form.

Then there are the performances.  I’ve purposefully left this discussion of specific characters for last, as I could never have anticipated how much I was going to enjoy them.  First of all, our sole human actor, Neel Sethi is outstanding as Mowgli.  This kid is athletic, heartwarming, and talented.  Not many kids can carry a $175 million budget film all on their own, let alone on their first try!  But let’s get down to it.  Those who know me, know that I have a few cinematic heroes that I don’t shut up about: Woody Allen, Christopher Walken, and Bill Murray.  I recently wrote a little retrospective on Walken called “Talkin’ Walken: A Top 10 List,” and of course my favorite movie of all time continues to be 1993’s Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, who I have often written about and whose name is

IMG_5473
“Bill Murray” on the red carpet during the 2016 Academy Awards.

consequently also the name of my dog (see image on right).  Now both actors have done some stinkers and several of those stinkers involve either voice acting and/or animals, so imagine my trepidation when I heard that these two actors would be voicing roles of animals in a Disney live-action Jungle Book.  Still, like Mowgli I persevered keeping an open mind and hoping for the best.  The first of these two actors to appear is Murray as Baloo the bear.  Let me tell you, as a fan but also a critic, Murray is superb in this role.  Anyone who supported that conversation about how Scarlet Johansson (who also voices a role in this film) deserved an Oscar nomination for voicing an operating system in Her, should be right back at it supporting Bill Murray for this performance.  Yes, that sounds stupid, and that’s why that whole conversation was stupid in 2013, but he’s just as good.  Thankfully, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks had the wherewithal to have Murray sing “Bare Necessities” and forgo that whole “live-action remakes don’t include the songs” rule.  And speaking of singing, the classically trained singer, dancer, and actor Christopher Walken gets a crack at the film’s other most memorable number as King Louie with “I wan’na Be Like You.”  There is no appropriate maximum number of times you can hear Christopher Walken say “Shooby-Doo” or “Gigantopithecus.”

So it seems the Jungle Book renaissance is just getting underway.  A sequel to this film to be helmed once again by Favreau has already been green lit. Also, this summer a Jungle Book clone in the form of Tarzan (but not the Disney story) will also grace the big screen.  And even more confusingly, motion-capture magician Andy Serkis is directing and starring in his own darker, non-Disney version of The Jungle Book due out in 2018.  So don’t fill up on jungles and/or books just yet, but this one is an excellent first course.  B+

shoobyThe Jungle Book is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes.  If you stay a few minutes into the end credits, you will be treated to a reprise of Walken’s “I Wan’na Be Like You,” which I of course completely recommend.

The Finest Hours

DFinestirector: Craig Gillespie

Screenwriter: Scott Silver

Cast: Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, and Holliday Grainger

Disney has a way of producing some of the most formulaic live-action films that you just can’t avoid liking.  Films like McFarland, USA, Tomorrowland, Cinderella, and now The Finest Hours are primary examples of the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The Finest Hours tells the story of a courageous Coast Guard team who risk their lives to save the crew of a wrecked oil tanker off the coast of Cape Cod during a historic blizzard in 1952.  Chris Pine plays Bernie Webber, a shy but dependable coastguardsman looking for redemption after a failed rescue some years earlier, which resulted in the death of his friend and fellow coastguardsman.  After an oil tanker is torn apart by hurricane force winds, Webber is ordered by his commander (Eric Bana) to organize a crew and navigate out to the last known location of the tanker.  With weather conditions preventing any large vessels from heading out to sea, Webber and his crew, which includes Richard Livesey (Ben Foster), Ervin Maske (John Magaro), and Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner), head out in a small 12-man rescue boat to brave the seas and attempt the rescue.

What makes this film rise above the standard adventure/rescue fare is that while the plot I have revealed sounds relatively entertaining, I have not even gotten to the story involving the split oil tanker.  Director Craig Gillespie and writer Scott Silver’s decision to feature a balanced story between the rescue and the tanker crew was the film’s highlight.  Lead by engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), the film’s most exciting and powerful scenes revolve around the tanker crew’s battle to stay afloat whilst waiting for rescue.  Affleck steals the film with a performance far better than a film like this would have you expect.

The Finest Hours does drag one anchor in its wake and that’s the romantic plot between Webber and his fiancé, Miriam (Holliday Grainger).  This film is based on true events and Bernie and Miriam’s story are part of those events, but their relationship feels very cool and isolated.  What could have been played out as a strong love story where passion for life plays as a thread throughout the entire film, is surprisingly snuffed out in the scenes between Pine and Grainger.  Furthermore, Eric Bana’s portrayal as Commander Cluff is very uneven and at the end I was left confused as to what to think of him.

Still, The Finest Hours is a perfectly enjoyable slice of historic adventure.  These types of films rarely reach for the stars, but they are just good enough to be worthy of an audience. The story at this film’s core is one that was destined to find its way to the silver screen, and in most instances, it is executed very well.  While Pine is serviceable as the film’s hero, it is Affleck who is the standout and practically makes this film worth seeing all on his own.  B

The Finest Hours is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 57 minutes.

Inside Out

inside outDirector: Pete Doctor

Screenwriter: Pete Doctor, Ronoldo Del Carmen

Cast: Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Phyllis Smith, and Mindy Kaling

No one goes to the movie theater during the summer and expects to see something cerebral. Well Inside Out, the latest release from Disney’s Pixar studios, has decided to bring the brain, literally.

Inside Out is the fifteenth feature length film from Pixar and it is easily the best since 2009’s Up. And that makes sense, since writer/director Pete Doctor is responsible for both films. As far as plot goes, Inside Out is like a cleaner version of the final vignette from Woody Allen’s 1972 comedy Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid to Ask). If that’s too old of a reference for you, then it’s like a smarter version of the 1990’s Fox sitcom Herman’s Head. If you’re like everyone else and you didn’t watch Herman’s Head, then it’s about a young girl named Riley who struggles to cope with her parents’ decision to uproot her from her happy life in Minnesota and move her out to San Francisco. The catch is that Inside Out gives us a glimpse into Riley’s brain, where it is revealed that her emotions are actual beings that interact and conflict in order to form her personality. Joy (Amy Poehler) heads up the team, which consists of Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). When an accident causes Joy and Sadness to be ejected from “headquarters,” it leaves Fear, Anger, and Disgust in charge causing Riley to experience an emotional crisis.

As readers of mine know, when it comes to children’s movies, I ask myself three questions: Is it enjoyable and appropriate for kids? Is it meaningful? Will it at least amuse adults? Pixar Studios has been uniquely successful at balancing these elements for years, and Inside Out is no exception. In fact, this may be the most adult-friendly film the studio has ever produced, and they made a film with a 78-year-old protagonist! Kids will enjoy the animation, fun characters, bright colors, and surface story, but this is a very intelligent allegory on cognitive process and the complexity of emotion – particularly with the role of sadness. It also has a Chinatown joke.

In a summer bound to be full of emotionally shallow films, here is one that will make you think and make you feel. It will also explain why you can never get that annoying TV commercial jingle out of your head.  I’ll admit, I’ve never been an 11-year-old girl, my parents never moved me across the country, and I’ve never met an emotion in person, but I had no trouble relating to every aspect of this film. This is a cleverly executed film that also has a lesson or two to teach about empathy. If only Herman’s Head had seen Inside Out first. A-

Inside Out is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes.

Cinderella (2015)

CinderellaDirector: Kenneth Branagh

Screenwriter: Chris Weitz

Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, and Helena Bonham Carter

It’s been a long time since someone left a Disney Studio film and said, “Wow! The originality was what impressed me.” Remakes, sequels, and formula retreads have littered Disney’s productions over the past few decades, but as they say, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Still, as the Walt Disney Pictures logo transitions into a real castle to open their latest film, Cinderella, we are reminded what a trademark this story truly is to the Disney brand. The castle featured in the animated 1950 film became the icon for the Disney Pictures logo as well as the premier structure of the Walt Disney World theme park. Thus, in the case of this particular remake, Disney deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Cinderella opens in true Disney fashion, with the death of a mother character. And of course, once the audience is adequately depressed, the film begins the long climb to that inevitable happy ending. Ella (Lily James) – the “Cinder” comes later, now motherless, grows up in a quaint farm house with her father. A series of events result in Ella’s father inviting a recently widowed woman and her two daughters to come live with them. The widow, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and her daughters soon reveal themselves to be of the selfish and unfriendly variety and when Ella’s father takes ill and dies on a business trip, she finds herself completely at the mercy of her wicked step mother and step sisters. What follows is a fairly traditional retelling of the 1950 animated version complete with talking mice, glass slippers, and a fairy godmother, played delightfully by Helena Bonham Carter.

The exposition offers a good bit of characterization regarding Ella’s parents and upbringing. Furthermore, the trials of Lady Tremaine are explored a bit more making her “wickedness” more realistic. Still, this film does not really complicate a story of which most are already familiar. Many versions of this story exist dating back hundreds of years and range tonally from the children’s tale we have here all the way to the grotesque where the stepsisters actually resort to cutting off their own toes in order to fit into the glass slipper. Thus, when one decides to tell this story, it is important to have a purpose. Fortunately, that is precisely why Branagh’s version is successful. From the very start we are shown a young protagonist who values kindness and courage, and the film does a very good job at accentuating this point and delivering a film that does not get lost in feminism or societal chaos, but rather explores the power of human decency and personal decorousness. While some of the characters may be a bit on the shallow or static side, the message is clear and well received.

Overall, Branagh’s film is well-suited to the subject matter but also does have a personal stamp and does not feel cookie cutter. Disney has done well at attracting great directors and allowing them to make films that are their own. Whether it’s David Lynch’s The Straight Story from 1999 or even Niki Caro’s McFarland USA from earlier this year, these films work because of the creative freedom allowed to their directors. Branagh’s background in Shakespeare is on display here as the film is somewhat structured like a five act play. Additionally, as the director of 2011’s Thor, Branagh has his ear to the pop culture pipeline. Watch for a slight nod to Downton Abbey, since Cinderella has two actresses from that show in its cast with Lily James and Sophie McShera. Cinderella is not groundbreaking, but it is entertaining, gloriously costumed, very well cast, and has a message that is hard not to admire. B

Cinderella is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes.

Brave

BraveSometimes objectivity is impossible. That will nearly always be the case when looking at a Pixar Studios release. The track record Pixar has achieved is astounding. This reputation comes from an ideal combination of dazzling visuals, memorable characters, and a beautifully written story. These characteristics have come to be expected. Brave, Pixar’s thirteenth release, simply does not raise the bar. While it is a “good” movie-given it’s predecessors, I can’t help but feel disappointed in Brave. Like I said, Brave is good. It has some laughs, it has some touching moments, and the one spectacular element is its visual effects. Overall, however, Brave feels more contrived than anything else. It is Pixar’s first effort with a female lead, but nothing feels natural about the conflict between Merida and her mother Elinor (and I understand that part of this unnaturalness comes from a very odd curse). The film bets heavily on this mother-daughter conflict, but its just not strong enough or relevant enough to sustain the work by itself, making Brave feel simple. The thematic idea of fate being a choice is crow barred in there as well, but it is drastically underdeveloped. Of course, from a child’s point of view, this is unnecessary criticism. Brave will be a wonderful experience for kids, especially mothers and young daughters, but once again, subjectively speaking, Pixar films have historically not pandered to only this specific audience level. Brave isn’t bad, but there’s just not as much to love. B-