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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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogueDirector: Gareth Edwards

Screenwriters: Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy

Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, and Riz Ahmed

George Lucas must be laughing his way to the bank now. I mean, imagine you made a mess, I mean a serious, disastrous, offensive mess. Then someone offers you $4 billion to clean it up for you and still keep you on the payroll? Rogue One: A Star Wars Story represents more than just an extension of the Star Wars brand and cinematic scope. It frees the franchise up to allow more dynamic and complex voices to influence the future of the characters and stories.

Rogue One takes place just before the events of 1977’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. The film opens with Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) along with a flank of Empire forces landing on a remote planet where Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is hiding out with his wife and young daughter. Erso’s history as chief scientist for the Galactic Empire has made him indispensable in the Empire’s construction of a new weapon, and Krennic is not leaving without Erso. When things go bad, Erso is abducted by Krennic, but his daughter Jyn (later played by Felicity Jones) manages to hide and escape with the help of Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).  Jyn ultimately comes of age with a chip on her shoulder against the imperial forces and after a host of actions including forging imperial documents, aggravated assault, and resisting arrest, she is tossed into an imperial prison. Fortunately for Jyn, the Rebels manage to break her out only to task her with helping them on a secret mission. Why her? I’ll leave it at that for now since the answer to that question is actually the answer to a question that has been bouncing around the galaxy since Star Wars debuted in 1977.

Rogue One is an enjoyable film for all levels of fans. One does not need even a passing understanding of the other films to enjoy this film. However, I would strongly recommend watching Episode IV before watching Rogue One if you want to catch all of the nuanced touches left in there for super-fans. Director Gareth Edwards designs and directs this film to feel connected but not tethered to the other films, and I think that is a delicate task to accomplish. From the first moment when the classic text, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” we are introduced to something familiar but slightly different (no trademarked scrolling text accompanies this film). Also, Edwards allows his characters to interact, talk, and feel. The opening scene between Krennic and Erso feels more like a Tarantino scene than a Star Wars movie.

Not that the film doesn’t have its small share of missteps. First of all, in his defense, Forest Whitaker is having a great year starring in quite possibly two of the year’s best films: Rogue One and Arrival. Still, his performance is odd and a little annoying. Additionally, his character’s whole purpose seems arbitrary in that he acts as a shepherd and plot device that is then appropriately “put away” once those tasks are served. Furthermore, much will be discussed about the film’s use of CGI. In an effort to not spoil, I will say that this CGI is not the Jar-Jar Binks kind of CGI, so don’t worry. It’s more of a principled approach that will have its detractors and its supporters. I reluctantly dip my foot in the supporter pool for now, but with reservation. Nonetheless, a precedent has been set where things could get goofy, which would be problematic.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a strong, balanced, and entertaining film that plays how we wish the original prequels could have played. There’s a hint of nostalgia along with new and fresh perspectives, which make us forget that we all know where this is going and “forces” us to care and root for these new characters. Rogue One also continues the recent track record of introducing another classic droid character that will be beloved in K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk); I imagine we haven’t seen the last of him. Jyn is also a strong dynamic lead. Parallels are destined to be drawn between Jyn and Rey (from last year’s The Force Awakens, but Jyn is starkly different and Jones plays her with an edge. Like the best Star Wars movies, there is plenty to interpret including some theoretical connections to The Force Awakens and the continuation of the latest trilogy. There are also some major bombshells and any misgivings you have about the film are wiped clean away with the final 20 minutes. If you have any level of appreciation for Star Wars, you will leave the theater in high spirits!  Easily immersed, we are, in this new/old environment, and knowing what is going on just over in Tatooine, Mos Eisley, and Dagobah only enriches the fabric of this film that much more. A-

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.

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.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Force_AwakensDirector: J.J. Abrams

Screenwriters: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt

Cast: You know who is in this! Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, and Oscar Isaac

“Star Wars! Nothing but Star Wars! Gimme those Star Wars…don’t let them end!”   Bill Murray’s lounge singing character from Saturday Night Live will be happy to know that thanks to writer/director J.J. Abrams, Star Wars will not be ending any time soon! The record breaking blockbuster Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a spectacular step forward for the franchise and establishes Abrams as the true geek-legend that we all hoped he’d be.

The Force Awakens is the seventh episode in the space opera and takes place 40 years after the events of Episode IV: A New Hope. The Republic’s victory after Return of the Jedi has prompted a new imperial force to rise from the ashes of the Empire, known as the First Order. The goal of the First Order under the command of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and Commander Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is to take advantage of a basically disarmed galaxy and enforce rule. Ren, a force-sensitive human, leads the charge colonizing planets with throngs of storm troopers at his heels. Fortunately, the Republic did not quite disarm the entire galaxy and a resistance under another force-sensitive human, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), continues to spar against the increasingly strengthening First Order.

But that’s all big picture, behind the scenes stuff. The main plot of Episode VII actually should feel quite familiar. When a young aspiring pilot named Rey (Daisy Ridley) with dreams of fighting for the Resistance happens upon a small droid with important information, she enlists the help from a know-it-all pilot named Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and a renegade storm trooper (John Boyega) to deliver the information to the resistance before it falls into the hands of the First Order. Familiarity is, however, not a liability for this film; it is a “force.” Abrams and company do the right thing in giving us a familiar story that introduces a host of new characters who must deal with the sacrifices, aftermath, and consequences of the generation before them. Boyega’s storm trooper Finn is especially fascinating. His inability to slaughter innocent citizens under the orders of Snoke and Ren lead him to team up with a Resistance pilot named Poe (Oscar Isaac), offering one of the most intriguing perspectives of any film in the franchise. His duality and sense of integrity to reject all he’s been raised to believe because he knows it’s wrong echoes the inner conflict of another Finn named Huckleberry, which I can’t imagine is a coincidence (Yes, this Star Wars film has layers!).

Honestly though, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a delight. It is exciting, it is insightful, it is nostalgic, and it is beautiful. Expectations and standards were at nearly insatiable levels for this film, and yet somehow it delivers. The new cast represents the finest acting that any Star Wars film has ever seen and the returning characters are not wasted or used for superfluous purposes. While it is joy to see Harrison Ford hold a blaster again, I could not get enough of Boyega, Ridley, and Isaac. Easter eggs abound for serious fans, but The Force Awakens plays to even those who have never seen the previous films. In fact, this film puts the final nail in Episode I: The Phantom Menace’s coffin. The best lightsaber battle in any Star Wars film used to be the one between Darth Maul and Obi-Wan Kenobe; it was the only reason to even watch that film. However, that distinction may now have to go to the spectacular climactic battle in The Force Awakens.

It is likely that you weren’t waiting to hear what The People’s Critic had to say before going to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens; a $500 million global opening weekend speaks to that pretty loudly. Still, it is my duty to report that those $500 million dollars are not wrong, and this is the one fans have been waiting for. For the first time since 1983, you can go in and not “have a bad feeling about this.” A

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Interstellar

interstellar2A Christopher Nolan film release is event movie territory. Interstellar, Nolan’s first film since 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, has far more in common with his 2010 mind-bender Inception than with the “Caped Crusader,” however. First, they are both one-word titles that begin with “I” and second both deal with the complex nature of time’s relativity to the dimension of space and the time that one’s consciousness is inhabiting combined with the levels of both of those times’ relativity within the separate levels of that dimension. Call it a director trademark. All that aside, Interstellar is a phenomenal film.

Interstellar is set in an undetermined future where blight and dust have decimated most of the food supply on Earth. Modern industrial society has ceased to exist and a “caretaker” generation has taken over, where most children will be raised to be farmers and few will see education beyond secondary school. Matthew McConaughey takes the McConnaissance to an epic level as Joseph Cooper, a former NASA test-pilot turned farmer living with his two children and father-in-law, Donald (John Lithgow). Frequent dust storms have eliminated virtually every crop but corn, and corn is likely not far from extinction as well. When some strange gravitational pulses begin influencing some of Cooper’s farm equipment, his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) notices some patterns left behind that reveal coordinates to a secret NASA lab operating underground. Professor Brand (Michael Caine) heads the operation and when Cooper stumbles upon the lab, Brand presents Cooper with an interstellar mission that has the potential to save humanity from extinction but also requires that he leave his family with no guarantee of return. Cooper reluctantly accepts and with a crew including Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), and scientists Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), Cooper leads a space mission to explore a series of potentially promising alternatives to Earth.

Now if you’re in that group of  people who only take their dystopia with a side of Jennifer Lawrence, hear me out. 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 Steven Price’s Oscar winning score from Gravity, the score in this film, composed by Has Zimmer, plays an equally pivotal role. Swells and crescendos of synthesizers and pipe organs counter-balance equally ominous moments of complete silence, all of which emphasize the overall mood.

The cast is adequate, but what actor is playing which role in this film is actually quite inconsequential. McConaughey is the only actor who has to carry any substantial weight and his performance is best categorized as “alright.” In fact, the film boasts a parade of cameos, which work to draw attention away from the film’s principal actors. At one point, you may have to check your ticket stub to make sure you didn’t accidentally walk into a screening of Ocean’s Eleven. But 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, so see it on a big screen! A

Interstellar is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 49 minutes.