February: The Second Best Jupiter Ascending Over Selma And Alice

Posts, The Other Movie Project

Whoa! February actually achieved parity in white-dude and non-white-dude movies released near me! I didn’t even manage to watch all of the films that qualified for my project, for reasons I will explain further on. What is my project? I have challenged myself to watch every movie released at a cinema near me that is not The Story of A White Guy. I am interested in how intersectionality affects my movie-going choices, so I am watching every movie available that is about a woman and/or a person of colour.

Still Alice Twitter screen shot

1. Still Alice

I put on my pinkest pants and my most mentally healthy head and made sure I was exposed to plenty of sunshine and put chocolate in my purse and then I went to see Still Alice.

I needed every self-care strategy I had.

Still Alice is the story of Alice (Julianne Moore), a linguistics professor who finds out she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. We watch her deteriorate on-screen. It is brutal. Thank goodness the cinema was nearly empty and I was sitting up the back because I wept from credits to credits. Yet the film is gentle, elegant. Not only is Julianne Moore the queen of everything, but the film direction makes sure the story is told from her character’s perspective. I didn’t notice until the end of the film that none of the action takes place out of Alice’s presence; it is entirely her experience of the disease. So often, stories about devastating illness focus on the experience of the people who must care for the ill person, but Still Alice never stops being about Alice.

Kristen Stewart is wonderful as Alice’s youngest daughter, who steps up to play a major role in her mother’s care. “Thank you for asking,” Alice says to her daughter when asked what Alzheimer’s feels like. Still Alice shows us the creativity with which Alice manages her condition, and her determination not to lose herself. It asks, What is it like to live with this? As someone with a debilitating and poorly understood disease, I was grateful to this movie for asking.

2. Selma

The first movie released near me this year to be about a person of colour, and, unbelievably, the first theatrical movie ever to feature Martin Luther King Jr as a main character. No, really. The first. And it took Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay to push it through.

I knew this movie was about Martin Luther King Jr, but I’m going to have to step up right now and admit that I thought Selma was the name of a female character. My US Civil Rights’ Movement history is sorely lacking. But you don’t need much prior knowledge to be affected by the significance of the film’s events. It is narratively tight; the movie opens in the town of Selma, at a time when King is already an influential civil rights leader and African-American people have won the legal right to vote. But legal rights haven’t translated into equal rights, with black people still being blocked from voting by systemic racism. King fights to raise support for the Voting Rights Act through a historic march from Selma to Alabama’s capital. The opposition to something as simple as the equal right to vote is violent, ugly and all too familiar, with scenes reminiscent of Ferguson.

Let’s go back to the thing about Selma being the first MLK film. I found out while researching this post that most films about the American Civil Rights era have accessed the events through a white character (for example, The Help). David Oyelowo, who plays King in Selma, has said:

“There was a study done around the police in a certain state in this country, and they admitted that there is an inherent fear of the black male … So subconsciously or consciously, to have black powerful men driving the narrative as protagonists is frightening for America. And frightening for Hollywood. Subconsciously there is an allergy to it.”

It is indicative of my blind spot as a white person that, although I’ve always admired MLK, I had no idea that he’d never been the main character in a movie about him.

Selma contains breathtaking moments of violence, all the more shocking because they jump out between talky scenes of bureaucracy and strategy meetings. The movie also features a particular moment during which I punched the air and shout-whispered “WINFREY!” Oprah is so, so good in this, and she also co-produces. Selma cements its feminist cred by being directed by the first African-American woman to be nominated for a best director Golden Globe, and by passing the Bechdel Test with flying colours (thanks to one of my favourite scenes, in which one African-American woman speaks at length to another African-American woman on why she is proud of her ancestry).

If this is still showing near you, go out and see it.

3. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Alternate tag lines I suggested to no one:
‘The Sequel That’s Keeping It Dench’
‘The Dames Are Back In Town’
‘Downton Abbey Lost Its Money And Moved To India’

the-best-exotic-marigold-hotelI was charmed by the first Best Exotic Marigold movie, and the sequel did not disappoint. This is sweet comfort viewing, dripping with fairy lights and even a couple of dance breaks. The sequel builds on the first movie’s already large ensemble cast, adding Richard Gere, Black Books‘ Tamsin Greig, and a bigger part for the formidable Lilette Dubey. Sonny (Dev ‘I’ve Been In Love With Him Since Skins‘ Patel) wants to open a second hotel before his wedding, with the help of reformed racist Muriel Donnelly (Maggie ‘Dame By Name, Dame By Nature’ Smith), but his myopic ambition is threatening his relationships. Will he learn his wedding dance in time to save his marriage? Will they find out who is the mysterious spy sent to appraise their hotel? Will Bill Nighy make it through a complete sentence? It’s all adorable and I love it.

There were quite a few moments in the movie where I balked at what seemed like blithe colonialism: white gentry moving in and taking Indian jobs (leading regional tours even though they have to have a local child feed them information). But I thought there was poetic justice in the way Sonny gets his second hotel in the end (spoiler!), and the property he takes over is the Viceroy Club – a leftover of British colonialism. The last we see of the ‘White People’ Club’s romanesque columns, they are being decked out for an Indian wedding reception. It seemed right.

I enjoyed watching a movie that represented younger and older generations without resorting to ageist stereotypes or confected intergenerational warfare. It just avoids progressivism, however, by falling into the sequel trap of attempting to tie up all their stories with neat (hetero-normative, monogamous) bows. I note with interest that the franchise’s only gay character (played by Tom Wilkinson) died in the first movie after a lifetime of unrequited love. But look, the straight people are dancing!

Look, the main thing for me was that The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel begins and ends with the Dowager Countess Maggie ‘McGonagall’ Smith, and you can’t go wrong with that. I found it genuinely uplifting, and frankly I needed that after Still Alice and Selma.

4. Fifty Shades of Grey

The movie adaptation of the book that reportedly romanticises an abusive relationship. I wondered if Fifty Shades would even qualify for this project, since the title refers to its white male protagonist (antagonist?), Christian Grey. But a quick skim of the internet showed that the story is about Anastacia Steele’s emotional journey/’erotic awakening’. I don’t know how true that is, because I have not seen the movie. I am not going to see this movie. At least, not at this time. I am sorry – to the people who said they were looking forward to my review, and to consistency for breaking it – but I just cannot. Not for political reasons, although I have those; I’m avoiding Fifty Shades of Grey for personal reasons. At the top of this post I talked about self-care, and this is me doing that. However I would like to note that this is not a stance against BDSM or erotica or romance – or even Twilight fan-fiction – in any way. I just don’t have the spoons to watch something that potentially dresses up abuse as romance.

5. The Wedding Ringer

I also missed this Kevin Hart comedy, not for any reason other than I was travelling and did not have time to catch it. I will try to watch it soon and include it in a later post.

6. Jupiter Ascending

Fuck, this was bonkers. Channing Tatum was a dog person? Mila Kunis nearly married her grown-up son? Eddie Redmayne was trying to be Gary Oldman in The Fifth Element crossed with Richard Roxburgh in Moulin Rouge if both of them had had lip implants?

I almost didn’t watch Jupiter Ascending for this project because, based on the trailers, I’d thought it was about Channing ‘White Guy’ Tatum, with Mila Kunis as his romantic interest/trophy to save. In fact, most of the marketing made it seem this way. I didn’t even realise until I was watching the movie that Jupiter is the name of Mila Kunis’s character. The movie is all about her: she is the title character; she has the main arc; she is in nearly every scene; she even narrates the introduction! Channing Tatum is her helper friend. And yet, this is how the billing was listed wherever I looked:

From Wikipedia

From Wikipedia

From IMDB

From IMDB

From the trailer's YouTube description

From the trailer’s YouTube description

From the poster

From the poster

… And please don’t tell me Tatum is the ‘bigger name’. Mila Kunis was in Black Swan, people. BLACK. SWAN.

Anyway, I didn’t hate this film. It was fun. They went BIG. Mila Kunis is endlessly watchable and got a few good laughs from the audience. (Eddie Redmayne got the only other laugh, unintentionally. Sorry Eddie.) The cast was diverse, for Hollywood, and it was exciting to see Gugu Mbatha-Raw (from the seriously underrated 2013 film Belle) pop up. In fact, instead of watching Jupiter Ascending, maybe you should go find a copy of Belle. Belle is great. Watch Belle.

If you’re still not sure whether you are someone who would enjoy Jupiter Ascending, it is easy to find out: does the following phrase appeal to you? ‘AMERICAN-AUSTRALIAN SPACE OPERA.’

My answer was yes.

Number of movies released near me during February that were about white men:

Five! Not bad, world.

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Dawn of the patriarchy of the apes

Posts, Selected Posts

Yesterday I watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes and presumed prequel to Day of the Dawn of the Consolidation of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I have some thoughts. If you are avoiding spoilers, please look away now.

Here be spoilers.

OK. So. HOW AWESOME WAS THAT?? Caesar totally rode a horse. He rode a horse and he totally told the humans off. He and the other apes built their own society. They taught each other sign language and spoken language and written language! Most humans don’t bother with all three. I loved the graphics (aside from one awkward establishing shot in a final battle scene where the apes look embarrassingly CGI, and my disbelief was entirely un-suspended). I particularly loved Caesar. What a babe. Hunkiest ape this side of the rise of the planet. And Caesar has a team of pretty cool, complex ape characters with which to interact. Overall, an impressive film.

I just, I have a little note. A small thing, really. You’ll probably laugh. But WHERE THE HELL were all the female characters? Female apes, female humans – missing! In the ape colony, we only meet one female ape – Caesar’s wife – who, I found out from the credits, was named Cornelia, although we are never given her name during the movie. In her brief on-screen time, Cornelia fulfills the female-movie-character trifecta of giving birth, providing motive for her man, and looking pretty while dying. Apparently she was played by Judy Greer. You wouldn’t know, since she doesn’t have any spoken lines and she mainly lays there looking ill. A waste of the vocal talent that brings us the unforgettable Cheryl Tunt on Archer. And yet I have read entertainment blogs actually heralding Greer as a “leading lady” in this film. Really? Silent, absent, and mostly uninvolved in the plot? But then, I guess this is what leading roles often look like for women.

There is one other female character in Dawn of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Dark of the Moon. She is a human woman, who – you guessed it – is the wife of the other leading man. The man who isn’t an ape. Good, so we’ve got one woman on each side of the human-ape war, and they each exist to show that the lead male has ‘something to fight for’. The human female (played by the way-underused Keri Russell – here you can see this leading lady describe her role in the film as “miniscule”) is named Ellie, and is listed on Wikipedia as a “former nurse” even though I had the impression she was a doctor, and she definitely performs surgery during the movie. During some staid exposition at the beginning of the film, we are casually informed that, before society crumbled, she worked at the Center for Disease Control. Sounds like Dr Disease-Expert Ellie would be pretty essential to establishing a new society in a post-Simian-Flu world. But instead we only see her administering hugs to Malcolm – the true leader – and asking him for permission to do things. (He denies her permission, by the way, because “I need you here” to care for his son from a previous marriage.) Why is Malcolm the preferential authority in the struggle to save humanity? Well, he’s an architect. And … tall? Have you heard how deep his voice is?

“Get behind me, Doctor, I have a degree in architecture.”

Yes, the gender imbalance in this movie greatly annoyed me. It is part of a larger problem with this film, where the human characters are not satisfactorily fleshed out (thus Malcolm’s role as leader of the humans is never adequately explained, while Caesar’s leadership status is easily established by his superior intellect, wisdom and physical strength). It annoyed me beyond all reason that the female apes were all wearing pretty, spangly, beaded headdresses that practically blinded them. I know this was probably intended as an aesthetic link to the 2001 reboot Planet of the Apes, but in that movie the male apes wore adornments as well. Giving only the female apes impractical jewelry just seemed to reinforce their status as decoration.

I don’t even know where the human females were. Apparently the human population had been thinned to near-extinction by the Simian Flu, while survivors of that were killed in post-apocalyptic wars. Surely, if we assume that men are usually responsible for wars and for fighting them (given all we know about history), there would be more women left than men. Even now, women represent a slight majority in the population. I’ve never understood why dystopian films have so much trouble imagining a landscape with women in it. Or why, with civilisation apparently dismantled and society being rebuilt, patriarchal structures have survived with ease. In the recent past, global wars have accidentally resulted in liberation for women, because with the dominant male class off killing each other, women have had to step into new roles. This is the kind of stuff that I find interesting about stories set in post-conflict societies: how new interpersonal dynamics emerge under unfamiliar circumstances.

We don’t get any such insights into the human world of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but the ape society has evolved beyond recognition. They have chopped down trees, built a permanent home, even set up literacy classes. However, they haven’t socially gone any further than “Get all the females and young to safety”. OK, in a battle situation, I could understand “Get all the mothers and their young to safety”. But all the females? I mean, the apes were off to fight humans, right? And as a human, I find female chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans pants-wettingly terrifying. Any one of them could rip my arm out of my socket – I know it, they know it. Why weren’t there female apes in the battle? You could tell me that, in real-life chimp society, it is the males who fight the wars. You could tell me that ape society appears to follow a patriarchal hierarchy. This is all true. But this is a science-fiction film in which chimps are living alongside gorillas and orangutans, have domesticated the horse, and can talk. Even though chimps do not have a vocal tract. They also fire assault rifles. You telling me we can’t stretch the imagination to a female second-in-command for Caesar?

You could ask me why any of this matters, if it’s just a work of fiction. I’m tired of fielding that question. It matters. I’m over watching films where there are hardly any people who look like me, and all they do is hug the men and tell them they’re brave. There’s more to my life than that, and I’d like to see women in movies have more to their lives than that, too. Even the ape ones.

The kind of girl I want to be

Posts, Selected Posts

So, last night I watched Gangster Squad. It was alright. My housemate and I had grabbed the DVD from the shops and headed home with some burgers. It was a pretty sweet plan – we were both in the mood for action, and I loved the line-up of actors. Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling? Sean Penn being insane? Nice.

But by the second half of the film, I was wriggling around in my seat, grunting to myself. I sat forward, threw my hands up. Yelled some half-sentences at the screen. “But what is she–” … “But why doesn’t he–?” … “BUT YOUR WIFE IS–!!”

Something was really bugging me, and it wasn’t just the awkward direction or the under-developed characters. (All of those A-grade actors were working so hard to make something out of that script, but man, they didn’t have much to work with.)

I was getting seriously bugged by the female characters in the film. Emma Stone’s character – what are her motivations? Why does she hang off the arm of that psycho gangster? The only explanation we get – “I came to this town to be a star”. Come on. “I came here to be a star, but that didn’t work out, so now I’m dating the bloodthirstiest mob boss on the west coast”? What? It was hard to see such a paper-thin role inhabited by the gifted comedic actor of Easy A. I mean, she brought the world this:

The only other named female character in Gangster Squad was the sergeant’s pregnant wife. She was clever and tough as nails, but she still spends most of the film being abandoned by her husband.

The thing I was having trouble articulating to my housemate, a dude of the dudest order, is that movies like these make me feel a bit left-out. I don’t see myself in these movies. I love action, I love thriller, but the only people who look like me in them are not the heroes. I’ve never seen myself in the role of dependent girlfriend or long-suffering wife. Growing up, I didn’t dream of waiting at home to find out what was going on. These weren’t the character types that spoke to me.

I wanted to be Ryan Gosling, smooth-talking with a heart of gold. I wanted to be the straight-shooter, pinging tin cans out of the sky with a knowing wink. I wanted to be that “one man” (in movie voice) who saves the world. I wanted to be Will Smith punching aliens; Keanu Reeves stopping bullets; Tobey Maguire discovering he could climb walls with his fingertips. I wanted to be MOTHER-FLIPPING WOLVERINE.

But I’m a lady.

You might be excused for thinking I’m gender-confused, wishing I was Hugh Jackman or something, but that ain’t it. It’s not me who’s confused about my gender – it’s Hollywood. Women are categorically more interesting, varied, and powerful than is represented in cinema. No wonder that, when I’m watching the latest blockbuster, I find myself relating more to the male characters for their appealing array of courageous and tenacious heroes.

There have been flares of cinematic womanhood that have dazzled my weary eyes, such as Hermione punching Malfoy, or Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, or Pocahontas diving off a cliff with zero fear. And, I know I bring it up a lot, but The Hunger Games. These characters are self-possessed, capable, at home in their surroundings. They have that thing inside them, a special power. That’s what so many female characters in cinema lack: an internal power. Their power is more often derived from external sources (usually whomever they’re letting lie on top of them at night).

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read past here if you haven’t seen Season 2 of Game of Thrones yet and you still want to be surprised.

Daenerys Targaryen, "Game of Thrones".

Daenerys Targaryen, “Game of Thrones”.

I think that’s why Daenerys Targaryen of Game of Thrones has gathered such an intense following among fans: She is the Khaleesi. She started off a meek, oppressed, pretty little thing who did what the men around her said. Then, she walked into a fucking bonfire with some dragon eggs and everyone was like HOLY SHIT. No one told her to do that; she felt it intuitively. It came from inside her, a special power that she possessed. I love that. She isn’t a perfect feminist icon, but as Caitlin Moran recently tweeted (in response to the overthrow of Prime Minister Julia Gillard): “[F]eminist role models don’t need to be perfect. Currently, they just need to exist”.

They exist in real life (see: Wendy Davis). I’m damn sure they could comfortably exist in our imaginary lives, as well.

US Senator Wendy Davis. (Dragon probably photoshopped.)