I’ve recently been thinking a lot about what makes a strong female character- strong? There was recently a meme going around presenting pop culture female icons versus sci-fi female icons, implying sci-fi characters were better role models. Then another meme was created as a response, showing some examples of poor female representations of sci-fi, implying that the geek community has no right to present itself as feminist. One aspect that stands out in the positive role model meme is that all the women are in the military and are known for being tough. This is a classic example of how our society views masculinity as a sign of strength while femininity is always seen as weak. Tomboy = good, Girly girl = bad. As a wearer of dresses, I’ve always found this insulting. My biggest issue with the negative role model meme is its inclusion of Princess Leia in her slave costume. I hope the creator of the graphic is trying to say that even stronger female characters get relegated to eye candy in sci-fi, because, to me, Leia is one of the strongest, most complete female characters in sci-fi history due to her ability to be tough and in charge without relinquishing her femininity.
While Princess Leia is royalty she is no damsel in distress. She is an active member of the rebellion. Without her giving the Death Star plans to R2-D2 when her ship is boarded, the rebellion would have most likely been squashed. She also is seen giving orders to the troops and actively participates in the Battle of Endor. And, while she does need to be save in A New Hope, she isn’t some poor victim, and not only sasses her rescuers but takes control of the situation by firing a few shots and finding an exit plan. She also never cracks under pressure. When General Tarkin (to whom she delivers one of the most awesome put-down in film history) threatens to destroy her home planet and everyone she loves, she doesn’t reveal the true rebel base. While the gold bikini is a bit much, even as a slave Leia kicks ass, strangling Jabba to death with her own chains.
Leia is involved in a romance (and a sort of love triangle until it’s revealed two of the participants are related) but it is a love based on respect. While Han Solo is initially taken aback by Leia’s independence, he is enviably won over by her refusal to do what she’s told. Harrison Ford’s “I know” is one of film’s most famous ad libs, but Leia throws it right back in Solo’s face as she saves his life in Return of the Jedi.
Gold bikini aside, Leia isn’t as sexualized as most sci-fi/action movie females. Leia is pretty, not aggressively hot. She’s someone girls can relate to because nothing about her is over-the-top. She’s the intergalactic girl next door who doesn’t shy away from a fight but still can wear dresses and try new things with her hair. One truth about feminism that often gets ignored is it should be about women have the opportunity to be/do whatever they want and not sticking to one specific mold.
No film studio has made me cry as consistently as Pixar. It sounds a little silly, considering they make children’s cartoons, but I know I’m not alone. Their latest film Brave came out last week, and while it’s getting mixed reviews, some have admitted to not making it out dried eye. I’ve asked myself, what do these storytellers do that allows them to pull on my heart strings like no other? The answer, I believe, is that they are masters at creating empathy. They allow you to put yourself in their characters shoes and identify the emotions they are feeling.
One way Pixar creates empathy is through simplicity. Because these are stories that are supposed to be understood by children, the characters and the plots can’t be too complicated, but this helps the situations become more identifiable for the adults in the audience. Everyone can see a bit of themselves in these characters because they don’t have a lot of specifics getting in the way of making a true connection. In the Toy Story series, all the toys have the same goal- to be loved by their kid. This need drives all the action in each film. It doesn’t really matter that Woody is a cowboy, Buzz is an astronaut, and Lotso is a bear that smells like strawberries, their need for love from their kid is what defines them, and love is something everyone has experienced in some way and, sadly, so is the loss of love. You don’t have to know any specifics about the characters or the plot of Toy Story 2 to feel the emotional impact of Jessie’s Song. All you have to do is hear Jessie explain that Emily was once like Andy and then watch her face as Emily outgrows her and later discards her. Tom Hanks admitted that he found himself bawling at the premiere over that little cowgirl doll! It’s a scene so powerful, I tear up just thinking about it! Great, now my keyboard is all wet!
Also, the themes they touch on are universal. In Finding Nemo Marlin is an overprotective father who just wants to keep his son safe. Nemo is a son who wants independence but gets in trouble when he bites off more than he can chew. Almost every family has experienced this dynamic and can empathize with Marlin’s anguish as he searches for his son.
Pixar is also the masters of showing not telling. In Up! decades fly by without a word but we completely understand the depth of Ellie and Carl’s love for one another. By showing us their love, instead of having them explain it, the audience is forced to connect the dots, allowing them to feel more invested. Also, when filling in the blanks, the situation becomes more personalized for the audience. Each person is thinking about how they would feel if the love of their life died, with so many unfulfilled dreams because in this world, love is, sadly, not all you need.
While a lot of filmmakers waste their energy constructing dramatic act three declarations of love to finish their complicated storylines with their dynamic characters, I will know that as long as Pixar is telling simple stories with their patented skill and heart; I will still have to bring a pack of tissues when I see their newest release.
I’ve often talked about how some actors/directors seem to forget what their audiences want from them as time passes. Many stood out due to youthful voices/personas which haven’t aged well, while others attempted to go the dramatic route and haven’t been able to find their way since returning the comedy. Here are my top 4 Comedic Actors Who Have Lost Their Way (in no particular order).
Adam Sandler made a name for himself on Saturday Night Live by using silly voices, singing goofy songs, and playing overgrown children. A strong sense of family and appreciation of the elderly is common in many of Sandler’s early films, balancing out his characters’ immaturity and poor anger management skills. This charm and heart has been slowly drained from his work, to the point where his latest films have an overwhelming sense of meanness to them. I believe too many years on top has also allowed Sandler to forget what it’s like to be the common man. Many of his recent characters are wealthy, living in beautiful houses, married to gorgeous women, but he still clearly sees himself as an everyman type. A man who has everything but maintains a mean streak would be the bad guy in any other film.
Personal Favorite: The charmingly retro The Wedding Singer
Low-Point: His recent ode to statutory rape That’s My Boy
Kevin Smith shocked many when his ultra-low-budget debut film Clerks took the film world by storm. Known for vulgar language and frequent pop culture references, he also tried to tackle deeper themes like sexuality and religion. After his love letter to his daughter Jersey Girl became a critical and box office flop, mostly due to the inclusion of that pop culture juggernaut Bennifer, Smith struggled to find his voice in a comedy world dominated by the likes of Judd Apatow. Recently, he’s at his best when he’s himself. His Q&A tours have been filmed for the Evening With Kevin Smith series. Smith claimed the drama Red State may be his last film and has admitted to be out of things to say, at least for the moment.
Personal Favorite: His commentary on organized religion Dogma.
Low-Point: Watching the clerks who started it all still working menial jobs twelve years later in Clerks 2.
Mike Meyers has created some of the most quotable characters of his generation. He successfully brought his popular SNL character Wayne Campbell to the big screen in two hit movies and then secured his status as a comedy supernova as that international man of mystery, Austin Powers. While the first Austin Powers film was a rather clever fish out of water comedy, the sequels rely heavily on cheap jokes and pay more attention to giving Myers a quantity of characters to play without insuring any of them are quality. He’s stayed busy playing the animated ogre Shrek, another series that has more sequels than the world really needed, but it’s been a decade since he had a live action hit. Word that a fourth Austin Powers is in the works is proof he has no new ideas.
Personal Favorite: Disappointing sequels make one forget just how good Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery really was.
Low-Point: The racially insensitive The Love Guru was a blip on the box office radar.
Jim Carrey was the comic king of the 90s, known for his rubberface and wacky voices. However, being the biggest name in comedy wasn’t enough for Carrey and he began to focus on dramatic work. While he received critical praise for his work in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon, Oscar gold eluded him. Lately, Carrey seems confused both professionally and personally. He launched his own website that is considered cluttered and attracted not so positive attention when he released a video declaring his lust for actress Emma Stone, who is younger than his own daughter. His latest was the unnecessary modernization of the children’s classic Mr.Popper’s Penguins.
Personal Favorite: Carrey is hilarious as a lawyer who cannot tell a lie in Liar, Liar.
Low-Point: Carrey is an awkward fit in the numerically obsessed thriller The Number 23.
Hubby has been eagerly anticipating Prometheus and while he hasn’t gotten to see it yet, he recently discovered I have never watched the original Alien movies before. He quickly rectified this situation with back-to-back movie nights. While I feel my experience has been tainted by the series’ pop culture impact, they are still stand-outs of the sci-fi genre.
A mining crew is awaken from hypersleep from a distress call coming from a nearby planet. Members of the crew explore the seemingly inhabitant planet and an officer (John Hurt) stumbles upon a collection of alien eggs. He investigates, only to have a creature attack from inside the egg, attaching itself to his face. He is hurried back to the ship where Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) insist he be quarantined considering he has an unknown life form attached to his face, but she is overruled by the ship’s medical office (Ian Holm). They later discover the alien must incubate in other living creatures, only to kill their host when they are developed enough to live on their own. The crew fights for their lives and later discover that the whole mission was a plot devised by The Company, who sent the android science officer to ensure this newly discovered alien was delivered to them. Ripley is the only one to survive as she flees and activates the ship’s self-destruct sequence.
Aliens was released seven years later and finds that fifty-seven years have passed since her encounter with the alien. The planet the lifeform was discovered has since been colonized but The Company has lost contact with all that inhabited the colony. While no one believes Ripley’s tales of parasitic aliens, they send her to join a troop of marines on a rescue mission. The crew quickly discovers that Ripley was right and she again has to escape the creature, encountering the species’ queen. When are people going to learn that Ripley might know what she’s talking about?
One thing that’s interesting about this series is that each film has a different director. Ridley Scott’s Alien is moody and mysterious, almost more of a horror film, while James Cameron’s Aliens is more action film. However, the films still have the same basic feel, so the different directors are not jarring. But it probably helps that they take place decades apart from one another.
Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is a landmark protagonist in the sci-fi genre. Up to that point, female characters were mostly in the background and/or not much more than eye candy. Ripley is the film’s protagonist and voice of reason, and besides the panties scene, she’s fairly asexual. This is mostly because the character was not originally written as a female. In the second film, Ripley’s material side is allowed to show as we learn she was a mother whose daughter died while Ripley was in hypersleep for fifty-seven years in between alien encounters. When she later meets Newt, she clearly develops motherly feelings towards the girl and becomes hell bent on protecting her. However, is she a STRONG FEMALE character or a STRONG female character? She is mostly characterized by being tough and unfeminine. We never learn much about her as a person. It takes a whole film for us to find out she has a child (probably because they didn’t think to make the character a parent in the first film). There’s been some increase chatter on the internet about the sexist nature of geek culture, and while I’m not saying Ripley is a sexist character, she’s definitely one to examine when discussing the topic.
Big was a movie that got a lot of play in my house when I was a kid. The giant piano scene is particularly etched in my memories. However, it’s a very different movie when viewed as an adult. There’s things that you don’t pick up as a child because you don’t completely understand what’s going on, that become crystal clear once you reach adulthood, mainly the fact that a grown woman inadvertently has sex with a twelve year old boy . Also, I’m pretty sure my attention span as a child had a hour long limit, so it’s very possible I didn’t see anything past the sixty minute mark until I was a teenager.
Josh Baskin, fed up with the limitations of being twelve, wishes on a carnival fortune teller game that he could be big, only to wake up the next morning a thirty year old man (Tom Hanks). Unable to explain what has happened to his family, he goes to the big city to make it on his own. He quickly gets a job at a toy company and becomes a star employee. He sets up a life for himself, renting an apartment and stocking up on everything a kid can dream of, and even catches the of one of his co-workers (Elizabeth Perkins). However, he misses his family and the uncomplicated life of a child and must find the fortune teller game again to wish for his old life back.
Tom Hanks is great as a child trapped in a man’s body. To truly capture the child’s perspective, director Penny Marshall had the actor who played Josh at age twelve run through scenes so Hanks could see how a child would approach the situation. While Hanks had all ready starred in a string of films, I think this is the first film of his that hinted at the powerhouse he would later become.
As an adult I find the romance between Hanks and Perkins’ character disturbing. Who wants to guess how long Susan was in therapy after realizing she had sex with a little boy? The originally ending had Susan wishing she could be a child again, which may have made their hook-up a little easier to stomach. I mean, I know you never have confirmation that they do it, but it’s heavily implied. Maybe I’ve become overly politically correct in my old age but I just don’t think it’s necessary to have them seal the deal and to me it kind of taints the sweetness of the rest of the film.
John Heard, who’s mostly known as Kevin McCallister’s dad in the Home Alone movies, plays Susan’s ex who sees Josh as a rival at the toy company. Peter has lost all trace of his inner child and is obsessed with money and winning. However, he shows he’s more immature than a child by resorting to cheating in order to beat Josh at squash. He does a great job playing someone filled with hate.
Overall, Big is a charming movie showcasing one of the most beloved actors in American film history. It’s a great reminder of how we’re in such a hurry to grow up and, once we do, we realize how good we had it.
Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawk) is a writer who travels to Paris with the hope of reconnecting with his estranged wife and daughter. His wife wants nothing to do with him and tells him to leave them alone. It’s clear something serious happened between them because she feels threatened enough to call the cops on him, but you never find out what exactly went down. In fact, you never find out much about anything in this film. Ricks is robbed on the bus and resorts to living in a room above a café, and in order to pay rent he plays night watch man for a building that screams “place where people are murdered!”, but, again, you never find out what goes on there. He also has sex with any woman he spends more than five minutes with, which include his boss/landlord’s girlfriend and Kristen Scott Thomas’ Margit. Suddenly, unexpected things begin happening around Ricks, forcing him to quest his own sanity and Margot’s involvement in all of it. It’s almost as if they said to themselves, now we need a mind blowing twist and didn’t pay attention to the fact that nothing earlier in the film leads up to this ending.
The film yearns to be mysterious but never truly earns it. The filmmaker clearly believes that in order to build a sense of intrigue, you must withhold all information about what’s going on from the audience. Promises are made to the audience that are not kept by the filmmaker. To introduce a character with a dark secret and then never reveal it is not fair to those who a have just invested 90 minutes of their time to this film. The pacing also keeps the audience from becoming truly invested because it takes a hour for anything of interest to happen.
One thing that stood out to me in this film was the sound mixing. Sadly, sound mixing is one of those elements that you only really notice when it’s done poorly. Every time anyone walks in this film it’s thunderous. It’s like everyone is stomping around on wood and marble floors in the world’s loudest boots. It’s so distracting! Also, whenever Ethan Hawk speaks French, he sounds like he’s doing his best Christian Bale “I’m Batman” impression.
What’s sad about this film is that everyone in the cast does the best with what they’re given. Hawk does a fine job of portraying a man on the edge, we just don’t know why Ricks’ is such a mess. Kristen Scott Thomas is very alluring as Margit and could have been a really compelling temptress if given better material. In fact, the whole film could have been saved with proper tweeking, but instead the audience is left confused at what they have just seen.
Broadway is currently filled with found musicals and musical adaptations of well known films. The world did not need a musical version of Ghost. But the big winner at the Tony’s this year was the adaptation of the little known but well loved modern musical Once. The extremely low budget Irish film was made in less than three weeks but charmed audiences with a simple story and a beautiful soundtrack. The film uses musicians, not actors to tell the story of two lonely people with a dream. While not a box office smash, it still won the Academy Award for best song.
When two nameless musicians (a Guy and a Girl) meet on the streets of Dublin, they discover they can help each other. She has a vaccum that needs fixing and he works at his dad’s Hoover repair shop, and he has songs that need her voice and piano playing. The Guy (Glen Hansard)is nursing a broken heart as his long-time girlfriend recently breaking things off, the Girl (Marketa Irglova) lives with her mother and young daughter and has a strained relationship with her husband. As the two connect, they complete songs together and find the confidence to compile a demo. The two develop strong feelings for one another but her complicated family situation keeps them from being able to build a relationship beyond the music.
The film is a great story about having a dream and going for it. The title comes from how so many aspiring artists put off taking the next step in their career once this happens or once that is finished, but never get around to it and therefore never succeed. Guy is on verge of losing his chance when he heads into the studio and really goes for broke with this demo. There’s a very cute scene when he shares his music with his father and the pride on his dad’s face is so touching. Many artists never get the courage to even do that.
Hasard and Irglova are a great together. There’s a sweetness and an innocence to them, and a quirk that isn’t taken to the extreme that other independent films do. The shot of Irglova dragging her vacuum down the street is all it takes to make you fall for her. The soundtrack is amazing with songs that you lose yourself in, especially the Academy Award winning Falling Slowly. The two have voices that were made to be joined together and later formed the band The Swell Season. They also briefly dated in real life.
The Academy Awards are fairly predictable. The rare times they do surprise you with one of the main awards, they usually piss everyone off, but the Best Song award has been allowed to be the token hip prize. Once has a lot of positive buzz, but went largely unseen but when it was awarded the Best Song award, there was a wave of respect coming from the audience. Host Jon Stewart even insisted Isglova be allowed to finish her speech after being cut off. Adorably she only wanted to say “Thanks!”
The film is credited with being a modern musical. There was a movie musical craze around the turn of the millennia but this was mostly filming preexisting stage shows but films like Once, and surprisingly the South Park movie, redefine what a movie musical can be, by having the songs happen more organically.
2011 was a year of nostalgia from the film world, with four films among the Academy Award nominees referencing film history and two best picture nominees harkening all the way back to the silence era. The Artist, 2011’s best film of the year (as chosen by the Academy), was the first mostly silent film since the Oscar’s first year to win best picture (which so how true to life the film’s depiction of the industry’s very instantaneous transition to sound was). The film was also the first completely black and white film to win the big prize since 1960’s The Apartment and the first French film ever to be named Best Picture.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is on top of the world as a silent movie star, when a seemingly harmless encounter with a fan leads to his life complete unraveling. When eager fan Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) falls into the spotlight, Valentin uses her misstep to creative a front page publicity stunt. The instant fame encourages Miller to follow her dream of becoming an actress. She is cast in Valentin’s next film and the two have obvious chemistry and he helps her by planting a faux beauty mark on her face to ensure she stands out, even though she has all ready evoked a fit of jealously from his wife. Newly acquired beauty mark in place, Miller’s career begins to take off, and her roles get bigger and bigger. Then, when sound finally comes to film, she is in the right place to become one of the stars of the future, while long time stars like Valentin are yesterday’s news. He is dropped by the studio and his long suffering wife leaves him. Refusing to give in to the power of sound, Valentin makes his own silent film, but it is a flop and the stock market crash leaves him penniless. As Valentin slides into poverty, Miller’s star continues to rise. In a fit of absolute desperation, he set his films on fire and is saved by his loyal dog and taken in by Miller, who has never forgotten the man who helped her get her start.
While it is interesting to see how much you can communicate without sound, I was reminded how much film as an art form owes to dialogue. Maybe it’s my many years studying screenwriting talking, but I was left feeling we didn’t know much about the characters. Also, the romance fell a little flat to me. While the two actors clearly had chemistry, Miller comes off as obsessive and creepy. Also, I had the feeling Valentin wasn’t a great guy, as he allows his marriage to fall apart, ignoring his wife when she makes an attempt to show him how sad the relationship is making her. While I appreciate what the film was trying to do, I was left wondering what the film would have been if the characters were allowed to speak. Also, I think they missed a chance to portray the true tragedy of the end of the silent era, the actors who couldn’t transition because their actual voices were a problem, the most famous example being John Gilbert went from leading man to laughing stock when his shrill voice was first heard by the public (though it is rumored this was a manipulation by Louis B Mayer, who had a long standing grudge against Gilbert). While Valentin is tossed aside as yesterday’s news, the film ends with the hope that he can reclaim his place at the top.
Winning the best Picture Oscar immediately puts your film under the microscope and The Artist was no exception. While the film wasn’t life changing or anything, it’s still a great example of what film can be as a medium.
I followed the whole Conan vs Leno thing closely when it went down. When I was a kid and couldn’t sleep, my mom used to let me watch Letterman with her, so I’ve been anti-Leno since he started hosting The Tonight Show when many believed Letterman was the rightful heir to the throne. As a teen, I started watching Conan who is kind of a Letterman for my generation. He even had Dave’s old timeslot. But then Conan was given a promise Letterman never received, in five year’s time Leno would retire and Conan would take over The Tonight Show. Then the day finally came and while Leno stepped down as promised, handing the show over to Conan, it was clear he was not done performing. Knowing he still was bringing in solid ratings, Leno hinted that he might go to another network. NBC freaked and tried to have their cake and eat it too, giving both hosts their own show. When that wasn’t the success they wanted it to be, they cut Conan loose and plopped Leno right back at The Tonight Show. Contractually prohibited from appearing on TV for six months, Conan embarked on a tour of the US to keep the creative juices flowing. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is the story of that tour.
The documentary focuses on the behind the scenes stuff. You briefly see him writing the show with his team of writers, then it’s on the road. You see Conan checking into hotel room, greeting fans before and after the show, getting visited by celebrity friends like Jim Carrey and Jon Hamm, but mostly you see Conan get increasingly burned out by life on tour. He admits to being a perfectionist and know his humor can get biting when things aren’t going his way. Much of life on tour is not completely under anyone’s control and you’re seeing the man clearly out of his comfort zone. Conan got flack for some of his behavior in this film, particularly his relentless teasing of his loyal assistant Sona. However, it’s clear she loves her job and admires the man she works for so I think it’s more a case of sometimes comics are dicks. He also come some crap for complaining about the meet and greets after the fact, but it’s clear he commits to being “on” for his fans regardless of the time and place, he just needs his team to allow him down time to recharge. He can’t be the one saying no to things, but he has a team who should be doing that for him. I emphasize with his plight and it’s partly why I don’t approach celebrities I see on the street.
My main issue with this film is it’s not the documentary I would have made if given the opportunity. I would have loved to see more of the actual act or even just the process of writing the material. And, hell, when people like Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert stop by to do surprise guest appearances – focus a bit more on that! Not saying the film doesn’t have it’s enjoyable moments, it just wasn’t all it could have been.
One of my guilty film pleasures is Forrest Gump. I’ve seen it countless times and any time hubby and I stumble upon it on cable, we must watch it to the end. I know it has a lot of haters and it has close to a dozen quotes that were overused, but I’m a sucker for it. I love seeing our nation’s history during one of its most complicated times as told by a simple man. While the, at the time ,revolutionary special effects inserting Tom Hanks in news footage is a bit dated now, it’s still a lot of fun to watch and there are some very strong performances that deserve appreciation.
Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) grows up mentally and physically disabled, raised by a single mother (Sally Fields) who will do anything for her son (even the principal!) and lets him know he can do anything he wants. Forrest is seen as an oddity by most of his peers but bonds with Jenny who obviously sexually abused by her father. As an adult he lives a seemingly charmed life: he’s a star athlete, a war hero, and a successful businessman, but the one thing that alludes him is the love of the troubled Jenny (Robin Wright Penn). That is, until after years apart, Jenny contacts him and introduces him to their son, Forrest Junior. In Hanks’ most touching scene of the film, Forrest worries that his son must suffer the same disability as him, but he’s assured that Junior is the smartest in his class. It’s a poignant moment because while Forrest has accomplished so much, it is clear he still wishes he could have been born a smarter man. Jenny reveals she is dying (most likely of AIDS). Forrest and Jenny finally marry and Forrest cares for her until her death.
While Hanks won an Oscar for this film, the stand out performance for me is Gary Sinise as Lt Dan. From the moment he walks on the screen, accompanied by Aretha Franklin’s singing, he steals every scene he’s in. He’s a multi-layered character who feels he was supposed to die in battle, but instead lost only his legs when he was saved by Gump. He becomes the symbol of what America did to disabled Vietnam veterans when Forrest finds him drunk and penniless in New York City. Forrest again saves him by recruiting him for his shrimp company which becomes a household name, allowing Lt Dan the proper prosthetics to live a normal life.
I’ve never been completely behind the romance element to this film. While Jenny is clearly extremely damaged by her upbringing, she never truly falls for Forrest, it’s more like she gives in. It’s like she says “Fine, you’re very nice and you love me and this is probably the best I’m going get, so fine.” Hubby and I joke that Forrest Jr isn’t her son, but Jenny’s grifter partner and Forrest is the one man she swore she would never swindle until she has no other choice.
While Forrest Gump is one of the most honored films in history, it’s also one that received a lot of undeserved crap. It has a lot of great performances and is a love letter to Americana. It also marks an example where the movie adaptation is better than the book. If you see it on TBS, give it another chance. And that’s all I have to say about that.