Friday, January 30, 2009

Revolutionary Road

Haven’t posted here in a long time—time being an elusive commodity. But I thought I’d throw out a few words about a film with explicit feminist implications—at least, with explicit second-wave feminist implications. I saw Revolutionary Road last weekend with a girlfriend who is also single and a bit ambivalent about it. Films like Revolutionary Road belie the myth that marriage and children are essential elements of a full and fulfilled life. It echoes all those hip studies today that interview the parental types and the fancy-free types and find that kids don’t always make life better. The idea that children make your life worse is such a provocative concept that many viewers of this film will likely reject it outright for fear of investigating some painful ideas.

Then again, the children in this film are barely characters. Rather, they tend to be pawns in a battle between April and Frank, two thirty-something adults in the 1950s who have survived a move to suburbia by insisting that they are “different” from the other sell-outs around them. The Wheelers are “special.” April tries to realize this difference by planning a family move to Paris—she will work while Frank “finds himself.” The practicality of this plan is oft discussed, but what is more interesting, to me at least, is how their neighbors and co-workers react to their plan—with shock, confusion, disbelief, disdain. Introduce an idea that thoroughly places in doubt the naturalness or inevitability of the American, middle-class, heteronormative way of life, and you will be relegated to the funny farm.

The film introduces an insane character who does indeed live in an asylum—of course, he is the only character that speaks the truth to the Wheelers. Watching how they encounter this man at various stages of the film provides for some explosive moments, but the introduction of this character is so intentional (rather than organic) that you simply must accept these conversations as cinematic soothsayering. In general, the film is highly scripted—as characters speak, you can practically see the written words of the script float by in front of you. The dialogue is theatrical—as noted by other critics, the film lacks life. The pretty feathers of Revolutionary Road need to get much more ruffled to get truly down and dirty.

And yet, Kate Winslet and Leonard diCaprio find a way to touch your hearts anyway. When Leo is emphatic, he, too, is stagey. But when he is quiet, he is heartbreaking. Winslet carefully walks the line between sanity and insanity—making it clear how the distinction between the two is frequently determined by the status quo. Two women behind me in the theater commented that they wanted to slap Winslet’s character April—one presumes because she refuses to be satisfied with domestic bliss. Yet this is a case in point—it is easier to reject the ideas conveyed within this film than to embrace the challenge of confronting them.

The easiest way to reject this movie is to call it a history piece. And certainly, the fact that Winslet feels completely trapped in her beautiful home feels pre-women’s lib. And I suppose many audience members will exit the theater saying “thank goodness that women have more choices today.” But do we? What happens when those babies come? Who carries them? Who breast feeds them? Whose work is interrupted as a matter of fact, though maternity leave is frequently not offered at all? Queer theorists have made impressive strides into a complete reconceptualization of gender and sexual distinction as socially constructed and enforced, yet I still struggle to get beyond the trap of biology. April’s unintended pregnancy resonates deeply for me as I consider the choices of my friends and family—their negotiations with marriage and parenthood stand in relief as April and Frank admit that they do not want a third child. As Frank’s ultimate decision reveals, it is easier to accept the status quo than to make the choice that April does. My friend interpreted her final act as a revolution—I saw it more as a sign of despair. She could not defeat biology. And I wonder if anyone can?

More poignant for me, though, was how desperately April and Frank try to connect but fail. During one climactic scene in which April runs out of the house and refuses to let Frank comfort or confront her, I thought about another lie—the myth of finding “the one.” I’ve always hated this concept, yet this myth is deeply ingrained into our social marriage mandate—from fairy tales to tripe like Sex and the City. Yet the boldest move in this film may be its depiction of the inability ever to know someone truly; there are places within a person—even your lover or spouse—that you will never reach. Frank cannot control April anymore than she can control him. Yet the fact that either of them is surprised by the other’s choices only reinforces that romantic love keeps us blind to the harsh truths that lurk under the surface—unspeakable but palpable.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Best and Worst of Women in Film in 2006

The Best

Never a Pedro Almodovar fan, this film has completely changed my mind. The world of this film is rich and vibrant—almost intoxicating. A film about family, motherhood, loyalty, sensuality (read: not masculine-determined sexuality), and hope, Volver allows American audiences to see Penelope Cruz at her best. And her best is incredible.

A Prairie Home Companion
Some critics included this film in their year-end lists in honor of Robert Altman’s passing, but this film earns its top position on my list for its presentation of quirky, humorous, experienced women. As sisters Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson, Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin embody simplicity and elegance. As their daughter, Lindsay Lohan embraces the angst and yearning of a young woman trying to determine who she wants to be. Death appears as a woman here as well, and Virginia Madsen imparts a haunting sensuality to her. She is like a siren, calling the living to a gentle and peaceful goodnight. Let us hope Mr. Altman realized his own beautiful vision of death.

Notes on a Scandal
As promised, here is a film that doesn’t present women as particularly wise or winning. Though I enjoyed how director Richard Eyre embraced the radiant beauty of Cate Blanchett, I also relished Blanchett’s confusion and weakness as Sheba Hart. With a life overloaded by complications, including an older husband and a mentally-challenged child, Blanchett’s failed artist reaches out for passion, finding it in the worst possible place. Yet the audience joins her in this journey, feeling a bit icky but somehow empathizing with her yearning for something more.

Dame Judi Dench’s Barbara Covet (the last name is not an accident) manipulates and plots her way into Sheba’s life. In truth, she is a rather vicious woman. But her devastating loneliness and complete inability to accept her own desire embodies her with a moving tragedy.

These women are not icons or heroes. They are weak, selfish, and at times reprehensible. But they are real. And when Blanchett and Dench finally tear into each other, they explode with rage and despair. It is awesome.

Little Children
In the end, this film is a disappointing endorsement of the status quo. But somewhere before the credits run, heroine Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) voices the silent cry of many a suburban wife: “Is this all I will be and feel?” Sarah admires the heroine of Madame Bovary for her fearless quest to find something more, and her refusal to internalize society’s condemnation of her adulterous actions defies sexual and social boundaries. In her act of transgression, Sarah claims control of her body and her mind.

Of course, adultery isn’t really a very good or noble thing. If Sarah is unhappy with her husband, perhaps she should leave him, as Madame Bovary was able to do only through suicide. But director Todd Field only flirts with the complexities of her indiscretion, choosing instead to offer a reading of the adultery as a sort of yearning for youth and freedom. Nevertheless, as Sarah notes, it is the dream of something more that makes Madame Bovary something special. So, too, with Sarah.

There is another, less obvious example of terrifically complex femininity in Little Children. As the mother of a sex offender, Phyllis Somerville provides her character May McGorvey with a tragic nobility. She yearns in vain for her child to find “normal” domestic happiness. In her every action, be it scrubbing the offensive language written on her sidewalk or her tender creation of a single’s ad for her son, McGorvey demonstrates that a mother’s love recognizes no obstacle or limitation. Little Children may not satisfy my personal interest in defying society’s parameters, but how marvelous is its willingness to at least voice the question.

The Devil Wears Prada
Thank God for Meryl Streep. Her Miranda Priestly is a “bitch,” to be sure. A strong and powerful woman who expects others to pander to her every need. A woman who does her job well and demands respect. A woman who hides her own unhappiness behind a façade of coolness and perfectionism. Streep transforms a villain into the most human character in the film. May we all be such marvelous bitches.

Granted, this is a film about fashion that allows its main character Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) to show up completely unprepared for a job interview and then marks the pinnacle of her achievement by her smaller dress size. So this is less of a nod to the film than simply an ode to the complexity that Streep brings to every role she plays.

Scoop and Sherrybaby
Woody Allen’s Scoop is an endearing romp with little substance, but Scarlett Johansson’s Sondra Pransky is a cooky delight. She sleeps with men almost as a matter of course, seemingly freed from the legacy of American-brand Puritan repression. How marvelous to see a character so completely take charge of her own desire. She does not use sex to control men—indeed her first appearance in the film demonstrates her failure to manipulate men with her body. Sondra enjoys men and enjoys sex. And Allen doesn’t punish her for it.

Laurie Collyer’s Sherrybaby presents the complete opposite: a woman accustomed to using her body as currency. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Sherry Swanson is just out of prison, desperate to reconnect with her daughter. But first she must navigate the bureaucracy of parole and the distrust of her family. Despite her repeated failures, Sherry picks herself back up and keeps living. Again, this is a deeply flawed female character, but she is heroic in her effort.

Dreamgirls and Phat Girlz
Both films model female friendship through the good times and the bad. Somewhat naively executed, perhaps, but nevertheless uplifting, the movies ultimately affirm that women support each other despite betrayal, jealousy, and misunderstanding.

Nnegest Likké’s Phat Girlz lacks sophistication, but it relates the story of its overweight heroine’s dream of success with tremendous heart. She draws into sharp focus the myriad ways society punishes heavy women, and through a typical fairy-tale narrative, she encourages all women to take pride in themselves and their bodies.

Similarly, Dreamgirls demonstrates how culture marginalizes larger women. Like Phat Girlz, Bill Condon’s musical attempts more resonance than its fairy-tale narrative can achieve. But in its message that beauty often trumps talent, we learn a valuable lesson about our own complicity in creating the modern obsession with being thin.

The Break-Up
Peyton Reed’s daringly honest rendering of a couple’s bitter and messy break-up delivers a rather inspiring illustration of female need. As Brooke Meyers, Jennifer Aniston issues a sincere performance as a woman who desperately wants to reunite with her ex-boyfriend but does not know how to achieve this feat without returning to their past cycle of bickering and disappointment. I should also note that Vince Vaughn’s Gary Grobowski is clueless and stubborn and therefore completely human. Some movies elevate their female characters by disparaging their male ones—a decidedly unfeminist and unhelpful division of the sexes. But with The Break-Up, both of our characters are a bit of a mess in a completely believable and painful ways. Many people did not like this film for its verisimilitude, preferring the fairy tale. I’ll take realistic pain over unachievable fantasy any day. Of course, I’m still bitter that Prince Charming is married to both Cinderella and Snow White, yet somehow we aren’t supposed to notice.

The Worst

X-Men: The Last Stand
How to destroy a trilogy? Let me count the ways… no wait, all I have to do is talk about Brett Ratner’s complete inability to represent female rage on screen. In the third installment of this series, Famke Janssen returns as Phoenix, a completely unstable and furious force of nature. So what do we see? Not her murder of alter-ego Jean Grey’s husband, which Ratner cowardly depicts off-screen. Not her attempt to wield power over Magneto, to whom she yields repeatedly. Not a battle to the death with Wolverine, whom she hates and loves all at once. Why not unleash her devastating power and see what happens? Why not give Phoenix a plan, a purpose, a goal? Ratner could have used this character to explore female power, jealousy, fear, anger, pain, and even weakness. But instead he puts her in a corner and then employs her abilities to create a rather unfocused and half-hearted attempt to bury a few good guys. Ho-hum.

The other women don’t fair much better. Storm enforces her leadership with a few weak speeches. And Rogue? Don’t even get me started on his castration of Rogue…Okay, clearly, I’m still upset about Ratner’s complete mishandling of this trilogy. Previously a complex and moving examination of outsiders finding a purpose beyond themselves, Ratner took the low road and easy turns, and he seriously underestimated the dramatic potential of his female characters.

V for Vendetta
This was a bad film on so many levels, I would need more than a few words to describe my continued disappointment in the Wachowski brothers. But let me just say that Natalie Portman’s Evey is tortured, mentally and physically, by her masked hero. And then she falls in love with this completely disturbed and psychotic maniac. Wow. Thanks, for that inspiring representation of womankind, Andy and Larry.

The Last Kiss
For realizing every horrible stereotype about women as cloying, needy, naggy, and doormat-y. Guess that last one isn’t really a word. Despite Jacinda Barrett’s luminous turn as Zach Braff’s pregnant girlfriend, this film directed by Tony Goldwyn endorses a view of women as manipulators who lure men into sex and then castrate them through enforced domestication. Worse, its does this through a clichéd script that lacks psychological depth and insight. Gender relations are complicated, and they deserve more than this.

Thank you for Smoking
I love this wickedly sharp satire of the life of a lobbyist. What I don’t love is its portrayal of villain Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes). In a film full of morally flexible characters, Holloway should fit right in as a reporter who uses sex to get the story. Everyone in this film makes a habit of fucking people to get what they want. But in the final moments of the film, the humiliated Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) exacts his revenge by exposing Holloway’s sexual tactics. She stands in her newsroom, horrified that he has aired her dirty laundry. The problem lies in the fact that the movie thus endorses a continued valuation of a woman based on sexual purity. He loses nothing for revealing his sexual relationship with the reporter, even though his weakness allowed her to expose him. She, however, is rendered a whore by his simple statement of fact that they had copulated. Haven’t we gotten past this sort of archaic sexual disparity?

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Happily N'Ever After

Critics have been pretty rough on Happily N’Ever After. To an extent, the film’s producers ask for it by daring to invoke the legacy of Shrek in their advertising merely because one of Happily N’Ever After’s ten producers also produces the three Shrek films. But despite the critical drubbing received by Happily N’Ever After, I thought the movie was okay. Sure, that’s not high praise, but read other reviews of this film, and you’ll think I just gave it an Oscar.

Perhaps I should explain my personal stake in this movie. You see, I have a niece who worships the Disney princesses. Despite my persistent efforts to discuss the political and cultural responsibilities that fall to a princess, my niece Susannah remains exclusively devoted to the fashion and beauty inexorably tied to the princess allure. When I gave her a book in which the princess breaks up with her bum of a prince boyfriend, Susannah asked with despair, “you mean, she doesn’t get married?” This is the worldview thrust upon young girls: the dream is the prince and the end goal is marriage. What century is this?

Happily N’Ever After is the clarion call of the dastardly Frieda (Cinderella’s stepmother cum Empress of Evil, played with charisma by Sigourney Weaver). She lives in Fairy Tale Land, a world in which happy endings abound because The Wizard (George Carlin) uses magic to maintain the balance between good and evil. In The Wizard’s absence, Frieda steals his magical staff from underlings Monk (Wallace Shawn) and Mambo (Andy Dick) and takes over the kingdom. Chaos ensues, so Monk, Mambo, Ella (short for Cinderella, of course), and reluctant servant Rick (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) seek out the prince (Patrick Warburton) to save the day.

Screenwriter Robert Moreland offers a relatively tame portrait of a world ruled by evil. Frieda plots to little effect in the castle tower, and her greatest physical threat is her blatant sexuality. Female sexuality is scary, you see, especially in an older woman. Baddies like Little Red Riding Hood’s Wolf drink and boast in the castle dining room but fail to impose their menace in more serious ways. Sleepy Beauty’s story is interrupted when her prince also falls asleep, Rapunzel falls out of her tower (more confused than hurt), and Jack gets smushed by the Giant’s foot. Predictable disruptions like these fail to capitalize on the possibilities offered by the incursion of true chaos into a world dependent upon routine.

More problematic is that Moreland includes too large a cast of characters to develop any one person deeply enough to make us care. Monk and Mambo provide the weak comedic relief seemingly mandatory in today’s animated films but otherwise they have little impact upon events. They function like sports announcers, but their commentary isn’t entertaining enough to justify their relatively purposeless presence here. The Seven Dwarves act as one pact without evidencing individuality and again, their intrusion into the action acts as a distraction without truly altering the course of the narrative. Same could be said for the bad guys in general. Moreland is content to depict a safe and contained vision of evil, completely in opposition to the danger implicit within the original fairy tales alluded to so frequently in this movie. He tries to be clever but in his refusal to test boundaries, Moreland delivers a bland story.

That said, the film isn’t completely boring. First time director Paul J. Bolger knows enough to keep the film moving, so it will likely hold the attention of children. Happily N’Ever After offers novelty if for no other reason than to see how Moreland and Bolger alter the storylines of traditional fairy tales. Perhaps I am too easily impressed by simple breaks with fairy tale conventions, but there is something awfully fun about seeing the prince portrayed as deeply stupid. Further, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Ella has short hair and isn’t blonde. Shocking, I know. She even takes up arms against the bad guys when necessary. Her actions come off as little more than spunk, but I’ll take spunk over female passivity any day. In fact, Ella eventually defeats the evil stepmother with a few quick punches to the gut while Rick lies unconscious on the sidelines. Don’t worry, Rick gets plenty of opportunities to be heroic, but it was refreshing to see Cinderella confront her oppressor directly.

More intriguing still is the moment in which Ella learns that her story traditionally closes with the happy ending. Mambo explains that she marries the prince, and that’s it—her story (and thereby life) are over. Ella is confused and distraught, saying that she expected there to be “more.” Perhaps not a deep realization, but who can’t relate to this adult discovery that dreams are not always fulfilled as expected and life is not always as satisfying as planned.

Cinderella’s questioning of the satisfaction of marriage as the culmination of life doesn’t stop her from marrying Rick, and Bolger does not examine how Fairy Tale Land might be forever altered by their union. For instance, what does it mean for the prince to be single and the princess to be poor? Happily N’Ever After is far from a feminist battlecry. Moreland and Bolger affirm the traditional ending of romances—wedded bliss and a kiss. But despite this conventionality, there are moments within the film that offer striking alternatives to the usual princess lore. And I would take my niece to this movie to see if she might notice them and consider that there is more to being a woman than wearing a long gown and crown.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Last Kiss

This review is a modified version of the review published on

For fans of Garden State, penned and directed by star Zach Braff, expectations for his follow-up film The Last Kiss are high. Though the latter film is not written or directed by Braff, the film peruses similar thematic territory: a disaffected twenty-something suffers an emotional crisis about the meaning of life.

The Last Kiss
offers pedigree in its own right—written by Paul Haggis, screenwriter for two Best Picture films (Million Dollar Baby and Crash) and winner of a Best Screenplay Oscar (for Crash). Director Tony Goldwyn (grandson of Samuel Goldwyn, speaking of pedigree) may be best known for his role as bad guy Carl in 90s cinematic sensation Ghost, but he has been directing since 1999’s A Walk on the Moon (featuring a pre-Unfaithful Diane Lane (playing another unfaithful woman, actually) and a pre-Lord of the Rings Viggo Mortensen). Goldwyn has been earning his directing stripes mostly in television, including two episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. With all this to recommend it, the question remains: does The Last Kiss live up to expectations? Not so much.

One qualification: I’m not yet on the “Haggis is a genius” bandwagon. If you’ve read my review of Crash, posted on this website, you’ll know that I’m suspicious that Haggis simply isn’t as deep as he thinks he is. The Last Kiss not only doesn’t alleviate my concerns that Haggis writes well-crafted by shallow screenplays, the film in fact reassures me that my assessment of Crash, despite all the hoopla, is essentially accurate.

The Last Kiss stars Zach Braff as Michael, a young man with a well-appointed life who fears that his perfect life will offer no more surprises. When Michael’s girlfriend Jenna (Jacinda Barrett) becomes pregnant (shouldn’t that count as a surprise?), he walks through the following weeks in a daze, mourning for the death of his youth. That is, until he meets nubile college student Kim (Rachel Bilson). Any guesses as to what happens next? Michael cheats, gets caught, and then “realizes” that he does indeed want his girlfriend. Anyone see anything new here? Anyone?

Of course, twenty-somethings today do share an apprehension about the state of matrimony. As Michael tells Jenna, he’ll marry her when she can name five couples that are happy five years into their marriage. All Jenna can offer in reply is the example of her 30-years strong parents, whose relationship naturally falls apart during the film. The film’s openness about this nuptial apprehension is new to an industry that makes millions by creating fairy tale love stories that reassure us all about the miracle of love. The Last Kiss doesn’t try to wrap perfectly the package of this film by finding easy answers for Michael’s fears or by determining an easy solution to his troubles with Jenna. Instead, Haggis and Goldwyn allow ambiguity to deepen the nuance of a movie that exposes Michael’s inexplicable but visceral fear of the future.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t progress much further than this apprehension and ambiguity. Michael begins and ends the film repeating the same line bemoaning that there are no more surprises. Rather than come to terms with this anxiety, he instead reacts to each moment with instinctual survival tactics, spouting clichéd dialogue. After kissing Kim, Michael rushes home to a furious Jenna and assures her that he has learned his lesson. When Jenna refuses to listen, Michael returns to Kim to finish what he started. What happened to learning his lesson?

Despite a rather prosaic script, the actors make the best of their material. Braff’s despondent Michael perfects a whiny pout, but his brave departure from his typical goofy charm on television’s Scrubs moves his career to the next level. Jacinda Barrett redefines lovely, making three-dimensional a character who barely registers on the page. As the world that Jenna trusts falls apart, Barrett makes Jenna’s fear palpable. She’s so good, in fact, that I wished the film began with her discovery of Michael’s infidelity. Once Jenna forces Michael to explain his actions, the film’s pacing takes off, and the sparks between these two actors fly. But Haggis relegates Jenna to the sidelines, providing only glimpses of her own insecurity.

As Kim, Rachel Bilson has even less of a character to work with. She works the innocent-sexy mojo she has perfected as Summer Roberts on television’s The O.C., and Michael’s attraction to her is understandable. But what is her attraction to this morose young man, who admits that he has a girlfriend during their first meeting? Why does she so blatantly chase a young man who repeatedly pulls away from her? Why offer him complete immunity before sex and then become upset that he doesn’t say goodbye before he leaves her bed? Kim encapsulates so many male complaints about female manipulation that Bilson’s efforts to expose her little-girl naivete and vulnerability are overshadowed by the big stamp on her forehead: “fucked up chick.”

The Last Kiss
expands its scope beyond Michael, examining the crises of his three male friends as well. The point of the view of the film is decidedly masculine (but for the focus upon the inner life of Jenna’s frustrated mother, played by powerhouse Blythe Danner). Casey Affleck portrays new father and husband Chris, trapped by his marriage to a naggy wife and by his crying baby. He just can’t take it anymore, you see. Somehow it doesn’t occur to him that the person who spends all her time with that crying baby doesn’t have the luxury of making the choice to leave. But Haggis is less concerned with the character of the wife: instead he attempts to draw parallels between Michael’s fear and Chris’ reality—marriage eventually becomes a power struggle between the woman and the man as the baby overtakes their lives. Michael’s other two friends realize how lucky they are to be single and take off to travel the world.

Kim and all the women in the film embody a paradox: at once the perfect male fantasy and the perfect male trap. Kim makes repeated passes at Michael, but then she turns up with a mix-CD. The nerve! When Michael’s friend Kenny (Eric Christian Olsen) meets a woman with whom he has impromptu and athletic sex repeatedly, he rejoices. But then the bomb drops: she invites him to meet her parents. The horror!! Basically, women trap men: they offer sex and then expect things like love, fidelity, and responsibility. The fiends!!! Okay, so I’m exaggerating a tad bit, but taken as a whole, The Last Kiss depicts a depressing portrait of female attempts to domesticate men, with domestication leading to castration.

As an examination of male weakness and anxiety, The Last Kiss captures perfectly its characters’ desperation and fear. As a love story, it wisely refuses to provide a pat resolution. But as an analysis of the human psyche or gender relations, The Last Kiss barely skims the surface. The dialogue retreads every relationship cliché, and director Goldwyn embraces this staleness with too perfect compositions and melodramatic effects. Those of us that loved the originality and vitality of Garden State will apparently have to wait for Braff’s next flick to recapture the magic.

Monday, July 31, 2006

John Tucker Must Die

John Tucker Must Die offers a lively ode to Spice Girl-flavored girl power. This is not the feminism of Betty Friedan or Ms. magazine. Rather, the four heroines of the film derive power from overt sensuality, fashion, and popularity. Typical high school stuff. In fact, much of this film is typical, coloring by the numbers to hit all the expected notes and finish with the safe ending.

As new girl Kate, Brittany Snow steps back from her frightening turn on Nip/Tuck, returning to her friendlier persona on American Dreams. Having watched her “hot” mom (Jenny McCarthy) repeatedly be abandoned by men, Kate encourages three enemies (Ashanti, Sophia Bush, and Arielle Kebbel) to band together after discovering their boyfriend’s cheating ways and seek revenge. The boyfriend in question is John Tucker: star basketball player, most popular guy in school, and wealthy to boot. The girls play a few relatively harmless pranks, including feeding the cheater estrogen, but as he continually rises above, they determine to exchange an eye for an eye: their broken hearts for John Tucker’s.

Enter Kate. Despite her friendship with John Tucker’s much less popular brother, Kate pursues a relationship with John and achieves the sought after profession of love—which in this film equates to John placing his expensive watch on Kate’s wrist and announcing to the student body that he is, in fact, whipped. Who needs “I love you,” when a guy is willing to admit that you have conquered his wandering ways?

In the end, this battle is less about love than power. As Kate points out, the three frienemies obsess over John Tucker, first trying to attract him and then trying to destroy him: either way, their lives revolve around him. When Kate swoons over a romantic date aboard John’s yacht (of course), the trifecta immediately restore her empowering anger by playing a tape of him bragging about his nocturnal plans for the lovely Kate. Basically, it is the same old story: the guy wants sex so he whispers sweet nothings (lies) in the girl’s ear. She wants to possess him, so she teases him with her sexuality. John Tucker Must Die exposes the strategy inherent in surviving the social war that is high school at its most base and vapid.

Director Betty Thomas’s vision saturates the screen with color and vitality, yet her depiction of the girls’ friendship lacks warmth. Most troubling, however, is Thomas’s acceptance of any and all gender stereotypes. Overdosing on estrogen, John behaves like Thomas’s vision of a girl: whiny, emotional, and paranoid. Kate becomes popular not after the usual teen film transformation montage sequence but rather through the simple act of straightening her radiantly blonde hair (would it have been that hard to give her a pair of Clark Kent glasses for her to wear to demonstrate the pre- and post- popularity Kate?). Thomas also stages the requisite chick fight, complete with hair pulling.

The elephant in the room is teen sexuality. Ashanti’s head cheerleader character and Bush’s oversexed vegan admit to sleeping with John, repeatedly. Bush’s character bemoans her slutty ways, and the other girls mock her for her easiness, but Thomas frequently plays her sexual freedom for laughs. In one sequence, Bush finds a bra in the back of John’s car. Her first reaction is fury, until she spies the “100% hemp” label on the bra and realizes that it is her own. These young women are completely lost in a world that validates their sexuality even while it condemns them.

Thomas cowardly steps away from the obvious challenge: placing virgin Kate in a position in which she is tempted to sleep with the known cad. How would she face her own desire in light of her rationalism? How would Kate’s mother confront her daughter’s awakening sexuality in light of her own promiscuity? Thomas avoids all tricky sandtraps, choosing instead to offer us a glossy but empty betrayal of young women. So much for girl power.

Though my feminism recoils from Thomas’s refusal to empower girls with such antiquated ideas as self-esteem and discriminating sexuality, the movie isn’t a complete bust. John Tucker Must Die is a well-packaged film delivering every conventional expectation. As John Tucker, Desperate Housewives alum Jesse Metcalfe demonstrates more than beauty: in fact he is quite charming and charismatic. All the young female stars share the screen with generosity despite the fact that the limitations of the script relegate them to shallowland. For an entertaining and amusing couple of hours as the cinema, John Tucker fits the bill. But it falls far from achieving satirical depth, choosing to reinforce stereotypes rather than undercut them.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Superman Returns

Spoiler alert: As always, I don’t worry about giving away endings. Spoilerphobes should see the film before reading this review. That said, there aren’t a lot of surprises in this movie, so I couldn’t really ruin it if I tried.

I had mixed feelings about the new Superman Returns movie. Because of Bryan Singer’s defection from the X-Men franchise, Brett Ratner was allowed to destroy X-Men 3, which pissed me off. Then the early trailers for Superman Returns displayed a mostly mute Brandon Routh as Superman, suggesting that his remarkable resemblance to Christopher Reeve did not extend to his acting ability. And the casting of Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane bewildered me—sure, she’s pretty and all, but does she have the spunk and the uniqueness to play a role personified by the delightfully quirky Margot Kidder?

Bryan Singer had two extreme options available to him: completely reconfigure the superman mythology or create an homage to the original Richard Donner film. I expected he would choose an option in the middle: acknowledge the first (through some sort of origins storytelling or through humor) yet determine to forge his own path.

Remarkably, Singer seems to have opted for the latter extreme—he almost recreates the first film, with many lines copied verbatim from the 1978 original. This isn’t a shot-by-shot remake a la Van Sant’s Psycho, but Singer draws parallels and direct references throughout the film. For instance, Lex Luther (portrayed with panache by Kevin Spacey) is back, with virtually the same plan attempted in the first Superman film: a real estate caper to create beach-front property that he alone will control. And his master stroke yet again is to steal some kryptonite found in Addis Ababa. Superman once more takes Lois Lane flying, with their lush love theme accompanying their journey (thank God there is no terrible voice-over this time). Even Luther’s female companion (deadpanned by Parker Posey) helps save the day yet again—only her motivation is even less justified this time around (girls are just more sensitive about mass murder, I guess).

Here’s the odd thing: Singer sometimes wants us to take for granted details from the first four films. When Posey's Kitty Kowalski comments that Luther seems familiar with Superman’s fortress of solitude, Luther doesn’t reply. But Superman fans will remember Gene Hackman's Luther discovering the fortress in Superman 2. Singer can use this sort of oblique reference because he trusts that fans are familiar enough with the first films to follow.

Yet in other instances, Singer depends upon his characters’ or our own ignorance. In Superman Returns, when Clark Kent hears that someone has broken into a museum to steal a rock (kryptonite, of course), pretty much the exact same thing that happened in the 1978 Superman film, Kent demonstrates no recollection of the other time Luther used kryptonite against him.

Also, does Singer expect audiences will feel any suspense about the true parentage of Lois Lane’s son, Jason? Waiting for the moment that Jason reveals his power is kind of fun, but Singer seems naively vague. Wouldn’t it have been more engaging to watch Lois nervously attempt to prevent Superman from discovering her secret? Or does she trust that Jason’s parentage is so impossible to fathom that no one will ever guess she once mated with Superman—kind of like how it is so impossible to fathom that Clark Kent is Superman that his "disguise" (consisting exclusively of a pair of eye glasses) obscures the truth?

As a fan, I relished Singer’s reliving of the great Donner film. It seems appropriate for Singer to concede the importance of that film in creating the reputation from which this film will benefit. Superman clichés, including Routh ripping his shirt open to reveal the red S beneath and Superman walking into bullets that deflect off his body, populate the entirety of this movie. These clichés are fun because they are so endemic to his legend. Yet as Singer persisted in his affectionate mimicry, I began to wonder if screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris were being cute or lazy. Singer avoids satire but therefore finds himself trapped within the confines of another person’s vision.

In many ways, this film feels constrained. The ending is anticlimactic: "oh, gee, Superman is strong. I didn’t get that yet." His relationship with Lois depends too deeply upon our recollection of Reeves and Kidder, for Bosworth simply doesn’t have the spark to make us care about the love story. And Routh himself echoes Reeve so dramatically that it is kind of eerie.

That said, Routh impressed me. He’s charming, attractive, and sincere. His climactic scene with Lois Lane’s son (supposedly the child of Richard White) remained with me long after the film ended. Singer depicts a Superman that is deeply and exquisitely lonely. Completely incapable of communicating with those he loves, Superman depends upon the adoration of the masses to motivate him. Routh’s moving performance with little Jason White exposes his deep need for connection, despite his admittance that his father’s words—he will live among humans but not be one of them— are true. Through this relationship, Singer and Routh provides Superman Returns with a poignancy heretofore unexplored in the prior films.

Singer also exhibits a maturity in his handling of Richard White’s relationship with Lois Lane. Despite her attraction to Superman, Lois refuses to betray the man who has adopted her child as his own. Singer doesn’t ask White’s portrayer, James Marsden (always so good as the "other" boyfriend—why can’t he play the main boyfriend for once?), to play Richard as a fool or a brute. Instead, he makes a great case for Lois remaining with Richard.

Richard even earns the respect of Superman himself. During one lovely moment, Superman saves the White family from drowning. He asks Richard, who has Lois and Jason clinging to him, "do you have them?" Then Superman carries Richard, who likewise carries Superman’s true love and son. In essence, Singer’s film demonstrates that Superman is incapable of being Lois’s lover, and somehow he makes us okay with that.

David Edelstein’s review of Superman Returns complains that Singer did to Superman what he did much better with the X-Men: depicting the struggle of being different in a world that demands sameness. Yet one could also consider that Superman’s loneliness speaks to gender relationships. Lois can never fill Superman’s need because she cannot understand his burden or his isolation. Though Superman carries her into the clouds with him to share with her how he hears the world’s suffering, she can never empathize. But his son will share Superman’s great ability and great burden. Superman has finally found someone with him he can totally relate. At last, he is no longer alone.

This isn’t a great film. To enjoy it, you must embrace the cheese, find something fresh in the tired cliché (both Superman-specific and cinematic), and allow innocence to take hold. Less "aw shucks, ma’am" than Donner’s film, Singer nevertheless could go deeper: Luther could be a more cruel villain, Lois a more self-interested reporter, and Superman a more clever hero. The sentimental naiveté lingering in Superman Returns does justice to Donner. Now perhaps in the sequel we will see what Singer and Routh are really capable of creating.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


Rian Johnson’s Brick is the best movie I’ve seen this year. Now, it is only April, and much of what is out in theatres right now is pretty pathetic, but this film made me want to see it again merely moments after the credits finished rolling. It was that fun. So I did—I went to see it again. And I loved it a second time.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan Frye, an outsider whose upwardly mobile ex phones him for help. Finding her murdered, Brendan determines to locate her killer. Set in a high school in southern California, Brick traverses the typical high school ground of cliques and social climbing but focuses the drama through a new lens: film noir.

Having seen Chinatown and The Maltese Falcon, I’m not a total stranger to noir, but I’m certainly no expert. Johnson employs many of the typical devices: a sense of alienation, a barren setting, betrayal, and hard-boiled dialogue. The use of noir conventions works well in the high school setting because they lend validity to the often superficial concerns of teenage life. While many teen flicks (think Clueless and Drive Me Crazy—two of my personal favorites) lovingly mock the strict hierarchy and etiquette of high school life, Brick employs them in a deeply serious story of heartache and murder.

Johnson makes such bold choices that audiences will likely love it or hate it. Based on the reviews I had read, I expected ultra-heightened language. But in fact I found only a few speeches a bit over the top. Thing is, the actors and director so fully commit to the conceit of the film that I was held completely within its spell for the entirety of the picture. Sure, certain lines ran past me so fast that I missed them entirely, but as with Shakespeare, the actors focus special attention upon the rhythm of the dialogue and hence convey meaning effectively that way.

So what is this dialogue like? Here’s an excerpt in which the protagonist, Brendan (Gordon -Levitt), explains to some hoods why they shouldn’t mess with him: “You wanna take a swing at me, hash-head? Huh? I got all five senses and I slept last night. That puts me six up on the lot of you.” The film could easily have descended into farce, but Johnson keeps a tight rein on his actors and takes the mystery quite seriously.

A fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt because of his amazing work in Mysterious Skin, I was not disappointed by his performance in Brick. Whether taking a beating or inflicting one, Gordon-Levitt makes you buy every moment of his tough-guy act. His Brendan is not a superman: he has doubts and fears as well, and this allows empathy for an otherwise detached character.

Less well developed is Brendan’s friendship with the Brain (Matt O’Leary). O’Leary plays the Brain with a sort of autistic intensity: he fires off his convoluted dialogue with a rapid-fire pace. His eyes, magnified by his thick glasses, stare straight ahead, avoiding eye contact and intimacy. Somehow the Brian knows the ins and outs of each clique at school, despite being more of an outsider than Brendan. Why does the Brain help his friend without question or hesitation? Johnson doesn’t take the time to show us the origins of their friendship or the reason for its strength.

Other noir characters are present: the criminal mastermind (Lukas Haas), the femme fatale (Nora Zehetner), and the muscle (Noah Fleiss). Each plays his role with aplomb, though Lukas Haas as the Pin deserves special mention for avoiding the risky trap of playing his role for camp. As he chats with Brendan about Tolkien (ignore the overly poetic sunset in the background), the Pin exposes his own isolation, lending the Pin with an intriguing humanity.

There could be more heat between Zehetner (as Laura) and Brendan, but she certainly keeps us guessing as Brendan tries to decide whose side she is on. Since I’m the feminist film critic, I should probably express my disgust as the perpetuation of the femme fatale stereotype: a woman who uses her sexuality to control men. Though none of the women in this film are particularly admirable (or likeable, really), they fulfill a function of genre. Taking on the misogynistic tradition of noir is a much larger project that I may return to another time. Suffice to say, women in this film are secretive, manipulative man eaters, and Johnson has no apparent interest in showing them as something more.

The plot is convoluted (again, a device of film noir), but if you simply enjoy the ride, all will be revealed. This is not a movie to take too seriously. Johnson keeps the film moving at a quick pace and allows some humor to lighten the heavy tone: before getting the crap kicked out of him, Brendan carefully places his glasses in his eyeglass case and waits for the punch. With style and conviction, Johnson creates an elaborate maze of corruption and invites us to see this world through Brendan’s eyes. Though Brendan himself has a checkered past, his careful foray through the thorny pathways of high school drew me deeply into his world and his despair. Ah, high school: how much I don’t miss you.