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.