Ladybrain Feminist Reviews: Because Messages Matter
Thursday, February 7, 2013
Friday, January 18, 2013
Another entry in the series where I finally watch the movies whose trailers I’ve seen a million times on VHS tapes that were played on a constant loop throughout adolescence. So far, the coming attractions are universally terrible.
Many of us grew up loving and defining our high school experiences through John Hughes films. I still have a hard time rectifying my deeply entrenched nostalgia for the movies that kept me company for untold hours in adolescence with their often troubling themes: the fact that Sixteen Candles makes light of what is objectively a date rape or that The Breakfast Club features some graphic sexual harassment, among other issues. But seeing his 1988 film She's Having a Baby as an adult, there's no internal conflict about identifying exactly what is so absurd and awful about this movie.
Hughes films, many of them rom-coms, tended to end the story right about the time a couple got together. So She’s Having a Baby, which came out a few years after his Brat Pack stride, is the logical next step in these characters’ lives. It starts with high school sweethearts’ wedding day and the mundane horror (only experienced by men, apparently) of settling down into a career and married life after the excitement of courtship is over.
This isn’t the She’s Having a Baby trailer that I remember. I don’t know if it came before St. Elmo’s Fire or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or something else. The trailer I remember featured a semi-ominous strings score with quick cuts that made it seem like this coming-of-age dramedy was a lot more serious than it turns out to be. Here’s the only trailer I can find online—it’s a lot truer to the movie’s tone.
It’s a terrible movie for many reasons. These are just 10.
1. The protagonist is a milquetoast, mealy mouthed douche. Kevin Bacon is in love with his wife but alternately consumed by either the nightclub-hopping life he thinks singletons enjoy or a massive sense of entitlement as a brilliant-yet-undiscovered writer (by day an ad copywriter). His magnum opus ends up being the story told in this sappy, crappy movie.
2. Despite the fact that all of the main characters supposedly grew up in Chicagoland, the wife, Elizabeth McGovern, is the only one who has an accent. Those naaaaaaging A’s.
3. There’s so little development of why Bacon and McGovern even like each other that we don’t particularly care if their relationship can last despite temptation. See No. 6.
4. The depiction of marriage is insulting to anyone who’s ever been in a relationship, but especially hetero women. This film adds to the cultural narrative that marriage is something that women inherently want and that makes men inherently miserable. When McGovern is given something to do except stare blankly at something, she’s only concerned with nagging Bacon or getting knocked up (and taking the pleasure out of sex). Bonus points for the revelation that McGovern has never, ever, in their yearslong relationship, initiated sex. Except when she went baby crazy.
5. Which brings us to the totally fucked-up theme of McGovern trying to sneakily get pregnant. The trailer above frames this as part of "every married life"—when your lady tells you she’s gone off the pill. Most women don’t just stop using contraceptives without telling their partners. We all probably know a few women who would—but they are few. And probably blood relatives.
6. At one point, the sleazy, bad-influence, bachelor best friend (Alec Baldwin) comes on to McGovern and tells her she’s the only person he’s ever loved. This follows longing glances in the one or two scenes he’s in before this. It’s unbelievable that Baldwin pulls off tortured, unrequited love in the face of McGovern’s just plain wooden performance. But he does! So it’s pretty unsatisfying that she doesn’t go for it. That would have made exactly one unexpected plot point in the whole movie.
7. Speaking of the totally dreamy young Baldwin, anyone who rejects hetero, married, suburban bliss is either sinister or secretly depressed, according to this film. Deep down, Baldwin just wants a nice wife. And his one-time girlfriend, who isn’t interested in the suburbs or tradition, is a condescending jerk who doesn’t even care that her mother is dead. And according to Baldwin, she’s also a “slut.” That’s right, she dared to have sex with him for fun.
8. The tone is all over the place. The scenes of Bacon imagining assenting to suburban-consumer-hell vows during his wedding, seeing his lawn-mowing neighbors break into dance to point out their all-but-choreographed existence, and—a personal favorite—him burning the pages of his book to keep his wife and would-be child warm, are jarring, unfunny, and out of place. Especially when life-threatening stuff turns the movie to tear-jerker territory. Father of the Bride walked this line much more successfully a few years later.
9. There are weird cameos during the ending credits of Hughes-film stars and other stars in character, including folks from Cheers and Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s the cherry on top of a random, inconsistent movie. How does it work in the diegesis that Ferris Bueller and the guys from The Great Outdoors are suggesting names for the baby? Maybe because most Hughes films are set around Chicago?
10. The film is called She’s Having a Baby, but “she” isn’t even pregnant until well over an hour into the 106-minute movie.
Bechdel Test: Pass, barely
Feminist Grade: F
Overall Grade: D-
Thursday, January 17, 2013
My thoughts on Maya's dance between masculinity and femininity and carving spaces out for women in film are over on the AAUW blog.
Monday, November 26, 2012
If you grew up with a VCR, you know practically by heart the trailers that come before your favorite movies, even if you never got around to seeing those particular “coming attractions.” But some of them probably intrigued you—for me, these were mostly films that I wasn’t allowed to see. I snuck some of my most well-worn tapes into my collection under the veil of independent or classic cinema that my parents either weren't familiar with or thought of as innocuous. But I always meant to get around to seeing movies like Nightwatch (a trailer before Trainspotting) and the film that is the subject of this review, The Cotton Club (before The Untouchables) after I turned 17.
The Untouchables being an obsession of mine since I heard about its homage to the “Odessa Steps” scene, I’ve seen the trailer for The Cotton Club roughly eleventy billion times. So it was quite a coup when I finally sat down to watch it on Netflix instant this fall. And, cheesy and stilted as The Untouchables often was (after all, Kevin Costner and Sean Connery were the leading men), that film is the Citizen Kane of mobster movies compared with the completely absurd, embarrassing The Cotton Club. This movie is so bad on so many levels, it would take way too long to write a properly scathing review. And frankly, it would almost be redundant. Res ipsa loquitur. So allow me to simply outline what I found compelling about the trailer and the top 10 reasons why this (inexplicably Francis Ford Coppola-helmed) film failed in such an epic fashion.
First, check out the trailer for yourself.
Aside from the damsel-in-distress themes that are so clear in the trailer but didn’t bother my teenage self, there are still several things the trailer has going for it. As evidenced by the many (more successful) movies they've done together,
Lane and Richard Gere have clear chemistry here.
That natural spark is completely doused in the actual film—basically every line
of dialogue that establishes the romantic connection between the two is in the
trailer. I, of course, assumed the love story would get fleshed out. In
addition to that tease, the costumes were awesome, young Lane seemed enigmatic
and magnetic, the set design was unique (I love the look of the
between-the-curtains backstage scene), the Harlem Renaissance is a compelling
and underrepresented (in film) period of cultural history, there was tap
dancing, and there was good music. It had the makings of a pretty good love
story set in the totally enthralling jazz age. To be fair, the musical and
dance numbers are terrific, but they just underscore how much the rest of the
film functions as shoddy filler.
So unfortunately, the finished piece was no crystal stair, if you will. Here are just the top 10 reasons this movie is an insulting mess.
2. The fact that this film can’t decide whether it’s an ensemble piece or not. It’s not hurting for stars: In addition to Lane and Gere, Nicolas Cage and Laurence Fishburne appear in minor roles alongside several other folks you’d probably recognize. But the way that The Cotton Club illogically alternates among focusing on Gere’s cornet player/inadvertent actor, the bad guy mobster, Cage’s wannabe mobster, Gere’s tap dancing neighbor, and the bromance between the not-as-bad gangster and his second-in-command is not only dizzying but also shallow enough that we don’t end up caring about what happens to any of the bunch.
3. Lines like this (said from not-as-bad mobster to bad mobster and the other baddie he’s quarreling with—with a zoom in on the speaker for gravitas): “In the next room, gentlemen, is the best food, drink, and pussy available at any price in New York. I suggest you take a sample of these things and remember that this is why we work so hard.”
4. Lines like this, which are apparently supposed to convey a mysterious bad guy’s inexpressible evilness (over ominous music):
5. Scenes like the one where slapping becomes a dance move. In one of their more disturbing exchanges, Gere and Lane’s mutual frustration (and Gere’s possessiveness) culminates while they’re dancing. She slaps him, and he slaps her back. The other folks on the dance floor are so amused that they start emulating the incident as a dance move, thereby initiating a totally absurd tonal shift in the scene while delegitimizing a clear instance of possessive intimate partner violence.
Gere's character: So, what do they call you?
Baddie: Nobody calls me nothing.
G: Not even your mother?
B: I didn't have a mother. They found me in a garbage pail.
6. The fact that the film taught me yet another word for whore: moll. So happy to have yet another sexually charged word to insult women.
7. The completely unintimidating (and poorly dubbed?), mealy mouthed voice of the main bad guy mobster. I can’t find any evidence of this on the Internet, but the voice is so odd and mismatched to the actor and his apparent mouth movements that it seems impossible to me that they didn’t dub in another man’s voice in post-production—and change some of the lines to boot.
8. That they gave a really awesome tap dancer but terrible actor, Gregory Hines, a dramatic role and yet another underdeveloped love story. Honestly, I’d much rather see a fully explored version of this love story—between a biracial singer-dancer who is passing as white and a black tap dancer—but their story is left as shallow as Gere and Lane’s. Also, Lane may have been the one who won a Razzie for her performance in this film, but Hines is about the worst actor I’ve ever seen in a widely released motion picture.
9. The thrown-in themes addressing racial inequality. There could have been a lot to say about white audiences’ consumption of (and simultaneous taming of) black culture, but the The Cotton Club stops at remarking upon the fact that black folks can perform at but not sit in the audience of the club—at least until the end of the film—and that it’s wrongheaded to take up arms to defend their spaces from white terrorism.
10. Lines like this, from the little-seen Laurence Fishburne gangster: “When you get Owney Madden on your ass, you truly have somebody on your ass.”
I could go on, but there are so many good movies out there. Let's spend our time seeking them out instead of kicking this dead horse. Surely the old VHS trailers won't lead me so astray next time.
Bechdel Test: Fail
Overall Grade: F
Feminist Grade: F
Friday, October 19, 2012
Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Don’t let the Darko Entertainment logo fool you if you ever have the misfortune of seeing God Bless America. If you’re a wannabe film buff ages 24–35, Donnie Darko is probably your favorite movie. And though its status as a cult classic forced the film into the uncanny valley of popularity, at which point it becomes too popular to be cool, you can’t be blamed for digging Darko or for making the mistake of assuming that seeing a Frank the Bunny logo in the opening credits of a film signals an auspicious start.
If God Bless America is any indication, the Darko Entertainment logo might as well include a tagline that warns, “Facepalm all ye who enter here.”
A miserable, 105-minute harangue about the evils of media, reality TV, celebrity culture, and—wait for it—rudeness, God Bless America follows Frank, a disillusioned insomniac who gets fed up with American culture and his annoying peers and goes on a killing spree. You can’t miss the takeaway message in God Bless America, because Frank’s countless soliloquies about the shallowness and inconsideration of Americans and media are about as subtle as an icepick in the eye. Obviously, we all hate noisy neighbors, teenagers who talk through movies, and the abusive voyeurism of reality TV. But this film is so heavy-handed and obnoxious about teaching these lessons that Frank ends up coming across more like a cantankerous grump who doesn’t understand the noisy music and tweets that those youngns are always talking about these days than a cultural-war hero.
God Bless America is a pathetic attempt at being both Natural Born Killers and Network. But unlike the Oliver Stone and Sidney Lumet films that God Bless America wants so desperately to be, the Bobcat Goldthwait-directed movie’s distain for salacious media isn’t punctured by any thoughtfulness, theoretical insight, or any gesture toward subtlety.
The film starts with an admittedly funny montage of faux reality shows that Frank watches late at night when he can’t sleep. These scenes are the only few minutes of the film that are worth watching. Because even though the shows-within-a-movie perpetuate the idea that women are catty, fame-hungry bitches who can’t get along with each other, one scene includes a catfight in which one woman takes out her tampon and throws it at another woman for shitting in the first woman’s food. In another redeeming daydream sequence, Frank skeet shoots a baby.
After being diagnosed with an apparently fatal tumor and being fired from his job, Frank starts acting out these murderous fantasies. He starts by hunting down a spoiled reality TV star and ends by targeting the judges from an American Idol-type show. So obviously the film is trying to convince us of the evils of media. But this message gets mixed up when Frank eventually expands his targets to basically anyone who is rude or who ends up on the wrong side of his pet peeves. This message is further blurred when we see that Frank clearly desires media coverage of his antics and when he takes a break from killing to go to a movie theater to watch a documentary on the Mai Lai Massacre. During the movie, Frank himself massacres some teenagers who were talking loudly. We’re supposed to be on Frank’s side because he’s punishing the obnoxious people that we’re powerless to stop in public. But in the logic of the diegesis, he’s watching (and apparently appreciating) a film that is deeply critical of senseless, mass killings.
These muddled moments speak to the larger problem in God Bless America. For a film that tries so hard (like, Waylon Smithers hard) to not only make a profound statement about culture but also to symbolically work against it through Frank’s cathartic killings, the film ends up reinforcing the same stereotypes and values that it explicitly positions itself against, especially misogyny.
In Frank’s first big soliloquy—there are probably a baker’s dozen throughout the film—he chastises his co-worker for being a fan of a “shock jock” who is clearly modeled after Howard Stern. When explaining his aversion to the radio personality, Frank says that he doesn’t tune in to the show because he doesn’t hate people who have vaginas. So he’s aligning himself with feminists who view Stern and his ilk as some of the most loathsome misogynists.
At this point, the audience could rally behind Frank. He’s on the right side of a good cause. After all, media objectification and hatred of women is a well-documented social ill. But Frank’s passion about this particular cause is puzzling since the film goes on to villainize, violently punish, or sexualize every woman Frank comes across in his personal life and on TV.
First, there’s the woman secretary who doesn’t share Frank’s affection. She actually sets Frank’s rage in motion in a scenario that completely dismisses and delegitimizes the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. We’re supposed to side with Frank when he gets fired for looking up the secretary’s home address—work files—to send her flowers. While that’s probably not a fireable offense, the film treats the secretary’s anxiety over Frank’s gesture as reactionary, politically correct, and ungrateful. But unless you think that the long-standing, all-too-real problem of men sexually harassing women at work just boils down to bitches not knowing how to take a compliment, you could see the situation for what it really was. Frank was a creepy flirt who mistook the secretary’s graciousness for romantic interest. Given his propensity to go on a killing spree, the secretary probably sensed that he was a little off. Imagine if, instead of sticking to friendly greetings and book swaps, your off-kilter colleague looked up where you live in files that are supposed to be confidential to do something that leaped over several levels of appropriate acquaintance behavior. It would freak you out, too.
There’s also his ex-wife, who treats Frank callously when it comes to custody issues with their daughter, who is just as much a spoiled, horrible brat as the My Super Sweet 16-ish reality star who ends up being Frank’s first victim. And, of course, how could we forget his Lolita-ized sidekick.
Roxy the sidekick is played with about as much panache as you might expect from a former Disney star trying to build indie cred. She seems to revel in her pseudo badassness when she delivers such gratuitous and ineffectual lines as “You look like fuck pie, Frank.” And her contributions to Frank’s holy war are mostly to suggest much more shallow targets (people who give high-fives or who misuse “literally”) than Frank’s more seemingly righteous ones (a Glenn Beck-type pundit and the Westboro Baptist Church congregation). She also proves that women are liars when we find out that she’s not all she seems, and she helps bolster Frank’s uprightness by repeatedly and unsuccessfully trying to seduce him.
Really, everything above is only the tip of the iceberg of suck. There’s the crappy production, the incongruous music choices, the bizarre aesthetic tangents, and one insanely, unnecessarily long gun-buying scene that seems to only exist because the guy playing the gun dealer is someone important’s BFF. This is an unfunny, politically limp movie that is trying its damndest to be edgy and important. But ultimately, it’s a very familiar message: An ineffectual white dude overcomes the bitches in his life and acquires phallic power to claim the respect he believes he’s entitled to.
Bechdel Test: Probably fail. I hate this movie way too much to go back and check.
Overall Grade: F, F, a million times F
Feminist Grade: See overall grade.
Thursday, August 9, 2012
Feminists have women in The Avengers well-covered. The conventional wisdom goes something like this: The only heroines exist alone in teams of men (the Smurfette Principle). The ladies kick ass but do so in skin-tight clothing, and one uses sexual wiles in the line of duty. But what’s more interesting in The Avengers, and what hasn’t been talked about much, are the different shades of masculinity on display in the more crowded field of male heroes and villains. It’s a consistent thread that, not surprisingly, reinforces suspicion and antipathy for men who drift toward the feminine and the queer.
The Avengers follows a group of heroes—some skilled warriors, some superhuman, and some aided by technology—who were assembled to fight an extraterrestrial threat to the Earth. That threat comes in the form of Loki, who was raised as a demigod with his brother, Thor. Loki is, even by sight, different than the heroes whom he is pitted up against throughout the film. He’s thin. He has an English accent (you can’t call what Australian Chris Hemsworth’s Thor—bless him—spits out a proper English accent). Loki has shoulder-length, slicked-back dark hair that those of us who curled our hair in the ‘90s (and the ‘60s!) would say is "flipped out." He wears a really dorky two-horned hat. He’s into fancy canes and scepters. And when he makes an appearance as a civilian, he chooses a posh art show in Stuttgart, Germany, and shows up in a suit with a long coat and a fashionable scarf.
Loki contrasts with the male Avengers, all of whom represent different facets of American machismo. Captain America/Steve Rogers spends his free time boxing and is the very embodiment of World War II (the good old days before the civil rights and women’s rights movements) white masculine benevolence. Iron Man/Tony Stark represents an unpracticed intelligence, a playboy sensibility that absolves him of his tight clothing and otherwise too-groomed facial hair, and the idea that enormously wealthy defense contractors will eventually have our best interests in mind. Hawkeye/Clint Barton is a covert ops military man whose archery sharpshooting, choice of a hunter’s weapon, and implied romance with Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff establish his toughness. Oh, and those arms.
The dichotomy of acceptable and undesirable masculinity seems to be represented in both iterations of one of the Avengers: the Hulk. At first blush, the “rage-monster” Hulk looks like the picture of dangerously unbridled masculinity. The Hulk is a physical danger to everyone around him because he’s supposedly an uncontrollable destructive force. The other side of his personality is the unassuming, mumbling, shy scientist Bruce Banner—who, aside from his meekness is still a desirable American archetype because of his innovation and expertise in what we still know is a largely male, white job field. But if you think of the Hulk and Banner on polar ends of the scale of masculinity—a bullet-spitting monster versus a sometimes suicidal and ineffectual brainiac—that spectrum seems to be um, smashed, at the end of the film when we find out that Banner can control his transformations more than we thought. Banner says he’s secretly “always angry,” so his weaker self is bolstered by his hybridity—he always has smash-happy Hulk standing by.
The most direct comparison of Loki’s masculinity with his Avengers foes has to be made with his brother, Thor—the Viking-inspired demigod whose hammer is famously heavy—and hilarious. Thor has long hair like Loki, but it’s the Fabio-like blonde locks that grace many a (similarly muscled) romance novel at your local CVS. But the similarities stop there. Thor couldn’t be more different as a man.
Thor and Loki were raised on another planet, and Loki was always jealous of Thor’s strength. Because he could never rival Thor as a warrior, Loki developed the skill of manipulation. On Earth, his scepter has the power to essentially reprogram people's brains into mental slavery. Through Loki, we see the dominance that masculinity supposedly craves diverted from physical power to dominance over men’s free will and very consciousness. And that’s a dangerous refraction of masculine angst. In the form of this villain, we learn to fear physically weak men much more than we fear strong ones—at least with the latter, what you see is what you get.
The difference between and hierarchy of mental and physical power is clearest when the uncontrollable masculine force of the Hulk illustrates Loki's puniness. One of the most-loved parts of the film—at least the one that got the biggest laughs in the two screenings I’ve been to—is after one of Loki’s many harangues about how he’s the cleverest guy ever and how base and beastly the Avengers and humans are. The Hulk responds by grabbing Loki and beating him into the floor several times like a rag doll, after which Hulk utters his only line of dialog: puny god. This declaration comes after Loki’s emasculation is made phallic in jokes about Loki’s “performance issues” with his scepter.
If the Hulk is masculinity’s sheer force harnessed for good, that masculinity violently puts the puny Loki in his place. Of course, it’s not just that Loki is feminized. He’s also queered. He’s the only Avenger who hasn’t been explicitly or implicitly depicted as having a heterosexual relationship—in this film or in one of the other Marvel movies that led to this mash-up. But he also has an accent that is often associated with effete European men, and his dressed-down wardrobe is much more stylish and metrosexual than anything the other Avengers wear, Tony Stark’s tight shirts notwithstanding. But this subtext is made more explicit when Stark wakes up from a death-defying fall worried about whether one of his fellow male Avengers gave him CPR. Or in his words, “Please tell me no one kissed me.” So even fast-talking, beardscaped Stark draws a clear line to distinguish himself from queerness. Loki doesn’t specify any such aversion and is obsessed with his scepter and submission. And that’s on top of his racial otherness—in Thor, Loki is revealed to be an orphaned Frost Giant. So even though he seems like a regular old Aryan demigod, underneath he’s ugly, blue, and up to no good.
Joss Whedon put together another smart, enjoyable film in The Avengers. He’s no feminist novice, which is why it's surprising that the men in this film reinscribe some troubling messages about masculinity and sexuality. The mostly male team and their villain reinforce the notions that the feminine, the queer, and the other are to be feared and quashed and that these traits need to be set up in diametric opposition to the idealized male hero.
Bechdel Test: Fail, I think? I can’t remember.
Overall Grade: B+
Feminist Grade: D
Overall Grade: B+
Feminist Grade: D