Ladybrain Feminist Reviews: Because Messages Matter

Monday, August 5, 2013

7 Movies Not to Watch When You’re Pregnant

When your body is at work 24 hours a day creating another human, you’re going through a lot physically and mentally. But regardless of whether you’re spending this moment marveling at your lovely miracle or cursing the bladder-busting fetus, you’ll probably want to avoid movies that remind you that all this work and anticipation could be for naught. Go ahead and avoid these for the next few months (spoilers ahead).

 1.  Junebug (2005)
This delightful film follows two posh newlyweds on a visit to see the husband’s rural, North Carolina family. It features the most beautiful gospel singing you’ve ever heard and an adorable Amy Adams as the pregnant sister-in-law. She’ll break your heart when she says three words I hope none of us ever have to say: “He was blue.”

2. The Other Woman (2009)
Since this Natalie Portman drama is on Netflix Instant, I had a close call with this one recently. Thank goodness I thought to watch the trailer beforehand. Apparently the main conflict is Portman’s character getting over the death of her infant. Avoid!

3. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
I don’t know for sure. I refuse to even watch the trailer. But it’s something about being pregnant with Satan's baby. You’re already having more vivid dreams. Might as well not get any more fucked-up fodder.

4. The Omen (1976)
Again, anything involving Beelzebub and your baby—just give all of that a wide berth (!!). No need for you to be worried about your baby getting switched at birth with the anti-Christ spawn of the Devil and a jackal. And then killing you when you figure it out.

5. Trainspotting (1996)
You probably don’t plan to take up heroin and let your baby die of neglect, but might as well not be exposed to the vision of the bloated baby corpse that skinny Ewan McGregor hallucinates is crawling on the ceiling when he’s detoxing.

6. We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011)
Do you ever worry that, instead of being a better version of you or Michael Phelps, your kid will be a rapist or murderer or libertarian? Well, here’s a movie that will make you worry that you’ll never bond with your child and he’ll become a soulless human who carriers out a Columbine-like massacre. I’ve never seen this, and I probably never will. The book plunged my partner into such a funk that we now look back on the few weeks it took him to finish it as one of the worst rough patches in our relationship.

7. Game of Thrones season three (2013)
It’s better than most movies, OK? You know I’m right. But please, don’t endure Joffrey’s deeper explorations of moral depravity and then get to the episode with the Red Wedding. You just really aren’t in the frame of mind to watch a pregnant woman be fatally, repeatedly stabbed in the belly. Or actually, there’s a bad birth thing in the first season too. Maybe don’t start watching this show right now. You might end up with a baby named Tyrion or Khaleesi.

I hope, for your sake, that you took my word on it and just glanced at the titles here. Now mamas, go wash your brain out with Singin’ in the Rain and Pitch Perfect.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Catching Up with the Trailers: “She’s Having a Baby”

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

"Zero Dark Thirty" and Hollywood Heroines

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

Catching Up with the Trailers: “The Cotton Club”

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, Diane 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.

1. The main love story is something you couldn’t possibly care less about. Like I said, basically every scene that develops the story is in the trailer, and then by the time they do get together, you’re still wondering why. They are both kind of terrible.
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):

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.
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.
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

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

“God Bless America,” the Most Heavy-Handed Film You’ll Ever (Hopefully Not) See

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.