Friday, February 26, 2010

If a dude team did this, think it would be a big deal?

The Canadian women's hockey team won Olympic Gold! They're pumped about it!

They celebrated by drinking some beer and champagne and smoking some cigars on the ice, after the stadium emptied. Some people are freaking out and writing newspaper stories about it. The AP wrote a story about it, and, I think, brought it to the attention of the IOC, who are "looking into the matter."

Also, there's some femininity-policing in there. They were "guzzling" beer, and doing TOTES GAY things like pouring champagne in to each other's mouths.

My contention is that if a men's team did this: no story. Or a "boys will be boys, they earned their celebration, look how happy they are..." type story. Dudes acting "like dudes"? A-OK. Women acting "like dudes"? Fucking shameful. I mean, it's bad enough that they play hockey, amirite?

I must say, though. There was one kind of funny moment in the story, which was this:

"Steve Keough, a spokesman for the Canadian Olympic Committee, said the COC had not provided the alcohol nor initiated the party.

"In terms of the actual celebration, it's not exactly something uncommon in Canada," he said.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

An Education: A Ladybrain Review

What's better: Galavanting around posh London and Paris or studying Jane Eyre in preparation for college?

This is the awfully complicated dilemma that protagonist Jenny Miller (Carey Mulligan) faces in An Education. In suburban London in 1961, old soul Jenny is a shoo-in at Oxford if she keeps up her studies at their current clip. But who should arrive to distract her but the older University of Life graduate David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard). He minored in being a totally amoral.

And although David's revelry and riches charm both Jenny and her parents, Jenny does see hints of the darker side of his facade, but still ends up making choices that should frustrate 21st century women who have any inkling of what financial and educational independence can mean for women.

Critics have been abuzz about An Education since its debut at Sundance last year, especially regarding the work of two women: director Lone Sherfig and star Mulligan, and rightly so. The look and feel of the film is magnetically retro, and the camera work gracefully augments Jenny's whirlwind emotions, swept off her feet in a beautiful Paris montage one minute and wallowing in a dark, crushing reality the next.

Mulligan's work has garnered overwhelming praise, culminating in her Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Mulligan is undeniably charming, vulnerable and tenacious, a solid lead in a solid role. Her co-star Rosamund Pike, though, deserves equal praise for her role as a spacy but well-meaning friend of David's, a perfectly played foil for witty Jenny. A supporting cast including Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams and Alfred Molina round out the film with solid and earnest performances as people who want what's best for Jenny, although they disagree on what is best.

The only dud in the cast is Sarsgaard, who inexplicably manages to be stunningly handsome and also thoroughly revolting. Something about his con-man smile is so unnerving, but in that way he's terrifically well cast as Jenny's older beau. The problem? His laughable English accent alternates between distracting and ridiculous. It seriously begs the question: If Sarsgaard was completely irreplaceable in this part, why not just write him in as an American and save audiences the grief of a truly Natalie Portman-level bad accent.

Although the film as a whole was a little underwhelming, given all the hype, and although the plot will seem mighty familiar to anyone who has seen Up in the Air (substitute a young girl coming of age for a middle-aged man in a mid-life crisis), it's a very sharp-looking, mostly wonderfully performed film. And from a feminist standpoint, it's very satisfying. A talented young woman redeems herself with the help of another talented, educated woman. What's not to appreciate about that? Sure, it's frustrating that Jenny makes some fleeting decisions earlier on, but we 21st century ladybrains must realize that 2010 and 1961 are worlds away, and thank goodness for that.

Feminist grade: A

It passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, features several strong women characters and a female protagonist, was directed by a woman and is based on a memoir by Lynn Barber.

Moviegoer grade: B-

A solid film that might not live up to the hype.

Monday, February 22, 2010

District 9: A Ladybrain Review

In the months before District 9 was released, movie-goers puzzled over signs indicating certain restrooms and theaters were restricted to human use only. This sort of grassroots publicity earned attention that turned into feverish word of mouth once the film was released late last summer amid solid box office performance and overwhelmingly positive reviews.

District 9 enjoyed such success because it is unlike any film audiences have ever seen. Although it made headlines for Peter Jackson's involvement in the special effects, this film stands on its own, as a commentary on apartheid and a damn good story.

Born from Neil Bloomkamp's short film Alive in Joburg, District 9 takes us back to 1982 Johannesburg, South Africa, where an alien ship hovers over the city, unable to move, presumably because of a part that went missing when they arrived on Earth. After offloading the sick and leaderless aliens--who look like large, creepy grasshoppers--the government hires a private military organization, Multinational United or MNU, to manage the refugees into camps, which quickly become slums.

As South Africa's human residents become more disgusted and afraid of the aliens, which they derogatorily call "prawns," they begin the process of a forced evacuation to move the residents of District 9 farther away from the humans, to District 10. Enter Wikus van der Mewe, a bumbling MNU employee who is in charge of serving the aliens their eviction notices. His venture into District 9 reveals the horrific conditions in which the aliens live, and how cruelly and violently they are treated by the MNU. Wikus, upon entering an alien's home, accidentally finds and sprays an alien fluid in his face, which causes a chain reaction that forces Wikus to empathize with and help the aliens that the humans so despise.

To tell this gritty story, Bloomkamp expertly melds documentary-style camerawork with alien and spaceship special effects, creating a much more realistic and gritty look than anything Avatar could have hoped to accomplish. After seeing Avatar, you would never turn a corner and expect to see a big blue Na'vi, but District 9 makes you forget that these creatures don't actually exist on Earth.

Adding to this on-the-ground style is the excellent, but relatively unknown, South African cast, whose performances within the narrative are edited in with documentary-style interviews with historians, experts and MNU employees, all telling the story of this alternate-history looking back at the events, evidence and rumors.

Some will compare this film to Avatar not just because of special effects and aliens, but also as an example of a white savior theme, but this ladybrain disagrees. The first difference between a film like Avatar (which, in turn, shares themes with countless other native-white-savior-stories) and District 9 is, first, that the aliens aren't the native peoples in this narrative, they're very literally alien on Earth, and they crashed our party, so to speak. But the aliens do represent black South Africans, and in that respect they do take the role of the native people of South Africa, standing up against the white Europeans who colonized the country. And although Wikus does play a white savior role to the aliens, as Annalee Newitz points out, it's not out of the goodness of his heart. He has a selfish reason. In that way, he's much more of an anti-hero than Avatar's Sully and the like.

And in the end, the alien dubbed Christopher Johnson and his son play just as much a role as saviors as Wikus, moreso if the saved are the aliens. And although Wikus does save Johnson from the MNU, ultimately his fellow aliens then save Wikus from a particularly nasty MNU mercenary. In many ways, they are their own saviors, since Wikus' arrival in District 9 created the problem of the missing powerful fluid, which Wikus then had to fix. If you take Wikus out of the equation, the aliens wouldn't have needed saving at all. Thus, he's they're homme fatale (French for man, yes?) in one sense and their rectifier in another.

The only completely indefensible race issue in District 9, though, is the matter of the bizarre, vicious gang that lives among the aliens, identified as Nigerians. Identifying these evil-doers as specifically Nigerian especially given the considerable geographic distance between South Africa and Nigeria, made this ladybrain wonder if there were racial conflicts between the two countries that most Americans weren't aware of. Rightly so, Nigerians were offended by the depiction and attempted to ban the film (not rightly so, according to this ladybrain's standards regarding censorship).

The bottom line: This is a really cool film, with a lot of historical allusions, interesting themes, action and heart. It's films like this that benefit most from the expanded number of Best Picture nominees, and it wouldn't dissapoint this ladybrain one bit if it took home the big honor.

Feminist grade: C

It fails the Bechdel test and features only one significant female character, Wikus' wife Tania, although the featured experts that are shown in interview format are a mix of men and women. But we give District 9 a C because it was co-written by a woman, Terri Tatchell, who along with Bloomkamp were nominated for Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

Moviegoer grade: A

Hands down, one of the best films of the year. Netflix it immediately.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Blind Side: A Ladybrain Review

Movies that don't open in the number one box office slot rarely jump to number one later. --The Blind Side was a sleeper hit, jumping to number one after three weeks against films like Twilight-sequel New Moon. The film's success was especially surprising since it was so fraught with early production woes--reportedly, when Julia Roberts turned down the starring role, Fox wanted to re-write the screenplay as a father-son film. Fox seemingly had no faith in the draw of a film about a white woman and a black teenager, but it clearly resonated with audiences, and garnered two Oscar nominations--Best Picture, and Best Actress for Sandra Bullock's role as a sassy Southerner.

The Blind Side tells the true story of wealthy, white woman Leigh Anne Tuohy (Bullock), who adopts and advocates for a homeless, African-American teenager who attends school with her two children. Admitted to a private Christian school for his athletic potential, Michael Oher (Quintin Aaron) was a stranger and a pariah among his rich, white peers. After years of turnover in the foster care system, Oher catches Tuohy's attention when he walks out of a school event without a coat in freezing temperatures. After agressively asking Oher for information about just how messed up his life is--a mom he can't locate, no home, no weather-appropriate clothing--Tuohy takes it upon herself to house, feed, clothe and eventually adopt Oher. She does this gradually, at first offering up simply a place to sleep and a Thanksgiving meal, working up to getting Oher proper legal papers and a driver's license, before asking Oher how he would feel about making the Tuohys his official, legal guardians.

In the end (and this should be no secret if you have any sense of what a strategically-placed Rob Thomas song means in a trailer) the Tuohys, especially Leigh Anne, change Oher's life by giving him a social and economic leg-up, allowing him to then pursue football (in real life, Oher earned a football scholarship at Ole Miss and now plays for the Baltimore Ravens).

For a based-on-a-true-story sports movie, The Blind Side is surprisingly well-crafted, and the details make all the difference. The film was lucky to have the star-power, humor and talent of Bullock, who is likeable and sincere in her role. She carries the film, especially considering the dearth of speaking lines and very understated performance of her foil and costar Aaron, who comes across as very much a secondary character. In some ways, even though the film is "about" Oher and his unlikely success story, Leigh Anne is the star, to the extent that some have criticized Oher's depiction as little more than a cataylst to showcase one white woman's greatness. It would have been nice for Aaron's character to showcase more personality and less brute strength, but the existing dynamic could be partially a result of Bullock steamrolling everyone else with her acting chops.

Aside from Bullock, there are a few other stand-out performance in the film. Cathy Bates is great, as always, as Oher's tutor, and the supporting roles of the Tuohy kids and Leigh Anne's husband, Sean, are mostly very endearing. The best of the supporting roles, though, is that of Adriane Lenox as Oher's drug-addicted mother. One scene showing Oher's mother and Tuohy talking about motherhood, poverty and addiction is particularly well-executed. Scenes like this set The Blind Side apart from the made-for-TV world to which most true-story films are relegated. The scene showcased considerable writing and acting talent, and injected unexpected sympathy for Oher's mother, rather than judgement about her addiction.

Similarly, a scene where Oher runs across his brother busing a table at a restaurant where Oher just dined with the Tuohys, the realities and effects of poverty are really driven home. This world that Oher is from is one of crime and instability, which in the real-world go hand in hand with poverty and racism. But in the movie world of The Blind Side, the audience doesn't see the reasons why a predominantly black Memphis project would be overrun with crime, drugs and violence. Out here in reality, it's important to realize how racism enters into the poverty equation. And if it's important in reality, it's important in depictions of reality, so audiences should be proactive and pay attention to the racial messages in films like this.

Some have noted more insidious race issues in this film, and rightly so. The film did, at least in passing reference, address the segregated lifestyle the Tuohys had let until they met Oher. It also doesn't ignore the disturbing, racist sexual assumptions implying that young, white women have to be afraid of young black men, whether the implication is one of rape or just "getting in trouble," by getting pregnant. Either way, there's a a feeling of predator and prey in that canard. Several of the Tuohys white friends bring up "the issue" and Leigh Anne has a candid talk with her teenage daughter Collins about it, in which Collins proves herself to be gracious, kind and loving toward her adopted brother, despite the malice of her classmates and her parents' peers.

So, leaving further race analyses to our better-informed peers, let's get down to the feminist nitty-gritty, starting with strong female characters.

Of the supporting roles, there are a few great ones. Cathy Bates is funny and smart as Miss Sue, the tutor who helps boost Oher's grades so he can qualify for NCAAA scholarships. Kim Dickens is great as Mrs. Boswell, a teacher who advocates for Oher among his school's impatient faculty. And Lily Collins, as Leigh Anne's daughter, is a well-placed role for a teenager who has a lot to lose socially, but casts off the shackles of her catty peers to be a good friend, sister and daughter.

On the negative side, the only black, female characters are both somewhat troublesome ones. Although Oher's mother is treated more sensitively than other films might have treated her, she's still a character the audience doesn't fully understand. She's a mother biologically, but she has failed Oher with her addiction and neglect since he was a young child. She apparently lives in the projects that Oher frequented, but hasn't noticed his absence and willingly relinquishes her legal rights to Tuohy. Meanwhile, she also neglects a number of other children and lives alone and in squalor.

The other black, female character is that of an interrogating, somewhat manipulative NCAA official who accuses Oher and the Tuohys of violating NCAA rules by favoring Ole Miss, the Tuohys' alma mater, in Oher's whirlwind football recruitment. She insinuates to Oher that the Tuohys only adopted him to benefit the Ole Miss franchise, and fears that his precedent will lead to more white families adopting large, black youths to do the same. It was interesting that the NCAA character--one that seemingly can pull the plug on Oher's scholarship--was cast as a black woman. Maybe the real official was a black woman--that would be telling to find out. Thus, in this scenerio, a white woman gave him everything he has, and a black woman is trying to take it away. In the end, Oher convinces the NCAA official that he favors Ole Miss because that's where his family went to school, and she doesn't stand in the way.

And obviously, we should end with the big-hitter. Despite the real-life Cinderella story of Oher, the starring role in this film is that of a woman, Leigh Anne. She's mouthy, beautiful, aggressive and maternal. Although she doesn't seem to work much, she is an interior designer, although she's married to a wealthy fast-food franchise owner. She is charitable and smart, and not terribly domestic--her house is so large, she probably employs a housekeeper to clean (though admittedly, that's probably an underpaid woman who isn't white), and her husband jokes to the kids to thank their mom for picking up Thanksgiving dinner to-go. She's knowledgeable about sports, she carries a gun in her purse, and she stands up to gang members, teachers, coaches and scariest of all--cranky government records employees. She sees a kid in need, and she helps him. She is a a white savior to a black kid, I'm not denying that theme and how much it is overplayed in white-guilt-assuaging films. But one thing is undeniable about this story--Leigh Anne Tuohy changed someone's life forever, and it's something that most of us don't have the balls to do.

Feminist grade: B

For all its racial issues, of which bloggers on Ladybrain don't pretend to be experts, this is a film anchored on the character of a strong woman. In feminist analysis, that can't be ignored, just like its race issues can't be ignored.

Moviegoer grade : B

It's lively, sometimes funny, often touching and inspirational. And most people say that like it's a bad thing.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Avatar: A Ladybrain Review

It’s Oscar season, and what we lady enthusiasts are most concerned about are how women—fictional and actual—are represented among the most-honored films of the year.

Thus begins the first of 10 ladybrained reviews of the Best Picture nominees for the 2010 Academy Awards.

In the months since seeing Avatar, its unholy success has brought one phrase to mind: irrational exuberance.

What you’ve heard about the story is true. Avatar is a poorly written, predictable rehashing of typical narratives about white men adopting the ways of Native Americans. More well-informed bloggers have written about the film's racist messaging, which makes for interesting (and infuriating) reading. There's plenty to say. Ah, but if one brings up the film’s considerable weaknesses, it’s a near-certainty that someone will then bring up visuals.

That no one can talk about this movie without mentioning the special effects is telling. There’s a reason that six out of nine of the film’s Oscar nominations are in the technical categories. The reason that Avatar earned zero acting or writing nods is that the acting and writing sucks.

Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a parapalegic former (U.S.?) marine who takes an experimental job on planet Pandora, replacing his dead brother. Turns out, the experimental program involves virtual-reality-type living through spare bodies called avatars. The avatars are modeled after a native species of Pandora, the Na’vi, tall humanoid-types who have cat-like faces, blue bodies, dreads and tails that can connect to animals and plants. Wheelchair-bound Sully likes hanging out in his avatar because it allows him use of legs again. But meeting the intriguing Na’vi woman Neytiri doesn’t hurt either. After Sully’s avatar stumbles upon the Na’vi and discovers that their nature goddess Eywa has taken a liking to him, the Pandora security force (think Blackwater with an even worse track record) assigns Sully to ingratiate himself with the Na’vi, halfheartedly hoping for a diplomatic solution to pillaging Pandora for the valuable metal that rests underneath the Na’vi’s sacred forest. The metal’s name? Unobtanium. My partner assures me that was some intentional geek joke, but alas, I’m not in on the knee-slapping.

And wouldn’t ya know? John Smith, I mean, John J. Dunbar, I mean Lewis Gates, I mean Sully proves himself a real native-natural. He learns that the Na’vi brand of environmentalism is something to respect. He falls in love with Neytiri. When the Blackwater-esque force inevitably gives up on diplomacy and charges Pandora with tanks and bombs, Neytiri realizes that Sully has known about the pillaging all along and gets pissed. Sully redeems himself by fighting “the man” (Ironman?) and a very large, freaky pterodactyl. The forest and the environmentalists rule the day, and Sully becomes a real boy! I mean, a real native!

This is a long movie (150 minutes) featuring a lead actor who would much better serve an Old Spice commercial. It was unclear whether he was supposed to be an American marine, because hints of an Australian accent peppered the first half of the movie, and then completely took over the second half.

Sigourney Weaver is good as scientist Grace Augustine, but her character, as-written, doesn’t give her much to work with in terms of depth or dialogue. Zoe Saldana is also passable as Neytiri, and villains Giovanni Ribisi and Stephen Lang, as Metal Developer Dude and Bloodthirsty Species-ist Ironman Blackwater Guy are somewhere on the scale from “meh” to “shrug.” But to be fair, Lang’s bicep veins and flat-top pulled out amazing performances.

And make no mistake, as decidedly un-dynamic as any of these performances are, you know who the good guys and bad guys are, because the good characters are white as snow, and the bad guys are unredeemable devils. Don’t look for layers of meaning in a James Cameron script, people. These characters have one, and only one dimension. There’s good and there’s bad, and no in-between. I said there’s no in between! The bad guys always lose and the good guys win. What’s that you say? Ted Kennedy drowned a woman but also did a lot of good as a politician? La la la la I can’t hear you!

Before I deign to mention the inevitable, let’s analyze the strong women characters in Avatar. Weaver’s Grace Augustine is a brilliant scientist who is passionate about the Na’vi, but she can also be culturally condescending. And although she is working for a peaceful plundering of Na’vi resources, she works for the plunderers all the same.

Within the Na’vi social structure itself, females seem to have a respected place. The tribe is ruled by a male and female partnering—the male is the political figurehead while the female is the spiritual leader, similar to the gynarchies we know historically existed in some Native American tribes pre-colonialization, and in other parts of the world. The spiritual world within the Na’vi culture is just as important, if not more important, than the political side—at one point the spiritual leader overrules concerns about Sully because she and Neytiri see that the nature goddess Eywa favors him. And when Eywa speaks, the Na’vi listen. The tribe, and the species as a whole, worship the Eywa and, as an extension of her, they respect all life on their planet (call off the geek hounds, I know it’s technically a moon).

The leading lady, Na’vi Neytiri, is very strong, smart and compassionate. She saves Sully’s life from some sort of hell-hound at the beginning, and from Blackwater Villain Guy at the end. In between, she teaches him how to connect his avatar tail to animals and plants, how to hunt and even how to frolic. The Na’vi women in general seem to have the same expectations and rites of passage as the males, including hunting and animal-riding. When Sully and Neytiri finally consummate their months-long flirtation, her betrothed is upset that she’s with someone else, but there isn’t really the same sense of being sexually deflowered or ruined like a ladybrain might expect, since that theme is rampant in other such love triangle scenarios.

You see that? I found something to talk about besides the visuals of Avatar, which frankly, although different from other humanoid alien worlds, still looked like a video game. Let’s just end there, and hopefully make this the only review in the history of Avatar that kept the visuals-talk to one sentence or less.

Feminist Grade: B

Although this is white-dude written and directed, the female characters are strong, mostly positive ones.

Moviegoer Grade: D +

"I see you. You're overrated."

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Women Make Strides in 2010 Oscar Nominations

All of we feminazis are abuzz since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the 2010 Oscar nominations. Why were we so pumped?

Two of the 10 nominees for Best Picture are directed by women (The Hurt Locker, An Education), one is co-written by a woman (District 9), and three of the films are about women (Precious, An Education, The Blind Side). There are other noteable breakthroughs—one of the films about women is about an African-American woman, and one of the Best Picture nominees was directed by a gay, African-American man. Both this man, Lee Daniels, and The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow are also up for Directing Oscars, and either one would be a huge upset for a long, long tradition of white dude self-congratulation for such masterpieces as Titanic and Crash. I so wish there was a font that indicated eye-rolling. Adding Avatar to the cadre of Best Picture winners, by the way, would force my eyes to roll entirely out of my skull, in addition to making me want to burn things.

But I have no reason to start lighting fires yet, since the awards ceremony isn’t until March 7. All told, the first year of doubling the number of Best Picture nominees to 10 has allowed for a better, more diverse pool of nominees than usual, and this pleases me as a cinephile and as a feminist.

But as you surely know, the feminist value of these most-revered films of the year doesn’t start and end with female leads and directors. Thus, in the coming weeks, I’ll be posting feminist reviews of all of the Best Picture nominees. That means I have a little homework to do, having not yet seen Precious or A Serious Man.

The Best Picture nominees are:


The Blind Side

District 9

An Education

The Hurt Locker

Inglourious Basterds

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Saphhire


Up in the Air

A Serious Man

The other awards nominees can be found here.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Sexbot. This gave me the JIBBLIES

So someone invented a talking sex robot. I'll be taking wagers as to which sex/gender the sex robot is designed to imitate. It's pretty much a coin flip, right?


Yes, geniuses, you guessed it. It's designed to look like a lady. A thin white lady with big lips, painted on makeup, fake boobs and sex organs, a computer with voice recognition software and ... I don't know. Not much else. Here were a few choice quotes:

"She even comes loaded with five distinct "personalities," from Frigid Farrah to Wild Wendy, that can be programmed to suit customers' preferences."

Fantastic, I was hoping that there would be a product that would oversimplify the inner lives of women and re-package them into a few titillating varieties.

"'There's a tremendous need for this kind of product,' said Hines, a computer scientist and former Bell Labs engineer."

Oh yeah, there's a tremendous need for this, alright... Because, I mean, so few women these days properly play their role of acquiescent sperm receptacle. You'd think a few of us might have realized we're fully human, or something.

This next one was my favorite:

"She doesn't vacuum or cook, but she does almost everything else"

OMG HAHAHAHA. Get it? Women are supposed to vacuum and cook! And that, on top of the services she DOES perform (sperm receptacle, remember?) is "everything!" Hey ladies! Are you vacuuming, cooking or being filled with sperm right now? No? Well, get to it, because that's everything, for you. The entire scope of your world. Fucking precious.

OK, now I have a few questions for CNN. WHY THE FUCK IS THIS NEWS? Why is CNN talking about a product that commodifies women and their sexuality and sends the message that women aren't quite whole humans? Because it's a little niftier than all of the other ones?