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.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

“The Avengers” and Loki’s Suspicious Masculinity

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 who wields a big hammer—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

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Before Title IX Babies, There Were Title IX Moms

My mom playing at the oldest golf course in the world, Scotland's St. Andrews
In case you missed my AAUW Dialog post about how my mom was a Title IX trailblazer for women's golf, check it out. You'll be treated to several amazing 1970s photos.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Black Feminist Filmmaking 20 Years after "Daughters of the Dust"

Over at AAUW Dialog, I revisited one of the most important films in black feminist cinema, Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust, on its 20th anniversary to talk about the movie's revolutionary structure and how far we've come since.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Why Transgender Rights Are Women's Rights

It's not related to film, but in case you missed it, check out my accidental polemic about trans rights on the AAUW blog.

Friday, April 27, 2012

A Spoiler-Laden Feminist Review of “Cabin in the Woods”

If you’ve read anything about Cabin in the Woods, you probably know very little about the film except that it’s supposed to be a genre-bending horror flick, its release has been delayed for two years, it was written by Joss Whedon, it got crazy buzz at SXSW, and it stars a now-famous actor who looks much, much too old to be sporting a letterman jacket. Any further details have been mostly deemed spoilers, though Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum managed to write a smart review without divulging too much.

So if you’re looking for a great review that won’t spoil all the surprises, stick with Schwarzbaum, because to convey how impressive this movie is from a feminist perspective, this review will wrestle with all the gory, gory details of the movie that no one wants to ruin for you.

Cabin in the Woods is a film that not only plays with the conventions of the horror genre, it exposes the falseness of gender stereotypes and lays bare what society is really afraid of—losing socially constructed femininity and masculinity. The film starts by introducing us to a group of professionals in an underground bunker who are preparing for a mysterious event—the atmosphere and security is reminiscent of a government defense contractor. We find out that their mission involves five college students who are on their way to hang out in, yes, the famous cabin.

The group of friends ends up being identified by the contractors as fitting into the typified horror genre gang—the athlete, Curt; the whore, Jules; the scholar, Holden; the joker, Marty; and the virgin, Dana. We soon find out that the contractors are orchestrating a complex ritual to sacrifice the group of unwitting students by letting loose supernatural monsters to kill the group—in a specific order—as an offering to bloodthirsty, ancient gods who, if unappeased, will kill everyone on Earth.

The contractors lure the group to the cabin, heavily monitor their movements, fabricate lethally advantageous environments, and even chemically alter the young adults’ moods with adrenaline and libido-increasing hair dyes and gases. Each of the victims’ statuses as archetypes of the horror genre—and by extension, of society—depends solely on these interventions. We see from the beginning of the film and through the characters’ own disbelieving dialogue that the athlete isn’t an alpha-male; he’s a brave but sensitive sociology major. The whore isn’t a sexed-up Paris Hilton clone; she’s funny, smart, and only blonde because the contractors manipulated her into coloring her hair with chemically laced dye. The scholar is smart, but he’s also handsome and strong. The joker is a pretty hilarious pothead, but he’s also the one that sees through the manipulations and ends up surviving improbably longer than any of the other victims, other than the virgin—who is not, in fact, a virgin.

It might not seem so revolutionary that the five characters don’t live up to the stereotypes that they’re being forced to play. Characters seldom do fit into these types perfectly. But what’s interesting—and downright revolutionary—is that Cabin in the Woods places these stereotypes at the center of the very existence of the world and then lets the world to burn.

After some requisite killings by a zombie family that the contractors let loose on the cabin group, we learn that the victims must not only play the roles of the five types of people—they also have to die in a certain order. And as anyone who has ever seen a horror movie can probably tell you, that rule actually just means that it matters what order the women are killed in—sluts first, prudes last. The men can die somewhere in the middle, and they do. But the climax of the film comes when, against all odds, the joker and the virgin not only escape from the sequestered woods, where they were trapped. The pair also manages to break into the contractors’ compound and unleashes a warehouse full of supernatural monsters that kill the very people who were manipulating the cabin-goers’ fates. After finding their way to a temple where the blood sacrifice is ultimately offered, the contractors’ stern director (Sigourney Weaver) reveals that the only way for the world to be saved is for the joker to die—the virgin can live or die according to the ritual, as long as she’s the last survivor. In the end, the pair decide that, if the world as we know it relies on this kind of sacrifice, maybe the world should just end.

This message makes for a nonconventional horror movie (or any movie) ending, that’s for sure. The last shot of adventure or horror films generally don't signal armageddon. But the sentiment behind the ending is what’s revolutionarily feminist about this film. If, symbolically, society is based on sacrificing the freedom to perform femininity and masculinity in whatever way you choose—if civilization as we know it relies on these stereotypes for its very survival—then it deserves to burn to the ground. There’s nothing morally redeemable in the virgin killing the joker to keep this system intact. They both throw that option out and embrace the end of the world, guessing that maybe it’s time for another species to have a shot at life on Earth.

Cabin in the Woods will likely get feminist criticism for maintaining some of the Mulveyan conventions of classic narrative cinema, especially the let’s-stare-at-the-whore’s-ass shot or the horror-flick staple of tainting sex scenes with violence. The film could have made the same point about film and societal conventions without including these stereotypical ways of simultaneously fetishizing and chopping up women’s bodies onscreen.

But what saves this film from being dismissed as a typically misogynistic, if unique and very funny, horror movie is its statements about the ominous, systematic way that people’s lives are disciplined. In this film, that is represented in the very real way that the contractors trap this group of college students in an environment where they never had a chance to survive. And although the plot begs an obvious question—why not just summarily execute these five in the desired order—the answer seems simple to anyone who has ever read pessimistic early film or Marxist theory. The fact that the victims are offered a choice of which monster to invoke allows the powers that be to blame us for our own demise, forgetting the fact that we were always only ever choosing which way we would die. These particular victims refuse to make the ultimate sacrifice to the society of the spectacle. And they take the system down with them. 

Overall Grade: A-
Feminist Grade: A-

Sunday, January 22, 2012

"The Iron Lady" and Margaret Thatcher's Legacy

Check out my tame, though sincere, take on The Iron Lady on the American Association of University Women's blog.