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Not Loving La La Land

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La La Land  is the darling of Hollywood right now. It’s received the most Oscar nominations in history, tied with All About Eve and Titanic at 14, and it has good odds of sweeping many of the biggest awards. And as much as I want Lin Manuel Miranda to get his EGOT, even I couldn’t be unhappy with a victory for Audition as Best Song.

So, for the first time in many years, I actually went to see an Oscar-nominated movie. A beloved musical should have been a guaranteed hit for me. But after seeing La La Land, I’m mostly just confused. Yes, Sebastian and Mia’s theme is gorgeous, and I absolutely love Audition, and the colors are amazing, but overall… La La Land is boring. It has a great concept, but the actual execution of the plot felt lacking. It’s as though the movie needed another editing run to bring the characters and their struggles into focus and allow it to meet its potential. As is, it felt like a bunch of musical set-pieces, and not much emotion in between.

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The Forest: Turning Cultural Insensitivity into an Artform

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I think most people know of The Forest for the same reasons I did. It stars Natalie Dormer of Game of Thrones fame, and it sparked controversy because of its use of Aokigahara Forest, a real place near Mount Fuji in Japan where many people commit suicide every year.

As a non-horror movie watcher anyway, it wasn’t even vaguely on my “to watch” radar. But then it showed up on Netflix, and my friend and I couldn’t decide on what to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and Natalie Dormer was there, and, well. You know. I’ll probably watch less than ten movies this year, and now The Forest is one of them.

Here’s the thing: The Forest is horrifically insensitive. Despite the troubling set-up, there are ways that it could have been at least arguably interesting. If it had been a purely psychological thriller, instead of a supernatural one, with well-developed characters, cultural understanding, and a sensitive approach to suicide, this might have been a decent movie. But by making the threat supernatural, The Forest managed to invoke “Japan is creepy and magical” tropes while also exploiting suicides and throwing aside any psychological insight or message for cheap and lazy scares.

The story is that American Sara has come to Japan in search of her missing twin sister, Jess. Jess has been suicidal before, and after a school trip to Aokigahara Forest, she has disappeared. Sara is determined to find her.

Despite Sara’s apparently admirable determination to help her sister, the actual story here is one of a white foreigner who dies because of her cultural insensitivity and her refusal to believe that the people who actually live in an area might know what they’re talking about. That kid is just crazy superstitious. And that woman. And the person who works in the park. And that other person who works in the park. And the people saying don’t leave the path. And the people saying don’t stay in the forest overnight. And, and, and. It’s an ever-escalating story of ‘are you serious, Sara??’ And perhaps there’s something in there, just as there might have been something in Sara’s relationship to Jess, and the subtle implication (or completely accidental message) that Jess doesn’t exist, and this is all a psychological thriller about her a girl who disassociated from her experiences after a traumatic event. You know, something at least a little bit interesting. Hints of potential. You get the feeling that maybe a Japanese movie with a psychological bent may have done something worthwhile here.

But the insensitivity on both a cultural and mental health level is off the charts. There is, of course, the innate insensitivity of taking a place where many, many people have died, and still die, and using it as a setting for a supernatural horror movie. The movie uses suicide as a jumpscare multiple times, and although hanging bodies is staple in horror movies, they carry a slightly different tone when they’re connected to real people who really died recently. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that, when Sara Googles the forest, the movie uses real photographs of the bodies of victims. Real deaths, real pain, to set the scene for cheap horror. That’s the kind of IMDB “fun fact” that would ruin even an otherwise pretty decent movie.

Then, of course, there’s the suggestion that people in the forest only kill themselves because evil spirits trick them into it. Could you have a decent movie where suicidal thoughts are metaphorically represented by dark spirits haunting a person? Sure. But this is not that movie. We’re told, from the very beginning, that the forest wants to kill people. It grabs onto sad people and lures them to death. It’s even strongly suggested that Jess was lured into the forest by the spirits, rather than her actually intending to be suicidal, despite her apparent past. The movie ends with Sara killing herself accidentally, because the ghosts play tricks on her mind and make her think she’s fighting off a demon, when she’s really just cutting herself.

The basic premise of The Forest is pretty unsalvageable, on a sensitivity level, but there are ways it could have been better. If they pushed the psychological angle, if they had explored the effect that Sara’s traumatic childhood experiences had on her more explicitly, if, if if. If the Japanese characters had more than bit parts. If it was a Japanese movie. If it was set somewhere fictional, for god’s sake. If it didn’t treat Japan as a foreign land of magic and creepiness.

If you’re going to tell a story about a difficult subject, do it right. Try to approach it from a place of sensitivity and understanding. The Forest is cultural appropriation and insensitivity of the worst kind, because it does it lazily, callously, throwing a bunch of elements together without the slightest nod towards the idea that any of it has any connection to real life. It’s not that The Forest tried to tell a sensitive story and messed up. It’s that The Forest didn’t care, and never cared.

I knew we should have watched Spiceworlinstead.

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Rogue One’s Moral Ambiguity

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The Star Wars universe has a slight problem with moral complexity. Although it does occasionally hint at stances beyond Good Is Good and Evil Is Bad, like when Lando Calrissian sells out Han and Leia, it mostly makes very clear who is supposed to be a hero, and who is supposed to be a villain.

But the more the Star Wars universe grows, the trickier this stance becomes. When Finn turns against the Empire, he raises questions about the idea that Stormtroopers are mindlessly evil. They’re still treated as generic villains, but once Finn changes sides, we have to wonder about the morality of mass killing brainwashed Stormtroopers who have little choice about what they’re doing. The more detailed the world gets, the more we have to question this idea that the rebels are always the good guys, and anyone mixed up with the Empire is always a villain.

Rogue One is the first movie to really embrace that problem. Again, as general groups, the Empire is Bad and the Alliance is Good, but inside those clearly defined sides, the movie explores the massive grey area of how individuals act, and to what extent the ends justify the means. And it’s the very existence of this grey area that allows the story to explore certain narrative risks and consequences that the main Star Wars movies would be unlikely to touch.

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Rogue One and the Token Protagonist

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First, let’s get this out of the way: I thought Rogue One was a great movie. Well-paced, thrilling, with a story that I think we need right now. I definitely recommend it, if for some reason you haven’t seen it already.

But this blog isn’t just about whether movies are enjoyable, and Rogue One failed on one major issue. Women, apparently, are shockingly rare in a galaxy far, far away.

It feels like it should be impossible. The protagonist, Jyn Erso, is female. People have been complaining about this avalanche of female Star Wars protagonists and the sexism against men included therein for months. Another female protagonist? What, is every person in space a woman now?

But Rogue One suffers from token girl-ism, with the twist that that token girl happens to be the protagonist. I think the film passes the Bechdel test, as I think Jyn talks to both her mother and Mon Mothma, which is an improvement. There are a few women around, at least. But beyond Jyn, they’re all required women. Her mother has to be a woman, and she quickly dies anyway. Mon Mothma is one of the few women in existing canon, so she has to stay, and have a small, if powerful, role. But there’s pretty much no-one else with an even vaguely significant speaking role. Could we have had a female leader of the Death Star project as the main villain, maybe? A female rebel who raised Jyn? A female blind monk, a female pilot, a female other pilot, a female-voiced droid? I left Jyn’s father off this list initially, because I thought perhaps Galen Erso was part of existing canon, but it looks like that’s not the case, so even he could have just as easily been a female character instead. The crew of Rogue One was wonderfully diverse in terms of race, but Jyn was one woman in a crew of six, with very, very few other women scattered across the landscape.

I’m sure people will argue that gender had no effect on the story, whether the characters were male or female, so we shouldn’t force diversity on them. After all, it didn’t really matter whether the defecting Imperial pilot or the Krennic the Death Star planner were men or women. But that’s kind of the point. It didn’t matter. There was no plot or world building reason why they should be men, but they fell to that as the default, even though the result is a world that really needs to worry about its minuscule female population.

It’s pretty frustrating, especially since the movie seemed seriously committed to improving the franchise’s racial diversity. Although I doubt the film’s creators meant it to be political, since they’ve been working on it for years, it feels incredibly political and relevant in the current climate, and that powerful message is slightly undercut by this idea that very few women can be in the revolution. Maybe, instead of simply moving the team’s token woman into the lead role, we could get rid of the concept altogether and have some gender balance instead? It’s not that hard to have women in space, is it? Unless, of course, they were all strangled by their non-expanding bras.

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Moana

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Moana is a difficult movie for me to review. The music is amazing. The animation is stunning. I am beyond in love with this film. But, and I hate to say this, at times, I was also kind of bored while watching it.

Really, I think my feelings on Moana comes down to one question: are people singing? If they are, then I think is one of the most beautiful, heartfelt, engaging, wonderful movies. But if people aren’t singing… ehhh.

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Thoughts on All-Female Remakes

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In case you missed it, there was an all-female remake of Ghostbusters this year.

Not that you did miss it. Nobody missed it. I don’t think there’s ever been such a vitriolic response to a movie before. You’d think the film had been remade as a piece of Nazi propaganda from how fiercely people hated it from the moment it was announced. Making the Ghostbusters into women? Absolutely criminal.

Next on the bandwagon is an all-female Ocean’s Eleven, designed as a companion story/sequel starring Danny Ocean’s sister. Maybe people will be less violently opposed to this one, because it’s not such a childhood movie, and it doesn’t replace the original in the timeline. This one does have a supremely cool-sounding cast, to the point that I might actually go see it, even those it’s not my usual sort of thing.

But as cool as the concept of all-female remakes might be, I’ve never been able to get particularly excited about them. I’m not a Ghostbusters or Ocean’s Eleven fan, so I’m going to imagine that someone planned to remake The Lord of the Rings with an all-female fellowship. The concept would be pretty cool, but I still don’t think I would be able to get genuinely excited about it. Because these “all-female remakes” aren’t badass feminism, even if that’s what their critics say. They’re gimmicks. “Super special edition” versions, like “it’s Sherlock Holmes, but with mice!” “It’s Ghostbusters, but with women!” It’s presented as something different, something a bit weird, something not normal.

On the plus side, this trend does allow girls to watch, for example, a Ghostbusters movie where they’re the heroes. After I’d already written the outline for this post, I stumbled across a Tumblr post that made me rethink this topic a lot, arguing that while adults might talk about, for example, Obama as the “first black president,” children just see him as the president, and that these are the people remakes are really for. Adults might see the Ghostbusters remake as the “female Ghostbusters,” but to a six-year-old, they’re just the Ghostbusters.

And perhaps this is what people are actually worried about when they say remakes are “destroying their childhood.” It’s not their childhood that’s being affected. It’s other people’s childhoods. New childhoods. Kids who won’t get the same all-male Ghostbuster experience that they had, but will instead see women in the roles. Boys, perhaps, who don’t get to see themselves as the new Ghostbusters, the way these people saw themselves in the 80s. That, I think, is what inspires so much vitriol.

But I don’t think they have to worry. Sometimes the reincarnation replaces the original in the public’s consciousness, like Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury or Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica, but in those cases, it’s one more inclusive casting in a context of more traditional choices, and it doesn’t involve the main protagonist. Captain America and Iron Man are still white men. The character change is not the most noteworthy thing about the reboot. But every gender-swapped remake announcement basically confirms that the default is still all-male (or mostly male, one female), and that once you’ve told that story and had it be successful, then you can introduce an all-female story as a gimmicky remake version. The gender swap is the real thing that matters when selling this movie. And sure, they could be cool stories. But I want us to have our own stories too.

Of course, it’s really hard for groups of female characters to avoid that sense of being a “gimmick,” even if they’re in an original story. An all-male fantasy quest is normal, but an all-female fantasy quest would be seen as noteworthy at absolute best, a sign of the domination of women in society and the Fall of Men at worst. But I would love for a story to automatically, naturally have lots of female characters in it. A heist story that’s always about women, not remade to have some women. A superhero story about female superheroes, not male superheroes recast as female ones. There’s something to be said about having female stories from the start and allowing them to become iconic themselves. Like Katniss Everdeen. Like Rey (even though some would argue she is part of a remake).

But of course, it’s hard for these stories to get made, and hard for them to get recognized if they do get made. Star Wars had the benefit of being Star Wars, and The Hunger Games was already a best-selling book series, and even then it was romanced-up in the marketing for the first movie. An all-female remake is a way to get past the “female characters don’t sell” stigma — and even that might be shaky after the vitriolic reaction to Ghostbusters. So I’m not saying they’re a bad thing, or “anti-feminist,” or anything other than “cool but not quite there yet.” I’m still not sure we should heap on the praise for “it’s THIS popular thing, but with women!!” as the epitome of social change. Remakes can be fun. But original female genre stories would be better.

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Captain America: Civil War

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Captain America: Civil War was probably my most anticipated Marvel movie ever.

I mean, that’s not a particularly difficult title to achieve. I only finally saw Guardians of the Galaxy about six months ago, enjoyed Ant Man more than most of their movies, and still haven’t seen the first Captain America, despite watching Agent Carter. But The Winter Soldier was fantastic — when I finally watched it, a year after everyone else — and I couldn’t wait for the clever plotting and high emotional stakes that Civil War promised to provide.

So, does it live up to all that hype and potential? The rest of the world seemed to think so, judging from its score on Rotten Tomatoes, but my response was far more muted. Not “omg best movie ever,” but that solid, “yeah, it was good” feeling you get when you don’t regret seeing a movie, but aren’t exactly going to be thinking about it much once you leave the theatre.

Which is a solid result for a superhero movie, but perhaps not what the movie wanted to be. Unfortunately, Civil War is never quite as philosophically interesting as it aspires to be.

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Bigger Teeth: Jurassic World and Consumerism

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For a fairly mindless big summer blockbuster, Jurassic World gets pretty darn meta.

If the true protagonists of the movie are the dinosaurs, as I talked about last week, then the true villain is consumerism, and how it warps people’s approach to these creatures — wanting them to be bigger, scarier, with “more teeth,” without any thought for the consequences.

Thematically, this is a pretty clever approach. The original Jurassic Park existed in this movie universe, so no-one can be ignorant about what can happen if you make dinosaurs into a theme park. Only blind, greedy consumerism could allow for the creation of another park on the same island, and so that greed is woven into the plot of the movie.

But there is a strange dualism here. The consumerism in the movie reflects the desires of the audience as well — the need to see bigger, more dangerous dinosaurs, the sense that the T-Rex and velociraptors are old, that we want the iconic monsters but something newer and scarier too. And if they can fight each other? All the better. As the movie critiques the consumerism within its world, it feeds into our consumerism, giving us the dinosaurs we want to see, letting them fight, even unleashing that iconic T-Rex while handwaving that it isn’t actually any safer for the cowering guests than the Indomitus Rex was.

And Jurassic World is very aware of this contradiction. It might fail on a feminist measuring scale, but it knows what it’s doing as a big summer blockbuster, fourth in a franchise, trying to comment on consumerism. The movie has a lot of product placement, and it’s not even vaguely subtle, as we see Starbucks and Pandora stores placed prominently in the background of theme park shots. The director claims this was a deliberate plan, and I believe that, as an ironic reminder for the viewer of how commercial this all is. They’re obvious because they’re reminding us that we’re being sold to as well, that we’re guests at the park too, responsible for the”gimme more” attitude that allowed this rampage to happen.

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Woman vs Dinosaur in Jurassic World

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Three questions really stood out to me while I watching Jurassic World for the first time:

  • How did this place ever pass health and safety tests? They have open walkways over velociraptors, for goodness sake.
  • Why isn’t anyone concerned that those killer pteradons escaped the island and are flying to the mainland?
  • Why does the first two-thirds of the movie treat Claire like it treats its villain characters because she doesn’t know how old her nephews are?

The stars of Jurassic World are the dinosaurs. Yeah, training velociraptors is cool, yeah, we want the heroes to live, but when we see the word “Jurassic” in the title, we’re really here to see velociraptors and Tyrannosaurus Rex on the rampage.

And because dinosaurs are the key to the story, it makes sense that the plot itself is also, in part, about respecting, appreciating and fearing dinosaurs. Don’t mess with them, the movie says, or they’ll mess you up. Don’t see them as “assets,” because they’re living creatures too. If you respect them, they might just respect you, or even save you. If you don’t… well. Get ready to join the body count. We think Chris Pratt’s character Owen is cool because he understands velociraptors. We know the villain is villainous from the beginning because he wants to use velociraptors for his own ends. And we know the protagonist Claire needs to change because she doesn’t understand or respect velociraptors at all.

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6 Female-Led Comic Books That Should Totally Become Movies

Comic book movies are big. Even obscure franchises like Guardians of the Galaxy are becoming huge successes, everyone’s talking about Batman v Superman, and Marvel are so sure of their dominance that they’ve announced their movie releases through 2020, and have planned through 2028. There are bound to be loads more comic book adaptations before the fever fades, and people are eager to guess which ones they might be.

But we’re still kind of lacking comic book movies about female protagonists. They crop up in ensemble movies, or as love interests (or both), but they don’t really get to lead the story.

And that doesn’t make sense. Not only has the comic book industry had lots of success with its new wave of female protagonists, from Ms Marvel to the new Thor, but many recent successful genre movies have also had female leads, from The Hunger Games to Star Wars to Mad Max: Fury Road. There’s clearly an audience for these stories. So where are they?

With that in mind, here are the comic books with female leads that I most want to see as movies in the not-too-distant future.

Nimona

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This is a bit of a gimme, since the movie rights have already been optioned (although I can’t find any news of progress on it since last June). But still. Nimona is a fantastic graphic novel/webseries about a fantasy world supervillain, his rival hero (who he’s totally not in love with), and the shapeshifting girl who shows up one day, insisting she needs to be his apprentice. It’s all very hilarious and adorable and tongue in cheek… at least until it gets all emotionally intense instead.

And it would make such a good movie. It’s one cohesive story, with a fairly straightforward main plot but lots of twists and turns too. It’s incredibly fun and genre savvy, has lots of action, lots of humor, and lots of great characters too. Animated or live-action, this would be completely fantastic to watch. Please?

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