Tag Archives: 2017 movies

Movie Review – King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

As a longtime lover of all things Arthurian for whom Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels used to be a favorite movie, there was no way that I wasn’t going to go see this glorious mess at the first opportunity. If you’re like me, and the trailer for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword filled you with unironically joyful anticipation for this film, you will probably love the finished product, which is basically the trailer, but two hours long and on an enormous screen in a dark room. It’s all giant magic war elephants, fast-talking heist-planning, aggressively ugly action scenes, and hilariously confused imagery. I don’t think I stopped smiling from the first frame to the last, though I also lost count of the number of times I gleefully whispered, “What the fuck?” to myself. I adore this movie.

To the degree that King Arthur deserves serious analysis, it’s not as bad as you might expect. Like all of Guy Ritchie’s oeuvre that I’ve seen (which admittedly isn’t all, as I’m by no means a great fan of his), this movie is heavily focused on exploring the filmmaker’s seemingly complicated feelings about class and masculinity. What’s interesting about King Arthur, however, as opposed to Ritchie’s early work, is the presence of women and the way that the film’s masculine identities are constructed around the characters’ interactions with women. Whereas movies like Snatch and Lock, Stock didn’t feature any women at all, being entirely concerned with men and their homosocial interactions as a microcosm within which to explore broader (if only slightly) social issues, women figure prominently in King Arthur and in a variety of roles.

It’s not that the women of King Arthur are particularly interesting on their own—indeed, only the Mage and Maggie get any appreciable speaking time—the way they exist in the narrative and what they mean to the male characters is kind of fascinating.

Arthur’s mother could almost be considered a classic case of fridging, but the truth is that the deaths of Arthur’s parents occur at the same time in a scene that, visually, recalls the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents several iterations of the Batman origin story as much as anything else. And make no mistake about it, this King Arthur is a super hero, which is an obvious and natural modern interpretation of the source material that ought to be accepted in order to best understand and enjoy this version of the story. While it’s primarily Arthur’s father, Uther, whose death Arthur must come to terms with to learn how to control the power of Excalibur, the trauma of his mother’s death is revisited numerous times throughout the movie as well, and she’s not forgotten or ignored even if she isn’t especially important.

While King Arthur has commonly been interpreted as a Christ figure, our earliest significant image of this Arthur is his being pulled out of the river like Moses when he’s found floating on the Thames by some prostitutes, who then raise the boy in their brothel in Londinium. These women (with a single, sadly fridged exception, Lucy) remain unnamed, and while the adult Arthur seems to respect and care for them—even working as a sort of bouncer for the brothel and taking actions to keep the women safe and avenge wrongs against them—the montage of Arthur’s childhood suggests that he was largely left to run wild, growing up on the streets with a couple of similar-age male friends and being taught how to fight by some of the adult men in their neighborhood community. It’s a kind of bizarre case of trying to have one’s cake and eat it, too; we’re meant to understand these women as important to Arthur, to understand Arthur as a man who likes and cares about women (and, to be fair, Arthur in the movie is unfailingly polite, gentle and respectful of the women he interacts with), but we’re also meant to understand Arthur as having practically raised himself. He’s a fantasy of a very literally self-made man, pulling himself up by his bootstraps through hard work, cleverness and a charm I would normally describe as “rakish” if it wasn’t so weirdly sexless (not that he’s lacking sex appeal, however).

Many critics have pointed out that the mythology of the movie, just in general, has little to do with classic Arthuriana, and one of the more interesting departures from the source material is to eschew Merlin almost entirely. He’s mentioned, almost as if the writers wanted to make sure the audience knew that they had read some King Arthur stuff, but Arthur’s magical mentor here is instead a woman who works for Merlin. The Mage is never given a proper name, and this interestingly works well to prevent the audience from projecting expectations on her. I spent the whole movie thinking she would eventually be revealed as Morgana or Nimue or maybe even Guinevere, but she never was, and it’s kind of amazing. Though the Mage doesn’t get much of a character arc of her own (the film is pretty strictly from Arthur’s point of view), the decision to avoid naming her as any of the classic Arthurian women lets us interpret her without any of the centuries of baggage those names carry, allowing the Mage to exist as a wholly original character. Surprisingly, she never becomes a love interest for Arthur—is not, in fact, sexualized at all—and while she is at one point captured by Vortigern she’s also never portrayed as a damsel in distress. Instead, Arthur is able to simply negotiate for her release in exchange for himself, and she’s returned unharmed and ready to help him in his final battle against Vortigern. We never actually see her trapped or suffering or powerless on screen, and though she doesn’t save herself from this situation, it’s a minor beat in the larger story and her capture and release is never given enough emotional weight to conform to the usual damsel in distress pattern. All in all, it’s a neat way of averting an all-too-common (and frankly boring) sexist trope.

Maggie is a woman working in Vortigern’s household, and while it’s not entirely clear what her job is—Cook? Maid? Concubine? Vortigern sarcastically calls her a representative of the people, but then he also has her escorting him when he travels, so who knows?—her importance in the story is as a spy for the resistance against Vortigern. Maggie is competent, brave and loyal to the cause. Oddly, though, she never actually interacts directly with Arthur. Instead, she reports on her spying to Bedivere, and her most memorable interactions are with Vortigern when he realizes (somehow) that she’s a spy. What’s interesting about Maggie is that she doesn’t die tragically once her duplicity is found out, but lives right on to the end of the movie, where it’s visually hinted at that she is paired off with Bedivere.

If Arthur is meant to be understood as a man who values and respects women, even as he avoids romantic entanglements, Vortigern is the opposite. One of Vortigern’s first actions in the movie is to sacrifice his wife to gain magic powers so he can defeat his brother, Uther. One of his last actions is to sacrifice his daughter to the same evil-seeming creature (which, incidentally, is three women and a bunch of slimy tentacles) in exchange for yet more power in his futile quest to possess Excalibur. This is by no means a feminist film, and it may be the most generous interpretation of it, but it’s easy to read Vortigern’s willingness to destroy women—even those he claims to love—as a key to his downfall and Arthur’s respect for women as a key to his success.

Ultimately, though, this is a movie about masculinity. Arthur’s coming of age and acceding the throne is tied directly to his ability to control Excalibur, a sword (this sword, even) being a classic phallic symbol. Vortigern’s power is represented in an enormous tower, even more aggressively phallic than Arthur’s sword—especially when we consider that Arthur treats Excalibur casually (e.g. letting it drag on the ground, allowing it to be passed around and carried by his various friends, easily lending it to Bedivere so that Bedivere can knight Arthur’s friends) and with some ambivalence of feeling (there’s a whole sequence where he tries to throw the sword away and the Lady of the Lake has to convince him to take it back), while Vortigern’s tower is jealously guarded and vigorously defended. It feels as if this wants to be a rejection of toxic masculinity—represented by Vortigern and his armies—in favor of a more sociable, constructive masculinity as represented by Arthur, with much of the meaning conveyed through their respective interactions with women, but it’s honestly a mixed bag. There’s a lot to analyze, but for a movie that’s not actually about women at all, there are so many female characters that it’s genuinely hard to make heads or tails of what the filmmakers are trying to say about them.

Miscellany:

  • Charlie Hunnam wears far too many shirts in this movie. Yeah, there’s a nice scene where he wakes up and pulls his shirt off and we get to feast our eyes upon his gorgeous back muscles, but even that was too short. Know your audience, Guy Ritchie.
  • Someone ought to write more about the bizarre use of religious and pagan imagery in this movie. It’s downright bananas, and it doesn’t even stick to just classic Arthurian retelling stuff like trying to visually represent the conflict between Roman-influenced Christianity and the indigenous religions of Britain.
  • In an age where the artfully gritty gore of Game of Thrones and the surreal stylized hyper-violence of American Gods are the fashion, this movie’s violence feels almost old-fashioned. There’s a high body count in King Arthur, but there’s very little blood and no guts to speak of. Also notably absent is the sexualized violence against women that is so endemic in Game of Thrones. When Lucy is abused by the Vikings early in the film it’s left deliberately vague what has happened to her, her injuries are painful-looking but relatively minor, and (most importantly) we’re not shown any of that violence at all—much less shown it in the gleefully gratuitous torture-porny manner that Game of Thrones has popularized. The violence of King Arthur is largely sanitized comic book-style violence, and that’s a good thing.
  • Jude Law is an absolutely perfect scenery-chewing villain.
  • I genuinely hope that a miracle happens and this movie is financially successful enough for it to continue as a franchise. I would gladly watch a dozen more just like it.

Assorted thoughts on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

In 1991, I turned nine, and I was just starting to change from being a little girl who loved books about horses to being a little girl who loved books about dragons and wizards and spaceships. I fancied myself something of a tomboy still in 1991, but this was well before “princess culture” became ubiquitous enough for liking a Disney princess movie to be mutually exclusive with tomboyishness. Before Beauty and the Beast, my favorite Disney movies were Sleeping Beauty (because it had a great horse and a badass dragon) and Robin Hood (because I had a raging crush on that cartoon fox, natch). Beauty and the Beast had a horse and a Beast (which isn’t that much different from a fox, right?) and it had Belle, who was nothing like any of the princesses before her. I mean, she was white and conventionally pretty, obviously, but she didn’t spend any portion of her movie asleep, and she didn’t have to give up her voice just to have a chance at a dude who couldn’t even remember what she looked like, and this is what passed for progressive in 1991. Most importantly to nine-year-old me, Belle liked books, and she liked them so much that she was gifted a whole enormous library from her Beast, and it was glorious: the grand romantic gesture that first taught me to appreciate grand romantic gestures, and gifts of books are to this day the easiest way for people to buy my affection.

So, let’s just say that there’s a certain degree of uncritical love that I have for Beauty and the Beast, both the Disney movie and basically every iteration of it I’ve gotten my hands on in the years since, from Rose Daughter to Uprooted. When I saw the first trailer for the new live action version, I said right off that it was aggressively ugly but also that I was definitely going to see it. It turns out that it’s every bit as aggressively ugly as I thought it was going to be, but it’s also a surprisingly decent, if still very problematic, update to a beloved childhood classic. Here are my thoughts on it, in no particular order.

Spoilers, obviously.

18th Century fancy French menswear is sexy.

This isn’t important, really. Just a general observation. And a reminder that I need to make time to watch season two of Outlander sometime soon.

This adaptation tried to explain why the whole castle was cursed, and it only somewhat worked.

I was somewhat surprised that this was a thing at all, but it wasn’t a terrible idea. As in the animated film, there’s a short prologue that shows how the Beast gets himself and his whole castle cursed, and special attention is paid to make sure that the audience sees his court and servants as complicit in the prince’s cruelty. They stare and laugh at the disguised sorceress as the prince turns her away, and none of them do anything to stop it. Later in the film, Mrs. Potts weirdly both supports and undermines this when she tells Belle that, after the death of the Beast’s mother, Mrs. Potts and the other servants did nothing to prevent his abusive father from raising the Beast to be the nasty piece of work he was. Unfortunately, the only time we see the Beast’s father is in a flashback to his wife’s deathbed in which he not unkindly steers his grieving son out of the room, an image of relative gentleness that is at odds with what we’ve been told about his treatment of his son.

It makes sense that in this new film Disney would want to address the seeming injustice of a whole household of kind, loving servants being cursed for their master’s bad behavior; it’s just a weird case of a more or less good idea taken both too far and not far enough. The initial scene of the characters at the prince’s ball standing silent and then laughing as he mocks the sorceress is not quite enough to really justify everyone being cursed forever—especially when it’s revealed that they’re also erased from the memories of everyone they knew outside the palace. Disproportionate as the punishment is, this might have been fine if the film had decided to just stick to fairy tale logic. However, piling on that the servants somehow failed in a responsibility to protect the Beast from his father—without ever showing how the father was so bad—only really serves to muddle the message. It would have been much smarter to just stick with “the whole court was decadent and wicked in the moment when it mattered” without trying to also treat the curse as a sort of cosmic justice for a much more nebulous moral failing.

I legit cried at “Belle” and the opening village scene.

Emma Watson isn’t a great vocalist, but this song was nicely done, the village is genuinely lovely, and it’s the one time in the movie that I really felt like it was the animated version brought to life. For me, it was a little bit like first seeing Hobbiton in The Fellowship of the Ring or when Grant and Ellie first see the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, both scenes that still make me tear up. Your mileage may vary, but I totally loved this sequence.

Belle is kind of an asshole.

Listen. Belle has always been the ultimate Not Like Other Girls heroine, and her desire to get out of her small, provincial town figured largely in the animated film as well. This movie, however, makes Belle’s absolute disdain for the literally illiterate townspeople extremely clear. It’s not just the boorish, sexist Gaston that she dislikes. She’s at best condescendingly indulgent of her neighbors’ foibles and more often openly scornful toward them for, apparently, no other reason than their rural lifestyle and lack of sophistication. The town is pretty and clean, and its people seem to be mostly happy and decent in spite of their lack of privilege—remember this is supposed to be a rural village in 18th century France that has previously been ruled over by cruel and selfish nobility who exploited the people and land for their own gain. It makes sense that a young, relatively privileged girl with an education that is out of reach of most her peers might chafe at the restrictions of rural society and dream of adventure, but Belle’s sheer unbridled hatred of this town and its people doesn’t reflect well on her at all.

On a similar note, the girl hate is even stronger in this film than in 1991.

Just like in the animated version, this film has a trio of nearly identical women whose only character traits are wanting to marry Gaston and not being Belle. It was a sexist, damaging trope the first time around, and I’m disappointed to report that it’s actually worse in this move than it was in the original. Whereas in the animated film, these three women were identically beautiful blondes who seemed vapid but ultimately good-natured, here they’re presented as a group of garishly made-up (in pointed contrast to the natural beauty of the heroine) mean girls with an unexplained antipathy towards Belle in addition to their desire for Gaston. And this film no longer stops at portraying them as silly girls swooning over a man who barely notices they exist. Instead, it makes a point of having Gaston explicitly reject them with a dose of implied slut-shaming and the added humiliation of having Gaston’s horse kick mud on them. It’s a particularly hideous instance of misogyny that also isn’t helped by having Le Fou gleefully reinforce Gaston’s point with a snide “Not gonna happen, girls.”

Le Fou is awful in pretty much every way.

The animated Le Fou was a clownish, craven crony to the toxically hypermasculine Gaston, a cartoon fictional dynamic that rarely occurs to quite such an extreme degree in reality. In the live-action version, Disney has chosen to address this by casting Josh Gad in the role, giving him an unrequited crush on Gaston, and unsuccessfully playing it for laughs. It’s not funny. Josh Gad is not funny in this role, which mostly consists of Le Fou being a stereotype of a catty, faintly effeminate gay man and being mildly misogynistic in ways that validate and complement Gaston’s own misogyny. The “exclusively gay moment” that has been so bragged about is literally about a second and half shot at the end of the movie of Le Fou dancing with another man—an unnamed character who, incidentally, is “outed” as gay in the story when the magic wardrobe dresses him in women’s clothing during the climactic battle and he grins like it’s Christmas, which seems senselessly offhandedly transphobic and further suggests that gay men are simply effeminate dudes.

Literally nothing about this portrayal of Le Fou was at any point a good idea, the execution is horrendous, and Disney’s public crowing about how progressive they are for having a gay dude in this movie is hilariously offensive when you actually see how bad it is.

Luke Evans is a perfect Gaston.

Seriously. He’s delightful, and he plays Gaston with amazing gusto and a surprising amount of charm. This is one of the only roles in this movie that I’d say is perfectly cast, along with Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe and Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza.

Audra McDonald should sing everything, forever.

She is an actual perfect angel, and though Emma Thompson’s rendition of “Beauty and the Beast” was fine, it’s a straight up crime that the song wasn’t given to McDonald.

There were too many new songs, and every one of them was too long.

The worst offender is a song the Beast sings after Belle leaves to rescue her father. It’s entirely superfluous and puts the brakes on the story for a full three minutes of the Beast verbalizing feelings that could easily have been conveyed in about a ten second shot of him just looking sad. It might have been fine if “Evermore” was a truly good and memorable song, but it’s completely unremarkable and Dan Stevens is only an okay singer.

The animated objects are straight up nightmare fuel.

Dead-eyed little Chip might be the worst, but all the CGI objects are somewhere between mildly unsettling and absolutely terrifying.

The Beast looks much better than I expected.

He looked awful in production stills and trailers, but he works on the big screen and honestly possesses more sex appeal than Dan Stevens does in real life.

This movie is fine, overall.

It’s at least as good as the live action Cinderella was, and if you liked the animated version you’ll probably like this one, too. I don’t know if it’s a movie I’ll want to watch over and over again, but it was worth seeing for nostalgia reasons, even if it did also prove that Disney still has a lot of work to do when it comes to crafting progressive feminist narratives.

What I’m Looking Forward to in 2017: Film

I feel like every year is a lackluster year in film anymore, to be honest, but there are still a few things I’m looking forward to in 2017, just like there were still a few things I enjoyed in 2016. Here’s what’s on my radar right now for the coming year.

Kong: Skull Island – March 3

Kong: Skull Island confuses me because everything about this movie seems way better than I would ever think yet another regressive creature feature deserves. It’s got a good cast (although predictably short on women), amazing looking CGI, and a clever sense of self-awareness that I find appealing. As a longtime lover of creature features, I am intrigued.

Beauty and the Beast – March 17

Beauty and the Beast has never been one of my favorite Disney movies, and this live-action remake is downright aggressively ugly. However, I will probably see it anyway because everyone else will be doing it.

Power Rangers – March 24

I’m a little old for Power Rangers to have been a big part of my childhood, but this looks moderately entertaining. It’s not at the top of my must-see-in-theaters list, but I’ll see it if I have the time and money come late March.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – May 5

I don’t care that much about super heroes, but the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie was a ton of fun. I predict that by May I will definitely be in need of some fun.

Wonder Woman – June 2

I don’t have high hopes for Wonder Woman, to be honest. The trailers and reviews of the other recent DC comics adaptations have been so terrible that I haven’t even bothered with them. Regardless, I do think it’s important to support female-led super hero movies when they come out, few and far between as they are. Hey, maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Spider-Man: Homecoming – July 7

For all that I say I’m not very much into super heroes, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Spider-Man. Plus, this actually looks genuinely decent, which would be a nice change after multiple troubled adaptation attempts.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – July 21

This might turn out to be the Jupiter Ascending of 2017, and I’m more than okay with that. I loved Jupiter Ascending. I also loved Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element twenty years ago, and Valerian looks equally stunning. I’m hoping that Rihanna as a shapeshifting alien will make up for the two pouty, pasty-faced leads. Aside from the new Star Wars, this might be my most-anticipated movie of the year.

Blade Runner 2049 – October 6

I hate an unnecessary and redundant sequel/reboot of an iconic film as much as the next person, but Blade Runner 2049 comes out just in time for me to see it on my birthday.

Star Wars Episode VIII – December 15

Obviously.

Annihilation – TBA 2017

There is no trailer or release date yet for Annihilation, based upon Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same title, but I expect it to be good and creepy.