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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.

Movie Review – Star Trek: Beyond

Star Trek: Beyond is an interesting addition to the Star Trek universe. Of the new alternate timeline films, it’s certainly the most Trek-feeling of the bunch, and it’s the best at making use of its ensemble cast. Unfortunately, it’s still just not that great a movie, in spite of being great fun to watch.

Somewhat, but not totally, spoiler-y review ahead.

Beyond opens with the Enterprise already three and a half years into their famous five-year mission, which is somewhat disappointing to begin with. We get to see just the last bit of the crew’s most recent adventure before the movie dives right into James Kirk’s (Chris Pine) existential crisis. Apparently, after several years of being captain of a state-of-the-art spaceship where he’s responsible for a crew of hundreds, he’s now questioning whether he wants to be there at all, and the rest of the movie is basically about how Kirk gets his groove back. While the rest of the cast has a bit more to do in Beyond than in the last two Trek movies, Kirk’s dilemma—which isn’t whether or not to stay in Starfleet, but whether or not to take a promotion to admiral, which it’s frankly unclear how exactly he’s earned—makes up the central emotional arc of the film.

Sure, this is a thin and rather boring basis for getting the audience invested in the story, but it would have been fine if equal attention had been paid to some of the other characters who are also dealing with some life stuff. Spock (Zachary Quinto), in a touching tribute to the late Leonard Nimoy, is dealing with the in-universe death of his mentor, Ambassador Spock, and his relationship with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is on the rocks, but most of this is explored through Spock’s conversations with McCoy (Karl Urban) and several short shots of Zachary Quinto looking sad. Yes, I cried more than once, because I’m not a monster, but those tears were only partly earned (I really loved Leonard Nimoy, okay?). Spock and Kirk barely interact at all in this film, and their lack of communication could indicate problems in their relationship as well, but their whole inability to be truly emotionally intimate with each other is hand-waved at the end of the film with what feels like a wink to the audience. Kirk and Spock might spend a whole movie with hardly a word to say to each other, and their lack of communication can be explicitly pointed out in conversations with other characters, but really we all know that there could never be any real trouble in that paradise. It’s a missed opportunity to add some depth and nuance to the Kirk/Spock friendship. Instead of examining these ideas further, they instead play the situation almost for laughs.

Much was made in the week or two before the film’s release of the revelation that Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) is gay in the reboot’s alternate universe, but it turns out to be much ado about, well, not nothing, but still not much. Ostensibly, the filmmakers were trying to raise the stakes by having Sulu’s husband and daughter on the Yorktown space station that the Enterprise crew spends most of the movie saving, but the revelation of Sulu’s partner and child happens quickly and without remark. There’s no scene to properly introduce us to Sulu’s family, and between our first sight of them and their reappearance at the end of the movie they are never once mentioned. I suppose the audience ought to be able to infer the personal significance the threat to Yorktown has for Sulu, but he gets a good amount to do in this movie. Would it have killed them to include some line, clichéd as it would be, to the effect of “My family is on that station!”? In a relatively high-paced action flick, it’s easy to lose these kind of subtler character beats in the shuffle of other things going on, and I’d rather have a slightly cliché line to highlight the point than see it get lost as I think Sulu’s story, tertiary as it is, does here.

One relationship that did work well in Beyond was the one between McCoy and Spock, but even that is somewhat overshadowed by the movie’s larger events. Still, there’s real humor and a friendly chemistry on display in the scenes shared by Urban and Quinto. Their adversarial affection is perfectly pitched and cleverly written, and both actors turn in nice performances. I wish the same could be said of Saldana and Cho as the similarly paired-off Uhura and Sulu. While that pair gets to participate in some theoretically important plot material, neither actor seems to really have their heart in it, and Cho’s performance in particular feels at times very wooden. The late Anton Yelchin’s performance as Chekov is little more than workmanlike, but it’s enough for the material he’s given. He’s paired off with Kirk for the parts of the movie that he’s actually visible in, and it’s not bad. It feels as if this movie was written very intentionally to shake up some of the character pairings in order to set it apart from the previous two movies and perhaps to give each character more time to shine, but I’d say this was done with mixed success at best.

Co-writer Simon Pegg reprises his role as Scotty, and he finds himself paired with relative newcomer Sofia Boutella, who plays the cringeworthily named Jaylah, a young woman trying to escape from the planet the Enterprise crew finds themselves trapped on. I think the intent of all of Jaylah’s scenes with Scotty (and, later, Kirk) is to be sweet, but I found the overall effect to be creepily condescending, and Jaylah to be unusually and selectively naïve and childlike in a way that was consistently unpleasant. She does get a few badass moments, and the struggle to get Jaylah’s crashed ship “house” up and flying sets her up as a sort of engineering savant while also offering some moments of genuine comedy. On the bright side, Jaylah gets something like a character arc as the Enterprise crew hijacks her escape plan and forces her to help them get off the planet and stop the villain, and she even gets a truly happy ending, which was surprising. After the senseless killing of a couple of other new-to-this-installment female characters, I was fully expecting Jaylah to die tragically, so it was a pleasant surprise that by the end of the film her future is actually looking pretty bright.

Let’s talk about this villain, though. I love Idris Elba as much as the next red-blooded woman, but he’s a bit wasted in the role of Krall, who is one of the movie’s biggest problems. It’s not that Elba is a bad actor, and Krall definitely looks the part of a menacing Trek villain, but it’s never really clear exactly what Krall’s motivation is for wanting to commit such an enormous atrocity as killing a space station on the scale of Yorktown. Even when his supposed reasoning is revealed near the end of the movie, it’s not clear what his actual goal is. He’s an old soldier, and he misses war so he thinks a massive act of terrorism is going to turn back the clock on progress? Okay, but that doesn’t actually make much sense, and it doesn’t help that the revelation of Krall’s identity comes seemingly out of nowhere. In hindsight, I think I remember some hints at it throughout the movie, but the pacing is so frantic throughout that the eventual reveal feels blindsiding. It’s obvious that Krall is supposed to work as a sort of foil for Kirk, with both men experiencing doubt, unrest and disillusionment after years in Starfleet, but this isn’t explored enough to make one really care that much about it, and it’s resolved in the same pat fashion as every other conflict of the film.

On a more personal level, though, the biggest problem that I have with Beyond is that, though it does a much better job than the last couple of Trek efforts did at incorporating women characters into the story, women’s representation still kind of sucks. I already mentioned a couple of the issues I had with Jaylah, but to cap it all off she ends up damselled and has to be rescued by Kirk before they leave the planet, after which she is mostly absent until she shows up right at the end to be written out of the narrative. She does get a happy ending, as I stated earlier, but it feels much more like the tying up of a loose end than anything else—so they don’t have a repeat of uncomfortable questions like “Whatever happened to Carol Marcus?” Uhura doesn’t have to be rescued, but I loathe any time when a male character shows up unnecessarily to rescue a woman and it’s called out in the text. It’s not cute or funny, and it’s a simple aversion of the trope that is old and tired enough that it’s become its own trope. It’s 2016, and this is boring and lazy writing.

Also, and this is just sad, for all that Beyond has plenty of women, theoretically doing lots of stuff, it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. And I get it; the Bechdel test isn’t the be all and end all of measuring the representation of women in film, but it’s honestly kind of impressive just how many women appear in Star Trek: Beyond without any of them actually interacting with each other. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I don’t recall any two female characters exchanging even one word together about anything. Even when Uhura is forced to watch another woman member of the crew get killed, I don’t think they talk to each other. Instead, Uhura only talks with Krall and watches helplessly as he murders the other woman.

This general lack of presence of women in the film is made worse by nearly all of the women characters being completely useless. They get a decent amount of screen time, and they’re all doing things, but none of the things they do seem to actually matter very much. Minor villainess Kalara manages to lure the Enterprise to Altamid, but she’s quickly disposed of. Uhura is desperately working with Sulu to escape their captivity or something, but I’m still not certain I really understand what she actually accomplishes. In the end, all of the captured crew members have to be rescued by Kirk and company. Jaylah has managed to survive alone on Altamid for years, and she’s gotten the radio working in her ship, but it takes Scotty to actually get the thing in the air and off the planet. And, ultimately, Krall is defeated by Kirk in true Trek tradition—in a bout of manly fisticuffs, just two men fighting a symbolic battle between good and evil, chaos and order, civilization and barbarism, progressive values and old hatreds—without a woman in sight.

Here’s the thing, though. I still kind of loved this movie. It was highly enjoyable and had some really excellent action sequences that made me happy to have shelled out for 3D. I was happy to see Shohreh Aghdashloo being typecast as a sci-fi woman of authority; she should be in everything ever, really. I adored the tribute paid to Leonard Nimoy, and I was never bored even when the film was at its most predictable. Of the new Trek films, this one certainly feels the most Trek-like, and that counts for a lot in my book as well. Realistically, I don’t think this (or any of the new Trek movies) will be something I want to watch again anytime soon, but I’m happy to have seen it once, and I recommend it equally for lovers of Star Trek and lovers of high-energy action adventure flicks. And do see it in 3D; Yorktown is worth it.

Movie Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

I loved Ghostbusters.

I rather expected to, to be honest, and I went prepared to enjoy it in spite of its flaws after the trailers for it were so widely criticized and there was so much negativity surrounding its mere existence. Still, when there is so much negativity and outright hatred surrounding a movie, it’s easy to lower one’s expectations.

Ghostbusters is really, really good.

That’s not to say that it’s a flawless film. Some of the humor misses its mark; Chris Hemsworth’s inept receptionist, Kevin, is very one-note; the villain (Neil Casey) is underdeveloped; and there are at least a couple of scenes that seem to have been included literally just because Kate McKinnon is hilarious. I mean, yeah, Kate McKinnon is a riot, but one oughtn’t to let her hijinks take over to the point where they cause pacing problems—and they do, a little. Still, Ghostbusters is exactly what it ought to be: a delightfully funny low-middle brow summer movie whose flaws are far outweighed by its positive aspects, which are practically legion.

By far my favorite thing about Ghostbusters is how it showcases the friendships between its four main characters. It’s refreshingly naturalistic the way these women come into each other’s lives, and it’s great to see a healthy, functional female friend group take center stage in a major summer movie. Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones have an easy chemistry together that really sells the evolution of the group as friends and colleagues and makes their interactions a pleasure to watch. Each woman has a distinct role to play, and all of them contribute significantly to the group. Best of all their group dynamic is totally free of anything resembling cattiness or jealousy. Sure, Abby (McCarthy) and Erin (Wiig) have a history that has to be resolved, but Erin and Jillian (McKinnon) are never competitive for Abby’s attention and when new friend Patty (Jones) joins the team she’s accepted quickly and immediately settles into the group as if she’s always been there.

Speaking of Patty, I was very concerned when the first trailer came out that she was going to be a sassy, street smart stereotype. Leslie Jones herself took to Twitter at the time to assure fans that this wasn’t the case, and she was right. Patty Tolan isn’t street smart; she’s book smart, a local historian whose vast knowledge of New York and excellent deductive skills are key to saving the city. That said, criticisms that a black woman is the only non-scientist in the group are reasonable, and while the racial makeup of the cast mirrors that of the original Ghostbusters I’d like to think we can do better than that over thirty years later. If anything, New York City has only gotten more diverse in that time, and with all the ongoing conversations about representation in media—Ghostbusters has itself been at the center of that because of the choice to reboot the franchise with an all-female cast—there are fewer excuses than ever to have a cast as white as this one. Do better, casting directors.

The actual story in Ghostbusters is pretty thin, which is firmly in the tradition of the franchise, but villain Rowan is an interesting choice. For most women and anyone tuned into feminist discourse, Rowan’s misogyny, pathological aggrievement, delusions of grandeur, and his simmering, rage-fueled sense of entitlement will all feel familiar. We have almost all met this man, and if we have we’ve definitely fantasized about how to vanquish him. Ghostbusters taps into that fantasy and provides a pleasant catharsis at the end, in spite of its very silly plot.

Fortunately, what the movie lacks in the storytelling department it more than makes up for in the sheer unadulterated fun department. All four leads fulfill their roles with joy and gusto. Kate McKinnon in particular brings a manic energy to the screen that is downright infectious. Cameos by most of the original cast are for the most part well-integrated, and there are some nicely done visual jokes and references to both the first and second Ghostbusters, though younger children and those unfamiliar with the older films may not catch all of them. While a couple of running gags in the film outstay their welcome, I (and everyone else in the theatre except for maybe one fedora-wearing dude) laughed constantly throughout the nearly two-hour runtime.

Ghostbusters isn’t a cinematic masterpiece by any means—though the special effects are top notch and masterfully walk the line between cartoonish and creepy; be sure to see it in 3D—but it’s a truly excellent summer movie that more than does justice to the original movie and smartly updates the material to entrance a new generation of children with its message that the power of friendship can conquer cynicism and hate. Also, ghosts.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

Charles Dance is an absolute treasure.

I wish they had made better use of the delightful Matt Walsh.

Gertrude the ghost is beautiful.

DO stay through the entire credits.

ghostbusters2016

 

Movie Review – Warcraft: The Beginning

Video game movies are, in general, never good, and Warcraft isn’t, either, if I’m honest. Still, I was pleasantly surprised by it after the numerous very negative reviews it received. It might not be a good movie, in any objective sense of the word, but Warcraft is fun, and it tries hard, tackling its complex source material with an obviously loving respect and attention to detail while also clearly having some thought put into diversity and how to address problems like the lack of women in the story. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely a movie worth seeing if you like the Warcraft games or if you aren’t too much a snob to enjoy this sort of decidedly middle-brow epic sword and sorcery.

Having only played World of Warcraft, myself, my knowledge of the Warcraft lore adapted for the film is somewhat limited, but from what I can tell, it’s brought to screen more or less faithfully. My partner’s biggest nitpick was that Dalaran isn’t supposed to be floating yet at this point in the story, but the Dalaran scenes were cool-looking enough—and the floating city is iconic enough for WoW players—that I can see why the filmmakers would make that change. The look of the film in general was definitely heavily influenced by WoW, and the orcs in particular looked much the same as they do in the game’s most recent expansion. This is actually true of pretty much everything we see on screen; much of it is lifted straight from the games and simply animated with more polygons. It’s a nice bit of visual continuity to tie the film to the games, but it would have been good to see a little more effort made to give the movie some style of its own as well.

Still, I was prepared for the heavy use of CGI to be completely overwhelming, and it wasn’t at all. Instead, everything looked good, not realistic, but enjoyably fantastical, and the magic effects in particular were excellently conceived and delivered. That said, I’d recommend skipping 3D. There’s plenty of scenery porn (Stormwind!) and some really lovely shots as Anduin Lothar rides around on his griffon, but the 3D never did feel fully immersive, and I can’t say that it added much to the viewing experience. At any rate, whatever the filmmakers thought 3D would add, it wasn’t important enough for the movie to be shot in real 3D, and it shows. It’s not terrible to look at, but you’re better off saving the extra $3-5 you’d spend for glasses.

From a storytelling perspective, the film is clearly overstuffed as it tries to squeeze two games’ worth of story into a movie of watchable length. At 123 minutes, I’d say this is done with mixed success. Another half hour of runtime would have given the story a little more space to breathe and wouldn’t have been too long. If the reportedly godawful Batman v Superman is allowed to drag on for 151 minutes, surely Warcraft could have gotten a little more time to round out its character arcs in a more satisfying fashion. Nearly every problem I have with Warcraft, from its sometimes odd tonal shifts to its clunky exposition to its far-too-rushed character work, could have been solved with just a few more minutes of movie. For all that I’ve seen Warcraft called bloated, I think it would be better described as just bursting at the seams. It’s not so much that there’s too much story; it’s that it’s stuffed into far too small a container.

Sadly, this is most evident when it comes to the treatment of the movie’s female characters. Poor Draka, charming as the very sweet opening scene of the movie is, exists only to give birth and die tragically. The always luminous Ruth Negga is utterly wasted as Queen Taria, whose name I had to google and who has little to do aside from standing around looking beautiful, though she does have a conversation with Garona that gives the movie a Bechdel test pass. Garona’s story is handled in a way that is, frankly, baffling. She’s by far the most developed of the female characters, but much of what passes as character development and arc for Garona happens in a sort of shorthand that just… doesn’t work, especially when it comes to her romance with Anduin Lothar and the friendship she’s supposed to have with Llane Wrynn, which diminishes the impact of the movie’s ending unless you’re familiar enough with Warcraft lore to fill in the blanks yourself.

The thing is, though, in spite of these failures you can tell watching the movie that the filmmakers cared about doing right by all of these women. They aren’t always successful, and sometimes fail entirely, but there’s a mindfulness in the execution of their stories that is refreshing, was even pleasantly surprising for me as I went into the film knowing that Warcraft is basically a complete sausage fest until much later in the game.

Yes, Draka literally exists to give birth and die to save her infant (who Warcraft fans will know is Thrall), but real effort is made to show us something of who Draka is and to make the viewer care about this woman for her own sake. She has a personality—she’s fierce, loyal, and loving, with a nice sense of humor—and her death is legitimately sad, and while we aren’t given much time to mourn her, we also aren’t forced to experience the loss of Draka through the eyes of a male character. Instead, we’re totally denied the reaction of her husband, Durotan, which encourages the viewer to contemplate Draka’s death without regard to whatever manpain it might have caused in some other film and prevents it from being a fridging.

Sure, Queen Taria doesn’t get a lot to do, but the fact that she’s present at all is kind of an achievement after the better part of two decades of Kings of Stormwind having no wives (or mothers) at all. I wasn’t expecting this movie to pass the Bechdel test at all, and Taria’s conversation with Garona is small, but important. Also, it’s worth pointing out that women of color don’t often get cast in the role of the good, gentle, beautiful queen, so one can even make the argument that casting Ruth Negga is quietly significant all on its own. It’s not exactly revolutionary, but you could say that she doesn’t have to do anything necessarily except exist in a space that is usually reserved for white women.

Paula Patton’s turn as Garona seems to be one of the most polarizing parts of the film, though I have to say that most opinions on her performance seem to be negative. However, I completely disagree with her detractors. It’s not Patton’s performance that is bad, though talking around tusks doesn’t help anything. Rather, most of Garona’s speeches are not very well-scripted, and her arc is harmed more than that of any other character by the missing 30 minutes or so of film. Indeed, it feels, over and over again, as if anytime a scene or line needed to be cut short for time, it’s Garona’s part that is diminished. Basically, Garona obviously ought to be the main protagonist of the film, but instead her role was scaled back to make more room for Khadgar or something. As a result, all of Garona’s relationships with other characters feel half-baked, and when it’s important that we feel something about her—the ending of the movie is seriously some Greek tragedy-level stuff—it’s hard to muster up the appropriate level of emotion.

In the end, though, my biggest complaints about women’s representation in the movie are complaints that I’ve always had about the games, particularly World of Warcraft, as well. First, I will forever hate the extreme sexual dimorphism of the non-human characters. Though Draka is definitely portrayed as tough and powerful, as an orc she’s literally less than half the size of the males of her species, who are just ridiculously massive. I’m sure that some people find the “but that’s how Warcraft orcs have always been” argument persuasive, but this is one major way in which the movie could have set itself apart visually from the games. It’s also fairly easily accomplished, since all of the orcs are CGI characters; the filmmakers aren’t limited by anything but their own imaginations (or lack thereof). Second, and most importantly, however, aside from the three named women I’ve discussed, there are almost no visible women in the movie in spite of the Warcraft world being canonically egalitarian. I think I saw one woman knight (or whatever) in Stormwind, but I can’t recall there being any other orc women aside from Draka. Relatively recent studies have found that women (51% of the population) only make up 17% of the people in crowd scenes in popular films, and Warcraft surely falls well below even that sad threshold. This is especially disappointing in a movie that otherwise shows so many marks of consciousness of gender issues.

The rest of the movie is fine, but much of it doesn’t stand out as particularly good or offensively bad. I had high hopes for Daniel Wu as Gul’dan and Clancy Brown as Blackhand, but neither of them were recognizable in their roles. Dominic Cooper was fine as Llane Wrynn, but the Good King is always one of the most boring characters in any movie. Ben Foster was almost comically inscrutable as Medivh, another character who suffers for lack of screen time. Travis Fimmel tried manfully to give Anduin Lothar some depth and gravitas, but is weighed down by awkward writing; his most important relationships—with Llane and Garona—are sadly shortchanged, and a shoehorned in plot concerning Anduin’s son serves more to distract from the character’s story than enhance it.

Finally, Ben Schnetzer’s Khadgar is a little too dull, too bumbling, and generally lacking in personality to be very likeable. He seems intended to be the character whose perspective—as a young man, as an outsider, as a beginning adventurer of sorts—the audience identifies with, but it’s hard to see this magical wunderkind as someone that I’d want to be. If I had to hazard a guess on that score, though, I’d guess that I (a 33-year-old feminist woman) am not exactly the movie’s target audience. If they really want to appeal to me, they ought to have given me sassy silver fox Khadgar from Warlords of Draenor.

Warcraft isn’t a cinematic masterpiece by any means, but it’s watchable enough that I wouldn’t mind going to see it again sans 3D and I’m looking forward to the DVD release. I’m even hoping that the popularity of the movie in China will help make a sequel or two or three happen. Mostly, though, I’m hoping that there’s going to be some kind of director’s cut made available that addresses some of the issues in the theatrical version. That’s the movie I want to see.

Mockingjay, Part 2 is a satisfying finish to a solidly good-but-not-great film series

It’s an unpopular opinion, to be sure, but I’ve always loved Mockingjay the best of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy. Indeed, it’s a book that is different enough from the first two installments that it could easily have been a standalone novel with just some minor tweaks—and would perhaps have been stronger for it; certainly Catching Fire suffers more than a little from middle book syndrome, but also from too-much-like-the-first-book syndrome, and The Hunger Games could probably all have been condensed into a hundred pages or so. Alas, we live in an epoch of YA book trilogies and an age of turning book trilogies into blockbuster movie tetralogies, so Mockingjay Part 2 is necessarily imperfect. Still, it’s a good movie and a great finish to the series. It almost does the book justice.

The film begins with Katniss testing out her voice for the first time since being strangled by Peeta at the end of Mockingjay Part 1, and this is an excellent, if just a bit too on the nose, opening for a story about a young woman finding her voice. Things quickly get on track, though, and Mockingjay Part 2 is off at a relentless pace towards the ending; it doesn’t feel like almost two and a half hours when it’s over.

Mockingjay Part 2 really shines in its action scenes, which are well-thought-out and deployed at nicely spaced intervals in the film. Of these, by far the best is the long sequence in the sewers beneath the Capitol as Katniss and company try to make their way to President Snow’s mansion so that Katniss can assassinate him. It’s an absolutely harrowing journey, and it manages to be chaotic and tense as well as carried out with obvious purpose. The unleashing of the mutts and the struggle to escape from them was a wonderful incorporation of straight-up horror elements to great effect. It all unfolds perhaps a little too methodically, but as a stylistic choice this works, and it’s reflective of the general visual and tonal melodrama of both of the Mockingjay films.

Speaking of the visual style of this film, it’s very clearly a war movie. Things are grey and dark and gritty and grim, and the violence is—while it’s kept pretty strictly PG-13—enough to be both visually striking and emotionally affecting. The several major character deaths in the film were all handled in ways that implied the awfulness of their ends while never looking right at it, and this is accomplished without feeling coy or disingenuous. It’s a well-considered situation where less really is sometimes more, and in an era of increasingly graphic trauma and death being acceptable to show in film, Mockingjay does a masterful job of showing how much power mere implication can still exert.

Some of the dialogue is a little stilted, and franchise fatigue seems to be lurking just around the slightly frayed corners of some of the main actors’ performances. In particular, Katniss seems bone-weary in this installment in a way that feels like more than just Jennifer Lawrence’s good acting, but it’s not obvious enough to ruin the movie.

What stood out to me more than that was the sad underuse of so many of the secondary and tertiary characters. Katniss’s mother and sister barely appear, which lessens what should be nothing short of complete emotional devastation in the third act. Finnick and Annie’s wedding is similarly rushed and causes similar third act emotional problems. Jena Malone turns in a potentially powerful performance as Johanna Mason, only to have it feel, in the final presentation, as if large portions of it were left on the cutting room floor. The same can be said for Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, both of whom don’t get nearly enough screen time. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch, of course, is at times notably missing from places where he might have played a significant part, which made me sad all over again over the actor’s untimely death.

Some of the very small roles were practically nonexistent. During production, much was made of Gwendoline Christie appearing in Mockingjay, but she only had a role in one relatively small scene early in the movie. Stanley Tucci only showed up momentarily in a couple of Capitol broadcasts, and I don’t think the surviving tributes Beetee and Enobaria even got lines.

The biggest complaints I’ve seen about the film so far, though, have been regarding the execution of the Katniss-Gale-Peeta love triangle throughout the film and the ending of it in general, and I must say I don’t share these criticisms.

While the love triangle did take on increased significance in this final film, I think it was appropriately done and sensitively handled so as not to infringe too much on the other ideas and themes that Mockingjay examines. I could have done without the slightly creepy conversation between Gale and Peeta where they were negotiating a sort of truce while they thought Katniss was sleeping; I’m never a fan of men talking about a woman as if she’s their property, and there’s definitely a kind of proprietary tone here as Gale and Peeta agree that they’ll wait for Katniss to choose between them, as if she doesn’t have any other choices. Katniss’s feelings, on the other hand, were shown beautifully, and it’s easy to follow and relate to Katniss’s emotional arc.

I’ve seen some moaning about the lack of an epic ending, but I can’t help but simply dismiss that as a silly and wrongheaded grievance put forward by people who appear to have missed the point of The Hunger Games series entirely. It turns out that it’s fundamentally anti-fascist, actually, and it’s at its heart a tragedy of Shakespearean proportion. The ambiguity of its ending is essential and, frankly, beautiful, and while it’s well-done in the film I felt that it could have been, if anything, more bittersweet.

All that said, I thought I’d cry more in this movie, but the only thing that really brought the tears was that damn cat.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

  • I remain disappointed in the look of the mutts. The use of the faces and features (and perhaps the actual dead bodies) of people Katniss knows was an incredible bit of psychological horror in the books, and it’s too bad that none of the movies managed to capture that.
  • Tigris was very close to how I imagined her when I read the book. A+ casting, costuming, and make-up.
  • I hated the casting of Sam Claflin as Finnick, but he really pulled it off this film.
  • I love Effie so much, and of all the underused characters in this movie, she was the one whose absence I felt most keenly.
  • I love the visual language of the scene of Snow’s execution. It reminds me a lot of the early scenes in Rome in Julie Taymor’s 1999 Titus (which is a great film—go watch it), and there are a lot of interesting parallels between Katniss’s and Titus Andronicus’s respective positions as potential kingmakers. I feel like there’s no way this is accidental, and someone should definitely write a scholarly piece on this.

Crimson Peak lets the madwoman out of the attic, with glorious results

Crimson Peak has replaced Mad Max: Fury Road as my favorite film of 2015, and that’s saying something because I have a passionate love for Fury Road. I honestly didn’t expect Crimson Peak to be my kind of movie, as I felt like the trailers showed it as more of a horror flick than it turned out to be. While I like the occasional zombie or slasher movie, I don’t like to watch anything that’s actually frightening, so I almost didn’t see Crimson Peak at all on account of its [in hindsight, totally unnecessarily] very creepy-looking ghosts.

I’m so glad I saw it anyway, because if there’s one thing that Crimson Peak isn’t, it’s frightening. Instead, Crimson Peak is a stunningly imagined and gorgeously detailed Gothic romance that is at once a highly traditional take on the genre as well as an incredible subversion and interrogation of the standard Gothic tropes and conventions.

Early in the movie, our writer-heroine Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) says of her own story that it’s not a ghost story–it’s just a story with ghosts in it. The ghost is a metaphor, you see. It’s a little much, really, and it almost feels as if the movie is self-conscious rather than self-aware about what it is. And what Crimson Peak is is a terrifically beautiful, better-than-middling clever twist on a classic Gothic romance. The “twist,” of course, is that the romantic hero isn’t, in any sense of the word. Instead, both of the male leads–impoverished nobleman Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and handsome doctor Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam)–take a decided backseat to the women in this tale.

There are no passive, fragile flowers here. Guillermo del Toro gives us a world that is far fuller of women than what would normally be expected in this sort of story, and just the presence of these other women makes it easier for the characters of Edith and Lucille (the incomparable Jessica Chastain) to exist as the imperfect and compelling women that they need to be to carry the weight of this story.

As a protagonist, Edith seems at first a little too conventional. She’s got a dead mother, a bookish pastime, a dull suitor, and an overprotective father. It’s all pretty genre-standard stuff, but it’s the details that save the first third of the film from being ordinary. The first time we meet the adult Edith, she’s confronted by some social acquaintances on her way to a meeting with an editor who she hopes will publish her novel. I knew I was going to love her when she responded to an insult about dying a spinster like Jane Austen with a quip that she’d prefer to die a widow like Mary Shelley.

It has little to do with the rest of the story and could easily have been cut, but I loved Edith’s meeting with the publisher and the scene where she begins typing her novel at her father’s office with the encouragement of the woman receptionist. It’s material that really has no purpose other than to show us who Edith is and make her a more well-rounded character, which is a refreshing change in a genre that’s known for paper-thin heroines.

That said, I almost wonder why they bothered with Edith’s background as an aspiring novelist. Once she marries Thomas and moves to England, her writing is largely forgotten as she becomes consumed with uncovering the secrets of Allerdale Hall. On the one hand this makes sense, what with the ghosts and all, and it makes Edith an extremely genre-savvy heroine. On the other hand, it makes much of the first third of the movie entirely superfluous as Edith doesn’t have any special knowledge or skills related to her literary knowledge and occupation. I’m torn between really liking and enjoying that first act and being frustrated that it feels like such an unnecessary and disconnected prologue to the real story.

All in all, though, I have to say I ultimately find myself on team first act. It meanders, and it doesn’t contribute much to the later parts of the film, but it does establish a sort of normalcy to compare and contrast with Edith’s experiences at Allerdale Hall, where she proves herself to be clever, resourceful, and brave. Edith is more than capable of rescuing herself, and I actually really liked that I never felt that she was in so much danger she might not be able to handle it.

Our other female lead, Lucille Sharpe, is something else. In many ways, Lucille is the character in Crimson Peak who is most interesting and who most defies stereotypes. In another story, Lucille might have been a classic madwoman in the attic, which is barely a character at all, but here she’s allowed out of the attic (both literally and metaphorically) and is given an almost alarming amount of agency along with big heaping piles of characterization. Lucille is not a woman who can be hidden, shuffled off, or forgotten, and I would argue that Edith and Lucille are mutually antagonistic foils who both have heroic qualities.

The story of Crimson Peak revolves around Edith, Lucille, and their conflict, with the concerns of the male characters definitely secondary. Even more broadly, when we take into account the ghosts that are all too common in Edith’s world, Crimson Peak becomes a story about the many ways in which women help and harm each other.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Crimson Peak, however, is the visual aspects of its storytelling. This is not just your run-of-the-mill costume or scenery porn. It certainly is gorgeous, but for a reason.

Allerdale Hall is fantastically surreal, with its Escher-esque staircases, vaguely questionable geometry, plague of moths, horrifying noises, and the red clay that seems to color most every surface of it. I would have loved to see Edith get to explore even more of this house, which I’m sure holds enough secrets for a sequel.

All of the costumes were perfectly sumptuous (and I want to wear all of Lucille’s clothes), but for me it’s Edith’s look that stands out as a true achievement. There is a lot of typical Gothic imagery in Edith’s costuming, but with many cleverly subtle differences that highlight the ways that Edith is not an ordinary romantic heroine.

Edith’s colors are angelic gold and white, which set her apart from Lucille’s positively vampiric black, red, and blue, but this isn’t the whole story of Edith’s wardrobe by a long shot. When Edith is at her best and most confident, she appears in dark gold, with enormous puffy shoulders that make her seem larger and more substantial. This is what she wears when she meets her publisher, in her first flirtatious meeting with Thomas Sharpe, and in two scenes in which she initiates physical intimacy with Thomas. When Edith is more vulnerable or frightened, we see her in voluminous white nightgowns, but we also see her in these fluffy confections when she’s at her bravest and most inquisitive as she unravels the Sharpes’ secrets and confronts the ghosts of Allerdale Hall.

This is also her look for the final showdown between her and Lucille—an epic knife fight in which both women are wearing their nightgowns, with their hair unbound, and fight it out in the red-stained snow—which is one of my favorite things I’ve ever seen in any movie. It’s seriously at least as cool as anything in Fury Road, albeit in an entirely different direction.

I guess what I’m saying, really, is that everyone should go see this movie. At least once. Having seen it twice now, I can say that it is even better the second time around. If you love to pick apart and analyze every aspect of a film, Crimson Peak is a must-see. If you hate all that critical thinking stuff, it might not be the movie for you.

Personally, I’m already looking forward to writing retrospective looks at this movie every few years for the rest of my life.

Movie Review: Cinderella (2015)

I’m a little surprised to say that I kind of loved this movie, which I finally rented from Amazon so I could watch it with my daughter. We’d skipped it at the theater because we just weren’t all that excited about it at the time. I mean, it really is just a very straightforward telling of the Disney version of the Cinderella story, mice and all. It looked beautiful, but I didn’t expect much substance–or at least not enough substance to warrant spending $50 to see it at the theater.

I don’t know, though. I say that I kind of loved this movie, but it’s also not a movie that I want to watch over and over again. Sadly, it feels derivative of both of my two favorite Cinderella movies: 1998’s Ever After and 1997’s Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Some of the imagery and emotional beats in Cinderella seem lifted straight from Ever After, including the meetcute in the forest, the bickering stepsisters, the regal vamping of the stepmother, the scheming courtier, and even Ella’s final defiance and then forgiveness of her stepmother. The technicolor costumes with their bright primary colors and iridescent fabrics feel like a direct allusion to the 1997 musical, although this film definitely did not copy its predecessor’s colorblind casting practices.

Lily James seemed a little bland in the title role when I saw her in trailers, but she grows on you throughout the movie. Probably half of her job is just to pose prettily, as the film is rather light on dialogue, but James manages to craft a Cinderella who, though her mantra of “courage and kindness” and her stubbornly smiling stoicism in the face of her stepmother’s abuse get a little tiresome, also possesses enough real charm and humor that I can almost see why the prince wants to marry her before knowing her name.

Richard Madden is well-cast as the prince, who is even given a name here, or rather a nickname, “Kit.” I adore Nonso Anozie, so I was happy to see his handsome face as the captain of the guard, even though I think he’s wasted in these sort of secondary roles. Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera were fine as the stepsisters, if a little too cartoonish for my taste. Helena Bonham-Carter, of course, is an actual cartoon in real life, and thus a perfect choice for a fairy godmother; she gives a magical performance in this movie.

Finally, Cate Blanchett steals every scene she’s in. I only wish they would have done a better job of deciding if they wanted her to be an irredeemable caricature of wicked stepmother-ness or if they wanted her to be a human character that the audience is supposed to sympathize with a little. Her aesthetic and her strut say wicked, but her eyes often contradict that. It’s confusing.

Some stray thoughts:

  • I could have done with a few fewer slightly anthropomorphized animals, although I’m grateful that none of them actually talked.
  • I could have done with a bit less (or perhaps a bit more) blatant costume porn.
  • I have a very hard time believing that is Lily James’ real waist in that dress.
  • That lime green color that was on lots of things was great, but the blue dress was actually a little to bright to be really pretty.
  • The butterflies on the top of it were nice though.
  • I was bummed that they revealed the ballgown in trailers for the film, but I think now that it’s because the real showstopper is her wedding dress at the end, which is stunning.

Cinderella is good, but not great. I remember reading a ton of pieces when it was first in theaters that were variously declaring it to be either the pinnacle or the end of feminism, and it turns out that it’s neither, in my opinion. This Cinderella isn’t a trailblazer or an independent woman of any kind; she’s just a nice girl with a pretty dress who endures an abusive situation with grace and gets to live happily ever after because she’s a good person. And that’s enough, I think.

I don’t want to watch this movie a hundred times like I have Ever After or Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (which I can’t believe are both pushing twenty years old, by the way), but it’s a solid entry into the canon of Cinderella movies.