‘Cause we are sisters

As Frozen moves off the throne of “most recent animated release that’s taken over our toys, our vitamins, and ourselves” and moves into production on Frozen 2, I’m starting to see a lot of people talking about how Frozen was never the best sister story from Disney anyway. Lilo & Stitch was.

Here’s my rebuttal: They both are.

As a middle sister who grapples with depression, I understood all too well the mixture of shame, embarrassment, and sadness Elsa felt when she hid herself (and her powers) away from Anna all those years. I knew the feeling of thinking that if you could just get yourself under control you could release yourself from your self-made prison. And my sisters knew the feeling of having a sister hide out in her room. sisters

For all you can say about Frozen‘s rushed plot or some of the worser songs of the Disney canon, sitting in the theater I recognized the feelings there—I felt the feelings there, for the characters and for myself. That’s good work.

But I’m also a sister who’s got a good 15 years on her youngest sister. As we watched her celebrate her ninth birthday this week, I saw the same spark and creativity that painted Lilo’s world; the zest and kindness she feels towards everyone and everything she wants to welcome into her fun. When I rewatched Lilo & Stitch recently, it hit me that I understood Nani’s sense of responsibility for her younger sister. Sure my parents are still alive and I’m not tasked with raising her, but this situation is much more relatable to me than it was when I first saw the film 14 years ago. deja-vu-the-recycled-feminism-of-disney-s-frozen-2710c683-a042-479f-b873-43cc3c563cd6-png-37570

That the feeling rung true to me 14 years prior and still now, as I am closer to that possibility (and hopefully not too close) shows the strength of the connection built there.

To me, neither of these films are better than the other—at least, not on the grounds of their sister work. There’s an argument to be made that Frozen was able to be celebrated because it was about two white girls, even if it somewhat recycled the feminism of Lilo & Stitch. That shouldn’t be unexplored. But to me that doesn’t make Frozen bad, or redundant. These are two, distinct and graceful stories about sister love. Here’s to many more.

Squad Goals?

Well the results are in and Suicide Squad is not a crowd critic pleaser. It’s adding more fuel on the fire to certain fanboys’ belief that critics are in the pocket of Big Marvel, that they’r enemies of fun, that they’ll do anything to keep DC down. But I think if we’re all being honest with ourselves the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in DC.

dc-comics-logo-legends-of-tomorrowThere was a time when DC movies were the clear victor: The original Superman movies are iconic, and the 1990s Batman movies at least had a home amongst audiences.During that time Marvel was going through a near bankruptcy, selling off most of its properties in order to stay afloat, and on paper struggling against DC’s might.

Then came Batman & Robin. Then Catwoman, seven years later. During this time Marvel was planting the seeds for a supergroup, a radical idea that there was a way to translate their heroes to screen in a massive cinematic universe. DC seems to have spent that time recapturing the glory.

And that glory was always a bit hokey: I mean, it’s not like Tim Burton directed Batman and people were expecting gritty, Alan Moore-esque. In fact these movies were in stark contrast with the comics of the time. Which is why Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy came out of nowhere.

It was four years before Marvel would strike gold with Iron Man, and Batman Begins seemed to do a lot of things well. Any bad aspects of it could be forgiven because it was so enthralling, tough, and true to Batman. Then The Dark Knight came out in 2008 and suddenly DC seemed to be owning the game again—this time with a brand new tone. The problem is, it was never really DC’s tone for their cinematic universe. It was Nolan’s.The Dark Knight

As an auteur and a postmodern filmmaker, Nolan makes movies that are meticulous, that hold up on rewatches, that dip into modern themes just enough to interrogate them a bit but not enough to be off-putting or admonishing. On creating The Dark Knight trilogy he said: “You try and get the audience to invest in cinematic reality. When I talk about reality in these films, it’s often misconstrued as a direct reality, but it’s really about a cinematic reality.”

Which is perhaps something DC is still struggling with. They believe that they’ve found their niche—more nihilistic, gritty, and grimey films to Marvel’s sun and fun approach—but they’re playing with someone else’s viewpoint. They can’t capture the magic because it isn’t theirs. In the years since Nolan left DC (and arguably somewhat while he was there) the doom and gloom of DC has become monotonous, with attempts to ape it popping up seemingly everywhere.

For whatever depth an audience can read into a Marvel movie, they understand their strengths, their point-of-view, and their heroes. They know what the audience wants to see and they know how to surprise them when they’re seeing it (even if it’s the 18th time they’ve trotted out the same formula). It’s allowed them to be more ambitious, turning the modern superhero film out to different genres. They are controlling the conversation and minting money doing so.

DC’s approach seems entirely in response: Response to what audiences seem to react to, response to the MCU, response to Nolan’s tonal shift for the comic company. They rushed into Batman v. Superman because they wanted to compete with Marvel’s Avengers, already on their second adventure together, and growing stronger and bigger every time. They pushed out Suicide Squad as their own version of a demented Avengers, a team of Deadpools, who might lighten the hearts and level the playing field. But as the reviews roll in, it seems that it’s just one more example of DC’s universe being an answer, not a statement.

#InternationalWitchesDay

I really enjoyed The Witch. It’s the kind of horror movie that doesn’t go for jump-scares, but creeps under your skin and makes itself at home for days after you’ve seen it. But there’s one thing that bothers me about it.

There’s a lot to pick apart in this “New England folktale,” but one of the key components was Thomasin’s role in the family, and in the greater world. She attracts Caleb’s wandering gaze, her mother’s ire, her father’s goals of “bounding Thomasin out.” It’s possible to read The Witch‘s folktale as one that delivers Thomasin from the evil (or at least mistreatment) of her family to a happier life. The movie distinctly notes that Thomasin is budding into a woman, and while her family isn’t sure how to handle her the witches of the forest are. They see all she can be.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 1.59.37 PMBut that’s only insofar as the movie allows us into her mindset. At the end when we see her make her choice to “live deliciously” as Black Phillip/the Devil offers her it’s bittersweet and triumphant: Her family has died around her (or whatever happened to the twins), the farm fallen to ruin, and she has no where to go where she won’t be punished for crimes she did not commit. And so she chooses witchcraft, and becomes more happy and free than we’ve ever seen her. It’s a happy ending, if the movie pivots itself around her.

While The Witch seems to take pride in not answering all our questions (sometimes justly so) it also leaves us unclear on where Thomasin’s headspace really is: As her brother’s adulthood starts to observe her own, as her mother takes out her anguish on her, as her father lets her take the fall—does she know? Does she care? As Angelica Basten wrote for Vague Visages “We watch many figures gaze upon Thomasin, but never are we privy to her gaze.” It’s a subtle shift in construction, but it’s something that, as Basten writes, might not be so foreign or extraneous to a female filmmaker.

It’s the sort of thing that’s so unappreciated, almost always unnoticed. It wasn’t until yesterday’s #BitchFlicks chat, when they asked how film could change if schools emphasized women’s film history. More people would start to realize the singularity of our film narratives; how few stories are told from a woman’s gaze and how conditioned we are to see men’s as “normal.”

It’s exciting to see a woman throw off the shackles of “the norm” and accept the freedom offered her, even if that comes in dark, mysterious ways. The Witch is a great example of that. I just really hope that was intentional.

Xenomorph Throwdown?

Two weeks ago I saw Aliens for the first time. Despite my Dad being a major sci-fi nerd, and fan of all things space-y, Alien(s) had escaped our repertoire. Having now seen both of these (and avoiding Alien^3 for now) I’ve formed my own opinion about which one is better: They’re incomparable.

Both installments are solid movies in their own right, but neither of them is the same movie, nor were they able to use all the same tricks. They’re two different movies that happen to be about the same thing.

Different Genres

For starters, these movies are two different genres. Sure, they’re both sci-fi, but Aliens is distinctly action-oriented. It’s one of the things people comment most about it (though a gun isn’t fired until about an hour into the movie); where Alien was all cool and collected horror, Aliens is full of gruff space marines charging into a nest of the titular monster.

And while Aliens is all macho, gung-ho, action-power almost from the very beginning, Alien is sleek and quiet, earning itself as a true precursor to the slasher age of horror. Moody, artsy, and full of lingering shots to hype the horror, it’s in an entirely different category than its action-packed sequel.

Hell, even the movie posters recognize that:

Different Sub-Generes

If you really do want to classify them both as horror, it’s clear that they’re on two different types. The first one deals with body horror; the intimacy and somewhat sexualized nature of the violence brings it close to home, no matter how far across the universe the ship may ultimately be. But the sequel keeps battle at a distance, and the movie (like its titular beast) adapts. This is a movie about surviving when all options have been cut off; the movie painstackingly establishes each and every solution being overcome and overwhelmed by the alien threat.

To simplify it: Alien is a haunted house. Aliens is a zombie movie.

Delayed Gratification

Ridley Scott, director of Alien has a major advantage: Audiences watching his film for the first time have no idea what they’re in for. And as the movie progresses, the alien evolves, from face-hugger to chest-burster to fully formed xenomorph, and just like the crew we watch, audiences have no idea what creature will finally crawl out of the shadow and confront Ripley.

pic-2.jpg

Aliens has no such luxury. Now they have to build on not just the mega-powerful alien that Ripley ultimately couldn’t even kill, but they also have to do it with someone we know is the hero from the get-go—unlike in Alien, when the script has a bit of a bait-and-switch as to who our last woman standing will be.

 

Sure, there’s a lot of overlap here, both in themes and plot developments. But honestly, the films feel so starkly different to me, that the idea of using them to directly rival each other is strictly alien.

Life, Death, and Biopics

Last night when I finally got to see “Straight Outta Compton,” I found myself suddenly seeing a theme—and it wasn’t just Paul Giamatti playing a voice of demented reason to a breakout star musician. Rather, it was the fresh voice that music biopics were getting.

imrsZosha-circa-mid-2000s could’ve been convinced that avenue was done to death. Between “Ray” and “Walk the Line” it seemed like I could line up everything in the (seeming) boom of musician biopics and they’d hit all the same notes at the same time.

Which is why when “Jimi: All is By My Side” came out last year I didn’t expect much. A fictionalization of the year between when Jimi Hendrix got discovered and when he would release “Are You Experienced,” I didn’t find the film itself all that great. It was messy, tonally, and lacked the psychedelic oomph that its hero had. But since the Hendrix estate had denied the rights to any Hendrix songs, the filmmakers were a bit boxed in how they could portray Hendrix, leading to a biography that erred away from mythologizing its subject, and instead felt like a series of candid snapshots. At the time I felt that—though this film had let me down—there was hope for music biopics after all, if someone could improve upon the concept.

Which they did. This year’s “Love and Mercy,” and “Straight Outta Compton” show (in different ways) a new life in the biopic genre. love-mercyTheir artistry, each tailored to the tone of their subject, creates two dynamic films that sprawl but don’t bore. They introduce hardships without harping on a message. We followed their musicians far beyond a encapsulated period in their life (the other pillar I had found strong biopics to stand on; see “Good Night and Good Luck”) and wound through events big and small.

Music biopics are hardly a new invention, nor are they likely done forever. But this summer has really thrown a wrench in any idea I may have had that any one genre, focus, or technique is “dead.”

Another example would be when I walked out of “The Gallows”—not because it raised the hand-held horror genre to new heights, but because somewhere in the B-string summer scare movie was a good idea; a fresh take. Oddly, the film being essentially an echo of better flicks that came before it felt less like a nail in the coffin of the hand-held camera genre and more like an example of what not to do.

If you want to expand the genre you’re going to have to do a bit more than call it in. And if this summer’s run of music biopics have taught us anything, it’s that you may have to sing for it.

Some of my best friends are white males

In my Twitter journeys this morning, I happened across an article from Todd VanDerWerff in which he recommends USA’s new show “Mr. Robot” as an alternative specifically to viewers who have put up with enough from “True Detective.”

“Men are forever defining themselves against some weird, hidden code of masculinity that supposedly their grandfathers had access to but they can’t seem to crack,” writes VanDerWerff. “So let me suggest something else: Literally everything fans say they want from True Detective is being done much better by a ridiculously titled show on the USA Network about a computer hacker: Mr. Robot. The show, which airs new episodes on Wednesdays and is available on Hulu, is one of the best in years about what it means to be a man in modern America.”

The article definitely got me on the hook to finally go watch “Mr. Robot” (though I didn’t read the whole thing because spoiler alert). But it also tapped into a concept that’s been crossing my mind lately: I am inherently more interested in “other” stories. And white male protagonists have to prove themselves to me.

I’m not trying to be here for tokenism, but I am tired of “unbelievability” being the basis for centering stories on white, male (and usually cis, straight, well-off, etc.). “Boyhood” won me over, but had its protagonist been a woman or a black kid coming up in Texas it would’ve been infinitely more interesting.

The double-edged sword is because stories from those who don’t see themselves reflect in the media are always inherently politicized. “Boyhood” had the comfort of not having a thesis; of meandering through its hero’s adolescent development. But a black kid? A woman? A trans person? Not so much. They’re victims of what I once heard described as the “Sailor Moon principle.”

Picture of Sailor Moon See the titular Sailor Moon, in her every day life as Usagi, is far from the elegant anime hero you’ve seen on backpacks and comics in the ’90s. She’s lazy, she loves eating, she’s unabashedly in love, and honestly? She’s kind of a ditz. If you dropped her character in an otherwise all-male cast, she would get dragged. No one wants her to be the representation of womanhood. But because her title is chock full of strong women, each their own individual with their own shortcomings and strengths, she’s a much more successful character.

In many ways I suppose this philosophy circles back a lot to my sincere belief that representation in the media matters. But it’s also just true that the inherent politicization extends far beyond the media we consume; if you don’t fit into a societal norm that area of your life is always more heavily politicized, whether you like it or not. It’s a pain to live with. But it’ll always add another degree to your story that will make it more interesting than it would’ve been with a run-of-the-mill white male protagonist. (One of my favorite Tumblr ideas I can’t find the link for is to swap out all white male protagonists for old Grandmas to make a story instantly more interesting. “Ocean’s 11,” “Goodfellas,” you name it)

Kerry Bishe as Donna Clark and Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe - Halt and Catch Fire _ Season 2, Episode 6 - Photo Credit: Annette Brown/AMC“Friday Night Lights” won me over by the end. But “Friday Night Lights” with women in the lead roles? More lesbian subplots? Here for it. I’m currently watching through “Halt and Catch Fire,” and though I’ve loved Lee Pace for a while, this show is a lot more interesting to me since I found out it’s (spoiler alert) setting up a finale where Cameron and Donna start their own company. As I muck through the early episodes, I’m a lot more interested in the casual subversion of “Halt and Catch Fire” if it’s leading to leaving AMC’s classic anti-hero arc behind for greener, women-led pastures.

I’m still interested in the way our culture explores and builds masculinity. Like I said, VanDerWerff makes a compelling case for “Mr. Robot,” despite it being focused on yet another white male. But I’m not as interested in giving these stories an automatic greenlight anymore.

We should all be exploring diverse voices. Especially when women and people of color can’t even use theirs without being policed.

No Aloha for White-washing

If you haven’t been following the “Aloha” casting-controversey it’s hard to fault you. The film is, after all, a total bomb and so you’re forgiven for not cluing yourself in too much. The important take-away is that in a film called “Aloha,” that centers on the fate and traditions of Hawai’i at odds with the U.S.’s interests, the main 14 characters are white. Which really in this day in age is shocking, especially since Oahu is only 17 percent white.

Meet the diverse line-up of "Aloha"
Meet the diverse line-up of “Aloha”

The main offender that people kept circling back to was the character of Allison Ng, played by Emma Stone. Often times when there’s a popular white actress (or actor) filmmakers distance themselves from the controversy, and just wait for it to all blow over. So there’s something to be said for Cameron Crowe stepping up to the plate and acknowledging he has something to learn.

Thank you so much for all the impassioned comments regarding the casting of the wonderful Emma Stone in the part of Allison Ng. I have heard your words and your disappointment, and I offer you a heart-felt apology to all who felt this was an odd or misguided casting choice. As far back as 2007, Captain Allison Ng was written to be a super-proud ¼ Hawaiian who was frustrated that, by all outward appearances, she looked nothing like one.  A half-Chinese father was meant to show the surprising mix of cultures often prevalent in Hawaii.  Extremely proud of her unlikely heritage, she feels personally compelled to over-explain every chance she gets. The character was based on a real-life, red-headed local who did just that.

Whether that story point felt hurtful or humorous has been, of course, the topic of much discussion. However I am so proud that in the same movie, we employed many Asian-American, Native-Hawaiian and Pacific-Islanders, both before and behind the camera… including Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, and his village, and many other locals who worked closely in our crew and with our script to help ensure authenticity.

We were extremely proud to present the island, the locals and the film community with many jobs for over four months. Emma Stone was chief among those who did tireless research, and if any part of her fine characterization has caused consternation and controversy, I am the one to blame.

I am grateful for the dialogue. And from the many voices, loud and small, I have learned something very inspiring. So many of us are hungry for stories with more racial diversity, more truth in representation, and I am anxious to help tell those stories in the future.

Crowe on The Uncool

It’s admirable, that Crowe is willing to eat crow and take responsibility, and his background does shed some light on the situation.

The problem is, it’s still not great. It’s mind-boggling to think that there are some out there who would see this as an anamoly—or worse, a decision based wholly on merit—but there are. And while Crowe clearly owns up to the need to learn something, 14 lead white characters isn’t a mistake or an oversight. It’s systematic.

Representation is more than something “people hunger for,” and that’s not a new concept to 2015.

The original “Star Trek,” set against the cultural backdrop of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement, not too long after World War II. Its commanding crew featured a Russian, a Black Woman (in an actual role), a Japanese man (who was actually in an internment camp as a child), and their science fiction regularly dealt with the friction present on 1960s Earth. Seeing Nichelle Nichols on the bridge is what inspired Whoopi Goldberg to be an actress and Mae Jemison to become the first African American woman to become an astronaut. The show was so representative for the Civil Rights movement that Martin Luther King, Jr. asked Nichols to stay on the show.

“Star Trek” embraced a life beyond cultural divides through representation. “Aloha” sidelines what people of color it does have; all but marking them as “others.”

To say that white-passing is the same as white erases valuable voices that could’ve provided some commentary around the film. Crowe is by no means the first (nor, sadly, likely the last) to take an ill-advised turn into the white-washing, and for Crowe to say that in 2015 he’s “learned something inspiring” silences the voices that deserve to be heard over his on the subject.

The Unbearable Feminism of Whedon

To preface all of this, I haven’t seen “Avengers: Age of Ultron” yet. By circumstantial law I am bound to see it either with my best friend or for Mother’s Day, and neither of those things have happened yet.

I have, however, managed to follow along with the controversy. Particularly once Joss Whedon left Twitter. Because although he left his reasons initially secret, the ensuing madness made clear that Whedon was just the latest victim in the radical feminist’s war against everybody. (He’s since come out and said that is “horseshit” and that everyone should move on; I’m looking at you Oswalt) Joss Whedon

Despite being a card-carrying, self-identified feminist, Whedon frequently faces blowback over his works because people find them so anti-woman sometimes. They’re not wrong either. Whedon’s track record of writing complex and strong women is equally rife with narratives that abuse and punish those same women. His brand of feminism is often stalled, somewhere in the 90s girl power/white feminism movement, leaving all else as sort of collateral.

But the thing I’d argue could never be said about Whedon is that he is simple. His narratives are always complicated, involved, and in my experience largely two-sided. In that latter part I am specifically referring to (what I have inferred about) the debate around Black Widow’s role in “Age of Ultron.” To simplify her to merely a love-interest (and later experiences with fertility) robs the arc of quiet revolution it achieves just by flipping the narrative between Natasha and Bruce.

8438f1df93ca7ee304d23fb44b2f57d7ab7f1a1fJoss Whedon isn’t perfect, and nor is his body of work. It deserves to be discussed in-depth, and analyzed from a perspective of social justice because everything does. But it’s important to me to remember that Whedon is both more and less self-aware than people give him credit for. He’s a straight, white, cis, privileged male who won’t get it right necessarily because he doesn’t know better (that’s what privilege is). But on the other, he strikes me as a guy who’s trying.

“For someone like Anita Sarkeesian to stay on Twitter and fight back the trolls is a huge statement,” he said. “It’s a statement of strength and empowerment and perseverance, and it’s to be lauded. For somebody like me to argue with a bunch of people who wanted Clint and Natasha to get together [in the second Avengers film], not so much. For someone like me even to argue about feminism — it’s not a huge win. Because ultimately I’m just a rich, straight, white guy. You don’t really change people’s minds through a tweet. You change it through your actions. The action of Anita being there and going through that and getting through that and women like her — that says a lot.” –part of Whedon’s statement on why he left

But then, we’ll find out when I finally get to see “Age of Ultron.”