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Hollywood’s Femme Fatality Rate

Hollywood’s Femme Fatality Rate (photo)

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You can’t blame women for liking movies with heroines over 50 who haven’t shut down sexually. Middle-aged men should understand the appeal of that, as well. If pop culture is going to be populist, then middle-age moviegoers should be able to find things that speak to their romantic fantasies. “Nights in Rodanthe,” a terrible movie, offered the pleasure of seeing two stars, Diane Lane and Richard Gere, who still look like themselves at midlife (that is, aged naturally instead of encased in plastic), and the promise of movie-star glamour and romance.

The trouble is that Meyers presides over the betrayal of the romantic comedy, which as a genre has gone from a hardheaded acceptance of life’s contingencies to a place for the privileged whining of a culture infantilized by identity politics and complaint as a way of life.

The film critic Maitland McDonagh has pointed out that the heroines in Meyers’ movie almost completely define their worth by their children or their spouses, or by the decor of their houses. Meyers’ heroines are independent basket cases, affluent and alone and miserable instead of, as the classic romantic comedy heroine usually was, competent and sharp and surprised by love when she stumbled over it.

And sisterhood only goes so far in Meyers’ films. Merkin quotes women over 40 talking about how they see themselves in Meyers’ heroines. She doesn’t get around to younger women, say 35 and under, who Meyers consistently portrays as mindless bimbos, vampiric husband stealers, or, at best, bunny-brained little things too tender to know the mean truth about what men are.

As for the men, until they’re tamed by the heroine, they’re crumbs. The finale of “It’s Complicated” is a classic emasculation fantasy in which it’s not enough at the end of the movie for Alec Baldwin to apologize to his ex Meryl Streep for screwing up her romance with Steve Martin. Streep has to extract a retroactive apology for the whole of their marriage, thus giving her the smug satisfaction of having been right all along.

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You look at the great romantic comedies of the past — George Cukor’s “Holiday,” “The Awful Truth,” “The Moon’s Our Home,” the “Thin Man” series, “The Shop Around the Corner,” “The Philadelphia Story,” and probably the greatest of all American movie comedies, “The Lady Eve” — and an awful lot of real life, of the complications of sex and love and marriage, is there under the froth. Romantic comedy was always about taking a chance on love. There were no guarantees at the fade-out. We knew the lovers would never find anyone they liked as much as they liked each other, but we also had seen enough of how rocky things were for them to know that life together was going to be anything but smooth.

Contemporary romantic comedies are either revenge fantasies set-decorated by Pottery Barn, or, in the films starring younger actresses, preliminaries to taking out a subscription to Brides magazine. They are less about taking chances than taking out an insurance policy on the future, pretending that everything will be fine forever after.

And uncomfortable as it is to admit, it has to be said that since women are the audience that makes these movies hits, it’s women who are colluding in reaffirming the stereotypes of women as timid and prudish, awash in princess fantasies. There was a lot of ideological bushwah directed at Katharine Heigl’s decision to go ahead with her pregnancy in “Knocked Up” — a sign of our desire to believe complicated issues can always be resolved in the most progressive terms. But Heigl’s performance honors the confusion and fear and uncertainty of her character, and it’s depressing to watch her reduced to the likes of “27 Dresses” or the unbearable “The Ugly Truth” in which she’s playing the kind of prude that used to be reserved for the women cast as W.C. Fields’ wives.

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What hope is there for an actress with the crazed comic spark of Elizabeth Banks when we’re asked to adore Amy Adams’ virgin twinkle in picture after picture? Parker Posey’s melancholy dervish of a performance in Zoe Cassavetes’ “Broken English” (a movie that played like an American version of a Rohmer film) should be recognized as a classic of romantic comedy. And while none of us know the demons the late Brittany Murphy was battling, even before her death you could only be sad that that someone who showed such a great unfettered comic spirit, such uninhibited physical talent could only get the likes of “Just Married.”

Of course, it would be great for women filmmakers to challenge the status quo of the mainstream, but is there an audience of women moviegoers ready to support the ones who do? I have heard it said by more than one woman that Kathryn Bigelow, who may become the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar, for “The Hurt Locker,” directs like a man. What can that mean except that there are approved topics for male and female directors and that you risk your gender identity by straying from them? In other words, a movie about war is nothing a woman should make or be interested in. (It might be revealing to ask the women who say this whether or not women should be allowed to serve in the military.)

I don’t want to deny the sexism women directors face, or that there should be more women filmmakers. But we need better films and better chances for good filmmakers, no matter who they are. And I don’t want to set up a phony duel between the mainstream and indie movies. There should be pictures that everyone can see and enjoy and there should be mainstream movies geared to an adult sensibility. But pretending that the mainstream is the only arena that counts is a way of further marginalizing the films that don’t adhere to formula and spectacle, and it’s a way of marginalizing the women filmmakers and actors who have somehow managed to keep working outside of it. The story of women working in movies is an important one. It’s just taking place on a bigger scale than most journalists have covered.

Carol Cate Blanchett

Spirit Guide

Check Out the Spirit Awards Nominees for Best Male and Female Leads

Catch the 2016 Spirit Awards live Feb. 27th at 5P ET/2P PT on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Wilson Webb/©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

From Jason Segel’s somber character study of author David Foster Wallace, to Brie Larson’s devastating portrayal of a mother in captivity, the 2016 Spirit Awards nominees for Best Male and Female Leads represent the finest in the year of film acting. Take a look at the Best Male and Female Leads in action, presented by Jaguar.

Best Male Lead 

Christopher Abbott, James White
Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation
Ben Mendelsohn, Mississippi Grind
Jason Segel, The End of the Tour
Koudous Seihon, Mediterranea

Watch more Male Lead nominee videos here.

Best Female Lead 

Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Rooney Mara, Carol
Bel Powley, The Diary of A Teenage Girl
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Tangerine

Watch more Female Lead nominee videos here.

Ranting in Pictures

Ranting in Pictures (photo)

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“I am just using pieces of media to describe the sense of ‘two New Yorks’ or ‘two Americas’ that folks always talk about in solemn, wary tones, but which I experience every day and find pleasantly hallucinogenic,” Boone says.

“Notes for a David Lynch Adaptation of ‘Moonwalk'” is even more striking. Boone uses ripped DVD imagery, still photos and bits of Jackson interviews culled from YouTube to argue that Lynch is the ideal director to film Michael Jackson’s memoir. The piece risks sensory overload, combining fragments of audio interviews, text quotes from Jackson’s book and scenes and music cues lifted from “The Elephant Man,” “The Straight Story,” “Eraserhead,” “Mulholland Dr.” and Lynch’s short “The Grandmother.” The various elements swarm across the screen, piling atop each other like an anguished dreamer’s thoughts.

“The ‘Moonwalk’ piece was simply my reaction to Michael’s death and his 1988 autobiography, which I read shortly afterward,” Boone says. “The book was mostly polished public relations, but a lot of the guy’s pain and confusion leaked through. I wanted to stick up for him as a person who seemed to strive for purity and grace, and for David Lynch as an artistic soulmate in that regard.”

Speaking of anguished dreamers: Lynch would appreciate the gutbucket craziness of Damon Packard. The L.A.-based filmmaker’s work has mash-up and video essay qualities, but it operates on its own frequency, interweaving original material with bits from TV ads, local cable shows, Hollywood blockbusters and underground movies. Packard’s YouTube channel is a grab bag of work-for-hire and personal projects, including pieces of his 2002 horror film “Reflections of Evil.” But whether he directed a particular work for himself or someone else, his personality always comes through — and not just because Packard acts in his own films, often casting himself as a insane fringe-dweller, a slapstick clown or some combination. (Packard also played L. Ron Hubbard in “Mock Up and Mu” (2008), a hallucinogenic “biography” of the Scientology founder.) His YouTube shorts critique Hollywood notions of professionalism, beauty and pleasure by juxtaposing them against amateurism, insanity and pain.

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To that end, Packard’s “Indiana Jones Trailer Rejected by Lucasfilm” highlights the franchise’s comic book version of white supremacy by syncing an Indy trailer’s soundtrack to scenes from Bertrand Tavernier’s “Coup de Torchon” (1981), a sweaty drama about a vicious cop (Philippe Noiret) wreaking vengeance on his enemies in French colonial Senegal.

Packard’s “Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary Trailer” merges DVD supplement footage of George Lucas blathering about the marvels of all-digital filmmaking with snippets from the “Star Wars” series, other fantasy films, blaxploitation pictures, pornography and inserts of a wild-eyed Packard waving his hands like a sorcerer. The short opens with the “Apocalypse Now” scene in which Capt. Willard receives his mission, suggesting that Lucas is Hollywood’s version of Col. Kurtz — a once-gifted man who went mad and withdrew into a private kingdom full of worshippers.

Packard’s mock trailer for “Mission Impossible III” puts the villain’s most hateful monologue in the mouth of an infant, and spoofs the movie’s anything-for-an-adrenaline-rush mentality with quick-cut shots of the trailer’s portly, balding hero sprinting through a park and rolling on the sidewalk while firing a laser pistol.

Packard’s work reserves special outrage for Hollywood’s sense of entitlement — the mentality that expects regular ticket buyers to enjoy the sight of heroes strutting through life, barking out orders and treating social inferiors like shit. “Grizzly Redux,” for instance, takes a hackneyed scene from the “Jaws” rip-off “Grizzly” in which Christopher George’s macho sheriff chews out an underling over the phone, and imagines the other end of the conversation: an overworked, unappreciated deputy demanding to be treated with respect. (“I’m gonna be on the unemployment line? Who the fuck do you think you are, buddy?”)

“Damon Packard is a genius,” Boone says. “His movies are about all those earthy textures and silly dreams and schlocky thrills being quietly disappeared in the new globalized, power-obsessed media scheme. It was always about power, but now absolutely every image is micromanaged to express nothing but power, domination, mania.”

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Packard’s hybrid shorts “…clearly have the ‘video essay’ value of communicating their worldview — albeit quite indirectly, through parody,” says Catherine Grant, a research fellow at the School of Film and Media at the University of Sussex and publisher of the blog Film Studies for Free. “And their target — the unbelievably smug and vacuous promotional culture of mainstream film — is very well chosen and also well hit.”

“I’ve become known as a mash-up person even though it’s not something that interests me,” says Packard. “I’d be the reluctant mash-up person, if anything. A mash-up artist in my mind is somebody who fabricates something entirely out of found footage. There are a lot of people on the Web doing that, and some of them are very good editors, like the people that made the re-cut ‘Shining’ trailer and the one that turned ‘Mary Poppins’ into a Lionsgate horror movie. But I was never that guy, and there’s so much of that sort of thing on YouTube now that it’s become kind of pointless.”

Asked to characterize his own work, Packard says, “It’s as if somebody like Spielberg had never had a successful career and instead ended up on YouTube. It’s the failed Spielberg.”

The Best Films of 2009

The Best Films of 2009 (photo)

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4. “Up”

It would be an understatement to say that I’m not a crier at movies. I’ve lost count of the number of times my wife has turned to me after we’ve watched a film, observed my dry eyes and remarked, “You are dead inside.” But when I saw “Up,” for the first time at the Cannes Film Festival, I cried my eyes out. And when I saw it again with my wife, I cried again. And when I heard Michael Giacchino’s exquisite theme wafting through an electronics store last week, my eyes started to well up with tears. Director Pete Docter struck a nerve with this film, for me and for a lot of people, with that beautiful montage spanning a couple’s long and happy marriage from its meet cute to its final, tragic goodbye and from that emotional low point, he took us soaring skyward on a marvelous high adventure. And when the adventure is over and Carl Fredricksen gives his new friend Russell the badge he’s kept to remember his dead wife…I’m sorry, does anybody have a tissue?

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3. “Drag Me to Hell”

The “Spider-Man” franchise gave Sam Raimi the same thing that fateful spider’s bite gave Peter Parker: great powers shackled to great responsibilities. Freed from the tangled web of franchise stewardship, Raimi unleashed one of his giddiest films to date, a pure blast of genre cinema loaded with scare sequences that can hang with the best in history. Like Spider-Man, Alison Lohman’s Christine Brown is a woman with a secret identity, including a past as a country bumpkin “fat girl” she’s trying to mask with diction tapes. She has great power, too, only she refuses to acknowledge that it comes with great (fiscal) responsibilities. So she pays a terrible price, one that Raimi exacts with the same trademark blend of humor and horror that made his early masterpieces so special. As far as I’m concerned, this film is their equal.

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2. “Summer Hours”

The question of what to do with someone’s valuable possessions after they’ve died was a recurring motif in 2009, appearing as the
subject of the festival circuit favorite “The Art of the Steal” and bubbling beneath the surface of the oddly compelling Michael Jackson documentary “This Is It.” But the best exploration of the theme came in Olivier Assayas’ “Summer Hours,” where a family debates what to do with their late mother’s estate. In doing so, Assayas was able to examine just what makes a piece of art valuable. Is it the price it can fetch at auction or the sentimental attachment we ascribe to it? Ironically, this film that began its life as part of a project commissioned by the Musée d’Orsay, suggests that the best place for an “important” work of art may not actually be behind glass in some museum, but rather in the home of someone who truly loves it.

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1. “Two Lovers”

Most people got so wrapped up in its star’s unfortunately timed public meltdown that they completely overlooked this wonderful film and the absolutely mesmeric lead performance delivered by Joaquin Phoenix. He plays Leonard, a man whose emotional pendulum swings from suicidal urges after a particularly painful breakup to euphoria when he becomes romantically involved with two different women: Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the stable daughter of his father’s business partner, and Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), the mentally unbalanced neighbor with a married boyfriend. “Two Lovers” is small in size, but it packs as big an emotional payoff as any film of 2009: consider the poignant scene where Leonard helps Michelle, who doesn’t share Leonard’s feelings for her, by fulfilling her request to write on her arm while she falls asleep. His message: “I love you.” Her reaction: to nod off before he finishes the sentence. Too bad audiences slept on this brilliant little gem from co-writer/director James Gray. They missed out on the most fully realized, best-acted film of the year.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): “Avatar,” “The Box,” “The House of the Devil,” “Humpday,” “The Limits of Control,” “Police, Adjective,” “A Serious Man,” “Star Trek,” “Still Walking,” “Up in the Air”

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Alison Willmore: I used to think the days when there were certain movies that everyone saw, from your hipster musician friend to your grandmother, were over, that the ever-expanding amount number of new releases in theaters and burgeoning nichification were making us into a nation whose moviegoing habits would forever after run on dozens of parallel tracks.

Judging by this year, I’m both right and wrong — we’re still willing to turn out en masse for spectacle, and the blockbuster powers on stronger, more expansive and more expensive than ever in IMAX-greenscreened-franchise-glorious-3D. It on where we look for art that opinions differ. The Oscars are probably going to come down to a battle between “Up in the Air” and “Precious”; the critics adore “The Hurt Locker” and “Inglourious Basterds”; the fanboy crowd can make perfectly legit arguments for the excellence of “Star Trek” and “Avatar.”

And me? Well, like Matt, I found choosing just ten best films from 2009 to be tougher than it’s ever been — my tenth pick could easily have been a twenty-way tie. But what’s the point of that? Amongst my favorites this year are a melancholgic kiddie flick, a digital video journal and the first major film to deal with the “war” part of the Iraq War. And for all that the act of writing those descriptions strongly recalls the past year to me, and for all the indisputable quality of so many of those releases, I struggled with my top pick. There wasn’t a single stand-out this year — or maybe it’ll take some distance and perspective to figure out what that stand-out is.

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10. “The Missing Person”

Noah Buschel’s neglected third feature is my favorite of the handful of films to directly deal with 9/11. Michael Shannon, at his punch-drunk best, is John Rosow, a man who’s supposedly a private eye but who’s mostly just lost, burning off the latter half of his life in a gin-soaked stupor in a one-room apartment in Chicago. Besuited, bedraggled and always being denied the opportunity for a cigarette, Rosow is a man out of time, à la Elliott Gould in “The Long Goodbye,” stumbling and mumbling attempted smart-ass remarks that never seem to connect. But Rosow’s oddness, and the dreamlike, disconnected nature of the case he takes — he’s hired to retrieve a man presumed dead in the attacks on the Twin Towers — add to the feeling that the film’s substance is less updated noir and more alcoholic’s grief-stricken hallucination, something compounded by revelations of Rosow’s traumatic past and the fact that it’s forcing Rosow to return to New York, rather than any mystery, that’s really the core of the narrative. When he finally climbs into a cab being driven by a punk rock blasting chain smoker, the smile on his face — it’s a moment of bittersweet Gothamite love and longing that cut me to the quick.

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9. “Paradise”

Compiled of snippets shot over the years on digital video, Michael Almereyda’s documentary is a diary film that never shows its subject — the director gives an occasional prompt or response from behind the camera, but doesn’t appears before it. The result is something simultaneously intensely personal and universal, like the chance to sift through someone’s favorite memories free of the shadow of any overt larger context. Or maybe, more appropriately, their blog, as there’s something very new media, in the best sense of the term, about “Paradise”‘s video collage. Divided loosely into four sections, the film strings together footage from multiple continents and settings, from a stop by the side of the road to catch fireflies to a boy in Tehran falling into a pool to a pause between takes on the set of “The New World.” The “Paradise” of the title is one glimpsed, kaleidoscopically, in these small, perfect, earthly moments.

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8. “A Serious Man”

To call Michael Stuhlbarg’s Larry Gopnik a modern-day Job is to miss a certain point — Gopnik’s travails, as magnified by the Coen brothers’ off-kilter take on the suburban ’60s Minnesota in which they grew up, are really no more biblical than those endured by countless other harried everymen and women enduring the slings and arrows of daily existence. We simply see them loom large and inexplicable through his eyes, as his seemingly stable marriage abruptly breaks up, his children seem comically indifferent to issues other than television reception and a Columbia Records rep calls insistently about an account overdue. The Coens surrealism serves perfectly the giant theme at hand — like Gopnik, we all long for a sense of larger purpose and a connection between the good or evil we do and the fortune that then befalls us. And like Gopnik, we let events accrue into portents because they’re happening to us — whether by design or by chance, and whether we chose Talmudic wisdom or Jefferson Airplane lyrics to guide us.

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7. “Public Enemies”

There’s tension throughout Michael Mann’s movie between the period setting and the indelibly modern high-definition digital photography used to capture it — we see the 1930s costuming, the cars, the tommy guns, and it all appears quite convincing, but that’s not the way that era is supposed to look. It’s a brilliant subversion of the visual coffin in which cinema tends to place the past, a continual reminder that the people being portrayed on screen were once messy, unpredictable and alive. That divide between how we think of those who filter through to us media first versus who we interact with in the flesh masterfully informs “Public Enemy”‘s treatment of its subject, bank robber John Dillinger (embodied with all expected elan by Johnny Depp), for whom infamy provides a kind of superpower. In person, Dillinger may loom larger than life, but no living person could embody the legend he’s established for himself, and so he can sit in a movie theater while they warn the crowd to look around them for the country’s most wanted criminal, and not be afraid — he’s not the man they’re looking for.

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