Sunday, February 26, 2006

Powerful or eye-candy?

Angelina Jolie became "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," Halle Berry choked on the furball that was "Catwoman" and now Charlize Theron becomes the latest Oscar winner to become a female action star as "Aeon Flux."

At times it seems like a cruel rite of passage for an actress to star in an action movie. If she's lucky she'll come sporting skin-tight outfits, and scantily glad ones if she's not. She'll talk tough and kick the butt of all the males that stand in her way. But is this women’s empowerment or just the same male fantasy dressed up for the modern age?

Critic Roger Ebert wrote of "Catwoman" that the film was about nothing more than “Halle Berry’s beauty, sex appeal, figure, eyes, lips and costume design. It gets those right. Everything else is secondary, except for the plot, which is tertiary.”

Berry, Jolie and Theron aside, there have been a lot of these lone female assassins lately from Jennifer Garner’s “Electra” to Kate Beckinsale in “Underworld” and Milla Jovovich as “Ultraviolet.” With the market so flooded by female assassins, you have to wonder how they all manage to stay in the-saving-the-world business.

In these films the female leads are eye candy. In the worst example of the female action genre, “Charlie Angels: Full Throttle,” it is through their sexuality that Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu succeed in their investigations.

In one scene the angels have to become strippers to get what they need. Surely, it would be more empowering to see intelligent women using their brains, not their bodies to save the day.

On a certain level, it can be empowering for women to watch females taking part in the heroics that were once left only to the males. For years women were merely a sidekick or love interest in the action film. Clearly, moving to the center stage is step in the right direction.

The problem is this step was made over 25 years ago in “Alien” in which the sole survivor of the film is Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. Her defeat of the alien isn’t some elaborate physical feat, but through ingenuity. She starts out the film weak and ends strong. That seems far more empowering than the female action stars of today.

Interestingly, Weaver stayed the center of the series until 1997’s “Alien Resurrection.” By the time she starred in this fourth entry of the series she was 48 years old.

While the series had degraded in quality by 1997, the franchise continued to explore the female action hero in interesting ways. In 1986’s “Aliens” Ripley was more or less just one of the guys, but also became a surrogate mother for an orphaned girl.

Similarly, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Conner in 1984’s “The Terminator” started out as a damsel in distress that was protected by a male hero. When the hero is killed, Sarah finds the strength to destroy Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. Much like Ripley in “Alien,” it is done through brains not brawn.

In “Terminator 2” Schwarzenegger’s villain has now become a hero, but Hamilton still remains a major presence and is more a second lead than mere side-kick. She is a tough warrior but also a mother and it’s this aspect that seems to counterbalance things. Just because she can be as strong as a man, doesn’t mean she has to give up her womanhood.

Of recent films, it is this aspect that added more weight to Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films. “Volume 1” was mindless, albeit well-made and fun entertainment, until in “Volume 2” you see Uma Thurman’s brutal assassin soften upon realizing she is mother. But this softening doesn’t make her weak. The film ends with the image of a strong, single mother.

Certainly, having the female action also be a mother isn’t the only way to retain her womanhood, but Hollywood isn’t even attempting to find another way. The next step isn't being made.

Instead, it is dumb the actress down, hand her a sword or a gun, put her in a sexy outfit and have her kick ass for two hours. Welcome to the world of sugarcoated, socially accepted feminism.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Insert a bad pun headline about Shakespeare here

Does William Shakespeare have a place in the contemporary world? Over 400 years after their creation Shakespeare’s works are still held in the highest regard. His plays are taught, read and performed around the world, but is it merely because we think that they should be or because they are truly great?

I pondered this question as I watched the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest take on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Novello Theatre. I thought back on all of Shakespeare’s plays I’ve seen live.

For some cynics it is easy to dismiss Shakespeare as tired and dated. Some may say his plays are predictable and follow a formula. His comedies all have the same elements, as do his histories and tragedies. There is truth in this, but it wasn’t the plot elements that what made Shakespeare great, but the insights and language.

Ah yes, the language, to some dense and seemly incomprehensible. No one talks like that today, so why should we listen? No one talked like that even in Shakespeare’s time. His use of words made dry language poetic and lyrical. His phrasings and most famous quotes have become part of the cultural lexicon.

Shakespeare managed to tap into the universalities of humanity. His works have stuck around because whether it is through drama or comedy he struck nerves that still reverberate today. Many of his observations on love, relating and people are as true today as they were when they were first written.

Once, during a performance of “Othello” I felt the air be sucked out of a room as an entire audience gasped when Othello strangled Desdemona. That is a testament to the raw power of Shakespeare’s work.

In the case of my most recent venture into Shakespeare the entire audience was laughing long and hard at the antics of the mischievous fairy Puck, an inept acting group and the assortment of other characters in perhaps Shakespeare’s oddest play. Yet behind all the foolery, Shakespeare laid a wry satire on class, love and theatre itself.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, like most new productions of Shakespeare, was given a contemporary setting. It is almost as if directors fear that audiences won’t connect with the material otherwise.

Although updating the material, while keeping the original language results in some awkward references that don’t fit in present day, when done right it can prove very clever. It further shows the versatility and relevance of Shakespeare’s work.

Shakespeare knew his audience was a mix of low and high class and he played to each accordingly. His comedies would feature sophisticated play on words and witty banter as well as slapstick, physical comedy. This is what made Shakespeare work then and it is what makes him work today.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Revenge of the indie

The Academy Award nominations for the 2006 ceremony have been released and with them an interesting development has occurred: the majority of the films nominated fall under the title independent.

As Richard Corliss noted in an article posted on Jan 31 at Time Magazine online “this is an Oscar year more dominated by non-blockbusters than any since 1997.” Four of the five best pictures are “indie” productions, as are many of the films featuring acting nominees.

With this influx of quality independent movies finally getting attention in the mainstream media, let’s take this opportunity to address what it truly means to be indie.

The image of indie cinema for many is probably that of a film made on the cheap with a group of unknown actors and a quirky story. Classic examples of this include Kevin Smith’s "Clerks" and Robert Rodriquez’s "El Mariachi."

While this type of indie filmmaking still exists because there will always be struggling young filmmakers trying for their big break, these aren’t the films that are garnering the big award attention this year.

Actors sensing that Hollywood has little to offer them in the means of challenging acting have been flocking to the fringes and in many cases forming their own production companies to produce something a bit different.

Perhaps the most successful example of this is George Clooney and director Stephen Soderbergh’s company Section Eight, which produced "Good Night, and Good Luck" and "Syriana" (both of which are up for at least one Oscar).

For a film to be considered independent it simply must be produced outside of the major Hollywood studios like Fox, Sony, Disney, Universal and Paramount. These studios may later pick up indie films with good buzz for distribution. This definition encompasses both "Clerks" type films as well as the increasingly more polished and slick looking films being produced outside of Hollywood.

This description is almost too broad as it also includes, believe it or not, the last three "Star Wars" films, which George Lucas did produce separate from the studio system, although you’d never tell as these films follow all the Hollywood formulas to the letter.

An indie film doesn’t necessarily have to be eccentric or edgy, but for these bigger budget independent films, there is something to be said for having what could be called an independent spirit. This is the same spirit that drives aspiring filmmakers to make their first film and it is the spirit to dare to be different.

This sort of spirit does creep into Hollywood itself every once in a while, especially if you’re a director like Steven Spielberg, who has the clout and reputation to make whatever he wants.

Corliss even noted that you could make a case that Spielberg’s Best Picture nominee "Munich" is indie since “what Hollywood filmmaker is more his own man than Steven Spielberg?”

Does all this mean that American cinema isn’t as barren as some would lead you to believe? Yes and no. Good films are being made and even Hollywood is slowly learning. Warner Brothers had the insight to hire indie filmmaker Christopher Nolan to add substance and credibility to "Batman Begins."

Still as long as there’s a buck to be made in brainless entertainment, Hollywood will keep churning it out because indie doesn’t bring in the big money. What it does bring in is awards. Hey, at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Friday, February 03, 2006

The darker side of Hollywood

In the last few months an interesting development has occurred regarding American cinema. While the same derivate, mindless entertainment like “Doom” or “Aeon Flux” is still being forced into multiplexes, more challenging and political films are also creeping in.

As 2005 came to a close a trio of films, “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Syriana” and “Munich” took on controversial subjects that mirror the unrest that is sweeping much of the United States and the rest of the world.

With “Good Night, and Good Luck” producer/writer/director/co-star Clooney told the story of broadcast journalist Edward Murrow’s attempts to take down red scare leader Joseph McCarthy. With privacy and freedom of speech laws in the U.S. increasingly under attack it’s a piece of American history that couldn’t be timelier.

Clooney also produced and starred in writer/director Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana,” which takes on touchy subject matters like the international oil market, terrorism and big business corruption. It may not be the whole truth, but much of it rings true.

As for “Munich”, director Steven Spielberg has taken a blasting from both Palestinians and Israelis for his portrayal of the mission to execute Palestinian terrorist who murdered 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic Games.

Certainly only three films can’t be considered a trend, but there’s evidence it is going to continue with the upcoming release of the remake of “All the King’s Men.” The 1949 original took on political corruption in and unrelenting manner and with political, social activist Sean Penn in the lead, much of that should be retained.

The problem with these films is that despite their relevancies and critical claim they aren’t finding a wide audience and are instead playing for a core group with like political views. Still, they represent increasing political insecurity in the U.S.

Films are reflection of the time they are made in. In the 1950s fears of the red scare and the nuclear race were materializing in sci-fi films like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Them.” In the 1980s Reaganism was spoon fed to audiences in senseless action films like “Rambo” and “Commando” at the same time it was critiqued in films like “Risky Business” and “Wall Street”

While the three films discussed above are the most overt example of the current unease in the U.S. they aren’t the only ones. Looking back at the bigger movies of the summer, a time usually known for light and fluffy blockbusters, it is surprising how dark these films actually were.

“Batman Begins” may be the darkest, most psychological “Batman” film to date and that’s saying something considering it was Tim Burton that started the franchise back in 1989. This new “Batman” is surprisingly light on big, cartoonish, comic book villains and instead deals more in corruption and crime kingpins.

Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” is perhaps the director’s bleakest, most morally ambiguous big-budget adventure. Star Tom Cruise has to kill a character in cold-blood to survive, not exactly something you see in your average Hollywood blockbuster.

The final installment of the “Star Wars” saga was easily the darkest of the bunch, featuring scenes of mass genocide and the (off-camera) murder of children. Lucas even throws some jabs in at the Bush administration.

“Mr. and Mrs. Smith” is a standard action/comedy, but buried between the action is one of the most biting and black satires of marriage since “The War of the Roses.” Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” on the surface looked like bright, colorful family entertainment, but had a bittersweet core.

Even Michael Bay’s “The Island” before turning into the mindless action film you expect for the filmmaker behind “Armageddon” and “Bad Boy” started out with a thoughtful, murky edge.

In the 1970s in the amidst of the Vietnam war and Watergate, films became increasing more subversive. Could we be heading in that direction again? When a director like Bay gets introspective, if only briefly, you know something is a miss.