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Posts Tagged ‘2000-2009 decade’

Bollywood/Hollywood (Canada, 2002)

My rating: +0 (Liked it)
Bechdel Test:
3 out of 3
DirectorDeepa Mehta
Cast
: Rahul Khanna, Lisa Ray, Moushumi Chatterjee, Dina Pathak, Ranjit Chowdhry, Jessica Paré, Akshaye Khanna (cameo)
Plot: After the hero’s white girlfriend dies in a levitation accident, his Indian family breathes a sigh of relief and pressures him to find a nice Indian girl instead.

About the film

This is a really mad film. It’s the sort of plot that would not be out of place in some particularly crazy and over the top comedy, but that is not at all what it is. In some ways it’s the really subtle and art house tone of the film that makes this feel even crazier.

The film starts with a scene that had me laughing so hard I could barely continue watching it. It’s a deathbed scene in very melodramatic style (we’ve seen those in many a Bollywood movie), where the father imparts his wisdom to his young son, using completely ridiculous baseball references (presumably as a nod to Hollywood – Americans use baseball terminology to describe even sex after all).
Then the story starts properly. Rahul, our hero, is all grown up now. He’s lived in Canada all his life, so he’s in some bizarre cultural in-between state where he’s kind of Indian, but not entirely. The film does a beautiful job of portraying what it’s like to be a second generation emmigrant – something I can very much relate to due to my own upbringing (in my case, I grew up confused between Polish and British culture).
And so, our sort of Indian hero has a white girlfriend, which causes a lot of drama in his family (cause that’s what happens in Bollywood love stories – there is always family drama because something is always wrong with the social standing of either the hero or the heroine). When the white girlfriend is removed from the picture (due to a levitation accident), the hero is practically blackmailed by his family to find a nice Indian girlfriend ASAP.
As it happens, an Indian-looking girl approaches the hero in a bar and is willing to play the part of his girlfriend for an agreed sum of money. The hero presumes she is Spanish, but her looks are such that he knows he can pass her as Indian to his family. From then on, a bizarre version of “Pretty Woman” follows.
The film has a lot of very strange (but funny) dialogues, a lot of passionate kissing (Hollywood expressions of romance) and a few dance numbers (Bollywood expressions of romance), as well as an adorable transvestite character. It also features a cute cameo from Akshaye Khanna. He gets to say “Rahul is like a brother to me” (about the character played by his actual older brother) and does a very happy and flirty dance with Rahul’s date, just as Rahul realizes his date can speak Hindi and is therefore not in fact Spanish.
I also really love the whole “slut” theme. The hero presumes that Sue cannot possibly be Indian simply because she approaches him in a bar. Indian girls don’t do that kind of thing apparently and her general “sluttishness” poses all kinds of problems to Rahul’s Indian sensitivies. There’s something very direct about how they raise that whole double standard in the film.

Overall, this is a very interesting and funny art house film. But I think it’s also a slightly hard sell in that many of the people who are most likely to see it will either not get the Bollywood references or not enjoy something so art house.

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Firefly /TV series/ (USA, 2002)

My rating: -1 (Disliked it)
Bechdel Test: 
2 out of 3 for some episodes, 3 of 3 (but barely) for others. Detailed Bechdel test breakdown for Firefly
Creator: Joss Whedon
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass
Plot: Hundreds of years in the future, a crew of a small spaceship earns their living doing all kinds of (usually illegal) ventures.

About the series

Disclaimer: I’ve watched 5 episodes out of 14 (first 4 + “War Stories”). So my criticisms may or may not apply to the rest of the series.

I watched a few episodes of Firefly because my colleagues highly recommended it and it was a mistake! I suspected my film tastes were quite different to those of the majority of people at work and now I am sure 😉

The idea of Firefly in and of itself, as far as I’m concerned, is revolting. It’s basically a western, but set in space. With a premise like that, it is of course horribly macho, in a way I find difficult to stomach. I’m not sure why certain types of machoismo turn me off quite so strongly, but they just do :]
That said, what probably affects my enjoyment of this series the most is how underdeveloped the characters are. I need characters that draw me in to be able to enjoy any sort of fiction and Firefly is an epic fail in this. I just couldn’t get into any of them.
Part of my issues with the characters might just be that there’s a very macho feel to most of them (even some of the ladies), which is not normally my thing. But I also think there’s some bad writing going on here. There’s a basic rule in storytelling and that’s to give all of the characters their own story goals, which Firefly just doesn’t follow.
Here’s a breakdown:

  • Mal: The captain of Serenity (the ship). Being the central character, he’s actually got a bit more depth than most other characters in the series – he has a story goal and even a proper dramatic arch. As a soldier he fought a war against the Alliance which was eventually lost and he wants to get back at them – that’s his story goal. This sometimes motivates him to make very risky decisions.
    There are other things about Mal’s characterization that annoy me. It feels like they try to make him out to be all mysterious and deep, when I find him rather simple-minded actually. He’s the honest crook type of character who is out for personal revenge on the baddies. A pretty common type of character IMO, especially in American action moves.
    And also he makes sexist jabs at the girls sometimes, which annoys me… Don’t get me wrong – it’s perfectly ok to have sexist characters in a story, but I rarely find them likeable, which I think the creators want him to be.
  • Zoe: Zoe served with Mal in the army and fought with him against the Alliance. She’s his most loyal and reliable crew member.
    Zoe is the character that annoys me the most. She has no real story arch or goal of her own. So far, in the episodes I’ve seen, her motivation seems to be loyalty to Mal and love for her husband.
    Her lack of any story goals of her own is particularly frustrating because she’s portrayed as such a strong woman. She is brave, smart and strong. She also constantly goes around wearing tight clothes that show off the shape of her perfect body and heavy, sexy make up to complement that. And if perfect soldier and super attractive lady wasn’t enough, she’s also the perfect, domestic wife – the “War Stories” episode even shows her serving breakfast to her husband in almost 1950s style.
    All that and yet her whole being in the series is just to support the male characters’ storylines. Even when she’s in situations when she must take matters into her own hands, she seems to do it because that’s what Mal or her husband would have wanted. What’s even more frustrating – she’s the first character every one mentions to “prove” the series is feminist. Well, to me feminism isn’t about showing that women are smart and strong, it’s about showing women who are complete human beings with their own goals and even *gasp* flaws. Whether they are super strong or very vulnerable is beside the point.
  • Hoban: Zoe’s husband. Any series as macho as this has to have a counterbalance. That’s what Hoban is. He’s a guy who would like to be macho, but it’s not within his nature. His insecurities are often the but of the jokes in Firefly.
    His story goal? I’m afraid I can’t identify one.
  • Inara: The premise behind Inara’s character is actually quite interesting. She is a “companion”. In the reality of the series, “companions” are essentially high-class prostitutes. They are highly educated, cultured, officially registered and very well-respected in society. They choose their clients and therefore (at least in theory) never have sex with somebody they don’t want to.
    Does Inara have her own story arch? You guessed it, nope. To be fair, she might do in episodes I haven’t seen. There’s definitely some kind of unrevealed back story between Mal and Inara that has been implied. This might be what’s motivating her. But then this would be another case where a female character’s motivation lies solely with a male character.
    As you might expect, she’s also sexualized a lot. Understandable, considering her profession, but the way it’s done still annoys me (I’ll get back to that later).
  • Jayne: Jayne is as stereotypical as you can get. He’s the macho macho guy, the kind who is unreliable and only thinks of himself, but is still useful on the ship because he’s good at beating people up.
    His own story arch? Nope.
  • Kaylee: Kaylee is actually the only character in Firefly that I found endearing. I’ve since seen Jewel Staite (the actress) in Stargate Atlantis and I adore her as Dr Keller. So perhaps it is down to Jewel? That said Dr Keller is a hell of a lot more developed as a character than Kaylee is (we actually have Dr Keller’s story arch/goals spelt out fairly clearly in the first episode of Stargate Atlantis that she appears in).
    The premise behind Kaylee isn’t that bad. Kaylee is the ship’s mechanic. So on the one hand she’s in charge of stuff that’s usually a man’s job and is somewhat tomboyish, but she’s also very girlish in some of how she behaves and what she likes. Naturally, the girlish part of her (her crushes, her admiration of dresses with ruffles and probably other things in later episodes) gets ridicule from Mal and Jayne. And this annoys me too! I don’t like when “girlishness” gets ridiculed. I see it too much in day to day life. And it’s damn annoying that the only of the main female characters that doesn’t get ridiculed for anything is Zoe, who is the perfect sexy woman who serves two men without a word of protest or defiance ever.
    Kaylee naturally does not have a story arch or story goals of her own either.
  • Simon: Simon is a doctor. He has rescued his sister from the Alliance and is in hiding. He’s not a very developed character, but he’s the only character other than Mal who has a strong story goal (to keep his sister safe from the Alliance at all costs), which counts for something.
  • River: River is Simon’s sister. Whatever experiments the Alliance did on her have made her crazy. She does not have a strong story arch/story goal, although I’m inclined to forgive that as it’s harder to give someone who is not of sane mind a good motivation for what they’re doing. What I’m less inclined to forgive is that River is more of a condition than a character. Better films than Firefly have done this – made a character to be about the mental condition they’re suffering rather than about personality (for example – just because somebody is autistic doesn’t mean autism is their whole personality), so perhaps I’m expecting too much, but it’s a pet peeve of mine.
    What was more shocking to me about River is that she gets sexualized! In episode 1 she appears naked for a relatively silly reason. I get that Inara will get skin show, I can even get that Zoe needs to have sex scenes with her husband to show how good they are with each other, but why on Earth does River need to be naked because freezing her is supposedly the best way to transport her and apparently she needs to be naked for it?
  • Shepherd: A preacher. Little is known about his personality and his motivation is very, very general (spreading religion, doing good?). He seems to be the token man of colour, just so there is one on the show. And the snarky part of me wonders if it’s an accident that the one non-white male character happens to be old and completely asexual. In reality I doubt that was done on purpose, but it’s not nice.

It’s no coincidence that many episodes do not pass the Bechdel test and those that do, do it feebly – you need to have female characters with goals of their own for them to have something to talk about with each other.
What’s particularly frustrating is that this series seems to have an aim of being feminist and racially diverse. For the kind of show it is, four is a lot of major female characters. Usually we don’t get that many on shows with a lot of fighting and action. In a politically correct sort of way it also makes sure that one of the female and one of the male characters are not Caucasian.

Apart from how the characters are constructed, what bothers me about Firefly is the way it sexualizes women. It hits a particular nerve in me. Don’t get me wrong – I like films and TV series’ with a lot of sex and I don’t mind female characters getting a bit sexualized, but there needs to be some counterbalance for me to not get grumpy about it.
For one thing, when I see a sexualized female character, it’s particularly important to me that the character is well written – she needs to have a personality, a back story, an arch, story goals and all of those kinds of things they teach in writing classes. Without all those things she becomes more about being sexy and pretty than about anything else and I don’t like that.
But just as importantly, if a film or series is catering to the sexual tastes of straight men, I want them to cater to the tastes of straight women too! In Firefly, women are sexualized a lot (especially Zoe and Inara), but men are not. Even though the principal cast of men has four young and handsome guys, there is little effort to titillate the audience with them. Particularly disappointing as the premise actually gives a lot of scope for that – the show is clearly styled to be a bit like a western, so there honestly is room to dress the guys up in sexy attire and put some effort into this.
Another of my pet peeves is about how movies and TV tend to portray sex – why does it always have to be from such a strongly male viewpoint? The episode that particularly got on my nerve was “War Stories”. In that one Inara takes on a female client – she explains that she does this because sex with a woman is more satisfying for her. So what kind of scene do we get? The two women are in full and very heavy make up and it looks like a TV-censored version of fake lesbian porn for men. Honestly, does female sexuality really have to be shown like this? I get it, they want to titillate, but would it really be so bad to show something that looks a bit more like what two women might actually do when they want to have fun? That could still be titillating.

Some say that the macho thing in this series is actually made fun of, but I don’t see that. To me it seems the joke is in it being impossible to live up to the macho ideal (hence, Hoban, the least macho of the guys, is the but of the jokes). There is no effort to undermine the macho ideal itself, that is still portrayed as cool and worthy of trying to live up to.
It seems to me that this series ridicules pretty much every feminine trait (whether it’s in a male or female character) with the exception of being sexually desirable (Inara gets unpleasant comments from Mal for sleeping with many men, but her being sexually desirable is respected). On the other hand, it shows pretty much all masculine traits as either positive or neutral regardless of whether these traits appear in a man or a woman. Since Zoe has many masculine (macho) traits and is sexually desirable, she is pretty much never ridiculed for anything.

In short, I hated this series! I realize it has a bit of a cult status and clearly I’m in the minority here, but for me, I’d need a very different treatment of machoismo, vulnerability and female characters to be able to stomach it.

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Agora (Spain, 2009)

My rating: -0 (Ok)
Bechdel Test:
0 out of 3this is an interesting one as the main character is female and is the only really developed character, but the film completely fails the test.
Director
: Alejandro Amenábar
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac
Plot: The story of Hypatia of Alexandria, a female philosopher and astronomer living at a time when Christianity was gaining power in Roman Egypt.

About the film

The great thing about this film is the story. Usually, we hear only of accomplished men of science from the Ancient world, but Hypatia may have been just as talented.
Unfortunately, little about Hypatia has survived. She lived at a time when Christianity was gaining power in the region, which eventually led to the destruction of the library in Alexandria along with much of the knowledge gathered in it.
None of Hypatia’s works survived, so the truth is we only have a vague idea of what she may have been working on, thanks to mentions of her work in other sources from that era. Hypatia herself was brutally murdered by a Christian mob in 415AD.

The film theorizes that Hypatia further developed the theory that it was in fact the Earth that circled the sun and that she managed to calculate the Earth’s trajectory accurately. Whether this is true or not, we will never know, but it’s not impossible. What we certainly do know is that regardless of what she herself studied, she tried to educate others too – she was the head of the Neoplatonic school in Alexandria and was much respected.
Rachel Weisz is excellent as Hypatia – the way she portrays the passion and obsession with science really makes the character come alive. Hypatia is shown as a woman who is extremely open-minded. She questions all ideas and encourages others to do the same. Although she does not try to change the structure of society in any way (her family owns slaves and she seems perfectly content with that), she does believe that science is open to all. Her school has both slaves and people from the upper classes studying together.

Hypatia is a very rich and complex character, but this is not the case with the other characters in the film. None of the other characters has significant screen time and they are all far less developed. The film is particularly poor on female characters. There is a slave girl who is not named and has one important scene (but I don’t think she even speaks in it) and that’s it. This is rather odd – it’s rare for a film to have such a rich and complex female protagonist and then do so badly on all other female characters. It’s somewhat explainable in that women in that time and place did not feature much in public life (Hypatia was the exception rather than the rule), but even so it’s a bit weird.
In the film Hypatia has two students of note – Orestes (Oscar Isaac) who eventually becomes governor (from historical accounts, we know he did indeed attend her classes and held her in very high regard) and Davus (Max Minghella), Hypatia’s slave. Both men are attracted to her, but neither has success with that. Davus, being a slave, is somewhat doomed from the start. Orestes does try to court her, but is turned down in spectacular fashion – she gives him her menstrual rag (this is apparently based on historical accounts though how true this is, who knows).
The two men take very different paths as Alexandria destabilizes, however. Davus joins the Christians and adopts their agenda. Orestes stays pagan as long as it is practical and when he turns Christian it’s not entirely clear whether his beliefs have honestly changed or whether he is simply taking the necessary steps to have political support. He never adopts the more extreme views that some Christians in Alexandria take.

For me Agora is a film very much worth seeing once (and I’m very glad my interest in Oscar Isaac introduced me to it), but I don’t expect to be re-watching it. It’s the character of Hypatia that is so interesting rather than the film itself. I may, however, pick up a biography of Hypatia at some point. She really is fascinating.

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