Posts Tagged ‘3 out of 3 on Bechdel test’

Fifty Shades of Grey (USA, 2015)

My rating: -1 (Disliked it)
Bechdel Test:
3 out of 3 amazingly enough
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Rita Ora, Callum Keith Rennie
Plot: The story of a relationship between a young woman and a wealthy young man who is into BDSM

About the film

Urgh…. like really… urgh… That’s how I feel about this movie. I did a lot of cringing and sniggering during this film. To be fair, not everything about it is terrible, but urgh accurately describes what I feel anyway.

So, one aspect of the film I did like was Dakota Johnson. She’s actually pretty good, especially considering Anastasia Steele is not a particularly well-rounded character. There’s something about her on screen that makes her very interesting to watch and she’s well cast for this too. There’s a certain kind of vulnerability and hesitation about her that’s really attractive.
She has good chemistry with Jamie Dornan – they look pretty natural together on screen. But I’m afraid I didn’t like Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey at all. To me it feels like they cast him for his looks and for the chemistry he has with Dakota Johnson, but forgot the third part of the equasion – Christian Grey is a very domineering man. For a part like this you need a guy who can do that dominant sort of vibe well and Jamie Dornan just isn’t that guy.
The other problem with a role like Christian Grey is that he’s a very boring character if you portray him exactly as he’s written. IMO to actually make a character like him interesting, you need to find a different angle on him.
So, for example, Edward Cullen from Twilight is a very similar character (hardly surprising considering Fifty Shades of Grey started out as a Twilight fan fiction). But the reason Robert Pattinson worked for me in Twilight was that he put a lot of focus on Edward being a creepy stalker who has killed a lot of people and really wants to drink Bella’s blood. Edward is still sickeningly perfect, handsome and all that obviously, but when the focus of the performance is so clearly on him being a creep it makes things so much more interesting (and IMO also very amusing).
Jamie Dornan just didn’t find a good angle on Christian Grey from what I could tell. The one moment in his performance that I remember as being a bit different and interesting was in the climax of the film. *SPOILER WARNING* (select the white text that follows to read the spoiler) The movie culminates in a scene in which Anastasia and Christian have an argument in which she expresses her frustration at all kinds of things, but in particular about him holding back so much from her. He keeps saying she wouldn’t understand, so she asks him to make her understand – to show her exactly how bad the full extent of what he wants to do to her can get. So he spanks her really hard with a belt. For me, that was the only moment where Jamie Dornan did something that felt emotionally bold and interesting. Even though they’re not doing anything that sexual in the scene (it’s a beating, not sex), Jamie Dornan really makes it look like Christian is getting off on it in a way that’s rather disturbing. Until then everything about Christian was rather soppy and boring, so for me that was the only moment when things actually started feeling kind of dark.

For the most part, I was really disappointed with the sex scenes in the film. There was one sex scene I thought was really well done and the rest were kind of blah.
I’m also really annoyed with Hollywood for its prudishness about oral sex. Apparently, it’s fine to show a man being violent with a woman for sexual reasons, but oral sex is just too kinky to make an appearance. Even more annoyingly, whilst the word fellatio is visible on a page of the BDSM contract they are talking over, cunnilingus is not (and if you’re wondering – the book was not squeamish about either fellatio or cunnilingus). There is a scene in which for a moment it looks like Christian is about to go down on her, but they make sure to show she is still in her underwear and he very quickly gets back up.
Another thing that really annoyed me was the double standard on pubic hair. Christian’s almost full frontal  is annoying in and of itself because it looks like somebody said “hmmmm… I suppose we should show his genitals at least once or the audience will be disappointed… but we can’t be too graphic or they’ll give us an NC-17. We better only show only a little bit for a second or two”. But the really annoying bit is that he has plenty of pubic hair whilst Anastasia is hairless. I wouldn’t have really minded whether they had gone with hairy or hairless for this movie as long as it had been consistent for both genders. I hate that double standard *sigh*

Overall, I felt this was a movie that failed because Hollywood doesn’t yet have the guts to do something like this properly. Obviously, the source material isn’t that great (disclaimer: I’ve only read the first book), but I actually thought there was a good chance they could make an enjoyable movie out of it if they cut and softened some of the most cringeworthy bits (they did cut and soften some but I was still cringing and sniggering loads).
The truth is that if you’re going to make a mainstream BDSM erotic movie, it has to be really bold and daring to work. In this film they chickened out on way too many things.
It’s a shame as I really wanted to like this. So much sexual content in the media (and in the porn industry) is created by men and this film is a bit of a rarity. It has an unusually large number of women behind it – the writers, the director and the editors of Fifty Shades of Grey are all women which almost never happens in Hollywood (the last time I was aware of all those positions being taken by women was on the first Twilight film).
I can’t really argue with the sentiment that both the book and the film are rather bad pieces of fiction, but I don’t like the patronizing tone most people seem to use when discussing the franchise. Labels such as “mummy porn” and suggestions that only really desperate women can enjoy the franchise really annoy me. It’s as if pornography made by men for men is somehow considered superior, simply because it caters to a more male point of view on sex. Characters like Christian Grey get very sharp criticism for being so bland and underdeveloped, but people are so used to the objectified (and very underdeveloped) female characters in action films and other genres with large male audiences that those cases don’t get anywhere near as much criticism.
Anyway, double standards suck – that’s really the point of my rant!


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Bollywood/Hollywood (Canada, 2002)

My rating: +0 (Liked it)
Bechdel Test:
3 out of 3
DirectorDeepa Mehta
: 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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Jab Tak Hai Jaan (India, 2012)

My rating: +2 (Loved it)
Bechdel Test:
I’m going with 3 out of 3 but it’s borderline
Director: Yash Chopra
Music: A.R. Rahman
: Shah Rukh Khan, Katrina Kaif, Anushka Sharma, Anupam Kher, Neetu Singh, Rishi Kapoor
Plot: An epic love story in which the lovers are separated by the heroine’s beliefs.

About the film

You can’t really write about Jab Tak Hai Jaan without mentioning that the director, Yash Chopra, died that same year. This in itself makes the film a bit of a milestone – Yash Chopra is known for his classic love stories and his death is in a way an end of a certain era in Bollywood.
But there’s another thing that caused this romance to make the news in a major way – it marks Shah Rukh Khan’s first on-screen kiss. Kissing still doesn’t necessarily happen in every romantic movie in Bollywood, but it’s certainly not as unusual as it once was. Nonetheless, for the last 20 years Shah Rukh Khan, arguably Bollywood’s biggest romantic hero, has had a no kissing on the lips policy. Unlike Salman Khan (one of SRK’s contemporaries), his stand was never against kissing in movies in general, just a personal choice, but until now it seemed like a firm one. To add a bit of spice and irony to it, Shah Rukh Khan does not one but three kisses in the movie and they are all with Katrina Kaif, Salman Khan’s ex-girlfriend!

That said, even without the more obvious reasons why this film is a landmark of sorts, there’s still more that makes this film feel like a bit of a game changer. I’ve not watched that many of Yash Chopra films, but it seems to me that Yash Chopra’s romantic heroines are usually very classical. I suppose we could call them the Bollywood version of Disney princesses – they’re very beautiful, at some point in the film appear dressed in a white sari (because white signifies purity) and are very respectable girls.
This film does away with that concept to a certain extent. Meera (Katrina Kaif) may fit the classic Yash Chopra heroine at first glance. She’s from a rich and respectable family, has a classical sort of beauty and indeed does appear in a white sari at one point in the film, but… she’s also a modern girl. It’s made pretty clear that the reason Samar (Shah Rukh Khan) is attracted to her is that although on the surface she’s very suave with upper class manners, her true nature is not at all so well-behaved. When nobody is looking she smokes cigarettes on the sly and does some swearing too. It’s also spelt out very clearly that they have sex before marriage, which is a huge contrast to the more traditional heroines that would never have considered anything of the sort.
Akira (Anushka Sharma) is an aspiring documentary filmmaker. She breaks the Yash Chopra heroine mould even more so than Meera does. She’s a bit tomboyish, does not wear a sari even once in the film and openly says that she has boyfriends for about 3 months before she breaks up with them and that these relationships are just about sex for her. The best bit – the film doesn’t pass any judgement on her for this!
A Yash Raj Films production with an 80 year old Yash Chopra directing strikes me as a very conservative combination, so to see female leads like that really is a positive sign.
On the not quite so bright side, it’s debatable whether this passes the Bechdel Test. The conversations between Meera, Akira and Dr Khan are all about Samar. Akira has conversations with her (female) boss at the Discovery Channel which are career-related, but seeing as Akira ends up making a film about Samar, this is also a bit debatable. Early on in the film Akira has a conversation about how it sucks that she’s an intern and won’t be able to go to London with other young aspiring filmmakers (and collects money for a dare she completed), but these are in mixed-gender company. Meera has a conversation with her mother, which is about her mother’s reasons for separating from her father, but seeing as those reasons relate to a man it’s again debatable. I would tend to give it a pass as I think Akira has enough career-centred conversation that doesn’t relate to Samar, but it is a bit borderline.

Regardless of all of its modern ingredients, Jab Tak Hai Jaan is still an epic Bollywood romance at heart with all the beauty, sensuality, passion and tragedy that comes with that. It’s very beautifully shot – the most beautiful portrayal of modern day London that I’ve seen, it really captures the spirit of it. The cold tones that are used somehow really suit the film and London in particular. This is also the first film I’ve ever seen that uses Southbank, my favourite part of central London, as a location.
The sequences in Kashmir (or rather Ladakh as that’s where they were really shot) are also extremely beautiful, as are the dance sequences. The Ishq sequence in particular is very spectacular and very modern (and oh so London in those grafittied tunnels!).
This is also probably the first Bollywood film I’ve watched, that has charmingly pointed out that if you start randomly dancing in public places in London, you may get arrested. They also managed to make getting arrested look very sexy.
The music is very beautiful as well – A. R. Rahman (the man behind the oscar winning soundtrack of Slumdog Millionaire) really outdoes himself IMO. It’s not just the dance numbers, but the background score that really makes this movie.

The acting is really good. Shah Rukh Khan kept it pretty subtle 99% of the time – none of the over the top crying scenes or over the top emotional speeches that he’s known for. The story spans across 10 years, so I was expecting him to go over the top in either the younger or older version of Samar as I’ve seen him do in other movies, but not so.
He has many strong moments. One that is particularly memorable to me is just before Meera and Samar’s separation. He says very little – he congratulates her and then repeats one of Samar’s comedic sayings, but this time there’s nothing funny about it. The anger and whole range of emotions behind those words really gave me a kick in the gut. It was clear Samar was going to be a very different and very resentful man from now on.
I suppose that has always been SRK’s strong point – whatever people say about how well or not he gets into character, to me there’s never been any doubt about how great he is with subtext and layering lots of (sometimes seemingly conflicting) emotions.
I’ve not seen much of Katrina Kaif before, but I really liked her in this. I think one of the best things in this part was how she did Meera’s relationship with God (or Sir Jesus as Samar calls him). Meera has a very particular relationship with God and how she prays to Him. Essentially, she makes deals with Jesus. She asks him for things that are important to her and promises to give up something she really likes in exchange (chocolate, fur coats and so on). At the beginning of the film this relationship is quite lighthearted, even comedic. But as it goes on, there’s more and more depth to it and there’s actually a kind of intimate feel to it. It also becomes apparent that because she gets what she asks for every single time, she really believes in the importance of these bargains.
This relationship between Meera and God turns out to be pivotal to the film. SRK usually has to win the heroine from some other man in his romantic movies. This time “the other man” is God.
It’s the first time Shah Rukh and Katrina have been paired up together on screen and they really work well together. When Meera finally opens up to Samar it’s quite special. There’s a real intimacy in how she talks about the issues in her family and how she has him take part in one of her “deals” with God. I got a sense that she’s inviting him into her own private world in a way she’s never invited anyone else before.
From that emotional intimacy, physical intimacy naturally follows… as does kissing *grin* When I heard SRK explaining himself about why he did the kissing, I was kind of sceptical when one of the arguments he used was that the movie required it. In Western cinema, kissing on the lips tends to be a shortcut for telling the audience “they are passionately in love”. Bollywood, and Shah Rukh Khan in particular, have so many ways of getting that point across that I found it difficult to believe he truly needed to do a kiss. In Dil Se, one of his 90s movies, there’s a scene where the story truly requires his character to kiss the heroine (it’s not a romantic kiss, he forces himself on her and the fact that he does this is important to how the story develops) and they managed to get away with a shot of the back of his head as he “kisses” the girl – looks real enough.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally in favour of watching gratitious kissing scenes with my favourite Bollywood actors, but I still wondered what was so different about Jab Tak Hai Jaan. To my surprise, upon seeing the film I found myself agreeing with SRK. Perhaps the third kiss was a little bit gratitious, but the first two sure as hell weren’t. There’s a real sense that they’re crossing an important boundary and I don’t think they could have achieved that without the kissing.
Mind you, all the kisses are still rather coy – you only get to see their lips touch either just as they’re starting or just as they’re finishing. The rest of it is all wide shot where you can’t see a thing really. And to be honest, I’m really not sure why the fact that you see the lips touching for a few seconds makes such a difference, but somehow it does.

Are there disappointments? For me, unfortunately yes. The first half of the film had me mesmerized (if it had continued as strongly I think it would have become one of my all time favourite films), but the second half is much weaker IMO.
The writing in the second half gets too soap operish (of course we have to have one of the characters get amnesia *sigh*) and some characters and storylines that are introduced in the first half never get a resolution. The storylines of Meera’s parents are pretty important to how Meera makes her decisions in the first half of the film, but in the second half when she changes some of those decisions, these are not considered at all. We never learn what happens to her father when she makes some decisions he definitely would not like. Or what happens to her mother for that matter. These were both well developed and memorable characters, so really needed a resolution IMO.
Another reason why the second half doesn’t work so well for me is that while Katrina Kaif is the leading lady for the first half of the film, in the second half it is Anushka Sharma who takes up more of the screen time. I liked Anushka a lot more in this than I did in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (the only other film I’ve seen her in). She did a decent job as Akira and it was good casting, but for me she just wasn’t able to carry the film the way Katrina does.
I am, however, relieved that they did not try for any sort of romantic relationship between SRK and Anushka. For me Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi was once too many. As much as Shah Rukh can still easily pass for 10 years younger than he is, I find it a little disturbing when they pair him up with young 20 somethings. He is going to be 50 by the end of this year, so could they not stick with heroines no younger than their early 30s? *sigh* Or if they’re going to pair him up with a 20 something then at least they could make the age difference a plot point IMO.
Anyway, the relationship between Samar and Akira is kind of nice in how it develops. Akira does sort of fall for Samar, but it’s a one-sided love and he makes it clear that he’s too old for her. And actually, the way she falls for him is quite believable – I’ve seen young girls fall for older men in that sort of way. They develop an odd sort of friendship.
What’s also very disappointing in the second half is that Meera loses her “edge”. In the first half she has a bit of that “bad girl” vibe, but in the second she loses it. She’s pretty much written as the more classical Yash Chopra heroine.

Overall, this is a movie that will stay with me for some time. Though I really wish the second half was as good as the first. I imagine most people who like a good romance would respond well to this, but how well this would go down with people who aren’t into romance I have no idea. But whether this film is your cup of tea or not, there’s no doubt that aesthetically it is stunning.

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Aakrosh (India, 2010)

My rating: +2 (Loved it)
Bechdel Test:
3 out of 3 but only just
Director: Priyadarshan
Cast: Ajay Devgan, Akshaye Khanna, Bipasha Basu, Reema Sen, Paresh Rawal
Plot: An investigation of the disappearance of three students takes place in a small and very uncooperative Indian village. The film handles the subject of honour killings and caste issues.

About the film

Aakrosh is an unusual mix of things. On the one hand, it’s a film with a very strong social conscience. On the other it’s also a commercial thriller with a few very spectacular (and very unrealistic) chase scenes. It has a lot of violence too and somehow manages to be fairly naturalistic and yet still make a bit of a spectacle out of all the fighting. And since it’s a Bollywood film, it also has dancing, though not a lot of it.

To me, first and foremost it’s a very beautiful movie. The cinematography and editing made a huge impression on me. It’s a very mobile camera with a good mix of some very wide and spectacular shots of large groups of people, as well as many naturalistic shots that get close to the actors. To me the way it was shot and put together, really is a thing of great beauty.
But its beauty aside, it has much to recommend it storywise as well. In India, even in this day and age, you can still get killed because you fall in love with a person with a different social standing to yourself. This is the true subject matter of the film, though all this is packed into the formula of a thriller. Even if the social theme doesn’t interest you, it’s still perfectly possible to enjoy the film simply as a good thriller. It has many good twists and turns, but perhaps the best bit for me was the ending. Maybe not the most realistic of endings, but I really liked it and totally didn’t see it coming!

This is only the second of Priyadarshan’s films I’ve watched and apparently quite an unusual one for him (it seems that usually he makes purely commercial films without a social message). But something that strikes me is that he seems very good at observing people. There’s something very real about how he portrays human behaviour and the style of camerawork in this film really helps in that.
Aakrosh portrays the different levels of Indian society with a lot of subtlety. Different castes are one thing, but there are also the differences between big cities and villages and many other power disbalances such as age or occupation. The way the police work, the way corruption works, the way the villagers stay silent despite it all – all of that is portrayed very beautifully and believably.
And then there is gender. The events of the film happen very much in the world of men. Small villages in India seem to be places where women are not seen much outside the home and they rarely speak when in male company. Seeing as the two main characters (the investigators of the case of the disappearance of the 3 students) are male, they don’t interact much with women.
It was quite a surprise to me that the film passes the Bechdel test – this is solely thanks to the interactions that happen later on in the movie between Geeta (a battered wife in an upper caste home, played by Bipasha Basu) and Jamunia (a lower caste woman who loses her family through the events of the film, portrayed by Reema Sen). The reality is that for these women a lot of their lives do revolve around the men in their lives, so men are much of what they talk about. But I think arguably when Geeta inquires about Jamunia’s situation after she loses her husband and son, she is not really inquiring about the men in Jamunia’s life but Jamunia herself. The relationship and interactions between them turn out to be extremely important for how the plot develops in the end – this was something I had not expected, I was expecting it all to play out between the men.

The cast has some bigger Bollywood names (Ajay Devgan, Akshaye Khanna and Bipasha Basu), but they are amongst the subtler Bollywood stars, so Aakrosh has a slightly more realistic feel without as much of the bigger than life acting that Bollywood usually serves up. All three of them turn in good performances.
Ajay Devgan is Pratap, an investigator from the village assigned to help out in the CBI’s (Central Bureau of Investigation) work. He is a lower caste man, who has tried to get an education and make a decent life for himself despite having the cards stacked against him and having some truly haunting stories in his past. He genuinely wants to help and has a personal motive since Dinu, the missing boy from the village, is low caste like Pratap himself (the other two students are better connected boys from the city, who came to the village with Dinu). But he is also quite sceptical about whether the investigation will come up with anything since he knows first hand how the village works and how difficult it will be to get information from anyone. As the investigation develops, some of the things that happen are very, very personal to Pratap.
Ajay Devgan is well cast here – the tough, suffering, low caste man is something I’ve seen him do very well before. He’s a good balance of action hero and real man off the street – perfect for this kind of film.
Akshaye Khanna (who I am a big fan of and who is partly responsible for me seeing this :D) is Siddhant. Siddhant is a Brahmin (the highest caste) from Delhi with a rather privileged life – a soft-spoken young man with a respectable job whose mum is arranging his marriage while he investigates the case.
Siddhant is the designated investigator from the CBI with a good track record of handling difficult cases. Still, he has no idea about village politics and greatly underestimates the difficulties of investigating a case like this. Pratap has his doubts about Siddhant, but it soon becomes clear Siddhant is very determined. They don’t always see eye to eye (especially when things get personal for Pratap), but they make a good team. Siddhant blunders through initially, but slowly gets better at playing the village politics game.
Again, this is really good casting – Akshaye Khanna is believable both as a soft-spoken clerk and as a man who has just enough temper and machoismo that he could end up in a fist fight.

Overall, I highly recommend the film to anybody who likes a good thriller or a beautifully shot film on a serious topic.

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Belle (UK, 2013)

My rating: +1 (Enjoyed it)
Bechdel Test:
3 out of 3passes easily
DirectorAmma Asante
CastGugu Mbatha-RawSarah Gadon, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, James Norton, Tom Felton, Sam Reid, Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton
Plot: Set in the 18th century and based on a true story. A Royal Navy Admiral has an illegitimate daughter with a black woman and brings the little girl back to England, where she is raised by her aunt and uncle.

About the film

Belle is basically one of those quality period dramas that regularly come out of the UK, but with a difference. It’s quite unusual to see anybody who isn’t white in a period drama and in the rare instances anybody of different racial heritage appears on screen, it’s usually as a servant. To have a woman of colour as the central character is pretty much unheard of, but it’s also what makes this film so interesting.

It has all you’d expect from a good British period film – good cinematography, a nicely structured screenplay, a great cast with many familiar faces. But it’s also a fascinating story, even more so because we know it really happened.
Little is known about the real Dido, though from what I understand the script takes quite a few liberties. But there’s no doubt about the essentials of the story – she was brought up in an aristocratic family and her uncle was the judge in the first case of its kind, against a company suspected of drowning a whole cargo of slaves because they were sick and therefore impossible to sell (it was more profitable to get insurance money for them).
The case is an interesting backdrop to what is essentially Dido’s coming of age story. Naturally, finding a suitable marriage partner is a big part of coming of age in a period film and that is a large part of the story. But as the film goes on, the court case starts dominating Dido’s thoughts more and more. To her, it is an important piece of the puzzle of who she really is and where she fits into society.

Obviously, the reason I came across this film in the first place is Tom Felton (I’m a big fan). He has a fairly small part in the film and as usual, he plays the villain – in this case simply the biggest racist (not very far from Draco Malfoy when you think about it, just a different sort of racism). There’s not that much you can do with a part like that, so I wasn’t expecting much, but was surprised. For me this was, in some ways, his creepiest villain yet. While for the most part James Ashford behaves very respectably with the occasional out of line comment here and there, there’s one particular scene that’s really nasty. The scene stayed with me for a while.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is great as Dido. The film relies on her very heavily, she’s pretty much on screen the whole time, so that’s a lot of pressure, but she carries the film well and holds her own with some very good actors. She’s also very natural in all the 18th century manierisms.

There are quite a few familiar faces in the film and it would take too long to mention them all, but one of the stand out supporting performances definitely belongs to Tom Wilkinson. Lord Mansfield is quite a conflicted character, so there was a lot to work with there. He is a man, who tries to be very rational and proper, not allowing his emotions to get in the way of his work and behaviour. But at the same time he loves Dido very much (even while trying to keep her in her proper place – wherever that is!) and is very much disgusted with how a whole ship of slaves was murdered, even while meticulously researching the details of the case and making sure he does not overstep what the letter of the law allows him (the law does not allow him to punish the company responsible for murder, only for insurance fraud, but that needs to be proven beyond doubt).

Sam Reid is very good as John Davinier. The passion he has for human rights really comes through. There’s a beautiful clarity about him.

On the whole, a very good film with a lot of good performances (also ones I haven’t mentioned), but it’s main selling point is very much the story.

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Sucker Punch (USA/Canada, 2011)

My rating: +1 (Enjoyed it)
Bechdel Test:
3 out of 3passes easily (interestingly enough, if you did a “reverse” Bechdel test, as in two male characters talk about something other than women, I’m not sure it would pass!)
: Zack Snyder
Cast: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Oscar Isaac, Carla Gugino
Plot: There are three realities stacked on top of each other in this movie. A girl is put into a mental institution by her abusive step father (reality no. 1). She imagines the hospital is in fact a brothel (reality no. 2). When she dances for men in the brothel she is mentally transported to a completely different place where girls fight with monsters and totally kick ass (reality no. 3).

But the deleted dance scene is way cooler than the trailer.

About the film

My Oscar Isaac phase has introduced me to this really bizarre film, which (perhaps unsurprisingly considering how weird the plot is) has people completely baffled and writing lengthy texts about what it all means. People don’t seem to be able to agree on things as basic as:

  • Who the protagonist is. It would seem it’s Babydoll (Emily Browning), but the ending kind of flips it so that it’s suddenly implied that actually we were watching Sweat Pea’s (Abbie Cornish) story all along.
  • Whether the film is very feminist or very sexist. One camp says this is a film about how women are used and how they fight back, the other camp says it’s pure fetishism and uses women’s bodies to titillate in a way far worse than a regular Hollywood movie.
  • What actually happens at the end or even generally what happens
  • Whether the film is a masterpiece or a total piece of crap

For me it was a collection of interesting ideas and a few very strong scenes that didn’t make a particularly great whole.
I think my main issue with it is that I found all the fight sequences much too long and rather boring. They unfortunately take up quite a lot of the movie. The mental institution and brothel plots on the other hand were fascinating to me, though indeed both those plots were very fetishistic.

All the female characters had a lot of skin show in this (though no nudity) and there’s quite a bit of violence (both sexual and otherwise) against women in the film. But then this is also a film about women fighting back against oppression and how can you make a film about that without showing the oppression?
Men are very much on the sidelines in this film. So much so that this is the first film I’ve watched in a long while that wouldn’t pass a “reversed Bechdel test” I think. There are hardly any conversations between men in the film. The only ones I remember are Babydoll’s stepfather bribing Blue (the man running the mental hospital) to make sure Babydoll doesn’t tell anybody about the abuse she suffered. That and men during the fighting sequences exchanging some words about fighting the girls. Both of those conversations are about women.
And as much as it’s the girls getting all the skin show (which is the main reason some feel this film is sexist), it’s worth noting the men are also put in some rather fetishistic clothing. Blue (Oscar Isaac) appears for the whole film with make up almost as heavy as the girls – lots of eyeliner and even some very visible blush in there.

Sucker Punch has some pretty well-developed female characters and mostly undeveloped male ones. I didn’t care that much for Babydoll (Emily Browning) to be honest, but Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) really grew on me. There’s something about Abbie Cornish that really moves me every time I see her – a kind of beautiful vulnerability. I really love watching her. She’s awesome in the ending sequence (which I must not spoil).
The relationship between Sweet Pea and Rocket (Jena Malone) is also really nicely fleshed out. But my favourite female character is Dr Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) – the main psychiatrist and burdelmama. That’s just a really bizarre combination, but it works! And Carla Gugino is really fun to watch in that.
I obviously enjoyed Oscar Isaac in this a lot – to me it was an opportunity to see him in some very fetishistic attire with lots of over the top dominating behaviour. He gets some pretty emotionally twisted scenes, which he’s really good that, so that’s another win as far as I’m concerned.

Probably the most fascinating part of the film is the ending sequence. It’s hard to write about properly because it’s obviously a spoiler, but I shall try! The ending is the part of the film that gets the most discussion and lots of elaborate interpretations. It also happens to have been heavily cut. The uncut version is floating about on youtube and I totally get why Hollywood couldn’t handle it in uncut form – it’s perverse :] And the perversity of it is nothing to do with sexual acts – it’s the whole idea of it, the idea that that is the only way Babydoll can attain her freedom. Even with the cut that was made, it’s still a very uncomfortable sequence.
In fact, at one point in the sequence I gasped out aloud. I was surprised it hit me so hard – it’s the bit when Blue leans over to kiss a certain other character and it was just so, so disturbing… I think previously my personal winner for most disturbing kissing scene would be Closet Land (1991), but Sucker Punch is now my new winner in this prestigious category.
That said, the ending sequence isn’t just uncomfortable and disturbing, there’s also a really, really beautiful bit to it too. Both the message and the visual beauty of it is stunning and it’s going to stay with me just as long as what precedes it.

Overall, this is definitely not a film for everyone, but if something weird like that sounds interesting to you, maybe it’s a good film for you? Personally, I’m really curious what the whole uncut version of the film is like – it’s been released on bluray I think, so I may just buy it when I finally get a bluray player.

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In Secret (USA, 2013)

My rating: +2 (Loved it)
Bechdel Test:
3 out of 3passes very easily
: Charlie Stratton
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Oscar Isaac, Tom Felton, Jessica Lange, Shirley Henderson
Plot: Set in 19th century France and adapted from Emile Zola’s novel “Therese Raquin”. A young woman is stuck in a sexually unfulfilling marriage to her cousin, which leads her into an affair.

About the film

I wanted to see this because of Tom Felton, so when I started watching it I did it with an attitude of argh, why isn’t Tom Felton in this more and it’s so stereotypical that the lover (who gets more screen time) has a latino look. That attitude didn’t work for long though because I soon discovered I liked Mr Latino Lover (aka Oscar Isaac) very much and that he not only suited the part, but the part itself was a bit more layered than it first seemed.

It’s a very female-centric film. The main character is Therese (Elizabeth Olsen) – a girl who once upon a time probably enjoyed a bit more freedom. But since then her father has left her in the care of a very domineering aunt.
Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange) completely dominates the household. It’s hard to say which one of the children in her care, Therese or her own son – Camille (Tom Felton), has it worse. Therese is very clearly stifled and valued much less than Camille. But Camille’s sickly tendencies seem to be reason enough for Madame Raquin to restrict and watch his every move. In an early scene, Camille emerges into the garden without Madam Raquin knowing, and exclaims “I escaped”, sounding absolutely thrilled.

When Madam Raquin makes the decision that Therese and Camille are to be married, nobody asks Therese her opinion. Nor does she protest. But it’s also clear this was not the life she had hoped for. It’s not that she hates Camille, she even seems to have some affection for him. It’s just not really the romantic or sexual kind. And perhaps she could have even been happy without romance or real sexual attraction if Camille was a more skillful lover. For Therese sexuality is clearly important and what’s really nice is that the film never judges her for that.

I’m frequently annoyed with films for their portrayals of female sexuality. Sometimes films try to suggest a male character is a particularly good lover, but when I see what’s happening on-screen, I’m thinking “yeah, right”. There’s a tendency to show sex from a male point of view and assume the same sexual activities will be just as pleasurable for the woman, when that’s not necessarily true. In Secret is very refreshing in that sense. I truly believed that Laurent (Oscar Isaac), Therese’s lover, was good in bed. For one thing, the sex scenes have dialogue in which he asks her where best to touch her and they even talk to each other about stuff they’d like to do. Isn’t that cool? It’s bizarre how rarely that happens in movies. Also, this is only the second ever (non-pornographic) film I’ve seen that has a cunnilingus scene (it’s very much implied rather than shown, but still – it’s there!).
But the other very impressive thing about the sexual scenes is that in terms of what is actually shown, they’re quite tame (it’s a 15 certificate here in the UK) and yet very, very steamy. There’s practically no real nudity, but the dialogue, the performances and what gets implied… all of that makes it feel like a lot more than it actually is.

The second half of the film is where things get really interesting. Without spoiling too much (the trailer spoils that already anyway), Therese and Laurent get rid of Camille and get married, but this does not make them any happier – quite the contrary. On top of that Madame Raquin is immobilized after a stroke and Therese is now her main carer. Things get very emotionally twisted and sometimes downright perverse.
Laurent’s darker side comes out in more ways than one. His love for Therese is still there (sort of), but it is now obvious it wasn’t just love that made him want to marry her. There is a hint in the first half of the film that financial security is important to him, but it’s only in the second half that it becomes clear he might be willing to do some horrible things to get it. And now that he’s miserable with Therese and drinking too much, he’s not very nice to be around to say the least.
Therese no longer has any passion for Laurent left and perhaps not even any love. She’s no longer interested in any sexual relations with him. But they are both very sexual people – it’s what brought them together in the first place, so it’s not surprising they eventually have a chance meeting in a whorehouse. What did surprise me is that the meeting didn’t go the way I had expected, the film somehow avoids clichés. It’s a very interesting scene.

The two best things about this film are IMO the writing and the performances. The story is very beautifully structured and put together. Every bit of dialogue and every scene has its purpose and brings some kind of meaning to the whole. And the entire cast, even some of the really minor parts, are excellent.

Elizabeth Olsen was generally awesome, but what I liked the most about her performance was how you could see her character change when she was finally getting the sexual satisfaction she needed. There’s a beautiful scene between Therese and Laurent in which she says “You have no idea how much they’ve stolen from me” and I completely believed her – you could literally see her coming alive through the affair with Laurent. It’s a very difficult thing to pull off and also very crucial to the film. It would have changed the entire movie if she had not made this believable.

Oscar Isaac was a big discovery for me (I’m in a total Oscar Isaac phase now – watching lots of his other films, some of which I might review). He’s really expressive in the love scenes – which sounds pervy when I write it like that, but well, he is (and so is Elizabeth Olsen btw). There’s quite a few sexual scenes in the film, each of these is quite different with different emotional dynamics, but there’s something honest about all of them.
But the other thing that made him so interesting to watch is how he handles Laurent getting dark and sometimes downright abusive. He foreshadows it just enough in the first half to make it believable and perhaps most impressively I did believe that despite how nasty he became, he really did still love Therese and genuinely missed what they had before.

Tom Felton was really interesting – it’s a very different part for him. There are moments in this when he’s very endearing, which is not usually the kind of vibe he gets to do. There’s nothing particularly dark about Camille (seeing as it’s Tom Felton playing him you’d think there would be, but no). His biggest fault really is ignorance and the feeling of superiority he has over Therese. Though despite this, he does care for her. He even realizes Therese is unhappy with him, but he’s completely clueless as to what to do about it (and asks who else but Laurent for advice). The “darkest” Camille moment, if you can call it that, is when he pulls the “I’m the man of the house so I get to decide” card on Therese. The scene is uncomfortable and even a little bit funny, but what’s so great about Tom Felton in it is that he really plays up how insecure Camille is about his masculinity. And oddly enough, as annoying as sexism is to me, in that scene I felt sorry for Camille – with Madame Raquin as a mother, what man wouldn’t be terribly insecure?
The contrast between Camille and Laurent is interesting in and of itself. Camille is a dependable husband and is never abusive, but there’s no doubt he’s sexist and never treats Therese as an equal. Laurent is never sexist (one of the things that so surprised me in the whorehouse scene was that I expected he’d pull the sexist card, but no) and he definitely sees Therese as a complete human being, but he’s also abusive.

Jessica Lange has in a sense the flashiest part and she’s very good in it. It’s the sort of role that can easily become hammy, but she didn’t fall down that route. There’s also a big challenge in the second half of the film when Madame Raquin is immobile after the stroke. The challenge is to somehow still exude that stifling presence, but without being able to speak and hardly being able to move. She pulls it off!

All in all this is a really great film and if this sounds interesting to you at all, I’d definitely recommend it.

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