Jane Fonda is getting arrested every Friday for the rest of the year protesting the lack of action on climate change. She’s 81.
Although there are a handful of celebrities today who use their status and fame to bring attention to the causes they care about, Fonda reminds us of the decade when activism was a more urgent calling for famous people. In the sixties, the fight for civil rights and the Vietnam War prompted several prominent people to step outside their comfort zone and speak out about what they perceived to be injustices and harmful policies. Fonda was front and center back then, too, perhaps the most famous celebrity activist, then and now.
While Fonda was by far the most famous face of the sixties protest culture, there were other celebrities who made an impact, including Harry Belafonte, Muhammad Ali and Marlon Brando. And there was Jean Seberg, the American actress who became the icon of the French New Wave after starring in the famous Jean-Luc Godard film, Breathless (1960), who became the most tragic face of ‘60s celebrity activism and whose story is told in the new movie Seberg, directed by Benedict Andrews and starring Kristen Stewart.
In my review for the new Terrence Malick film, A Hidden Life, I found myself comparing it to Martin Scorsese’s film Silence. That 2016 film seems to be stuck in the head of many reviewers right now, as some reviewers have compared it to Scorsese’s current film, The Irishman. They feel The Irishman is a companion piece to Silence, as they are both meditations on mortality.
I don’t see that at all.
For me, Silence was a meaningful, meditative essay on individual belief, whereas The Irishman is a bloated gimmick. The films I was reminded of the most while watching The Irishman were Goodfellas and Casino, two of my favorite Scorsese pictures, not because The Irishman is as good as those films, but because it feels like a lazy rip-off of both. I truly hate to say it, but The Irishman left me confused and disappointed. Disappointed in what I’d hoped would be another Scorsese triumph, and confused as to what exactly it was supposed to be.
The concept of the male gaze is almost literally what defines Hollywood. Movies made in Hollywood are still largely made by men for men, and when it comes to a woman’s place in Hollywood, it mostly is still to serve that male perspective and point-of-view. The term “male gaze” generally references the way Hollywood movies portray female characters, i.e. the movie sees the women the way men see women, usually in an idealized way. And because most writers and directors—the ones who are responsible for the POV of a movie— are still men, it continues to be the unwritten motif of the industry.
While there is some progress being made within Hollywood to change this imbalance, we still have to look beyond Hollywood to the independent film scene and to foreign markets to find films that offer more diverse perspectives. A perfect example of a film that is made wholly contrary to the male gaze-driven Hollywood studio complex is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a new French film from writer/director Céline Sciamma and starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel. Not only is it as far from the male perspective as you could hope to be, it quite possibly might have invented—or at least perfected— the female gaze.
I have to confess, the trailer for The Aeronauts made me laugh out loud. It made the movie seem, to me, like an over-produced special effects carnival that looked not only preposterous but hopelessly ambitious. I was only partly wrong.
First of all, let me say The Aeronauts is not nearly as bad as I expected it to be. In fact, it’s not bad at all. It’s not great, but it’s certainly not bad. It is a special effects marvel that is over-produced, but it is also surprisingly simple, the opposite of ambitious, at least from a story perspective.
The Aeronauts is based on the true story of a scientist (Eddie Redmayne) and a hot air balloon pilot (Felicity Jones) who, in 1862, attempt to break the record for how high a human being has ever flown in the air. The whole movie is set in one day, interspersed with flashbacks to color in their stories. It really is that simple. The movie is shot in real time, which provides a great sense of the brevity of this massive endeavor, and makes it even more astounding, considering all they go through in such a short period of time.
Based on the 2013 book, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, by Richard Holmes, screenwriters Tom Harper and Jack Thorne focus on the real-life balloon flight that attempted to break the flight altitude record, with budding meteorologist James Glashier and aeronaut Henry Coxwell aboard. Harper and Thorne decided to alter history a bit for the movie and replaced Coxwell with a fictional female character named Amelia Wren, who is played by Jones. This swap is at the heart of what The Aeronauts is as a movie, because that intentional nod to feminism is what gives this film both its emotional depth and slightly heavy-handed sense of political correctness. The movie’s painfully obvious desire to have a female character portrayed to be just as adventurous, ambitious and fearless as a male character—even more so, in fact—feels just a little over the top. And it felt a little patronizing (and pandering) as well, especially considering this film is written, directed and produced by men.
Even so, however, The Aeronauts features some stunning special effects and action sequences. The canvas of this film is used in full, as vistas are gorgeous and the senses of height, danger and weather are all created masterfully. The scenes on the ground are standard, seen-it-before stuff, but when the film is in the air, it is compelling. Redmayne and Jones are not actors who thrill me, but they are both fine for me here, and don’t detract from the experience.
You might be amazed that they built a full-length action movie with so few moving parts, but they did. And The Aeronauts is a visual spectacle that is thrilling for the whole family.
When we think of influencers now, we think of 20-somethings on Instagram. But in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the biggest influencer in the world, at least in the world of popular culture, was an 80-year old British novelist. Agatha Christie wrote murder mystery novels and her books were so popular, they were turned into movies (Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile), plays (The Mouse Trap, the longest-running play in the world, still playing in London) and influenced every other area of entertainment, including a hugely popular television series, Murder, She Wrote. Ordinary people could even play along, as murder-mystery themed dinners were a thing and there was even a popular whodunit-themed board game, Clue, which was also made into a movie. The Christie effect even filtered down to kids’ books, as The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books, all mysteries for pre-teens, were as popular as Harry Potter is today.
I’ve often wondered why the classic whodunit murder mystery went out of style as a genre. There just doesn’t seem to be an appetite for it anymore, as clearly evidenced by the poor box office showing of the latest Christie adaptation, a remake of Murder on the Orient Express in 2017. Tastes seem to have moved on to prefer content more thrilling, more violent, and less thoughtful than the Christie “everybody had a motive, now let’s figure out who did it” model, which followed a clear and predictable structure: there’s a murder, there are many suspects—all of whom had motive and opportunity—and there’s a clever detective who solves the mystery. And sometimes the butler did do it.
I will confess that I didn’t need much from the new Charlie’s Angels reboot. In the midst of an Oscar contender binge, I needed something mindless, breezy and fun. Well, director/writer/co-star Elizabeth Banks not only delivered on those requirements, but she created a kickass feminist manifesto that will make you cheer and smile…a lot.
Ok, it’s not Shakespeare, but you know that going in. The Charlie’s Angels brand has been around long enough that you know to expect pretty women, lots of action and a James Bond-ian type plot that usually involves some sort of international espionage, huge action sequences, and really bad guys. And guys is certainly the operative word here. Banks goes to great lengths to create a feminine universe, and it really works. Female power, independence and strength is so organic in the world she has created, it feels normal and actually pretty wonderful. The more you are immersed in it, the more the moments where the female characters are patronized stand out. Banks takes ownership of the sexism that pervades society and plays with it, twisting it so our heroines use it to their advantage. Very clever indeed.
Write what you know. In Marriage Story, writer/director/producer Noah Baumbach follows that mantra and has created an intimate exploration of divorce, something he has lived through twice, once with his parents, and again with the dissolution of his own marriage to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (the couple divorced in 2013). Baumbach brings every angle of these experiences to this emotional narrative, a no-frills examination of a relationship that features two powerhouse performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson.
Driver plays theatre director Charlie and Johansson plays Nicole, his muse and leading lady. They are the featured players in a tight-knit company in the off-Broadway theatre scene, where she stars in every play that he writes and directs. They have an 8-year old son who they both adore. It all seems to be going great, but we never know them as a happy couple, as we meet Charlie and Nicole as they are embarking on divorce. Throughout the course of the movie, we put all the pieces together as their pieces are falling apart. It is a staggeringly emotional experience, for the audience, to get to know these characters, and, more significantly, their relationship to each other, through the fraction instead of the joy. Most writers would fill the movie with flashbacks, so the audience can get to know the couple in happier times, so it could be contrasted to what they are going through now. But Baumbach does the impossible: he paints the whole picture of their relationship simply by letting it play out, because relationships are not defined by milestones they go through, they are defined by the people in them and their emotional lives within that relationship.
Movies have loved fast cars for as long as there have been movies. As a child, I heard my Dad talk about the car chases in The French Connection and Bullitt with such reverence, I considered them the gold standard (which they arguably are) before I ever saw them. Fast forward forty years and fast cars are still this nation’s cinematic obsession, with the Fast and the Furious franchise now in its tenth incarnation. It makes sense that car movies are so ubiquitous, since men generally are the ones who make movies and the two things men seem to universally love, other than women, are sports and cars. There have been hundreds of movies about cars and racing, and even more that somehow find a way to squeeze a car chase in for no reason. Cars and movies are intrinsically tied. You can’t have a James Bond movie without a car chase. James Dean died in a car crash. Paul Newman, Tom Cruise and Steve McQueen all were famous actors who dabbled in car racing as a hobby and all made movies about racing. So it’s no surprise that there will always be new movies about thrills on four wheels. The trick at this point is to make one that feels original.
I had high hopes for Ford v Ferrari, the new movie from director James Mangold about Ford Motor Company’s obsession with finding ways to compete with dominant Ferrari on the racetrack in the ‘60s. Mangold, who has directed critically and commercially acclaimed movies such as 3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line and Logan, is someone who knows how to make movies for and about men and their passions. His specialty is flawed, obsessive and often conflicted anti-heroes. While Ford v Ferrari follows in the Mangold tradition of masculinity gone somewhat awry, it unfortunately can’t live up to some of his past movies, despite stellar performances from its leads.
Much of the controversy surrounding the new movie Joker is based on the public’s seeming distaste for watching a movie that reminds us too much of the world we’re living in now, one that can be dark, cold and cruel. We are supposed to escape when we go to the movies, right? Well, in Joker’s case, sometimes the job of the movie is to be a commentary on modern society and the effects it can have on the individual. And then there are the kinds of movies which offer neither an escape nor a commentary, but instead are dramatic re-tellings of real events, their purpose being to tell the story of someone or something that may have changed the course of history, or, in the case of the docudrama The Report, shine a light on something that had, until then, been in the dark.
There is no escaping in The Report. Writer/director Scott Z. Burns’ analytical deep dive into the investigation of the CIA’s post 9/11 Detention and Interrogation Program by a staffer of Senator Dianne Feinstein is just as current and flavorless as it sounds. Annette Bening plays Feinstein and Adam Driver plays Daniel J. Jones, who is tasked with looking into the claims that the CIA may have been subverting the Department of Justice mandates against torture while interrogating captured suspected Al Queda fighters. While the details of the report and their findings are fascinating (and truly terrifying), the drama of The Report comes from the political infighting that occurred within our own system, where it seemingly was every agency for itself in a cover-up that ran so deep, the bottom still may never be known.
Director Todd Phillips, known for comedies such as Old School, Road Trip and The Hangover trilogy recently made headlines during the press tour for his current movie, the drama Joker, by saying he decided to stop making comedies because “woke culture is ruining comedy.” Thank goodness Taika Waititi doesn’t agree.
Unlike Phillips, writer/director/producer/star of the new subversively and decidedly risky and darkly satirical movie Jojo Rabbit, Waititi thrives on pushing the envelope and challenging—and trusting—his audience to be able to handle subject matter that is eyebrow-raising, and to be able to appreciate the joke. While some may be shying away from doing risky work that may ruffle feathers, Waititi goes all in with a movie that is one of the most daring and committed satires I’ve ever seen.
I don’t want to say too much about it, because it should be experienced as an unexpected ride, but I will paint the picture for you in broad strokes. Waititi has made a movie that is a (dark) comedy about Hitler, Nazis and World War II. I know it’s been done before, most notably by Mel Brooks and Charlie Chaplin, so it’s not like this is groundbreaking stuff. But Waititi’s ability to raise it above farce is what makes this film feel so different. It is a bold and irreverent satire which mocks the Nazis and Hitler, but it also tells a deep and moving story against a backdrop of war. It is equal parts goofy and tragic, outrageous and sweet, heartfelt and horrific. And the Nazis are only a part of it.