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Monday, November 5, 2018

Don’t Kill Off the Hero!

George RR Martin thought he had started a trend when he allowed Eddard Stark to get executed in the second book. Betrayed and vocal fans stopped reading right when secondary characters like bastards and dwarves stepped up to fill the void.

Fans who followed the Game of Thrones TV series should have seen the execution coming, since Sean Bean seldom makes it to the second reel (Lord of the Rings, Golden Eye, The Island). There’s even an online game for how Bean will die in his next movie.

By way of example for those who are NOT Game of Throne fans…

The Conners on TV without Roseanne is like The Jackie Gleason Show without Gleason.
We see clearly how secondary (in talent) the other characters are even after decades of watching them grow up on screen.

And now we have the final season of House of Cards without Frank Underwood because Kevin Spacey was shamed for his life style choices. Critics laud the performance of Robin Wright as Claire Underwood Hale, but can she save the plot line?

Loyalty to a husband even after he’s disgraced or dead or both is admirable. Efforts to hold onto power to “finish his work” seldom works. The original concept was a satire on the presidency of the Clintons similar to the TV show Secretary of State is a play on Mrs. Clinton in that office. Tea Leoni shows the requisite bleeding heart approach while she and hubby and staff address current issues with outcomes the Democrats prefer (sort of like West Wing decades ago).

**Spoiler Alert**

Can House of Cards shows the first woman president with balance since there’s no role model yet? Unfortunately, no.

Claire Hale is more Cersei Lannister than Margaret Thatcher. President Hale is pregnant through an artificial process to secure the family fortune for heirs, as it was explained. Claire becomes untouchable in the worse way, like one of those toads whose skin gives off toxins. The need for power reigns supreme and any touch from friend or foe is a touch of death. This theme works for lead female characters in both HoC and GoT.

I was struck by how many scenes showed President Claire Hale silhouetted against a stark background displaying her baby bump in tight dresses but without friend or colleague, even after she seats an all-female cabinet – a move that was not challenged as discriminatory.

To balance President Hale’s power grab, we have rich siblings Annette and Bill Shepherd who represent a “third party” of money in politics who work to unseat President Hale as soon as she’s sworn into the office. None of the seasons of House of Cards were concerned with the timing of real campaigns and 4-year terms. The will of the people or party were discarded and “regular order” has no meaning.

Annette Shepherd, played by Diane Lane, was a classmate of President Hale back in middle school, highly improbable but useful for flashbacks that fill in the blanks. The story line rides along on questions of etiquette for rich girls of the Old South. The rivalry is personal as much as about power, and the subplots are predictable and wobbly. Annette’s son was really the housekeeper’s son by Bill Shepherd. Sound familiar?

Characters are dropping like victims of the flu and the final episodes take on the flavor of King Lear where all scores are settled through death or suicide. I wasn’t certain about the fate of Jane Davis (Patricia Clarkson) since her migraines seemed to increase the closer she got to the Russian leader, like opposing sides of a magnet.

Claire is the last man standing and with blood on her hands, and still pregnant, unless you count the unemployed and persecuted reporter Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) who carries the torch of justice for discarded victims.

I love strong roles for women, but not at the expense of soul or womanhood or even probability. The plot had many absent features that could have driven an understanding of real power in the White House. The timeline is compressed and not tied to the stream of current events, so the story feels more Lady MacBeth than wish fulfillment for feminist Democrats. At least, I hope this series is not the stuff of their dreams.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Helena Bonham Carter Steals the Show

She has saved more than one movie like Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella that was about to sink under its own weight before Helena Bonham Carter made a cameo appearance as the fairy godmother, injecting much-needed modern tones into the well-known story.

In Oceans 8 Carter serves with a ensemble cast led by understated Sandra Bullock as Danny Ocean’s sister Debbie, and with the stillness of the “recently incarcerated,” and Cate Blanchett wearing skin-tight leather pants in every other scene. Comparisons to how well a-list actors performed in Oceans 11+ are inevitable, since both movies were produced by Steven Soderbergh and based on characters developed by the late George Clayton Johnson (for Sinatra’s Oceans 11).

A story in three acts, Oceans 8 starts with assembling the team of grifters, the actual jewelry heist, and the later worries about getting away with it that includes a tasty twist.

Bullock sets the tone so other actors must play to her Clutch-Cargo delivery where her face seems frozen with botox. Bullock’s bright moments include a Heidi Klum impersonation in German for stalling the museum guards while Blanchett and friends do the wet work. Viewers noticed that the women had to call in a guy, Shaobo Qin as Yen, the acrobatic “grease man” from the Oceans movies, for the actual heist.

Racial diversity is observed with a hacker (Rhianna), a pickpocket (Awkwafina), and a jewelry maker (Mindy Kaling) rounding out the team. Rhianna has several good moments injecting street humor into the stabilizing shop-lifting worldview of Bullock. Only Anne Hathaway gets to act out as the spoiled movie star and supposed mark for their highly convoluted sting to steal a six-pound diamond necklace called the Toussaint at the Met Gala.

Habit patterns are believable for real women, not apeing the men, or trying to appeal to the men, but pursuing their own interests. Characters live close to the street in NYC so that visiting the fence living in the suburbs (Sarah Paulson), the only happily married character who regularly lies to her daughter about her profession, has the same feel that visiting the suburbs always has.

Spectacle is provided especially for entrances and exits in ball gowns borrowed from Vogue, cameos for aging actresses like Marlo Thomas, and tongue-in-cheek jibes (“the ego has landed”) at the cork-screwed ex-lover played by Richard Armitage. I especially liked Paulson’s infiltration of Anna Wintour’s Vogue operation that managed the Met Gala. The world belongs to women who know how to dress.

Back to Helena Bonham Carter whose dialogue is bright, especially for the bits they throw her way. (“I sweat.”) Carter out-acts Bullock and Blanchett in her first scene as an over-the-hill designer deeply in debt to the IRS. She uses an Irish accent and excellent comic timing in her scene to view the six-pound necklace at Cartier, carrying the plot without having to explain it.

Carter’s costume while she accompanies Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) on the red carpet, matched by the home-made headdress and understated mugging, easily outshines Hathaway.

The story’s third act is saved by a natural performance from James Corden as the insurance adjuster who brings a Brit attitude to NYC that seems to balance the faux-feminist coolness of the team of grifters. He has a history of catching the Ocean siblings for their sins and accuses Bullock of a “two-fer” (the heist and revenge by framing the ex-lover) without the punch of demanding jail time for the heist. “Eventually, you'll have to let go of this [revenge]," he says.

Of course, the story has a big hole in the plot. The fake for the stolen necklace is re-evaluated by Cartier on its return to the vault, prompting the story’s third act about getting away with it. However, the other zircon pieces are not re-evaluated upon return and found to be fakes?

All-in-all, a satisfying chick film that can be watched more than once, if only to savor Carter’s acting skill. Also, Rhianna may have a future in movies. I’m looking forward to several sequels.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Hollywood (Still) Doesn’t Get It

Hollywood has granted quality roles to women more frequently in the new century. Many well-written characters are for a TV series such as Little Big Lies, but we have learned to not complain.

In this decade of movie remakes and gender adjustments, the reboot of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was inevitable, I suppose. Director Roar Uthang moves from developing video games to movies with this outing, so the action sequences are in place.

The race to recover her pack stolen by a wharf street gang allowed a very buff Alicia Vikander (Light Between the Oceans) as Lara to depend on her wits and using some Captain Jack Sparrow jumps with wharf equipment. I especially enjoyed the later sequence for the rotting Japanese bomber that tumbles down the waterfall in a series of responses to Lara’s weight.

Upon analysis, though, my hackles are raised for underlying gender assumption typical of Hollywood archetypes.

Lara’s father (played by Dominic West) has a Stark-like business empire but leaves Lara isolated on the family estate with no business training or martial arts training from a misguided need to protect her. Completely isolated, Lara is forced into a pattern of self-taught skills and chip-on-her-shoulder self-reliance.

Hello, Hollywood!  A son in this situation would be trained for an executive position as the heir apparent. His skills training would include Asian masters and ex-military types on daddy’s payroll.

**spoiler alert**

So Daddy has gone missing, but Lara in her pride doesn’t sign into access to his billions but hones her skills as an East London bike courier. The visual transition from born-to-the-manor supposed shrinking violet to spunky street kid is painful to watch. Lara even pawns her only jewelry, a gift from Daddy, to finance the travel to Asia and her first real adventure.

My complaint is always the same. Where are Lara’s sisters and cousins and aunts and sorority sisters and rich girlfriends who have entered the university or business or the stock market? Where is the aging mentor who happens to be the Asian ambassador’s wife? A good ol’ boy support system exists for the male comic book heroes, but not for Lara Croft.

It’s true that Batman had an aging mansion and inherited wealth. It’s true that Indiana Jones went on at least one adventure following the clues left by his dad. Except both (originally cartoon) characters had a battery of colleagues from the police, university, adventurer sidekicks, foreign traders, foreign laborers -- all old pals who came running with a single phone call.

Lara Croft doesn’t even have a girlfriend travel agent who will spot her the cost of a ticket to the vicinity of the exotic island. The girlfriends are kickboxers whose roles in the story are to find some excuse for a woman’s lack of upper body strength.

The only other woman in the whole movie is an executive secretary type who holds the keys to the vault, played by Kristen Scott Thomas. Her moves are mostly held in reserve because she’s set up as a possible internal nemesis in a sequel, maybe similar to the Jeff Bridges character in one of the Tony Stark movies.

**spoiler alert**

Finally admitting that Daddy is gone, Lara is about to sign the estate transfer papers (in ignorance of how she’s manipulated by the executives) but is distracted by a Chinese puzzle that leads her to a dusky vault. Here is Daddy’s personal legacy to Lara, boxes of unfinished projects that were either unworkable or unprofitable. Throw her a bone.

Typical. And Hollywood doesn’t feel the gender insult, not in the slightest.

It’s true that Spiderman finds his daddy’s research hidden away in a sunken streetcar, but it’s all the research of a lifetime that was prematurely sacrificed and intended for Peter Parker’s advancement in the sciences along with colleagues. Parker’s secret status as Spiderman happens AFTER his parents are gone.

Part of the confusion for who is Lara Croft is a conflicting presentation of who is Daddy, an empire-building (but over-protective) business executive, or an adventurer who is stuck for seven years with this one problem of saving the world from a pandemic. That’s what happens with writing a script on committee.

I have several gripes about the storyline once Lara is in Asia, especially the useless and drunken Asian sidekick who is pressed into a work gang as soon as they arrive on the island. No diversity insult there.

Once they open the tomb, Lara is pushed forward by Daddy and the team of bad guy diggers to lead with solving the tunnel traps, maybe as a sacrifice to them. She is allowed the mental exercise of addressing ancient puzzles from archeological evidence. When the walls begin to collapse, though, Lara can save only herself. She doesn’t save Daddy. She doesn’t save any member of the digging team. She doesn’t save the Asian workers who turn out to be good with guns once they get their hands on some.

At the end the adventure, Lara has not gained a battery of loyal followers, men or women. Her success is achieved in complete isolation.

Women action adventure heroes often operate in isolation. Who can forget Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien who must fight the monster with only the ship’s equipment as her ally? Women characters in real situations often are forced to side-step gender isolation like Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs.

Where are their sisters or aunts or cousins or sorority sisters or trained colleagues in a good ol’ girl network?

Here’s an insight for Hollywood.  Women mostly look to each other for how to solve today’s problem. Movies that allow the display of this minion are often revenge-on-husbands storylines like Rosanne Barr’s She Devil or Goldie Hawn’s First Wives Club. At least these adventures got it right for who women call first to get it done.

But I’m in danger of sounding like a problematic woman here with my ideas for improving the Lara Croft story. Next outing will be my complaints for women acting how men think women act in Oceans 8.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Life of Ideas

With the Summer 2018 need for a second Supreme Court justice nominated by Pres. Trump, I’m surprised at the shouting of old rhetoric from the far left. No prisons, no ICE, no school tuition. Like any of those could happen.

One leftist news segment guest (I knew she was leftist from the angry tone of a defeated person) claimed that university students will rise up and achieve what congress cannot with impeaching Trump. 

I remembered my days as a returning adult to art school in Chicago. We were required to take certain gen-ed courses, so I signed up for ten-weeks of post WWII Marxist thought, the latter-day thinkers who came out of the European Marxist dialogue.

I often went horns-to-horns with this teacher who was wholly committed to the idea that Marxism was a better path than decadent capitalism. I asked in class, “Isn’t Marxism disproved by history? What do you expect these art students to take away from these readings?”

The students sat in the back and doodled witch cartoons on their notepads, sometimes a pair of them.

So this teacher played a video of Michel Foucault. You remember him; the guy who thought up the prison round with a center tower that Cuba actually tried.

In the video a young sycophant interviewer lobs softball questions to Foucault in the hotel suite with a bed in it. Foucault in a thin turtleneck and slacks, and wearing slippers I think, languished on the bed and rubbed his bald head before he tolerantly answered.

I remember thinking then that when I get rich and famous, I will never allow anybody to film me in a room with a bed in it.

And that’s what I learned from Michel Foucault.

These days when a student of mine starts with the polished derivative rhetoric about school-to-prison pipeline, I ask if he has read Foucault. His mouth puckers and his eyes go blank.

I’m not too worried that free-and-fair market principles, used as a bludgeon by Pres. Trump to humble trading partners, will risk much exposure of structural flaws from the inquiring minds of college freshmen.