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Widows: Achieving empowerment

* contains spoilers

Ostensibly, Steve McQueen’s latest film is a thriller, but to categorise it as such is to undermine its emotional depth and deft characterisation. Adapted from Lynda La Plante’s television series by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, whose screenwriting efforts on Fincher’s Gone Girl demonstrated her quick, efficient style of writing, Widows focuses on the emotional impact of the actions of a group of men, criminals who, up until now, have successfully garnered vast quantities of money without error. Each widow of the title has, through various means, suffered at the hands of her partner, and each, after the unexpected demise of their partner, is compelled to partake in a final crime to finally achieve independence and freedom.

Not only do these women need to be without their male counterpart in order to become independent, but they also have to subsume a hitherto male role, a role that was played by their partner. Veronica (Viola Davies), recognising that her husband Harry’s death (Liam Neeson) has left her without financial aid, or stability, uses the plan that he has left her to enact his next conceived robbery. Outwardly, Veronica remains wealthy and respectable; immaculately dressed, eloquent and seemingly self-possessed, yet she is left bereft and entirely alone.

As the narrative later reveals, Veronica was, after the death of her beloved son, essentially rejected by her husband who has sought to develop a continuation of their marriage with another woman and a new son. She is repeatedly underestimated by those around her, particularly the men who believe that they know her, who she is and what she is capable of. In leaving the plans for her, Harry believed that she would simply use them as a bargaining tool, a means to pay off the debts that Harry has accumulated and disowned. This method of manipulation does not enter Veronica’s discourse. Seemingly Harry believes that Veronica is inactive, incapable of acting of her own accord, yet Veronica’s first instinct is to actively engage with the plan, to study it, and gather other women to help her undertake it.

The women that Veronica enlists to help her carry out the plan are women who she is, through Harry’s actions, linked to. It is this shared experience that helps the women, despite their different backgrounds and motivations, recognise the value in one another, a value that has not been recognised by the men in their lives. It takes a fellow woman to perceive that each other has intelligence and determination, and it is their interaction with one another that ensures that this is achieved. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) struggles to rid herself of her overreliance on men. Encouraged by her mother, she arranges an escort style relationship in order to try and maintain the stability of her materially comfortable lifestyle. Yet the man that she enlists to do so is, like her deceased husband, lacking in the ability to recognise her individuality or independence. It is only through Veronica that she is finally able to assert herself. Previously used to having everything provided for her, Veronica’s demands (such as purchasing firearms, or a vehicle to be used for the plan) forces Alice to confront the person that she has become. Rather than relying on the men around her, she quickly recognises her own ability.

Similarly, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), lied to by her partner into believing that the dress shop that she has devoted hours to is her own, is drawn into aiding Veronica, realising that both her sense of stability and her own definition of herself has been brought into question. No longer is she a business owner, but a widow with dependents. This shift in perception is one that is, for Linda, potentially damaging. The shop, one that presents and markets her own creations, is not only an opportunity for a creative outlet but one that allows her to present a particular image of herself to the world. Her deceased husband’s actions have taken this away from her, and she is left feeling undermined and foolish.

Notably, it is only when the women mask themselves, and hide their gender, that they are able to achieve empowerment. Veronica notes that they are able to hide behind their gender, as it is through their gender that they have been underestimated previously. Veronica recognises this and subverts their lack of power to seek empowerment. Each woman, then, once the plan has been completed, and successfully so, is able to live independently without the need to rely on a demanding, and manipulative partner.

 

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Just Go with It: lacking in imagination

It is easy for the majority of the viewing public to be largely dismissive of the rom-com as a genre. Even those that profess an affinity for such films often feel the need to excuse their enjoyment as being a necessary source of escapism. Too often prestige is attributed to films that are seemingly more serious in genre, and therefore more worthy of intellectual development and pursuit. Yet, a romantic comedy is a far more complex narrative than first appearances may suggest. The genre, much-maligned for its predictability and questionable gender dynamics, is dependent on well-crafted characters, clear and realistic dialogue, and a central relationship that engages the viewer.

Yet, producers of romantic comedies regularly churn out repetitive, unimaginative and often problematic narratives aimed to simply generate money and appease audiences without any real desire to entertain. A successful, intelligent romantic comedy can exist, and many do, yet all too often when people discuss the genre they tend to refer to those lesser films that are entirely reliant on generic conventions.

Just Go With It, is one such film. A purported romantic comedy that succeeds in being entirely unfunny and utterly derivative. Adam Sandler, an actor who surely would not have found success now if just embarking on his career, apparently still commands enough attention to attract the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Nicole Kidman to star with him. Sandler, working with the right director (such as P.T. Anderson in Punch Drunk Love) has demonstrated that he can convey complex, and developed characters,  yet his performances are increasingly lacklustre.

His awkward brand of bawdiness only really worked in his earlier efforts, such as The Wedding Singer or Big Daddy, where the concept was charming enough to allow Sandler to demonstrate an apparent empathetic nature. In Just Go With It, his almost Machiavellian machinations in achieving a successful bachelor lifestyle are entirely unethical. The idea that we should somehow accept his treatment of women via a hackneyed backstory which features a ridiculous prosthetic nose and a cruel fiancée, is laughable, and lazy. Even more laughable is the idea that Aniston’s character, knowing Sandler’s character’s treatment of women, still apparently believes that this is a man who is both kind and capable of redemption. His character has, since his jilting at the altar, endeavoured to trick any woman he comes into contact with in order to sleep with them. It is only when a woman, who he finds supremely attractive, refuses to develop their relationship any further while he is still in a relationship, that he decides to alter his ways. Again, rather than simply admitting that his ruse of continuing to wear his wedding band was simply a means of gaining a woman’s sympathy (as well as an attempt to appear less predatory), he decides to continue his relationship by embarking on an increasingly complicated solution.

Paying Aniston’s character, and her children to pose as his family, he pretends that his relationship with Aniston is over, and he is thus free to embark on a new relationship. This ruse is, once again, used to gain sympathy, with Sandler calculatingly presenting himself as a caring father. This presentation wins him Aniston’s affections too, and the film concludes with the pair getting together. The pair, despite working together for multiple years, only end up together after they have been forced to act as a family. This is notable as, in reality, it means that the relationship between the pair, rather than being based on their many years of contact, has been borne out of a constructed reality, one that will not last.

Arguably, it is the very concept of Just Go With It, that leads to the film’s total lack of success. Even Aniston, a usually charming comedic actress, can do little to save it. It is strange then, that a genre so focused on serving women’s interests and largely marketed to a female audience, is one that serves them so poorly. Just Go With It tells us that if we suffer for long enough, we too can end up with a character like Sandler’s: a man who has spent the majority of his adult years attempting to rebuke the treatment he received at the hands of one woman. Seemingly, we are simply supposed to excuse his treatment of women, as, ultimately, he can be a good man. All it takes is a fake family, some major manipulation, and lots of money.

You Were Never Really Here – Trailer

Any film directed by Lynne Ramsay is guaranteed to pique critics’ interest. The director, known for the supremely unsettling We Need to Talk About Kevin and Morvern Callar, has demonstrated her unique ability to fuse the visual and the aural in order to create and generate tension.

Her latest effort, starring Joaquin Phoenix, looks set to be similarly disquieting. Phoenix stars as Joe, a conflicted gun for hire, who readily and easily dishes out brutality with seemingly little moral qualms. His latest commission, to rescue a politician’s daughter from a sex ring. quickly descends into difficulty.

With music by Jonny Greenwood, who has garnered a fine reputation on the sparse scores that he has created for P.T. Anderson, the film presents an interesting concept. This narrative and central conceit, of a young girl rescued by a violent man, has almost become a cliché thanks to films such as Taken and Man on Fire, but Ramsay’s involvement will ensure a fresh, progressive direction.

In praise of Bad Moms

 

Note: contains spoilers

The huge success of female-led films such as Bridesmaids heralded an influx of female-centred comedy films, with audiences finally recognising that women can, and should be awarded the space to deliver lead comedic performances. Some, like Girls Night, has been well-received and rightly praised for its progressive nature, while others, such as Bachelorette while interesting in premise, have been poorly executed.

Bad Moms while not particularly inventive in terms of narrative, is, through its presentation and narrative focus, rather pleasingly enlightened. Starring Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn as mothers with varying levels of pressure, and responsibility, the film accurately demonstrates the need for a new representation of the matriarchal role. Here each woman is entirely devoted to her children, but are afforded their own personalities and agency.

Kunis, discovering that her husband has been cheating on her, rather than allowing the revelation to devastate her and force some clichéd reinvention, simply moves on. She continues to manage her successful career and embarks on a new emotionally, and sexually satisfying relationship while remaining on amicable terms with her ex-husband. She is not punished for attempting to balance a career with being a mother, and is instead, rewarded for her ability and tenacity.

Similarly, Bell’s character, a stay-at-home mother is afforded her own agency, but instead of leaving her previously possessive and controlling husband, the pair work on the gender dynamics present, in turn creating a marriage that allows a greater level of equality.

These elements in themselves are not particularly revolutionary, but it both their inclusion and presentation in Bad Moms that is so worthy of praise. Kunis’ character never questions her ability to work, and while she may question her aptitude to successfully mother her children, this is never truly called in to question. Her children are well-adjusted, and their relationship both with each other, and Kunis’ character is positive. The relationship between the women too, is largely positive. While the central conceit of the film centres around the rivalry between Kunis and Christina Applegate’s overachieving president of the PTA mother archetype, it intentionally and purposefully humanises her character. The film’s final scene features Applegate inviting her previous rivals to spend the day with her, without grudge or anger.

 

 

Another look at This is 40

When This is 40, the sequel to Judd Apatow’s raucous, gross-out comedy Knocked Up, was first released the reviews were mixed. The notable change in tone and character focus was, for many, too jarring. Knocked Up, much in the same vein of earlier Apatow efforts, was primarily intended to be comedic, and as such, was fairly tightly paced. This is 40, while still clearly intended to be comedic, is attempting to proffer something more than simply humour. Rather, the film, in its perceived maturity, offers a rumination upon impending middle age, as well as the difficulties of preparing your children for adulthood.

The film, focusing on Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd) and the state of their marriage, is intentionally laconically paced. For some, this pacing may not work, especially for those expecting the humour of the film to be in the same vein as many of Apatow’s previous films. Instead, This is 40 is, arguably, a drama presenting itself as a comedy. A rumination upon marriage, and parenthood the film is rather more than a throwaway comedy, but rather a film that deserves attention in its own right.

Depicting the marriage of Debbie and Pete several years after the events of Knocked Up, the narrative ambles along at a sedate pace with, arguably, no real turning point or climax. The film’s dramatic turn hinges on Debbie’s discovery of her unplanned pregnancy, and yet this discovery, given the relative stability of Pete and Debbie’s marriage, never truly presents a threat or concern. For some, this may present a problem, desiring the film to depend on some dramatic revelation, but in reality, it is this lack of self-imposed superficial drama that aids the film’s success.

It is the interactions between Debbie and Pete, and their two children, which provides much of the entertainment. Given that both daughters are played by Apatow and Mann’s daughters, the interactions between Debbie’s character and the two girls, in particular, feels entirely natural, and in turn, engaging. The various familial complaints expressed by all members of the family are relatable and as such, aid viewer connection.

That is not to suggest that This is 40 is some profound rumination upon family life, but rather, it is a film that deserves individual attention rather than simply being relegated to the perception of being a lesser Apatow effort simply because it is a departure in tone.

Blade Runner 2049: the depiction of women

Objectively, Sci-Fi has long been co-opted by the patriarchy. The genre has, almost since its incarnation and increasingly so, been primarily seen as a genre that is designed for and appeals to, exclusively men. Arguably this perception is one that has been rather foisted upon the genre, rather than created by design, but there can be little denying of its impact.

As such, it is hardly surprising that much of the rhetoric surrounding Denis Villeneuve Blade Runner 2049 has focused on the depiction of women, receiving both acclaim and critique in equal measure.  The detractors note the proliferation of the commodification of sexuality with many of the women onscreen fulfilling the role of sex workers, or simply performing a narrative function.

Thus Mackenzie Davis’ character is afforded little real agency and is instead instructed by a more powerful character to carry out a specified task. Similarly, Joi (Ana de Armas), the AI technology that is entirely sold as a commodity, fulfils the role of female partner for Ryan Gosling’s Office K.

Joi, being a creation seemingly without true consciousness, is able to flit between roles. Indeed, when K first arrives home, Joi quite literally embodies a performative role, adjusting her dress and manner in accordance with his wishes in order to indulge his every whim. For those who have criticized the film, it is the character of Joi that has attracted the most derision. Her look, her very body, is one that is used by the corporation that created her. Joi’s appearance is not unique to the AI version that K has purchased, but rather is an image that is resold and redressed according to the desires of the buyer. It is this aspect, and her seeming lack of agency, that has seen the most discussion levelled.

Certainly, Joi’s character is problematic, but arguably, it is intended to be so. While some may not question the nature of her incarnation or existence, many will note that her character, and her desire to achieve physical realness, is one that affords her consciousness. Her relationship with K is one that achieves connection despite her lack of physical embodiment. Despite her incorporeal nature, her presence affords K an opportunity to feel something more. This is not to suggest that she is somehow subservient to K or is there to provide him with mere pleasure, her role is more than that. It is Joi that suggests the apparent nature of K’s parentage, and it is Joi, recognising the vulnerability she posits towards K, that insists on being removed from the hard drive in order to ensure his safety.

Similarly, it should be noted that Villeneuve intentionally subverts the rather tired trope of the heroic male. Rather than, as K almost too willingly believes, K being the projected leader of an impending replicant uprising, it is an unsuspecting, thoughtful and sensitive woman who is revealed to be the true miracle. This woman is a creator in a myriad of ways, capable of creating memories ready to be implanted into replicants. Her revolution, one suspects, will not be one of death and destruction, but rather one that empowers, much like the capabilities of the memories that she so lovingly develops and designs. Too often, it is the male protagonist who serves as the focal point of the film, but as Villeneuve seems to suggest, we have been paying attention to the wrong character. K, while a key role, is only the helper if considering Propp’s character types, it is this woman who is the hero.

There is much reference to the replicants’ ability to procreate being evidence of their humanity, and it is surely worth mentioning this. It is the maternal figure that will ultimately provide the replicants with their salvation, not a hyper-masculine, antagonistic hero.

The ‘good’ woman: Me Before You

As has been discussed at length, women are often categorised into two simplistic dichotomies: wholly good, and wholly bad. These two versions and ideas of womanhood are entirely reductive, not allowing for any subtlety. Encouraging reward and punishment for the good and bad respectively, they teach audiences that women are only one of two types.

Me Before You’s Louisa Clark is one such example. Entirely good, completely flawless and consistently exuberant, her unrelenting positivity is not only irritating saccharine but thoroughly damaging. Her character is so boringly good, that there is little else to define her aside from this identified ‘goodness’. Indeed, it is this kindness and unstoppable happiness that provides the very nature of her character and encourages admiration from other characters. Seemingly, this naïve positivity is supposed to be endearing, and encourage engagement, but in reality, it makes her character unrelatable, promoting her to a position of unachievable perfection.

Louisa, losing her job at the local café from which funds were used to support her family, applies for a job as a carer to Will. Will, paralysed in an accident two years previously, is initially antagonistic towards Louisa, but is soon charmed by her idiosyncrasies. These calculated idiosyncrasies include a predilection for brightly coloured clothing and slightly bizarre hairstyles, in an attempt to further highlight her endless positivity and sunny disposition.

While Louisa initially finds the job difficult, she continues, at the encouragement of her sister, to work for Will’s family. When discovering that Will intends to end his life, struggling with his disability (a decision which has received much-deserved criticism), she determines to create a bucket-list of sorts, intending to change his mind and show him that life is worth living. This decision and this bucket-list are only made possible by Will’s extreme wealth. A fact that is presented without question. Similarly, the superficial nature of this venture is never analysed or presented for critique.

Regardless of the events and experiences that Louisa organises, Will determines that he will still end his life, a decision which Louisa eventually accepts and supports. Louisa, demonstrating a total lack of agency, uses the money Will bequeaths to her to start a new life, following his instructions to visit Paris.

Louisa’s presentation is problematic for numerous reasons, and her innocuous nature demands further analysis. Her goodness and her continued ability to act good and pure is utterly unrealistic. She is entirely selfless, willingly contributing to her family’s income without any desire to fulfil her own ambitions. When this is questioned, she refers to having previously been offered a university place to study fashion, and there is a suggestion that she was compelled to rescind the place, but this decision is never interrogated. Her sister, presented as academic, is afforded the opportunity to renew her studies, leaving Louisa to continue to provide for the family without question or complaint. Louisa’s desires and needs are never fully realised, and her ambitions are refracted through others. Even at the end of the film’s narrative, now supposedly afforded the opportunity to travel and realise her aspirations, she is still carrying out the desires of others.

As her desires are never fully explored, Louisa is only ever a one-dimensional character. Will’s attraction to her seems to be based on a series of signifiers. Ones that highlight her as being slightly and endearingly eccentric, childlike, and continually optimistic. There are no shades of grey in Louisa’s character, and any moments of unhappiness are caused by her love and care for Will, rather than any decision or want of her own.

Presenting viewers with such a limited construct further emphasises the problematic nature of the representation of women in romantic dramas in particular. Will’s ex-girlfriend, who marries his best friend, is demonised for her decision to move on with her life after Will’s accident. There is a suggestion that Will was difficult, as she states to Louisa that she tried for months to continue their relationship, but the audience is led to believe that her character is somehow weak and shallow for embarking on a new relationship. There is no investigation or discussion surrounding this event, it simply uses a female character to juxtapose the goodness of Louisa. Emphasising Louisa’s perfection by contrasting her with a woman who has been found wanting is lazy and further contributes to the tired discourse of women continually battling against one another without support.

Young Adult: In praise of the selfish woman

Too often, women are forced into two opposing roles with little nuance. Frequently, they are either wholly good or wholly bad, with no room for subtlety. Those women that are good, are rewarded, often marrying or achieving career success at the end of a film’s narrative. Those that are bad are either punished in some rudimentary manner or, more commonly, compelled to learn something and to somehow develop and gain a sense of morality.

It is then, relatively rare to see a woman who is not only entirely selfish and destructive to others around her, but utterly engaging throughout a narrative. Young Adult features a protagonist who is entirely self-centred in her pursuits. Her ambition throughout much of the narrative is simply to reward themselves, caring little for those around them. The film features a woman who revels in her lack of self-awareness and, rather progressively, is not punished for it.

Creating such a character is more than simply writing in acts that render the character mean or hurtful. Indeed, despite the apparent lack of nuance, these characters are deftly and skilfully written. It is apparent in films such as Trainwreck, that characters that are simply egocentric do not manifest themselves are engaging. The protagonist of Trainwreck, regardless of her actions, lacks engagement. Her character may revel in her decisions, and profess to enjoy her lifestyle in which she engages in numerous short-term relationships, but she lacks the conviction and wit to persuade the audience. Without the ability to convince the audience, the viewer is left questioning the worth of these moments.

Young Adult alternatively, features a character whose dedication to her ambitions is entirely convincing. Deciding that her high school boyfriend is still in love with her, she returns to the town of her adolescence. Caring little for his marriage, or indeed the birth of his baby, Mavis (Charlize Theron) sets about attempting to orchestrate a reunion between the two. The success of her plan matters little to the film’s central plot. What makes the film so enjoyable, and eminently watchable is Theron’s central performance.

Theron’s Mavis, wrestling with her own problems, cares little for the problems of others. Her compulsive hair pulling, which seemingly indicates a response to stress for Mavis, is presented for the viewer to watch but asks for little active engagement. We are instead, invited to watch Mavis live her life, preparing herself for her numerous dates, and struggling to ghost write her last young adult novel. Her actions cause much pain to those around her, and her impact on those that she grew up with is revisited by many characters. Clearly, her cruelness left an indelible mark, which many of the characters have struggled to get past. Mavis is an expert in presenting herself and knows how to manipulate the emotions of those around her. Scenes show her carefully applying extensions to cover her bald patches, expertly applying makeup, and selecting clothes designed to highlight her attractiveness and success.

Mavis, in ghost writing her teen novels, has essentially never left high school and is still surrounded in that world. Several scenes show her eavesdropping on local teens, using their dialogue as inspiration for her writing. Not being able to move away from the polished prom queen image that she so carefully cultivated in high school, Mavis is stuck and remains so. The film, in the hands of a less skilled writer and director, would have concluded with some form of life lesson or punishment. Instead, rather joyfully, Mavis simply leaves, caring little for the results of her actions. Her unwavering selfishness feels entirely true to her character. She will never learn, and will never have to truly face that consequences of her actions, and that’s OK. This belief that all characters must learn something is clichéd and dull. It is Mavis’ lack of character development or progression that makes her characterisation feel real. There is no life lesson for her to learn here, and nor should there be.

The ‘goodness’ of 13 Going on 30

13 Going on 30 is a strange film. Its central conceit of a young girl, making a wish to be ’30, flirty and thriving’ is by no means original. Certainly, this manner of body swapping and time travel has been done many times before. But what makes 13 Going on 30 rather notable, is the power dynamics that are at play.

Presented, ostensibly, as a romantic comedy, the film follows Jenna, who embarrassed by the various social tribulations of being a thirteen-year-old, wishes to be a mature, successful thirty-year-old woman. Upon waking, she finds that her thirty-year-old incarnation, while successful as a magazine editor, is, as another character bluntly states, ‘a bitch’. She has retained a friendship with the popular girl in school, and together the pair work for the magazine Jenna so admired when younger. Her best friend, Matty, has fallen by the wayside, no longer deemed suitable company for the ambitious and determined Jenna.

What makes 13 Going on 30 questionable is the rather crudely belied message that it posits to its viewer. The women in the film are, entirely simplistic, either good or bad. Rather like Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic, the women in Jenna’s world are either wholly good or wholly bad: angel or whore. Jenna, in her adult manifestation, is bad. She has affairs with co-worker’s husbands, treats her employees with disdain, and has isolated childhood friends due to her behaviour. When bad, Jenna is afforded little respect by either the characters in the film or indeed, the audience themselves. We are clearly, and rather unsubtly, told to abhor this version of Jenna. Jenna only regains the respect of Matty, her assistant, and the audience, when she reneges on her previous behaviour.

Thus, the audience is treated to several cringe-worthy scenes in which Jenna, compelled to present her own conception for the progress of the magazine she so adores, pontificates on the importance of returning to childhood, to innocence and to fun. Carrying in her homemade mood board, complete with balloons and ribbons, Jenna meditates her voice, becoming almost child-like herself. This desire to return to childhood is presented in direct contrast to her rival’s ideas, which, in their purported edginess and futuristic appeal, are clearly intended to be perceived as almost sinister, without heart or meaning.

What then, is 13 Going on 30, attempting to suggest to its audience? Its narrative, with its hackneyed and awkward central romance, clearly indicates that in order to be happy and successful both personally and professionally, women have to be the embodiment of good.  Jenna is only able to embark on her relationship with her beloved Matty when she becomes good. Notably, this version of goodness seems to be a term that is transferable with childlike, or innocent. Jenna, in the body swapping narrative, is, despite her outward appearance, still the thirteen-year-old at the start of the narrative. Is this to suggest then, that it is this that Matty finds so appealing?

Her goodness is utterly saccharine. An incomplete idyll of congeniality and niceness. Her Jenna does not possess the ability to have shades of personality within her, rather she is without fault in this ideal state. Interestingly, it is only in this state that her career, hitherto stalling, begins to progress. Similarly, her personal relationships, which up to the start of the narrative have been largely been borne out of infidelity, is, with Matty, pure. This purity is not only entirely unrealistic but rather damaging in its conceit. Women are not simply good or bad, and to represent them as such is entirely reductive.
Of course, once Jenna achieves peak virtuousness, she is rewarded. Transported back to her life as a thirteen-year-old, afforded the opportunity to correct her mistakes, she marries the similarly perfect Matty. Thus, those who are wholesome are presented with what they desire, while those who do not embody such characteristics are found wanting.