Showing posts with label 52 Films by Women. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 52 Films by Women. Show all posts

June 5, 2017

The Fun and Importance of Wonder Woman

Gal Gadot stars as Diana in the Patty Jenkins movie Wonder Woman.

What more can be said about Wonder Woman? It’s already become a blockbuster hit, which is thrilling given the intense focus on its success. In the world of Trump, an extremely rare superhero movie with a female director takes on much greater meaning. Far-right trolls were just waiting for Wonder Woman to fail. Instead, Patty Jenkins’ new film is closing in on box office records. I took my daughter to see it on Saturday, and it was heart-warming to observe such a diverse audience. She’s eight and maybe a little too young for some parts, but I decided it was worth it because of how uncommon it is to have a female lead in a superhero blockbuster.

Looking beyond the cultural significance, this isn’t the most impressive summer slate for big-budget movies. Logan was a surprise hit back in March, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 did monster business. Plenty of other wide releases have failed, and there are candidates for a similar fate on the way. Wonder Woman was hardly a surefire hit, but positive word of mouth and the lack of much competition helped its cause. It’s also an entertaining movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a welcome change to see a movie that doesn’t feel loaded by its franchise. There are no extra scenes in the credits that tie in to other films. With the exception of brief references to Bruce Wayne, there’s little mention of other parts of this comics universe.

The highlight is a glorious action scene that reminds me of why I love movies. The sequence begins with a gloomy look at the horrors of trench warfare, but that’s really just a set-up to let Diana take matters into her own hands. When she stands up and fights, the stark difference between this moment and other gloomy DC superheroes is remarkable. She’s facing down a storm of bullets and actively changing the narrative. Without malice or anger, Diana blazes across the battlefield and inspires the troops behind her. This scene culminates in a nearby village with Diana using a makeshift trampoline and blasting through a tower to stop a sniper. It’s such a fist-pumping moment that it’s hard for anything to match it the rest of the way.

This sequence epitomizes the difference in direction and tone for this movie. The stakes are still high yet they never weigh down the audience. The main reason is Diana herself, who can’t help but be a hero. Gal Gadot perfectly embodies the self-motivated, powerful force that no one can stop. She’s graceful in the action scenes in a way that doesn’t feel like a CGI trick. There’s also a glint in Gadot’s eyes that reminds us that what we’re watching should be fun. This tone carries over into the quieter scenes, which offer laughs and heart that were definitely missing from Batman v. Superman. Jenkins’ direction rarely pummels us, and the screenplay from TV vet Allan Heinberg doesn’t hammer the obvious themes.

This fresh take is evident in the “fish out of water” scenes in London after Diana leaves her island home of Themyscira. She arrives in a man’s world, but we don’t see too many one-note caricatures of sexist villains. A subtle comment from Diana comparing secretaries to slaves is a lot more effective than boorish enemies. The men in Parliament are bewildered by her arrival, and that says plenty. Diana’s lack of decorum is played for laughs but not at her expense. She’s the extraordinary person in a world that has a long way to go. We still do.

This restrained approach works because it’s unexpected in a big-budget superhero movie. It’s also fun to just spend time with the characters, particularly Diana and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). There’s also a fun turn from a nearly unrecognizable Lucy Davis (Dawn from the British version of The Office) as Steve’s assistant Etta. The scenes in London complement the action and keep it grounded. There are plenty of fireworks to come, but that means little if we don’t want to join the trip. Taking a breath and then starting the next journey is so important. The deft pacing is what helps the story avoid losing steam after its opening act on the island. There’s still a little too much of the kitchen sink in the final act, but it takes a long while before we reach that point.

The opening act could easily fall prey to exposition syndrome, but it never falls into that trap. It helps to have Robin Wright as the fierce military leader Antlope and Connie Nielsen as Diana’s mom Hippolyta. Both sell dialogue that could be silly in lesser hands. It’s easy to see what Diana is giving up by leaving this paradise. The film’s 141-minute running time is a little bloated, but the cuts shouldn’t come from this section. It’s necessary to understand Diana’s world and why she’s initially confused by the different culture. It’s also a gorgeous place that doesn’t seem like just a CGI creation. A director like George Lucas would have piled on over-the-top scenery and creatures and lost the reality. Jenkins doesn’t fall into that trap and creates a believable location.

Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) are less thrilling as the two main villains. They’re the typical one-note characters (especially Ludendorff) who mainly exist to give the hero someone to battle. The saving grace is that we don’t spend that much time with them, but that makes their defeat seem less uncertain. The final battle includes a surprise twist, though it’s telegraphed due to Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters. That moment adds some depth to the conflict, yet it starts to fall apart when the scene keeps going and going. It’s a minor quibble in a very entertaining movie but dulls the final impact just a bit.

What sticks with me about Wonder Woman is the excitement in seeing a modern blockbuster that works as a classic adventure. Gadot and Pine have good chemistry as a pair, and their connection does not distract from the plot’s forward movement. The World War I setting builds a sense of place in a similar way to Captain America: The First Avenger. Both don’t have to create fake countries or grim cities to sell their narrative. The war also makes the horrible acts of the villains feel more natural. It’s not that much of a stretch from the trench warfare that actually occurred. Diana’s powers stand out but don’t overwhelm the other characters’ struggles.

I’m thrilled to see great success for Wonder Woman, which does more than validate an entertaining film. I can’t overstate its importance to the larger struggle, especially with Jenkins as the director. There’s still a long way to go in multiple realms, but this is a major step in the right direction. Trolls can gripe about all-woman screenings and spew hate, but they look even more ridiculous now. It’s sometimes hard to stay positive with a madman leading the country and terrible news each day. The achievements of a blockbuster film might seem trivial, but they make a difference. Young girls like my daughters will see a role model like Diana on the big screen and believe they can be heroes.

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January 12, 2017

52 Films by Women and a Broader Perspective

Ava DuVernay's debut film I Will Follow deserves a lot more attention.

This past summer, I lost my job and was out of work for several months. It was a rough year for a lot of reasons, but we were able to rebound and are doing well today. I mention this experience not to garner sympathy; I know that many others had it much worse. I’m a 40-year-old white guy, so our system is in place to benefit me. It’s been that way for too long, and our current landscape could get much worse. I hate to be cynical but do not see positive signs when I consider who’s leading this country. We're in the middle of the last gasp of a patriarchal structure that needs a major overhaul.

I live in Missouri, a state that has moved further to the right in recent elections. I’ve called my senators and representatives, but those efforts can only accomplish so much. I’m a film fan and manage this site, so I do have control over this small pocket of the Internet. During the past year, many film bloggers and other cinephiles participated in the 52 Films by Women project. I’ve decided that it’s time for me to join up and do the same. I may talk a good game, but my viewing habits still veer way too much towards movies by white guys. It’s time to fix those trends.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

Changing what movies I see may seem like a trivial move, but it’s a concrete way to gain a broader perspective beyond the world of movies. I support liberal causes and vote for progressive candidates, yet it’s easy to fall into typical patterns. The Hollywood system continues to give male directors a huge edge in access to major projects. Other behind-the-scenes roles are also dominated by men. Courtesy of Melissa Silverstein of Women in Hollywood, here are some painful statistics from a recent Celluloid Ceiling Study about 2016 representation:

  • Women accounted for just 7% of all directors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films, down 2% from 2015.
  • Only 13% of writers, 17% of executive producers, 24% of producers, 17% of editors, and 5% of cinematographers were women.
  • Just 3% of composers on the top 250 films were women.
  • A stunning 35% of films employed 0 or 1 woman in key roles.

I knew there was a serious problem, but these numbers are even worse than I expected. In particular, the small percentage of directors remains embarrassing for the industry. There’s still a perception that women can’t direct blockbusters; a glance at the men behind the Marvel, DC, and Star Wars films is an easy way to start. I’m hopeful that Patty Jenkins will help to change that perception with Wonder Woman this year. From top to bottom, we must use our dollars and voice to support movies from women or risk seeing few changes to the formula.

Michelle Williams stars in Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women.

A Personal Change

It’s easy for me to look at the numbers and decry the sexism that keeps them so low. That accomplishes little and is actually hypocritical given my own recent history. I may have supported Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women and Ava DuVernay’s 13th in recent months, but those examples are anecdotal. The trends aren’t any better for me when I retrieve the overall numbers. Here’s a sobering look at my movie viewing habits in the past three years.

  • 2016 – 101 films watched, 7 directed by women (6.9%)
  • 2015 – 101 films watched, 8 directed by women (7.9%)
  • 2014 – 129 films watched, 13 directed by women (10.1%)

Back in 2013, I made a similar conscious effort to see films directed by women and watched six in a marathon. Even so, my numbers from that year were not much better. I saw 136 films and still only watched nine directed by women (6.6%). Are you sensing a pattern here? This should help explain why I’m pushing myself further in 2017. I understand the issue but haven’t made any significant increases in my viewing habits. This trend needs to change.

It has some slow points, but Chantal Akerman's South is definitely worth seeing.

A Promising Start

During the first two weeks of January, I’m on track and have watched two interesting films. The first was DuVernay’s I Will Follow, her first dramatic feature. It’s a low budget affair that clicks because we care so much about the characters. Salli Richardson-Whitfield shines in the lead role as a woman grieving the death of her aunt. I’m not familiar with Richardson-Whitfield's other work and will definitely be on the lookout for her. It’s a quiet story yet connects with me because the characters feel real. I could empathize with all of them even when they’re struggling.

My second film was Chantal Akerman’s documentary South (Sud), which depicts the Texas town of Jasper following the murder of James Byrd. I’m sad to admit this was my first Akerman film. There are long stretches of time where Akerman just shoots the town and lands around it. Despite the beauty on display, there are moments that become a little tedious. The film stays afloat due to conversations with various citizens about the area’s racist history and the brutal killing. There are no easy answers to the problems, especially when economic struggles come into play. I definitely need to see a lot more of Akerman’s filmography.

I don’t mean to overstate the importance of this project. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to everything that’s possible. Given the awful political climate led by our president-elect, it’s easy to feel powerless. Changing my viewing habits is one way that I can make a small difference in how I perceive the world. I’m also planning to blog about these films whenever possible and look for ways to support them commercially. It’s one thing to talk about supporting female directors on social media and this blog. The real work comes on the business side. Money talks, particularly with conservative studio leaders. They need to see the commercial value in supporting diverse voices. It’s less idealistic but the most important move to change the game.

After losing my job last summer, I was calm for most of the time. There was just an unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach. That sensation has been present lately, particularly when I read the news. Horrifying decisions and statements are coming from our leaders, and it’s easy to throw up our hands. There’s still a lot for me to learn, and it’s time to do something positive. I’ve put together a watchlist on Letterboxd of films directed by women that I should see. I’ve also organized a Letterboxd diary where I’ll add each selection for this project as I watch it. If you have any recommendations of films to see, I’d love to hear them.

Learn more about the 52 Films by Women project at the Women in Film site. You can also see what others are doing on Twitter at #52filmsbywomen