Mid-Winter Mush

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Why haven’t there been any good movies about women recently?

It’s a weird time of year for movies.

We’re now into late February. The Academy Awards are upon us, which means we’re almost recovered from the hangover phase of Oscar movies being crammed late into the awards circuit, hoping their “seriousness” and “importance” still trump any of the fresh garbage that’s ceremoniously thrown into the dumpster fire known as mid-winter. Most of the time it still does (If you have a chance to see Birdman, why waste money on a Kevin Hart vehicle that will be forgotten in two weeks?). It’s the irony in having the Oscars at the same time Hot Tub Time Machine 2 is peaking at the box office. The awards jockeying has exhausted something like Boyhood and turned Fifty Shades Of Grey into a pleasurable alternative.

And then you have two movies—Still Alice and Cake—that masquerade as solemn and significant but feel more suited for the current season. It doesn’t seem respectful to toss them into the same bin, but they smell like they belong. Their award season prestige (well, just Julianne Moore’s) might only be perfume masking the stench that’s abundant. The movie’s stars– Moore and Jennifer Aniston, respectively—have given away their glamour and replaced it with a grimace. They’re lending vulnerable performances in movies that don’t feel worthy to receive them, pumping all their air into punctured life rafts.

That’s not to say they will be completely wasted. Moore is very likely headed to win her first Oscar playing a woman suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Aniston has already earned enough sympathy for getting snubbed by the Academy and acquired enough respect from her peers that she’s mostly accomplished what she sought playing a woman mired in chronic pain and fluctuating depression. If only the movies were as good as their performances. If only the movies were just good.

Is it pointless to complain about the dearth of quality movies about women in February? Probably. But considering all of the best picture nominations this year focus on the stories of men – Boyhood, Birdman, American Sniper, Selma, Whiplash, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, The Grand Budapest Hotel –it seems somewhat discouraging that there hasn’t been at least one quality Hollywood film released about a woman since Wild, which didn’t even get nominated. This could become the one-millionth essay about how the Academy voters and Hollywood have a sex and race issue. Instead, it’s just a bleak observation underneath Liam Neeson’s continuous reign over the flu season, which keeps furnishing his career with the same derivations of paternal revenge.

Besides the aforementioned stories of middle-aged women battling their health and becoming nuisances for their families, the only mainstream options between mediocre Kevin Costner, Spongebob, or a young kid with the hots for Jennifer Lopez, are Jupiter Ascending and Fifty Shades Of Grey, two wildly different movies with the same varying degrees of camp, confusion and creepiness.

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Mila Kunis stars in the former, directed by the Wachowski siblings, about a Russian immigrant named Jupiter Jones, who scrubs toilets and then gets thrown into an intergalactic catastrophe. Jupiter, we later find out through a series of muddled expository dialogues, is somehow the matriarch reincarnate to alien royalty called the House of Alabrasax. That consists of Balem (Eddie Redmayne), along with his two siblings, who goes to war for her inheritance that includes earth, where the family harvests people for a serum that allows them to keep their youth. Got it?

The narrative incoherencies match the visual ones. The Wachowskis have become crusaders for new technological advancements and special effects, pushing for more inventive ways to display their science fiction. Here, it’s too much. A long sequence near the beginning of the film features a chase sequence between aliens and Jupiter, hitching a ride to a friendly bounty hunter named Caine (Channing Tatum), a genetically engineered military fighter and half wolf sent to capture her. They’re flying around Chicago in spaceships destroying buildings and shooting at…? You can’t tell. The camera is more fascinated with the landscape and barrage of bullets so that you lose track of what’s actually happening.

Sometimes visual chaos is intentional; it’s a plot device. But when a story is already this confusing, you’re looking for clarity somewhere, presumably in the massive graphics investment. It leaves little for Kunis to do but recite storylines and scream as she falls — then gets caught by Caine — from high above, over and over again. The disappointing expectation in making female heroes is that they sooner or later become damsels. Still, you don’t feel like Kunis is fully committed to playing either. You watch her sprinting from death and you see an actress acutely aware she’s running away from a green screen. Even when she changes extravagant costumes in every scene, you barely have time to look at all the work that’s gone into them. The movie just keeps moving and Jupiter is just a momentary prop.

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The problem with this movie – and others like it – is that you don’t believe an ordinary girl could hold back the bewilderment that seems required for getting rocketed into another world. The same goes for Fifty Shades Of Grey, when our protagonist Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) realizes that her male suitor, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), has a few kinky habits behind his wealthy business mogul façade. Just like Jupiter, cleaning sinks and getting plucked from obscurity, Anastasia, a college student working at a hardware store, becomes an unlikely chosen one. It’s another Cinderella, this time with ropes and chains instead of glass slippers.

The movie, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and adapted from E.L. James’ best-seller, hinges on this improbable hookup. Anastasia is just a girl who walks, actually trips, into Christian’s Seattle office one day and a chemistry instantly brews. It turns darker quickly. Christian, a sexual connoisseur carrying psychological baggage, forcefully introduces Anastasia into his private world, made from the extreme wealth of his nondescript company. All we know is, he has a helicopter, a full garage of cars and more than enough square footage to fill his ego. It’s intimidating, like his knack for showing up unannounced whenever Anastasia is playing coy over text message or visiting her mother (Jennifer Ehle) in Georgia.

Then there is the secret room hiding his toys and fetish for S&M. All of this should be enough for Anastasia to call it quits. Instead she sees it as a twisted challenge, a chance to explore his different sexual fantasies and tap into, possibly correct, his psyche (James’ book spawned from fan fiction of Twilight so there’s a mental Beauty and the Beast thing happening, too). Dornan doesn’t offer any motivation for her to leave him though. He’s a face and a body without much texturing, someone refusing to become anything slightly interesting, mysterious or tormented. Johnson bites her lip and makes up for his lack of complexion. But the issue with her portrayal, the issue with the character she’s been given to play, is that she has no repercussions for her choices. Every weekend, when he whisks her away, she’s free and open to oblige.

Some of this creates a few good scenes, like a dinner discussion negotiating the details of Christian’s sex contract, on which the second half of the movie hinges. But Johnson is cornered into making an agreeable film without much color. It’s neither too dark or too farcical. She just hints at things with some visual comedy – Anastasia putting a Christian Grey pencil into her mouth or her strapping on a helicopter seatbelt, prefacing a similar act done naked. There could have been more of that to acknowledge the absurdity. But Taylor-Johnson keeps things curiously clean considering Christian actually whips Anastasia at one point.

It’s all melodramatic for something so contained. The real horror would be something out of the Dragon Tattoo series. The sexual predatory danger in those movies is what should be lurking around Christian’s chambers so that the supposed suspense that ends the movie and prepares for the next installment actually has somewhere to go. Instead Fifty Shades, which at times becomes a romantic comedy, feels like a long preface with Beyonce interludes and sex scenes.

These aren’t the movies to showcase Kunis or Johnson, but they’re starts. You just want to see this season produce something to challenge the fatigue of its macho releases. If anything, the performances have to cut through the crap they’re trying to support, to make something memorable. That’s how Neeson keeps dominating the box office. The movies are re-hashed thrills but you’re paying for his snarl. You wish the Wachowski’s or Taylor-Johnson had a clearer vision and better execution so that Kunis and Johnson could have made a similar impression. They don’t have the same luxury, or skills, yet as Moore, who, while accepting her award Sunday night, can completely forget the fact that over the country, Seventh Son is playing to an empty theater. She knows that if you’re going to make a dud, make sure you have the perfume to eliminate your stench.

 

(Writer’s note: Kristen Stewart is also really, really good in Still Alice)

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