Sunday, May 10, 2009

Star Trek

"Your father was captain of a starship for 12 minutes. He saved 800 lives. Including yours. I dare you to do better."


I can claim geekdom in several areas of my life, but being a trekkie is not one of them. I've actually never seem a full episode of the show, nor have I seen any of the films. That little detail out of the way, I still enjoyed J.J. Abrams' revitalization of Star Trek immensely. It wasn't perfect, but it did a lot right - namely making an engaging, accessible, action-adventure that succeeded in drawing in first-timers like myself.
If I had any inkling that this blog was read by more than a handful of people I would be hesitant to write anything about Star Trek for fear of messing up a factoid or misspelling a character's name. Even so I'll do my best to keep things simple as to avoid any negligent flamebait.
In a nut shell Star Trek follows the exploits, adventures and general tomfoolery of the original crew during their early days in the Starfleet Academy and on the U.S.S. Enterprise's maiden voyage. Things go awry when the young cadets run into an unruly Romulan from the future whose thirst for revenge and planet-cracking starship places the universe in peril. The plot is thickened with protagonist James T. Kirk's past connection with the evil Nero.
That's the basic plot, and it works well even if you didn't know beforehand (like me) that Romulans are sort of expected to be evil and tend not to get along with Vulcans. I'm pretty sure most of the shear joy trekkies will be getting out of this film will stem less from the conflict of the film and more from the introduction and development of characters like Kirk, Spock and Scotty.

My only real gripes with the film are with the occasionally awkward comedic moments and a fairly one-dimensional bad guy. Otherwise the film is a riot - it's gorgeous (just the right amount of bloom-lighting and vast, future cityscapes), the score and soundtrack are spot-on, and the heightened level of action made the film that much more exciting, even if it felt a little more like a... dare I say it? ... Star Wars film... (I mean come on, the whole ice-planet thing didn't remind anyone else of Hoth?)

When I was sitting in the theatre, trying to ignore the 8 year old narrator behind me, I thought to myself, "now what would this movie look like through a pair of feminist goggles?" The first knee-jerk reaction was to the obvious attention-bait underwear make-out scene at the beginning of the film. Now I don't have anything against the idea of sex in films - it's just how sex is handled and what purposes it serves that oftentimes undermines a movie and gives cinema in general a misogynistic rep. If you're going to use sex in a movie make it complex, make it honest, make it something more than a tool. In Star Trek any sexual tension is obviously used to frame the character Kirk, which makes sense for the plot/character development. The scene just feels a bit obvious, especially when it's throw out there within the first 15 minutes - Hollywood knows that if there isn't an explosion or a boob in the first 17 minutes of a film half the audience is going to fall asleep or walk out.
Beyond being centerpieces for said sexual tension, there really aren't many roles for women in this film. There is a brief segment that deals with the mother/child (dis)connection, but that only comes up a couple of times in the movie. Overall it would have been interesting to see the film try something new with incorporating women into this typically heroic-male oriented story. You would think that gender roles would have changed at least a little bit after however many centuries in the future the story is supposed to take place.
It is hard to be critical though because this is a remake of sorts - and from what I've heard from friends, it sounds like the original Star Trek series was pretty progressive in regards to social issues.
Even if you're not a die-hard fan you should definitely drop the dough on this one - it's a great summer adventure film, and unless space really isn't your thing you'll be having a blast with Star Trek.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Terminator 2...

I'm aware that writing this post may forfeit any legitimacy/dignity this blog has, but stick with me for a minute - this will be a short one.

"A feminist critique of the movie Terminator 2 you say? ludicrous! absurd!"

Honestly I was just avoiding real work and most of my responsibilities the other night and somewhere between procrastination and napping the Terminator showed up.
One of the problems with trying to think like a film critic (and maybe even more so from a feminist perspective) is that you can remove yourself from the actual entertainment that a movie is supposed to provide.
I'm guessing most people going out of their way to read a blog about feminist criticism would be hard pressed to call Terminator 2 entertaining - therefore I won't spend too much time trying to explain the intrinsic awesomeness of filmic devices like explosions, slow-mo, motorcycle chase scenes, time traveling robots, post-apocalyptic landscapes, and being able to reload a shotgun with one hand...
I love movies, I really do, sometimes even bad ones. It's true that sometimes it feels wrong to let myself enjoy action films - why is violence so captivating/why do I subscribe to such hyper-masculine notions of strength/why is it cool to wear sunglasses at night/why why why? There is probably an analysis in the making right here: trying to understand how it is that I can spend so much time in convoluted criticism of movies - like the fact that I didn't enjoy Garden State because it's "too accessible," (what the hell does that even mean?) - and yet I can sit down with a bucket of popcorn and have a great time with any number of guilty pleasure films (i.e. zombie flicks).

Alright, back to Arnold.
I'm not going to really review this one, I just wanted to throw out some thoughts I had when watching the movie in regards to motherhood. For those who haven't seen the movie there is a lot of attention given to protector/protected relationships. In the first film of the series it was the mother, Sarah Connor, who needed protecting from a heartless/emotionless robot assassin from the future. Sarah was to be the mother of a son who would grow up to be the leader of the human resistance against the bots. In the second film it is the same son, John Connor, who needed protecting, but this time by both his mother and a reprogrammed robot - also from the future.
One of the greatest tensions in the film comes from Sarah Connor's divorce of everything "motherly," turning her character into a fiercely independent, aggressive and cold person. The only thing keeping her alive is the knowledge that she must become as strong and prepared (military training, access to weapons) as possible in order to protect her son from the impending war between the humans and the machines. The end result is a mother who does not resemble a mother at all. The love for her son is obvious but with such a jaded exterior there are plenty of moments when our hearts bleed for a boy whose mother has been taken away from him; replaced only with a bodyguard.
The film also has something to say about fathers - although it's brief. At one point in the film during some introspective monologue-ing on Sarah's part she mentions how the robot protector from the future is actually functioning as a better father figure then any other man in John's life. The implications that a robot devoid of emotion could serve as a better father seems bizarre, but Sarah goes on to say that the robot will never leave John, never raise his hand against him. He will always be there to protect him. I guess in a strange way, those few lines say a lot about fatherhood, what we look for in a father, what we expect.
Well that's all I really have to say about the film - if nothing else I hope this post wasn't completely worthless. I really do think it's possible to extract a feminist critique out of films even as hyper-masculine as Terminator 2. There is definitely more I could go on about with this film - such as the mother/child authority complexes or the gendered notions of sacrifice, but I think I'll end here. Let me know what you think about all these expectations we have for mother figures (fathers too), as I really do think that this is one of the most important themes in this and many other films.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Wandafuru raifu (After Life)

A somewhat more obscure film than my first review - Wandafuru raifu (literally "Wonderful life") is an international piece released in the US back in 1998 under the localized title After life. Similar to Brick, my intention in reviewing this film is a mostly selfish one (I just wanted to watch this movie again), but I was also drawn to the film's nuanced use of gender in telling a story and presenting an aesthetic. Japanese writer/director Koreeda Hirokazu managed to take a simple question and turn it into a film that connects deeply, without the baggage of melodrama or convolution. At the end viewers are left to ponder the quiet joys in life - and that is really what this film is all about.

And what is that question you ask?

"If you had to choose one memory to take with you into all of eternity, what would it be?"

The story in After Life follows a group of counselors who work at a sort of waystation or halfway house for people who have recently died. The job of the counselors is to speak with the souls in order to determine which memory they want to take with them into, well... whatever comes next. The catch is that the recently deceased only have a few days to decide. At the end of the decision process the counselors recreate the memories as short films for the deceased to be a part of in order to relive their experience. The fact that no one knows what "eternity" means or looks like isn't the point of the film - the purpose lies in finding meaning in one's life by searching back through the years.
Koreeda's early background in film was primarily in documentaries, which may explain why After Life spends so much time fleshing out the dialogue and revelations between counselor/patient in interviewer/interviewee scenarios. This style works well and really gives the film an intimate feeling.
The conflict of the film (if you could call it conflict) lies in the relationship between two of the counselors. Protagonist Shiori (female) is sort of a counselor-in-training to Mochizuki-san (male), and although there is little interaction shown between the two, it becomes obvious that there are feelings for the other going in at least one direction...
The film is minimalistic in almost every sense of the word - the setting is bleak but not quite depressing; the dialogue is brief and vague, and there is almost no use of music. But minimalistic does not mean emotionless - there is a lot of feeling in the film - it's quiet, but it's memorable.

The biggest "feminist" question/thought/quandary I have with this film is whether or not Koreeda is effectively directing from a "female gaze." The whole question of gendered "gaze" comes from an influential feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey - particularly her 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (Screen, 1975). So as not to bore anyone to death I'll be quick. Mulvey basically proposed this idea that film is created from a dominant male perspective, specifically for a male audience, i.e. the "male gaze." Therefore Mulvey proposed that sexism in film goes beyond how women are presented and reaches the boundaries of why film exists and how it is produced.
In response to Mulvey's notion of the male gaze other feminist film theorists like Judith Mayne and Teresa de Lauretis wrote on women's involvement in the production and consumption of cinema. De Lauretis in particular wrote on what she saw as "female spectatorship," an alternative to the assumed male gaze, and explained how it was possible. The first step is simply female authorship in film - women being involved in the process. But de Lauretis' theory reached further into arguing for an aesthetic specific to women directors - and this is where I feel the film After Life posses an interesting question.
There are several aesthetic, as well as narrative choices that Koreeda (male) made in the production of After Life that remind me of what de Lauretis defined as "female spectatorship." Although fairly ambiguous in nature, some of the filmic elements de Lauretis wrote about included a focus on "in between moments" and concern for relational drama as opposed to conflict drama between characters. I've mentioned the relational drama in After Life already, but there is also a focus on transitory moments, or moments of contemplation - such as Shiori spending time in the mirror adjusting and readjusting her hair, or a solitary walk through a bamboo grove without any real intent. These kinds of scenes remind me of what de Lauretis was describing as "in between moments," and I can't help but wonder how much gender plays into constructing a scene like this.
I really didn't mean to spend so much time in the theory behind this stuff, but I thought I'd bring it up because when I first read through some of de Lauretis' arguments, Koreeda's film came to mind.
This review is getting a little out of hand so I'm going to try and cut it off somewhere around here. I guess what I'm curious about with After Life is whether or not the gender of the director is easily discernible. What would seeing the film have been like if someone had told me it was directed by a woman? What are some of the gender/culture implications? (that's a whole other analysis waiting to happen). And finally what does it take to command/incorporate a "female gaze" into a film? Is a male director capable of that?
A lot of these questions spill over into (feminist) film criticism in general so this probably won't be last time they apply to other movies. If you haven't had the pleasure already, do yourself a favor and pick up this movie - it's a great "feel good movie" that's context is death and mood is deeply reflective - which I know sounds morbid but you'll understand when it's all over.

p.s. seriously, what memory would you choose?

Sunday, May 3, 2009


I spent a while trying to think up the perfect movie to review first for this blog – something that touches on strong notions of gender, or a film that is so iconic that it begs a feminist interpretation… In the end I just decided to sit down and watch a movie that I was in the mood for and go from there. I’m anticipating that this blog will have a pretty eclectic range of films, so don’t judge me because I picked a stylish semi-successful indie flick to start off with!

Ok, back to the movie. The film Brick, released in 2005 was writer/director Rian Johnson’s first full length film, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from the level of confidence this movie commands. In so many ways Brick feels like a bizarre science experiment gone horribly right. Johnson went out on a limb here, mixing the genres of film noir and teen drama. The result is movie that holds your attention with wit and originality, keeps you guessing with twists and turns, and laughing unexpectedly at the moments when these two disparate genres (intentionally/inevitably) collide.

The setting is a southern Californian high school but the cast of characters are just about as archetypal to the detective mystery story as any can be – besides the whole teenager thing. In Brick we meet characters like the brooding outsider detective, the damsel in distress, the sharp and intelligent sidekick, the plotting seductress, the all-muscle-no-brains bad guy, the calm but deadly kingpin, and last but not least the mysterious and dangerous brunette.

The film opens with our detective protagonist Brendan (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) receiving a cryptic phone call from an ex-girlfriend who had left him in order to move up the social ladder but quickly goes missing. Brendan sets out on a mission to find Emily (the blonde in trouble), and in the process dives deeper and deeper into the world of high school royalty, drugs, sex and murder. It’s true that the film feels out of touch with reality most of the time – the dialogue in the film is fast and intelligent, but is intentionally out of place coming from high school kids. Brick is self aware almost to a fault, and I can see where some people may be turned off by the film for its experimental approach. That said there are moments when genuine emotion comes through, and it’s because of these moments the film works as a whole.

Brick’s intentionality almost begs for a gender focused or feminist interpretation of the film. Johnson’s first crack at making a full length film feels original and fresh, even though he is working with some of the most exhausted genres in cinema. That said, I can't help but wonder what the film would have been if Johnson had challenged his (gendered) character archetypes in the same way he worked with genre? A feminist film criticism has to go beyond just judging films on “what ways women are presented in film” and get at the intention of a director and the expectations of an audience. What would this film have looked like if the protagonist detective where a teenage girl? Would that have worked, or just felt like an edgy Nancy Drew?

It could be argued that the way gender is dealt with in the film is simply done for the purpose of adhering to the noir genre. I guess I buy that, but the film seems smarter than this. Without giving away too much of the plot, there is a particular scene when Brendan recalls the moment he and Emily broke up… Brendan had said that he was trying to protect her, that he loved her - Emily’s response was that he couldn’t do that for her, that love didn’t mean ownership. The scene is brief but powerful, and in many ways it serves to define the way gender and love are dealt with in the film. As a guy watching this movie I can empathize with the feeling of wanting to protect/defend/avenge the people (women) we claim to love, and I appreciate how Johnson's film is critical of these feelings. But does the film adequately challenge these gender expectations – especially in light of the other “taditional” (hurtful/misogynistic?) female film noir characters? Should it have to?

These are some questions I hope you’ll be thinking about if you get a chance to see Brick, which I definitely recommend. If you’ve already seen it then think about watching it again – this movie is quick and there is a lot to catch on a second viewing.

quick disclaimer...

Just a heads up on where I get my details regarding films, i.e. actors/directors names, dates of release, that sort of thing – I’m going to be borrowing (stealing?) that sort of information from the IMDb ( If I reference a particular theorist or essay regarding film/feminist criticism I’ll give a brief citation (author name, book/journal title, year of publication), and would be glad to provide a full citation if anyone requests
Also, quick note on spoilers: I’m going to do my best to leave them out. Some people avoid movie reviews because they don’t want to know anything at all about a film before seeing it, but beyond presenting the plot and characters I won’t give too much away. However I am probably going to start a thread that develops some of the feminist informed interpretations of the films I’m reviewing. Chances are those kinds of posts will have to give away more than just tidbits of the plot. If that thread gets started you can be sure that I will have spoiler warnings. As for you comments, please please please don't post spoilers of your own!

about the blog...

First off, thank you for finding this little corner of the internet. I’m hoping this blog will stir up debate and I look forward to reading the comments you should all post…
It is hard for me to think of an area in my life where films haven’t had some sort of impact. Going beyond simply enjoying films, I genuinely see movies as a kind of lens that informs and adds interpretation to so many life experiences. A powerful film, just like a powerful book, stays with you, allowing you to extend your experiences, to escape, to learn, and to reflect.
True, this is a pretty idealistic view of films. True, movies’ real purpose is to make money and for the most part they do it by manipulating our emotions or filling our heads with illusions of grandeur. Film is just a medium, and movies are products. But throughout the process there is also intent.
The role of film criticism then is to judge how well that intent was executed – does the movie work? But that isn’t the only question film critics can/should be asking. Another important question is "whose intent/product are we critiquing?”
In the world of feminist film theory, this question reigns supreme, and in trying to better understand films and feminist theory I thought it would be interesting to try it out myself – to write some thoughts down and see what people think. Traditionally it seems as though film criticism, especially a perspective like feminist film criticism, doesn’t extend far beyond academia. Sure there are famous film critics writing to the masses, but we tend to think of them more as film reviewers. My goal here is to try and find a place where the two can meet – trying to recognize the intention behind feminist film theory, and the accessibility of film reviews.
Feminism is a lens for understanding how society works, but it also strives to change the parts of society that work in unequal ways. Sorry if this sort of explanation seems too basic, but what I’m trying to say is that there is a conversation between the theory and action of feminism, and using films as my topic I’m hoping this blog can work as a voice in that conversation, and maybe in the process get the word out about some interesting flicks.
Thanks again for stopping by,