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Posts Tagged ‘gender politics’

It’s not often that a film that I genuinely want to see gets past me, and when it does it’s a sign that it didn’t get a particularly extensive release in the first place. Such proved to be the case with Mirrah Foulkes’ Judy & Punch, which very briefly ran in the local arthouse at the beginning of December last year. The times just didn’t work out, which was irritating to say the least, and I was glad when the film resurfaced (equally briefly) at the Ultimate Picture Palace recently.

I saw the movie the day after hearing the news of the death of Terry Jones (a capable film director, in addition to his very considerable talents in other areas), and there is something very appropriately Pythonesque about it in parts – though this is a very distinctive film, and absolutely its own thing. Putting it into a category is really not very easy at all.

The film is set in the town of Seaside (which, the captions go out of their way to make clear, is not remotely near the sea), and presumably takes place at some point in the seventeenth century (the setting is a kind of generic Ye Olde England). Here we meet Punch (Damon Herriman), a talented puppeteer trying to make it to the big time, and his wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska). The theatres in the big towns are reopening after an outbreak of plague, and if they can just get noticed their show could be a great success.

However, a number of things soon become apparent: Punch is a touch too fond of the booze, and has a temper when he’s had a bit to drink. It’s also made clear that it is Judy who is the practical one who makes their performances as successful as they are. She also looks after the house and takes care of their baby; all that Punch seems to want to do is sit around drinking and eating sausages.

The film kind of assumes the viewer is familiar with the classic elements of the Punch and Judy shows which inspired it, for gradually they begin to manifest in the story of the film: a string of sausages, Toby the dog, an ineffectual police constable (Benedict Hardie), and so on. What initially looks like it might just be about a couple of characters with familiar names turns out to be a retelling of the traditional Punch and Judy story – the difference being, of course, that these are real, living characters rather than wooden puppets. (It must be said that they do struggle to work the crocodile into the movie, though.)

There aren’t many films which contain a moment reducing me to sheer gawping astonishment, uncertain of whether to laugh out loud or moan in horror, but there is one of those in Judy & Punch. There is black comedy here, but also genuine horror – but this isn’t really a traditional genre movie, mixing comedy and horror with elements of both drama and fantasy. It is, obviously, a film which is ultimately about misogynistic violence, particularly as it is presented in films and other pieces of entertainment. The central conceit here is to show parts of the traditional Punch & Judy story reenacted by actual people, and of course what is still somehow acceptable as a piece of time-honoured entertainment suddenly seems shockingly inappropriate in this context.

You could probably respond that Punch and Judy is no more meant to be taken seriously than Tom and Jerry cartoons (which are equally violent), but the film does a good job of at least encouraging the viewer to give the notion headspace. It’s an interesting idea, anyway, and one which the film initially plays with in a number of engaging ways. Early on, Judy wonders aloud to Punch if their show isn’t becoming just a bit too violent, and he responds with some weaselly nonsense about being an artist who has to go where his talent leads him – adding, also, that the audience likes the violent bits (exactly the same kind of self-justification some film directors are overly fond of). It also touches on the long historical history of violence committed against women by men, witch-trials and so forth. As it goes on, however, some of the wit evident in the opening part of the film falls away a little, and it becomes a rather less playful film and much more of a straightforward drama. I thought this was rather a shame, given how strongly it starts. It may just be that the film peaks too soon: certainly, there are some extremely uneven moments towards the end, with gory mutilations mixed up with a bizarre moment spoofing Gladiator (for no very obvious reason).

You may find your heart sinking at the thought of a movie which, whatever its trappings, basically exists to make feminist points about violence committed by men against women. And I can totally appreciate where you are coming from with that. However, what I should say about Judy & Punch is that this never feels like a very heavy or overly didactic film. It never quite loses that edge of black comedy and horror that makes it a little bit different to what you might expect. The sheer unexpectedness of the thing is very engaging, and there are two very strong performances from the leads. It looks good throughout, and there is a memorable soundtrack from Francois Tetaz as well.

In the end, this is a fable more than anything else, and I should say that whatever the film’s ideas are about violent and misogynistic entertainment, they are presented obliquely: the focus is always on the story of Punch and Judy as real people, rather than putting across an on-the-nose message. There may be slightly less going on here than meets the eye, but the film is quirky and unusual enough to retain the interest, and it concludes with a memorably grotesque sequence that may ensure you never look at a ‘real’ Punch and Judy show in the same light again. That’s probably the film’s whole raison d’etre: it sounds like a strange objective, but it will probably make you agree that it’s a worthwhile one.

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As previously noted, nothing which was once popular – no matter how briefly or how long ago – can ever be allowed to die a dignified death and slide quietly into oblivion any more. No, it must dragged back from the brink, propped up in front of a new audience, given a vague attempt at a new coat of paint, and forced to rake in a few more shekels. This seems to be an iron law of modern culture. I can think of no other explanation for the re-emergence of yet another new version of Charlie’s Angels.

The last couple of years have, after all, apparently brought about a complete rethink about the role and representation of women in popular media. They are no longer mere ornamental objects present only for the gratification of male viewers. Well, fair enough. But even at the time, the original Charlie’s Angels TV show was derided by critics as ‘jiggle TV’, for reasons I hope I don’t have to go into. ‘When the show was number three [in the ratings], I figured it was our acting. When it got to number one, I decided it could only be because none of us wears a bra,’ observed original star Farrah Fawcett. It was a show built around the exploitation of attractive young women.

And yet Elizabeth Banks’ new movie bloody-mindedly attempts to retool it as – according to a proper critic, in The Guardian – ‘weaponised feminism’. My head hurts. However, the new Charlie’s Angels movie is definitely aimed at independently-minded young women, which is surely the equivalent of trying to sell hamburgers to cattle. You can only be doing it for one of two reasons: you’ve radically reinvented the product, or you think your audience is very, very stupid.

In the end it’s probably the first one, I think – by which I means that if the film does treat the viewer as thick, it’s not intentional, just something that many Hollywood movies do without really thinking about it. The paradox inherent in the movie does become apparent from the first scene, which features Kristen Stewart talking a lot about her self-determination and formidable polymathic talents and so on, all the while wearing a sparkly pink mini-dress and a long blonde wig.

Soon enough the movie moves on to something a bit less intellectually demanding and some martial arts action breaks out. ‘I’m your new girlfriend!’ cries Stewart, headbutting a bad guy into insensibility. It certainly gives a whole new charm to the notion of remaining self-partnered. More importantly, Patrick Stewart wanders in, playing Bosley – the implication seems to be that he is playing the David Doyle character from the original show (Stewart is somewhat artlessly inserted into photos alongside the original TV cast and that of the early 2000s movies).

Normally Stewart wraps himself in gravitas and integrity like a cloak, but on this occasion he just twinkles a lot, which is a little wrong-footing. I think it is safe to say that his performance in this film is not quite of the same stature as all that work with the RSC or playing Sejanus, Jean-Luc Picard or Professor X, but on the other hand CGI has been used to carefully remove the dollar-signs appearing in both eyes throughout all his scenes.

On with the plot. Patrick Stewart’s Bosley retires, and is replaced by Banks herself as another Bosley – yes, the world is now so feminist that even the token man is a woman. More importantly, perhaps, over in Berlin nice young computer expert Naomi Scott discovers the revolutionary clean energy technology she is working on has dangerous potential as a deadly weapon, which bad actors are taking an interest in (I mean criminal agents, not the cast, but now you mention it…). It’s up to Banks-Bosley, Stewart, and Ella Balinska (playing another new Angel) to save the day.

This involves whizzing around Berlin, Istanbul, and various other locations, in a style which is some way sub-Mission: Impossible and even further sub-Bond. To be fair to the movie, Elizabeth Banks puts together a functional set of action sequences – chases, fights, sneakings-in-and-out-of-secure-places, and so on – but when the gunfire and revving engines fade away, all one is left with is the sound of comic banter falling flat and people expositing blandly at each other, interspersed with the occasional somewhat obtrusive you-go-girl moment.

It brings me no pleasure to report this, as Elizabeth Banks strikes me as a talented person who makes interesting creative choices: apart from this film, just this year she has appeared in Brightburn and the second Lego Movie, both of which were well worth watching. However, as Banks not only directed the film, but also wrote the final screenplay and co-produced it, it is her name which is most prominent on the charge sheet. As an actress, at least, she appears to be trying hard, and emerges from the film with as much credit as anyone else involved in this department.

However, the name of the game is Charlie’s Angels, and it really stands or falls by the quality of the central trio. Quite what philosophy was adopted by the casting team for this film seems a bit of a mystery, as there is – to put it delicately – a bit of a disparity when it comes to the profile of the stars. Whichever way you look at it, Kristen Stewart is globally famous and has done many big movies; Naomi Scott was very prominent in Aladdin earlier this year; while Ella Balinska is effectively a complete unknown. The effect of this is, again, a bit wrong-footing. However, I have to say that the film does prove again that, no matter how bad some of the later Twilight films were (and some of them were very bad indeed), Stewart does have genuine screen presence and star quality: you do find your eye drawn to her when she’s on. I’m not sure the same is true of Naomi Scott, at least not to the same extent, but I discern considerable potential for a future career playing kooky best friends here. Ella Balinska, on the other hand, can’t deliver a joke or a piece of exposition to save her life, but she is about eight feet tall, which was probably useful for the fight choreography.

Whatever you think of the wisdom of the film’s attempt to reinvent Charlie’s Angels for the post-Unique Moment world, or its gender politics in general, the biggest problems it has are that as a comedy it isn’t funny and as an action movie it never particularly thrills. I would be more tolerant and responsive to whatever subtext it is trying to put across if the actual text of the thing was competently done and entertaining. It is not, and perhaps the most indicative thing about it is that there is no sense of great potential being squandered: it just feels like mechanical Hollywood product, with even its big message closely calculated to appeal to the target audience. I remain convinced, though, that even a brilliantly-executed feminist take on Charlie’s Angels would be a deeply, deeply weird film.

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As regular readers may recall, my friend Olinka’s suggestion that we go to see Hereditary did not exactly result in a glowingly successful evening, but one duff movie is not enough to dissuade her and she suggested we have another go, at a film of my choosing this time. Of the options which I offered, she plumped for Ocean’s Eight, which makes a certain kind of sense – this movie is kind of being marketed as a comedy thriller, and Olinka tends to assume any film she sees is a comedy thriller until forcibly persuaded otherwise. Well, you know, I saw the three Ocean films with George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, and this one has an interesting cast, so Gary Ross’ new movie looked like a reasonable bet.

(I bet there was some serious hardball involved in deciding who got which place on this poster, especially the spots on the right hand side. It also occurs to me that someone didn’t realise that ‘pro’ has more than one meaning in colloquial English.)

Things get underway with Debbie Ocean (Sandy Bullock) attending her parole hearing, as she has apparently been in the big house for the past five years. Having been successful in getting herself let out of the slammer, she slinks off into New York wearing the evening gown in which she was apparently arrested. This sequence basically does the job in getting the narrative underway, but also raises a couple of important flags for the audience – firstly, it is established that George Clooney’s character (Bullock’s brother) has very definitely carked it, so one shouldn’t get one’s hopes up for a cameo from the big man, and secondly, it is made clear that this is the kind of film where attitude and appearance are more important than credibility or things actually making sense.

Debbie has spent the last five years working out every detail of a reasonably complicated robbery (they occasionally refer to it as a con, but it is basically just nicking other people’s property with a pinch of get-your-own-back time). To assist her in executing her scheme, she recruits her best friend (Cate Blanchett), who is also a criminal, as well as a dippy fashion designer (Helena Bonham Carter), a housewife and part-time fence (Sarah Paulson – is there somebody at the door?), a skateboarding pickpocket (Awkwafina), a jeweller (Mindy Kaling), and a Rastafarian computer hacker (Rihanna). The plot revolves around stealing a $150 million necklace from the neck of a self-obsessed and rather vapid model (Anne Hathaway) at the gala night of the New York Met. And if Debbie can get her own back on the worthless ex-boyfriend who sent her to prison (Richard Armitage), then so much the better!

Well, the least you can say about Ocean’s Eight is that it has managed to avoid the tsunami of abuse which greeted the All-Female Ghostbusters Remake, despite the fact that it is essentially an All-Female Ocean’s Eleven remake – well, not really a remake, but a film with a very similar premise, featuring cameos from a couple of minor characters from the Soderbergh films. Is it just the case that insecure men on the internet have calmed down a bit in the last couple of years? Given all this chatter about raising funds for a less-feminist remake of last year’s stellar conflict movie, I kind of doubt it. It may just be that Ocean’s Eleven is less a part of people’s childhoods and they don’t feel as possessive about it. It’s certainly not because Ocean’s Eight is a better movie than the Ghostbusters remake, because it isn’t.

I mean, this is obviously what you would call a caper movie, and the pleasure point for this kind of thing comes from the cleverness of the plot, which will ideally have some kind of twist, and the fact that you are rooting for a bunch of appealing characters who have the odds apparently stacked against them. The problem with Ocean’s Eight is that the plot just isn’t that clever or surprising – there’s a lot of stuff about computer hacking and 3D printing (quite how they afford the printer, given Bullock has to go on a shoplifting spree at the start of the movie just to stay solvent, is not really gone into), but nothing to really make you go ‘Ooh that’s clever.’

There is an interesting range of performances on display from the ensemble. Blanchett, as you might expect, and Paulson, as you might not, emerge with the most credit and credibility, and Hathaway seems to be having fun in a somewhat OTT role. Most of the others are strictly functional, while Bonham Carter decides to deploy a somewhat dubious Irish accent (I was reminded of the apocryphal actor’s dictum: if you don’t think the script is funny, make sure you do a voice that is). Bullock is, well, watchable, because she’s Sandy Bullock, after all, but I was kind of reminded that a few years ago she largely stopped starring in anything other than slightly ditzy rom-coms, mainly because anything else is outside her comfort zone. As a supposedly super-cool criminal mastermind, she is, how can I put this, just a little bit inert. On the whole, in fact, if you asked me the composition of this movie, I would have to say it was about 20% Mission Impossible, 60% Sex in the City, and 20% hardboard.

Given that the plot doesn’t sparkle and the characters don’t engage, it is probably not a surprise that it’s quite hard to care about most of what happens in Ocean’s Eight, and – given they basically are just robbing a (relatively) innocent jewellery house – I couldn’t help feeling this is a film rather lacking in what you’d call a moral compass. Near the start, Bullock knocks off some makeup from a department store, and this is depicted in sufficient detail for young and impressionable audience members to very possibly have a go at doing the same thing. I’m not suggesting that we return to the days when Alec Guinness had to be led off in handcuffs at the end of The Lavender Hill Mob, for fear of sending the wrong message, but suggesting that a quotidian offence like shoplifting is somehow cool or clever is not quite in the same league as plotting a bullion heist.

Then again, I’m not exactly in the target demographic for this movie, and for some insights from someone who is I turned to Olinka at the end of the film. ‘What did you think of it?’ I asked. She shrugged. ‘Well, it was cool, and some parts of it were funny, and I enjoyed seeing all the beautiful women in their expensive dresses – so yes, I enjoyed it.’ There is, I should mention, a rather contrived sequence of nearly all the protagonists swishing out of a party in couture, even the ones who have previously been established as working in the kitchen or hiding in a van nearby.

I have to say I was slightly surprised to learn that some conspicuous consumerism and escapist glamour was all it took to sell this movie to my friend, especially given how poor a lot of the rest of it is (quite apart from the stuff I’ve mentioned, James ****ing Corden turns up near the end, and (as usual) brings to the movie all the charm and fun of a urinary tract infection). But then again, I suppose this isn’t very much different from many male-oriented summer genre movies, in which ropy plotting and duff characterisation are excusable as long as enough stuff blows up.

There’s a sense in which Ocean’s Eight is just another quite mechanical and formulaic summer genre movie, it’s just one which has been clumsily retooled so the characters can be played by women. They still kind of act like men, though, even though rather than knocking over a bank vault they are stealing some pretty jewellery (I am kind of reminded of the summer of 2004, when Spider-Man saved New York from a nuclear apocalypse, while in her own movie Catwoman had to avert the sale of some iffy make-up). I’m all for better representation of women in films, and more feminine perspectives given screen-space (well, you know, I’m still a thunderous misogynist, but apart from that), but I’m sure there must be more options than either decorative subservience or playing a clumsily rewritten male stereotype. Sylvester Stallone was greeted with incredulity and derision when he announced he was working on a distaff-oriented version of his superannuated-musclemen franchise, to be entitled The Expendabelles. But Ocean’s Eight is uncomfortably close to becoming something very similar to that. I suppose it’s not an outright bad movie, but I would struggle to find anything really positive to say about it.

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