“Clouds of Sils Maria” feels like a captivating play, which is appropriate because it’s about aging actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) taking on an incredibly challenging play. The role that introduced her to the world was the ingenue Sigrid, a young manipulator who sends an older woman reeling toward suicide.
Now, Maria returns to play the older woman, Helena. How does this fit into her life, with her own divorce, and the fresh death of the man who wrote the play and originally cast her? Her closest friend is her young assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). They read the parts, discuss the play, hike the Alps.
“Clouds of Sils Maria” isn’t really a movie about what happens to its characters, it’s a movie about what’s thought by its characters as the world turns around them. It’s a movie about acting, aging, maturity and immaturity, layers of meta-commentary, the generational evolution of taste, the clash of perspectives that creates, the boundaries where socializing and social media meet. It’s a film of interplay between two people who love each other and work together and act together, and increasingly don’t know where those lines begin and end.
There’s a melancholy to the film, yet also a pleasure to its performance. It doesn’t uplift so much as it insists that life is a continued resurgence. It’s a chamber drama, but one of the best in recent years. In my book, Binoche gave the best performance of last year and Stewart wasn’t far behind.
There are some moods in which you don’t want to watch a think-piece, yet “Clouds of Sils Maria” has a natural quality that transcends this. It’s a complex film easily accessed, captivating in the same ways a play can be – it relies on its writing and acting, and doesn’t get in the way of those things. There’s a feeling of being in the theater while watching it, despite its number of locations and outdoor interludes. There’s a feeling that you should applaud in the end and step out into the warm night to compare it to other plays, to meet the actors backstage afterward and hear the particular foibles of the show that night.
In that way, “Clouds of Sils Maria” feels like a very private experience as a film. I wonder if I come back to watch another night, what inflection Binoche might do differently, what timing Stewart might adjust. It wouldn’t surprise me. Some films feel like you can leave their worlds and the characters will still exist without you. “Clouds of Sils Maria” feels like you can leave its world, and the actors will still be running their performances. It doesn’t make the film feel less real, it just makes you aware of all the levels on which it can be real. It’s a rare feeling that makes this a unique and special film.
American Ultra is the rare case of two stellar actors elevating material that could get lost without them. Those two actors would be Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. I know, it’s popular to despise them both or think they’ve gotten where they are due to luck and limited skill sets. That thinking is wrong.
American Ultra follows Mike and Phoebe, an impoverished pair of lovers doing what they can to get by. She is patient with him; he has panic attacks at the mere thought of leaving town. Just as we’re getting to know them, viewers are whisked away to C.I.A. Headquarters, where Yates (Topher Grace) is shutting down a program of brainwashed operatives once run by Lasseter (Connie Britton). Mike is on the hit list, and to save him, Lasseter has to trigger him into remembering his agency training.
Events spiral out of control, and Mike is soon using everyday objects to murder his would-be assassins. I counted a spoon, a dustpan, and I think even a package of tortillas as deadly weapons. After the violence, Mike returns to being panicky and unsure of himself. Phoebe handles and helps him through it, getting a few punches of her own in along the way.
Eisenberg earned an Oscar nomination for his leading role in The Social Network, but being cast as Lex Luthor in the upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice seems to have turned many back against him.
Think what you want, but there’s one scene in American Ultra where Eisenberg cuts through the blood and the tears with just a look. His performance becomes a creature all its own, something pulsing and angry and confused and viciously dangerous. The film can’t rely on this – it needs Eisenberg to pace back and forth nervously between action scenes and make us laugh. Yet Eisenberg knows when to step on the gas and when to let off.
Stewart is even more complicated. She’s treated as toxic by an industry in which she launched two major franchises (Twilight and Snow White and the Huntsman) by the age of 22. We’ve covered why before, and it’s one of the most egregious double standards Hollywood’s offered in recent years.
Hate Stewart if you want, but you’re missing one of the most dynamic shifts into independent film in recent history. She is slaughtering dramatic and comedic roles left, right, and center, finding the chemistry, timing, and emotional nuance that was drained from her characters in mainstream roles. With Camp X-Ray, Clouds of Sils Maria, Still Alice, and now American Ultra, she’s in the middle of an impressive two-year stretch. She’s good. She might even be great one day.
Eisenberg and Stewart sell this off-kilter material beautifully together. They believe in the movie’s reality so intensely, they cover up for many of the film’s seams. They’re assisted by comedy veterans like John Leguizamo as Mike’s drug dealer and Tony Hale as a C.I.A. agent torn in his loyalties.
If you watch American Ultra as a straight action movie or comedy, you’ll find it uneven. It’s a film you can’t take too seriously. If you watch it as a romance and a chance for two actors to power their way through a mash-up of a half-dozen genres, it may leave you touched and impressed.
American Ultra ends up doing many things that The Man from UNCLEcouldn’t get right. The chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart is palpable. While their styles are vastly different, this film is more consistent and coherent. It’s a violent, occasionally comedic metaphor for the struggles we go through in opening up and learning to trust during relationships. On that level, it works beautifully and it can hit the heart in strange ways. If anything, it’s a sly update on a film like Grosse Pointe Blank, using spy movie tropes as a way of talking about the growing up we have to do in life.
In many ways, this is what I wish films like Kingsman: The Secret Service, Wanted, Pineapple Express, and Shoot ‘Em Up could have achieved: a reason for being. While they were focused on slick explosions and fancy choreography and other things I’ll admit I love, none of them left me thinking positively about them later that day. They were wastes of time and, though it lacks their level of polish, American Ultra is a better film with more heart than all of them combined. It even achieves that brief, “Look at what they make you give” moment better than The Bourne Ultimatum did (though that’s a better film in almost every other regard).
It won’t be for everybody, but for those willing to jump on a violent indie action comedy that would fit at home in the late 90s or early 00s, this is your cup of tea.
Does American Ultra have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Kristen Stewart plays Phoebe. Connie Britton plays Lasseter. Monique Ganderton plays Crane. Other unnamed speaking roles include Rachel Wulff as a CNN reporter.
Do they talk to each other?
No. (They do help beat someone up together once, so there’s that.)
About something other than a man?
The question doesn’t apply if women don’t talk to each other in the film, but when they talk to men, they’re usually discussing the plot or plans about what to do next.
American Ultra could’ve and should’ve done a lot better here. Stewart gets the chance to talk to many supporting characters who are men, but none who are women. The movie simply fails here, and it’s not very consistent about how tough Stewart’s and Lasseter’s characters are.
Very minor changes could have made this film more balanced and more communicative between women. The world of the film is also overwhelmingly populated by men.
Topher Grace’s Yates is incredibly misogynist, to boot. While it’s fun to hate Topher Grace and it makes us want to see him get his comeuppance that much more, the movie relies on this facet as a shortcut to building a fairly thin villain.
It’s a problematic movie when it comes to the representation of women. As always, one can still like a movie that has problems of any sort, but being aware of and discussing those problems and why they exist is an important part of being a viewer. American Ultra needed to do better here.
You could also call this Most Anticipated Bodice Ripper. Let me just quote the IMDB summary for a second: “In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.”
The Thomas Hardy novel on which it’s based was a fairly early piece of feminist literature that examined the social and personal pressures put upon women to choose a suitor. Far too often, these sorts of adaptations turn a complex work of literature into a breathy, steamy potboiler. That sort of simplicity would be a first for Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, however. His last film, The Hunt, concerned the ruination of a teacher’s life after a rumor about his sexuality is started.
Vinterberg is not one to dumb material down. His films are stories that beautifully present the rough edges of society we pretend to ignore. While Far From the Madding Crowdlooks like a prettier presentation of your typical period romance, the talent behind it – including lead actress Carey Mulligan – hints at something more complex. May 1.
When you read H.P. Lovecraft, you’re meant to be horrified at the realization of ancient societies that worshiped dark, insane gods. But here’s the thing: any society that lasts for any real extent of time, and the people living in it are worried about picking up food for dinner, meeting someone special, and trying to remember to do the laundry on time.
So what happens when a man unwittingly starts a romance with a woman who’s half Italian femme fatale, half Lovecraftian beastie? Where does the horror end and just living out your life begin? Aren’t we being a bit judgmental if we assume someone’s a crazed psychopath just because she sprouts tentacles?
Spring has been described as a horror romance about an Italian town that’s perfectly comfortable with its alternative nature. Can a romance survive the judgments we make against that nature, however? April 17.
18. WHITE GOD
And here we go. How do you tell Europe a story of marginalized people treated like outcasts when certain European countries go so far as to legislate the clothing of certain religions and races of people (hi, France, Britain, Netherlands), when some countries wage violent political battle to kick those people out (hi, Sweden, Hungary, Turkey), and even when some countries enforce laws so differently for different races that the prisons are 80% minority-filled despite a civilian population that’s only 20-30% minority (hi, well, almost all of Europe). How do you tell a story about entire peoples kicked around and treated like mongrel dogs to a continent that doesn’t want to hear it?
Well, you can actually tell that story with mongrel dogs. The same way the original Planet of the Apesexamined racism in a way that would never have made the big-screen in 1968 if it had actually been about Caucasians and African-Americans, a film like White God can face Europe and convince it to watch a movie about an ethnic revolt and, well, cheer for those rioting in the streets.
It’s important to note the obvious danger when a film does this. The key is in making it its own story, not a straight analogue. The goal after all is not to compare marginalized people to animals, but rather to compare the treatment of those marginalized people to the treatment of animals. It must be a judgment on the culture, not on the subject itself, or you start doing the very damage you’re speaking against. March 27.
There’s not much known about this film other than the talent behind it: Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in a David O. Russell film. He previously teamed them in Silver Linings Playbookand American Hustle. And, oh by the way, the screenplay’s written by Annie Mumolo. You may know her better as the writer (with Kristen Wiig) of Bridesmaids.
The film follows a single mother in Long Island who starts her own business and makes it big. Beyond that, not much is known. The turnaround on the film is going to be very quick, so let’s hope it makes its intended release date of December 25.
16. CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA
At some point, everyone’s going to get over themselves and recognize Kristen Stewart is a risk-taking actor with a rare nose for intriguing and challenging projects. Until then, we consider her here, in the words of Vanessa Tottle, “Our Patron Saint of Go F*ck Yourself.” (Asterisk added.)
Teaming her up with Juliette Binoche and Chloe Grace Moretz makes for the kind of film we almost never see – a serious drama centering around the relationship between three women, in this case taking place during the production of a film that challenges Binoche’s concept of how the people in her life fit into it.
I’ve been looking forward to this one for ages, as it’s meandered through the festivals and struggled to find an American distributor, despite Stewart having set a box office record for an actress her age just three short years ago. Shows you what happens when a man twice your age with a wife and kids takes advantage of you. You get blackballed from an industry, he gets a $200 million film. That’s why she’s our Patron Saint of, well, you know. No date set.
15. EX MACHINA
Alex Garland has written some of the most beautifully screwed up screenplays of the last two decades, many of which were immediately snapped up by director Danny Boyle (The Beach, 28 Days Later…, Sunshine). My favorite might be a non-Boyle project, Never Let Me Go.
This has also allowed Garland the opportunity to train under one of the most versatile and adaptive filmmakers in modern history, so when he makes his own directorial debut with Ex Machina, it’s worth noticing.
I also don’t pay much heed to studios, but at this point, I’ll watch anything that A24 decides to fund or acquire. Their nose for projects gave me two of my top 5 films of 2014, the Scottish horror Under the Skin and the Australian post-apocalypse tale The Rover, as well as a host of stellar comedies and psychological thrillers. Garland and A24? Two names I trust, with a story that looks pretty compelling. April 10.
14. THE REVENANT
After this year’s Birdman, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu pulls a complete 180 and makes a revenge Western. It will follow none other than Leondardo DiCaprio as protagonist Hugh Glass. Left for dead, he goes off in search of John Fitzgerald, played by…
Look, you guys, this isn’t funny anymore. Who is really playing John Fitzgerald? It can’t be Tom Hardy, not unless he found David Bowie’s cloning machine from The Prestige. Wait, what!?! Tom Hardy played the cloning machine in The Prestige? Oh for god’s sake…
So, in The Revenant, DiCaprio goes after Tom Hardy, and I really hope he gets him because this is getting ridiculous. How is Tom Hardy in all the films this year? He’s appeared three times in two films already on our list. That doesn’t even make sense. It’s like he’s a secret plan so that the Academy doesn’t even have to bother nominating 20 white actors in a year and just nominates 20 Tom Hardys. There’s no one that can stand against that, except…the Chosen One.
The one actor who’s always nominated but never wins…. Leo, this is your purpose, your calling, your reason for being! This is why you’ve suffered all those years, why you had to watch Matthew McConaughey get up there and say he’s most grateful to himself when he looks in the mirror. Go get Tom Hardy, Leo, and save the world for the rest of us. We’ll find out who wins – Tom Hardy or Leo, and therefore the world – in December.
(Above photo courtesy of Entertainment Weekly…obviously.)
13. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
I’m just going to leave the trailer up there. You can tell me if you like it, and are therefore telling the truth, or if you don’t like it and are lying for some reason. Because I don’t know anyone who sees those two minutes and says they don’t want to see the full movie. February 13.
12. MCFARLAND, USA
This might seem like a funny one to have this high, but Niki Caro is a special director, able to capture the small-town dynamics of various cultures and make otherwise cliché stories feel fresh again. She’s best known for the dreamy New Zealand inspirational Whale Rider. Kevin Costner’s unique talent lies in capturing an audience’s goodwill the moment he steps onto the screen. That was misused in action films in 2014, but here he plays a P.E. Coach who starts an unlikely and underdog cross country racing program. I’ll look forward to seeing Costner in a more comfortable mode again, but I’ll most look forward to how Caro presents this town and its people. February 20.
The jury’s still out on director Neill Blomkamp. Excitement over his unexpected sci-fi success with District 9 was tempered by the beautifully designed but incredibly uneven Elysium. Chappie takes place in a near-future world where a decommissioned military robot is salvaged by a family who raise him like a toddler. When his former masters come to claim him, Chappie is forced to grow up through the rite of passage that is eight bazillion explosions. Still, this is the kind of story Blomkamp tells best, focusing on the personal inside of the epic. Hopefully, he can keep his eye on the smaller picture. March 6.
Allow me to also link my own thoughts on why the burgeoning slate of films about artificial intelligence give us characters who strive to be more human at a time when humans strive to be more vicious.
Keep an eye out for out Top 10 most anticipated movies of the year.
Some of you know this blog treats Kristen Stewart as something of a champion. You can read why here, but the brief reason is that she’s been effectively blackballed from studio filmmaking for having an affair, while the man she slept with, Rupert Sanders – her director, twice her age, with a wife and children – never received similar treatment from the industry and has been offered his choice of big-budget studio projects.
Another director, Frank Darabont, won the directing job for Snow White and the Huntsman 2 by pitching the plot that most effectively cut Stewart out of the franchise she launched. So we champion Kristen Stewart here (or at least Vanessa and I do; we’re not a hivemind) because an attitude that holds young women accountable for affairs yet rewards old men with families for them deserves every ounce of vitriol we can muster.
CAMP X-RAY Oct. 17
All of that is immaterial when it comes to Camp X-Ray. This just looks like a good film. Stewart gets a bad rap as an actress for her part in a Twilight franchise in which everybody – even Michael Sheen and Dakota Fanning – indisputably sucked. People neglect her roles in The Messengers, Into the Wild, Welcome to the Rileys, and The Runaways. That’s certainly a better resume than most of the actors involved in Twilight boasted.
Kristen Stewart with a chip on her shoulder and something to prove, in a film with a chip on its shoulder and something to prove? That’s something I want to see.
Camp X-Ray. It’s about the soldiers assigned to a particular section of Guantanamo Bay, a military prison that holds its prisoners free of international law, trial, and in violation of the Geneva Convention. (Barack Obama campaigned on closing it in 2008. It is still open today.)
The film follows a friendship that develops between Stewart’s Private Amy Cole and a prisoner named Ali Amir. As a guard, her job is not to keep him imprisoned; it’s to keep him from killing himself.
RED ARMY Jan. 22
A sports movie for people who hate sports movies? What if I like sports movies? The closest I’ve ever gotten to understanding the sports camps of Soviet Russia is catching the rerun of Rocky IV on a lazy Sunday afternoon. You see, the key to boxing is glistening as hard as you can.
Children would dream of growing up to play hockey or wrestle for the USSR in the Olympics, and when they achieved that, they would dream of escaping the nearly year-round sports camps (read: prisons) that were dedicated to perfecting athletes whether they liked it or not.
An investigation of Soviet Russian policies and their mutual obsession with the United States through the lens of sports? That’s what documentary is made for.
AMERICAN SNIPER Dec. 25
Never count Clint Eastwood out. Regardless of conversations with empty chairs, the man is still a consummate director obsessed with plumbing the depths of the American experience. His politics rarely make it into his films, at least not in the way you’d expect.
American Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper, looks powerful. Its trailer comes across not like a tease but as a statement in and of itself. It’s the kind of film – centered around a lone figure, juxtaposing family life against dangerous work, tension inherent to the job – that plays to all of Eastwood’s strengths as a director. Cooper himself is a burgeoning talent, only now getting the recognition and roles he deserves after films like Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.
THE WATER DIVINER No date set
As I pointed out in last week’s special feature, it’s looking like a banner year for Australian film. Add Russell Crowe’s directorial debut, the tale of a father who travels to post-World War I Turkey in order to find his three dead sons.
You can see the edges of the movie’s budget in the trailer, but there are a number of factors recommending this film anyway. The most obvious is wondering what Crowe can bring as a director. Some of the visuals here look compelling. I already know what he can bring as an actor. That’s another reason.
Then there’s the story dealing with the aftermath of the Gallipoli campaign. Gallipoli is a bitter moment in Australian history – young Australian soldiers fighting halfway around the world for the British Empire were slaughtered. Gallipoli, a 1981 film directed by Peter Weir and starring Mel Gibson, remains one of the more salient – and often overlooked – war movies ever made.
Finally, there’s Olga Kurylenko. Once dismissed as a model who only appeared in B-films as eye candy, she’s built a career of very solid performances in films including Quantum of Solace, To the Wonder, and Oblivion. She hints of an actor about to break out.
BLACK SEA Jan. 23
Jude Law gets laid off and decides to take his skills – salvaging underwater wrecks – on one last freelance job. He assembles a rag-tag crew to exhume a Nazi U-boat full of gold from the bottom of the – you guessed it – Black Sea.
I’m honestly more interested in the trailer when it’s about conflicting personalities taking on an improbable job (and Jude Law’s crack at brogue). If it were all underwater rigging this and running out of air that, I’d be happy. To make it an everyone-turns-on-the-next man thriller is predictable. I’m not saying it can’t be done well – the trailer’s solid enough – but I’m more interested in Jude Law as a man against nature than I am in his pointing guns at people. Still, the talent involved and premise are enough to get me interested.
INTERSTELLAR Nov. 7
Trailer #3 is better than this place on the list, but we’ve had quite a few Interstellar trailers (it’s more like #5 now), and this is the only one so far not to put a lump in my throat. It looks phenomenal, but it’s looked more phenomenal in other trailers. This could be the only major film left this year with a real chance to unseat the ridiculous twosome of Under the Skin and Gone Girl.
Worst Trailer of the Week MISS MEADOWS Nov. 14
I don’t want to put this one here, I really don’t. I’ve always liked Katie Holmes – she seems like a nice human being I want to see do well. As a prim schoolteacher by day, vigilante killer by night, she looks like she’s having a lot of fun in this.
Unfortunately, everything not having to do with Katie Holmes here seems off. Deeply off. Miss Meadows has been in a holding pattern for a while now, and I can see why.
I really expected to be putting Taken 3 here, but you know what? That looks like all the dumb car crashes and needless explosions I’ve ever wanted to see Liam Neeson create. Next time, give Katie Holmes an assault rifle, a Mustang, and some C4. Then we’ll talk.
This weekend, Frozen will overtake Iron Man 3 as the fifth highest-grossing movie ever made. It will join Avatar, Titanic, The Avengers, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 in the top 5. Each of these films has something in common – though they may be outnumbered by the males, each has a strong female lead that doesn’t need the man in order to justify her role in the film: Zoe Saldana in Avatar, Kate Winslet in Titanic, Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers and Emma Watson in Harry Potter.
Frozen is the first in which the female protagonists outnumber the male. If you look at the top 20 films, or top 50, or whatever number you’d like, you’ll see a high rate of movies that boast female leads – Keira Knightley in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Laura Dern in Jurassic Park, Natalie Portman in The Phantom Menace (it’s worth noting this is the highest grossing Star Wars prequel, and the only one in which Portman has narrative function instead of being treated like a fetish object or a McGuffin). For all its other problems, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland contains no male leads, instead bouncing back and forth between Mia Wasikowska and Helena Bonham Carter (Depp is supporting in this). It’s #16. The highest-grossing Dark Knight is the one that finally gives us a female superhero.
Even the highest grossing Indiana Jones was Raiders of the Lost Ark, the one in which the woman punched and kicked and drank and spit, not the one in which the women screamed helplessly or turned out to be traitorous. It took 27 years, the benefit of inflation, and Karen Allen reprising her Raiders role to finally set a new Indy box office record in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
We shouldn’t pretend this is anything new. Adjusted for inflation, the highest grossing movie of all-time is, by a very wide margin, Gone with the Wind (1939), which follows a female protagonist. The Sound of Music (1965) sits at #3. Female lead. Titanic (1997) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) are effectively split leads, one man, one woman. The Exorcist (1973) boasts two female leads and a male one that enters late in the game. Snow White (1937), female lead. Six of the movies in the top 10 boast a leading woman. Four of them follow a woman exclusively, with the men in supporting roles, while four films follow men exclusively (Star Wars, E.T., The Ten Commandments, & Jaws). This does not include the Judy Garland-led The Wizard of Oz, which was never much of a hit in theaters but has earned more in syndication (adjusted for inflation) than any other film.
If anything, I believe we were once better at creating blockbuster films that featured women in lead roles. From a purely box office perspective, it makes no sense whatsoever that women are so outnumbered when it comes to leading today’s big-budget movies.
Despite female-led movies being so heavily outnumbered by the male-led ones in 2013, these pictures held 3 of the top 6 box office spots: boasting the United States’ #1 overall earner The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and the worldwide overall earner, Frozen, as well as Gravity. Women owned live-action comedy – The Heat, American Hustle, We’re the Millers, and Identity Thief all featured (and advertised heavily on their) female protagonists. You have to plumb all the way down to the year’s #5 live-action comedy to find one led exclusively by men: Grown Ups 2. The year’s biggest surprise, as it always is, was a horror film led mostly by women: in this case, The Conjuring, which made $318 million worldwide on a $20 million budget, featured Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, and Patrick Wilson. It became the highest grossing period horror film ever made, surpassing Shutter Island.
In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2008 to find a year in which the highest-grossing film in the U.S. lacked a female lead – The Dark Knight. Before that, you have to go back to 2005 and Revenge of the Sith. Only two years in 10 bucked the stat, yet the ratio of female leads to male in film doesn’t reflect that success.
Look, Chris Hemsworth can’t launch anything outside of Thor – he earned Ron Howard one of his least successful films (using the United States’ second most popular sport) with Rush while his Red Dawn remake tanked. He might be making good movies, but Matt Damon has launched more flops in the last five years than hits. Jeremy Renner’s failed as a lead to the extent he’s had the Bourne and Mission: Impossible keys both taken away from him. Outside of playing Wolverine, Hugh Jackman has as many flops (Australia, Deception, The Fountain) as hits. Tom Cruise (Oblivion), Will Smith (After Earth), and Keanu Reeves (47 Ronin) can no longer reliably launch genre films on their faces alone. And let’s not even mention the failed experiment that was Taylor Kitsch (who I quite liked in John Carter, and scratched my head at in Battleship). I may critically champion many of the actors and movies just mentioned, but from a business perspective, the big-budget market is simply oversaturated with male leads.
Stop cramming those roles down our throats in the decades-long, failed search to come up with a new Arnold Schwarzenegger. Give us the actresses who have already proven themselves at the box office – not just Jennifer Lawrence, whose forward progress you couldn’t stop with an army of bulldozers, a Great Wall, and Godzilla, but also Rose Byrne, Alice Braga, Rooney Mara, Zoe Saldana, Kristen Stewart, Scarlett Johansson, Dakota Fanning and our entire surging, underutilized generation of actresses. And if Mr. Universe Schwarzenegger can be turned into a star, then certainly former UFC fighter Gina Carano can.
It’s been pointed out to me that Hollywood is a business and, like any business, it’s going to ignore gender-bias and racism if it can make an extra dime by doing so. I would humbly ask in what country these folks have been observing business, but without getting into a political argument, the proof that Hollywood is catching up is just not there. Female-led films might be more prominent because we’re going to see them more and more, but in large part they are not greater in number – certainly not in event movies.
Let’s simplify the process wholesale and say your mega-budget film features a half-dozen representatives making decisions – two executive producers, your company’s financier, a co-financier from the company you’re splitting the budget with, the director, and a major star. One of your execs doesn’t like the idea of a minority woman in a lead. That’s out because you don’t want to get in a territorial battle you could lose. One of your execs thinks Kristen Stewart has too much baggage – she’s out. Your co-financier feels uncomfortable with an entirely white cast, and you can’t risk losing half the budget. The director really wants to work with Alice Braga, who he’s worked with before, and who is Latina. Losing him would mean finding a replacement director and possibly losing other stars. Your major star wants his role to be expanded. How do you solve this? Cast Alice Braga but demand the role is reduced, through a rewrite, shooting adjustments, or editing, into a supporting character. Give her less agency in the film in order to make everyone happy and keep them all on-board. Is it likely that all these things happen? No. Is it likely that – among multimillion dollar projects that have far more than half-a-dozen decision-makers who can each enforce having their way – that enough of these “concerns” are raised to result in your film featuring “safer,” more standardized characters and plotlines? Abso-fricking-lutely.
Big-budget Hollywood films have an incredible ability to take advantage of these standardizations when it comes to messaging, but they also drag their feet when it comes to changing the surface presentation through which their stories are told. As Geena Davis’s Katherine Huling so coldly makes clear to Lake Bell’s Carol in In a World…, that surface presentation very often supercedes a movie’s messaging, no matter how well-intentioned and intelligent it may be. What’s standard and safe in Hollywood’s presentation needs to change, and that requires voices to keep on insisting that it does.
Three years ago, Kristen Stewart had an affair with Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders. Personally, I’d have chosen co-star Chris Hemsworth, but there’s no accounting for taste. Since then, Stewart has been blackballed, too risky to touch because she bruised actor Robert Pattinson’s feelings. He’s forgiven her, whatever, that’s TMZ’s business.
At the time, Stewart was 21. Sanders was 40. Stewart was in a relationship with Pattinson. Sanders was married to the shockingly beautiful model Liberty Ross, who played Stewart’s mum in the film and with whom Sanders has two children. You know, those squirmy things you’re supposed to take care of with your wife instead of banging 21 year olds.
Stewart has since been blacklisted from the industry. She’s too risky to touch.
Sanders got offered a $200 million film, the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell.
Let me tell you a thing. Stewart holds a record for a 24 year old: Movies in which she’s starred have made $4.2 billion worldwide. Take away the Twilight series (please, someone take it away) and she’s still made $873 million. She launched two major franchises. She launched several horror movies at the beginning of her career.
Liberty Ross divorced Sanders, who (may I remind you) was twice Stewart’s age, married, and had two children. He’s a one-time director who got handed three bonafide movie stars in one film (Stewart, Hemsworth, and Charlize Theron) and managed to make it a moderate success.
Recap: Hollywood won’t touch her record-setting $4.2 billion career. Him? Come on in, the water’s fine, here’s a major summer release.
You may have noticed we post a lot about women on this blog. Women writers, women directors, women critics. We post about women because the problem of equal representation isn’t close to solved yet. Wednesday Collective‘s Article of the Week is a statistical analysis by FiveThirtyEight about movies’ profitability when women are more of a focus. It uses the Bechdel Test as its measurement, a test that only asks you if your film had two women who spoke to each other about something other than a man.
Don’t just look at that article and nod in agreement with its findings that films with women – surprise! – make money. Look at it and shake your head that 47% of the movies we’re making can’t even pass the most basic test of equal representation imaginable.
But also women, because where there is unfairness, we are not telling stories that teach us how to move our culture forward. Where there is unfairness, we are telling stories about how to repeat our failures.
So happy birthday, Kristen Stewart. Over here, we’re all fans.
You can watch the downright scary trailer for Liberty Ross’s short film “The Spirit Game” here.
You can watch Kristen Stewart talk about her new independent film Camp X-Rayhere.