Tag Archives: Rose Byrne

“Frozen” and Creating a New Standard

Frozen end

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.

Gone with the Wind

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.

IMG_9335.dng

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.

‘Genre’ is Not a Naughty Word

Pans Labyrinth 2

Yesterday, a friend of mine commented that she disliked my describing Rose Byrne as a “genre darling” in my Neighbors review because it confines her within a narrow field of film and the word ‘genre’ is generally derogatory. I can absolutely see where she’s coming from, but I’d like to explain why I used the description and why ‘genre’ is not a naughty word.

There’s a difference between a judgment and a descriptor. My reviews go to paper, too, so they don’t get to be as free-form as some of my other articles – I’m limited to about 700 words. Sometimes, I have to describe personalities very quickly. Rose Byrne is most often associated with ‘genre’ films; that’s how the most readers will know who I’m talking about in the fewest words. In my judgment, I hardly think Seth Rogen ought to be a “comedy mainstay,” as I described him in the review, but that’s how readers know him because that’s how he’s used. Any time I can effectively describe an actor in two words rather than list off movies, it frees up an incredible amount of space I can use to talk about the film itself. And Neighbors has an issue that demanded the space: one of the least responsible inclusions of rape I’ve ever seen on film.

My goal was to concisely describe Rogen and Byrne and Zac Efron so that an audience would immediately recognize who I was talking about. Maybe I succeeded and maybe I didn’t, but when we call Rose Byrne a ‘genre darling’ or William H. Macy and Tilda Swinton ‘indie darlings’ or John McCain and Barack Obama ‘media darlings,’ it doesn’t define them as being capable of nothing else but those specialties. It defines them as being so particularly excellent at those specialties that they stand head and shoulders above incredibly crowded fields. It is not mutually exclusive to being good at anything else and it is not meant to cage them within a particular genre.

The Martian Chronicles lead

When I say Byrne carries Rogen and the comedy, that’s a judgment. When I say she shouldn’t have played a scene in which she gets a girl drunk so she can peer pressure her into sex and physically force her into sexual contact, that’s a judgment. But saying Byrne has a history in ‘genre’ film is no different than describing Efron as a “former Disney wonderkid.” They aren’t meant to be complete definitions, but rather to get a reader on the same page as quickly as possible.

Insofar as ‘genre’ goes as a derogatory term, I grew up watching and reading almost nothing but genre. I love genre. To me, ‘genre’ is a far more appealing word than ‘drama’ or ‘literary’. Genre can do things neither of those can. Robert Heinlein is genre. Ursula K. Le Guin is genre. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and William Gibson and Margaret Atwood are genre. The Thing and Star Trek and Gravity are genre. In 1992, Star Trek: The Next Generation had consecutive episodes that argued for gay marriage rights and for the humane qualities of euthanasia. Show me one other U.S. TV show that’s willing to risk that much every week even today, let alone 22 years ago under 12 straight years of Reagan/Bush.

‘Genre’ isn’t something to be ashamed of. ‘Genre’ is what everything else secretly wants to be, cause ‘genre’ has enjoyed golden ages ‘drama’ and ‘literary’ could only dream of, and takes social stands ‘drama’ and ‘literary’ take their cues from a decade later, after ‘genre’ takes the initial risk to show that it can work.

Yojimbo cap

Samurai films and monster movies are genre. They’re how Japan chose to confront, on a nationwide scale, the guilt and shame of blindly following leaders into decades of genocide and war. Superhero movies are genre. They’re fast becoming our best venue for culture-wide dissections of privacy and military-industrial concerns in our own government. Martial arts films are genre. They’re what allowed China to stake their claim to cultural relevancy alongside Hollywood: first among their own people and, later, to the West itself. Westerns opened up Spain’s film industry the way horror movies opened up Italy’s. Magical realism brought Latin American writers to the fore. Mexican horror (through the Spanish film industry Westerns created) has become the premier translation for Mexican Catholicism’s uniquely evolved fusion of modern doctrinal religion, old-fashioned spiritual animism, and ancestor worship.

‘Genre’ can help heal countries, can call out governments, can help introduce cultures to each other, can kickstart national film industries, can translate the incredible complexities of entire religions and cultures. ‘Literary’ and ‘drama’ don’t often get to be so outspoken. In my opinion, they far too often play it safe.

So screw ‘genre’ being a derogatory term. I don’t get on board with that. ‘Genre’ is what people want to go see. ‘Genre’ is what takes risks before more accepted forms do. ‘Genre’ changes minds and elicits ideas and time and again has to make smarter, sharper arguments than more ordinary forms. So if I bother to call something ‘genre,’ what I’m really saying is, “This shit’s brave.” And if I bother to call an actor a ‘genre darling,’ what I’m really saying is, “This actor takes risks and, because of that, they do things 99% of their contemporaries can’t.”

Degas ballet 3

Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Fritz Lang, Mary Shelley, Ray Bradbury, Georgie O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas and all of Impressionism were ‘genre’ before they became so overpowering and immediate as artists and movements that they became accepted as somehow ‘dramatic’ or ‘literary’ and therefore ‘classic,’ suddenly off-limits to ‘genre.’ But the truth is none of them ever left being genre. ‘Accepted’ just caught the hell up.

‘Genre’ drags everything else forward. Everything. I will never use that word in a derogatory way, but I will absolutely keep using that word, because ‘genre’ is what I was raised on and I can’t think of any piece of art I like more than a science-fiction movie like Moon or a horror movie like Let the Right One In, a Western like Once Upon a Time in the West or a martial arts film like Police Story, a crime movie like Stray Dog or a mystery like North by Northwest. Not calling something ‘genre,’ that’s derogatory. But ‘genre’ is the future. It always was and it always will be, and there’s absolutely nothing ‘literary’ or ‘dramatic’ can ever do about it. They’ll continually play catch up to ‘genre’ for the remainder of human existence. And if that’s not a ‘genre’ ending, I don’t know what is.

“Neighbors” Can’t Get Over Great, Big, Insulting Mistake

Neighbors lead

Neighbors is rated R for pervasive language, strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use throughout. Let’s start with the language. When I can watch prime-time detective shows in which heads explode but not a single cuss word is spoken, and they’re rated for families, I’ve come to the conclusion that our rating system might be prioritizing some of the wrong things. Neighbors can get away with its language because of its actors – comedy mainstay Seth Rogen, genre darling Rose Byrne, and former Disney wonderkid Zac Efron.

Efron runs a college fraternity that moves in next to a married couple (Rogen and Byrne) with a baby. Things quickly get out of hand as the two sides engage in a violent prank war that has no practical purpose except for giving us an excuse for a movie. Rogen is no Chevy Chase, however, who made these sorts of competing neighbor plots his bread-and-butter in the 80s.

The dialogue feels largely improvised, so it’s a surprise that the majority of the humor actually comes from Byrne, who’s typically much more at home in sci-fi and horror movies, as well as Efron, whose High School Musical days are long past. The problem with Rogen is that we’ve seen his act before, and it hasn’t evolved in any way since Knocked Up and Pineapple Express. If anything, it’s lost energy.

Now for the sexual content and graphic nudity. There’s a lot of it. Most of the jokes are obsessively sexual. That’s not a bad thing in the right hands, but Neighbors never figures out a reason it’s making these jokes beyond the fact it has Seth Rogen in it and they’re expected. A few of the bits work on the strength of some well-placed cameos, but some sequences – Rogen milking Byrne after he breaks her breast pump, or the two rushing to the hospital because their baby gums a prophylaxis left on their lawn – are so monumentally stupid I felt embarrassed for the actors.

Neighbors 3

You’ll notice I’m using their real names – the characters had names, but I’m not sure they’re ever mentioned after the 10-minute mark. More than any other movie I’ve seen recently, I kept thinking of them by the actors’ names – given how unlikeable the characters are, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

You see, Rogen and Byrne play tired parents. The first chance they get, they rocket off to the frat house so Rogen can get drunk and do mushrooms. See, he’s tired from working a job he cuts out on every afternoon to smoke pot. Selling his character as a non-functioning substance abuser and a real, caring family man just doesn’t work. But he’s not alone – Byrne tries to break up the frat by making Efron’s girlfriend sleep with his best friend. How does she do this? By getting the girlfriend drunk, even pouring liquor down her throat after the girl protests and tries to stop drinking. Then Byrne pressures her into having sex with the best friend.

I get that we’re not really supposed to take this stuff seriously. Seth Rogen’s using a dance-off to distract the rest of the house party while this is going on, after all, but there are a dozen other ways to achieve that plot point that don’t involve rape. The film never even stops to think this is rape; the girlfriend is just a plot point to break up the frat. If a comedy doesn’t consider pouring liquor down a woman’s throat to have sex with her even as she tells you to stop as forced and violative, that’s a silent endorsement to a lot of viewers on the parts of the writer, director, the popular Rogen, Disney-kid Efron, and wholesome Rose Byrne.

I was very ready to meet Neighbors halfway. Truth is, most of it is a decently successful comedy whose actors pull off some pretty bad jokes much better than they should. Unfortunately, that also means they end up pulling off hard drug use and rape, presenting both as free of consequence and without even recognizing that’s what they’ve done. Like I said at the beginning, though, there’s one thing I don’t have a problem with – the language. That’s a good thing, since I use some choice words to describe Neighbors outside of print.

Neighbors