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the sleeping alone review of films: Surrogates (2009)

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 2, 2010

summary: I liked it better when it was District 9; I, Robot; and the middle third of The Matrix. And I didn’t really like District 9 or I, Robot all that much.

The 2009 film Surrogates wonders what might happen if we started letting technology do the living for us. It creates a world in which war is treated as a video game, physical characteristics are treated as malleable, and real-life human interaction is treated as an oddity.

Boy, that sure would be a terrifying existence, wouldn’t it? I can’t even imagine what it would be like to live in that world.


Surrogates stars Bruce Willis as The Good Cop Wracked With Guilt Over the Death of His Son. He mentions his son’s death about 20 different times over the course of the movie, and also, judging by the surprised reaction of his partner at the first mention, has never once mentioned his son’s death before the start of the film. It also turns out that the invention of surrogates (which are basically what you think they are, so I won’t bother explaining) could have prevented his son’s death, so you can think of him as a sort of monosyllabic Dr. McCoy.

There’s a conspiracy. The surrogates aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. And not everyone who seems like a good guy ends up acting like a good guy.

Why, oh why, do we have to put up with only one really original action flick every year or two? I don’t know if I’m just getting cranky in my old age, but it seems like forever since I’ve seen a mainstream action film that really blew me away. I did really enjoy Live Free or Die Hard (2007), also starring a rode-hard-and-put-away-wet Bruce Willis; I thought War of the Worlds (2005) was pretty neat, loaded as it was with the dynamic combo of killer special effects and an emotionally harrowing plot. But it’s been a dry run since then. I haven’t seen Iron Man 2 yet. Christopher Nolan’s Inception, due out mid-July, looks pretty good. But if I had a dollar for every movie I waited for with joyous expectation, only to leave the theater feeling swindled, I’d be a rich, rich man.

Surrogates (2009) stars Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, and Boris Kodjoe, with appearances by James Cromwell and Ving Rhames. It’s rated PG-13 and contains some violence, mild profanity, and a brand of when-I-was-your-age nostalgia that nobody under 13 should be forced to endure.

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the sleeping alone review of films: Robin Hood (2010)

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 23, 2010

summary: I liked it better when it played as Braveheart, The Patriot, Lord of the Rings, and Saving Private Ryan.

I wondered after watching the new Robin Hood if there was ever a point during filming when someone slipped up and accidentally referred to Russell Crowe’s character as William Wallace instead of as Robin. It’s also entirely possible that someone accidentally referred to Cate Blanchett’s Marion as “Eowyn”–dye Blanchett’s hair blond and you have a dead ringer for Miranda Otto’s version of the handsome noblewoman-warrior of Middle Earth.

I swear to you that there were even hobbits before this film’s end.

And that’s not all: There was a beach-storming mission, complete with what appears to be the exact same landing craft props used in the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. There were villagers locked by soldiers in a burning building: All of the smoke and fire, with none of the crisis of conscience or emotional gravity played out the first time around in The Patriot!

This version of Robin Hood is presented as a prequel, focusing on the details of the lives of Robin and his Merry Men leading up to their days as outlaws. Usually a prequel tells a different story than the one you already know, but this version of Robin Hood doesn’t tell you much you didn’t already learn from watching the previous 7,000 versions of the Robin Hood story. And of course, any details that are new to the Robin Hood canon are cribbed from the movies I listed above and probably a few other films that I haven’t thought of yet.

The hobbits rode ponies when it was time to do battle with King John’s orcs.

It does make a valiant attempt to be epic, and it does this primarily by plunking down sweeping shots of the English countryside accompanied by orchestral music. These scenes are, as you can probably imagine, completely gratuitous; they serve absolutely no purpose except perhaps as proof that, unlike the vast majority of epic films, this one was filmed in the actual region where the story takes place.

Bully for them, I guess. But as director Ridley Scott ought to know by now, authentic scenery doesn’t equal an authentic story. An authentic story–an epic–is achieved through authentic details put together in a way that engages, surprises, and moves the audience. Homer knew this, which is why he had Achilles chain Hector up by the ankles and drag him in circles around the city. Tolkien knew this, which is why he had the smallest, simplest characters of his story raise themselves up to giants’ height. And Peter Jackson knew how to pay homage to the epics that came before LOTR, including but not limited to Tolkien’s trilogy itself, and still surprise and move us through the choices he made in adapting the story to the screen.

Ridley Scott knows something about how to tell a good story, as he showed in The Gladiator, the Alien trilogy, Alien,* and Thelma & Louise. And you might argue that these films are, at least to some extent, epics in their own right. But these films succeed on the strength of their characters, and because we care about the characters we care about their struggles against overwhelming odds. But epics generally tell a story through the characters that’s larger than any single character–you might say that the primary character of the epic story is the story itself. Scott has not done as well in his attempts to tell this sort of story, as Kindom of Heaven and, now, Robin Hood attest.

I don’t know: Maybe I’m quibbling here in my attempt to divide a good character-driven film from a good epic-driven film. I’m just trying to understand why a director who is as good at making films as Ridley Scott is can still come up with a film as gloriously, clunkily terrible as Robin Hood. If we can figure out what makes him fail, then we can just get together and tell him to stop making that kind of movie and keep making the kind of movie that proves his cinematic brilliance. Let Bartlet be Bartlet, I always say.

Robin Hood (2010) stars Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe, and—oddly enough–Max von Sydow. It’s rated PG-13 and contains some violence, mild sexual content, and a storyline so plodding that anyone under 13 is not likely to be willing to sit through the whole 2 hours and 20 minutes.

*Correction, 5/24/10, 8:40 a.m.: As Andres G. points out in the comments below this post, Ridley Scott was responsible for only the first film of the Alien trilogy.

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the sleeping alone review of films: And Then Came Lola

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on February 3, 2010

summary: I have a big problem with this movie.

I’ve been sitting on a review of And Then Came Lola (2010), described in press materials as a “time-bending, comedic and sexy lesbian romp-loosely inspired by the art house classic Run Lola Run,” since it showed at Bloomington’s Pride Film Festival last weekend. On the one hand, yay! This film presents a welcome antivenin to the cultural poison of heterosexual action-romances, romantic comedies, action-comedic romances, thriller-romances, romantic melodramas…you get the idea. On the other hand…well, I’ll get to that in a minute.

The story is much more than loosely inspired by Run Lola Run, the 1998 German film that has a fire-haired Lola desperate to get 10,000 Deutsche Mark in 20 minutes in order to save her boyfriend’s life. The conceit of this film is that when Lola fails, she gets to try again: shot by a police officer and dying on the sidewalk, she yells “stop” and starts over, armed with an awareness of what went wrong the first time. As the story resets itself again and again, the audience is offered backstory: Lola’s relationship with Manni, her boyfriend, is not fully secure; there are doubts about whether each feels a genuine love for the other. There is a question, then, over why Lola would risk her life, again and again.

And Then Came Lola works with several of the plot points of its inspiration, not least of which is the main character’s ability to go back in time and try again. As in Run Lola Run, there is a punk with a dog; there is a homeless man; there is a beautiful woman named Lola and a camera that cannot look away from her as she runs through the streets of her city. This time, though, Lola is a photographer running through the streets of San Francisco to deliver prints to her girlfriend, Casey, who needs them right away in order to secure a Big Client. Beneath this is a backstory: Lola has issues with commitment, has issues with being dependable and on time, but thinks that Casey might be The One and wants to prove that she can change. As in Run Lola Run, this Lola needs multiple tries to secure the happy ending.

And Then Came Lola is basically a lesbian retelling of Run Lola Run, which isn’t in itself a bad thing. In this version, every character is gay (or gay-curious, as in the mixed-sex tourist couple who invite Lola to share their taxi and then put the moves on her), and the film starts from an assumption that same-sex romances are neither perfect nor fundamentally much different from heterosexual romances. And thank god for that–it’s about time we started moving beyond the startpoint of needing to justify same-sex attraction and romance.

On the other hand, for a lesbian action-romance, And Then Came Lola feels pretty heteronormative. First of all, the main characters are beautiful in a way that most straight men could probably get behind. Here are Lola and Casey, played by Ashleigh Sumner and Jill Bennett:

I don’t challenge the notion that some lesbians look like Lola and Casey (and, in fact, the actors made an appearance at the showing I attended, and they look about the same in real life as they do in the film*). But I do have a problem with a film that aligns femininity with heroism and turns anything else into comedy. In this relationship, it’s Lola who’s the problem–she’s emotionally distant and because of this, as one character explains, sex with her is “like sex with a man.” In order to get the girl, Lola has to learn to access her feelings; her big breakthrough comes when she can no longer have sex with Casey without knowing if Casey loves her.

This film is pretty overtly about sex, and its plot is pushed forward through presentation of sexual fantasy. In their fantasy, Lola and Casey get romance, with candles, caresses, and glasses of wine. They are therefore the heroes of the story.

Here are the villains: The punk with a dog is a little butch lesbian who trips Lola up again and again and, it’s revealed, has a disturbingly close relationship with her dog. The most evil villain of the movie is a lesbian parking officer, who’s presented as a fat, disheveled Latina. She’s ugly, we’re told, and also mouthy; and her fantasies are therefore presented as hilarious. They’re offered up as a joke, as comic relief.

It’s not enough, not anymore, to make films with tons of gay characters. What we need is films with tons of gay characters that also strive to complicate our understanding of sexuality, attraction, romance, and what it means to be human. And Then Came Lola would have us believe that the stereotypes are correct, that the more traditionally beautiful you are, the more right you have to your sexuality. That’s not only blatantly wrong, it’s deeply problematic, especially for a film making the rounds at LGBTQ film festivals.

*Note: I’m making a fairly big leap in assuming that Sumner and / or Bennett are gay, when it’s entirely possible that both are straight. If they are, that doesn’t negate the fact that there are plenty of lesbians who are approximately as heteronormatively beautiful as Sumner and Bennett are.

Posted in culture, gay rights, gender politics, movies, sex | Leave a Comment »

on homophobia, classism, and the politics of rape: Don Belton and Bloomington’s Pride Film Festival

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on January 30, 2010

I want to talk about Don Belton.

Belton, you may remember, was the Indiana University professor who was found stabbed to death in his home on Christmas day. He was the gay Indiana University professor; his killer, ex-Marine Michael Griffin, has not only confessed but has explained his motive for stabbing Belton:

The former military man told police that Belton, who was openly gay, sexually assaulted him in front of his girlfriend, while they were both intoxicated on Christmas Day. And because the assistant professor of English refused to “show remorse,” Griffin stabbed him to death, according to court documents.

Bloomington’s LGBTQ community was hit fairly hard by the news of Belton’s death. In part, this is because Belton was well liked; and in part, this is because the killing repeats the old message that nobody wants to be reminded of: It’s (still) not safe to be gay in America.

A web site was built and called “Justice for Don Belton.” Vigils were held. Press releases (here, here) were circulated mourning Belton’s death and noting the loss to the IU community. And this year’s Pride Film Festival, an annual LGBTQ event held in downtown Bloomington, has been dedicated to Belton’s memory.

All of this for someone who has officially been identified as a perpetrator of sexual assault.

If this were a hetero situation, and the killer were a woman who claimed to have killed a man after two incidents of sexual assault, there would be no vigils. There would be no websites. There would be no film festival dedicated to the dead man’s memory. And rightly so: After centuries of struggle, we have finally started to evolve into a society that does its best to side with the alleged victim in cases of sexual assault. We aren’t a society that does its very best, of course, and you know, we sort of keep having to have the same conversation every time it comes up: Rape is not about sex. It’s about power. And women who accuse a man of literal rape have been subjected to metaphorical rape by a court system that embraces a blame-the-victim mentality. And so on. But we’re trying, and we’re getting better at having these conversations.

And of course this isn’t a hetero situation, and the gender, power, and sex issues don’t map. We pretty much don’t believe that Belton was a rapist or that Griffin was a victim; we believe–and, to be clear, I believe–that Belton was brutally murdered, and that the motive was homophobia. Homosexuality is a deep threat to heteronormative culture, to the status quo. It’s dangerous and terrifying and the most insecure among us believe it must be blotted out. With violence, if needs be.

Belton’s death is a reminder that no matter how far we’ve come, we’re still a society that cannot guarantee the safety of its marginalized members. Bloomington was recently named America’s 4th gayest city by the Advocate, which confuses me but let’s go with it for now. And this year’s Pride Festival,
which is deploying at the Buskirk-Chumley theater this very weekend, has drawn hundreds, if not thousands, of beautiful, joyous, and celebratory LGBTQ and LGBTQ-friendly community members. But all it takes is misreading one person, or showing up at the wrong bar at the wrong time, or acting a little too gay, or even just holding your partner’s hand in public; and the Great Lie starts to unravel. It’s not safe to be gay in America. It’s not even always acceptable to be gay in America.

This isn’t to say the reaction of the LGBTQ community to Belton’s death is completely ick-free. There is the issue of classism. Part of the reason we don’t believe Griffin is that Belton was so cultured. He was well educated. He was a writer. He was a professor, for godsake. He couldn’t have possibly raped someone. I mean, just look at his picture:

Here’s Griffin, an ex-Marine, 23 years old:

Leaving aside issues of race–not because I think we should leave those issues aside, but because I’m not qualified to talk about race–we craft a narrative around Belton and Griffin, and it’s a narrative that points to deep class assumptions that hover above issues of gender and sexual orientation. It’s the same sort of narrative that frames, for example, the story of Tiger Woods and his multiple mistresses (“Cocktail waitresses! Pancake servers! Why’s Tiger rooting around in the trash?!?”), our attitudes toward celebrities (“Britney Spears–you can take the girl out of Hicksville, but….”), and the political decisions that undergird our social structure.

It’s easier and simpler to use Belton’s murder as a touchstone for conversations about the state of gay rights in America. In fact, this story, like all stories worth telling, is far more complicated and multithreaded. Like all stories worth telling, the work of interpreting the details is far less clearcut than it seems upon first blush.

Posted in crime, gay rights, gender politics, human rights, movies | Leave a Comment »

the sleeping alone review of films: Avatar (3D)

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on January 4, 2010

Originally posted at

summary: holy effing effety eff.

Avatar 3D: Holy effing effety eff. That is all.

Click here to find showtimes for Avatar at a theater near you.

Posted in awesome, beauty, movies | 2 Comments »

the sleeping alone review of films: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on January 4, 2010

Originally posted at <a href="; target="_blank"

summary: Just cut out the middle man and watch Forrest Gump instead.

It’s a strange but true fact that I’m far more likely to post a review of a film I didn’t like than I am to post one of a film I enjoyed. There are, she protests, lots of reasons for this, but that’s a blogpost for another day. Right now I just want to tell you why The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is such a bad, bad movie.

I finally climbed aboard the Benjamin Button bandwagon in the dead week between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Since I’m not all that into wistful, you-can-do-it love stories, I was mainly motivated by a desire to see how the filmmakers dealt with the movie’s main conceit: A protagonist who ages backward, Mearth-style.

To the film’s credit, it refuses to shy away from the most potentially ridiculous aspects of this conceit. It’s as brazen in pointing an old-man-baby at the camera as it is in presenting, near the end of the film, a literally baby-faced old man. It does appear that we’re getting better at artificially aging people, too: Benjamin, played with consistent age-appropriate physicality by Brad Pitt, never once looks like a young, handsome man coated in plastic, which is what we’ve come to expect from any prematurely aged actors after decades of bad special effects. When the 20-something (but 60-ish-looking) Benjamin has an affair with a 40-something woman, he is depicted pitch-perfectly as a thin-haired, disheveled and declining man whose smile belies a boyish inner youth. The affair, and those that follow with comparatively younger women, seem to flow naturally from the radiance, youth, and energy that shine from Benjamin’s eyes and smile, if not his skin.

If you set aside the special effects, though, there isn’t much left. The plot is assembled around so many layers of unnecessary meta-story that the resulting mass of MacGuffins end up feeling like a combination of pointless distractions and the unfortunate side effects of a poorly adapted novel. There’s an ancient lady dying in a hospital as a major hurricane threatens its landfall. There’s the woman’s prodigal daughter, who has apparently returned home at the last minute to say her goodbyes. There’s a blind clockmaker, white, who marries a black Creole woman and whose only son is killed in a far-off war, and who therefore decides to build a clock that runs backward. He gives a short speech about wanting to turn time backwards, then he disappears, god knows why. There’s the black woman who raises Benjamin as her son, and who spends her entire working life employed at a retirement home, god knows why. And there’s a diary, penned by Benjamin Button, which is introduced as his Last Will and Testament. God knows why.

Now: organize all of the above details in order of novelty and interest, then cross off all but the two or three most boring and clichéd and you end up with the only details that actually end up mattering. Then, on top of the hot mess that presents itself as plot, there’s a lengthy and confusing mini-story wherein Benjamin travels by tugboat to Russia, meets a British woman whose husband is a spy, kind of falls in love with the woman and, it appears, carries on a kind of tepid affair of indeterminate length that ends for a vague set of reasons. The sole purpose of this entire intermission appears to be to shoehorn Tilda Swinton into the cast. Which, fair enough. But as my mom put it, It’s…kind of a long movie as it is.

So there you have it: Cool-ish special effects; confusing, slow, overcomplicated and irritatingly intricate plot. Add one more negative: In this film, people are treated as nameless diversions, as things that happen to people to advance the story. Early in the movie, an elderly resident of the old people’s home tells Benjamin “We’re meant to lose the people we love. How else would we know how important they are to us?”

Not only is the quote itself inane–love is deepened and refined by the inevitability of loss, but saying we’re meant to lose people so we may know how much we love them is putting the cart miles before the horse–but the movie doesn’t even care to try to bear this limp aphorism out. Characters come and go, flowing through Benjamin’s life like a river, and it’s never clear that the loss of any one of them is any more painful to him than the loss of any other. In fact, Benjamin seems to actively avoid developing deep relationships with people, and at a crucial moment he even walks away from someone he loves instead of having to deal with loss. Indeed, Benjamin himself muses that “It’s funny how sometimes the people we remember the least make the greatest impression on us.” In what universe could that even be possible?

This is a movie that wants it both ways: It wants us to believe that our lives are characterized by the people we love deeply, and it wants us to believe that our lives are characterized by how they are shaped by the people who flow across our paths like buffeting wind–all of them different and finally the same, not a one distinct from any other.

In the end, though, Benjamin Button‘s biggest crime is that it tries too hard to be Forrest Gump. But Gump did it better: neater special effects, tighter plot, better character development. And lest Forrest be accused of treating people like nameless diversions, I offer the following: Forrest’s excuse was his IQ. And besides, no matter how Forrest thought of the people who flowed through his life, there was always, for him, Jenny. We love Forrest, we root for him, because he loves Jenny, he pines for Jenny, he comes up with ways to pass the time until he can see Jenny again. Benjamin has Daisy, who this film would very much like to convince us is the deep and lasting, abiding love of his life. But at the risk of spoiling the movie, she’s really not. She’s another diversion, another way to pass the time, another thing that happens to Benjamin. We’re supposed to believe that Benjamin is the hero of the story, but in fact Daisy proves herself to be strong, resilient, flawed but kind. In other words, she’s complex and layered, like all good movie heroes should be. Benjamin is flat and shiny, kind of like…a button, I suppose.

Daisy might very well be more of a hero than Jenny, but Benjamin is no Forrest. And this film, despite what you may have heard to the contrary, is not Oscar material.

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getting the actors we deserve

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on October 11, 2009

In today’s New York Times, Dick Cavett introduces a video of his 1980 interview with Richard Burton, in which Burton talks about his struggles with alcoholism, overcoming both positive and negative reviews, and the differences between stage and screen acting. The interview starts and ends with brilliance, with Burton beginning with an articulate meditation on what it’s like to constantly struggle with addiction and ending with a delicate performance of a simple speech from Camelot.

Here’s what we get: Tom Cruise on scientology.

On the other hand, somehow we’ve earned Colin Farrell:

And Will Smith, who sometimes sneaks in an opportunity to show his skill in between shooting aliens and beating up mutants:

And some day, sowhere, some film director will start giving women some serious roles that aren’t pre-orchestrated for maximum pathos (cf. self-denigration, overcoming hardship, overcoming hardship), and we’ll start seeing female actors taking opportunities to rise up to their full heights. Here’s hoping somebody makes it happen before Dakota Fanning gets too old.

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fyi, I was wrong about district 9

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on October 9, 2009

Several weeks ago, I posted a negative review of the sci-fi alien-apartheid flick District 9. In brief, here was my take on this particular movie:

Maybe someone thought it would be a brilliant idea to combine a touching story of refugee camp residents with the excitement of an alien invasion. It turns out that whoever came up with that brilliant idea was wrong.

I’ll tell you what, you guys: I’m the one who was wrong.

I stood strong on my anti-District 9 stance despite rave reviews–both online and offline–from people whose opinions I deeply respect. (Click here and here, for example, to see reviews from media scholar Henry Jenkins.) Then I read this review (warning: spoilers) by Andries du Toit, which was followed up a week later by an even more insightful set of “further thoughts” on the film.

du Toit, in this post as well as in a follow-up, picks up on the very issues that made me dislike the film. Of course, he did so much more thoughtfully than I did. My biggest problem with the movie was apparent racism in its depiction of black Africans, made more frustrating when contextualized within a movie that ostensibly wanted to problematize that very issue. Here’s how du Toit, apparently a white South African living in Cape Town, explains it:

I do think that the representation of the ‘Nigerians’ is the one place in the film where the movie falters in its ability to unpick the workings of racist ideology. Because, for all of these interesting complexities, the reality is that the movie does not obviously withdraw or complicate its apparent endorsement of the African stereotypes. There are ironies and complexities – but they are evident only to a fairly sensitive and conscious viewer. In fact, the film actively pushes these complexities in side. The crucial flaw, in fact, lies lies precisely in this: it relies for its narrative drive, for its satisfaction of the ‘adventure’, on the antagonism against (and the extermination of) the ‘Nigerians’. So even though the real villains are all white, and even though the movie subtly mocks xenophobic discourse, many audiences will no doubt identify with this ‘othering’, and will cheer when Wikus’s alien exoskeleton kills them all so picturesquely.

With that one caveat, however, du Toit finds much to value in District 9. He calls it

the best movie I have yet seen about South Africa – and specifically, one of the most penetrating, disconcerting and subversive meditations on the nature of racism and repression in the post-colonial world. District 9 is fresh and transgressive, hilariously funny and absolutely horrifying: brutal, sly, streetwise and in your face. It’s not a voice from the ghetto – it is, completely and incontrovertibly, a white voice – but is a voice from the postcolonial periphery; a voice speaking harshly, grittily and urgently about the surrealism of racism and the confluence of violence and normality here at the edges of the West’s old empire.

du Toit has convinced me when nobody else could. Therefore, I strongly recommend you disregard my negative review and go see the movie. Wait until you get home to read du Toit’s review–it contains spoilers–but do read it. It’s perhaps the smartest recent film review I’ve seen anywhere, online or off.

Posted in movies, racism | 6 Comments »

RIP Patrick Swayze

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on September 15, 2009

They just keep blinking out, don’t they?

“Pain don’t hurt,” he said, while reading Jim Harrison. Pain don’t hurt? What kind of a line is that? And that blond lady with the glasses–jesus.

Rest in peace, Swayze. Fifty-seven years got you installed as an icon. A brighter body, over a brighter firmament, none of us could hope for.

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