Category Archives: films

Divergent, Frozen, Hollywood, and the Strong Girl Character

Divergent film posterSo the film adaptation of Divergent came out a few weeks ago. It’s the latest in a string of movies starring girls. Twilight* kicked off the trend six years ago, and then Hunger Games and Catching Fire blew the box office away. On the animated side, we have Tangled, Brave, and most recently Frozen. And for adult female protagonists last year, we got the Academy Award–winning Gravity, Best Picture nominee Philomena, and a pretty awesome supporting character in Pacific Rim.

* Note: I’m not holding up Bella as an example of a strong girl character. For the purposes of this argument, I’m chiefly interested in her existence as a female lead. But if you want to argue that some of the female leads I’m citing are problematic, I’m happy to listen.

Is this a trend? I sure hope so.

I’m a big SF&F watcher (and reader, and TV viewer). I try to see most of the big genre movies in theatre as they come out. If there’s a well-told story and a good character arc to suck me in, I love explosions and superheroes and aliens and dystopian futures and all that. I’m the target audience.

I can, and do, identify with male heroes in these genres. But it gets tiresome after a while, seeing the girls (or women) as sidekicks or objects to yearn after (*coughHercough*) or nice butts in tight outfits. Even Divergent is guilty of this — check out the poster above and tell me, based on the poses, who looks like the protagonist and who looks like the sexy sidekick / love interest.

Frozen flim posterBut then along comes something like Frozen. Here we have not one but two princesses who stand up for themselves and fight for what they believe in. And they’re not just strong because they kick ass — but that’s another rant.

Better yet (SPOILERS HO)…

…their closest relationship is with each other, and that’s what the whole story revolves around. Sure, there’s a prince, and there’s a commoner love interest, but they’re subplots. The main plot is a love story between two sisters. The climax isn’t a kiss, or a proposal, but the culmination and expression of sisterly love. How cool is that? How much did you not expect that from Disney?

(Another reason to love Frozen is the wonderfully earnest MALE sidekick, Olof. Thinking about him still cracks me up, months after I saw the film. But I digress.)

Films like this give me hope. If even Disney, bastion of heteronormative roles and romances, is getting into the act, surely we’re making headway. And Frozen is the highest-grossing animated film in history. Surely the legions of female film lovers — and their interests — are finally getting noticed.

Now, Divergent didn’t crush the box office like the Hunger Games movies, nor has it received the same level of critical acclaim. But it did finish first on its opening weekend, a good enough showing to ensure the making of sequels…and, if we’re lucky, lots and lots of copycat productions.

Long live the strong girl character!

Your turn! What female-led films have you enjoyed recently? What girl heroes from SF&F books would you love to see onscreen?

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy Strong Girl Characters: YA and MG Classics and The Gothic Novel and the Feminine Touch.

Top 5 Movies About Ireland

Poster for OnceHappy That-Day-When-Everyone-Is-Irish!

(I’m not Irish or otherwise Celtic by blood, as far as I know, but in spirit? Oh yes.)

In honour of St. Patrick’s Day, here’s a roundup of some of my favourite movies with Irish connections…

5. Far and Away

Okay, this one just starts in Ireland. But hey, cute love story? Young Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (before they were even married, let alone divorced)? Victorian-era drama? I’m in!

4. The Devil’s Own

To be fair, this involves Northern Ireland, not the Republic of Ireland. (Quick geography recap: the actual island of Ireland is divided into two states, the independent country called the Republic of Ireland and the part of the United Kingdom called Northern Ireland. Confused yet? Northern Ireland is where the violence used to happen — thankfully not so much anymore.)

Anyway…The Devil’s Own stars a young Brad Pitt and a young(er) Harrison Ford on opposite sides of a missile-stealing plot. It’s not fabulous — and neither is Pitt’s Irish accent — but it’s fun.

3. Once

I’m a sucker for a sweet love story between two questioning souls and free spirits. Think Before Sunrise and Benny and Joon. Better yet, they’re both singer-songwriters, and so are the actors. Add in some nice acoustic guitar, a haunting melody, some really thick Irish accents, and a pretty cityscape (Dublin) as a backdrop…lovely.

2. The Secret of Roan Inish

Selkies! Need I say more? I guess you’d call it a kids’ movie, but if you’re a lover of selkies, you don’t exactly have a lot of movies to choose from, and you could certainly do worse than this one. Beautifully shot on the west coast of Ireland, and featuring an island much like this one:

A country lane on Inishmore. Copyright Siri Paulson 2004.

A country lane on Inishmore. Copyright Siri Paulson 2004.

1. Waking Ned (Devine)

My all-time favourite Irish movie is a comedy known as Waking Ned Devine in North America and simply Waking Ned on the other side of the pond. An old man in a tiny Irish town wins the lottery and promptly dies of the shock. The rest of the villagers decide that Ned would want them to have the money regardless. Hijinks ensue.

Honourable Mentions

And a couple of movies I very much enjoyed that were filmed, but not set, in Ireland:

Reign of Fire is a post-apocalyptic movie in which the apocalypse is…dragons. How is this film not more popular? Starring Christian Bale and a very muscular Matthew McConaughey.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and The Princess Bride both include scenes shot at the Cliffs of Moher on Ireland’s west coast. And why wouldn’t you, when they look like this?

Cliffs of Moher

The mighty Cliffs of Moher. Copyright Siri Paulson, 2004.

Your turn! What’s your favourite movie set in, filmed in, or otherwise involving Ireland?

If you liked this post, check out YA books for St. Patrick’s Day.

Best Films of 2013: My Picks

So you might’ve heard about a little awards show yesterday. Not the Oscars, that other one. In honour of the Golden Globes, here are my picks for the best films of 2013.

Poster for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

3. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Unlike, say, Catching Fire, the Hobbit films take plenty of liberties with the source material. (Granted, most of the additions are originally Tolkien’s, just not from The Hobbit, but the filmmakers added an entire love triangle that wasn’t there before.) But viewers who can suspend their preconceptions about the story are rewarded with a well-done fantasy film — complete with rollicking adventure, some nice character moments, and a beautifully done encounter between a hobbit and a dragon. (I don’t have a review up for this one, but I may natter on about it later if anyone is interested.)

Catching Fire movie poster

2. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The first Hunger Games film blew all expectations out of the water, at least in terms of box office returns (and it was a pretty good book adaptation, either). The sequel took a bigger budget and ran with it, without getting so caught up in special effects that it lost the heart of the story. Jennifer Lawrence makes this series what it is, and she has some superb supporting actors behind her. In my opinion, the film is actually better than the book.

Gravity movie poster 1

1. Gravity. This was what 3D was invented for. Forget deep perspective and things flying out of the screen at you — director Alfonso Cuarón uses the technology to capture the feeling of being in outer space. It’s the best of an IMAX science film…with a story. Sandra Bullock does a phenomenal job on an almost one-woman show. (Bonus points for Cuarón: he also wrote the script.) My full review is here.

Dishonourable Mentions from 2013

I wouldn’t call these films the best of any year, but they caught my interest and emotions enough that I had plenty of opinions about them:

Honourable Mentions from Other Years

These films are disqualified because they weren’t released in 2013, but last year I really enjoyed watching:

  • The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (with Dame Judi Dench)
  • Quartet (with Dame Maggie Smith)

And yes, I may be secretly an old lady in a thirtysomething body.

Your turn! What do you think of the Golden Globe wins? What were your favourite films of 2013?

Catching Fire: Book vs. Movie

Catching Fire movie posterSo who’s seen Catching Fire? If you’ve read the book, how does the movie hold up? How does it compare to The Hunger Games (film and book)? Come on in and let’s talk!

Before I get into the spoilers, here’s a quick movie review: For me, the book dragged, especially in the first half, and the movie has tightened up the plot without dropping anything essential or feeling rushed. As with the first film, the addition of scenes showing President Snow and the new Gamemaker helps to explain some of what Katniss experiences – oddly enough, making the conflict feel even more immediate. Katniss does a bit too much weeping and screaming for my taste, but overall, Jennifer Lawrence does a stellar job again. Fabulous adaptation, wholeheartedly recommended.

(Note: I have not yet read Mockingjay, so I’m reacting to the film without knowing how the trilogy plays out. Please refrain from discussing Mockingjay in the comments, unless you mark your comment clearly as being a spoiler!)

Spoilers below…

What Got Cut

Because books are longer than movies, any film adaptation of a book has to cut something. The trick is deciding what can be cut while still creating a coherent story. Sometimes this results in an almost entirely different story, or else a film that rushes through without dwelling properly to give the audience the emotional journey they crave.

In this case, the film adaptation sticks very close to the plot of the book – even closer than the first film, which shows unrest in the districts even though in the books Katniss doesn’t learn about this until Catching Fire.

One major difference is that several events in the first half of the book are condensed or eliminated – her PTSD-induced nightmares where Peeta comes to comfort her are trimmed down to a single scene (two if you include the flashback while she’s hunting with Gale), her leg injury is skipped altogether, District 13 is barely mentioned, her personal grooming team is gone except for Cinna, and the idea of “talents” is also gone.

The elimination of Katniss’s supposed talent in design is no great loss, but cutting Peeta’s talent with art leads to a moment of confusion. When Katniss enters the training arena to show off her skills, it’s not clear that Peeta did the painting of Rue. That bit couldn’t be cut because it’s what incites Katniss to make the dummy of Seneca Crane, but if you hadn’t read the books, you’d be lost.

Other than that, trimming the first half works well – the montage of the Victory Tour hits all the highlights from the book and is still very effective. In fact, it is even clearer in the film that Katniss and Peeta’s attempts to stick to the Capitol-approved script only incited more discontent from their audience.

I didn’t notice much, if anything, missing from the film version once the Games started…did you?

What Got Added

As with The Hunger Games, the film version of Catching Fire adds the point of view of President Snow, letting us see more about his motivation and his interactions with the Gamemaker. (Though, critically, we are not privy to the motivations of Plutarch Heavensbee until the end.) This fills in some of the pieces that, to me, were missing in the book.

Catching Fire book coverFor example, when I read the book, I had a hard time buying that Katniss’s love life was really so important to President Snow. But with the movie, seeing Snow and Heavensbee talk about Katniss in her absence, Snow’s thought process is clearer.

She really has become a symbol of resistance, and if he kills her outright she’ll be a martyr, but he has to bring her in line somehow. The increased Peacekeeper presence, for example, is a direct reaction to the threat she poses. It’s meant to cow and deter, not only District 12 as a whole, but also Katniss specifically.

It’s also chilling to watch Snow and Heavensbee plot Katniss’s downfall. Everything she tries is met with a counter-move. It reminds me of that XKCD comic about the definition of success. First of all, she contemplates running away. Then she realizes she can’t run, but she only has to get through the Victory Tour and pretend to be madly in love with Peeta until the tour is over. Then Haymitch explains that that’s not enough, they’ll have to pretend for the rest of their lives. And then Snow drops the bombshell: she’s going back into the Games.

Now that’s good plotting. All of Snow’s counter-moves are in the book, of course, but they’re explicitly shown in the film, and that change makes the tug-of-war between Katniss and Snow more gripping.

The Characters

Jennifer Lawrence did a brilliant job as Katniss in the first movie, and if anything, she’s even better here. Everything from her PTSD to her grief for Rue feels real, and the final close-up on her face would not have been nearly as effective with a lesser actress.

My only quibble is that she’s continually bursting into tears. Fewer tears would have made the remaining ones more effective. If I were directing, I would have had her cry when she learns she’s going back into the Games, when she and Finnick are trapped with the jabberjays, and maybe one other time, but that’s all.

As before, the acting for the secondary characters is fabulous. Most of them, particularly the adults, are a little flat, but at the same time they’re distinctive. Look at any line Effie or Haymitch delivers, and there’s no way that line could belong to anyone else. I even caught myself muttering “Oh, Effie” in fond exasperation at some points.

The new additions are also strong, and come across very much as they’re portrayed in the book. The other tributes are broken people, and it shows. I particularly liked Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee, who presents as a complete opposite to his predecessor, the foppish Seneca Crane.

A Few Notes on the Story

I also want to mention a few things about Catching Fire that aren’t specifically about book vs. movie.

My movie-going companion maintains that Katniss is weaker in Catching Fire than in The Hunger Games because she spends a lot of time dwelling on the love triangle. By contrast, I feel – especially with the book – that it’s Peeta and Gale who are dwelling and pining away, while Katniss stands aloof from both of them. What’s your take?

(Speaking of “weak”, here is a great point about Peeta and his masculinity.)

I mentioned earlier that I had trouble suspending my disbelief when President Snow takes such a close interest in Katniss’s love life. The other major plot point I had trouble buying was that so many of the other tributes would join in on the plan to keep Katniss alive, when it’s at the expense of their own lives. Of course, maybe I’m still underestimating the extent to which she’s become a symbol for everyone outside the Capitol, or maybe this is explained further in Mockingjay.

Your turn! What did you think of Catching Fire?

 

Movie Review: Gravity

Gravity movie poster 1Have you ever been to a science or aeronautics museum where they were showing an IMAX film about the space program? (If you’re over a certain age, you might remember when that was the only place you could see an IMAX film, and they were all documentaries and only 40 minutes long.) Remember the giant panoramas of Earth from orbit, the spacewalks, the space shuttle, the sense of immensity?

The new film Gravity has all of that.

(This is one of the official posters for the film. For some gorgeous alternate posters, check out this roundup at the Huffington Post.)

Director Alfonso Cuarón (and his cinematographer and special effects team) have done a beautiful job of capturing the feeling of being in zero gravity in Earth orbit…or so I imagine, anyway. It’s especially effective if seen in 3D…and I’m not a big fan of 3D, so take note. There’s the sense of being — literally — ungrounded (though not too bad on the motion-sickness front, after a few minutes early on), the lack of reference points, the hugeness, the beauty of space. This is what 3D is for.

And oh yeah, the plot is good too.

An accident in orbit strands two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, both believable in their roles). With their ride home out of commission, aid is scarce in the cold environment of space, and the physics of being in orbit are relentless. But their worst problem may be their own fear…

Gravity movie poster 2Or at least Sandra Bullock’s fear. She’s the rookie to Clooney’s old space jockey, which makes him the mentor figure and her the main character. Sadly, their emotional states — especially early on — are pretty stereotypical along gender lines (panicky woman, calming man). For a story that relies so heavily on two characters, it would’ve been nice to see some deeper, more complex emotional arcs.

But it’s still very refreshing to see a strong female main character in a hard science fiction story. More of that, please, Hollywood!

And hard science fiction it is. The problems they face have to do with (literal) inertia, orbital mechanics, orbital debris, mechanical breakdowns, and similar — kind of like Apollo 13, but with less jury-rigging and more physics. It’s almost a “(wo)man versus nature” story, if you remember your English high school lessons, but it also makes this astronomy lover geek out.

Possibly the coolest part: this hard-SF setting is almost contemporary. Cuarón has done a little fudging, so the story can’t be dated exactly, but the space shuttle is there, the Hubble Telescope, the International Space Station. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I remember being inspired by the space program (back when it was actually going somewhere…I may be slightly bitter about that). Seeing it dramatized is pretty damn awesome.

Your turn! Have you seen Gravity? What did you think?

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Pacific Rim Analysis: Is Mako a Strong Female Character?

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

Star Trek Into Darkness Analysis

Book vs. Movie: The Hunger Games

Your Turn: Favourite Summer Movie

Hi, all! I’m back from my blog hiatus (and vacation) and, as usual, scrambling to catch up with real life. So today I’m turning the blog over to you, my faithful readers. My question:

What was your favourite movie this summer?

I’m thinking blockbusters, but if you saw something else in theatres that you really loved (quiet little drama? foreign film?), do tell.

Mine? A toss-up between Star Trek Into Darkness and Pacific Rim, despite things I found problematic about both (click through to read my reviews).

Have at it, and I’ll see you back here with some real content on Wednesday!

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

Mortal Instruments: City of Bones posterJust a quick post today, because it’s Labour Day (Labor Day for you Americans), and that means holiday!

I went to see The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones a few days ago. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much — I haven’t read the books, but the trailer looked pretty generic, and the Rotten Tomatoes rating was all of 12% — but I was in the mood for something light and fantasy-ish.

And I was pleasantly surprised.

Sure, the plot elements and tropes are pretty standard. But they’re well done. Ordinary girl with ordinary life discovers that not only is there a secret world full of danger and magic right in her own city, but she’s not so ordinary after all. If this is your kind of story, you’ll like it, even if you’ve seen it before. The entry into the secret world is exciting, the stakes high (protagonist Clary’s mother is missing), the magical elements a nice blend of horror and wonder, the plot tight and coherent.

My main criticism is of the love triangle between Clary and two boys, one from the ordinary world and one from the magical world. I object not because it’s a love triangle, but because of all the angst surrounding it…including from the magical Shadowhunter, Jayce, who lives to fight demons and should therefore have better things to think about than whether Clary likes him.

Your turn! What did you think of the movie? If you’ve read the book, how does the movie compare?

Pacific Rim Analysis: Is Mako a Strong Female Character?

I finally saw Pacific Rim this week. It made me think All The Thoughts, plenty of which were about women. So…let’s talk about strong women and the role of Mako Mori, Raleigh’s co-pilot.

Mako Mori official poster

(This post is not a review, but here’s a capsule review of Pacific Rim for you: Unexpectedly nice balance of giant robots fighting giant aliens with some great character development. Just…bring earplugs, because this movie is LOUD. And all those sparks during the fight scenes are rather blinding, too.)

Hollywood blockbusters are not known for their strong female characters. Women are usually relegated to eye candy (Transformers) or sexy scientists (Star Trek Into Darkness) or mothers (World War Z) or damsels in distress (Spider-Man (2002) — Mary Jane is an independent woman with her own ideas, but at the climax she’s still dangling from a bridge screaming). The bar to surpass these roles is not set very high.

So when I saw Mako participating in the plot and being treated like a person rather than a woman, I got excited. But her role is still problematic. Let’s look at why…

Mako as a Strong Woman: Pros

1. She’s desexualized. Her outfits don’t scream sexy, and she never has to disrobe for thinly disguised male gaze reasons (ahem, JJ Abrams). The sexiest moment is the bit with the umbrella when she’s first introduced.

2. The other characters treat her like an equal. She’s a member of the army and, eventually, a Jaeger pilot, and that’s how she’s treated (except by Marshall Pentecost, but that’s a parent-child dynamic, not a man-woman imbalance). The only person who puts her down for being a woman — Chuck Hansen — clearly needs (and gets) a comeuppance.

3. She can kick ass. She fights Raleigh to a standstill…and again, her outfit and the camera work don’t emphasize her sexy female body while she’s doing it. And then, of course, she goes and kicks Kaiju ass too.

4. She’s a central character with her own arc and her own choices. Granted, the film fails the Bechdel test, but at least the romance is de-emphasized (they don’t even kiss! Hurrah!) and her arc isn’t all about a man, it’s about her.

5. All she’s ever wanted is to be a pilot. Her hero is the first Jaeger pilot she ever saw — a man — and she dreams of following in his footsteps. And the movie thinks she can, too. None of the characters, even Chuck Hansen, ever says she can’t do the job because she’s a girl.

Pacific Rim official posterMako as a Strong Woman: Cons

1. She has an emotional breakdown. If anyone gets lost in memories and unable to escape, it should be Raleigh, who was so traumatized by his brother’s death that he quit the program and had to be bullied back into it. But no, it’s the girl who gets, ahem, hysterical.

2. She gets rescued…several times. Raleigh rescues her from her memories, beats up the misogynist pilot for her (even though she could clearly defend herself), and ejects her from their shared Jaeger before their final mission is over (after others have died at their posts to get them into the portal).

3. Her commander (and surrogate father, and hero) doesn’t think she can handle the job…and he’s right. She wants to prove herself. He thinks that not only is she not ready yet, she never will be. She proves him wrong on the latter…by becoming less like the emotional little girl she was and more like a man. (That’s a point that deserves its own blog post. Stay tuned…)

Your turn! Do you think Mako is a strong female character?

Here’s what other bloggers had to say about Pacific Rim:

If you liked this post, you might also like my earlier posts Women in SF and Fantasy: Book Recommendations and Women in A Game of Thrones.

Watching Movies With My Dad

Yesterday was Father’s Day, so I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad, who passed away just over ten years ago.

For Mother’s Day, I told you about how my mom passed on her love of books to me. My dad wasn’t much of a reader (at least not of fiction — being first a Lutheran minister and then a pastoral counsellor and trainer, he read a lot of work-related non-fiction). But what he did love was movies.

When we were little, he used to take us to the Princess Theatre, a venerable, old-fashioned place with a balcony and a red curtain over the screen that was raised and lowered for every show. They showed children’s classics on Saturdays — Disney animated films, Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island. We saw the newer Disney movies, too. I remember all three of us kids being completely obsessed with The Lion King.

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Star Trek Into Darkness Analysis

Star Trek Into Darkness posterSo. Have you all seen Star Trek Into Darkness, the new Star Trek movie?

Then let’s talk about it. Please note: this is not a review, it’s an analysis. There will be spoilers (I’ll post a warning where they start)! And, er, it got a bit long. Apparently I have many thoughts….

Star Trek: The First Reboot

I had very mixed feelings about the first reboot film. I understand that the producers wanted to make Star Trek more appealing to a younger crowd, less bogged down in its own history. Having recently rewatched several of the older films, much as I love them, I can see why they felt it was necessary. If you weren’t already a fan, you’d be lost.

But they ended up making a film that, to me, felt like a generic science fiction flick. There was none of the “sense of wonder”, the delight in science, the “infinite diversity in infinite combination”, that was such a central part of the TV versions of Star Trek. The films were always more action-y than the episodes, but the best of them always had something science-y to make you feel awe – the Genesis project, the whales, saving humanity’s first contact with the Vulcans. The movie didn’t have any of that (Red Matter notwithstanding).

As well, I couldn’t get over seeing the new actors in the familiar parts. It felt like a tribute band. No matter how well they performed (and they did a good job, especially Spock), I couldn’t suspend my disbelief – I never forgot that I was watching actors. Funny, since I was perfectly happy to accept Red Matter and exploding planets and even time travel and universe rebooting, but there you have it.

So I approached the sequel with trepidation. But I went, because it was still Star Trek.

Star Trek Into Darkness: A Quick Review

In general, I was pleasantly surprised. The sequel felt more like a Star Trek movie to me than the first one did. I’m not sure exactly why, because “sense of wonder” was still pretty much absent. Maybe the actors were getting more comfortable in the roles; the character arcs were moving a little closer to the older versions we know so well (more about that later!); we didn’t have to spend half the movie getting all the crew members into place.

But. Most of the things I didn’t like about the first one cropped up again in the sequel, and that’s what I’m going to talk about next…

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