One of the big talking points of this year’s collective film conversation, and particularly at TIFF, has been women in film. Are women getting good roles in front of the camera, and are they allowed any control behind it? While TIFF is a much more specialized level of industry reality than Hollywood at large, here at least, the answer is yes.
My Saturday began with what is, so far, the best lead actress performance of 2015, Sandra Bullock’s Our Brand is Crisis. Directed by David Gordon Green (whose career has varied from the indie George Washington to the populist Pineapple Express), Bullock plays “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a mildly unhinged American political strategist hired to advise a Presidential campaign in Bolivia. She takes the job (of course she does!) mostly because the opposing candidate’s campaign is being run by her old nemesis, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton). What ensues is basically a Latin American Tom & Jerry episode, with Bullock constantly quoting Sun Tzu’s “the Art of War,” and Thornton gleefully playing the entire movie with the self-satisfied smirk of a Roger Moore-era Bond villain.
Green and screenwriter Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) do a great job of keeping the action relatively comical and light-hearted, while persistently maintaining an undercurrent that these actions do have actual consequences for an entire country. Occasionally the metaphors are too heavy-handed (the opening credits show Bullock on a potters wheel, literally getting her hands dirty), and the ending features a major tonal switch that simply doesn’t work. But that misfire at the ending doesn’t undo what is a highly entertaining movie, and if anything, serves to reinforce how un-preachy the bulk of the movie is. It also might mean that George Clooney, who produced this, has learned from the bogged down moralizing of his own Ides of March, which covered similar ground four years ago. In that, Ryan Gosling’s campaign strategist began the film an idealist, and ended it jaded and morally broken. Here, Bullock starts the film that way, but ends it somewhere a bit less label-friendly.
What’s especially interesting about Our Brand is Crisis is that it was written for, and based on the true story of, a man. It’s obviously rare in Hollywood for roles originally written for men to end up in the hands of women, but it does happen every once in a while. Angelina Jolie’s Salt is a notable recent example, which at one point was to be a Tom Cruise vehicle. But the key here isn’t just that the film was written for a man, it’s that the true story was about a man—James Carville, who really was hired to advise a Bolivian presidential race. So what does it tell us that a prominent Hollywood studio (Warner Bros.) and a prominent Hollywood star/director/producer (Clooney) collectively took the story of a prominent Washington figure (Carville) and gave it to a woman to star in? Dare I say it, but I think we call that progress.
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For as great a female lead role as Our Brand is Crisis is, and as groundbreaking as it may be in terms of its origins, it still doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, as every single conversation in the entire film is about the two male presidential candidates. What’s especially hilarious is that neither of the other two movies revolving around strong female characters I saw this weekend—About Ray and Brooklyn—pass the test either. Brooklyn is a film about a young Irish immigrant in the 1950s, and the story is largely centered on her finding a husband. About Ray stars three women—Elle Fanning, Naomi Watts, and Susan Sarandon—but the story is about a family dealing with Fanning’s transition to becoming a man, and that’s what every conversation revolves around.
Brooklyn was the better of the two films. It’s an unabashed period piece that doesn’t just take place in the ‘50s, the film nearly convinces you it could have come out then, too. I mean that as a compliment. This isn’t a revisionist feminist immigrant story; it adds no contemporary moralizing to the equation. The lovely and talented Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, Hanna) stars as Eilis, and the gist of the story is about whether she’ll go for the cute Brooklyn Italian boy or the handsome Irishman back home. The story is very simple on the surface, but screenwriter Nick Hornby (who has written two excellent films about a young woman’s emotional journey, An Education and Wild) mines the simplicity for the important human story at its core.
About Ray was a more troubling film, but still works reasonably well if you can reframe your expectations of what it fundamentally is. Watching the trailer, you’d think it’s a film about teenage Ramona (Fanning) undergoing gender reassignment surgery to become Ray, and his family (Watts as his mom, and Sarandon as grandmother) coping with the change. In reality, that isn’t the film we got. This is Naomi Watts’ movie, and it’s the story of a mother—and grandmother, to a lesser extent—dealing with their child’s desire to change gender. We don’t watch Ray transition, we just watch Ray want to transition. Ray is, in a very real and problematic way, just the movie’s MacGuffin. Combine that realization with the title’s obvious association to the famous song by The Lemonheads, “It’s a Shame About Ray,” and you officially enter difficult territory with what this film is conjuring about its transgender character. Is he just a plot device? Is it a shame about Ray?
Luckily, if you can get past those uncomfortable questions, there’s a good movie about parents here, albeit one very different than you might have been expecting. Watts is dynamite (as she often is), and the film’s tone reaches a nice balance of being about a heavy (and timely) subject without ever feeling heavy or preachy. Its characters are well written, and there’s great heart at its center. Yes, the same center where Ray probably should have been, but still.
Maybe it’s a bad sign that a movie headlined by three powerful actresses and no men is still, literally, About Ray, as that’s sort of the point of the Bechdel Test. But maybe it doesn’t matter. The Bechdel Test could be outmoded in that it’s meant to catch movies where women don’t matter to the structure at all. That’s clearly not the case here, but it doesn’t change the fact that these films are still about advising a man, finding a man, and even turning into a man.
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Okay, let’s change the subject and talk about movies that are not only about men, but also star them! I saw three good ones this weekend—Youth, Trumbo, and Beasts of No Nation. Youth, Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to 2013’s Oscar-winning foreign language film, The Great Beauty, was the best of the bunch. Starring Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, Youth sees the two elderly men, playing a great composer in retirement and a great director in creative stagnation, respectively, meet at a spa in the Swiss Alps and reflect on life. That may sound boring, but nothing ever is with Sorrentino, who can turn seemingly anything into a stunningly vibrant visual composition.
Sorrentino can also turn seemingly anything into a visual manifestation of the mind’s search for beauty, and he does that here, almost to the point that it’s all there is. Yes, Youth is the kind of movie where Michael Caine can be sitting alone overlooking a field of cows, and then imagine conducting a symphony from the cowbells. Youth is also the kind of movie, as are many of Sorrentino’s works, where gratuitous nudity somehow feels utterly essential to the artistic journey the film is on.
There are other elements that drive the plot, such as it is—Paul Dano playing a bad boy actor preparing for a role (and wait until you see what the role is), Rachel Weisz as Caine’s daughter, and Jane Fonda as, more or less, Jane Fonda. All of them help the story get to its key beats, but those beats remain predominantly about the way things look and feel with Sorrentino’s formalist guiding hand. As with The Great Beauty, they feel lush, elegiac, and quite lovely.
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Youth will come out at the very end of the year, just in time for Fox Searchlight to give it an Oscar qualifying run mainly aimed at Michael Caine. It will find steady business in the art house circuit, and Caine will either just barely miss the nominations cut, or he’ll be the fifth nominee that everyone knows has no chance (my bet is on the former). In either case, we pretty well know what to expect from Youth as regards the box office and awards race. That can’t be said for Trumbo or Beasts of No Nation.
In Trumbo, Bryan Cranston plays the eponymous Hollywood screenwriter, legendary in the industry for being the face of the Hollywood Blacklist, going to jail, winning two Oscars under pseudonyms, then triumphantly writing Spartacus and Exodus under his own name. It’s a decently good movie, but ironically for being about a screenwriter known for his economy of dialogue, this one needed to make a few more cuts. Every scene, on its own, feels well placed and worth keeping in, but by the time you get to the end, you can’t escape the realization that the movie was at least 20 minutes too long, and didn’t flow especially well.
The power of a good story is what keeps things from getting out of hand, and this is one of the best true stories in Hollywood history. It also helps that the minor roles are almost all played by great actors that you love watching—John Goodman as a schlock producer, Helen Mirren as a gossip columnist, Louis C.K. as another blacklisted screenwriter, Diane Lane as Mrs. Trumbo, and Michael Stuhlbarg as blacklisted actor Edward G. Robinson.
It’s unclear what to expect with Trumbo. It’s not quite good enough to be an awards season player, but that doesn’t always stop distributers from trying. It also plays a bit more like an HBO movie than a feature film, and director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Borat) has already been down that road twice with Recount and Game Change. On the other end of the spectrum, something that doesn’t at all play like a TV movie, Beasts of No Nation, will mostly be watched on one.
When TIFF director Cameron Bailey introduced the premiere screening of Beasts of No Nation, he thanked Netflix for providing TIFF with the film, and then said, “That’s the first time Netflix has ever been thanked at the festival; It will not be the last.” (Indeed it already happened again four days later, with the premiere of Netflix’s Keith Richards documentary, Under the Influence.) Bailey’s comment hinted at a major question Hollywood is asking about this film: Is this the new business model?
Beasts of No Nation will open in theaters on October 16, and will be available on Netflix on the same day. The theatrical run is only happening for the sake of Oscar eligibility, and Netflix stands almost no chance of making back the cost of the film from box office gross. What they’ve really paid for is to be a part of the awards conversation. If a film that comes to Netflix immediately upon release manages to get a Best Picture nomination, it not only changes the perception of Netflix as a provider of original entertainment, but also changes the very nature of theatrical releases. Of course, for that to happen, the movie also has to be good enough.
Written and directed by Cary Fukunaga, who is most well known as director of the first season of True Detective (another changer of business models), Beasts of No Nation is an African child soldier drama starring Idris Elba and newcomer Abraham Attah. It is, at times, absolutely stunning. A handful of sequences are reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, and the ending scenes are remarkably powerful and affecting. It’s the connective tissue that’s the problem. Between the very good first twenty minutes, and the great last twenty minutes, is a little over an hour and a half that only leaves fleeting impressions. The tragedy of child soldiers is one that has little nuance or depth to explore. The point comes across quickly, and a little goes a long way. The overly long middle of the film also doesn’t have enough plot to sustain it. As Idris Elba’s Commandant leads his child army from conflict to conflict, village to village, there reaches a point where nothing is being narratively gained anymore. The entire first two hours of the movie exists to drive home the power of the last twenty minutes, but that power wouldn’t be diminished if we got there a bit faster.
How the Academy will treat Beasts of No Nation is, in my eyes, the single most fascinating question of the 2015 awards cycle. With no mitigating factors, nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Attah, who as the child Agu, is really the lead of the film), and Supporting Actor (Elba) should all be possibilities, but I think there’s a real chance of it being shut out of the major nominations. Five or ten years from now, the notion of a film needing a theatrical run for Oscar qualification could feel like an antiquated idea. But in 2015, that’s still how the business model works. If enough of the Academy sees Beasts’ same day drop on Netflix as killing the theatrical element of the film industry and biting the hand that feeds, it could be the subject of a huge backlash. On the other hand, as Anne Thompson pointed out when I asked her this question, the fact that Beasts of No Nation will be available for everyone on Netflix at least means that Academy members will watch it. And as we see every year, sometimes the list of nominees looks heavily determined simply by what the most voters saw.
Coming Next: Susan Sarandon and Brie Larson as two very different kinds of doting mothers, and the best film of TIFF 2015.