by Megan Hess
When Alice’s (Emily VanCamp) boss at the publishing company where she works asks her to handle the re-release of Waking Eyes, she should be thrilled. Since its publication fifteen years ago, the book has become a contemporary classic, and a cultural touchstone for Alice’s generation – for everyone, it seems, but her. The pain caused by working so closely with Waking Eyes is not because of her disconnect from the book, but for the exact opposite reason: she’s too connected to it. Waking Eyes was written by a family friend, someone who had a significantly negative impact on her life. This is the story of The Girl in The Book (Cohn, 2015) a dense psychological drama that gives its old themes a new spin.
Alice (Emily VanCamp) contemplates her circumstances (The Girl in the Book, Cohn, 2015)
Countless films have been made about exploitative relationships, and many of them used the same flashback-versus-present-day strategy as The Girl in the Book. Overuse aside, it is the most effective and entertaining way to convey the past. Unfortunately, in The Girl in the Book, the past becomes more compelling than the present. This is partly because adult Alice is not a particularly likable character. I still found myself sympathetic for her, and wanting her circumstances to improve, but out of pity, instead of any interest in the character. She’s bland and frustrating – crippled by the men in her life: her father, a cheerfully domineering man who still orders for her at restaurants and meddles in her work life; Milan (Michael Nyqvist), the author of Waking Eyes who took advantage of her as a teen (and not just sexually), and her boss, who takes her for granted and doesn’t let her do the work she’s capable of doing. She bungles the one healthy male relationship she gets into, with (in homage to Legally Blonde?) Emmett, a clean-cut and idealistic political activist. The flashback sequences function not only as character and plot development, but as justification for Alice’s behavior, which makes her easier to deal with – ironic, because the flashback sequences are the hardest, most beautiful, part of the movie.
Milan (Michael Nyquvist) and young Alice (Ana Mulvoy Ten) relax together while her parents aren't home (The Girl in the Book, Cohn, 2015)
In the flashbacks, the young actress playing Alice from the past is supposed to be 14, but when we first see her, she looks more like 10 – which makes Milan’s intentions even more problematic. However, as she becomes more comfortable with Milan, she starts looking and acting more like a typical teenager. Even the most innocent-seeming of Alice and Milan’s interactions have an uncomfortable, uncertain undertone (because the viewer always knows his motivations, even when Alice does not) and are intended to make the viewer deeply squeamish. Sequences of sexual assault are always difficult to watch, but seeing the waifish blonde Alice molested by Nyqvist’s strapping expat – and watching him groom her for those sexual experiences, earning her trust and encouraging her in her writing – is particularly painful and enraging. The Girl in the Book is not a film to watch lightly, and it could be triggering for those who have had similar experiences. Yet, for a film about recovering from sexual assault, there is very little non-consenting sexual behavior, and no nudity – a decision that easily could have been made with victims in mind.
Milan makes his move (The Girl in the Book, Cohn, 2015)
For all its niche circumstances, The Girl in the Book contains and portrays many relatable elements: family and job dissatisfaction, the thrill of meeting someone new and falling for him\her, the female friendship experience, etc. Its realism is the source of its power, and sets it apart from other films which depict similar circumstances.
Legally Blonde Tramples Over Almost All Romantic Comedy Tropes... In Heels, No Less
Throughout its long history, the romantic comedy genre has been maligned as one of the most formulaic of all time, relying solely on familiar tropes and storylines to attract audiences. The Merriam-Webster dictionary would define a trope as “a figure of speech,” but creative people like moviemakers would say they are “more about conveying a concept to the audience without needing to spell out all the details” (“Welcome to TV Tropes”). They save time when making plots, as they provide already established trends to return to that audiences will recognize. Common tropes of romantic comedies include love scenes happening in the rain, a man saving a woman or vice versa, ending with a wedding, etc. (Fagan). While Legally Blonde is daring enough to fight against many of these overly common plot points, it does fall into some of the stereotypes of other members of its genre. Luckily, its foray into new territory paid off surprisingly well, with high audience appeal, a return of $20,377,426 on opening weekend, and a gross of $95,001,351 overall (“Legally Blonde” (2001)).
The center of Legally Blonde’s plot comes from the way it handles Elle’s desire to go to law school. Yes, like many female characters her in film, her ambition is initiated by her desire to win over a man. Still, she does not need his or anyone’s help to achieve her dream of going to Harvard and being a successful lawyer. She studies as hard as she can and only misses a perfect score on her LSATs by one point (Cormier, 2016). This is but one of the ways in which the film goes against the “dumb blonde” stereotype, which is its intention. Elle never intentionally harms others, though she can sometimes be catty when offended.
By proving herself without changing and using her knowledge of hair and fashion to her advantage, she shows that a woman does not have to alter herself to be something great and that they can do typically “male-oriented” jobs like being a lawyer. It recognizes that because of her looks, there will be people who look down on her as “just a piece of ass,” wanting her for her body like the devious Professor Callahan. However, it also shows that these setbacks can be overcome with determination. This is something that few movies, especially romantic comedies, have ever touched on.
Love triangles, in which two women or men vie for one object of their affections, are incredibly common in films and especially prevalent in romantic comedies. The first and third Bridget Jones movies have Mark Darcy fighting against another man for Bridget’s affections. My Best Friend’s Wedding (Hogan, 1997) centers entirely on a woman attempting to sabotage her best friend’s wedding because she has fallen for him. Legally Blonde uses this trope but takes it in an interesting direction. Vivian and Elle begin as enemies when fighting over Warner, but after time passes and they learn to understand each other, they become friends in the end. Also, in a shocking twist, the scummy object of their affections ends up with neither girl!
Despite its subversive nature, there are still romantic comedy tropes in Legally Blonde. The heroine still gets a man but, fortunately, falls in love with someone who understands her and appreciates her for everything she is. Elle is bubbly and lovable as well as beautiful and smart; she toes the line of Manic Pixie Dream Girl with her Prada shoes. There is also a “where are they now” monologue” that test audiences desperately wanted to see (Cormier, 2016). However, none of these tropes subtract significantly from the film as a whole, as viewers expect them from a romantic comedy.
What does subtract somewhat from Legally Blonde is the arguably stereotypical representations of certain characters. Gay characters of all kinds are portrayed in a homophobic and/or campy manner. Why can only a gay Latino male recognize Prada shoes (Theroguefeminist, 2015)? Not only that, but discovering his sexual preference becomes an essential detail in the final case (it is also the subject of a hilarious but definitely stereotypical song from the Legally Blonde musical, shown below).
Lesbians and feminists do not fare much better, as they are tied together into one maligned entity. Enid is not only a “butch” lesbian (i.e. masculine and tough yet vehemently hates men). She is portrayed as a representation of how extreme the arguments of feminists are (Theroguefeminist, 2015). This is one major thing that may keep Legally Blonde from being accurately classified as a “feminist” movie. The non-white or homosexual characters feel less developed compared to their fully fleshed-out counterparts.
It is interesting that Legally Blonde would simultaneously speak to and work against tropes in its genre and in film more generally. Things like negative stereotyping feel almost out of place when almost everything else is so subversive and trope-shattering. It also shows how deeply ingrained these viewpoints are and how many films rely on them.
The romantic comedy genre benefits from films like Legally Blonde to give it a breath of fresh air, provide something new, and point out possibly problematic norms. While it does use previously established concepts and engages in some problematic stereotyping, it still provides a more positive and varied story for viewers. Elle is a role model, and her struggles are so common that it is curious they have not been addressed more often.
By Nathan Simms
In 1973, novelist Michael Crichton made his directorial debut with Westworld, a Science-Fiction thriller which was a box office success. The film depicts a futuristic amusement park that malfunctions and attacks its guests, a theme that was reused later in Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1984). As an ancestor to Jurassic Park, the 1973 film holds all the same narrative beats that structure its more successful offspring, without the same impact of seeing prehistoric creatures on screen. Instead, Westworld depicts an amusement park where visitors are meant to engage in their every whim and fantasy in an environment that looks like the wild west. Populated by androids who are virtually indistinguishable from humans, Westworld begins to malfunction as the film opens, ultimately resulting in the deaths of the likeable human protagonists. The original film was followed by a sequel, Futureworld (Heffron, 1976), and an unsuccessful tv spin-off, Beyond Westworld (Crichton, 1980). The concept is once again in the public eye with the release of an updated Westworld TV show from HBO, directed by Jonathan Nolan.
On October 2nd, 2016, Westworld premiered to an audience of 3.3 million multi-platform viewers, according to deadline.com. The HBO show explores many of the same ethical and philosophical questions that Crichton’s film presents; however, it goes much farther in showing the darkest fantasies of the clientele, depicting gratuitous violence and full frontal nudity, all within the first minutes of the pilot. To accommodate the every whim of the visitors to Westworld, the androids’ memories are wiped every night as they are repaired after the carnage of the day. The deletion of their memories turns out to not be a full-proof strategy and the androids, “hosts”, begin to remember the atrocities that are regularly committed against them. As Charlie Jane Anders of Wired said to summarize the show, “You can only have unlimited freedom if someone else has none at all.”
Although both works explore a lot of the same themes, the television reboot places a much stronger emphasis on the androids that populate the theme park and has more time to display them. The pilot opens with the daily, cyclical routine of Dolores, the robotic protagonist and oldest android in the park, and a short demonstration of how visitors interact with the androids in the park. The theme park boasts over 100 interconnected scripted storylines with which people can interact. The stories go from assisting the sheriff in catching an outlaw to committing a robbery as a “black hat” bandit. These stories only happen because of the many hosts that parade around the massive and immersive theme park. When the hosts begin to malfunction, this causes the overarching story to deteriorate. In Crichton’s version, a few shots are shown of the control center where the “behind the scenes” workers work fervidly to keep the park running smoothly. However, the television show enables showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy to delve deeply into the corporate players in the Delos Corporation, the massive conglomerate that owns Westworld.
In addition to the corporate figureheads of Delos, the long form nature of television also provides an extended exploration of the philosophical issues that the original movie proposed. In the beginning minutes of the pilot episode, there is a scene that implies sexual violence against a female character. The following day, her memory has been wiped and there is no recollection of the horrors committed the night before. This opens up a number of questions on what it means to be human and the nature of the elites who are paying exorbitant amounts of money to visit. First is the question of what it means to be human. As the oldest host in the park, Dolores still has a metal interior body, but is still able to bleed. All other hosts are made in the glass rooms that are shown in Delos’ headquarters. These hosts are created using artificial muscles in what are basically large 3D printers. When the manufacturing process is done, these hosts are identical to humans. They have their own fingerprints, they eat, bleed, create waste, and attempt to breath. This is what makes the show disturbing, that the visitors to the park would commit atrocities that feel real. Although the visitors understand that the hosts are just glorified computers, in the moment it is virtually impossible to tell that their insides are created by machines. When the elites who visit kill, rape, and plunder, the experience feels very real, which is part of the allure of the theme park itself. The idea is that humans’ actions have no consequence in Westworld, but as the hosts begin to malfunction and think for themselves, the clients of Westworld learn that no crime goes unpunished.
The television reboot of Michael Crichton’s 1973 film Westworld, utilizes the long format of an HBO show to deeply process the ethical problems proposed in the original. The show is a genuinely beautiful mashup of Science-Fiction with a fantastical rendition of the United States’ wild-west. And although the show is very much intended for only a mature audience, the twists and turns in the plot make for genuinely good storytelling that will make one contemplate the nature of their own reality.
Anders, Charlie Jane. "Can Westworld Do for Science Fiction What Game of Thrones Did for Fantasy?" Wired. Conde Nast, 03 Oct. 2016. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.
Andreeva, Nellie. "‘Westworld’: HBO Drama Off To Strong Start In Multiplatform Premiere Ratings." Deadline. Penske Business Media, LLC, 03 Oct. 2016. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.
By Emmanuel Gundran
Illumination Entertainment is the newest animation studio to step up to compete with the big two studios, Disney and Dreamworks, in the animated film industry. Despite Illumination being so new compared to Disney and Dreamworks, they have risen to popularity in the animated film industry in such a short amount of time.
The company started in 2007 after Chris Meledandri left his former position as president of 20th Century Fox’s animation branch so he could start his own animation studio. While he was with Fox, he was executive producer over animated features such as Ice Age (Wedge and Saldanha, 2002), Ice Age: The Meltdown (Saldanha, 2006), and Horton Hears a Who (Hayward and Martino, 2008). His new studio, Illumination Entertainment, would produce one to two animated films a year starting on 2010 for Universal Studios. Illumination’s first film Despicable Me (Coffin and Renaud, 2010) was an instant hit and placed the fledgling studio on the map. It tells the story of an arrogant, genius super villain who tries to use three orphaned girls in his latest evil plot but slowly becomes more attached to them and wants to take care of them. Throughout the film, Gru (Steve Carell) struggles with the importance of the three girls as his adopted daughters and of his career as a supervillain, all the while competing against a newer, younger super villain. It grossed $543 million worldwide, critics praised it as “fresh, sincere, often lovely and a great deal of fun” (O’Hehir, 2010) and “thoroughly adorable” (Mondello, 2010), and it became the start of the studio’s first franchise. This includes a sequel, Despicable Me 2 (Coffin and Renaud, 2013), a spin-off featuring the Illuminations’s mascot characters, Minions (Coffin and Balda, 2015), and another sequel, Despicable Me 3 (Coffin and Renaud), to be released this year. Despicable Me was a good sign for Illumination that they could create solid animated films, and establish themselves in the industry.
After Despicable Me film, Illumination quickly got to work on even more animated films. Their first film after Despicable Me was Hop (Hill, 2011), a film about the son of the Easter Bunny who wants to be a drummer instead of become the new Easter Bunny. Unfortunately, it was neither a box office nor critical hit, making less than half of what Despicable Me made and currently ranking at 25% on Rotten Tomatoes and 41% on Metacritic. A.O. Scott, film critic for the New York Times, watched the film with his son and all his son could offer in favor of it was that it “was better than Alvin and the Chipmunks.” (2011) Additionally, Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D”, describing it as “Alvin and the Chipmunks with only one chipmunk” and criticized the writing for not giving Russell Brand, who stars in the film, any good material. However, after Hop, Illumination’s other films would perform better than it with varying levels of success. While Minions is Illumination’s top grossing film made so far, making $1.159 billion in the US alone, it had overall bad and mediocre critical reviews. Lukewarm or negative reviews wouldn’t stop Illumination from making more box office money, as Despicable Me 2, The Secret Life of Pets (Renaud, 2016), and Sing (Jennings and Lourdelet, 2016) would achieve higher box office results than the first Despicable Me despite having lower critical reception than it. Illumination films, in general, may not always receive stellar reviews compared to Disney or Dreamworks’ films, yet they manage to receive as much money in the theaters as them.
With the overwhelming amount of money that Minions received at the box office, one might ask how has Illumination accomplished a feat such as this: making a film that receives lukewarm to negative reviews yet makes loads of box office money. One factor that may have lead to this could be how the Minion characters have diffused into all kinds of products from mobile games, to children’s clothes, food, bedsheets, “backpacks, Tic Tacs and Amazon delivery boxes.” (Faughnder, 2015) One need only walk into any given store and find a plethora of Minions-themed merchandise. This was also the case for other films that crossed $1 billion threshold such as Frozen (Buck and Lee, 2013) and The Avengers (Whedon, 2012). The wider the audience that’s reached through merchandising, the more people who will go to see the film. Another factor could be the style of its humor and how it is easy to entertain children. Because the Minions do not speak English, the film relies on their gibberish, frequent slapstick antics, and their occasional banana references to carry most of the humor. For casual movie-goers, especially families with children, this type of humor works.
If Disney and Pixar’s strength is telling compelling stories with moral lessons then Illumination’s strength is making simple but humorous and sometimes heartwarming romps. The Secret Lift of Pets, for example, has a simple premise and plot. When pet owners are not around, their pets will take over the house or go on adventures outside. The film focuses on Max (Louis C.K.) who is forced to live with another dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet) when his owner (Ellie Kemper) adopts him Duke from the pound. What follows is the two of them escaping the clutches of the city’s dog-catchers through the streets of New York while slowly becoming closer companions. The premise of non-sentient beings gaining sentience when their “owners” are not around can be easily compared to Toy Story (Lasseter, 1995), yet it doesn't hold the film back from being an overall solid and entertaining experience. Some might also say that it tried to capitalized on having anthropomorphic animals in animated films since Disney’s Zootopia (Howard and Moore, 2016) had come out earlier the same year. But the stories and themes for each of these films are different enough from each other that it would not be fair to draw the comparison. While Zootopia is a buddy-cop action-comedy that discusses societal and workplace racism, The Secret Life of Pets is an adventure-comedy that deals with friendship and getting along with everyday people you don’t like.
For Illumination’s overall simple story-telling and forced Minion marketing, it has a solid sense of identity that is evident throughout its films and what makes a competent contender with Disney and Dreamworks.
Faughnder, Ryan. “Universal’s ‘Minions’ hits $1 billion worldwide box office.” Los Angeles Times. 28 Aug, 2013.
Gleiberman, Owen. “Hop.” Entertainment Weekly. 28 July, 2012.
Mondello, Bob. “‘Despicable Me’: Oddly Adorable.’ NPR. 2010 9 Jul, 2010.
O’Hehir, Andrew. “‘Despicable Me’: Steve Carell’s adorable supervillain." Salon.com. 9 Jul, 2010.
Scott, A.O. “Bunny Doesn’t Want to Work, Just Wants to Bang the Drum All Day.” The New York Times. 31 Mar, 2011.
By Emmanuel Gundran
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Yates, 2016) is a spin-off prequel to the famous Harry Potter franchise that, while it is not completely self-sufficient from its predecessor, is a enjoyable adventure with an overall likable cast of characters and engaging new world.
The film follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a wizard from Hogwarts who studies and protects exotic creatures, travels to New York, where the creatures inside his magic suitcase escape and run free. He joins an aspiring but bumbling baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) to wrangle the creatures back into the suitcase before Newt and many other wizards in America are outed as magic users. For, in America, wizards are widely persecuted, especially by the New Salem Philanthropic Society run by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), who warns people of the dangers of wizards and magic. Thus, Newt must navigate his way through New York, looking for his lost creatures while keeping his wizard profile a secret, fighting prejudice against magic, and a new, mysterious threat.
Despite the film’s connection to the Harry Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts creates a memorable world and characters separate from its predecessors. Of the main cast, Jacob Kowalski is perhaps the most compelling and entertaining character. In general, the Harry Potter universe focuses mostly on characters who can use magic. With Fantastic Beasts, Kowalski’s status as a non-magic user, or a “No-Maj” as they are called in the film, in the midst of magic users like Newt and Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) makes him more of a relatable and sympathetic character. He shares the same kind of awe and sometimes terror at the magic creatures and spells that most people would have.
Also present in the film is an extensive look at the relationship between No-Maj’s and wizards. Wizards in the Harry Potter series generally remain hidden from the world of non-magic users (or “Muggles”) at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This film, however, shows more of wizards hiding among No-Maj’s and outside of their comfort zones. We take a look inside the New Salem Philanthropic Society, where we see children of magical background oppressed for their dangerous powers and focus in on the life of Credence Barebones (Ezra Miller), who is given especially cruel treatment by his adopted mother. We also see the pressure that the Magical Congress of the USA faces of keeping magic a secret to the No-Maj’s while Newt Scamander’s creatures are running free across New York and dealing with a new, dark creature called an Obscurial, the violent spirit of a repressed wizard.
The one major fault that I believe the film has is its villain, Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). His ultimate importance in the narrative is only hinted at at the beginning and end of the film. Though he is technically working his way throughout the film from beginning to end, he uses an alias to go unnoticed. When Grindelwald is revealed at the end, it feels like a forced revelation as there was very little build up to it. His presence in the film is also where it falls short from being completely self-sufficient from the other Harry Potter films, as those who have followed the franchise would have a much better understanding of who the character is and why he is important. Furthermore, it also seems his presence at the end is used as a tease for the sequel planned to be released in 2018.
Regardless of how the villain may have pulled the film down from being excellent, Fantastic Beasts was an overall enjoyable ride once again through J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World.
By Nathan Simms
Following the recent trend of Science-Fiction remakes, last weekend saw the release of Ghost in the Shell (Sanders, 2017), a live-action remake of the 1995 anime film of the same name. The original Ghost in the Shell (Shirow 1995) is a slow-paced, philosophical piece that asks questions about how humanity changes as technology is put into our bodies. The protagonist in both films, Major, is a “human” whose entire body is robotic, save for her brain, and her personal struggle for identity. 2017’s version is a technological marvel that captures a neon-lit future, emulating the feel and visual style of the anime, but ultimately falls short of capturing the tone of of the original.
In the 1995 anime, the cybernetic future of humanity is a juxtaposition of decaying slums and bright neon inner city. Taking inspiration from Blade Runner (Scott, 1982) and William Gibson’s 1984 book Neuromancer, the city of 2017’s Ghost in the Shell is vibrant and almost otherworldly. The world of Ghost is captivating with its towering skyscrapers and twirling, holographic advertisements towering about the cityscape. Here, the remake matches its source material almost perfectly. In fact, the live-action purposefully and exactly emulates the most memorable shots from the original but in a manner that is supposed to appear “real.”
However, the film falls short of the original as it interacts with the protagonist. In the anime, Major’s questions about her own humanity lead to a multitude of contemplative moments leaving viewers lost in thought. The remake, however, drops these slow montages in favor of thrilling actions sequences and plot twists, presumably to appeal to an American audience. When the anime initiates, it drops the viewer directly into the action and never reveals any of Major’s origin. The viewer has to determine what the Ghost in the shell actually means and they are left guessing where the story began. To contrast, one of the opening lines of dialogue in the remake directly defines Ghost as a human soul and then goes on to show Major’s origin story, negating any sense of uncertainty.
While the American, live-action remake of Ghost is a marvel to behold with its twirling cityscape, it fails in delivering the same sense of philosophical brooding that is found in the original. And while Scarlett Johansson delivered a spectacular performance, albeit controversial amongst accusations of whitewashing, Sanders’ film leaves us wondering why live-action remakes of animated masterpieces are necessary, beyond a studio’s desire for revenue.
An occasional complaint from moviegoers is that the filmmakers are “just setting up for a sequel,” and this is not always untrue. Studios view large franchises that viewers will get invested in as lucrative endeavors. As a result, they are focusing their efforts more and more on these types of projects. However, there are still the smaller trilogies and sequels all film-goers have grown up with, such as the Bridget Jones franchise. Its latest entry, Bridget Jones’ Baby, (2016, Maguire) does not appear to be setting up for any expansion. It also did not make enough of a profit to encourage such an effort, gaining humble returns of “less than ten million dollars domestically on its opening weekend” (Koski, 2016). Still, the film is a useful expression of how a franchise can change over time by excluding or including familiar elements. It is also worthwhile to consider which movie universes make the best franchises, something the financially focused studios of Hollywood already do on a daily basis.