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Thoughts on Whip It and An Education [Filmmakers Bleed]
Apr 29th, 2010 by Dan

It’s a tough world out there. The first person you meet in the beginning of The Legend of Zelda says, “It’s dangerous to go alone,” and he’s 100% right. I know this as well as anyone.

Childhood, and school in general, wasn’t that long ago for me. For a kid whose family was decidedly not in the military, we sure seemed to move around and swap schools plenty. It’s not a contest (protip: it is a contest), but I’d say I beat out most non-delinquent, non-military kids with seven school transfers in the thirteen years that I attended school.

The solid core I had at home with my brothers could only take me so far. Once the school bell rings, you’re on your own. When you switch schools roughly once every two years, you have to learn to adapt to new environments, find your niche, and fit into it as fast as you can. It’s tough to be a kid and constantly find the right crowd to fit in with. There were times where I had no crowd and I was a reject. Lucky me that I never found myself giving up who I was or falling in with “the wrong crowd”.

Whip It isn’t literally about this. Bliss Cavendar, played expertly by Ellen Paige, does have a best friend (marking the first time I’ve seen Alia Shawkat in a major role outside of Arrested Development) who supports her youthful yearnings for “something more”, but, for a movie about friendship and sisterhood, there is a distinct lack of sap, probably because roller derby is an intensely violent sport being played by women out to hurt each other.

Drew Barrymore is no stranger to girl power movies. She was a heavy influence on the direction that the abysmal Charlie’s Angels movies took and her roles tend to feature stronger female characters, so there’s nothing too unexpected about her directorial debut, except, maybe, that she doesn’t really star in it. Her cast focuses on Ellen Page, Alia Shawkat, and the ridiculously hilarious Kristen Wiig and the community that Bliss becomes a part of, much to the chagrin of her mother. The beauty of this movie comes from the empowering message it doles out. A lesser movie would have Bliss’ mother be a super-bitch who refused to understand that her daughter didn’t want to do the pageants. Sure, Bliss’ mother is trying to achieve the dreams she lost to an unplanned pregnancy through her, but she’s also looking to see her daughter succeed and have something good in her life in the only context she really knows. She comes around when she realizes that Bliss really does love roller derby and she lets go with almost zero fuss.

The most telling scene in the movie comes before the final, climactic round. Bliss’ rival on the opposing team, Iron Maven, learned earlier that she was underage and could be considered ineligible. She reveals that she knows this to Bliss, who then comes clean to everyone and gets proper authorization from her parents to compete. When she confronts Maven later on about her jealous ploy to remove her from contention, Maven surprises her by saying that she had no intentions of outing her; she just wanted to get in Bliss’ head. Whether or not this is a cop-out response, the intention is crystal clear. These women are competitive and hate losing to each other, but they are not catty, jealous, or manipulative, as you might expect.

Kristen Wiig also gets standout mention from me for her role as a responsible mother figure/mentor to Bliss. In fact, everyone in this movie is so supportive and grounded in making the right decisions that it borders on unbelievable. The only people who make dumb choices are Ellen Page and Alia Shawkat’s irresponsible teen characters. Their lack of experience and teen self-righteousness realistically gets them in trouble.

An interesting side effect to all the feminism is that every male character in the movie plays to some kind of stereotype. Bliss’ father is a yes-man to the wife who spends all his time watching football, going so far as to sneak away to sit in an abandoned parking lot in his van to watch football, far away from his wife’s judgmental eyes. Oliver, the love interest in the movie, is a pretty-boy member of a band who predictably cheats on Bliss the first chance he gets and is rejected by her when he returns to apologize. Birdman, the manager of the restaurant Bliss works at, is constantly manipulated by his female employees and, though he does “get the girl” at the end, he’s not exactly a strong male lead. Jimmy Fallon’s character is the announcer at the roller derby and a pathetic seeming man who makes lame jokes and repeatedly fails at coming on to the roller derby girls. The strongest male role comes in the coach of Bliss’ roller derby team, Razor, played to perfection by Andrew Wilson as a tactician, almost hippie lover of the sport who is so anemic at managing the team that he can’t even get them to execute any of the plays he concocts for most of the movie.

I’m not saying a movie needs strong male roles to counter the female parts at all. I think it’s kind of refreshing to see a movie that marginalizes men instead. It’s rare that you see a movie made by women, for women that’s not a sappy love story, a Lifetime movie, or a feminazi-type production, so this was refreshing.

The main beauty of Whip It is precisely that it’s a movie about being true to one’s self, one’s friends, and one’s dreams, without being all that sappy. It’s a coming-of-age tale that hides in violence and comedy, but couldn’t sing its message clearer. Sure, the message can get a little heavy-handed, I mean, Bliss’ mother the beauty queen trying to force Bliss into pageants that she doesn’t want to do, blah blah, the evils of the exploitation of women by the mainstream, yes, it’s a clear contrast being made to the world of roller derby. Then again, this movie is smarter than that. Roller derby isn’t exactly a feminist’s dream. The sport does trade on sexual exploitation, so the movie is more railing against not being able to choose for oneself.

I wasn’t planning on watching back-to-back feminist movies when I set up my netflix queue, but that’s kind of the way it happened when An Education made its way to my mailbox a few days later. Despite similar themes, we’re talking a complete tonal shift, as An Education takes place in 1960s England and revolves around a similarly-aged boarding school student named Jenny (Carey Mulligan).

As you might expect, Jenny’s troubles are more of the pre-feminist revolution type. Jenny’s got this “Why bother?” attitude toward the Oxford education that her father is pushing her toward, mostly because all it seems to mean is that Jenny will have a few more years of a fulfilling, educational life before she ends up back in the dead-end world of 1960s England where her prospects are teacher, secretary, or housewife. Jenny wants what many 16-year-olds want, a chance to see the world, become cultured, experience more than what her middle class life has destined for her and so she naturally falls for an much older man, David (played by Peter Sarsgaard (and his terrible faux-British accent)), who can provide those things

An Education is a little more blatant with its comparisons. Jenny is constantly sharing screen time with Helen, the beautiful girlfriend of David’s business associate Danny, who is far more interested in fashion, glamor, and not using her brain. The opposite path is the one that her teacher is on, but she’s ridiculed by Jenny for being somewhat homey and her appearance is far from beautiful (in the way that Hollywood goes and makes beautiful women look not beautiful).

The real crux of the movie comes from the futility of the decision that it seems like Jenny is making. As citizens of the 21st century, we know that Jenny would certainly find more opportunities for success in the England of the 70s and 80s, but the end of the movie does leave you feeling that the education that Jenny is receiving, both from David and from Oxford, are ultimately futile attempts at delaying the inevitable.

In any case, both movies are fine examples of pro-feminist film that actually promote healthy lifestyles and relationships for women. How rare is it in Hollywood to see that?

The Best Movies of the Decade [Filmmakers Bleed]
Dec 29th, 2009 by Dan

In no particular order…

Memento (2000)

Guess what readers, this post is more or less one giant love letter to Christopher Nolan. With the exception of Insomnia, this list contains every movie the man’s directed since Memento (NOTE: Insomnia is not bad, it’s just not best of the decade caliber). Memento does what Christopher Nolan is known for doing very well. It shifts time and perspective (since each time episode is essentially a different Leonard with no memories of the previous events) just as well here as in future Nolan movies like Batman Begins and The Prestige. If you’ve never seen this crazy exercise in perception and memory, you’re doing yourself a major disservice. Go rent it.

WALL-E (2008)

Pixar really has a way of making you care about inanimate objects. Toys, cars, and now a robot. WALL-E has so much charm and character that it’s impossible not to love him (although I know people who do). In what is both a cautionary tale about waste and a love story between two robots, there are genuine characters who speak maybe three or four different lines of dialogue and get the audience to care about their plight like it was an Oscar-bait drama. Pixar’s best work to date.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

You probably didn’t see Robert Downey, Jr.’s best movie of the decade, but you can bet that this movie pushed him front and center for what you might think his best movie was (Iron Man). KKBB doesn’t seem like it should be so good. Its name is kind of generic and I don’t even remember hearing about it before it came out. In fact, I have no idea how it ended up on my movie queue, but it was an instant favorite that I had to share with my roommate. Bonus points to Val Kilmer for his brilliant acting as a sarcastic private detective.

Ghost Town (2008)

My favorite romantic comedy of the decade stars a pudgy British comedian and does not feature one kiss between the two leads. Ghost Town is different, but in all the best ways. Ricky Gervais’ character experiences the same clich├ęd character development that you’d expect in a role like this, but it still feels fresh thanks to his odd sense of humour. It also features a romantic rival who is not that bad a guy and is one of the few Gervais projects that doesn’t feature extended, super-awkward scenes. Definitely worth watching.

Mean Girls (2004)

I know, it seems really lame for a guy to love this movie, but Tina Fey’s writing is so sharp that this movie can’t help but be good. Sure, it meant that we had to deal with Lindsay Lohan for a long while after, but that’s mostly done with now and we can enjoy Tina and Rachel McAdams and everything else about this movie that’s so well put together. As an added bonus to me, the book the movie was based on was written based on the behavior of girls at the National Cathedral School, a rival all-girl private school to Holton-Arms, which some of my good friends attended, so I’m glad it gives them some bad press.

The Prestige (2006)

Oh? Is it time to praise Christopher Nolan again? How often do you see a movie based on a book that is far superior to its source material? This tale of dueling magicians in 19th century England is engaging and interesting to the bitter end. Most people’s only complaints with the movie have to do with its sci-fi plot twist, but I guess it’s probably because they don’t realize that this movie is not firmly based in reality until about 4/5 of the way in. Regardless, it’s a fantastic story and all of its roles are spectacularly acted. The narrative structure is also unique and interesting as the magicians invade the personal lives of their rivals through their diaries. A definite must see.

Snatch (2000)

There’s one thing that Guy Ritchie does well and it’s gangster films, but, given the choice, I’d say Snatch takes the prize for his best work. It’s funny, has great plot twists, and great, quotable characters.

Rent (2005)

Should this even count? It may come from the ’90s and portray NYC in the ’80s, but this musical made the transition to film quite nicely, preserving most of its atmosphere and earning its place as one of three musicals on this list.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Who said that fairy tales were dead in modern society? Slumdog Millionaire is just a great movie. The narrative structure that revolves around the interrogation of Jamal Malik and his answers on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? works beautifully and the trials and tribulations of the characters make for great drama. Will you be surprised by the ending of the film? Of course not. Will you be able to resist tapping your toes to the music of the closing number? Only if you lack a soul.

Batman Begins (2005)

Talk about a challenge. Batman movies were absolutely dead before Christopher Nolan’s adaptation. In fact, I’d go so far as to blame Batman and Robin (1997) for killing superhero movies until Spider-Man came around in 2002. All it took was hiring a real director and a close look at the source material to come up with this fantastic adaptation of one of the oldest superheroes in the business. Nolan was right in getting rid of the cheese factor and trying to make the character seem more realistic than he’d been portrayed before. His choice of antagonists, Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul, were great choices in establishing a world based more in reality than the earlier movies created by using Penguin, Mr. Freeze, and Poison Ivy and paved the way for the amazing direction he took for The Joker. Batman Begins is proof that a superhero movie can be as great as other movies.

City of God (Portuguese: Cidade de Deus) (2002)

Powerful in the same ways that Slumdog Millionaire explored its slums, City of God is unapologetic in its portrayal of favela life in Brazil. Splitting up the story into arcs and showing how one man can seize power and create hell through the eyes of an outsider proved to be an effective narrative technique. This movie is heavy, but it’s also quite good.

21 Grams (2003)

Another hyper-depressing movie, this time centered around a car crash with three fatalities and the fates of the people involved: the man who killed the three people, the wife and mother of the two boys and man who died in the crash, and the man who received a heart in a transfusion. I haven’t seen it in years, but it’s quite good (far better than Babel).

Juno (2007)

Yeah, no high school kid talks like her. Sure, this movie made being a hipster seem cool and caused your friends to act like insufferable idiots. Yes, Michael Cera has gone on to be pretty annoying since this movie and Arrested Development. Beyond all that, it’s still a funny movie with witty, fun dialogue. Bonus points awarded for having Jason Bateman in it.

Garden State (2004)

While we’re on the subject of movies that spawned annoying indie-ness, Garden State did it first back during my freshman year of college. I admit, part of why I like this movie so much has to do with my trek down to Cinemopolis in downtown Ithaca, but I actually enjoyed this movie. I might have a different opinion if I watched it now, but it always seemed to me that Zach Braff didn’t overdo it here with the pretentiousness. It’s also worth stating that Peter Sarsgaard is a fantastic actor in almost everything he does and that this movie proves that Natalie Portman is not as bad an actor as the prequels might lead you to believe.

Casino Royale (2006)

I don’t care what you say, but old-school James Bond was stupid. More of a superhero than a spy, he had ridiculous gadgets and was just plain campy. I think it took Austin Powers for me to fully understand how dumb the whole thing really was. Funny thing about Casino Royale is that its reinvention of the wheel stems instead from a return to source material. The Bond of CR is a brutal killer closer to a sociopath than the suave secret agent that we grew up with. Unfortunately, the second in this new series went and screwed it all up with poor casting and poor cinematography, but I like the direction this new Bond is going and I have high hopes for the future of the series.

Up (2009)

Pixar just keeps hitting them out of the park. WALL-E was fantastic and Up came along right after to prove that a movie for children can be just as mature as a movie for adults. I won’t spoil the plot too much, but let’s just say the opening 20 minutes or so will break your heart, if you’ve got one. A truly great cartoon about a man dealing with regret and clinging to his past, but eventually moving on.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

The best way I’ve heard this movie described is “A love story that starts after the love is gone.” ESofSM does many things well as it examines the memories of this failed relationship as they are yanked away from Jim Carrey’s mind while he struggles against that very darkness he hired them to create. Another great movie that I haven’t seen in too long. I should pull this out sometime soon.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

Since we’re talking about movies that deal with relationships ending, let’s push right on into a completely different type of movie. FSM is on my list because I think that, despite all the ridiculous exaggerations of the peripheral characters, the way that all of the actors interact with each other seems real. It’s a genuinely funny movie with good acting and hilarious situations.

Children of Men
(2006)

With a plot remarkably similar to Y: The Last Man in many respects, this post-apocalyptic look at a world scarred by a lack of childbirth is just awesome to watch. Fresh off the success of Sin City, Clive Owen, this time with his natural accent, stars and kicks ass in all kinds of believable ways as he escorts the first pregnant woman in ages to a research vessel. This movie makes the list more for its look than anything else. That last scene in the refugee camp where Clive Owen is chased by the military and the terrorists is stunningly shot. The end scenes also remind me a lot of Half-Life 2. Great movie.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008)

Strangely enough, I’d never seen anything by Joss Whedon until I saw DHSAB. I wouldn’t quite call myself a browncoat yet, but this movie inspired me to start checking out and loving his work. Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillion really need to start alongside each other in more things, because they’re dynamite on screen. This is my favorite musical of the modern age and you should watch it if you haven’t seen it.

The Dark Knight (2008)

One man is responsible for making this film truly great: Heath Ledger. His portrayal of The Joker was beyond amazing. The interrogation scene (and the rescue that follows) still gives me chills every time I watch it. Like no other man in film or comics, Ledger really understood that The Joker is a force of chaos and entropy. It really is too bad that it will never happen again due to Heath Ledger’s sad death. The Dark Knight is the greatest superhero movie of all time.

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