Strong female character is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in woke film crit, and it’s probable that the arbiter of this particular criteria should maybe be someone other than weak male film critic — but here we are. Watching a movie as fantastic as Johnny Guitar, it’s hard not to wonder if the phrase is in fact more often applied to female characters who basically act like male characters, resorting easily to physical and verbal violence. The leads in Captain Marvel and Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow are handy in a fight, sure, but they also lack flaws, for the most part, and therefore lack real complexity. Holding those characters up as the gold standard for strong females in film has always rung hollow.
The fact that all of those modern action films are directed by men is not inconsequential (and is its own problem), but then again so is Johnny Guitar, helmed by the great Nicholas Ray, which still manages to feature a lead character who — in addition to being handy in a fight — has complex relationships with the men and women around her, has self-doubt in tandem with self-confidence, has flaws and imperfections and weaknesses, all of which paradoxically contribute to the strength of this character. This character is Vienna (Joan Crawford), a saloonkeeper on the outskirts of an Arizona cattle town, a brash and opinionated woman frequently at odds with the town’s cattlemen. The arrival of the mysterious Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) complicates Vienna’s already-contentious relationship with the other townsfolk, particularly her sworn enemy Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge).
Continue reading Johnny Guitar (1954)
What’s the worst thing that can happen in sports? That’s the question voiced by the title character as the curtain goes up on Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut and latest produced screenplay since 2015’s Steve Jobs. The wording immediately conjures another Sorkin sports project, Moneyball, which followed Billy Beane’s seemingly-miraculous turnaround of the flailing Oakland A’s baseball club. That film was directed by Bennett Miller (sidebar: where’d Bennett Miller disappear to?) and contained a brilliant sequence dubbed The Streak: a quick-cut montage of the A’s unprecedented run of winning, winning, winning. We may never lose again, reads a poster in the stadium stands. Winning, you may have heard, is basically the best thing that can happen in sports.
The worst thing is more varied, more subjective, and far more interesting, at least as a concept for a narrative feature. It’s easy to see why Sorkin thought so, and easy to see why the writer was drawn to Molly Bloom’s account of her time hosting high-stakes underground poker games in L.A. and New York. Molly’s Game allows Sorkin to tap into the fast-paced verve of a sport (poker being “a game of skill,” as Molly asserts) that just so happens to require players to gather, seated, around a tense table. Molly herself is a quintessential Sorkin character in that she talks fast, has daddy issues, and is often the smartest person in the room by a longshot. Above all, the fact that Molly’s Game is a true story makes it all the more fitting for this writer’s wheelhouse.
Continue reading Molly’s Game (2017)
The Black Stallion is very much a film of two halves. You could enter the film at the midpoint and still enjoy the back 50% as a self-contained story. Similarly, you could just watch the first chunk and then turn it off feeling surprisingly satisfied. Viewed as a whole, though, Stallion serves as a personality quiz centered around whichever half you ultimately prefer. Think Full Metal Jacket or King Kong, which not only bring characters through two vastly different settings but seemingly bring them through different genres of film as well. It’s possible to enjoy the whole film in each of these instances, but by design one segment probably connects with you more powerfully than the other.
The first half of Stallion introduces young Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno) and the eponymous Black Stallion aboard an unnamed vessel floating in the Mediterranean. Alec, poking around as his father gambles with the foreign seamen, sees the wild horse tied and locked into one of the holds of the ship by its owners. He’s enraptured by it. When the ship crashes and Alec’s father is killed, the stallion saves Alec from death and the pair wash up on a picturesque island. This half of the film is highly meditative and yet highly tactile, focused both on sweeping vistas and on visual symbolism. Aside from a near-monologue delivered by Alec’s father, there’s virtually no dialogue in this entire stretch of The Black Stallion. We’re given no information regarding who Alec and his father actually are, why they’re on this ship, where they’re going. Even the sinking of the ship simply happens, reasons unexplained.
Continue reading The Black Stallion (1979)
In 2017 The Last Jedi ignited a culture war between lovers of Star Wars on the one side and…well, lovers of Star Wars on the other side. This war was ostensibly borne of debate over the film, praise versus criticism, and there certainly is a battlefront of this war that does engage in genuine discourse over Jedi. There’s another front, of course, comprised mostly of warriors fighting with a willing blindness to the merits or pitfalls of the film as a film; some people just despise Jedi for puerile personal reasons, some just defend it simply because it’s Star Wars. This is the Ultimate First World Problem, such hatred and ire thrown about over the seventh sequel to a space fantasy from 1977. But intentionally or not, a particular faction of “critics” revealed themselves during this war. We’ll call them the Shitboys, because they’re mostly boys and they mostly shit on everything.
The Shitboys are that splinter cell of Jedi-haters that conspired to sink the Rotten Tomatoes score of the film by flooding the internet with bad reviews. They sent death threats to director Rian Johnson from the safety of their mother’s basements. They made cute little petitions that proposed Disney literally remake the movie they just released. Eventually, they shit the same shit over Black Panther, actually claiming that white males were becoming a marginalized group in Hollywood. Once the rest of us stopped laughing/crying and once Panther walked home with billions of dollars and a few Oscars, the Shitboys regrouped and set to work on Captain Marvel:
Continue reading Captain Marvel (2019)
One of the things that soured Age of Ultron, the second Avengers outing, was all of the hard work apparent in the film. Pretty much every movie you watch is the result of hard work, of course, but in Ultron all of the moving and shaking afoot in the past and future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe severely impacted the present, i.e. the actual movie you’re watching right now. Excepting the occasional moment of levity (the Mjolnir party game) or well-drawn action scene (Hulk vs. Hulkbuster), it felt like hard work just to get to the end of Ultron as a viewer. Director Joss Whedon never struck the same natural flow he found in his original Avengers movie, and he seemingly left the MCU because he’d rather work from a place of inspiration than from a blueprint strategy designed to perpetuate a larger narrative. In our original review we posited this as no coincidence when the Avengers themselves begin referring to their superheroism with workplace terminology, to their “jobs,” to the “endgame;” Ultron even has an absent-husband subplot featuring Mrs. Hawkeye that seems a better fit in Death of a Salesman than a Marvel flick.
But Ultron‘s in the past, right? We’re here for the new one, Infinity War, featuring everyone who was in Ultron and everyone who’s had a solo Marvel outing since then, plus a few new characters, plus an occasional cameo from the MCU’s ever-expanding backlog. As such, the first order of business (more workplace terminology!) is to issue a SPOILER WARNING to anyone who has not yet seen Infinity War. Motion State assumes no liability in your reading past this paragraph!
Continue reading Avengers: Infinity War (2018)