Hollywood studios are finally according women effective enmity. Why did it take them so long?
The new ‘Cruella’ (2021) trailer dropped the other week and it looks AMAZING. Set in 1970s London, this punk rock origins story stars an unrecognizable Emma Stone as everyone’s favourite dogskin-loving, scary-haired supervillainess - Cruella De Vil. It takes place when Cruella was a young fashion designer who becomes obsessed with dog skins, especially those of Dalmatians.
The trailer gave me serious ‘Birds of Prey’ and ‘Joker’ vibes and I say that as a good thing. It looks set to be a Heath Ledger-Margot Robbie-style transformation for Stone - similar to what those actors did for the Joker and Harley Quinn. It will be really interesting to see Stone’s psychotic, evil side. I had never really thought of her as a villain - she always strikes me as one of the nicest people ever, as well as adorable, bubbly and sassy as hell. But, thinking about it, she does have that glint of insanity and asymmetricality in her eyes that would look fantastic when completely and utterly unhinged.
Cruella De Vil is certainly an iconic character. She was created by Dodie Smith in the 1956 novel ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’. Betty Lou Gerson did a fabulous, spine-tingling job voicing her in the 1961 Disney film adaptation and Glenn Close did a scary job in the actually surprisingly decent 1996 live-action remake and its sequel ‘102 Dalmatians’ (2000). She is easily one of the greatest villains of all time.
Disney have a history of great female supervillains. Remember Maleficent? Not those terrible live-action films with Angelina Jolie. No. I’m talking about the evil witch in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959) - an heiress to the Wicked Witch of the West in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939) for scariest witch on film. I loved Ursula the sea witch in ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989) and the Evil Queen in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) whose beauty hid that horrible witch face that gave me nightmares as a child. The Queen of Hearts with that awfully large head was also great in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (1951) although Helena Bonham Carter was just annoying as her in the 2010 Tim Burton remake. And then there was Lady Tremaine in ‘Cinderella’ (1950) who is responsible for every little girl’s fear of their stepmother. She didn’t just force Cinderella into hard labour, but allowed her two daughters to pull Cinderella’s dress apart before the big ball. Evil stuff.
Live-action supervillainesses have fared far less well. Apart from the live-action ‘Cruella’, I can only think of Electra King in the otherwise pretty mediocre Bond movie ‘The World is Not Enough’ (1999) and Bellatrix Lestrange in the ‘Harry Potter’ (2001-2011) films in terms of unsexualised queens of mean. Catwoman in the many ‘Batman’ films and Mystique in the ‘X-Men’ (2000-) films are heavily sexualised. Mystique is a naked blue alien and Catwoman is clad in skin-tight leather and spends most of her time seducing Batman with her power of seduction.
In recent years, female superheroes have really come of age. ‘Wonder Woman’ (2017) was the highest-grossing female-led superhero film of all time, 21st highest-grossing superhero film and 3rd highest-grossing film by a female director. This shows there is clearly a demand and market for female superheroes. Marvel Studios will be hoping to pull off the trick themselves this summer, provided cinemas are open in time, with the May 7th release of ‘Black Widow’ (2021). As with any major tentpole blockbuster released in cinemas post-pandemic, all eyes will be on ‘Black Widow’ and her arse-kicking lycra to kickstart the film industry again in the wake of the pandemic.
The odds are certainly in the movie’s favour. It stars a feminist two-hander in the two most pivotal roles in Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh as the kick-butt Black Widow sisters. We haven’t seen this many women headlining a potential franchise since ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ flopped back in 2019. That starred Linda Hamilton, MacKenzie Davis and Natalie Reyes in the lead roles.
‘Black Widow’ will surely do better than ‘Dark Fate’ as it stars one of the world’s most bankable movie stars, Scarlett Johansson, and the Oscar-nominated breakout star of 2019, Florence Pugh. There’s a newly renewed demand for conventional “movie stars” after the flops of ‘Tenet’ (2020) and ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ (2020). Neither of those movies starred any Box Office draws and the latter completely relied on an established brand like D.C Comics to draw in the crowds. Even this isn’t enough these days to convince people that it’s safe and cheap enough to attend the movie theatre. Maybe two big stars will do the trick? I hope ‘Black Widow’ is a success - both for the future of the film industry and female superheroes who are increasingly becoming the face of franchise blockbusters and terrific for it.
Harley was grimly sexualised and choke-raped by Batman in ‘Suicide Squad’ (2016) - the camera leched over her legs when Batman was carrying her unconscious body. She was better served by ‘Birds of Prey’ which let Margot Robbie exercise her grinning and gurning and her pixie cut.
Robbie is arguably the most sexualised actress at the moment. Just look at her multiple nude sex scenes with Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ (2014). But her blonde bombshell hair was bleached green and her fulsome prettiness was covered up by face paint in ‘Birds of Prey’. There was no chance of the camera perving on her body because it was more focused on the extremely violent acts she was commiting and watching her kick butt completely unsexualised.
Harley Quinn is a great character - a full-rounded, unsexualised supervillain and doubtlessly the inspiration for Stone’s Cruella. Stone and Robbie even look similar and the ‘Cruella’ trailer has a faux Sharon Osbourne voiceover.
I loved her ‘Taxi Driver’-style transformation from nerdy, Wonder Woman-idolizing young woman into all-powerful, arse-kicking supervillainess.
I wonder whether the #MeToo Movement is responsible for the rise in female supervillains. In the next few weeks, we’re getting ‘Promising Young Woman’ (2021) which is about a woman trying to avenge her raped best friend. That’s produced by Margot Robbie through her LuckyChap Entertainment production company and is shaping up as a major awards frontrunner and poster girl for empowering, feminist, arse-kicking #MeToo filmmaking. Showing that girls can be both the good girls and the bad girls and giving us a more rounded, evened-out approach to women doing good deeds and bad deeds.
Robbie clearly believes in the power of the women scorned. It’s a good cause and ‘Cruella’ will level the playing field for female supervillains even more…
Who will win and should win at this Sunday’s Golden Globes…
Great too to see ‘Normal People’ (2020) and ‘Small Axe’ (2020) nominated in the TV categories and to see Daisy Edgar-Jones nominated for Best Actress. But no Paul Mescal - he was the standout of ‘Normal People’.
Why is John Boyega nominated for TV Supporting Actor when he was clearly the lead in ‘Red, White and Blue’ (2020)?
I was disappointed by the lack of foreign language films and actors in the major categories - apart from German child star Helena Zengal for ‘News of the World’ (2021). ‘Parasite’ (2020) made history by becoming the first foreign language film to win the Best Picture Oscar. This year’s foreign language film list looks a bit bland - especially ‘The Life Ahead’ (2020) which I actually watched dubbed in English.
The worst thing was seeing a nomination for ‘Emily in Paris’ (2020). WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?! That show is a cultural travesty and, as much as I like Lily Collins, she does not deserve to be nominated for Best Actress.
Overall, though, a really good selection of films and performers. There’s a lot of diversity and a lot of gender equality. It’s clear the awards panels are listening to our concerns about levelling the playing field. They’ve responded by giving us the blackest, brownest, most feminist awards bunch in years. All eyes will be on the February 28th ceremony to see if awards still have a place in the Covid world…
We have a remarkable shortage of Valentine’s movies this year. Perhaps that’s expected as we are under a lockdown Valentine’s Day. That’s why it got me thinking about the movies that I fell in love with and have made me fall in love. More specifically, I was thinking of individual moments from the movies that are the most romantic.
Necessarily, there are some great titles and moments that I’ve left out. I couldn’t find space for Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson’s first “brief encounter” at the train station in David Lean’s ‘Brief Encounter’ (1945), for example. There was no room for Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm in ‘When Harry Met Sally’ (1989). Or, even more recently, the planetarium scene in ‘La La Land’ (2017) with that adorably lovely coupling of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. And I couldn’t find room for the iconic phone kiss scene from ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ (1946).
These are all great titles and great omissions. But this is a top 5 list rather than a top 10 and so I had to really squeeze things down to the bare minimum with all the fat trimmed from the bones.
So here it is. My top 5 romantic movie moments…
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5. Montage - ‘Annie Hall’ (1977)/Expectations vs. Reality - ‘(500) Days of Summer’ (2009)
‘(500) Days of Summer’ takes a more ingenious touch to the subject by having two very similar scenarios play out split screen. Both are at a party and one ends with Gordon-Levitt’s Tom kissing Deschannel’s Summer and having sex and the other with him seeing her engagement ring and walking out in near tears. These scenes could be seen as very unromantic as they deal with when love could not be found, but they are guaranteed tear-jerkers and I love the choice of songs on the soundtrack - ‘Seems Like Old Times’ for ‘Annie Hall’ and Regina Spektor’s ‘Hero’ for ‘(500) Days of Summer’. I always love a bit of Regina…
4. “Ashley, I love you” - ‘Gone with the Wind’ (1939)
3. Trevi Fountain scene - ‘La Dolce Vita’ (1960)
2. La Marseillaise - ‘Casablanca’ (1942)
1. Kissing in the Rain - ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ (1961)
15, 125 Mins
They’re also both rags-to-riches stories about young men brought up in poverty making fortunes for themselves against the backdrop of a very hostile modern India. But ‘The White Tiger’ is an altogether more universal story than ‘Slumdog’ as it does not only tackle child poverty and abuse, but also the casteism, classism and communalism that continue to affect Narendra Modi’s increasingly retrogressive India.
That’s not to say ‘The White Tiger’ is at all political or polemical. It should be championed first as a Dickens-worthy satire and a ‘Goodfellas’-style crime story about a man’s rise within the criminal underworld with a ‘Fight Club’-style voiceover chipping and chirruping commentary on the state of Indian masculinity, materialism and mainstream establishment.
Adarsh Gourav is the Oliver Twist or David Copperfield of this story. He’s Balram Halwai and we first meet him penning an email to then Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, requesting a meeting and recounting his life story. He believes the Indian underclass (referred to under the caste system as “the untouchables”) are trapped in a perpetual state of servitude which he describes as “like chickens in a chicken coop”.
Growing up in the poverty-stricken Laxmangarh, Balram is offered a scholarship to Delhi thanks to his academic advancements. He is branded a “white tiger” who is only born once in a generation. Yet, when his father fails to pay off the village landlord (Mahesh Manjrekar), Balram’s grandmother makes Balram scrape by selling tea (a “chaiwala”) in the village tea stall and thus Balram never returns to school.
Years later, an adult Balram aspires to be a chauffeur for Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), son of village landlord, The Stork, who brings home his gorgeous, Jackson Heights-raised wife Pinky from the USA. She’s played in a very sweet performance by the very beautiful Priyanka Chopra who is the token Bollywood star of this American-Indian production as has become tradition in these sort of movies (remember Anil Kapoor in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’?).
Balram becomes the family’s second driver while the primary driver hides his Muslim heritage because The Stork is prejudiced against Muslims. Balram goes on to blackmail him by threatening to reveal his true faith so that Balram can become Ashok and Pinky’s driver in Delhi. Unlike other members of their family, Ashok and Pinky treat Balram with respect and grow close to him. However, they still regard him as a servant…
One of ‘The White Tiger’s key themes is classism which is still a major issue in modern India. Balram beautifully sums up the class divides between rich and poor with the line “there are only two men in India - men with big bellies and men with small bellies”. He’s referring to the stereotype that the rich are corpulent and fat while the poor are malnourished. This lends a very Dickensian edge to the drama.
More significant, however, and still a very divisive modern Indian issue is casteism which ‘The White Tiger’ tackles head-on. Balram describes the differences between the two people of “the light” and “the darkness”. There are more than two castes still prevalent in the Hindu caste system, but what Balram is referring to is the stereotype and borderline racism that higher castes are often associated with fair skin and the lower castes with dark skin. His commentary really taps into a seemingly global prejudice and fear of darkness.
There’s also an element of communalism evident in Ashok’s primary driver having to hide his Muslim identity due to The Stork hating Muslims. This is a very real concern for many non-Hindus who find their ways of life under threat from BJP-governed Hindu Nationalism.
At times, ‘The White Tiger’ resembles a Shakespearean morality play. As Lord Acton said, “power corrupts” and it certainly corrupts Balram. He murders Ashok and absconds with a huge amount of bribe money. The richer he becomes, the more monstrous he becomes.
In the central role, Adarsh Gourav is a real talent find. He has some of the shortness and weediness of Dai Bradley from ‘Kes’ (1969) and Luis Otavio in ‘City of God’ (2002). I could certainly imagine him as the protagonist of an ‘Oliver Twist’ or ‘David Copperfield’ adaptation and I loved his skin-crawling transformation from meek narrator to Tyler Durden-esque sexpot.
Priyanka Chopra is the Nancy figure of the film. She is kind and humble toward the servants. She could be seen as the film’s “white saviour”. She’s not white, but she is rich, beautiful, fair and American and so some people might have contention with her character being the only one who is kind to Balram and other servants. I did find a scene where she sticks up for Balram when some rich men put their feet on him quite moving, though.
I’m sure the film could also cause contention in some of India’s more conservative states where Hindu Nationalism, casteism and communalism is a big issue. After all, politicians and Hindu nationalists don’t like to be reminded of the decades, generations even, installed prejudices that run rampant in the Bimaru states. Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept back to re-election in 2019 on the promise that “together we will build a strong and inclusive India”. Two years on, the castes, classes and communities of this huge subcontinent have never been more divided.
I remember the controversy generated by ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ in India when it came out in 2009. Many people rejected its depiction of child poverty and abuse in India and suggested Danny Boyle’s vision of the country was a tourist eye view of India from a wealthy outsider. I think there’s always a danger faced by any outsider - especially from a first world country - portraying a foreign, even third world country that they won’t see the full picture and are at risk of misrepresenting this country.
But, then again, Bollywood filmmakers are notorious for washing over the social and economic challenges facing modern Indians. I suggest they all watch ‘The White Tiger’. It’s a real eye-opener to just one side to this big and beautiful country.
‘The White Tiger’ is on Netflix now.
Ever since seeing her opposite ‘Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams in Carol Morley’s ‘The Falling’ (2015), I’ve always thought the 25 year old actress was a worthy successor to Kate Winslet for the title of Britain’s best twentysomething actress. The similarities are rife not just in her similar looks or queenly elegance, but even in her choice of roles.
19 year old Florence’s breakthrough was in ‘The Falling’ - a low-budget swooner about a fainting epidemic in a girl’s boarding school and a disturbingly close relationship between two girls (Williams and Pugh). Let’s remember that Winslet started out in her first role at the same age in Peter Jackson’s ‘Heavenly Creatures’ (1994) which was basically a surreal and disturbing story of a teenage infatuation between Winslet and Melanie Lynskey that led to a horrifc real-life murder in New Zealand.
Pugh has also done literary adaptations. Firstly with ‘Lady MacBeth’ which is not based on Shakespeare’s Scottish morality play, but is a British relocated adaptation of Russian author Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella ‘Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk’. This was the darker of Pugh’s shift into playing literary characters in the same way as the 1996 film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Jude’ was one of the darkest roles of Winslet’s career.
Winslet’s other foray into literary drama was in Ang Lee’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ (1995) - a Jane Austen classic - which earned her her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Similarly, Pugh earned her first Oscar nomination for the same award for her delightful performance as spoiled Amy March in Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ (2019) which is based on Louisa May Alcott’s bestselling 1868 novel.
Of course, Winslet would go on to become one of the world’s most bankable movie stars by starring opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in the then highest-grossing movie of all time - ‘Titanic’ (1997). Provided cinemas open in time, Pugh looks set to flex her mainstream muscles in search of big Box Office bucks in Marvel’s ‘Black Widow’ (2021) which looks set to shoot her to international stardom.
She definitely deserves this. She’s a fantastic actress, maybe the best currently working and certainly the best under 30. With ‘Lady MacBeth’ showing on TV tonight, I thought what better time to give you my top 5 Florence Pugh performances and tell you why I think she is the “next Kate Winslet”...
5. Fighting With My Family (2019)
4. Midsommar (2019)
3. Little Women (2019)
2. The Falling (2015)
1. Lady MacBeth (2017)
Freelance film critic, journalist and writer based in Nottingham, UK. Specialises in cinema.
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