In this episode of the Culture Conquistadors Podcast, Charles and James discuss the latest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America Civil War. Will this movie divide our heroes? Maybe, but James has called in a ringer, The Toni Sanchez! How will Charles manage to fight off TWO Iron Man fans? Listen in and find out!
Romeo and Juliet. That is the project our new Cinderella Lily James, her Prince Richard Madden, and their director Kenneth Branagh have decided to tackle now that their live-action Disney film has been deemed a rousing success.
With their interpretation of a fairy tale which everyone has heard (filtered through the lens of an animated classic which, judging by dusty shelves of VHS tapes worldwide, everyone has seen) already in the books, what we can deduce from their next collaboration is this: this is a repertory company that does not mind treading upon well-trod ground. All the power to them. If their sumptuous adaptation of Cinderella is any indication, they are quite skilled at it.
This is no real surprise in Branagh’s case. This is a return to a sort of classical form for a director who spent the first decade of his career seemingly (and blessedly) ignorant that there had been stories written after the Industrial Revolution but who last year directed a failed reboot of a spy franchise. At his best, he takes material that has been done to death and he does it again, stripping away the muck of decade’s of cultural detritus and trusting, above all, the material.
The material might be a bit untrustworthy in this particular case. For some, seeing an utterly sincere version of the Cinderella tale in 2015 (and seeing it become a box office smash) has become cause for alarm. Because its 20-freakin-15 and Cinderella isn’t exactly a feminist parable. Her passively dreaming and wishing for a prince to sweep her away was pretty passe in 1950, and there’s been a whole feminist revolution since then. Bras were burned, so I absolutely get why hearing that Lily James had to go on a liquid diet to fit into an insane corset that makes her look like something only an animator could draw would raise some hackles.
Can I say this though? The corset was overkill for sure, but I never fully noticed the freakishly compressed-quality of James’s waist in the dress because, I mean, have you seen the dress?! There it is swishing and swaying, sparkling but also remaining this utterly calming, placid blue, the platonic ideal of blue, the uberblue.
A gif can not do justice to the way that dress looks on the big screen. Or to the way Branagh’s Cinderella looks on the big screen, how it moves and lives and breathes. Normally you reserve that sort of praise for an action spectacle like Avengers or a CGI accomplishment like Gravity (and Cinderella has one portion, as Cinderella makes her midnight dash, that suddenly becomes a CGI action spectacle and it is hideous and garish and really harshes one’s mellow), but here the wonder is all in how lush and well-designed the movie is.
In many ways Branagh and his collaborators behind the camera – production designer Dante Feretti, costume designer Sandy Powell, composer Patrick Doyle, and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos – are the real stars of this Cinderella. On YouTube, Tony Zhou produces a series of video essays called “Every Frame a Painting,” a phrase I whispered to myself on many occasions as a particular composition brought new life and understanding to a story that has been so done by this point that the movie opens awkwardly with the Disney logo, which just so happens to spoil the story we are preparing to watch. We know that castle is, iconically, Cinderella’s Castle. She is going to end up there. All you can do as a filmmaker is pick up nuggets of the profound on the carriage ride there.
In this adaptation, the profundity is in the art direction. It is in the carriage itself, which is mindbogglingly ornate. It’s there in shots that capture a young woman’s grief – they keep their distance, one jumping into an adjacent room as Ella and her father spend their last moments with her dear mother, and one tracking away from a crumpled Ella as she holds the branch her father sent before dying. And it’s there in the way Zambarloukos films the ball in sweeping, off-kilter shots that are fast and snappy. It’s nearly stupefying in the scene where Ella’s fairy godmother whips her ball gown together out of blue sparkles – the world fades away and Ella and her blue sparkles are embossed on a black background, butterflies flitting about.
In many cases, like in those mentioned above, the actors need do nothing more than sit still and wear the costume correctly (no small feat considering the horrid-sounding liquid diet), let the camera track away from them, allow the music to swell. Notably, in the fabulous shot that monitors the grieving family from rooms away, the most striking thing is a swan chandelier Feretti may have labored over for longer than Chris Weitz molded the film’s script. Those swans are a piece of art within a shot that is itself a piece of art. The script is somewhat less artful, though it’s carried off with aplomb and, of course, visual flair.
It would be unfair to call James and Madden props in these stunning designs – they both do absolutely delightful work and share a spark that will undoubtedly burn even brighter in their Romeo & Juliet – but in many shots, Branagh’s team has done so much work establishing atmosphere through sound and architecture and costume and camera placement, that all James has to do is look stunning. Which she undoubtedly is. Still, when she walks in late to the ball and everyone stops in their tracks, one wonders: is it because of James’s graceful beauty, or the way that dress enhances it?
James is a virtual unknown on loan from that sputtering British juggernaut, Downton Abbey. There, she was a blatant replacement when one was needed – a spot opened up for a gorgeous, husky voiced, boundary-pushing iconoclast when the previous one perished. Here she has an unenviable job all its own – she has to play someone who is unfalteringly decent. Look no further than paragons of virtue like modern-age Mickey Mouse and Michael Bay’s Optimus Prime; unflagging decency can be a major chore, if not an utter vacuum. James has to sell good ol’ vanilla Cinderella to an audience that has grown accustomed to the notion that Snow White should wear a breastplate.
The feminist princess revolution that has sprouted from Belle and Tiana and Elsa and Anna and Merida has been one of the most heartening pop culture trends of an entire film epoch, but the insistence the Mouse House has been displaying in adapting and modernizing its back catalog (countdown to Emma Watson singing “Belle” begins now) seemed to promise a lot of theoretically interesting but poorly executed spins like 2014′s Maleficent. Grime. Violence. Spectacle (see how much we spent!). Unnecessary revisionism (the secret history of Aurora’s father!). Maleficent had a lot of fascinating moments, but not a one had to do with it being an adaptation of a treasured Disney property.
There are a lot of live-action versions of Disney classics on the release schedule, but no one was getting too excited about them. Branagh and James got people taking this trend seriously by playing things straight and staying immensely faithful to a film that, lest you need reminding, is mostly about the feud between a malevolent cat and a tribe of carefree mice.
But it’s such an elemental story, so baldly emotional. Done right, one, of course, can’t help but see why it’s one of history’s most enduring fables. Even today, we think of teams like UAB and Georgia State that surprise with their inspiring goodness as Cinderella teams. Lily James is a Cinderella team all her own, and a reminder that a Cinderella that casts a spell over you early can work wonders. Yes, she passively accepts abuse from her stepmother and stepsisters, but at this point, dinging a Cinderella adaptation for doing that is like complaining that Romeo and Juliet ends with a despondent Juliet taking her own life because she can’t live without her man. No it’s not progressive, but it always has the potential to be emotionally devastating.
The movie wisely keeps James front and center even though she is a virtual unknown. The stars, Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter, stay in their lanes while wearing delicious ensembles, providing seasoning on what proves to be a heaping helping of James heroically carrying the film on her back. A subplot dedicated to Richard Madden’s Prince Kit disobeying his father’s wishes adds a nice change of pace occasionally and ties in nicely thematically – the film’s hook is about being “kind,” and both its leads are that first and foremost, but nothing about the the script seems to be celebrating that Cinderella kept her mouth shut. If anything, we wish she’d spoken up sooner, for her own sake. Speaking up got her noticed by the prince, after all.
This film makes certain we’re aware this Cinderella isn’t looking for a prince to carry her away. She doesn’t know Kit is a prince (she thinks he’s an apprentice at the castle) and seems earnestly to want to see him again if only to have someone she enjoyed talking with back in her life again. In this, the film pretty blatantly swipes a beat from Ever After by having its lovebirds meet before the ball and by making sure we know the prince is impressed by our heroine’s pluck before he picks her out of the crowd.
In Ever After, Drew Barrymore’s Danielle was all the magic that film needed – she didn’t need a fairy godmother because she was firmly her own champion, and a champion of the people. Branagh strips away a good deal of that agency so he can bring the actual magic back – the kind with Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo and fairy dust – but he leaves a resilient girl in tact. His Cinderella will never be quite the feat that Ever After, a truly moralistic and magic-free parable for our day and age, was; but I am not immune to growing weak in the knees at the sight of real magic, and it must be said: if there is ever an inquisition into whether Sandy Powell is possessed of actual spellcasting abilities, I submit into evidence the dress so brilliant, it rivals Gravity for big-screen spectacle.
Your daughter turns to you and asks inquisitively: “Beloved parent, why is that Scottish man raping the female protagonist?”
This will almost certainly not happen if you take your daughter to see Maleficent. Unless she is a budding feminist scholar. But for a moment or two, you’ll fear it will. Disney has done a great job of creating a family film that will seem vaguely menacing to children, without them having the context to know quite why; while seeming absolutely menacing to parents (and non-child-toting adults like myself) for very concrete and obvious reasons. Those reasons being that men suck.
In reality, men’s attitude towards strong women often sucks quite heinously. And some men are exceptionally despicable, shining a bad light on all men. Ball up those subtleties and toss them aside; in this film’s fantasy world, men always suck, unless they are transformed birds or too young to know quite how to suck yet. Young men may talk of true love and think they mean it. They may make gestures that melt a young girl’s heart. But just wait. Those aren’t men yet, they are boys. When the opening narration sneers at the world of men that abuts the beautiful, egalitarian fairy kingdom, it really means the world of men. The world of iron, corruption, and metaphorical rape and mutilation. The film’s message is simplistic, but in its single-mindedness, it’s effective.
Fit to burst with fairly heady ideas, this feminist revision of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was clearly written in the room next to the room they made Frozen in – too bad the filmmakers didn’t kidnap a visual artist or two from that animated masterpiece to help their CGI spectacular look even half as good as it feels, or even an eighth as good as the film they’re doing a spin on looked. Sleeping Beauty looked like a tapestry; Maleficent, with silly creatures and uncanny valley pushing fairies that stretch incredulity, looks like a tie-dye T-shirt. Many people have told me they think this film is gorgeous, and I really want to hear them out, but I struggle to stifle a “Wha?”
In spite of this, the film nestles into Angelina Jolie’s iconic performance, which nurtures everything around her, helping it grow into something verging on the profound. Jolie, who plays out the harrowing tale of a woman (far, far more than) scorned, has been inordinately discerning about her film roles since Mr. and Mrs. Smith (she hasn’t been in a film for years, and mostly directs now), and it’s easy to see what drove Jolie from semi-retirement so that she could cackle in prosthetic cheekbones. While Maleficent may seem silly (and often, thanks to poor CGI, inane comedic relief in the form of the good fairies, and bad dialogue, is silly), it frequently manages to strike the perfect balance of meaningful pop art. It carries weight, at least when Jolie is enacting her roughly sketched arc: from carefree wood nymph to vengeful demon who could… not… care… less to caring fairy godmother. Along the way, Jolie has many standout scenes – her traumatized reaction to her love’s betrayal, her wry reaction to young Aurora, and her tearful bedside monologue standout in particular. She is Maleficent – defining the movie and redefining the uber-Disney villainess in intriguing ways that, frankly, it’s hard to believe the Disney studio thought wise.
Maleficent stands out most when it leaves its source material far behind and does its own thing – in this film Aurora is asleep for about fifteen minutes and the endings of this film and Sleeping Beauty don’t exactly match up in the “who dies?” department. That divergence is worth it for scenes like the one in which Prince Phillip is bullied into kissing a girl he just met by the fairies, who immediately grow angry when it’s proven Phillip isn’t Aurora’s true love because he made googly eyes at her one time (the only truly funny thing these three actresses do in the movie). Is the film’s incredulous attitude towards the breakneck pace at which Disney heroines fall in love straight out of Frozen? Yes. But it’s amusing in its own right, and leads to strong emotional payoffs while strengthening themes of motherhood and sisterhood. The film only truly falters in the spacious throne room of the truly maleficent King Stephan, a former paramour of the once-winged fairy. The inciting party scene is lifted almost wholesale from Sleeping Beauty, to its extraordinary detriment, and it’s the only scene in the film where Jolie plays anything resembling the true evil one might expect from Disney’s most fearsome villain in her own spinoff film. It’s also the last time that Sharlto Copley’s mad king plays anything resembling sympathetic. From that point on Copley is pitched at hysterical, essentially frothing at the mouth; it’s clear it is guilt that eats away at him, guilt he’s earned for action he might, in his heart, regret; but it’s the wrong performance for this movie.
Maybe the Sleeping Beauty story wasn’t quite right for this film either; I find myself wondering whether the film would have worked without the brand reinvention overlay; an original tale about a beautiful fairy corrupted by a greedy man would have done nicely (the one thoughtful grace note our familiarity with story adds is that, rather than attacking the man who did her wrong, Maleficent attacks an innocent woman to lash out at him). But it’s just hopeful thinking; we stand at the precipice of what appears to be countless live-action reinventions of animated classics, and Maleficent exists first as an extension of Disney’s brand identity, and only after that as a fascinating if limited feminist text. I’ll allow the first aspect if only because the second aspect intrigues me so.
Your daughter turns to you and asks inquisitively: “Beloved parent, why is that Scottish man raping the female protagonist?”
This will definitely happen if you take your daughter to see Under the Skin. Do not bring your daughter to see Under the Skin! Unless she is quite advanced in age and temperament.
But you should go see it. (If you are yourself advanced in age and temperament.) As soon as you can get your hands on it, this eerie science fiction gem is required viewing.
I bring this up because of the remarkable similarities between Jonathan Glazer’s tone poem, about a mysterious woman who abducts leering men and… does things… to them, and Disney’s Maleficent. Watch one and it’s like seeing the other’s mirror image.
In Under the Skin, our unnamed protagonist – played with steely distance by Scarlett Johansson, having one of those years that turn screen stars into screen legends – starts not as an innocent victim but as the perpetrator; as a literal monster. Unabashedly so. One scene on a picturesque beach will leave you wanting to glare daggers at Johansson – not just the character she plays, but the actress. How could she?!
A science fiction-horror film to its core, the film features a character who views rural Scotland from an immense remove. She is a predator monitoring its prey before it pounces, a lioness in tall grass amongst gazelles bent at a watering hole.
I could try and outline what happens for you to give you a better idea of what you’re in for, which would be a mild spoiler, but I would only do a great disservice to the film, honestly; I’m not entirely certain what I was seeing either. You will never see a narrative film with less exposition. There is none. No old lady narrating the goings-on, no scene where anyone’s motivations are broken down or rationalized. You are expected to play catch-up the entire time. It’s a fun if sometimes frustrating game.
Suffice it to say that Johansson’s character is prowling specifically for men; vulnerable Scotsmen who would get into a strange van with a woman who looks like Scarlett Johansson. (Note: this is a high percentage of Scotsmen.) The first forty minutes or so mostly show Johansson stopping men to ask for directions and, once a comfort level is established, for certain personal details. Any family waiting up for you? Heading to meet some friends? If her line of inquiry leads her to believe that no one will miss the man, than back to her place for some naked time.
Naked time with this character is not kosher. It is, in fact, one of the most traumatizing things you might ever see in a film. Shot in stark whites and blacks, it will sap the sweaty-palmed excitement out of any viewer who might be watching Under the Skin merely to check out a nude Johansson. That viewer will see what’s under the clothes – the skin – but also, as the title promises, what’s under the skin.
What does lie beneath the lust the male species shares for an actress like Johansson? As her victims blindly stumble towards her alluring figure completely unaware of the immense danger surrounding them, it becomes clear that this is the movie’s driving theme, the question on its mind. It’s why Glazer angled hard to have an A-Lister like Johansson star in what is otherwise an exercise in avant-garde filmmaking featuring not a single other recognizable face. It’s likely that only Johansson or Jolie could have played this part. Johansson herself seems as alien to this milieu as her character does, and so we are in the right frame of mind to appreciate what is to come.
Under the Skin actually has one of the most fascinating making-of notes you’ll ever see: many of the men Johansson questions, and almost all the extras in the film, are actual Scottish pedestrians, living their day-to-day lives, unaware of the presence of either a famed actress or a camera crew. For certain pickup scenes, Johansson would stop the van and improvise a dialogue with her new passenger while hidden cameras shot the scene and the director, crew, and bodyguards sat in the back of the van and in surrounding vehicles.
This could be just a fascinating footnote, but it adds an actual note of poignancy to a film that often shows men on their best behavior. Glazer didn’t tell these unsuspecting lads to act respectfully or gentlemanly. This is really how they’d treat a lone female lost in Edinburgh. Do many of the men want to have intercourse with the attractive and mysterious woman who picked them up in a van? Sure, but it’s made clear none of them would do it without an immense amount of prodding and consent from her first. It adds to the horror when a certain number of themselves in a deliriously uncomfortable pickle.
Many of the more prominent male characters, obviously played by actors with scripts, back up this reading. A foreign surfer dude doesn’t give a second thought to putting his own life at risk to save a family, and pays dearly for it. A deformed young man enters the van, and the fact that Johansson’s character initially treats him like she might any other man scares him more than if she’d just reveal her true nature. This encounter wakes something in our cold, calculating protagonist, and a growing interest in the people surrounding her turns into a rebellion; she breaks from her mission and runs off to the foggy moors, hoping to learn more about humans, about sex, about, heck, cake. (She does not like cake.) There, she meets a kindly bearded bachelor who takes her in and, for much of her stay, may as well not even be aware she is a woman. When it becomes clear that there is a mutual attraction, he is so caring and tender towards her, one fears that a horrible fate must await this man as well.
In contrast to a one note (though still effective) parable like Maleficent, in which all men are greedy pricks or are too young to be greedy pricks quite yet, Under the Skin takes place in a world where things are more complex than that. It may be science fiction, emphasis on fiction, but some of those interactions actually take place in our world, in the same way that Candid Camera and America’s Funniest Home Videos do.
The film’s sexual politics are actually so fair to men that, for much of the run time, it seems to suggest we are dealing with the worst kind of maneater, a woman who seduces men who have done nothing in particular wrong and feeds on feelings they can’t help but feel – attraction, loneliness, desire. She turns so much of what we think about traditional sexual dynamics on their head, using the notion we have about the femme fatale who entraps men and then depositing all the power on her half of the playing field. Almost to the end, the film is so #notallmen about it’s scenario (vulnerable woman alone in a van) that it becomes uncomfortable watching the script ignore what we might expect to happen as it gives bachelor after bachelor a fair shake.
But the femme fatale learns how men operate, grows comfortable with them, even begins to pity them; they are not what she expected, maybe not what she’d been led to believe. The film grows from an intriguing but occasionally frustrating avant garde experiment into a truly poignant inquisition once she lets her guard down and cedes that predatory power, forming relationships that increasingly play as equal; but never one that leans more toward the male side.
Until the film’s climax, which manages to up the body horror in a film rife with images that will cause involuntary cringing. After the beach scene, the audience might have rooted for this horrific being to come to an end like this; but once it happens, we feel we know this unknowable thing, and we might wish for a moment that she’d encountered this cretin of a man back when she had her fortress of horrors, where she’d have been able to turn his violent urges into his own demise.
If Maleficent suggests a bit to simply, “Yes ALL men,” Under the Skin holds forth for a shocking amount of time “No, not all men,” before pointing out traumatically: “But some men… Some men, for sure…”
In the almost-bottle episode ‘The Suitcase,” perhaps the-triumph-known-as-Mad Men’s greatest triumph – the hour that will likely be mentioned first in Jon Hamm obituaries when he passes away hopefully many decades from now – Don Draper shouts the now infamous put-down to his subordinate, Peggy Olsen, who pleads for some gratitude for the hard work she does. Maybe a thank you, maybe some genuine kindness.
Imagine the incongruity, then, of seeing the actor behind one of television’s most famous (and dismissive) lines starring in the second underdog sports movie of the year – Million Dollar Arm, with the business concerns right there in the title, following Kevin Costner’s Draft Day – that focuses on sports’ least likely underdogs: the money men.
This is a particularly intriguing trend to track in the weeks preceding and following the revelation that, all this time, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers has an been eerily human-looking reptile who holds an updated plantation manor mentality. (And make no mistake: post Moneyball, it’s a certifiable trend; you may site 42 as a counterexample, but that film is, looked upon unkindly but logically, the story of Branch Rickey’s benevolence, brought on by white guilt, enabling the strong-willed Robinson.) Essentially, a man sitting in the front office of one of the most incompetent franchises ever was revealed not just to be an incompetent manager but also to be a man who believes that the millions he pays basketball players entitle him carte blanche to humiliate them in the locker room and treat their race like lesser beings. In short, to be an incompetent man.
So, yeah… a movie about a kindly, doddering General Manager of a long-floundering franchise risking his entire draft to give a disenfranchised black athlete a huge payday in spite of every business and football bone in his body yelling “Not wise!” seems like a preemptive PR amelioration from a class of now embattled sports figures – the rich white men who determine the fate of athletes in negotiations and board meetings – that couldn’t have had any idea that Donald Sterling would be kneecapping their not-exactly sterling reputations, but had a contingency plan ready anyway. A feeling not helped at all by the fact that Draft Day is made with the NFL’s complete cooperation (and presumably, its right to say no to certain details that might tarnish its image); the film even features a cameo from the commish himself.
It used to be that it was the athletes in sports films who had the chutzpah to go out there and make things happen. Remember Rudy? Remember Rocky? If it wasn’t an athlete, it was a coach. Remember Remember the Titans and Hoosiers? At least it was somebody whose shoes touched the grass on the field, or squeaked on the hardwood. That – in the midst of a unionization struggle that is rocking college athletics, and in the very month that the NBA forcibly removed an owner for making comments that revealed a remarkable streak of racial hatred which went unchecked for decades until it became untenable to ignore anymore – nothing seems more en vogue right now than the idea of the businessman as sports movie protagonist is nothing short of the deepest 20,000 Leagues irony possible.
When it comes to the fairly daffy (and yet still bland) Draft Day, I like to imagine what the press conference must have been like for Browns’ GM Sonny Weaver Jr. after doing the following in one bonkers day:
- Trading away the seventh pick (which Sonny secretly plans to spend on fierce sack-monster Vontae Mack, who everyone else values as a mid-first rounder) as well as his first round picks in the next two drafts to Seattle for a chance to draft Totes-Not-Johnny-Manzeil with the first pick.
- Turning his franchise quarterback Brian Drew into a panicky flight risk, essentially admitting to the world he’ll give up on a quality veteran performer after one non-career ending injury.
- Drafting Mack, who he could have grabbed with the 15th pick, with the 1st freaking pick because his gut says Not-Johnny, who might have maybe kind of sort of vaguely but maybe not had some ego issues at Wisconsin, won’t work for him and Mack, who has heart and two adorable nephews to raise, will.
- Inadvertently scaring the whole league – which was enamored with Not-Johnny only five minutes prior to Weaver’s insane decision – off of Not-Johnny, allowing Weaver to bamboozle a first-time Jaguars GM (oh the Jaguars…) into trading their sixth overall pick for some second round scraps.
- While mirthful laughter rings out from the war room, using the sixth pick as a bluff (“I’m gonna take Not-Johnny, I swear I will!”) that Seattle, who now desperately wants Not-Johnny because he costs less (yeah… no…), calls, trading back all of the picks they got earlier, plus a talented kick returner, and all their dignity to the triumphant Sonny Weaver Jr.!
REPORTER: Sonny, you’re the talk of the league! You went from looking like a madman to a mad genius in one roller coaster hour! We have to know, what was going on behind the scenes?
SONNY: I spread the ashes of my father, Browns legend Sonny Weaver, around the practice field named after him. I had many heart-to-hearts about a surprise pregnancy with my girlfriend Ali in a utility closet. I apologized to my new intern Whatsisname for throwing his computer, which I feel was very nice of me to do. Oh and I saw my ex-wife for a bit. Not sure why she stopped by…
REPORTER: None of what you said had anything to do with football, Mr. Weaver.
SONNY: Football? Oh right! The draft was today! I kept forgetting that. I was dealing with a lot and didn’t have a lot of time to think about the draft – it would have been easier if I’d just gone with what I scrawled to myself on a scrap of paper this morning while my girlfriend Ali was trying awkwardly to discuss our incumbent child: “Vontae Mack no matter what.” And I wrote next to that in invisible ink “Even if you have the first pick and could acquire countless valuable pieces in exchange for that pick while still taking Mack fourteen picks later.” So that was my plan, but then these other GMs would call me about wanting to trade and stuff, which is so annoying, because I really just wanted to have a pretty calm day free of football talk.
REPORTER: You mention wanting to pick Vontae with the seventh pick. What made you change your mind and trade away future picks to enter the Bo Callahan sweepstakes?
SONNY: Everyone yelled at me a whole lot! I thought being GM in Cleveland would be easy, but it turns out the fans here really like sports and feel really let down by them at the same time, for some reason. When the Seattle GM made me feel bad about myself, and then sports talk radio made me feel bad about myself, and then the owner of the team really made me feel bad about myself, I did what anyone would do: I threw myself a pity party and said “screw it,” dealing away three drafts worth of players for the chance to take a guy that only I, of all the football executives in all of the world, had no desire to draft.
REPORTER: Sounds illogical. How’d the guys in your war room react?
SONNY: Well our new coach Vince Penn was none too happy. He yelled a lot, and everything he said actually made a lot of football sense, but he said it in such a smug way, so all you wanted to do was shove his Super Bowl ring down his gullet. Which must mean he’s wrong and I’m right. Right?
REPORTER: I’m not so sure anymore. What about the rest of the guys on your staff?
SONNY: First of all I’d like to correct your terminology. They are not all “guys.” We have one lady, my girlfriend Ali, and she knows tons about football. When I tried to relate to her how I wished I could make a decision like Joe Montana made that decision that one time, she filled in all the football facts in my inspirational speech like she was Google Search. Funnily enough though, in spite of being a front office executive, my girlfriend Ali never actually got any football related assignments to do… She mostly just said she wouldn’t get people coffee because getting coffee would be gender stereotyping. Hrm… I’ll look into that. As for the guys who actually look at football stuff, well, I set them to work right away! We had to scout Bo Callahan if we were going to pick him! We would’ve done that earlier, but you don’t scout the best prospect in the draft seriously if you don’t think you’re going to land him… Why are you all looking at me like that? Is that not a thing? Anyway, the guys mostly goofed off all day, looking at pictures of Bo chilling with foxy ladies.
REPORTER: Before we get to Bo… Can I ask? You keep referring to Browns executive Ali Parker as “my girlfriend.” Are you contractually obligated to say that?
SONNY: Actually, the biggest deal I made today was agreeing with my formerly secret girlfriend Ali that now that she’s with child I should admit to our little illicit office romance. That’s really all she wanted me to say, and why she was mad at me all day. So I’m being more public about my relationships with people. I should also point out, if I’m being honest, that I’ve kept it a secret that I fired my legendary father to save his life, but didn’t tell y’all in the press because I hate it when people understand my motives and I like being a martyr for lost causes. Also, Coach Penn and I are on better terms, but I’m very insulted to hear that Vince spoke down to my girlfriend Ali, a respected member of our organization and the future mother of my child, in such a demeaning manner throughout this day. We in the Browns organization are proud to have such a knowledgeable female on the staff because if we didn’t we would seem very sexist.
REPORTER: Do you admit that your girlfriend would probably make a better GM than you?
SONNY: Yes, absolutely. But she can’t be GM because girls aren’t allowed to run a football team… They can only date the guys who run football teams. And not in public if they know what’s good for them.
REPORTER: True. So let’s circle back to Bo. You had a chance to pull down a strong defensive player and the greatest draft prospect in years, but you passed on Bo and chose Vontae instead. I know many a GM has probably asked you this already, but what did you see that everyone else missed? Was it something in the pictures with the foxy ladies?
SONNY: Well, in our culture, you’ve got to be hesitant around any guy who displays anything other than the utmost deference for the game. Touchdown dances and selfies at parties are a slap in the face to the sanctity of everything that defines this great pastime. So, as a stalwart member of the old guard, I was suspicious. Outside of that, we… ummm… My security guy, who seems to be the only guy on the Browns staff who can find things out, told me Bo’s teammates may or may not have gone to his 21st birthday party. And Bo lied about reading a playbook once. And also, he got sacked a bunch by Vontae in one game and seemed a little scared of him. Erm… Look, the reason I didn’t tell the other GMs about this isn’t because I’m being coy; it’s because I’m afraid they’ll think I’m crazy for passing on the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck because of a story I heard for the first time on Draft Day that I didn’t actually have time to corroborate!. It’s much easier to go with the guy I already believe in for vague reasons, especially when I find out on Draft Day that he’s raising the adorable children of his dead sister and could use the extra cash.
REPORTER: You realize if he’d been picked seventh, where you originally planned to take him, or fifteenth where he was projected to go, he still would have stood to net a contract worth at least $8 million? It would have been a significant dock in pay from the over-$20 mil a first pick gets, but his nephews would not have become sad street urchins.
SONNY: What are you talking about? I saved a black family from living on the street. I did that! I’m sure the Browns organization is fine with it. I’m actually going to talk to them about opening an Adorable Nephews Charitable Fund, meant to benefit guys with good character who will show the proper amount of gratitude when I draft them first! I think they’ll go for it…
REPORTER: It’s interesting you bring up character, Sonny. A running back hasn’t been selected in the 1st round of the NFL draft in the past two drafts; the idea of picking up a star running back with a top pick is as passé as picking up a sarsaparilla at a malt shop. Your victory lap move was selecting a running back with a recent arrest on his record with the 7th pick after passing on Bo Callahan, whose teammates didn’t go to his birthday party, with the 6th pick. Are you aware the last three running backs selected in the first 10 picks (Trent Richardson, C.J. Spiller, and Darren McFadden) had immense, sometimes comical struggles during the 2013 season? Is this kid secretly related to Adrian Peterson?
SONNY: No, but since you bring up nepotism, Ray Jennings is the son of Browns great Earl Jennings. They both called me today since I hadn’t been in touch after the arrest (I never actually scout anyone until Draft Day), and they sounded really desperate on the phone. I like it when prospects sound desperate, and I like it even more when I can make them cry tears of happiness because of family-related issues that have nothing to do with carrying a football. So it was an easy call to make.
REPORTER: Getting the Seahawks to trade all of the assets they incredibly managed to steal from you earlier in the day back to you with interest (a quality return man) must not have been easy. Could you believe you managed to convince them to trade three first rounders and a starter for the chance to move up one spot?
SONNY: Ha. No. I made a lot of dumb moves today. Actually there are about ten different times today I would have fired me, and incredibly a guy who started the day really wanting to fire me never managed to pull the trigger. I guess it’s because a gas leak in the Seahawks’ war room must have caused them to make an even sillier trade than any trade I could have dreamed up and now I look like a really smart guy with a mom who loves me again, and a girlfriend who loves me again, and an owner and coach who love me again, and a city who loves me again. My dear departed father and Jesus are probably throwing a party for me in heaven right now. It’s been a good day.
REPORTER: Is it true that your star quarterback destroyed your office after finding out you were looking to draft his replacement? Might that not be an issue?
SONNY: I hear he watched the draft at home with his family and they all teared up when I didn’t draft Bo number one. They were so satisfied, they didn’t even have a reaction when I had a chance to draft Bo again at number six. So, as with everything in my life, I feel I navigated that complex situation with miraculous aplomb. Thank you, that’s all for today. (Mic drop.)
Needless to say, I left Draft Day unsatisfied with the football aspects of the story and only marginally satisfied with the Sorkinessque workplace drama that frequently completely pushed football out of the picture (if not out of the frame, because there is almost always an NFL or Browns logo in the frame). Actually, I left Draft Day feeling like I hadn’t seen the end of a story at all; it felt like I’d seen the first chapter of a story. Draft Day plays like the rousing pilot (with a “back on track!” finale that would make the Glee kids sing a rousing encore of “Don’t Stop Believing”) for a much longer series about how everything that seemed so promising in that tunnel on Opening Day went horribly awry. By Episode 3, Brian Drew’s knees would go again, on Brian Drew Bobblehead Day of all days! In Episode 5, Bo Callahan’s Bills would shellac the Browns and Vontae would say something inadvisable to the press, causing a media firestorm. By Episode 7, the egomaniacal Vince Penn would be bad-mouthing Weaver publicly. In Episode 10, the true story of Weaver’s firing of his own father to save the old man’s life would be leaked by the team as a PR move and Weaver would be the reluctant subject of a heartfelt SportsCenter profile conducted by Dick Schaap. And in the season’s climactic moment, owner Anthony Molina would hand Weaver his walking papers, forcing Weaver’s girlfriend, and new mother, Ali Parker to make a call – stick with the team that dumped her boyfriend, causing a strain in their relationship, or walk out with him. (She’d stay, and she should.) Heck, I’d watch that show! Give it to Sorkin. Put it on Netflix. I could even stand to see these characters again – they’re not bad characters (and the actors playing them, especially Jennifer Garner and Dennis Leary in the thankless roles of girlfriend and aggressor, are doing good work) if you let go of the insisted-upon notion that they are, hiccups aside, the best at their jobs. Especially in the case of Sonny, who may very well be the worst GM for a struggling franchise like the Browns – since the movie never commits to making Bo Callahan any sort of actually menacing figure, and goes out of its way to make sure Vontae looks like a great kid, Sonny appears to be making his decisions based on who needs his help and will appreciate his power more. That’s not reading against the grain of the movie one bit; the film’s argument seems to be that sometimes Sonny let’s his desire to be a good man and a good son get in the way of him being a good manager. Which is sweet. But all of Cleveland would be in tears. And not for the reasons the filmmakers think.
**Million Dollar Arm is a markedly better film***, though within this markedly better film, there’s an even better film wanting to break out and get told that, naturally, gets largely ignored; this is meant, after all, to be the inspiring tale of J.B. Bernstein, a real-life Jerry Maguire whom Jon Hamm – our beloved Don Draper, Man of Mystery – plays as Don Draper-Lite, Man of Business Meetings He Has To Get To.
Bernstein’s story of trying to save his fledgling agency (which has, three years after opening up, precisely zero clients and apparently only one potential client) by getting a wealthy investor to fund a massive reality television program meant to unlock the undiscovered baseball potential of millions of Indian cricket players is fascinating from so many perspectives; actually just about every perspective other than Bernstein’s. From the perspective of his investor, to whom Bernstein’s tiny agency is one chip in a high-stakes poker game of international sports marketing, this is a film about the economics that drive the push of American sports into the international arena; from the perspective of Bernstein’s Indian partner, who has grown so far from his roots that he cannot communicate with the ballplayers he’s recruiting and cannot comprehend they, or any Indian, might not like cricket, it’s a fascinating culture shock drama for the second-generation assimilated American; from the perspective of the coach and scout, old baseball hands, who discover and train the ballplayers, it’s a fascinating look at the corruption media influence (I mean, a reality television competition, really?) unleashes upon a game they see as pure; and, of course, form the perspective of any Indian character it’s a meditation on whether aspiring youngsters with big dreams can trust the white man who talks a big game and fluctuates between reluctant father figure and callous exploitative prick. The film gives us one moment where two Indian newscasters look at each other with WTF expressions as they report that an American is offering $100,000 to the best cricket bowler in India, but they have to appear on a franchisable reality TV show to get it; they seem more bemused than anything, but that sort of questioning, and any sort of assumption that India might be reluctant to be recolonized by Western TV and sports, could have fueled an entire film.
In real life, Bernstein is just as much a marketer as he is an agent. He is famous for turning the milestone achievements of athletes like Emmitt Smith and Barry Bonds into something Pepsi and Wheaties could monetize. Desperate to save his agency after he is spurned by the only star athlete he was pursuing, the fictional avatar for J.B. is doing what he appears to do every night – drinking and sitting in front of his television with glazed eyes – when the proximity of a late night cricket broadcast and the 2009-defining moment when Susan Boyle shocked Simon Cowell with her rendition “I Dreamed a Dream” makes everything click into place; not only can he open an untapped fount of potential baseball talent, he can also unlock the world’s largest market by exploiting their desire to see a ragtag normal person impress a haughty producer on television. That this works, and that Bernstein gets not just emotional but also immense monetary fulfillment from his outreach to India means that the story, told from Bernstein’s perspective, can’t help but sound like the kind of dull affirmation someone shares at a cocktail party or puts in a Facebook status with trip photos: “I immersed myself in another culture and it totally changed the way I see the world. I wouldn’t have met my wife if not for those poor Indian kids who stayed in my house while they tried to achieve their dream and inspired a nation of billions.”
It seems that the most interesting thing Million Dollar Arm has to say about India, other than tired ideas like “Oh, much of it is very poor and therefore most of the bureaucracy operates on subtle bribes,” is that not everyone in India plays or loves cricket and to say otherwise is racist. And it’s fascinating to watch an actor of Hamm’s caliber wrestle with the inadequacy of that thin premise.
It’s clear that the character of Bernstein, so that we can see him transformed by his happy ending into a kindly dolphin, should open the film as a ruthless shark. He’s not. He’s sort of pathetic, a simpering people-pleaser to those he needs, a politely dismissive cad to those he doesn’t, a pitchman who sounds deeply in need of a throat lozenge regardless of who he is with. Without the poetic writing that fills Don Draper’s pitches and his fits of rage with so much ennui and haunting revelation, Hamm, forced to utter “Show me the money!” sports platitude, seems like nothing more than a huckster. The film, to fill in for the empty menace in his greedy character, makes statements about Bernstein’s potential goodness – he struck out on his own, leaving a Death Star megaconglomerate to create the agency he and his partner could believe in – and overwhelming vacuousness – he is known to only date models, and won’t give his tenant Brenda, a med student played by the quirky and wonderful Lake Bell (who makes endearing KEEER-CHUG sounds to convey her dismay that her washing machine is broken pretty much immediately) the time of day, which is not only not sympathetic but not especially believable – that Hamm doesn’t (can’t) really back up in his performance. As the trappings of what made J.B.’s Hollywood life sparkly and fun crumble around him, he seems like a man who needs a hug much more than he needs a life lesson.
Accordingly, the film seems like it should be over once Bernstein’s fruitful trip to India has given him a marginally new perspective on life, a Skype-forged foothold with his beautiful tenant Brenda, and the two Indian teenagers – Rinku and Dinesh, neither of whom plays or even likes cricket, to everyone’s surprise and dismay – he needs to kickstart his professional life. (He even gets a full-time translator to help him understand his charges, and this guy, Amit, is more than happy just to work for the privilege of being in J.B.’s presence!)
It is only once J.B. returns from India (where he was celebrated by the people as a hero, complete with farewell ceremony) with all his dreams within his reach, and is housing a group of foreigners so astounded by American elevators and fire alarms that they must stay with him in his bachelor pad, munching on his delivered pizza, that the Jekyll and Hyde routine takes hold. The realization that J.B. might have an actual sports agency – and not just a struggling sports agency – on his hands, transforms him, whenever a fruitful business prospect is in his midst, into that beast within. There he’ll be, casually flirting with Brenda when suddenly, a cut on the pitching hand on one of his investments, or a chance to land the football player that got away at the star’s stereotypical L.A. house party, or, climactically, the threat of having his funding pulled if he doesn’t rush the boys to a major league tryout before they’re ready… these stimuli will erase all human emotions and turn J.B. into Business-Bot.
Rinku and Dinesh, J.B.’s two Indian fireballers, are utterly destroyed by their failure in that tryout, so impromptu it takes place in a parking lot in front of an Ashley’s Furniture and, appropriately enough, a Mattress U.S.A.. a nice bit of symbolism. After weeks of high-pressure training with pitching coach Tom House (a great and sorely underused Bill Paxton, emanating an uncommon kindness for boys whom he sees merely as boys no matter where they’re from), the absence of comfort on the mound and of any discernible warmth from their overseas father figure causes the two men to crumble. But it would have been fascinating to see their psychology tied to more than just the tempestuous moods of their wary investor, who finally grows his heart three sizes when his own wary investor, a cold businessman named Chang, promises another season of Million Dollar Arm but orders J.B. to give up on the boys. At that point, we follow J.B. to Chang’s office and to Arizona, where he lays out a plan to get at least one scout to a second tryout even if it means losing Chang’s backing. His ploy works in the end, but as always, I wanted to follow the boys and see if, in that moment, they felt betrayed or exploited, if they called their mothers and fathers for solace or to calm their fury, what they thought they might say to the Indian press.
The real Rinku and Dinesh have lived more in their 25 years than I have in mine: both grew up in abject poverty, with Dinesh Patel being raised by his maternal grandmother because his parents could not afford to keep him; both were raised to believe sports were a way to something better, and it would have been intriguing to see even a little bit of how India views sports, and how it compares to the ways we give hope to young men (especially young African-American men) and all too often, turn that hope into something dark (See: Hoop Dreams); and both did not cease to exist once the Pirates gave them contracts (just as much because of the potential to gain a billion fans in one signing as because these pitchers could help them win) – Rinku and Dinesh both pitched some games in the pros, but Dinesh Patel is already retired and back in India and Rinku Singh is getting Tommy John surgery this season to try and keep his fledgling career, most of which has been spent in the minors, going. None of that is the movie Disney wanted to make, of course, but it’s better material than the material Disney did use, which gives the Indian characters more to do than you’d expect but still fails to realize that their story is unfairly being seen through someone else’s cold, calculating eyes.
Those eyes have softened by the time J.B. returns from Arizona with good news. He returns to find an elaborate Indian feast prepared by Dinesh, Rinku, and Amit, who apologize profusely for letting him down. J.B. does the first right thing he’s done in a while by asking reverently “For what?”, in disbelief that his charges could still be so humble when faced with the man who might have ruined their chances if only to advance his own interests. But that “For What?” wasn’t enough for me. I was upset that the film’s Indian characters never took their chance to set their angry despot straight. In the moment they should lash out, they make him dinner and are embarrassed to sit at the table with him.
I guess most of the time, I just wanted this film to be a long string of everyone yelling at the stupid white man for being a stupid white man, which isn’t exactly your typical Disney fare – I was, to be kind, reading against the grain. But not too much. Million Dollar Arm understands that J.B. is just that – ignorant, unkind, privileged beyond all reason – some of the time and it is not unwilling as a text to shame him when he goes into marketing mode. When it is done though, it is done through Bell’s Brenda, who steps into the “cut the B.S.” role when Rinku, Dinesh, and Amit are all too happy to acquiesce quietly. Bell is, I need to restate, fantastic in this role, earning our trust with her earthy charm, lashing out at J.B. with the right amount of sensitivity. She saves this film, because if she feels she can trust J.B. only days after calling him a “class-A jerk,” then maybe we can trust him again too. (As the culled-from-real-life videos and photos that make up the credits are sure to point out, J.B. and Brenda ended up married. Nice to know, but I wish more “based on True Story” sports movies would be brave enough to wrap up with their own images and actors and not feel so beholden to loop in the veracity of grainy clips and iPhone selfies.)
J.B. takes a huge step forward when, seeing the need to pump up Rinku and Dinesh before their second tryout, he cedes the floor to the only man on the field who understands them – Amit, who, unbeknownst to the largely absent J.B., has turned into quite the coach. It’s a great speech, and the performance by Bollywood comedian Pitobash, and the reactions of Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi) and Madhur Mittal (Slumdog Millionaire) make the film a rocky journey that finds the right destination.
It takes J.B. Bernstein the whole film to realize “This is not my speech to give.” It’s a truly startling moment, one that caps off a mediocre movie with a moment that approaches a true understanding of what movie’s might need more of: more of an ability for moviemakers to say of their straight, white, male characters, “You know what, this isn’t their story to tell.”
But in real life, the J.B. Bernstein not realized by Jon Hamm, the J.B. Bernstein who turned milestones for Barry Sanders and Barry Bonds and, yes, the entire Indian subcontinent, into investment opportunities, did sell this story – or acquiesced to having this story told – as his own story: the story of a wayward white man finding something approaching open-mindedness. It’s marginally remarkable that the film has the sense to realize that the climactic speech is not the white star’s to give, but it would have been more remarkable for it to actualize another fact: it was never J.B.’s story to begin with, and to frame it as such, regardless of the revelation at the end, only serves to highlight one thing. J.B. Bernstein made a savvy investment in the Indian subcontinent, and not only did he get a reality television show, a loving wife, and his professional mojo back; he got a Disney movie made from his life story. J.B. Bernstein may tell himself exposure to another culture transformed his way of thinking at cocktail parties and script meetings, but, while Rinku and Dinesh flounder professionally, he’s still a man making bank off his investments.
You want to know how Disney’s Frozen is.
This isn’t a question or a theory. I’m merely stating a fact.
At this point, the notion that Disney is creating these proto-feminist, semi-revisionist princess musicals just for the under ten set is patently absurd. In talking about animation in the new millennium, we talk a lot about savvy kids educated by massive DVD libraries and Netflix, and of increasingly willing parents who dig studios’ desire to cater about half their jokes to a more knowing, sophisticated audience. But we seldom talk about the Menken/Ashman nostalgist, weaned on the mildly liberating independence of Belle and mildly subversive gender-bending of Mulan, caught somewhere in the gray area between a Disney adolescence and a parenthood catering to the needs of a Disney adolescent. But how gray is it really? Not very. This grey area is brought to by the Walt Disney Company, proud owners of Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, the Muppets, and a complete monopoly on the animated princess musical.
Watching the opening thirty minutes or so of Frozen, in which an extended prologue (the kind of story set-up that was usually taken care of in a two-minute puppet show or stained glass window montage back in the ‘90s) gives way to a beautifully sung, evocatively devastating Act 1, you wonder why Disney would ever give up this game, and why they ever have in the past. Disney’s fallow periods have corresponded almost precisely with ten year stretches where corsets and ballads gave way to a more boy-baiting aesthetic: more action, no singing (think the wartime propaganda and choppy short packages of the 40s, the fantasy epics and talking animal pictures of the 80s, the science fiction films of the early 2000s). Even now, unwisely, Disney dangles the idea that every princess musical we see might be the last we see for a long while. Well, far be it from me to dictate Disney’s corporate strategy, but once again, the finished product seems to argue that an out and out abandonment of the very form that so defines the success of the Walt Disney Company would be akin to abandoning Mickey Mouse himself. (Oh wait, the company had essentially, up until a recent resurgence highlighted by the brilliant short which plays before Frozen, done precisely that? Well, screw it, let the Mouse House print money however they see fit then!)
Not all of Frozen is an out-and-out-success. I’d argue that, on the whole, the film is not as well-structured as Tangled (which it is obviously tonally similar to), not as funny as Enchanted, and not as cinematically delightful as the Pixar oeuvre of the late-2000s. But what the film promises – the continuation of a narrative of not subtextual feminism but actual honest-to-god feminism in the midst of what appears to be a much quieter Disney Renaissance; call it the Disney Enlightenment if you will – and what it delivers – a delightful screwball road romp, a classic Hollywood genre over which Disney appears to now have sole provenance – still marks this as another tick mark in the win column for a beleaguered animation studio that has desperately needed some wins as it has transitioned as ungracefully as possible from hand-drawn animation to CGI. (Let’s take a moment now to marvel at the fact that in over a decade of Best Animated Feature Oscars, the greatest animation studio of all time has failed to win even one, and really only came close last year when Wreck-It Ralph couldn’t quite take down Brave.)
What has always set the most distinctive Disney product apart most from its competition is its Grade-A, generations-defining songcraft, and this is the strongest aspect of Frozen. The musical numbers (written by Avenue Q/Book of Mormon songwriter Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez), particularly the first two or three in the film, so effectively ape the rousing power and joie de vivre of Disney’s Howard Menken/Ashman heyday (with a few “totally” and “like”s thrown in in a not unappealing manner) that I felt, for a time, transported. Even while the Disney logo was still on the screen, before we met Princess Anna or Princess Elsa, I was already experiencing chills and sense memories, so effective is “Vuelie,” the film’s tribal chant choral opening number, an evocative mix of similar openings to The Lion King and Lilo & Stitch. I was like Anton Ego, remembering a childhood long past and greatly enjoyed, upon the taste of the familiar yet transcendentally new.
And I rode that wave through the film’s first few numbers, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and “For the First Time in Forever,” which devastatingly build up and tear down the sororal bond between young Anna and Elsa. Maybe I was still hypnotized by the entrancing spell of “Vuelie” but, by the opening of the gates to Arendelle, I was ready to anoint Frozen a classic on the merits of “For the First Time in Forever,” the best “I want” ballad Disney has made since Hunchback‘s “Out There,” alone. While Menken’s work on Tangled grew on me over time, the musical work done on Frozen immediately burrowed a hole deep into my consciousness, remaining entrenched and refusing to vacate the premises anytime soon.
But while the numbers themselves remain brilliant, their meaning to the story grows muddled as Anna prepares to hit the road and chase her sister, the Snow Queen, into the icy wilderness. The overwhelming popiness of “Love is an Open Door” feels suddenly out-of-place and forced, which does tie into the film’s overall perspective on the kind day-of-meeting engagements the song scores, but is jarring all the same. “Let It Go,” sung by Idina Menzel, will undoubtedly become a staple, but feels like the hit off an Idina Menzel album and not so much like a song that belongs in Frozen. The film’s final act is sorely missing a song, period.
In breaking the film into acts, I’m doing something Frozen hardly seems to want to do on its own. At every turn, Frozen, because of the movie’s peculiar and refreshing ambivalence to the Disney narrative of finding one’s true love, subverts just about all our expectations about what a Disney movie should be paced like. In this it is similar to Brave, a Pixar princess movie that widely frustrated audiences. Frozen, similarly, can vacillate wildly between unexpected choices that prove to be both confounding and refreshing: the movie’s advertised villain is more a secondary protagonist, its actual villain is a late-in-the-game surprise, a romantic interest is more of a sidekick (which is so so nice, because from Charming to Phillip to Eric, Disney princes have always had a disturbing tendency of disappearing from the story for long stretches after the heroine decides these boring lads are the one, really and truly, sigh; only recently have these Disney men like Flynn and Naveen been fleshed out as they’ve been dragged unwillingly along on the adventure), and the actual sidekick shows up about halfway through the film.
The film has to change up the typical beats of the princess musical because it’s barely playing in the same league – for instance the film needs a prologue ten minutes longer than we’re accustomed to because it can not simply establish a girl and her dream; it must establish the pre-crisis status quo and post-crisis status quo of two girls, two dreams, and the relationship between them all. If ever given a chance to feature a beat that will reinforce the relationship between Anna and a suitor or a beat that will reinforce the relationship between Anna and her sister, the film will always choose the latter, making this a film that is most effective when it mythologizes, with remarkable accuracy, the shifting, ever-changing relationship between siblings.
Elsa is a first sibling, upon whom all her family’s pride and all its potential shame rests. Elsa’s actions, over which she has little control (she was born with her affliction, we are told), turn her into a recluse, particularly in regards to her doting sister, who wonders aloud through locked doors and tiny keyholes why Elsa has grown away from her as she grew up. Elsa, who has recited “conceal, don’t feel” to herself ad nauseum since childhood, is repressed but ready to explode into rebellion at the first opportunity she is given. When she does, it is frightening and liberating in equal measure.
Anna, through no fault of her own, is punished for her sister’s transgressions, whatever you choose to read them as — her ice powers could be oncoming puberty, flowering sexuality, or the shame of a family after a private coming out (there is a queer reading of this film, and it is fascinating). This rift drives the sisters apart, building resentment in the former, sheltering the latter, turning her into a clutzy shut-in willing to fall for the first man who smiles at her. (This naivete could be irritating, but, as with Mandy Moore’s Rapunzel before her, Anna, as voiced by Kristen Bell, is such a lovable dweeb, fraternizing with paintings and talking to herself as she does, that she is an instantly sympathetic delight, a manic pixie dream girl without a depressive guy to define her quirkiness.) Fall Anna does, forcing her older sister, in sheer frustration, to out her true icy nature to the horrified masses (once again, the notion of slut-shaming or of queer-bashing in the Duke pf Weselton’s frequent cries of “monster” adds interesting layers), casting a perpetual winter of discontent over Arendelle that can only be lifted when the sisters remove the wedge their parents, acting out of both fear and love, placed between them. In all of this, the idea that these young women might make a fine bride is merely a distraction from this tale of two once-close, now-distant siblings; this ambivalence toward the defining narrative of marriage, that a Disney princess is complete only when she is wed, is the film’s most subversive move of all.
In all of this subversion, Frozen, while just as similar to the things you’ve heard it compared to (particularly Wicked) as you might expect, is actually most like two other Disney films: Enchanted, philosophically; and Up, structurally.
Frozen apes many of the road picture instincts that made Up such an uneven (while still virtuosic) film after that perfect, heartbreaking prologue. As Josh Gad’s loyal-to-a-fault snowman Olaf shows up so far into the picture you think he’ll hardly have time to make an impression (he does, and it’s a great one, in spite of what trailers might have led us to believe), you might be reminded of the similarly loyal Dug, who only needed half of Up (and the weaker half at that) to become one of the most beloved Pixar characters of all time (which, considering Pixar’s stable of characters, is no small accomplishment). On first viewing, this unevenness of Frozen is startling and even a little off-putting, highlighting the movie’s flaws (for instance, why give Alan Tudyk’s Duke of Weselton so much to do at the outset considering how unimportant he becomes: misdirection?) more than subsequent viewings, shaded by viewers already knowing the story going in, might; but it would be imprudent to argue that Disney changing its formula in any way is unwise. In future, one hopes these alterations might be incorporated into the princess musical framework a bit more smoothly is all.
More interestingly, like Enchanted, Frozen intentionally has one-too-many nice guy suitors hanging around: one is a sweet and noble romantic who seems a perfect match for the sheltered Anna, the other is a gruff skeptic who sings “Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People” to his only friend, a faithful reindeer. What the film chooses to do to solve this overabundance ends up being much more creative than Enchanted’s solution, which necessitated a third act that ended an otherwise brilliant film with a giant raspberry. Enchanted ended up arguing true romantic love might take a bit longer than one day to figure out, but it was still out there, and no mean dragon-queen-lady could stop it no matter how many fairy tale puns she spouted. It’s not like Frozen couldn’t believe the same about romantic true love, but if it does, it is merely an afterthought; the film’s priorities when it comes to true love are so altogether refreshing that, no matter how rushed the plotting is, and no matter how sorely a song might be needed at the denouement, when the curse’s resolution is revealed and resolved, all is forgiven. How could it not be considering the startling nature of where the save-the-day agency lies and what sort of love that agency is used to protect?
It has been a while since we have been immersed in a Disney epoch that will so clearly affect generations of home video watchers to come. Chicken Little and Treasure Planet, whatever charms they may have, will seldom be discussed with the same bated breath reserved for those Disney princess movies which have instilled in the hearts and minds of well over half a century’s worth of young children a system of values and morals that rivals anything parents or preschool teachers could provide. With Frozen building upon the successes of Enchanted, The Princess and the Frog, and Tangled (and with Wreck-It Ralph being one of the most delightful changes of pace the company has ever produced), it is clear that we are in the midst of something special, an era of Disney films that film critics twenty or thirty years down the line will breathlessly reference in the opening paragraphs of their animated film reviews. Frozen is a noble, perhaps brilliant addition to the now stabilized Disney canon, but that is not the limit of its appeal. Considering the film’s overall ambivalence to romance and its strong emphasis on other types of love, Frozen would pair just as well with Frances Ha and The Heat as it would with Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. Frozen is a heartening and versatile film, a success as much outside of the Disney canon, in a world sorely lacking movies that can pass the Bechdel Test, as it is within the canon’s tuneful, deeply beloved confines.
Fifteen years ago, screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio contributed to the screenplay for a big Hollywood swashbuckler set in the Old West. At that screenplay’s fore was the relationship between an old master with a deeply personal connection to a long ago injustice and the incompetent but brave man who can make vengeance possible by learning the ways of vigilante justice, by standing for the oppressed while riding his trusty steed behind a black mask. That screenplay became the well-received, fondly remembered Antonio Banderas vehicle The Mask of Zorro, a film that clearly adored its source material, those old radio serials and black-and-white television episodes about a masked man bringing justice to the chaotic and corrupt West. But it also wanted to bring a touch of that Raiders of the Lost Ark spirit to the proceedings, allowing some tongue-in-cheek humor, humanizing fallibility, and modern Hollywood pacing to spice up all that old-fashioned derring-do.
Zorro isn’t perfect, but it’s entertaining as hell– sexy (that swordfight in the barn, ay!) yet old-fashioned, melodramatic yet briskly-paced, able to laugh at itself but also respectful of the suffering of its minority characters. Some of that can be attributed to the incredible stunt-work and a great cast and score, but a lot of that credit goes to Rossio and Elliot; these two men, who also co-wrote the Pirates films and the first Shrek, have cornered the market on putting fresh, cheeky spins on old, dying genres: the pirate film, the fairy tale, and, yes, the masked vigilante film. (People seem to forget that, when Zorro came out, masked vigilantism wasn’t exactly burning up the big screen; the same year that Zorro was released, Batman and Robin seemingly killed the prospects of the superhero film for decades to come; in my opinion, Zorro was as much a part of making the X-Men and Spiderman films possible as Blade was.)
Zorro started all that. Perhaps in tribute, fifteen years later, Elliot and Rossio have co-written pretty much the same film. They’ve just pulled in a different pulp hero. In the intervening years, I think it is safe to say they’ve lost some of their touch.
I went into The Lone Ranger having read a lot of criticism of the film that lamented its tone, its length, and its poor quality. That’s not good, but like all of you, bad criticism isn’t a dealbreaker for me. I also hated the trailers. Still not a good sign, but the trailers did tell me one thing: I knew there was a chance that with this team, and this approach (hip-to-be-square take on dying genre), I might get something akin to The Mask of Zorro. And I was right: The Lone Ranger is exactly like The Mask of Zorro! If The Mask of Zorro were made with utter contempt for the genre in which the original pulp stories were told… And if Johnny Depp kept running across the screen in facepaint and ruining the remotely condonable parts of the movie.
The Lone Ranger is a deeply offensive film, and the offense has very little to do with racism, though that has been a much discussed facet of the beating it has taken. I will not argue with any Native American (or any human) who finds something wrong with this film’s take on the most prominent Native American character (who is not also a sexy werewolf) that Hollywood has seen in decades, though I think it’s fair to grant Rossio and Elliot this: their film does a fair job of showing that this Tonto guy, feeding his dead crow and nattering on about a spirit horse in broken English, is not crazy and colorful because he’s Native American but because he is a tragically broken man. (Though The Lone Ranger, in one of its few salient points, argues the two may be one in the same. That’s one thing you can say about the approach here – it subverts and humorizes genocide in the most insane, unkosher ways, but it doesn’t sugarcoat!) What should be more offensive, not just to Native Americans, but to everyone who likes movies and humanity and justice for underrepresented minorities, is that the most prominent Native American character in decades has to be promoted to the world in a film that is this astoundingly bad. And to add insult to injury, that character isn’t the noble center of an otherwise messy movie; the agent of chaos, the catalyst that causes the beaker to explode, the worm at the center of the apple, is Tonto himself.
Just as all the credit for the success of Zorro and Shrek and the first two Pirates films cannot go solely to Rossio and Elliot, the abject failure of the last two Pirates films (critically) and especially The Lone Ranger (in every conceivable way) cannot be blamed solely on the guys with the typewriters. Along the way, Rossio and Elliot have added director Gore Verbinski and movie star Johnny Depp to their posse… or more accurately, Rossio and Elliot have been conscripted into Depp’s outlaw gang as unwitting accomplices. Depp begged to make this film a reality – begged to have the representational Native American issues placed upon his shoulders, begged to retell the old myth with a new twist – and with the captain goes his ship. Depp made this film possible, and he makes its ruination a certainty.
Based on all this would you believe I liked and admired the first half hour of this film? Would you believe that, before Tonto and Silver team up to “bring John Reid back from the dead,” bringing with them the sozzled, off-kilter spirit of Captain Jack Sparrow, without any of the fun, mystery, or adventure that character surprised us with, I was enjoying the introduction of this cast of careworn Western tropes?
What I was seeing was a deeply square movie, in the way that The Mummy films are square but also kind of cool. This film had a referential respect for the history of the Western genre and an emotional narrative, told with care and diligence. What broke my heart was, the film knows it’s playing it mostly straight at his point, finding its center of gravity in the stoic Texas Ranger played by James Badge Dale. It consciously wants to be a classic Western up to this point so that, when the classic Western hero dies (and gets his heart eaten!), the classic Western will die with him, from its ashes rising a revisionist comedy with the kooky Indian sidekick as the secret protagonist, and the Ranger’s sissy brother as the stooge in a mask. There is a conscious decision to make a gold old-fashioned Western and then, in order to send a message, to just… stop doing that. A bad buddy comedy in a cowboy hat ensues.These two guys make with the banter, telling a whorehouse madam they’ll have to shut her down because of “health code violations.” A magic horse prances in a tree after an entire tribe of Comanche is massacred, and Tonto, fresh off mourning his people (not days but seconds later), gets a punchline. A bad punchline! The Lone Ranger gets his head dragged through a pile of horse excrement. That about sums up how this movie feels about the narrative of the traditional Western hero.
And the trope deserves some criticism, of course. It is tied the oppression of an entire repressed and disenfranchised minority in the same way that so many pieces of pop culture ephemera from our past (and admit it, our present) are. It’s not the message that I abhor. It’s the approach. Depp’s take on empowering the Native American in the Western narrative features all the balletic grace of a hippo in a tutu. And not the hippo from Fantasia. A real hippo.
The main mantra of this film is “Wrong Brother.” The film even retrofits the definition of kemosabe to mean “wrong brother.” And this credo is repeated over and over again throughout the film. “It shouldn’t have been you John Reid,” everyone seems to say, disappointed that the shrieking lawyer is riding around meting out justice, “it should have been your brother.” By the end of the film of course, everyone tells John that it’s okay, he did just fine, but it’s not true. “Wrong Brother” couldn’t be a truer way of expressing what makes this the worst film of the year so far.
Based on twenty minutes of this film alone, I will watch Badge Dale as the trusty sheriff in every Western from here to eternity if given the opportunity. Hollywood, make it so! It’s not that Armie Hammer is insufficient filling his shoes; the film doesn’t even try to make the argument he comes close. This is a film about the square white man needing to unlearn his selfish, massacring whiteness. Badge Dale, who, in his short time on the screen, makes the hero (not the anti-hero but the hero) seem relevant again, could never have fit into this film’s agenda, and that’s a pity. The film seems to think so too.
Depp’s Tonto wants so desperately to see what James Badge Dale’s character would have done behind the mask that it becomes a self-fulfilling wish: even if we’re not thinking about it consciously, we kind of do too. It’s one of the few times where the main character in a film doesn’t want to be watching this version of his story any more than you do.