Tuesday, May 26, 2015

THE PATRIARCHY HURTS EVERYONE IN MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

If you haven't seen MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (first of all, what is wrong with you?) avoid this article as it does contain analysis of the film's plot points.


After the anti-feminist analysis of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD from Return of Kings' contributor Aaron Clarey went viral last week, feminist thinkpieces promoting the film have been popping up from every corner of the internet. The overwhelming majority focus on the incredible characterization of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and her importance for female representation in an overwhelmingly male driven genre, but MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is vital film viewing for male audiences.  By definition, feminism is to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights for the women on the same level as their male counterparts.  While it's easy to think feminism = women > men, this simply isn't the case. Feminism means women = men.  It's that simple.  In Aaron Clarey's piece, he states that male viewers may be “duped by explosions, fire tornadoes and desert raiders into seeing what is guaranteed to be nothing more than feminist propaganda, while at the same time being insulted AND tricked into viewing a piece of American culture ruined and rewritten right in front of their very eyes.” Problematic equation that all men are simple enough to only see a movie with explosions aside, there is no trickery in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. However, the film is extremely beneficial for both males and females.


MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is a feminist film, but that doesn't mean it's a Spice Girls-esque film about "gurrrl power." The film is arguably Imperator Furiosa's story, but she isn't some man-hating buzzkill. With the exception of referring to her in female pronouns (she, her, ma'am, etc.), Furiosa is acknowledged by her title rather than her gender by those of a lower ranking. While I may be wrong on this part, I cannot recall a moment when Immortan Joe or any of his "War Boys" use a sexist slur against her.  There are no "bitch" insults to be found.  The anger of our antagonists comes from Furiosa's "betrayal," not because she's a female. In the hierarchy of Immortan Joe's dictatorship in The Citadel, Furiosa is a well-respected leader. Before she goes rogue, the war boys on the convoy frequently refer to her as "boss," regardless of what's between her legs. Her "betrayal" is a personal directive to rescue five of Joe's "breeders," who are merely beautiful women he uses as sex slaves in order to produce more heirs. Sure, Furiosa is a bonafide badass (as are the Vulvani and the other female characters littered throughout), but that is not why MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is a feminist masterpiece.  It's the absence of female tropes that pushes this film over the top. This is important for men to see in a film, because it shows that feminism does not mean women > men, but emphasizes the equality of sexes in film representation. Furiosa is also complex character filled with a range of emotions. All too often, our "strong, female, leads" turn into inhuman characters limited to being nothing more than "strong," and that's just not how human's function. Even the bravest warriors crack sometimes, and that includes strong, female characters.


The plot of the film is centrally focused on gender politics, but it never once feels heavy handed. All of these women are survivors of sexual assault, but this isn't some Dick Wolf Law & Order victimization. One of the women has a moment of regret and begins running back to The Citadel, clearly traumatized from a life of abuse. One of the fellow women repeats, "We're not things, we're not things," in attempt to humanize her once again. This line is the extent of showcasing the deep-seeded turmoil they've all endured.  It's a natural response, and an authentic one at that. And what of the Vulvani? With Furiosa's assistance, she and the wives encounter Furiosa's former community, a group of female survivors on motorcycles armed with weapons, plants, and a thirst for justice. The women have also taken a far more peaceful approach to this wasteland, vowing "no unnecessary killing." Surprisingly, the women are also never sexualized, even from their former captor.  The girls do discuss Joe having a favorite, but the women are fully aware of their value. Amidst gunfire, the women use themselves as shields, understanding the War Boys' fear of harming them. However, this fear isn't rooted in a sexual desire, but in the desire to survive. Sexuality isn't used as a weapon (they way it 99.999999% of the time is used in super hero films), but the women use themselves as a weapon to address the fact they are in control of any hope for the future. Immortan Joe's desire to save the women comes not from a loss of beautiful sex slaves, but from a loss of the possibility of continuing his familial line. Men cannot continue on their own without women, and the world of FURY ROAD knows it. In this universe, we must work together to make a future.

And what of our men? Immortan Joe holds his power over the people of The Citadel through a cherry-picked patchwork of ideology. The promise of eternal life in Valhalla is pulled from the Norse, and the Kamikaze style of self-martyrdom from Japan is used as a way to weaponize their minds. Joe has taken these religions at surface level and created a dangerous society of brainwashed individuals hanging on his every command. Joe's army is dedicated and loyal, but is done so in an excessively patriarchal way. In the Citadel, there are War Pups, young men de-humanized from childhood in preparation for a life of animalistic tendencies and barbaric behavior. As they grow, they transform into War Boys, but never War Men. Joe is the only "War Man" and the rest of his army are merely his disciples, his children of the apocalypse. All of the War Boys are painted white and spend the entirety of the film chasing after what their "father" has told them to chase. The sperm chasing egg symbolism is strong, Joe desperately trying to hold the same type of power that women do, even though he cannot. At one point, we see a row of pregnant women having their milk "harvested," and many have expressed that this is an attack on women. While, yes, this is a direct example of Joe abusing women, he treats his men just as horribly. His War Boys are bred to die, the same way these women are bred to feed. He utilizes the resources he can get from the humans equally, they're just abused in different ways.


Nux is our main point of view into the world of the War Boys, and the true power that Joe has over these men. At one point, Nux is attempting to hijack Furiosa's war rig when Joe tells Nux that he will personally carry Nux to the gates of Valhalla if he brings the wives back alive. "Personally carry" sounds as if Joe is promising to kill Nux himself, presumably in an honorably ritual. Why? Because Joe cannot allow there to be a War Boy of heroic stature to live. Nux would need to be an honorable memory, rather than an honorable man. Joe cannot allow someone else to live that could possibly be idolized the same way he is himself. Fortunately, Nux does not succeed and instead fails miserably in the presence of Joe. This absolutely destroys him. Nux is terminally ill, he's at the end of his "half-life" and he has spent all of it under the command of Immortan Joe. When he fails in front of him, it renders him "worthless" in his own eyes. The patriarchy hurts everyone. His "failure" to appease his male leader and to prove his masculinity rocks him to his core, and the damage is too severe to save him even after his redemptive discussion with the wife, Capable. After a heart to heart with one of the wives that helps him "see the light" and support Furiosa and her cause, Nux is seen sitting in the War Rig amongst the sleeping women. A bug crawls up along her arm and Nux allows the bug to crawl on his finger before devouring it. He’s still damaged. He can’t take the “no unnecessary killing” mentality that the women have taken. Had he let the bug go, this would have been huge turning point for him, but he didn’t. Nux killed it when he didn’t have to, because the patriarchal damage has already morphed his mentality. This is similar to how the opening of the film shows Max eating a lizard in the desert, and later choosing not to stay in the Citadel. He's not ready to move on, not yet.

In the world of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, the fight for equal rights was probably still underway when the apocalypse struck. The film is as important as it is ass-kicking, and George Miller's masterpiece will hopefully inspire action films that follow.  A feminist action film doesn't need hot pink ray-guns, cleave popping vinyl outfits, or "sassy" one-liners to be feminist.  All it needs is to treat its female characters as more than just tropes, and for the characters involved to respect that decision.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Review: FORBIDDEN EMPIRE (2014)


The roots of many of our most beloved fantasy tales are far darker than their Disney counterparts, but the fantasy/horror subgenre is one of the least explored.  Director Oleg Stepchenko's film FORBIDDEN EMPIRE first began production in 2005, but problems with finances and re-shoots forced the film's completion to be in 2012.  Three years later, and the film is finally becoming available for the world to watch through VOD platforms.  Loosely (let me emphasize, LOOSELY) based on Nikolai Gogol's classic story Viy, the film follows British cartographer Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng of STONEHEARST ASYLUM and BRUISER). During his scientific voyage to map out Europe and Asia, he comes across a hidden Ukranian village undergoing mysterious problems.  After a peculiar death in the village, things start turning supernatural and the entire village fears it may be cursed.  Strange creatures, witches, and a seven-horned beast all begin to plague the people of this village and our cartographer finds himself trapped in the middle.  FORBIDDEN EMPIRE is a horror/fantasy/comedy with stunning artistic direction but not much else to write home about.

A large majority of the film is dubbed over Russian, which amplifies the strength in Jason Flemyng's performance. The dubbing isn't awful, but this film would have been much better suited for subtitles. Tackling an epic is no easy feat, but Stepchenko clearly had a vision with this film and did everything in his power to ensure he could bring it to life. Unfortunately, it becomes obvious throughout the film when Stepchenko's vision was compromised by potential outside forces. There is a dinner sequence in the beginning that has the potential to be remarkably fun, and is filled with downright excellent creature designs...but the scene just doesn't hit the way it should. Some of the CGI mixing is less than to be desired, but the concepts for these creatures are absolutely fantastic.  Most of the creatures are computer generated, but the practical effects littered throughout help ground the scene, allowing some of the comedy to shine through. The film may not be anywhere close to being a faithful adaption of Viy, as the liberties taken seem like a haphazard attempt to make it more accessible to a modern audience.

The pacing of this film is all over the place.  After sprinting out of the gate with the dinner sequence, the film then stutter steps throughout a majority of the film, leading up to a quick climax before tripping at the finish line.  The "flow" of the film feels less like a river and more like a pool filled with screaming toddlers.  For those unfamiliar with the short story source material, a lot of the exposition was omitted.  For a Russian audience, this isn't an issue, but if you're not confident in your Russian literature (or the film's source material), a lot of the film is going to be difficult to follow. The film had the potential to be a total blast, but the inconsistencies in CGI and storytelling allow for a frustrating film experience. However, if you want a VAN HELSING meets ONCE UPON A TIME style horror/fantasy/comedy, this one might be right up your alley.


FORBIDDEN EMPIRE will hit VOD on May 22nd, 2015.




Thursday, May 7, 2015

THE CANAL, JOSS WHEDON, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and the Importance of Not Alienating the Female Audience


Recently, the Irish ghost film THE CANAL popped up on Netflix instant watch and horror journalists immediately began singing the film's praises and recommending it on social media platforms.  Last year, THE CANAL made it on a number of "Best Of" lists and it's reception since hitting Netflix has been incredibly strong.  Film critic John Squires his review of THE CANAL at Halloween Love spoke highly of the film going as far as saying: "There’s no 2014 horror film that was more critically acclaimed than 'The Babadook,' which used tragedy-induced madness as the springboard for a truly effective horror story. It’s a shame that so few seem to have seen it, because 'The Canal' does much the same thing, and is every bit as impressive as last year’s horror darling." Comparing THE CANAL to the juggernaut that is THE BABADOOK is a bold claim to make, but one that Squires isn't alone in making.  On a few episodes of the podcast Killer POV, guests and co-hosts alike praised THE CANAL.  However, co-host Rebekah McKendry, expressed her dislike for the film in calling the film "misogynist."  More often than not, when a female horror fan refers to a horror film as misogynist, male filmgoers will either attempt to dispute the comment or claim to "not have seen the film that way."  This article isn't to slam THE CANAL as a film (it's actually pretty awesome), but to discuss the importance of not alienating the female audience.

For those playing at home, women officially make up the majority of horror film attendees.  Even though women are consuming more horror than men, horror films are still having a problem relating to its female audiences.  Using THE CANAL as an example, the film has two major female characters...and they both suck. The wife character is discovered to be cheating on her husband and the only other female character is one that clearly idolizes our male lead and delivers overt flirtation knowing that he's a married man. The rest of the women are murder victims shown in nightmares/flashbacks/film reels.  Representation is extremely important in media, and it's baffling that despite all of the evidence and statistics proving that representation = ticket sales, films are still alienating the female audience.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow


After the ongoing debates regarding Joss Whedon's representation of Black Widow in THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, io9 posted an insightful article titled "Black Widow: This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things." In the article,  writers Meredith Woerner and Katharine Trendacosta take a very mature approach to the debate of feminist representation in male dominated genres. If you read the comments section of this article, there are dozens of men responding that they cannot "understand" this argument or interpretation of the film. Art is subjective, and our life experiences influence the way we interpret the world around us. For women, we are going to see a film like THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON differently than our male counterparts, in the same sense that we will immediately take notice of the portrayal of female characters in THE CANAL.  This isn't to say that women are more "sensitive" or anything of such a sexist nature, but simply that we as humans are going to notice things quicker about the people we identify with than the ones they do not. This mentality can be applied to everything from white people not understanding why #BlackLivesMatter or non-millennials not understanding the "bored" reactions of the young teens in IT FOLLOWS. We're humans, and we all do it. The important thing is to accept and understand that it's impossible for us to understand how something will be interpreted from all angles, and be proactive about its creation.

Adult film star Jeanne Silver

An easier way to make this palatable is to look at the pornography industry.  The success of pornography is largely in the way it labels and categorizes individuals.  Ebony, BBW, Milf, Teen, Twink, Bear, etc. are all some of the more popular ways of saying, "Women of color, overweight women, women over 30, women under 25, thin gay men, bearded and 'thicker' gay men." Adult film star Jeanne Silver was notorious for using the stump of her amputated leg as a tool of penetration for her adult partners.  While the average viewer will see this as "handicapped porn," to those that have physical disabilities, this is just "porn." In the same way, white men who watch black pornography see it as "black porn," while black men will just view this as "porn."  Now, take this idea of "categorizing" to non-pornographic films.  Black Widow isn't just a "female superhero" to women, she's a superhero. The female characters in THE CANAL are not "female characters" to women, they're "characters." Obviously, we're speaking in sweeping generalizations, but the best way to understand something is to focus on the rule, and not the exception.

Still from MAD MAX: FURY ROAD


It was recently made known that the creative team behind MAD MAX: FURY ROAD brought on Eve Ensler, the creator of The Vagina Monologues as a consultant. In an interview with Esquire, Actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley said of the experience:
We were so lucky that George arranged for Eve Ensler, who wrote the Vagina Monologues, to fly in and work with us girls for about a week. We did extensive research with her. Eve herself has had a very intense life. She’s spent time in the Congo working with rape victims and women who have had unthinkable things happen to them through the power of men’s hands. We were able to pick her brain for a week. She told us the most tragic stories I’ve ever heard in my life, which gave us so much background to our characters. We really wanted to kind of showcase that. It was a privilege to have her around to make these characters something more then just five beautiful girls.
As io9 said in their article about the consultation,
Ensler’s participation also hints that Miller’s not just going for titillation but real pathos. And that he recognized that he was out of his depth and called in a real expert. Which makes us want to see how all these extra steps translate to the screen.
The fact that this sort of attention to detail isn't common practice among film sets is astounding.  This isn't to say that every film needs to consult someone as famed as Eve Ensler to make sure their film passes The Bechdel test, but the fact there are so many people working and writing about people they cannot identify with as if they truly "understand" them, is a problem.  Aspiring screenwriters, take note. If you're a male writing about the struggle of a female final girl, let a trusted female read your script. If you're a white female writing about women of color, consult an actual woman of color. If we just take the moment to realize that the best way to write about something is to be educated on the topic, this simple notion could greatly change the overall interpretation of a film to audiences at large.
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