Wet Hot Feminist Summer


Film_Mad Max_Belt

Last month, I recommended some 2014 films to watch at home in case you were tired of going the multiplex. Today, I’m singing the praises of the summer movies of 2015. Some of them anyway.

If I had to make a top ten of this summer’s releases it would probably go something like this:

  1. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
  2. Mad Max: Fury Road
  3. Spy
  4. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
  5. Mistress America
  6. Magic Mike XXL
  7. Trainwreck
  8. Mr. Holmes
  9. Pitch Perfect 2
  10. Ant-Man

On any given day, the exact order might change, but this is pretty much it. And yes, I did see Avengers: Age of Ultron and Inside Out. Blockbusters I didn’t see include Jurassic World, Minions, San Andreas, and Terminator: Genisys, none of which I suspect would make it on this list. Movies I haven’t yet had a chance to see but hope to catch soon include Dope (see comments below), The Gift, Love & Mercy, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and (maybe) Straight Outta Compton.

If one thing stands out on this top ten list, it’s the feminism of it all. Women—their abilities, choices, desires, and friendships—are at the forefront of most of these films. From the more blatantly feminist Spy and The Diary of a Teenage Girl (directed by newcomer Marielle Heller), to the stealth feminist attack of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (seriously, go see this one and be shocked and amazed to see a woman treated as a peer in every way), to the body-positive Magic Mike XXL, it was a great summer to be a woman at the movies. In fact, one reason Ant-Man is so low on this list is that its patriarchal bent seems rather out-of-touch in comparison—though it’s still light years ahead of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Marvel really needs to get their act together.

In any case, I hope the Hollywood studios are taking notice of the fact that these kinds of films have legs: As of this week, less than one-third of the total box office of Mad Max: Fury Road (30%), Magic Mike XXL (20%), and Spy (26%) is from their opening weekends. Despite opening lower than many tent-pole films, they have risen through the rankings and come out with very respectable numbers. Compare that to a movie such as Age of Ultron, whose opening weekend box office represents 42 percent of its total take.

But enough with statistics, let’s get to specifics!

—If you don’t know what you’re selling, no one will know how to buy it.
—What are you selling?
—So many things!

Mistress America

Here are twenty items to sell you on my top ten.

Most Fun: Spy

Most Charm: Mistress America

Most Tension: Mad Max: Fury Road

Most Pleasant Surprise: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Most Thought-Provoking: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Best Cinematography: John Seale for Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Screenplay: Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig for Mistress America

Best Production Design: Jonah Markowitz for The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Best Trailer: Ant-Man

Best Ensemble: Magic Mike XXL

Outstanding Female Performance: Bel Powley in The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Outstanding Male Performance: Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes

Outstanding Comedic Performance: Jason Statham in Spy

Best Cameo: Snoop Dogg in Pitch Perfect 2

Best Extended Cameo: LeBron James in Trainwreck

Best Use of Thomas the Tank Engine: Ant-Man

Best Villain: Das Sound Machine in Pitch Perfect 2

Woman I Most Want to Be: Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Inspector Clouseau Master of Disguise Award: Tilda Swinton in Trainwreck

Stuart Smalley Positive Affirmation Award: Magic Mike XXL

Catch them if you can!

A View to a Girl Like a Wolf



Yesterday, a friend on Facebook posted a link to this list made in honor of Duran Duran Appreciation Day. [Side note: How is this a thing? As a teenager of the 80s, I appreciate Duran Duran like nobody’s business, but I highly suspect this may be a marketing ploy by my favorite headband manufacturer to increase sales.] In any case, while most agreed that the order of the list was wrong like a wrong thing, we all seemed to have very different ideas about what should be on top. Because I can’t resist a list, I present my very own Top 10 Duran Duran Top 20 Hits:

1. “Hungry Like a Wolf”

This was a no brainer. This video showed us all the potential of MTV, which, for the kids out there, used to play videos all day, every day.

2. “Girls on Film”

Yeah, I can’t imagine high school without this song and its “scandalous” video. For when you wanted to strut.

3. “Come Undone”

This came out soon after I moved to Brooklyn. I listened to it constantly when I wasn’t listening to Peter Gabriel’s Us. Which was still quite a lot.

4. “Save a Prayer”

When I saw this at #2 on the aforementioned list, my first thought (after “How the f*ck do you put ‘Ordinary World’ at number #1?”) was “How the f*ck do you put ‘Save a Prayer’ at number #2?” But then I re-listened to the song and was, like, “Preach, Simon!” Musically, this may be the best of the bunch.

5. “A View to a Kill”

Like most Duran Duran songs, the lyrics don’t make a lick of sense, but this Bond fangirl couldn’t care less.

6. “All She Wants Is”

I know this has absolutely no business being in the top ten, but I don’t intend to apologize for this placement.

7. “New Moon on Monday”

The hook is irresistible, but I so hate most of the rest. This is where ranking got very difficult for me.

8. “Planet Earth”

I love this song, but, really, it’s too much like “Girls on Film” to be any higher than this.

9. “Rio”

I know this is a favorite, but I just can’t with the ridiculousness of these lyrics and the video. Which is really saying something when you consider most Duran Duran songs.

10. “Notorious”

There were a few I considered for the final spot, but I decided that that gasp elevates this song above the also-rans.

For the haters out there: No, not once did I consider putting “Union of the Snake” or “Wild Boys” on this list.

What would you put at #1?

Stromae: Master Blaster



What about the name? Did he make you call him Maestro?
—Yeah, I called him Maestro.
—You didn’t mind?
—Well, I did at first, but, actually, I kind of got used to it.
—Okay, from now on, I want you to call me Jerry the Great.
—I’m not calling you Jerry the Great.
—Why not? You call him Maestro.
—He is a maestro.
—Well, I’m great.
—So you say.

Seinfeld, “The Maestro”

While the year in music has been pretty good so far, and I am already fearing trying to cull my purchases for this year’s round-up post, I find myself going back time and again to a 2013 album I only recently discovered: Stromae’s Racine carrée. So, since it technically can’t be part of that eventual round-up, I’m talking about it now.

How did I not learn about this performer earlier? Well, it seems I was just not paying attention, his 2009 “Alors on danse” (later remixed by Kanye West) was a hit I had in fact heard before. And he’s slowly been making the rounds on the SXSW and Coachella circuit. Even if you don’t speak French, I highly recommend checking out the work of this Belgian rapper/singer. Most of the videos embedded here have either the French lyrics or English translations included.

Racine carrée still has some of these early house stylings, but pushes more heavily into the kind of exceptional wordplay that I haven’t heard since the days of MC Solaar. The album title itself, which translates as Square Root, is open to all sorts of interpretations. But what else would you expect from a singer whose stage name, Stromae, is “maestro” rendered in verlan?

This wordplay is most evident in the homophones, verbal expressions, and double entendres of “Sommeil”…

… as well as the Queneau-like title “Papaoutai”—a nonsense word seemingly straight out of Zazie dans le métro and constructed to sound like the Caribbean-flavored music in the song as well as reflect the theme of absent fathers (“Papa où t’es?” or “Papa, where are you?”). [Side note: Stromae was raised primarily by his Flemish mother. His father was killed in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.]

As seen above, Stromae also makes incredible videos. My favorite is this one filmed with hidden cameras, where people were genuinely concerned that Stromae was wandering around Brussels drunk.

His video for “Carmen”, a song using the theme of “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (“Love is a rebellious bird”) from the opera Carmen, is a harsh diatribe against social media, with a direct hit at Twitter’s infamous bird. The video is directed by Sylvain Chomet, of Les Triplettes de Belleville fame.

With the final track on the album, Stromae goes back to his rap roots with the social commentary of “Avf” (or “Allez vous faire”—the unsaid final word being foutre, that is, “go f*ck yourself”). This one just makes me want to MOVE.

And on that note… je file.

A Midsummer Night’s DVD


Tired of summer movies and going the multiplex? Have I got a list for you! Or, rather, lists.

Enemy, directed by Denis Villeneuve

Enemy, directed by Denis Villeneuve

As part of this year’s Oscar Blitz, I put together a list of 2014 films I wanted to see (yes, there were spreadsheets involved) that had made one or more “best of” lists of the podcast reviewers I listen to. Needless to say, between my Oscar viewing, 2015 films, and my recent Pixar project, I’m just getting around to posting about these now.

2014 was a very good year for motion pictures and many films didn’t get the recognition they deserve (including from me in my year-end film roundup). So, if you are looking for a good movie to watch at home, here are some recommendations of lesser-known or underrated films released in 2014.*

Top Ten Personal Favorites:
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Blue Ruin
Finding Vivian Maier
Obvious Child
Two Days, One Night
Under the Skin

If You Have a Cinematographer’s Eye:
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
The Immigrant
John Wick
Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive, directed by Jim Jarmusch

Only Lovers Left Alive, directed by Jim Jarmusch

If You Know That a Good Editor is Hard to Find:
Edge of Tomorrow

If You Want to Warm the Cockles of Your Heart:
Begin Again
St. Vincent

If You Think Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Cold:
Blue Ruin
Cold in July
John Wick

If You Need to Remind Yourself Why You Are Single:
Force Majeure
Gone Girl

If You Are Looking for Love:
Begin Again
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Obvious Child

If You Are Caffeine-Deprived and Need More Tension in Your Life:
Grand Piano
A Most Violent Year

If You Don’t Mind Something Disturbing:
L’Inconnu du lac (Stranger by the Lake)
Under the Skin

If You Are Greedy and Want a Science Fiction Triple Feature:
Edge of Tomorrow
Under the Skin

If You Think Truth Is Stranger Than Science Fiction:
Finding Vivian Maier

If You Want a Film that Crushes the Bechdel Test:
Obvious Child
We Are the Best!

Belle, directed by Amma Asante

Belle, directed by Amma Asante

If You Admire Gritty Cityscapes:
John Wick
A Most Violent Year
Only Lovers Left Alive

If You Are Musically Inclined:
Begin Again
Grand Piano
We Are the Best!

If You Want a Soundtrack to Set Your Toes a Tapping:
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

If You Are All Ears and Looking to at Score:
Cold in July
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Grand Piano
Under the Skin

The Say Anything Award for Best Use of a Song: Blue Ruin for “No Regrets”

The Breakfast Club Award for Best Closing Credits Song: Edge of Tomorrow for “Love Me Again”

The Ewan McGregor Special Recognition Award for Most Penises: L’Inconnu du lac (Stranger by the Lake)

Top Five 2014 Movies I Haven’t Yet Seen But Want To:
The Babadook
Beyond the Lights
Yves Saint Laurent

A big thanks to some of my favorite film podcasts (Movie Geeks United, Sound on Sight, and Wrong Opinions About Movies) for calling my attention to many of these films, especially Blue Ruin, Cold in July, Enemy, Obvious Child, and Under the Skin.

*In the end, I managed to see forty-eight feature-length films from 2014. These films are:
Begin Again; Belle; Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance; Blue Ruin; Boyhood; Captain America: The Winter Soldier; Chef; CitizenFour; Cold in July; La danza de la realidad; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; Divergent; Edge of Tomorrow; Enemy; Finding Vivian Maier; Force Majeure; Frank; A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night; Gone Girl; The Grand Budapest Hotel; Grand Piano; Guardians of the Galaxy; Ida; The Imitation Game; The Immigrant; L’Inconnu du lac (Stranger by the Lake); Inherent Vice; John Wick; The Lego Movie; Listen Up Philip; Lucy; Maleficent; A Most Violent Year; Muppets Most Wanted; Nightcrawler; Obvious Child; Only Lovers Left Alive; St. Vincent; Snowpiercer; The Theory of Everything; 300: Rise of an Empire; Two Days, One Night; Under the Skin; Veronica Mars; Virunga; We Are the Best!; Whiplash; Wild

Ranking Pixar, or, Let the Arguments Begin


A few weeks ago, I wrote about how disappointed I was in Inside Out, the latest motion picture from Pixar Studios. I’m not a huge fan of animation, but I feel like I’ve generally enjoyed Pixar movies. My visceral reaction to this one made me wonder if that assessment was really true, which got me thinking about the studio’s filmography in general and whether I was suffering from my own version of Pixar nostalgia. When I think of their fifteen features, where does Inside Out rank? So, off to the library I went to rewatch the classics.*


By the way, I recently stumbled across this takedown of Inside Out and, while I probably give the film a bit more credit than this reviewer, he makes many interesting points, especially as regards Pixar as a whole.

The ranking below is based on the following metrics, which are similar to the considerations I use for judging books. When assessing overall quality—whether a book “works” for me—I consider three basic elements: character, language (i.e., artistic presentation: visuals for movies, writing for books), and story. If you don’t have at least two of the three, you will fall way down on any list of mine. However, I knew actually ranking Pixar films would be hard, so I turned to math and developed my own PIXAR metrics.

PIXAR Metrics

P: Premise + Plot. While it’s great when a book or a film has a creative or audacious premise, premise alone will not carry me through to the end. So, is the story interesting? Is it well paced? Is the world-building believable? Does it make sense?

I: Individual characters. Do I like the characters? Are they interesting and/or well rounded? Can I relate to them? Do I care about them? Are they believable?

X: Chromosomes. As noted in Pixar’s “Female” Problem, this score is based on passing the Bechdel Test, but also the general portrayal of female characters as well as the message or subject matter. And yes, I’m including this category because it is relevant to me (as well as, I presume, half the population) and my appreciation of this studio.

A: Artistic merit. Most Pixar pictures have very good production values. This score is for when films go above and beyond, whether visually or musically.

R: Reaction. Did I enjoy the overall film? Would I want to rewatch it?

[Side note: Crying is not a value. If a film manipulates me into crying, that is not necessarily considered a good in and of itself.]

For each category above, a film received a score from one to five upon rewatch, with a total possible score of thirty. Then, after watching all of them, I considered where I would place films relative to one another in each category to compare and confirm the scores I had assigned. In case of a tie in the total score, I ranked tied films based on an overall quality judgment. I was rather surprised how the math rankings worked out in certain cases, but, overall, I had to agree that it was pretty close to what I would have said on just a gut level.

To the rankings!

  1. Finding Nemo (2003). Score: P=3/5, I=5, X=3, A=4, R=5  Total: 25
    Finding Nemo was the one movie I didn’t feel I needed to rewatch for this post because I had seen and enjoyed it so many times already. The depiction of Nemo’s underwater world is truly breathtaking and the film has a strong script with a great cast of characters. There’s a good blend of action, adventure, and humor. It’s one of the few Pixar films I hear people quote from. Yes, there an extra ending tacked on that we don’t really need, but that doesn’t detract from what a fun ride and touching film this is.
  1. Ratatouille (2007). Score: P=5/4, I=2, X=1, A=5, R=5  Total: 22
    I’ve always liked Ratatouille (Paris! Cooking!), but it seems to divide people—for some Pixar fans it’s their favorite, and for others it’s a snooze. I think the visual depiction of Paris and the restaurant kitchen are glorious, and I love the story despite its inherent implausibility and the high amount of slapstick. I totally get that some people are squicked by the rats and can’t move beyond that (since that’s how I feel about the heights in Inside Out), but the premise shows just how daring and creative Pixar can be when they try. Anton Ego’s restaurant review is a high point of Pixar’s screenwriting.
  1. Toy Story (1995). Score: P=5/5, I=4, X=1, A=2, R=4  Total: 21
    The first of Pixar’s films and, in many ways, their greatest. A simple homeward quest story where the various obstacles make sense given the world and characters presented. This buddy comedy deals with friendship, jealousy, and group dynamics in a relatable way. Great action, with just the right amount of melancholy, and the emotions are earned. Although the rendering of the people looks shockingly bad now, as the first computer-animated feature film, the animation was groundbreaking.
  1. The Incredibles (2004). Score: P=1/3, I=4, X=4, A=3, R=4  Total: 19
    I liked this film more than I remembered. However, I really dislike the character of (epic-manchild) Mr. Incredible and so the initial set-up and exploration of his issues runs rather long for me, and this pacing as well as some troubling themes keeps The Incredibles from absolute greatness. It’s when the family comes together that the movie really takes off. As such, this is one of the few Pixar films where I really see the value of a sequel, especially since Edna Mode is one of my favorite characters in the Pixar universe. The James Bond–flavored score is a thing of beauty.
  1. Toy Story 3 (2010). Score: P=2/3, I=4, X=3, A=1, R=5  Total: 18
    While Up is where Pixar really goes off the sentimental rails, Toy Story 3 also packs a tremendous emotional wallop. Its core themes of growing up and moving on are like Boyhood with toys. While I remembered enjoying it the first time around, I thought it suffered from multiple endings; however, on rewatch, the plot seemed far tighter than I imagined it. Perhaps it’s like how the way home always seems shorter somehow? Anyway, despite duplicating the framework of Toy Story 2, this edition works much better for me because we’ve come to know and love these characters over multiple films. And, while it gets quite dark in places (damn, Pixar can be nihilist), I found it far less tense than Inside Out.
  1. A Bug’s Life (1998). Score: P=2/4, I=2, X=5 A=2, R=3  Total: 18
    I remembered liking this when I saw it, but was wary of a rewatch since it never seems to be high on anyone’s personal Pixar list. Yet it turned out to be one of the films that kept me the most engaged. The outcast-makes-good Seven Samurai plotline is something we’ve seen many times before, but it’s a classic for a reason. And to see it play out in this beautifully rendered world of tiny bugs is a delight. With a clear villain (not Pixar’s strong suit), A Bug’s Life makes for a great story of teaming up against bullies. The many secondary characters are rather one-note, but the voice cast, led by Dave Foley, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Kevin Spacey, is top-notch. Plus, Denis Leary as a ladybug is too awesome for words.
  1. WALL*E (2008). Score: P=3/2, I=3, X=2, A=4, R=3  Total: 17
    Like Up, this is a film that many people rank very highly. Normally I’m a sucker for a post-apocalyptic tale and the first ten minutes or so are very cool, but then EVE arrives. Rewatching this today I realize what a frightening depiction of women she is and that WALL*E is not much more than a “nice guy” stalker for most of the film. Combine that with the fact that the second half is a mess that gets bogged down in preachy, heavy-handed commentary on consumerism and socialism, and yeah, I have an even lower opinion of this one than I started (even though I actually liked the EVE–WALL*E couple more this time around). Note: The sound design is absolutely f*cking brilliant in this film.


  1. Brave (2012). Score: P=1/2, I=1, X=5, A=5, R=2  Total: 16
    Brave inevitably gets placed very low on many “best of” Pixar lists; however, I think that may be because its story structure resembles standard animated fare more than some of Pixar’s other recent creative leaps. And, it must be said, most of the lists I found were written by men, so that may play a role as well. While Pixar seems not to have known quite what to do with its first female protagonist, the narrative is actually pretty tight. Rather than the usual action/humor mix, this was more of an old-fashioned swashbuckler adventure, like The Adventures of Robin Hood or The Court Jester. And the visuals are gorgeous: Brave is really right up there with Ratatouille and the opening of WALL*E for the richness and texture of its animated world.
  1. Toy Story 2 (1999). Score: P=2/3, I=3, X=2, A=1, R=3  Total: 14
    This is where Pixar starts to lean a bit too heavily on the fleeting innocence of childhood theme that it introduced in the original Toy Story. The second time around, I was remarkably underwhelmed during “When She Loved Me.” It really stops the movie in its tracks and is not necessary to the plot. Of course, the plots of the Toy Story films are all fairly similar—the toys have to make it back home—but this builds nicely on the world set out in the original. However, I think the film suffers somewhat from having the toys separated for so long. There are probably more obvious laughs here than in the original, but it doesn’t seem as cohesive. As happens with many Pixar films, it sort of falls apart in the third act.
  1. Up (2009). Score: P=2/2, I=2, X=1, A=3, R=2  Total: 12
    Up is an odd film. For many it’s Pixar’s best, but I’m really at a loss to see why. The first ten minutes is manipulative filmmaking at its worst. And, even if you think it’s a masterpiece montage, it’s a very small part of the film. Is there any other movie whose quality we judge based on so little? The rest is disparate pieces that don’t fit together. Why is the adventurer the villain? If he’s smart enough to invent talking dog collars, how can he not find that damn bird himself? And don’t even get me started on the inconsistency of the cluster balloon physics. I like Russell and Carl well enough, and Dug is sweet and idiotic, but there’s just not enough humor here to offset the fact that every character is more poorly developed than the one who died ten minutes in.
  1. Inside Out (2015). Score: P=4/1, I=1, X=3, A=2, R=1  Total: 12
    Did I say Up was manipulative filmmaking at its worst? No, this is. There are lots of jokes, but nothing holding this one together for me. The underlying premise could be really interesting, but once it gets going the plot is completely predictable and the world-building is all over the map. Joy is annoying and Riley is a blank slate so it was hard for me to connect with either one. The most appealing character is probably Bing Bong, but he is a complete retread of the cheap sentimentality and nostalgia that Pixar has already overused. Also, for a film centered on a young girl, it has plenty of gender issues. And for those of us with a fear of heights, it is terrifying at times. Maybe it’s director Pete Docter, whose previous outings were Monsters, Inc. and Up, which both fall near the bottom of this list; I think I just don’t connect with his films.
  1. Cars (2006). Score: P=1/3, I=2, X=2, A=1, R=3  Total: 12
    I remembered liking this when I saw it, but, like A Bug’s Life, it never seems to be high on anyone’s list. The film is actually very sweet (a fish-out-of-water rom com combined with a sports movie) and I’d be happier to rewatch this than many other films above, but it’s just average on a creative level. As someone who loves a good road trip through the West, I did appreciate the visuals and the Route 66 nostalgia, but the film takes twenty-five minutes to get to Radiator Springs and that was about fifteen minutes too long for me. The closing credits were very clever (the cars watching “car” versions of Toy Story and Monsters, Inc.). Also, I love that they included the Car Talk guys.
  1. Monsters, Inc. (2001). Score: P=4/2, I=2, X=1, A=1, R=2  Total: 12
    This Baby Boom–Three Men and a Baby mashup was never one of my favorites. I appreciate the premise more on rewatch but it’s just not as funny as it should be. And the action scene with the door chase goes on far too long. Definitely the most “for kids” of all of the films on this list. Plus, as with Toy Story, this is primarily a male buddy picture and the attitude towards the female characters is retrograde at best. At least it ends on a more hopeful, less melancholy note than other Pixar childhood innocence movies, which is nice. I did tear up a bit when Sulley says bye to Boo.

Honorable Mentions

Best Ensemble: Finding Nemo

Best Visuals: Ratatouille

Best Score: The Incredibles

Favorite Character: Edna Mode, The Incredibles

Scariest Character: Baby from Toy Story 3

Most Overrated Film: Inside Out

Most Underrated Film: A Bug’s Life

Most Feminist: Brave

Most Tear-Inducing Rewatch: Toy Story 3

Most Conflicting Rewatch: WALL*E

Most Surprising Detail: Sally’s tramp stamp in Cars

Best Pixar Callback: Boo’s toys in Monsters, Inc., which include Cowgirl Jessie and Nemo

Best Closing Credits: The original fake outtakes from A Bug’s Life


In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.

—Anton Ego in Ratatouille

My rankings above are just that, my rankings. Please feel free to add your own in the comments below.

For my discussion of sexism and gender issues in Pixar films, see Pixar’s “Female” Problem.

*I have never seen either Monsters University or Cars 2 but, given that the originals didn’t rank very high on my list, and everything I’ve read about them leads me to believe that I haven’t missed anything, I didn’t include them in my Pixar lineup.


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