A Midsummer Night’s DVD

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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
Enemy
Finding Vivian Maier
Ida
Obvious Child
Snowpiercer
Two Days, One Night
Under the Skin
Whiplash

If You Have a Cinematographer’s Eye:
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Ida
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
Snowpiercer
Whiplash

If You Want to Warm the Cockles of Your Heart:
Begin Again
Chef
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:
Enemy
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
Lucy
A Most Violent Year

If You Don’t Mind Something Disturbing:
Enemy
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
Snowpiercer
Under the Skin

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

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

Belle, directed by Amma Asante

Belle, directed by Amma Asante

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

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

If You Want a Soundtrack to Set Your Toes a Tapping:
Boyhood
Chef
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
Snowpiercer
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
Diplomacy
Tracks
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

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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.*

Pixar_Banner

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.

Pixar_Brave_Stone

  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

Pixar_Ratatouille

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.

Pixar’s “Female” Problem

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When I set out to rewatch and rank Pixar’s filmography in the wake of my disappointment with their latest release, Inside Out, I already knew that female characters weren’t Pixar’s strong suit. However, I didn’t realize quite how bad the situation was until I watched these films in quick succession. Almost two-thirds of Pixar films don’t even pass the Bechdel Test*—a sad state of affairs for movies geared towards children, especially films where it would be relatively easy to gender characters female rather than male. Really, would it be so hard to make a toy pig or toy dinosaur female?

But it was with the one-two punch of WALL*E and Up (more on these below) that my feminist rage really kicked in, and I knew I would have to address the issue of women and girls in the Pixar universe before finalizing any rankings of their films. Because Pixar’s problem goes beyond the simple absence of women; at times, Pixar’s representation of all things female is downright frightening. And I’m not just talking about “button-nose syndrome” here.

Below is a feminist look at the thirteen Pixar films I rewatched, as well as the score that will be used in that category in my forthcoming rankings. This score is based on a combination of Bechdel results, overall number and presentation of female characters, how closely characters adhere to the gender binary, and the film’s underlying messages and themes.

Toy Story (1995). While the narrative is not sexist per se, Toy Story is very boy-centric and a major Bechdel Test fail since just one voiced toy is female (Bo Peep) and her role is very minor, serving primarily as a romantic interest for Woody. What is particularly grating about Pixar’s character choices is that so many of the toys could have easily been given female voices—among the main toy sidekicks are a pig, a dinosaur, and a dog. In reading about Pixar, I saw that Joss Whedon’s original script idea called for Barbie to be the toy to save Buzz and Woody from Sid’s house, but there was some issue with Mattel. While I liked the ultimate choice to use the mutant toys, having Barbie in that role would have greatly improved the female presence here.
X Chromosome Score: 1

A Bug’s Life (1998). Perhaps in order to make up for the very boy-centric Toy Story, this second outing by Pixar has a whole host of great female characters, with three female ants taking a leadership role: Phyllis Diller as the Queen, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as next-in-line Princess Atta, and a young Hayden Panettiere as Dot, Princess Atta’s younger sister and de facto leader of the Blueberries. Two members of the circus troupe are also female, the gypsy moth (Madeline Kahn) and the black widow spider (Bonnie Hunt). The film’s underlying message of working and standing together against a common enemy supports this matriarchal bent.
X Chromosome Score: 5

Females rule in more ways than one in A Bug's Life. Of course, they are ants.

Females rule in A Bug’s Life. Of course, they are ants.

Toy Story 2 (1999). The introduction of new toys in this sequel gives us a few more female characters (Cowgirl Jessie, Mrs. Potato Head, Barbie), but this film still fails the Bechdel test easily since neither Bo Peep (the one female toy from the original Toy Story) nor Mrs. Potato Head go along when the other toys leave to save Woody. Furthermore, Barbie as presented here is no feminist icon. As for Jessie, she whines about just wanting to be loved, tries to guilt Woody into staying with them, and needs to be rescued in the final chase sequence—I kinda sorta hated her in this movie. Luckily, all three new characters will redeem themselves in Toy Story 3.
X Chromosome Score: 2

Monsters, Inc. (2001). On its surface, this is an innocuous male buddy picture similar to Toy Story. However, on closer inspection, the plot and presentation of the female characters is somewhat concerning. Basically, we see two men who can’t handle it when a little girl invades their very masculine world. Boo barely speaks, but is viewed as toxic and a danger. The two most prominent women at the factory are Celia Mae (Jennifer Tilly), who manages to fill both the stereotypical role of “receptionist” and “clueless girlfriend” and is literally a Gorgon, and Roz, a raspy bureaucratic slug who, on top of everything, is voiced by a man (Bob Peterson)! So, although most of the characters are monsters, not human, and could have been voiced by anyone, even one of the female voices isn’t a female actor. Sigh.
X Chromosome Score: 1

Finding Nemo (2003). While Finding Nemo doesn’t technically pass the Bechdel test, it does at least have a number of memorable female characters, notably Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), who accompanies Marlin on his quest to find Nemo, as well as Peach (Allison Janney) and Deb (Vicki Lewis), who live in the dentist’s fish tank. It also features two male caregivers, with Marlin the clownfish and Crush the sea turtle, which is all too rare in Hollywood. While one might argue that Dory’s character is somewhat problematic, she is the heart and soul of this film. The non-traditional heroine and non-traditional families bump this one slightly up the X chromosome scale.
X Chromosome Score: 3

The Incredibles (2004). Although The Incredibles relies on plenty of gendered stereotypes, all four (!!) main female characters—Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Edna (Brad Bird), Violet (Sarah Vowell), and Mirage (Elizabeth Peña)—are portrayed as very capable and able to hold their own. Despite subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, reinforcing patriarchal roles throughout the film, this movie gets mucho points for finally giving some kick-ass women equal time. And I love Edna, even though she is voiced by a man, instead of Lily Tomlin as planned.
X Chromosome Score: 4

“My God, PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER!!!” Preach, Edna.

Cars (2006). Like the original Toy Story, Cars is not particularly sexist, but very much a “boy” story and a boy’s world. Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt)  is really only here as a love interest for Lightning McQueen, but, hey, at least she’s a lawyer. And, unlike Toy Story, Cars does pass the Bechdel test, but only by a hair, in the courtroom scene. In short, another male friendship movie from Pixar. Yawn.
X Chromosome Score: 2

Ratatouille (2007). Despite a great speech from Colette (Janeane Garofalo) about sexism in the restaurant industry, this movie fails the Bechdel Test in a big way. Even taking into consideration that a restaurant kitchen is a very masculine world, couldn’t they at least have made Émile be Rémy’s sister instead of brother? Or, say, featured the woman critic shown early on in the film, instead of the male Anton Ego? Heck, make Rémy the rat female—now that would have been truly groundbreaking and a great allegory for the difficulties female chefs have had trying to break into the industry.
X Chromosome Score: 1

WALL*E (2008). Rewatching WALL*E, I realized what a frightening depiction of women it presents. It’s every tech bro’s nightmare about women come to life. The first section on Earth, which is generally the only part of this film people praise, shows us a lonely collector guy whose world is turned upside down when a women arrives. WALL*E falls in love with the cold, virginal white EVE at first sight, and then basically stalks her while she does her job. When he finally gets her to his home, she proceeds to destroy his things just by being herself and reacting as programmed, then, once he gives her what she wants (the plant), she shuts down completely and eventually leaves him. He doesn’t even say her name right! Still, there is no arguing that EVE is capable, strong, and takes charge, which is somewhat redeeming.
X Chromosome Score: 2

No, WALL*E's portrayal of women isn't problematic at all.

No, WALL*E‘s portrayal of women isn’t problematic at all.

Up (2009). Let’s see, death of female partner or relation as plot device? Check. Almost complete absence of female voice actors? Check. Needless to say, Up fails Bechdel in a major way. How telling is it that young Russell doesn’t even realize the bird is female! And I hate, hate, hate the miscarriage. It’s totally not related to the plot and makes me feel like they had to explain why they didn’t have kids. Ugh.
X Chromosome Score: 1

Toy Story 3 (2010). Yay, finally a Toy Story movie that passes the Bechdel Test! Well, barely. But there are far more female characters in this outing, so that was a refreshing change. Also, the characters of Jessie, Barbie, and even Mrs. Potato Head, somewhat redeem themselves after Toy Story 2. I can’t quite decide how I feel about Ken’s representation. On the one hand, he helps break the gender binary, but on the other hand, how much are we supposed to be laughing at him and what he represents? Still, he’s an extremely progressive character for a Pixar film. Also, notice that both children who “cruelly” abandoned their toys in Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 are girls.
X Chromosome Score: 3

Brave (2012). While I thought the characters in Brave were rather flat, it is great to finally see Pixar put women front and center. Sure, one of them turns into a “godless killing machine” (™ Stephen Colbert), but this film deals fairly well with the expectations and constraints put upon women, by both society and family. I also liked the all-too-rare depiction of the mother-daughter relationship and that, although Merida is shown to be courageous and an excellent archer, ultimately it is diplomacy and repairing what is broken that wins the day, not violence or might.
X Chromosome Score: 5

Merida takes aim at the patriarchy in Brave.

Merida takes aim at the patriarchy in Brave.

Inside Out (2015). I’ve already expressed my thoughts on the sexism of Inside Out, especially the fact that Pixar tries to make Riley’s character as boy-friendly as possible. (Really, you could make Riley a male character with hardly any changes.) Furthermore, the protagonist, Joy, is like a manic bridezilla. I’ve seen commentary to the effect that Inside Out represents the societal pressures on women to be happy all the time and, well, okay, but then perhaps as long as they were making some of Riley’s emotions male they should have chosen Joy, the alpha control freak, to be a man. That could have turned this film into a great statement on the patriarchy. But, instead we get another frightening Pixar view of women—empty vessels guided by emotions they can’t control and don’t even understand.
X Chromosome Score:  2

For my complete Pixar rankings, see Ranking Pixar, or, Let the Arguments Begin.


* To pass the Bechdel Test, a movie needs to have 1) at least two women in it, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something besides a man.

Opera 101—Città Aperta

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Quando la ciociara si marita
A chi tocca lo spago e a chi la ciocia.
(When a girl from Ciociaria is married,
Some get the strings, and some the sandal.)

—Alberto Moravia, La ciociara (Two Women)

Cesira (Anna Caterina Antonacci) and Rosetta (Sarah Shafer) help the wounded Buckley in Two Women. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Cesira (Anna Caterina Antonacci) and Rosetta (Sarah Shafer) help the wounded Buckley in Two Women. Photo by Cory Weaver.

San Francisco Opera recently held the world premiere of Two Women, a new opera composed by Marco Tutino, based on the 1957 novel La Ciociara by Alberto Moravia, better known in the U.S. as a 1960 Vittorio De Sica film starring Sophia Loren. I had never seen the film, but I had read some of the original novel by the time we saw the opera last week so I was somewhat familiar with the basic plot. However, it turned out that the libretto took a number of liberties with said novel, which was a little distracting for me. (I highly recommend Moravia’s work by the way—he also wrote Il conformista, adapted by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1970.)

Plot in 101 words or less: Italy 1943–1944. Bombs are getting teenage Rosetta down so her mother Cesira, shopkeeper and black marketer extraordinaire, decides to hightail it to the countryside. There, the two women strip down to bathe in the center of town (of course) and—totally coincidentally I’m sure—befriend local intellectual Michele, who later helps them rescue an American soldier. This will soon bite them in the culo because Fascists are bad. Also, Germans are bad. And Moroccans. Moroccans are very, very bad. But not Americans. No, Americans eventually save the day—too bad it’s a day late and a dollar short for Michele.

While I enjoyed this opera more than most critics seemed too, that was probably because the music is more accessible than many modern operas. In fact, at times, it seemed more like a film score for the 1960 classic than an opera, especially with the use of pop songs like “La strada nel bosco” (which I love, but still). This impression was reinforced by the many projections throughout. I thought they were a bit much at times, but I suppose it was very helpful to have the background and history if you didn’t know it.

All in all, I thought the opera captured the spirit of the novel, if not the exact plot. I had just seen Anna Caterina Antonacci in Les Troyens, but Cesira was a very different role and I thought she was just as effective. I’m not sure I would have even realized it was the same person. I particularly liked the song she sang to her daughter after the rape. Sarah Shafer, who played Rosetta, had a lovely tone to her voice, as did Dimitri Pittas (in his SFO debut) who played Michele. Mark Delavan was a bit over the top as Giovanni, but I suppose that’s what the role called for. In short, while I’m not sure I would seek it out again, I’m happy to have seen it.

Finally, in other opera news, a shoutout to San Francisco Opera for the wonderful dinner at Alta CA and the box seats (with champagne at intermission) that La Maratonista and I won as part of the SFO Selfie contest last fall. In addition to being La Maratonista’s birthday, seeing Le nozze di Figaro was extra special because it was the very first opera we saw with our first subscription back in the fall of 2010 and I was happy to revisit it.

The incomparable Nadine Sierra as Countess Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro.

The incomparable Nadine Sierra as Countess Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro.

Opera 101—No Second Troy

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Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?

—William Butler Yeats, “No Second Troy”

A horse is a horse, of course, of course. Photo by Cory Weaver.

A horse is a horse, of course, of course. Photo by Cory Weaver.

While I can’t say I was looking forward to a five-hour opera, I can say that I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed San Francisco Opera’s production of Les Troyens (The Trojans) by Hector Berlioz (1803–1869). I have already expressed my admiration for Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique in this space, but this was an entirely different beast. Based on the first few books of Virgil’s Aeneid, Berlioz himself never saw a production of the first two acts (now known as “La Prise de Troie”/“The Capture of Troy”) although “La Prise” and “Les Troyens à Carthage”/“The Trojans in Carthage” were always intended as one epic whole.

Plot in 101 words or less: Cassandra tries to warn the Trojans “Look a gift horse in the mouth, yo.” But she’s a woman, so no one listens. Luckily, Hector’s ghost later repeats her warning, so Aeneas can take action and escape. The women of Troy aren’t so lucky and commit suicide. Hey, ancient Troy is just like corporate America! Aeneas winds up in Carthage where he woos Dido in a cave during a royal hunt, like you do. But he can’t be tied down, man, Italy awaits! So Dido burns his sh*t and stabs herself, swearing that Hannibal Lecter will avenge her with Chianti. Or something.

Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre. Photo by Cory Weaver.

While ostensibly the story of Aeneas, it is the women who are the real heroines of Les Troyens. And on that score, San Francisco Opera certainly delivered. Anna Caterina Antonacci as prophetic Cassandre was perhaps too mannered for my tastes, but she was very effective in the role. It was also great to see a more sensual Susan Graham—last seen in trousers as Xerxes in Serse, but here playing Didon, Queen of Carthage. Her duet with last-minute replacement Corey Bix as Énee (Aeneas) was beautiful. Rounding out the divine divas was my beloved Sasha Cooke from The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, playing the secondary role of Anna, Didon’s sister. While perennial bass-baritone Christian Van Horn also made an appearance as Narbal, Dido’s minister, it was Adler Fellow Chong Wang who stood out on the wistful “Vallon sonore”—sadly not included on the recording I borrowed from the library.

Susan Graham as Didon. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Susan Graham as Didon. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The orchestra was just as impressive: Led by former SFO music director Donald Runnicles, it consisted of ninety-five musicians (four bassoons!) in the pit and backstage. My favorite orchestral moments were the clarinet solo during Act 1’s “Pantomine: Andromaque et son fils!” and the tone painting during Act IV’s “Pantomime: Chasse royale et orage,” the first of many ballet interludes choreographed by Lynne Page. The choral work was exemplary as well.

While I wasn’t particularly impressed by the costumes by Moritz Junge, the sets by Es Devlin were striking—except for the final statue done in the same style as the horse, which I didn’t quite get the point of, and was a bit of a letdown after the magnificent Trojan Horse. And I feel I should note at this point that the season also began with a gigantic horse being set on fire in Norma, so, been there, done that, in more ways than one. Still one certainly felt one got one’s money’s worth.

Les Troyens à Carthage. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Les Troyens à Carthage. Photo by Cory Weaver.

It almost makes me sad I can’t sit through a second performance (the final one) at the War Memorial Opera House on July 1 at 6:00pm. Or stand, rather, since I imagine those are the only tickets left at this point.

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