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Oz_The_Great_And_Powerful=Print=Poster===WDSHE_WorldwideMeet Oz. Oz is a con-man magician with more lies than magic tricks up his tattered and patched up sleeve. With his slicked-backed hair and charming smile, he easily woos lovely, naive ladies with laughably over-the-top and cheesy stories about heroic dead grandmothers and music boxes bequeathed to him, which he’d love to give to the woman of the hour. Yet for all his ego, the one girl he truly has feelings for has moved on and, even while cheating his one and only friend/partner and taking almost all the profit for himself, his business isn’t raking in the money he wants. That’s when, in the middle of a storm, Oz is chased into a hot air balloon to escape some unhappy boyfriends and he is transported to the whimsical world of Oz. Here, he meets wide-eyed and innocent witch, Theodora, who quickly becomes convinced that Oz is a powerful wizard prophesied to save the people of Oz from the terror of an evil witch. Stuck in this strange, new place, the dubious Oz’s journey begins as his path crosses with two more witches and a war between good and evil erupts. Say hello to the basic set up of Oz: the Great and Powerful.

As a kid, The Wizard of Oz was a much watched movie in my household. I remember popping in the old, clunky VHS tape and sitting down to enjoy the magical tale about a girl from Kansas and her tiny dog, swept up in a tornado into an alternate world where there are talking scarecrows, lions, and tinmen, roads of yellow-brick, good witches and bad witches, cities of dazzling emerald, and (who could forget?) flying monkeys. Therefore, it was with excitement and little bit of apprehension that I saw a modern film was in production which was supposed to act as the prequel to that beloved old tale. I knew Oz: The Great and Powerful would never recapture the charm of the original; however, I did not know that by the end of the movie–scratch that–about fifteen minutes into the movie, I would be battling two very different emotions–laughter and anguish–and neither of them good.

Putting aside other, more technical issues I had with this tale, one of the biggest short-comings were the four major characters, Oz and witches. Oz, who in all respects is an egotistical playboy with delusions of grandeur and wealth, is somehow the person who everyone in the film looks to as their only hope. As for the witches, Oz: the Great and Powerful may boast three female characters who in every right should be powerhouses in this story, but like the movie’s protagonist, it quickly becomes obvious that is little more than a pretty facade filled with hot air. Popped were my hopes of even decent female characters, when, minutes into the film, Oz is shown telling sweet lies to a gullible girl who believes even the most pathetically blatant lies. For a guy whose only skill seems to be deceiving others, Oz isn’t very good at it; rather the people around him, especially the women, seem particularly dull. This theme only continues and deepens once Oz reaches, well, Oz.

Thedora, a witch who is shown to have terrifying power, is reduced to a naive girl who latches onto and depends upon Oz like a lost puppy; she falls for his lies, hook, line, and sinker, and, while Oz has only just arrived in this new world and has no powers, he must save the witch from Oz from a flying monkey.  To add insult to injury, her character development, which is motivated entirely by something Oz does and makes all her major actions throughout the story either passively letting the guy take the lead or a reaction to a guy she’s hung up on, is something that makes this feminist cringe.

Glinda, a woman shown to be sharper than the average Oz women since she’s able to see threw Oz’s lies and one of the sole leaders of resistance against the wicked witch, is similarly stripped of any meat as a female character. Despite her intelligence and power as a leader, she turns to Oz to take action against her enemies as if she were unable to do something herself. Yet when one looks at the two characters, a witch with magical powers and a group firmly behind her or a man who has only just come to this world with only lies in his arsenal, one wonders why Glinda seems powerless without Oz in the lead. In the end, she’s made into the maiden with a pure heart and little substance under her fluff, a pretty accessory.

In this world of powerful witches, the only ones who seem able to lead themselves are the “evil” ones. This old-fashioned idea, which is plain to see in Disney princess movies and fairy tales, frames women who have power like queens and witches as power-hunger vultures or twisted souls and puts them in juxtaposition to the pure heroines who embody traditional ideals of what a good girl is. Yet these girls the viewers are supposed to cheer for are the ones who end up helpless and dependent on a male character. We aren’t supposed to like the female characters who want power or take action themselves. On top of that, the female characters in Oz: the Great and Powerful seem to exist to highlight Oz’s “greatness,” whether it’s his power to save them from their troubles and danger or showing his prowess over the evil ones. Oh, and did I mention that the Wicked West of the West gets a sexy upgrade? Because, you know, just because you’re overflowing with malice and busy sending flying monkeys out to wreak havoc doesn’t mean a girl should neglect to show a little sex appeal. oz-witch

There are many good tales about apparently unethical characters who must struggle between doing what’s right or what’s easy, doing something selfish or doing something selfless, and sink or swim making their choice. These moral dilemmas show inner battles that all people experience. Yet Oz: the Great and Powerful speaks of egotistical fantasies where a blowhard lives in a world all too ready to fan his ego; a world where people (especially women) line up to hang on his every empty word, where everyone waits with breath held for one man to take action, and even three powerful witches with magic at their command and kingdoms at their feet are blown away by a dashing con-man with nothing by parlor tricks and lies up his sleeve. Even the name, “the Great and Powerful” reeks of a puffed up ego. Oz (and, in fact, the description of the movie) claims he is on a journey teetering on whether Oz will be simply a good man or cross the line into greatness, but throughout the entire film, I found myself wondering how great, or even good, enter into this lackluster tale where sexism runs so thick it seems to have been taken straight from the era of black-and-white pictures the movie tries to emulate in the first fifteen minutes.

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What do you get when you mix a rebellious teenage princess, a mother/queen trying to do what’s best for her country and her daughter, talk of a political marriage, a rowdy bunch of men, and magic? Well, frankly, you get trouble, but you also get Pixar’s newest movie, Brave. After months of anticipation, hanging on the hope that this new princess tale would present audiences with a strong princess fit for modern times, does it pass the test?

Brave is set in Scotland in what appears to be the medieval ages. Merida is a headstrong princess who would like nothing better than to practice her fine archery skills and ride her horse through the forest in search of adventure. But life as a princess isn’t so free; princesses have obligations to their family and people. Her mother, Queen Elinor, knows this and has been careful in trying to teach Merida to uphold those obligations, starting by just getting her to behave like a proper princess. Though mother and daughter haven’t seen eye-to-eye on these matters, life has gone on peacefully — until it’s announced that Merida must now fulfill her duty to marry someone she’s never met for political reasons. Unable to convince her mother against the idea, she takes things into her own hands and sets out to change her fate. But will she bring ruin to her kingdom by fighting tradition?

When I first heard the plot for Brave, I was instantly hooked. With a heroine who is not only shown to be skilled in archery fighting against customs and a plot line sporting phrases about changing her fate Before this story really took off, I couldn’t help but think that this could be something similar to Disney’s Mulan. But the movie surprised me in more than one way.

Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios

As you may or may not have picked up on from the plot introduction, Merida and her mother are at odds. Truth be told, my heart sank a bit at the beginning of the film because of this. “Is this going to be another one of those stories where a mother and daughter butt heads?” I wondered. After all, fiction has had a habit of throwing bad mother-daughter relationships in our faces a lot. Yes, moms and daughters may not always see eye-to-eye and some–maybe many–butt heads frequently, but do all the mother-daughter relationships in fiction have to be like that? We see lots of nice father-son relationships in fiction after all. Heck, often moms aren’t even a crucial part of fictional stories. So, when a mom character is actually present, does she always have to be shown as some annoying nag?

That’s why I was extremely happy when it became clear that the minds behind Brave had different ideas for this mother-daughter pair. In fact, although Brave sounds like an epic fantasy from a brief overview, at its heart, this movie is actually about the relationship between Merida and her mother. The dynamic between the two starts off looking stereotypical, but, unlike other stories with this set up, explores the relationship further. While I think we can all understand Merida’s wish to be free, she goes a little too far and forgets her responsibilities to others and how her actions affect them. Queen Elinor, on the other hand, is so focused on the customs and the responsibilities to be flexible and see freer alternatives. Thus bring me to my first surprise; there’s magic and a little action, but Brave is more a journey of Merida and Elinor coming to understand each other rather than a journey filled with fights and mortal danger.

Elinor and Merida are great female characters outside of this mother-daughter relationship story as well. As is evident from the basic storyline, Merida is a whole different kind of princess than the classics. She’s bursting with energy and independence, making her Disney princess predecessors pale in comparison. Queen Elinor is a levelheaded, well-spoken ruler who commands just as much (or more) respect from her subjects as her husband the king. Together the two make a powerful duo of independent women. And isn’t it nice to see a romance-free Disney princess movie for once?

Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios

So what’s the other surprise of Brave? While the basic story sounds epic, it’s actually on the lighter side as plots go. Pixar lightens the mood with a witch who runs a woodcarving business, magic that turns people into bears, and clansmen–er, actually the men in general–who largely act as comic relief. To some older fans who are familiar with Pixar’s work, this may be a bit disappointing. Some reviewers are saying this lighthearted feel is not up to the deeper stories of past Pixar films. I don’t follow Pixar’s work so I can’t compare that too much, but I will admit that the movie felt lighter than Pixar’s Up and Disney’s Mulan and The Lion King for some examples. Despite expecting something more epic myself, this didn’t keep me from enjoying Brave.

In the end, like its heroine, Brave breaks the traditions. Everything that defines classic princess movies like Cinderella and Snow White are thrown out the door to give way to a fun fantasy with female characters, relationships, and messages that get both thumbs up. Regardless of whether you’re six or sixty, if you’re interested in any of that, go see Brave.

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After waiting in a line that made it look like an opening night premiere, I have finally made it to see Snow White & the Huntsman at my local dollar theater. I think it’s safe to assume we all know at least one telling of the classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Perhaps the most well-known take on this fairy tale is the one done by Disney, full of cute animals, singing dwarfs, and pathetic women. If you’re expecting Snow White and the Huntsman to be anywhere close to that, abandon all hope now for this retelling is a dark tale brimming with action and the women at the front of it all.

Our story begins with Snow White as a child. The kingdom is at war and her mother dies, breaking her father’s heart. But soon enough, the king does find another love, on the battlefield no less. After a battle, the king and his men stumble upon Ravenna, a beautiful woman who had been held captive by the enemy. The very next day the king marries Ravenna. As the audience can guess, this isn’t going to be a very happy marriage and in fact, that night the new queen kills Snow White’s father, takes over the kingdom, and imprisons our heroine in the dungeons.

Skip forward into the future and Snow White has come of age in her grubby cell. Now she’s a threat to the queen, but before Ravenna can kill her, Snow White manages to outsmart her captors and makes a daring escape. She’s got to make it to the rebel army before the queen’s men find her. With that, a Huntsman is hired and this fairy tale really begins.

I’ll be honest; in general, the movie was just okay. It wasn’t bad. It was entertaining enough to pass the time, but not mind-blowing. After one viewing, I can’t quite pinpoint what all was lacking, although my initial instinct is that it’s the characters. Yes, the main cast was fairly interesting and likable enough, but there was no great connection to them that the best of stories create nor much great character development. It felt shallow at times. (On that note, for those of you looking for a prince more developed than that of the original, the “prince” of this film is only slightly better.) Therefore, while it was a fun movie to see, it made no great impact on me character-wise — expect one. The queen.

Rankin/Universal Studios

What do you do when you want to make a one-dimensional character who is defined by her obsession with beauty and her heartlessness interesting? You develop her character by exploring the why’s. Why is the queen in Snow White so bent on beauty to the point that she’s willing to kill for it? Well, in Snow White and the Huntsman it’s because she’s learned that beauty is power and has used it to survive in a harsh world controlled by men. As she reveals near the beginning of the movie, she’s seen men choose women, use them until they age or become boring, and then throw them away. She’s not about to be used like that. Thus, Ravenna learned to betray the men who were charmed by her before they betrayed her. It is through this method that she becomes queen.

But it’s not just beauty that the queen has. She also has magic which has sustained not only her most treasured beauty but makes her immortal, although not invincible. When Snow White comes of age and becomes “the fairest of them all,” her very existence threatens the queen’s magic. The blood of someone who was pure and fair gave the queen her magic and it can also take it away. For this reason the queen wants Snow White dead — she’ll have the princess’ heart so that she can gain more magic and at the same time she is eliminating a serious threat to her power and to her throne.

Rankin/Universal Studios

Insights such as these add tremendously to an annoying tale of women pitted against each other over nothing more than youth and beauty. Suddenly, the witch/queen who was jealous of an 8-year-old’s youth and beauty is turned into someone much more interesting and even sympathetic. Yes, sympathetic. The queen is cold and unable to trust others; she believes men will betray her and girls like Snow White are threats. She’s obsessed with keeping her beauty and youth because without it, she’s lost something she’s relied upon as her greatest influence and her magic with it. It was a brilliant move to make Snow White feel some sympathy and sadness for the queen.

As for Snow White, she is a much more interesting Snow White than the classic. She’s resourceful and a survivor, something that is best shown at the beginning when she makes her grand escape. Unfortunately, like most of the characters, there was something missing; after one viewing, I felt like her character lacked depth. Despite this, I still like what the movie was trying to do.

Snow White and the Huntsman is not perfect and in general doesn’t show much riveting storytelling or characters, but provides an intriguing and refreshing take on an old classic that adds interest to an entertaining movie. If you’re lucky enough to have a dollar theater showing it, check it out. If not, it’s certainly worth renting.

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SPOILER WARNING!

Albert Nobbs tells the tale of a butler of the same name working at a ritzy hotel in 19th century Ireland with a big secret; he is, in fact, a she. Albert has spent the past decades living a careful facade of being a man, painstakingly saving every shilling she receives in tips under a floorboard in her room. However, even the best kept secrets can be broken in an instant, which is exactly what happens to Albert when her employer orders her to share her room with a painter who has come to do a job for the hotel.

This is the premises of Albert Nobbs, a movie that was recently released on DVD here in the USA. As a fan of dramas and historical pieces, not to mention someone who has read a number of history books on cross-dressing women (seriously, I have), I knew this was a film I could not pass up.

The movie starts out well, quickly immersing viewers into the prim and proper world of 19th century Europe with its strict social classes as the servants are preparing for another day of work at the hotel. The scene feels reminiscent of something out of Downton Abbey which gave me hope that I was in for a treat. Glenn Close portrays Albert as the perfect butler and shy, closed-off “man” well. Therefore, when Albert comes face-to-face with her first problem of the movie in the form of the painter, Hubert Page, I felt sympathetic and drawn in. How in the world was she going to handle this man who now knew her secret? Now, I’ve read other stories where a man discovers a woman is a cross-dresser and, after vowing to keep her secret, becomes friends with her and then romantically interested. Albert Nobbs, however, was not going to play this game and instead hits the audience with a twist; Albert isn’t the only woman masquerading as a man. At this point, I had no idea where the movie was headed. Unfortunately, it appears that neither did the people making the movie.

The next three-quarters of the movie seems odd. As I not a film expert, I can’t tell you if it was the directing, the acting, the writing, or all of the above, but whatever the case, I felt the story got a bit confused after a great start and I began to feel completely detached from the characters. Albert befriends Hubert and discovers her friend is a married lesbian. The next thing you know, Albert decides she wants a wife, too. Yet her interest in this other woman, a maid working at the same hotel, comes out of nowhere and never feels real. By this point Albert appeared almost alien to me. Her odd behavior would have made sense if the situation was reversed and the maid was in love with Albert the man versus Albert supposedly being so in love with this maid, but that was not the case. As for this maid who Albert is supposedly interested in, she obviously has zero interest in Albert, romantically or otherwise, and comes off as rather annoying. Even toward the end when viewers were supposed to feel some sympathy for her, I felt nothing. In fact, I didn’t really believe or feel anything for most of the characters as the movie went on.

To top it all off, an almost Charles Dickens-like villain appears and plots to steal Albert’s hard-earned money for himself. I have nothing against that kind of plot, but in this case, I felt the plot description and first quarter of the movie had misled the audience as to what kind of a story Albert Nobbs would be. As I said, the story feels slightly confused and I believe that created two very different feels for the beginning of the movie and the rest. I had expected more of a character journey, a woman trying to figure out who she is after living as a man for so long. If you read the description of the plot put out on movie review websites and movie rental sites, it speaks of the restrictions placed on women of that time and how Albert’s meeting with Hubert leads her to want to escape the facade of being a man. Instead, it became a story of bad guys trying to swindle the good guy.

Despite waiting eagerly for it to come to the theaters, I hesitated to see Albert Nobbs after I saw the reviews were just so-so. Now that I’ve seen the movie myself, I will say this: while Albert Nobbs is nowhere near the worst movie I have ever seen, in combination with characters that I couldn’t connect to and a plot that just couldn’t seem to decide where to go, I have to admit I’m glad I didn’t spend the money to see it in theaters. If you’re looking for an unusual period drama with all of its flaws, you might want to check it out. If you’re like me and are looking for the perfect movie, well, I think you can guess.

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Art of Hayao Miyazaki and many of his characters.

For those of us in the anime (japanese cartoons) community, the name Hayao Miyazaki is like Steven Spielberg is to film lovers: pure genius. The name almost certainly (if not certainly) gives avid fans a guarantee for a fantastic ride with each frame so detailed a person could hardly look at it as anything less than art and stories that play our hearts like skilled musicians, leading viewers along perfectly whether through hardship or great, whimsical fun. But shining just as brightly among the jaw-dropping art and heart-felt stories are Miyazaki’s characters, many of whom are strong females and none of which are to be missed, be they “villains” or “heroes.”

One of my absolute favorite Miyazaki films is one of his earlier films by the name of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind created in 1984 (it’s actually an adaptation of a manga of the same name also created by Miyazaki). The story centers around an inquisitive young woman in a postapocalyptic world ravaged by deadly toxins. The people of this world set some time in the future share it with a race of giant insects that are largely feared by the people. (You know how people react to an itsy-bitsy spider in their house? Just imagine how they’d feel if that spider was as big as them!)  Of course, our heroine, Nausicaa is more curious about these creatures than she is afraid and often ventures into the forests they inhabit, living a peaceful life in her quiet valley. But everything changes when a plane from another country crashes in Nausicaa’s people’s valley.

Introduced through this story are many great characters, but the two I’ll focus on are the protagonist, Nausicaa and the antagonist, Kushana.

Nausicaa makes a wonderful heroine for many reasons. Of course, as I said, Nausicaa is adventurous and courageous; She enters forests filled with toxins and potentially dangerous insects with her gas mask on and curiosity as her guide, exploring and searching for new materials to use. But Nausicaa isn’t the reckless and often stupid type either. There’s a brain under that skull and she doesn’t waste it. Nausicaa is inventive and quick to realize her situations which helps her more than once throughout the course of the story. She can also use a gun and a sword, but her strength doesn’t come from that; in fact, one of Nausicaa’s greatest qualities is that she could use violence, but instead struggles for peaceful solutions (although not in the holier-than-thou, blind-to-reality missionary sort of way).

Wow! Imagine a female character that holds your attention even though she's completely covered up!

The other thing I love about Nausicaa (and many of Miyazaki’s other female protagonists) is that she can’t really be placed under any stereotypes. She’s certainly not a girly girl, but I wouldn’t call her a tomboy either and Miyazaki never resorts to cheap, sexy heroines. I believe that this is partly due to the fact that Nausicaa wasn’t created in a fashion that limited her to her gender; in other words, her gender is not her identity. Nausicaa is Nausicaa, simple as that. She’s not a cookie cut out, but a unique, one-of-a-kind character who truly seems human.

Kushana, too, is unique so it should come as no surprise to hear that she’s an opposite to Nausicaa in many ways (of course, maybe you guessed that from the fact that she’s the antagonist). Kushana shows some of the same strength and resilience as Nausicaa, but while Nausicaa has almost a child-like purity to her at times, Kushana is a hardened adult. She’s lived (a little) longer than Nausicaa and from the looks of it, it hasn’t been a picnic as she already has a number artificial limbs (again, Miyazaki isn’t vain about his female characters) and a toughness well-developed.

The other major difference between Nausicaa and Kushana is that while Nausicaa vies for non-violent options, Kushana seems embedded in the violence. She’s in charge of the foreign military that invades when that mysterious plane crashes in Nausicaa’s valley. Kushana can be quite ruthless in contrast to Nausicaa’s mercifulness, taking hostages and fighting until it truly is over. Yet Kushana isn’t some half-crazed villain with no soul and a cackling laugh like nails on a chalkboard; another one of the strengths of Miyazaki’s films is that in some ways, there are no “villains,” only characters with different methods or objectives. This gives the stories a deeper taste like chocolate with a touch of cinnamon; it’s good, but only gets better with that bit of contrast.

And you know what just hits these two characters out of the ball park for me? Both Nausicaa and Kushana are princesses! Now that’s the kind of princess we need to see more often. So, thank you Miyazaki for making real, three-dimensional characters who aren’t restricted to the stereotypes of their gender (female and male) or other set roles that show us what real characters are made of.

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