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Strong Women, Weak Films

Recent articles have lamented the sorry state of the film industry at the box office this summer, with sales reportedly 12% lower than last year and theater companies reporting lowered earnings or even losses (The Wrap, LA Times). This isn’t especially surprising given the weak run of films over the last few weeks, across genres, and despite the involvement of a trio of Oscar winning actresses.

This week’s “The Glass Castle,” despite significant name recognition, largely served as a reminder of how much better last year’s “Captain Fantastic” was. Watching Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts as an alcoholic father and co-dependent artist mother raising their family in a series of run down squats isn’t as entertaining, or uplifting, as watching Viggo Mortenson as a self-sufficient widower raising his family in a mental and physical bootcamp of excellence in the woods.

Recent Oscar winner (for “Room”) and native Sacramentan Brie Larson plays Jeanette, the second of the four children in “The Glass Castle,” in her high school and adult years. She’s the central character of this true story and the adult embodiment of the author of the book the film is based on. But the more memorable performance comes from Ella Anderson who plays Jeanette in the middle range of years that we see. Hardship in the moment, and as a coming of age experience, makes for richer subject matter than reminiscing about it and facing down those demons. Comments heard after the film, in praise of Larson, reminded me of 1996’s “Shine” for which Geoffrey Rush won the Oscar for playing the older version of the character who seemed better portrayed on screen in his teenage years by the under-appreciated Noah Taylor.

“The Glass Castle” caused me to walk away thinking about what that kind of childhood must have been like, and the emotional scars it would leave behind. But I couldn’t help feeling that simply thinking about those circumstances was more interesting than watching the film. It’s also a film that ends with photos and video of the real family members, undermining the casting choices and making a documentary seem like it might have been more interesting again.

A week earlier, another Oscar winner Halle Berry (“Monster’s Ball”) played a mother who follows the kidnappers of her young son in the creatively named “Kidnap.” It feels like a spiritual sequel to 2013’s “The Call” in which Berry played a 911 operator who talks a girl through an abduction, but the characters are different and here it’s Berry in the action role. Think “Taken,” only in a domestic context and with a Mom who doesn’t have a certain set of skills.

The direction of “Kidnap” is pedestrian, which is a big problem for a movie that’s largely an extended car chase, with some of the worst cinematic driving sequences I can recall. I actually sat in the theatre, through several scenes, detached enough to think how much better it all might have been if it had been made by “Baby Driver’s” Edgar Wright.

Berry spends most of her time onscreen looking outraged and desperate, both of which are appropriate given the circumstances. But if I’d wanted to watch an Oscar winning actress displaying those emotions for 90 minutes, I’d have preferred to watch her in an interview, discussing the sorry state of roles for women, rather than in this schlocky spectacle that somehow involved 18 producers (Berry included) and turned into little more than a surprisingly good commercial for Chrysler minivans.

And that followed a week in which a third Oscar winning actress, Charlize Theron, starred in “Atomic Blonde,” about a female spy revealing the identity of a double agent in Berlin. It’s probably the best of the three films discussed here, but that’s a low bar.

It’s a film plagued by gratingly bad accents and unlikely fight scenes that put Theron in the thick of things, with characters who might have more in common professionally with James Bond but behave more like John Wick.

It’s refreshing to see Hollywood backing women in leading roles, but it’s a shame that strong female characters onscreen seem to equate to women behaving like stereotypical male action heroes, as in “Atomic Blonde.” How about a heroine who out thinks the men around her without necessarily having to outpunch all of them too? There’s some twisted irony in films about women that provide such roles by pandering to male action-packed tastes.

Audiences, and these leading women, deserve better.

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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