margaret qualley once upon a time in hollywood

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: is it still surprising when Quentin Tarantino decides to rewrite history?)

Sitting in the theater, waiting for the lights to dim, I couldn’t help but wonder how Quentin Tarantino would surprise me with his latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. (Tarantino, and the marketing campaign, would argue this is his ninth feature film, but I am firmly in the “Kill Bill is two movies” camp, so I’m calling it his tenth.) I’d heard the mostly positive reactions out of the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, and was generally intrigued not only by the cast, but the 1960s setting. I was a bit cautious, though, because I kept wondering if the movie would end with a mirror of the history it captures, or by revising it. In the end (and this is where I warn you about major spoilers), the movie revises history in ways that are unfortunately more predictable than I’d hoped.

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Mulan Trailer

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: Mulan looks like the better approach for future Disney live-action remakes.)

I spend a lot of time going to bat for reboots, remakes, and relaunches. When done well, they bring a whole new wave of excited viewers to a property. They’re also pretty critical for keeping franchises alive. Yeah, we all have that purist friend who looks down their nose at anything that’s even close to a spin on something they loved growing up, but they’re super gatekeepy and we all avoid talking to them for a reason. Folks like that also get to enjoy all of the things that a new wave of fans help provide, like new merch, conversations, and renewed interest from old fans. 

But what happens when the idea of a remake gets a little too literal? In the first trailer, Disney elected to do almost shot-for-shot remake of a key scene The Lion King. Now, it’s easy to see what they were going for. The original film is universally beloved and considered pretty close to perfect by a lot of fans. Don’t mess with perfection, right? Thing is, you probably just shouldn’t bother remaking the movie if that’s going to be the case. Heck, just re-release the original as a cinematic event and save yourself a few boatloads of cash! 

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Midsommar catharsis

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: Midsommar is one of the most cathartic movies ever made.)

Cinema has always had a way of making the real world make more sense to me. Throughout the years, I’ve identified with the heroines of rape-revenge cinema and the women of Tarantino films. When reality prevents me from getting closure, I can sometimes find it in film. However, I didn’t expect to find catharsis in Ari Aster’s Midsommar, especially given how traumatic Hereditary was. I expected to leave the theater feeling disgusted and raw, but I left elated. By experiencing my own trauma again through the beautiful and twisted lens of Dani’s story, my years-old wounds were scrubbed clean. I left feeling as if I had just been through two and a half hours of intense therapy. 

Midsommar is a challenging film. It’s heavy – full of grief, death, pain, and genuine horror. There are moments of levity scattered throughout as the movie riffs on its own absurdity, but it isn’t an easy experience. Aster has said in interviews that the movie is protagonist Dani’s fairy tale, and in a way, it felt like my fairy tale. I identified with Dani (Florence Pugh) in several ways, and our shared name didn’t hurt. Like Dani, I have an anxiety disorder. I have a terrible fear of abandonment. At the age of twenty, I moved thousands of miles away from anyone I knew besides my then-boyfriend, whose behavior mirrored her boyfriend Christian’s enough to be eerie. It wasn’t Sweden, but it wasn’t home either. While our experiences obviously weren’t identical, the interactions between Dani and the people around her mirrored my own. Her trauma legitimized my own. (Spoilers ahead.)

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Big Little Lies Courtroom Scene

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: no one involved in Big Little Lies knows a single damn thing about how family law works.)

Now comes Jessica Mason, having served as a family law attorney for many years and being of mostly sound mind, and MOVES that Sunday’s episode of Big Little Lies be stricken from the record due to its flagrant disregard for courtroom procedure in the name of drama. In the interest of clarity and justice, petitioner will present her case going forward in lay terms in the hope of providing context and understanding of these offences for the Audience.

Also: major spoilers for the most recent episode lie ahead.

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(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: Hollywood needs to get better about transgender representation.)

When the 2019 GLAAD Studio Responsibility Index was released in May 2019, the most disappointing news was that not a single major studio film featured a transgender actor.

While it’s true that there was transgender representation in mid-major releases, the same could not be said of the studios.  The report examines the output of the following studios: 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate Entertainment, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, and Warner Brothers, and four of their subsidiaries.  Additional distributors include A24, Annapurna Pictures, Bleecker Street, FilmRise, Gunpowder & Sky, IFC Films, Magnolia Pictures, The Orchard, Orion Pictures, Samuel Goldwyn Films, Strand Releasing, and Wolfe Releasing.

While it’s admirable to mention those films from the smaller distributors, their releases just don’t have the reach as the mainstream studio films.  Strangely enough, the blurbs on Annapurna nor Bleecker Street mention the casting of transgender actors in The Sisters Brothers and Colette, respectively.  GLAAD rightly takes Colette to task for the casting of a cisgender woman as a transgender man let alone not using the preferred name.

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Us behind-the-scenes

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: Jordan Peele’s Us explains itself too much and that’s a big problem.)

Note: Us hits Blu-ray and DVD today, but this article assumes you have already seen it. Spoilers ahead.

Mysteries are hard to write. A good mystery needs a compelling opening hook and a satisfying or shocking conclusion, but more importantly, it needs to parcel out the right amount of connecting information, at the right pace. Can the audience follow the story? Do they get ahead of the characters, or solve the clues right alongside them? Do they get confused? Is that intentional or unintentional?

Jordan Peele’s Us is horror first and social commentary second, but it contains more than a little mystery. Opening with young Adelaide discovering a “mirror” version of herself, it continues to puzzle the audience with the years-later appearance of Adelaide’s complete mirror family. Mirror Adelaide, labeled Red in the credits, calls these people the Tethered, and her exact origins and motivations are revealed over the rest of the film. Twists abound.

Us’ script is structured in a way that seems designed specifically for today’s age of YouTube explainer videos, “Things You Missed” articles, and Reddit fan-theory boards. And yet, even understanding that the film demands active, participatory thought from its audience, the film’s story is missing clarity. But Us’ issue isn’t that it doesn’t explain itself enough.

Rather, Us explains itself too much.

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aladdin clips

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: the live-action Disney remakes feel ashamed to be musicals and that’s a problem.)

Indulge me in a bit of a thought experiment. Think, for just a second, of the films of the Disney Renaissance. Films like Aladdin, The Lion King, and Hercules. Leave aside what you think of these movies — maybe your favorite is The Lion King, or maybe it’s Beauty and the Beast. Think about these movies, and specifically conjure up one thing that these movies share, a common element that binds them. While the Renaissance-era films are quite beautifully animated (primarily by hand), what really unites them is their music. These films all feature memorable, show-stopping, Broadway-style songs. You may not love them all, but you know them.

Now think about the recent wave of live-action remakes. And think about the new Aladdin.

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(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: Quentin Tarantino is many things…including a writer of amazing female characters.)

Director Quentin Tarantino recently came under scrutiny for refusing to answer a female journalist’s question about the number of lines he wrote for Margot Robbie in his latest, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He “rejected [her] hypothesis” that he neglected to write enough for Robbie’s part. Robbie defended the decision, saying that she enjoyed working within the restraints of a low-dialogue role.

While Tarantino is by no means perfect, it feels disingenuous to call him out on a lack of dialogue for Robbie when he has written some of the more complex and powerful female characters in American cinema. The performers entrusted with these characters brought them to life. They don’t shy away from the more difficult aspects of their characterizations. Their flaws make them relatable, and ultimately more human.

My own relationship with Tarantino’s filmography is complicated. I cannot reconcile Tarantino endangering Uma Thurman on the set of Kill Bill: Volume 2. I worry about his knowledge of Weinstein’s predation. I have serious concerns about how he treats people both on-set and off. Despite my conflicting feelings on the man himself, it’s impossible to deny the impact his characters made on my life. By writing female characters who were flawed, traumatized, and stuck in dangerous hyper-masculine worlds, he gave me characters whose trajectories felt more like my own. Tarantino’s women were survivors, and I was just learning how to be one.

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(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: people say they want original and fresh movies and, well, they seem to be lying.)

How many times have you heard people complain about Hollywood not having any new ideas? In my case, it’s “a lot.” You hear it especially in the context of blockbusters, where everything’s the third or fourth or ninth entry in a long-running franchise. But what this complaint misses is that original blockbusters (or attempted blockbusters) do get released, on a fairly regular basis. They’re typically not significantly worse than many franchise films, but they’re different. They’re unfamiliar. And more often than not, they crash and burn at the box office.

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(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon plays a non-binary character in John Wick: Chapter 3 and that means more than many people may realize.)

As a non-binary person who loves cinema, I’ve resigned myself to the reality that I won’t ever see my gender represented in mainstream popular culture. There have been major advances in binary transgender representation – particularly for trans women, though there’s still a long way to go there too – but for those of us who don’t fit neatly into the categories of men and women, there isn’t a whole lot out there specifically meant for us. I find myself identifying with the masculinity of some characters, the femininity of others, and the gender-bending expressions of specifically queer art often scratches an itch for seeing gender-nonconformity represented in the works I’ve spent my life adoring and analyzing. But I never get to see a person who looks like me in the artistic medium I love, at least not without some major caveats.

But John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum offered me something new. But we’ll get there in a moment.

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