Arts and Entertainment

Finding Summer Sunshine in ‘Tammy’ Beyond the Muck and the Fat Jokes

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By: Joey Nolfi

Twitter: @joeynolfi

What makes a movie worth something? In the blistering months of summer, we find ourselves flocking to the theater in droves to see them: the good ones, the bad ones, the everything-in-between ones. We accept the notion that this is a supposed to be a time for relaxation, a time to drift away from the 40-hour workweek and into the soft caress of increasing temperatures and cool breezes in that wide open space that’s in between your front door and your air-conditioned sedan.

But, being the good cinephiles that we are, we shut ourselves away in tiny, cramped, darkened little theaters and let others create the fantasy for us. We still associate film with escapism, just the same as we hold onto the coded image of summer as if it still bears the same fruits that three months of nothingness ahead of you in the waning days of May did when you were 15 years old.

Of course, the reality for adults is much different. Summer is simply supposed to be synonymous with easy, but the film industry often kicks into overdrive during these months, pummeling us with male-driven tentpole after male-driven tentpole in a cycle that’s driving its top-heavy films into the ground, pushing “minority” characters and stories to the side, and testing just how much audiences will put up with (grosses for 2014’s summer flicks thus far trail last year’s grosses by 15%, according to Deadline Hollywood) en route to a monolithically-male American film culture.

In an industry where real female characters in front of the camera are rare and a female eye behind the lens is even harder to come by, it’s unfortunate that a film like Tammy—one undoubtedly meant as a lighthearted tread through fields of breezy summer tastes that appeal to the masses—lands itself amid an inescapable storm of web-based chatter from all possible perspectives. People don’t want to let the film be as it is without all the extra baggage it may or may not be carrying with arms of its own. Still, we talk; “Tammy is a film about equality for big girls” some say. “Can we please stop talking about Melissa McCarthy’s weight?” others, like Entertainment Weekly’s Karen Valby did here) chime in. Tammy is being pulled in a million different directions so much that feels like we’ve run the course with it even though we’re still a good 24 hours away from its official opening.

What is true “worth” when talking about a summer blockbuster, then? If we tip so heavily to the side of male taste, is there room for anything else—even, say, a subpar overall film like Tammy—to be worth something in bits as opposed to as a whole?

Heavy discourse might be valid when talking about a film that’s worth something in the eyes of the masses, which Tammy will be if good word of mouth carries it past the modest $30-$40 million holiday haul it’s poised for, though we seem to be more preoccupied with throwing our own words around prior to seeing the actual film than seeing Tammy for what it is; a ridiculously uneven spectacle that digs its own holes that are similar in size and size and scope to the ones dug by others it so desperately seeks to climb out of. But, in the age of the internet court, where everyone’s voice is falsely validated by their ability to fit it into a 140-character space, criticism becomes something that altogether precedes content, and it’s dangerous to glob a film like Tammy into a grey box in an industry that so blatantly separates gender into black and white despite its shortcomings.

We have to pick and choose what we pull from films like Tammy, which stars Melissa McCarthy as a 30-something slob with an ex-job, soon-to-be-ex-husband, and an excommunication from a reality, as she attempts to capitalize on her newfound freedom with a road trip to Niagara Falls with her grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon), though they veer far off track and the film careens into all-over-the-place territory as Tammy embarks on a true journey of self-discovery. McCarthy’s script (co-written with her husband, Ben Falcone, who also directed the picture) feels like a series of aimless vignettes that wear the same comedic gimmicks that McCarthy has relied on for three years now so extremely thin that the barely-there thread connecting everything feels as if its about to snap and coil in on itself if one more self-deprecating fat joke or improvised run-on slithers out of McCarthy’s mouth.

Take it like any subcultural film movement appropriating the normative culture’s use of words that are derogatory (the “f” word, the “n” word), but McCarthy’s use of fat jokes at first doesn’t seem like a harnessing of control, but rather feels like a repetitive reliance on an easy gag. The laughs are there, but the punch isn’t. For that reason, it’s nearly impossible to leave the discussion about weight and gender at the door, namely because the film is more than attributable to McCarthy’s own doing: she wrote the script, after all, and her husband called the shots on set. That doesn’t do much for objectivity on their part, and it makes for a film that feels more self-indulgent on McCarthy’s part than it does self-revelatory for the character she’s created on the page and on the screen…for the first half, that is.

So, the overwhelmingly negative response the film is receiving from initial screenings is warranted for the most part: the film’s first half is a silly romp that does very little to elevate itself above the rest of the summer muck. Again, we must be careful, as so rarely are we given female characters like the ones in Tammy that the film surrounding them takes a backseat to the importance of their existence as characters in the first place. The film’s back half, however, turns the nose of the sinking ship toward the sun.

For starters, it’s become quite common to observe that Melissa McCarthy’s body type doesn’t fit in with the normal blueprint Hollywood has drawn for women to build upon, and when lines like “you didn’t fuck the ice cream man just for the ice cream, did you?” and “I kind of got into the pies” punctuate a film that includes scenes of an overweight woman struggling to climb over a small counter top and falling to her knees after dropping three feet off the top of a table, what is an audience supposed to think? McCarthy begs us to view her body as a comedic tool, and while that makes it impossible to leave discussion about its star’s body out of the equation, it does indicate that there is a consciousness to her methods.

xmelissa-mccarthy-susan-sarandon-tammy.jpg.pagespeed.ic.KmtdTVSL3lTammy is a studio production aimed at pleasing the crowds, and it will do that on some level, but the film also explores things you’d never see in the male-driven industry today, thanks largely in part to McCarthy’s power as a box-office draw and audience darling. There are female characters (even lesbians!) that are defined by more than their sexuality and/or their relationship to a man—in a Hollywood production! Though the lack of objectivity and more creative license given to McCarthy in terms of script and performance speaks to her power as a female star with a box-office draw, her decision to include the fat jokes in her own script indicate a comfort and an acceptance of her body. That’s obvious. It’s just wholeheartedly discouraging to see her reducing herself to fodder for trailers with material that’s just not very creative, and altogether makes her body something that we have to think about as something someone has to “accept” in the first place. Is there something wrong with you if you aren’t Melissa McCarthy but have Melissa McCarthy’s body type and no outlet to show off your self-deprecating humor?

Sure, we can say that it’s unfair to talk about women’s bodies and focus on the weight, but Melissa McCarthy’s films seem to fixate on it more than the rest of us do: the jokes are at the expense of her weight and wouldn’t work on a skinny person. McCarthy doesn’t use these jokes as a crutch beyond the first half of the film or so (they’re peppered throughout the entire thing, but ultimately don’t define it), she’s just playing up her assets, and she treats her body as such; she doesn’t create a character who’s disgusting, but rather someone who’s in control of losing control of her body for comedic effect.

It’s this consciousness of what makes McCarthy “different”—both as someone who doesn’t fit the “normal” mold of Hollywood actresses and as a powerful woman in an industry dominated by men—that makes aspects of Tammy accessible in a way we’re not used to seeing in a big-budget Hollywood production. There’s a deliberate effort to construct a non-mainstream, non-typical woman and give her the agency that beautiful, rail-thin leading ladies in other films don’t even get. Without spoiling anything, we do see Tammy getting a choice along her path to romance, the freedom from hinging her life’s decisions on the pursuit of a man, valuable, complex relationships with women based on things that don’t have to do with men, and the power to be the agent of her own story, not dangle from the hands of someone else. This is a story about women helping women, even if the beginning bits distracted us along the way.

So, what does Tammy want to be, and what does it end up being? It’s a line we can’t clearly draw because the film itself is so structurally misshapen, but we can appreciate what little glimmer there is to be extracted from the earnesty of its all-poweful female star and screenwriter. We can’t blindly accept films like Tammy as a whole simply because there are elements that subvert the norm. A mediocre product from a woman, starring a woman who contrasts what other studios are pushing doesn’t make it a great film, but you can make a dry, crusty, dirt-browned potato shine like a juicy red, freshly-plucked tomato; you just have to tilt it a little and lift it into the sun for closer inspection.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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Oscar Season Diary #11: Will ‘Maleficent’ Shatter Angelina’s ‘Unbroken’ Year?

The Academy is all about patting itself on the back.

Its membership advocates for the individual, whittling down category after category until one soul is left standing in the carnage with a gold weapon and a bloody PR trail behind them. The Academy has its favorites, it has its darlings, and it most certainly values its opinion as the sole Gospel of popular cinema. Time and time again, we see repeat winners in the “lesser” categories (just ask Edith Head, Colleen Atwood, or Leon Shamroy), and even some in the more prominent ones (refer to Meryl Streep, Hilary Swank, and Ang Lee). Singularity is recognized. Stars and icons shine through the soupy sameness of everyone else at the Oscars.

The film industry, however, is gradually shifting away from the individual and toward the collective. Franchises and young adult adaptations have replaced movie stars as genuine box-office draws. The business has always been to make money. The masses are the target. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in an over-sharing, over-entitled society, the quality of what it means to truly be a star with massive pull rides on your shareability.

Shareability is an old creature that’s evolved into a full-fledged monster in the contemporary era. Trade publications have always attempted to bring the stars to the people, but it’s only today that the people can take control of stars by more than just speaking through dollars spent at the box-office. It’s undeniable that we’re living in the age of the “darling.” We don’t have movie stars. We have Jennifer Lawrence, whose ability to generate fodder for BuzzFeed articles and user-made, crowd-shared .gifs becomes a more valuable commodity than a powerhouse skill set. The woman is talented, but it’s our consumption of the superficial aspects of her persona that make her a consistent, comfortable, warm personality, not a movie star. The dynamism simply isn’t there.

Angelina Jolie, perhaps the last remaining titan of the box-office, is in a unique position as a star who’s pulled back from her earlier days as a tabloid spectacle yet maintains a high profile. Her latest film, Maleficent, is her first live-action role in nearly four years, and is set for release this Friday. Six months later, her sophomore directorial feature, Unbroken, will hit theaters. She has the rare pleasure of starring in a summer tentpole and directing a historical biopic that’s destined for awards season gold. She is the star and she’s in control of two separate films that have the potential to shape the rest of her career in monumental ways.

She’s proof that the public wants to consume stories by, about, and starring individual women (or maybe just starring her), though she’s built a career for herself based on her physical appeal to men. She’s never been in a Best Picture winner or nominee, though she has one Oscar under her belt (as well as one other nomination), but still her popularity within the industry is difficult to gauge. Despite her titanic star power and popularity with the masses, Angelina Jolie faces a different struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of the Academy when it comes time to recognize her work behind the lens; despite her accomplishments, she’ll be held to the standards of a fading movie star whether that’s what she is or not.

On one hand, Maleficent represents everything that’s driving the film industry into the ground. It’s a huge summer blockbuster with a bloated budget riding on the bankability of a star who was unbreakable six or seven years ago, but who’s ability to solely headline a $180 million picture on the contemporary front has yet to be proven.

We’ve watched the likes of Johnny Depp (multiple times), Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Ryan Reynolds, and Channing Tatum crash expensive films into the flop-laden abyss over the course of the past year. It’s nearly impossible for a sole individual to carry a picture these days, yet studios keep pushing the men and their guns to the forefront in the hopes that something sticks.

It seems glaringly obvious that it’s women (like Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock) who can drive a film to box-office gold on name alone. McCarthy and Bullock did it twice in one year (together with The Heat and individually with Identity Thief and Gravity, respectively). The difference with those films is that no one expected them to make as much money as they did; everyone is expecting—even banking the future of female-driven films—on whether or not Angelina Jolie can have her cake and eat it too.

The pressure is certainly on for Jolie, but her bankability isn’t the only thing at stake; her status as dynamic representative of a well-rounded industry force is as well. If Maleficent fails (let’s say by studio standards that means earning less than $40 million in the US in its first weekend), it’ll be attributed solely to her. The recent failures of big-budget films are almost unanimously attributed to their stars, even though these films exist and are pushed as star vehicles when the industry around them simply doesn’t foster a climate where the star is an entity any longer.

It’s easier to sell a franchise based on a young adult novel or a sequel to the latest Spider-Man on familiarity alone. American films capitalize on the pop culture relevance of broader entities (Marvel, DC, Godzilla, family animation, etc.) versus stars. Star personas benefit the individual, not the films as a whole.

Where does that put Angelina Jolie in terms of Oscar season? Let us not forget, box-office matters for women at the Oscars. Bridesmaids would never have found its way into the race without a gross of nearly $200 million domestic. Women have to prove themselves to Oscar voters with a set of gorgeous legs (ripe for the sexualizing) that carry them to box-office gold as well. Disney mounted a healthy campaign behind Maleficent, which crescendoed into a dull roar over the course of a year or so. It’s a film that has a firm, pre-established base of fantasy fans and Disney aficionados alike, and one that can easily rope in families (it’s rated PG) and Jolie fans (she’s the clear focus of the studio’s marketing campaign) together. 

If you’re calculating Unrboken’s potential appeal to Oscar voters, it’s a checkmark in every category. Beautiful, previously-decorated member of The Academy in the director’s chair? Yep. Written by past Oscar winners (and Academy darlings of popular adult cinema) Joel & Ethan Coen? Uh-huh. War drama with a male-driven narrative that’s based on historically-rooted, wartime events? You bet. Much like The Hurt Locker, the film is the kind of picture the Academy wants to see a woman direct; one about men overcoming obstacles in a macho-man setting. Unlike The Hurt Locker, however, its appeal is broad and (presumably) free of controversial material that would implicate any aspect of American culture (God forbid).

You simply can’t get any more Oscar-friendly than Unbroken. After the Academy pulled their version of a “radical shift” in tone for Best Picture, they’ll actively seek out something that falls in line with tradition to offset the divisiveness of 12 Years a Slave. The entire industry objectified Steve McQueen’s film as “the one about slavery,” and fixated upon its racial implications versus seeing what was underneath versus acting based on a casual glance. Unbroken is Academy meat and potatoes. It’ll be fantastic, plug-and-play, make truckloads of cash, and establish Jolie as the sole woman in a race dominated by men.

There are whispers here and there about the performances Jolie was able to get out of her cast as well. Miyavi, in particular, who plays the film’s antagonist, is receiving a great deal of pre-release buzz. Films like Unbroken, as of late, have an almost surefire chance of being recognized in the acting categories, especially when there’s a nice, meaty, showy role for an evil male character. Christoph Waltz won for his role as a Nazi officer in Inglourious Basterds, as did Forest Whitaker for playing notoriously vile Ugandan President Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Heath Ledger collected a posthumous Oscar for playing the diabolical Joker in The Dark Knight, and Javier Bardem saw gold on Oscar night for his role as a sinister hitman in No Country for Old Men. Miyavi plays Matsuhiro Watanabe, war criminal and abuser of POWs, which gives him ample opportunity to milk Oscar voters with theatrics and lots and lots of yelling.

If the performances in Unbroken are Oscar-worthy, it will only help Jolie’s case in the Best Director category. It’ll be no surprise if buzz picks up for other members of the film’s cast once the film opens, as Jolie will likely be able to connect with them as an actor herself. The film also has cinematographer Roger Deakins on board, who has an astounding 11 Oscar nominations without a single win. He’s at the point where he’s getting into the race on name alone (hence his nomination for the critically divisive, un Academy-friendly Prisoners just last year), and this could be his year to collect his career Oscar for his work on Unbroken.

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Any way you look at it, Unbroken is a glimmering piece of Oscar bait—and perhaps the smartest thing Angelina Jolie has done in her career—waiting to drop right into the Academy’s lap. The Academy will see an opportunity to help carry Jolie’s career beyond the front of the camera and into a successful one behind it into her later years. They couldn’t give themselves a more self-congratulatory pat on the back than by decorating her for Best Director or her film for Best Picture. What better way to complete their self-made circle than to turn their sexy, objectified, Oscar-winning action star into a sexy, Oscar-winning filmmaker?

It’s poised for success, but if Maleficent bursts, Unbroken will endure the barrage of shrapnel. Jolie’s second directorial effort (the first is the little-seen, poorly-received In the Land of Blood and Honey) comes plated with hater-proof armor. Unbroken is ready for the Oscar battle, but it’s not ready to withstand the stigma around the “Jolie falls short of expectations with Maleficent” type of headlines. The internet machine is waiting to pick at the carcasses of anything that unravels for any reason. Again, box-office and perceived “success” is extremely integral for women in the film industry. They’re taken seriously when they make films about men that make money, or films with broad appeal that make money. Maleficent will carve Jolie’s path to (and through) the Oscars.

It’s unfair that Jolie’s appeal to the white male Oscar voter will be predicated largely by her sex appeal, which she has distinctly tried to de-commodify as she’s deliberately pulled herself out of the spectacle of the tabloid circus; it will either help her or hurt her—especially with the Director’s branch of the Academy and the Directors Guild of America, both of whom are never kind to actors turned directors (just ask Robert Redford).

Jolie will also have to deal with the Kathryn Bigelow effect. The majority of white male Oscar voters will view Jolie’s gender as the defining characteristic of her awards season run. The “been there, done that” mentality will kick in, they’ll remember that Kathryn Bigelow was their posterchild for gender acceptance, and not feel obligated to vote for Angelina because the conquest has already been had.

As usual, Jolie has everything working in her favor at the moment, and she’s heading into the Oscar race with a powerful army of elements working in her favor. Unbroken seems painfully obvious as an early-season frontrunner for an Academy that likes to stroke its own ego. How easily, though, the perfect exterior could tumble down with one fell swoop of the American public and where they choose to place their dollars this weekend.

Whether Maleficent lives or dies and whether Unbroken sustains its potential through to Oscar night is still up in the air, but if her career has shown us anything at all it’s that she’s the star, and the conversation will be—and always been—about Angelina Jolie.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Jane Fonda Talks Loving Pittsburgh: Exploring a Film-Laden City Amidst Its Cultural Revolution

Jane Fonda on-set in Pittsburgh (photo from her website)

So, Jane Fonda is here in Pittsburgh and just wrote this incredible blog about the city and how Russell Crowe isn’t crazy.

I mean, that sounds crazy in itself, but I’m all about relinquishing personal judgments when a Queen speaketh her truth—especially when it concerns showing such love to my hometown.

She’s been in the city for the past week filming scenes for Fathers & Daughters alongside the likes of Crowe and Amanda Seyfried (rumor has it that Octavia Spencer has also joined the cast). It does read sort of like an episode of “This American Life: Jane Takes Pittsburgh,” but she makes heartfelt observations about her co-stars, the film, and the wonderful city around her.

She talks about Crowe having the charm of a “little boy,” and how quickly he can “slip” into the pain and depth of his characters, but Jane also takes us on a journey through phrases one could only accept coming from the mouth of Jane Fonda. If spun gold were to take the shape of blog-based text, it would be the following: “My friend, Quvenzhane Wallis, is also in the film.” Does 10-year old Quvenzhane also describe 76-year old Jane Fonda as her friend? Oh, the conversations they probably have. Does Mrs. Wallis pick Jane up when Quvenzhane asks to go to the mall? Does Jane sit in the back seat? What does Mrs. Wallis’ face look like when she’s forced to remember she’s driving Jane Fonda around each time she looks into her rearview? The follow-up questions I have about this statement are for another article entirely.

All kidding aside, I don’t necessarily take the Crowe-praising bits 100% seriously (I’m not saying Fonda is fibbing, I just think even Russell Crowe knows not to spill his boiling pot of crazy onto the lap of a Queen/dignitary of sisterhood like Jane freaking Fonda). The post’s existence in the first place is rather odd, as it seems almost like Crowe’s PR had something to do with the nicey bits about him (come to think of it, what Fonda described about the actor above [re; “slipping” into his character, his boyish charm, etc.]  is merely a description of, well, “acting” in general).

What I do appreciate about her post, however, is its candidness and the way Fonda speaks about Pittsburgh.

It’s short and sweet, though she posts scores of photos, bits of history from her own recollection of having been there once before in the 70s, and textbook facts in addition to her personal observations. She’s done her research, and is engaging with the city versus letting it serve merely as her backdrop.

The city hosted a score of A-list talent over the last few years. From Anne Hathaway and Laura Dern to Tom Cruise and Chloe Sevigny, Pittsburgh has been a hotbed of celebrity activity for the better part of the past decade. Dozens of films and television shows have filmed here for networks like The Disney Channel and A&E to studios like Warner Bros. and Lionsgate.

Tax credits are the main incentive for productions to shoot here, but studios aren’t the only ones benefitting (I wrote a front-page article for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazeete about what happens to local businesses during production, here).

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The term “Hollywood of the East” has been slapped on to the city for quite some time now, and I’ve always had an issue with it. While certain films host part (The Dark Knight Rises) or all (Those Who Kill) of their production here, any shred of a potentially lasting implication on the city’s identity as a film-conscious production hub is packed onto trailers and shipped out when the crews leave. There’s not a lasting film presence (aside from a few studios in the city–namely the 31st Street Studios) and I’d love to see that change, but the city’s national identity needs to before anything else can.

Everyone remembers Sienna Miller’s trashing of the city when she tried to get in to a local bar without an ID (remember the article where she called us “Shittsburgh”?), but it was a momentary blip on the city’s otherwise spotless track record of hosting major stars and productions. People like Jane Fonda embracing the city is key to taking the appropriate steps in the right direction to make that happen.

The city is in the midst of its own little cultural revolution. There are things going on here that surprised even me, someone who was born and raised here, someone who’s love for film and the arts was fostered by the vast array of local festivals, theaters, and artists that served as a foundation.

I spoke with Neepa Majumdar (professor of Film Studies at the University of Film Studies, where I graduated from in 2012) about Pittsburgh’s place within the industry at large. It’s considered a “C” market, falling anywhere between 20th and 70th place in most population-based studies (we won’t get into metropolitan statistical area or mere urban population, that’s for another article), which essentially means that during Oscar season we don’t get all of the major nominees until their January/February nationwide expansions, and the latest indie and art house films generally reach us a month or two after their New York and LA premieres. There’s a market here for art and independent cinema (including its production, just check out something like the Steeltown Film Factory screenwriting competition by clicking here), but the market for foreign films is expanding—for Bollywood films, in particular.

“You can see a Bollywood film here often at the same time it premieres in India.” Majumdar told me.

That speaks volumes about the diaspora population in a city like Pittsburgh, and you can see it everywhere from the theater marquees at AMC Loews Waterfront (as of this publication, Bollywood comedy 2 States has four scheduled showings throughout the day) to the multiple Indian restaurants lining a neighborhood like Oakland.

The city still has identity issues—not from within, but it terms of outside perception. We’re still the “Steel City” to so many—still the ugly, browning, graying, cloud-covered, smog-infested river country lining the muddy waters of the Ohio. The city is a confluence of culture, art, and diversity far more than people give it credit for, and it’s fantastic to see such a legendary, iconic part of one of the city’s growing industries take the time to write so passionately about our city with such assurance. She’s sure she loves the city and has taken the time to explore it and share her love for it on a such a public forum.

On a final note that needs no justification other than exemplifying her appropriation of rap culture, I’d like to give a shout-out to Jane Fonda’s shout-out to Starbucks:

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The tribute proves everything I’ve been saying about my city, one that’s on the verge of finding its place within the natural urban stew; Pittsburgh is good, but hasn’t yet been able to own the spotlight by itself.

Thanks for helping us along the way though, Jane. I’m glad you’ve had a ball.

Click here to read the full blog on Jane Fonda’s official website.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi