Women Not Just On The Sidelines In Summer Film

Jul 23, 2013
Originally published on July 23, 2013 2:08 pm

The Conjuring” rules at the box office. The haunted house thriller pulled in more than $41 million in its opening weekend.

Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr finds the movie intriguing.

“It’s a women’s melodrama disguised as a haunted house movie,” Burr told Here & Now. “And the men kind of stand around on the sides and watch what goes on.”

Burr says women have been playing much more varied and interesting roles than the sidekicks usually found in summer fare.

Examples include “Pacific Rim, “The Heat” and “Only God Forgives.”


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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) Look, there's no one, there's no one here. See? Ugh, it's that smell again.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as character) Oh my God, it's standing right behind you.

YOUNG: A scene from the number one movie at the box office this week, the haunted house film "The Conjuring." The kids are scared and cute, but it's two adult roles that caught Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr's attention. As he's been noticing, it's been an interesting summer for women in films, women taking on more varied roles than ever. For example, in "Pacific Rim," a woman is an equal with the male in fighting aliens. Women are at the center of the buddy comedy "The Heat," and in "Only God Forgives" a woman who rules a drug ring. Not sure that's an advance, but let's ask Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr. Ty, welcome as always.

TY BURR: Thank you very much. Glad to be here.

YOUNG: Is this something that snuck up on you as you sat in those dark little rooms all summer, going...

BURR: Well, in the dark theaters.

YOUNG: In the dark theaters going to screenings?

BURR: Yes. As a matter of fact, it did, because it's summer time. I'm expecting - well, I'm expecting "The Hangover Part III," which started off the official summer season. And then as the summer progressed, I started noticing that a lot of movies, action movies, big blockbuster movies as well as small, you know, independent films, had really, really strong, unusual and sort of thrust-forward roles for women.

YOUNG: Well, let's take a look because one of the films - I happen to notice your review and I thought, I never heard of this and want some younger people to see it. "Pacific Rim," It looks like your typical smash-'em-up film, you know, at the outset, robots versus aliens, you know. But it's got a little bit more.

BURR: Well, you know, it's sort of like a "Transformers" movie with a bit of brain. And it is from Guillermo del Toro, who made "Pan's Labyrinth" and the "Hellboy" movies, which are actually very smart for comic book movies. He's a good filmmaker. He's a smart filmmaker. He's a witty filmmaker. And it's got a lot more going on. It's not quite as dumb as the trailers would have you think, and it has an addition to the sort of, you know, cowboy hero piloting the robot. It's got Rinko Kikuchi, who you might remember from "Babel" - she was Oscar nominated - as his co-pilot, and not really a love interest. It's sort of there, but you kind of realize they'll get to it when the movie is over.

YOUNG: And you're seeing that she's not a sidekick.

BURR: No. She's not a sidekick. In fact, she's got one of the major storylines in the film. And you know something's different when there's a big kendo battle between the hero and the heroine in which they sort of - she's trying out to be his co-pilot and she gets the best of him.


IDRIS ELBA: (as Stacker Pentecost) Enough. I've seen what I need to see.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: (as Raleigh Becket) Me too. She's my co-pilot.

YOUNG: OK. So there's that. You also pointed out that "The Conjuring" that we heard a little bit of is surprising because it, again, seems like a typical haunted house thriller, ho-hum. But then along comes some special women in that film.

BURR: Well, yeah, a typical haunted house thriller that's actually a fairly conscious throwback to '70s, you know, real estate horror movies, as I call them, "The Amityville Horrors." But it's not a particularly gory movie. It's more about suspense and chills. And the main characters - it really is about the women in that film. There's a couple - based on a real-life couple who actually investigated, you know, haunted houses. And Vera Farmiga, you know, a very well-regarded actress, plays the wife of the couple. And really her emotional struggle to deal with, you know, her clairvoyance and the ghosts and all this is actually a sort of at the heart of the film. And the woman of the house, the mother of the family of five daughters, is played by Lili Taylor, another well-regarded actress.

And the changes she goes through our horror movie changes, but also emotional changes. It really is - in a weird way it's a women's melodrama disguised as a haunted house movie, and the men kind of stand around on the side and watch what goes on.

YOUNG: And you problem is what?


BURR: My problem is - it's not a problem. It's actually a pretty good haunted house movie.

YOUNG: Of course you would like that. So that's "The Conjuring." What about "The Heat," the buddy comedy, Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, a lot of pre-released promotion, but also a lot of articles around that time saying that this was sort of the "Bridesmaids" effect, the fact that there was this realization that women could be just as, you know, sort of low life and have this kind of broad comedy the same way the guys could. Is some of "The Heat" spill-off from that thinking?

BURR: Well, I think the "Bridesmaids' effect you can really just sort of narrow down to the Melissa McCarthy effect. She came out of that a star with an Oscar nomination. And she is one of the main reasons to see "The Heat." She's very, very funny. I don't think you can have any dialogue quoted on your radio show because it's all foul-mouthed. I mean - but she partners very, very well with Sandra Bullock. They actually have real chemistry. They're very funny together - playing into their established schtick.

Sandra Bullock plays an uptight FBI agent, and Melissa McCarthy plays a foul-mouthed Boston cop. But there's an awareness in the script, in the playing, that these are - they're not just doing a "Lethal Weapon" in reverse drag. They're women professionals who are fighting an uphill battle against not only the crooks but also their male peers, who give them a lot of grief. So I mean it's not a statement film. The film is hardly a feminist film, although in its own way it's a splattery, foul-mouthed breakthrough, and it's actually quite funny.

YOUNG: Well, let's listen to a scene that we can listen to. This is the typical make-the-suspect talk by dangling him over a fire escape a couple of storeys up. Let's listen.


MELISSA MCCARTHY: (as Detective Shannon Mullins) I don't know. You've been (unintelligible). Lie to me again. I want to feel your body sliding through my delicate hands.

SPOKEN REASONS: (as Terrell Rojas) OK. OK. It's at a warehouse on Summer Street.

SANDRA BULLOCK: (as FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn) I'm almost disappointed.

REASONS: (as Terrell Rojas) Get me out.

BULLOCK: (as FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn) All right. Let's pull him up.

MCCARTHY: (as Detective Shannon Mullins) No, wait. I'm not kidding anymore. I can't lift him up.

BULLOCK: (as FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn) What?

MCCARTHY: (as Detective Shannon Mullins) I can't lift him.

REASONS: (as Terrell Rojas) Lift my ass up.

BULLOCK: (as FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn) Just tuck your head and relax your body.

REASONS: (as Terrell Rojas) Lady, what the...

MCCARTHY: (as Detective Shannon Mullins) Cut the crap.

REASONS: (as Terrell Rojas) Get me out. Get me out.

BULLOCK: (as FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn) He's all right, right? The metal car broke his fall?

YOUNG: So it sorts of plays on the fact, actually, that they are not strong enough to hold him up.

BURR: Yeah. But I could see Mel Gibson doing that as well in a different way. The comedy really comes from a variety of angles. Yeah, they're lady cops. They're lady professionals. They're also both basket cases. I mean, this is not high art. It doesn't tried to be high art, but it gets its laughs and makes its points in its own splattery way.

YOUNG: We mentioned there's another film in which there's a drug ring queen. She's played by Kristin Scott Thomas, a long way from "The English Patient." Let's just listen to a few seconds of that.


KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS: (as Crystal Clifton) He's coming after me next. Please, Julian, just this once, protect me.

BURR: That's, again, one of the few quotable lines that you can have from this film. This is very much an art house film. Now we're getting away from the blockbusters into the independent films. This is the movie directed by the man who made "Drive," the Ryan Gosling film, and it stars Ryan Gosling. And it's a Bangkok set, very, very artful, very stylized revenge thriller and not everybody's cup of tea, quite violent. And Ryan Gosling is the sort of existential gangster hero who doesn't say much.

And then about a third of the way in the movie, in comes Kristin Scott Thomas, you know, that elegant borzoi from the art house films with a blonde wig, fake eyelashes, a trashy wardrobe. She plays his mother. She is the meanest mother you've ever seen, and you can tell she's having a great time letting her hair down. And she's almost like Lady Macbeth of the Jersey Shore.


YOUNG: OK. That's "Only God Forgives," starring Kristin Scott Thomas. You want to mention a couple of other art house films with strong women's roles you notice.

BURR: There's "Before Midnight, "of course, with Julie Delpy playing the other half of the relationship, opposite Ethan Hawke. There's a tremendous documentary, "Twenty Feet From Stardom," that I've been talking up - about women backup singers from the '60s and '70s. There's "Francis Ha" with Greta Gerwig as sort of a hapless single woman in New York City.

Upcoming there's a new Woody Allen movie called "Blue Jasmine," and it's one of his better ones. It's more dramatic. It set in New York and San Francisco, and Cate Blanchett gives a powerhouse performance as a Manhattan Upper East Side queen who's lost everything. Basically her husband was Bernie Madoff and has to move in with her sister, her poor sister. It's got a little bit of the Madoff story. It's got a little bit of "A Streetcar Named Desire," which sounds like an odd mix, but Blanchett makes it work. She gives this performance as this upper-class woman who is losing her mind that is really striking, really moving, really pitiable. And I think we'll probably talking about it at awards time.

YOUNG: OK. So that's one to look forward to, "Blue Jasmine." Boston Globe film critic, Ty Burr on the strong female roles he's noticed this summer. Ty, thanks so much.

BURR: Sure. Thanks for having me on.

YOUNG: And that brings us to the end of the hour. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.