Essay, Movies & TV

Is ‘Mad Max’ Furiously Feminist — or Just the New Normal

1 Comment 30 May 2015

Hardy, Theron: jerky tough., no words wasted.

Hardy, Theron: jerky tough., no words wasted.

I am among the first people to wave the feminist flag. I believe in female empowerment, the right to choose, and even our right to choose and make mistakes. The simple definition. I pay my tab. But I’m uncertain whether it’s a step forward to hail the futuristic sci-fi film Mad Max: Fury Road, which I reviewed here, as a feminist film. I agree with the Guardian’s Jessica Valenti to a point. And she made many good ones Including this:

The movie, as has been said by others, is glorious: beautifully shot, fun, fast-paced and, yes, feminist. And if the popularity of the film is any indication (global cumulative box office is already $227m) this iteration of Mad Max shows that movie audiences are thrilled by its female action heroes, a plot that shows the necessity of dismantling patriarchies and its “leading” man who supports the real hero – the leading lady.

What I would like to argue, both with and against my colleague Valenti, is that the film has taken a step toward normalizing the images of women we see on the screen. That isn’t just feminist, it’s humanist. (Oh, and good business, too.) Charlize Theron, who plays the female heroine Furiosa opposite Tom Hardy’s burly Max, has a three-dimensional role with a past, present and hopefully a future. That she has one arm suggests a story that remains largely untold here, a past hinted at and shaping the character she reflects in those steely blue eyes beneath the damn-it-all buzz cut.

It is like we have become so starved for strong, full female characters in the desert of Hollywood mainstream movies that we jump on Furiosa as feminist. And, of course, she is and kudos to (male) director George Miller and screenwriters Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris for normalizing their stories. I embrace this, although we live in a ridiculous pop cultural amnesia zone that forgets that Hollywood gave us the great Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire, or Claudette Colbert in The Palm Beach Story or Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind or Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz or Joan Crawford and Bette Davis and ….

And we don’t want to overlook the fact that while there is a small posse of crones (those invisible women over 45) that supports Furiorosa in her battle against, well, ok, the Patriarchy (or just the yukky bad guys), there is also a harem of bulimic, bee-stung lipped supermodels to satisfy the core audience. Lord knows where these chicks got all that conditioner in that futuristic wasteland but I’ll accept that lack of continuity. But remember how Miller introduces the breeders in a male fantasy display as these stunners of many colors wash their long, skinny limbs (and, for some, sensually bulbous pregnant bellies). The dystopic wet-T-shirt scene reminded me of the supermodel gas station frolic in Zoolander.

So, yes, Jessica Valenti and the many more women  including my sisters at the feministmadmax Tunblr who stride up to call Mad Max a feminist film. For me, it’s another step toward normalizing the images of women on screen to reflect the badass beings that we are — from the time we are young fillies to our wise crone-ship.



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Eat Your Veggies, Skip the Magic Mushrooms – and More Advice for Sending Your Kid to College

1 Comment 28 August 2014

Buster Keaton Goes to 'College'

Buster Keaton Goes to ‘College’

A week ago Thursday, we drove our son to college six hundred miles south where they serve grits for breakfast in the dining hall. Worried much? As a 55-year-old film critic, I’m not as desperate as the mother of a freshman leaving the nest in the current hit Boyhood, who laments that all she has ahead of her is her own death. While you don’t need to be that fatalistic, if you make the transition correctly, it should be harder on you than it will be on your kid.

Here’s how to ease your separation anxiety:

1. Surrender Your Sex Police Badge: Sure, you can slow down in the CVS condom aisle, but be cool. That ship has probably sailed during high school. If your child has watched Game of Thrones like my son, he knows more about fornication than you did after your honeymoon.

2. Become a Social Network Stalker: Is he dating? Has he grown sideburns, or joined a cult like the cheer squad? Refrain from commenting: It’s not stalking if they don’t see you hovering.

3. Eat your Veggies, Skip the Magic Mushrooms: We all did our share of drinking and toking and tripping in college – at least I did. I’d like my son to do as I say, not as I did – but he already knows what I did. While ‘just say no’ may be too much to expect – replace it with ‘just don’t get caught.’ If you must, experiment with trusted friends, in safe environments.

4. Chuck the Emotional Baggage: This is their leap into the unknown – not yours. I remember pushing my mother out of my Berkeley dorm the second we’d dumped my stuff. That may have been the one time in my entire college career that I refused a free meal. I turned out well and even brought her two grandkids to kvell from.

5. Avoid Wail Watching: Be prepared for tears. Your own. Do not expect to cry it out together. Remember when you left your kid at day care for the first time and wept all the way from the jungle gym to your Brooklyn stoop? Cry on the way home.

6. Disconnect: Don’t expect that daily phone call or text. Let them go. Just like you took your hands off their bicycle years ago and watched them wobble toward the horizon and achieve balance. You can reach out regularly but let them set the pace of their responses – the goal is to build their confidence, not undermine it.

7. Unplug the Pressure Cooker: Don’t start discussing grades before the first day of school. Yes, by their sophomore year you will be nagging your astrophysicist about their report card but now navigating new friends, purchasing razors at the drugstore and surviving a smelly roommate obsessed with techno-pop is enough to keep them busy.

8. Listen, Don’t Preach: If your son or daughter calls home depressed and doubting and overwhelmed, let the kid vent. That’s why he is calling you – and that’s a good thing. Afterwards, he will probably feel comforted. You will be up all night. Shoot a quick “feeling better?” text the next day just to confirm the cloud has passed, then pop a Xanax.

9. Consider the Nest Half Full Not Half Empty: Don’t freak out! Remember you really do like your spouse. That’s why you married him.

10. Catch the Boomerang Babies: Remember that they are not leaving home forever. Given the economy, not only will your offspring be bunking in their old room, but their spouse and kids might one day, too.

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Independence Day 2012

No Comments 04 July 2014

Just two years ago we lit sparklers on my father-in-law Randy’s lawn in Alexandria, Virginia. Lizzie and I had bought them earlier in the day at the roadside superstore that sold everything from smelly glow worms to weapons of mass destruction. We went old school: sparklers. We gathered in the trim front yard that was already igniting with fireflies, the air smelling charred. The sounds of bigger, grander bombs bursting in air at bigger parties and somewhere, in the distance and over the Key Bridge, on the mall.

Inside the split-level ranch, Randy, the retired Air Force General, was spending his last summer. The family patriarch was probably watching TV, the fireworks from the Capitol, although he was even less interested in the tube than he had been. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand what was going on because of dementia, it was that he was getting so much closer to being gone. Another July 4th, a movie’s plot, who did it and why? It did not matter.

I love these pictures because they capture the three people I love most in the world, grainy, summer. It’s as if the photos imprint the humidity and how beautiful a warm Southern night can be, how they feel infinite. I love the way the sparklers register on Lizzie’s iPhone. Even my husband, Ranald, allowed us to take a snapshot of him, and that put him in the picture. I have always loved sparklers, the fire and crackle and the way they bring people together — lighting them, watching them, the little disappointment as they sizzle out. Get another one. And another. Until the box is empty.

A few days later, in the Subaru on the long drive to Upstate New York, I must have told the kids that Grandpa wasn’t going to last long. They did not like hearing this. I was such a downer. Why should they? I thought I was preparing them for the inevitable, but what can prepare them for that loss? We all loved him so much.

I’d been married over 25 years by then. My feelings had altered from the awe and a little fear when Randy first picked Ranald and me up at Union Station before we were engaged, to love and need and a peacefulness together I wouldn’t have thought possible when we first met.

I came of age among lefty Jews during the Vietnam War. My parents taught me everything military was bad at the same time they told me to finish my milk. It took a long while for that conditioning to dissipate. In the end, if anybody would ever have my back, the General would. If there was a blackout, or an invasion, or a zombie apocalypse, or a night with a bottle of Macallan on the table, I wanted him there.

Looking at these pictures, you see a happy family, a boy, a girl, a husband, a wife somewhere not wanting to be in the picture, but having purchased the artillery and marched us outside and away from the television. I see them, too. But I also see the lights in the windows, the house by the Potomac that I returned to for over a quarter of a century, from a young naiver-than-I-knew woman overly attached to her parents, to a wife and mother of a son and daughter with a strong marriage built brick by brick in joy and tragedy.

I see the last Independence Day we spent at that house in what was nearly an annual event. We went South again at Christmas and Randy was already in the hospital. We saw him once more: we waited outside his room on Christmas Day while he argued with the nurse. She came out, a little Filipino, flustered but still in charge, and we apologized for him, then filed in.

Randy was wearing those awful hospital gowns that defy dignity — that last uniform he would ever wear while alive. His eyes were unfocused without his glasses, his hearing iffy without his aids. But he was still commanding for a little man, still tied us together. We stood in a row at the foot of his bed like the Von Trapps. The little grandchildren now grown into adolescence. Randy was lucid but this was one ridiculous battle he just didn’t want to fight anymore. He died before the New Year.

And while we are all still in mourning, the beauty of having had him as part of my life is how much he came to mean to me, despite my upbringing, and to those around him. He was a man in full, not a guy in flip flops and cargo shorts. I still see Randy in my husband’s smile, in his square head, in the way Ranald is so firmly rooted in reality.

Randy exemplified the best in the American military man, the fighter pilot, the West Point grad, that had fought for our independence. He missed WWII but flew missions in Korea and Vietnam.

Tonight, when it’s dark and bursts of fireworks flash above the tops of the trees, I will raise my shot glass to the sky, and remember our fun times on the Fourth, with you Randy, when we were a little lit, like sparklers.

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My Writing Process Blog Tour: You Are What You Write

No Comments 16 June 2014

Vuillard painting of a woman writing

Vuillard painting of a woman writing

My good friend Susan Kouguell invited me to join the writing blog tour. Susan and I have been collaborating for a long time. I remember sitting in her flat on 247 Mulberry Street, the one that shared a bathroom wall with John Gotti’s notorious Ravenite Social Club. We were discussing my first novel, Girl Empire, and coming up with a way for her to build a real business out of her talents as a screenplay doctor, well before that cottage industry existed. That novel was never published, although Playdate was. And her company, Su-City Pictures, was born. You can learn about her company, and writing process, at .

Susan invited me to answer the following four questions:

  1. What am I working on? I am writing personal essays, specifically one with a currently crappy title about my son’s final vocal concert at the Kent School, and how surprisingly emotional that was for me, particularly since I had expected to be financially settled and established by this point — and I am not. So, his graduation and fresh start in the world comes at a particularly fraught time in my professional journey.
  2. How does my work differ from others of its genre? In this case, I’m not sure it does. I have never been a writer that adapted readily to preexisting formats, and so what I am trying to do is to learn how to take my prose and my emotions and experience and find a genre delivery system that will make these pieces more readily marketable. I have succeeded in the past, with a  “Lives” column in the NYT Magazine and an essay in O: The Oprah Magazine, but I have not been able to get sufficient traction.
  3. Why do I write what I do? Because I am a writer. Period. Since I am a professional online film critic and journalist, which I also love, I tend to work on shorter pieces that put me in touch with my poetry and personal emotions. Sometimes the two intersect,  as in my recent Yahoo! Movies piece “How Watching The Fault in Our Stars with My Teenage Daughter Brought us Closer” I am also working on a novel and revising a memoir but those projects require a stamina and focus that is often challenging when earning a living and raising children.
  4. How does your writing process work? In the ideal, I get up in the morning without putting a child on the school bus, make a cup of coffee and then write my very best, most focused, easiest prose. With essays, I have started taking a class with Susan Shapiro, to crack the personal essay code. And, so, that morning process can now be pulling an essay apart at the seams, so carefully stitched, and cutting toward the poetry. This is a new stage. In fact, I recently told my husband that I feel like an artist who has achieved a certain level of ability with her god-given talents and hard work, and now I am reaching for new colors outside of my usual palette: vermillion, sunflower yellow.

Here is the first of three writers whom I’ve invited to join this tour…they will be posting on June 23rd:

Carla Stockton is a lifelong on-and-off New Yorker, who, after living for 13 years in exile in the southwest desert, brings a returnee’s perspective to the city. She is a student, a parent, a grandparent, a blogger and an avid traveler. and also


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Essay, Movies & TV

At the Watercooler: Noah rains Franchises from ‘Star Wars’ to ‘LOTR’ to ‘Harry Potter’

No Comments 01 April 2014

This movie makes me crazy!

This movie makes me crazy!

While it rained cash – and bad puns – on the Russell Crowe biblical epic “Noah” over the weekend with $44 million, Darren Aronofsky’s box office winner boldly went where a lot of famous movies had been before. From Star Wars to Harry Potter, the references rose like the waters of an angry God.

1. “Star Wars:” Yoda, is that you? As Noah’s Grandpa Methuselah, Anthony Hopkins has a Yoda wizened wise man look with wispy hairs blowing over his age-spotted pate. Between his puckish glances and deep-thought pronouncements, Hopkins clearly watched Yoda’s appearance on James Lipton’s “Inside the Actors Studio.” Wasn’t Yoda as old as Methuselah, too?

2. “Harry Potter:” Oh, Hermione, how far you’ve come! “Harry Potter” heartthrob Emily Watson plays Ila, the squeeze of Noah’s eldest, Shem. Ila makes the scene as the damaged little orphan who grows up to mother a new generation of humanity. But with Watson’s toodle-pip English accent still in play, and the stylish way she wears those fiber arty rags, she’s still casting spells and telling grown men (like Noah) what to do and distinguishing right from wrong. She’s so Hermione!

[RELATED: ‘Noah” rises on top of box office with $44M Debut”]

3. “Percy Jackson:” Logan Lerman, can you play another character shafted by the Gods? As the title character in the money-minting children’s mythology series “Percy Jackson,” the swoony actor was constantly forced to be heroic in the face of fickle gods. Here Lerman plays Ham, Noah’s second and shafted son, who becomes tempted by the dark side thanks to his OCD’s father’s obsession with pairing off animals – but not his sons.

4. “LOTR”: Wait – that green mountain, doesn’t it look like Bilbo Baggins could be coming around the bend at any moment, walking in the big footprints of uber wizard Gandalf? Yes, both movies were shot on location in scenic (and empty) New Zealand. Over at “The New Zealand Herald,” a clever boots wrote: “Even damning it with faint praise would have been fun – something about ‘Noah’ appealing to New Zealand audiences because it’s the best movie about boatbuilding and livestock export you are likely to see this year.”

5. “The Tree of Life:” Director Aronofsky has answered one of the mysteries of contemporary filmmaking: how does an art film make millions at the box office when even Brad Pitt doesn’t draw audiences? One answer is embedding your Terrence Malick moments – long, arty sequences of time-lapse photography depicting creation from the moment of the Big Bang – in a popcorn biblical epic that is so conventional in its storytelling it would make a Neanderthal nod off.

[RELATED: “Russell Crowe calls ‘Noah’ criticism ‘irrational'”]

6. “The Chronicles of Narnia:” Remember that big First Battle of Beruna scene when the animals (including mythical beasts like centaurs, minotaurs and unicorns) just keep coming, and coming and, well, coming? It’s just as jaw-dropping here on the way to the Ark to get out of Dodge before the big flood as first the birds come calling two-by-two, and then the reptiles, and then a large assortment of mammals and meat on the hoof. And it’s just as obviously CGI. No animals were harmed in the making of this film because they were all corralled in a virtual plane.

7. Ray Harryhausen: Like Noah gave birth to Shem, Ray Harryhausen gave birth to The Watchers. While they are biblically fallen angels, with a nod to the Old Testament, Aronofsky’s rock monsters are dead ringers for the stop-motion, model Dynamation style of FX godfather Ray Harryhausen. These galumphing giants recall the skeletal swordsman, battling Tyrannosaurus Rex, and Cyclops of the Harryhausen classics.

8. Charlton Heston Bible Movies: And then there’s Crowe, brutish and brooding, channeling Heston as Moses and Ben Hur, the angry child of an angry God. Through hairstyles thick and thin, Crowe’s Noah scowls his way from prolog to coda, with one big bender in between, as he shoulders the burden of listening to his Creator on a radio frequency no one else seems to get. Oh, let my people go, already!

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