My eccentric Oscar ballot

26 February 2012

Here’s why I always lose Oscar betting pools with my friends: I try to make the Oscars about something bigger.

For example: I truly don’t understand why The Descendants gets so much love. It’s the story of a rich guy who’s selling off thousands of acres of pristine land so he and his family can phenomenally richer — and all of this when unemployment was still at 9% or whatever … well, you can appreciate why I get cranky about things.

I was also nonplussed by last year’s Up in the Air. We’re in the midst of a financial crisis and I’m supposed to emote on behalf of the dude who goes around firing people? It’s gonna have to be a goddamn fantastic film to get me over that obstacle.

Don’t worry: this post has its eyes on the actual nominees, not the films that didn’t get noticed (but how did Take Shelter not get a single nomination?).

Best Actor and Actress: in which I apply the “99% rule,” aka “redistribute the wealth.”

Critics seem to be guessing that George Clooney will win this, according to some kind of logic that we all like the guy and he’s been doing good work. I say that sounds like an old boys’ club if I ever heard one; this is why that “good guy” at work gets promoted and you don’t.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Clooney. I love love him. But I don’t think he’s the best actor of the year, and certainly not for this film. The award should probably go to Jean Dujardin, who was effervescent in a lovely (and better) film. I’ll be delighted if Dujardin wins.

But because I’m feeling contrarian, I’m rooting for Demián Bichir — the stellar Mexican actor who’s so unknown in the U.S. he’s not even a dark horse in this category; the guy who appears as an undocumented worker just trying to make a better life for his kid in L.A. Bichir’s character is so much a member of the 99% that he’s practically off the map — and that’s why he should win Best Actor.

Look, A Better Life wasn’t great. Neither was The Help or The Iron Lady, for that matter. C’mon, members of the Academy — look beyond your white, male, privileged bubbles to the world around you, even just that guy who cuts your grass, and vote for something beyond yourselves.

Using the same logic, my Best Actress choice is Viola Davis, who gives a stellar performance in a pretty crappy film. It’s impossible to compare her role to Meryl Streep’s — Streep dominates virtually every scene in The Iron Lady and shows off so many virtuoso chops that Streep almost looks like a little rich kid surrounded by presents at Christmas. Davis, meanwhile, is so much a part of an ensemble production that she might well have been relegated to the Supporting Actress category.

But you know what? No matter how disappointing was The Help, we’ll remember Davis. She’s just so good — so transcendent in a sea of embarrassing writing and directing — and her kind of goodness is important to the field of acting in 2012. 99%, bitchez!

Supporting Actress and Actor: in which I cast my all-LGBTQ vote.

What a year for the ladies! I’m so delighted with this field that I’m not sure where to go. Should I stick with my 99% rule and root for the magnificent Octavia Spencer? Should I stick with my Foreigners Deserve to Win Oscars rule and root for Bejo? (Well, that probably wasn’t going to happen, honestly.) Should I assert my Women Of All Sizes rule and root for McCarthy, who practically stole Bridesmaids out from under all those top-billed/ skinny women?

I’m going with my heart on this one, as well as with my own insight that 2011 was the Year of the Trans Ladies. Janet McTeer made Albert Nobbs — she was the real heart and soul of this film, raised the whole thing to a higher level, and was ridiculously hot as a man, to boot. This film has received less love than it should have; yeah, it felt a little bit more like something that would have been profound in 1982 but in 2011 feels like yeah, already. Like Bichir in A Better Life, you don’t get more marginalized than trans persons. But honestly, I’ll be happy with any one of these choices. Even better: they should give three Oscars — to Spencer, McCarthy, and McTeer.

Meanwhile, the men’s category seems less competitive to me. Christopher Plummer will — and should — win Best Supporting Actor for his work in Beginners as the father who comes out as an 80-year-old. ‘Nuff said.

Best Picture and Director: In which I wrestle with my own “degree of difficulty” rule.

I’m rooting for two titles: The Artist and Tree of Life. The former is the film I’ll want to see again and again. It’s a crystalline, lovely piece of romantic comedy and melodrama; I found it especially sweet for the way it earnestly wants to teach viewers how to fall in love with classic cinema. I vote for The Artist to take Best Picture.

On the other hand, The Tree of Life attempted a much higher degree of difficulty; like a great diver or ice skater, it took wild risks and didn’t succeed all the time, but what it did accomplish was remarkable: a tale of childhood and early pubescence more real than any I can remember seeing onscreen. If notions like “degree of difficulty” mattered to the Academy, that’s the film that should win.

So I’m splitting the difference: The Artist for Best Picture, and Terrence Malick to take Best Director (or vice versa) — and for these two categories to be split apart. 

Best Screenplay, Original and Adapted: in which I root for the foreigners and commit fully to losing the pool.

A Separation and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. 

The latter is just a beautiful film production — I can’t even imagine how hard it was to come up with a screenplay for this twisting novel that has already received a 7-part miniseries by the BBC in 1979. Starring Alec Guinness, no less. How do you get that down to a bankable 2 hours or so?

Don’t ask me, but Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan did it. Nailed it. (Bonus: an actual woman nominated for an Oscar behind the scenes!)

So if I’m so pro-lady, why am I not rooting for Wiig and Mumolo for Bridesmaids? Because A Separation is so spectacular that the former just seems slight in comparison. Also: Leila Hatami:

From all accounts, I’m going to lose on both scores; I’ve heard people guess that Midnight in Paris and The Descendants will take these categories. That’s too bad. The best I can say is that at least I’m prepared for disappointment.

Best Original Score: how can this go to anyone else?

Listen to this medley of nominations for Best Original Score and tell me if the one for The Artist doesn’t leap out as so memorable that it actually recalls specific scenes. Also: because I found the Kim Novak reaction to be absurd.

It’s not that the other scores aren’t nice and emotional; it’s just that the one for The Artist means more to the film. (Runner-up: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I loved its 1970s derivative, jazzy ambivalence, just like the film. The one for Hugo was okay too, but like the rest of that film, it felt over-cooked to me.)

Best Cinematography and Film Editing: 

Is it even possible for something other than The Tree of Life to win for Best Cinematography? I will throw an absolute fit if it doesn’t.

But in Film Editing, I’m more ambivalent. I think the truly Oscar-worthy editing jobs were overlooked in the nominations process — Martha Marcy May Marlene, Take Shelter, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — so I’m left to wrangle with a disappointing list. Stuck between the rock of my frustration about how these nominations work, on the one hand, and the hard place of a group of films whose editing I didn’t notice as being tight and evocative, I choose The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Like Tinker Tailor, it took the tightest of editing to shape an expansive story to cram this into a watchable 2-hour film; it also demanded cuts and segues that forwarded the tale, evoked emotions with absolute efficiency. A couple of months later and I want to see David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo again so I can pay even closer attention to what its editors, Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, did to propel us through that story at such a clip.

****

There are other categories I’m not commenting on, obviously — a series of documentaries that are so lackluster in comparison to the ones that didn’t get nominated that I can barely breathe, categories I don’t really understand:

  • Why does costume design only get applied to period pieces? As Dana Stevens of Slate put it last year, the clothes worn by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening in The Kids are All Right were so absolutely perfect; why isn’t that costume designer nominated for anything?

  • What does “Art Direction” mean — does this mean, for lack of a better term, some kind of unholy combination of “Stage Design” and “Location Specialist”? Or does it mean something else?
  • And while we’re on the subject: is there some kind of connection between Cinematographer and “Art Director”?
  • Why are there different categories for “Sound Editing” and “Sound Mixing”? Why isn’t this all just “Sound Editing”? Do I sound like an idiot for asking this question?
  • Why can’t I watch all the nominated short films on iTunes or some other service? (Here I go again with my complaints about access.)

Meanwhile, there’s the all-important issue of gowns. Please tell me that Leila Hatami will appear in something stunning, that Jessica Chastain wears something that shows off that strawberry hair, and that Janet McTeer wears a tuxedo.

Here’s hoping! and here’s hoping, too, that I don’t throw anything at the screen when Hugo wins everything in sight.

Feminéma's new La Jefita statuette for those women bosses of film

I know what you’re thinking: at last! An unabashedly subjective set of awards given by an anonymous blogger to her favorite women on and off screen — as a protest against a sexist and male-dominated film industry! Awards that feature a statuette based on genuine Cycladic art of the early Bronze Age! And now handily divided into two parts for ease of reading!

The raves are pouring in, from humans and spam-bots alike: “I’ve waited months for this handy list, and I can hardly wait to visit my video store.”

“Could you choose a few more obscure films, already?”

“I take excellent pleasure in reading articles with quality content material. This write-up is 1 such writing that I can appreciate. Maintain up the excellent function. 560942.”

Yup, it’s La Jefita time here at Themyscira/Paradise Island, where our crack team of snarky feminist film fans has been scouring our many lists of favorite films and great scenes to boil it all down to a carefully-calibrated list of winners. (Winners: contact us to receive your awards, which you must receive in person.)

First, a few bookkeeping points: Our one rule is that no single person or film could win in two separate categories, although a winner can receive an honorable mention in a different category. (This is why we choose categories like Best Role for a Veteran Actress Who Is Not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep, which will be awarded during Part 2). We are good small-d democrats here at Feminéma — “spread the love around” is our guiding raison d’être.

A related note: we at Feminéma want to express our distress at the contrast between, on the one hand, the omnipresence of blonde white girls like Jessica Chastain, Chloë Moretz, and Elle Fanning — they’re great and all, but they’re everywhere — and the virtual invisibility of people of color in top-notch film. It is a central aspect of our feminism that we call for greater diversity in casting, directing, writing, and producing overall. We can only hope that 2012’s Best Director nominees might have non-white faces as well as women among them.

Finally, you’ll remember that our Best Actress La Jefita prize has already been awarded to Joyce McKinney of Errol Morris’s Tabloid. In mentioning this again, we fully intend to list our Honorable Mentions as soon as we’ve seen two more films.

And now, on to what you’ve all been waiting for!

Feminéma’s Film of the Year (Which Also Happens to Be a Female-Oriented Film):

Poetry, by Lee Chang-dong (Korea). I wrote extensively about this immediately after seeing it, so here I’ll only add two comments. First, this film has stuck with me, poking at my conscious mind, in the intervening months in a way that some of the year’s “big” films did not. Second, this was a terrific year for film, especially “important” films like The Tree of Life and Take Shelter that deal with the biggest of themes (existence, forgiveness, apocalypse…). I will argue that, even alongside those audacious films, Poetry deals with even more relevant matters — responsibility — and that given the state of our world, this is the film we need right now. It’s ostensibly a more quiet film, but will shake you to the core.

Go out of your way to see Poetry. Let its leisurely pace and surprising plot turns wash over you, and the sense of mutual responsibility grow. It’s truly one of the best film I’ve seen in years — and if the members of these Awards committees bothered to see more films with subtitles and non-white faces it’d outpace The Tree of Life and The Artist in prizes.

Most Feminist Period Drama that Avoids Anachronism:

A tricky category — it’s so hard to get the balance right. After much hemming and hawing, and after composing many pro and con lists, we have determined that only Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre can be the winner. Mia Wasikowska’s perfect portrayal of Jane was matched by a beautiful script by Moira Buffini that carefully uses Brontë’s own language to tell a tale that underlines how much Jane wants not just true love, but a true equality with Rochester. (Add to that the fact that the film fassbendered me to a bubbling mass of goo, and we have the perfect feminist period drama.)

Mmmm. Muttonchop sideburns.

Honorable Mentions: La Princesse de Montpensier by Bertrand Tavernier and Cracks by Jordan Scott (yes, Ridley Scott’s daughter). Sadly, there’s a lot of anachronism out there: even if I stretched the category to include miniseries, I just couldn’t nominate Downton Abbey, The Hour, or South Riding because of their overly idealistic portrayals of women’s rights; while as historically spot-on as Mildred Pierce was, it’s no feminist tale.

I still haven’t seen The Mysteries of Lisbon but will make a note during Part II of the La Jefitas if it deserves a prize, too.

Sexiest Scene in which a Woman Eats Food (aka the Tom Jones Prize):

Another tricky category. Because I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, when you get a typical actress into a scene in which she’s expected to eat, she instantly reveals how little she likes/is allowed to eat food. Every single time I see such a scene, I become hyper aware of the fact that she’s looking at that food thinking, “This is the ninth take of this scene, and there are 50 calories per bite. That means I’ve eaten 450 calories in the last two hours.” Most don’t eat at all onscreen; all those scenes at dinner tables consist of no one putting food in their mouths. Thus, when I see an actress devouring food with gusto, I feel an instant sexual charge.

Thus, the best I can do is Sara Forestier from The Names of Love (Le nom des gens), a film in which her character, Bahia, wears her all her many passions on her sleeve, eating among others. When, that is, she’s wearing clothes at all. One might complain that Bahia is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl On Steroids — in fact, a central concept in the film is that she’s such a good leftist that she sleeps with conservative men to convert them away from their fascistic politics. (What can I say? it works for me; I was ready for a supremely fluffy French comedy.) Even if the manic pixie trope sets your teeth on edge, you’ll find yourself drawn to Forestier. The film won’t win any feminist prizes from me, but I quite enjoyed it nevertheless and would watch her again in anything.

(A brief pause to remember last year’s winner with a big sigh: Tilda Swinton in I Am Love. Now that was sexy eating.) Sadly, there are no honorable mentions for this prize. But I’m watching carefully as we begin a new year of film.

Most Realistic Portrayal of Teen Girls (also known as: Shameless Plug of a Little-Known Great Film That Needs a La Jefita Award):

Claire Sloma and Amanda Bauer in The Myth of the American Sleepover. There’s something a bit magical about this film, which I’ve already written about at length — a film that up-ends the typical teen dramedy and makes some lovely points that I wish had seemed possible for me back in high school. I loved this film for its frontloading of real teen girls and the real situations they get themselves into; I loved it for that weird combination of leisureliness and urgency that infused real summer nights in high school; and I loved it that it didn’t devolve into a pregnancy melodrama or a story about cliques. And just look at Sloma’s face; it makes me want to cry.

After seeing it, you’ll wonder whether you’ve ever seen a film that showed teen girls like this. And you’ll join my Sloma fan club.

Best uncelebrated supporting-supporting actress in a comic role: 

Nina Arianda only has a few lines in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris as Carol, the insecure wife of Paul, the overbearing, pedantic professor (Michael Sheen), but she almost steals each one of those scenes. She struggles to please and to pronounce her French words properly. She fawns over Paul in a way that makes you realize quickly how futile it is — taking photos of him as he holds forth annoyingly, for example, in the scene below. I don’t know how many of you readers are also academics, but Sheen’s portrayal of that professor was hilariously, perfectly accurate — and Carol is just as recognizable a type, that younger woman who married her former professor a while back and is still trying to make it work. (Skin: crawls.)

Arianda also had nice, slightly larger parts in Win Win and Higher Ground, although nothing that let her express her gift for wit that she displayed in Midnight in Paris. Let’s hope that with these three 2011 films, Arianda is getting more attention — and that she’s got a good agent.

Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Theme for Female-Oriented Film: Fairy Tales.

C’mon, people. I couldn’t bear to see Catherine Hardwicke’s vomit-inducing Red Riding Hood (highest rating on Feminéma’s Vomit-O-Meter® yet, and I only saw the trailer!). Nor did I see Julia Leigh’s poorly rated Sleeping Beauty, though I’m likely to see it sometime soon. I did see Catherine Breillat’s weak effort, The Sleeping Beauty — such a disappointment after I quite liked her Bluebeard (Le barbe bleue of 2009). I was also less impressed with Tangled than most critics.

I like fairy tales and think they offer all manner of feminist possibilities for retelling. (Why, I even tried to write one myself.) Problem is, they seem to offer anti-feminists just one more chance to trot out their enlightened sexism.  Filmmakers have not yet realized that fairy tales have become a site for critique rather than retrograde confirmation of sexism. (Please, read Malinda Lo’s Huntress or A. S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.)

And this is only Part 1 of the La Jefitas! Stay tuned for the final roster of winners and honorable mentions — in such categories as:

  • 2011’s Most Feminist Film! (Such an important category that it might be divided into three categories for clarity, and because I’m having trouble choosing a single winner!)
  • Most Realistic Dialogue that Women Might Actually Say, and Which Passes the Bechdel Test!
  • Best Fight Scene in which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass!
  • Best Veteran Actress who is not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep!
  • And Best Female-Directed Film! (This one is turning out to be a scorcher — can it be that I’ll divide this into separate categories, too?)

Whew! busy week. I’m behind on everything. And — ahem — I’m slightly peeved that NO ONE is writing in to tell me what to make of the ending to Take Shelter, which still swims all over my imagination.

In the same vein as that eminently scary film, I’m looking forward to Martha Marcy May Marlene, which is what sounds like a riveting and creepy film about a young woman who becomes drawn in to a cult — and what it means to be seduced in that way. I can hardly wait.

I’ve got a lot on my mind in the wake of the Herman Cain and Jerry Sandusky scandals. Apparently a coach at Syracuse University has now been accused of inappropriately touching two boys. Oh, we all get soooo upset about boys being touched, but all those piles of rape charges against athletes get dropped or written off as “lies” or settled quietly. But more on that soon.

And I have more to say about period dramas, as promised! Oooh, this is going to be good.

In French, fourche means fork — so when I tell you right off that Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) isn’t sure whether his nightmares and hallucinations are prophetic visions or symptoms of madness, you too might think immediately that his slightly Americanized name indicates that this film is essentially an “is he or isn’t he?” story. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that’s all there is. This movie is scary as shit, as tight as a drum, and is the best portrayal of modern manliness I’ve seen since Fight Club (1999).

Other movies are scary because they portray terrifying scenes or build suspense till it’s nearly unbearable. This movie scares you because this is about your fears:

that your life, like Curtis’s, is a house of cards.

The job keeps food on the table and the mortgage paid. But that small list of accomplishments — like, you paid off the car — all fly out the window if you lose the job.

What will you do for health insurance, especially now that you’ve finally gotten approval from the insurance company to pay for your deaf daughter’s cochlear implant operation?

What if you lose your job and your insurance because you’re losing your mind?

“You have a good life,” his friend Dewart (Shea Whigham) tells him early on. It’s just about the best compliment a man can give another man.

But a good life is still just a house of cards. And the nightmares might be that gust of wind to knock it down.

In his dreams, the storm clouds build. Those first drops of rain are viscous and discolored, like fresh motor oil.

This isn’t a regular storm. It’s massive. There’s a funnel cloud.

These aren’t regular dreams. Sometimes in the dreams he gets hurt, and the pain lingers all day.

Of course he doesn’t tell anyone. He does what a good man does: he says, “It’s fine,” and shuts up. He goes to the public library and checks out a book called Understanding Mental Illness, which he studies in secret. He tells his doctor he’d like to see a counselor.

He’s going to take care of this, and no one needs to worry.

He visits his mother, who’s been institutionalized and heavily medicated for schizophrenia for the past thirty years, since he was a kid. He wants to know if these dreams are somehow genetic.

When she asks if he’s all right, he tells her he’s fine.

Then he takes a look at that storm shelter in the back yard, and everything in his very soul tells him that this is the solution. He knows he needs a bigger space if all three of them are going to be down there. Dewart will help, and won’t ask.

He weighs the options and figures out how to pay for it. He borrows some pretty serious equipment from work. He chooses a day when Samantha takes Hannah with her to the craft fair.

Here’s what you notice after a while: as the dreams get worse, Curtis’s eyes seem to get bigger, wider, more haunted. His mouth gets smaller as he keeps trying to swallow all his fears and exert, through sheer force of will, some level of control.

He can barely open his mouth, because what will he say if he does? Talking will make it real.

Except that sometimes they’re not dreams but waking nightmares. Hallucinations, the book on mental illness calls them.

One night driving home he has to stop the car. Hannah and Sam are asleep in the back, but he gets out to watch that huge electrical storm. Even here in the flattest part of Ohio, this storm is crazy. “Is anybody else seeing this?” he asks, and looks around with surprise to find no one else there.

And with that question, we know he’s opened up a can of worms.

See this film — and on the big screen if you can, because those wide, flat Ohio landscapes must be seen on the big screen. See it because Michael Shannon inhabits this role like no other living actor could — just seeing his posture in his work shirt and a pair of jeans reminds you of every blue-collar man in your family, and it helps you understand them like you’ve never understood before. (Would it even be fair to compare him in this role to other performances this year? Is the Oscar locked up so early?) See it because the film is trying to tell us something about where we are. And it’s also telling us things I don’t quite understand. When you do, we’ll have a conversation about that ending.

Holy crap, people. Take Shelter.

Critic/blogger JustMeMike (The Arts) and I sat down to chat about this film as we have about earlier films, most recently Larry Crowne (2011) and Miral (2011).

Didion: Hollywood has some oddities, and the biopic/advocacy picture is one of them: those films based on true-life accounts of ordinary individuals who encounter, and decide to address, some kind of horror. Think of Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (2000), in which the titular character comes to realize that a Pacific Gas & Electric station had knowingly poisoned the water near one of its stations in a lonely community out in the southeast California desert. Or Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda (2004), in which a generally nonpolitical hotelier seeks to save his fellow citizens from the exploding Hutu/Tutsi civil war, a genocide ignored by most of the world.

The biopic/advocacy picture is often the kind of film that doesn’t forge a lot of new ground cinematically or narratively, yet still seems nicely positioned for awards and prizes because of its role in educating the public about serious matters and offering us a real-life hero.

Larysa Kondracki’s The Whistleblower (2010) faces these same challenges and opportunities. Set in the aftermath of the mid-90s Bosnian War, where the American ex-police Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) has gone to work temporarily with the UN peacekeeping mission, the film traces her gradual transformation from a contract employee to a serious adversary on the subject of violence against women and sex trafficking. Like so many heroes of biopic/advocacy films, Bolkovac is no freedom fighter — she’s taken the (highly lucrative) job because it allows her to earn the money that will allow her to move to Texas, where her ex-husband has moved with their daughter. Yet when she comes across a savagely beaten wife being dismissed by a group of Serbian police working alongside the UN peacekeepers, she becomes infuriated and fights to get the husband convicted. Even still, she sees this as simple good police work, not a crusading mission…until she begins to realize the extent of rampant sex trafficking and sex slavery in the region, likewise being ignored by local authorities, the UN, and a Halliburton-like company (called Democra in the film). Warning: Spoilers ahoy in this conversation!

First-time director Kondracki has written, “When you put together the words Bosnia, peacekeepers and sex-trafficking, people assume it’s going to be either ‘educational’ or ‘important’, in other words: medicinal.” Has she succeeded in moving beyond a “medicinal” film?

Feminema’s new favorite cocktail, required drinking for disturbing films about violence against women

I don’t know about you, JMM, but talking about this film requires something more substantial than a beer. I’m drinking my new favorite, a Sidecar (cognac, triple sec, lemon juice), reportedly the only Prohibition-era cocktail that’s still drinkable. And it has the added benefit of the lemon juice, which both evokes summertime and helps me avoid scurvy.

JustMeMike: Can you buy the Sidecar drink pre-mixed, you know, like in the supermarket for a stay-at-home treat? Anyway after seeing the matinee today, I feel like I need to drink a Boxcar — that’s a four pack of Sidecars. The Burns Court Cinema had what could be called a sparse crowd today for their opening screening of this film which was at 2:15 PM — maybe a dozen and half people. When the film ended, the “crowd”, that’s stretching the truth, was silent as we filed out. It felt like we had all been beaten up. I know what I was thinking — am I a member of the same gender as those sex traffickers? So I am setting the table to say that the film was a lot to take in, and it made me angry.

Didion: Yeah, the only downside of the Sidecar is that the lemon juice thins out the alcohol required to recover from the unmitigated horrors of sexual violence depicted here.

I have mixed feelings: on the one hand, I think it’s good that people might leave the theater angry about what they’ve seen. It’s particularly frustrating here, as the UN and the Halliburton-like Democra seem jointly concerned that the scandal not affect their reputations. On the other hand, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do with that anger. Does the movie tell us?

JustMeMike: Well my anger actually bounces back and forth from grand to a much a smaller scale. So I’ll table your comment about the private contractors for the moment. I’m upset that Kondracki has painted such a bleak picture about the sex-trafficking and then hasn’t built a very good film around it. Seems to me that Bolkovac should have been in greater danger as a direct threat to the status quo. But a few muttered threats on the phone aren’t exactly scary. That was all we got. I never felt that Bolkovac was in peril. The direct result of that is that our anxiety for her is lowered.

Didion: So long as we’re staying on the big-picture level, I’ll confess that there were elements I just didn’t believe — which is too bad given that Kondracki has spoken about the extensive research she did on the subject and Bolkovac’s tale in particular. Here’s what I had trouble with: I totally believed that sex trafficking might be so pervasive, and I believed it might be rife with violence toward women. But I had a harder time believing that once Bolkovac started to uncover the complicity of UN officials and Democra employees, those individuals didn’t back off and close down their activities in Sarajevo.

The film tells us that above all, these men are brutal, evil misogynists so utterly depraved that they’re willing to risk their whole enterprise — they’re so eager to keep savaging their sex slaves that they put their lucrative operation in danger, even going so far as to recruit a major UN official to risk his career facing off with Bolkovac. I feel as if I ought to be her ideal viewer (that is, I fully believe such misogyny exists), but instead she lost me with such exaggerated bad guys.JustMeMike: Good point. Seems a bit off, doesn’t it? The whistleblower is doing her thing, tooting her whistle, and they say, never mind, ignore this person — business as usual.

While we are making hay with the negatives, I have another. So Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave just continues to impress me) introduces Bolkovac to Peter Ward (David Straithairn). Rees tell her (and us) that Peter Ward is a good guy — you can trust him. Then Kondracki gives us a big plot twist. Don’t know about you, but I saw that one coming as well as the second twist. Seemed like she might have done better by bringing us in beforehand during the plotting. Anyway, I wasn’t fooled.

Didion: This returns to your earlier point: the film uses some of the oldest tricks in the thriller book, yet leaves gaps in logic — why didn’t we ever feel that Bolkovac was in danger for her life from these guys?

I’ve been thinking back to Hotel Rwanda and how educational it was for me — it made me realize that even if ethnic violence is so complex that outsiders cannot perceive good guys and bad guys, international intervention is necessary to stop massive genocide. As hard as that film was to watch, its message was crystal clear. The Whistleblower certainly raised my feminist hackles and showed me that the UN was so concerned with reestablishing a certain level of normalcy that it purposefully looks away from the issue of violence against women. That’s quite believable, and quite disturbing. But what more are we supposed to learn from this film?

JustMeMike: So who says The Whistleblower is meant to educate — if you mean call attention to the issue of sex-trafficking or violence against women, then certainly, but if you mean the UN looking the other way — then I’m not so sure. Of course it’s disturbing — but even the UN is administered by officials who are in charge of the local situations. So even if the local officials in Bosnia were either playing ostrich or were part of the profit taking — can we safely say that the entity known as the UN is directly responsible? That the blame goes all the way to the top?

Probably not.

Yet I can’t help but agree, that the issue of violence against women is quite disturbing. I wonder if Kondracki’s point is to alert and educate about the continuing violence against women, or to put the UN and private corps on notice that the whole world is watching and will watch even closer, or both?

Didion: Of course this film is meant to educate us! Why have a true-life tale unless audiences can walk away with some kind of lesson?

But you know what’s tragic? I’m never going to watch The Whistleblower again, nor will I watch Hotel Rwanda again — they’re just so gruesome. I guess I’m saying that I did find this film “medicinal,” to use Kondracki’s terms, and that I find these biopic/advocacy films medicinal almost all of the time, which makes me loath to see them. So here’s a question: when these films are, say, less than stellar, does that actually have a negative effect: it makes viewers never want to see these films (and therefore keep their heads in the sand about Important Issues)?

JustMeMike: Whoa! Slow down a bit. I think you’re leaping into an abyss here. It is only a less than stellar film, not truly a film to abhor, and more likely while the film lacks that excellence that we want so much, it shouldn’t cause a pell-mell journey in an opposite direction…

Didion: But remember walking out of the theater with all those viewers stunned into silence? Ugh, who wants to experience that again?

JustMeMike: Guilty as charged your honor, but I meant that as in bruised and battered. If the film was a true dud, or worse, than the crowd would have been in a muttering and grumbling mode. I mean no one was demanding a refund, or saying that the Director’s Guild should rethink Kondracki.

Didion: All right, all right, I promise I’m not saying this is a bad film. It’s actually very effective, as I think both of us have attested, in getting viewers angry. But it’s SO bruising. Really, would you want to see this film again? That’s why I say “medicinal.”

This actually gets back to one of my favorite rants: that filmmakers should never show rape onscreen — and now I want to expand that rant to include violence against women. It’s so horrifying, such that I think film ultimately just stuns the viewer and makes you not know quite what to do with all that horror — when in fact these are horrors that happen to real women and children all the time.

JustMeMike: Wow — I think we could go for hours just on this last statement of yours. While I am agreeing that the rape scene was horrific, I think that the intent was exactly as you described it — to stun and horrify. All for the purpose of making sure we knew exactly how desperate and dire these women’s situations were. But yes, sadly, it went on far too long and was simply too much for most of us to bear. And on that basis — I will not watch the film again any time soon. But I won’t go as far as never again. Let’s revisit that rape and violence against women again later on.

Didion: There’s a less horrific, but more affecting scene in which Bolkovac goes out to the woods to find a woman dead — a woman she’d tried to protect, a woman who’d suffered extreme beatings earlier, a woman she’d persuaded to testify against the traffickers, now killed by them. For the first time, Bolkovac breaks down, even though she’s surrounded by some of the worst corrupt cops and UN employees (who are certainly responsible for the murder): she screams and cries. It’s a striking scene that, for me, completely worked in achieving what you describe: showing her sense of absolute horror at what’s taking place there. It’s a strange scene, too, in that it didn’t provoke me to tears (and everything gets me teary-eyed) — but I felt a true power in the scene.

There’s also a subplot that doesn’t involve Bolkovac: a story of one of the victims’ mothers, who asks her sister-in-law for money to travel to Sarajevo to find her daughter. Very slowly, she comes to realize that her brother is the very person who sold his niece into sex slavery. This, for me, was the plot element that showed how simple greed for money is the core of the entire problem.

JustMeMike: There you go. Weisz breaks down with a combination of horror and guilt after she finds that Irka has been killed. Very potent stuff. I am on board with your thought about Greed for Money being at the core of the entire problem. Greed rarely exists on its own. It generally goes with seeking of power. When combined, there always will be victims.

But let’s take a look at the film the opposite angle. What did we like about the film? I liked Weisz/Bolkovac’s fearlessness and determination. I liked Redgrave’s grace and her soft looking but steely authority. Talk about aging and looking great. Wow. And I liked Straithairn’s beard.

Didion: And let’s specifically note that if at all possible, one really ought to have such piercing, bright blue eyes if one is permitted to age with a magnificent head of silver hair like Redgrave’s. I’d also be willing to watch David Straithairn butter pieces of bread for two hours straight.

Weisz was great — really great. But no matter how good she was, and no matter how she seemed absolutely present for all her scenes, the part didn’t allow her a whole lot of range. Sorry to keep bringing up Erin Brockovich, but that part was kind of delicious in contrast — Bolkovac was much more straight-up police in contrast.

JustMeMike: Since we’ve covered stuff that we didn’t care for, and then we slid over to stuff we did like, I’m wondering if we can find something where there is a divergence of opinion. To start I’ll offer a question — why are these monitors granted diplomatic immunity?

Didion: We do seem to be arriving at an unusual level of agreement on this one. I’m not sure why they’re granted immunity, but we can speculate that it was due to the perceived importance of protecting UN missions in general and perhaps concealing the complicity of higher-ups? Or at the very least protecting the higher-ups from having disregarded Bolkovac’s charges.

The more I think about it, the angrier I become — this film discusses such disturbing and important subjects, and shows how much they’ve been ignored by international overseers like the UN, yet it’s not a tight enough or persuasive enough film to make heads seriously roll. It was also weirdly buried with a late-summer release, as it’s the very furthest thing from a summer film — I mean, it had to compete with Rise of the Planet of the Apes!

JustMeMike: I guess we are still agreeing. The late summer opening may not be so weird. If the producer and releasing company privately feel that the film is flawed, then giving it a bad slot, as well as a limited opening, virtually guarantees a smaller ROI (return on investment). It’s called limiting your down-side because by reducing the number of screens you also reduce the number of physical pieces of film that you need.

How about this as a question: Is there something about Bolkovac’s make-up that we haven’t enough facts for? I mean in her divorce, and it was her second divorce, isn’t it still unusual for the court to decree that the husband got sole custody of the daughter. Why did that happen?

Since we don’t know — are we supposed to guess at a reason — or reasons: Is it possibly that Bolkovac was a woman who took up relationships rather easily? Maybe she slept with other police officers while still married?

And three — we witnessed a phone call from Bolkovac to the daughter — who seemed not to want to talk to her mother. The call ended all too quickly. So what is your take on these three events, either singly, or taken altogether as group?

Didion: Wow, I’ve got two very different responses to the question of Bolkovac’s personal life. The feminist in me says, I want her personal life to be as irrelevant as possible, because this is really a story about her whistleblowing. The one thing that seems obvious is that this is a woman who took her job so seriously that it was doubtless detrimental to her relationships. There’s a big moment early on when she decides to stay in Sarajevo rather than return to her daughter — and she decides to stay because she knows she’s doing good work there. Re: her custody agreement, I assumed that, as is becoming more common these days, a judge determined that her ex offered a more stable home life for her daughter than she could (and there’s a reference to her having a poor attorney). If there’s one thing I’ve learned from police procedurals on TV, it’s that cops are often too distracted to make good partners and parents. (Thank you, The Wire.)

I did find, however, that her relationship with the Dutch peacekeeper to be both wholly under-developed and more than a little nerve-wracking. I kept wondering whether he was really a bad guy, whether her leap into that relationship was poorly-considered. I think the filmmaker ultimately didn’t know how much to make this a biopic, how much to make it a thriller, and how much to make it a ripped-from-the-headlines tale. I wished Kondracki had either left out that storyline, or delved in further.

JustMeMike: You said, “As a feminist, I want her personal story to be as irrelevant as possible, because this is really a story about her whistle-blowing.” The underline italics are mine, not yours. But can you clarify that statement. Isn’t this about whistle-blowing? I think that you are right when stating that the whistle-blowing is more important than the personal story — but why is this from the perspective of a feminist, rather than just a perspective?

Didion: It gets back to Erin Brockovich (again), in which the story is humming along and she’s got the new thing going with the hot biker guy next door and she’s figuring out all the details of the PG&E coverup — and then the story screeches to a halt so she can get an earful about how she’s not spending enough time with her children. Message: women who really care about their work are bad mothers. I was furious with that element, because otherwise the film showed a working-class woman who’s given a chance to care about something beyond the usual caregiving blah blah blah.

So if Bolkovac had been portrayed as prone to extramarital sexual relationships with her co-workers and/or not a dedicated enough mother, the film would have engaged in that same kind of preachiness and cheap explanation: “oh, she’s interested in helping these women because she’s kind of a slut!” or, “her work is so absorbing that she’s returning to her old bad habits of being a bad mother!” Films are more inclined to indulge in that kind of cheap explanation with female characters more than with male characters.

Instead, I like the idea that she’s just kind of a normal, straight-laced police officer who’s appalled by the situation she encounters partly because it’s just an example of really bad police work.

JustMeMike: Okay, that works for me. Avoiding the personal story because it would come at the expense of the real story of the whistleblower. Makes sense, especially since you have experienced a similar story and witnessed a derailment because the main story was hijacked for a while.

But that last line is also puzzling. Do you really mean the situation that Bolkovac encounters is an example of bad police work? I have a problem with that. If a narcotics cop busts a drug dealer and confiscates drugs, but keeps a portion of the drugs for his own personal use, or for use in getting confidential informants to snitch, or even for re-sale, is that bad police work, or is that simply criminal behavior? I’d say that the private contractors who were heavily involved in sex trafficking were big-time criminals.

Didion: Whoops: I meant to refer to an early point in the film, when she sees the police failing to go after the wife-beating husband. It’s really early on, when no one suspects anything about the sex trafficking — and what I liked so much was that she seems to approach the issue wholly from the perspective that this is lazy/bad police work. That is, she didn’t respond “as a woman” or from any exaggerated feminine sympathy — she just wanted a crime prosecuted properly.

JustMeMike: Okay, makes sense. And yes, I liked that part very much. She became gung-ho about solving that one, and seeing that justice, or at least an investigation, stepped into the picture.

Didion: I think, after thinking about this for a couple of weeks, I most regret that Kondracki had chosen to make this as much of a thriller as it is. I think this made her inclined to gild the lily — as in, it made her exaggerate plot elements like the way the corrupt UN officials and peacekeepers went to such lengths to humiliate and discredit Bolkovac in order to keep beating and raping women sex slaves. I kept thinking, “Even if that’s true, it’s not believable, and once my trust in the story’s gone, I just don’t know what to do with all those gruesome images of women being beaten.”

JustMeMike: I’m with you on all of that including Kondracki’s decision to make the film into a thriller. Only I won’t go as far as you do. I think (like you) that this was her fundamental mistake. On that basis, I won’t call it a thriller. But I will go as far as to label it a thriller-wannabe.

Didion: I like the mixing of genres on the whole, but I do think here it muddies the waters. Can I ask one more question of you — that is, what do you think this does for Rachel Weisz’s career? I’ve been thinking lately that she’s making some smart choices lately — from The Constant Gardner to The Brothers Bloom to this … she’s good at American accents, and she’s getting a wide range of very smart acting imprinted onto the American conscience (and god knows this is where the movie money is made by international actors). What do you think — was this strategic?

JustMeMike: Absolutely strategic as in well-played. I recall first seeing her in a film about a sniper called Enemy at the Gates. She played a Russian girl called Tania Chernova and she certainly seemed European to me then. Now, she doesn’t seem European at all. I think she’s marvelous — she has the looks, and the smarts, and I think variable roles are her strong suite. By the way, Weisz has a new film coming quite soon — The Dream House — her co-stars are Daniel Craig and Naomi Watts. It is in the horror genre. Coincidentally, and strangely, Craig’s character is guess who — another Peter Ward.

Didion: Isn’t she great? And very well-educated (compared to many actors); I like to give kudos to the smart ladies.

I saw a preview for The Dream House recently — alongside trailers for a number of creepy thrillers (one called Martha Marcy May Marlene [whew!], and the other called Take Shelter, with the always-creepy Michael Shannon). Looks like a damn good Halloween season coming up, if you ask me.

So, JMM, do you have any final thoughts on this one? A quip? Some kind of pun on the idea of whistleblowing?

JustMeMike: Not really… I don’t think this film needs a pun from me. I would recommend the film and despite its flawed structural elements, one can walk away at least pleased that some one, even from the wilderness of Bosnia stood up and blew the whistle. I have a feeling that I should give you the last word so you can get in a final thought about on-screen violence against women. By the way, I’ll be in China for Halloween.

Didion: I’m less enthusiastic about the film overall, and not just because of the on-screen portrayal of violence against women. As much as I appreciate what Weisz and Kondracki wanted to do, it’s not as good a film as I’d like, or effective enough re: advocacy against sex trafficking.

Many thanks, JMM — and let’s keep our eyes peeled for good films coming out this fall that might offer more good conversation — maybe even one of these creepy Halloween flicks.

JustMeMike: Thank you Didion for the enjoyable dialogue. I’m ready and more than willing to toss back a few more Sidecars with you again.

Didion: Word.