Now that Season 2 of The Handmaid's Tale is finally upon us, I thought I would blather on a bit about why I love this show so dang much.
When I first started seeing previews for The Handmaid's Tale on Hulu I was intrigued. At first glance I thought it was just another period drama which aren't usually my thing -- but as soon as I discovered that it was set in modern time I was hooked.
Of course, being the bibliophile that I am, I refuse to watch anything that's based on a book until I've read the book first. So I put The Handmaid's Tale on my to-watch list until I could get my hands on Margaret Atwood's masterpiece.
I finally got a chance to dig in on the novel while on vacation in February. It was a quick read, only taking me a day and a half to finish, but I enjoyed every second of it. There is something about the juxtaposition of the archaic and confining "ideals" being set in a post-modern society. It tripped me out, to be honest.
Although Atwood's work was a really intense and fascinating read as a whole and complete story, one reason I was so excited to begin the Hulu show was to see how much they would be able to expand the story past what was in the book -- and let me tell you, I was not disappointed.
The scariest part of The Handmaid's Tale to me is how very tangible and possible the changes brought forth by the new nation Gilead, really are. As a society based on "biblical" and "moral" values (ie misogyny and tyranny) the propaganda used was eerily easy to swallow and not at all unfamiliar.
In the introduction to the novel (added by the author in the 2015 edition) Atwood explains how when writing the book in the 80s she didn't want to push the idea of a new society so far as to become science fiction. Every tool, idea, practice, and horror used in the book was pulled from history. Handmaids. Hangings. Mutilation. Prejudice in all it's forms.
The true terror of The Handmaid's Tale is the mirror it holds up: a vision of humanity's most vicious truths. It has all been done before.
Throughout the novel reader's learn about this new society, get to know the central character June (now Offred) and begin to understand the painful reality of Gilead through her trauma. But there was no resolve. The story was what it was and then it was over. June's life was what it was and then the book concluded. There were no answers.
This is what is so fantastic about the Hulu original series -- we get to see how the rest of the story might have played out. The secondary characters become more full, tell their own stories, and brand new ideas are brought into the fold. There are so many new paths to travel now thanks to the show.
What will happen now that Moira has escaped and has rejoined Luke? How will June navigate her relationship with Nick now that she knows her husband is alive? What kind of trouble will she get into with Mayday? How will her pregnancy play out?
These are exciting questions that we will now get to fully explore where before we could only speculate the way one does when a great book ends. Even the introduction of the Mexican trade deal raises intriguing questions about how this formation of a new nation might cause ripples across the globe.
It's also an excellent way to show just how much the character has changed as a person after everything she's gone through. Despite everything I know, it's still sometimes difficult for me to reconcile that the smiling, giggling, mother June and pale-faced, subservient Offred are one in the same.
Elisabeth Moss is perfection as June/Offred. Her ability to tell a story with the quirk of an eyebrow or the quiver of a lip is astounding. The internal dialogue we get from her character is clever and funny and I think greatly helps viewers remember that this is indeed a post-modern society. Nothing brings you back to the present like a well-timed "fuck" and Tinder reference -- even if she is wearing a bonnet.
The supporting cast is just as amazing -- especially my ladies. I was thrilled to see a couple of my favorites, Samira Wiley and Alexis Bledel. Although very different, they're a couple of badass babes that I'm excited to see on my screen in Season 2. Yvonne Starhovski as Serena Joy and Madeline Brewer as batshit crazy Janine (one of my favorite characters!) are also highlights of the female cast.
I'm pumped up for the next season of The Handmaid's Tale, not only for that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling of more story after your favorite book has ended, but also for all of the possibility it holds.
It's one thing to open your eyes to a vicious new world. It's another thing entirely to watch the revolt.
I'll be waiting for the entirety of the second season to conclude before I dive back into the world of Gilead... I just can't bear the idea not bingeing it all at once. From what I hear, it will be well worth the wait.
No Spoilers please!
A few weeks I was in dire need of a feminist pick-me-up, so I dragged myself to theaters to take in Charlize Theron's new kick-ass spy thriller Atomic Blonde. Set in both the Eat & West sides of Berlin during the Cold War, Theron plays an undercover M16 agent, Lorraine Broughton, who is tasked with stealing back a secret list of double agents. If the idea of a tall blonde feminist badass super-spy kicking ass and taking down big burly men while wearing a mini-skirt and 6-inch-heels peaks your interest -- this movie is for you.
On first thought, one might suspect this film of over-sexualizing the lead to entice wider audiences (ahem, men) to a female-driven thriller, or maybe fostering an unbelievable action-driven plot (back to the fist fighting in skin-tight leather) -- but fortunately, and maybe surprisingly, Atomic Blonde did neither.
As Theron explained in this Vogue article, her wardrobe played a huge part in the characterization of Lorraine: "[B]ecause this movie doesn’t have a ton of dialogue or backstory—we don’t ever really explain who she is and where she comes from—Cindy put me in [outfits] that forced me to behave in a certain way." Not only was this a way to for Theron to express Lorraine's inner world though her outer dress, but it was also a way for her to differentiate Atomic Blonde from other male-dominated action thrillers. Her costume designer Cindy Evans was actually the first to suggest that she perform her action scenes while in her fabulous wardrobe. "She was like, 'You know what? We should do a fight scene in 6-inch heels.' And I was like, 'What?' And she was like, 'Yeah, because Bond could never do it—so you have to,' and I was just like, 'Fuck.'"
One of my favorite aspects of this film was how honest it was when it came to the physicality necessary for Theron to play this role, and the toll it would take on the character. Theron trained for months before filming (often alongside Keanu Reeves who was training for a different film at the same gym), and performed almost of all of her own stunts. Theron as producer, along with director David Leitch, was not only dedicated to the authenticity of her fight scenes, but also was adamant about showing visually the effect that these brawls would have on a woman's body.
I love this aspect of the film because it allows you to witness Lorraine as a the badass elite-level spy that she is, but also see her in her most vulnerable state. She may take down robust Russian spies in a trenchcoat and garter belt, but she doesn't come out of it looking fresh as a daisy, that's for sure. When she gets punched, she bruises. When she gets cut, she bleeds. The neon-meets-noir feel of the movie adds to this reality, by implying emotional wounds that match her physical ones.
The cinematography in Atomic Blonde was beautiful -- some scenes so dark and dangerous that you were convinced Theron was the baddest Femme Fatale there ever was, and other's so neon you could feel the mixed vibrations of desperation and reckless hope from your seat in the theater. The wardrobe, mise-en-scene, and soundtrack all worked together to invoke what once "only belonged to ’80s Berlin and David Bowie." In fact, Bowie in voice and spirit was a large part of the film, according to Theron: "[W]e initially went to David Bowie for one of the roles in the film. We really wanted him to be in the movie but unfortunately, he passed on the role, and then he passed away while we were making the film. We were always going to have a bunch of Bowie songs in it; he was just such a part of the conversation in making this film."
If Atomic Blonde was hoping to electrify a sense of nostalgia in their audience while simultaneously making you want to buy a pair of thigh high boots and take up jiu jitsu, they succeeded.
Atomic Blonde is based on a graphic novel The Coldest City (written by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, 2015) that was brought to Theron's production company, Denver & Delilah Productions. Explained in this Variety article, she was given the then-unpublished manuscript, which became a passion project for Theron that she ended up spending 5 years working on and felt very strongly about producing. A piece of the story that made it into the film, that never existed in the novel, was Lorraine's tryst with French spy Delphine Lasalle, played by Sofia Boutella.
Rather than hiding their sexual relationship, the two are scene very openly together, in a way that managed to be sexy but somehow not come off as a tired plot device. Neither did it seem to be for the sole benefit of male viewers. Theron's opinion is clear in her interview with Variety: "[T]he sex scenes are right out of the 007 playbook, although Theron rolls her eyes at the comparison. “James Bond doesn’t have such hot you-know-what,” she says. “I loved that we didn’t hide under the sheets.”
The director of the film, David Leitch, also gave his interpretation of the relationship to EW, explaining how it's used to show how Lorraine is able to find pockets of connection in the midst of an extremely trying job that hinges on secrecy and obscured identity. He says: "It was more about if you are a spy you will do whatever it takes to get information. Everything is about survival and getting the mission done. And when you are a character like Lorraine, she will find her intimacies and her friendships in small doses, with anyone she can." This relationship is not a fetishized lesbian encounter or superficial eye candy for viewers, but rather further development of Theron's character.
Overall, I found Atomic Blonde to be both a powerful and an empowering film. It fulfilled all of my most adrenaline-pumping expectations of a spy thriller, while also leaving me with the pure joy that comes from watching women kick ass on screen. Yeah, it may have been a few weeks now since this film left theaters, but do yourself a favor and go get it. A must-see in my book.
This past weekend as I was scrolling through Netflix, as you do, and saw that they had added the 2015 thriller No Escape. I remembered watching this movie in theaters when it first came out and being so enthralled. After realizing my roommate had never seen it, we hunkered down for a heart-racing trip that, even the second time around, did not disappoint.
In short, No Escape features Jack (Owen Wilson) and Annie (Lake Bell) as a married couple who, with their 2 young daughters, move to a foreign country on the same night a revolution sparks. Finding themselves targeted for execution by the rebels, the film follows the family as they try to escape the country with their lives.
Sure, the premise might sound a little over-the-top to some, but in my opinion the idea was so smartly carried out that it was believable and engaging. I especially loved the casting in this film -- I already loved Owen Wilson and Lake Bell individually, but it was so nice to see them cast in a suspense/thriller where you might normally expect to find a Ben Affleck or Jessica Alba type. The two are so often seen in comedies (this was Wilson’s first dramatic role since 2001) or as secondary characters (Bell as the friend Tipper in What Happens in Vegas is one my all time favorite movie besties), so it was refreshing to see their more serious acting chops brought to the forefront. Bell’s performance as the petrified but determined mother was easily one of the best aspects of this movie for me and I so love how she had the opportunity to show off her skills to a wider audience than might already have known her.
If you’re not immediately familiar with No Escape, you might remember the previews from a few years ago that featured Wilson throwing a little girl over a rooftop to her mother. It was a jarring few seconds that pulled my heart into my throat and made this movie a must-see for me. The idea that someone might be in such horrific danger that their best and only option is to THROW THEIR CHILD OFF OF A ROOF is one of the more gripping things I’ve seen on screen in recent years. It pulls you in so successfully that you almost feel like it’s your own flesh and blood who is in imminent danger and you have to make sure they are going to be okay.
This movie had the most beautifully shot cinematography and editing choices. The fast-paced, heart-racing moments of intensity one after the other are balanced out with slower, silent minutes that were still emotionally charged. Chaos followed by quiet panic, highlighting the reality of the situation. This was specifically charged during scenes where the family was hiding and the camera would show the feet of their potential captors walking around from their perspective. These clever camera angles and the use of slo-mo definitely upped the ante. As a viewer I was always in suspense of what was going to come around the next corner, or what the camera would pan to next. It was fascinating to experience this same suspense from my couch, already knowing what would happen, as it did the first time in the theater -- the true test of it’s success for me.
For a movie that might not have the most believable circumstances it still managed to portray a genuine sense of urgency. Of course, there are those moments in these types of films where a bullet is conveniently dodged or help turns up at the exact right moment, and you want to scream “yeah right” at the TV. Those few scenes in No Escape were balanced out by moments where characters, mostly Wilson’s Jack, would take a wrong turn or run into danger that was so obviously the dumbest move he could make, but still managed to be believable as a disoriented and panicking American in the midst of foreign terror. The combination of these made the film feel real. In that same vein, there were moments when they really delved into the trauma of the moment, without making it seem too exaggerated or “extra.” For instance, when the younger daughter has to urinate in her pants while they were hiding from gunmen, or towards the end of the movie where Jack is so tired and disoriented that he just can’t make himself take another step.
Political commentary in the film was nicely done, hitting on some hot-button political and philosophical ideals that I would say are even more relevant today than they were when the film premiered. There are obviously serious representations of violence in this film, not only the perilous situations that the family is put in, being shot at, attacked, hunted, etc. but the representation of the conflict in general showed the chaotic, harsh, and sometimes gory realities of a nation in revolt.
In an article published by the New York Post, the very real dangers of making this movie were highlighted. During production in Thailand, where their own political unrest was occurring, Wilson said, “we had had to be done filming by a certain time, because they didn’t want our movie riot to touch off a real one.” I’m sure the seriousness of that worry bled into the acting and lent a sense of authenticity to the scenes. Again, Wilson said himself, “It helped to film this movie where we did. It’s easier to sell the idea that you’re confused and don’t know what’s going on, because that’s oftentimes how you feel when you’re traveling in strange places.”
Despite how easy it might be to divide this film into “good guys” and “bad guys,” -- the nice American family vs. the awful people trying to kill them -- the reality is not always that black and white. For example, there are moments in the film where native rebels show small moments of kindness to the family, or at least not overt disdain. There is an especially poignant scene in which mysterious operative-like man named Hammond (played by Pierce Bronson and not entirely unlike James Bond himself) says to Jack: “These people are trying to protect their families much like you are.” He goes on to explain how the two of them have played a part in the events that led to the revolution, either knowingly or otherwise. These gray areas make the film so much more emotional when you’re forced to acknowledge the circumstances that have pushed the rebels toward violence, and also how Jack’s own hands are not blood-free.
Yes, there is an element of enjoyable suspense to this film, and yes, it tells a dramatic family story, but for me the takeaway was greater than that. This kind of conflict is always much larger and much more complicated than the bad guy pointing a gun at the good guy.
No one is all one or the other and everyone is just trying to protect the people they love.
I would like to preface this post with a disclaimer: I am a Kristen Stewart fan.
And it has nothing to do with Twilight.
I think that Kristen gets a super bad rap because of a poorly written and poorly made young adult franchise that skyrocketed into a global obsession (for whatever reason) and she is not given nearly enough credit for many of her other, excellent roles. (As Joan Jett in The Runaways, for example. But we’ll get to that later.)
So, I was strolling through new releases on Netflix the other day and I saw a thumbnail of Kristen Stewart in army fatigues and was immediately intrigued. The film turned out to be Camp X-Ray, made in 2014, in which Kristen’s character Army Private first-class Amy Cole is placed as a guard at Guantanamo Bay detention center 8 years post-9/11.
I don’t think it’s a secret that KStew thrives in gritty roles and that she’s an actress much more suited to play a grungy tomboy than the girl next door, and in my opinion she was cast perfectly as a tightly-wound servicewoman in an environment that can only be described as slightly better than hell. Long story short, she develops a relationship with a Muslim detainee who has been declared innocent of all crimes and yet is still forced to live out the rest of his days in the purgatory that is Guantanamo.
There are a crapload of heavy topics that are covered in this movie: terrorism, white supremacy, misogyny, sexual assault in the military, religious prejudice, human isolation, and the true definition of an enemy. I found this to be an incredibly satisfying watch, at first quiet in its contemplation and later gutting in its awareness. So much of the story was told through body language and facial expressions and Kristen truly carried the film on her back. She is constantly criticized for her lack of expression or emotion, and yet she perfected the nuanced physicality necessary for the telling of this story to succeed.
Although this film was made and released several years ago and it’s directly connected to 9/11, it still feels deeply current and relevant to the complexities of racial & cultural oppression that we’re experiencing as a country. It examined tolerance, or lack thereof, and human connection across massive boundaries: including the literal cement walls that protected Cole from the “dangerous detainee” Ali Amir, the figurative boundaries between two feuding cultures, and the extreme power dynamics that exist between inmate and guard.
Despite these barriers, Cole was able to form a bond with Amir as they discussed poetry and puzzles and Harry Potter, and brought small snippets of joy into the void around them. This movie could easily have slid toward an unbelievable, sensationalized, and sugarcoated feel-good ending that could not have been taken seriously. Thankfully, it managed to stick closely to the truth of existence in this very real place.
I don’t want to give away how the story concludes, but viewers are definitely left with the knowledge that this one connection between two people had no effect whatsoever on the inevitable trajectory of their lives. This was not a story of revolution, of resistance, or of justice. Rather, it was a small peek into the complexity of human connection in a very specific setting, for a very specific amount of time. Take from that what you will.
Having watched this movie, my love of Kristen Stewart was that much more solidified, and again I felt a wave of rage that some of her most incredible performances go unknown or unappreciated.
For example, the 2010 indie-drama Welcome to the Riley's where she plays a hard-ass teenage stripper who bonds with a couple who have lost their daughter. Again, Kristen thrives as a cold, gritty, and tousled character.
Another often overlooked role of Kristen's was her portrayal of Joan Jett in The Runaways, a film immortalizing Jett's successful all-girl rock band of the 70s -- also starring the fabulous Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie. My love of this movie is far too deep to fully encapsulate here in a few sentences, but I will say that it's a peek into a very specific world in a way that is just as raw as it is weird and amazing. Kristen is about as close to the perfect Joan Jett as you can get without actually being Joan Jett and she should get some gosh darn props for this role, and all of the others, that prove she is a talented and hardworking actress who should be respected as such.
So please, for all that is good and holy, throw out your misdirected and outdated judgments of this top notch actress and hop on Netflix or Amazon or anywhere you have to in order to see these movies and appreciate the Kristen Stewart that I am unapologetically obsessed with.
Watch the trailer for Camp X-Ray here.