Thursday, January 13, 2011

Two Gentlewomen of 2010: "Made in Dagenham" and "Easy A"

In most years, there's likely to be at least a handful of articles bemoaning the lack of strong roles for women. Thankfully, 2010 was determined to not become such a year, and on the large part has proven successful in both awards contenders and the unrecognized. And last night I was able to see two more films headlined by well-received leading ladies to add to the roster. Unfortunately, one was quite good, and the other was simply alright:

Made in Dagenham dir. Nigel Cole:
In 1968 the 187 female machinists at Ford's plant in Dagenham went on strike to protest for wages equal to their male counterparts. This is the set-up for Nigel Cole's film about the women who fought for equal pay, as led by Rita O'Grady (Sally Hawkins), a married mother of two. And while the story at its center may be compelling from a civil rights standpoint, Cole's film is slightly lacking, largely due to the screenplay. Outside of Rita, many of the other women in the factory come off as rather one-note, and even Rita herself doesn't feel fully formed. There are a handful of angles to be worked in, but the film doesn't ever appropriately settle on one, which leaves us with four strands battling it out for various degrees of importance: Rita attempting to lead the strike, Rita trying to keep her family together, the behind the scenes discussions among Ford execs, and the increasing importance of the recently-elected Labor government. The result it that it's hard to feel much connection to the strike, which give the film the feeling that it is simply going through the motions to cover all of the major angles of the story.

That said, the performances are solid and watchable enough to almost make you care. Sally Hawkins does the best she can as Rita, and she's certainly likable enough, even though most of her struggle is only given surface exploration. This trait seems to define the cast's work: talented people making the most of what precious little they've been given by the script. Geraldine James as co-worker Connie and Miranda Richardson as Barbara Castle add some spark as two women stuck in two very different situations, and Rosamund Pike nails her handful of scenes as a wealthy, educated women whose husband treats her like a bimbo. Others, like Andrea Riseborough as mega-beehive-d Brenda feel more like cutouts rather than charmingly colorful ensemble roles.

What it all boils down to is a film that is inspiring in subject matter, but not in execution. The performances and production values are nice, but nothing to write home about. Similar to Agora, Made in Dagenham wants to both examine the larger picture of a story while also creating a compelling look at a central female figure. Unfortunately, like that film, this one struggles to maintain its balance, and the result leaves little worth discussing, good or bad.

Grade: B-/C+

Easy A dir. Will Gluck:
And now we come to (surprisingly) the better film of the two, even though it's *gasp* a high school (fake) sex comedy. Starring rising star Emma Stone, Easy A tells the story of Olive Pendergast, a California high school student who, in order to make herself noticeable, allows boys (mostly nerds) to tell people that they either slept with or fooled around with her in exchange for gifts. And for the most part, what could have been either tedious or overly reliant on crude humor, Easy A succeeds thanks to its humor and Stone's extremely fun turn as Olive. And for most of the film's 85 minute run time, it's actually quite funny, and benefits from having a talented cast (including Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as Olive's parents) to deliver the dialogue. Even in small roles like her breakthrough in Superbad, Stone has displayed good comic timing, and her first major lead role doesn't disappoint.

Unfortunately, other aspects can't quite measure up. Olive's often bitchy friend Rhi (Ali Michalka) doesn't work right from the beginning; she's too aggressive from the get-go, and the friendship never feels really convincing. Other aspects, like Bible-thumping students who serve more or less as antagonists, are too broadly drawn and feel like a cheap way of attacking holier-than-thou attitudes, and Olive's love interest (Penn Badgley) is a barely-there presence.

And yet despite the flaws (many of which start surfacing around the 1 hour mark), Stone holds it together with effortless charm and comedic skill. The movie around her isn't quite Mean Girls, but Stone herself certainly deserves an 'A' for her work.

Grade: B/B-

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