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Wonder women: how female action heroes will blast cinema screens in 2018



This years movie slate suggests a sudden industry interest in female-driven blockbusters. But is this a response to the Weinstein revelations? Or does it boil down to hard cash?

After #MeToo and allegations of predatory behaviour by powerful men in Hollywood, it feels good for the soul that the year in film kicked off with news that women rule the box office. Last year, the three most popular films in the US had female leads, with Star Wars: The Last Jedi at No 1, followed by Beauty and the Beast and Wonder Woman in third place. And theres plenty more where they came from. Hollywood is still waking up to its masculinity problem, but 2018 looks as if it could be the year powerful women roar on screen in female-driven sci-fi, action blockbusters and super-sleuth thrillers.

First up, in February, Ex Machina director Alex Garlands eco-sci-fi, Annihilation, looks like Ghostbusters with a degree in biology; Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh star as scientists in boiler suits leading an all-woman expedition to the site of an alien invasion. In March, Jennifer Lawrence finds her inner Jason Bourne in the cold war thriller Red Sparrow, playing a Russian ballerina turned spy, while Alicia Vikander will shoot her way to international superstardom as Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider reboot.

Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Awkwafina, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway and Sarah Paulson in Oceans 8. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros

And forget boring boys in tights with superpowers, summers hottest film is Oceans 8, the all-female crime caper spin-off released in June. If the trailer is anything to go by, sunglasses will be necessary to shield against the combined star-wattage of Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Helena Bonham Carter, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Paulson and Awkwafina playing an octet of crims pulling off a $150m diamond necklace heist at the Met Ball. In October, Claire Foy, star of Netflixs The Crown, clearly over the tweeds and tiaras steps into Rooney Maras skintight leathers as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl in the Spiders Web.

Female stars in high-adrenaline blockbusters are nothing new. (Top of my head: Sigourney Weaver in the Alien franchise, Linda Hamilton in the Terminators, Thelma and Louise, Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft and Salt, Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil, Scarlett Johansson in Lucy.) But statistics reveal how few opportunities there are. In 2016, while 29% of the top-100 grossing films had female leads, the figure for action movies scraped in at just 3%.

It would be pleasing to think that a new age of empowered women on screen is dawning in reaction to #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein. But 2018s kick-butt films would have been greenlit long before the last years upsetting revelations. So whats going on? Is Hollywood finally getting into the swing of the Bechdel test?

In part, we have Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen to thank for the rise of the women-centred blockbusters, says Dr Shelley Cobb, associate professor of film at the University of Southampton. I think Harry Potter and The Hunger Games were the turning point. You had these younger characters appealing to a millennial audience that grew older with them. Now that audience is an adult audience young women and men who are interested in action heroes and heroines.

Kate Muir, the screenwriter and former critic, says that the industrys sudden interest in female-driven blockbusters boils down to hard cash. I think its about economics, which is what Hollywood always pays most attention to. Over the past 10 years, people have realised that a woman can hold the box office in a big, big way. She adds that the small screen has blazed a trail with its portrayal of powerful, conflicted and complex female heroes. Weve seen these fantastic women detectives over the past 10 years. Weve seen these incredibly weird and wonderful female characters on our TV screen, but never in a cinema. Theres a real appetite for them and the executives are aware of that appetite.

Taraji P Henson in Proud Mary. Photograph: Allstar/Screen Gems

The industry found out exactly how hungry audiences are for female action stars last year when Wonder Woman stormed cinemas (kicking that smug smile off the face of Ben Afflecks lumbering Batman). A lightning bolt movie, praised by Hillary Clinton as inspiring, it arrived with perfect timing, speaking to the feminist zeitgeist (not that all feminists agree it is feminist). Perhaps most significantly, as the years most successful comic book movie, Wonder Woman has also put an end to the false narratives that the Hollywood boys club has been pedalling for years (sample: men dont watch films about women, a female star isnt bankable as the lead in a blockbuster). And it has been reported that director Patty Jenkins has negotiated a record pay cheque for a woman of between $7m and $9m to make the sequel. It matters, says Muir. Little girls wore Wonder Woman Halloween costumes last year and will wear Lara Croft this year, she says. Thats really percolated the culture and changed the way girls are growing up.

Melissa Silverstein, the founder and editor of website Women and Hollywood, makes the sharp observation that womens stories have been ignored for so long, that they now look shiny and new. Honestly, the thing about female content now is that its fresh content, because its been neglected for so long. You look at these women who have always been the sidekicks in the movies. What were saying now is lets make them centre of the action.

A film that she has got eye on in 2018 is the action thriller Proud Mary, featuring Hidden Figures star Taraji P Henson as a hitwoman with a gun collection that would make John Wick green with envy (it is out in March). Ill be interested to see how it does, says Silverstein. We need more leads who are not white and also not young [Henson is 47 and African American]. Thats exciting for me, how we branch out from the thing that became the norm: young white girls.

Elsewhere, two of 2018s most anticipated movies have female actors of colour front and centre. Ava DuVernay has cast 12 Years a Slaves Storm Reid as Meg Murry, the teenage girl saving the world in her adaptation of Madeleine LEngles A Wrinkle in Time. Chadwick Boseman is technically star of Marvels Black Panther, but watch the trailer and it is tempting to think that Wakandas female warriors (Lupita Nyongo, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright) will steal the show.

The white action heroine has a longer history, says Cobb. She believes that we may be beginning to see the first shoots of Hollywoods attempt to tackle the lack of diversity in film: Thats not to suggest that this is a radical change that fixes everything for ever, but I think you can relate these [films] to #OscarsSoWhite.

It took me a couple of goes to watch the trailer for Red Sparrow in full. Two shots of Lawrence in a swimming costume, neckline plunging to her tummy button, put me off. Dont get me wrong, she looks incredible. But did we really need to see her cossie in the trailer? Twice? Which brings us to the disappointing fact that just one of 2018s female-centred movies Ive been talking to the experts about is directed by a woman: DuVernays A Wrinkle in Time. So expect plenty of male gaze sexualising of female characters along with the badassery.

Patty Jenkins made Warner Bros $413m at the box office with Wonder Woman, but Hollywood still cant shake the feeling that women cant be trusted with a tentpole movie.

Lupita Nyongo, Chadwick Boseman and Danai Gurira in Black Panther. Photograph: AP

Women directors are perceived as a risk, says Alice Lowe, who made the horror-thriller Prevenge. Having said that, I do think women for whatever reason, societal, nature or nurture, can doubt their own abilities. Sometimes you see a male director blazing in with no clue what they doing but utter confidence in their own brilliance. They can balls it up, but it doesnt matter, they perceive themselves as a success, and so its water off a ducks back. I think I would like a pinch of that attitude myself.

Lowe also talks about the industrys rigid thinking about the kinds of films women should be directing. What I have experienced is being asked to direct women films. As if women are a type of niche! By this I mean a film that has a female lead and maybe themes that are seen as exclusively female: motherhood, romance, emotions. Sometimes these scripts might be great. But you do think: I am a human being, I am capable of a range of things. Why am I only considered for these projects? Does that mean Im being excluded from others?

Last word to Silverstein, who says it will take time to tell how the sexual misconduct scandal will change the stories we see on our screens: Today is the first day Hollywood is back in LA [after the holidays]. Theres still reporting on stories of sexual harassment. Right now, theres a lot of nervousness, but I dont think weve ever seen people more attuned to women in Hollywood.

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Robert Redford’s greatest screen roles ranked!



As the actor and Oscar-winning director reveals his plans for retirement, we rank his 10 best performances in front of the camera

10. Brubaker (1980)

“Released in the same year as his clunky but multiple Oscar-winning directorial debut Ordinary People, Brubaker showed a tougher side to Redford than anyone had seen before. As a prison warden who goes undercover as an inmate to clean up the penal system, he had to raise his game among some hardened character actors. The movies I liked making dealt with an America that was a little different from the America that was propagandised, he said. Theres a grey zone that I know, and I want to tell stories about that complex part of America.

9. The Twilight Zone Nothing in the Dark (1962)

None of Redfords early TV appearances were as haunting as his personification of death in this creepy-sad episode of The Twilight Zone. You see? he says, glowing handsomely and gesturing to an old womans dormant body as he leads her spirit into the afterlife. No shock. No engulfment. No tearing asunder. What you feared would come like an explosion is like a whisper. What you thought was the end is the beginning.

8. The Great Gatsby (1974)

Before DiCaprio there was Redford: he may never have exuded the pure electricity of the junior actor, and his chemistry with Mia Farrow (as Daisy) was meagre, to say the least, but his permanently distracted air was just right for Jay Gatsby. In the midst of even the most vibrant shindig, he seems uniquely alone. Fame does that to you.

7. Sneakers (1992)

This underrated techno caper-comedy, about a crack team of computer security experts, was led by Redford and features River Phoenix, Sidney Poitier and Dan Aykroyd. Redfords occasional returns to light comedy could be spotty Legal Eagles should be outlawed but hes having a blast here as the slightly bumbling former radical who has become something of a sellout.

Redford in The Great Gatsby (1974). Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex

6. Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Redfords most frequent collaborator was the director Sydney Pollack, with whom he made six films including the 1972 western Jeremiah Johnson and the Oscar-bait drama Out of Africa (1985). Their best, though, was this jittery conspiracy thriller in which Redford, working for a clandestine CIA group, has to be brought in from the cold after his team is massacred. Cherish the justified sense of Watergate-era dread, as well as the opening shot of Redford cycling through traffic in a goofy woolly hat and trainers…………….”

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From Nico to Tonya Harding, womens true stories are being told on film at last

Charmaine Blake



I wasnt happy when I was beautiful: the movie Nico, 1988 shows singers resilience in later life, signalling a change in how biopics treat their subjects

“On paper, Nico the Warhol acolyte, singer and fashion model who added international exoticism to the grungy downtown hip of the Velvet Underground would seem to be perfect biopic material.

With her glowering, angular looks and smoky drone of a voice, she was unlike anyone else around at the time. She had a string of romances with beautiful, troubled men. Further boxes are ticked on the biopic checklist by the fact that she struggled with demons heroin was her drug of choice.

But Nico, 1988, the daringly unconventional biopic by Italian director Susanna Nicchiarelli, which has just opened in the US, is not about the singer in her iconic phase. Instead it deals with the last two years of her life: Nico prefers to go by her birth name, Christa Pffgen; she performs avant-garde proto-goth dirges while scowling through her fringe in European dive bars; the decades of addiction have taken their toll, but she doesnt care: I wasnt happy when I was beautiful.

Nicos value to Warhol was inextricably linked to the way she looked. When asked what became of Nico after she left his studio, the Factory, Warhol was dismissive: She became a fat junkie and disappeared. But what interested Nicchiarelli was her resilience. Unlike other Warhol superstars such as Edie Sedgwick and Candy Darling who crashed and burned once their 15 minutes of fame were snatched away, Nico reclaimed herself. Talking at the Rotterdam film festival, Nicchiarelli said, The intriguing thing about Nico was that she survived. She was so much stronger.

Nico, centre, and the Velvet Underground. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The focus of this film on unglamorous middle age rather than gilded youth is significant. It is representative of a change in the way biopics for so long dominated by white, male stories approach female subjects. Theres no doubt that we are in the midst of a particularly rich period for female-led real-life dramas. Alongside independent productions such as Nico, 1988 and Christine (about TV news anchor Christine Chubbuck), Hollywood has also got…………………”

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How did Mission: Impossible become Hollywood’s most reliable franchise?

Charmaine Blake



Critical adoration and box office success has met the sixth installment of Tom Cruises series, an unlikely 22-year phenomenon that shows no signs of tiring

“Lets take a moment to appreciate the preposterousness of Mission: Impossible. Not the rubber masks or the exploding gum sticks or the nuclear countdown clocks that always stop with one second till death. (The usual, Ving Rhames Luther Stickell would shrug.) All franchises have their implausibilities, whether its Transformers sentient cars or the Fast and Furious sentient Vin Diesels. But only the Mission: Impossible franchise has gotten better reviews with every installment, climbing its way up the Rotten Tomatoes rankings as though wearing electromagnetic gloves. Bruce Willis cant make a good Die Hard happen. But this weekend, Mission: Impossible Fallout had the best critical approval of Tom Cruises entire career, better even than the three films that scored him Oscar nominations, and his second-highest box office opening ever, just under 2005s War of the Worlds. Fallout probably would have beaten that, too, if MoviePass hadnt glitched.

Kudos to Cruise for making the most of a career he never meant to have. Mission: Impossible is also an outlier……………….”

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