Contains spoilers for Million Dollar Baby (2005), Mona Lisa Smile (2003), and Charlie’s Angels (2019)
I love movie trailers.
That two-minute hit of emotion, the music, the character-establishing jokes and ‘stinger’ as they go out. It’s a high that I have spent too many hours combing YouTube for.
A well-made trailer is the film distilled. It’s a microcosm of what the viewer will be buying a ticket for: a bill of goods. It holds just enough back, a third act twist, a surprise character reveal, a fortune’s reversal, that the whole story isn’t told in those two minutes.
It deceives the viewer, but with the promise that the viewer will be glad for the deception in the end.
Let’s talk about Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2005). The goods, as promised by the trailer, are gruff coach Eastwood, hopeful boxer Hilary Swank, and Morgan Freeman as the wise adviser. There’s a priest, a disapproving mother, an absent daughter—story elements that we’ve all seen before in some form or another.
And we’ve all seen sports movies. We know this underdog story.
But, I promise, you don’t know this underdog story.
And I won’t spoil it more than that, but the third act of this film changes everything. The list of goods that you were sold shifts and the story explores tragic nuance in a way that we don’t often see from Eastwood anymore. And if you’ve braced yourself emotionally and sent the children off to another room, it’s a well I would recommend you plumb.
On the lighter side, take Mike Newell’s Mona Lisa Smile (2003).
Julia Roberts as a progressive new art professor at a stuffy New England women’s college in the 1950s. There’s a flirty Italian professor, who we know Roberts ends up with because in two minutes and twenty seconds the trailer shows them together in about 10 different scenes, including bed, there are precocious students (Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin), who we know are precocious because they show off in class, and enough shots of idyllic, upper-crust New England life to let you know what kind of community is surrounding our players.
Again, we’ve seen this teacher-tackles-new-school-and-becomes-beloved story before. It’s comfort food.
And Mona Lisa Smile is comfort food, but there’s more substance than simple warm fuzzies.
The Italian professor is fun, but also sleeps with his students, has tacitly lied about service in WWII, and is primarily important in that he delivers our film title in the stinger at the end of the trailer.
But the students.
There’s this moment in the third act:
Dunst has married before graduation and moved out of the dorms.
Her husband has the pedigree, to make their families happy, and questionable lovability. He has checked the homemaker box on his life plan, and now has a career to build, dinners to miss, and a doting wife to neglect. Dunst has gone to her mother about this, and been told in prime, mid-fifties, old-money fashion, that this is the job. That wives have been swallowing this bitter pill for generations and now it’s Dunst’s turn, so get over it.
Gyllenhaal is the slut of the group.
We know this because she has birth control and dates older men. It is while on one of these dates that Gyllenhaal sees Dunst’s husband with another woman. With her, the audience sees the liaison from a distance, and then Gyllenhaal’s recognition, and now we know she now has a grenade.
Dunst’s conventionality has been grating against Gyllenhaal’s liberalism all film, and now one has a bomb in her back pocket that will destroy the other.
Things come to a head in dorms one weekend.
Dunst is screaming. She’s calling Gyllenhaal a whore and worse because she needs a target for all this pain. She’s hurting someone else because she’s hurt. She’s been a bully and a bitch all movie and we, as the audience, know that this ire is a product of the pressures and repression piled onto a ferociously intelligent young woman, but we also secretly want her to go down.
We want that break, the crash that will humble her, and Gyllenhaal, standing there silently with the grenade in her back pocket and every reason to use it, seems primed to deliver this mean satisfaction.
Watching this movie for the first time, I wrote the line in my head. One sentence that would absolutely shatter. The kind of cutting, simple response that only happens in movies. The kind of response that, in real life, you would only think of hours after the confrontation ends.
Then Gyllenhaal hugs her.
Holds on to this girl who she hasn’t liked very much, but who just needs to be held.
Simple, unflinching, reckless acceptance.
It was a breathtaking moment in a beautiful film. The women are real, their joys and cruelties and triumphs are tangible, and the ending lingers between bittersweet and hopeful. This one, do watch with the kids, at least the ones old enough to sit through almost two hours of film.
If nothing else, for that moment between Dunst and Gyllenhaal. Kids should be exposed to ferocious forgiveness.
One last movie before we go, lets talk about Elizabeth Banks’ Charlie’s Angels (2019) and Kristen Stewart’s butt.
The trailer for this reboot of a reboot shows beautiful women, car chases, a dance sequence, some witty banter, and one very prominent shot of Stewart’s, white-clad posterior as she infiltrates a herd of jockeys at a horse race. There’s even a whipcrack sound for effect as she slaps her riding crop.
I don’t know, but I would bet money that this trailer was cut by a man.
It shows women as competent, but they’re also sexualized, and one of our central protagonists—an accomplished engineer/inventor, is given ten seconds to be stunned by a closet full of disguises and recklessly grab things in the weapons bunker, a lot of real estate when we’re looking at two minutes and twenty seconds of trailer—is made a little bit softer.
In the film, written and directed by Banks, a woman, Stewart’s ass is only filmed incidentally from a distance as she walks towards a crowd of other jockeys in silks. There is no whipcrack.
The dance sequence takes place in the center of a party, and the typical shots of cleavage, pelvic thrusts, and hip-shakes are, again, only filmed incidentally. The actresses are in ¾ profile shots most of the scene, and the whites of their eyes draw focus as they look up and around for guards on upper balconies at the glitzy party they’ve infiltrated. They’re beautiful, graceful, and clearly working.
The closet? It’s full of bulletproof leather jackets and bras that offer comfort, support, and an extra layer of Kevlar right over the heart.
The film industry is a notorious boys club. It could be another decade before true gender parity is achieved both in front of and behind the camera. It’s not often that women are given the budget and the freedom to pursue a vision like this, Patty Jenkins and Wonder Woman might be the only comparison in franchise films, so it’s a shame that Charlie’s Angels probably won’t be getting a sequel.
The box office doesn’t justify it.
The film isn’t a masterpiece. The plot could have been streamlined, and the cold open, while fun and important, should have had another pass to reaffirm some character relationships or lack thereof.
But, despite that, and the bad reviews: the actors have real chemistry and the dialogue is fun. The action set pieces are solid, the fights well-choreographed, and the empowerment message is there.
This Charlie’s Angels exists in a world where all of the women speak multiple languages, they design revolutionary power sources, shoot guns, ride horses, run NGOs, unapologetically eat cheese and drink wine, drive beautiful cars, and learn from every punch thrown at them. Seduction is not their go-to information gathering technique, and they don’t betray each other.
The women don’t betray each other.
What a world, eh?
Chase thunder lovelies, until next time