Tag Archives: Emma Thompson

TIFF19: How To Build a Girl

I first came to know Caitlin Moran when her publisher sent me a copy of her book, How To Be A Woman, to review (Jay trivia: I did in fact review books before movies – scandalous!). That’s all it takes to be a Moran convert. She’s so…I mean, likable is both the right and wrong word. She does not asked to be liked. She does not write to be liked. But her don’t-give-a-fuck-edness is extremely likable. She is the role model we deserve: bold, brash, body-positive, full of piss and vinegar. She isn’t someone else’s shitty idea of a woman, she is a REAL woman, no apologies given and none necessary. She may have been new to me then but she was already a well-respected journalist and popular TV personality in England. But over here we’ve mostly had to make due with her books.

Lately she has embarked on a semi-autobiographical trilogy, the first of which is How To Build A Girl. It follows Johanna Morrigan, an educationally-uninspired, council-estate-abiding, overlooked teenage daughter in Wolverhampton who one day just decides that the best ticket out of there is one she writes herself. So she reinvents herself as the fast-talking, confident Dolly Wilde, music journalist extraordinaire. With a top hat and some swagger, Dolly trips through life, interviewing Britpop’s biggest bands at the beginning of their journey to fame, and swashbuckling through bedrooms as a Lady Sex Pirate (Moran’s words, but god I wish they were mine). Is it easy? Fuck no. The music industry is notoriously sexist, and Johanna/Dolly is, after all, still a teenage girl.

The movie has a lot going for it, but I’m going to start with its star, Beanie Feldstein, whom you might already love from Booksmart or Lady Bird, and with whom you will fall certainly and mightily and madly head over heels in this. Johanna Morrigan is the kind of character every actor wants and few will ever find; the personal grown charted on screen is nearly immeasurable. Johanna is every kind of dichotomy you could hope for in a character study of a young woman: brave and nervous, self-conscious and audacious. We see every attempt to ‘build’ her up by the men in her life – father, boss, boyfriend, brother. But then we get to see her break away from all that bullshit and start to build herself. And the ingredients for building a self-possessed girl are all here. It is glorious.

Caitlin Moran’s signature style is all over this film, which she helped adapt to screen. The humour is self-effacing, witty, rude, clever. It is amazing and liberating and just such a relief to see a young woman’s actual sexual awakening be told (though I think it may be slightly watered down from the book, if you can imagine). And that’s what will punch you right in the face: director Coky Giedroyc has given Johanna permission to be a real person, whose inner life and outer trappings are just as full and fully-realized as any man’s. Yes, she’s ambitious. Her peers find her intimidating and confusing. Her life isn’t perfect. She swears like a sailor. She likes her body. She likes sex. She wants more. Have we ever seen a better representation of a female character, ever? EVER??? Everything I like about this movie makes me dislike every other movie just a little bit. How To Build a Girls is vital and necessary – easy to fall in love with, because it’ll make you fall in love with yourself.

 

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Men in Black: International

When did aliens become so boring? In Men in Black: International, everyone is trying to out-deadpan Tommy Lee Jones, and succeeding. There is no excitement, no awe, just a bunch of bored white men joined by a bored diversity hire, all bumbling around England, Paris, and Morocco trying to save the world from an unseen alien menace after an alien prince is killed but not before delivering a MacGuffin to MiB’s newest agent (Tessa Thompson).

As the first three MiB films showed, it can be fun to have one disinterested agent in our lead duo. But those films worked because Will Smith’s junior agent brought enough energy and wonder for the two of them. They worked because Smith’s Agent J was the audience’s stand in, who marvelled and freaked out at the marvelous and freaky stuff onscreen. And also, they worked because for all his surface gruffness, Agent K was actually quite an interesting character, and Jones let us see that just enough to make us invest in him. Unfortunately, MiB:I’s H (Chris Hemsworth) and M (Thompson) both have seen it all before, and even worse, so has the audience. So everyone ends up being disinterested, including the viewer.

The aliens and events in MiB:I simply don’t measure up to what the franchise has previously offered us. The aliens are bland and the stakes are surprisingly low consindering our heroes keep telling us their job is to save the world. Basically, it’s the opposite of what is expected from a summer blockbuster. The only joy in the film comes from Kumail Nanjiani’s pint-sized sidekick, who has all the best lines and whose hilarity highlights the disappointing blandness of everything else.

MiB:I simply has nothing to offer and no reason to be. That’s a particularly damning critique when this franchise’s defining trait has been ridiculousness. MiB:I didn’t need to be a good movie, but it did need to be silly, loud, and campy. Instead, it’s forgettable and unoriginal to the point that I’d have been better off rewatching any of its predecessors. I’m sure they’d have offered more surprises on a rewatch than MiB:I did on my first (and undoubtedly only) viewing.

Late Night

Mindy Kaling is an actress, a director, a producer, an Emmy-nominated writer. She’s written best-sellers and acted alongside Oprah and created television series. You may not know that her foot in the door was portraying Ben Affleck in an off-Broadway play she co-wrote with her best friend called Matt & Ben, about how the pair came to write Good Will Hunting. I wish to god I had seen it.

She was hired to write for The Office when she was just 24 years old – the only woman in a room full of men. She was technically a diversity hire, part of NBC’s diversity writing programme, but don’t mistake that for a lack of qualification. “For a long time I was really embarrassed about that. No one [on The Office] said anything to me about it, but they all knew and I was acutely aware of that. It took me a while to realize that I was just getting the access other people had because of who they knew.” Mindy’s parents, an architect and an OB-GYN, immigrated to the U.S. from India (via Nigeria) only months before she was born, and gave her the most American of names, ripped from their favourite sitcom, Mork & Mindy.

In Late Night, Kaling plays Molly Patel, also a diversity hire, straight from a chemical plant (don’t call it a factory!). She’s hired to be the first and badly needed female writer on Katherine Newbury’s show as its steady ratings decline threatens its existence. Kaling wrote the role of Newbury specifically for Emma Thompson and it is indeed a perfect fit. Newbury is exacting and imperious, but has grown out of touch with her core audience. Molly is exactly the injection of colour and culture that this writer’s room needs even though it longs to stay beige. Of course, Kaling had to invent a fictional world in which a woman is actually allowed to host a late night show, but once she does (and we get over that depressing fact), she invents a very good one, one in which her very successful host is over 50 and undeniably at the top of her game, but hasn’t had to sacrifice her life to gain such a position. Newbury has both a love life (John Lithgow) and a sex life, and she still gets to be the boss. Kaling is so devoted to this character, she took a page from her parents’ baby naming book and called her own daughter Katherine.

Late Night is a lot of laughs, and it benefits from the excellent chemistry between Kaling and Thompson. I suppose it takes a woman to write two such meaty yet tender roles for women. Roles that don’t apologize for emotions and characters who don’t get disempowered for expressing them. And a female director to give these ladies their space to create complexity. Late Night tackles a lot of themes as you might imagine, but it never loses its sharp and incisive comedy. Thompson proves more than able, with impeccable timing and buckets of condescension. She’s formidable. Meanwhile, Kaling orbits around her, not just absorbing her light but casting her own glow as well. They don’t diminish each other, they brighten the whole damn screen. It’s a party where ambitious women, perhaps for the first time this century, are truly celebrated. Yes there were applause-worthy moments, though the theatre I was in was unfortunately a packed but non-clapping one (well, okay, save for me, who couldn’t resist). And there’s a lesson plan for how to apologize correctly and take responsibility like a big kid. But mostly there’s just a lot of zing, and a surprising amount of relatability [My work recently turned one of two women’s washrooms in the building into a “gender neutral” washroom which is nice in theory but in practice has become the washroom where men go to poop. Because men, who still had 2 bathrooms to themselves, think it’s more important to stink up a third than to create safe spaces. They’re literally shitting their privilege all over the place.]

Kaling wrote this movie while she was pregnant, and on the set of A Wrinkle In Time. She shot it while literally breastfeeding her daughter. Motherhood is not slowing her down, it’s just another bullshit hurdle she’s going to plough straight through while we lay down our dollars like a red carpet made out of green because she is the Queen and we her loyal subjects.

Missing Link

Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) is an investigator of myths and monsters but his charismatic exploits have failed to yield any actual proof. There’s a boy’s club of pompous explorers Frost would kill to be a part of, but they won’t have him. In fact, Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry) would kill to keep him out – and unfortunately, he means that a little more literally than does Frost. Frost feels like his best and last chance is to go to America to find the elusive Sasquatch, and Lord Piggot-Dunceby sends Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant) to make sure he doesn’t.

Frost does indeed meet the Sasquatch (Zach Galifianakis), who turns out to be rather a MV5BNDFmMjlmNjEtN2RhNS00NWNhLWFjODgtN2IxYTY1NzExYWZlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODEwMTc2ODQ@._V1_pathetic figure. The last of his kind, “Mr. Link” is lonely, and hopes Frost will help him find long-lost cousins, Yeti said to live in the Himalayas. With the help of Frost’s friend Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), who hikes the mother fucking Himalayas in heels, they have an adventure worthy of even the greatest explorer, facing adversity bigger than even Big Foot himself.

Laika’s last effort, Kubo and the Two Strings, is an absolutely incredible feat of animation and story-telling. It looks and feels like something truly special, almost magical. Missing Link, while quite charming, is no Kubo. Which is not to say it’s bad, not at all. It’s sweet, actually, and its straight-forward plotting is kid-friendly and accessible. The animation is what we’ve come to expect from over-achieving Laika, and the voice work is first-rate. The film manages to be funny and heart-warming throughout. But it doesn’t have that edge, that sliver of darkness I’ve come to expect from Laika.

Missing Link is a nice movie, a genuinely nice movie, but it’s less sophisticated, less complex than Laika’s usual fare, so for me it fell short of the high bar set by Kubo.

Brave

Merida may be a princess, but she’s no lady. After reluctantly performing her royal duties, she’s happiest riding her horse and shooting her bow and arrow – not feminine pursuits, according to her mother, but Merida is a daddy’s girl, and he indulges her. But even the King can’t save her when it’s time for each of Scotland’s clans to send forth a suitor to compete for her hand in marriage. It strikes Merida as almost as barbaric as it does you and I, but Merida’s mother has some very convincing myths to back up the obligation, and anyway, nobody really has any choice – for crown, for country, for glory and all that.

Anyway, Merida’s father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) is a big beast of a man, whoMV5BMTYxNzE3NzA5MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjQ4MTc3Nw@@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,740_AL_ loves to tell the story of how he lost his leg fighting Mor’du the bear at a family picnic, protecting his wife and baby daughter. The Queen, Elinor (Emma Thompson) tolerates his boastful storytelling, and only rolls her eyes a little when Merida (Kelly Macdonald) embellishes right along. But Elinor knows that this betrothal stuff is serious business.

And Pixar knows that to Disney, this princess stuff is serious business. Still, they challenge the notion of what a princess should be, with Merida mucking out a horse’s stall herself, her fiery, unruly hair streaming behind her, big ideas broiling in that red head of hers. When it comes time to compete, Merida competes for her own hand in marriage, ripping the seams of her dress in order to win the day. Does her mother find this an ingenious solution? She does not. Still, Merida is Disney’s first princess without a love interest (but not its last – hello, Elsa!). Anyway, mother and teenage daughter fight, predictably, only Merida has something most teenage daughters luckily do not: access to a witch (Julie Walters). She conjures up a special potion which, when fed to her mother, will “change her fate.” And indeed it does. By turning her mother into a bear.

Pixar, as always, gets a lot right: Merida’s hair is gloriously animated (they had to invent new software to properly render it), the sun dappling is gorgeous, and there’s this moment of goofy pride on the mother bear’s face that just warms the haggis in my heart. If we must life in a world full of princesses, may they be more like Merida – brave enough to stand up for themselves, to stand on their own, to pursue their own ends.

This week Sean and I are at Disney World with my sister and her husband and her two sweetie pie boys, who are probably running through the parks like adorable hooligans, leaving us adults gasping for breath. If we have a spare moment, we might even meet Merida herself. Aside from appearing with other characters from the film in one of Disney’s many parades, she meets and greets wee lads and lassies inside Fairytale Garden, where you can also try your hand at archery, colour your own tapestry, or a picture of her horse, Angus.

b3f42e8969b8336c2c6fcc907310b529Brave came out before either, or in fact any, of my nephews was born, so I’m not sure if we’ll stop to get a picture with her – although the pair are armed with autograph books, so who knows. When a “cast member” of the Disney parks becomes a princess, one of her most important duties is practicing her distinct signature. Merida’s looks appropriately auld. There might be dozens of women who play Merida at Disney World, but they will all sign her name exactly this way. Disney is rather strict about its magic.

 

 

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

The Meyerowitz family is fractured. Danny (Adam Sandler) is a self-described ‘extremely good parker’ with little else on the horizon. A loving dad and devoted house husband, his life is in transition now that he and his wife are separating and his only daughter is off to college. Moving in with his estranged father Harold (Dustin Hoffman) seems like an opportunity to get to know him, except it turns out that feeling’s not mutual.

Harold abandoned Danny and daughter Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) in favour of a new family when they were quite young. He’s never acted as a real father to them and even now he’s mostly only interested in what they can do for him. Not to mention the complicating factor of his alcoholic wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) who MV5BN2M5YzA2ODAtOTNmMi00MGYyLWIxYWYtY2M2NmE4ZGE1ODQ1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjAwODA4Mw@@._V1_inserts herself into cramped dynamics like she’s determined to put the Wicked back into Step Mother. Both throw out the red carpet when favoured son Matthew (Ben Stiller) makes a reluctant appearance. Harold has fostered a competitive streak between his children by different mothers but they otherwise aren’t close. So when their father’s life and career necessitate them pulling together, it’s a little awkward. Actually, it’s extremely awkward and kind of heart breaking. Because they aren’t bad people, they’ve just been starved of their father’s love and have no idea how to act like a family now that there’s no real chance that things will ever be different.

This being a Noah Baumbach work, the comedy isn’t broad, but it is damn funny. When I finished it (a Netflix original) I immediately wanted to restart it, just to catch all the amazing little asides and offhand jokes that are so casually but expertly tossed out.

Although Harold is a self-absorbed contrarian, he’s not quite despicable in the hands of Dustin Hoffman and his grizzled white beard. Adam Sandler gives a nuanced performance that’ll make you believe in him as an actor once again – and it’s been a good long while since that’s been true. Actually, there are loads of big names, some in pretty small roles, but everyone is kind of spectacular in this. Having recently had no patience for Golden Exits at the New Hampshire Film Festival, I wondered if the our film lexicon was finally full to bursting with movies about privileged white people whining about their lives. But the family dysfunction in The Meyerowitz Stories feels relatable and authentic and the characters are trying too hard to be decent people in the face of it all: I kind of loved it. It’s amazing how many years later childhood resentments and jealousies can bubble to the surface, but this is the kind of movie that makes us all feel “Same” in one way or another, and it just feels good and cathartic that we aren’t alone.

 

 

The Love Punch

When Richard’s company gets bought out by a bigger company, he and his colleagues see their retirement fund disappear overnight. With the prospect of not being able to support his daughter just off to college, Richard (Pierce Brosnan) and his ex-wife, Kate (Emma Thompson) appeal to the young new director who – surprise! – doesn’t give a shit. So they hatch a little plan to steal their money back in the form of the very large diamond lately dangling from his fiancee’s neck.

the_love_punchRichard and Kate, who haven’t spoken much in years, now find themselves travelling to France together to the perfect cover to their crime: the high-society wedding between the director and his blushing bride. Kate gets relegated to some hen party high-jinks while Richard naps, but her intel is good: a foursome from Texas, business partners the director has not yet met in person, are expected to attend. All they need are two more accomplices. So they call up their good suburban neighbours Pen (Celia Imrie) and Jerry (Timothy Spall) who are for some reason pretty game to join in this merry heist.

Then follow the obligatory jokes about retirement-aged folks planning the perfect crime: weak bladders, low endurance, the need for naps, har har har. If you’ve always wanted to see Emma Thompson in Dallas-era hair and a twangy accent, this is your chance. A couple of James Bond references make the movie a little cheeky and the talent between the four leads means an awful lot of charisma. Emma Thompson shines in everything. But this material is beneath her, beneath them all and they can’t save a clunky, predictable scrip that is frankly a little insulting to anyone over the age of 60. And that’s too bad because I really enjoyed director Joel Hopkins’ Last Chance Harvey, also starring Thompson and Dustin Hoffman who enjoy a late-in-life romance. Watch that one instead.