Tag Archives: female directors

Birds Of Prey

This is the Harley Quinn that Margot Robbie deserves. That we all deserve, really, away from the male gaze and into the capable hands of director Cathy Yan, writer Christina Hodson, and with Robbie herself producing.

Harley to Black Canary: “Do you know what a harlequin is? A harlequin’s role is to serve. It’s nothing without a master. No one gives two shits who we are, beyond that.” Harley Quinn has broken up with her on-again-off-again longtime love, the Joker, this time for good. Without him as an anchor, she knows she’s vulnerable. Under his protection, no one could touch her, but it turns out she’s accumulated quite a few enemies, and now that she’s untethered, they’re gunning for her. Number one on her tail: a guy who calls himself the Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), who seems to think of himself as a rival to the Joker, though he styles himself more like a Miami Vice drug lord. He does have a bit of a fetish for peeling people’s faces off, though, so don’t go underestimating him. The only way Harley can keep her keister safe is to find the missing diamond he and literally every bad guy in Gotham would like to get their greedy paws on.

In Harley’s sparkly shoes, Robbie proves she can make this role her own, and without her emo boyfriend in tow, Harley Quinn is actually an interesting character in her own right. Her origin is glossed over with a couple of smartly and quickly tossed lines; the rest of the film is devoted to amped up action sequences. Yan doesn’t just have some tricks up her sleeve, she’s got entire confetti cannons up there, glitter bombs and rainbow grenades. Her violence is slick and beautiful, set to a perfect array of pop tunes you’ll be stomping your feet to even as someone one screen’s getting their skull caved in.

I’ve seen far too many reviews mention ‘female empowerment’ (of course in a derogatory manner, eye roll) and I can only assume those people are a) men and b) morons. Did anyone refer to the Avengers movies as ‘male empowerment”? No? Yeah, didn’t think so. Birds of Prey is better than 99% of the other DC movies released in the last decade, and if it happens to star women, well, so be it. This is not about female empowerment, it’s about empowered females, women with their own agency, women who can save themselves and best their male antagonists. The only thing being fetishized here is a breakfast sandwich. Feel threatened by that? Maybe you could do with a little male empowerment yourself. I believe the Batman franchise was built on the theory of overcompensation.

Meanwhile, Robbie has built herself a fearsome army: Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Perez, and even young Ella Jay Basco. And none of them are rolling around on the ground crying about mommy Martha.

Can’t get enough? We’ve got more thoughts on Birds of Prey here.

After Everything

If Elliot hit on me the way he hit on Mia, he wouldn’t have gotten the time of day. Clearly Tinder has desensitized her – an unwanted intrusion and the implicit assumption that women somehow owe some kind of interaction to all men who ring the doorbell aren’t enough to dissuade her. She consents to a date, her roommates encouraging her to “get her dick wet” and he confesses: he was just diagnosed with cancer yesterday. It’s life threatening, and more importantly, sex threatening (ie, a tumor on his pubic bone, specifically Ewing’s sarcoma, if you’re the type who likes to Web MD that shit). With sex off the table, Elliot’s going to have to relearn how to talk to women!

So anyway, this puts kind of an awkward pressure on their relationship for a couple of kids in their early 20s who weren’t necessarily looking for anything serious. This pressure cooker means they get to know each other very intensely and soon they’re inseparable: chemo, radiation, surgery, and even a bucket list for broke 20somethings. The other people in his life get a little jealous that Mia’s monopolizing all his time, but they’re living like these might be his last days, because these might be his last days.

Jeremy Allen White and Mia Monroe are excellent as two people on this impossible trajectory. Either their love is doomed…or it’s doomed. Youth and passion may be enough to plow through the indignities of a medical crisis, but what happens outside those bounds? What will they even have to talk about if not tumors and ports and hair loss? Even if forever isn’t exactly a long time, it’s still further ahead than either of them has ever though. Cancer has launched them into a premature adulthood, which may be a flimsy premise for a love story. You think that illness is going to be the greatest test, but lots of mundane things topple relationships with deeper roots than theirs.

P.S.: it’s National Wear Red Day!

One Child Nation

China instituted its one-child policy in 1979. By 1982, it was locked into its constitution. The Chinese population had ballooned to a billion and officials knew that in order for the country to truly prosper, it would need to control its growing numbers. Western countries worried about China’s population for different reasons. Over here, population growth had slowly withered as our countries grew stronger economically. As families move away from agriculture, large families become less necessary. As health care improves, more children make it into adulthood, so having ‘spares’ feels less urgent. And in order to give children every economic advantage in this new world – each their own bedroom, perhaps, a swimming pool in the backyard, a ski vacation every winter, a college fund for everyone – families grew smaller. Here in Canada we rely on immigration to keep our population from shrinking. Sean and I both come from 4 kid families, big even in the 80s. But in each of our families, only half of the siblings chose to have children at all. Of the 4 siblings who do have kids, 3 families have 2 kids each and 1 family has 3. We aren’t even replacing ourselves. But there’s a big difference between choosing what feels right for your family considering all the pros and cons; it’s much different when your government had made a law about your uterus and what can be inside.

In 1982, ultrasounds were not sophisticated enough to discern gender but following centuries of tradition, most Chinese families still wanted and valued a son. It fell to village officials to enforce this impossible policy, taking possessions and destroying homes of people who refused to follow it, and forcing sterilization on women after their first child, sometimes even forcing abortion.

One village midwife has lost track of how many babies she’s birthed but knows she performed 40-50 000 sterilizations and abortions over 20 years. Women would be abducted from their homes by the government, tied up like pigs, and dragged onto her operating table. Now she’ll only treat infertility “to atone for my sins” she says, though it’s clear she was not exactly a willing participant, just one of many doing their jobs. And so many of them had suffered from starvation, had spent lives just struggling to survive, that this promise of a better life for their child had lots of appeal. But if anything, the one-child policy strengthened the Chinese preference for sons. Baby girls were abandoned in droves.

After leaving China for the U.S. and becoming a mother herself, Nanfu Wang wonders if her thoughts are truly her own, or the result of propaganda so finely ingrained in culture and daily life they were hardly noticed. It’s impossible to know how China would have fared without the policy and most citizens don’t want to broach the question honestly. They have sacrificed so much, but the values and ideas so deeply embedded they are impossible to separate. Nanfu Wang can’t help but ask herself why she has traded one country who seeks to legislate women’s wombs for another.

The one-child policy was finally repealed in 2015 (they can now have 2), China assuring us that the nation was stronger, the people more prosperous, and the world more peaceful. And that may be true. But there is a trail of heart break, human trafficking, and a heavy toll paid by broken families and exiled children.

For Sama

In so many ways, Waad al-Kateab is a young woman just like you and I. She went to school, left home, fell in love, got married, had a daughter. But al-Kateab’s milestones are happening amidst the backdrop of the Syrian war. For five years she has had her camera trained on the uprising in Aleppo and she crafts this documentary as a love letter to her young daughter so she may know just what her parents were fighting for.

This is an intimate, female portrait of war, a side of the story rarely reported. In many ways, Jojo Rabbit is the film that got me thinking down this path; war stories are so often told from the point of view of the soldier (1917 is a good one), but for the women and children left behind, life goes on. Life: complicated and confusing, but there is no pause button. Children grow out of shoes, and tape idols on their bedroom walls. Mothers cobble together meals, and try to create some semblance of a happy home. For Sama is a story that is ongoing, and real. Waad al-Kateab is a real wife and mother telling her story from war-torn streets. Bombs are dropping around her but she slow-danced at her wedding just like you, peed on a stick just like you, felt her belly swell not just with baby but with hope and happiness, but tinged with a filament of fear always burning from within. She plays peek-a-boo with her baby just like you, but flees from a barrel bomb dropped on her by her own government with her baby clutched to her breast. But she loves her country just like you, believes it is worth saving. Her husband, a doctor, tends every day to the wounded. There are always new wounded. Sometimes the body bags are so small. It is endless work. So is the balancing of parenthood and principle, the urge to flee the city to protect their daughter’s life, and the conviction to stay and fight for what so many have already sacrificed so much.

It feels so alien to face such choices, and yet one image stops me cold: sock feet in a pile of bodies. Sock feet that could easily belong to anyone. Must I (we?) relate to those who suffer before we feel compassion? It’s so easy to dismiss this conflict as “their” problem but the boundary between us and them is illusory at best. We are all brothers and sisters, and if this documentary helps us walk a mile in someone else’s socks, it has done its job.

Sama is a toddler with big, gorgeous eyes. She was born during war. She knows nothing else. A loud bang erupts as another bomb explodes nearby. Her mother flinches, crouches reflexively, but Sama doesn’t react at all: a baby who doesn’t cry at a loud noise? Sama doesn’t know this is wrong, this is scary. She thinks this is life. Who will be left to tell her otherwise?

Oscar-nominated shorts 2020

Hair Love: nominated for short film (animated), directed by Matthew Cherry, Everett Downing Jr. & Bruce Smith

A father does his daughter’s hair. Normally I’d be extremely dismissive – these types of videos go viral all the time, the world falls over itself to applaud dads for attempting the things mothers are expected to do on a daily basis. HOWEVER. Hair Love is not really about a father patting himself on the back, it’s about a little black girl named Zuri who wakes up wanting to look extra nice on this special day. She follows an online tutorial from her absent mother’s hair blog, but wrangling her hair is challenging and things don’t go well for Zuri or her dad. A black woman’s hair is a special thing indeed, tied up in her identity and her culture, a symbol of her status, perhaps fraught with difficulty. But Zuri just wants to honour her mother; she already knows that hair does not make the woman. Inspirational and sweetly animated.

Kitbull: nominated for short film (animated), directed by Rosana Sullivan

A scrappy young street cat (well, kitten) and a pit bull trained to be vicious form an unlikely bond and experience friendship together for the first time. It brought a tear to my eye. Though it’s by Pixar (SparkShorts), the 8 minute film is 2D, every frame hand-drawn and hand-painted. Available now on Disney+.

Brotherhood: nominated for short film (live action), directed by Meryam Joobeur

Mohamed, a shepherd, is deeply shaken and a little suspicious when his estranged eldest son Malek returns home from Syria to rural Tunisia with a mysterious young wife in tow. The black sheep of the family returns on the same day as an actual sheep is found slaughtered. Families are tough things to navigate and Mohamed’s is no different. He is mistrustful of this new woman, covered head to toe in a niqab, and even of his son, one of 3 red-headed brothers played by real-life red-headed brothers, a jarring sight out in this hard-scrabbled land. He doesn’t approve of Malek’s decision to fight in Syria but it’s clear their relationship has always been fraught. Brotherhood has stunning cinematography and a meaty script but neither will soften the blow when Mohamed learns how costly assumptions can be.

Walk Run Cha-Cha: nominated for documentary (short subject), directed by Laura Nix

Paul and Millie recall their youth in Vietnam, where ‘foreign music’ was so romantic and sexy, and dance parties at home were illegal. They fell in love but were separated when Paul’s family fled the communists. They lost their youth and their young love to the aftermath of the Vietnam war, but 40 years later they have reunited in California and are rekindling their romance on the dance floor. Through one couple’s love story, Laura Nix teaches us about the immigration process and what it takes to relearn the language of love and make up for lost time. In their golden years, Paul and Millie finally have the time, energy, safety and security to learn what it means to enjoy life.

Nefta Football Club: nominated for short film (live action), directed by Yves Piat

In the south of Tunisia (again with Tunisia!), two young brothers and ardent football fan brothers bump into a donkey just chilling out in the middle of the desert on the border of Algeria. Oddly, the donkey is wearing red headphones (and yes, listening to music). The donkey is carrying bags of white powder (flour, they wonder? laundry detergent?) – they ditch the donkey and bring the powder back to their village, where their friends are playing football.

The Neighbors’ Window: nominated for short film (live action), directed by Marshall Curry

Exhausted, frazzled, middle-aged parents Alli and Jacob are mesmerized by their curtainless neighbours in the next building. While they breastfeed and wipe up poop and serve up meals that don’t get eaten, the two pine for their youth by spying on their young, horny neighbours across the street. This film is about envy more than voyeurism, well-acted and slick as hell, two people who are so busy that they’ve forgotten the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. This is Curry’s third nomination so it seems unwise to discount him.

Life Overtakes Me: nominated for documentary (short subject), directed by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson

Over the last 15 years, hundreds of traumatized refugee children in Sweden have become afflicted with Resignation Syndrome. Life is so hard they withdraw into a coma-like state, unresponsive, sometimes for years. It’s like their little bodies can only take so much. Children need security, not uncertainty, to recover after a trauma, but for refugees, security is a long time coming. Watching these kids waste away is tragic. What is happening here? And the scariest part is that their families are still facing deportation. Imagine caring for a comatose child as a refugee? Those kids are frankly not likely to survive. But with anti-immigration sentiment growing in Sweden, and asylum laws getting stricter, the outlook isn’t positive. This documentary had me asking questions I’d never even thought of before, and combing the internet for answers. Stirring and urgent, Life Overtakes Me is available on Netflix.

Some of these are available to watch on Youtube, legally and for free – check out my Oscar-nominated films playlist.

Breakthrough

Contrary to popular opinion, I do not see every single movie in the world, but usually I do at least know about them. Not much sneaks by me. So when this particular movie managed to snag an Oscar nomination (for original song), I was like: huh? Sean thought it might be “one of those religion ones” but it wasn’t until I saw the poster that I remembered it at all, indeed a religion one, starring Chrissy Metz from This Is Us (Randolph & Beth forever!). I’m glad to see her branching out but it wasn’t for that pesky Oscar nom, this one would 110% have passed me by,

Chrissy Metz stars as Joyce, a Christian mother who offers up the kind of teasing prayers during dinner that make husband Brian (Josh Lucas) smirk. But her son John (Marcel Ruiz) is a teenager, determined not to crack a smile. He’s in an eye-rolling phase. An avid basket ball player at school, John is also struggling with his origin story, having been adopted from Guatemala while Joyce and Brian were there on a church mission. Meanwhile, Joyce is at odds with the new “cool” young pastor at her church, Jason (Topher Grace). Jason has a spiky haircut and references The Bachelor during sermons and says things like “Dope!” He wears the same kind of headset microphone that Britney Spears wears and has rock bands with auto-tuned rappers sing “hymns.” Oh he’s shaking things up.

Meanwhile, the movie is determined to establish itself as not just a Christian movie, shelling out for pop songs by Bruno Mars and Macklemore; John is a kid like any other, saving a pristine pair of Jordans for an occasion so special that only he will know it when he sees it.

I happened to notice a Stephen Curry listed as a producer and wondered if it could be THAT Curry. I wondered even more when the all-star was mentioned by name – the Warriors would be in town to face Kevin Durant and the Thunder. This places the film for me immediately, in the season just before Durant joined Curry on Golden State, the very same season when Sean and I traveled to OKC to see Durant face Lebron, then playing for Cleveland, and then we drove down to Dallas to see them play the Warriors. We were traveling in December, for Sean’s birthday, and a snowstorm here in Ottawa meant we almost didn’t make it, touching down in Oklahoma with just minutes to spare. I remember the valet at our hotel apologizing for their unseasonably cool weather but of course it felt downright tropical to us. But in St Louis, MI, it was cold enough for a lake to have frozen, but warm enough that a trio of teenage boys were out playing on it when the ice gave way and John went down.

After an hour with no breath and no pulse, the doctors draw the logical conclusion; they’ve only worked this long to keep him decent for his mother to arrive and say goodbye. Her frantic prayer is heard, or else this movie wouldn’t be much of a movie, and a pulse reappears from nowhere. But his brain was starved of oxygen for far too long. In an induced-coma, his parents are prepped for his inevitable vegetative state. But you know that Joyce isn’t about to let that happen. She badgers his doctors just as much as she badgers the lord.

He recovers of course. That’s a foregone conclusion in a Christian film. Religion isn’t my thing and neither is an entirely predictable plot. But I will begrudgingly admit that Breakthrough has a whole mess of admirable performances. And interestingly for a movie that attributes John’s recover to god’s miracle, it dares to ask why god saves some and not others, which is one of religion’s great quandaries. Of course Breakthrough doesn’t have an answer, but I give it credit for even voicing the question.

And push come to shove, it’s now an Oscar-nominated film, for a song called I’m Standing With You, performed by the esteemed Chrissy Metz and written by Diane Warren. And Diane Warren is not to be messed with. She’s got 11 nominations under her belt, including for chart-busting songs like Because You Loved me, from Up Close and Personal, performed by Celine Dion, and How Do I Live from Con Air performed by Trisha Yearwood and I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing from Armageddon and performed of course by Aerosmith. The woman is a songwriting powerhouse. Will this be her year? Check it out:

Undeniably beautiful, but her competition is fierce:

Stand Up, written by Joshuah Brian Campbell & Cynthia Erivo, performed by Erivo for the movie Harriet

From Toy Story 4, I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away, written and performed Randy Newman, a man with 20 Oscar nominations and 2 wins under his belt (Toy Story 3‘s “We Belong Together” and “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc.)

Also from Disney, Into the Unknown, performed by Idina Menzel and AURORA, written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez who have two previous Oscar wins for “Let It Go” from Frozen and “Remember Me” from Coco.

And of course (I’m Gonna) Love Me Again from the Elton John biopic Rocketman. Written by John (who has a previous win for The Lion King’s Can You Feel the Love Tonight) and Bernie Taupin, performed by both Elton and Taron Egerton. It took the Globe – will it take the Oscar as well?

Who do you think will win??

The Edge of Democracy

Brazilian film-maker Petra Costa is in her 30s, and just a little older than democracy itself in her country. Her parents were activists and briefly jailed for their convictions when military regimes still governed the country. This film blends political documentary with personal memoir as she recounts her family’s political and social entanglements while studying the dramatic collision between two Brazilian presidencies.

Costa voted for Lula da Silva but watches in dismay as scandal and corruption engulf his presidency and he scrambles to compromise and resort to alliances with the oligarchy that he’d always railed against. And yet Brazil prospers: the economy thrives, the poor are lifted up. When he leaves office two terms later, his approval rate is at an all-time high. He anoints a predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, and she is elected thanks to an even stronger alliance with PMDB, who appoints her vice president. She starts her presidency strong but the socio-political climate of Brazil is changing, as it is in many of the world’s democracies. The people are waking up, and Rousseff scrambles to regain credibility by initiating a sweeping investigation into corruption.

As one president is impeached and another imprisoned, the country is further destabilized. It is clear as Costa narrates this film in the first-person that she is watching her country descend into turmoil and worries that democracy itself is crumbling. When you witness some of the illogical but fervent rhetoric being flung around in its media, it reminds us rather alarmingly of Trump’s disregard for the rules of democracy and the parameters of the presidency.

Brazil is on the edge of democracy, perhaps teetering back toward dictatorship. Costa narrates an angry and intimate portrait of this tumultuous time; it is one-sided to be sure, personal and impassioned. And yet the country’s split into two seemingly irreconcilable factions feels all-too familiar and if nothing else, The Edge of Democracy should be viewed by Americans as a warning shot against the increasing polarization of their own country. This documentary is a portrait of democracy’s demise, but Brazil isn’t the only country in danger of rolling down this hill.

The Edge of Democracy is nominated for an Oscar in the documentary (feature) category, alongside American Factory, The Cave, For Sama, and Honeyland. Which do you think will win?