Tag Archives: female directors

Promising Young Woman

Cassie (Carey Mulligan) was once a promising young woman, a fact her parents take the opportunity to remind her of every morning at breakfast. Now 30, friendless, living at home despite heavy parental hinting that it may be time to move one, an unambitious med school dropout turned barista, Cassie’s parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown) aren’t sure what it will take to jumpstart her life. To most it would seem that Cassie’s life derailed when her best friend Nina took her own life, but to Cassie, her life has simply taken a different direction. Her life now revolves more or less around avenging Nina’s death.

Nina was also a promising young woman, also a student in medical school when one night she was gang raped. She was a party, too drunk to defend herself, but ostensibly among friends and fellow students, many of whom either participated or stood around watching while it happened. While so-called friends gossiped behind her back, the school administration merely swept it under the same rug where they keep all the other similar complaints, and the court case stalled when the defense turned the table on the victim. Unable to deal with the aftermath, Nina died by suicide. But Cassie, filled with anger and outrage, is not content to let justice remain unserved. She’s become a vigilante of sorts, going out at night, posing as a woman who’s had too much to drink, and if you’re a woman yourself, you’ll be unsurprised by just how many men take the bait. She looks like easy prey, at least until they get her home and try to have sex with a woman they believe is too intoxicated to properly fight them off (despite her clear and repeated NO), then suddenly she snaps to alertness and serves them a warning they won’t soon forget. This is the double life that Cassie’s been living unbeknownst to others – unbeknownst even to new boyfriend Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old classmate and the first man she’s actually trusted since what happened to Nina.

Promising Young Woman is a dark comedy, in fact, a Vantablack comedy, if you’ll permit me trotting out a subcategory I invented of the Ryan Reynolds dark comedy, The Voices. Longtime readers with impressive memories (read: no one, even I had to look it up) may remember that Vantablack is a colour that is blacker than black, absorbing all but 0.035% of light; a black so black our human minds can’t actually perceive it. I would like to unroll this categorization once again, because compared to Promising Young Woman, everything else is pink.

Emerald Fennell, first time director (and also this movie’s writer), has done the improbable and completely made this genre her bitch. It is uniquely difficult to master the tone of such a film, mixing a very heavy topic with moments of genuine laughter and charm. This is truly one of the most provocative, unexpected, daring movies of this year or last. It must be seen.

Carey Mulligan is absolutely breathtaking. Cassie has half a dozen secret lives going at once yet Mulligan not only keeps them straight, she makes them easily identifiable to us, hiding stories and motivations behind her eyes, astonishing us with a raw and layered performance. Bo Burnham has a tall order playing the Last Good Man, bolstering a stellar ensemble. Clearly Fennell impressed half of Hollywood with her audacious script; Alfred Molina, Adam Brody, Alison Brie, Laverne Cox, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Max Greenfield, and Chris Lowell fill small but impactful roles, many of them names on Cassie’s shit list.

Regret, retribution, guilt, forgiveness, culpability, corruption, consequences. No one’s life is going to be the same. No one’s getting left off the hook. Cassie’s been living off righteous rage for far too long, and if she can’t have justice, she will have closure, by any means necessary.

Love Sarah

Sarah and her best friend Isabella (Shelley Conn) were on the verge of opening up their very own bakery, a long time shared aspiration, when Sarah died tragically, leaving behind unfulfilled dreams and a lease that Isabella was now responsible for alone, despite having lost her baker, an essential element in most bakeries, you’ll find.

Sarah’s aimless daughter Clarissa (Shannon Tarbet) and her estranged mother Mimi (Celia Imrie) decide to join her in Sarah’s stead. And Sarah’s ex, Matthew (Rupert Penry-Jones), shows up too, thank goodness, because this bakery was still very much in need of a baker, although it turns out Isabella is perfectly capable of doing the baking, she just lacked the confidence. But that’s not all Matthew’s contributing to the bakery! He’s also putting out daddy vibes, leaving Clarissa to question whether he might the mystery father she’s never known and her mother never revealed. Oh, and he makes the pretty pastries of course, which do indeed look good enough to eat, so if food porn is what you’re after, this movie’s got loads, presented rather prettily on a buffet of white platters. But for some reason, they’re just not selling. The bakery makes no money at all until they decide to rebrand and start baking up international delights to lure in London’s many and varied immigrants.

The bakery thriving or failing is almost secondary to these characters’ healing, which they’re all needing to slightly different extents. Healing takes different forms of course – romance, success, family, forgiveness – and it’s not just the bakery at work but the fact that these four people have found each other in their hour of need and created a community for themselves that fosters connection and leaves everyone just a little less isolated with their grief or their loneliness.

On a scale from “microwaving for one” to “molecular gastronomy,” Love Sarah is canned pasta sauce, not particularly complex or memorable, but easy and comforting. It’s sweet, it’s got wonderful performances, it feels good in a heartening, borderline inspirational way. It’s very watchable, and would in fact pair well with a nice slice of cake and a tall glass of milk.

Love On Iceland

On Saturday evening, I was wakened at approximately 6:30pm (go ahead and judge) by a siren blaring from my phone. Our new lockdown curfew was set to commence at 8pm and the government saw fit to wake me up in order to warn me to stay home. Not to worry: I’ve been home. I’m doing my part. The last time I was out of my home was 3 weeks ago, before Christmas, for bloodwork. The time previous was 3 weeks before that, for an MRI. You get the idea. Medical appointments only. Sean leaves the house for 3 things: food, prescriptions, and work when it absolutely necessitates it. We support the lockdown and the curfew and yes, even the siren. We have radically changed our behaviour in order to support the collective well-being. It’s not easy, but it’s saving lives, so there’s no question that it must be done. There’s also no question that it isn’t always easy. Last weekend we jacked up the heat in the house, dragged our garden lounge chairs out of storage, donned our swimsuits, and served up margaritas, pretending we were on the beach in Mexico, one of our favourite winter escapes. We are travelers. 2020 was the first year we didn’t travel outside of the country, and that’s only partially true because we were actually already in (real) Mexico when we rang in the new year, so we started off the year abroad and had lots of plans to keep it up, all of which had to be cancelled when the pandemic hit. Which is fine. We just miss it. And I bet most if not all of you do too. Even if you’re not in the habit of travelling annually, the mere fact of being on lockdown has given most of us cabin fever, so we’re dreaming of destinations more frequently than ever. Luckily, even lockdown affords us certain escapes, and movies continue to be one of them. They may not be playing in theatres, but they’re still playing right in your living room, and even a made for the Hallmark channel movie like this one can transport you to a new and interesting place.

Most Hallmark movies start off with stock footage of New York City, or perhaps Chicago. They never film there. They film in Utah, or Vancouver. But once in a blue moon, they film in an exotic location, and this is one of those rare and beautiful times when they did just that.

Iceland is a beautiful country; I’ve never been but I’m definitely not opposed! Chloe (Kaitlin Doubleday) heads there when she needs a little adventure and inspiration, tapping her college group of travel buddies to join her, including (accidentally) her ex, Charlie (Colin Donnell). Their tour guide shows them everything that Iceland has to offer – hot springs, shopping, museums, ice caves, the northern lights and more – you might almost think that Iceland paid for a very glossy, live-action, movie-like tourism brochure that aired for 84 minutes on the Hallmark channel. Regardless, it is indeed a thing of beauty and I got to travel there vicariously, no luggage hassle, no bulky parkas, and best of all, no breathing in recycled virus air on a plane for 8 hours!

One day, we will travel again, and it will be splendid. It will not be Hallmark perfect. I won’t find room to pack a different scarf for every day of the week, and my lipgloss will occasionally smudge, or wear off completely. Sean won’t profess his undying love for me, and his sweetest gesture will be carrying around my glitter polka dot Kate Spade tote without complaint. And between you and I, NONE of our friends look good in viking hats. But we will travel again. Until then, you might want to engage in some pure escapism with a Hallmark romance.

Herself

Sandra’s husband Gary apparently has such a history and pattern of abuse that she has an emergency protocol in place with her young daughters; the eldest (who is maybe 8), takes off for the nearest corner store with a tool box. Inside is a card instructing the shopkeeper to call the cops as her life is in danger. Meanwhile, the youngest daughter cowers in the backyard, watching her mother get stomped on.

This, apparently, is the last straw. She leaves, but working several jobs still leaves her short at the end of the month, and the three of them are living in a hotel because Dublin is apparently short on public housing. Fed up with welfare’s shortcomings, and with Gary still lurking around, asking for another chance, Sandra (Clare Dunne) takes things into her own hands. With a generous land donation, she prints off DIY instructions from the internet and prepares to build a small home for herself. It’s an unsubtle metaphor for the kind of rebuilding her life needs and deserves generally, and the more she opens up and asks for help, the easier it becomes and the fuller her life is. Abused women are often isolated, which is part of what makes it so hard to leave. Building a life is about more than just pouring concrete and laying floors; it’s about trusting people again and creating your own safe space.

Unfortunately, the abuse doesn’t always stop just because the woman leaves, especially when there are kids involved. She has two adorable little souls tying her to a man she’d rather never see again, and even the court will keep forcing them together.

Phyllida Lloyd’s Herself is perhaps trite, but sensitively told, allowing the power of the performances to take centre stage, and Clare Dunne proves herself worthy of the confidence, never over-reaching the emotional beats. Herself may be a difficult watch at times, but it’s also gratifying; Sandra has a voice, and Lloyd gives her a beautiful cinematic platform from which to use it. She aims a few choice words at an uncaring bureaucracy that deserve cheers from a jaded audience. There are no easy breaks in Sandra’s life, but Dunne allows her empathy and grace, which are more important anyway.

Summerland

Alice (Gemma Arterton) is a reclusive, curmudgeonly writer, whom the locals refer to as “the witch.” Her writings often pointedly refer to the various ways women have been unfairly portrayed, but what are you going to do?

One day, a young boy named Frank (Lucas Bond) shows up at her door, an evacuee from London to be kept safe during the WW2 blitz. Alice doesn’t like kids. To be fair, it seems to be her general regard toward all humans, but Alice doesn’t want a kid in her house. It’s nothing personal against Frank, she just has work to do and no fucks to give. She reluctantly agrees to house him temporarily, until another family can be found. But pretty much everyone in her small village has already taken in children and she does have a big ole house all to herself.

As Frank begins to worm his way into her heart, we learn that Alice’s self-imposed isolation is the result of a broken heart, a forbidden romance with another woman, Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is now just a figment of her past, though one that still haunts her. Clearly Alice has lived with only her memories for a long time, but with a real boy as her roommate, she’s brought down to the human realm where there is a war going on and people, such as Frank’s parents, are in real peril.

This film nearly lost me, being just a little too easy, a little too neatly contrived. However, it’s anchored by a performance from Arterton that just floored me. Alice’s naked longing and repressed self-expression are controlled with such precision by Arterton, it’s a remarkable role for her, but she’s actually got some very able costars from a surprising place – the kids. Both Bond and Dixie Egerickz, who plays Frank’s playmate, are wonderful, offering grounded and thoughtful performances considering these kids are growing up in a time where childhood is pretty much non-existent

I remember reading about young war evacuees when I was a kid myself, and I’ve always been fascinated by this ultimate act of mutual aid, adopting a stranger’s child, sheltering them during a difficult time, providing a safe home for kids at risk of dying in air raids in the city. Mothers had to place such trust in the kindness of strangers, and strangers had to step up with very little the way of thanks or even acknowledgment, and kids had to grow up without their parents. There would have been little communication and tonnes to worry about and it seems like such an act of grace in the middle of a literal war. So despite the film’s shortcomings, I still appreciated a window on this particular view, and what a lovely view it was, with lots of sights to behold.

My Little Sister

My Little Sister is Switzerland’s official entry for the Academy Awards’ International Feature Film category this year, and its unofficial selection for Biggest Bummer of 2020, which is saying a lot.

Not that it’s a bad film, not at all. It’s just the opposite of cheery. Gloomy. Depressing. Upsetting. It’s about grown up twins Lisa (Nina Hoss), a playwright, and Sven (Lars Eidinger), a stage actor, who are dealing with his cancer diagnosis and resulting transplant. Even on the mend, Sven is still very unwell, and since their mother is a flake, Lisa’s been doing the caring. Lisa already put her life and career on hold once, to follow her husband to Switzerland where he runs an international school and she raises their children. Desperate to get back to the Berlin arts scene, Lisa isn’t happy to learn that her husband’s been contemplating extending his contract, but she’s already got more on her plate than most people can handle. Again she puts her life on hold to care for her “big brother” (born 2 minutes earlier) as he struggles to get back on his feet.

Sven’s illness is quite severe but Lisa can’t really face that. She has appointed herself the perpetual fountain of hope, and even goes back to play writing to make sure he has a meaty role to inspire his recovery. She is so committed to his recuperation she’ll even neglect her marriage to be at his bedside. Nina Hoss is nearly equally committed to the role, playing Lisa with sensitivity, and a naturalness that really helps to bolster the relationship between the twins. Clearly they are close, the kind of bond that can always be relied upon, as illustrated by Eidinger’s performance. Sven has bravado for everyone else, but in front of Lisa, he is vulnerable, he is weak. And though Hoss shows us how scared Lisa is, for him she is strong, sure, and optimistic.

Cancer dramas are a dime a dozen, but this one manages to detour away from the genre’s deepest ruts and treads new(ish) ground with intimate and instinctive performances from the two leads. Directors Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond give us a story that’s emotional without trying to be. It simply presents truth, unadorned. The death of a loved one can force us to reevaluate our own lives; Lisa’s certainly reassessing things, even with so many balls still up in the air. It’s a resonant reminder that life never stops, not even while you’re losing the person you hold most dear.

I’m Your Woman

Jean’s life is a little unusual even before it goes to shit. She sits on a lounge chair in the back yard, sipping wine in her marabou-trimmed dressing gown, dark glasses covering the sorrow in her eyes. She and her husband meant to have babies, she tells us, but couldn’t. So now she’s got nothing to do. Except one day husband Eddie walks through the door with a baby in his arms, provenance unknown, may as well have the tags still attached not unlike her fancy new dressing gown.

With a baby literally dropped right in her lap, Jean’s (Rachel Brosnahan) life is certainly turned upside down, and quite suddenly, but baby Harry’s actually the least of it. One night her husband goes out to work and in his stead, an associate of his turns up at some ungodly hour, stuffing a suitcase full of cash she didn’t know was in their closet, telling her not to pause for clothes or toiletries, they need to get out NOW. Delivered to her new minder Cal (Arinzé Kene), it turns out that her husband is a bad man who’s just betrayed his partners, and now she and baby Harry are running for their lives, their only allies Cal and his wife Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake), who were complete strangers to her just minutes ago. Of course, she’s starting to realize that her husband’s been a stranger to her too, she just didn’t know it. A lot of his secrets are coming loose, and none of them are making Jean or her baby any safer.

I knew I was in for a 1970s crime drama of some sort but was pretty pleased to find it defying expectations. Director Julia Hart (who writes with husband/director Jordan Horowitz) wants to see things from the other side of the story, turning our assumptions on their head and finding fresh perspectives to breathe new life into a genre we’ve so many times before it’s already retro. Smart and subversive but sparsely told, I’m Your Woman examines mob life for the wives who’ve been left at home, but not entirely left out of the fray. The 70s were a rapidly changing time for women and the roles they played, and Hart discovers a very clever space for exploring it – at least between bouts of action, of course.

Royal New Year’s Eve

Oh you thought the Hallmark coverage had ended? Shame on you! Hallmark oozes romantic schmaltz all year round.

Caitlyn (Jessy Schram) quit her teaching job to work in fashion, but a year later she’s still just the assistant and her magazine editor boss Abigail (Cheryl Ladd) still hasn’t noticed her. Abigail is helping with the new year’s eve royal fundraising gala where it is rumoured that prince Jeffrey (Sam Page) will propose to his girlfriend, lady Isabelle (Hayley Sales), as per family tradition. She’s hoping that lady Isabelle will choose one of her daughter Leighton’s (Nicole LaPlaca) designs for the occasion, but her eye is drawn to Caitlyn’s design instead, wouldn’t you know it?

Meanwhile, prince Jeffrey has been “acting regular” and “dressing casual” and introduces himself simply as Jeff on the numerous occasions he and Caitlyn run into each other before they’re finally introduced in an official capacity. Ice broken, Caitlyn and Jeffrey are going to be working together rather closely – not only is Caitlyn designing Isabelle’s dress, Abigail is forcing her to plan that new year’s eve party too, hoping of course that Caitlyn will be overwhelmed and one of Leighton’s designs will sub in last minute when Caitlyn fails to produce a dress.

As per Hallmark rules, all this tête à tête-ing should have Caitlyn and Jeffrey falling in love. Except Jeffrey, as we’re all aware, has a girlfriend he’s just days away from proposing to. He is fully off the market. So that leaves…his man servant Barnaby, maybe? Is that a thing? No, no, it’s definitely Jeffrey. Which is awkward, because it means their romance is starting with an emotional affair at the very least, which isn’t normally Hallmark’s style, and a little scandalous besides, not exactly their wholesome best. Will Caitlyn’s dress be ready in time? Will she successfully steal the prince? Will the king dare to intervene? Will a former Charlie’s Angel fire her ass for the audacity? Guess you’ll have to watch to find out. Happy new year!

Boys State

Every year, the American Legion hosts a thousand 17-year-old boys from Texas and has them build a representative government from the ground up.  Every state but Hawaii does the same or similar, but this particular documentary is hanging around Austin, Texas, to witness their particular experience. High schools nominate which students will be sent, ostensibly some from all different political backgrounds, dividing them up into ‘cities’ which will then elect mock municipal officials, and representatives of state legislature, even state officials all the way up to governor. It sounds rather noble, definitely educational, like a mock-UN for local politics. But in practice, it’s actually pretty ugly. The kids aren’t learning to be civic-minded good citizens, they’re learning to lie, cheat – and worse.

Obviously politics is a dirty game, but I think it might be nice to at least teach kids the right way, the better way, the idealistic way before we give up on them entirely in adulthood and actually let them vote…or run! But no, these kids are petty and ruthless. They’ve come to win at any cost, and there’s no pretense in running clean campaigns. While organizing political parties, their fundamentals are decided upon by what tracks well, not by anyone’s actual beliefs. They’ve already learned about identity politics, and they’ll comb each other’s social media, looking for any weakness they can leak and exploit. They make empty promises, pass harmful bills, and shamelessly pander for votes.

It’s clear that as far as American politics goes, the corruption is baked right in. It’s being taught and endorsed by the American Legion! While I of course abhor the Boys State program for what it’s allowing, I applaud the documentary for exposing it for what it is. It’s important to understand just how ingrained these dirty politics have become. By the age of 17, it is clear to these kids that a life and career in politics is not about values or beliefs or doing what’s right or helping people or serving one’s country. It’s about winning, at any cost, and being willing to make any compromise in order to cross that finish line in front of one’s opponent. If adult politicians are varying degrees of good at concealing that naked fact, these kids are not. Some of us (by which I mean myself) often make the mistake of believing that things will be better when the old guard dies out, but this film makes it clear that this is a dangerous expectation – not only have the bad habits already been passed down, these kids are honing them. Soon there will be no pretense at all in the game, simply undisguised greed and self-interest.

To The Stars

Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward) is a social pariah at her high school. The 1960s were perhaps not an easy time for any woman, as evidenced by her mom, an abusive drunk who feels trapped by domesticity, and the townswomen, whose sole occupation seems to be malicious gossip, and the woman who haunts the local swimming pond after having committed suicide there, but Iris has it even worse, an outcast because her weak bladder has earned her the nickname Stinky Pants and is a daily embarrassment.

Luckily, a new girl in town, Maggie (Liana Liberato), seems reluctant to write Iris off just because all the mean girls instruct her to. And because Maggie’s big city mystique is so strong, other people start reconsidering her as well. But Maggie’s hiding some pretty major secrets of her own, and only Iris knows that she’s been lying…for now, anyway. These might still be young girls, but they’re dealing with some pretty hefty life problems, and life isn’t exactly going out of its way to be fair to them.

Martha Stephens’ beautiful movie is a tribute to female friendship and how just one friend can mean the difference between wretched loneliness and validation. Between her mother the kids at school, Iris is cowed by the cruelty, she lives shrunkenly, hunched over, avoiding all and any attention. Maggie is a necessary reminder that there is more than small town Oklahoma. A friend, for Iris, is hope. Hope that life won’t always be like this. If just one other person understands us, life doesn’t feel so alone. Hayward and Liberato serve up terrific performances, not despite their young age but because of it – only when we are teenagers do we believe that now will translate to always. It’s a bleak film that hides a positive message, one that needn’t be heard solely by teenage girls in the 60s, but by anyone who despairs that life will always feel empty. It won’t. Look up to the stars and have faith.