Tag Archives: female directors

Homecoming: A Film By Beyonce

Another sleepless night, Sean snoring beside me. Suddenly, around 5:30am, all the usual racing thoughts preventing sleep start to congeal into just the once: today is Beyonce day.

Beyonce has been Queen for a long damn time. She’s more Queen than the Queen of England, because that lady is a figure head and Beyonce is for real. Beyonce is not just a pop star, she is a cultural icon, more than her voice, more than her marriage, more than MV5BNWYwMTExOTAtNjVmYi00MWVjLTgzZWUtZTI0OTE3YTgwMjM3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjg2NjQwMDQ@._V1_her style and her fame and her talent. She was a successful, powerful black woman, her success and power being so seemingly limitless that they transcended gender and race. And at the height of that power, Beyonce claimed both her blackness and her womanhood in a way that was political, artistic, and impossible to ignore. Now we need a word that is somehow more than Queen, and maybe the only name worthy is Beyonce itself.

Homecoming is a documentary detailing Beyonce’s brilliant performance at last year’s (2018) Coachella. But just as that show was more than a concert, the documentary ends up being much more than a recording. It’s a testament. This is Beyonce clearly comfortable in her strength, and the evidence is written in her lyrics, in her stage presence, and all over the damn screen. We witness Beyonce the businesswoman, Beyonce the workhorse, Beyonce the mother and wife, the artist and creator.

After a 22 year career, Beyonce has a whole lotta laurels upon which to rest her world-famous booty. Her name alone is enough to have Coachella gagging. Which is to say: she does not have to work this hard. She’s working like she’s NOT the most famous woman in the world. But Beyonce wasn’t going to just bring her music to the festival – she brought her culture, and she gave it to the people. She worked for 8 months to deliver a powerhouse 2 hour performance.

Fan or not, it’s completely impossibly to tear your eyes away from this woman so fully owning her power. A woman who – dare I say it? – is feeling herself, and not apologizing for it. Not one bit.

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A Kandahar Away

Kandahar, Saskatchewan.  Population: 15.  A world away from Kandahar, Afghanistan both in size (the original Kandahar had 557,000 residents in 2015) and circumstance (as the larger Kandahar is under constant threat from the Taliban).  

Kandahar_Away_1But a name is a powerful thing, and Kandahar, Saskatchewan (named in honour of the 1880 battle of Kandahar, Afghanistan) is about the only link to his home that Abdul Bari Jamal can find.  Jamal came to Canada in 1991 with his wife and five children, refugees all, fleeing their conflicted homeland as the Taliban were taking control.  On an impulse, and without telling any of his family, Jamal bought eight plots of land in Kandahar, Saskatchewan, for himself, his wife, and his kids.  Ten years after that impulse purchase, Jamal takes his family on a trip to Canada’s Kandahar to let them in on the secret.

Their trip is chronicled by director Aisha Jamal, who not coincidentally is one of Jamal’s five children.  The whole family, including their parents, are urbanites to their core, so coming face to face with a dwindling prairie town approaching “ghost town” status is a huge adjustment.  But a far more problematic matter soon arises when Mr. Jamal comes up with the idea to use their land to memorialize the 158 Canadians who lost their lives in Afghanistan.  Judging from Mrs. Jamal’s shoulder-shrugging reaction, this is not the first such idea that Mr. Jamal has come up with, but his children are greatly shaken by the idea that their father wants to commemorate a force that invaded his homeland rather than the thousands and thousands of Afghans who’ve been killed in the conflict. 

It is fascinating to get an inside look at these discussions and disagreements between  a family that is clearly close-knit.  They have a lot of commonalities to larger issues in our society.  In particular, they give great insight into the refugee experience and the differences in attitude between an Afghan-Canadian and his Canadian children.  The elder Jamal seems afraid to voice any concern or raise any controversy over Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan, while his children have no such qualms.  There’s something significant there about the importance and value of freedom of expression, as well as Canadian identity. 

Director Jamal handles these discussions brilliantly, letting both sides exist and allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions while the family drama, which would be sufficiently entertaining on its own, plays on.  It is a delicate balance to strike but Jamal successfully melds both aspects together to create a memorable and effective exploration of a very sensitive subject.

The Jane Austen Book Club

I didn’t think I needed The Jane Austen Book Club in my life. Hollywood has taught me that movies based on book clubs just don’t really feel cinematic. But I saw that it was early (2007) Emily Blunt and I was tired of searching for something better, so I settled.

Lesson #1: trust your instincts.

Jocelyn (Maria Bello) has just lost her best friend and life partner, who happened to be a dog. Some may think the funeral is a little over the top, but Jocelyn’s grief is real, and her friends have gathered round to help her through a difficult time – only Sylvia’s husband MV5BMjMzNDc0MTI4M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNTAxMzc3._V1_Daniel (Jimmy Smits) can’t seem to keep the snide comments to himself. Turns out, that’s not the only thing he can’t keep to himself as he soon confessed to Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), devoted wife of a quarter century, mother of his children, that he’s seeing another woman and that leaving the other woman is non-negotiable. So. Jocelyn sets aside her own grief to take care of her flailing friend. Sylvia’s daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace) moves back in so she’s not alone and pal Bernadette (Kathy Baker) has the genius idea to establish a Jane Austen book club to provide a distraction. Since there are 6 novels to discuss, they’re in need of 2 more members. Bernadette brings aboard Prudie (Emily Blunt), an unfulfilled French teacher yearning for more than this provincial life, and Jocelyn recruits a young man and virtual stranger, Grigg (Hugh Dancy), as perhaps bait to liven up Sylvia’s gloomy divorce.

You can already tell that the book club is mostly an excuse to bitch about men (and women), and then we occasionally follow the women home to watch them make their various mistakes in real time, which is charming. Hint: that was sarcasm. The ensemble work between the women is actually pretty good but it’s an otherwise formulaic, sentimental, maudlin piece of crap pushed by Big Kleenex to turn women into weepies. Plus, it can’t help but be compared unfavourably to the Austen works discussed in the film. And that they should have seen coming.

Paper Man

Richard Dunn (Jeff Daniels) is a failed writer, and perhaps just a failure, period. His successful surgeon wife Claire (Lisa Kudrow) has rented him a little writerly cottage in Long Island and gifted him a laptop as well as the time and space needed to get to work on his second novel. Despite that sounding like absolute pure heaven to most of us, Richard doesn’t manage a shred of gratitude. Instead he wonders if this is in fact a trial separation in sheep’s clothing.

So I guess that’s why he doesn’t feel particularly guilty when he spends this time not at his desk but getting to know a teenage girl named Abby (Emma Stone). Abby is a lonely, solitary sort of person, despite the fact that she has a devoted friend and a bad boyfriend. She and Richard are practically kindred spirits, which they discover when he repeatedly hires her as a babysitter despite the fact that he has no kids. Yes, it plays as creepy as it sounds. And yet a friendship blooms in this unlikely, inhospitable place.

Despite Richard’s middle age, he is a child. He is petulant. Self-indulgent, he sees only MV5BMTMyNTk2MjcwNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTMyNzUzMw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1501,1000_AL_his own need and sorrow. This is further indulged by his imaginary friend, Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds, before he played Deadpool or even Green Lantern), a super hero type in cape and tights who tells him what he wants to hear.

You can imagine what it might be like to be married to a Richard. This is a coming of age tale for a man who is way too old to need one. A late bloomer or just too pathetic for words? Richard straddles that line, uncomfortably. But he’s reaching out, so not all hope is lost. He’s perhaps reaching out to the wrong person, to an inappropriate person. How is this relationship likely to be interpreted – by his wife, or her parents, for example? And yet this is what it is to be human. It’s all about the connection. Richard and Abby can truly be themselves around each other in ways that they haven’t achieved anywhere else.

Jeff Daniels continues to be good in dark roles. Emma Stone is vulnerable and feverish. They’re a couple of wounded characters and they ooze their indie drama. There’s a danger of drowning in all the mutual wallowing. For all its quirk, Paper Man might be lumped into those “man-child-struggling-to-grow-up” films (coming of middle age?), but it is saved by some very compelling performances.

Mary Queen of Scots

This is the story about the crazy relationship between two cousins, both queens. And the jealousy and the machinations between the two – one, the Queen of Scotland, who perhaps believed she should also be the Queen of England and everything else as well. But while this movie is obviously about politics, it’s more importantly a movie about gender politics.

Short history lesson:

Queen Elizabeth I was the daughter of King Henry VIII (the guy who liked to behead all his wives) and Anne Boleyn, who suffered her execution just two and a half years after her daughter’s birth. Their marriage thus conveniently annulled, Elizabeth was declared illegitimate, and when her father died, it was a half-brother, Edward IV, who claimed the throne. Not for long, though, and somewhere down the line, the crown did land on 25 year old Elizabeth’s head. Sometimes called the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I was probably not a virgin, but she never married, and she never bore a child.

Her cousin, Mary I, became Queen of Scotland when her father King James V died when she was just 6 days old. 6 days old! Regents, including her half-brother, ruled in her stead. When she was 6 months old, King Henry VIII proposed (eventual) marriage between her and his son and heir, Edward, thus uniting Scotland and England under one crown, but when Scotland protested, a war dubbed the “rough wooing” ensued. To protect their young Queen, 5 year old Mary was sent to live in France, where that King also decided to unite France and Scotland under one crown by betrothing his 3 year old heir to Mary. They married when she was 15; he became King of France and royal consort of Scotland, but he died shortly after and she went home to Scotland to finally, officially, sit on its throne (and marry twice more). By this time her cousin Elizabeth I was also on her throne over in England, but there were some sticky points in the wills and order of succession, and it was always a thorn in their relationship that perhaps Mary had a claim to that crown as well.

Back to the movie.

MV5BN2FjNmUxNDUtZWIxMy00MmI1LWJkMDMtOWQ5NzgwOWI3NDVkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) and Mary (Saoirse Ronan) are not that different. Elizabeth is said to have ruled by “good counsel,” relying on trusted advisors. History depicts her as moderate, cautious, and perhaps indecisive. Mary, on the other hand, was more forward, and clever, not that that stopped her own regents of plotting against her. She pushed Elizabeth to name her England’s heir presumptive. Elizabeth retaliated by proposing her trusted childhood friend as Mary’s next husband; Elizabeth felt she would be able to control him. Mary was too savvy to refuse outright but the relationship came to nothing.

Mary sought to strengthen her crown my marrying smart and creating alliances. And yet she understood that any man who married her would eventually try to steal her crown for himself. Still, producing a (male) heir would also strengthen her position, so marriage must be tolerated. Elizabeth, meanwhile, felt that marriage was too great a risk to her crown – that would only encourage plots against her. Of course she was expected to marry and produce an heir, but she refused.

The movie reminds us that in the 1500s, it sucked to be woman so much that even being the queen was not enough. Still the men would plot against you – your own sons, husbands, and brothers. Mary’s husband(s) and brother(s) both plotted against her. Her third husband was her second husband’s murderer, and her rapist. She was forced to abdicate in favour of her one year old son, James. Elizabeth, by contrast, ruled for 44 years, until her death. At which point the crown went to – yes, that’s right, it went to Mary’s son James. So this weird relationship exists between the two – they are sisters and rivals. No one else can understand this unique pressure to rule a kingdom as a woman with all the vulnerabilities that that entails.

While the movie may have benefited from a more focused approach to narrative, I found this endlessly fascinating and frustrating. I very much enjoyed the performances from both Robbie and Ronan, and I very much approved the race-blind casting. There are people of colour in the English and Scottish courts; this is a rather novel idea for a period film, but director Josie Rourke has a lot of experience in the theatre where this type of colour-blind casting is much more popular. As well it should be. We’re telling old stories, but those stories should be told by people representative of today.

I had not heard great things about this movie but I think people have just been watching it wrong. In 2019, women are still wondering if they can “have it all”: work, family, mental health, balance. In 1568, Mary and Elizabeth wondered if they could have it all: respect, religion, the freedom to marry whom they chose, agency over their own lives, and the ability to cut off each other’s heads if it came to it (and it always did).

 

A Case of You

What had happened was:

  • Sean and I agreed it was finally time to watch Hereditary. Which we’ve been saying for a month. Which we’ve been avoiding since it screened last March at SXSW, and having already reached my terror quota with opening night’s A Quiet Place, I just couldn’t bear, even though my beloved Toni Collette would be in attendance. But as soon as we had the mouse hovering over Hereditary to select it, I lost my nerve and ran away to heat up soup, challenging Sean to find a suitable replacement. Or any replacement
  • Sean and I flipped through the entirety of Netflix, knew intuitively that we’d already watched anything worth watching, so chose Counterfeiting in Suburbia. “Based on a true story” about teenage girls literally just printing and then passing off dollar bills to fund their wildest shopping dreams. It felt like a movie your friend put together for some hokey class in high school, and will maybe receive a C- for, if the teacher is feeling generous. The script is basically just the worst thing ever, but since it’s delivered by wooden puppets, it doesn’t even get the benefit of human warmth. Just kidding. I think those were actual girls. We turned it off after a brutal 12 minutes.
  • So we went over to Amazon Prime, where we found the remnants of Justin Long’s career. Someone still believes in this guy? Weird. Anyway, he plays a fledgling writer named Sam who goes to his local coffee haunt to not write the next great novel. And he obsesses over the barista, Birdie (Evan Rachel Wood). When she gets fired, he decides that he can’t just ask her out like a normal person, he has to turn mv5bztmyzdbjmjktmtk5nc00nmexlwe5mdetnjezzde0ngixmwu4l2ltywdll2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymzg3mja0njm@._v1_into her perfect man first, and he does this by stalking her on Facebook and getting into, or claiming to get into, every single thing she ever mentioned. It’s gross. And not just because it’s Justin Long, though that doesn’t help. Anyway, the most random cast of characters enables this travesty: an emo Peter Dinklage, an inexcusably Sam Rockwell, a puzzling Sienna Miller, and Vince Vaughn very much as you’d expect. Anyway, it’s hard to buy into the rom-com aspect when to romance is actually criminal harassment and the comedy makes itself scarce.
  • In conclusion, do not believe that our watching A Case Of You to completion is an endorsement of it over Counterfeiting in Suburbia. It’s not. It’s just that Sean was giving me a back rub and we couldn’t find the remote.

Close

Zoe Tanner (Sophie Nélisse) is a beautiful young heiress, her father just having died and left her an enormous stake in a company she wants nothing to do with – and boy does her father’s widow, Rima, agree. Sam Carlson (Noomi Rapace), a counter-terrorism expert and bodyguard, is newly hired to be her close protection officer, but isn’t thrilled to be working for a spoiled little rich girl with mommy issues.

Director Vicky Jewson opens the film with a gripping scene: a gun fight erupts in the open desert of Morocco, and Sam and Zoe barely escape with their lives. Cue a Kate Bush cover and some stylish opening credits.

Sam and Zoe may  not particularly like each other, but a violent and persistent kidnap mv5bytjmy2m1zjytntq0mc00zjm2lwi0ztutntqxnwzkn2e4mmy4xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntc5otmwotq@._v1_plot will ensure that they depend on each other for survival. Zoe’s led a pampered life and is in the habit of sleeping with her bodyguards, but this time Sam is determined to teach her to fight back. And there’s no better time: though freshly bereaved, Zoe’s own stepmother Rima (Indira Varma) is more concerned with appeasing the shareholders than any rescue efforts. Not only are Sam and Zoe on their own in the middle of Casablanca, Rima may prefer if Zoe never returns since she’s a little bitter that her dead husband left the mining company to his spoiled daughter rather than to her.

Vicky Jewson is close to getting this right. Noomi Rapace gets us 90% of the way there of course, kicking butt, doing her own stunts, excelling in exactly this type of role. But Close just can’t live up to its bruised and battered star. It falls back on familiar action movie tropes and the action-filled pace doesn’t give itself a lot of room for exploring the interesting character developments that might have been. However, the movie is well-executed; Close looks and feels legit. So if you’re a fan of international thrillers or just strong female leads generally (this movie is inspired by real-life bodyguard Jacquie Davis), then you might just give this a chance.