Tag Archives: female directors

Troop Zero

A little girl named Christmas (Mckenna Grace) is fixated on the stars, in part because her mother died and now belongs up there, among the comets and the black holes. When she learns that the winners of the upcoming Jamboree will have the opportunity to record a special message to be sent into space, she’s determined to win. But first she has to assemble her very own Birdie Scout troop to compete.

Recruit #1 is her best friend Joseph, who will choreograph the winning dance. But with her short list of friends thus exhausted, she has to choose among the bullies to round out the numbers. Her father (Jim Gaffigan) is a mostly unpaid lawyer and busy dog owner and single father, so he appoints his long-suffering assistant Miss Rayleen (Viola Davis) as their den mother. She prefers criminals and murderers to little girls, but she’s getting paid, allegedly, so Troop Zero is born.

I could watch this for Davis alone. I’d watch a spin-off show of her character reacting to courtroom dramas all day long. Or her going head to head with Allison Janney playing rival troop mother, Miss Massey. But you know what was a nice surprise? Because Davis and Janney excelling is on-brand and totally expected. But the kids in this are actually interesting little characters. It’s an underdog-outsider story, as many tales about childhood are, but screenwriter Lucy Alibar has some tricks up her sleeve and directors Bert & Bertie know how to make a mark.

Christmas longs to break away from what’s expected of her, but the lessons learned here are more like pride and dignity. Owning who you are and realizing we all contain multitudes. And of course there’s always value in shelling out for a well-placed Bowie tune. Charmed the pants right off me. In fact, by the end of this little film, it gathers enough steam to laugh a sneak attack on my emotions. There’s a cosmic feel-goodness to it that’s hard to resist.

Speed of Life

June (Ann Dowd) is nearly 60 but hasn’t yet filled out the obligatory paperwork for relocation after 60. So says her house. Not in a weird way. The year is 2040 and her house is wired with a bunch of monitors and an Alexa-like voice tells her when her bills are due or the pH in her urine is less than desirable. June rips out all the monitors and buries them in her garden but you can’t really keep Big Brother out.

June has a good reason for not wanting to leave her home. Well, depends who you ask. A good reason to June sounds perfectly crazy to everyone else. You see, back in 2016 she and her boyfriend were having a fight. She’d just found out that David Bowie was dead and Edward, as usual, wanted to crack jokes. His inability to take anything seriously was a pretty big sore point in their relationship and they were on the verge of a blow-out fight about it when Edward disappeared. Like, a rip in the universe opened up and he went through it and was gone. Gone forever. Gone for the past 24 years.

But guess what? One night, Edward (Ray Santiago) reappears. He hasn’t aged a day. He doesn’t know that he was missing, presumed dead, mourned. Doesn’t recognize this older woman as his girlfriend June.

Speed of Life, written and directed by Liz Manashil, is interesting on a few levels:

a) The wormhole: where did he go, where has he been?

b) The relationship: is everything still there 24 years later, when June has changed so much and Edward not at all?

c) What happens in a few days when June turns 60 and “The Program” takes over?

The Program is a very interesting aspect; seniors 60 and over are given mandatory government housing where they no longer go outside, or socialize with other age groups. They are medicated, zombie-like. It’s a little funny because the old people in 2040 are Millennials. Old Millennials. It’ll happen to all of us. And I realize that Baby Boomers are sort of ruining everything just by reaching retirement age in such voluminous numbers. It’s crushing to the generations underneath them. So I get why you would want to deal with the problem. And yet Baby Boomers are also proving that 60 is hardly old at all. It used to be. Now it’s practically the same as 40. I know lots of Baby Boomers who are fit and busy and contributing in many ways, even outside employment (in fact: perhaps particularly outside employment). They are redefining old age even as they seem to reach it. They are living longer, yes, but also, I think, better. There are many more healthy years after retirement than ever before. So think of June (again: Ann Dowd) as somehow so old that she is now irrelevant to society…it’s jarring. It feels very Atwood. God I love sci-fi/ speculative fiction when it’s written by women.

Sword of Trust

Cynthia’s a little disappointed to learn that she won’t inherit her dead grandfather’s house. In fact, the only inheritance Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and her wife Mary (Michaela Watkins) will receive is an old civil war-era sword that they can’t wait to dump at a pawn shop.

Mel (Marc Maron) owns just such a pawn shop. He isn’t overly impressed with the sword, or with Cynthia’s story about her GrandPappy, but when he learns that this sword may be of value to a certain kind of collector, his assistant Nathaniel (Jon Bass) puts him in touch with a man crazy enough to shell out big bucks. So now these four people are going to partner up and travel down to the deep south where a “proofer item,” ie, a sword that purports to prove that the south won the civil war, is high in demand.

You can imagine what kind of idiocy you invite into your life when you start hanging out with someone who vehemently believes in a southern victory. What other conspiracy theories are you likely to wind up in?

Sword of Trust is slow in the good way – it takes its time getting to know folks, and really probing the dirty corners of people’s wildest speculations. This is the kind of movie where the players just get in a room and hang out. Even when they’re locked in the back of a U-Haul they’re pithy and quippy and full of spunk.

We got to see Marc Maron at Just For Laughs this summer, and while I expected to be entertained, I wasn’t prepared to see a truly energizing and exciting set. This film gives him the space to act and react. Writer-director Lynn Shelton crafts the perfect opportunity for him, and then casts people around him with similar improvisational aplomb, especially Jillian Bell who has really blossomed in her last few roles. By the time Dan Bakkedahl makes his appearance, we’re already sold, and the rest is just icing on a confederate cake.

Girl Most Likely

When you meet her mother, you’ll understand why Imogene Duncan would rather fake a suicide than go home when her boyfriend dumps her unceremoniously. Zelda isn’t the most nurturing of mothers given she spends more time in casinos than at home. A chronic gambler and hence constantly broke, Zelda (Annette Bening) isn’t much better now than she was then. Her boyfriend claims to be a time-traveling samurai (Matt Dillon), she’s renting Imogene’s (Kristen Wiig) bedroom to some stranger (Darren Criss), oh, and, her dead dad? Isn’t dead (Bob Balaban).

So displacing her disappointment in her failed relationship with her boyfriend to her father, she goes to New York in search for him but gets ejected from the city AGAIN. Poor Imogene. New Jersey is her worst nightmare but she just keeps winding up there no matter what she does. And spoiler alert: finding her absent father is not the key to her happiness. In fact, it’s very possible that Imogene doesn’t need to be saved by any man, not her dad, not her spoiled boyfriend, not even the samurai-CIA agent sleeping in her mother’s bed. If Imogene can just grow a tougher outer shell, she can take care of herself, face the truth, and fulfill her potential.

Girl Most Likely is a good reminder to fill your life with the right kind of people. And it’s a good reminder to me to fill my film appetite with a little more June Diane Raphael. Even playing the bitch best friend she was a scene-stealer and I almost hoped she’d reappear to fuck up Imogene’s life just a little more. Because she does it with such pizzazz! I love pizzazz. Although what an odd word to have just written twice. Amiright?

Atlantics

In a suburb of Dakar, workers on a construction site go without pay for months. They decide to leave the country by boat for a better future in Spain. Among them is Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), Ada’s lover. But the men never reach Spain. They are presumed dead, lost at sea. Poor Ada (Mama Sane) cannot afford to spend time pining or mourning for her lost love because she’s betrothed, by arranged marriage, to someone else. Omar is wealthy and handsome. The only problem is that Ada’s still thinking of, and worried about, someone else. Oh her wedding day, Ada is withdrawn, depressed, but her friend Fanta (Amina Kane) is seduced by Omar’s beautiful home and its furnishings – particularly what is to the marital bedroom, outfitted in new, luxurious furniture. The wedding is interrupted by a fire, thought to be an act of arson: Omar’s beautiful bed burns.

The next day Issa (Amadou Mbow), a young detective, arrives to investigate. Ada soon finds herself under suspicion, subject to invasive interrogations and even a virginity test. But as Fanta, Issa, and others fall sick, certain people wonder whether this mysterious illness is actually the spirits of the lost men possessing their bodies to exact revenge.

Mati Diop’s film addresses economic disparity and gender inequality but first and foremost it remains a love story, beautiful and ethereal. Claire Mathon’s cinematography gives the film a distinctive feel. Mixing social commentary with the supernatural, Diop may be Senegal’s Jordan Peele, crafting a film that is unexpected and unpredictable, like nothing you’ve seen before.

 

Little Women

Writer-director Greta Gerwig has a clear feminist point of view when retelling the classic tale Little Women. She doesn’t deviate much from the novel penned by Louisa May Alcott (two novels in fact – more on that later) and doesn’t need to. Alcott was surprisingly modern unconventional for her time (1832-1888), writing about domesticity and women’s work but making it clear that they all had minds and passions and ambitions of their own, even if society was set up to constrain their use.

The novels are largely classified as autobiographical or semi-autobiographical fiction, with Jo March standing in for Alcott herself as she pulls stories from her own life to illustrate herself and her sisters transitioning from childhood to womanhood. The first novel was such a success that Alcott quickly wrote a follow up which she titled Good Wives, telling more about her characters are their lives as grown women. An avalanche of fan mail had poured in, much of it demanding a happy ending for Jo, happy meaning married of course, so Alcott wove that into her own story, but bucked against the traditional and created a second option for Jo, one she hoped would appease readers (she was, after all, needing to support her family on the earnings from her work) but would still honour the true spirit of the character she and so many others had come to love. But 150 years later, Gerwig restores Alcott’s true intentions, bending the ending just a bit, leaving it not a little ambiguous so that we may choose which of the paths was truly more important to Jo.

As a writer with 3 sisters myself, who often put on plays together in the basement (we had no attic) of our home, you can probably guess why I loved this novel from a young age. It wasn’t its radical (for the time) point of view, it was the wonderful bond of sisterhood so deeply felt within its pages. Even as the sisters fight (sometimes physically, as illustrated in the film), their attachments are secure, their love never wavering. Modern sisterhood is often portrayed as catty and competitive but we too were a home of Little Women with big personalities and are close to this day, as our Snapchat can attest.

Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is the writer, not just of their childhood productions but also evidently of this retelling. Big sister Meg (Emma Watson) is the actress, Amy (Florence Pugh) the dreamer and youngest Beth (Eliza Scanlen) the sweet, shy musician. Marmee (Laura Dern) presides over her family with unending patience and affection even as she spreads the family’s resources thin taking care of others in the community. The next door neighbours are almost as rich as they are irresistible; Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) cuts a sad figure from the window of his large but empty house, and young Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) clearly feels stifled as its only other occupant. Both men will get folded into the March family home in their own ways. Mr. Laurence is fond of young Beth, who reminds him of his own departed daughter, while Laurie and Jo get on like a house on fire, often to the exclusion of Amy who feels on so spurned.

The brilliance of Alcott is that even as some of these sisters settled into marriage and domesticity, the work never seems to judge them. Their paths are held in equal esteem to that of Jo’s. Alcott, who remained unmarried herself, was revolutionary in her thinking, in painting love and career in equal measure and equal worth. 151 years later, we still haven’t truly caught up, still trying to balance those wants and needs in a way that feels satisfying and right. Although I loved the spirit of this adaptation, I suppose I thought Gerwig might have a little more to say on the matter. I imagined that she might have stamped just a bit more of herself into the proceedings.

Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are the stand-outs among the cast; as this is the seventh movie adaptation I suppose by now we know these are the plum roles (Jo having been played by the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Winona Ryder, and Amy by Elizabeth Taylor and Kirsten Dunst). All great directors have their muses and it seems Ronan may be that for Gerwig, playing her leading lady twice now, and likely to secure an Oscar nomination. Pugh has already had a dizzyingly successful 2019, and she certainly makes the most of her scenes in this. As Gerwig must, she trims many of the novel’s excesses, choosing scenes for plot and character development and losing many of the fun and funny anecdotal ones that make the novel feel so lively and warm. But Gerwig’s adaptation is both faithful and wise. It’s only that I admire her unique voice so much that I wish she had respected her source material a little less and allowed her own perspective to shine through a little more. If it is possible to love something while being just the tiniest bit disappointed, then that’s my verdict. Gerwig gives Little Women 100% but I unfairly hoped for 110%. Still, it’s a pleasure to see a female story be so lovingly preserved through the years, in timeless and timely ways.

The Sky Is Pink

When Aditi (Priyanka Chopra) and Niren (Farhan Akhtar) Chaudhary find themselves pregnant for the third time, it’s not exactly a happy occasion for everyone. They have a son, Ishaan, but lost a daughter and are afraid of it happening again. Niren doesn’t want to risk it but Aditi, once a Muslim now a Christian, won’t abort. But Aditi and Niren both carry a tricky gene that runs a 25% chance of passing SCID (Severe Combined Immunodeficiency) on to their child, which means the baby would have such a compromised immune system that he or she would be prone to severe infections with no ability to fight them off. Such babies rarely live to see their first birthday. Their baby, a daughter, is born, and they name her Aisha, which means life. But a trip to London confirms that Aisha does in fact have SCID and without very expensive bone marrow and stem cell transplants, she will die.

Despite all this drama, Aisha (Zaira Wasim, who is narrating this from some point in the future) insists this is a romantic film, about her parents. Married 8 years at this point, they are suddenly in a long distance relationship, with Aditi in London with Aisha, and Niren back home in India with Ishaan. They had married out of caste, a true love marriage. But having a sick kid and being away from everyone you love is a real test on any relationship. But a worse test is coming: Aisha the narrator has already told us she is dead. What will losing a(nother) child do to Aditi and Niren?

Priyanka Chopra is stunning, even in late 90s mom jeans. More than that, she’s really good in this, even as she shifts between mother caring for her daughter’s health to caring more for her happiness. And as one half of a complicated couple, She’s got great chemistry with Akhtar, who brings his best to the film as well. This film is based on a true story, and it feels very much like the actors respect their real-life counterparts while also making the characters very much their own.

At the end of Aisha’s life, Aditi and Niren are faced with impossible choices and they don’t agree. The strain is of course further complicated by the loss of their first baby, who Niren has tried to forget. The death of a child is…unfathomable. Many couples separate in their grief. What will become of Aisha’s mom and dad, who never stop being exactly that? Writer-director Shonali Bose makes great use of flash backs and flash forwards to lighten the mood or break up the bleakness. The movie is overlong but keep going, it’s worth it. It’s emotional and trying but ultimately rewarding.