Tag Archives: strong female leads

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.

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Booksmart

It’s the last day of school, and best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are ready to bid high school goodbye. They’ve been serious students, buttoned down and focused, and their hard work has paid off: they’re off to Yale and Columbia respectively. But their pride is tamped down a little when they learn that that many of their classmates are also headed for the Ivies – this despite the fact that they rarely seemed studious, and made lots of time for parties and fun. “I’m incredible at hand-jobs but I also got a 1560 on the SATs,” says one.

Molly is particularly devastated; sure she’s the valedictorian, but did she sacrifice fun for nothing? She doesn’t want to show up at college in the fall a party virgin. Her whole worldview is sliding down a crap chute, and her instinct is to dive in after it. Luckily, they have one last night before graduation, and Amy’s departure for a summer of volunteering in Botswana. One night to make up for 4 years of skipping parties and feeling left out of the in-crowd. They set their sights on Nick’s party – the most effortlessly popular kid in school (played by Mason Gooding, son of Cuba Gooding Jr).

The ladies do not get from point A to point B without boatloads (and sometimes they are literal boatloads) of shenanigans. This is Superbad, only because it’s girls, it’s much smarter. And it seems like this one night of trying to party teaches them more about themselves than the previous four years of high school. That sounds about right, doesn’t it?

The movie gets so much right even as we learn how much the girls have gotten wrong. Molly always assumed she was purposely excluded, but it turns out these kids are all too happy to greet her socially; her exile was self-imposed. How maddening, isn’t it, to discover that too late – and a good reminder for us all to check in with ourselves. How often do we impose our own limitations? Amy tackles her fears while Molly checks her ego, and her assumptions. The two women in the lead have amazing chemistry and it’s a lot of fun to witness the particular dynamic of their friendship. You and I know that college will test the bonds of their friendship, and inevitably change it if not crush it outright. They’re starting to have inklings that this might be so. So this last night out has some tangible pressure to it. Beanie Feldstein is a cinematic lantern, lighting up every screen she’s on, and lighting the way for others. Kaitlyn Dever is an excelling pairing for her, able to play off her energy in a more conservative and subdued way, while still holding her own.

Olivia Wilde tries out the director’s chair and seems to find it a pretty comfortable fit. She’s got an eye for letting actors do their thing; so much of the best bits feel spontaneous and are the best kind of weird. She’s also got an amazing feel for music – she introduces characters and themes with pop songs, and it really took me back. I bet most of us can come up with a soundtrack of our own high school experience. Music is such an important part of that time in our lives. I still surround myself by music constantly, but I will never again spend the day on my bedroom floor inhaling lyric booklets, or spend hours recording stuff off MTV like I did then. I know which songs I kissed to, slow-danced to, had sex to. Which ones we played on repeat as we drove recklessly and restlessly around parking lots doing donuts, which ones played at the diner as we split an order of fries, which ones we cried to when boys were mean to us, which ones accompanies us down the aisle at our own graduations and commencements. Wilde seems to have an intuitive sense of that, and I caught it.

There’s a theme in Booksmart that is hinted at but never spoken of: class. As in economic and social class. Molly points out the school’s 1% (Billie Lourd and Skyler Gisondo, whom Sean finds uproariously funny), but it’s clear that the Los Angeles high school as affluent as heck. Everyone, it seems, except for Molly. Not a single thing is ever said about it, but we see that she lives in an apartment building while everyone else has a McMansion, and her parents are absent from the film. So when Molly discovers that all her other classmates also got into good schools, she berates herself for having skipped the fun when she didn’t have to. But you and I know that she probably did: that kids like Molly have to earn their way in, but kids from rich families do not. They have legacy status, they know alumni who can pull strings. Their families donate money to schools. And, as we’ve seen in the news recently, they pay money to fake their way in on a little-used athletic scholarship or some other fraudulent means. College admissions are not the meritocracy we want to believe they are. There are very valid reasons why Molly worked so hard and others did not, even if the film never states them. So maybe Molly’s takeaway was to loosen up a bit, and experience life, which are not bad lessons. But for us, it’s a little bit more than that.

Even with these subtle layers, Booksmart never stops being fun. The cast is lively and diverse, the tropes are thankfully on the unexpected side, and the movie has a great pace. Plus it has an exception friendship at its centre. Just when you think we’ve said all there is to say about high school, Boomsmart is a charming, genuine and clever addition to the field.

Someone Great

Jenny has just suffered a soul-crushing breakup with forever boyfriend, Nate. After 9 years together, things end right before she’s about to move cross-country for a new job. Thank goodness for best friends Erin and Blair who are prepared to drop everything to grieve with her while celebrating one last night together, out in NYC.

A series of glowy flash backs convince us that yes, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez) and Nate (Lakeith Stanfield) were indeed great but the truth is, in mourning a boyfriend, this movie really celebrates girlfriends. Jenny, Erin (DeWanda Wise) and Blair (Brittany Snow) have a bond that’s outlasted all the other relationships in their lives.

Rodriguez, Wise, and Snow have terrific chemistry. Writer/director Jennifer Kaytin Robinson keeps things loose; it feels like the women spent time getting to actually know and like each other, rather than rehearsing. It feels real. It feels familiar, like they’re MV5BOWUyZTQ0MjEtNDRmMy00NDJiLWE4YjktNDk3MDBiYzQ2ZGEyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjM4NTM5NDY@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1499,1000_AL_tapping into the weird naturalness and closeness of our friendships from early adulthood. Things will change for them, I bet, and soon. I want to tell them to treasure the fuck out of these moments. In fact, these women are on the cusp. They’re nearing 30: careers are taking off, relationships are getting serious. Kids, suburbs, and neglecting our female friendships tend to come next. That sounds sadder than I mean it to because this movie is surprisingly upbeat and fun. So maybe time won’t get away on them, and maybe phone calls won’t go unreturned for months at a time, and maybe they won’t find themselves saying ‘We should get together soon’ and never quite making it happen. Maybe.

But that hasn’t happened to them yet! They’re still the most important people in each other’s lives, and on this night in particular, they are super duper there for each other and it’s marvelous.

Also: it has a pretty great soundtrack.

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.

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).

 

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.

 

 

 

 

All About Nina

Nina is an acerbic stand-up comedian who boasts on stage about not dating because it sounds a lot better than admitting the affair with the married cop who hits her (Chase Crawford). She barfs after every set. So it seems like the perfect time to flee New York and purse her dream in L.A. of landing  a role on Comedy Prime (an SNL stand-in).

Nina (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has some professional success there, but her personal life suffers – and we know it didn’t have far to fall from. For the first time in her life, she lets a good guy (Common) get close to her but she’s flailing. Her new roommates (Kate del Castillo, Clea DuVall) model a new and healthy way of living but Nina can’t reconcile it MV5BZTE4ZjUxODEtNmNmZS00ZWU5LWIzODgtNTU1MjNhNzM1MzNiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTY4NjI3Mzg@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_with her own life, and I’m not sure she believes she deserves that level of happiness anyway. In fact, the closer she gets to good things, the more she sabotages them. Ultimately she’ll have a bit of a meltdown on stage that results in a viral video of some powerful truth-telling that her audience may not be ready for. Just about the only thing that video doesn’t threaten is her strength.

Director Eva Vives pulls together a terrific female-forward ensemble (Angelique Cabral, Camryn Manheim, Mindy Sterling),  to achieve this thoughtful look at what it means to live an authentic existence, especially for a woman in 2018. As her new boss Lorne Larry Michaels (Beau Bridges) tells her, the audience only thinks it wants truth – in reality they need it to be heavily curated.

[This reminds me of the very best stand-up comedy I’ve seen this year – Hannah Gadbsy, who has a special called Nanette. It’s on Netflix. It’s spectacularly funny but also very raw and angry and honest, which makes it a breath-taking, astonishing piece of art. Seriously. You should watch.]

Nina’s passion is motivated by pain. We are certain that her anger is covering for something, but she allows so few cracks that we don’t easily find a way in. Mary Elizabeth Winstead has a long cinematic history of being wonderful and this performance in particular is a brave kind of perfection. It’s like watching a pot boil, with its own internal tension despite knowing what’s coming. Vives sets up these emotionally intense scenes and allows Winstead to smash them out of the park. All About Nina will live to its name. It distills all the frustrations and rage we have as women, every struggle we have between delicacy and strength, independence and cooperation, self-interest and support. It’s a messy road, but beautifully walked.