Tag Archives: strong female leads

Kate

For a hot minute, Mary Elizabeth Winstead was everyone’s indie crush, appearing in quirky movies where she flexed her acting chops. But she’s always had this other side to her, the ability to flex muscle as well as chops, appearing in the Die Hard franchise among other movies consisting mainly of running and shooting, up to and including her most recent credit in Birds of Prey as The Huntress. Perhaps this duality is inevitable; reigning indie queen Florence Pugh has recently made the leap into the MCU as Yelena in Black Widow (and I’m guessing beyond). Winstead isn’t the first to trend this way, but she’s certainly an excellent example, believably tough and resilient, yet adding dimension to her characters with a humanity and vulnerability that many action movies don’t make time for.

In Kate, she plays an assassin who has 24 hours to find and punish her murderer. Yes you read that right. Someone wanted her to suffer; she knows she’s going to die, and it becomes increasingly and wincingly apparent throughout the film. But as she methodically machetes her way through Tokyo, she finds herself bonding with and pairing with the daughter of one of her previous victims, Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau). It’s a uniquely interesting relationship that allows Kate the time to atone for some of her sins, but also to come to terms with the cost of her life’s choices. She’s leaving chaos and violence in her wake, and she’s determined to make a little more before she goes.

Kate’s heart bleeds vengeance. Her eyes bleed blood. She drags her broken body through the garish neon lights of Tokyo fueled by her thirst for revenge and motivated by the only sort of legacy she can leave. Winstead plays Kate with a lot of grit; she is ruthless yet compassionate. She is a woman forced to reckon with her transgressions in the hours before her death, even as she adds to them. Winstead makes sure that Kate is a surprisingly complex character as she crawls toward her doom, destruction in her wake, and possibly her own soul, determined to finish one last job for her handler (Woody Harrelson), the only family she’s ever known.

Kate more than earns its R-rating in bloody violence; fight scenes are tautly directed by
Cedric Nicolas-Troyan (The Ring), and even though there’s a strong narrative component, the action is so relentless there’s hardly room to breathe. Kate drops on Netflix this Friday, September 10th, and I think you’ll find it unusually hard to be disappointed.

Jolt

The Premise: Lindy (Kate Beckinsale) suffers from Intermittent Explosive Disorder, which causes her anger, and indeed even mild annoyance, to turn into deadly violence. When provoked, she snaps, and good luck surviving her wrath as the extra cortisol makes her stronger and faster than any mere human. After a childhood spent as a lab rat, Lindy strives to live as normally as possible, experimenting with extreme shock therapy to keep her anger from detonating. But when the only man she’s ever cared for is taken from her, she’s going to embrace her inner demons in the pursuit of vengeance.

The Verdict: Jolt isn’t exactly a gem, but as an action-comedy, it’s surprisingly watchable. It depends a lot on Kate Beckinsale’s charms, but as they are indeed considerable, I didn’t mind this. The writing is sloppy but occasionally satisfactorily sardonic, and Beckinsale proves she can land a punch as well as a punchline. Yeah, it’s a little sexist (why are the shock pads stuck to her boobs?), and sure it pats itself a little too smugly on the back for being gender-bending, but the action’s there, if a little uninspired, and the character’s a lot of fun, and it’s sitting on Amazon Prime just waiting for you to give it a watch when there’s literally nothing else.

Gunpowder Milkshake

Spoiler alert: I’m pretty sure the milkshake’s actually just vanilla.

Public safety notice: Don’t eat gunpowder. It’s not delicious and it also might set your toots on fire.

Friendly piece of advice: Chocolate beats vanilla. Peanut-butter-brownie’s even better. Salted-caramel-pretzel is the best.

Movie premise: Sam (Karen Gillan) is abandoned as a child by her assassin mom after a bloody diner gun-battle. Sam grows up to be a hitman herself, working for The Firm, led by a greasy guy named Nathan (Paul Giamatti). Sam’s last hit has gotten her into some hot oil: despite merely doing her job, she happens to have killed the son of a very important, and very vindictive man, who has sworn revenge. Even The Firm is upset with her, sending her on a mea culpa mission to recover stolen money, which she learned belatedly (ie after shooting the guy) is intended for ransom to save the dude’s young daughter. Sam takes it upon herself to rush the guy to the hitman hospital, and herself to the rendez vous point to try to save the kid, but at every turn Sam’s only making more enemies, and it’s increasingly unlikely she’ll get out of this thing alive.

My verdict: Derivative. The best parts of the movie are copied directly from other movies. Parts not directly plagiarized flag a bit. Director Navot Papushado is not a needle drop savant; I’ve seen some directors brilliantly and subversively pair an unexpected song with an action sequence, but Papushado is never going to be one of them. The action sequences are actually pretty fun (especially when “librarians” Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh, and Angela Bassett get in on the action), but the terrible music trips them up and tempers our enjoyment. Not really worth the watch unless you’re desperate for some action – or unless you’re trying to convince a producer that a librarian spinoff would be a much more intriguing idea.

Moxie

I feel old, I feel embarrassed, and I feel inspired. In that order.

To the young women of today, I’m sorry. I’m sorry we didn’t get the work done. I’m sorry there’s still work for you to do. I’m sorry we didn’t break the patriarchy but got broken by it, bit by bit.

Vivian (Hadley Robinson) and best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai) are introverts. They’re good students, quiet kids, girls who don’t make waves. But on the first day of school, Vivian is inspired by the new girl in class. Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) challenges English teacher Mr. Davies (Ike Barinholtz) on his syllabus of all white men. Lucy is interrupted by star quarterback Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), who, being a white male himself, sees nothing wrong with maintaining the status quo, and belittling her simply for having an opinion different from his. Based solely on this, he starts a campaign of harassment against her, because females who speak their minds need to be put in their place. Vivian, who witnesses much of this, is quietly outraged, but it’s not until the football pep rally (when the whole school worships Mitchell jointly, despite the fact that the football team literally never wins), when the boys’ annual ranking of the girls in their class blows up everyone’s phone and suddenly a switch is tripped in Vivian’s brain. Taking a cue from her mother’s (Amy Poehler) old days of piss, vinegar, and protest, Vivian secretly starts up a zine called Moxie that ends up uniting and igniting the girls in their school (and a few of the more worthy boys). They’re mad and they’re not going to take it anymore.

Amy Poehler, fierce comedian, directs Moxie and shows some of her own. There are few people who can be this earnest and this funny at the same time, but she’s one of them. Although this film is about Generation Z discovering feminism on their own terms, it’s also a love letter to Poehler’s generation, and perhaps to all the women who have come before, women who failed to solve sexism but played a part in moving the needle. It’s also a call-out to adults who value obedience over truth and justice; Marcia Gay Harden plays the school principal who would rather look the other way than be responsible to resolving the actual issues presenting in her school. Madeleine Albright (and Taylor Swift) once said “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” and I think it’s important to remember that today, womanhood and its consequences starts earlier and earlier. The patriarchy isn’t going to smash itself.

This movie is about a movement, but it’s also about friendship. These girls, who have been taught to see each other as rivals, realize they have a cause in common. They’re outgrowing the simplicity of childhood friendship and developing empathy and understanding. Moxie brims with hope and optimism. These young people aren’t waiting to inherit the Earth, they’re not afraid to bring change now.

Amy Poehler’s schtick is something like ‘sincere dork’, and there are plenty of those vibes in Moxie. She’s outfitted the film with a genuinely wonderful cast, including Robinson, Tsai, Pascual-Peña, Nico Hiraga, Sydney Park, Anjelika Washington, Josie Totah, Sabrina Haskett, Josephine Langford, and Emily Hopper, who can carry the film’s uplifting message while still seeming like ordinary high school students. Streaming on Netflix just ahead of International Women’s Day, Moxie is the feel-good film of the month.

Wonder Woman 1984

It’s been 70 years since we last saw Diana Prince (Gal Gadot). She’s working at the Smithsonian in cultural anthropology and archeology, she’s doing her hero work on the down-low, and she’s been missing her sweetie, Steve. She’s been missing him for 70 long years.

Her new colleague at work, the meek and self-conscious Barbara (Kristen Wiig), is a gemologist doing a little investigative work for the FBI. The stone itself is worthless, but it claims to be a wish-granter, a dream stone, and both Barbara and Diana make wishes on it before they realize its true potential. Diana, of course, wakes up beside Steve (Chris Pine), but Barbara wakes up cool and powerful and strong, like Diana, although wishing to be like Diana does come with a little more than she bargained for.

Anyway, Max Lord (Pedro Pascal), greedy 80s business man, seemed to know the stone’s possibilities very well, which is why he cozies up to Barbara in order to snatch it. With infinite wishes at his disposal, Lord becomes overwhelmingly powerful and practically unbeatable – especially since the wishes seem to extract something from the wisher, and Diana’s been growing weaker. Barbara, meanwhile, is growing stronger, but also shrewder, meaner. And Lord’s finding ways to increase his reach, taking his avarice international, influencing entire nations, not to mention enemies.

In fighting Max Lord, Wonder Woman is fighting pure greed, corruption, and the world’s obsession with more. Wonder Woman has always been more than capable at taking down villains with her expertly applied kicks and punches and of course her trusty lasso. But how do you fight concepts, ideology, or human nature? This presents an interesting challenge that even Wonder Woman hasn’t seen before.

Gal Gadot is of course absolute perfection as both Diana and Wonder Woman. Having spent the past 70 years among humans, she is of course more jaded, more knowing, but she’s also more human herself, subject to the same loneliness that anyone would be if they’d been grieving for seven decades, and reluctant to get close to anyone because of it. She’s become more familiar with her strength and her abilities, and puts her weapons (tiara, lasso) to greater use. To win, Wonder Woman will have to flex not just her muscle, but also her ingenuity, and harder still, her faith in humanity’s inherent goodness despite plenty of evidence otherwise.

Kristen Wiig is well-cast as Barbara Minerva, a woman who is tired of being overlooked. As she transitions into the film’s co-villain, Cheetah, her confidence and her newfound powers race to outstrip each other, and we see her grow into her new role, wearing her new power like a mantle, like the fur coats she’s begun to adopt.

As for Pedro Pascal, it’s just nice to see his face for once. He understands that Max Lord doesn’t have to be evil to be a great villain. Villains who go around murdering and pillaging are easy to identify and unanimously reviled. But a villain who gives the people what they want will get away with a whole lot more. Since eliminating Lord would also mean negating their own wishes, people like Cheetah, who would otherwise perhaps not be on his side, are willing to fight for him to protect their own interests. Pascal puts a charming face on greed and desire, convincing an awful lot of people to wish for things they probably know they shouldn’t.

Director Patty Jenkins’ action sequences remain divine, but she’s not afraid to remind us that Wonder Woman, unlike some super heroes who shall remain nameless, is about more than just brawn or fancy gadgets; she’s got heart, and not just her own strong sense of right and wrong, but an impressive belief that ultimately humanity will share it and choose it as well.

In flashbacks, we saw a young Diana (Lilly Aspell) competing in Amazonian warrior games, where she learned that she couldn’t win until she was truly ready. What will the grown up Diana be asked to give in order to win, what sacrifices will she make for people who will never know or appreciate it, and how will she fight differently when she actually has something to lose? Seventy years among humans will change a woman, even a Wonder Woman.

If you’re in the U.S., Wonder Woman 1984 is available to stream on HBO Max. In Canada, it’s available as a premium rental. Stick around for a mid-credits scene.

I Am Woman

I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back and pretend
Cause I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
No one’s ever gonna keep me down again

Oh yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman

I grew up just knowing the lyrics to Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman, the way I just knew my own name. I grew up in a house of 4 sisters and 1 mother and there was nothing we liked better than putting on some Whitney Houston and singing/dancing along. But there were only two songs my mother ever sang unprompted, unconsciously, without a backing track: Amazing Grace, and I Am Woman (one of the many things she has in common with Barack Obama). At the time I didn’t think much of it. I knew the lyrics but it sure as heck wasn’t playing on MTV. And anyway, weren’t we already a female-led household of strong sisters doing it for ourselves? I didn’t think about why both my mother’s brothers went to university while she, even more intelligent and competent, was a high school drop out who got engaged to a trucker at 16, married at 18, and had me at 20, by which time she’d given up her “career” (hairdressing) to raise children at home – she had 4 of us by 26 and did it all alone, even when she was diagnosed with cancer. During divorce proceedings she gave up spousal support to keep our childhood home; as a single mother with no work experience or credit history of her own, she would have struggled to keep the 5 of us in a 2 bedroom apartment, and she failed to qualify for a loan to replace our rusted out van. Now I have to wonder: was my mother, a stay at home mother and perpetual caregiver, a secret feminist? All evidence points to yes, and not so secretly either. She taught us to “carry our own canoe” (that sounds like a particularly Canadian brand of feminism), to work hard enough to be able to support ourselves, to live with someone before committing to marriage. MY MOM WAS A FEMINIST? I grew up in the 90s, when feminist was a dirty word, but that didn’t mean the struggle for equality was dead, and clearly Helen Reddy’s 1971 song was still an anthem to women raising their own daughters now.

Helen Reddy wrote a feminist anthem in response to the sexism she encountered repeatedly in her life and career. It will not surprise you to know that the (male) record executives didn’t get the song and didn’t want to include it on her album. Or that her (male) husband stole all her money and put it up his nose.

Tilda Cobham-Hervey is absolute perfection as Helen Reddy; she’s the reason to watch. Director Unjoo Moon sticks pretty close to the usual biopic formula, but a magical spark from Cobham-Hervey is all this film needs to ignite not only a strong performance but a stunning musical performance as well.

Helen Reddy was the Katy Perry of her time. She was the first to make us roar. But while Perry’s pregnancy was announced to fanfare and unveiled rather dramatically in a music video, Reddy’s motherhood was considered a liability and proof she could never truly commit to her career. Fighting sexism has turned out to be a very long struggle and sometimes we need to look back in order to appreciate just how far we’ve come.

The 40 Year Old Version

Radha was a promising playwright; she took home a 30 under 30 award, but she’s rounding the corner to 40 now, and instead of producing the play of her dreams, she’s teaching ambivalent students at a college and stalling out on all that promise. Welcome to Radha’s midlife crisis.

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With that milestone birthday looming over her shoulder, Radha is desperate for a breakthrough and knows she has to shake things up to achieve it, but if it were that easy, she would have done it already. Exploring her contacts and the compromises it would take, she dabbles in hip hop, straddling the world of both hip hop and theatre to find her lost voice.

This movie succeeds on one woman alone: Radha Blank, who writes for and directs herself in a tour de force performance. Her writing is strong and incisive, she manages to be wild and free, fierce and determined, while also seeing her character’s evolution through some uncertain and confusing times. If Radha is a little mature for a coming of age, this is perhaps her second age, one in which her wisdom and lived experience have inspired her to create her own space and define the ways she fills it.

If Radha the character is finding her voice, Radha the multi-hyphenate talent responsible for the film has found hers, and found a bold, radical, brilliant way to display it.

The Glorias

Gloria Steinem is 86 years old; I wonder how she feels about getting the biopic treatment while she’s still alive. She was a leader for the American feminist movement in the 60s and 70s. She is a journalist, activist, and the co-founder of Ms. magazine.

At least four actors portray Steinem in the various stages of her life, including Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander. Director Julie Taymor clearly wants to impress us with a litany of Steinem’s experiences, influences, and achievements. There are a lot. So many they start to lose their power, they start to feel less real. Which is counter-productive to the goal of celebrating Steinem’s life. Reduced to a mere character, we never get a complete sense of who Gloria is as a person, Taymor gets trapped in an achievement-oriented cycle that feels more like separate segments in a shared universe than a narrative running like a river through a single life.

Individually, a lot of these chunks work. The talent is there, and the story-telling is inventive. Unfortunately, Taymor’s flair as a director doesn’t seem suited to Gloria’s no-nonsense attitude. There is almost certainly an interesting story here, I’m just not sure this script ever had a firm grip on it, despite Taymor’s accumulation of gifted actors and clever staging. It feels more invested in painting a fuller picture of history than it serves Steinem’s particular place within it.

Enola Holmes

Enola (Millie Bobby Brown) has had a strange but delightful childhood, raised and educated by her mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) in a manner perhaps inappropriate for a fine young lady of her time, but according to Eudoria’s own standards. Eudoria valued intellect and wit of course, but also independence (hence Enola’s name, alone spelled backwards) and a free spirit. They were happy together, not even lonely though Enola’s father had passed and her brothers left home years ago. But waking on her 16th birthday Enola finds that her mother has disappeared and left her no choice but to summon her older brothers.

Brother Sherlock (Henry Cavill) is a bit of a famous detective – maybe you’ve heard of him? And Mycroft (Sam Claflin) is the persnickety one who finds his sister’s lack of social graces to be untenable. He lines up a finishing school to send her away to, so of course she absconds, not unlike her mother has. Enola has gone to London of course, not just to find out where her mother is, but who her mother is, or was. To do it, she’ll have to stay one step ahead of brother Sherl, who is a a bit of a sleuth himself, and not easy to outwit.

The part suits Millie Bobby Brown to perfection – plucky, canny, charming and engaging, she adds a new dimension to the already beloved and fully realized Holmes universe, not only proving her worth but making room for herself and room for change. Sherlock has always lived very much inside himself, apart from and above the rest of the world, of whom he takes little notice unless they’re part of the case. Enola, however, is very much a product of and a force of change in England, which is already in flux when we meet her in 1884. Though she spent her early years in near isolation with her mother, her future is very much her own to make of it what she will.

Mulan

The reason why this Mulan live-action movie is better than its Disney predecessors is that it unyokes itself from the animated film and doesn’t attempt a scene-by-scene remake. The story is similar, but is more faithful to the Ballad of Mulan myth, with fewer Disney-fications. While Cinderella and Beauty & the Beast were meant to appeal to the little girls who watched and loved the originals, now grown up and ready to be dazzled all over again, they inevitably disappointed because you can’t recapture that magic in a bottle. Mulan doesn’t try. It’s not made for the little girls we used to be, but for modern audiences used to stunning cinematography and well-choreographed action. The movie doesn’t seek to appease our inner princesses but to waken our inner warriors. Don’t compare this to the animated Mulan, compare it to Wonder Woman, Atomic Blonde, Tomb Raider, Captain Marvel, Rogue One.

Mulan (Yifei Liu) is a spirited young woman whose childhood antics were somewhat indulged by her family but now that she’s of marrying age, she needs to dampen that fire in order to make an auspicious match and bring honour to her family. That is a woman’s place, a daughter’s place: honour through a good marriage and by being a quiet, elegant, composed, invisible wife. Her chi needs to be hidden away; it is meant for warriors, not women. But you know how this story goes. When the enemy Rouran threaten the Chinese empire, each family must send a man to fight, and since Mulan’s father has no sons, he himself is the only option, even though he’s disabled from the last war. To save him, Mulan steals away in the night, and poses as a man to take her family’s place in the Chinese army.

Niki Caro’s Mulan looks slick as hell. The colours are fantastic, the reds so vivid they’re nearly engorged, Mandy Walker’s cinematography bringing lush, diverse landscapes into sharp focus.

I love how grounded in history this movie felt; the animated film tread rather lightly on the reality of Mulan’s every day life, but here her mother reminds her (and us) of the dire consequences should her spunk be taken the wrong way, that such a woman would swiftly be labelled a witch and put to death.

At boot camp, sheltered Mulan is bunking among rough young soldiers. They do not sing their way through a snappy montage of training, they push their bodies to the limit trying to get battle-ready in time to save their country and their emperor. Friendships are made but they are also tested. This is not some summer camp – these young men know that their lives will soon be on the line, and they will need to count on each other in order to survive not to mention succeed.

The action sequences are stunning. Clearly Yifei Liu and company are the real deal, expertly trained and extremely convincing. Any movie that has the guts to bench Jet Li as the emperor and let others perform the martial arts had better bring the goods, and Mulan does. It’s not breaking new ground, but it’s well-executed and exciting to watch.

My one complaint is that the movie’s so intent on delivering incredible visuals and epic battle scenes, it devotes precious little time to developing its characters. We know that Mulan is fiesty and brave, but little else. We know even less of the others. Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) is a fierce leader and knows raw talent when he sees it but if he has any life or thoughts outside of war we aren’t privy. If Honghui (Yoson An) is surprised by the intimate nature of his friendship with the new, very handsome, very soft-featured soldier, he doesn’t show it, or shy away from it. He doesn’t mention it at all. And the other soldiers are just caricatures, filling up the ranks. But I think the real loss is in our villains, a duo didn’t inspire as much panic as their potential first teased. The one is just your run of the mill bad guy – his want and his greed are in opposition to China’s, and he’s pretty ruthless in his pursuit, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, in movies and in life. The other is by far the more interesting and I wish we could have known more of her, particularly because the final showdown between herself and Mulan is low-key amazing and I think understanding her a little better would only have strengthened that moment. Still, 1998’s Mulan had a villain, a Hun named Shan Yu, with eyes as black as his soul, who inspired not mere fear but terror, and we didn’t know anything about him. True, I was a child then, but I’ve rewatched it recently, and his menace is chilling, even without much context.

I enjoyed the 2020 Mulan. The cast was great. The film was incredibly shot and almost ridiculously beautiful. It evokes just enough of the first film through detail and musical cues. It was a treat, a rarity among Disney remakes, one that actually justifies its existence by incorporating the best of the first but improves upon it too, gives it a more mature and serious tone, one befitting a warrior, and that’s exactly what she is.