Tag Archives: strong female leads

The Kitchen

When a bunch of gangsters get put away for terrorizing Hell’s Kitchen in the 1970s, their wives are left up s creek without a p. Oh sure The Family says it will provide for them, but the measly few bucks isn’t even enough to pay the rent. And we’re talking several years of jail time. So Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) grab their own p and conquer s creek.

Okay, that’s a bit reductive because as you can imagine, absolutely no one was thrilled to have the women take things over – not the people paying them, not their rivals, and especially not the leftover male members of their own mob. And I do apologize for having said ‘male member.’

This is exactly the kind of story you want to get behind 1000% and I can still recall seeing production stills from when they were filming and being extra hardcore jazzed about it. But as you can tell by the timing of this review, I didn’t even bother to see it in theatres. And that’s because try as they might, these 3 exceptional ladies can’t make up for a story that just isn’t there. It’s generic and bland and boring. I expected to see some ass kicking and clever one-up-womanship and salty language. But instead it’s just a bunch of hand-wring and counting money into neat little piles. That feeling of empowerment seems to be missing entirely – and so is the point.

I don’t fault anyone in the cast because they’re all churning out great work, but their characters are underdeveloped and at the end of the day, without character investment, the stakes are very low.

The Kitchen is a disappointment. A disappointing disappointment. I only finished watching it because I’d already paid the rental price, and even then I seriously contemplated a “pause” that we just never came back to.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

I never thought that Maleficent cried out for a sequel. The first one seemed to wrap up the story rather neatly: Maleficient, thought largely to be a villain, was actually just a fairy with a dark past, a magnificent wardrobe, a broken heart, and a slight hairpin temper. Inside, she was rather like a pussy cat. More or less. But all-knowing Disney thought there was more money to be made more story to be told, so it milked an old fairy tale for more malevolence.

When we left Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), it was generally understood that she wasn’t so terrible after all. Really kind of sweet, and fiercely protective of the little girl she’d raised as her own. Years later, it seems that message never penetrated the minds of the villagers down below who still fear her. Aurora (formerly Sleeping Beauty) (played in this series by Elle Fanning) has been prancing about barefoot in the forest as Queen of the Moors, home to all kinds of fairies and mythical creatures. Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) has continued to sniff about and likes the flower crown in her hair and her whole boho-chic vibe. He proposes and she accepts, and they’re pretty much the only two who are happy about it. Maleficent is mostly just concerned because she knows she won’t exactly be welcomed by “his kind.” And maybe she’s also a little sad to lose her precious goddaughter. His mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), makes it clear they’re on shaky ground with her as well. You can imagine how awkward the engagement dinner’s going to be. Or, no you can’t, because it’s next-level awkward. I won’t say it’s the reason that humans and fairies go to war with each other but it’s not not the reason, if you know what I mean. So if you thought planning your wedding with your in-laws was fraught, imagine the tension when both mothers are intent on destroying each other. I mean, the seating chart alone is going be bizarrely complicated when you need opposing armies at the same table.

Anyway, Sean thought Mistress of Evil was “not great” and overlong. And at 20 minutes longer than its predecessor, it’s hard to argue that point. It does take way too long to establish certain facts. But I thought the movie was “not that bad” (is she quoting herself there? Indeed she is). I enjoyed meeting all of the little woodland creatures, especially more of Maleficent’s ilk, including the lovely Chiwetel Ejiofor. But mostly I was there for Maleficent. Poor, dark, misunderstood Maleficent. Yes her black eyeliner is intimidating and her horns are slightly reminiscent of a Beelzebub type. That does’t mean she has a heart of darkness! Don’t judge a book by its brooding black cover. Not even when that book falls from a top shelf and caves in your skull. Err. Well maybe then. Anyway, I love Maleficent because I love Jolie in the role. She’s menacing and conflicted and vulnerable and powerful and it’s terrific to see her don the wings and the cheekbones again.

Does Maleficent: Mistress of Evil justify its existence? Not remotely. Jolie and Pfeiffer make an electric pair and it’s sort of wonderful to see two such formidable women square off so maybe that’s enough. And if it’s not enough, the incredible costumes by Ellen Mirojnick will more than make up the difference.

TIFF19: The Cave

Director Feras Fayyad has proven himself a bold and brave film maker with the multi-award winning Last Men In Aleppo. Although the Syrian crisis is so far the absolute worst atrocity of the 21st century, very little gets out besides shaky cellphone footage since so much is under constant siege. The Cave instantly sets itself apart.

Shot between 2016-2018 in Ghouta, a Syrian city near Damascus which faces near-constant bombing, the film takes us underground, to a secret network of tunnels filled with hungry, dusty-faced survivors. Underground we also find The Cave, which is what the people call their underground hospital. The Cave is low on supplies, some days lacking power, but it is brimming with resilience. The doctors there, mostly women, rely on each other to provide the camaraderie and the fortitude necessary to keep going in the face of such unimaginable, unabating conditions.

Dr. Amani is the hospital chief, a doctor of pediatrics who agonizes over her young patients. A little girl dying of cancer cannot be evacuated by Red Cross because of paperwork. Babies born in this subterranean unit fail to thrive and children arrive scrawny, malnourished – the medicine they need is food, but both medicine and food are scarce in a city so war-torn that neither can get in or out. Still, she takes a moment to connect with each child, and makes an effort to tell each little girl that they are born so they can live to be “something important” (a doctor, perhaps?), even though Dr. Amani still somehow faces constant sexism in her own work. Because no matter how grateful patients should be that there are any doctors left, any doctors willing to risk heartbreak, risk their lives to keep treating people every time a bomb falls or chemicals are released in the air, some of those patients will still use some of their last breaths on earth to berate her, telling her women should stay in the home. And still she saves them.

It’s a much more beautiful documentary than it has any right to be, both visually and thematically. Filmed in the rubble, in the darkness and debris and constant, choking dust, Fayyad manages some artful cinematography. But most remarkable is the dedication of these doctors who encourage each other and boost each other’s spirits in the face of harrowing hardship every single day.

TIFF19: Harriet

Harriet Tubman was born a slave named Araminta “Minty” Ross in Maryland. She suffered all the usual indignities and violence inflicted upon slaves, but one injury in particular left her with permanent brain damage, which gave her, as she described “premonitions from God.”

According to a legal will, she was supposed to have been freed long ago, but when she eventually went to plead with her owner, it wasn’t for her own freedom but that of her unborn child. She had married a freeman who visited her frequently, but he didn’t want to have a baby who would be born a slave, and I suppose you can guess how her masters answered her.

So that’s when Harriet got it in her head to run away. I mean, it must have been in every slave’s head every day of their lives, but finding the courage and the opportunity to do it was prohibitive. Runaways were brought back and tortured before being put to death, to set an example for others. It would have been a powerful motivator for staying put, to say nothing of having to leave behind your loved ones. Of course, when your loved ones can be sold away without notice, it is perhaps not such a big risk after all.

At any rate, Harriet did leave one night, alone. She traveled to Philadelphia on foot, 145km, evading slave catchers and bounty hunters, hiding by day, guided by the north star at night. Eventually she made it to freedom: she survived.

In the film, Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) arrives in Philadelphia and meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), a member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and conductor on the Underground Railroad. He is a meticulous record-keeper and Harriet’s is but one of many, many entries in his logbook. She then meets Marie (Janelle Monae), a black woman born free, who owns the rooming house where Harriet lives. Marie teaches Harriet a different kind of life. Of course, posing as a free woman is an improvement, but not exactly without risks or complications. People are still looking for her. Harriet could spend her whole life looking over her shoulder. But she doesn’t.

Instead, Harriet chooses not only to look back, but to go back. To rescue family, friends, and in fact dozens if not hundreds of strangers. To go back for others, and free them as well. If it’s hard enough to understand how someone could endure so much pain and torment, and then find the courage to escape, it’s darn near impossible to picture the kind of person who would risk it all to go back. But she does.

In fact, she went back 13 times over a period of 11 years, though each trip only put her more at risk. She became an esteemed conductor on the Underground Railroad, never having lost a soul on her midnight runs. Every successful conductor had a network of friends and allies, and though some were white abolitionists whose participation was a great risk, there were also many black people along her route who risked much more but did it anyway.

It’s about time someone put Harriet Tubman up on the big screen for all to admire, and director Kasi Lemmons seems to understand the weight of her responsibility. The incredible thing is, she chooses to do it without the usual trappings of the slave film. Of course, those are largely understood by now, and their threat is still heavily felt. Instead Lemmons focuses on Harriet’s repeated runs, and though their repetition does make each one feel less of a thrill, their sheer number begins to impress. Harriet is not a slavery movie. Harriet is a freedom movie. It is a showcase for resilience, and hope. It’s also a reminder of the kind of impact one single person can have.

To that end, Cynthia Erivo shines as its star. Harriet may not be a complete biopic, but it is a fascinating origin story for one of history’s greatest super heroes. If Erivo isn’t talked about at Oscar time, it would be a crime.

TIFF19: How To Build a Girl

I first came to know Caitlin Moran when her publisher sent me a copy of her book, How To Be A Woman, to review (Jay trivia: I did in fact review books before movies – scandalous!). That’s all it takes to be a Moran convert. She’s so…I mean, likable is both the right and wrong word. She does not asked to be liked. She does not write to be liked. But her don’t-give-a-fuck-edness is extremely likable. She is the role model we deserve: bold, brash, body-positive, full of piss and vinegar. She isn’t someone else’s shitty idea of a woman, she is a REAL woman, no apologies given and none necessary. She may have been new to me then but she was already a well-respected journalist and popular TV personality in England. But over here we’ve mostly had to make due with her books.

Lately she has embarked on a semi-autobiographical trilogy, the first of which is How To Build A Girl. It follows Johanna Morrigan, an educationally-uninspired, council-estate-abiding, overlooked teenage daughter in Wolverhampton who one day just decides that the best ticket out of there is one she writes herself. So she reinvents herself as the fast-talking, confident Dolly Wilde, music journalist extraordinaire. With a top hat and some swagger, Dolly trips through life, interviewing Britpop’s biggest bands at the beginning of their journey to fame, and swashbuckling through bedrooms as a Lady Sex Pirate (Moran’s words, but god I wish they were mine). Is it easy? Fuck no. The music industry is notoriously sexist, and Johanna/Dolly is, after all, still a teenage girl.

The movie has a lot going for it, but I’m going to start with its star, Beanie Feldstein, whom you might already love from Booksmart or Lady Bird, and with whom you will fall certainly and mightily and madly head over heels in this. Johanna Morrigan is the kind of character every actor wants and few will ever find; the personal grown charted on screen is nearly immeasurable. Johanna is every kind of dichotomy you could hope for in a character study of a young woman: brave and nervous, self-conscious and audacious. We see every attempt to ‘build’ her up by the men in her life – father, boss, boyfriend, brother. But then we get to see her break away from all that bullshit and start to build herself. And the ingredients for building a self-possessed girl are all here. It is glorious.

Caitlin Moran’s signature style is all over this film, which she helped adapt to screen. The humour is self-effacing, witty, rude, clever. It is amazing and liberating and just such a relief to see a young woman’s actual sexual awakening be told (though I think it may be slightly watered down from the book, if you can imagine). And that’s what will punch you right in the face: director Coky Giedroyc has given Johanna permission to be a real person, whose inner life and outer trappings are just as full and fully-realized as any man’s. Yes, she’s ambitious. Her peers find her intimidating and confusing. Her life isn’t perfect. She swears like a sailor. She likes her body. She likes sex. She wants more. Have we ever seen a better representation of a female character, ever? EVER??? Everything I like about this movie makes me dislike every other movie just a little bit. How To Build a Girls is vital and necessary – easy to fall in love with, because it’ll make you fall in love with yourself.

 

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.

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.