Tag Archives: strong female leads

Molly’s Game

I resisted watching this because of a distaste I have for Molly Bloom, the real Molly Bloom. She’s extremely self-involved and remorseless. So damn you Aaron Sorkin for getting nominated and forcing me to watch this. Well, okay, since it stars Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, it wasn’t a total boycott, but still, I was reluctant. Especially reluctant after being subjected to the trailer numerous times in which Molly asks a little girl “Do you know how many witches were burned at Salem?” and when the kid shrugs, she says none – they weren’t burned, they were hanged or drowned or stoned. But something in me rebelled angrily at this line; the answer is right, none were burned, but that’s because witches never existed. It was women who were burned or hanged or stoned.

Anyway, you may or may not know that Molly Bloom ran a bunch of illegal poker games, made oodles of money, and then get raided, her cash seized, and she was indicted. Facing court, and jail, she wrote a book about it, and named names.MV5BMTU2NjY4NjM2OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDcyMzIyMzI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1498,1000_AL_

Molly isn’t particularly likable. She thinks she’s smart and she tells you she is constantly. She could have gone to law school, you know. And probably should have. But the money was so easy, and so plentiful! And movie stars played the poker (and the Russian mob, but never mind that). She’s guilty and she’s greedy but she’s also tough as hell. Chastain taps into her resiliency , her intelligence, her strength. Idris Elba plays her “not a little bit shady” lawyer, and he’s a perfect sparring partner. Aaron Sorkin’s scripts are meaty and lesser actors may be felled by them but Chastain and Elba are not just equal to it, they master it. It’s impressive.

Aaron Sorkin isn’t just the screen writer on this, he also steps into director’s shoes for the first time. Swinging for realism, he stacked the lesser roles with real poker players, wanting even the way they handled cards to look authentic. In between takes, the actors would play poker with the real players. Extras, usually paid about $90 a day, would often leave the set the best paid people there.

Sorkin is a smart guy with a lot of famous friends; he asked for and received great advice and support from David Fincher (a Social Network collaborator) and from Kevin Costner, who stars as Bloom’s father. The story is intriguing and well-suited to Sorkin’s abilities, but the movie runs a little long and isn’t terribly cinematic (there’s a lot of sitting in a lawyer’s office, which, not coincidentally, is located in the fictional firm of Gage Whitney, which fans of Sorkin’s will recognize from The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and The Newsroom.

The movie didn’t change my mind about Molly but it certainly cements Chastain and Elba as razor sharp, a cut above. If you like Sorkin’s zingy TV stuff, you’ll like this just fine. It’s not a best picture contender but it’s got some damn fine performances.

 

 

So, was Molly Bloom a witch, or just a woman?

Advertisements

The Post

In 1971, Kay Graham was the first of her kind, a female newspaper publisher, but she was never supposed to have the job. The Washington Post was part of the family business but her father passed it down not to her, but to her husband. But when her husband committed suicide, she stepped into shoes that had always been loafers, not heels.

Then, something amazing happens: someone leaks top secret documents that detail the Vietnam cover-up that spanned 4 U.S. presidents including the current one, Richard Nixon, who’s kind of a dick. The NY Times gets ahold of them but gets shut down by Tricky Dick and his cronies. The papers then filter down to The Washington Post, and Kay Graham has to decide whether she’s going to risk her little empire AND a serious prison sentence.

Interesting facts about Mrs. Graham: she was not a powerful business person, or used to MV5BMTg5Nzg3NjUzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTY5NzA1NDM@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_being in charge. She’d never had another job. She was naturally meek, and kind of nervous. She was surrounded by assertive men, some of whom weren’t crazy to have her among their midst and certainly didn’t see her as an equal never mind a boss, and none of whom were shy about voicing their opinions. She was, however, an accomplished socialite, which in the city of Washington, means she counted many prominent politicians among her friends – and the particular politician at the epicenter of this scandal was among her closest. These facts are not to diminish her but to illustrate just how courageous she truly was to take the stance she did.

Newsflash: Steven Spielberg is a good director. Yeah, we already knew this, but this film had me noticing all kinds of little details that I admired greatly. This movie has the feel of a smart and sharp little indie; it’s taut and thrilling and lots of fun. It gets a little heavy-handed at times but its best moments are when it’s showing, not telling.

Maybe Spielberg’s greatest asset is his incredible ensemble cast. Tom Hanks is the fevered editor, and he’s flawless. Bob Odenkirk is stupendous as a hard-working investigative journalist. But of course it’s Meryl Streep who steals the show as Kay Graham. It’s not a showy role. Mrs. Graham is never the biggest personality in the room. She’s not commanding, but we are nevertheless riveted by Ms. Streep. Her shaking hands, her tremulous lip – we see how hard this for her, and so we admire her all the more for doing it.

You are not contractually allowed to write a review of this film without using the word “timely”. About a year ago, Nixon was down-graded to only the second most douche-baggiest president in history. Truth matters. The press belongs to the governed, not the governors. Support journalism. Subscribe to a newspaper, even if you read it online. One day they’ll be making movies about this time. But this is not just a news story, it’s also, of course, a nod to feminism. Mrs. Graham walks through a sea of secretaries before she’s admitted to the all-male floor of the New York Stock Exchange. She faces a Supreme Court that has never had a female Justice and wouldn’t for another decade. When someone says that Mrs. Graham’s father willing the family business to Kay’s husband says a lot about the man, Tom Hanks replies that actually, it says more about the time. So yeah, this is the movie we all need right now. It’s essential viewing. But even if wasn’t so “timely”, it’s so thoroughly peppered by exceptionally talented people that The Post is an easy recommendation and a damn fine film.

I, Tonya

Margot Robbie is convinced this film will change your mind about Tonya Harding. Is she a villain or a victim? Abused or abuser? The truth is, your opinion doesn’t really matter and truth doesn’t really exist. What does exist: a wholly funny film that never fails to entertain.

{In the unlikely event you’re in need of a refresher: Tonya Harding was an American figure skater in the 1990s, and competed twice in the Olympics. She was known for two things: for being the first American female to land a triple axel in competition, and for bashing in her Nancy Kerrigan’s knee.}

Margot Robbie is well-cast as Tonya Harding. She’s still just a little too pretty to play elm120117intelmovies-007-1512400299white trash, even with the poofy 90s bangs, but she comes down low and it’s pretty glorious. Sebastian Stan plays Harding’s good for nothing husband, Jeff Gillooly, and he disappears into the role of dumb fuck. Jeff’s dumb ass best friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) pretends to be an international spy even though he’s a grownup who lives with his parents. Not exactly criminal masterminds, but this is the trio that brought us the most delicious scandal of 1994 (until OJ Simpson that is – if you thought Lillehammer was competitive, try being a celebrity fuck up). But for my money, I’d have to say that the real cast stand-out was Ms. Allison Janney, who plays Tonya’s mother LaVonam who, by sheer comparison, makes bathtub scum look appealing. She’s the dirtiest of dirts with not a kind word or intention in the world. If being a crummy mother was an Olympic sport, she wouldn’t have to resort to breaking any kneecaps.

The first thing that may surprise you about this film is that it’s funny. Actually funny, though pretty dark – the kind of laughs you feel slightly guilty about succumbing to, but you’ll need to just embrace the absurdity. It is farcical, in the way only a true story can be when it’s populated with idiots.

The second thing that surprised me anyway, was that it actually does dredge up sympathy for our poor Tonya. Her guilt (or innocence) is not really the point. This is Tonya’s story, hers alone from beginning to end. No one’s trying to excuse what happened, but putting “the incident” within context is actually very interesting.

I, Tonya is funny, dramatic, pumped full of energy, and even the sports angle is well-done. Certainly Margot Robbie can be commended for all the hard work she put in getting skate-ready, but she gets a lot of help from choreographers, stunt people, and CGI – effects that are pulled off almost seemlessly. But it’s the camera work that makes the figure skating extra exciting – you really get a sense of the speed and athleticism, two hallmarks of Harding’s style in particular. No matter your experience of “the incident” at the time, I, Tonya turns tragedy into triumph.

Patti Cake$

Patricia, aka Patti Cake$, aka Killa P, is a wannabe rapper who’s finding it hard to escape the shitty confines of New Jersey. She’s only 23 but is already feeling like a failure. She works 2 jobs just to keep drowning in debt from her Nan’s medical bills. Her mother, a washed-up, alcoholic, hasbeen singer, is rife with jealousy rather than support. And the local rap community sees her as a non-starter and a bit of a joke. She’s got one friend, a pharmacist named Jheri, who believes in her dreams even as he pursues his own. But it’s only when they meet the mysterious Basterd, master of sick beats, that the music starts to really come together.

Patti (Danielle Macdonald) is an interesting character; her complexity means it takes a little convincing, but hanging in there pays off. Macdonald fills the character up the way MV5BZjc5YzhkOTQtZWY1ZS00OTJkLWE2MTctMmU4NTdlM2YyNmQwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjk1Njg5NTA@._V1_Beyonce fills out a bodysuit. She’s just spectacular in this: spectacular, spectacular. You can’t make a movie like this without the perfect lead, and Danielle Macdonald is this movie’s soul mate, its one and only. But the rest of the cast falls into place perfectly too. Siddharth Dhananjay as Jheri is Patti’s perfect partner; perhaps an unlikely duo, but if the rap game is going to turn a cold shoulder on a white girl from Jersey, so too will it be tough for a brown boy pharmacist. But disenfranchised is disenfranchised and director Geremy Jasper paints an unflinching portrait. Meanwhile, Mamoudou Athie had already won my heart in Unicorn Store, so seeing him again here as Basterd solidifies his probable and swift rise to fame. Bridget Everett, Amy Schumer’s right hand man of comedy, rounds out the cast of Patti’s desperate mother, and strikes the right, harsh notes.

This is a classic underdog story that works its way through some familiar turns of plot. And sometimes it’s trying too hard. And  yet I found there was very little I could not forgive this film. That’s how much it spoke to me, how very enchanted I was by Patti and her world. And if you like slightly offbeat films with offbeat characters, this is a fun indulgence.

The Archer

Lauren is a nice kid, a good student, a champion archer whose post-medal celebrations turn sour and result in her arrest. The judge has all the reasons in the world to go easy on this first-time offender, not to mention the extenuating circumstances that all but exonerate her, but instead he throws the book at her. Off she goes to an open-ended sentence at a “reform school” that looks and feels a lot more like a sadistic prison.

There she finds dozens of girls just like herself, imprisoned for very minor offenses. But it’s their jailers that cause the most concern: there are no checks on their behaviour. They can get anyway with anything, and do. But the cruelty, humiliation, MV5BNDU1ZWYyN2UtNGY5MS00NjE2LTk1N2ItNGE5MDcxZmEzMTY3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDM4NTU5Njc@._V1_SX1776_CR0,0,1776,778_AL_and sexual perversion isn’t just for kicks, it’s also serving a purpose. Because every time a girl fights back, her sentence is extended. And that’s very good news when you’re running a corrupt, for-profit scheme.

So one day Lauren (Bailey Noble) and her new friend Rebecca (Jeanine Mason) decide to make a break for it. No one has ever escaped successfully, but desperation drives their attempt. But to protect the prison’s ugly secrets, its warden will literally hunt them like animals to make sure he doesn’t get exposed.

This film has an incredibly strong female in its lead, and Noble was the perfect choice to play her. She’s got grit and determination but we still believe her as a somewhat naive high school student. Their flight into hills is tense and taut film making, and though the prisoner on the run thing’s been done before, this one is a fresh enough take to grab and hold your attention.

The Archer is inspired by the 2011 conviction of two judges in Pennsylvania when a federal investigation uncovered millions of dollars in kickbacks for their sentencing teenagers to a for-profit youth detention centre.

Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller: you may not know her name, but you should.  She was the first woman elected Chief of the Cherokee nation but her story is more complex than any list of her achievements would imply.

Born to a Cherokee father and European mother, she was raised with  sense of her culture but was influenced by a lot of things. She married young but continued her studies, and upon leaving her husband (with 2 small children in tow), Mankiller underwent a cultural and political awakening that led her down the path that would cast her as a role model and inspiration to her people, and to women. But she started out in an entry level position, only wanting to “help her people.”

Mankiller-DocumentaryThis documentary is not particularly imaginative when it comes to film making; it is straight forward, with few tricks up its sleeves. But Mankiller is a compelling subject, and a documentary shedding light on her story is important when it is omitted from so many history books. When Mankiller was first elected chief in 1985, it was to a male-dominant political structure that she broke into with patience and tact. She persevered, secure in the knowledge that the traditional Cherokee way was a more gender-balanced approach. She overcame a lot of obstacles in order to improve the lives of her people, and many believed her work with the federal government might have led to a national political career had her own health not stood in the way.

Mankiller has a legacy worth notice. If the story-telling by director Valerie Red-Horse Mohl is a little bland, Mankiller’s message of empowerment and equality still resonates.

A film like this can be difficult to get off the ground, and a Kickstarter campaign was necessary to secure the least bit of funding. Luckily, the “First Lady of Sci-Fi” Gale Anne Hurd was on board as a producer. Her career was launched when she produced and co-wrote The Terminator but followed up with Aliens, The Abyss, Armageddon, The Incredible Hulk, Dick, and more. Today she’s the executive producer of The Walking Dead, which means she had lots of famous friends to call upon for lucrative Kickstarter rewards. Creator Robert Kirkman signed comic books; composer Bear McCreary contributed copies of the score; the costumer Eulyn Womble designed special tshirts; Norman Reedus volunteered a custom voicemail message; Hershel himself, Scott Wilson, offered up a spaghetti dinner; showrunner Scott Gimple signed scripts. I think it’s really special when people come together to back a project like this. And I think it’s a credit to Mankiller’s memory that this documentary came together under the supervision of two strong and capable women. You can see this film when it screens at the ImagiNative film festival, Saturday October 21st at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

My Cousin Rachel

Philip (Sam Claflin), receives distressing news from his cousin and guardian, who adopted him as an orphaned baby. While recovering from an illness in Italy, he met and married a woman and now has regrets. If his strange and hasty missives are to believed, this woman, Rachel (Rachel Weisz), is trying to kill him. Philip rushes off to intervene but his guardian is dead before he arrives. He swears vengeance on the widow but she has conveniently disappeared.

Philip returns home, to the estate he will now inherit once he comes of age – and luckily, MV5BMDYxOTU1ZDItYjJkMC00ZTVmLWFhZDktNDFiODRlODI1MzQ4L2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDcxNzU3MTE@._V1_his required 25th birthday is right around the corner. But before it can be celebrated, the ballsy widow shows up for a social call. Draped in black, she looks like a grieving widow, but passionate kiss shared between the two perhaps belie other motives. Of course, this particular widow does not look like the wicked witch of Philip’s dreams, but seeing how she’s played by the enchanting Rachel Weisz, probably looks more like the woman in a different kind of dream altogether.

So the film’s central mystery unfolds: is Rachel trying to seduce young Philip into sharing his inheritance (the will was never changed to reflect her at all), or are there genuine feelings here? Whichever way you lean, this is a dark romance at best. A bad romance (roma, ro-a-a?). Which of course is intoxicating to stupid virginal Philip who will follow his cock just about anywhere it seems.

Gothic and moody, Rachel Weisz is a commanding and alluring black widow. Unfortunately, director Roger Michell has less of a firm grip on this Du Maurier mystery. Did she or didn’t she?  Either he doesn’t know, or doesn’t care. So it’s less satisfying than it should be. But ambiguity would have been just fine by me; it’s what allows us to contemplate Rachel’s precarious position and explore the feminist slant – is a woman left penniless and powerless acting in her own self-interest really all that shocking or evil? In any case, Weisz is the reason to watch. Her every moment on screen is magnetic.

TIFF: Gaga: Five Foot Two

Whether or not you love her music, you know Lady Gaga. You know the stunts, the hair, the makeup, the crazy costumes, the meat dress, the Madonna feud, the constant nudity. But when Lady Gaga wanted to rebrand herself with a new album,  Joanne, in which both she and her music would be stripped-down and very different from their former selves, she decided this documentary would be just the thing to introduce Lady Gaga-lite to her fans.

Like way too many documentaries of this sort, Lady Gaga only offers up what she wants us to see, nothing more, and definitely nothing very personal. It’s all about the music, so your enjoyment of this film will depend a lot on your appreciation of her music. Director Chris Moukarbel grants us backstage access to her shows, her recording studio, her music video shoots, and the preparations for her Superbowl halftime show.

I’m not a huge fan of hers, but I can appreciate her voice and her musicianship. I am a little less forgiving of the rich and famous who star in documentaries whose sole purpose is to tell you how hard their cushy lives are. As a fellow sufferer of chronic pain, I want to have sympathy for her plight, but watching doctors who treat the rest of us as drug seekers literally throw them at her is a little disheartening. And that’s not mentioning the personal masseuse and physio therapist she staffs round the clock, or the makeup artist who accompanies her to doctor’s appointments to make sure she never looks less than her best.

Lady Gaga arrives on the red carpet for her film "Gaga: Five Foot Two" during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto

I suppose if you’re a big enough fan you can likely look beyond the privileged whining and appreciate the work she pours into her music, and the family story behind the album in question, which is actually quite interesting.

 

I did, at times, feel a little sad for her. In the documentary she seems ready to shed the more outrageous parts of her “performance”, wants to be taken seriously out of the crazy high fashion and in just a pair of jean shorts. Will her fans accept this transition? If you saw her at the TIFF premiere of the film, you’d be inclined to assume the answer is no. She seems to have already reverted to her old ways before the movie even hit Netflix. I guess my biggest takeaway is that yes, compromises have been made. Money and success don’t insulate from that.

TIFF: Lady Bird

ladybird_01In making a coming of age film about a high school student, Greta Gerwig has come into her own – as a writer, as a director, as a woman with a voice.

Lady Bird is the name that Christine (Saoirse Ronan) has given herself. It’s her senior year of high school and all she wants is out. Out of Sacramento, out of her parents’ house, out of her own skin which doesn’t quite seem to fit anymore. Like most teenagers, Lady Bird is kind of a d-bag. She thinks she knows more than any adult she’s ever met. She’s self-centered and blind to the needs of others, but in the sympathetic hands of Ronan, we don’t hate her and we certainly never tire of her. Her flaws should push us away but instead they endear us – maybe even remind us of ourselves at that age.

Her relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is relatable as heck and among the best I’ve ever seen written or performed on the big screen. Their relationship is a series of clashes between pragmatism and whimsy. Lady Bird doggedly indulges one artistic pursuit after another while her mother does the precarious high-wire act of balancing the needs of an entire family. Ronan and Metcalf are incredible together, the chemistry is electric and complicated and feels so real you’ll intermittently want to send your mother a fruit bouquet of thanks, and a nasty hate letter condemning her every decision. Or was that just me?

But the real kicker is that Lady Bird is not just a mother-daughter movie. Lady Bird’s life is full of characters and it’s amazing how fully realized they all are. We spend time with her father, her brother, her best friend, and several love interests, and Gerwig’s fabulous writing doesn’t lose sight of a single one of them. And her cast – her cast! Have I said yet that Saoirse Ronan is a vision and she brings so much to the role and this is truly the best I’ve ever seen her? Fun fact: she and Greta first met at TIFF two years ago, and Gerwig couldn’t imagine the role going to anyone else. And even though the writing is so, so good, and the character is absolute perfection on the page, Ronan just makes it even better. Even wonderfuller.

And Metcalf. This is such a great role and she really makes it her own: loving, frustrated, conflicted, supportive, scathing. Goddamn. She plays opposite Tracy Letts, who plays her husband and Lady Bird’s dad. He’s the good cop parent but not without his own challenges – believe me, the script does not neglect him. Lois Smith, Timothee Chalamet, and Lucas Hedges all help bring Lady Bird’s world into bold, bright, living colour while also contributing a little of their own. I’m telling you, this has got to be a contender for best script. The layers are many and I have never wanted to peel anything faster in my life! For my money, though, the lovely, luminous Beanie Feldstein has got to be the breakout star here. She plays Lady Bird’s BFF Julie. Don’t mistake her for a second banana. She may have shades of wallflower but she never gives you a second to discount her.

Lady Bird is absolutely one to watch, so do.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

On Saturday we brought our sweet little nephews to the Capital Fair, where we watched a stunt dog show, rode rides, played games on the Midway, and visited a petting zoo where the kids and I hand-fed llamas. On Monday I watched a llama get shot, point blank.

Do not confuse The Zookeeper’s Wife with We Bought A Zoo. This is no light-hearted tale. It’s about real-life couple Antonina and Jan Zabinski, who used their posts at the Warsaw Zoo to save hundreds of Jews during the German invasion. Of course I’ve read both The a6oYy417yHHP01DGIDZUeEzH7JFZookeeper’s Wife, and We Bought A Zoo, and more recently I was reading another book about a woman who led an underground railroad of sorts to smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto, wherein the zookeeper’s wife was specifically mentioned. It was an especially brutal place to be during the war. Terrible, unspeakable things happened every day, and it’s kind of a miracle to see\hear these stories about ordinary people who couldn’t live with what was happening, so they didn’t [it’s sort of awful that these words sound very applicable even today].

Glimmers of light do not eliminate all the darkness. The Zookeeper’s Wife is not an easy watch. The film makes the stakes clear, yes for the zookeepers taking enormous risks themselves (they would surely die if discovered), but especially for the people they are helping, who would otherwise be dead – or worse.

Jessica Chastain as the zookeeper’s wife is of course fantastic. There’s no CGI used int he film; those are real lion cubs she’s cuddling, with not a shred of hesitancy. Fitting, I suppose, when she’s sitting in the middle of a war where much scarier things are happening on the streets. WW2-era films always inspire a bout of siderodromophobia in me (the fear of trains).

This movie gets some things right, and some things wrong. In the end, I think it’s just not terrible enough, which I realize is a weird thing to say. What I mean is: it doesn’t have the power to haunt you the way Schindler’s List did (does). It feels a little cold, without the emotional gravitas you’d expect. I expected to cry. What does it mean that I didn’t? Perhaps what this movie needed was a meaningful connection to just one victim. Heroics are all well and good, but they’re only important because they’re necessary. Heroes are only half the equation: both must be compelling.