Tag Archives: strong female leads

Megan Leavey

megan leaveyWar is hell, but returning from war is really rough too.  As we’ve realized the devastating effects of PTSD and how severely it has affected an entire generation of American soldiers, war movies have more frequently shown us the human effects of conflict.  In my view, that is a welcome and long overdue change.  I was somewhat apprehensive going into Megan Leavey, because I feared that it would try to glorify or justify the invasion of Iraq.  That’s a non-starter for me because there was no legal basis for the invasion or occupation, and no glory to be had over there.  You will never convince me that it was a good idea for the U.S.A. (and not just them) to send hundreds of thousands of troops to a no-win situation in the Middle East.  Many of those troops didn’t come back and those that did were never the same.

Megan Leavey (the movie) is the story of one of those troops.  Megan Leavey (the person) is a former marine who was deployed to Iraq in 2005 and 2006.  Leavey’s experience in Iraq must have been the most stressful tour of duty imaginable, because Leavey toured Iraq with a partner: a bomb-sniffing dog named Rex.  Leavey and Rex went “in front of the front lines” to sweep for bombs and weapons intended to kill the troops supporting the new Iraqi government.

real megan leavey

The real Megan Leavey and Rex.

The Iraq we see in Megan Leavey feels authentic.  Much of Iraq was (and still is) a war zone, an awful place for a soldier to be, and a worse place for civilians to be.  Whatever their reason for joining the armed forces (and for Leavey her reason is to escape upstate New York), the American soldiers deployed there were largely good people with good intentions.  We can judge their leaders for numerous bad decisions and questionable motivations, but the fact remains that the soldiers on the ground were doing their best while in harm’s way and on edge because the threats they faced were not obvious.  It was not just buried bombs, though that was the prime threat to Leavey and Rex.  Most of Iraq’s residents did not (and do not) support terrorism, insurgency, or Saddam Hussein.  But a few of them did, and they weren’t wearing name tags, so for an American soldier, every single person not wearing the same uniform as you might be planning to kill you.

Whatever your political views on the war, it should be obvious how bad a situation it was to be an American soldier in Iraq, and in fact politics often get in the way by dehumanizing the situation.  With the knowledge we have today, you can (and should) be against the invasion and occupation of Iraq while also sympathizing with the troops who suffered through that insanity.   Megan Leavey chooses to remain neutral on the political side and focus not just on the war but also on the aftermath, in service of Leavey’s (and Rex’s) story.  The result is a compelling tale that is broader than Iraq, and Kate Mara’s performance really conveys the anguish that returning soldiers suffer through, whether they’re humans or dogs.  It’s a very focused movie and more of a tribute to the bond that forms between us and our dogs than a true war movie.  I really enjoyed it.

 

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Wonder Woman

It pains me to say this so I’m just going to spit it out first thing: I hated Wonder Woman.

The film opens with young Diana, the only child living in idyllic Themyscira, a secret island free of men, where all the women are trained to be warriors strong in mind and wonder-woman-movie-gal-gadotbody. Her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) is the fiercest of them all, the greatest warrior the Amazons have ever known, and she’s in charge of training. Though Diana’s mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) wants to protect her daughter and extend her childhood, Antiope teaches Diana in secret. Themyscira is hidden from mankind, but you never know when the enemy might arrive. Themyscira is lush and beautiful. Filmed on location in Italy, the production is fantastic. The opening scenes where the diverse population of Amazonian women are all training with Antiope are gorgeous. The fight choreography is top notch, with particular sequences slowed down to showcase athletic feats. But we all know utopia can’t last forever, and as soon as Diana (Gal Gadot) is grown, one man does penetrate their paradise: a pilot named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is shot down in their waters. Diana saves him from the wreckage but they’re pursued by Germans. An epic battle between Amazons and Germans unfolds on the beautiful beaches of Themyscira. The Amazons fight unlike anything anyone has ever seen, but the Germans are armed with guns and the Amazons suffer loss. Steve Trevor tells the women that the world is at war (WWI to be exact) and that millions of lives have already been lost. Aghast, Diana swears to accompany him back to where he came from so she can help bring peace, as is her sacred duty.

What did I hate so much about these first 20 minutes that sound so well crafted? I hated that it made me cry, and more than once. I wasn’t prepared to feel so emotional seeing Themyscira, a mythical land only for women, where all these badass ladies are just going about their business. I’ve never seen that on the screen before, and I thought: so this is what men feel when they watch a movie, when they see images of themselves being heroes. I felt proud, and moved. Each woman is highly capable and specialized but in WONDER WOMANbattle, there is no ego; they work together. The costumes are not sexualized as I feared, but instead they highlight muscular shoulders and toned legs. There can be no doubt that the Amazons are capable of truly anything. The fight sequences are among the best you’ve ever seen, the hand-to-hand combat precisely choreographed with as much grace as intensity. And it made me cry to see it. And I felt ashamed to cry, as a woman in 2017, ashamed that it’s taken this long to see a woman successfully take up the mantle of hero, and a woman behind the camera as well, capably directing a tentpole film. Patty Jenkins has so much unfair pressure placed on her shoulders but she’s made a movie that’s close to perfection, that far surpasses anything the DC Extended Universe has produced so far.

After such a soundly convincing start, I could relax and enjoy the rest of the film as intended, feeling confident that my entire gender wouldn’t be blamed if this movie was anything less than spectacular. It is fucking spectacular. Wonder Woman, though never called that in this movie, is a sight to behold. Gal Gadot is well-cast, which has proven to be of utmost importance in these franchises. We have to believe that she is a hero. Her comedic timing works just as well as her dramatic turns. And she’s got great chemistry with Chris Pine.

Wonder Woman is long overdue for a stand-alone movie as she is truly a phenomenal Chris-Pine-and-Gal-Gadot-in-Wonder-Woman-moviesuperhero. The action sequences in this film are among the best, a delight to watch, full of energy, strength and ferocity, as good and frankly better than the stuff we we’ve seen from other comic book movies lately. And arguably, the reason she’s so strong is because she welcomes her softer side. Believing in fighting honourably, while looking your enemy in the eye, Diana never picks up a gun. She runs toward machine guns with only a shield and her cuffs to protect her. And she fights from a place of love. Not duty, not fury, not patriotism or revenge. She fights because she loves. Male superheroes seem to think that love is a weakness, but Wonder Woman knows better: love is the greatest motivator you could ever have.

Bad Girl

Amy is a teenager, a “bad girl” who’s just returned home after some shadowy shenanigans to her adoptive parents who are willing to give her “one last chance.” They’re pretty sure she’s going to hate the new home they’ve bought in rural Australia and they’re right; she’s out the door and doing a runner almost immediately. But then she meets a local girl named Chloe who makes life a little more bearable, and her parents think this friendship is a positive thing.

bad_girl_h_0716.ad77b830223d2062af858dce36ad8abeThey’re all wrong on all counts. Chloe isn’t want she seems, and when Amy discovers her secrets she ends up not only fighting for her own life, but to keep intact the very same family that she’s up until now been eschewing. Seems like Chloe is the titular bad girl after all! Oh, teenage irony.

Fin Edquist writes and directs this twisty-turny thriller. There isn’t a lot to distinguish Bad Girl from other oeuvres in the genre but the performances from the two young lead actresses, Sara West and Samara Weaving, are pretty extraordinary. The film’s first half hour is a relationship drama made strong by their chemistry. They bond over their shared yearning for family, for identity.

The film’s visual approach is informed largely by the environment. Whether outside or in, they sky looms large, and often forbidding. The atmosphere of the film responds accordingly. A real sense of dread is cultivated in quieter moments, making the splashes of violence really pop against the austere background. Bad Girl is a genre film that just may surprise you.

 

 

Wild Oats

Eva is a grieving widow who doesn’t even get through her husband’s funeral before her daughter is reminding her of unpaid hospital bills and a home that isn’t worth much before significant sprucing. So can we really blame her when she cashes the 50K insurance cheque even though it’s accidentally made out for 5 million? Nope!

Eva (Shirley MacLaine) vanishes into the night with her friend Maddie (Jessica Lange), their eyes set on a luxury resort in Spain. Maddie is sick, her days numbered, and her Wild-Oats_poster_goldposter_com_2-702x336husband’s just left her for a secretary a fraction of her age. Eva’s been caring for her sick husband for a long time, so washes away her guilty feelings with generous dosages of mojitos and embraces the mistake, determined to live it up. These two chiquitas have nothing to lose so it’s all blackjack and boy toys until a) a dashing Billy Connolly enters the picture and b) the fuzz are on their tail. Well, not so much the fuzz as the insurance company trying to reclaim their losses, but you get the picture.

Is this a brilliant movie? No it isn’t. It’s kind of like Going In Style for old biddies, an adventure for senior citizens that’s exactly as predictable as you’d think. Lange and MacLaine are ludicrously charming but they deserve better material. They’re able to polish a few pieces of coal into diamonds thanks to their professionalism and gung-ho spirit, but for every high, there’s a low. I found it a perfectly inoffensive time-waster, but this movie will really only appeal to people who always wondered what How Stella Got Her Groove back would be like if Stella was an 84 year old white lady.

 

 

Asshole Ethics 101: would you cash the cheque, or report it?

 

Nina

Nina Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, was a tour de force. She was a classically trained pianist who studied at Julliard. She applied at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia but was rejected despite an excellent audition because of the colour of her skin. Never intending to sing, she was forced to in order to make a living being a musician of the non-classical variety, the only option open to a woman of colour. She played a blend of jazz and blues, folk and gospel, and probably more besides. She changed her name to avoid embarrassing her family now that she played “the devil’s music.” And she became an activist, an outspoken proponent of the Civil Rights movement. Her music had always spoken to her roots, but soon she incorporated political themes there as well. A beautifully angry song “Mississippi Goddam” written in response to the bombing of the Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama (that killed 4 little girls) particularly comes to mind, because how could it not? It’s spectacular and heart breaking. There was a great documentary made about her life not too long ago, but Nina is not a documentary, which means someone had to step into her shoes.

MV5BODk1NDY2MjcyN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzkzNzM2ODE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1502,1000_AL_Mary J Blige was originally cast but had to drop out. Nina herself had hoped that it would be Whoopi who’d portray her on screen. Instead director Cynthia Mort went with Zoe Saldana, and thus created a furor. With Dominican and Cuban ancestry, Saldana identifies as a black woman, but critics felt she was not black enough. Not black enough? The notion makes me queasy. But when Saldana said she was honoured to play Simone, the Nina Simone Foundation nastily replied “Dear Zoe, please keep Nina’s name out of your mouth for the rest of your life.”

Saldana’s talent is bigger than the criticism. She has a great voice, which you may have heard in The Book of Life, but no, she doesn’t sound like Simone. No one does. But she brings a lot of strength and dignity to the role, a mean feat considering the film focuses on the latter years of Simone’s life, which were turbulent to say the least. Mentally and financially unstable, Simone was committed to a psych ward, where she met a nurse she would later make her assistant, and then her manager. David Oyelowo plays the nurse. Biopics generally benefit from a narrow focus, but this one is perhaps unfair to her memory since Simone was so much more than just her struggles. See the documentary for a clearer picture of her life, but to see Saldana shine, this is one good role among many.

 

 

Two days before she died, the Curtis Institute of Music bestowed granted Simone an honorary degree.

SXSW: Atomic Blonde

I was sitting on the floor of the Austin Convention Center, waiting to get into the SXSW conversation between Nick Offerman and Nick Kroll when I got the news: Stella was gone. Out for a walk in the mountains near her Zurich home with her husband and her beloved Boxer, Odin, she slipped in some snow and fell 40m to her death. Just like that, one of the most vibrant women I’ve ever known, gone forever. Unfortunately I’ve had some experience with losing people unexpectedly, but that doesn’t make it easier. It’s unreal, incomprehensible. Sean held me tight as I fell apart in the middle of hundreds or thousands of happy festival-goers. I think Sean’s first thought was to get my soppy self back to the hotel room where I could grieve less publicly, but instead I found myself being filtered into the Nick Offerman thing, and then following my rigorous SXSW schedule, one thing after another: Bob Odenkirk and Fred Armisen, followed by Lemon, followed by Atomic Blonde. But it just so happens that the screening for Atomic Blonde ran late, and as I sat in an increasingly crowded theatre listening to a DJ spin some danceable 80s music, I had too much time to think, and my thoughts were filled with Stella, my own Atomic Blonde. This review is inadequately dedicated to her memory.

Atomic Blonde is a cross between James Bond and John Wick, except its protagonist, Lorraine (Charlize Theron), could kick both their asses without smudging her lipstick. Charlize made a splash as a kick-ass hero in Mad Max: Fury Road but this movie is pure Id, all sex and violence, with some 80s fashion and music thrown in for your hedonistic pleasure. Lorraine is an undercover MI6 agent sent to Berlin in the days before the Wall comes down to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and recover a important list containing the names of double agents.

James McAvoy plays David, a fellow agent who’s been in Berlin a little too long. Berlin is, of course, in a state of chaos. Everything is changing, everything is moving fast. Lorraine has basically been sent into an impossible situation, and she’s going to have to fight like hell just to survive, let alone fulfill her mission.

The fight choreography on this film is amazing. Full stop incredible. Director David Leitch co-directed the first John Wick (uncredited) and will direct the second Deadpool, but he got his start in stunt work in films like Blade, Fight Club, Daredevil, and The Matrix films. His action sequences, which are perhaps 80% of Atomic Blonde, are faultless but relentless. The actors are BRUTALIZED.  Charlize Theron had 8 trainers to prepare her for the role, and she trained alongside Keanu Reeves as he got ready for John Wick 2. Theron is fearless and dauntless. The violence is graphic and unending. The story, however, isn’t quite equal to it.

The story is retold during an investigation conducted by an MI6 officer (Toby Jones) and a CIA executive (John Goodman). They’re an odd couple good for a couple well-needed laughs, but it drags you out of the action and out of Lorraine’s flashy world where her slick 80s ensembles (big props to Cindy Evans for creating so many memorable looks) are an interesting juxtaposition to Berlin’s crumbling dumpster fire of a city. And the thing is, with a premise that’s almost silly in its duplicity, the action is really the justification for this movie’s existence. With long cuts and mind-numbing body counts, the fight design won’t disappoint action purists. But anyone requiring a satisfying story should maybe look elsewhere.

SXSW: Female Voices

It’s International Women’s Day so we’re looking at some of the strong female voices coming out of the South By SouthWest programming this year.

Valerie Weiss: we discovered her work for the first time at the New Hampshire Film Festival, where we saw and really enjoyed A Light Beneath Their Feet. This year she’s giving SXSW the world premiere of her new film, The Archer, about a high school archery champion called Lauren who’s stuck in juvenile correctional facility in the wilderness, after hospitalizing a boy in self-defense. After discovering some not-nice things about her prison and its warden, Lauren goes on the run…but getting away won’t be easy!

Katherine Fairfax Wright: billed as the director, editor AND cinematographer of Behind The Curtain: Todrick Hall, Wright is screening her new documentary about Hall’s ambitious attempt to stage an original musical called Straight Outta Oz about growing up gay and black in small-town Texas.

The Female Lens: Creating Change Beyond The Bubble is a panel about film’s unique ability to do just that, with female directors, writers, and actors all using their work to change the perception of women onscreen and off in real world ways. Jenny Slate, Danielle MacDonald, Gabourey Sibide, and Janicza Bravo discuss how films do (and don’t) alter perceptions of women across America.

Speaking of Janicza Bravo: she’s the director of Lemon, a movie about a middle-aged man who must admit he’s just a dud. The film stars Judy Greer, Brett Gelman, Michael Cera, Nia Long, Rhea Perlman, Gillian Jacobs, Martin Starr, and David Paymer, and I’m betting on it being worth a look.

Eleanor Coppola: Paris Can Wait may be her first fiction film, but she’s starting at the top, with Diane Lane and Alec Baldwin as a lacklustre Hollywood couple wherein the wife goes through a bit of a reawakening.

How Humor is Evolving the Body Positivity Movement is a panel that touches on how comedy has helped start a cultural conversation on the female body, and comedians like Phoebe Robinson and Gillian Jacobs use humour to bring awareness to women’s health and body issues, from miscarriage to mental health.

Alice Lowe: known for her work as a UK television comedy actress, Lowe made her move into film with her screenwriting debut Sightseers, directed by Ben Wheatley, and now she’s dipping her toe into the body horror\dark comedy hybrid genre with Prevenge, about a pregnant woman on a killing spree, with her unborn baby dictating her violent actions. Lowe also stars in Prevenge, which was filmed during her own ACTUAL pregnancy. Kick ass!

 

Things To Come

Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) is a philosophy teacher who takes pleasure in thinking and inner life. She’s a recent empty-nester with a rocky marriage and a demanding mother. If she were to suddenly be shed of all those ‘obligations,’ would it be tragic or frankly freeing?

The very plot of this movie, languid as it is, is a bit of a philosophical question: how to reinvent one’s life at every stage, even (especially) when you don’t have control over what’s happening. It’s a nuanced, detail-oriented portrait that offers lots of little observational gifts that rewards close attention.

Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things To Come (L’avenir) is about a woman who is 201609145_5_img_fix_700x700picking up the pieces of her middle age and trying to formulate some acceptable version of the future for herself. She’s disconnected from her youth and perhaps her old passions, but she’s not done, far from it. The film, and Huppert’s performance, has a stiff upper lip: she submits to a series of diminishments with cool detachment, but we watch as these changes slowly affect her relationships, even the one she has with philosophy.

Isabelle Huppert has had a busy year at the movies, and this film is proof positive as to why: she’s exceptional. Here she gives a performances that is restrained, wary, economical, but never closed off. She’s accessible even in her reserve. Her director, Hansen-Løve, is traditional but meticulous in her story-telling. Compositions are beautiful, editing is fluid, each frame simple and still. The focus is on Nathalie, who appears in nearly every minute of the film, as she grapples with change while trying to remain her stoic self. The film is about charting a new course, sometimes late into life, and the effect an uncertain future will have on a body. But at it’s most basic, Things To Come is about a woman still struggling with identity, and there is no actress better suited to the role that Huppert, who pulls off uncertainty with dignity and aplomb.

 

 

The Edge of Seventeen

Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, an awkward teenager. Scratch that. Make it a super awkward teenager. So awkward that I kept ducking behind my coat (the only thing available to be in the theatre), blushing, needing a buffer between myself and all the squirm-inducing goodness on screen.

Was I ever 17? I doubt it. I bet Nadine feels like she’ll be 17 forever though. The the-edge-of-seventeenawkwardness just goes on and on. To make matters worse, her brother Darian (Blake Jenner) has it easy: perfect skin, perfect grades, the perfect apple of his mother’s eye, and a perfectly terrible person to be compared to for the rest of your life. To make matters EVEN worse, Darian starts dating Nadine’s best friend (read: only friend), which means he’s getting all the comfort that used to be hers, and she’s forced to be at war with them both while still, you know, blundering her way through life and high school, with only an irascible teacher (Woody Harrelson) in her corner – and believe me, that’s a bit iffy.

Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig seems awfully comfortable behind the camera for a first-timer, but it’s the writing you’ll admire most. Nadine is largely unsentimental, and unsentimentally portrayed. You love her despite the fact that she’s a dumpster fire. She makes all the wrong decisions, usually in the most flamboyant way possible, and yet it’s impossible not to care. Maybe it’s that we can all find some small part of ourselves and our experience in Nadine, in her struggle just to survive a pretty delicate (read: embarrassing) edge_of_seventeentime in one’s life.

All of the performances are exemplary – even the adults have secrets and dimension. The ensemble works together in a very dynamic, authentic way that would be depressing if it wasn’t so funny. Craig’s writing is snappy and smart, and she manages to keep her protagonist’s unlikeability an asset to the film. It’s an observant film, and universal enough to exceed the confines of a teen movie and appeal to the awkward teenager in all of us.

Moana

Moana is the daughter of a chief of an island nation, destined to one day be a chief herself. Her father keeps his people land-locked, afraid of the ocean and 03748b7cd1294b61233c6165a16cb68bits violence. But Moana is called by the sea, and encouraged by her water-loving grandmother, she discovers that her ancestors were once voyagers who travelled the ocean in impressive “canoes” to find new islands to inhabit. With this in mind, she takes off on a self-taught sailing adventure to find the demi-god Maui and set things right for her ailing homeland.

Moana is a simpler story than Zootopia. It’s about a young woman who defies her father and follows her calling in order to be the leader and hero of her people. I’ve heard some people critique it as having less of a social message than the latter, but let’s remember that while Zootopia does have a subversive message about race, Moana is a Disney princess who happens to be a person of colour, and maybe that’s an even bolder statement about diversity than any bunny could hope to make. Moana, animation-boat-demigod-disney-favim_com-4688729like Lilo & Stitch before it, should be celebrated for being a Hawaiian movie that actually features Hawaiian people (I’m looking at you, Aloha).

Moana looks incredible. The marine influences are everywhere, colourful and wonderfully animated. And the songs are an absolute delight. As you may know, the guy responsible for the raging success that is Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is behind a lot of the lyrics and songs, but he shares credit with Opetaia Foa’i who provides a necessary and flavourful injection of Hawaiian influence that make Moana’s music distinctive and familiar. While perhaps not instantly hummable by 5 year olds the way Frozen was, I think Moana is a step up in terms of Disney’s moana3.jpgmusical ventures. Jemaine Clement, playing a oversized crab, sings a song called Shiny which sounds an awful lot like something Flight of the Conchords would have done, though it is indeed written by Miranda (and performed with a David Bowie flair by Clement). And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the little girl (14 at the time of recording) who voices Moana herself, Auli’i Cravalho, who has a powerhouse of a voice, rich and full, and sounds authentic in the role too. I’m very glad to report that Disney cast this movie using a plethora of Polynesian performers, and it really pays off.

Moana is a bit feminist in terms of Disney films: female wayfinders would have been extremely rare in the Polynesian culture since navigators typically read the swells of the ocean by sitting cross-legged on the bottom of their boat to feel the movement of the ocean in their balls. In the movie, she learns to moana-disney-princess-39692804-268-140read currents and measure the stars from the demi-god Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson. The animators do a really great job of bringing a few identifiable Johnson traits into Maui’s features, and Miranda carefully crafted a song that he could sing successfully, without having a traditional talent for singing (“You’re Welcome” is a heck of a song!). Maui’s body is covered in tattoos that represent acts of heroism, or particular challenges that he’s overcome. Unlike the rest of the computer-animated film, his tattoos are hand-drawn, and add an extra layer of fun to the story, as well as acting as his moral compass. Maui often pokes fun at tumblr_nzxjpmXSCt1u78wepo1_250.gifMoana’s insistence that she is “not a princess”, a self-aware bit of humour from a studio known for relying on certain formulas.

There’s a lot to like in Moana: she’s a plucky, courageous self-starter surrounded by a lush and magical world on which to feast your eyes. There’s even a tribute of sorts to Mad Max: Fury Road, if Imorten Joe’s army had been a lovely bunch of coconuts. That sounds odd, or impossible, but trust me. Moana doesn’t hold on to you the way a great movie might, but it’s sure to win over audiences this holiday season, and there’s not likely to be a better way to spend two hours with your family.

[Moana is preceded by a fun and vivacious Disney short called Inner Workings. It’ll remind you a little bit of Inside Out since it’s about one man’s struggle between head and heart. Inside Out was accompanied by a short called Lava, about an island volcano. Synergy! Read more about Inner Workings here.]