Tag Archives: strong female leads

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, idealogy, 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.

Banana Split

When something is billed simply as a “Dylan Sprouse comedy,” you adjust your expectations accordingly. Many people will know Dylan and his twin brother Cole as the stars of Disney channel’s The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. I am not those people. Since I’m old as fuck, I know them as the kids who played opposite Adam Sandler in Big Daddy. They’re grown up now, arguably too grown up (28) to be playing a high school student, but in the great tradition of Hollywood, it is what it is.

A happy surprise though: this is not a Dylan Sprouse comedy. He’s in it, but he’s not exactly the focus.

An even happier surprise: though this is the second movie about high school sweethearts headed for college on opposite coasts released by Netflix this weekend, Banana Split is a lot more palatable than The Kissing Booth 2.

April (Hannah Marks) and Nick (Sprouse) have spent their last two high school years as a couple, half of it desperately in love and in sync, and the latter half bickering and growing apart. Still, it’s a blow when they’re accepted to schools so far apart. They break up, and it seems their last summer at home will be spent in separate corners, licking wounds, mending hearts, and sharing custody of mutual friend Ben (Luke Spencer Roberts).

But Ben throws an unexpected wild card into the mix: Clara (Liana Liberato). Clara and April hit it off immediately. They’re kindred spirits, destined for instant best friendship. Clara is the sunny antidote to April’s funk. There’s just one little wrinkle: April’s not the only one to fall for Clara. So does Nick. Nick and Clara are dating, so to preserve the friendship between the two women, they agree on some rules, mostly consisting of not talking about Nick, and not telling Nick about their relationship.

It works for a while. But more importantly, the story works. It works because the script is good. While The Kissing Booth 2’s characters are the exact same age, their antics are fairly juvenile, the film aimed a much younger target audience. Banana Split, however, is much saucier, and comes with an R rating. I always have a soft spot for teenage girls who talk like salty sailors because I was one, and I get them. I get bonding over rap lyrics and driving tests and the mysteries of corned beef (I have LITERALLY ranted about corned beef my whole life. Corned beef? Exactly how is something corned and why on earth would you want it to be? Diiiiiiisgusting).

Anyhow, this movie caught me off guard. Marks wrote it along with Joey Power and gives it an authentic flavour. This may be a Gen Z comedy, but April and Clara’s friendship is timeless and I love a script bold enough to write toward it and not treat it like it’s the side piece. Bravo.

Queen & Slim

When I get pulled over by the cops, I don’t ever worry about getting shot.  And that’s not because I am polite or non-threatening or have no criminal record.  It’s because of the colour of my skin.  It is a privileged position to occupy and I didn’t earn it, I just have it.

Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and  Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) don’t have that same privilege, because their skin is darker than mine.  When they get pulled over driving home after their first date, the cop is immediately suspicious, belligerent and demanding.  Slim is ordered out of the car, required to pop his trunk, and when he asks the cop to hurry it along, has a gun pulled on him as he is told to get on the ground.  Worse, when Queen jumps out of the passenger side and slowly and louQueenandSlimdly announces she is going to record this confrontation with her cell phone, the cop shoots her.  Slim goes for the gun and in the ensuing struggle, the cop is accidentally killed, instantly turning Queen and Slim into two of America’s most wanted.

Could Queen and Slim have done things differently?  Sure they could have.  There probably was a scenario where their lives and the cop’s life went on as normal.  But this isn’t that story.  Queen & Slim is about the repercussions of the traffic stop gone wrong, and its greatest strength is making the chase relatable to someone who wouldn’t necessarily make better choices but by reason of his skin colour would likely face very different consequences for any mistakes he made (and probably no consequences at all).

Screenwriter Lena Waithe delivers a believable situation and sympathetic characters.  She also does well to detach the public portrayal of Queen and Slim from their actual personas.  They did not ask to be outlaws and they did not choose to become fugitives.  Those were the only choices they were left with after a cop accidentally got shot.  It helps immensely that we get to know Queen and Slim, ever so briefly, before their fateful confrontation with an overly aggressive cop.  We get to see how the chase is framed from the outside while also seeing that there are not two sides to this story, that the lazy media narrative framing these two as cop-killers is more than just wrong, it is dangerous.

Left unsaid, but hanging in the air to digest afterward, is the question of how many more times does this sort of thing have to happen in real life before our society stops arguing over whether there is a problem and starts working together to fix it.   The biggest strength of Queen & Slim is that Waithe doesn’t shy away at all from the underlying social issues but manages, above all else, to be a compelling love story about two people who just wanted a chance at a second date.

Birds Of Prey

This is the Harley Quinn that Margot Robbie deserves. That we all deserve, really, away from the male gaze and into the capable hands of director Cathy Yan, writer Christina Hodson, and with Robbie herself producing.

Harley to Black Canary: “Do you know what a harlequin is? A harlequin’s role is to serve. It’s nothing without a master. No one gives two shits who we are, beyond that.” Harley Quinn has broken up with her on-again-off-again longtime love, the Joker, this time for good. Without him as an anchor, she knows she’s vulnerable. Under his protection, no one could touch her, but it turns out she’s accumulated quite a few enemies, and now that she’s untethered, they’re gunning for her. Number one on her tail: a guy who calls himself the Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), who seems to think of himself as a rival to the Joker, though he styles himself more like a Miami Vice drug lord. He does have a bit of a fetish for peeling people’s faces off, though, so don’t go underestimating him. The only way Harley can keep her keister safe is to find the missing diamond he and literally every bad guy in Gotham would like to get their greedy paws on.

In Harley’s sparkly shoes, Robbie proves she can make this role her own, and without her emo boyfriend in tow, Harley Quinn is actually an interesting character in her own right. Her origin is glossed over with a couple of smartly and quickly tossed lines; the rest of the film is devoted to amped up action sequences. Yan doesn’t just have some tricks up her sleeve, she’s got entire confetti cannons up there, glitter bombs and rainbow grenades. Her violence is slick and beautiful, set to a perfect array of pop tunes you’ll be stomping your feet to even as someone one screen’s getting their skull caved in.

I’ve seen far too many reviews mention ‘female empowerment’ (of course in a derogatory manner, eye roll) and I can only assume those people are a) men and b) morons. Did anyone refer to the Avengers movies as ‘male empowerment”? No? Yeah, didn’t think so. Birds of Prey is better than 99% of the other DC movies released in the last decade, and if it happens to star women, well, so be it. This is not about female empowerment, it’s about empowered females, women with their own agency, women who can save themselves and best their male antagonists. The only thing being fetishized here is a breakfast sandwich. Feel threatened by that? Maybe you could do with a little male empowerment yourself. I believe the Batman franchise was built on the theory of overcompensation.

Meanwhile, Robbie has built herself a fearsome army: Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Perez, and even young Ella Jay Basco. And none of them are rolling around on the ground crying about mommy Martha.

Can’t get enough? We’ve got more thoughts on Birds of Prey here.

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.