Tag Archives: strong female leads

Someone Great

Jenny has just suffered a soul-crushing breakup with forever boyfriend, Nate. After 9 years together, things end right before she’s about to move cross-country for a new job. Thank goodness for best friends Erin and Blair who are prepared to drop everything to grieve with her while celebrating one last night together, out in NYC.

A series of glowy flash backs convince us that yes, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez) and Nate (Lakeith Stanfield) were indeed great but the truth is, in mourning a boyfriend, this movie really celebrates girlfriends. Jenny, Erin (DeWanda Wise) and Blair (Brittany Snow) have a bond that’s outlasted all the other relationships in their lives.

Rodriguez, Wise, and Snow have terrific chemistry. Writer/director Jennifer Kaytin Robinson keeps things loose; it feels like the women spent time getting to actually know and like each other, rather than rehearsing. It feels real. It feels familiar, like they’re MV5BOWUyZTQ0MjEtNDRmMy00NDJiLWE4YjktNDk3MDBiYzQ2ZGEyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjM4NTM5NDY@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1499,1000_AL_tapping into the weird naturalness and closeness of our friendships from early adulthood. Things will change for them, I bet, and soon. I want to tell them to treasure the fuck out of these moments. In fact, these women are on the cusp. They’re nearing 30: careers are taking off, relationships are getting serious. Kids, suburbs, and neglecting our female friendships tend to come next. That sounds sadder than I mean it to because this movie is surprisingly upbeat and fun. So maybe time won’t get away on them, and maybe phone calls won’t go unreturned for months at a time, and maybe they won’t find themselves saying ‘We should get together soon’ and never quite making it happen. Maybe.

But that hasn’t happened to them yet! They’re still the most important people in each other’s lives, and on this night in particular, they are super duper there for each other and it’s marvelous.

Also: it has a pretty great soundtrack.

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Homecoming: A Film By Beyonce

Another sleepless night, Sean snoring beside me. Suddenly, around 5:30am, all the usual racing thoughts preventing sleep start to congeal into just the once: today is Beyonce day.

Beyonce has been Queen for a long damn time. She’s more Queen than the Queen of England, because that lady is a figure head and Beyonce is for real. Beyonce is not just a pop star, she is a cultural icon, more than her voice, more than her marriage, more than MV5BNWYwMTExOTAtNjVmYi00MWVjLTgzZWUtZTI0OTE3YTgwMjM3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjg2NjQwMDQ@._V1_her style and her fame and her talent. She was a successful, powerful black woman, her success and power being so seemingly limitless that they transcended gender and race. And at the height of that power, Beyonce claimed both her blackness and her womanhood in a way that was political, artistic, and impossible to ignore. Now we need a word that is somehow more than Queen, and maybe the only name worthy is Beyonce itself.

Homecoming is a documentary detailing Beyonce’s brilliant performance at last year’s (2018) Coachella. But just as that show was more than a concert, the documentary ends up being much more than a recording. It’s a testament. This is Beyonce clearly comfortable in her strength, and the evidence is written in her lyrics, in her stage presence, and all over the damn screen. We witness Beyonce the businesswoman, Beyonce the workhorse, Beyonce the mother and wife, the artist and creator.

After a 22 year career, Beyonce has a whole lotta laurels upon which to rest her world-famous booty. Her name alone is enough to have Coachella gagging. Which is to say: she does not have to work this hard. She’s working like she’s NOT the most famous woman in the world. But Beyonce wasn’t going to just bring her music to the festival – she brought her culture, and she gave it to the people. She worked for 8 months to deliver a powerhouse 2 hour performance.

Fan or not, it’s completely impossibly to tear your eyes away from this woman so fully owning her power. A woman who – dare I say it? – is feeling herself, and not apologizing for it. Not one bit.

Mary Queen of Scots

This is the story about the crazy relationship between two cousins, both queens. And the jealousy and the machinations between the two – one, the Queen of Scotland, who perhaps believed she should also be the Queen of England and everything else as well. But while this movie is obviously about politics, it’s more importantly a movie about gender politics.

Short history lesson:

Queen Elizabeth I was the daughter of King Henry VIII (the guy who liked to behead all his wives) and Anne Boleyn, who suffered her execution just two and a half years after her daughter’s birth. Their marriage thus conveniently annulled, Elizabeth was declared illegitimate, and when her father died, it was a half-brother, Edward IV, who claimed the throne. Not for long, though, and somewhere down the line, the crown did land on 25 year old Elizabeth’s head. Sometimes called the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I was probably not a virgin, but she never married, and she never bore a child.

Her cousin, Mary I, became Queen of Scotland when her father King James V died when she was just 6 days old. 6 days old! Regents, including her half-brother, ruled in her stead. When she was 6 months old, King Henry VIII proposed (eventual) marriage between her and his son and heir, Edward, thus uniting Scotland and England under one crown, but when Scotland protested, a war dubbed the “rough wooing” ensued. To protect their young Queen, 5 year old Mary was sent to live in France, where that King also decided to unite France and Scotland under one crown by betrothing his 3 year old heir to Mary. They married when she was 15; he became King of France and royal consort of Scotland, but he died shortly after and she went home to Scotland to finally, officially, sit on its throne (and marry twice more). By this time her cousin Elizabeth I was also on her throne over in England, but there were some sticky points in the wills and order of succession, and it was always a thorn in their relationship that perhaps Mary had a claim to that crown as well.

Back to the movie.

MV5BN2FjNmUxNDUtZWIxMy00MmI1LWJkMDMtOWQ5NzgwOWI3NDVkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) and Mary (Saoirse Ronan) are not that different. Elizabeth is said to have ruled by “good counsel,” relying on trusted advisors. History depicts her as moderate, cautious, and perhaps indecisive. Mary, on the other hand, was more forward, and clever, not that that stopped her own regents of plotting against her. She pushed Elizabeth to name her England’s heir presumptive. Elizabeth retaliated by proposing her trusted childhood friend as Mary’s next husband; Elizabeth felt she would be able to control him. Mary was too savvy to refuse outright but the relationship came to nothing.

Mary sought to strengthen her crown my marrying smart and creating alliances. And yet she understood that any man who married her would eventually try to steal her crown for himself. Still, producing a (male) heir would also strengthen her position, so marriage must be tolerated. Elizabeth, meanwhile, felt that marriage was too great a risk to her crown – that would only encourage plots against her. Of course she was expected to marry and produce an heir, but she refused.

The movie reminds us that in the 1500s, it sucked to be woman so much that even being the queen was not enough. Still the men would plot against you – your own sons, husbands, and brothers. Mary’s husband(s) and brother(s) both plotted against her. Her third husband was her second husband’s murderer, and her rapist. She was forced to abdicate in favour of her one year old son, James. Elizabeth, by contrast, ruled for 44 years, until her death. At which point the crown went to – yes, that’s right, it went to Mary’s son James. So this weird relationship exists between the two – they are sisters and rivals. No one else can understand this unique pressure to rule a kingdom as a woman with all the vulnerabilities that that entails.

While the movie may have benefited from a more focused approach to narrative, I found this endlessly fascinating and frustrating. I very much enjoyed the performances from both Robbie and Ronan, and I very much approved the race-blind casting. There are people of colour in the English and Scottish courts; this is a rather novel idea for a period film, but director Josie Rourke has a lot of experience in the theatre where this type of colour-blind casting is much more popular. As well it should be. We’re telling old stories, but those stories should be told by people representative of today.

I had not heard great things about this movie but I think people have just been watching it wrong. In 2019, women are still wondering if they can “have it all”: work, family, mental health, balance. In 1568, Mary and Elizabeth wondered if they could have it all: respect, religion, the freedom to marry whom they chose, agency over their own lives, and the ability to cut off each other’s heads if it came to it (and it always did).

 

Close

Zoe Tanner (Sophie Nélisse) is a beautiful young heiress, her father just having died and left her an enormous stake in a company she wants nothing to do with – and boy does her father’s widow, Rima, agree. Sam Carlson (Noomi Rapace), a counter-terrorism expert and bodyguard, is newly hired to be her close protection officer, but isn’t thrilled to be working for a spoiled little rich girl with mommy issues.

Director Vicky Jewson opens the film with a gripping scene: a gun fight erupts in the open desert of Morocco, and Sam and Zoe barely escape with their lives. Cue a Kate Bush cover and some stylish opening credits.

Sam and Zoe may  not particularly like each other, but a violent and persistent kidnap mv5bytjmy2m1zjytntq0mc00zjm2lwi0ztutntqxnwzkn2e4mmy4xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntc5otmwotq@._v1_plot will ensure that they depend on each other for survival. Zoe’s led a pampered life and is in the habit of sleeping with her bodyguards, but this time Sam is determined to teach her to fight back. And there’s no better time: though freshly bereaved, Zoe’s own stepmother Rima (Indira Varma) is more concerned with appeasing the shareholders than any rescue efforts. Not only are Sam and Zoe on their own in the middle of Casablanca, Rima may prefer if Zoe never returns since she’s a little bitter that her dead husband left the mining company to his spoiled daughter rather than to her.

Vicky Jewson is close to getting this right. Noomi Rapace gets us 90% of the way there of course, kicking butt, doing her own stunts, excelling in exactly this type of role. But Close just can’t live up to its bruised and battered star. It falls back on familiar action movie tropes and the action-filled pace doesn’t give itself a lot of room for exploring the interesting character developments that might have been. However, the movie is well-executed; Close looks and feels legit. So if you’re a fan of international thrillers or just strong female leads generally (this movie is inspired by real-life bodyguard Jacquie Davis), then you might just give this a chance.

 

 

 

 

All About Nina

Nina is an acerbic stand-up comedian who boasts on stage about not dating because it sounds a lot better than admitting the affair with the married cop who hits her (Chase Crawford). She barfs after every set. So it seems like the perfect time to flee New York and purse her dream in L.A. of landing  a role on Comedy Prime (an SNL stand-in).

Nina (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has some professional success there, but her personal life suffers – and we know it didn’t have far to fall from. For the first time in her life, she lets a good guy (Common) get close to her but she’s flailing. Her new roommates (Kate del Castillo, Clea DuVall) model a new and healthy way of living but Nina can’t reconcile it MV5BZTE4ZjUxODEtNmNmZS00ZWU5LWIzODgtNTU1MjNhNzM1MzNiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTY4NjI3Mzg@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_with her own life, and I’m not sure she believes she deserves that level of happiness anyway. In fact, the closer she gets to good things, the more she sabotages them. Ultimately she’ll have a bit of a meltdown on stage that results in a viral video of some powerful truth-telling that her audience may not be ready for. Just about the only thing that video doesn’t threaten is her strength.

Director Eva Vives pulls together a terrific female-forward ensemble (Angelique Cabral, Camryn Manheim, Mindy Sterling),  to achieve this thoughtful look at what it means to live an authentic existence, especially for a woman in 2018. As her new boss Lorne Larry Michaels (Beau Bridges) tells her, the audience only thinks it wants truth – in reality they need it to be heavily curated.

[This reminds me of the very best stand-up comedy I’ve seen this year – Hannah Gadbsy, who has a special called Nanette. It’s on Netflix. It’s spectacularly funny but also very raw and angry and honest, which makes it a breath-taking, astonishing piece of art. Seriously. You should watch.]

Nina’s passion is motivated by pain. We are certain that her anger is covering for something, but she allows so few cracks that we don’t easily find a way in. Mary Elizabeth Winstead has a long cinematic history of being wonderful and this performance in particular is a brave kind of perfection. It’s like watching a pot boil, with its own internal tension despite knowing what’s coming. Vives sets up these emotionally intense scenes and allows Winstead to smash them out of the park. All About Nina will live to its name. It distills all the frustrations and rage we have as women, every struggle we have between delicacy and strength, independence and cooperation, self-interest and support. It’s a messy road, but beautifully walked.

TIFF18: Gwen

It’s rainy, it’s dark, it’s 19th century Wales. There’s a noise outside. Gwen, a teenage girl, goes outside to investigate.

Don’t go out there, your gut yearns to shout. Years of horror movies have conditioned me. But out she goes.

MV5BN2Y0NDUyNTYtOWUyYi00ZmNlLWFjNmYtMWViNmIwYTVhZjMxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjAxODg3NzY@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,681,1000_AL_Gwen lives with her mother and younger sister. They have next to nothing – their makeup bags legit comprising of a pointy stick with which to prick their fingers and use the blood as blusher. Her father is absent, away at war. Her mother is mysteriously ill. Her neighbours are disappearing, one by one, a mining company encroaching on the land. But there’s also a darkness that comes knocking. Strange things are happening, inexplicable things.

Their sheep all get disemboweled. A heart, pierced through with nails, is left at their front door. Gwen’s mother is getting weirder by the minute, up to strange rituals after dark, and the villagers are getting antsy. And so am I!

Tonally, this movie reminds me a lot of The Witch. Creeping, ominous shots do more to drum up suspense than jump scares or actual gore. But in the shadows, everything feels threatening. Candle light is the scariest light, isn’t it? But even the weather is threatening. Even the isolation of the landscape is threatening! Every darn thing is scaring me and thee’s nothing I can do.

Maxine Peake, as Gwen’s mother Elen, is excellent. She’s unreadable, sinister, cruel, but with flashes of maternal instinct that leave you breathless. You watch the smile leave her face and it’s like watching the sun slowly dip down below the horizon, so incremental, so mesmerizing.

But it’s Eleanor Worthington-Cox as Gwen who’s the break-out star, named as one of TIFF’s 2018 Rising Stars, and with good reason. She struggles to keep her family together even as she too begins to suspect her mother of dark and unforgivable things.

Gwen is an atmospheric and beautifully shot film by William McGregor. Check it out if you dare.

 

[Side note: this film reminds me how much Cinderella has misled me about feeding chickens. Apparently a fistful of seed in the pocket of my apron is not sufficient. I wonder how many innocent chickens might have starved to death due to this negligent film making by Disney? And yes, I did focus on that in order to not lose my shit while watching a scary movie BY MYSELF. So sue me.]

TIFF18: American Woman

At first glance, Deb (Sienna Miller) is all-too-easily dismissed. She’s a former teen mom turned grandmother at 31. She’s a mistress whose hot date turns out to be a trip to a sleazy motel room, where she is handed a plastic bag containing either dollar store lingerie or a slutty devil halloween costume (same difference, really). The next morning, we see that she is waking up alone in her own bed, suggesting the motel room was paid by the hour.

At that point, we’re about five minutes into American Woman, and you’re ready to write Deb off.

But don’t. Don’t you dare.

AmericanWoman_02Because Deb is worth more than she even knows, which she stars to discover after her daughter fails to come home one night after a date with her basement-dwelling baby daddy.  A loved one’s disappearance must be life-shattering. Miller lets us see the dissapearance’s drastic effects on Deb in such a restrained and measured way that Deb’s resulting character growth is organic, believable, and most impressively, almost invisible at first. Deb’s evolution is captivating, and the Deb we know by the end of the movie is at once the same core character and a woman whose outlook and attitude have evolved beyond anything I could have ever expected.

I cannot overstate the magnificence of Sienna Miller’s performance in American Woman. She is magnetic and conveys a mix of strength and vulnerability that is as authentic a performance as I can remember. And while Miller is the standout, he excellence is almost always matched by the rest of the cast, including Christina Hendricks as Deb’s sister, Amy Madigan as Deb’s mom, and Mad TV’s Will Sasso as Deb’s brother-in-law. Deb is rightly the focal point but it’s great that the strong supporting characters each get the chance to shine.

The gauntlet thrown down by the cast’s fantastic performances is picked up by those behind the camera, and they are up to the task. Brad Ingelsby’s script is smarter than it has any right to be, discarding obvious answers on a regular basis, and showing off by giving effortless depth to secondary and tertiary characters (including turning an obvious villain into an earnest guy deserving of our sympathy). Director Jake Scott uses care and moderation rather than flash and sensationalism, particularly in a crucial scene at the film’s climax, proving beyond any doubt that less is more. Scott consistently makes brilliant choices even in small details, such as by using visuals and settings to indicate the passage of time, rather than title cards.

The result of all of this individual brilliance, naturally, is a standout character study that can hold its own against anything that TIFF18 has to offer (which I can say with certainty since I saw If Beale Street Could Talk and Roma on either side of it). American Woman is as smart, rewarding and satisfying a cinematic experience as anyone could ask for, making for a film that you absolutely do not want to miss.