Tag Archives: strong female leads

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.

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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.]

The Runaways

The Runaways is a biopic-ish film about the rise and fame of all-girl rock group of the same name. The film’s script is based on Cherie Currie’s memoir, and is produced by Joan Jett. Unsurprisingly, the film mostly focuses on these two women, Currie on the mic and Jett on rhythm guitar. Lots of other ladies came and went – most wanted nothing to do with the movie, and their parts are fictionalized.

Curie (Dakota Fanning) and Jett (Kristen Stewart) were pioneers, therunawaysand came together under the influence of scuzzy manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon). Like any respectable rock band of the era, they eventually combusted, but not before releasing four albums in as many years. They never made it huge in North America but had some crazy success in Japan for a while, where their sound and aesthetic were appreciated.

The movie is just okay. The leads are phenomenal, stylish and electric performances from both Stewart and Fanning (and Michael Shannon is stellar, as always). But the “biopic” aspect is less bio,832729701403947af2c28f14dac46933 more pic. It barely scratches the surface. We don’t get to know anyone, and at any rate, Joan Jett’s post-Runaways life and music is where the real meat is. That said, it’s a clichéd ride about sex, drugs, and rock & roll, but it’s one worth watching to see Dakota Fanning get salty and Stewart own the role of rock’s first goddess. But it’s a condensed version featuring some character composites. The only member of the band besides the two front ladies that is touched upon is that of Sandy West, the drummer, but by the end they don’t give a shit about her, forgetting her in the title cards. She’d died before production began. Pesky cancer. The Runaways were revolutionary, a band about self-empowerment, but not all selves are created equally.

Equity

equity-is-such-a-good-wall-street-movie-you-almost-forget-that-all-the-characters-are-womenEquity is a cold, unblinking look at Wall Street’s backrooms, through the eyes of a female dealmaker who’s trying to recover from a failed transaction. Her client’s shares traded too low during the initial public offering, and now she’s got a target on her back. Equity throws us into the immediate aftermath and we watch her as she tries to save her career by putting together a bigger, better deal.

Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) is well cast as the investment banker protagonist. She is cold, smart, and driven, a shark among fish. She never backs down from anyone, and gets us to root for her character without being particularly endearing or warm. That is Equity’s strongest trait: it gets us to respect both Gunn’s character and her antagonist, federal prosecutor Alysia Reiner, without resorting to familiar gender stereotypes for wither character.

equity-2If you have at least a passing interest in finance, Equity’s story will draw you in and keep your attention until the end, avoiding most cliches throughout, at least when it comes to the main females. The male supportung characters fare less well, as they are all thinly sketched stereotypes (e.g., sexist boss, backstabbing boyfriend, and frat boy internet sensation). It is refreshing, though, for women to be the most compelling and realistic characters for a change.

Equity is no more or less than a Wall Street drama. It is a well-done addition to the genre, but feels somewhat constrained by its chosen niche. With that said, I appreciated that Equity unapologetically shows that women can be just as ruthless as men and shouldn’t be held to a higher standard based on outdated conceptions of femininity or motherhood. I also liked that the writers did not force a tidy resolution on the audience (which may be tied to the fact that a spun-off TV show is in development).

In the end Equity intentionally leaves the audience cold, but the challenge to gender stereotypes sticks even as the story beats start to fade from memory. I’d count Equity as a success thematically, and it’s entertaining to boot. In financial terms, it’s not a career defining deal but it’s still one that deserves handshakes and high fives all around on closing.

A Woman, A Part

Maggie Siff (Sons of Anarchy) plays Anna, a woman who wanted nothing more than to become an actress all of her life, and left her friends in the lurch in order to pursue her dreams. Now a successful TV actress, she hates her life. She’s disillusioned with her career. She wants out. But her contract says 5 more years. Burned out, she retreats to the last place she really felt engaged: New York City, where her friends have moved on and her famous face isn’t quite welcome.

It turns out that things are a little more complicated than she imagined: Oscar a_woman_a_part_john_ortiz_maggie_siff_cara_seymour_photo_by_chris_dapkins(John Ortiz), an ex lover, is married with a kid, though his relationship isn’t rock solid. He’s excited to have Anna around again, but you wonder if it’s real friendship he’s after, or the attention she can bring to his flagging career. A play wright, he’s got one ace in the whole: a new script he’s developed that revolves around a character that very closely (and unflatteringly) resembles Anna. Kate (Cara Seymour) is more reluctant to see her old friend. Is it because of the betrayal, or something else?

These three make a very complex and compelling little story that unfolds around more general themes of addiction, gentrification, sexism, burnout, and friendship.

Director Elisabeth Subrin’s appropriately looks at women in the entertainment industry, and the demands and expectations that constrain them. As the title suggests, Anna is not merely the part she plays, but seems to have trouble extricating herself from that notion. Who is she outside of Hollywood? A simple change in geography is clearly not the answer.

A Woman, A Part works best as a critique of the film industry, a theme that resonates all the more when you factor in Siff’s own most famous role (as the a-woman-a-partgirlfriend on Sons of Anarchy), which registers a double impact for every blow the film lands. Literally seen swimming amid a sea of scripts containing empty female parts, Siff is every female actress of a certain age searching for meaningful work. Anna’s opposite, Nadia (Dagmara Dominczyk), has given up her own work to be the rock of her family; her husband, Oscar, depends on her to be the stable one at home. But Nadia doesn’t want to be the rock anymore – “the rock is boring” she says, a line many of you will want to high-five because women are more than just someone else’s support (note to Jax!).

There are no big dramatics here, but a respect for the characters and their flaws, and the space for some talented actors to showcase those nuances. It’s a small film that explores not just Gender as a general theme but on an intimate scale as one woman tests her own self-perception.

 

 

Queen of Katwe

I was leery of this movie – I was leery of a Disney version of Africa, which I didn’t have the heart to see. I was worried they would polish over the poverty and we’d get some “family friendly”, watered down version.

Luckily Mira Nair is sitting in the director’s seat, and I have great confidence in her ability to paint a portrait that is beautiful in its truth. And in fact, Queen of Katwe is beautiful, and it doesn’t shy away from the less desirable side of nullAfrica. The whole point of this film is rooted in poverty. A chess club is started in Katwe because of poverty – because mothers are too afraid of medical expenses should a child break a bone during soccer. So a board game is just more appealing. One of the big draws in getting the children to come in and learn the game is that the chess is served up with a free cup of porridge.

Phiona is poor even in comparison to these other Katwe kids in the chess club. She is being raised by a single mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and helps earn income by selling corn in the streets. But it turns out that Phiona might just be a prodigy – she’s certainly learning faster than anyone expected and quickly outpaces her other competitors, even her teacher. She lobbies for literacy just so she may read chess books in her spare time. Her mother sells possessions for a little extra lamp oil to burn at night so that Phiona may study.

The kids are enthusiastic about their first away tournament playing “city kids” until they get a look at them – poised, clean, well-dressed, book smart. The little Katwe kids are swiftly intimidated, many giving way to hives and hyperventilation. Their coach (David Oyelowo) knows how to steady them, and their superior chess skills carry the day. Phiona is particularly talented, good nullenough to represent Uganda internationally. As she begins to win, and to travel, she glimpses the life that could be hers if her chess game complies. But now that she’s playing not just to win, but to change her life, and support her family, it’s a lot of extra pressure any little girl’s shoulders.

Mira Nair does a wonderful job bringing Katwe to life. Even the slums are vividly rendered with colour and energy. Yes the story hits familiar beats but Nair bolster’s the film’s predictability with strong performances anchored to weighty characters.

Oyelowo as Coach Katende is as good as he always is, radiating a warmth with maybe a touch of twinkle in his eye, but he knows his role is to prop up the strong women in the cast. Lupita Nyong’o gives a heart-breakingly restrained performance as a young widow who knows her kids are sometimes going to bed hungry. She so carefully balances the fear of the unknown and a mother’s strong will to keep her kids safe with this siren call of a better life that she herself can’t comprehend. She refers to herself as an “uneducated woman” but that only serves to reinforce how fiercely smart she is, whether or not she can read. The film doesn’t talk down to or look down on anyone. Nyong’o is so sensitive in her portrayal it really elevates the whole film. Madina Nalwanga, though, is the revelation. She’s the unknown cast by Nair to star as Phiona. Despite having never acted, she clearly has the grace and poise to make this her career, and it has to help that though Madina escaped the slums with dance rather than chess, her story is eerily similar to Phiona’s.

Queen of Katwe would feel a lot like any other underdog tale, except for its setting. Nair makes sure that Africa comes alive. A small girl reduces chess to this: “a small one can become a big one.” Chess is still fairly boring to watch, on film and in person I’m sure, but when you give it such a strong parallel to their lives – where the small can become big, where the Queen is most powerful, it starts to strike a chord. Is it unabashedly feel-good? Yes, it is. But isn’t it nice to have such a positive story out of Africa for once?

The Meddler

A widow moves across the country to be with her only daughter. It sounds trite and cliched and we’re only one sentence in. Hold up. Does it help if I tell you that Susan Sarandon and Rose Byrne play the mother and daughter? It should. Keep reading.

In fact, The Meddler may very well be tale as old as time. After her husband’s death, themeddler_trailer1Marnie has a little bit of money and an awful lot of time, so she packs up her New Jersey home and finds herself a condo in L.A. where her daughter Lori writes for television. Marnie’s California awakening is intoxicating. She loves all the things that most of us hate about L.A. But shopping at The Grove and volunteering only fill up so many hours. The rest are spent calling or visiting her daughter. Her daughter is not impressed.

Marnie calls Lori when a new Beyonce song comes on the radio. She calls her when she hears about a serial killer roughly in the area. She calls her when Lori hasn’t called her back, and she calls her again when that one isn’t returned either. Then she texts. Then she knocks on the door with bagels. Or doesn’t knock but just comes in.

Small cracks in Marnie’s Positive Polly act surface: she’s grieving and trying hard not to show it. And she’s achingly lonely. So when Lori suggests that her therapist has meddler_xlargeencouraged her to set boundaries with her mother, Marnie sees the therapist herself. And when that doesn’t go as expected, she finds other people to mother, like the ‘genius’ she overuses at the Apple store, and a friend of her daughter’s who’s more receptive to advice and well-intended intrusiveness.

 

None of these really get to the heart of her pain though; her meddling is just a bandaid on her very wounded heart. She isn’t prepared to be alone so early in her golden years. She feels guilty about an inheritance that feels like blood money. And the only person who understands her grief is the daughter who’s pushing her away. Marnie wants to hold Lori close because her daughter is a piece of the husband she’s missing, but Lori needs distance from the mother who only reminds her of her father’s absence. The disparity is heart-breaking.

The Meddler is a very interesting meditation on grief and the various ways it’s expressed. The movie is marketed as far fluffier than it is, however with Susan Sarandon in the lead, there’s a lot of joy and laughter mixed in with everything else. She gracefully navigates between the bubbles of emotion as they rise to the surface. The writing is stronger as a drama than as a comedy but Sarandon is talented with any material, and lights the way with her stunning luminescence.