Tag Archives: strong female leads

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.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

I never thought that Maleficent cried out for a sequel. The first one seemed to wrap up the story rather neatly: Maleficient, thought largely to be a villain, was actually just a fairy with a dark past, a magnificent wardrobe, a broken heart, and a slight hairpin temper. Inside, she was rather like a pussy cat. More or less. But all-knowing Disney thought there was more money to be made more story to be told, so it milked an old fairy tale for more malevolence.

When we left Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), it was generally understood that she wasn’t so terrible after all. Really kind of sweet, and fiercely protective of the little girl she’d raised as her own. Years later, it seems that message never penetrated the minds of the villagers down below who still fear her. Aurora (formerly Sleeping Beauty) (played in this series by Elle Fanning) has been prancing about barefoot in the forest as Queen of the Moors, home to all kinds of fairies and mythical creatures. Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) has continued to sniff about and likes the flower crown in her hair and her whole boho-chic vibe. He proposes and she accepts, and they’re pretty much the only two who are happy about it. Maleficent is mostly just concerned because she knows she won’t exactly be welcomed by “his kind.” And maybe she’s also a little sad to lose her precious goddaughter. His mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), makes it clear they’re on shaky ground with her as well. You can imagine how awkward the engagement dinner’s going to be. Or, no you can’t, because it’s next-level awkward. I won’t say it’s the reason that humans and fairies go to war with each other but it’s not not the reason, if you know what I mean. So if you thought planning your wedding with your in-laws was fraught, imagine the tension when both mothers are intent on destroying each other. I mean, the seating chart alone is going be bizarrely complicated when you need opposing armies at the same table.

Anyway, Sean thought Mistress of Evil was “not great” and overlong. And at 20 minutes longer than its predecessor, it’s hard to argue that point. It does take way too long to establish certain facts. But I thought the movie was “not that bad” (is she quoting herself there? Indeed she is). I enjoyed meeting all of the little woodland creatures, especially more of Maleficent’s ilk, including the lovely Chiwetel Ejiofor. But mostly I was there for Maleficent. Poor, dark, misunderstood Maleficent. Yes her black eyeliner is intimidating and her horns are slightly reminiscent of a Beelzebub type. That does’t mean she has a heart of darkness! Don’t judge a book by its brooding black cover. Not even when that book falls from a top shelf and caves in your skull. Err. Well maybe then. Anyway, I love Maleficent because I love Jolie in the role. She’s menacing and conflicted and vulnerable and powerful and it’s terrific to see her don the wings and the cheekbones again.

Does Maleficent: Mistress of Evil justify its existence? Not remotely. Jolie and Pfeiffer make an electric pair and it’s sort of wonderful to see two such formidable women square off so maybe that’s enough. And if it’s not enough, the incredible costumes by Ellen Mirojnick will more than make up the difference.

TIFF19: The Cave

Director Feras Fayyad has proven himself a bold and brave film maker with the multi-award winning Last Men In Aleppo. Although the Syrian crisis is so far the absolute worst atrocity of the 21st century, very little gets out besides shaky cellphone footage since so much is under constant siege. The Cave instantly sets itself apart.

Shot between 2016-2018 in Ghouta, a Syrian city near Damascus which faces near-constant bombing, the film takes us underground, to a secret network of tunnels filled with hungry, dusty-faced survivors. Underground we also find The Cave, which is what the people call their underground hospital. The Cave is low on supplies, some days lacking power, but it is brimming with resilience. The doctors there, mostly women, rely on each other to provide the camaraderie and the fortitude necessary to keep going in the face of such unimaginable, unabating conditions.

Dr. Amani is the hospital chief, a doctor of pediatrics who agonizes over her young patients. A little girl dying of cancer cannot be evacuated by Red Cross because of paperwork. Babies born in this subterranean unit fail to thrive and children arrive scrawny, malnourished – the medicine they need is food, but both medicine and food are scarce in a city so war-torn that neither can get in or out. Still, she takes a moment to connect with each child, and makes an effort to tell each little girl that they are born so they can live to be “something important” (a doctor, perhaps?), even though Dr. Amani still somehow faces constant sexism in her own work. Because no matter how grateful patients should be that there are any doctors left, any doctors willing to risk heartbreak, risk their lives to keep treating people every time a bomb falls or chemicals are released in the air, some of those patients will still use some of their last breaths on earth to berate her, telling her women should stay in the home. And still she saves them.

It’s a much more beautiful documentary than it has any right to be, both visually and thematically. Filmed in the rubble, in the darkness and debris and constant, choking dust, Fayyad manages some artful cinematography. But most remarkable is the dedication of these doctors who encourage each other and boost each other’s spirits in the face of harrowing hardship every single day.

TIFF19: Harriet

Harriet Tubman was born a slave named Araminta “Minty” Ross in Maryland. She suffered all the usual indignities and violence inflicted upon slaves, but one injury in particular left her with permanent brain damage, which gave her, as she described “premonitions from God.”

According to a legal will, she was supposed to have been freed long ago, but when she eventually went to plead with her owner, it wasn’t for her own freedom but that of her unborn child. She had married a freeman who visited her frequently, but he didn’t want to have a baby who would be born a slave, and I suppose you can guess how her masters answered her.

So that’s when Harriet got it in her head to run away. I mean, it must have been in every slave’s head every day of their lives, but finding the courage and the opportunity to do it was prohibitive. Runaways were brought back and tortured before being put to death, to set an example for others. It would have been a powerful motivator for staying put, to say nothing of having to leave behind your loved ones. Of course, when your loved ones can be sold away without notice, it is perhaps not such a big risk after all.

At any rate, Harriet did leave one night, alone. She traveled to Philadelphia on foot, 145km, evading slave catchers and bounty hunters, hiding by day, guided by the north star at night. Eventually she made it to freedom: she survived.

In the film, Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) arrives in Philadelphia and meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), a member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and conductor on the Underground Railroad. He is a meticulous record-keeper and Harriet’s is but one of many, many entries in his logbook. She then meets Marie (Janelle Monae), a black woman born free, who owns the rooming house where Harriet lives. Marie teaches Harriet a different kind of life. Of course, posing as a free woman is an improvement, but not exactly without risks or complications. People are still looking for her. Harriet could spend her whole life looking over her shoulder. But she doesn’t.

Instead, Harriet chooses not only to look back, but to go back. To rescue family, friends, and in fact dozens if not hundreds of strangers. To go back for others, and free them as well. If it’s hard enough to understand how someone could endure so much pain and torment, and then find the courage to escape, it’s darn near impossible to picture the kind of person who would risk it all to go back. But she does.

In fact, she went back 13 times over a period of 11 years, though each trip only put her more at risk. She became an esteemed conductor on the Underground Railroad, never having lost a soul on her midnight runs. Every successful conductor had a network of friends and allies, and though some were white abolitionists whose participation was a great risk, there were also many black people along her route who risked much more but did it anyway.

It’s about time someone put Harriet Tubman up on the big screen for all to admire, and director Kasi Lemmons seems to understand the weight of her responsibility. The incredible thing is, she chooses to do it without the usual trappings of the slave film. Of course, those are largely understood by now, and their threat is still heavily felt. Instead Lemmons focuses on Harriet’s repeated runs, and though their repetition does make each one feel less of a thrill, their sheer number begins to impress. Harriet is not a slavery movie. Harriet is a freedom movie. It is a showcase for resilience, and hope. It’s also a reminder of the kind of impact one single person can have.

To that end, Cynthia Erivo shines as its star. Harriet may not be a complete biopic, but it is a fascinating origin story for one of history’s greatest super heroes. If Erivo isn’t talked about at Oscar time, it would be a crime.