#52FilmsbyWomen

REVIEW: Schumacher (2021)

Documentary about seven-time Formula 1 champion Michael Schumacher.

Formula 1 is not a sport I follow or know a lot about but it’s hard to not have at least heard of Michael Schumacher. It’s a name and person I was always aware of growing up as he first raced in the F1 a month before I was born and I remember seeing his ski accident featured in the news. Really that sums up my knowledge of Michael Schumacher before watching this documentary.

I found Schumacher to be really interesting and engaging. The balance between talking heads, voiceovers from various industry professionals and those who know Michael Schumacher, and archival footage was great. The filmmakers had a good understanding of when to let the footage speak for itself; whether that was a montage of photos and clips of Schumacher with his family, or letting key races play out.

The documentary seemed to balance the story of Schumacher the man outside of F1 and Schumacher the driver. It’s clear that they were very different people and while he was focused and put his all into both aspects of his life, his competitiveness when it came to racing was almost unparalleled. You get to see the highs and lows of his racing career and included are the times where he was probably in the wrong when it came to altercations with some of his opponents but it was clear that he’d never apologise for such things as in some ways it was almost like anything goes when on the track. Hearing David Coulthard talk about their relationship on and off the track especially highlighted Schumacher’s competitive-streak.

The documentary shows how Schumacher got into racing from humble beginnings of go-kart racing to almost pure chance that got him into his first F1 race. From there you see how talented he really was and how he loved a challenge. It was like as well as winning Championship titles, what he wanted to do was win them in ways other drivers hadn’t. Sometimes that meant going with teams and cars that were the underdogs – proving that while others may have a faster car, if Michael Schumacher was behind the wheel of a bad car it didn’t mean all was lost.

The skiing accident is mentioned briefly towards the end of the documentary and while you can make assumptions on Schumacher’s condition based on the thing’s family members say, it’s clear that the family is firm in keeping their private life private and the filmmakers respect that. At one point his wife Corrina says how before the accident and during the height of his fame Michael kept his private life private and now his family are committed to do the same.

I feel that Schumacher is one of those great documentaries that is enjoyable and interesting to both those who are fans of or are knowledgeable about the subject matter, and for complete novices (like me). It’s an engaging and thoughtful documentary about both Michael Schumacher the family man and Michael Schumacher the F1 driver and seems to cover both sides of his life with respect. 4/5.

REVIEW: Black Widow (2021)

After the events of Captain America: Civil War Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run but soon her past catches up with her as she’s reunited with her sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) and learns that the Red Room she thought she’d long destroyed is still active.

After all this time Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow finally gets her own movie. While I’m certainly pleased that the character, and Scarlett Johansson who has more than a decade with this character, has finally gotten their time to shine, as a film it also feels a bit redundant. Having it set between the events of Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War means that there’s no real stakes for Natasha as we know we see her again. However, while her physical safety may be assured, Black Widow does allow more time to examine her psyche and she a few other characters certainly go through the emotional ringer – whether all those emotional beats land is another matter.

The fight sequences are great and having so many aerial shots make the movements seem fluid and helps these scenes standout more compared to other fight sequences in the MCU. The initial confrontation between Natasha and Yelena who haven’t seen each other for decades is a highlight. There’s the usual big explosions and car chases but it’s the one-on-one fight sequences which are the best and highlight how Natasha differs to her fellow superheroes.

With Natasha unable to turn to her Avenger family, she is forced to reconnect with a family from her past. Her dynamic with Yelena is interesting as while Yelena is clearly a more than capable spy and combatant, Natasha quickly falls back into the older sister role. Alexei (David Harbour) is the only Russian super soldier and Melina (Rachel Weisz) round out this family unit as the slippery scientist who you’re never quite sure where her allegiance lies. There’s an easy chemistry between the four actors but Florence Pugh steals just about every scene she’s in. Her Yelena is sarcastic and funny but she’s also hurting from her own experience in the Red Room. She’s also struggling to compartmentalise what this family unit means as she was so young when they were last together and to her, while it was a family of spies and double agents, it felt real.

Black Widow is a simpler MCU film. It’s Natasha facing her past and while the hundreds of Black Widows out there can certainly cause a lot of damage, it’s not framed as the end of the world type scenario. Instead, it’s about saving these young women from a life of trauma and control. However, the idea of the Red Room and these young girls being trained, and even brainwashed, to become master spies and assassins is a dark one and Black Widow never really goes into it more than at the surface level. Natasha’s past is dark and while Johansson does a good job at slowly revealing the layers of Natasha’s guilt and pain and love that’s all mixed together with her feelings for the Red Room and this unconventional family of hers, it often feels like something is missing.

Black Widow is an enjoyable action/spy thriller and there’s some good character work for Natasha and Yelena. While characters like Alexei are fun when they’re on screen (he’s much of the films comedic relief) they’re not particularly memorable afterwards. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Broken Hearts Gallery (2020)

Lucy (Geraldine Viswanathan) can’t help but hoard past mementos from failed relationships, but after her latest breakup with her first proper Grown Up boyfriend Max (Utkarsh Ambudkar) her best friends convince her to start to try and let go of the past. In doing so, Lucy beings to curate an art space dedicated to past relationships with the reluctant help of wannabe hotel owner Nick (Dacre Montgomery).

The Broken Hearts Gallery doesn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of romcoms but what it does do his hit all the needed romcom beats very well and has a load of charm and a fantastic leading lady in Geraldine Viswanathan. Viswanathan is very funny, and she is the glue that holds this film together. She does a great job of showing the different sides to Lucy and make her sympathetic and believable. Plus, Viswanathan and Montgomery have great chemistry as their verbal sparring goes from friendly to flirty as they get closer.

The Broken Hearts Gallery works because it’s never cynical about romance or the type of genre film it is a part of. Yes, Lucy is a hopeless romantic and Nick is more closed off, but there’s something both satisfying and melancholy about the message of letting go to past relationships. That ability to be able to remember but also move on is important in the breakdown of any relationship, romantic or otherwise. Lucy curates this space in order for her to try and let go and it ends up snowballing into something so much bigger than she could imagine – because she’s not the only one who struggles with the what ifs and maybes.

Besides the romance aspect of The Broken Hearts Gallery, one of the key aspects of both Lucy and Nick’s lives are their friendships. Lucy lives with Amanda (Molly Gordon) and Nadine (Phillipa Soo), one whose been in a relationship for six years and the other that leaves behind a string of broken-hearted models. How they each think of love and commitment is different but then their friendship is so strong. They aren’t afraid to call each other out on their issues but they’re also very protective of one another and their dialogue, while full of quips and not particularly realistic, is often very funny. While it doesn’t get as much screen time as the girls’ relationship, Nick has Marcos (Arturo Castro), a friend/employee and his wife Randy (Megan Ferguson) and their relationship is often both funny and awkward.

The Broken Hearts Gallery is sweet, funny and heart-warming. It’s a film that’s made to put a big smile on your face and has relationships that are full of chemistry – platonic and romantic. It’s just a delightful film that makes you feel better if you’re feeling down. 4/5.

REVIEW: The 8th (2020)

The 8th tells the story of Irish women and their fight to overturn one of the most restrictive laws on abortion in the world. After a 35-year struggle the pro-choice side have to radically shift tactics to try and bring this historically conservative electorate over the line.

Living in the UK and having Irish friends via social media I remember hearing about the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment. Though I had no real idea of the real-world implications of such an amendment, that put the rights of the unborn the same as any living human’s rights – meaning the unborn had more rights than the pregnant woman, often even if her health was at risk. Seeing this documentary really highlights how passionate people were on both sides of the argument, and the different ways they’d go to try and get their message out there.

Ailbhe Smyth, a feminist and campaigner, is one of the main people the documentary follows. She’s one of the prominent figures in the Yes campaign and through her and the team’s various members, from door-to-door campaigners to the core organisers and communications specialists, you see what their plans were and how they implemented them. The other main person on the Yes campaign the film follows is self-described glitter-activist Andrea Horan. She is the owner of a nail bar and shows what it’s like when a “normal, not political person” gets into politics and behind a cause. She can mobilise young women in a way that other may not be able to and she shows that you can be interested in makeup and nails while still being passionate about women’s rights.

As a documentary The 8th is a mixture of talking heads and in the room-type footage. What’s interesting is the talking heads all are from before and during the campaign, so these people don’t know which way the vote will go and are basing all their thoughts on what was currently happening in the campaign. With hindsight this makes some of their observations quite amusing.

Maria Steen, a journalist who is supporting the No Vote, does make a good point. She believes that culture and society should change so that women don’t feel they have to have abortions if they want a career, that the working environment and social services should be more inclusive so that women can be supported when having children and that their careers aren’t negatively affected by having children. In an ideal world this would be the case, and she and everyone else who believes that should continue to fight for that, but until society is fairer, women need to be able to have access to safe and legal abortions so that they can make the choice about their bodies and their future safely.

Not only does The 8th cover the run up to the voting day, but it also includes past events in Irish history that are to do with women’s reproductive rights and how various cases have gained support from the people before. One example is of a fourteen-year-old girl who was raped by a schoolfriends father. She and her family were banned from flying to the UK for an abortion, something that all pregnant women who were seeking an abortion – no matter the reason – would have to do in order to have one safely. There was outcry because how on earth is the foetus have more rights than the living, breathing child that was raped?!

The 8th is a rousing and passionate documentary. While it does it’s best to show both sides of the debate, it’s clear that it is a film that’s behind the pro-choice message. The way the campaigners adapted their message to appeal to those undecided voters, to be compassionate and not scaremongering, and how they stuck with their methods even when it looked like things were turning against them is impressive. 5/5.

REVIEW: Moxie (2021)

Fed up with the sexist and toxic status quo at her high school, a shy Vivian (Hadley Robinson) finds inspiration from her mother’s rebellious past and anonymously publishes a zine that sparks a school-wide, coming-of-rage revolution.

I read and reviewed Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu way back in 2017 and I equally had high hopes for the film and was apprehensive as I liked the book so much. I’m very pleased to say that I enjoyed the film and I think it’s generally one of the best book to movie adaptations I’ve seen in a long time.

Moxie is a coming age story that focuses on girls finding their voices and learning to stand up for themselves, rather than being all about a formative love interest. While Vivian is the one to almost unwittingly start this feminist revolution in her school, she is far from the only girl who has something to say. With the arrival of the zine Vivian finds herself with a whole new group of friends, all girls who are tired of the status quo and they each bring ideas of what they could do next to make their voices heard.

Vivian is a great character. She’s the kind of girl who’d always been quiet and just kept her head down but once she started paying attention, she quickly gets frustrated by how girls are treated at her school. Vivian is inspired by Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena) who’s not afraid to stand up for herself when popular jock Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger) will not stop harassing her and by the double standards when Kaitlynn (Sabrina Haskett) is told her wearing a tank top is against the school dress code, but the boy sat next to her wearing practically the same thing isn’t. Vivian is fallible, she makes mistakes as her rage at what’s going on often targets the wrong people and she’s learning about what being a feminist means and inclusivity as she goes. Vivian’s shocked when her best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai) points out the privilege she has compared to her as the child of immigrants who have sacrificed a lot for her. Slowly Vivian learns while there are universal challenges facing women, there are ones she’d have no knowledge or experience of due to her upbringing.

Moxie is very aware of what’s been happening in the real world. You hear snippets of new stories about the #MeToo movement in the background and the English teacher (Ike Barinholtz) finds it difficult to say or do the right thing as a man and an authority figure when the girls start standing up for themselves and asking “difficult” questions. While that scene is used for comedic effect, it shows how awkward and difficult some find talking about these things because they have, unfortunately, been the norm for so long.

Moxie is a film with so much heart. It might stumble a bit in the third act, but then again so does Vivian, and it’s perhaps not as revolutionary for an older audience but for young people it’s a film that can prompt discussions and encourage them to fight for what they believe in. Also, so much of this film is about girls supporting girls and the different relationships between friends, and it’s a breath of fresh air to see this quite diverse group of friends supporting each other. Moxie is fun, funny and inspiring and to top it off it has a killer soundtrack. 5/5.

REVIEW: Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

It’s 1984 and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is discreetly helping people in Washington and trying to live the quiet life. That’s until power-hungry businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) takes a powerful object and threatens the world and in the process Diana’s colleague Barbra Minerva (Kristen Wiig) goes down a dark path and Diana’s long-dead love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) mysteriously returns.

Wonder Woman 1984 starts with a flashback sequence to a young Diana (Lilly Aspell) competing against full grown Amazon’s in a race across Themyscira. It’s a great sequence but you have to wonder how much it really adds in the film. There is a lesson Diana learns there, which she then reiterates later in the film, but because the film is so long, it doesn’t really have the impact that was probably intended.

Maxwell Lord is an overemotional and desperate type of villain. He’s manipulative and smarmy while also being a bit ridiculous and pitiful. It’s interesting having Diana have to go up against someone who is so much physically weaker than her and makes the final act not be a huge physical battle between the two. There are likely to be comparisons between Maxwell Lord and Donald Trump – whether they were intentional or not. There’s the floppy orange hair, the need to be more powerful and successful that they are, it’s easy to see some similarities.

Gal Gadot and Chris Pine continue to have great chemistry and Diana and Steve’s relationship is truly the heart of this film. The fish out of water dynamic is flipped around from the first film and it’s fun seeing Steve be enthralled with how much things have changed in the seventy years since his death – especially he’s joy in learning about more advanced planes and the space race. There are some emotional moments between Diana and Steve which really work and did cause me to tear up.

Kristen Wiig is good as Barbara aka Cheetah. She has the comedic timing to handle the self-deprecating jokes when she’s shy and awkward, and as Barbara gains confidence, Wiig can handle that too. It does feel a bit like Barbara was mostly in the film so she could become Cheetah and there could be the physical battle for Diana that she wouldn’t get with Maxwell Lord. Personally, I know next to nothing about the character, but some Cheetah fans may feel cheated.

The action sequences in Wonder Woman 1984 didn’t really have the same impact as those in the previous film. It may be because we now know the character of Wonder Woman and what she can do, though I do think the fights just weren’t as exciting and some of them did look a bit weird, which is probably down to shoddy CGI and green screen.

Wonder Woman 1984 really is a perfectly solid three-star film. It’s fun, perhaps a bit too long and convoluted but it’s a bright action, superhero film. The first Wonder Woman film is a lot better overall and, for me more enjoyable and has more rewatch value, I’m not desperate to see Wonder Woman 1984 again unlike how I was with the first film. Which is probably a good thing as now cinemas are closed near me again and HBO Max doesn’t exist here. 3/5.

REVIEW: Fast Colour (2018)

After years in hiding, Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is forced to go on the run when her superhuman abilities are discovered. Years after abandoning her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) and her young daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney), the only place Ruth has left to hide is with them.

The three generations of this family all have abilities and while there’s similarities between them, they each have a different level of control to them. The abilities themselves, to break things down and rebuild them, to see the colours of the universe, for being a mythology that’s so different from the big blockbuster superhero films we are used to seeing, it’s explained well and it is captivating.

Fast Colour is one of those quiet sci-fi films. It’s a film about superpowered characters, but their abilities are not really the driving force of this story, instead it’s the relationships. It’s the moments where you get to see these three people just inhabit the same space that really work. There’s a static shot of the kitchen and slowly the three of them come in at different moments, easily moving around one another as they make breakfast together that hits home how even though Ruth hasn’t been with her mother and daughter for so long, they’re still a family and are connected to one another.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the standout here. Her guilt, fear and regret when it comes to how she acted in the past towards her family is palpable and I would say she gives a star performance, but to be honest she’s been giving great performances for years and it’s everyone else who needs to take notice. Lorraine Toussaint is also great. Her world weariness and desire to do anything to keep her family safe, her calm guidance when it comes to trying to teach her daughter and granddaughter their abilities, it all hides a pillar of strength and power more than those who’d seek to harm her daughter could imagine.

Fast Colour is just a beautiful film about familiar ties and inner strength. It has a beautiful and often haunting score by Rob Simonsen, that compliments the open, deserted spaces of a middle America where so many people are struggling. Fast Colour is a striking and impressive film, and it’s one that’s likely to stick with me for a while. 4/5.

REVIEW: All In: The Fight for Democracy (2020)

Documentary about the history of America’s democracy, how people gained and lost the right to vote, and the barriers to voting that so many Americans face today thanks to voter suppression.

Honestly, as a someone born and raised in the UK it really blows my mind how difficult it is for Americans to vote. I have never spent more than a couple of minutes at a poling station, with no more than three people in front of me waiting to vote in the five General Elections I’ve been able to vote in – never mind the local elections I’ve participated in.

Stacey Abrams, who ran for Governor of Georgia in 2018, is a big part of this documentary and her story almost bookends the film. At the beginning you learn a little about her upbringing and how her parents made sure she and her siblings knew how important voting is, and then the last part of the film sees more about her run for office, how that turned out and how it serves as an example of the damage voter suppression can do.

I learnt so much about the American voting system from All In: The Fight for Democracy. One thing that really surprised me was how after the Civil War and Black men were able to vote, there were Black senators in the late 1800s and, knowing about the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and how the majority of Black people were unable to vote in Southern states I couldn’t comprehend how things went backwards in 80 years. But, All In: The Fight for Democracy showed how a similar thing happened after Obama was elected in 2008; as soon as people who don’t fit the “traditional” mould start getting power and influence, those who want to keep the status quo get to work. Honestly, I spent a lot of time watching All In: The Fight for Democracy in awe of the cruelty and underhand way people have tried (and succeeded) to prevent people from voting.

Today there’s the strict use of voter ID, polls closing, gerrymandering, voter intimidation and purging the electoral roll. All of these things make it a lot difficult for people to vote, but Black people, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, poor people and young people are disproportionately affected. Naturally if voting is hard or people don’t know their rights, they will eventually stop trying and then they will lose their voice and ability to say who governs them.

All In: The Fight for Democracy is an important and impactful documentary. With historians, authors, lawyers, politicians, activists and academics explaining how and why voter suppression is happening, and how communities can fight against it, it’s a rousing film. It makes you feel equally infuriated and inspired but it doesn’t shy away from the realities of what is happening in America and how all citizens voting rights are in danger and the difficulties that lie ahead in trying to once again level the playing field for all American voters. 5/5.

REVIEW: Shirley (2020)

Famous American horror writer Shirley Jackson (Elizabeth Moss) finds inspiration for her next book after she and her husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) take in young couple Fred and Rose (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young).

I don’t know anything about Shirley Jackson and haven’t read any of her books, and to be honest after watching Shirley I don’t think I have much more of an idea about who she was. Shirley is a strange take on a biopic. Instead of being a linear story about Shirley Jackson’s life, it’s more of a character study about how she, and to a lesser extent her husband, affect and manipulate a fictional couple who come into their lives.

There are interesting elements to Shirley, but interesting elements don’t necessarily make a compelling film. There’s a lot of extreme closeups on characters faces, tilted angles and some beautiful cinematography but it’s not enough to make the film memorable. The costumes and set design are also striking, as is the frequently intense score, but it often feels like window dressing on a film with a plot that’s just not interesting.

Elizabeth Moss does crazy and intense very well. Her chemistry with Odessa Young is strong as Shirley Jackson turns Rose into her housekeeper/assistant/muse for her latest novel that she’s trying to power through writer’s block to write. Real life merges with the fantasy of Jackson’s would-be novel as scenes from her book play out on screen, with Young portraying the missing girl in the novel.

The relationships between the four characters are supposedly important to the plot of the film but so many of them are pushed to the side that things happen between certain characters so out of the blue it’s jarring. Lerman’s Fred is absent for a lot of the film and his relationship with Rose suffers as she becomes more enamoured with Shirley Jackson. Stuhlbarg’s Stanley is also largely absent but when he does make an appearance, he does have more of an impact. Towards the end of the film Shirley and Stanley’s desires are revealed but because the way the film is put together, where you’re not sure what’s real or what’s fantasy, it’s hard to see the threads that led everything to that conclusion.

Shirley has a powerhouse performance from Elizabeth Moss but the film that surrounds her isn’t as engaging and leaves you feeling a bit confused as to what it was trying to say. 3/5.

REVIEW: Herself (2020)

Trigger warnings for domestic violence.

After young mother Sandra (Clare Dunne) escapes her abusive husband, she fights to give her young daughters a home, going the unconventional route against a broken housing system by deciding to build her own home.

Herself is a brilliant and impressive film. From the opening scene I was captivated by Sandra and her story, her fight for survival. Herself opens with Sandra singing and dancing with her daughters Emma and Molly (Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann) in the kitchen but the arrival of their father Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) brings all that to a screeching halt. The tension between Sandra and Gary is palpable and, like Sandra, you’re just waiting for inevitable explosion.

From that shocking opening you see Sandra and her girls are now living in a hotel room and are just waiting for a housing opportunity to come up as Sandra works two jobs. Herself is an unflinching look at both the housing crisis and domestic abuse. Sandra is questioned as to why she didn’t leave sooner rather than have her ex-husband be asked, why he would hit her in the first place. And once Sandra has removed herself from that situation it is so very difficult for her and her girls to have some stability and somewhere to call home. There are forms to fill in and hoops to jump through and when a house does become available, there’s hundreds of people ahead of her on the waiting list.

When Sandra learns about self-build houses, she thinks that’s the way she can have a home for her girls. One of the most unexpectedly delightful things about Herself is the soundtrack and the montages of Sandra and her newfound friends working together to build a home. Catchy, upbeat pop songs accompany the scenes of the house slowly coming together, and you can see how as the house becomes a reality, Sandra starts to come into her own. The people around her; a fellow mum, a colleague and her friends from the squat they’re in – they all become a stronger family unit than Sandra ever had before.

Clare Dunne, who also co-wrote Herself, is fantastic as Sandra. She plays the different sides of a woman trying to build herself up again after being knocked down for so long so sensitively. She doesn’t have many big shouty scenes, though when she does her desperation is clear to see, instead she is quiet and just trying to hold things together for her children. She’s sad and scared and relieved and a whole load of other complicated emotions and Dunne puts them across so well. the young actresses who play her daughters are also brilliant and their relationship is the foundation Herself is built on.

Herself is about a woman finding a family, herself, and a strength she perhaps forgot she had. It’s empowering and thought-provoking and an emotional watch. 5/5.