#52FilmsbyWomen

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.

REVIEW: Time Out (2018)

When inmate Joan Anderson (Melissa Leo) is granted one weekend out of prison to see her dying mother, rookie correction officer Nicole Stevens (Tessa Thompson) struggles to keep her under control.

Time Out (or Furlough as it was apparently originally called) is a comedy drama that doesn’t really have any decent comedy in it. Leo and Thompson play the typical odd couple roles, Leo’s Anderson is carefree and impulsive and is more than happy to take advantage of her naïve caretaker, while Thompson’s Stevens is straightlaced and stressed about this assignment and the fact that she’s leaving her forgetful mother (Whoopi Goldberg) at home alone. This duo doesn’t really have the chemistry that you need to make this kind of dynamic work. Anderson comes off as super self-centred for the majority of the film, and then when it tries to add some depth to her character it feels cheap.

While not the focus of the film, I did like the relationship between Nicole and her mother. While it’s not explicitly stated what condition her mother has, as someone who has multiple relatives live with dementia, I think that’s clear that’s what the screenwriter and Goldberg’s performance was going for. It really captured how a carer gets no time for themselves, even when they’re supposed to be working, and the frustrations of having to answer the same questions over and over again. I especially liked the entitlement of Nicole’s sister Brandy (La La Anthony) when she had to look after their mother for one weekend when Nicole has been doing it every hour of every day for who knows how long previously.

That side plot aside, the plot of Time Out is very generic and predictable. A lot of the “comedic” moments are more cringey than anything else, and personally I didn’t laugh once. Melissa Leo and Tessa Thompson are both incredibly talented actresses, but they are both given little to do here and nothing about their characters or performances really stands out. 2/5.

REVIEW: Becoming (2020)

Documentary following former First Lady Michelle Obama during her 2019 book tour for her autobiography ‘Becoming’.

It’s easy to view the Obamas with rose-tinted glasses considering who has been sitting in the White House for the past four years. During Barack Obama’s eight years as President, I was younger and had (and still do) the privilege not to be too invested in politics – especially US politics when I am a Brit living in the UK. It’s since he left office that I learnt about things like his foreign policies and use of drone strikes.

Becoming tries to make you separate the Obama administration from Michelle Obama and for the most part it succeeds. It relies on the viewer to already have an infinity for Michelle Obama, to already like and admire her. Barack Obama does make an appearance in Becoming, but it’s very much in a supportive role and it never takes the spotlight away from Michelle. Some portions of Becoming are about Michelle’s time in the White House, but it’s about her experience and how the media reacted to her rather than the political decisions made by her husband and his government.

I read Michelle Obama’s autobiography last year (I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by her and I highly recommend it) and Becoming the film is a nice comparison piece to the book, but if you’ve read the book, this documentary doesn’t add too much to what you’ve already learnt about her life.

On her book tour, as well as the huge stadium interviews and discussions she has with different hosts, Michelle Obama also meets people – both young and old. One thing that Becoming does well is show the discussions she has with young people, and how they have been inspired by her and are still learning about themselves. Things they see as very normal, studying and working to help support their family while they’re still in high school, is an incredible achievement and shows their strength and resourcefulness even though it’s their everyday life.

Becoming is a nice companion to Michelle Obama’s autobiography and it’s just a nice documentary to watch to see what a thoughtful and compassionate human being is like, when so many of the world and political leaders today don’t seem to have one iota of empathy. There’s also the message of hope that Michelle Obama brings in Becoming, that on her travels around America, meeting different people that there are good people out there, and there are more than we are led to believe thanks to the media. 3/5.

REVIEW: Paradise Hills (2019)

Uma (Emma Roberts) wakes up in Paradise Hills, an apparently idyllic reform school for wealthy young ladies, but things are not what they seem.

Honestly, I was not sure what to make of Paradise Hills to begin with, but I slowly got captivated by the whole look of the film and that unsettling feeling that something isn’t quite right at Paradise Hills.

Uma is strong-willed and opinionated – two reasons why she was sent to Paradise Hills as it’s where she can learn to become a better version of herself aka the version that her mother wants. At Paradise Hills she meets other girls who are in a similar position to her. Chloe (Danielle Macdonald), Yu (Awkwafina) and Amarna (Eiza González) are all there for different reasons but they are also all content with who they are.

The relationship that forms between them all is one of love and support. They are solid friends who look out for and help one another. The moments there are tension between them are not because of what one girl is thinking, but because of the situation they’re in and it’s circumstances that threaten to tear them apart.

There’s an other worldly beauty to Paradise Hills thanks to the art department. The production design, the hair, the make up and costumes makes Paradise Hills (the place) seem so far removed from what we know. It often gives off a twisted Alice in Wonderland vibe, especially with all the roses everywhere and the obsession with mirrors. To carry on the Alice in Wonderland analogy, The Duchess (Milla Jovovich), who runs Paradise Hills, almost fills the Red Queen role. She’s in control of everything, though she can lose her cool in a spectacular fashion, she’s obsessed with roses and she’s the only person in Paradise Hills whose clothes are colourful, making her stand out from everyone else. Uma and the other girls always wear white dresses while the male servants, gardeners and attendants are also in white.

The beautiful costumes and location is a harsh juxtaposition to the thoughts and emotions Uma is going through. Paradise Hills is perfection and that’s what Uma is supposed to be learning to be, but she doesn’t want to. She knows who she is, who she loves, and she doesn’t want to change anything about herself.

Paradise Hills is so much more than I thought it’d be. The theme of women supporting women is so strong, as is the message that people (especially young women) should be happy with who they are no matter what pressures from family or society they might face. The whole production is stunning and that makes the dark underbelly of what’s really happening at Paradise Hills all the more affecting. 4/5.

REVIEW: Misbehaviour (2020)

True story about the 1970 Miss World beauty pageant in London, the women competing and the women who hatch a plan to disrupt it.

Misbehaviour is a feel-good British comedy drama and once you know that, you’ll have a good idea of how things will go but it makes that formula work in a very pleasing way. It’s funny and engaging with a lot of fun characters and it mixes the drama of political tensions with the glamour of a world beauty pageant so well.

Misbehaviour has a wonderful ensemble cast who all give great performances. There’s unfortunately too many to mention here so I’ll just focus on four key women to the story.

Two of the main characters in the Women’s Liberation Movement are Sally (Keira Knightley) and Jo (Jessie Buckley). They both want to bring down the patriarchy, but they come at it from different angles. Sally has a young daughter and is studying at university with the idea that if she has a seat at the metaphorical boys table, she’ll be able to change things there. Jo is more rebellious, graffitiing slogans on walls and is living in a commune with likeminded men and women. It’s interesting to see how the two of them butt heads on their ideas but also learn to listen to one another and work together to make the protest work. Knightley is the queen of period films (no matter the time period) and again it’s clear how good she is, showing her frustration and anger while still keeping it bottled inside as she knows she’d be ridiculed for showing it.

In the pageant the Miss World contestants the story focusses on are Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the first Miss Grenada, and Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison) the first black South African to take part. For them, Miss World presents the chance for new opportunities for them, but they also have frank discussions about their chances of winning because they’re not white.

There are so many interesting discussions that can come from Misbehaviour. What it means to be a woman, what’s their “role” in society and what opportunities are there for one woman may not be there for another based on their looks or background. The intersectionality of feminism isn’t explored that deeply but there are black women and disabled women in the protest, and Sally and her co-conspirators make it clear that they aren’t against the contestants but the prevalent attitude of judging women just based on their looks. While possibly contrived, there is a moment between Sally and Jennifer where Jennifer gets the chance to explain what winning could do for little girls who look like her around the world, and it brings home that not all women’s experiences are equal.

Misbehaviour is a wonderful snapshot at what women’s rights were like fifty years ago, and how in many ways’ things have changed for the better, but in others there’s still a long way to go. The performances are brilliant with Knightley and Mbatha-Raw being the standouts, the soundtrack is ace and it’s just a really fun, feelgood film about sisterhood. 5/5.

X is for XXY (2007)

Trigger warnings for sexual assault.

Fifteen-year-old Alex (Inés Efron) is intersex and is living as a girl, but she and her family begin to wonder if she’s emotionally a boy when another teenager’s sexually advances bring things to a head.

XXY is set in a small coastal town in Uruguay and unfortunately, a lot of people there are closed minded about people who are different. Alex and her family have kept the fact she’s intersex a secret but as everything comes to a head, the cruelty of others is revealed and it is uncomfortable to watch.

XXY is a slow, thoughtful film. Many times the camera lingers on Alex, her body or just her face, as she wanders alone. The coastal setting with the beach and the stormy sea fits the tone of the film as Alex often feels alone as no one can know how she feels, even her parents who want to look out for her. Her father (Ricardo Darín) is especially kind and protective and he puts in a lot of time and research into figuring out how best to support Alex as she tries to decide who she wants to be.

Inés Efron gives a brilliant performance as Alex. Showing the hope and fear she feels, as well as her rebellious nature. The chemistry between her and Martín Piroyansky who plays Alvaro, the son of her mother’s friends who comes to stay, is there but it’s interesting. The dynamics between their two characters are constantly shifting as they get to know one another and make a connection that neither of them was expecting.

XXY is a sincere take on the struggles a young person can face when figuring out who they are, and if they’re OK with that. The haunting score and stark setting makes XXY feel bleak but there are moments of happiness and hope their for Alex and her family too. 3/5.

M is for Monster (2003)

Trigger warning for rape.

Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) is a prostitute and drifter until she meets Selby (Christina Ricci). But after she shoots a sadistic trick who rapes her and threatens to kill her, she begins to seek her own form of justice and becomes America’s first female serial killer.

Monster is based on a true story and through the script, direction and performances, you slowly start to see the internal logic behind Aileen’s actions.

There is a scene where Aileen is raped but it never feels as if it was shot to be sexy or a fantasy for those involved. The rape scene is horrific and uncomfortable to watch – just as it should be. Aileen’s actions in that instance are easy to say are justifiable as they were in self-defence. It’s as she then seems to have the logic that all men are dangerous if they happen to pick up a woman from the side of the road and shows little to no remorse when killing them that the lines of sympathy gets blurred.

Especially as more is revealed of Aileen’s past, the trauma she’s experienced, and how she’s never really had anyone in her life that cared about her until she met Selby. Aileen and Selby’s relationship is so soft as Aileen slowly begins to open up to Selby. But Selby is also quite naïve about what Aileen is doing as she wants to just continue the life they’re living without the consequences.

Charlize Theron is nearly unrecognisable as Aileen Wuornos thanks to the unglamorous hair, make up and costume. These add to Theron’s performance and she is equal parts mesmerising and repulsive as she goes down a dark path with little regrets. Theron is ferocious and intense as Aileen and truly gives a powerhouse performance.

Monster is a harrowing true story that does a good job of allowing the viewer to understand the motives of a killer but never condones what she does. 4/5.