CineWomen: Patty Jenkins goes back to the ’80s with ‘Wonder Woman 1984,’ ‘Monster’
Plus ‘Farewell Amor’ by Ekwa Msangi and ‘La Ciénaga’ by Lucretia Martel
Earlier this month the Los Angeles Film Critics Association held our annual awards vote, and though the meeting looked a bit different than usual — with Zoom polls in lieu of paper ballots and an abbreviated non-catered lunch — the process remained much the same as the Zoom room gradually came to a consensus on the best filmmaking of the year.
Our conclusion? Not one, but five films, which were designed not for the big screen but for television and streaming, no less, took the top prize, as LAFCA named Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology — comprising Mangrove; Lovers Rock; Red, White, and Blue; Alex Wheatle; and Education — best picture.
The group took heat for its pick on Twitter — for naming all five titles rather than singling out one (Lovers Rock, say, or Mangrove), and for selecting a project made for TV (BBC One in the United Kingdom, Amazon Prime Video in the United States).
But the unprecedented choice also encapsulates an unusual year in both content and form, with its collection of stories set in London’s West Indian community from the late ’60s through mid-’80s that reverberates in reinvigorated social justice movements around the world, and its bingeable presentation for audiences hunkering down during the coronavirus crisis.
LAFCA’s best director award, however, went not to McQueen but to Chloé Zhao, director of the exquisite best-picture runner-up Nomadland, just two years after she won our New Generation award for The Rider. I love this woman’s work — not least because this NYU-educated Chinese director has somehow developed an obsession with my home state of South Dakota, and I love seeing it through her eyes.
Promising Young Woman, helmed by Emerald Fennell, won two LAFCA awards — one for best actress Carey Mulligan and one for screenplay, a category in which the runner-up was Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
Women directors also snagged LAFCA awards for best documentary (Garrett Bradley’s Time) and New Generation (Radha Blank, creator of The Forty-Year-Old Version).
Find all of LAFCA’s 2020 award winners here.
I’ll be writing about Nomadland and Promising Young Woman in the coming months. In the meantime, here are my December recs:
‘Wonder Woman 1984’
Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman was wondrous — an origin story that the feminist comic-book icon deserved, with a superheroine driven by feminine ideals of an all-women society: honor, confidence, curiosity, vulnerability, and, above all, a devotion to doing what’s right, whether or not it’s the mission of the moment, or anyone else will follow her into battle.
You can read me wax poetic about it here.
Unfortunately, Wonder Woman 1984 squanders all that goodwill. Although the action set pieces revisit the thrill of a demi-goddess coming into her powers — in this installment, she figures out how to fly and render a jet invisible — the script peddles in sexist and racist stereotypes that range from disappointing to offensive.
Some two-thirds of a century have passed since Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) helped end the Great War by sussing out and destroying Ares, the god of war. She lost her first love, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), in that battle, and in all the years since has apparently never met another, nor any other friends for that matter, because when we catch up with her in 1984, she’s still, uh, pining for him.
So much so that when a mysterious “dream stone” lands at the Smithsonian, where she works as an anthropologist and archeologist, Diana wishes not for world peace, not to end hunger, but to be reunited with Steve.
And return Steve does, in the body of another man, allowing the sequel to echo back to the most charming bits of the first film, only this time it’s Diana introducing him to an unfamiliar world of breakdancing, modern art, and fanny packs. It’s no wonder the filmmakers — and fans — wanted Steve back: The couple’s dynamic is one of the franchise’s great strengths, with the man for once willingly playing sidekick to the woman. Sex is implied, though, which, given Steve is borrowing another man’s corporeal form, feels rapey.
Diana isn’t the only one who’s wished upon the dream stone: So has her mousy colleague Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), hoping to be more like her new friend. But whereas what Barbara wants is Diana’s confidence, shampoo-commercial hair, and ability to walk in heels, what she also gets is superpowers — and the strength to fight back a would-be rapist in a scene that troublingly positions her as the bad gal. (She is, just not at this particular moment.)
Their wishes come at a price, however, one that (snake) oil salesman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) leverages by tapping into the power of the stone to grant wishes and exact payments in a scheme that takes him to the Middle East, where a muddle of anachronisms and stereotypes, coupled with Gadot’s controversial real-life service in the Israel Defense Forces, let down a brand that last time around acknowledged the complexities of brown people fighting alongside Americans.
There are other missteps. On the innocuous side, Diana mentions that it’s the Fourth of July in a scene where neither the D.C. weather nor the fact that government employees are at work suggest it, for no other reason than to justify amplifying the visuals for the aforementioned invisible jet with fireworks.
The whole endeavor feels like a movie by committee that betrays the promise of the first film.
Wonder Woman 1984 (2020), directed by Patty Jenkins (wide, HBO Max)
Before Wonder Woman in 2017, a criminal fourteen years had passed since Jenkins’ last (and first) feature film, Monster, which garnered star Charlize Theron an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, and a SAG Award for her nearly unrecognizable turn as real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos.
Although also set in the ’80s, this film exhibits none of the decade’s Technicolor excess on display in Wonder Woman 1984, rather reveling in the ugly realism of a woman who’s been a sex worker since the not-so-tender age of thirteen. Aileen finds the tenderness she craves not in the arms of a man but of a young woman, Selby (Christina Ricci) — a fictionalization of a true-life relationship.
Buoyantly in love, Aileen wants to go straight but possesses neither the work experience nor life skills to do so. During a particularly brutal rape, she kills her attacker, and whether driven by PTSD, self-defense, or greed, she finds a new source of income.
Theron is fearless in the role, transformed by makeup, a dental prosthetic, and thirty extra pounds, but also masculine posturing as Aileen struggles to settle into an unfamiliar role of provider.
Her and Selby’s is a harrowing yet touching romance and a sensitive portrait of a woman who never had a chance, and a society that never gave her a second one.
Monster (2003), directed by Patty Jenkins (various streaming and digital)
Drawing from experience in her own family, writer-director Ekwa Msangi makes a confident feature debut with Farewell Amor, a Rashomon-esque immigrant story about an Angolan family reunited in a one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment after seventeen years apart.
Much has happened over the years of their separation: Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) drives a cab and has a robust social life, including an ex-girlfriend he still loves. Esther (Zainab Jah) has found religion at a church that aggressively encourages offerings. And Sylvia (Jayme Lawson) has become a teenager.
Gradually, tentatively, they discover the truth about their respective realities, and find common ground — in the food, music, and dance that tie them to their homeland and culture — over three chapters relayed from each character’s point of view, the action rewinding to mother and daughter’s arrival at the airport and filling in scenes we aren’t privy to the first time around.
In the specificity of this family’s story, Msangi expresses a universal immigration experience of separation, determination, and love.
Farewell Amor (2020), directed by Ekwa Msangi (limited, digital)
La Ciénaga means “The Swamp” — the name of the town where the film is set in writer-director Lucrecia Martel’s home province of Salta, Argentina, and a metaphor for the bourgeois family that sprawls across her feature debut. The adults, plied with alcohol in the sticky summer heat, are in a perpetual state of lethargy. (Red wine with ice is the favored beverage — classy.) The children run wild and sleep in piles like the packs of feral dogs constantly barking in the background.
There are too many characters to delineate here, but generally the extended clan is tied together by Mecha (Graciela Borges), who is languishing at her country home with her useless husband Gregorio (Martín Adjemián), and her cousin Tali (Mercedes Morán)— in blood or in name, we can’t be sure — who visits from the city where she lives with her domineering husband Rafael (Daniel Valenzuela). If La Ciénaga has protagonists, they are these matriarchs who are subjugated by their relationships.
Meanwhile, their respective broods play largely unsupervised by the pool, in the woods, at the dam, with rifles and machetes, Martel’s camera cutting away just when the danger reaches its apex. Sometimes characters reappear later unscathed. Sometimes they don’t.
Martel also casts a critical eye on the relationship between the white family and its Indigenous neighbors it bumps up against and employs. The servant Isabel (Andrea López) is an intimate member of the household granted no autonomy of her own — an attitude that her employers extend to her friends.
With a mobile, up-close camera as entrenched as a member of the family, Martel casts an acerbic eye on its expressions of gender, race, and class.
La Ciénaga (2001), directed by Lucrecia Martel (various streaming and digital)