Men and women at TIFF 2018

At some of the movies, it’s not the same old story any more. As long as the ladies don’t try to be in charge

By Jay Stone

 

TORONTO — Today’s topic is the question of men and women, which, despite many scientific advances — dermatologists have done an especially heroic job — remains a thorny one. As I understand the way things stand now, you can decide for yourself what sex you want to be, but if you pick female, you may not get your movie made.

 

Or maybe that’s not it at all. In any event, we start our day with Widows, a heist thriller from a surprising source: the British visual artist Steve McQueen who became an accomplished filmmaker of intense art-house fare (Shame, Hunger, 12 Years A Slave) and has now moved closer to the mainstream.

 

Widows is the story of a group of wives whose husbands died in a robbery gone wrong. Now the women have discovered plans for the gang’s next heist, and decide to do it themselves. The impetus for the robbery isn’t just greed. The male crooks, led by Liam Neeson, robbed a rival Chicago gang of violent drug dealers and the drug dealers want their money back and are threatening Viola Davis, playing Neeson’s widow. At the same time, the leader of the drug gang is running for office against a corrupt politician (Colin Farrell), a subplot that intensifies the stakes.

 

The result is a kind of thinking person’s Oceans 8, the story of how the women who were left behind while the men went off the war can transform themselves into the kind of rock-‘em, sock-‘em, gun-toting desperadoes that the movies usually reserve for male actors. Hairdressers kick butt! Female escorts fire Glocks!

 

Widows doesn’t always make total, 100-per-cent sense — the final scenes leave you wondering about the upshot of all the revenge threats — but McQueen has an original and intelligent eye for the shoot-out, the car chase and other staples of the genre. A scene where he puts his camera on a car hood and lets us hear the conversation inside the car as it drives through Chicago neighbourhoods is something of a sociological tour de force.

 

Things don’t go as well in The Wedding Guest, a sort of sub-continental Bonnie and Clyde from Michael Winterbottom, a director who knows his way around foreign locales (The Trip to Spain, The Trip to Italy, The Trip.) It stars Dev Patel as a mysterious British man who is hired to go to Pakistan and kidnap a woman (Radhika Apte) who is about to be forced into an unwanted marriage.

 

Together they escape through Pakistan and into India, taking us on a travelogue of shabby towns, crowded streets, cramped hotel rooms, cacophonous traffic, and (finally) a lovely seaside resort, although on balance this is not the film to send you rushing off to the travel agency for your tickets to Mumbai. Unfortunately, the issues the movie might have raised — forced marriage, for instance — are never addressed and the sexual power game between the main characters becomes just another movie romance in which people are paired off in accordance with their physical attractiveness (in this case, high on both sides.)

 

But we soldier on, and sure enough, putting it all together is the documentary This Changes Everything (the title is ironic), a 96-minute look at the way Hollywood turns women into sex objects and rarely lets them direct or write movies. An impressive list of principals — Geena Davis gets a lot of screen time, but we also hear from Patty Jenkins, Katherine Bigelow and many others — tell their stories, and some of them are amusingly horrifying: Sharon Stone says a director once demanded she sit on his lap while he told her what he wanted in a scene (she asked him if he would make a similar demand of Tom Hanks.)

 

However, it’s a kind of earnest journey that goes down several legal pathways that don’t appear to lead anywhere. Hollywood has a real sex- and minority-balance issue — so does the film critic community — but This Changes Everything seems too tame in its condemnations, too concerned with statistics and not enough with the real emotional issues or a deeper study of how woman are portrayed in cinema.

 

In any event, and perhaps inevitably, a man, Tom Donahue, directed the movie. And here one is reviewing it as well. Well, as the French say, plus ca change. Also, vive la difference.

 

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