The Photograph

Reporter Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield) flies to New Orleans to interview Isaac (Rob Morgan) about his first love, celebrated photographer Christina Eames (Chanté Adams), recently deceased. Back home in Manhattan, Michael follows up with an interview with her daughter, Mae (Issa Rae). Mae is a successful art curator, and doing a retrospective on her mother’s work is a way to get in touch with her grief; the only love that Christina could express was that for her work. Mae and Michael pool their resources to better understand the enigmatic artist, but after a while it’s pretty clear that this is just an excuse to spend more time together. Mae and Michael are falling for each other.

They don’t intend to, of course – she’s focused on her career, he’s about to move to London – but when has intention ever stopped cupid’s arrow? So we’re really getting two love stories for the price of one – young Christina and Isaac before she moved away to pursue her passion, and Mae and Michael, who are in the middle of pursuing theirs.

Writer-director Stella Meghie doesn’t quite figure out how to co-mingle the two stories satisfactorily, but the chemistry between Rae and Stanfield is so electric it almost doesn’t matter. Issa Rae was of course recently seen dazzling in The Lovebirds, and in The Photograph she proves that wasn’t a one-off; 2020 is the year of Issa Rae, and we can only hope that 2021 will be too.

Meghie’s love story is modern and grown-up: sensitive, vulnerable, unapologetically sexual. Rae and Stanfield have an easy and smart flirtation that draws us in too, rather intimately, as if we’re rooting for our own friends to finally find the love they deserve. Of course, adult love stories make one thing obvious: finding love is the easy part. Keeping love, maintaining love, nurturing love, sacrificing for love – those are the difficult, unglamourous things often left out, simply brushed under the rug with the mother of all euphemisms, “happily ever after.”

The High Note

Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) is a mega music star. She’s touring the world, selling out stadiums, and she’s not slowing down. But she’s not recording new music, either – not in a decade. She’s a middle-aged woman of colour, not exactly the stuff of 2020’s Billboard #1 artists, as her manager (Ice Cube) and label guys keep not-so-gently reminding her. The safe bet is to keep playing those same beloved songs to her ever-fervent fans, maybe do a nice, safe Vegas residency, and every so often repackage those hits into a “new” greatest hits album. Grace Davis is a fictional star but I’m sure these credentials are reminding you of more than one of yesterday’s top recording artists. Maybe even of Tracee Ellis Ross’s own mama, Ms. Diana Ross.

Grace’s personal assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson) has been fetching her green juice and dry cleaning thanklessly for the past 3 years. Maggie keeps hoping her role will be a stepping stone to where she’d actually want to be – a producer – but not only is Grace not recording music, she’s adamant that Maggie stay in her lane. So when Maggie bumps into David (Kelvin Harrison, Jr) on an errand for Grace, she’s pretty open to following her dream in another direction. David’s playing the grocery store’s parking lot, but his talent is legit so she fudges the details and convinces him to let her produce his album.

Does the moonlighting go well? It would be a crummy movie if everyone just lived happily ever after forevermore. There’s going to be some major bumps. Ellis Ross is terrific as Grace, but she’s definitely not just channeling her mother. She’s made Grace the hardest of things: a pop icon, and an actual woman. She’s worried about staying relevant, about aging, about work-life balance, about being the only woman in a room full of men trying to determine her future. Meanwhile, Maggie is trying to break into a male-dominated field that tries to discourage her by having her fetch coffee. Thematically, this film is the perfect follow-up for director Nisha Ganatra, who gave us Late Night last year.

The Dakota Johnson arc is a little pat, a little too rom-commy; The High Note actually shines when Ross is on screen stealing scenes. I almost wish we could have just stayed with her and lived in her skin, a true testament to Ross and the layered character she crafts. Still, the ensemble is talented, and if at times the script veers toward formulaic, the film is glossy, the songs are catchy, and Ross is indeed a star.

Murder To Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story

Netflix is crowded with documentaries just like this one: someone, often a person of colour, has been completely failed by the so-called justice system. And for every documentary made, there are hundreds? thousands? of unnamed prisoners going through the same thing. It’s hard not to burn out on these stories, and we feel so helpless to do anything about it.

Cyntoia Brown was failed many times before the justice system ever had its chance. Her mother Gina was just 16 when Cyntoia was born, already addicted to alcohol and crack. She struggled to raise her for a couple of years, but Gina was herself the victim of childhood molestation and rape, as was her mother before her. When Cyntoia was 2, she was given up for adoption, but she struggled to fit in, and her undiagnosed fetal alcohol poisoning made it impossible for her to thrive in settings that were hostile to her. By the time Cyntoia was 16, she was being pimped frequently by her “boyfriend” and one night, during an encounter that had her feeling particularly vulnerable, she shot the man who had picked her up, fearing and believing that he was about to do the same to her.

The justice system spent very little time deciding her fate: first, to be treated as an adult in court, despite her young age, and second, to sentence her to life in prison for a crime she committed as a scared child in an impossible situation. In 2004, when she was arrested and charged, the court called her a prostitute. Today, it would call her a child sex slave, the victim of human trafficking. But that does her very little good when she’s already been behind bars for 14 years.

But you know what? Some of director Daniel H. Birman’s footage went viral, prompting social media users to retweet #FreeCyntoiaBrown until someone finally paid attention. Her cause went up for review, and Brown pled for a second chance though most of us can see that she never really got her first. Her sentence was commuted and after 15 years in prison, she finally walked free. Now she spends her time advocating for prisoners in similar circumstances, but I think her story is particularly powerful in that it proves that actually we can make a difference. Hearing these stories and sharing these stories is how we begin to mend a broken system.

The Trip To Greece

This is their fourth trip actually; it was Spain before this, and Italy before that, and just a plain old Trip way back in 2010, during which Steve Coogan toured Britain’s best restaurants with best friend (and prime needler) Rob Brydon in tow. These two squabble like an old married couple but they also egg each other on to the greatest heights of comedy, throwing rockets of caustic remarks back and forth, stinging each other with brilliant insults, one-upping each other with first rate impressions.

Since 2010’s The Trip, the subsequent trips have largely followed the restaurant template, but for no good reason. The first one’s aim may have been to savour and review, but what followed was really just an excuse to throw together the same basic ingredients hoping to recapture their recipe for success. And the thing is, with very little effort, they do manage to replicate success. The films may defy traditional categorization but the Brydon-Coogan team is a winning bet, with the added bonus that Coogan continues to churn out content you’re likely familiar with, and Brydon continues to churn out new and exciting to lambaste it. Brydon gleefully pokes at Coogan’s apparent inability to recall an extra from his movie Greed. And he mocks Coogan’s BAFTA nomination for his work in Stan & Ollie – no, not his work, not his acting, his “copying,” his “impersonation,” two meaty jobs right to Coogan’s rib cage all while cajoling him into an impromptu Stan Laurel so that Brydon may offer his Hardy. Tom Hardy.

There’s something eminently watchable about these two. They hardly need the pretense of travel or fine dining; it is a pleasure to watch them under any circumstance. The Trip to Greece is available to rent via VOD, and each of the previous films is just as worthy.

Ophelia

This one’s been sitting idle in my drafts folder for way too long. All I had was the title, Ophelia, which was a freebie.

As you may have guessed (or perhaps you’ve seen the film, released as it was in 2018), this is a re-telling from Hamlet, from the fair Ophelia’s point of view. She doesn’t exactly get a fair shake from Shakespeare. Will director Claire McCarthy finally do her justice?

I’ve seen this described as a “feminist reinterpretation” so many times I want to throw a pewter goblet through a stained glass window. Stories with female protagonists don’t need special labels. It’s like saying the original Hamlet had an “idiotic interpretation” just like all stories with male protagonists. Oh, that seems unfair and perhaps a bit reductive? YEAH I FUCKING KNOW. I have so much rage. Of course I want to give this movie a pass just for having to deal with stupid male critics and stupid male bias and stupid male viewers but the truth is, this female was bored stiff.

Yes, it’s shot extremely well; there’s palpable value in its production. And Daisy Ridley and George MacKay are quite wonderful, really. But the thing is, very rarely are going to improve upon FUCKING SHAKESPEARE. Sure Ophelia got a shitty deal, and yes, it’s nice to see her flexing some agency. But this version just feels like we’re getting the bits of Hamlet that were left on the cutting room floor – and for good reason. There’s only so many jugs of water a girl can fetch. It’s enough to drive anyone crazy. But while Ophelia’s background may be fecund in theory, it was rather barren in execution. It fell so far short of the mark for me I rather wished we’d been in Queen Gertrude’s (Naomi Watts) shoes instead, uncomfortable as I’m sure they were.

Canadian Content

National Canadian Film Day is technically celebrated on April 22, 2020, but given our current collective situation, why not your quarantine just a tiny bit more patriotic by viewing these worthy Canadian titles.

HYENA ROAD Three different men, three different worlds, three different wars – all stand at the intersection of modern warfare – a murky world of fluid morality where all is not as it seems. Directed by and costarring Paul Gross, who’s gone full silver fox, plus Rossif Sutherland and Allan Hawco 


INDIAN HORSE Follows the life of Native Canadian Saul Indian Horse as he survives residential school and life amongst the racism of the 1970s. A talented hockey player, Saul must find his own path as he battles stereotypes and alcoholism. Directed by Stephen Campanelli, starring Forrest Goodluck and Sladen Peltier


ROOM Held captive for 7 years in an enclosed space, a woman and her young son finally gain their freedom, allowing the boy to experience the outside world for the first time. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, starring Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay


RUN THIS TOWN An emerging political scandal in Toronto in 2013 revolving around crack-smoking mayor Rob Ford, seen through the eyes of young staffers at city hall and a local newspaper. Directed by Ricky Tollman, starring Mena Massoud, Nina Dobrev and Ben Platt 


THE SONG OF NAMES Several years after his childhood friend, a violin prodigy, disappears on the eve of his first solo concert, an Englishman travels throughout Europe to find him. Directed by François Girard, starring Tim Roth and Clive Owen 


BIRTHMARKED Two scientists raise 3 children contrarily to their genetic tendencies to prove the ultimate power of nurture over nature. Directed by Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais, starring Matthew Goode, Toni Collette and Suzanne Clément


THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS The story of people whose lives intertwine during a dramatic winter in New York City. Directed by Lone Scherfig, starring Zoe Kazan, Andrea Riseborough, Tahar Rahim, Jay Baruchel and Bill Nighy

FREAKS A bold girl discovers a bizarre, threatening, and mysterious new world beyond her front door after she escapes her father’s protective and paranoid control. Directed by Zach Lipovsky, Adam B. Stein, starring  Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern, Grace Park 


THE YOUNG AND PRODIGIOUS T.S SPIVET A ten-year-old scientist secretly leaves his family’s ranch in Montana where he lives with his cowboy father and scientist mother, escapes home, and travels across the country aboard a freight train to receive an award at the Smithsonian Institute. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, starring Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis and Callum Keith Rennie

THE CAPTIVE Eight years after the disappearance of Cassandra, some disturbing incidents seem to indicate that she’s still alive. Police, parents and Cassandra herself, will try to unravel the mystery of her disappearance. Directed by Atom Egoyan, starring Kevin Durand,  Ryan Reynolds, Scott Speedman, Rosario Dawson


THE 9th LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX A psychologist who begins working with a young boy who has suffered a near-fatal fall finds himself drawn into a mystery that tests the boundaries of fantasy and reality. Directed by Alexandre Aja, starring Jamie Dornan, Sarah Gadon and Aaron Paul

ASTRONAUT A lonely widower battles his family, ill health and time to win a competition for a golden ticket to space. Directed by Shelagh McLeod, starring Richard Dreyfuss, Lyriq Bent, Krista Bridges, Colm Feore


BANG BANG BABY A small town teenager in the 1960s believes her dreams of becoming a famous singer will come true when her rock star idol gets stranded in town. But a leak in a nearby chemical plant that is believed to be causing mass mutations threatens to turn her dream into a nightmare. Directed by Jeffrey St. Jules, starring Jane Levy, Justin Chatwin, Peter Stormare and Kristin Bruun

EVERYTHING’S GONE GREEN Ryan, a good-natured slacker, is tempted into a money laundering scheme while working for a lottery magazine. A capitalistic comedy that asks the question – when is “enough” enough? Directed by Paul Fox, starring Paulo Costanzo


DIM THE FLUORESCENTS A struggling actress and an aspiring playwright pour all of their creative energy into the only paying work they can find: role-playing demonstrations for corporate training seminars. Directed by Daniel Warth, starring Claire Armstrong and Naomi Skwarna

TAKE THIS WALTZ A happily married woman falls for the artist who lives across the street. Directed by Sarah Polley, starring Seth Rogen, Michelle Williams, Luke Kirby, Sarah Silverman


EDGE OF WINTER When two brothers are stranded by a brutal winter storm with an unpredictable father they barely know, the boys begin to suspect their supposed protector may be their biggest threat. Directed by Rob Connolly, starring Tom Holland and Joel Kinnaman 

GIANT LITTLE ONES Two popular teen boys, best friends since childhood, discover their lives, families, and girlfriends dramatically upended after an unexpected incident occurs on the night of a 17th birthday party. Directed by Keith Behrman, starring  Josh Wiggins, Darren Mann, Taylor Hickson, Maria Bello, Kyle MacLachlan

THE BODY REMEMBERS WHEN THE WORLD BROKE OPEN After a chance encounter on the street, a woman tries to encourage a pregnant domestic abuse victim to seek help. Directed by Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, starring Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Violet Nelson, Charlie Hannah, and Barbara Eve Harris


AND THE BIRDS RAINED DOWN (IL PLEUVAIT DES OISEAUX) Three elderly hermits live in the woods. While wildfires threaten the region, their quiet life is about to be shaken by the arrival of two women – A story of intertwined destinies, where love can happen at any age. Directed by Louise Archambault, starring  Andrée Lachapelle, Gilbert Sicotte, Rémy Girard 

WINDOW HORSES A young Canadian poet with Chinese and Persian parents travels to Iran to perform at a poetry festival (animated). Directed by Anne Marie Fleming, voices by Ellen Page, Sandra Oh


WATER Set in colonial India against Gandhi’s rise to power, it’s the story of 8-year-old Chuyia, who is widowed and sent to a home to live in penitence; once there, Chuyia’s feisty presence deeply affects the lives of the other residents. Directed by Deepa Mehta, starring Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray, John Abraham and Sarala


THE GRIZZLIES In a small Arctic town struggling with the highest suicide rate in North America, a group of Inuit students’ lives are transformed when they are introduced to the sport of lacrosse. Directed by Miranda de Pencier, starring Ben Schnetzer, Will Sasso, Paul Nutarariaq, Anna Lambe,Tantoo Cardinal, Emerald MacDonald and Booboo Stewart


MAUDIE An arthritic Nova Scotia woman works as a housekeeper while she hones her skills as an artist and eventually becomes a beloved figure in the community. Directed by Aisling Walsh, starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke


BROOKLYN An Irish immigrant lands in 1950s Brooklyn, where she quickly falls into a romance with a local. When her past catches up with her, however, she must choose between two countries and the lives that exist within. Directed by John Crowley, starring Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen, Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters 


ANTHROPOCENE: THE HUMAN EPOCH Filmmakers travel to six continents and 20 countries to document the impact humans have made on the planet. Directed by Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky. Narrated by Alicia Vikander

CANADIAN STRAIN When cannabis becomes legal in Canada, boutique weed dealer Anne Banting is swiftly run out of business by the biggest gangsters in town – the government. Written and directed by Geordie Sabbagh and starring Jess Salgueiro


DRONE Ideologies collide with fatal results when a military drone contractor meets an enigmatic Pakistani businessman. Written and directed by Jason Bourque and starring Sean Bean


FALLS AROUND HER A successful singer leaves everything behind to return to her reservation to live alone. Written and directed by Darlene Naponse and starring Tantoo Cardinal

JAMES VS HIS FUTURE SELF A scientist meets a version of himself from the future who has traveled back in time to stop himself from inventing time travel. Starring Daniel Stern


LAVENDER After discovering old fractures in her skull, a photographer recovering from amnesia becomes increasingly haunted by a sinister childhood secret. Directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly and starring Abbie Cornish,  Dermot Mulroney, Justin Long


BEN’S AT HOME Heartbroken and cynical after he’s dumped by his girlfriend, Ben makes the unusual decision never to leave his house again. Directed by Mars Horodyski and starring  Dan Abramovici, Jessica Embro, Jim Annan

TAMMY’S ALWAYS DYING At the end of every month, when the welfare runs out, Catherine talks her alcoholic mother off of the same bridge. Literally. Directed by Amy Jo Johnson and starring  Felicity Huffman, Anastasia Phillips, Clark Johnson 

Valley Girl (2020)

First: a word about Logan Paul. Logan Paul is a Youtube star. “Star.” I know his name but not his content; he’s the brand of entitled-obnoxious that my life doesn’t need so I’ve never seen a single thing he’s done. I do know he’s been controversial, though. The first I heard of him, he’d gone to the suicide forest in Japan in late 2017 and posted a video of the corpse of a recently deceased (hanged) man. Cue uproar, cue “apology.” Youtube gave him a slap on the wrist (with 25M subscribers, their partnership is extremely lucrative to both) but he was back at it just a few weeks later. He’s sexist, he’s homophobic, he’s racist. Basically, he’s a giant douche. Valley Girl director Rachel Lee Goldenberg had the misfortune of casting him in her movie to play…well, a giant douche as it happens. This was in the spring of 2017, before the big controversies started to add up. The film was scheduled for a 2018 release by they scrapped it due to his involvement. This poor movie has languished on some shelf in Hollywood, serving a sentence for crimes committed by a single cast member. So yes, I acknowledge that Logan Paul is a problematic douche nozzle and we all wish he wasn’t in this movie even though he’s actually perfectly cast. With that said, onto the movie.

Yes, this is a remake of the 1983 film of the same name, starring Nicolas Cage and Deborah Foreman. Foreman played Julie, a perfect, preppie valley girl who falls for a punk (Cage) from the wrong side of the hills. In the 2020 version, Julie is a proper grown up. She (Alicia Silverstone) is a mom now, and she recounts this teenage romance to her daughter.

Cue: the 1980s. Cue the leg warmers, the big hair, the jazzercize, the popped collars. A young Julie (Jessica Rothe) frolics on the beach with her gal pals and then hits up the mall. She’s dating arrogant jock Mickey (Logan Paul) but an edgier guy has grabbed her eye. Randy (Josh Whitehouse) is not a punk, because punk is dead, but if she’s a little bit country, he’s a little bit rock n roll. Her friends think she’s having a nervous breakdown but as far as rebellious streaks go it’s actually pretty tame – just dreaming of leaving the suburbs and maybe prioritizing a career instead of marriage and motherhood.

2020’s Valley Girl is somehow even more 80s than the original: it’s an homage, a love letter, a glossy, hair sprayed tribute, and in doing so, it’s rounded out the edges and presents a sanitized pop version for your nostalgia cravings. This Valley Girl is a jukebox musical which means every song sung will be one you know; the retro soundtrack includes We Got the Beat, Bad Reputation, Hey Mickey, Call Me, Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Kids in America, Just Can’t Get Enough, Material Girl, Safety Dance, Take On Me, Under Pressure, I Melt With You…well, you get the picture. The 80s vibes are strong in this one.

Is this a life-changing movie? No. Is this a great piece of cinema? Still no. But if you’re willing to embrace the cheese, it’s actually quite a bit of fun. And the great thing about the 80s is that you don’t actually have to have lived through them to be nostalgic for them. It feels like the nostalgia was baked right into the decade (and quite possibly Tang flavoured). Play I-Spy during the carefully curated costume party: can you spot Boy George – George Michael – Michael Jackson?

This movie is Grease meets Trolls World Tour meets Romeo and Juliet, but feels like it’s a 90 minute version of those Tiffany videos she used to shoot at the mall. Valley Girl knows what it is and isn’t afraid to lean right in. This is the 80s, turned up to 11.