Author Archives: Jay

Pride, Prejudice & Rainbows

Everywhere, there are rainbows, co-opted to bring hope and cheer to a world self-isolating from a deadly virus. Normally, a rainbow spotted in June meant Pride Month was being celebrated and acknowledged. This June, however, things are more sedate. Pride events have been cancelled, or moved online at best, to be observed virtually, from one’s home computer. Except home isn’t always a safe space for queer folk. Many have been forced back in the closet, or back into the wrong gender’s clothes and pronouns for the duration, not daring to risk being caught on the wrong website, further isolating an already marginalized population. This pandemic has deprived the queer community of the few safe spaces they can comfortably exist in their own skin: queer bars, sexual health spaces, support groups. Worse still, many of these spaces were already teetering on the brink of inadequate funding when COVID forced shut downs. Many will not reopen. In fact, many queer and trans services rely on Pride Month events for essential fundraising, especially since members of the LGBTQ community were already at higher risk for unemployment, food insecurity, and lack of insurance even before the pandemic hit.

Most of all, though, a pride event is about visibility. It’s about celebrating the victories and honouring the sacrifices and acknowledging the gaps. It’s about giving people a sense of community and belonging. There are still countries where homosexuality is illegal, and even punishable by death. But even many “progressive” countries are still getting it wrong; Trump’s Affordable Care Act rule would allow health care to discriminate against LGBTQ people, the Supreme Court is deciding whether employers can fire people just for being queer or trans, the UK’s Women and Equalities Minister has considered revising the Equality Act to keep trans women out of women’s spaces.

If you are cis and straight, do your part to create and maintain safe online spaces for queer people. Reach out to queer friends and ask if they are really okay. And check out some queer stories because yes, representation matters.

A short list of a rare genre: happy LGBTQ movies

  1. Fourth Man Out
  2. Maurice
  3. Imagine Me & You
  4. G.B.F.
  5. Pride
  6. Jongens
  7. Handsome Devil
  8. Kiss Me
  9. Beautiful Thing
  10. To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Numar
  11. Were The World Mine
  12. The Handmaiden
  13. Moonlight
  14. Laurence Anyways
  15. God’s Own Country

Ne Zha

Bear with me: I am about to attempt to describe the plot of a cartoon, which is deceptively hard work.

A chaos pearl, birthed from primordial essences, manifests as a giant crystal monster, is sucking up energy to feed its seemingly infinite potential for destruction. The Primeval Lord of Heaven, Tianzun, sends two of his disciples, Taiyi and Shen, to subdue it, but it just keeps siphoning energy, growing bigger and stronger, so the Primeval Lord Tianzun has to separate the pearl into two opposite components: a spirit pearl and a demon orb. The spirit pearl is meant to be reincarnated as a son to Li Jing, while Tianzun curses the demon orb; it will be destroyed in 3 years’ time by a powerful lightning strike. Tianzun gives them to the care of Taiyi and promises him a seat at his heavenly table if he performs well. This makes Shen insanely jealous of course, so he steals the spirit pearl, which means that Li Jing’s pregnant wife Lady Yin is possessed by the demon orb instead. Poor Lady Yin has been pregnant for 3 years and now gives birth to a demon child, Ne Zha.

If you’re following even 25% of what I’m saying, you deserve a silver medal (sorry, I’m reserving the gold for Lady Yin’s marathon pregnancy).

Ne Zha is born with unique powers, as you might expect, and he’s known (and feared) in the village as being incredibly destructive, which makes him a lonely outcast. Taiyi brings him to a universe inside a painting to train him and his progress is astounding, even if his discipline is lacking (note: this is an extremely advanced toddler). Meanwhile, Shen takes the stolen spirit pearl down to the Dragon King. The dragons are angry because they’ve been banished underwater as hell’s gatekeepers. The Dragon King believes that a son of his born of the spirit pearl would mean dragons would finally be worthy and could ascend to heaven, so he gives birth to an egg OUT OF HIS MOUTH and names the kid Ao Bing.

Against the odds, Ne Zha and Ao Bing meet and make friends, but as we know, they’re actually enemies, and they’re going to have to meet in battle on their third birthdays.

Written and directed by Yu Yang, the movie starts out with some shaky story-telling, and as you can tell by my synopsis, there’s quite a bit of vital information to parse rather quickly (we had to pause the movie, compare notes, and restart). Once it gets going, the problems get largely ironed out by some pretty compelling animation. The action scenes are of course commendable but I was also rather dazzled by the universe contained within the painting. Yu Yang takes full advantage of the perks of animation, allowing bold action sequences to communicate character, engaging the audience and fueling the film’s momentum. Kids will delight in the low-brow humour (and by low-brow I of course mean disgusting) and everyone can appreciate the visual spectacle of it all.

In China it was released exclusively in IMAX 3-D and I can imagine this would have been an excellent use of the medium. We watched the English dub on Netflix (we also had the subtitles on, which made for a mind-bending exercise as the two NEVER matched); if you do the same, make sure to check out mid- and post-credit scenes which introduce a new character and set up a sequel. The sequel was actually due to be released January 2020 in China but was postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19.

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.