Author Archives: Jay

Snakehead

Perhaps, like me, you’re familiar with the term coyote, used to indicate someone who smuggles immigrants across the Mexican-American border. But I hadn’t heard about snakeheads, Chinese gangs who smuggle immigrants into America, and other wealthy nations, using methods ranging from fake passports to shipping containers. Human smugglers charge astronomical sums to deliver people to their destinations (no guarantees of course), often trapping their customers into indentured servitude while they pay their large and quickly rising debts.

Snakeheads mean illegal immigration is thriving in many places, but director Evan Jackson Leong has a particular story to tell, and it takes place in New York’s Chinatown.

Sister Tse (Shuya Chang) survives the impossibly difficult trip to America, but is immediately arrested upon arrival, her child ripped from her arms. It takes years for her to scrape herself together for a return trip, but before she can search for her daughter, she has to pay off that astonishing debt. Prostitution is the preferred method, but Sister Tse is strong and rebellious, eventually striking a deal to work alongside Dai Mah (Jade Wu), the top crime boss and snakehead in Chinatown. Don’t go underestimating Dai Mah just because she looks like a sweet Chinese Grandma; she’s the boss because she’s earned it, one brutal, bloody, and ruthless act at a time. And believe it or not, Dai Mah is based on the real crime stories of Sister Ping, who ran one of New York’s largest snakehead rings for 20 years.

Though Sister Tse proves herself loyal and hard-working, the competition to be Dai Mah’s right-hand-man is fierce, particularly from Dai Mah’s son Rambo (Sung Kang). Having grown up in America the son of a successful mobster, Dai Mah thinks Rambo is soft, and though he may not be as motivated or hard-working as Sister Tse, he’s just as savage as his mother, and isn’t about to let anyone else take his rightful place in the gang.

Shuya Chang plays Sister Tse with strength, resilience, and a shrewdness that’s as admirable as it is necessary. But we never forget the truly vicious environment she’s navigating, or the consequences should she no longer be of us. She is single-minded in her pursuit, and highly driven, yet we see her develop a vey different kind of power structure than Dai Mah’s, who relies on fear and threats, whereas Sister Tse offers reciprocity, which gains her respect. Once Dai Mah’s protégé, Sister Tse is seeming more and more like a rival, turning Dai Mah’s maternal overtures into something more sinister.

Director Evan Jackson Leong made this decade-long labour of love thanks to Kickstarter, and the warmth of the Chinatown community, which opened the doors to its homes and businesses to allow him some unbeatably authentic locations. He dedicates the film to the mothers, sisters, and matriarchs of Asian communities, and though his film is showing an ugly, gritty part of life, you can appreciate that at its core, it really is a film about women who will do anything to give their children better lives. We come to understand some of the real reasons people choose to immigrate.

Snakehead is thrilling because the stakes are personal and the action is ripped from the headlines. We love a sneak peek at the dirty criminal underworld, but we’re never allowed to forget that human smuggling is real, its human cost high. The cast is strong, and Chang in particular is its beating heart. Determined to win back what she’s lost, her power is found in what she gives up on her path toward redemption.

Snakehead is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

French Exit

Manhattan socialite Frances Price has burned through the inheritance left by dead husband Frank and is on the verge of destitution. You wouldn’t know it from her demeanor; Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer) is insouciant. She and grown son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), as co-dependent a pair as they come, continue to live as they always have, cavalier about their cash as they throw it around without thought. The Prices’ accountant, however, is signaling a 5-alarm fire. Chastened, Frances and Malcolm sell off what they can before the bank swipes it all, and slink off to Paris where they’ll live cheaply in a borrowed apartment.

Or not.

Frances continues to spend money like it’s going out of style, like she’s allergic to it, like it’s completely meaningless to her. Outside of their comfort zone in Paris, they assemble an eclectic cast of characters including a cat they call Frank, believing it to be the spirit of their dead husband/father; a lonely fan who refers to herself as Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), who insinuates herself quite boldly, and whom Frances surprisingly tolerates; Madeleine the Medium (Danielle Macdonald) who speaks to the dead; Malcolm’s ex-fiancée Susan (Imogen Poots), who arrives boasting a new fiancé; and many more besides.

Watching French Exit, a film I’d anticipated quite fervently, I had two thoughts: 1. director Azazel Jacobs is trying very hard to make a Wes Anderson movie, and 2. he’s no Wes Anderson. But he borrows quite heavily from him, with his shoebox setting, a dysfunctional family, dark comedy, deadpan line delivery, and of course Anderson’s signature contradictory characters, who often say and do terrible things, yet we still root for them because their flaws make them fragile, and human.

Though I love the source material (Patrick DeWitt’s novel), the film didn’t quite connect. Trying and failing to be Wes Andersons sets us up for inevitable disappointment. DeWitt’s novel is quirky, it belongs in a slightly surreal, slightly stylistic universe, but the film adaptation needed to find its own brand of quirk instead of plagiarizing from someone else. The only saving grace here is Michelle Pfeiffer, who’s actually quite astonishing. Not only is she perfection as Frances Price, a woman whose feet never seem to quite touch the ground, she carries the film on her slim shoulders. Frances isn’t easy to know. She keeps everyone but son Malcolm at arm’s length. She’s caustic and arch and sometimes ironic, but never earnest, rarely sincere. Disdain drips from her like ash from her cigarette. She’s withholding, but she has the capacity to surprise us. Pfeiffer delivers such a nuanced performance that even though we never quite shake all the secrets and motivations out of Frances, we still get on board, we come to see her as quite empathetic, hard to do for a rich white woman of so much privilege it’s practically her perfume. Everything else is just a bit of a disappointment, but like a mother heroically hoisting a car single-handedly to save her child, so Pfeiffer does for this film, even if it isn’t worthy of her.

Ali & Ava

Ali (Adeel Akhtar) smiles his way through a troubled marriage. With good humour and loud music, he focuses on doing for others, including his tenants, with whom he has a remarkably amicable relationship. In fact, he’s picking up one of his tenants’ kids from from school when he meets Ava, an Irish teacher at the school. Ava (Claire Rushbrook) is a single mother of 5 (most of them grown, though not necessarily gone), and Ali offers her a ride. She’s tired but she smiles easily, and before they’re much down the road the pair are already bonding over their mutual love of music (though notably not the same music).

Writer-director Clio Barnard may refer to this as a working-class love story, but I’m fairly certain its protagonists would not. They are simply drawn to each other, irrepressibly so, despite their differing backgrounds and statuses and skin colour. They’re both living through tumultuous times and though it’s safe to say neither was looking for a romance, they are both open to finding joy in unexpected places. Not everyone is so open; Ava’s grown son is less than pleased to find a British Pakistani man cuddling his mam on the couch. He brandishes a sword and runs him straight out. So while the initial attraction may have been based on the need for fun and distraction, they quickly come across some pretty serious barriers and have to wonder whether all of this is worth it.

Barnard has drawn some exceptionally authentic characters, brought to life by a very talented pair of actors. Akhtar and Rushbrook live in these skins, they feel like your neighbours, you know them somehow, and you like them even as they falter. The complexity of their relationship allows for a whole spectrum of emotion, but Barnard applies it with a light touch, her actors keeping their performances as subtle as they are precise. There’s a lot to unpack here: grief, trauma, hate, disappointment, but through it all, there’s a buoyancy that keeps lighting their path. There is hope in vulnerability, and strength in pursuing unlikely connections.

Ali & Ava is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

Medusa

This movie had me thinking of Handmaid’s Tale – of the women of Gilead, in particular. Many of these women, including Serena Waterford, helped create this new world order where women are completely sublimated, supposedly in the name of god, but actually for the strengthening of the patriarchy. As a commander’s wife, Serena enjoys the highest position a woman can achieve in Gilead, which is to say, no position at all. She is to stay at home, completely voiceless, caring for or attempting to have babies. Forgetting her position means harsh punishment, even the removal of body parts, to remind her of her place. So she lashes out in the way that she can, by abusing the little power she has over the servants in her house. Cooks and cleaners, called Marthas, are fair game, but the Handmaids (young women placed in the homes of high-ranking officials to be raped repeatedly until they bear them children are called ‘Handmaids’) take the brunt of the wives’ wrath. Aunts are the women in charge of training the Handmaids to do their duty and to remain submissive at all times; Aunt Lydia seems to relish the opportunity to cruelly punish the women who have trouble complying. I always wonder: are the Serenas and Lydias evil? Are they worse than the men who force them into these positions? Have they internalized misogyny or turned traitor on their own gender, or are they merely surviving in a world that pits woman against woman for scraps at best? Are they victims, or monsters, or something in between?

Medusa takes place in “today’s” Brazil, where many mourn the loss of “good” Christian values and have taken it upon themselves to right what they perceive to be wrong. Mariana is just 21 years old, but the pressure on her and her friends is already astronomical. They have to keep up pure and saintly appearances at all times while being relegated to the bottom rung due to their sex. They act out, not against their oppressors, but against their own gender, against other young women they deem deviant. Donning truly creepy masks, they stalk the night streets in a large and frightening gang, hunting down a slut or a sinner, beating her mercilessly, and forcing her to confess her sins as they record on their phones. Beauty and youth are of course the most important currency, but also somehow treated with suspicion. You can’t win, and the punishments are severe. And when Mariana and her friends start to realize this, that there aren’t but victims on either side of their transactions, the urge to rebel is even stronger.

Writer-director Anita Rocha da Silveira saw radical Christian factions popping up in Brazil and needed to write about it, bending reality with mythology, and creating something that feels all too possible. Policing women’s bodies and minds with such strict control inevitably leads to some boiling point, but Silveira tempers the dark with some light, some levity. By leaning in to the horror, she exposes the hypocrisy and highlights the rage. Once it’s unleashed, the real fun begins.

Freeland

Devi is a relic. She’s been cultivating legendary pot strains on her farm for decades, but those days are over. Marijuana is legal now, and growers have to be legit too. Devi (Krisha Fairchild) has been a black-market producer for so long she doesn’t know anything else. Her small outfit certainly doesn’t have the funds to be retrofitted to government standards. She’s getting hit with fines she can’t afford left and right, she’s begging her small contingent of transient pickers to accept deferred payment, she’s desperately trying to find a buyer for her product, she’s scrambling to keep her land, all while racing to bring in this harvest, which may be her last.

Freeland isn’t really a movie about the rapidly-changing cannabis industry, that’s just an interesting backdrop for an intimate character portrait. It’s not just Devi’s farm which has become obsolete, it’s her too, or at least that’s how she feels as she loses her grip on the market, her community, even the hired hands with whom she’s usually quite friendly. Her sense of paranoia and otherness grows until she loses control. Fairchild is of course a big reason why this works. Directors Mario Furloni and Kate McLean trust her to do the work, to embody a formidable woman who will not go gently into that good night.

If her long gray hair a past dotted with orgies doesn’t convince you, maybe the mason jars of money buried around her property will: Devi’s a hippie, a holdover from a different time and place. But make no mistake, she’s not all peace and love. No stranger to a gun, Devi’s prepared to go down fighting, and Fairchild has us believing in her commitment so much we’re on the edge of our seats, equal parts fascinated and terrified to find out how this all ends.

Furloni and McLean allow Devi to be a multi-faceted protagonist, but if she’s not always likable, they do always spare her some empathy. This is an outsider’s story, a rare gem that makes excellent use of its elderly protagonist, who may be old, and may be down, but isn’t ready yet to count herself out.

** Debuts in select theatres October 15th **
On Demand everywhere November 19th

Werewelves Within

Forest Ranger Finn (Sam Richardson) has literally just arrived in the small town of Beaverfield and meets fellow new-comer, postal worker Cecily (Milana Vayntrub). Together these outsiders navigate the quirky characters populating the town and bond over a shared love of the outdoors. They’ve arrived at a strange time for Beaverfield; the town is divided by a proposed gas pipeline. Tale as old as time (ish): pipeline will bring in cash, but also rape the land and whatnot. What to do, what to do? Lucky for them a representative of the gas company is staying at the town’s local inn so he can offer up totally impartial advice at a moment’s notice. Finn and Cecily are staying there too. In fact, pretty much the whole town will soon be staying there as a thick snowfall leaves them storm-fucked and snowed in.

As mentioned, the townsfolk are pretty uniformly weird, and the pipeline argument has caused a lifetime’s worth of pettiness and suspicion and resentment to resurface, leaving them at each other’s throats. But the morning after the storm gives them sometimes even more pressing to disagree about: something, some creature perhaps, is terrorizing their small community.

The town’s generators have been taken out and torn up one by one. A small dog goes missing, presumed eaten. A dead body turns up, frozen pretty much right under their noses, and then someone’s hand gets chomped off. Everyone’s a suspect, everyone’s sharing very tight quarters, everyone’s super high strung…and oh yeah, there’s no getting in or out of the town. Have at it!

This is a comedy-horror hybrid, and apparently a video game adaptation (though take it from me: you do NOT have to be familiar with the source material whatsoever to enjoy the film). This film is as advertised: scary and funny, and surprisingly enjoyable. Sam Richardson is my jam and I’m inclined to love anything he’s in. As Finn, he gets to deploy his aw-shucks brand of charm, practically an over grown boy scout who’s impossible to resist. He takes ownership here, leading the cast in their quest to suss out whatever creature’s stalking them. Happily, the rest of the cast (including Cheyenne Jackson, George Basil, Sarah Burns, Michaela Watkins, Catherine Curtin, and Michael Chernus) is in on the fun, everyone adding their own unique ingredients to make a pretty strange brew. It’s the kind of ridiculous that’s easy to laugh at and easy to forgive if (when) it doesn’t quite make sense.

True Things

Kate

Kate (Ruth Wilson) is having another dreary day at the office, one in a string of many, making up the bulk of her dreary little life. But today is different. Sitting behind her desk as a benefit claims worker, Kate catches the eye of a claimant who looks like the kind of sexy bad news that could shake up her life. With dyed-blond hair and perpetual 5-o’clock shadow, this guy is easily identifiable as newly released from prison, and Ruth doesn’t need much more than that to fuel her fantasies. But before you know it, they’re going at it FOR REAL right there in the parking lot. It’s hot and frantic and leaves her breathless. Consider Kate obsessed.

Blond guy (Tom Burke) is cheeky and charming (when he wants to be), and handsome in that dangerous way, making for some pretty sexy fantasizing. But it’s not just the sex that invades her fantasies; soon she’s picturing marriage and children and mortgages, the whole kit and caboodle. Which, to be fair to Blond, is not at all what he’s promising. In fact, if you weren’t dick-matized by him, you’d probably clock him for Trouble with a capital T. Unfortunately for Kate, her life was had a bad boy-sized hole in her life. Blond fills it imperfectly, but it’s better than nothing, and Kate’s serious infatuation is more than capable of filling in seams. She’s so intoxicated that her everyday life starts to fall apart because she just can’t get her mind off him. And Blond guy plays her like a banjo, doling out his affection in smaller and smaller portions. Toxic men seem to understand intermittent reinforcement intuitively; rewarding someone all the time is good, but rewarding someone irregularly actually keeps them on the hook much longer, perpetuates that false hope for longer, keeps a woman sniffing after the wrong guy for far longer than she should.

Ruth Wilson’s been doing some noteworthy and varied work lately, and I would definitely rate this role among it. We likely all have a friend, and perhaps even a personal experience, of falling head over heels for someone we shouldn’t have. Kate is consumed, almost erased, by the strength of her desire. Director Harry Wootliff feels intimately familiar with the scenario as well, the sensual exploration, the hunger to not be alone, the dizzying highs, the unfathomable lows. Together they compose something that feels desperate and authentic, a classic story of self-destructive compulsion. Blond embodies the bad boy trope, oozing so much exaggerated sexuality that even a smart woman like Kate can’t resist, despite red flags like callousness, narcotism, and unavailability. Wilson’s meticulously-observed performance resonates, speaking to our unconscious, evolutionary desires.

The Falls

COVID quarantine has been tough on a lot of us. Isolation is difficult, but being stuck with people you dislike can be just as destructive.

Mother-daughter Pin-wen (Alyssa Chia) and Xiao Jing (Gingle Wang) are already not in a great place. Xiao Jing is a surly teenager, Pin-wen works hard to support their two-person household. They don’t get along, there’s resentment flowing both ways; Xiao Jing tends to lock herself in her room a lot, and maybe that’s for the best.

But then: COVID. Xiao Jing is exposed at school and forced the quarantine. Finally, a legit excuse to hide in her bedroom, no questions asked. But when Pin-wen loses her job and is also at home full-time, things start to deteriorate. Like too many others, Pin-wen’s mental health suffers during the pandemic’s forced isolation. Xiao Jing notices small signs that things aren’t going well, but what can she do?

Movies tell stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. In 2020, all 7+ billion of us on the planet started living in extraordinary circumstances. These were unprecedented times. Every single one of us built pathways through dark times, improvising along the way. Pin-wen’s illness means Xiao Jing has to grow up and find solutions to problems that never should have been hers to deal with. This pandemic has affected us in so many ways, many of which we won’t begin to understand for years down the line. Watching this mother-daughter duo navigate tough times reminds us of how much we ourselves have had to adapt. This is an act of compassion, both for these two women, stronger than they know, and for ourselves, who’ve been through the ringer too.

Writer-director Mong-Hong Chung lensed the film himself, did so much of this himself, poured himself into a project during a time that begged for stories to be told, so he did. Chung knows that he can afford to be subtle here, it helps us to relate, and perhaps for the first time, this is a film where we can all relate. Not everyone will want to be reminded of the hardships they faced during the pandemic, but for those who don’t mind, this is a quiet but moving little film.

The Falls is an official selection of TIFF 2021

Out of Sync

This humble little film from Spain may seem like an odd choice among TIFF’s more prominent titles, but after reading its synopsis, I knew I had to see it, knew I’d never seen anything like it.

C. (Marta Nieto) is a workaholic, hiding from life’s disappointments inside her dark studio where she works as a sound designer.

[A brief note about sound design because I’m a movie nerd and I can’t help myself. A sound designer is in charge of creating all the little (and big!) noises you hear in a movie. Clicking a pen, shuffling papers, ramming an armored truck into a brick wall at high speed – even out of this world stuff like a duplicitous jellied orb beaming down from the night sky – the sound designer has to place those sounds in a movie (or a show, a play, a video game, a slot machine, a children’s game, or an electric car). They comb through a database of previously recorded sounds looking for the perfect one(s), or they record it themselves. A particularly crisp stalk of celery may stand in for the snap of a human bone, and then that recording will be manipulated until it sounds both realistic and totally gross. That’s sound design!]

So C. is a sound designer, and a good one, sought after and respected, but lately her projects are getting returned, her clients unsatisfied. C. is suffering from auditory neuropathy, a totally real condition in which her hearing is simply out of sync. Her ear detects noise but doesn’t immediately report it to her brain. She’ll clap her hands, but won’t hear that clap right away. At first her hearing’s just a little off, just a fraction of a second, but as anyone who’s ever watched a movie where the dialogue and the lips don’t line up, that’s a very crucial fraction, and our brains itch and revolt when things don’t look right. But C.’s condition worsens, the delay increases to several seconds, then minutes. She’ll make herself a cup of tea and then be startled 7 minutes later when she finally hears the kettle whistling aggressively. Or she’ll answer the door to find no one there – whoever rang 18 minutes ago is long since gone. When what you see and what you hear don’t sync up, it’s not just a hearing problem, it feels like your whole brain is on fire. It must be exhausting to experience the world in this way, and it’s crippling to a person like C. who has built her whole career around the excellence of her ears.

Nieto is incredible here. C. is a loner by nature, and not prone to melodrama, so director Juanjo Giménez Peña virtually puts us into her shoes so we can experience her confusion, frustration, and loss along with her. C.’s path toward healing has her exploring her past, her childhood, her family roots. She unravels past mysteries and uncovers new skills, both of which prey on her sense of identity. It’s a fascinating movie with great character work and a premise that keeps unfolding in new and surprising ways. And did I mention the sound design (Marc Bech, Oriol Tarragó) is spectacular, as of course it must be in a movie like this, where all ears are perked up and playing extra close attention.

Out Of Sync is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

Three Floors

One building in Rome, 3 apartments, 3 families each with their own stories. Yet their stories are about to collide, quite literally in the beginning, and then figuratively though no less forcefully after that.

The entitled son of two upright judges swerves the car he’s driving drunkenly in order to avoid hitting his pregnant neighbour Monica (Alba Rohrwacher), who is in labour and taken to the street to flag down her own cab since her husband is routinely away from home. Instead he hits and kills another pedestrian before ploughing into one of the units. Owner Lucio (Riccardo Scamarcio) is relieved to find his family unharmed but he and his wife jump into action to help, leaving their young daughter under the care of their elderly neighbour. Sometime during that hectic night, the elderly neighbour and the little girl go missing, and Lucio can’t help but imagine the very worst, the neighbour morphing in his head from doting grandfatherly type to pervert in the bush. And that’s just how the movie starts. Their entangled narratives keep on chugging along, unfurling in surprising ways.

Director Nanni Moretti excels at shady morals and knotted ethics. Each character has been implicated in a sort of test, an exchange that pushes over some blurry line that pushes them to live at the extremes of human experience. Three Floors doesn’t necessarily judge the character as play witness to their hypocrisy as they attempt to tread through very murky waters. Yet for each act of reckless irresponsibility, we also see compassion and generosity, or at least the possibility for it.

There’s a common vein that runs through these stories, uniting them by more than just geography. Unfortunately I found the film to be too uneven to be enjoyable. For every juicy bite of steak, there’s a whole lot of boiled potato and flavorless frozen peas that must be swallowed as part of the package. And it’s not just the tedious valleys that are objectionable, it’s the absence of a single character to root for. To err is human, but these folks are a little too human, if you catch my drift, and I’m a little too less than divine to forgive. Three Floors was an official selection of TIFF 2021 but it was one of the more forgettable films in its lineup.