Author Archives: Jay

Muppets Haunted Mansion

Among the new crop of family-oriented Halloween fare on Disney Plus is this little piece of amusement park magic.

Now, if you’re any kind of Disney World fan, you already know that the Haunted Mansion is not just a beloved, 51 year old ride at Magic Kingdom, it’s got its own cult following. In the gift shops, you can find souvenirs and momentos from all the Disney movies you love, and all your favourite characters of course, but also your favourite rides, of which Haunted Mansion is arguably number one. You can buy t-shirts with the same damask pattern as the mansion’s wallpaper, pieces featuring the hitchhiking ghosts, mouse ears with the famed cameo pin on the bow, many tributes to fan fave Madame Leota, the floating head in the crystal ball, replica maid outfits similar to the ones worn by cast members working the ride, and even merchandise featuring the singing busts, which are not actually on the ride itself, but a sight to see and enjoy outside the mansion while you wait in line. It’s such a popular ride that Disney already made a movie out of it back in 2003 starring Eddie Murphy (the same year as they released another ride-inspired film, Pirates of the Caribbean). It wasn’t great, but that just leaves the door open to do better, which Disney will attempt to do next year, with Justin Simien helming the remake, set to star Owen Wilson, Rosario Dawson, Tiffany Haddish, and LaKeith Stanfield. THIS is not that movie. This is a movie starring the Muppets, and involving the ride. It is sure to please fans of the Muppets, fans of the ride, and families looking for not-scary Halloween fare. It’s hard to lose!

On Halloween night, Gonzo is challenged to spend one night in The Haunted Mansion. Obviously Gonzo is known for his bravery as the resident daredevil, so this should be a piece of cake for him (a piece of wedding cake, perhaps? Around this time of year, Disney sells tiny wedding cakes in the park in reference to the one on the ride). The Great Gonzo (voiced by Dave Goelz) brings along his pal Pepe (Bill Barretta), the King Prawn (do NOT call him a shrimp!), because what else are friends for?

Gonzo and Pepe encounter the entire Haunted Mansion gamut, including the caretaker (Darren Criss), the host (Will Arnett), and of course the bride (Taraji P. Henson), who is so gosh darn good she can pronounce king prawn in just such a way as to give you instant wood. Pepe is enchanted, and agrees to marry her, which would trap him inside the mansion for all of eternity. Which, as fans of the ride will tell you, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve visited the Haunted Mansion less than a handful of times but I can see its charms, and this movie is careful to pay tribute to as many as possible within 52 minutes (that’s brisk, baby!). You got your 999 ghosts; Statler and Waldorf in a doom buggy, Constance Hatchaway with her beating red heart and suspiciously high number of dead husbands; a stretching room with magic paintings; even the obligatory photo op at the end, complete with creepy uninvited guests.

The ride’s wide appeal is thanks to its signature Disney finesse with the details and its playful approach to the classic horror haunted house. It’s a ride fit for the whole family, as is this newest Muppet oeuvre on Disney Plus.

Under Wraps

Marshall (Malachi Barton) and Gilbert (Christian J. Simon) are best friends who couldn’t be more unalike: Marshall’s a devoted horror fan, and Gilbert’s a big fat chicken! It gives him asthma! That’s why Marshall still hasn’t seen the end of Warthead IV. On a class trip to the museum’s new Egyptian exhibit, Marshall and Gilbert make friends with the new girl Amy (Sophia Hammons), improbably also a big fan of horror movies, and pretty enthusiastic about Warthead’s surprisingly gory ending – but no worries, she doesn’t spoil it for Marshall because that’s what true friendship is all about. And also they get sorta busy because an incident at the museum that the title dutifully references with a terrible pun.

The Egypt exhibit’s only half full: the princess mummy rests in peace is her sarcophagus but the lover with whom she was buried has been stolen. In a shocking twist of fate, the antiquities thief lives right in their neighbourhood, and in fact Marshall and Gilbert have already openly speculated that he might be evil due to his cobwebby house and his last night, which sounds suspiciously like Kill-bot to kids who still make up mean nicknames. As children do, these three friends take it upon themselves to investigate the black market to solve this crime themselves, starting with a warrant-less search of their #1 suspect’s (well, only suspect’s) basement, based purely on very circumstantial evidence, by first breaking, then entering. And they’re right in the way that only a movie can be right, finding the exact thing they’re looking for in the very first place they check. Letting the mummy out of his coffin, a beam of moonlight activates the mummy’s amulet and animates our 4000 year old friend. Now our little gang is not only babysitting a living mummy, they’re also concealing him from the criminals who stole him, and trying to return him to the museum, all by midnight on Halloween, a totally not-arbitrary date.

How will these children outrun and unsmart actual murdery criminals, especially with a slow, stumbly mummy in tow? How will they also thwart their mothers and their bedtimes and the fact that they don’t have driver’s licenses? How will they continually rescue their new bandaged friend from constant blunders with technology and other classic capers? This family-friendly mummy movie has such a goofy, dancey, good-hearted monster protagonist that you can classify this as more silly than scary. Under Wraps isn’t exactly good but it is benign, providing Halloween content without fueling any late night visits to mommy and daddy’s bed. Find it on Disney Plus.

Blood of the Family Tree

Blood of the Family Tree is an experimental piece of animation; they’ll tell you it’s told in 14 instalments, though in fact it flows quite nicely from one vignette to the next. After all, they’re all part of the same story, and that story’s protagonist is blood.

Blood is a mother’s first gift to her baby; it carries life, of course, and her love, and sometimes more besides, hereditary traits and markers for future illness, for example. The narrative, if you can call it that, is as fluid as blood itself, coursing through memory and history, forging familial bonds, and carrying intergenerational trauma.

The film, which feels more like a meditation, is simple but beautiful, reflecting but not dwelling on the relationships between women, strong and beautiful bodies, the acknowledgement of yesterday’s pain. Bodies are trees are nearly interchangeable, a jumble of lines either a root system or a nervous system, or neither, or both. History and wisdom passed through the veins, intimate story-telling and secrets stored in the body.

Director/animator Christine Panushka expresses our inheritance with mesmeric hand-painted animation that looks and feels like poetry. No ordinary movie, Blood of the Family Tree inspires you to look inward and find the pulse of your own story.

Blood of the Family Tree is an official selection of the Ottawa International Animation Festival 2021.

Bingo Hell

Affectionately known in the neighbourhood of Oak Springs as ‘Gargoyle’ or ‘Granny,’ Lupita (Adriana Barraza) rules the community with a mostly benevolent first, with a few episodes of micro-vengeance against encroaching gentrification. She and her elderly posse, including Dolores (L. Scott Caldwell), who’s barely tolerating a pasty daughter-in-law, Morris (Clayton Landey), a Mr.-Fix-It who breaks more than he fixes, Clarence (Grover Coulson), the grumpy old man who runs the garage, and Yolanda (Bertila Damas), who runs the town’s failing beauty shop. This week’s community Bingo game is in her honour, raising funds to keep her doors open just a little longer.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I was drawn to this film due to its title. A bingo hall that’s more like bingo hell? Yeah, I can see that. And a couple of things have recently happened in Oak Springs that have shaken up Lupita’s usual game.

First, Mario, a widower normally part of Lupita’s crew, goes missing. It’s only been a day but he’s already missed by his community of elders, who find his absence immediately suspicious. Second, the old bingo hall disappears virtually overnight, bought out by some city slicker with money, who turns it into…another bingo hall. This one’s flashier and sexier and tempts people with extravagant jackpots. The people of Oak Springs can’t resist, but Lupita knows it’s bad news, especially the owner, who goes by Mr. Big (Richard Brake). As you might have guessed, and since this is a horror, Lupita is more or less right. Mr. Big trades in greed, and the price is steep. His bingo hall just might be the root of all evil.

I liked the title but I loved the movie. It’s rare for any movie to feature a cast of senior citizens, but it’s especially nice to see them headlining a horror. And these aren’t doddering old fools, these are vibrant, tough citizens, still fighting for their beloved neighbourhood, still fighting off evil incarnate as necessary. Someone’s got to do it!

Director Gigi Saul Guerrero writes a film, alongside Perry Blackshear and Shane McKenzie, that has clear roots in the genre, but with its fresh perspective and unexpected vigor, Bingo Hell is silly, smart, sassy, and scary. The cast of golden agers is uniformly and impressively strong, and Guerrero directs them by virtue of their age, not despite it, finding power and skill in what others may consider limitations. Guerrero’s greatest asset is Barraza, and she knows it, using her liberally, wisely, and in enchantingly subversive ways. If you’re lucky enough to find an Adriana, you definitely, definitely write a role for her. Barraza is plucky and hardy. When she wields a shotgun, you believe it. But she doesn’t confuse vulnerability with weakness. Lupita is stubborn and single-minded in her defense of her beloved community, but even she will find it difficult to save the souls of her squad when her friends are selling them willingly and enthusiastically. Will Mr. Big$ Bingo be the end of them all? Amazon Prime is where you shall find your answers, but beware: bingo is a game with one winner, and an awful lot of losers. Watch if you dare.

There’s Someone Inside Your House

On the one hand, a title like that sends chills up my spine and I feel a little less excited to be watching it alone in my stupid creaking house, but on the other hand, really? Really? Could you get any lazier? Why not ‘Look out, he’s right behind you!’ or ‘He’s definitely in the basement’ or ‘You’ll be dead before you orgasm’? Plus it isn’t even factually correct at least half of the time.

Anyway, can you get past a somewhat inane title?

Also: can you forgive some pretty heavy-handed wokeness? Normally I find it hard to find fault with people who want to be better and do better but in a horror movie it just feels shoe-horned in.

Still with me?

Makani (Sydney Park) has finally put her traumatic past behind her and has a nice group of solid friends at her new school. Rodrigo (Diego Josef) is quiet but funny once you get to know him. He’s got a crush on Alex (Asjha Cooper), the resident bitch with a heart of gold, who maybe kinda reciprocates it. Darby (Jesse LaTourette) is a space nerd and Zach (Dale Whibley) is the obligatory rich kid and Caleb (Burkely Duffield) is the gay football player and Ollie (Théodore Pellerin) is the creepy kid on the periphery. Got all that? Basic horror movie tropes with a more concerted effort toward inclusivity. Just your typical high school diversity ad when all of a sudden, someone’s picking off teenagers. Wearing a 3D-printed mask of their victim’s faces, the killer is picking off kids who are hiding secrets, and exposing them for all to see. Armed with a classic oversized knife that glints in the light when it’s not dripping in blood.

Are we rewriting the genre here? We most certainly are not. But they’re an affable bunch of kids and it’s pretty fun watching them get slaughtered. Besides, it’s Spooktober and you’ve got to fill that calendar with something slasherrific, so why not this?

Charlotte

Charlotte Salomon knew how lucky she was to escape Germany during the war, fleeing to the south of France between 1941 and 1943 where she sought refuge at a friend’s estate. She may have left Germany, but she knew she couldn’t outrun everything. Some things follow you no matter where you go.

Family haunted Charlotte from either side of the border, a long string of suicided ghosts making her question her own fate, as well as from the camps of the Holocaust where relatives have disappeared steadily. In hiding from the Nazis, Charlotte meets and marries her love, but she still can’t shake her own sense of mortality. She spends her days painting frantically, motivated to leave a record. Though young, she’s determined to paint her own autobiography, nearly 1000 images, memorializing those she’d lost and paying tribute to her own strife.

Charlotte Salomon was murdered in a gas chamber shortly after her arrival at Auschwitz in October 1943. She was 26 and pregnant. Like so many, Charlotte was supposed to be forgotten, wiped from history, but after her death, her family unearthed the paintings she’d carefully packed away.

This animated film is a tribute to her life and to her work. It honours her memory but remembers her as a real person, a young woman and talented artist who should have had a long future in front of her. Not unlike her own graphic style, the film uses bold, colourful images to recount Charlotte’s short life.

A certain film once posited that every time a bell rang, an angel got some wings. I’m of the belief that every time you watch this movie, a Nazi ghost gets a pineapple shoved up his rear. Do your part. Don’t let her memory fade. Marion Cotillard, Keira Knightley, Mark Strong, Sam Claflin, and Jim Broadbent lend their voices to make this film come alive, and if you need further enticement, I hear the pineapple crop’s particularly robust this year.

Charlotte is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

Free Guy

This movie has been on Sean’s most-anticipated list since 2019 and we’ve been waiting impatiently for quite some time. Unfortunately, this film had a theatrical-only release this summer, which excludes the likes of myself, an immuno-suppressed, likely-to-die-of-COVID person who’s obsessed with movies but not quite willing to die for them. And also her husband, who Officially Cares Whether I Live Or Die. I knew he liked me! I made him a badge and everything, but he’s a little embarrassed to wear it. Anyway, I’ve been stalking the movie rental sites like a shark, ready to pounce the moment it dropped. Blood in the water, baby! So colour me surprised when I found it first on Disney Plus – for free. Hello!

Guy (Ryan Reynolds) lives a repetitive life: wake up, feed goldfish, don blue shirt, work as bank teller, get robbed, repeat. He’s surprisingly cheerful about it, considering all the laying on the floor, fearing for your life he does on a daily basis, but it’s all he knows, so he’s pretty content. Until one day he isn’t. Guy discovers he’s an NPC, a non-playing character, in an open-world video game, one of those guys that’s just walking around so that the real characters, navigated by human gamers, can feel their world is populated, or perhaps even interact with them, briefly. And then there’s this woman, Molotovgirl (Jodie Comer), who catches her eye; as an NPC he’s all but invisible to her but once he wears the sunglasses that identify him as a character, they strike up a friendship…for starters.

Interestingly, the movie leaps in and out of the game. When it’s not following Ryan Reynolds around inside the game, it’s sitting in with the game’s real-life creators and coders. Millie (also Comer) and Keys (Joe Keery) are the game’s true originators, but Big Gaming Company’s ruthless CEO Antwan (Taika Waititi) has stolen their code. Millie has left the company but Keys is still there, and he and partner Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar) are among the first to notice that an NPC in the game seems to have gone rogue. They assume some keener has simply hacked the NPC’s code, but there’s actually much more at play: Millie and Keys’ original code wasn’t just for some shoot ’em up game, but for AI that would become self-aware. It seems that Guy has somehow reached that state on his own. He’s not just a video game free guy anymore; he’s fully conscious, sentient artificial intelligence. And it just so happens that watching him level up through the game in order to win the heart of Molotovgirl (interestingly, Milie’s in-game avatar) is highly entertaining. People around the world stop playing the game in order to watch, a crazy phenomenon that doesn’t make the company any money. In fact, sales of the game’s sequel are slumping too, which makes Antwan everyone’s new enemy. His plan to erase the code for good threatens Millie and Keys’ livelihood but more importantly, robs the world of their scientifically significant invention, and it also of course threatens Guy’s very life, for he is a self-aware consciousness, but he only exists in the game.

Don’t worry. There’s no existential crisis here, no philosophical debate. This is a popcorn movie. Video game violence mixed with Reynolds’ trademark good guy vibes make Free Guy irresistible. Reynolds gets to do what he does best, playing a naïve, hapless guy who chuckles at life’s little foibles. Guy’s best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) is just as guileless and gratified; together they’re the picture of perfect contentment until someone’s awakening starts to expose the cracks in their happy little lives.

Had Alexander Payne written/directed this, we’d have an introspective, meta exploration of the Life is a Game philosophy at its core, debating the rules, and how to win, and just who was the Great Gamer in the Sky operating the controller. And though I’d kind of like to see that movie, Free Guy, however, is in the hands of Shawn Levy, oh ye of Night at the Museum, Cheaper By the Dozen, The Internship, and Real Steel. Dude is guaranteed to keep this thing light. Super light. L-I-T-E lite, even. But that’s not a bad thing. It seems Levy has cured his habit of creating utter crap and found his stride, matching Reynolds’ sweetness and goofiness bit for bit. There’s an enthusiasm here that’s hard to beat, and Free Guy turns out to be exactly the kind of movie we need after 18 months of no movies. It’s endearing, entertaining, and energetic. Dumb, but fun. Dumb, but not brainless. Crowd-pleasing but not bland. Crowd-pleasing but not condescending. Caters to gamers with plenty of tongue-in-cheek Easter eggs, but doesn’t alienate anyone. It’s a rare family-friendly (PG-13), action-comedy-sci-fi hybrid that has something for everyone but still feels fresh and exciting. Good Great Gamer in the Sky, what more do you need?

The Rescue

I, like many of you, was riveted by the news of a Thai soccer team trapped in flooded (and flooding) cave. The rescue was harrowing, and uncertain. The whole world watched. Now we get to reexperience this miraculous mission from all angles, not just what the media reported or the Thai government allowed. Or in my case, what my limited memory could recall.

Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi stick to the unvarnished truth, and need little embellishment to make this a gripping, edge of your seat documentary. In June 2018, twelve members of soccer team The Wild Boars, aged 11-16, and their 25-year old assistant coach were playing in the Tham Luang cave when it flooded extremely quickly and over a month earlier than usual, trapping them inside. The water rose so quickly and the current was so strong that no contact was made for 11 long days. Imagine the mothers, fathers, friends, siblings, and grandparents assembled outside, praying for their safety, unsure of whether they were even still alive, knowing that if they were, they were cold, wet, hungry, sitting in darkness waiting to drown, waiting to die.

 The Thai Navy SEALs had no cave diving experience so they called in experienced recreational divers from around the world, like British divers John Volanthen and Richard Stanton, who were the first to actually find the boys alive. It would be six more days before a rescue attempt was even made, a time during which approaches and methods were hotly debated, and both time and water were their enemy. The rescue operation involved more than 10,000 people, including more than 100 divers, thousands of rescue workers, representatives from about 100 governmental agencies, 900 police officers, and 2,000 soldiers.

At the time I was deeply invested in seeing those kids come out safely, and I perhaps didn’t appreciate the how much went into their rescue. Thanks to this doc, I have a better understanding of how everything went down: how excrutiatingly crucial each small detail was to the mission’s success, how easily it could all go wrong, how to drag children underwater for over three hours without them panicking, putting their own lives at risk as well as their rescuers. Ten police helicopters, 7 ambulances, more than 700 diving cylinders, and the pumping of more than a billion litres of water from the caves were all coordinated for this rescue effort’s success, and the truth is, the plan was improvised on the spot. No protocol existed for a mission that had never been attempted, never even thought possible. These volunteer divers put their lives on the line to save the children of strangers, and only their own bravery and faith got them through it.

I knew how this mission ended, but I was still riveted by its execution. In fact, the ending is made all the more extraordinary once you discover the true breadth of its ambition, the true depth of its risk.

The Rescue screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival where it won the People’s Choice Award for Documentaries. Look for it in theatres October 8.

Inexorable

Marcel Bellmer (Benoît Poelvoorde) is an author some might consider past his prime if it weren’t for his wife Jeanne (Mélanie Doutey), a powerful publisher, who makes sure his name is still relevant. Once celebrated for his best-selling novel Inexorable, he’s never been able to replicate its success, and lately he’s been knotted up with writer’s block. He’s hoping that moving in to his wife’s family’s sprawling country manor might be just the change of scenery to jolt his creativity. Jeanne and young daughter Lucie (Janaina Halloy) accompany him, but since Jeanne is very busy with work, she engages a new nanny, Gloria (Alba Gaïa Bellugi), who bonds immediately with Lucie.

As Marcel settles into his late father-in-law’s office, the old mansion groaning and moaning around him, the words still don’t come, but Gloria proves a welcome distraction. She cuts a sympathetic figure, a shy and lonely orphan grateful to be part of a family setting. She’s particularly drawn to Marcel, confessing her admiration for him and his work, insisting that Inexorable saved her life when things were particularly dark. But as she becomes increasingly entangled in the family, her presence becomes more threatening, and she becomes a lot less meek.

Director Fabrice Du Welz creates a creeping atmosphere as the setting for his drama. The estate is large enough to feel intimidating in itself, but there are always menacing corners, ominous shadows, places to hide, places to spy. Gloria is the snake lying in wait, full of secrets and shady intentions. Still, it’s Marcel’s own past that will haunt him the most. Du Welz and co-writers Joséphine Darcy Hopkins and Aurélien Molas use the framework to poke at the myth of the literary genius, but it goes much deeper than that. Every confrontation builds toward something (forgive me) inevitable. Even anticipating the worst, I couldn’t shake the dread, but needed the release of a long-promised boiling point. I wanted it and I feared it, and by golly I got it. But thanks to Du Welz’s vision and style, it was somehow expected but also a whole lot more.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

People will tell you that The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a manic mess of quirks and cameos, and I won’t deny it. In fact, I embrace it. I liked it that way.

Every year, Hollywood greenlights a certain number of biopics, biopics being fairly reliable around Oscar time. But they’ve been making moving pictures for more than a century; at some point, we’re going to be scraping the bottom of the barrel for suitable subjects. I know some critics have argued that Louis Wain isn’t exactly first-rate material, and I’ll confess to not knowing his name or his art before watching this film. Now, however, I’d consider myself a fan. I can see why director Will Sharpe would choose him: Louis Wain was a complete weirdo. Today we’d have a much more sophisticated label for him, but the Victoria set just thought him strange and unusual, and he was happily oblivious to exist outside of society’s expectations.

When we meet Louis in 1881, he’s the head of the family to aging and ailing mother and 5 unmarried sisters. He’s not exactly up for the task, or even aware of it, more concerned with creative pursuits, which of course pay diddly squat, which doesn’t exactly address the family’s growing financial concerns. Wain’s peculiarities keep him so far outside of the natural order of things, everyone’s shocked to discover he’s actually a romantic. And in fact, he’s fallen in love with his sisters’ governess, Emily (Claire Foy). While it’s shocking that Louis is suddenly going to marry, it’s even more shocking that he’s chosen such an inappropriate bride. She’s not only the help, she’s also a spinster at her advanced age. The scandal! Louis’s mother is mortified. But he marries her anyway, and insists that the family treats her well.

Such a beautiful, whirlwind romance can only end one way: she dies. She dies young, leaving Louis a weird, bereft loner who only has the heart to do one thing. Draw cat pictures. He would draw his wife pictures of their beloved cat to cheer her up as the cancer took her, and now he keeps doing it, illustrating obsessively, becoming famous for his cat cartoons, but never rich. Louis never did have a head for business.

He did, however, have a head full of wild and fantastical thoughts, and the film treats him like an avant-garde genius. This is the stuff that creams Cumberbatch’s knickers. He’s the King of Quirk, and he lays it on thick, but I never felt it was over the top or distracting; it was wonderful. It was Cumber at his Batchiest, all ticks, and odd mannerisms, and social ineptitude. He’s not serving up mere ice cream, he’s the whole damn sundae bar, and who doesn’t live for ‘more is more’ at a sundae bar? Cumberbatch does, and I’m here for it.

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Yes, this makes for some wild shifts in film, tonalities that spasm all over the screen, but it feels like an extension of the character, never quite managing to follow the rules, never caring to either. Wain had plenty of darkness in him too, a true artist even in his soul, which a droll voiceover by Olivia Colman drives home, literally giving voice to his damaged inner life, his unbearable grief, his tattered mental state.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is flawed, but it’s also spectacular, especially as a fan of the inimitable Benedict Cumberbatch. Louis Wain didn’t live inside the box he was meant to. He felt life sizzle all around him. He wasn’t typical, or perhaps even neurotypical, but he dreamed big, loved big, lost big, grieved big, and left a legacy that includes a great many cat pictures, but more besides, something intangible that couldn’t possibly be captured on film but between Cumberbatch and Sharpe, is made somehow real.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is an official selection of TIFF 2021. Look for it on Amazon Prime November 5.