Category 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.

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.

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.

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.