Category Archives: Jay

Judy & Punch

If your memory needs refreshing, Punch and Judy are traditional puppets who have been entertaining crowds in the UK and beyond for over 400 years. They started out as marionettes in Italy; Punch was derived from the Neapolitan stock character of Pulcinella, which was anglicized to Punchinello and eventually just Punch when the show made the jump over to Great Britain, and the marionettes became hand puppets out of convenience or laziness or both.The show costarred Mr. Punch’s wife, Judy, and a cast of rotating characters. Much like a soap opera, the story wasn’t fixed, but it always featured some key elements: their baby, mishandled by Punch, a hungry crocodile, an officious policeman, a prop string of sausages, a generic hangman named Jack Ketch. The show was a series of scenes in which various foes come for Punch, but each is eventually victim to his slapstick (note: though Mr. Punch does an awful lot of clowning around, his slapstick is indeed a large stick used for slapping people, often to death). Mr. Punch will then utter his famous catchphrase “That’s the way to do it!” which is how the expression “pleased as punch” was derived – from his sense of gleeful self-satisfaction. Despite the numerous murders, a Punch and Judy show is a comedy, often provoking shocked laughter.

Cut to 2020 when writer-director Mirrah Foulkes re-imagines the show’s origin story in her own sordid tale, called Judy & Punch. In the tiny 17th century English village of Seaside (actually nowhere near the sea), Punch and Judy entertain the villagers with their weekly puppet show. The violent show is right at home among these people, who satisfy their bloodlust with public “stoning days” where their anarchic mob rule interprets random coincidences as witchcraft, condemning their neighbours to die – unless of course the crime is though to be particularly heinous, wherein they might just be hanged immediately.

At home, Punch (Damon Herriman) is a drunk and Judy (Mia Wasikowska) his hard-working and long-suffering wife. One day while she makes a quick trip to market, Punch accidentally kill their baby during a drinking binge. Judy has been gone but an hour and is understandably heart broken to find her baby murdered but her sobs only enrage Punch, who then makes her a victim of his slapstick. He disposes of both bodies.

Allow me to interrupt myself here to say this: when the baby dies, it is under circumstances so perfectly orchestrated, so perfectly designed and directed that I uttered a single “Ha!,” followed by a horrified silence as I processed that the baby is in fact dead. If you were not familiar with the particular and very specific brand of dark humour found in a traditional Punch and Judy show, you might think that this movie has a serious problem with tone. But understanding the history means you cannot fail to admire Foulkes’ ability to find what has to be the very slimmest of veins wherein a baby’s death can be both funny and cruel, and executing it to perfection.

In the film, Judy narrowly survives the beating, unbeknownst to Punch, and hides among a band of outcast heretics while she heals. Together they plot revenge not just on Punch but indeed on the whole town who have so successfully driven out or eliminated anyone with a difference. In this way, Foulkes is able to explore the kind of atmosphere where such a show could have proliferated. Punch is undoubtedly a bad man. Each show usually includes a scene wherein Punch lays out the bodies of each and every one of his victims for the audience to count, yet they still cheer when he bests the hangman, or indeed even the devil himself. These were cruel times fueled by fear: if not them, then us.

Mia Wasikowska delivers a strong performance as a woman with talent, brains, and resources, yet so few options that she must hide in the forest for fear that her survival may be interpreted as witchcraft. Herriman pulls off an even harder feat as damned Mr. Punch: a fool, a predator, a charmer, a pretender. The thing about puppets is that whether dancing with their wives or bludgeoning them, their expressions never change. Perhaps a painted-on grin helped the audience swallow his violent attacks. But our Mr. Punch is a man, a puppeteer. Herriman has to be believable as both the bumbling buffoon chasing after a dog who’s stolen his sausages, and mere moments later, a father who has not only charbroiled his own baby, but pinned her murder on elderly innocents. And he is!

I am reminded of a time back in 2016 when I reviewed a “black comedy” that I felt was SO black it merited a whole new category, so I invented the Vantablack comedy, Vantablack being in fact a colour that is blacker than black, absorbing all but 0.035% of light; a black so black our human minds can’t actually perceive it. I would like to unroll this categorization once again, in honour of Judy & Punch, Mirrah Foulkes’ audacious directorial debut.

Judy & Punch is available digitally on Apple/iTunes as well as VOD services.

 

End of Sentence

Frank (John Hawkes) is recently widowed when he picks up his estranged son Sean (Logan Lerman) from prison. Neither is exactly keen to spend time with the other, but Frank’s late wife’s last wish was for her son and her husband to travel to Ireland together to scatter her ashes in a special lake. Frank is determined to honour her wish, and Sean is determined to be in California in five days time. A deal is struck – Frank promises to deliver Sean to California by way of Ireland – and two reluctant travel companions, plus the ashes of their only common bond, are on their way east – very east.

In Ireland, Frank will come to understand his dearly departed wife a little better, while Sean will come to understand his distant father. None of these will be easy lessons. In fact, long before the mission is either accomplished or abandoned, you and I will start to suspect that the dead wife orchestrated the trip not so much out of preference for her final resting place but perhaps as one last attempt to reunite the two men in her life from beyond the grave. Of course, as in life, so in death: Frank and Sean share a complicated and painful history, and the Irish countryside, beautiful as it may be, is not a magical cure.

Michael Armbruster writes a story that is sensitive but not sentimental about two men who share the same grief but process it side by side rather than together. The story is about men, and how they will relate to each other now that their moderator/interpreter/buffer is gone. It is quite possible that Frank and Sean have never been in a room just the two of them before, and quite clear that this is their preference. And yet – mother knows best? Certainly in her last days she must have worried about them, about her son already careening down the wrong path, unlikely to succeed upon release without the one person who always believed in him, and about her husband, so unable to connect, so solitary and cold in his default demeanor. The script here is brilliant because it allows us to read and explore these things through action and inaction rather than constantly looking back, and director Elfar Adalsteins reinforces this idea by showing rather than telling. This leaves room for the audience to see a bit of themselves in this dynamic: bits of their own grief, their own fraught relationships, their own pain, desire, comfort, and hope for the future, and the story becomes that much more relatable, that much more resonant.

I knew nothing of this movie when we came upon it for rent on VOD, but it turned out to be one of those unexpected cinematic gems just waiting to be mined.

The Vast of Night

Picture it: small town New Mexico, sometime in the late 1950s. On this particular evening, the whole town is crowded into the high school gym to watch a basketball game. It’s literally standing room only. The players’ shorts are very short; the cheerleaders’ skirts are very long. The town’s streets are all but deserted. The only two people who seem not to be at the game are a couple of intrepid teenagers – fast-talking Fay (Sierra McCormick) is the town’s telephone switchboard operator and charismatic Everett (Jake Horowitz) is hosting a live radio show. Fay is of course very faithfully tuned into the radio program and notices the broadcast is briefly interrupted by a strange audio frequency.

Few witness it of course, most people being at the game, but one man who does calls in with quite a story. He’s heard these tones before. And boy does he have some theories. From there, Fay and Everett get caught up in a night neither will ever forget.

The Vast of Night is a pretentious title for a film eager to live up to that insinuation. Stylistically it’s reminiscent of The Twilight Zone; a retro sci-fi throwback that strains the limits of its (low) budget but proves good ideas trump production value when it comes to building a watchable, suspenseful film. Most of all I enjoyed the dynamic between the two young actors. McCormick in particular has a massive job handling a demanding long take but handles it like a true professional. The two really convey a sense of immediacy that contributes richly to the film’s ominous atmosphere.

Despite some very strong elements, I never quite liked the film as much as I wanted to. I didn’t really enjoy the film’s conceits, or director Andrew Patterson’s self-conscious attempts to use all the tricks in his bag in one go. And some of his choices are just confounding: why the black screen, for example? During a long exchange with a caller during the live radio broadcast, we mostly focus on Everett’s face as he absorbs the story, but sometimes the camera cuts away to…nothing. A totally black, blank screen. And then back to Everett, who continues to listen intently, sitting perfectly still, hardly giving anything away on his face, and then back to black. I’ve thought a long time about this choice and though I’ve come up with a few plausible scenarios, I don’t like any of them. It feels more like a mistake than a choice. Later on in the film, when two people are running across a field, the camera spends multiple lengthy takes focusing on knees down. This is likely a budgetary concern, either the shot cost them enough that they had to use it a little too liberally in order to justify it, or they simply couldn’t afford to show anything that might have happening thighs and above. Either way, I don’t want the line item to be so glaringly apparent on the screen.

What I do want is another film from Patterson, who’s clearly got some potential if he hasn’t already burned all his bridges (one of the items in the film’s IMDB trivia section is a list of all the film festivals who rejected the movie – a particularly ungracious display of privilege from a first-time white, male director, and some pretty juvenile sour grapes), and some better material for McCormick, who deserves to showcase her talent.

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 (Chant√© 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.