Category Archives: Jay

Over The Moon

When Fei Fei is a little girl, her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) tells her about the moon goddess Chang’e. The popular myth says that many, many years ago, ten suns rose in the sky together, scorching the Earth. The archer Houyi shot down nine of them, and was rewarded an elixir for immortality. He did not take it as he did not wish to become immortal without his beloved wife Chang’e. But one day his apprentice broke into his house to steal it, and to prevent him gaining it, Chang’e drank it herself. She ascended to the heavens, choosing the moon as her residence, where she mourns her husband to this day, because true love lasts forever.

Fei Fei’s mother passed away, and every year when her family gathers for the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, there’s an extra reason to remember her mother. But this year she is surprised to learn that her father (John Cho) has invited an unexpected guest: his new girlfriend, Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh) and her son, Chin. Upset by this sudden turn of events, Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) decides to build a rocket ship to the moon so she can enlist Chang’e’s help to remind her father that true love (ie, his first love, ie, Fei Fei’s mother) is forever. She and bunny Bungee (plus stowaway Chin) are surprisingly successful, but the moon isn’t exactly what she’d anticipated. Her first friend is Gobi (Ken Jeong), a pangolin former royal advisor who was exiled 1000 years ago; he has some important wisdom to impart about loneliness, if only Fei Fei would listen. But she’s still determined to enlist Chang’e (Phillipa Soo), a goddess in the form of a rock star, and every bit as demanding and self-interested as one.

Over The Moon is a new offering from Netflix, an animated musical film appropriate for the whole family. It’s more in the style of Laika films than Disney or Pixar, but unfortunately doesn’t reach the heights of any of these. Although it does use one of Disney’s favourite tropes, the dead mom, it teaches a lesson about a different kind of grief. The visuals are stunning and the moon adventure is sure to please any young child, with rap-battle ping pong games and softly glowing creatures, it’s hard to deny. But the moon adventure is book-ended with family scenes reminiscent of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, another movie that used food as an excuse to gather and grieve. These scenes are tinged with loss but also hint that life can move on. It is heartfelt but not emotionally manipulative. Some of the feelings are nuanced enough that they may be complicated for very young audience members to understand, but anyone who has loved and lost will feel something familiar here, and that’s a pretty good reason to watch.

Countdown

Quinn (Elizabeth Lail) is a young nurse working in a hospital. She befriends a teenage patient who was injured in a car accident and awaiting surgery. Evan (Dillon Lane) is very nervous about the surgery, and Quinn’s reassurance doesn’t help – he has an app on his phone that predicts the exact moment of his death, and guess when his time’s up? That’s right, the very next day, scheduled mid-surgery. Quinn is dismissive on the app but Evan explains his certainty; at a recent party, his girlfriend and a bunch of friends had used the app as a drinking game. Everyone had downloaded it, and the person nearest to his or her death had to take a shot. Evan’s girlfriend drank the shot – her countdown to death was just 3 hours away. She wisely turned down a ride from drunken Evan but wound up dead anyway, and Evan crashed his car, a tree limb stabbing through the passenger seat where his girlfriend would have been sitting. At shift exchange, Quinn relays this conversation with her peers, and all are excited to download it themselves. Most have countdowns decades away, meaning long lives ahead, but Quinn’s clock is counting down from just 3 days from now.

Quinn’s little sister Jordan (Talitha Bateman) is scheduled to die right around the same time, so they team up with fellow near-deather Matt (Jordan Calloway) to seek out any possibility of extending their lives, including the help of a priest and some salt. The thing about death, though, is that it comes for everyone.

This movie isn’t exactly going to uplift the genre or defy expectations or win awards, but for what it is, it’s pretty decent. The countdown clock is an effective if often-used tool. Elizabeth Lail isn’t exactly given first-rate material to work with, but she’s a good actor and the character’s not a ditz, and those things alone put Countdown in the top half of all horror movies. The story’s generic and predictable but the jump scares still work enough to get your heart pumping, and that’s always worth something in the horror genre. If you’re up for a little fate-dodging, and are prepared to meet Death himself, choose Countdown, but leave your phone in another room.

Feast of the Seven Fishes

Devour! is our bucket list film festival. When we cover a big film festival like TIFF, we often go hungry, meals replaced by the crumbly remains of a granola bar fishes out of the bottom of my tote. So imagine our delight when we heard about Devour!, a festival that pairs food and film. As lovers of both, we have resolved to one day travel to beautiful Wolfville, Nova Scotia to partake in what I’m sure can’t help but be a joyous event. However, since that wasn’t in the cards this year, the lovely people of the Devour! film festival have provided us with a virtual hybrid, so that for the first time ever, those of us even outside of Nova Scotia can indulge in a unique festival with strong programming.

Feast of the Seven Fishes is about a big Italian family preparing – guess what – a traditional Feast of Seven Fishes. It’s Christmas Eve and the whole family gathers to participate and partake. This year’s a little special because young Tony (Skyler Gisondo) is bringing a date – a non-Italian date.

Almost every culture celebrates holidays with food and feasts (or, conversely, with a lack of them). Family recipes are passed down from generation to generation to preserve culture and tradition. I remember being in my grandmother’s kitchen, learning how to make her perfect, flaky pie crust, used for any number of recipes including French-Canadian recipes for tourtière and straight-up sugar pie (incidentally, my grandmother also gave out sucre à la Crème for Halloween, a maple-flavoured, crumbly fudge). At Christmas a Bûche de Noël would always be the centrepiece of our table, even if everyone preferred my grandmother’s flawless apple pie for dessert. And even my mother, an avowed non-baker, would whip up gateau chomeur, a humble dessert, once in a while, and for dinner, a pâté chinois that still haunts me.

Food is an opportunity to gather. In Tony’s family, it is largely the men who prepare fish on Christmas Eve. They start days in advance, soaking and resoaking the fish though inevitably someone will always complain that it wasn’t soaked enough. Food is an excuse to reminisce. Mom usually made it best, and her way is still the only way. Food is a tool for teaching each other about what we value and what we believe. Some observe special diets, or stay away from meat on Fridays. Some people eat ham on Christmas instead of turkey, others roast suckling pig or goose. And food says something about us, about our family. On the holidays, I usually bring dessert, because I like to make things as pretty as they are delicious. One of my sisters brings an appetizer, because we like to snack. And another brings the cheese plate, because she can’t cook and we all know it.

Tony’s dad is busy working in the butcher shop, but his uncle Carmine (Ray Abruzzo) and uncle Frankie (Joe Pantoliano) introduce the new non-Italian girlfriend Beth (Madison Iseman) to their culture and their family by telling her all the stories of past Christmas Eves. No family member is spared embarrassment when the uncles are drinking and reminiscing. When finally it’s time to eat, the whole family gathers around a table groaning with food and stretched to its limit and possibly even extended with other tables and mismatched chairs to accommodate one and all. There is not a grandmother on earth who’s most fervent wish isn’t to have her whole family gathered around a single table. Food is passed, wine is shared, conversation shouted across the table. Perhaps a toast is made, an absent loved one remembered, a prayer given, or a moment of gratitude observed. Several generations of family members young and old sit elbow to elbow, the lefties always throwing a wrench into things.

Tony’s family has specific customs and unique recipes, but changes are you’ll find something to relate to in a film like this, a film about family and holidays and time spent together. Writer-director Robert Tinnell shares a piece of himself with this film, but he also uses food as a universal symbol for how and why and when we gather. Tinnel draws uniformly wonderful performances out of a stacked cast including Paul Ben-Victor and Lynn Cohen. The film does indeed feel like a boisterous family gathering, and we feel welcome at their table. There’s an air of bonhomie and contagious conviviality. But what makes it special is that it captures the spirit in such a real and recognizable way. They aren’t your family, but they could be.

Check out the Devour! website to learn how to watch this and other movies, including that documentary everyone’s talking about, My Octopus Teacher.

Rebecca

Lily James plays a lady’s companion, a woman paid to accompany her mistress as she travels about Europe, but when Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) gets sick, her companion, used to attending to her mistress’s every need, suddenly has a lot of time on her hands but few options to fill it. As paid staff, Lily James’ character isn’t allowed to use the hotel’s amenities intended for guests. Luckily, the handsome if brooding Maximus de Winter (Armie Hammer) comes to her aid. A mysterious young widower, Max and his beautiful estate Manderley are often gossiped about, and it is whispered he has been terrorized by grief since his wife’s sudden passing a year ago. But on outings with the lady’s companion, he’s a perfect gentleman and charming company. Sadly, Mrs. Van Hopper eventually recovers only to catch wind of her companion’s secret rendez-vous, and she immediately books them passage back to New York. Facing a sudden goodbye, Max de Winter proposes to the young, naïve girl of lowly station, and they share a passionate honeymoon before he brings her home to Manderley.

Rebecca is a ghost story, written by Daphne du Maurier and newly adapted for Netflix by Ben Wheatley. The new Mrs. de Winter is haunted by two malevolent forces. First, the house itself, which is demanding in its size and responsibilities, and isolating too. Manderley is spooky because it is simply too large for just two people. It never feels like it belongs to her, in part because it’s been passed down for generations by the de Winter family, and partly because Rebecca, the dearly departed former Mrs. de Winter, had so confidently left her mark. Manderley is also a symbol of a growing class divide. It reminds us that not long ago, our young protagonist was staff herself, but even as a lady’s maid she’d never worked in or even seen such a massive estate. As its current mistress, she is uncomfortable in the position and feels out of place among Max’s friends and family. And then there is the spectre of Rebecca herself. The new bride experiences two very different encounters when it comes to Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), the housekeeper, seems nearly obsessed with her, and speaks reverentially of Rebecca. Rebecca’s routines and methods and preferences are considered by Mrs. Danvers to be the ‘right’ ones, and the new Mrs. de Winter can never quite measure up to a ghost. Max, on the other hand, will never speak of her, and loses his temper when the subject is broached. His new wife is cowed by how much he must still love Rebecca to be so sensitive, and realizes that there are perhaps 3 people to this marriage.

It’s a brilliant gothic exercise in gas-lighting and gender roles, and Ben Wheatley’s added some drop dead visuals to the mix, taking full advantage of every second they’re not in that house. It kind of feels that Ben Wheatley, known for his twisted, psychological horror films, went in the opposite direction, flexing new muscles with a talkier script and dazzling production values. However, because it was Ben Wheatley attached to direct, I imagined dizzying psychological warfare, and on that he under-delivered. Directing for a broader Netflix audience for the first time, he’s erred in favour of conservative and pretty. But Du Maurier’s source material is actually a good match for Wheatley’s usual directing style. I would have loved to see him seize on the madness, make Manderley as sinister and foreboding as High-Rise. Manderley is haunted, if not by Rebecca’s ghost, by secrets and resentments and insecurity. The house feels like a prison, and gender norms are the new bride’s shackles. Between her husband and the housekeeper, she is made to feel crazy. There is so much potential for psychological horror that went wasted.

Ben Wheatley, you are a talented man with a unique directorial voice. The world is improved by your personal brand of weird, and I wish that Netflix money hadn’t robbed you of the courage to just be you.

Home Sweet Hell

Furniture salesman Don Champagne (Patrick Wilson) has a picture-perfect life – a beautiful wife, high-achieving children, a lovely home…and yet all is not as it seems. His business isn’t thriving, his home was purchased with help from the in-laws, his son isn’t quite as successful as his daughter, and all of those things are carefully monitored and measured by wife Mona (Katherine Heigl), who carries a goal tracker around and expects everyone to conform to its (her) high standards.

I was really not feeling this movie when I first turned it on. The cold, bitchy wife trope is overdone and offensive. She’s controlling. She’s exacting. She schedules everything obsessively and won’t do anything that wasn’t pre-planned. Kill me now. Her poor, welcome mat of a husband Don is practically a saint for putting up with her. When he starts up an affair at work, we’re very understanding. His wife is practically frigid, their sexual activity under-scheduled. He’s not a bad guy. He’s earned this affair, and the new salesgirl Dusty (Jordana Brewster) seems like the perfect opportunity. In fact, he is the target, and their affair a convenient excuse for blackmail. Shit. Since Mona controls the purse strings along with everything else, Don has no choice to come clean. And that’s when things get spicy.

It’s just enough to make me wonder if there’s mayyyyyybe something here. Is it satire? Black comedy? I’m going to be generous and say yes: that was probably the attempt. But something gets sorely lost in translation and what we end up with is something that looks and feels a lot more like misogyny. The men in this film are no great shakes but the women are relentlessly vile and the 3 men who wrote this shit are probably moderating incel chatrooms right now. It’s not a good look for anyone, not even my precious Patrick Wilson. His perfect, angelic smile has been tarnished by this film.

Home Sweet Hell is probably meant to skewer suburban conformity through Mona’s obsessive need to preserve the perfection she meticulously portrays. What it actually does is send out some serious toxic masculinity vibes and I should have listened to my first instinct that said: no.

TIFF20 Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds

What would TIFF be without a documentary from Werner Herzog (and in this case, Clive Oppenheimer)? Luckily, the man’s output is such that I may never have to know.

Part of why his documentaries are so compelling is that he seems genuinely passionate and fascinated by his subjects. His films are an indulgence of his curiosities, he’s scratching his own itch, but he generous to take us along with him, unearthing the coolest little-known facts and seeking out experts buried deeply in their fields, often at the ends of the earth. In Fireball: Visitors From Darker Places, Herzog has become obsessed with meteors and comets. Indeed, for as long as humans have been alive, we have observed these wonders and searched for their meaning. They have influenced ancient religions and global landscapes, cultures and philosophies, even the life and death of dominant species.

Comets and meteors are natural beauties, the origin of dreams, and a mostly unseen threat that stalks our skies and could easily wipe us out, defenseless as we are.

Who but Herzog could so poetically refer to dust as the “currency of the cosmos.” If nothing else, his enthusiasm sparks our own imaginations, and space of course is a near infinite supply of awe and mystery and possibility.

While Herzog and Oppenheimer mine plenty of zest in this most recent documentary (their third collaboration, after Into the Inferno and Encounters at the End of the World), they lack in structure and narrative. Their approach is more pinball, racing from one area of interest to another, seemingly as it occurs to them, assembled rather loosely. If you’re looking for a more academic approach perhaps this is not for you, but it will slake your inquisitiveness, arm you with some impressive conversation starters, and be the flint to your fascination.

Zombillenium

Hector gave up his passion for music when his wife died. He put his young daughter in boarding school and he went to work to provide for her, even though his job as a safety inspector hasn’t exactly made him popular. One day, after dropping his daughter off at school, he’s off to Zombillenium, a monster-themed amusement park, where he suspects his inspection might turn up some violations.

What Hector’s inspection actually reveals is that the theme park us run and staffed by actual monsters, it’s a safe haven where monsters like mummies, vampires, werewolves, skeletons, and witches have hidden in plain sight, away from human persecution. The bad news is that to protect the secret, the park manager has to kill Hector. The good news is that Hector, now a zombie, has a job for life at Zombillenium. Or well, a job for the next few days, unless business really picks up or foreign investors take an interest. As it is, only a handsome, sparkly vampire who bears a striking resemblance to Robert Pattinson draws in any crowd.

This is an animated film on Netflix, dubbed in English from the original French. However, it remains in essence and heart, a very French film. The zombies threaten to strike and the vampires threaten to overthrow the management to instill a vampire-elite class system. It lacks the energy and manic story-telling of an American cartoon. The monsters have to find a way to turn a profit or else literally face going to hell.

Zombillenium is not a great movie. It’s meandering, it cares too little about orphaning a young girl, it’s too bland for adults to enjoy yet the monsters are weirdly sexualized- and I don’t just mean the hunky vampire. Hector the dad goes from business man dad to ripped zombie (and forever shirtless); Gretchen the witch has a tramp stamp visible thanks to low-slung jeans and a very cropped top. I’m confused about for whom this movie intended, but I’m pretty confident it won’t be enjoyed by many.

Survive The Night

Dr. Rich (Chad Michael Murray) has recently been humbled quite a bit. A mistake at work cost him his job, which cost him his house, which means he’s had to move his wife and daughter into his parents’ home and accept a job at a clinic that he considers beneath him. Living at home is a bitter pill to swallow; his parents dote on their granddaughter and daughter-in-law, but Rich and his father Frank have always had an especially difficult relationship. Frank (Bruce Willis) is everything his son is not: he’s a gun-toting, truck-driving, country-loving man of few words, but he’s about to be very good to have around, because if Rich thought his life couldn’t get any worse, he didn’t count on meeting Jamie and Matt.

Jamie (Shea Buckner) and Matt (Tyler Jon Olson) are brothers and thieves who are on their way to the safety of Mexico but Jamie is a touchy combination of trigger-happy and intelligence-deprived and before they can make it to the freedom of the border, he’s got them into some more hot water, and Matt now has a serious gunshot wound that needs treating. Which is how they come to hold Dr. Rich and his family hostage. They have correctly identified Chad Michael Murray as both feeble and insecure. Unfortunately they hadn’t heard that Frank is a retired cop just itching for an excuse to jump right back into the fray. Jamie and Matt provide quite an excuse.

The movie is better than I expected but still incredibly not good. It suffers fatally from pacing; the first half is slow to set things up, and then the second half is almost comedically over-stuffed with people escaping and getting caught in an improbable and quickly unentertaining cycle of dumb and dumber.

If you’re desperate for an undemanding popcorn flick, I suppose this might do, if you remember that a movie that has Bruce Willis in it makes Chad Michael Murray its star. Lower your expectations, and then lower them again. It may pass the time and fulfill a basic quota, but even if you like it, and that’s a pretty big if, you’re still bound to forget it, and believe me, that’s for the best.

Black Box

Nolan (Black Box) just suffered a devastating car accident that took his memory and his wife’s life. Trying to piece his life back together after the trauma, Nolan’s amnesia would seem particularly problematic since he is now a single father to Ava (Amanda Christine), is far too little to have such an unreliable caregiver, never mind doing most of the caring herself.

Nolan is desperate, so he agrees to undergo an experimental treatment, the eponymous black box, which wears and looks like a VR helmet and seems to almost hypnotize patients back into their subconscious minds where Dr. Lillian (Phylicia Rashad) attempts to guide them into recovering their inaccessible memories. The process is agonizing, and while some progress is being made, it’s also further confusing Nolan, who finds that his memories aren’t quite matching up to what he’s come to expect. Thank goodness for Gary (Tosin Morohunfola) who not only provides priceless babysitting duty, but also serves as a touchstone, the only one who can confirm or deny the memories that Nolan seems to be recovering.

While I wouldn’t classify the film as a horror movie (though Amazon Prime sure does, including it in its “Welcome to the Blumhouse series), it is creepy in a way that’s hard to shake. Nolan’s memories remind me a bit of Inception in that sometimes they are hostile toward him, which doesn’t exactly do any favours to his healing. I’ve been a fan of Athie for many years now, and it’s always exciting to see Rashad pop up in things; the two together make for a well-acted and interesting film. I enjoyed the story, and the frantic search for identity, and I’ve appreciated how many of these Blumhouse films have considered parenthood from different aspects. Black Box doesn’t deliver my scares, but it’s chilling like an extended episode of Black Mirror, slightly sci-fi-ish, exploring the unintended consequences of new technologies.

See our other Blumhouse reviews here.

Evil Eye

Pallavi’s mother is a little overbearing. Or a lot overbearing, depending on your perspective. As far as Indian parents go, Pallavi’s aren’t so bad, maybe. They love her a lot. Mom Usha (Sarita Choudhury) calls every day, with good intentions and motherly concern. Pallavi (Sunita Mani) is nearly 29 and still single, a matter of daily discussion. There’s an ocean between them but no shortage of meddling, even if, as Usha points out, there aren’t a lot of Indian men in New Orleans. Pallavi is unconcerned with her marital status but she’s a smart woman and quickly judges that it’s easier to agree to yet another of her mother’s fix-ups than to argue uselessly. Fortunately or unfortunately, Pallavi’s date stands her up, but she ends up meeting someone else that day, and Sandeep (Omar Maskati) is everything both Pallavi and her mother have been looking for in a man.

I know what you’re thinking: Pallavi’s going to fuck things up. But not if Usha beats her to it! Yes, it IS ironic that the very mother who has preached marriage and family above all, stability over romantic love, partnership rather than independence, that same Usha who made her daughter feel like as long as she’s single, she’s a disappointment, that very Usha – well, now she’s trying to hit the brakes all the way from India. Usha’s astrologer assures her it’s a very auspicious match, and her husband Krishnan (Bernard White) does his best to soothe her, but Usha cannot be dissuaded. Her reasoning, unfortunately, is unconvincing: she’s pretty sure that Sandeep is the reincarnation of her abusive boyfriend come back to finish the job. Whether or not Usha’s tendency toward superstition is playing a part, or her PTSD is being triggered, Usha’s panic is as real as her desperation.

This is not your typical “horror” movie even if it is a Welcome To The Blumhouse member. It’s a mother-daughter drama with some seriously sinister supernatural overtones to it. Also, the fact that it’s set in both America and India gives it a unique structure. As much as Usha fears for her daughter, you bet Pallavi is also afraid her mother’s mental health is crumbling, and the distance only makes them both all the more distraught.

Choudhury and Mani both give compelling performances but directors Elan and Rajeev Dassani are less confident, and less inspired. Evil Eye doesn’t quite reach its true potential, but its strong sense of identity goes a long way in making this worthwhile.