Category Archives: Jay

The Paramedic (El Practicante)

Angel (Mario Casas) is an ambulance paramedic who gives off major creep vibes as he snatches souvenirs from the accident scenes he works. He himself becomes the patient after an accident leaves him paralyzed, and angry. His accident has guilted girlfriend Vane (Déborah François) into staying longer than she’d like, caring for him even as he spirals out of control, suspicion raging, spyware engaged, but unsurprisingly his insane jealousy does not endear him to her and she leaves. Angel was an angry guy before the accident and he’s angrier now. Angrier still to discover that Vane has taken up with his old paramedic partner Rodrigo (Guillermo Pfening) and they are expecting a baby together. Rodrigo, who was driving at the time of their accident, has stolen his life.

The beautiful thing about this movie is that it’s basically peak diversity. Not only is the main character disabled, the script offers equal opportunity serial killing. Anyone can murder if you make it accessible enough. He can’t enjoy sex anymore but he can stab syringes into basically anyone, which disables them enough to be handled. It’s genius, really, to turn the tables this way.

The Paramedic is dark and menacing well before Angel transforms into a murderous stalker. His injury doesn’t make him this way, it merely gives him the opportunity to indulge his most sinister thoughts.

It’s a slow burn, a thriller of a certain type, one you’ll no doubt recognize because we’ve seen shades of it many times before. It’s competent and well-acted but doesn’t distinguish itself from peers. Even if the quality’s variable, the character is chilling enough to give it a chance, and the final act just about justifies the whole watch. If you’re in the mood for a thriller, this is a viable option from Netflix.

Pets United

Like many cities, Robo City grew and grew and did that ugly sprawl thing, pushing nature and wild animals away so that humans and their pets could have all the space they wanted in the city. Roger is neither a human nor a pet; he is the thief of Robo City, a stray dog serving as the un-elected, unofficial leader of the mutts in his alley. And you may have guessed by the title that many robots also populate the city as humans inevitably grew too lazy to do much for themselves. Roger isn’t fond of the “tin cans” (which sounds oddly like a racial slur) but his real hatred’s reserved for cats, of course.

Roger has an especially contentious relationship with Belle the pampered cat, who’s lucky enough to have a beloved owner. Roger’s insistent that he enjoys his freedom, but he’s also pretty happy to make a friend in Bob, a jolly little robot who looks a lot like Baymax, and who’s about to come in VERY handy. Because guess what? They’re about to have a caper! In fact, the big robot AI thingie that’s driving the whole city has started its own revolution, creating chaos and sending people fleeing for their safety. Belle was enjoying a day of pampering at a pet spa when heck broke loose, so she’s stuck there owner-less with a ragtag group of small indulged beasts, including Ronaldo the big-talking poodle, Walter the insecure pug, and Sophie who identifies as a dog, and we’ll leave it at that.

This is a UK – Chinese – German production that steals from at least that many sources – Robin Hood, Secret Life of Pets, Toy Story 3, Madagascar – and yet even with their combined power this movie still can’t find a spark let alone light up a whole Pixar lamp.

The story is generic. The characters are generic. The music budget was apparently non-existent. Some zoo characters do a little rap that gave me major secondhand embarrassment and reminded me of grade school in the 90s when teachers would make you do raps for presentations as if our tiny catholic school wasn’t 100% white and also, apparently, 100% without rhythm and 100% without irony.

Since it has cute dogs and cute robots, young kids will probably give this is a pass, but if you get stuck watching with them, don’t expect funny jokes or quality animation or recognizable voice actors or any of the high standards we’ve come to expect from today’s animation. These guys didn’t care, and neither should you.

The Social Dilemma

Should you delete all of your social medias right now? That’s the only relevant question here and YES is the only answer. For many people, though, that’s easier said than done, and most won’t even try, despite this film’s very credible, very convincing reasons. Namely that social media is having a measurably dangerous impact on our culture. It’s spying on you, it’s invading your privacy, it’s selling your soul to the highest bidder, and it’s turning the whole world into a machine meant to change your behaviours – obviously so that you spend money on products being pitched to you, but ultimately you yourself are the product, and the ability to change your real world behaviour (without even triggering your awareness, mind!) is being sold to whomever will pay – dirty politicians and their Russian counterparts, say. And fake news proliferates on a site like Facebook, and spreads 6x faster than the true stuff. Because truth is relatively boring, and lies are exciting, and can lead you down a rabbit hole, sucking more and more of your attention. So while you might give a true headline 3 seconds of your time as you scroll on by, fake news can mean you follow one link to another to another, which means that compared to 3 seconds, fake news just got 3 hours of your attention, which convinces the AI that you like this type of thing better, maybe even believe it, so it will recommend even more of them to you.

Cutting the cable isn’t so easy, though, when the software’s been designed specifically to addict you so that their algorithm can mine and extract your attention.

This film is teaching us to think critically about the apps we use and the content they contain. Capitalism is the real pandemic of our age, and if you’re not paying cash for the apps you’re using, you’re paying in some currency you don’t know about, without your consent. Social media sites use powerful AI to suggest the exact right material to you at the exact right time, presented in the way that’s most likely to catch your eye, keep your attention, and ultimately convert you. They’re implanting thoughts that will affect how you vote, what you support, how you interact with people. This is really scary stuff and the strongest vaccine is information, and a good dose of it can be found right now on Netflix.

The Nest

“There’s an opportunity,” Rory tells his American wife, “in London.” “Go fuck yourself,” she replies, leaving little doubt as to Allison’s stance on the matter. But this is the 1980s, when women still vow to obey their husbands during the marriage ceremony, and some of them even do. And like a good wife, Allison (Carrie Coon) packs up her home, her two children, Samantha (Oona Roche) and Ben (Charlie Shotwell), and even her horse, and off they go…not so much to London, that’s where the work is done, the man’s domain, but to a sprawling English country manor that Rory (Jude Law) has rented for them.

It is unclear whether Rory is indeed chasing new opportunity or fleeing old problems, but he’s commuting to his London office every day, filled with vigor and optimism working for an old boss with new prospects in his back pocket. Rory is your classic 80s businessman – a snake charmer, basically. Projecting a lifestyle well beyond his means, bluffing his way to the top, making bigger and bigger promises to plug the holes immediately behind him, never looking for enough forward, always certain of the coming boom. He over-promises and under-delivers and it’s soon clear that he lies in his personal life as much as in business. What isn’t clear is if the bad things that keep befalling his family are simply the result of karma or perhaps bad luck, or if the home they’ve moved into is casting some sort of sinister spell.

Writer-director Sean Durkin is a master of mood, and from the first strains of ominous music causing Sean to creepy-whisper the film’s title in my ear, he dresses the set to complement and exacerbate the tension within the family. The old house is dimly lit, the shadows encroaching upon the family, ready, almost, to envelope them. I reassure myself that IMDB has indeed called this a drama and not a horror, but I suppose a haunted house IS quite dramatic, and why haven’t we ruled this out yet? Actually, if the house is haunted, it’s not by ghosts but by lies – the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we tell others, the ones we’ve told by omission. Rory’s family have just moved to a new country but it’s not simply geography keeping them isolated.

The cast is good and the performances strong, with Carrie Coon the stand-out as a woman navigating the choppy waters between the freedom of independence and the comfort of reliance. Allison doesn’t know because she doesn’t want to know. She wears the fur but hides money around the house. When she is finally confronted with reality, the cracks begin to appear, and I don’t just mean in the foundation of their ridiculously large rental.

The Nest is a good film, not a great one. Rory is too despicable to like but too uninteresting to root against. We want to empathize with Allison but she feels cold, unknowable. There’s no real path to connection. Rory is a sleazy businessman, a snake charmer, but he’s ultimately failed to charm us, robbing us of what might have been an even better movie.

TIFF20: The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel

In the first 5 minutes of the film, I’ve already heard at least 3 words that made me seethe: marketized, economization, financialized. Directors Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan are clearly frantic to establish themselves as a credible source, editing in ten dollar words and professor speak to blunt us into submission. Considering you sufficiently dazed, they move on to the second step of their totally necessary sequel: patting themselves on the back.

In their first doc, The Corporation, they compared corporations to psychopaths and they cannot wait a second longer to tell you about it or to line up people desperate for screen time to testify in their favour – “watershed moment,” they might say, “cultural touchstone,” and all the bullshitty words that don’t mean much. Did they hurt corporations’ feelings? Not bloody likely.

Today many if not most corporations appeal to our social consciousness by claiming to do (some) good. Dove is pretending that it loves your body just as it is while selling you products to change and improve it. Hotels claim they’re saving the environment by not washing your sheets but what they’re actually saving is time and money. Apple is encouraging people to vote but they have more money than the US treasury and only pays 2% tax on its profits so to them, it doesn’t really matter who you vote for because they already own Washington either way.

“Corporate responsibility” is a marketing ploy to trick you into thinking it cares, and that your consumerism is somehow for a higher good, but the “cult of shareholder value” is only getting more real, and nothing else besides lining their pockets ever matters.

The New Corporation wants to hold your hand, look deep into your eyes, and tell you the following newflash: corporations secretly want to make money. They like tax cuts. They hide money in tax havens. Was the first film this smug? I don’t even think Michael Moore himself sounds this self-righteous. It’s actually giving me a sour stomach.

Many of my favourite films this TIFF have been documentaries, but not this one. I can spot companies acting out of self-interest just as easily as I can spot a cash-grab sequel that offers very little in the way of new information.

The Devil All The Time

God may take smoke breaks but the devil sure doesn’t. Little Arvin Russell (Michael Banks Repeta) is a boy living with his parents in Knockemstiff, Ohio in the 1950s – about as rural as it gets, a place where everyone is someone else’s relation but alarmingly that doesn’t seem to stop them from coupling up. The Russells mostly keep to themselves. Mom Charlotte (Haley Bennett) was a waitress when she caught Willard’s eye. Willard (Bill Skarsgård) has recently returned from war, and when the urge to pray hits, he takes it seriously, building a “prayer log” in the backyard where he often drags son Arvin and compels him not only to pray, but to pray well, which means fervently, and loudly. Their prayers don’t work. Charlotte dies. Willard soon follows. A local police officer (Sebastian Stan) comforts Arvin and makes sure he gets to his grandmother over in equally rural West Virginia. There he grows up with a stepsister, Lenora, who hadn’t been orphaned so much as abandoned by mom Helen (Mia Wasikowska) and dad Roy (Harry Melling). Eventually Arvin (now played by Tom Holland) and Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) grow up, and though Arvin remains a humble and peaceable young man, a solar system worth of sinister characters is orbiting him, and he’s on a collision course with all of them.

This film has a deep cast. I haven’t yet mentioned Robert Pattinson, Riley Keough, or Jason Clarke, some of whom don’t appear until 45 minutes or more into the film, but all them are leaving quite an impression. Holland is the real stand-out though, and well he should be, since he is the sun and the others are mere planets. Nearly all of them have two things in common: religion, and violence. There will be lots of both.

It helps to remember that the title is The Devil All The Time. Not part time. Not even full time. ALL OF THE TIME. He’s relentless. Arvin, though, doesn’t care much for religion. He’s had a bad experience with it, and you can hardly blame him. So he’s establishing his morality based on other concepts, on his own internal sense of right and wrong, one that snakes in and out of every last one of these characters, and eventually it leads him back to the town where he was born, and to the officer who once led him away from a crime scene. No matter how far you go, you always end up right back where you started.

Director Antonio Campos indulges his cast, giving them ample time and space to breathe within scenes, and who can blame him when everyone is doing such excellent, and often against-type work. The movie is bleak, and violent. It is most definitely not an action movie. The violence isn’t stylized, it isn’t fun, it isn’t entertaining. It makes you cringe, and coupled with religion, makes you think.

The film is gritty, atmospheric, its inky fingers slowly unfurling themselves, choking the characters on their own nefarious intentions, sending tendrils of shiver down your spine as the tension increases. It is not a perfect film, nor an even one. The tone suffers, and just plain cannot be sustained during the film’s bloated run-time. But I enjoyed it, overall, enjoyed the riveting performances and the interesting take on narration, performed by the book’s author, Donald Ray Pollock. It’s got some disturbing imagery and some graphic violence too, but when the film is over, it’s the issues you’ll still be thinking about, trying to tease out what it all means.

TIFF20: New Order (Nuevo orden)

Marianne (Naian González Norvind) is resplendent in a crimson suit, about to marry her sweetheart at a swanky, high-society affair at her parents’ home, if only the judge would hurry up and get there. At the gate, an old family employee is begging for money. The timing is bad, but his wife will die without surgery, and he needs cash now. Marianne’s parents have offered some but he needs more and need makes him persistent. Marianne takes pity, and since the judge isn’t there yet anyway, she has another employee, Cristian (Fernando Cuautle), drive her to the sick woman so she can get her to a hospital.

Outside the gates of her lavish family home, there is unrest. Wedding guests and their cars have been showing up bearing traces of green paint – the protester’s signature colour. The rumble of rebellion grows louder, the streets chaotic. Back home, the estate walls have been breached, the wedding overwhelmed with “uninvited guests.”* Guests are stripped of their valuables, the house is trashed, the safe cracked. The Have Nots have risen up against the Haves, forcing guests to wire vast sums of money, shooting the ones who won’t. Wealth is being redistributed. For Marianne, things are even worse. The army has “intervened,” meaning they’ve identified high-resource targets like her and including her to be held captive with dozens, hundreds, thousands more who are tortured and held for ransom, all while blaming it on the protesters.

Unapologetically and brutally violent, not to mention unrelentingly bleak, Michel Franco explores what it means when the bottom 99% decide they’ve had enough. It’s a very literal interpretation of class warfare. There are no heroes here, just multiple levels of corruption.

Franco’s film is tough to watch. It starts out boisterous. demanding, pulsating with life and its many needs. His civil uprising is sudden, visceral, vicious. But with little context and no attachment to its characters, the second half loses its way amid the chaos. Franco is more focused on making shocking statements than stories, but even the ability to shock is blunted when it’s overused.

This is the kind of movie that you hope is dystopian rather than prophetic. Although, with the kind of 2020 we’ve been having, this is not a possibility we can afford to rule out entirely. New Order has a heightened capacity to disturb because it feels possible. By keeping the details vague, you could almost imagine any industrialized nation in its place; Franco is issuing a warning for anyone brave enough to see it through. It’s Parasite meets The Purge, weighted a little more toward horror than satire, where the civil war doesn’t so much bring new order as no order, and everyone is vulnerable.

The film, which took home the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize from the Venice Film Festival, is more about awe than answers. Like an electrified cattle prod to the privates, it won’t be for everyone, but at the very least, it should serve as a wake-up call.

*Recently nominated for euphemism of the year.

TIFF20: Nomadland

Fern (Frances McDormand), an unemployed widow living in a ghost town so deserted its zip code has been discontinued, makes the very hard decision to pull up stakes and hit the road. In this economic climate, that’s all it takes to become a nomad: lack of opportunity + too broke to retire = living in a van. She heads to where there’s seasonal work, a large Amazon distribution centre that pays your camping fees while you ship goods to online shoppers over the holidays and then kicks them out when the shopping season’s over (a sadly real employment strategy called the CamperForce program).

This is an actual way of life for many people nearing or having achieved senior citizenship with a subpar pension and no social safety net. This is not our finest hour.

Director Chloé Zhao takes us on a quintessentially American road trip through 7 states over a four month shoot. She adapts Jessica Bruder’s book for the screen but lets stunning cinematography tell its own story, and allows real life nomads Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells to their stories from the fringes of society. Brilliant, brilliant McDormand feels like a fixture rather than a tourist in the landscape.

Zhao has an incredible aesthetic, her scenes like vintage postcards, but ultimately lets them be the backdrop to the stories lived and told by hardscrabble people. Zhao’s edits are generous, allowing the camera to linger over both the power and the pain of “having nothing in your way.”

These modern day nomads speak of rejecting the dollar, the 9-5 mentality, the conventional way of life, but between their words is a choking sense of loneliness and a sense that it is life that has rejected them, or perhaps capitalism has, or the American dream. There is solace in connecting with the earth, of living without encumbrance, but all are tied by the same tug of longing and belonging. Fern herself is an internal balance of grief and resiliency. This life isn’t one that she chose, exactly, it’s a compromise that she made, a way to go on when there was nothing left for her.

Frances McDormand has nothing left to prove. There is a quiet strength to her performance, indeed Zhao seems to have elicited nothing but, even from an amateur cast. There is strength and value in authenticity, even when the truth isn’t pretty.

TIFF20: One Night In Miami

One night in Miami, Cassius Clay, not yet Muhammad Ali, is celebrating his heavyweight world boxing title rather quietly, in a seedy motel room, with a few of his friends. This is a fictional account, the way screenwriter Kemp Powers (who adapts it from his own play) imagined it, of one remarkable night where four Black icons – Clay (Eli Goree), soul man Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), NFL star turned movie star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) got together and inevitably discussed their roles in the civil rights movement, what they did or did not owe their people, the cost of their success, and the general cultural upheaval of the 1960s.

Of course, Malcolm X’s idea of a good time is vanilla ice cream and a lecture. He wants and expects his friends to be weapons in the cause. His expectations are sky high and everyone around him invariable feel as though they aren’t measuring up. They were young, black, famous, and unapologetic, but they had one thing that Malcolm X felt they took for granted, that he wanted for all his people, not just a few lucky exceptions: power. Black power.

One Night In Miami does an exceptional job of putting us in the mind frame of Malcolm X shortly he was martyred for his cause. His idea of brotherhood was strong if unconventional, and he was willing to push the Black compatriots who were positioned to effect change just as much as he was challenging the white people invested in keeping them down. This was not the time for people to sit on the fence, he believed, not with Black folks dying in the street. And with so simple a phrase, screenwriter Powers reminds us how timely this movement still is, even 60 years later.

Regina King choose this as her feature-length directorial debut, and what a time and place for her to come out swinging. Making full use of Malcolm X’s last days and last words, she pins us to the moment while tethering us to the movement at large, to its consequences and to the work still to be done. King and company reframe was at the time attributed to “militance” to passion, urgency, and prescience.

Regina King describes her film as “a love letter to the Black man’s experience in America.” Four cultural icons who may not be living the average Black experience, but who are open and vulnerable with each other, expressing fears and concerns. Knowing her film had a valuable contribution to make in the current conversation, King pushed herself to get the film made despite this year’s many obstacles, and made history on Monday night as the first African American woman to have her film be selected by the Venice Film Festival, notorious for its lack of diversity and gender parity. Her film is pushing more than one needle in the right direction, and TIFF audiences should be grateful to participate.

Cuties (Mignonnes)

Amy is an 11-year-old Senegalese immigrant living in a Parisian apartment with a conservative mother, a strict auntie, and several siblings who await their father’s return with a second wife in tow. Her life is so different compared to the other girls at school, so seemingly easy with their bodies, dancing freely, hardly a care in the world. In Amy’s home, money is scarce, modesty is valued, and things are complicated.

Like pretty much every kid ever, Amy just wants to fit in. “The cuties” are a dance troupe at school that she’d very much like to belong to. They’re the cool kids of course, with maybe just a smidge of mean girls. They’re irresistible. Amy (Fathia Youssouf) is so desperate to belong she does whatever it takes: her baby brother’s tshirt is a crop top on her. A stolen cell phone becomes her portal to a world of gyrating, scantily clad girls, simulating sex and calling it dancing. She learns from them, in secret. And when the cuties have a sudden opening, she’s more than ready to step in.

You may have heard that Netflix has caught some major heat over this film, mostly from people who hadn’t seen it. They’ve called for Netflix to remove the title from its streaming platform, and threatened mass unsubscribing if they don’t. Their complaint: the movie hyper-sexualizes young girls. Is it valid?

Sure it is. But this is exactly the point film maker Maïmouna Doucouré is trying to make. Her film is a social commentary about the pressure young girls face not just from social media, but absolutely from social media, which they are exposed to from very young ages. And we are all in some way contributing to a culture that only finds value in females that can be sexualized, treating all others as if they’re invisible. If a girl wants to be seen, and has access to a tablet or a smartphone or peers, she won’t have failed to notice what her (lack of) options are.

Is it fair or necessary to sexualize these young actresses in order to prove a point? To be honest, I sort of hate putting kids in show business altogether. No matter how carefully a director isolates mature themes from the children on set, kids are notorious sponges and almost always absorb more than we think. Child actor turned director Sarah Polley was in the news this week reflecting on having to kiss a man twice her age on the set of a TV show when she was 13. A show Canada prided itself on for its wholesome family viewing. It’s a valid concern, even if it doesn’t have an easy answer.

If her film has inspired conversation, then Maïmouna Doucouré has done her job. You can’t move the needle if you don’t ask the hard questions. So I don’t think that muzzling Netflix or forcing censorship on an emerging female director flexing her voice for the first time is the answer. I know that Doucouré hasn’t included these scenes to entertain us; they are there to provoke discomfort. So let that be the starting point for the discussion that needs to be had. Let’s talk about why this makes us uncomfortable, and what we can do so this isn’t Amy’s story anymore. So the next time someone writes a movie about a girl like Amy, it won’t be about how the only currency she has is her body.