Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) is the new Master of a fictional New England university, the first Black Master in the school’s history, it probably goes without saying.
I don’t know about you, but I think there’s something inherently creepy about this kind of campus, especially after dark, and writer-director Mariama Diallo is devilishly prepared to prey on that fear.
Master is a prickly piece that aims to scare you on two levels. First, there’s the obvious monster, he witch who haunts student Jasmine’s (Zoe Renee) dorm room has a centuries-long reputation. The room itself has quite a tragic history, and what should be a young woman’s home away from home quickly starts to feel like Jasmine’s own personal hell. But on another, perhaps more insidious level, is the constant presence of systemic racism, institutional racism, and the everyday casual racism that must get under the skin even quicker than a skin-eating witch.
If Get Out and Dear White People had a baby, they would name it Master; this would be it. And though this baby doesn’t quite have all of mommy and daddy’s good genes, it’s a mashup that stands all on its own. A few movies have used the language of genre to speak to racism, and Master can stand proudly among them. And just like this campus, horror is usually an overwhelmingly white space. It’s nice to see not one but two strong, smart, proudly Black female protagonists who are battling monsters both real and fantastical. As you know, Regina Hall is never less than stellar, but newcomer (to me at least) Renee leaves quite an impression as well.
Master will appear in select theatres and stream on Amazon Prime Video March 18th.
In the summer of 1968, Joy (Elizabeth Banks) finds herself pregnant again, and it’s a surprise at her age, and considering her daughter is nearly grown. Her body isn’t prepared for it either, and the strain on her heart will likely kill her should she see the pregnancy through. That doesn’t stop a panel of doctors from rejecting her bid for a medical abortion so her only option is whatever’s on the end of an anonymous phone call to a number she got from a flyer.
Joy’s call goes through to the Janes, a group of women dedicated to helping other women in need. Headed by Virginia (Sigourney Weaver), this group of ordinary women believes very urgently in a woman’s right to choose what’s right for her body, no matter the reason for termination. But even their best efforts can’t make abortion available to everyone; abortions still cost money, and the doctor they have on call isn’t here out of the goodness of his heart. Joy meets the Janes seeking her own abortion, but she stays to help provide them for others.
The Janes were a real-life network of hard-working suburban women (in fact there’s a documentary about them at the festival this year) running an underground abortion clinic in Chicago.
Director Phyllis Nagy wrote the screenplay for Carol, so she’s well-versed in period pieces that tell a bit of feminist history. Call Jane doesn’t have the same dreamy gloss as Carol; it’s a cause and a story rooted underground, and it wears its grit with pride.
This isn’t a perfect film but the cast tries hard to tell the story with dignity. It’s the kind of film that inspires a swell in one’s heart – at least until you consider that though this film is set over 50 years ago, there are still plenty of women who don’t have access to abortions today, their bodies subject to the whims of men, their health and lives valued at less than that of a clump of cells. The film ends on a note of triumph – Roe v. Wade has made them obsolete, so they disband, satisfied to pass the baton. But that happily-ever-after didn’t last, not in real life. Let that sink in as the credits roll.
The eponymous Alice (Keke Palmer) is a slave in the Antebellum south, and a witness to and victim of intense brutality at the hands of vicious plantation owner Paul (Jonny Lee Miller), who rules quite literally with an iron rod. When Alice gets her chance, she makes a daring escape, running frantically for miles, away from the isolated plantation and its cruel realities.
It’s hard to say who’s more surprised when she eventually meets up with a Georgia highway – Alice, or Frank, the truck driver who narrowly avoids running her over in his semi. Deciding Alice must be suffering from some sort of head trauma, Frank (Common) drives her to a nearby hospital where her story quickly gets her assigned to a psych ward. Frank swoops in to save her one more time, taking her to his home and breaking the news to her that it’s 1973, and slavery’s been abolished for quite some time.
What started out as a slave drama quickly establishes itself as in fact a slick revenge thriller. Alice’s own transformation channels Pam Grier, with Keke Palmer sporting a big and beautiful afro and some stylish duds.
Though Alice is writer-director Krystin Ver Linden’s first feature, she competently steers her cast through a pretty harrowing topical tightrope walk. The film isn’t without its faults and foibles, the end result is still an entertaining watch, thanks in no small part to Palmer’s commitment to the role, and her effervescent energy. She makes the film’s intentions feel pure even whilst it straddles the line between fiction, reality, and meta-fiction (and meta reality?).
Alice may not be flawless, but Keke Palmer sure is, and a side of Common always makes the meal more delicious.
A young Marine war veteran walks into a bank. Brian (John Boyega) is jittery but quiet, and polite. When it’s his turn, he informs teller Rosa (Selenis Leyva) of the situation they’re about to embark upon together. He’s holding her, and whoever else is in the bank, hostage. But he doesn’t want the bank’s money. He only wants the money he is rightfully owed by the government, a paltry sum they just haven’t paid. It’s such a humble request that Rosa isn’t even sure whether she’s heard right. His words don’t match his gentle demeanor, his courteous approach. But while astute bank manager Lisa (Connie Britton) calmly and efficiently empties the bank of as many customers as possible, Rosa’s finger hovers over the hidden red button, and when she finally pushes it, the ball is set in motion for what will inevitably be a very bad day for all of them.
We all know the challenges that vets face as they reintegrate into civilian life. The money Brian feels he’s owed is really just a substitute for some dignity, a sign that his sacrifice meant something to the country he served. But no matter how justified his cause, at the end of the day Brian is a Black man in America who is holding up a bank. Police swarm the building and director Abi Damaris Corbin knows how to pull the strings of this thriller extra taut.
Sadly, though, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill bank heist movie; this movie is based on the tragic but true story of Brian Brown-Easley, a Marine vet so desperate after not receiving his disability cheque of $892 that he risked his like (again) just to make a point. Because though the bank was a convenient symbol, he refused to take their money. It was the government who owed him, and he was determined to bring attention to his plight, which we know is all too common for veterans returning from combat. It’s an awful truth, one that Corbin is adroit at telling. Even if you know Brown-Easley’s story, you’ll still be sitting on the edge of your chair, sweating it out until the very end. And if you’re anything like me, feeling it deep in your bones and straight through the heart.
John Boyega is quite a presence here, a stand-out among a stellar cast, as evidenced by their Sundance Special Jury award for ensemble cast (which also includes Michael Kenneth Williams, Nicole Beharie, and Olivia Washington). Set almost entirely inside the bank, 892 puts us inside the mind of a man in distress, and the world gives him few options for escape.
892 is Michael Kenneth William’s final role, and the film is dedicated to his memory.
Mr. Williams is a cog in the public works department of county hall in 1950s London. He’s a buttoned-up fellow, always at a quiet remove from the employees under him, who, in turn, refer to him as ‘Mr. Zombie’ for his listless shuffle and seeming apathy.
A terminal diagnosis shakes Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) out of his stupor. With only six months to live, Mr. Williams realizes he hasn’t truly been living in quite some time, nor does he know how to now that the countdown’s on. Raised to be the very embodiment of a stiff upper lip, the epitome of repression, Mr. Williams finds it impossible to dissolve the barriers between his son and himself, so he confides instead in virtual strangers. He’s not looking for happiness or personal satisfaction or the meaning of life. He only wants to make some small mark that will remain after he’s gone, a reason worthy of remembrance.
Director Oliver Hermanus adapts Living from 1952’s Ikiru and makes it something so redolent of a certain time and place, a certain way of life, that we instinctively understand much about our Mr. Williams without being told. It helps that the legendary Bill Nighy takes up the lead role, contemplating life and death and the very humble space occupying the in-between.
The film feels poorly constructed, its unusual structure not quite working as it should, the chapters and scenes weighted haphazardly and knitted together without much thought to the whole. And yet I quite enjoyed Living, thanks largely to Nighy’s stellar performance. He reins in his trademark quirks and easy charm for something much more subtle. Mr. Williams may not be a zombie, but he’s almost a ghost even before he’s dead. Funny how an expiry date suddenly makes life feel so much more vital and urgent. His performances overcomes flaws in the filmmaking and I’m certain Living will find a special place in British hearts. Living doesn’t improve upon the original, but it holds its own and gives national treasure Nighy a role to be remembered by.
Noa is a single woman of the 21st century, which more or less means she’s well-versed in the horrors of searching for one’s soul mate on dating apps.
Steve (Sebastian Stan) is a nice surprise, and a breath of fresh air. Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) meets him the old-fashioned way, in the produce section of the grocery store. Lucky for him, his awkwardness is of the cute variety, the kind that women fall for after they’ve been through a series of jerks and losers. But Steve is more than just a fruit flirt. He is the proverbial ice berg, and Noa’s about to discover all that lies beneath during an impromptu weekend road trip, that famous first trip together upon which all fledgling couples test their compatibility. But Noa is in no way prepared for Steve’s big secret, or his eclectic tastes.
I won’t say much more since this movie deserves to be seen without preconception. It’s wild, but it’s most wild in its banality. Sebastian Stan plays devilishly against-type and it’s a guilty pleasure to watch him with so much glee and abandon. Daisy Edgar-Jones is awfully good too, but her character’s experience is so antithetical to Stan’s it’s almost like they’re in different movies. Joined by strong character work from Jonica T. Gibbs and Andrea Bang, it’s safe to say that sparks are going to fly – and that’s not all.
The real stand-out here is director Mimi Cave, who offers a layered composition packed with detail, showcasing her skill without taking away from the story.
Fresh has an unusual premise, but the real surprise is how much fun it is to watch. A caveat: its rather visceral turn toward horror is not for those with weak stomachs.
Kunle and Sean are best friends and college roommates. Tonight they plan to celebrate and cement their friendship by being the first Black men on campus to complete the Lengendary Tour, making the rounds (and presumably surviving) all 7 frat parties in one epic night.
Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins), the son of doctors, referred to variously as “Black excellence” and “the Barack Obama of bacteria,” is off to Princeton shortly, to pursue post-grad studies on his way to a PhD. Sean (RJ Cyler) is his laid-back counter-point, and while his plans for the future may be less ambitious, his plan of attack for tonight’s festivities is nothing short of genius. A quick stop home for a change of clothes and some pre-gaming is all they need before the fun begins. The quick stop home, however, has other plans for them.
An unknown/unidentified drunk white girl is passed out in their living room after apparently breaking in and barfing up her stomach contents. A third roommate, Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), plays video games in his room, oblivious. Kunle is swift to assess this as a problem for 911, but Sean’s more typical experience as a Black man in America means he’s extremely reluctant to summon cops to his home. That’s how a night of partying turns into an unforgettable opportunity for director Carey Williams and writer KD Davila to explore racism, masculinity, friendship, and justice.
Last year Carey Williams was at Sundance with his film R#J, a new take on Romeo & Juliet which captivated me and motivated me to make sure Emergency was on my must-see list for 2022.
Williams toes the line between comedy and drama, and then he dances all over it, allowing his talented young cast to bring out both the urgency and the absurdity of the situation. Indeed, this satire is only possible because life really is this fucked up. With every sickening twist and turn, we never doubt their plausibility, which is perhaps the film’s most damning tactic. The subtle layering of challenges and expectations shoves reality in your face and forces you to live with their truth, and its consequences. A Black man’s impulse to do the right thing is necessarily tempered by his survival instinct. It’s a frustrating, maddening experience that deserves to be shared.
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.
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.
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