Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Our reviews and thoughts on the latest releases, classics, and nostalgic favourites. Things we loved, things we hated, and worst of all, things we were ambivalent about.

To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar

June seems like a good time to revisit this film – it’s been a while, but watching it makes me realize that it’s been a LONG while.

The 90s were an interesting time. After the conservative 80s, the 90s felt like a time of revolution. We thought we were cool and edgy; we were open to the changing times. But looking back now, it’s much easier to spot that we weren’t pushing boundaries so much as testing them. We were starting to explore this LGBTQ thing (though we were still a good decade away from calling it that), but doing it safely, within familiar contexts.

Hollywood had already given us Some Like It Hot and Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire. We could deal with dudes in dresses. So To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar gave us three.

Drag is an art form which has held an esteemed position within the gay community for decades. Far more than entertainment, it was an expression of one’s true self, it was a middle finger to the political establishment, a celebration of life, an opportunity to let loose at night after being closeted all day, a dismantling of traditional notions of gender, a platform for activism, an embrace of difference and diversity, a way to foster community, to plant one’s flag in the ground and say: this is me.

[I understand that some women are concerned about the appropriation of female bodies and the highly stereotypical and overly sexualized images of drag’s display of femininity in order for men to gain power, prestige, and status within the queer community. Generally, I tend to admire a drag queen’s ability to reject gender norms and embrace a whole spectrum of expression, but I do cringe over some of the misogynistic terms, such as a queen who is very feminine-presenting (“passing”) being labelled ‘fish.’]

But with my 2020 goggles on, and drag having largely been adopted by the mainstream, I can’t help but notice To Wong Foo presents an incredibly confusing portrait of drag; namely, that drag queens are always in drag. For most drag queens, the heels and lashes and hip pads are part of the uniform of their work – often a staggeringly and prohibitively expensive uniform, but still. They dress for their performance, but they don’t live as women. They are, for the most part, gay men. There are occasionally drag queens who transition male to female, but that’s very much the exception.

Let’s call Wong Foo what it is: three cis-gender, heterosexual Hollywood actors wearing dresses and gesturing with a limp wrist. If this film were made today, there’d be an understandable outcry. But in 1995, this shit was legitimately (and sadly) groundbreaking.

Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze play Noxeema and Vida, two NYC queens newly crowned and headed for Hollywood to compete in Miss Drag America. Like all good fairy dragmothers, they bring along baby drag queen Chi Chi (John Leguizamo) to teach her the rules of the game. They travel cross country in a big ole Buick convertible, which of course breaks down in Hillbilly City. Sorry, that’s unfair. It’s nowhere near being a city, or even a town. I don’t think it has a single stop light. Population: 3 wife beaters, 4 rapists, 1 bigoted cop, and 1 lisping shop owner (see Michael Vartan as ‘Rapist #1’ and Chris Penn as ‘bigoted cop’).

Anyway, as I said, the 3 “drag queens” are NEVER out of drag. They discuss identity but don’t get it right. And not a single one of them would be allowed to compete on RuPaul’s Drag Race – I shudder to think what Michelle Visage would have to say. But mama Ru did give the film her blessing (in a cameo, she appears under maybe the best drag name ever: Rachel Tensions, confederate flag dress and all) alongside other drag stars Lady Bunny, Candis Cayne, Coco Peru, Hedda Lettuce, and Lady Catiria.

Regardless of its inaccuracies and liberties, the gay community embraced its camp, but a broader audience flocked to it too, opening the film at #1 at the box office. It’s no Paris Is Burning. It’s a product of its time, and a landmark in the ongoing fight for queer representation.

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.

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 (Chanté 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.

Murder To Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story

Netflix is crowded with documentaries just like this one: someone, often a person of colour, has been completely failed by the so-called justice system. And for every documentary made, there are hundreds? thousands? of unnamed prisoners going through the same thing. It’s hard not to burn out on these stories, and we feel so helpless to do anything about it.

Cyntoia Brown was failed many times before the justice system ever had its chance. Her mother Gina was just 16 when Cyntoia was born, already addicted to alcohol and crack. She struggled to raise her for a couple of years, but Gina was herself the victim of childhood molestation and rape, as was her mother before her. When Cyntoia was 2, she was given up for adoption, but she struggled to fit in, and her undiagnosed fetal alcohol poisoning made it impossible for her to thrive in settings that were hostile to her. By the time Cyntoia was 16, she was being pimped frequently by her “boyfriend” and one night, during an encounter that had her feeling particularly vulnerable, she shot the man who had picked her up, fearing and believing that he was about to do the same to her.

The justice system spent very little time deciding her fate: first, to be treated as an adult in court, despite her young age, and second, to sentence her to life in prison for a crime she committed as a scared child in an impossible situation. In 2004, when she was arrested and charged, the court called her a prostitute. Today, it would call her a child sex slave, the victim of human trafficking. But that does her very little good when she’s already been behind bars for 14 years.

But you know what? Some of director Daniel H. Birman’s footage went viral, prompting social media users to retweet #FreeCyntoiaBrown until someone finally paid attention. Her cause went up for review, and Brown pled for a second chance though most of us can see that she never really got her first. Her sentence was commuted and after 15 years in prison, she finally walked free. Now she spends her time advocating for prisoners in similar circumstances, but I think her story is particularly powerful in that it proves that actually we can make a difference. Hearing these stories and sharing these stories is how we begin to mend a broken system.