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.

Sundance 2022: Living

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.

Sundance 2022: Fresh

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.

Sundance 2022: Emergency

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.

Slight Unplanned Absence; “Woopsie!”

Shame on me for disappearing. The truth is, in addition to the auto-immune disorder that keeps me disabled, I have a chronic and crippling back problem that never goes away. It does, however, sometimes get a lot worse, and it’s been going through a little temper tantrum since about mid-October. Which means I’ve been at home, in bed, in excruciating pain, for three months and counting. I’ve got opioids, cannabis, muscle relaxants, and even regular injections of pain meds delivered via epidural (a long-ass needle that goes directly into the spine), but what I don’t have is the ability or desire or energy to pursue the things that used to bring me pleasure. Which is a beating-around-the-bush way of saying that I’m not watching movies. Movies are normally a great pass-time for people stuck in bed, but the above list is a testament to my brain-fog. I can barely follow a movie, let alone evaluate it.

And yet here I am, claiming to be “back.” I’ve been lured here by Sundance, an epic film festival that’s guaranteed to be dotted with golden nuggets, no mining required. I can’t guarantee things will be up to my normal standards but the Sundance slate holds so much promise and potential that I’m going to do my very best to deliver the care and attention these films deserve.

Thanks for hanging in there with me.

Happy watching,

J

xo

Holiday Cheer

Hey lovelies! My sister, a front line worker/hero/nurse, is looking for a win this year in her hospital’s door decorating challenge. A vote for her team [Team The ACT-ive Reindeers (Assertive Community Treatment Team) – CAMH] would mean the world to both of us.

Snakehead

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.

Snakehead is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

French Exit

Manhattan socialite Frances Price has burned through the inheritance left by dead husband Frank and is on the verge of destitution. You wouldn’t know it from her demeanor; Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer) is insouciant. She and grown son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), as co-dependent a pair as they come, continue to live as they always have, cavalier about their cash as they throw it around without thought. The Prices’ accountant, however, is signaling a 5-alarm fire. Chastened, Frances and Malcolm sell off what they can before the bank swipes it all, and slink off to Paris where they’ll live cheaply in a borrowed apartment.

Or not.

Frances continues to spend money like it’s going out of style, like she’s allergic to it, like it’s completely meaningless to her. Outside of their comfort zone in Paris, they assemble an eclectic cast of characters including a cat they call Frank, believing it to be the spirit of their dead husband/father; a lonely fan who refers to herself as Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), who insinuates herself quite boldly, and whom Frances surprisingly tolerates; Madeleine the Medium (Danielle Macdonald) who speaks to the dead; Malcolm’s ex-fiancée Susan (Imogen Poots), who arrives boasting a new fiancé; and many more besides.

Watching French Exit, a film I’d anticipated quite fervently, I had two thoughts: 1. director Azazel Jacobs is trying very hard to make a Wes Anderson movie, and 2. he’s no Wes Anderson. But he borrows quite heavily from him, with his shoebox setting, a dysfunctional family, dark comedy, deadpan line delivery, and of course Anderson’s signature contradictory characters, who often say and do terrible things, yet we still root for them because their flaws make them fragile, and human.

Though I love the source material (Patrick DeWitt’s novel), the film didn’t quite connect. Trying and failing to be Wes Andersons sets us up for inevitable disappointment. DeWitt’s novel is quirky, it belongs in a slightly surreal, slightly stylistic universe, but the film adaptation needed to find its own brand of quirk instead of plagiarizing from someone else. The only saving grace here is Michelle Pfeiffer, who’s actually quite astonishing. Not only is she perfection as Frances Price, a woman whose feet never seem to quite touch the ground, she carries the film on her slim shoulders. Frances isn’t easy to know. She keeps everyone but son Malcolm at arm’s length. She’s caustic and arch and sometimes ironic, but never earnest, rarely sincere. Disdain drips from her like ash from her cigarette. She’s withholding, but she has the capacity to surprise us. Pfeiffer delivers such a nuanced performance that even though we never quite shake all the secrets and motivations out of Frances, we still get on board, we come to see her as quite empathetic, hard to do for a rich white woman of so much privilege it’s practically her perfume. Everything else is just a bit of a disappointment, but like a mother heroically hoisting a car single-handedly to save her child, so Pfeiffer does for this film, even if it isn’t worthy of her.

Ali & Ava

Ali (Adeel Akhtar) smiles his way through a troubled marriage. With good humour and loud music, he focuses on doing for others, including his tenants, with whom he has a remarkably amicable relationship. In fact, he’s picking up one of his tenants’ kids from from school when he meets Ava, an Irish teacher at the school. Ava (Claire Rushbrook) is a single mother of 5 (most of them grown, though not necessarily gone), and Ali offers her a ride. She’s tired but she smiles easily, and before they’re much down the road the pair are already bonding over their mutual love of music (though notably not the same music).

Writer-director Clio Barnard may refer to this as a working-class love story, but I’m fairly certain its protagonists would not. They are simply drawn to each other, irrepressibly so, despite their differing backgrounds and statuses and skin colour. They’re both living through tumultuous times and though it’s safe to say neither was looking for a romance, they are both open to finding joy in unexpected places. Not everyone is so open; Ava’s grown son is less than pleased to find a British Pakistani man cuddling his mam on the couch. He brandishes a sword and runs him straight out. So while the initial attraction may have been based on the need for fun and distraction, they quickly come across some pretty serious barriers and have to wonder whether all of this is worth it.

Barnard has drawn some exceptionally authentic characters, brought to life by a very talented pair of actors. Akhtar and Rushbrook live in these skins, they feel like your neighbours, you know them somehow, and you like them even as they falter. The complexity of their relationship allows for a whole spectrum of emotion, but Barnard applies it with a light touch, her actors keeping their performances as subtle as they are precise. There’s a lot to unpack here: grief, trauma, hate, disappointment, but through it all, there’s a buoyancy that keeps lighting their path. There is hope in vulnerability, and strength in pursuing unlikely connections.

Ali & Ava is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

Medusa

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.

Freeland

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