Tag Archives: Amazon Prime

Sundance 2022: Master

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.

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.

Bingo Hell

Affectionately known in the neighbourhood of Oak Springs as ‘Gargoyle’ or ‘Granny,’ Lupita (Adriana Barraza) rules the community with a mostly benevolent first, with a few episodes of micro-vengeance against encroaching gentrification. She and her elderly posse, including Dolores (L. Scott Caldwell), who’s barely tolerating a pasty daughter-in-law, Morris (Clayton Landey), a Mr.-Fix-It who breaks more than he fixes, Clarence (Grover Coulson), the grumpy old man who runs the garage, and Yolanda (Bertila Damas), who runs the town’s failing beauty shop. This week’s community Bingo game is in her honour, raising funds to keep her doors open just a little longer.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I was drawn to this film due to its title. A bingo hall that’s more like bingo hell? Yeah, I can see that. And a couple of things have recently happened in Oak Springs that have shaken up Lupita’s usual game.

First, Mario, a widower normally part of Lupita’s crew, goes missing. It’s only been a day but he’s already missed by his community of elders, who find his absence immediately suspicious. Second, the old bingo hall disappears virtually overnight, bought out by some city slicker with money, who turns it into…another bingo hall. This one’s flashier and sexier and tempts people with extravagant jackpots. The people of Oak Springs can’t resist, but Lupita knows it’s bad news, especially the owner, who goes by Mr. Big (Richard Brake). As you might have guessed, and since this is a horror, Lupita is more or less right. Mr. Big trades in greed, and the price is steep. His bingo hall just might be the root of all evil.

I liked the title but I loved the movie. It’s rare for any movie to feature a cast of senior citizens, but it’s especially nice to see them headlining a horror. And these aren’t doddering old fools, these are vibrant, tough citizens, still fighting for their beloved neighbourhood, still fighting off evil incarnate as necessary. Someone’s got to do it!

Director Gigi Saul Guerrero writes a film, alongside Perry Blackshear and Shane McKenzie, that has clear roots in the genre, but with its fresh perspective and unexpected vigor, Bingo Hell is silly, smart, sassy, and scary. The cast of golden agers is uniformly and impressively strong, and Guerrero directs them by virtue of their age, not despite it, finding power and skill in what others may consider limitations. Guerrero’s greatest asset is Barraza, and she knows it, using her liberally, wisely, and in enchantingly subversive ways. If you’re lucky enough to find an Adriana, you definitely, definitely write a role for her. Barraza is plucky and hardy. When she wields a shotgun, you believe it. But she doesn’t confuse vulnerability with weakness. Lupita is stubborn and single-minded in her defense of her beloved community, but even she will find it difficult to save the souls of her squad when her friends are selling them willingly and enthusiastically. Will Mr. Big$ Bingo be the end of them all? Amazon Prime is where you shall find your answers, but beware: bingo is a game with one winner, and an awful lot of losers. Watch if you dare.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

People will tell you that The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a manic mess of quirks and cameos, and I won’t deny it. In fact, I embrace it. I liked it that way.

Every year, Hollywood greenlights a certain number of biopics, biopics being fairly reliable around Oscar time. But they’ve been making moving pictures for more than a century; at some point, we’re going to be scraping the bottom of the barrel for suitable subjects. I know some critics have argued that Louis Wain isn’t exactly first-rate material, and I’ll confess to not knowing his name or his art before watching this film. Now, however, I’d consider myself a fan. I can see why director Will Sharpe would choose him: Louis Wain was a complete weirdo. Today we’d have a much more sophisticated label for him, but the Victoria set just thought him strange and unusual, and he was happily oblivious to exist outside of society’s expectations.

When we meet Louis in 1881, he’s the head of the family to aging and ailing mother and 5 unmarried sisters. He’s not exactly up for the task, or even aware of it, more concerned with creative pursuits, which of course pay diddly squat, which doesn’t exactly address the family’s growing financial concerns. Wain’s peculiarities keep him so far outside of the natural order of things, everyone’s shocked to discover he’s actually a romantic. And in fact, he’s fallen in love with his sisters’ governess, Emily (Claire Foy). While it’s shocking that Louis is suddenly going to marry, it’s even more shocking that he’s chosen such an inappropriate bride. She’s not only the help, she’s also a spinster at her advanced age. The scandal! Louis’s mother is mortified. But he marries her anyway, and insists that the family treats her well.

Such a beautiful, whirlwind romance can only end one way: she dies. She dies young, leaving Louis a weird, bereft loner who only has the heart to do one thing. Draw cat pictures. He would draw his wife pictures of their beloved cat to cheer her up as the cancer took her, and now he keeps doing it, illustrating obsessively, becoming famous for his cat cartoons, but never rich. Louis never did have a head for business.

He did, however, have a head full of wild and fantastical thoughts, and the film treats him like an avant-garde genius. This is the stuff that creams Cumberbatch’s knickers. He’s the King of Quirk, and he lays it on thick, but I never felt it was over the top or distracting; it was wonderful. It was Cumber at his Batchiest, all ticks, and odd mannerisms, and social ineptitude. He’s not serving up mere ice cream, he’s the whole damn sundae bar, and who doesn’t live for ‘more is more’ at a sundae bar? Cumberbatch does, and I’m here for it.

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Yes, this makes for some wild shifts in film, tonalities that spasm all over the screen, but it feels like an extension of the character, never quite managing to follow the rules, never caring to either. Wain had plenty of darkness in him too, a true artist even in his soul, which a droll voiceover by Olivia Colman drives home, literally giving voice to his damaged inner life, his unbearable grief, his tattered mental state.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is flawed, but it’s also spectacular, especially as a fan of the inimitable Benedict Cumberbatch. Louis Wain didn’t live inside the box he was meant to. He felt life sizzle all around him. He wasn’t typical, or perhaps even neurotypical, but he dreamed big, loved big, lost big, grieved big, and left a legacy that includes a great many cat pictures, but more besides, something intangible that couldn’t possibly be captured on film but between Cumberbatch and Sharpe, is made somehow real.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is an official selection of TIFF 2021. Look for it on Amazon Prime November 5.

Everyone’s Talking About Jamie

This movie is based on the true story of Jamie Campbell, a 16 year old boy from Sheffield, England, who dreamed in drag, and attended prom in a dress.

In the film, the 16 year old boy is called Jamie New (Max Harwood). Jamie is out, and proud, and knows in his blood he’s meant to be a drag queen. He’s bullied at school, rejected by his father, but at home he finds support with mother Margaret (Sarah Lancashire), who doesn’t just love and accept him, but encourages him to be his true self. She even buys him his first pair of heels.

Worried the film wouldn’t be gay enough, directors Jonathan Butterell, Dan Gillespie Sells, and Tom MacRae add singing and dancing, adapting it from the West-End stage musical.

Stifled at school, especially by Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan), Jamie resolves to attend prom in a dress. Emboldened to finally create the drag persona of whom he’s been dreaming, he makes a friend with crucial experience. Hugo (Richard E. Grant) doesn’t just run a fabulous dress shop, he’s a queen himself, and his wisdom extends beyond just brows and breasts. He teaches Jamie (with an all-new song) about drag’s revolutionary history.

Grant prepared for the role by binging 11 seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race in just 3 weeks (which sounds like a dream job to me), and is particularly fitting since season 6’s winner, Bianca Del Rio (Roy Haylock), makes a cameo appearance (as do the real Jamie Campbell, and several cast members of the stage musical).

If you like heart warming stories about being your true self, Everyone’s Talking About Jamie is about to be talked about you, too. If you like queer stories with a happy ending, please sing and dance along. If you like stories about outsiders overcoming obstacles to rise above, then find this film on Amazon Prime, sparkly heels optional but encouraged.

The Mad Women’s Ball

You have to hand it to the patriarchy: they set up an entire society designed to oppress women, to deprive them of any meaning or purpose in their lives, and then they act all surprised when it drives them crazy.

Of course, Eugénie (Lou de Laâge) isn’t actually crazy, but she does speak to the dead. But even just nonconformity is reason enough to lock her up, and in the not-so-long-ago (1885), all you needed was one male relative to want to get rid of you, and a woman could be imprisoned in an insane asylum for life. Eugénie is in Salpêtrière, a Parisian asylum, where she befriends wins over a skeptical nurse, Geneviève (Mélanie Laurent). This nurse no-nonsense and scientifically inclined, but when her dead sister starts sending messages through Eugénie, even she must admit that this woman doesn’t belong here. Together, they plan Eugénie’s escape under the cover of Le bal des folles, the mad women’s ball.

Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, this film is based on real events. Salpêtrière was a real asylum that locked up women and threw away the key based on some very flimsy excuses – and any who were actually crazy were mostly driven that way by the very men who committed them. The women were subjected to barbaric experiments, abused by staff, and the film (and the book upon which it is based) exposes the misogyny inherent in medicine at the time (not all of which has been eliminated today).

Thomas Jefferson once said “The measure of society is how it treats the weakest members,” a scathing indictment of himself, a slave owner, and every psychiatric hospital ever. The Mad Woman’s Ball was indeed a real event hosted ever year, inviting Paris’ high society to come and gawk at the mentally ill, all dressed up in cast-offs and costumes.

Mélanie Laurent writes and directs a story she makes seriously cinematic and strikes a timeless chord, showing the universality of society’s most interesting women being silenced, in board meetings or at the stake, but always one way or another. At the time, women were diagnosed “hysterical” for having an opinion; today she’s called “shrill” or “feminazi” or “sjw.” Bottom line: yes, there’s a message, a grimly timely one, but it’s also just a beautiful film that’s well-acted by an asylum’s worth of talented actresses, with a story to remember.

The Mad Women’s Ball (Le bal des folles) is an official 2021 selection of TIFF.

Look for it on Amazon Prime!

Encounter

Well that was unexpected.

Director Michael Pearce takes a sci-fi action thriller road trip movie and subverts your every expectation, giving us panicky thrills of another kind.

Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed) is a Marine who’s been working back to back top-secret missions, too busy saving the world to see his sons, who live with their mum and her new husband, but miss him dearly, as much as he misses them. Malik shows up unexpectedly, in the night, and coaxes his young songs Jay and Bobby into an old beater, impatient to get away but unwilling to explain the urgency to his kids. Something has happened, something more important than the mission, apparently, or rather: the mission has come home, way too close to home.

Malik’s secret: a comet has brought alien microorganisms to Earth, which use mosquitos as an effective little vector to transplant themselves into humans where they can manipulate their behaviour. Unbeknownst to the kids, though perhaps unconsciously observed, the aliens had already infected their mother, and it was only a matter of time before she turned. So Malik and Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada) are racing toward a base where they will be safe, while, in the meantime, their mother has reported them missing, and Malik is being hunted for kidnapping, not least of all by the only woman he trusts, Hattie (Octavia Spencer).

As much as Malik tries to shield his kids from the truth, they are spooked by his erratic, unexplained behaviour. They trust and love their father, but until someone else speaks publicly about this alien threat, it’s hard to be certain of his motivations, or, indeed, his mental health.

Riz Ahmed is kind of amazing in this, a chameleon who’s already changed before we even realize he’s changing. The kids are good too – Chauhan proving an able foil and partner to a much older and experienced actor, and Geddada providing that essential dose of cute-kidness, moments of levity needed between so bouts of tension and urgency. It’s an interesting way to address PTSD, and an even more interesting way to explore that tenacious bond between child and their parent, the unique ability of a kid to forgive and forget almost anything, to love despite disappointment, despite absence, without condition. There aren’t many people who could shake me awake at night and ask me to follow them without question (and my father is emphatically not one of them); the context may be unusual, but this is undoubtedly a story about love. And aliens.

Encounter is an official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival 2021.

Encounter hits theatres December 3 for a limited release before heading to Amazon Prime on December 10th.

Cinderella

Did the world really need another remake of a classic, oft-told fairy tale? Apparently we did. I didn’t know it until I saw it, but I did. This one offers up convincing reasons for its existence, fitting itself into a uniquely shaped niche we didn’t know how desperately we wanted filled.

What is it: Live action but not Disney.

Who’s in it? Camila Cabello stars as Cinderella, but the entire cast is stacked: Idina Menzel as the wicked step mother; Pierce Brosnan as the King and Minnie Driver as his Queen; James Corden as the voice of one of Ella’s mouse friends; the venerable Billy Porter as the extra fabulous fairy godmother; and then there’s the lesser known but equally talented Nicholas Galitzine as the Prince. Well done all round.

What does it look like? While the exact time period is hard to pin down, costumer Ellen Mirojnick embraces the sumptuous silhouettes of the roughly Victoria era using rich fabrics and a bejeweled colour palette but she isn’t boxed in by them. Short hemlines and asymmetrical necklines are clearly anachronistic but who cares, everyone looks great, the mood is magical, the gowns sparkle, the choreography is light but on point. What’s not to love?

What does it sound like? Divine. Of course there’s the obligatory radio bop, an original song for the Cinderella soundtrack called Million To One, which we revisit if not repeatedly, then at least frequently. And there’s a couple of songs sung by the town crier that have to be written for the movie as they’re far too specific, referencing not just movie plot points but also random crowd activities. But many of the songs you’ll not only know, but I’m quite certain you’ll sing along to: the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation, and perhaps the greatest needle drop in a decade, Salt-n-Pepa’s Whatta Man. Practically perfect in every way.

Who had the balls to make this thing? Kay Cannon of course, as both writer and director. This is only her second film (after Blockers), but she does have some bona fides producing the Pitch Perfect movies. She’s got an eye for style, a keen ear for talent, and she writes a script that actually makes Cinderella relevant again. This Cinderella is going to be content being a wife and princess. She wants more. She wants a career. She wants fulfillment. She wants more comfortable shoes.

Should you watch it? Absolutely, without reservations. This isn’t a major piece of cinema or a must-see blockbuster. It’s just a well-executed musical that’ll put a little lightness in your heart. And who doesn’t need that?

Annette

Ann (Marion Cotillard) and Henry (Adam Driver) are an odd but glamourous couple – she, a world-famous, beautiful, apple-eating opera singer, he a successful, provocative, banana-loving stand-up comedian. And yet they’re in love. The public eats up their love story, consuming the pretty pictures they see in the media.

Annette will not be for everyone, and for once that’s not me being a snob condescending to you normies who surely won’t appreciate creative cinema when you see it (though god knows I’m alarmingly comfortable being that bitch); it’s me, a snob and seasoned consumer of movies, telling you that even I found it weird and difficult to digest. First of all, it’s a musical. It’s a musical that’s not stylized as a musical. It’s a tediously descriptive musical. The song that opens the film is called So May We Start, and those are more or less all of the lyrics as well, asking in a prolonged and pedestrian way if they should start the film. I didn’t turn it off, so I guess that passed for consent, so we see them become their characters, Driver donning a long, curly wig, and ten minutes into the film, it begins. If not immediately won over, I was at least intrigued enough to keep this party going. But all subsequent songs – and there are many, they are constant – are equally plainly descriptive. Their love song: “We Love Each Other So Much.” Simon Helberg’s song about being Ann’s accompanist: “I’m an Accompanist.” Henry’s song about fatherhood skills: “I’m A Good Father.” Not a metaphor for miles. And yet, when Henry performs his comedy, there isn’t a single joke. There are only songs about the usual contents of a stand-up routine. And when Ann’s on stage at the opera, her song is about the most common components of the opera: death, and bows. The songs stand in for actual entertaining content. Are the songs themselves supposed to be entertaining? It’s hard to say for sure but it’s even harder to believe that yes, they are. Because truly, they aren’t. And I normally love a musical, even a half-baked one, and I’ve always enjoyed using 5000 words when 5 would do. But these songs, conceived by the band Sparks, are just not for me. Too avant-garde? Not avant-garde enough?

But this isn’t even the weird, or weirdest, part of the movie. Henry’s embroiled in a scandal and the couple grow apart as her star continues to rise as his career stalls and then fails. Even their newborn baby isn’t uniting them, cute as little Annette is. And by cute I mean she’s not cute at all. She’s very, very creepy. That’s a mean thing to say about a baby; good thing she’s actually a puppet. I’ve misused the word ‘actually’ in that sentence, though I do not mean to deceive you. Mostly I’m confused myself. Visually, verifiably, clearly, Annette is ‘played’ by a creepy rubber puppet who moves like a stiff rubber puppet, with unblinking glass eyes and obvious ligatures to keep her joints relatively articulated. My god is she creepy. Not quite as creepy as the wispy mustache that Henry grows, but still quite remarkably creepy. But wait – there’s more! The film never comments on the fact that Annette appears to you and I to be a puppet – they simply treat her like a real baby, as if this movie is a middle school Christmas pageant with no budget and no recently birthed siblings to play the baby Jesus. Annette’s mom and dad simply see their beautiful baby girl. However, baby Annette does have something strange about her, a gift the film lauds as unusual and extraordinary, but which doesn’t seem all that weird compared to the weirdness of the film itself. It’s like an elephant holding a press conference to tell us that a 7 year old boy is reading at a 6th grade level. That’s quite remarkable, sure, and good for the kid, but are we really just glossing over the fact that an elephant learned both English, AND the power of the media? The medium IS the message, people.

Do not let me dissuade you from watching Annette. After a debut at Cannes and a tiny theatrical run, it is now streaming on Amazon Prime, a fairly innocuous way to sample a truly original film, and while you may or may not respond to it, at least it’s not another Hollywood retread. It’s daring and risky (it pairs a pedo mustache with a douchebag fedora!) and a fun game is to keep your face neutral and simply record the spot in the film where your spouse finally buckles and says “That’s weird.” For Sean it didn’t come until 1h24m into the film, at a point so random and arbitrary that I was astounded and amused in equal portions. I wish my reaction to the film was just as balanced, but still, I was pleasantly surprised by the film’s moving end. It perhaps wasn’t totally earned, but it was a few very stirring minutes of film at the end of a 2h21m movie.

Jolt

The Premise: Lindy (Kate Beckinsale) suffers from Intermittent Explosive Disorder, which causes her anger, and indeed even mild annoyance, to turn into deadly violence. When provoked, she snaps, and good luck surviving her wrath as the extra cortisol makes her stronger and faster than any mere human. After a childhood spent as a lab rat, Lindy strives to live as normally as possible, experimenting with extreme shock therapy to keep her anger from detonating. But when the only man she’s ever cared for is taken from her, she’s going to embrace her inner demons in the pursuit of vengeance.

The Verdict: Jolt isn’t exactly a gem, but as an action-comedy, it’s surprisingly watchable. It depends a lot on Kate Beckinsale’s charms, but as they are indeed considerable, I didn’t mind this. The writing is sloppy but occasionally satisfactorily sardonic, and Beckinsale proves she can land a punch as well as a punchline. Yeah, it’s a little sexist (why are the shock pads stuck to her boobs?), and sure it pats itself a little too smugly on the back for being gender-bending, but the action’s there, if a little uninspired, and the character’s a lot of fun, and it’s sitting on Amazon Prime just waiting for you to give it a watch when there’s literally nothing else.