Tag Archives: based on a true story

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.

Adventures of a Mathematician

Stan(islaw) Ulam was a brilliant mathematician and nuclear physicist who was teaching at Harvard when Hitler invaded his home country of Poland. In order to make a contribution to the war, he joined the Manhattan Project to work on the hydrogen bomb, moving to New Mexico’s secret Los Alamos lab with Francoise, a French exchange student whom he marries to save her returning to a dangerous, war-torn country (maybe the strangest euphemism for “I want to bone you” I’ve ever heard).

But these equations aren’t just hypothetical anymore. Solving them may mean the end of war, but also the loss of life, sometimes even civilian life. To what extent do Ulam and his fellow scientists owe their work to a cause that isn’t pure? And while both Stan and Francoise are losing friends and family to the Holocaust, the human cost weighs heavily on them.

Make no mistake, Ulam may be Polish born, but Adventures of a Mathematician is an English-language film and a uniquely American story, one of immigration and sacrifice, success and ambition, exceptionalism and confidence. The Manhattan Project united some of the world’s greatest minds of the time, kind of like the Avengers, but less punchy. With great power, of course, comes great responsibility, and perhaps the most important calculations Ulam ever made were in weighing these risks.

Don’t worry, there won’t be any pop quizzes. In fact, Adventures of a Mathematician is more an exploration of ethical quandaries than scientific ones, asking of our protagonist and his colleagues just how far they’re prepared to go, and under what conditions. War is complicated. Humans are complicated. Morality is flexible. Those are some pretty big thoughts to broach in any one movie, and writer-director doesn’t get the chance to treat them equally or adequately, but his attempt to bring this little-known story to the screen is admirable, and while it may not have proved a big draw in theatres, it’ll be a worthwhile watch when it hits VOD October 1st.

Crisis

Three interconnected stories:

A successful architect and single mother (Evangeline Lilly) recovering from her own opioid addiction investigates her teenage son’s mysterious death.

A professor (Gary Oldman) grapples with a pharmaceutical company when his lab’s results conflict with their claims of a “non-addictive” pain killer.

An undercover agent (Armie Hammer) posing as a drug trafficker arranges a really big buy/sting of fentanyl between the American and Canadian border.

The crisis in questions is of course opioids and we definitely need to be looking at it from all angles with a very critical eye. I’m just not sure Crisis is the movie to do it. It acknowledges many of the problems (which can be boiled down to: money corrupts, and opioids are worth a LOT of money to a LOT of people), but because this isn’t gonzo journalism but a thriller, it attempts to solve these problems with guns.

Crisis may occasionally be entertaining as a dramatic thriller, but since we’re very familiar with the topic, we’re also very familiar with its consequences, meaning there aren’t a lot of actual thrills to be had, the endings are predictable and some might say inevitable. Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki doesn’t have a lot of flash or distinguishing personal style, so the vignettes must speak for themselves. Unfortunately, it’s a little too much story for just the one movies, which ends up feeling chaotic and lacking focus. It’s hard to pick out the good guys, and Big Pharma as the baddie is both too big and too vague to really root against. You know it always wins. But neither the villain nor the heroes, if there are any, give us the kind of emotional connection we need in a movie like this, a movie that’s attempting to be more than just your standard shoot-em up thriller. We needed deeper connections, a more probing eye, a reason to rally. Crisis ends up not really living up to its own name.

The Last Vermeer

WW2 was ending, but for some, the work was just beginning. Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang) will spend the war’s aftermath investigating art – art stolen from the Jews as they fled or were removed from their homes. The few lucky enough to return found their homes stripped of valuables, and many of those pieces are still being searched for today. Piller is tasked with investigating renowned Dutch artist Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce), who is accused of selling Vermeer’s Christ and the Adulteress to the Nazis.

People were still rebuilding and recovering from the war so there was little mercy for suspected Nazi collaborators/conspirators/sympathizers. But something strange happens to Piller as he looks into van Meegeren’s background: he begins to suspect that he’s innocent. With the help of Minna (Vickey Krieps) and Dekker (Roland Moller), Piller will have to dig awfully deep to prove van Meegeren’s assertion that he is not a Nazi-loving traitor but a patriot who swindled the Nazis by selling them fake Vermeers painted by none other than himself.

Is van Meegeren’s story simply too good to be true? Does he have any credibility? Is he playing Piller, with his life on the line? Is there any post-war courtroom that would find him anything other than worthy of hanging? Is van Meegeren a master forger or a master of deception?

The best thing about this movie is Pearce’s performance; van Meegeren is funny, flagrant, and flamboyant, eminently entertaining even while on trial for his life. The rest of the cast is perfectly fine, but rarely rise above the perfunctory material. The Last Vermeer is a fascinating true story not particularly done justice by this paint-by-numbers film. Director Dan Friedkin lacks the inspiration to make this something special. It is a good but not great historical drama that gets the job done but fails to capture the imagination.

The Dig

Edith Pretty has always supposed there may be gold in them there hills. Or artifacts, anyway, something of historical value. And so widowed Mrs. Pretty (Carey Mulligan) engages a disgruntled excavator away from a museum that undervalues him and underpays him. Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) digs right in, but what he finds is of far more significance than anyone had dared imagine.

Vexingly, the minute the dig turns up anything of real value, the British Museum and “the man” come sniffing, looking to take credit and ownership. They also take over the dig although no one wanted anything to do with it when it was just a housewife with a hilly backyard; Edith has up until now been self-financing the work.

The 1938 excavation of Sutton Hoo was of course historically significant and netted many revelatory precious artifacts. But for the real people involved, it was a time of personal significance as well. A war is looming. A young boy is without a father. A young woman learns she is not in love with her husband. An old man bonds with a child who isn’t his. A mother learns she will leave her son an orphan. And everyone fights to protect “their” treasure = from the air raids, and the thieves, and the damn greedy bastards. Though history won’t recognize them, Netflix will, assembling a first-rate cast with stand-out performances from Mulligan, Fiennes, and Lily James.

Director Simon Stone’s pacing is exquisite, unfurling a film that is languorous and poetic, unhurried and revealing, with just a tinge of melancholy lingering about the beautiful English countryside. The Dig made me think a lot about legacy – how the people who buried this ship and its treasures left a remarkable historical record for us to find, and in finding it, Edith Pretty et. al became a part of that record too. In some ways, even this film becomes part of this record, dating all the way back to the 6th Century. Of course, our own culture is so materialistic we’d never leave buried anything of great value. If the future isn’t digital, we won’t have left much of an impression, just piles of Chinese plastic. This is why we have such a fascination with archeology; we want to understand our ancestors, to know from whence we come. We’re less adept at telling who we are, and we collectively lack the ability to understand that we, too, might someday be reduced to a few artifacts in a museum. Hubris. It’s a condition of humanity, I suppose, and a film like this, though pretty and competently made, is hardly an adequate defense. In fact, while I found plenty to like about The Dig, it fell short of love, never quite stirring sentiment in the way it clearly expected it would.

The Banker

Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) grew up overhearing white people’s business schemes as he shined their shoes, so he knows he’s just as smart and just as capable. In Texas in the 1960s, however, the world is designed to limit his ambition and rob him of power. But still, he dreams, and he follows those dreams to Los Angeles, where he meets Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson), a potential partner with as much audacity as he.

Joe is already a successful businessman; he owns several properties. Bernard, however, wants to get in on the real profit. He wants to own buildings in white neighbourhoods. Even in L.A. there are many barriers to this happening, so they convince their handyman Matt (Nicholas Hoult) to become the white face of the company. They teach him algebra and golf, the white man’s business necessities, and he basically becomes their puppet, the representative who shakes all the hands and signs all the contracts while his mysterious business partners remain names on a ledger, though both remain hidden in plain sight – as a chauffeur, and a janitor. This strategy is incredibly fruitful for them, but Bernard won’t really feel successful until he can do the same in Texas, so eventually they go back, and they buy a bank. A bank! A bank that will be the first in its area to give loans to Black clients, business owners and first time home owners. They have to do this work incredibly surreptitiously of course, because it’s still Texas, but this endeavour really has the power to transform the entire community, which of course has never had this kind of opportunity for upward mobility, which is to say, the same kind that white folks take for granted. Which is why some 1960s Karen feels the need to intervene. In 1960s Texas, Black audacity is just about the biggest crime there is, so they don’t just get a police response, but the FBI as well. Of the three men involved, can you guess which two are arrested and charged? Yes, go ahead and assume this will be based solely on the colour of their skin.

The Banker is a safe movie that leaves all the risks to its bold lead characters. Director George Nolfi is content with a pretty standard biopic, which in this case is fine, as the revolutionary entrepreneurs depicted are so vivaciously brought to life by both Mackie and Jackson. Proper credit goes to Nia Long also, who portrays Garrett’s wife, Eunice. Happily Long is given actual work to do, the wife not just content to stay in the home, but very much involved in the family business. Eunice was always the first to recognize her husband’s genius and her support must have meant the world, but that would have been a very big deal, to risk her family’s stability in order to indulge his ambition. Eunice was a trailblazer herself, and Nia Long makes the most of it.

Based on a true story, the pursuit not just of the American dream, but of equal access to said American dream, is a story worth telling every time. The magnetic banter between Mackie and Jackson is just surplus on the ledger.

All My Life

Jennifer (Jessica Rothe) and Solomon (Harry Shum Jr.) are a happy young couple. They’ve had their share of ups and downs like anyone else, and he’s struggled to balance his desire to pursue his passion for food as a career and do the responsible thing, keeping his stable but uninspired job to provide for his new little family. Because oh yes: they’re making a go of it. Sol’s asked Jen to marry him, and she’s said yes, and they’ve got happily ever after twinkling in their eyes. Wedding plans are in the works but you know they didn’t make a movie about this couple because everything was easy for them.

Inspired by a true love story, Jennifer and Sol’s relationship is about to get tested, big time. Sol’s got liver cancer, which means wedding plans are put on hold and every last penny is poured into life saving treatment rather than cakes and dresses. But their supportive friends and family take pity on them, pitching in and asking for help from strangers to grant Jen and Sol their dream wedding, a beautiful bright spot during an otherwise terrible time.

It’s nothing we haven’t seen before. True love tested by tear-jerking terminal cancer. But All My Life is helped considerably by charismatic leads with chemistry, a supporting cast that truly uplifts, and a story that may not be original, but is nonetheless well-executed. If you’re in the mood for a weepie, this one’s going to fit the bill.

Safety

Safety plays it pretty safe as far as inspirational sports movies go. Following in the footsteps of Remember The Titans or The Blindside, Safety tells the true story of a freshman college football player who’s got a lot more on his plate than just practice.

Ray (Jay Reeves) is just like any other athlete at Clemson University, until things back home start to fall apart. His mother is an addict, and little brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson) has been alone since her most recent arrest. And things are about to get worse: the good news is, Ray’s mom is going on to a rehab facility to get help. Bad news? That leaves Fahmarr alone, and he’s just a kid. There’s no one else to take him, so it’s either a group home, or…. Or Ray decides to sneak him unto campus where he secretly cares for him for the next month or so, just barely managing between class, football, and childcare, plus the burden of a pretty big secret.

Remember that Ray McElrathbey was a real kid who took on the raising of his younger brother while attending school on a full sports scholarship. He couldn’t really afford to risk his full ride by becoming distracted, nor could he afford to risk his brother’s life. For a while he manages both, but eventually his school and those darn NCAA folks who are sticklers for rules.

Safety skirts around its darker corners, focusing instead on the importance of family and community; if you were feeling cynical you might call it sanitized, but if you were feeling generous of heart you might just find it admirable for its sense of duty, sacrifice, support, and good old fashioned taking care of each other. It’s formulaic and completely unsurprising but it’s also the kind of heart warming stuff that’s hard to resist, especially around the holidays. Director Reginald Hudlin knows he’s got a good story, and tells it in a low-frills, straight forward kind of way, and if it’s a little saccharine, well, we could all use a little extra sweetness this year, couldn’t we?

Hillbilly Elegy

J.D. Vance has a story to tell – his own. Many would call it a rags to riches story, or perhaps a successful escape from an impoverished childhood; director Ron Howard and the movie studio went with “inspiring true story” but all of these seem slightly condescending. Vance himself went with “elegy,” a tribute to the place he came from and perhaps a lament to its end.

Older J.D. (Gabriel Basso) has overcome some rather humble beginnings to attend law school at Yale. It’s interview week, especially crucial to him because even with financial aid and 3 jobs he can’t afford next semester’s tuition without a summer internship. Meeting prospective employers over dinner, he’s overwhelmed by the trappings of etiquette and fine dining that seem to come so easily to others. It’s clear he doesn’t feel he belongs, and a phone call from back home only cements it. It’s his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett), calling to say that mom Bev (Amy Adams) is in the hospital. Again. A heroin overdose. His help is needed, urgently.

Over the next 24 hours of trying to install Bev in yet another rehab manage a facility despite Bev having let her insurance lapse, J.D. is flooded with difficult memories from his challenging childhood.

Critics have been plenty harsh about Hillbilly Elegy, and I can appreciate their concerns. It delivers heavily on the Oscar bait melodrama, and instead of inspiring important conversations about cultural and economic gaps, it’s got some pretty soft platitudes instead of real insight. Not that a Netflix movie was going to solve the wage gap or cure the generational impacts of trauma.

No one can deny that Glenn Close and Amy Adams give everything to their roles. Close manages a bark that bites, with just a nibble of vulnerability, a terrific performance that just doesn’t have anywhere to go, there’s no arc, it’s mostly just an act of observation. Amy Adams’ character, on the other hand, is more like a series of attacks. She gnarls and gnashes her teeth and we get small glimpses or what triggers her explosions, but it’s not enough to piece together something truly satisfying. The characters lack insight and we can only guess that this cycle will be very hard to break.

True History of the Kelly Gang

The ‘true’ in the title is false of course, or debatable anyway, which I suppose means the ‘history’ part is too, although our story does take place in the past. Peter Carey’s vital and vigorous novel is a work of fiction, using many true aspects of the Kelly Gang story but inventing others as well. The film poses as Ned Kelly’s autobiography, mostly written and narrated by himself to an unborn child that Carey made up. But if Ned Kelly had had a pregnant wife, if she had half a brain she would have wondered if Ned would live to meet his daughter, and might have encouraged him to leave behind a written legacy, just in case.

The film is a departure not only in story but in tone and in telling, the violence crazed and stylized but the main concern more character than plot. You may already be familiar with the banks that were robbed and the cattle stolen, but this “true history” is more interested not in what they did but why they did it. The class struggle is palpable enough, the sense that there is no place for these young men, no future. There is real rage here, and a dangerous accumulation of testosterone with no constructive outlet.

Ned’s (George McKay) legacy has of course had a lasting impact on Australian culture; this film gives him a punk rock makeover for the 21st century and adds to the myth if not the man. With stunning cinematography, a gritty feel, and anarchic energy, there is much to be admired in Justin Kurzel’s film. Too bad I just didn’t like it. There was a lot of muck, a lot of exaggerated portrayals of machismo, and for me it was just too much crazy and not enough cohesiveness. But, if you’re looking for a western with a distinctly Aussie flavour, this one’s got that, plus lads in dresses, Russel Crowe, Charlie Hunnam, Thomasin McKenzie, and Nicholas Hoult, if you needed more convincing.