Tag Archives: female directors

The Matrix Resurrections

The Matrix ranks very high on my list of favourite films. But I have always wished the series stopped there. To put it politely, the Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions were not very good, and as far as my lists go, they only rank very high on my list of unnecessary sequels. Given that trend, it seemed inevitable that The Matrix Resurrections would be nothing more than another unnecessary entry in the franchise. And yet, The Matrix Resurrections feels surprisingly worthwhile, feeding viewers’ nostalgia by making that yearning the core of the film.

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is the creator of a massively successful videogame trilogy about the Matrix, a virtual world created by machines to hold humans captive. Thomas (a.k.a. Neo) has everything he could have wanted, but can’t escape the feeling that something is not quite right with his world. So when a stranger (Jessica Henwick) offers him the choice of escaping to the “real world”, you know he’s going to take it, if only to find out how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Except for the up-front reference to the Matrix as a video game concept, the plot is literally copied and pasted from the first film. Those similarities work in the Matrix’s world since we were told in the first trilogy that Neo’s adventures were not the first time around even then. What is confusing to Neo is that he, like the audience, thought he had broken the cycle by making different choices than his predecessors and ultimately by sacrificing himself to save humans and machines alike from the malevolent Agent Smith.

One key difference between this film and Neo’s last adventure is his focus. This time, he’s not trying to save humanity. He’s only trying to rescue Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) from the Matrix. That narrow mission is a welcome change from the previous two entries in the series, which had so many moving parts that they left Neo and Trinity offscreen for extended periods of time. In the original trilogy we were repeatedly told their love for each other made Neo different from his predecessors so it feels right that this time, Neo’s mission is to save their relationship.

No other stakes than that are needed. For Neo, saving his love is enough, as it should be. It’s refreshing that writer-director Lana Wachowski was able to resist the “bigger is better” ethos that all-too-frequently derails sequels (Venom: Let There Be Carnage shows how easy it is for a sequel to lose sight of what made the first movie succeed). Happily, that choice is what makes The Matrix Resurrections worthwhile, not just because it avoids the sequel trap, but because in doing so it gives us the chance to move past the other sequels to a world that feels limitless (mirroring the end of the first film). We finally have a satisfying end to Neo and Trinity’s story.

Now please leave it that way. #nomoresequels

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: Call Jane

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.

Eli

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.

Sundance 2022: Alice

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.

Sundance 2022: 892

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.

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.

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

True Things

Kate

Kate (Ruth Wilson) is having another dreary day at the office, one in a string of many, making up the bulk of her dreary little life. But today is different. Sitting behind her desk as a benefit claims worker, Kate catches the eye of a claimant who looks like the kind of sexy bad news that could shake up her life. With dyed-blond hair and perpetual 5-o’clock shadow, this guy is easily identifiable as newly released from prison, and Ruth doesn’t need much more than that to fuel her fantasies. But before you know it, they’re going at it FOR REAL right there in the parking lot. It’s hot and frantic and leaves her breathless. Consider Kate obsessed.

Blond guy (Tom Burke) is cheeky and charming (when he wants to be), and handsome in that dangerous way, making for some pretty sexy fantasizing. But it’s not just the sex that invades her fantasies; soon she’s picturing marriage and children and mortgages, the whole kit and caboodle. Which, to be fair to Blond, is not at all what he’s promising. In fact, if you weren’t dick-matized by him, you’d probably clock him for Trouble with a capital T. Unfortunately for Kate, her life was had a bad boy-sized hole in her life. Blond fills it imperfectly, but it’s better than nothing, and Kate’s serious infatuation is more than capable of filling in seams. She’s so intoxicated that her everyday life starts to fall apart because she just can’t get her mind off him. And Blond guy plays her like a banjo, doling out his affection in smaller and smaller portions. Toxic men seem to understand intermittent reinforcement intuitively; rewarding someone all the time is good, but rewarding someone irregularly actually keeps them on the hook much longer, perpetuates that false hope for longer, keeps a woman sniffing after the wrong guy for far longer than she should.

Ruth Wilson’s been doing some noteworthy and varied work lately, and I would definitely rate this role among it. We likely all have a friend, and perhaps even a personal experience, of falling head over heels for someone we shouldn’t have. Kate is consumed, almost erased, by the strength of her desire. Director Harry Wootliff feels intimately familiar with the scenario as well, the sensual exploration, the hunger to not be alone, the dizzying highs, the unfathomable lows. Together they compose something that feels desperate and authentic, a classic story of self-destructive compulsion. Blond embodies the bad boy trope, oozing so much exaggerated sexuality that even a smart woman like Kate can’t resist, despite red flags like callousness, narcotism, and unavailability. Wilson’s meticulously-observed performance resonates, speaking to our unconscious, evolutionary desires.