Drama

Review by David Baldwin

Akemi (musician MASUMI) is a Japanese orphan living in São Paulo, Brazil. She has had extensive fight training since she was a little girl, but has very little idea about her past. When her grandfather is murdered and mysterious stranger Shirô (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) saves her life with an ancient sword, Akemi quickly discovers she is the heiress to half of the Yakuza crime syndicate in Okinawa. And the other half happens to want her dead.

For a film called Yakuza Princess, you might expect a non-stop action thriller with that kind of synopsis. And while there is certainly some action and thrills scattered throughout the film, it is actually more of a slow moving drama about a young woman discovering her past and coming to terms with the destiny in front of her. There is a lot of exposition, even more backstory and a whole lot going on between characters in Okinawa and São Paulo (which houses the largest population of Japanese people outside of Japan). It gets a bit overwhelming at times, and some moments have a languished pacing that can be trying even at the most exciting of times.

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Review by David Baldwin

I watched Annette a few nights ago, and have been racking my brain trying to find the words to properly describe it. It is a truly unique vision that is equal parts brilliant and bewildering. At the same time, it is profoundly weird and destined to be polarizing. This rock opera (which I guess would be the closest genre description?) will not be for everyone and I expect many will straight up loathe its very existence. The film World Premiered just under a month ago at the Cannes Film Festival as the Opening Night selection and received a 5-minute standing ovation (which bored Adam Driver and Director Leos Carax so much that they started smoking in the middle of it) as well as the Best Director prize.

Annette centres on Henry (Driver), a comedian married and in love with opera singer Ann (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard). They both have their separate careers and goals, but all of that changes irrevocably after the birth of their daughter Annette.

Knowing this and very little else beyond what I gleamed from shortened Twitter reactions, I prepared to see something crazy. And while it indeed is the certifiably bonkers vision I expected, it is also deeper and more introspective than I ever could have imagined.

So may we start?

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Review by David Baldwin

Emma (Olivia Cooke) and Jude (Jack O’Connell) are a young married couple who have their whole lives ahead of them. That is, until a viral pandemic breaks out where those afflicted lose their memories. When Jude begins to show symptoms of the disease, the couple comes together to preserve their relationship and the memories that go with it for as long as they can.

Another movie about a pandemic? REALLY?! That was my thinking before I pressed play on Little Fish, Chad Hartigan’s rather timely sci-fi romance film. Much like everyone else, the real life pandemic has left me burnt out and languishing as I wait for some form of normalcy to kick back in. And after watching multiple documentaries and dramedies made about this moment in history that we are all living through – I was not immediately keen on taking another one in, even if it was based on a fictional event that was filmed well before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19.

How could I possibly get any enjoyment out of something that hits so close to home?

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Review by David Baldwin

Darren (Kelly McCormack, who also Wrote and Produced) is a talented musician filled with ambition and big dreams. Unfortunately, she’s broke and stuck slaving away at odd jobs. After being let go from yet another part-time gig, she signs up for a “Sugar Daddy” dating website — and ends up getting into more than she bargained for.

Sugar Daddy is the kind of picture that grows on you gradually. I did not think much of it when I first sat down to watch, yet found myself drawn to Darren’s journey of self-discovery as the film moved through its initial set-ups. It is raw, unflinching and due to the 4:3 aspect ratio, highly claustrophobic. It is not hard to watch in the least (the framing does give it a very intimate and candid feel), but it also never gives the easy answers. Should we be cheering and hoping for the best for Darren, even as she treats everyone around her so horribly? She is not quite an anti-hero nor is she particularly likeable.

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Review by David Baldwin

Alfred Chin (newcomer Taylor Takahashi) is a high school senior living in Queens. He goes by the nickname Boogie and he dreams of playing basketball in the NBA. His has the skills and the drive, but needs a scholarship in order to play college ball — but his stubborn attitude is just one of the many obstacles standing in the way of him achieving his goal.

There is a lot I admire about Boogie. The film is the feature directorial debut of Eddie Huang, the restauranteur who wrote the memoir that inspired the wonderful ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat. He infuses his experiences growing up in an Asian-American family into the film, giving it a resonance and cultural expression missing from any number of atypical sports dramas of its ilk. Huang may not have been a sports prodigy, but the struggles Boogie deals with feel authentic and lived in. The soundtrack is great, and the film looks great.

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Image Courtesy of MDFF

Review by David Baldwin

When we first meet Anne (Deragh Campbell), a single daycare worker from Toronto, she is prepping to go skydiving for her best friend’s bachelorette party. The overwhelming experience and new sensation she felt jumping out of a plane changes her — she starts to be a lot more care-free at work and home, much to the chagrin of everyone around her. Very quickly, Anne begins spiraling and starts blurring the lines of what is socially acceptable and what is not.

After watching Anne at 13,000 ft. earlier this week, I immediately regretted skipping it at TIFF 2019. Writer/Director Kazik Radwanski has composed a terrific character study about a woman on the edge that is equal parts intimate and invasive. The film is shot entirely in close-up shots, and has a habit of shifting from absolutely riveting to completely unbearable in the space of a single breath. It always feels honest, and Radwanski never shies away from how uneasy a situation Anne is in — or how awkward she makes the people around her feel. It was a lot to take in watching on my computer monitor; I can only imagine how much more intense it would have been to watch on a theatre screen.

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Review by David Baldwin

Malcolm (John David Washington) is a filmmaker and Marie (Zendaya) is his long-term girlfriend and muse. They are tired, hungry and getting home late after the biggest premiere in Malcolm’s career. He is on edge as they await the first trade reviews. She is not feeling too appreciated after Malcolm missed thanking her in his film introduction. What starts as some mild bickering quickly morphs into a fight that will test the strength of their patience and their relationship.

Finally, the release of Malcolm & Marie is upon us. The film was hyped as one of the first major motion pictures filmed and produced during the COVID-19 pandemic (which was reason enough to be curious), but it has also been the source of immense controversy recently due to the large age gap between Washington and Zendaya. In a pre-pandemic world, this might have only created a light discussion that did not get much traction. But in a world dealing with an on-going pandemic, it took on a whole new meaning and dominated the conversation around the film after the marketing started to kick into high gear.

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Review by David Baldwin

Edee (Robin Wright) is looking for a change of scenery, far away from the city and the life she wants to leave in the past. She settles into a cabin in the remote mountain wilderness of Wyoming with some food and supplies, but deliberately chooses to have no car, no phone or contact with the outside world. While things start promising, Edee quickly becomes in over her head with how unprepared she is for the harshness of her new reality. A chance encounter with local hunter Miguel (Demián Bichir) changes everything as he begins teaching her the skills she needs for survival.

Despite being made before Covid became our harsh reality, Land ends up feeling like a movie tailor made for the feelings many of us are having daily. Loneliness, depression, isolation and hopelessness are universal themes for all of us right now, and they are some of the biggest themes coursing through Land’s veins. Robin Wright does an excellent job capturing all of it as both the film’s lead and as its director (her feature film debut!), really allowing us to feel every moment of Edee’s journey of self-discovery. The way she uses the space is terrific, whether it is by showing how confined Edee’s new home is or how small she is amongst the vast unexplored wilderness. The natural lighting allows for some truly gorgeous cinematography (the Canadian Rockies stand in for Wyoming, and they look stunning) and while it may seem trivial, it was refreshing to see a film like Land filmed with a steady, static camera and not a handheld or shaky cam.

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Review by David Baldwin

The Blooms were an adventurous family who loved spending time outdoors. That changes in an instant during a trip to Thailand when Sam Bloom (Naomi Watts) falls from a platform in a freak accident, breaks her back and becomes paralyzed from the waist down. While Sam and the family learn to cope and understand her new disability, they take in an injured magpie they affectionately name Penguin, or Peng for short. While this new member of the family is initially a burden on Sam, it slowly starts to aid in her recovery.

Penguin Bloom is an inspiring true story that would have really flourished if it were able to have a flashy physical premiere at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival. The cast would have attended, and the real life Bloom family would have been there too. I can practically feel the energy and thunderous standing applause at the Princess of Wales when the real Sam Bloom wheeled herself out on stage. It would have been a triumphant and vividly emotional moment. Covid robbed us of that, and instead it premiered online and in sparsely attended Lightbox screenings because the festival was only able to sell a set number of seats to each screening. A far cry from the days of 2000+ people crammed in at Princess.

I missed Penguin Bloom at the festival and ended up watching it on Netflix from the comfort of my living room a week ago. I was safe from Covid, but it was an even further cry from that theoretically triumphant premiere that was never able to happen.

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Review by David Baldwin

Shook and unsettled. That was how I felt after watching Promising Young Woman back in November. I rarely feel either of those emotions watching movies nowadays (especially during a raging pandemic when so little is genuinely knocking my socks off), and after it ended, it felt like entire scenes were seared directly into my brain. I kept thinking about Writer/Director/Producer Emerald Fennell’s debut feature for weeks on end, and kept coming back to what an incredible achievement it was to behold.

I finally received another chance to watch it again this week and hoped it was all hyperbole or something I was just remembering differently. I thought I would feel less shook knowing exactly where it was going. Less unsettled. But those same scenes and moments just struck harder. They echoed and reverberated more powerfully. I still felt the ground give out below and the wind get knocked right out of me. That is what kind of an unforgettable and uncompromising experience Promising Young Woman is. It makes for one of the very best films from last year – and one that might even be hard to top this year too.

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