Fear Street Part 1: 1994 | All photos courtesy of Netflix
“Welcome to Fear Street, where your worst nightmares live and where the terror never ends.”
The literary horror world of R. L. Stine has seen a resurrection of book-to-screen studio adaptations in recent years. Decades after the super nostalgic 90s television series Goosebumps, based on Stine’s popular anthologies about teens finding themselves in spooky situations, the title was given a spin in 2015 with Jack Black playing the author himself. A lackluster 2018 sequel came and went, but what remains are plenty of horror fiction books to be discovered by a new generation, or rediscovered by those who grew up reading the horror author’s bone-chilling stories. Growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, Stine’s unmistakable pulpy book covers stood out on library shelves and were coveted on the pages of Scholastic Book Fair flyers. Among them, the young adult book series Fear Street, which began prior to Goosebumps and was geared towards older teens. Markedly more violent and adult, Fear Street operates on a loop of terror. Set in fictional Shadyside, the series follows the town’s sinister history through a nightmare 300 years in the making. Given the sprawling material and best-selling appetite for Stine horror, it comes to no surprise that Netflix is hitting the crest of this wave with a three-part film trilogy based on the series, and they’re off to a nostalgic start.
Fear Street 1994 (Part 1), directed by Leigh Janiak, evokes the peak 90s slasher horror that screams Scream. Wes Craven’s genre staple has a fun influence on Janiak’s choices, from the effective casting of Maya Hawke as Heather in the opening scene to employing the same film composer who chased Sidney and Ghostface through four installments. While Marco Beltrami’s creepy, brilliant score is often given center stage to play out in the Scream films, Fear Street tends to overpower his work with consecutive 90s rock song needle drops. Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, Garbage, Pixies, the list goes on with rock hits by bands of the decade. Part 1 lays the setting of its era on thick, but in a rollicking way, tapping into a teenaged angst of trying to be edgy and cool. On a more emotionally engaging level, the kinships formed between characters give Fear Street something more to hold onto beyond the 90s horror vibes and the violent kills. The story follows a circle of teenage friends who accidentally encounter the ancient evil responsible for a series of brutal murders that have cursed their town for centuries. They soon discover these terrifying events may all be connected — and they may be the next targets.
Maya Hawke in Fear Street Part 1: 1994
The neon-lit Shadyside Mall opening sequence sets the tone for what’s to come — whispering threats, stylized sets, skull mask chases, and a haunted centuries-old grip on the town that drives its residents mad. Fear Street 1994 is less scary as it is one big twisted game leaning into R rated gore and witchcraft. The 90s feel like a classic way to start the trilogy, and in doing so, writer-director Leigh Janiak pays homage to the sweet spot of slasher horror through a contemporary lens. The references that make it onto the screen certainly feel like they’re coming from a filmmaker who truly appreciates and is a fan of the genre, while also wanting to make something of her own in this adaptation of a sprawling story. Working with co-writers Phil Graziadei and Kyle Killen, Janiak weaves nostalgic horror with romance and adventure of modern sensibilities.
The central love story introduced between Deena (Kiana Madeira) and Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) starts to parallel the opening lyrics of Pixies’ song ‘Hey’ as connections are made between Shadyside’s past and present. What’s initially between the two of them is distance; Sam moved to a preppy neighboring town called Sunnyvale, and Deena had a hard time adjusting to the change. The towns are 30 minutes apart but for Deena, the distance feels immense. Janiak does a good job portraying how dramatic any given experience can be for teenagers. Deena and Sam’s first scene together is an escalating argument in the midst of a football game, which sort of questionably mirrors tensions rising on the field between the Sunnyvale Devils and the Shadyside Witches. Shaky editing aside, the weight of their almost love-hate relationship is established from the get-go, which makes forthcoming plot reveals feel more resonant. There’s still a lot of emotional residue from their relationship and conversations around identity. Kiana Madeira and Olivia Scott Welch share a strong chemistry that captures bottled up feelings well. Outside of their relationship, the film introduces characters who make up a central circle of friends: theory enthusiast Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), cheerleading captain Kate (Julia Rehwald), and classmate Simon (Fred Hechinger). Everyone but Deena is convinced the Shadyside Mall attack is the doing of condemned witch Sarah Fier, who as the story goes cheated death by cutting off her hand to grip the town and has returned for more revenge. But Deena soon realizes the danger they all face. After the group of friends have an accidental encounter with Fier’s cursed grave, they are suddenly thrust into her infinite thirst for blood and chased by her army of possessed killers.
From left to right: Julia Rehwald, Fred Hechinger, and Kiana Madeira in Fear Street Part 1: 1994
Benjamin Flores Jr. in Fear Street Part 1: 1994
Leigh Janiak’s adaptation takes some creative liberties with Stine’s Fear Street books, capturing the horror spirit while adding new elements such as the mythology of Sarah Fier, a character who features prominently in spirit as Part 1 explores witch-driven madness. Janiak has a clear vision and is able to tease the mystery out across decades, building towards a feeling of anticipation for the second installment. Without falling into too many overwhelming trappings of predictability, Janiak captures teenaged angst through setting and character. With the added support of Amanda Ford’s costume design, the 90s vibes are fairly consistent all the way through. With fun references to certain films such as Craven's Scream and John Carpenter's Halloween, Fear Street 1994 enjoyably plays into the slasher horror genre. Janiak also leans into the markedly more violent aspects of the source material, with some gruesome onscreen kills that explain the film’s R rating for bloody horror violence, including a really unfortunate scene involving a bread slicer.
At the center of this Fear Street adaptation lies character dynamics and the underlying conversation around who becomes Sarah Fier’s scapegoats. Characters who are having a hard time with identity, who feel like social outcasts and are trying to escape a dreary town. When thinking about Shadysiders from the way Sunnyvale sees them, for instance, they are looked down upon. Leigh Janiak and co-writers explore a world in which characters’ fates are decided for them by a systemic rot that permeates in the town. The infinite cursed cloud that hangs over Shadyside goes back centuries and persists systemically. Deena is a great character to lead the audience through this story; she leads with a fearless protection for those she loves and cares about, particularly Sam in a fight for survival. While some of the actors fall a little flat, Kiana Madeira gives a strong performance that becomes one of the main anchors of the story, as does Benjamin Flores Jr. who plays Josh. It’s his passionate knowledge, and immersion into AOL theory chats, that connects the dots in Shadyside.
Fear Street 1994 captures the adrenaline rush of watching a fun 90s slasher, incorporates memorable character dynamics, and turns the gore level up several notches. The tactic of unleashing the fear in three installments is off to a reviving start. For a story centered on a seemingly never-ending reign of terror, the filmmakers succeed with a structure designed to build on there being more to come. Part 1 ends on an edge-of-your-seat note that promises to bring on the mystery and evokes a familiar comfort to Stine readers, leaving fans thirsty for more.
Fear Street Part 1: 1994 releases July 2nd exclusively on Netflix at www.netflix.com/FearStreet.
Follow Fear Street on social:
Disney and Pixar's Luca (2021)
Sometimes the simplest stories are the ones that resonate most. Disney and Pixar’s Luca, helmed by Italian director and writer Enrico Casarosa, flows with breezy summertime vibes. At its core is a wholesome friendship between two boys who share an appetite for discovery, imagination, and fun. Set in the seaside town of Portorosso on the Italian Riviera, newfound friends Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) dream of a whole new world. Being sea creatures, there’s an entire universe beyond the water that they don’t know about and want to explore. But their dreams are threatened by the town’s collective fear of sea monsters. Worried that Luca will tempt unfortunate fate by venturing onto the surface one too many times, his mother swears on sending him to the bottom of the ocean for the rest of the summer. But Luca sneaks off with Alberto to join the “human town”. Using their ability to become humans when on land, the boys embark on an unforgettable adventure to Portorosso, a place they call Vespa town. Anchored by a sweet friendship, Luca is an adorable fish-out-of-water story with a big heart.
Enrico Casarosa, writer-director of the Pixar short La Luna, carries the magic of that coming-of-age fable into his first full-length feature. At the heart of Luca is a young boy finding his own way in the midst of fearful surroundings, with the help of a blossoming friendship. Alberto encourages Luca’s first experience on land, and eventually teaches him how to conquer his fears through inner confidence. Luca learns the weight of Alberto’s go-to phrase “Silencio Bruno,” a self-affirmation to silence inner doubt and an antidote for whenever they’re about to take a risk. The story builds on a strong foundation of friendship and acceptance, which gives the characters an emotionally resonating arc in the final act that sees Luca jump into the deep end and put himself out there to meet Alberto halfway. The journey to personal victory is a rocky road. It’s the journey these boys go on together that makes this film so beautifully endearing.
Luca succeeds at conveying a summery, adventurous vibe throughout. The story captures the excitement of making a new friend, having the time of your life in fleeting moments that melt quickly into memories, and breaking away from your family home to go off on new adventures. The particular adventure Luca and Alberto embark on is fueled by a love for Vespas. Having tried and failed to make one of their own, they set their sights on the real thing in Portorosso: a shiny red Vespa belonging to town bully Ercole Visconti (voiced by Saverio Raimondo). He’s a five-time winner of the Portorosso Cup: a triathlon of swimming, biking, and eating lots of pasta. Ercole embodies the slimy, arrogant personality of self-imposed greatness. He loves nothing more than belittling competition, including young Giulia (voiced by Emma Berman), an energetic underdog gearing up for another solo attempt at ending his winning streak. When she sees Ercole swarm around Luca and Alberto, two new faces in “his town,” she jumps to their defense. Just like that, a friendship trio is born. With the help of Giulia’s initially reluctant fisherman dad Massimo (voiced by Marco Barricelli), the trio form an underdog team in the competition. Giulia has a great introduction to the film. Her role in the story becomes an endearing one, full of understanding and empathy as she gets to know two kids who also feel different from everyone else. Rather than oversaturate the plot and twist the film in different directions, the filmmakers take a clear and simple route to tell the story. Luca explores just how delicate it can be to navigate through friendships, especially at a time of discovering your strengths and building your confidence while feeling the pressures of conformity. In this case, the horrifying reputation sea monsters have in Portorosso is enough for the boys to fiercely maintain their deeply held secret, but at what cost? The story builds up to an emotional climax that tests their friendship.
Beyond the themes that make the story resonate, just as much care and detail are infused in the world-building around the characters. The seaside town of Portorosso is a beaut. Gorgeous animation splashed with vibrant colours, heart melting references to features of Italian culture, and idiosyncratic dream sequences make Luca one of the most beautifully crafted Pixar films to date. The dreamy moments in particular are a great way to show how vivid Luca and Alberto’s imaginations are. Everything they envision in their heads, they recite with sparkling enthusiasm, and the animation matches that energy. The detailed worlds crafted underwater and on land are stunning to look at, and the transitions between both settings are seamless. It’s a visual treat when the two worlds collide, as they do when two sea monsters passing as humans try to dodge water and don’t always succeed. The animators create a lovely portrait down to the tiniest details, from an Italian scopa card to a quaint tomato garden. In addition to visuals, the voice work plays a large part in bringing this place to life. Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Grazer could not have been more energetic and heartfelt. Everyone in the supporting cast also does accomplished work; a few fun additions are Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan voicing Luca’s parents, Daniela and Lorenzo Paguro.
Luca shines with classic adventure vibes; the characters are thrown into an exciting experience fueled by the risky undertaking of dreaming big. Luca and Alberto dare to dream. It’s subtly established early on that winning the Portorosso Cup would be worth a lot more than a Vespa. As the boys jump into the deep end, meeting characters along the way who either help or hurt the process, they discover that inner work and team work make the dream work. As one of the characters mentions, “some will never accept them, but some will, and Luca seems to find the good ones.” As the beautiful and emotional ending demonstrates, the victory of their journey extends far beyond the triathlon finish line. The friendship between Luca and Alberto gives the film a wholesome arc. They help each other address their most personal inner fears and embrace each other’s identities. The finish line is a pit stop to an entire new world that awaits them, and they each discover a piece of themselves to explore. For Luca, to attend school as an open book and be accepted as a sea creature. For Alberto, to experience a father figure in a way by staying behind to help Giulia’s father with fishing.
The storytelling creates something so winning and charming within a smaller scale. The simplicity of its approach is what makes Luca work so magically. The story really crystalizes what is most important to the protagonists and makes room for their friendship to take the film to new places. Resonating messages about acceptance and self-discovery shine through. Luca holds its own in a sea of highly regarded top tier Pixar films and wholeheartedly succeeds as a charming underdog story. It’s short, sweet, and a sincere joy to watch. Luca is a sunny delight that, underneath its simple surface, makes a big splash with an emotionally satisfying conclusion.
Happy Pride Month!
June gives us the opportunity to highlight and celebrate the LGBTQ+ community. One of many ways to celebrate is by diving into films and television shows that center LGBTQ+ stories and creators. Identity expression through an artistic medium such as storytelling helps create safe spaces for representation. Seeing yourself reflected on screen, no matter where you are in the process of finding your identity, nurtures a place of understanding and affirmation. Here are some LGBTQ+ centric titles that span various decades and genres of storytelling.
A Fantastic Woman (‘Una mujer fantástica’) • 2017
Directed by Sebastián Lelio
Marina (Daniela Vega) and Orlando (Francisco Reyes) are in love and planning their future, when one night Orlando suddenly falls ill and passes away. Instead of being able to mourn her lover, Marina is treated with suspicion by authorities and with disdain by his family. She is forbidden to attend his funeral and thrown out of the apartment they shared. Mourning the loss of the man she loved, she finds herself under intense scrutiny from those with no regard for her privacy. A powerful perspective and fantastic performance by Daniela Vega carry this film through a resonating journey.
Rent or buy A Fantastic Woman on primevideo.com with a Prime Video subscription and 100% of proceeds go to The Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity. Learn more: amazon.ca/giveback.
But I'm A Cheerleader • 1999
Directed by Jamie Babbit
Megan (Natasha Lyonne) considers herself a typical American girl. She excels in school and cheerleading, and she has a handsome football-playing boyfriend, even though she isn't crazy about him. Her parents decide she's gay and send her to True Directions, a boot camp meant to alter her sexual orientation. While there, Megan meets a rebellious and unashamed teen lesbian, Graham (Clea DuVall). Though Megan still feels confused, she starts to have feelings for Graham. In this delightfully 90s film, Jamie Babbit engages in resonating commentary on the horrors of conversion therapy while taking a campy, social satire approach. Rather than sugar coat the underlying serious themes, the film's bubblegum aesthetic and sense of humour make the absurdity all the more clear.
Stream But I'm A Cheerleader on crave.ca with a Crave subscription.
Disclosure • 2020
Directed by Sam Feder
In this documentary, leading trans creatives and thinkers share heartfelt perspectives about Hollywood's impact on the trans community. For decades, representation on screen has affected how transgender people are seen by themselves and by others. Through exploring the history of trans images in film and television, the importance of truthful narratives shine. It is crucial to note that while representation is improving, there is still a long way to go, and the work continues. This eye-opening documentary is a compelling piece of work that should be essential viewing.
Stream Disclosure on netflix.com with a Netflix subscription.
Feel Good (Seasons 1 and 2) • 2020-21
Created by Mae Martin
Stand-up comic Mae Martin navigates a passionate, messy new relationship with her girlfriend, George, while dealing with the challenges of sobriety. The semi-autobiographical comedy series (created and co-written by Martin) is back for a second and final season, bringing with it all the pathos and humour that shine in the first. The series excels beautifully at expanding conversations around the fluidity of gender identity and what that means to a relationship. The second and final season maintains the lightheartedness that makes the first one soar, with the added layer of more challenging plot points. Mae Martin’s Feel Good is an intimate, confronting, and endearing portrayal of love.
Stream both seasons of Feel Good on netflix.com with a Netflix subscription.
Lingua Franca • 2020
Directed by Isabel Sandoval
An undocumented trans woman (Isabel Sandoval) seeking legal status in the US becomes romantically involved with the grandson of the elderly woman she cares for. Paranoid about deportation, she continues to work as a caregiver under a microscope in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, NY. This beautifully potent film is written, directed, produced, edited, and starring Isabel Sandoval. A wonderful feat from a gifted storyteller who brings a trans, migrant love story onto the screen with passion and care. Sandoval evokes feeling through moments of stillness and reflection while conveying a multi-layered story.
Stream Lingua Franca on netflix.com with a Netflix subscription.
No Ordinary Man • 2020
Directed by Aisling Chin-Yee & Chase Joynt
The legacy of Billy Tipton, a 20th-century American jazz musician and trans icon, is brought to life by a diverse group of contemporary trans artists. With an incredibly thoughtful approach, filmmakers Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt connect Tipton’s story to the people who followed in his footsteps. What makes No Ordinary Man an engaging documentary is the abundance of different perspectives and narratives uniting in a loving way to retell a misrepresented legacy. The power of role models, truthfulness, and understanding shines through from beginning to end.
Rent or buy No Ordinary Man on iTunes - Apple Canada.
Pariah • 2011
Directed by Dee Rees
A Brooklyn teenager juggles conflicting identities and risks friendship, heartbreak, and family in a desperate search for sexual expression. This stunning coming-of-age film explores a gay teenage girl (Adepero Oduye) living in New York and writing poetry. She goes through a heartbreaking and hopeful arc of asserting her identity and exploring relationships on the way to self-discovery. Writer-director Dee Rees tells a personal and layered story, led by the incredibly talented Adepero Oduye who brings the film to life with a beautiful performance.
Rent or buy Pariah on iTunes - Apple Canada.
Paris Is Burning • 1990
Directed by Jennie Livingston
Focusing on drag queens living in New York City and their "house" culture, which provides a sense of community and support for the flamboyant and often socially shunned performers. Groups from each house compete in elaborate balls that take cues from the world of fashion. Also touching on issues of racism and poverty, the film features interviews with a number of renowned drag queens, including Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija and Dorian Corey.
Stream Paris Is Burning on crave.ca with a Crave subscription.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire • 2019
Directed by Céline Sciamma
On an isolated island in Brittany at the end of the eighteenth century, a female painter (Noémie Merlant) is obliged to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman (Adèle Haenel). Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. A hypnotic, smoldering love story with two impeccable performances that make each moment feel so real. The story builds to a shattering final scene, reverberating long after the credits roll. Writer-director Céline Sciamma explores slow-burning attraction and creates moments of intensity from the quietest, gentlest of moments.
Rent or buy Portrait of a Lady on Fire on iTunes - Apple Canada.
Saving Face • 2004
Directed by Alice Wu
A Chinese-American lesbian (Michelle Krusiec) and her traditionalist mother (Joan Chen) are reluctant to go public with secret loves that clash against cultural expectations. Alice Wu’s delightful romantic comedy deserves to be more cherished and seen amongst the outpouring of films that dominate this genre. The few mainstream films about lesbians that do exist tend to be dramatic, emotionally devastating work. But it’s also crucial to see films that have a sweeter, more light-hearted tone. Saving Face is resonating for this reason; it’s a sweet and heartwarming rom-com with resonating themes.
Rent or buy Saving Face on iTunes - Apple Canada.
Schitt’s Creek • 2015-2020
Created by Dan Levy & Eugene Levy
When rich video-store magnate Johnny Rose and his family suddenly find themselves broke, they are forced to leave their pampered lives to regroup in Schitt's Creek. At the core of this delightful series is a stunning emotional arc in the characters. The Levys tell a fully realized story with an irresistible sense of humour. The Roses embark on a journey that sees them learn how to become better human beings, frankly. The beloved Canadian show (starring Catherine O’Hara, Annie Murphy, Dan Levy, and Eugene Levy) portrays a same-sex relationship in a completely accepting and heartwarming way.
Stream all seasons of Schitt’s Creek on netflix.com with a Netflix subscription.
Shiva Baby • 2021
Directed by Emma Seligman
A college student (Rachel Sennott) attends a family shiva where she is accosted by her relatives, outshined by her ex-girlfriend, and face-to-face with her sugar daddy and his family. Emma Seligman’s stunning debut feature is a funny, invigorating, fully realized pressure cooker. Seligman blends comedy with drama and hints of horror, while exploring a woman coming-of-age, self-worth, anxiety, sexuality, interfering family dynamics, power shifts in relationships, and traditions. The characterization is outstanding. The screenplay is quick witted. The sense of humour is a delight, providing constant laughs and lines so great you must keep up because you won’t want to miss them.
Rent or buy Shiva Baby on iTunes - Apple Canada.
Shirley • 2020
Directed by Josephine Decker
A famous horror writer (Elisabeth Moss) finds inspiration for her next book after she and her husband take in a young couple. Shirley is a delirious puzzle that asks more than it can answer. The film interrogates what it means to be a muse, what types of behaviors are accepted by geniuses, and the many expectations on women living in a man’s world. Elisabeth Moss knows how to put on a show. She brilliantly captures the blurred lines between her character’s fiction and reality.
Stream Shirley on primevideo.com with a Prime Video subscription.
The Half of It • 2020
Directed by Alice Wu
When smart but cash-strapped teen Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) agrees to write a love letter for a jock, she doesn't expect to become his friend - or fall for his crush Aster (Alexxis Lemire). Writer-director Alice Wu tells a charming and light-hearted story about young love and self-discovery that subverts many of the tropes often found in romantic coming-of-age films. The film centers a complex and nuanced relationship between Ellie and Aster, who are both navigating how best to communicate with each other.
Stream The Half of It on netflix.com with a Netflix subscription.
The Handmaiden • 2016
Directed by Chan-wook Park
1930s Korea, in the period of Japanese occupation, a young woman is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress who lives a secluded life on a large countryside estate with her domineering uncle. But, the maid has a secret: she is a pickpocket recruited by a swindler posing as a Japanese count to help him seduce the heiress to elope with him, rob her of her fortune, and lock her up in a madhouse. The plan seems to proceed according to plan until the women discover some unexpected emotions. Starring Kim Tae-ri and Yong-nyeo Lee, The Handmaiden shines with brilliant storytelling and a unique love story.
Stream The Handmaiden on primevideo.com with a Prime Video subscription.
Hiromi Nagasaku and Arata Iura in True Mothers (2021)
The lingering power of Naomi Kawase’s new film, True Mothers, stems from an extraordinary level of patience. This slow-burning exploration of two mothers, whose worlds collide from different experiences of adoption, takes time to craft an emotional family drama. Kawase gently peels back the layers of an intertwining story about parenthood, societal expectations, and heartbreak of giving up a child. Based on Mizuki Tsujimura’s novel ‘Asa ga Kuru,’ True Mothers weaves from one character backstory to another and takes intriguing turns along the way. The film unfolds with an appetite for welcoming multiple perspectives on a shared experience, and each of the central characters’ journeys are given weight. The story centers on a couple who decide to adopt a child after struggles with infertility, and grapple with their moral dilemmas when the child’s biological mother enters the picture wanting her son back. Kawase’s adaptation strikes a stunning balance between two worlds, and how two mothers’ lives are forever connected from afar. True Mothers is a beautiful interwoven journey of love, and the emboldened actions taken to uphold a family.
The introduction to Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku), Kiyokazu (Arata Iura), and their adopted son Asato (Reo Sato) shows a glimpse into their settled life as a family. It’s clear early on that this little boy has full support from his parents. When Satoko receives a call one day from Asato’s kindergarten teacher, alleging that he pushed another child off a jungle gym, she questions how he could be capable of such a thing. How could she doubt her boy? The other child’s mother calls afterwards, wanting a settlement for his medical expenses. As it turns out, the child had lied. This incident at the school puts the film at a crossroads where the story appears to be going in one direction, then switches gears to an earlier timeline when Satoko and Kiyokazu discuss starting a family. Kawase does a wonderful job in this moment, and throughout the film, to demonstrate the jump between past and present while revealing details about the characters’ intentions.
During initial discussions about having children, infertility is the last thing on the Kurihara’s minds until it suddenly becomes their reality. The fragility felt in this news makes it increasingly aware to them how it’s nothing short of a miracle to make children. While Kiyokazu brings up divorce as an option since Satoko has no chance of getting pregnant with him, she refuses and instead they book a flight for him to get a sperm procedure done overseas. The flight suddenly gets cancelled, and Satoko resigns from the idea altogether. “It’s us two…you and I will go on,” she says. One day, the couple come across a TV program advertising Baby Baton, a non-profit organization intended to pair couples who can’t procreate with mothers who can’t raise their children. It’s a place where children find their parents…”pass the baton, give a child a future,” the program narrates. As Satoko and Kiyokazu watch how Baby Baton transforms lives, they realize they can still be parents. Adoption soon becomes their reality when they take baby Asato home, after meeting briefly with the boy’s mother Hikari (Aju Makita). Kawase makes the choice not to show Hikari’s face clearly during the scene, which adds to the intrigue of this character and creates a cloud of uncertainty when she re-enters the picture.
Six years after the adoption, Hikari calls the Kurihara household. She wants her son back, and threatens to expose the truth of his adoption to everyone the couple knows. If they refuse, she demands cash instead. As tensions mount over the phone, Satoko asks Hikari to meet them in person. The young woman who arrives at their home doesn’t appear to be the same woman they met six years ago. Satoko and Kiyokazu grow more emboldened to defend their family, doubting Hikari’s identity. What truly resonates about this moment is how Hikari gets small details wrong (such as what grade Asato is in) and assumes she’s been erased from her son’s life when in actual fact, he knows about her. The passing of time is felt so deeply, as is Hikari’s need to be truly seen and accepted into her role as a mother. The film morphs into a moving tribute to her side of the story, and how she wasn’t shown acceptance when she became pregnant. Hikari’s story is intertwined with a whirlwind teenage romance, strict family pressures, and the heartbreak of giving up a child she wanted to keep.
True Mothers holds so many threads together without losing focus. Each and every frame is absorbing to watch. Naomi Kawase’s direction captures scenes like a photographic memory. She recalls moments from the past and cherishes moments of the present in an ethereal way. The direction carries strong emotion and moves with graceful intentionality. The film beautifully weaves together two mothers’ stories, giving both a sensitive and layered character study. The switch from one timeline to the next never feels jarring. Instead, Kawase strikes an intimate connection between the characters and lets the power of that connection take the film to new places. The parallels drawn between Satoko and Hikari are particularly resonating. Satoko embodies what Hikari’s parents did not: the embrace and acceptance of bringing a child into the world.
While this is a lengthy film, the time spent elaborating on the characters’ backstories has a compelling and emotional outcome. True Mothers is an absorbing exploration of parenthood, and the weight of fulfilling the many societal expectations that come with having children. It’s a tale of intertwining stories told in a non-linear way; Tina Baz and Yoichi Shibuya’s editing maintain a clear focus all the way through. An incredibly talented cast, Aju Makita as Hikari being the standout, bring their characters to life and make the film feel all the more immersive to watch. From moral dilemma and exposé to romance and mystery, True Mothers intertwines universal themes into a lingering study of character.
Emma Stone in Cruella (2021)
Among a mostly forgettable collection of Disney live-action films, Craig Gillespie’s Cruella leaves behind an extravagant mess of punk-rock eye candy and scheming power moves. It’s an endeavor in which those involved look to be having the time of their lives putting another spin on Cruella de Vil, one of the most famous characters and antagonist of author Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Based on Smith’s novel and written for the screen by Tony McNamara and Dana Fox, Cruella takes some twisty turns to give the villain a backstory. While marketed as Cruella’s origin story, Gillespie’s film is just getting started with her, scratching an edgy surface and teasing the early stages of how fashion designer Estella becomes a revenge-bent Cruella in one great monologue alone. It’s not necessarily a story that delves convincingly into the why of what she does, but it’s nonetheless a fun introduction to the pre-101 Dalmatians DeVil that leans a lot more into her rise in the fashion world than her relationship with dogs. Cruella embraces silliness every step of the way and the cast are totally on board, Emma Stone most fabulously of all in the titular role.
Set in 1970s London amidst the punk rock revolution, Estella (Emma Stone) sets out to make a name for herself as a top designer. Her days as a department store cleaner are swapped for couture work when her impromptu revamped window display one night catches the eye of fashion mogul Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson) the next morning. It’s the best display the Baroness has seen from that store in 10 years, and she wants Estella’s splash of talent (and ideas) under her rigid watchful eye. Leading up to this meeting of the fashion minds, the story spends a lot of time on Estella’s childhood. The bloated, stuffy first chapter is where the 134-minute runtime of the film is felt the most. So many details about Estella’s character feel tacked on, conveniently put in place in order to fulfill her rebellious spirit and her path as an aspiring designer. A welcome little detail is the introduction of young Jasper and Horace, with whom young Estella finds solace after her mother’s sudden death. The trio start grifting to make a living, and their illegal activities evidently follow them into adulthood. But most of this early chapter is spent waiting in anticipation for Emma Stone, whose entrance promises more satisfying moments to come.
Once the film reaches Stone’s Estella and she starts working for House of Baroness Couture, the pacing is turned up several notches as both women vie to make a statement. Estella wants to work her way to the top of the fashion world. The completely self-absorbed Baroness, who knew Estella had a spunky flair from the moment she saw that window display, hired her for a reason: this is somebody who could potentially give her a run for her money, and what better way to assess the competition than bring her aboard the couture team? The Baroness shows she’s more than willing to steal designs and claim all the credit. Estella and the Baroness dance around each other’s intentions, until the former’s adulation of the latter comes crashing down after a personal revelation. The film strikes a great duality between the two characters, and creates a fun experience of anticipating how far they will go to outshine each other. Another interesting layer is added by echoing Estella’s past and showing how the Baroness fits in, which presents scenes from the beginning of the film in a new light.
The maddening shift in their dynamic sets off a course of events that sees Estella fully embrace Cruella, an alter-ego her mother once reminded her to keep hidden away or else she would cause trouble. Knowing that the Baroness would feel threatened by being upstaged, Estella unleashes Cruella as the distraction, and suddenly all eyes are on her. What ensues is a devilish battle of the Emmas as their characters get fashionable revenge on each other. Cruella’s avenging of a loved one and the Baroness’ refusal to co-exist with a competitor clash in entertaining ways. A lot of the fun comes from watching Emma Stone and Emma Thompson bounce off each other with witty and often scathing remarks. Stone is so committed to the absurdity of this character, and it’s clear she is having a ball. As the driving force of the film, she commands the screen. She relishes in playing a dual role of wanting to be the Estella her mother would want her to be, and unapologetically embracing the alter-ego that’s been inside all along. Stone completely holds her own acting opposite the great Emma Thompson, and the two of them together are a treat. Thompson plays the Baroness with such cold, devilish restraint that is unrelenting. Beyond the two Emmas, the casting of this film is a triumph for the most part. Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry play Horace and Jasper, known as Cruella’s henchmen, but both actors bring great layers to them so that they aren’t just stock caricatures. Kirby Howell-Baptiste plays Anita Darling, and unfortunately isn’t given much to do at all, apart from writing about and photographing Cruella in action. Given the mid-credits scene and the announcement of a sequel, there’s an opportunity to see more of Anita that should be explored.
So much of the story is told through glam-punk visuals, and the deVil is in the details with Cruella’s costumes. Legendary costume designer Jenny Beavan has absolutely outdone herself with the sheer ambition and care she poured into each creation on display. From Cruella’s fiery party-crashing gown to her jaw-dropping ‘garbage’ couture train, the costumes are like another character in the film. Each reveal of a new scene-stealing dress, particularly during the montage of Cruella upstaging a string of the Baroness’ events, commands the screen and becomes a far more resonating afterthought than what’s actually happening plot-wise. Beyond the titular character, the costumes are excellent across the board and give so much more weight to all the roles. Among the most memorable are Horace’s well-dressed chihuahua Wink, a total scene-stealer. Adding to the visuals is a pitch perfect soundtrack, theoretically. Sometimes the frequent use of songs, however great they are, is an overpowering distraction. One needle drop after another is a puzzling choice, especially given how great Nicholas Britell’s original score is. There’s a playful, punk-rock quality to his work that captures the mood so well and gets overshadowed.
As far as origin stories go, the mid-credits ending reinforces the feeling that Gillespie’s adaptation is just scratching the surface of who this version of Cruella is. The easter egg peaks interest by including Anita Darling, Roger (Kayvan Novak), and Cruella’s doorstep gift to them: Pongo and Perdita. Plus, a cute replica of Roger’s flat from the 1961 animated film 101 Dalmatians is nostalgic as a fan. But there is a disconnect between the story that was just told and this mid-credits moment. Cruella’s monologue by the fountain comes close, but overall the backstory element leaves behind questions about the necessity of trying to explain her actions, especially when the film often leans into unleashing her character in a very brazen way. While the plot and pacing take a walk on the bland side, this glam-punk Cruella makes a statement brought to life by Emma Stone, who makes Craig Gillespie’s aspiring extravaganza worth relishing in.
Charlotte Ritchie and Mae Martin in Feel Good, Season Two (2021)
Kicking off Pride Month is the wonderful continuation of a queer love story created and co-written by comedian Mae Martin. The semi-autobiographical comedy series Feel Good is back for a second and final season, bringing with it all the pathos and humour that shine in the first. Mae plays a fictionalized version of herself as a stand-up comedian and recovering addict. Following the success of season one, which premiered in March 2020 to glowing acclaim and BAFTA recognition, the story continues to explore Mae’s relationship with George (Charlotte Ritchie), a woman in her first queer relationship who was afraid of coming out. Season one leaves them in an ambiguous place, and the ambiguity never really goes away. So much of Feel Good is about the co-dependency in their relationship, the swapping of one addiction for another, and the uncertainty of what they want. The series excels beautifully at expanding conversations around the fluidity of gender identity and what that means to a relationship. Feel Good carries the story along with humour throughout, and portrays moments of light-heartedness even in the darkest scenarios, which strikes a truthful chord. Intended as a two-season trajectory, Mae Martin brings a heartfelt journey to a moving conclusion that still leaves a desire for more.
The new episodes reach revealing emotional peaks starting with Mae, who returns to Canada on a healing journey after a relapse, and encounters dark facets of her past. Meanwhile in the UK, George is still teaching and feels uncertain about where she stands with Mae. Their complicated love story puts a question mark on their future. Mae is haunted by ghosts from her past and George tries to reinvent her present. How will they navigate being drawn back into each other’s lives? Can they continue to grow together in a healthy way? Season two rejoins Mae and George in an ambiguous place where they’re not entirely sure how to categorize their relationship status. Mae ponders what exactly she wants, and what is needed to reach a healthier emotional status. Season two delves into more mature subject matter about resonating themes, from co-dependency and labelling identity to consent and accountability.
Joining Mae and George on this journey are a plethora of supporting characters reprising their roles from season one, plus a few new welcome additions to the cast. Lisa Kudrow and Adrian Lukis return as Mae’s parents, Linda and Malcolm. Kudrow plays Linda’s aloof personality to a tee; beyond the scathing quips and one-liners is a character whose detachment from Mae’s life comes from a place of fearing how to process Mae’s truth. Linda is an example of how the second season adds another layer to characters and portrays them in a new light. Among the new characters are Mae’s agent Donna Ridley, played brilliantly by Eleanor Matsuura. Her character joins one of the most resonating subplots of the season, which touches on the issue of sexual misconduct in the comedy world. The series engages in compelling discussion about the importance of a platform and how best to use it, as well as the promise of opportunities under the conditions of silence. Two more resonating characters, who Mae encounters at a rehab center in Canada, are played by Marisha Wallace and EVE. They each make a lasting impact with a short amount of screen time, and Wallace especially has such great comedic timing. While some of the characters make for more compelling screen time than others, the screenplay makes a refreshing point of leaning into everyone’s flaws rather than glossing over them.
Lisa Kudrow, Mae Martin, and Adrian Lukis in Feel Good, Season Two (2021)
Mae Martin in Feel Good, Season Two (2021)
Feel Good speaks to the importance of staying true to yourself and feeling supported in each stage of discovering your identity in the LGBTQ+ community. For Mae, fluid in her gender and sexuality, the process of navigating through the intricacies of a relationship is challenging. Mae conveys this process so thoughtfully, and with an effortless sense of humour. Identifying as an Adam Driver or Ryan Gosling when asked how she defines herself sparks interesting and humorous discussion about labelling, which also conveys Mae’s hesitation to be placed in a box. The series is a great platform of acceptance for this character to just be who she is, at any given moment. Co-written by Martin and Joe Hampson, the series explores the muddled side of relationships where people are learning who they are and are not entirely sure what they need from each other. The actors continue to bring this complex dynamic to life very well. Mae shares excellent chemistry with Charlotte Ritchie; together they paint a picture of two people magnetically drawn to each other through thick and thin. Season two shows both characters in a more mature place, especially in terms of self-discovery. The second season also builds on the first by shining a light on Mae’s past, showing how particular circumstances led her to feel long-term emotional wounds as a result. Mae’s foggy recollection of her past relationships as a teenager manifest in so many different ways, affecting her career as a comic and the issues of morality within toxic environments.
While the progression of Feel Good is built for two seasons, the conclusion evokes a slightly incomplete and rushed feeling. The ambiguity that still surrounds Mae and George leaves behind a lot of room for more grounds to explore. But the journey they go on in the process is certainly enjoyable and so compelling to watch. This chapter in Mae’s life is full of new beginnings, milestone moments, the romanticism of relationships, and the addictive behaviors that she navigates through every day. The second and final season maintains the lightheartedness that makes the first one soar, with the added layer of more challenging plot points. Mae Martin’s Feel Good is an intimate, confronting, and endearing portrayal of love.
The second and final season of Feel Good premieres globally on Netflix June 4th.