Sundance Film Festival: ‘God’s Country’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

What many don’t realize is the stress that comes with ageing parents. For the later half of their lives, their mind changes and they grow weaker by the second. After a long life with your parents, it’s only right to look after them in their time of need. But, there are plenty of strained relationships and in the end; it’s out of moral obligation to help them and not genuine love. In God’s Country, we see Sandra (Thandiwe Newton) who has just lost her mother. She has always tried to please her mother and she was never satisfied. Her mother drained her and made her feel inadequate, which then translated into every aspect of her life. So, she’s tired. On top of that she has had to navigate the challenging politics and power dynamics at the college where she teaches. And then there is the racism, sexism, and toxic masculinity she encounters wherever she goes.

God’s Country examines one woman’s grieving process and determination to be taken seriously amid her refusal to surrender to the confines of society. This film would not have worked without Thandiwe Newton as Sandra. The emotional depth and brewing anger that she was able to bring to this role definitely worked with the pacing of the film. At first, once we get to know Sandra and her current environment, it moved a bit slow. While she processes her grief and the sense that she can finally live for herself without scrutiny, she begins to change. She’s more forthright and she speaks her mind on issues that are affecting her daily life in her community and the future of the education system. It’s simply about a woman reaching her breaking point because she doesn’t know how to express herself while grieving.

The structure of the story was interesting as well. The choice of bookmarking Sandra’s days after her mother’s passing is similar to the Bible story of how God created Earth. Each passing day was a lesson, and each day had a moment of dealing with her grief. The situation with her community members was a distraction from her mother and as the story goes on it became more evident that she just wanted to let her anger out on someone. Those two men, just so happened to be in her crossfire and they ended up being exactly what Sandra needed to get some justice in her own world. After going through so much, she finally rested on the seventh day and was at peace with her decisions.

God’s Country directed by Julian Higgins is a slow burn that has a great character piece at its centre for Thandiwe Newton. She made you connect with Sandra on many levels because of everything she was going through all at once. The film also did not feel preachy in regards to the issues being presented at the school or even when she approached the two men who were giving her trouble. It is a well-written script that wraps these themes together to show that one woman can take on so much while going through her own personal issues. This is also an example of not fully knowing what someone else could be going through and to always be kind to everyone.

‘The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Before you sit and binge-watch this limited series in one sitting, make sure to have a glass (or a bottle) of wine ready to go. It just fits in with the story that unfolds in The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window or the shorter version The Woman in the House. This limited series explores grief, big life changes, and mental health through a well-thought-out murder mystery that will keep you glued to the screen. It is filled with dark humour, a lot of wine, and is a satirical slant on the psychological thriller. Majority of the time you’re trying to make sense of what is actually happening and then it just shocks you entirely at the end. This will definitely be one of the most enjoyable series to binge-watch on Netflix this year.

We meet heartbroken Anna (Kristen Bell) and every day feels the same to her. She sits with her wine, staring out the window, watching life go by without her. But when a handsome neighbour (Tom Riley) and his adorable daughter (Samsara Yett) move in across the street, Anna starts to see a light at
the end of the tunnel. That is until she witnesses a gruesome murder… Or did she? This series does a great job in keeping the audience guessing whom the killer is throughout the entire run. Everyone can be a suspect, and even when things get resolved, something else comes in and throws everything out the window. Bell gives a great performance that has you connect with her on an emotional level and she brings you into Anna’s little bubble.

Why this show works is because the episodes are half-hour long and each episode ends on a cliffhanger. We want to see what Anna does next and if the handsome stranger across the street is actually someone she can trust. It’s the definition of a Friday night binge after winding down from a long workweek. Sure, it is satirical but when the show deals with grief, it really grounds the story. You have the over-the-top murder mystery running simultaneously as a woman dealing with a massive loss and trying to find the courage to live life to the fullest again. The series is fairly balanced and never loses its audience once. It flowed extremely well and it filled the eight episodes nicely.

The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window is a great binge and it’s really fun to sit through. It’s one of those series that will have you questioning everything with the lead character and have you talking to the screen. It does get a bit hectic towards the second half of the series, so if you’re not a fan of seeing bloody murders, this is your warning. The show has everything that you could want from a murder mystery, especially one surrounding a mom. Let’s face it, we all love to people watch but this show takes things to a whole other level. So make sure to grab that bottle of wine, wrap yourself up in a blanket this weekend and enjoy this fun series from start to finish.

‘Pam & Tommy’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

In the early 90s, the accessibility to women and the treatment of women from the tabloids had gotten worse. As someone who grew up in the 90s, high-profile women like Pamela Anderson were considered idols to young girls like me. We worshiped them and wanted to be exactly like them. Women who were free to dress a certain way, act a certain way, and have their own identity presented to the world. Pamela Anderson was a woman who knew who she was and adapted to situations around her. She exuded this fearlessness, this power when she was Pamela Anderson for the cameras. Whether it was through her photos, her performance on Baywatch, or even in interviews, Anderson had such a strong spirit and knew how to handle herself in an industry that eventually turned against her. In Hulu’s Pam & Tommy, we see Pamela Anderson for who she truly is and if this series does anything, it will give you a new appreciation for the woman behind the star persona.

Pam & Tommy begins with Pamela Anderson (Lily James) on Jay Leno having a conversation about the sex tape. It was very noticeable that Anderson was uncomfortable with the topic and within those moments, we get a sense of how this story will be presented through different lenses. Before getting into Pam and Tommy’s relationship, director Craig Gillespie has us sit with Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen) to build up the motivation for stealing the sex tape. Gauthier was Tommy Lee’s (Sebastian Stan) carpenter, while he was renovating his home. Gauthier had many uncomfortable, and quite frankly, scary moments with Tommy Lee. After a few scuffles about payment, Lee made an enemy out of Gauthier. The importance of these specific encounters is to see how Tommy Lee had two very different sides to him.

Pam and Tommy Trailer: Seth Rogen and Nick Offerman Steal the Sex Tape -  Variety
Courtesy of Hulu

As the series goes on, we get an in-depth look at Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson’s explosive relationship. The one thing to note is that Anderson loved, love. She was a true romantic at heart and would connect with someone on a different level. It’s more of a feeling than checking off boxes for Anderson and that is how she ended up with Lee. Was it love at first sight? No. Instead, it was a vibe; an instant connection, like a current running between the two of them. The chemistry between James and Stan was off the charts and they were both perfectly cast to bring this story to screen in the most accurate way possible. Their love was palpable and even as a viewer you could feel the genuine connection they had at the very beginning of their relationship. But, as we see with Gauthier, Lee did have a dark side.

Two very important matters run simultaneously in this series. The first was the dawn of online sex work through the popularity of the sex tape itself. Gauthier had an idea to place the information about the sex tape on a website to drive sales. He charged $60.00 for one copy of the tape and made a profit. But like all good things, they only last a short period. The 90s was the transitional period for technology and this shift came with a price. The media turned into a cesspool because of what this sex tape did for clicks on websites and generating buzz about a top celebrity couple. Paparazzi photos were at an all time high for Anderson and Lee, which were probably sold for hundreds of dollars. Privacy did not exist in the 90s and it is all because of Gauthier uploading one intimate, romantic, sex tape between husband and wife.

Pam & Tommy: People Can't Get Over Lily James' Pamela Anderson Voice In New  Trailer
Courtesy of Hulu

The second is Pamela Anderson’s loss of agency and being slut-shamed for a private video of her and her husband. The sex tape, combined with the distasteful jokes from late-night talk show hosts, and tabloids printing the photos from the tape, completely ruined her acting career that she so desperately wanted to evolve. There are multiple times in Pam & Tommy where it was incredibly emotional to watch Anderson go through so many terrible moments in her life. Anderson wanted the industry to look past that she was this beautiful, blonde bombshell and recognize her for how talented she was. This industry praised her as a sex symbol but never took her seriously as an actor. The 90s were very cruel to Pamela Anderson and after watching this, we see how kind, sweet, and driven she was, even if they didn’t deserve it.

Craig Gillespie completely captures the essence of the 90s in Pam & Tommy. The story is so much more than Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s relationship; it really dives into how the media operates and how it became more of an invasion of privacy. Anderson had to deal with a toxic, misogynistic industry just because of the way they labelled her as a sex symbol. The labels that were given to women in the industry place them in a box and don’t allow them to grow outside of it. The focus shifted from Gauthier and his side of the story, to Pamela Anderson’s side of the story, and Tommy Lee was shown for who he truly was. This was such a brutal look at how women lose who they truly are because of how the media constructs a persona for them.

The first episode of Pam & Tommy will drop on Hulu on February 2nd.

Sundance Film Festival: ‘AM I OK?’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

We definitely need more films with a female friendship at the forefront that handles the exploration of identity. Luckily for us, Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne’s directorial feature debut, AM I OK? gives us two best friends, Lucy (Dakota Johnson) and Jane (Sonoya Mizuno) go through big life changes together. It has become clearer that so many people haven’t truly discovered themselves and who they are yet. We have been conditioned to think that your identity, or even your life, by the age of 30-years-old needs to be fully formed and established. But that’s just not the case for so many of us now because now, it seems like people value their time on this Earth a bit more, and they want to authentically live life as freely as possible instead of repressing any part of themselves.

If you’re lucky enough to have a best friend who is more like a sibling to you, then definitely hold onto them tight because they will always know what’s best for you. Lucy and Jane are the best of friends. They finish each other’s sentences, predict every detail of each other’s food order, and pretty much know everything about each other. Johnson and Mizuno had such a natural chemistry that just brought so much comfort while watching the film. Their banter back and forth was so much fun, but the emotional moments shared between the two of them is where they both really shined. When Lucy finds out that Jane has been promoted at work and agrees to move to London for her new position, Lucy confesses her deepest, long-held secret: She likes women, she has for a while, and is completely terrified to come to this realization later-in-life.

It’s true when they say that after college, everyone just takes on their own path and life in your late twenties feels like a competition because everyone has taken on a different priority. Some people are already married with a home and a newborn, others are travelling, and some are just focusing on their careers. After watching AM I OK? – which will eventually become a comfort film for so many – there is no right way to live life. What may work for others, won’t necessarily work for you, and that’s okay. Notaro and Allynne made a film that shows how everyone moves at their own pace and that life is filled with so many opportunities to grow. It shows that you can reinvent yourself, that you can question every single thing about yourself, and it’s okay. There’s so much comfort in knowing that others are going through the same thing, especially later in life.

AM I OK? will resonate with so many because life continuously changes and it feels like an endless wave crashing down. When one thing goes right, something else can go wrong, and we learn to roll with the punches, even if some are more difficult to process than others. Even if life can get crazy and you get caught up in it, there will always be those people closest to you, who truly know you, to ground you and help you through those moments. We all have our person and it was just really beautiful to see such a strong and loving female friendship on screen. Even though this pairing worked wonderfully together, Dakota Johnson gives such an endearing performance and it’s just lovely to have Lucy as a character.

Sundance Film Festival: ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Normally coming-of-age films mainly surround teenagers in high school, but as society shifts and generation’s change, the real struggle in identifying who you are comes right after college. It’s the moment where you finish school and the thought of being a fully formed adult is what makes us all spiral. School is a security blanket for so many of us and then once we graduate, it’s like we’re just existing, trying to understand how any of this works. Every single decision we make after we graduate holds so much weight for us because if things don’t go right, our generation doesn’t see it as living, we see it as wasting time. We feel like there is no room for mistakes and that’s where the anxiety kicks in.

In Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth, we meet Andrew (Cooper Raiff) who is fresh out of college and like the rest of us; he has no idea how to even move forward. Higher education failed to provide 22-year-old Andrew with a clear life path going forward, so he’s stuck back at home with his family in New Jersey. The one thing college did teach him is how to party and he uses those skills to be the perfect candidate for a job party-starting as the ‘Jig Conductor’ at the bar and bat mitzvahs of his younger brother’s classmates. When Andrew befriends a local mom, Domino (Dakota Johnson), and her daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), he finally discovers a future he wants, even if it might not be his own.

The reason I connected with Cha Cha Real Smooth is because of how kind and heartfelt the story is. There is just so much genuine love and kindness that radiates off Raiff’s character of Andrew and it’s just very infectious. You connect with Andrew on an emotional level within the first moments of meeting him. At 22-years-old we all find life confusing, but more specifically, we all find love confusing. The connection that Andrew has with Domino is hard to describe unless you’ve felt that deep, comforting connection with someone without even knowing them that well. Johnson and Raiff have great chemistry, which made their soulful connection more believable. As the story unfolds, we see that their relationship will inevitably take a toll on both of them, but the memories will last forever.

Cha Cha Real Smooth is a coming-of-age film that explores life after college and what the definition of a soul mate is. It’s an exploration of love at any age; whether it’s shown through his parents, his younger brother and his first girlfriend, an old high school flame, or a mother with a fiancée, love is most definitely complicated. But from what I’ve learned, it’s better to feel those emotions and say that you’ve loved with every single part of your soul, than to not have experienced it at all. Because even through a possible heartbreak, you did learn something and you will grow from it, but always look back at those special moments as something beautiful.