Category Archives: Kick-ass!

TIFF19: Knives Out

Every year there are a few TIFF titles that have everyone buzzing, and those tickets become nearly impossible to get our popcorn-greasy hands on. This year, those titles were Jojo Rabbit, Joker, and Knives Out. I saw all 3 because I am very, very fortunate, but I was the only Asshole to see Knives Out, which also means that I have a pretty big responsibility to get this right.

Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a highly successful mystery writer. His family gathers under the roof of his mansion to celebrate his 85th birthday, after which, they all retire to bed. The next morning, Harlan is found on his sofa with his throat slit. Initially ruled a suicide, both the local police and a private investigator are suspicious. As they start interviewing the family it becomes clear that each and every one of them has a motive, and that they’re all pretty enthusiastic about pointing the finger at someone else.

First, let’s get the cast of characters out of the way.

Marta (Ana de Armas) is Harlon’s nurse, and the last to see him alive. She put him to bed after administering his meds. As an outsider, she becomes P.I. Benoit Blanc’s (Daniel Craig) go-to source for all the family secrets.

Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is Harlon’s daughter, a successful businesswoman. She is married to Richard (Don Johnson) who is perhaps a bit of a leech. They have a son, Ransom (Chris Evans) who is way too old to never have worked a day in his life. He is supported by Grandpa Harlan because, though rebellious, Harlan sees a lot of himself in Ransom.

Joni (Toni Collette) was married to Harlan’s now-deceased son. She and daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) are still quite close to the family, and are supported by Harlan. Joni is a bit of a free-spirit and doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the more conservative clan, though she may not realize it. She’s also at the other end of the political spectrum from brother-in-law Richard, and of course the two butt heads.

Walt (Michael Shannon) runs Harlan’s publishing empire, though with one hand tied behind his back as Harlan has no interest in selling movie rights or any other of Walt’s money-making suggestions. His wife Donna flies under the radar while his teenage son Jacob is a known weirdo and gossiped about as the family masturbator (does every family have one?).

That’s it. Those were all the people in the house the night Harlan died. It’s up to Blanc (a Poirot type, and not a little flamboyant) and police detective Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) to sift through the pieces to try to assemble the puzzle. One helpful hint: nurse Marta is incapable of lying without barfing. It’s a tell that’s going to come in handy.

The movie is a lot of fun. First, there’s the fact that Harlan himself wrote murder mysteries. His house is full of mementos and artifacts – a display of knives behind the interview chair feels particularly ominous. But the ensemble cast makes it what it is. The script feeds them all some pretty snappy lines. I really loved Lakeith Stanfield’s referring to the Thrombey mansion as a “Clue board” – thanks for that, Rian. In fact, though the trailer bills Knives Out as a “whodunnit like no one has ever dunnit,” the truth is, plenty of murder mysteries came before it, and Johnson is not afraid to reference them. Johnson is a movie lover, a genuine movie lover, which makes his own movies so goddamn much fun to watch. He’s winking at us from the director’s chair. Going to a Rian Johnson movie is like taking my 5 year old nephew to a frozen yogurt place. He fills his little bowl with the first flavour, then a second, and probably a third. His eyes are bigger than his little belly. But he’s just getting started. Next come the toppings, which are his favourite part: cherries, chocolate chips, sprinkles, bigs of sugary cereal, broken up pretzels, strawberry flavoured boba, chunks of chocolate bar, pieces of cookie, bits of brownie. Next come syrups. Just one? Ha. That’s for amateurs. Then you cover it in whipped cream. Then a few more sprinkles, for the colour. More is more. Every spoonful digs up a new layer of goodness. He (both my nephew and Johnson) delights in every bite. There’s a sumptuous deliciousness to Rian Johnson’s films. And I don’t even worry about the belly ache: Rian Johnson is the one time you can eat every last bite and you never quite get enough.

Which is not to say this movie is unsatisfying. Johnson elevates the whodunnit by throwing in timely social elements that take a bite out of the wealth and class systems that literally allow people like this to get away with murder.

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Ad Astra

Space is a lonely place. Cold, dark, and endless, it is described as the final frontier for good reason. Still, for as long as mankind has understood that the stars are bright balls of gas billions and billions of miles away, we have dreamed of exploring the darkness, and solving the many mysteries that must be there, waiting to be found.

MV5BYmFmMDA1ZTUtMmNlOS00ODc3LTkxYWEtMTA0OWM4MDQxMjEzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjg2NjQwMDQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1500,1000_AL_Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) has dedicated his life to space exploration. For better or worse, Roy has also spent his life living in his father’s shadow.  Roy’s dad, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), was a legendary astronaut best known for disappearing somewhere near Neptune while searching for extraterrestrial life.  Roy never really knew his dad, so when he learns his father may not be as dead as was previously assumed, he’s not exactly jumping for joy.  Though to be fair, Roy has clearly never jumped for joy in his life. He’s detached, completely closed off from everyone around him, dedicated only to the missions he’s given, and his next mission is to try to make contact with his long-absent dad, who is now believed to pose a threat to all life on Earth.

The audience gets to accompany Roy on his journey, but of course we provide no company to him. Roy is alone, and while he mostly seems not to mind (indeed, he is really more comfortable in the solitude), Ad Astra weighed heavily on me. The mystery of space has fascinated me for as long as I can remember, and accordingly I have dragged Jay to more sci-fi films than can be counted. Of those countless films, Ad Astra is the first to ask me to examine my curiosity and ask what, exactly am I looking for? What is it about space that draws our dreams away from our home and into the endless void?

There are no easy answers in Ad Astra, and plenty of time to think about the many big questions raised by writers James Gray (who also directed) and Ethan Gross. Space is very quiet, and Roy’s journey is a satisfingly slow one. The journey feels even all the more important because of the slow pace. It becomes more an emotional, and even spiritual, journey than a spatial one, and an exploration of what really matters to us, both individually and as a species.  And it’s a wonderful trip.

TIFF19: The Cave

Director Feras Fayyad has proven himself a bold and brave film maker with the multi-award winning Last Men In Aleppo. Although the Syrian crisis is so far the absolute worst atrocity of the 21st century, very little gets out besides shaky cellphone footage since so much is under constant siege. The Cave instantly sets itself apart.

Shot between 2016-2018 in Ghouta, a Syrian city near Damascus which faces near-constant bombing, the film takes us underground, to a secret network of tunnels filled with hungry, dusty-faced survivors. Underground we also find The Cave, which is what the people call their underground hospital. The Cave is low on supplies, some days lacking power, but it is brimming with resilience. The doctors there, mostly women, rely on each other to provide the camaraderie and the fortitude necessary to keep going in the face of such unimaginable, unabating conditions.

Dr. Amani is the hospital chief, a doctor of pediatrics who agonizes over her young patients. A little girl dying of cancer cannot be evacuated by Red Cross because of paperwork. Babies born in this subterranean unit fail to thrive and children arrive scrawny, malnourished – the medicine they need is food, but both medicine and food are scarce in a city so war-torn that neither can get in or out. Still, she takes a moment to connect with each child, and makes an effort to tell each little girl that they are born so they can live to be “something important” (a doctor, perhaps?), even though Dr. Amani still somehow faces constant sexism in her own work. Because no matter how grateful patients should be that there are any doctors left, any doctors willing to risk heartbreak, risk their lives to keep treating people every time a bomb falls or chemicals are released in the air, some of those patients will still use some of their last breaths on earth to berate her, telling her women should stay in the home. And still she saves them.

It’s a much more beautiful documentary than it has any right to be, both visually and thematically. Filmed in the rubble, in the darkness and debris and constant, choking dust, Fayyad manages some artful cinematography. But most remarkable is the dedication of these doctors who encourage each other and boost each other’s spirits in the face of harrowing hardship every single day.

TIFF19: Blackbird

Lily (Susan Sarandon) and Paul (Sam Neill) have called their loved ones over for a very important occasion – Lily’s death.

Oldest daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet) arrives first, early, with salt and pepper shakers, a gift she immediately questions, and regrets, but feels compelled to give anyway, and a cake she made from scratch, because that’s what she does. Husband Michael (Rainn Wilson) and son Jonathan (Anson Boon) trail in behind her, at a slight remove from her chipper wake. Younger daughter Anna (Mia Wasikowska) arrives late, of course, empty-handed and with meagre excuses for having missed the last several family gatherings. She’s accompanied by unexpected/uninvited Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus), her on-again/off-again girlfriend. Also on hand: Lily’s best friend and indeed lifelong family friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan). And that’s it. These are all the people Lily wants to say goodbye to before she takes her own life before an unnamed degenerative disease can do it for her, in a likely prolonged, painful, and undignified way.

Everyone knows of Lily’s intentions and everyone tries to put on a brave face despite their own personal feelings – for a while. Lily wants to revisit some old haunts, drink some good wine, host one last Christmas dinner (despite its not being Christmas), and give out some precious heirlooms while she’s still alive to see the recipient’s face. Lily is exceptionally happy to have this last time together, but she’s the only one who can truly enjoy it. Everyone else is just sort of grimly bearing it while having private breakdowns, until one wine-fueled dinner leads to all kinds of family secrets breaking open.

This movie isn’t going to win major awards or draw major box office. It’s a remake of the 2014 Danish film ‘Silent Heart’ which I have not seen. But despite it not being particularly ground-breaking or excellent film making, it is perhaps the single movie out of the 40 or so I saw at TIFF that I’ve thought about the most.

This family believes itself to be, prides itself on being, close-knit. And it might have gone on that way forever, untested, if not for this incredibly stressful time that they’re sharing. Surrounded by her family, Lily proclaims how proud she is of her daughters – a lovely sentiment that would normally be quite harmless, but in this pressure-cooker of a weekend, daughter Anna can’t help but wonder out loud if that can really be true if her mother’s really never known her. Not her true, inner self. And if you’re the introspective type of moviegoer, I suppose you can’t help but reflect on your own family situation. These people, who are supposed to know you and love you best, are often the source of the most conflict and pain. Your own mother, who made you and cooked you in her belly, who birthed you and bathed you and cared for you – does she know you? Do you hide any part of yourself from her? Are you comfortable knowing everything about her? Are any of us truly knowable by any other?

I confess, this movie sent me into a tailspin. And to be honest, that’s exactly what I love about going to the cinema. It’s the chance, albeit a pretty slim one, that I will leave the theatre thinking. Feeling. Questioning. Considering. I did not need a movie to remind me that my mother doesn’t truly know me, but it did leave me wondering what, if anything, I would reveal of myself if I knew her time was limited.

Lily is someone to each person at her table: wife, mother, best friend, grandma, in-law, trusted confidante, role model, judge. Everyone has something different to lose, and it’s figuring out exactly what that is that makes this process so difficult. Life is an equation. Lily feels her good days are up and craves the control to prevent too many bad ones. Anna feels she isn’t ready to lose her mother. Is anyone, ever? I think both sides of this equation are reasonable, but only one can prevail. These are the seminal relationships of our lives and we are born knowing that they will end. Are we ever really ready?

Susan Sarandon is self-assured and brave. Sam Neill is a stoic, steady silver fox. Kate Winslet is anxious and authoritative. Mia Wasikowska is wounded and fragile. They are not a perfect family, which is to say: they are a family. And they’re about to break.

TIFF19: How To Build a Girl

I first came to know Caitlin Moran when her publisher sent me a copy of her book, How To Be A Woman, to review (Jay trivia: I did in fact review books before movies – scandalous!). That’s all it takes to be a Moran convert. She’s so…I mean, likable is both the right and wrong word. She does not asked to be liked. She does not write to be liked. But her don’t-give-a-fuck-edness is extremely likable. She is the role model we deserve: bold, brash, body-positive, full of piss and vinegar. She isn’t someone else’s shitty idea of a woman, she is a REAL woman, no apologies given and none necessary. She may have been new to me then but she was already a well-respected journalist and popular TV personality in England. But over here we’ve mostly had to make due with her books.

Lately she has embarked on a semi-autobiographical trilogy, the first of which is How To Build A Girl. It follows Johanna Morrigan, an educationally-uninspired, council-estate-abiding, overlooked teenage daughter in Wolverhampton who one day just decides that the best ticket out of there is one she writes herself. So she reinvents herself as the fast-talking, confident Dolly Wilde, music journalist extraordinaire. With a top hat and some swagger, Dolly trips through life, interviewing Britpop’s biggest bands at the beginning of their journey to fame, and swashbuckling through bedrooms as a Lady Sex Pirate (Moran’s words, but god I wish they were mine). Is it easy? Fuck no. The music industry is notoriously sexist, and Johanna/Dolly is, after all, still a teenage girl.

The movie has a lot going for it, but I’m going to start with its star, Beanie Feldstein, whom you might already love from Booksmart or Lady Bird, and with whom you will fall certainly and mightily and madly head over heels in this. Johanna Morrigan is the kind of character every actor wants and few will ever find; the personal grown charted on screen is nearly immeasurable. Johanna is every kind of dichotomy you could hope for in a character study of a young woman: brave and nervous, self-conscious and audacious. We see every attempt to ‘build’ her up by the men in her life – father, boss, boyfriend, brother. But then we get to see her break away from all that bullshit and start to build herself. And the ingredients for building a self-possessed girl are all here. It is glorious.

Caitlin Moran’s signature style is all over this film, which she helped adapt to screen. The humour is self-effacing, witty, rude, clever. It is amazing and liberating and just such a relief to see a young woman’s actual sexual awakening be told (though I think it may be slightly watered down from the book, if you can imagine). And that’s what will punch you right in the face: director Coky Giedroyc has given Johanna permission to be a real person, whose inner life and outer trappings are just as full and fully-realized as any man’s. Yes, she’s ambitious. Her peers find her intimidating and confusing. Her life isn’t perfect. She swears like a sailor. She likes her body. She likes sex. She wants more. Have we ever seen a better representation of a female character, ever? EVER??? Everything I like about this movie makes me dislike every other movie just a little bit. How To Build a Girls is vital and necessary – easy to fall in love with, because it’ll make you fall in love with yourself.

 

TIFF19: The Two Popes

When Pope John Paul II died, a conclave of the world’s cardinals assembled in the Vatican in order to elect their new leader. A cardinal needs 77 votes to win; votes that fail to achieve that number are burned and black smoke signals to the throngs of believers outside that another round of voting will be necessary. After two such failures, the guy who wants it the most, Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) makes the rounds, glad-handing and kissing babies. Just kidding. The process IS crazy political and Ratzinger is the consummate candidate, but priests are still celibate last I checked and besides, babies would wreak havoc on those all those white robes. Ratzinger wins in the third round, becoming Pope Benedict XVI, sending up a puff of white smoke to cheers outside.

But Ratzinger’s papacy is mired by conflict from the start. You may have heard some of catholicism’s myriad scandals – the whole priests molesting altar boys and all that. Plus his own personal secretary is arrested, and his correspondence leaked. But most of all, he’s haunted by the runner-up for pope, an Argentinian named Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), who seems to be effortlessly popular. Bergoglio didn’t even want the job and didn’t campaign for it, yet he still almost won, which drives the ambitious but unlikable Ratzinger crazy.

The bulk of the film is about a secret meeting between the two when Ratzinger begins to realize that though Bergoglio is much too progressive for his taste, he is perhaps what the church needs right now. They’re not enemies, because brothers in god can’t be, but they are opposites. They discuss theology, dogma, belief, but they’re also just a couple of grumpy old men, struggling to fit in in a world that seems to want them less and less. Ratzinger is a Fanta-Formula 1-Fitbit kind of pope, touches that humanize a man who seems otherwise apart from, and perhaps above, humanity. Bergoglio is a football and tango kind of cardinal. If two of the highest-ranking catholic priests can’t find common ground, what hope have we for the rest of us?

The film opens closed doors in Vatican City and offers brilliant behind the scenes insight. It makes you wonder about things you’ve never stopped to think about before. But it’s put together in a fun and very watchable way. If you never thought about the natural pairing of a somber religious occasion and Abba, then please allow director Fernando Meirelles to expand your horizons.

Hopkins and Pryce play off each other with such dynamism even their silly pope clothes fall away, leaving just two men, more fallible and more human than we’re usually allowed to consider them, telling each other their sins, secrets and regrets. The audience is their confessor, without being asked to judge, or forgive.

The Two Popes is thought-provoking but more importantly, and somewhat surprisingly, delightfully funny and entertaining.

TIFF19: Jojo Rabbit

I love director Taika Waititi more than makes sense, more than is reasonable by any standard. His absurd sense of humour speaks to me. His arch commentary on the perfectly banal is what I live for. So it was with a heavy heart that I stepped out of the packed theatre and admitted to Sean, who’d rushed the film unsuccessfully (festival vernacular: “rushing” means standing in line for hours when you don’t have a ticket, in case some ticket holder doesn’t show), that Jojo Rabbit was just okay. And I kept up that ambivalence for all of 30 seconds before confessing that I’d loved loved LOVED it, despite having solemnly promised not to rub it in if he didn’t make it in. Sorry, Sean. Jojo Rabbit was fucking awesome.

It’s about a little boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) living in 1940s Germany. He’s a good little Nazi boy, an unthinking fanatic; his bedroom walls plastered with propaganda posters that reflect his somewhat innocent claim “I’m massively into swastikas.” So he’s utterly broken-hearted when he flunks out of Nazi sleepaway camp. He’ll never know the honour of serving in Hitler’s Guard. His father went away to war and hasn’t been heard from since so it’s just him and his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). What’s a devastated little fellow to do with no father figure around? Invent an imaginary friend, of course, and why not aim high and adopt everyone’s favourite Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) himself?

Jojo Rabbit is a satirical comedy about learned hate. It’s sympathetic to this child who blindly loves and trusts in Hitler, but doesn’t yet have a taste for blood or violence. Hitler is his Batman, his hero, but he’s about to learn that all heroes are flawed. And some turn out to be villains. But first, there’s a complication. Of course there’s a complication, as if growing up the outcast in Hitler’s Germany wasn’t hard enough. There’s a monster in the attic – or, in fact, a Jew (bless you), named Elsa (Thomasin Mckenzie). Jojo’s mom is hiding her so the secret must be kept. Hangings in the town square remind us of the stakes. But this pull between duty to his family and to his country creates an awful lot of pressure for one small boy, especially when his imaginary friend is quite critical of the situation, and Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a soldier who’s befriended him, is a little too close for comfort. It’s obviously a disorienting time for him, to find out inch by inch that the real monster is his imagined friend, and the girl in the attic is in fact a lot like him. Imagine the dissonance, the panic, the confusion, the revulsion.

Scarlett Johansson gets the chance to clown around as a mother trying her best to get her young son through a terrifying, grueling war. I can’t remember seeing her this loose and free on the screen before, which is ironic considering the character is rife with burden. In many ways, the mother is the most grounded character; you feel the weight of her responsibility, but also her vitality. She’s not merely trying to survive a war – she’s living. This is her now. Even when the world has gone to shit, there is no pause button. Sons must be raised. Homes must be kept. Jews must be hidden. But still, there is dancing.

Jojo is a complex character, embodying both hatred and innocence in one 10 year old body. It would have been critical to find the perfect and, I imagine, rare talent to fill the role, but believe me, this kid is up for it. He plays against McKenzie particularly well, who is in fact not a monster but a moody and sometimes bratty teenage girl. Neither is strictly the sinner nor the saint history imagines them to be. The two form the most tenuous, the most fraught of bonds, but it’s enough. Familiarity is often enough. It is a cultivator of hope, a vanquisher of fear.

My favourite scenes, however, are when Jojo’s imaginary pal Hitler drops by. Taika Waititi plays him without hindsight; his Hitler doesn’t yet understand how history will judge him. He still thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips. Waititi plays him fey, embracing the absurd conflict and duality of the character who is of course the architect of evil but also just a very small and not very brave man. He has fun with it but never forgets who this man is or why we hate him.

And it probably goes without saying that Sam Rockwell is having a ball. He’s done wild satirical stuff before so he approaches this with guts and gusto. Which is not to say that anyone in the cast fails to bring the necessary sensitivity to a movie like this. They do. But they also remember that no matter where they fall on the scale of good to evil, they were all just human beings.

It’s an interesting choice to go to Nazi Germany to deliver such a powerful message of anti-hate but where else would it have so much impact? And who else would endeavour to take it on except the fearless Taika Waititi, for whom rules seem not to apply. We worry about which subjects can be spoken of, and which can be made fun of, but the answer is pretty much anything if it’s funny enough. And Jojo Rabbit is funny enough – funny enough to counter hate with laughter, and isn’t that a beautiful thing? At another movie I saw at TIFF this year, Mr. Rogers reminded us that “anything human is mentionable, and anything mentionable is manageable.” Jojo Rabbit helps us talk about difficult things. It’s an important act of remembrance, and Waititi shows us that even if we’re burning out on all those war stories, there can (and must) still be new and inventive ways of remembering. It’s not just a comedy. It made me laugh and it made me cry, but most of all it moved me to think of these people as human, like me. And how things got away on them little by little until it was too late. History repeats itself, but it’s not too late for us. Not yet.