Run

Chloe (Kiera Allen) is a super smart teenager who’s hounding the mail carrier every day for some news of her college acceptances. With many medical challenges including diabetes, a heart condition, and paraplegia, Chloe’s been home schooled all her life by devoted mother Diane (Sarah Paulson), but that’s left her incredibly sheltered, with no friends and no other family, she has very little contact with the outside world.

Which makes it extra difficult when she begins to suspect that her mother might be dosing her with medication she doesn’t need…or medication that’s deliberately making her sick. The more Chloe tries to get to the truth, the more her mother tightens the vise. It’s not until Chloe is trying to escape that she realizes her mother has carefully constructed a prison.

Run is an incredibly effective thriller. Diane is inarguably deranged and psychotic but Sarah Paulson underplays her to such perfection that we never truly know what to expect from her, and the ambiguity makes her feel even more threatening because of it. Allen, a newcomer to the big screen, is surprisingly strong playing her opposite. Director Aneesh Chaganty runs a tight ship; Run’s pacing leaves you breathless, it keeps ramping up the stakes and then exceeding your expectations. Chloe is obviously a vulnerable young woman but Allen plays her with such grit and strength she’s got more staying power than you can possibly imagine.

If the film has a flaw it’s that it suffers from the heavy presence of the Munchausen by Proxy subgenre recently. But while the plot may be a little familiar, the suspense is taut and nerve-jangling, to say nothing of the worst terror of all, the one that speaks to our most base fear: that a mother could turn on her child, and hurt her.

Run is available to stream via Hulu on November 20th.

Big ups to Aneesh Chaganty who prioritized casting a disabled actor and found a very strong one in Kiera Allen. Even bigger props for writing a character, not a disability.

TIFF20: Underplayed

You may not be ready to hear this, but did you know men and women aren’t always treated equally? Turns out, that holds true in the music industry as well. In 2019, only 5 of the top 100 DJs list were female, and they made up only 3% of technical and production roles, which is pretty embarrassing, and I thought the days I was embarrassed by math were behind me.

Underplayed explores gender inequality through the lens of EDM. It’s basically the Hidden Figures of electronic music, only these women send concert-goers into ecstatic trances rather than rockets to the moon. Tomato, tomahto.

The EDM community likes to think of itself as rather inclusive, but it clearly falls prey to the same gender, ethnic, and sexual equality issues that virtually everything else does. Systemic bias: it’s the real deal. DJs might put out music under fake names and perform wearing face-covering helmets, but they still find a way to weed out the ladies. That’s pretty dedicated sexism, if you ask me.

Director Stacey Lee assembles the very best in female talent, including Alison Wonderland, Tygapaw, TOKiMONSTA, REZZ, NERVO, Louisahhh, and more (gosh they love their CAPS), but clearly this is an issue that transcends the music industry and affects literally every woman the world over. Lee makes a point of not just discussing the disparity, but exploring how it happens, and how it might change.

Hometown Holiday

Krista and Ashley are sisters who co-own a florist shop together in their tiny hometown of Rust Creek, but working around weddings and romance all the time hasn’t translated to luck in love for them. Krista (Sarah Troyer) has recently vowed to be more selective about who she dates while Ashley (Samantha Gracie) is pining over a guy she crushed on back in high school. It seems an almost hopeless situation until Ryan (Bradley Hamilton) comes to town.

Ostensibly Ryan is visiting his pregnant sister in Rust Creek but truthfully he’s also got his eye on a potential new client, a local widower turned viral country singing sensation. As an entertainment lawyer, he’s eager to sign Wes Gently (Kevin McGarry) to a big contract and has tracked him down at an event, but Wes is hesitant and will need some wooing. Luckily this gets Ryan into wooing mode so when a stunning local florist (it’s Krista!) working the event asks him to dance, he starts up a light flirtation and a medium-heavy get to know you with her, while routinely stepping on her toes. And wouldn’t you know it, this leaves just enough space for Ashley to swoop in on her high school beau…who just happens to be THE Wes Gently! Is it possible we’re about to have a double holiday romance?

Answer: yes, yes it is. But first we’ll have to suffer through a mild case of mistaken identity, slight interference by a kid, a couple of scenes from Dickens at a local play house, and like all good Christmas stories since the very first, a child is born.

These Christmas romance movies never overstay their 90 minute welcome (this one checks out at 84, and that includes the credits), so there isn’t a lot of time to divide between two blooming relationships, especially when there’s a break because someone’s worried about being used. And like the formula dictates, the physical side of romance is non-existent until perhaps a post-engagement, close-mouthed kiss, which is a crazy yet extremely strict and carefully followed rule. This movie will win no converts but will likely please fans of the genre.

TIFF20 Wolfwalkers

In a version of 1650 Ireland probably not too different from the one our history reports, Robyn (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) and her widowed father Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) are sent by colonizer extraordinaire, the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney), to a remote outpost of a town that’s growing past its own humble borders into the woods beyond it. The town has suffered wolf attacks as it creeps into their territory and Bill, a wolf hunter, is tasked with their destruction. Young daughter Robyn wants nothing more than to be just like her father, and to hunt by his side, but Lord Protector has a narrower, more traditional belief about a woman’s place. To prove her worth and bravery, Robyn takes on the woods alone and almost becomes prey herself when a pack of wolves circles around her, but she is saved at the last minute by Mebh (Eva Whittaker).

The legends are true: Mebh is a wolfwalker, a girl who has an independent life as a wolf while her human self sleeps. Luckily she also has healing powers, relieving Robyn of the nasty bite on her arm, but not before it transforms Robyn into a wolfwalker too. Robyn loves to run with her new friends at night, wild and free unlike any other female in 17th century Ireland, but she has now become the very thing her father must exterminate, the very embodiment of the village’s superstitions, both the colonizer and the colonized.

The movie’s style begs you to notice it is lovingly hand-drawn; while some images are deliberately rustic, there are so many saturated colours and levels of detail the overall effect is simply gorgeous, like looking at stained glass. It has myth in its heart and magic running through its veins. The script is good but the animation itself is enough to communicate the disparate worlds of human and beast. The lush and vibrant art is alone worth the watch, but the ethereal nature of the woods’ inhabitants makes for a captivating story reminiscent of the kind of lyrical folk and fairy tales that just don’t get told much anymore. Wolfwalkers is certainly among the best animated films of the year and I’m confident that we will see its name on the Oscar ballot this year.

Wolfwalkers is in select theatres now and will be available to stream on Apple TV December 11 2020.

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

Jeronicus Jangle is a magical, fantastical inventor of “jangles and things” (translation: toys). A new breakthrough that brings a toy to life seems poised to make him an incredible success but while celebrating jubilantly in the streets with his wife, daughter, and nearly the entire town of Cobbleton, the newly animated toy (a matador named Don Juan voiced by Ricky Martin) convinces Jeronicus’ apprentice Gustafson that they should steal the blueprints to all the inventions and strike out on their own.

Twenty-eight Toy Maker of the Year awards later, Gustafson (Keengan-Michael Key) is eccentric and wealthy and about to run out of stolen ideas for toys. Jeronicus (Forest Whitaker), meanwhile, is completely ruined. Gustafson didn’t just steal his blueprints, he robbed him of his self-confidence and of the magic that seemed to inspire his inventions. His wife gone, his daughter estranged, and his toy store now a rapidly failing pawnshop, Jeronicus is dejected, and not even the threat of bankruptcy can jump-start his innovations. However, the arrival of his grand-daughter Journey (Madalen Mills) changes everything. Not only does she share his mind for magic, science, and creating, she’s got something even more important: belief.

Jingle Jangle is a bit of a marvel, to be honest. It’s The Greatest Showman meets Mr. Magorium’s Magic Emporium meets Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Although I loved the film from the minute Phylicia Rashad started reading a fairytale to her grandkids, I was completely sold not two minutes later when a toy store full of whirring robotics and steampunk costumed people break out into song and dance that totally swept me away.

Writer-director David E. Talbert creates a rich fantasy land that is a pure joy to visit. Although it’s not a perfect film, there’s a lot of talent on display. In addition to a truly unique twist on a family-friendly holiday film, Forest Whitaker is a total champ and Keegan-Michael Key is having a blast. Who knew either could sing and dance – or would? Mills is the true star of course; her voice is strong and confident, but so is her soul, and she shines her novice light even opposite legendary luminaries.

From the inspired music to the brilliant production design, Jingle Jangle was a whole lot of fun and I’m both pleased to have a new classic in the holiday genre, but equally pleased that it is holiday-lite, a perfect November (or anytime) watch.

On The Rocks

Laura (Rashida Jones) has what looks like a perfect life: beautiful New York apartment, sweet little girls, a room of her own in which to write, a handsome and successful husband…and yet. And yet, something’s a little lacking. The early days of their marriage were of course full of passion and excitement but things have cooled off, perhaps in part due to kids, Laura’s waning self-confidence, and Dean’s (Marlon Wayans) busy work schedule and frequent travel. In fact, some recent events have Laura wondering whether Dean is perhaps seeing someone else. Luckily Laura’s got another thing going for her: a father with a sense of adventure and a propensity for romantic advice he has no real qualification to dispense.

Felix (Bill Murray) was a philanderer himself while married to Laura’s mom, so maybe he does have some valuable insight here. But he’s also just so happy to be spending time with his daughter, not to mention helping her out. They zip around the city in a cherry red convertible, playing spy, snacking on caviar, bonding and reminiscing, trying not to have too much fun over the extinction of Laura’s marriage.

Rashida Jones and Bill Murray are the father-daughter duo of our dreams, a pairing that will prove nearly impossible to beat. Jones is a natural sparkler, glowing and effervescent in everything she does, and yet she ably gives up some of her spotlight to the man playing her larger than life, playboy father. Felix is at the stage in his life where he’s indulging in his every whim, and it doesn’t exactly sound like he was ever a man who denied himself much. Murray, it seems, is getting better with age, so effortlessly charming, so completely endearing even while blemished with a hint of selfishness, tinged with a tendency toward flippancy.

Writer-director Sofia Coppola sets the stage with a gorgeous setting and a warm relationship, and then peppers On The Rocks with some profoundly entertaining navel-gazing. Felix is a fount of wisdom, not all of it equal in worth or sincerity, but every third or fourth quip, offered with Felix’s trademark insouciance, will disarm you with its bare naked authenticity. The premise seems to be about catching Dean’s infidelity red-handed, but it’s actually about an older man whose contemporaries are dying and he’s finding himself increasingly alone. After hurting her mother and leaving his family, Felix’s relationship with Laura is as much on the rocks as Dean’s is, and if he needs an excuse to spend quality time with her, he’s not afraid to use the end of her marriage to do it. Coppola’s script expertly stays away from saccharine expressions and simply allows us (and Laura) to see a love and deep affection sheepishly, self-consciously offered but genuinely felt.

TIFF20: Enemies of the State

This was one of the best and most memorable films I saw at TIFF this year, an unexpected surprise that disarmed me and disoriented me, and since I want it to do the same for you, this is going to be a sparse and succinct review.

Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary is about Matt Dehart, who in 2009 was accused and charged by the FBI for possessing child pornography and soliciting minors for sex on the internet. Matt claims these accusations are fabricated to punish and distract from the truth. That Dehart, a former U.S. Air National Guard intelligence analyst, was involved with the Anonymous hacker group and WikiLeaks, and claimed to possess classified documents alleging serious misconduct by the CIA. Matt Dehart counters that his arrest was a ruse to discredit him and an easy way to seize and search his computers for the documents.

Matt’s parents, Paul and Leann, both former U.S. military themselves, come to believe their son, and the whole family becomes embroiled in this cat and mouse chase, from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada, where they sought refuge in Canada, claiming Matt had been tortured in prison upon his arrest.

This story is a delicious, irresistible true crime rabbit hole with so many twists and turns you’ll suffer whiplash from jerking your head in opposing directions so many times. Every new interview seems to contradict the last and the documentary thrives when it pits these two narratives against each other. Is Matt a pedophile or a martyr to espionage? Is this treason or whistleblowing or just a clever and convoluted defense strategy? You can try to be analytical about connecting Kennebeck’s dots, but there are red herrings all over the place, from anthrax to the mob, and that thing called ‘truth’ seems impossible to pin down.

We have a natural and insatiable appetite for conspiracy theories and Kennebeck knows what she has in this doc: an addicting, shocking, ambiguous array of breadcrumbs, and she’s very savvy about how she plants them. Enemies of the State is an excellent, absorbing reminder that we live in a time with access to so much information, but very few paths to the truth.

TIFF20: Ammonite

In 1840s England, acclaimed but overlooked (translation: female) fossil hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) reluctantly agrees to act as a caregiver to Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), the sickly wife of a wealthy man, prescribed a convalescence by the sea.

Every morning, Mary prowls the beach by her home in Lyme Regis, a town in West Dorset, searching for and carefully unearthing fossils. She dons rough clothes and men’s boots and has permanently roughened knuckles and a rime of clay under her torn fingernails. It is unusual work for a woman; Mary is an unusual woman. She is not exactly pleased when Charlotte joins her on the beach. Charlotte’s health is as dainty as the heels on her boots, her frills and lace a liability, her bonnet as prim as the purse of her lips. No one is more aware of the difference between their class and social status as Mary is, but Charlotte’s ill health and Mary’s careful caregiving put them on more equal footing. At one moment they’re peeling vegetables side by side, the next they’re having frantic sex.

It sounds as abrupt as it felt. Touted as a period lesbian romance, there isn’t actually a whole lot of romance to the affair. The two women are chronically lonely. Charlotte’s primary ailment is probably grief, and unhappiness, while Mary is burdened by a simmering anger. There isn’t a lot of chemistry between the two, nor any passion outside quick (and quiet -mom’s down the hall) trysts in the bedroom. There isn’t a flirtation or a sweeping exchange of intimate secrets. There is toil, there is the unyielding sound of crashing waves, there is a muddy crust at the hems of their skirts.

Of course, in the 1840s, there is no happily ever after for a couple of “opposites attract” lesbians. Charlotte has her grief to get back to, not to mention a husband. Mary has her work, her resentment, her private anguish. Their brief love affair will have certainly changed them, but at what cost?

Writer-director Francis Lee sets his movie against a backdrop as bleak and as muted as the fine performances by Winslet and Ronan, both at the very top of their game. Their brief connection has no bearing on the unrelenting sea, and no comparison to the 195 million year old bones buried in the cliffs. Theirs is the briefest of blips, inconsequential in the face of the endless ocean. Lee tends to introduce the landscape as the third character in his love stories. His style is sparse but tactile, the environment more alive than even the love between Mary and Charlotte.

And of course the ubiquitous ammonite, a particular fossil of extinct cephalopods found in marine rocks. They are so abundant Mary polishes them and sells them to tourists; the shelves of her modest curio shop overflow with them, Lee finding the metaphor quite irresistible. What is a fossil but an organism that has become petrified over time? Mary was perhaps once a vibrant and content organism but life has hardened her, leaving behind only the impression of someone who once lived – really lived. She is briefly reanimated with Charlotte, but a fossil is also something resistant to change, and Mary is nothing if not set in her ways.

Ammonite has much to admire but far less to actually like. With so little to hold on to, it was hard to be invested in such a thin relationship. With no burning passion to sweep us away, I felt oppressed by the heavy skirts, the lack of privacy, the ceaseless work and the grime. It is a long, slow slog with so little reward that even Winslet’s ferocious work doesn’t seem worth it.

True History of the Kelly Gang

The ‘true’ in the title is false of course, or debatable anyway, which I suppose means the ‘history’ part is too, although our story does take place in the past. Peter Carey’s vital and vigorous novel is a work of fiction, using many true aspects of the Kelly Gang story but inventing others as well. The film poses as Ned Kelly’s autobiography, mostly written and narrated by himself to an unborn child that Carey made up. But if Ned Kelly had had a pregnant wife, if she had half a brain she would have wondered if Ned would live to meet his daughter, and might have encouraged him to leave behind a written legacy, just in case.

The film is a departure not only in story but in tone and in telling, the violence crazed and stylized but the main concern more character than plot. You may already be familiar with the banks that were robbed and the cattle stolen, but this “true history” is more interested not in what they did but why they did it. The class struggle is palpable enough, the sense that there is no place for these young men, no future. There is real rage here, and a dangerous accumulation of testosterone with no constructive outlet.

Ned’s (George McKay) legacy has of course had a lasting impact on Australian culture; this film gives him a punk rock makeover for the 21st century and adds to the myth if not the man. With stunning cinematography, a gritty feel, and anarchic energy, there is much to be admired in Justin Kurzel’s film. Too bad I just didn’t like it. There was a lot of muck, a lot of exaggerated portrayals of machismo, and for me it was just too much crazy and not enough cohesiveness. But, if you’re looking for a western with a distinctly Aussie flavour, this one’s got that, plus lads in dresses, Russel Crowe, Charlie Hunnam, Thomasin McKenzie, and Nicholas Hoult, if you needed more convincing.

TIFF20: I Am Greta

In August of 2018, Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old student in Sweden starts a school strike for the environment. The more she learned about climate change, the more frustrated and fixated she became. What seemed to be the biggest challenge her generation would face, not to mention the certain extinction of further generations, went ignored by those who could and should be doing something – ignored, or worse, disputed. With global warming threatening the very planet she lived on, Greta saw no point in attending school, or in imagining any future at all. Instead she took to the street, the quiet girl on the autism spectrum, uncomfortable being the centre of attention, did the one thing she could because no one else would. Within months she was a world famous activist who’d started a global youth movement.

Director Nathan Grossman and his team have been there from almost the very start, capturing a small, shy girl answering questions, gaze averted, from passerby on the street. And then following her as she makes impassioned speeches to world leaders, her anger damning and shaming them.

I confess, I originally dismissed Greta Thunberg, assuming her cause was just a means to an end – and the end was probably Instagram fame or going viral or some such thing. I assumed she didn’t like the environment half as much as she liked the spotlight, or its money, and that her (stage) parents probably wrote the scripts. Now I am sad for my cynicism; by tolerating politicians who repeatedly break their promises, I am just as complicit. Perhaps I am, to Greta, the more unbelievable of the two.

Many news outlets, and some politicians, have zeroed in on Greta’s autism, and suggested that her “mental illness” causes her to obsess over topics. They’d like to dismiss her, and climate change, in the same breath. But if Greta’s focus is narrower than most, it doesn’t make climate change any less real, or any less of a threat. It makes her a brave whistleblower, the kind that makes people in power nervous because the truth tends to be inconvenient. Greta is the real deal.

By allowing us to observe truthfully, I Am Greta lets us get to know the girl and not just the crusader. This is not a documentary about climate change. It is a documentary about a young woman who becomes the reluctant voice of her generation. Grossman’s profile shows a young woman from an ordinary family, her parents struggling daily with doing the right thing, finding the right way to support her, balancing her needs with the rest of the family’s, and what’s good for her with what’s good for the world as a whole. Greta’s only motivation is the environment. The director’s motivation, however, is a little more complicated. Greta leads by example, and has inspired lots of young people to come forward and hold the adults in charge accountable. By showing us such ordinary domesticity, Grossman is reminding us that if Greta can do it, why not us?

I Am Greta debuts on Hulu November 13th.