Tag Archives: actors turned directors

Matilda

Matilda is a precocious little girl who just doesn’t fit in with her family. Her father’s a crook, her mother’s a bingo hound, and her brother is a bully and a dullard. Six year old Matilda is mostly left to her own devices, which is probably for the best. She devours books from the local library but isn’t sent to school until the elementary school’s principal buys a lemon from her sleazy salesman father and her fate is sealed. Now poor Matilda’s got three adults on her case: her buffoon of a father (Danny DeVito), her flighty mother (Rhea Perlman), and the horrid Mz. Trunchbull (Pam Ferris).

It turns out Principal Trunchbull doesn’t just terrorize the students at her school, but the teachers too, and Matilda’s sainted teacher Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz) in particular because it turns out Trunchbully is also the mean old aunt who raised her. So Miss Honey and Matilda have loads in common, aside from the fact that they both read at the same level. They’re both looking to replace the misfit families they were born into.

As a story for children, Matilda is a bit of a weird one. It turns out that Matilda has special powers that come in handy when an adult in her life treats her unfairly. And objectively, the adults in her life are deserving of her scorn, but they’re wildly drawn caricatures, sadists and criminals. I suppose Roald Dhal wanted to acknowledge that sometimes children feel powerless and small and Matilda gets to confront this imbalance in a way that most little kids never will. They’ll simply wait to grow up and hopefully do it to their own kids one day. Such is life. Matilda gets to exact her revenge now, and it’s exactly the kind of revenge a 6 year old would think up.

Danny DeVito directs this little ensemble and though the effects have aged incredibly poorly, it must be said that the casting of Mara Wilson as the eponymous star was a stroke of genius. She is believable as a little know it all but somehow always sweet, never obnoxious. She never seems like a brat. She’s the kind of kid you might just want to scoop up and take home – so it’s almost understandable when the lovely Miss Honey does just that. Okay, not really. In real life I think it’s much harder to adopt a kid who has two living parents. But in the movie, both Matilda and Miss Honey get their happy ending, and it’s hard to argue that.

However, it’s easier to argue other things. Like when Miss Honey confides in Matilda that her father’s suicide was actually probably murder, and Principal Trunchbull the murderer. Which is a weird thing to unload on a kid. And to not share with the authorities for decades. But Miss Honey isn’t exactly the angelic teacher we’re led to believe she is. She rather passively stands by and watches her wee tiny students get abused on a regular basis. She actually seems a bit like an idiot. But who’s counting?

Light Of My Life

A man known only to us as Dad (Casey Affleck) is camping deep in the forest with his young daughter, Rag (Anna Pniowsky). Only it turns out they’re not so much “camping” as “hiding” and “surviving.” They’ve been doing it for so long that Rag, who’s about 10, has never really known other people. Their lives depend on escape plans and emergency contingencies; their home consists of whatever of their campsite they were able to shove into a sack before fleeing. Dad is paranoid about everyone. They take no chances.

Is this another Leave No Trace? Sort of. But with a bit of Bird Box mixed in. A “female plague” has decimated the female population, leaving the country in ruins. Rag is one of only few girls left, and her father is desperate to keep the secret. I could easily imagine the intense pressure of safe-guarding what is most precious to him. We are never without a sense of dread. It’s actually a bit difficult to watch because the tension is enormous – we are always anticipating the next threat around the corner, even when their lives are quite peaceable.

Written and directed by Affleck, he’s awfully fond of really long scenes in which he tells rambling, long-winded stories. Sean had more patience for this than I did. I preferred exploring the unique bond that crops up between father and daughter when they have no one else in the whole world, and what it does to a kid to grow up with such vague but serious threats: everyone is the enemy, even if she’s not yet old enough to understand what these “bad men” want with her. Her innocence rubs up against our own understanding of the hostility toward her. It’s an agonizing watch, really, brutal and brilliant, a dismaying test of ethics.

Phil

Phil (Greg Kinnear) is a depressed dentist who becomes obsessed with his patient Michael (Bradley Whitford) who seems to have it all. Chasing the secret to happiness, Phil more or less stalks the guy and his perfect family. Phil’s as surprised as anyone when Michael suddenly, and seemingly inexplicably, commits suicide. If the guy who has everything takes his life, where does that leave guys like Phil who most decidedly do not?

If you answered black-out drunk on Michael’s grave, you answered right! That’s where Michael’s widow Alicia (Emily Mortimer) finds him the next morning, hung over with a face full of dirt. But it does not account for why Phil decides on the spot to impersonate Michael’s long-lost Greek friend Spiros as a way of ingratiating himself into the grieving family. Before you know it, he’s renovating their bathroom while digging through Michael’s belongings trying to answer the age old question WHY?

I get it. Suicide is one of those tricky things, like cancer, that leave us feeling vulnerable. We want to know why so that we can feel safe. If someone got cancer because they smoke, we feel relieved because we ourselves are not smokers. Bullet dodged. If someone commits suicide because they have huge gambling debts, lucky us again, because we aren’t gamblers. Phew. We need these tangible markers to help us feel insulated from these scary possibilities. When a vegetarian marathon runner gets cancer, well, that reminds us how random it can all be. And when someone who lives a good life ends it – well, don’t we all sleep a little worse at night wondering why?

Both Phil and Michael’s widow Alicia would like to understand Michael’s motivations, but the truth is, those aren’t always knowable. Mental health is complicated and the things that make one person feel hopeless and helpless don’t always translate. Is better, then, to have each other – even if one of them is not who they claim?

Greg Kinnear stars and directs himself in Phil, a very dark comedy that doesn’t work more often than it does. And it’s not just the tricky subject matter, though it’s difficult to feel good about watching one man find the meaning in his life because of another man’s suicide. Doesn’t quite feel right. Or maybe it’s just not pushed far enough to be convincing. It’s obviously got dark undertones but Greg Kinnear often pushes the goofy side, and those two things don’t always pair well. The script is clunky and the direction doesn’t help – even the performances struggle to rise above. Phil is fine, a mild disappointment I suppose. There’s worse to watch but better too, so I suggest you scroll a little further before clicking on this one.

Benjamin

This intervention is classy as fuck. I mean, how often do you see hors d’oeuvres at these things?

Ed (Bob Saget) smelled crystal meth through his teenage son’s door and panicked. He has assembled what can only be described as a rag-tag game of misfits to confront his son and force him into rehab…IF he has a problem, which Ed is still loathe to admit. Aunt Clarice (Chery Oteri) and Uncle Mitch (Dave Foley) haven’t seen him since he was a baby. Ed’s BBF, a doctor also named Ed (Rob Corddry) will lead the way despite the fact that he’s an OB-GYN. Jeanette (Mary Lynn Rajskub) is running the whole thing, though she prefers to emphasize her girlfriend part of her credentials rather than assistant. Benjamin’s sister Amber brings a date, and a spare, and is mostly there to antagonize her father. It is unclear who put together the guest list, but the guest list was their first mistake. It was not their last.

Long story short: these people may be bigger fuckups than the kid they’re intervening, and without any moral superiority, it’s hard to sustain authority. Ya know?

Bob Saget is not a good enough actor to be allowed to direct himself (and yet here we are). I’m not saying he’s the worst part of this but…he is. He totally is. And there are a LOT of broken parts. Danny Tanner would have done a better job and – dare I say it – he would have been less corny. Saget might have one of the most recognizable faces on the shoddiest piece of work: total amateur hour. How was Full House his prime? How on earth do you go downhill from America’s Funniest Home Videos? Benjamin styles itself as a dark comedy but you know what’s problematic about that? I didn’t hear anyone laughing.

TIFF19: Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn looks a lot cooler than it is. Gosh it pains me to say that. I really wanted Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn to be great, and it isn’t bad, but it doesn’t do a lot to distinguish itself.

Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a private detective who works for friend and boss Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who’s into something deeper than he should be. Lionel doesn’t know what, but when Frank winds up dead on his watch, you can be sure he’s going to find the fuck out.

Lionel, with his tics and Tourette’s, is not your typical P.I. – it’s hard for him to really stay under the radar when he’s yelling out rude things. But he does good work, and he’s very motivated to do right by his friend. Following the clues leads him to Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and to exactly where these things always lead: dirty politicians. Is there any other kind?

Anyway, the movie is a send-up to ye olde film noir of yesteryear, when men wore trenchcoats with deep pockets stuffed with revolvers and fedoras worn specifically so they could be doffed each time a dame walked into the office, though you could barely see her through the yellowed fog of cigarette smoke. The detective was haunted by his past, of course, possibly by a dame he didn’t save in time, but he was stoic, never talked about it much. Just fingered his gun and smoked some more. Motherless Brooklyn puts a slight spin on things by introducing a detective who can’t shut up. And gives him a dame who is, and I’ll whisper this part: not white.

The film is so meticulously put together that sometimes it feels more like a history lesson than gumshoe caper; the diorama of NYC is gritty and seedy, so lovingly rendered that it doubtless earns its A+ but also serves as a distraction in an already bloated movie. And the maddening thing about Motherless Brooklyn is the performances are roundly very good, engaging and solid. But when you throw in the period setting and the metaphors and the big moods and Norton’s search for political relevance, something is bound to get lost. And clocking in at 2.5 hours, that’s a long time to devote your attention to each of the film’s moving parts, especially when things don’t quite add up to what they’ve promised. I also, if I may, think this was a missed opportunity to shoot in black and white. I mean, go all in if you’re gonna go all in. The actual result is a bit of a mixed bag. I think the good outweighs the bad, but at 144 minutes, I think there was opportunity to excise some of the bad completely, but no one has the courage to really wield the knife.

Ed Norton’s Best Roles

We are very shortly headed to TIFF where one of the many movies we’ll see is Ed Norton’s passion project, Motherless Brooklyn. While not his first time in the director’s chair, it IS the first one he also wrote, and of course stars in as well, because what the heck. He’ll play a Tourette’s-inflicted private investigator charged with solving the murder of his only friend (Bruce Willis). It looks good, and it’s had me thinking about Ed Norton’s other famous roles, of which there are actually quite a few, though he tends to be a bit under the radar (by which I mean: he’s always been more of an actor than a movie star).

Born in Boston circa 1969, Edward Harrison Norton became an actor because his childhood babysitter starred as Cosette in Les Miserables, and he caught the acting bug from her. He went to Yale as an undergrad where he was friends with Ron Livingston and Giamatti, and though he took some theatre classes, he graduated with a major in history. He was working on the stage, in New York, when he auditioned for a role opposite Richard Gere in Primal Fear; DiCaprio had passed on it, and Norton was chosen out of 2000 hopefuls. At the audition, he claimed that, like the character, he came from Kentucky (he grew up in Maryland), a lie that went undiscovered since his twang was evidently convincing. He picked it up watching Coal Miner’s Daughter, and threw in a stutter for good measure.

Lest you think that Primal Fear (1996) is his first IMDB credit, let me assure you that he wasn’t a complete noob – he’d previously appeared in a plethora of roles (including The Museum Guard) in an educational video designed to help newcomers learn English.

Before Primal Fear was even released, his test screenings were causing a Hollywood sensation, and he was soon offered roles in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, and The People vs. Larry Flynt. You may remember that Norton went on to win the Golden Globe for his supporting role in Primal Fear, and secured his first Oscar nomination as well: not bad for his first attempt.

Next he did Rounders (1998) with Matt Damon, and the two bonded by playing cards together (or, I suppose, against each other) in the World Series of Poker.

And then he earned his second Oscar nomination before the age of 30 for his transformative turn in American History X, in which he somehow extinguished the twinkle in his eye to play a Neo-Nazi, yet somehow keeps his humanity. And perhaps you’ve heard of his follow-up, a little film called Fight Club (1999)? Yeah, not to make Matt Damon jealous or anything, but he bonded with Brad Pitt by taking soap-making classes together. Hopefully with all safety precautions strictly followed.

And next we’ve got Keeping The Faith (2000), which is actually his directing debut. He plays a priest, and he and his rabbi friend (Ben Stiller) both fall awkwardly in love with the same woman (Jenna Elfman) even though neither of them can have her.

I took to Twitter to poll people’s favourite role, and American History X had a resounding win with 45%, including a vote from The Telltale Mind, and Fight Club pulling in a respectable 34%. Birdman took a surprisingly small slice with only 6%. Write-ins included Primal Fear, The People vs. Larry Flynt from Reely Bernie, 25th Hour from Matt of Armchair Directors, and even The Italian Job, this according to FilmGamer.

His more interesting roles this century include Death To Smoochy, The Illusionist, Moonrise Kingdom, and an astonishing supporting role opposite Michael Keaton in Birdman, for which he received a third Oscar nomination.

Motherless Brooklyn is his first writing credit but he’s done uncredited script work for 2001’s The Score, 2002’s Frida, and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk.

He lost a role to buddy Matt Damon in The Rainmaker. He turned down Damon’s role in Saving Private Ryan. He was the runner up to Jim Carrey for Man on the Moon (in which he played Andy Kaufman). He turned down the role of Bruce Banner in 2003’s Hulk but accepted it in 2008.

He’s had an incredible career but it feels like Motherless Brooklyn is a new frontier for him, and very likely a successful one (watch for the review – coming soon).

What’s your favourite role of his?

 

Booksmart

It’s the last day of school, and best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are ready to bid high school goodbye. They’ve been serious students, buttoned down and focused, and their hard work has paid off: they’re off to Yale and Columbia respectively. But their pride is tamped down a little when they learn that that many of their classmates are also headed for the Ivies – this despite the fact that they rarely seemed studious, and made lots of time for parties and fun. “I’m incredible at hand-jobs but I also got a 1560 on the SATs,” says one.

Molly is particularly devastated; sure she’s the valedictorian, but did she sacrifice fun for nothing? She doesn’t want to show up at college in the fall a party virgin. Her whole worldview is sliding down a crap chute, and her instinct is to dive in after it. Luckily, they have one last night before graduation, and Amy’s departure for a summer of volunteering in Botswana. One night to make up for 4 years of skipping parties and feeling left out of the in-crowd. They set their sights on Nick’s party – the most effortlessly popular kid in school (played by Mason Gooding, son of Cuba Gooding Jr).

The ladies do not get from point A to point B without boatloads (and sometimes they are literal boatloads) of shenanigans. This is Superbad, only because it’s girls, it’s much smarter. And it seems like this one night of trying to party teaches them more about themselves than the previous four years of high school. That sounds about right, doesn’t it?

The movie gets so much right even as we learn how much the girls have gotten wrong. Molly always assumed she was purposely excluded, but it turns out these kids are all too happy to greet her socially; her exile was self-imposed. How maddening, isn’t it, to discover that too late – and a good reminder for us all to check in with ourselves. How often do we impose our own limitations? Amy tackles her fears while Molly checks her ego, and her assumptions. The two women in the lead have amazing chemistry and it’s a lot of fun to witness the particular dynamic of their friendship. You and I know that college will test the bonds of their friendship, and inevitably change it if not crush it outright. They’re starting to have inklings that this might be so. So this last night out has some tangible pressure to it. Beanie Feldstein is a cinematic lantern, lighting up every screen she’s on, and lighting the way for others. Kaitlyn Dever is an excelling pairing for her, able to play off her energy in a more conservative and subdued way, while still holding her own.

Olivia Wilde tries out the director’s chair and seems to find it a pretty comfortable fit. She’s got an eye for letting actors do their thing; so much of the best bits feel spontaneous and are the best kind of weird. She’s also got an amazing feel for music – she introduces characters and themes with pop songs, and it really took me back. I bet most of us can come up with a soundtrack of our own high school experience. Music is such an important part of that time in our lives. I still surround myself by music constantly, but I will never again spend the day on my bedroom floor inhaling lyric booklets, or spend hours recording stuff off MTV like I did then. I know which songs I kissed to, slow-danced to, had sex to. Which ones we played on repeat as we drove recklessly and restlessly around parking lots doing donuts, which ones played at the diner as we split an order of fries, which ones we cried to when boys were mean to us, which ones accompanies us down the aisle at our own graduations and commencements. Wilde seems to have an intuitive sense of that, and I caught it.

There’s a theme in Booksmart that is hinted at but never spoken of: class. As in economic and social class. Molly points out the school’s 1% (Billie Lourd and Skyler Gisondo, whom Sean finds uproariously funny), but it’s clear that the Los Angeles high school as affluent as heck. Everyone, it seems, except for Molly. Not a single thing is ever said about it, but we see that she lives in an apartment building while everyone else has a McMansion, and her parents are absent from the film. So when Molly discovers that all her other classmates also got into good schools, she berates herself for having skipped the fun when she didn’t have to. But you and I know that she probably did: that kids like Molly have to earn their way in, but kids from rich families do not. They have legacy status, they know alumni who can pull strings. Their families donate money to schools. And, as we’ve seen in the news recently, they pay money to fake their way in on a little-used athletic scholarship or some other fraudulent means. College admissions are not the meritocracy we want to believe they are. There are very valid reasons why Molly worked so hard and others did not, even if the film never states them. So maybe Molly’s takeaway was to loosen up a bit, and experience life, which are not bad lessons. But for us, it’s a little bit more than that.

Even with these subtle layers, Booksmart never stops being fun. The cast is lively and diverse, the tropes are thankfully on the unexpected side, and the movie has a great pace. Plus it has an exception friendship at its centre. Just when you think we’ve said all there is to say about high school, Boomsmart is a charming, genuine and clever addition to the field.