Tag Archives: based on a true story

Only The Brave

Fire is scary as hell and I think societally we’ve all agreed that it’s better not to die in or around one. But some people make their livings alongside it. Are they the brave ones? Sure, some of them. But in my experience, not exclusively. Like any profession, there are some who are called to it and others who are there for the paycheque and while that’s inevitable, it’s also not ideal if you’re running into a life-threatening situation and counting on that guy to not fuck your shit up.

Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) has put together a crew of hot shots, which is apparently what they call the elite firemen who battle dangerous, raging forest fires. I have not used the word fireman since I was 4, but there’s no other kind in this movie. There are only 3 kinds of careers for women in this movie: 1. wife 2. baby mama 3. porn star.

As the Granite Mountain Hotshots are finally about to qualify, they swell their ranks to take on several rookies, including Brendan (Miles Teller), who’s got some issues, and not just that he calls his mother dude, but I’d say that’s chief among them. He’s a classic fuckup but he’s also ripe for a father figure, so this career path is only half as stupid as it seems.

Only The Brave is based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots as they took on the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire. It has one of the highest mustache ratios you’ve seen on screen this century, and the movie has annoying habit of sounding like it’s being written in Michael Bay slogans (it’s based on a GQ article, so, you know). Miles Teller is sporting a blond look and someone either bleached his eyebrows or shaved the damn things off so it looks like he’s already lost them in a fire, which sort of takes the fun of forest fires if you know what I mean. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty to boil your blood: just boys being boys, by which I mean bros being dumbasses, trying to out-testosterone each other with feats of extreme stupidity.

It’s not all bad; Josh Brolin and Jeff Bridges are solid and dependable, and sometimes the story is affecting in a sparse kind of way. But it lost me during its rah-rah-heroes shit and a lot of the time I just felt pretty eye-rolly about it.

Jungle

The (true) story begins when three white young strangers become friends when they meet each other backpacking in South America. Yossi (Daniel Radcliffe) shames Kevin (Alex Russell) and Marcus (Joel Jackson) into ditching their “touristy” plans and joining him on a jungle trek to find a lost tribe of Indians in the Bolivian wilderness led by guide/bushman Karl (Thomas Kretschmann).

Turns out, the jungle is a hard place, guys. But with testosterone and adventure pulsing in their veins, none of these boys stopped to ask “Can we?” or “Should we?”, they just argued over who was going to hold the machete. The first day is grand, and they congratulate themselves on being ever so manly, panning for gold and taking lots of pictures. But then their shoes get wet and the bugs are big and their feet hurt and the whole thing turns into a whine-fest, which is when they get two very stupid ideas: 1. to split up and 2. to build a raft. Build a raft? Has building a raft ever worked in a non-cartoon?

Anyway, long story short, Yossi (Radcliffe) gets separated from the rest and ends up wandering in the Amazonian rainforest alone, for weeks. And you may have heard that the rainforest is quite large, and um, dense with trees but also with stuff that can kill you.

Jungle is a movie determined to alienate its audience with constant gross-out scenes. And it’s hard to know whether to emphasize CONSTANT or GROSS because neither can be overstated. There might be an interesting movie in here somewhere – Harry Potter loses his mind, has a nice relaxing quick sand mud bath and voluntarily gets eaten by fire ants just to stay awake. It’s based on a true story about a guy who defied death for so long in such harrowing circumstances that a two hour movie couldn’t even cover some of Yossi Ghinsberg’s highlights, such as waking up covered in leaches, finding a swarm of termites eating the patches of skin where he’d peed on himself, and sliding down a slope only to be rectally impaled on a stick. If that’s the stuff that DIDN’T make it in, just imagine what did.

I couldn’t help but think to myself that all these man vs. nature movies are the same in that they truly are MAN versus nature. Women are smart enough to never get themselves in these predicaments. Only men are stupid enough to march into a jungle completely unprepared for its realities in inadequate shoes, with the rainy season fast approaching, and an unvetted, complete stranger for a guide. In fact, I think we should rename the genre “men getting what they deserve” and they should all end with said man getting eaten by a cougar from the bottom up so he has to watch. That’s the only kind of karma I’m interested in. Until Jungle gets this re-edit, it’s really not for me.

 

TIFF19: Honey Boy

Oh man. It’s already been more than a week and in many ways I’m still digesting this.

Honey Boy is an autobiographical movie that Shia LaBeouf wrote. Deep breaths.

Now we know a couple of things about Shia LaBeouf: he has suffered a pretty lengthy and public meltdown, and he has continued to put out some pretty worthy performances, albeit in smaller vehicles (American Honey and The Peanut Butter Falcon recently). In a review for Charlie Countryman, I attempted to parse the nature of his problems and his pain, but of course from the outside, you can only guess, and wish him well (or not). But Shia is at that point in his healing where he is letting us in. He is performing an exorcism here. The ghosts in his closet have been let loose – but will they haunt him less?

“Selfishly,” he told us, “I made this movie for 2 people: me, and my dad.” Let’s unpack that a bit.

First, you need to know that in this movie he wrote, Shia plays his father. His own father. Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges play young Shia and older Shia, though the character goes by Otis in the film. What does it mean that he’s written this painfully intimate autobiographical film, but called his character by another name?

Shia’s father James was (is) an addict, an ex-con, abusive to both Shia and his mother. And yet when we meet young Otis, who is hard at work on the set of a show not unlike Even Stevens, he is living in a dingy motel with his dad. His dad is not just acting as a parental guardian, but as a paid one. James doesn’t work. He takes money from his kid. Which doesn’t stop him from neglecting the son he’s being paid handsomely to watch, or from hitting the child who is technically his boss.

This makes for a complicated relationship and a complicated childhood. And though Otis’s mother is seldom heard from , you do have to wonder – if it’s dad who has custody, just how bad is mom?

So you start to realize that this little kid has no parents. Or, actually, that he’d be better off without the ones he does have. But what he does have is a full-time job and more money than most adults. But he’s also got family obligations and staff who are also relatives but virtually no one telling him how to navigate these complex situations. So by the time Noah Jupe magically transforms into Lucas Hedges, Otis has PTSD and his own struggles with addiction and no idea how to take time out from his busy career and the pressures of Hollywood to deal with them. Until a court gives him very explicit directions to do so (and thank goodness).

But maybe his best therapy has been writing this screenplay. Clearly troubled after the TIFF premiere of Honey Boy, Shia is quick to reassure us that he’s happy to be here with us, but he’s quiet, introspective, quick to deflect to his costars and the director he so admires, Alma Har’el. As his struggles have become increasingly public and undeniable, he is coping with the tools he has available: creatively. But will his creation be his catharsis? And is any of this interesting or entertaining to those of us who have to personal stake in his recovery?

Resoundingly: yes. The absolute best bits are between young Otis (Jupe) and his father (LaBeouf). Mostly stuck in a crappy motel room, the anger between them is never at less than an aggressive simmer, and it’s ALWAYS on the verge of boiling over. Even the quiet is not to be trusted. The tension is awful and soon we too are responding like an abused kid, ready to flinch at the least provocation. If you come from a conflict-filled background yourself, you won’t fail to identify the triggers. Be gentle with yourself.

Honey Boy is a moving, emotional movie-going experience. I also hope it brought a certain amount of closure to a young man still wrestling with his demons.

TIFF19: Bad Education

Superintendent Frank Tassone was a beloved teacher before becoming a dedicated administrator. He has done so much to improve his school district that the area realtors rain gift baskets down upon him because better schools mean heftier housing prices. Everyone is happy. Frank (Hugh Jackman) feels appreciated by his school board president Bob (Ray Romano), and understood by his second in command, Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney). She gets him: she gets his passion for the work, and his single-minded devotion, turning down dates from many parent committee moms while still mourning the death of his cherished wife.

But this is not the story of well-run school board. It’s based on a real event, the single largest public school embezzlement scandal in history. Pam Gluckin drives flashy cars and owns multiple homes, but the only thing she’s gossiped about is her growing collection of husbands. It’s actually surprising she got away with it for as long as she did because she wasn’t overly discreet. Still, it took an intrepid high school reporter (Geraldine Viswanathan) to uncover some inconsistencies. And that’s how Pam’s pretty house with wall-to-wall carpeting came crashing down. A kid reporter. Boy did they regret encouraging the kids to do their best then.

Of course, superintendent Tassone was a little more worried about his job, and more importantly, his reputation than about the school’s missing money. He gathered up his school board and convinced them not to go to the cops. Instead they’d quietly dismiss Ms. Gluckin, establish a pay-back scheme, but basically keep the whole thing under wraps so that nobody’s confidence would be lost, and the upcoming election wouldn’t be compromised.

Thus begins Tassone’s own downward spiral. His meticulous lifestyle unravels. Hugh Jackman does this well. Very well. It doesn’t hurt to be playing opposite Allison Janney who has only ever blessed any project she’s been on with her talent, with her very presence. Bad Education is no exception; it’s two top-tier actors at their best. But their best doesn’t quite save this film, by director Cory Finley based on Mike Mawkowsky’s script, who apparently attended the very high school in question. It’s not bad, but the performances really carry it. It has all these moving pieces involving greed, corruption, and privilege, but it never quite puts them all together.

TIFF19: The Friend

Matt (Casey Affleck) and Nicole (Dakota Johnson) have a marriage like any other, which is to say, to them it’s a truly unique love story that’s had highs and lows, good times and challenges. The ultimate challenge is, of course, Nicole’s terminal cancer. It’s the kind of challenge that makes you set aside the other troubles, all comparatively minor now, and concentrate on “a good death”, whatever that means, especially with two young daughters to be left behind.

friend_0HERO-e1567826414285Of course, life doesn’t pause for the dying. Laundry piles up, sandwiches need to be sliced diagonally, and so on.

Enter everyone’s mutual best friend Dane (Jason Segel), who keeps the house running as the matriarch lays dying. You would call Dane a lifesaver, except she dies in the end. She definitely dies in the end.

Dane quits his job and leaves his girlfriend in order to perform this rescue mission. What kind of man would do such a thing? You’ll enjoy finding out. There are a million films about dying mothers (we saw another just 18 hours later; dying mothers are a trope, nearly a life certainty, and a definite tear-jerker. But friends who will drop everything to truly be there in someone’s time of need – that’s a story.

The Friend is based on a true story, a grateful widower’s tribute to the man who held his life together even as it broke apart. The most interesting part of this story, to me, is that Dane is not himself removed from the grief. Doctors, nurses, palliative care workers – they’re all paid professionals. Which is not to say those people are not also sometimes angels, just that sometimes heroes don’t wear capes, and it’s nice to see a film about them for a change. It’s wonderful to explore Dane’ motivations and mourning, and Segel has proven himself just as adept at drama as he is at comedy.

TIFF19: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a beautiful excuse for a movie, but it is not a Mr. Rogers biopic.  It’s more like if this week’s episode of Mr. Rogers was tackling the theme of Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who just happens to be a journalist who meant to write a Fred Rogers profile once.  And he didn’t really succeed – he wrote 10,000 words, mostly about himself.  But it was meeting Mr. Rogers that inspired and enabled him to start to process his childhood trauma and deal with his feelings.  The movie ends up being a 70-30 split, and not in Mr. Rogers’ favour.  Which isn’t a bad thing necessarily, it’s a reminder of the profound impact that Mr. Rogers’ love and Beautiful-Day-TIFF2019acceptance had on all of us.  Above all, he taught us it was okay to feel.

Lloyd Vogel is a cynic.  He normally writes about a broken world.  He’s not thrilled to be writing about a children’s television show, and he’s determined to see the star’s mask slip.  To see that Mr. Rogers isn’t a goody-two-shoes character but rather Fred Rogers’ honest expression of his best self is hard for Vogel to accept.  Meanwhile, Mr. Rogers sees through him – sees his anger, recognizes it for pain, and has a healing effect, despite Vogel’s resistance.  With a newborn baby at home and an estranged father who’s reappeared only to announce he’s dying, Vogel’s life is perhaps in need of some friendly ministration.

Director Marielle Heller finds exciting and innovative ways to frame the story, except she stole them all lovingly and conscientiously from Mr. Rogers himself.  It’s a way to honour what was truly special about his show – everything way thoughtful but low-tech, without fuss or flash.  The continuity was comforting.  Of course, the most incredible coup is the casting of Tom Hanks in the iconic cardigan.  He’s wonderful, channeling Fred Rogers’ sense of calm and peace.  His signature style of slow, deliberate speech is such a balm to those he’s talking to – it is rare to feel the scope of someone’s focus.  It’s also hilarious to watch his producers lose their shit as the time and attention he gives each guest means their show is constantly behind schedule.

It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn’t exactly the movie I expected, but it took me through all the feels (weep count: 3) and left me feeling like a very valued neighbour indeed.  Mr. Rogers has always said that he tried to look through the television into the eyes of one individual child.  Today I was that child, and I think you will be too.

Brittany Runs A Marathon

This year I discovered that I really like listening to podcasts on long drives, and we drive a lot. One that I’ve particularly enjoyed is Fortune Feimster’s Sincerely Fortune, which she does with her fiancee Jax, and sometimes her mother, Ginger. Although I love Fortune’s standup, the podcast is consciously a more sincere and authentic discussion. Occasionally she has friends on, and one day, she had her good friend and former improv classmate Jillian Bell on the show. You may not know her name, but you would almost certainly recognize her. I had a heck of a time proving to Sean that he knew her, what with roles like “clingy friend” in Rough Night and “pregnant wife” in The Night Before being not super memorable or easy to point to. But this film is Bell’s first chance at a starring role and boy did she ride it for all it’s worth. Fortune was expansive with praise, clearly proud of her friend, and not only did I find it a moving testament to female friendship, it made me incredibly interested in the movie.

I’m happy to say I was not disappointed.

Ostensibly, Brittany Runs A Marathon is about a woman, perhaps an unlikely runner, who trains for the NYC Marathon. Her life is kind of a mess and her health could use improvement, so she takes up training as a means to exert a little more control on a life she sees as perhaps moving on without her, perhaps unsalvageable.

While we are experiencing Brittany’s transformation in miles traversed and pounds lost, this movie isn’t really about the running, and certainly not about the weight loss. It’s really about learning to grow, to being open to it. It’s about reawakening old dreams and letting go of old, toxic relationships. Brittany doesn’t become a better person when she becomes a thinner person. In fact, she might be at her most nasty. What saves her is showing herself what she can do – that her stagnant life can be nourished, that the dead ends are in fact just cul-de-sacs.

Jillian Bell in the lead role lives up to every aspect of her character. She undertook the same transformation as her character, Brittany, and you can tell how closely she relates to the material in the film. The supporting cast, including Micah Stock, Lil Rel Howery, Michaela Watkins, and Utkarsh Ambudkar, is extremely strong. There’s a lot of great chemistry and everyone has the benefit of a good, solid script from writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo.

Because Jillian Bell is slightly wider than a No. 2 pencil, she’s often relegated to playing the out-of-control pal who’s very physical and quite obnoxious. In Brittany Runs A Marathon, she gets to go beyond just her fearless talent for physical comedy and flex the rest of her acting muscles as well. It’s terrific to see her in a role that’s worthy of her and I hope this means there are many more to come. It turns out that Brittany really didn’t need to transform her body. It was her head that needed the makeover – new confidence, more agency, bigger ambitions. Her salvation wasn’t found on a bathroom scale, it was in accomplishing her goals and widening her circle of support. Her trajectory isn’t straight. Her ups and downs sometimes push us away, make her hard to root for. But she’s an exceptionally real character who feels authentic and relatable and she’s exactly the kind of woman we need to celebrate.

The Farewell

Billi (Awkwafina) is barely scraping by, trapped somewhere between her parents’ disapproval and her need for their continued financial support when she’s blindsided by the news of her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis. Grandma, aka Nai Nai ( Shuzhen Zhao), is in China, and totally oblivious to her health status. Billi’s parents, Jian (Diana Lin) and Haiyan (Tzi Ma) moved to America when Billi was 6, but she’s always managed to stay close to her grandmother. She’s disturbed when she finds out her parents are willing to keep the secret from Nai Nai, and even more dismayed when she learns they, and the rest of the family, will be travelling to China to say goodbye under the guise of a wedding. But Billi, known for being awfully emotional, is not invited. One look at her teary eyes would tip off Nai Nai for sure.

She goes anyway.

What follows is lyrical, moving and a thoughtful tribute to family, and the nature of goodbye. But it’s also a meditation on some of the differences between East and West. In China, it’s common practice to hide this type of diagnosis from a loved one. Billi feels conflicted about this choice, and reminds people that in America, it would be flat-out illegal for medical professionals to hide someone’s medical status from them. But Billi’s uncle insists that in Asia, family trumps everything, and it is their job to bear this emotional burden for her, so that Nai Nai’s last months or weeks or days are not wasted on sadness and regret.

And certainly, the film is not wasted on sadness or regret. The family throws a wedding so that all Nai Nai’s friends and relatives can gather round her one last time without arousing her suspicious. A very obliging girlfriend of just 3 months goes along with it and wins good sport of the year for the next dozen years. So now the onus is on Billi to say goodbye in a non-obvious way.. And it turns out she’s not just saying goodbye to Nai Nai, but to her last real link to China.

The ensemble cast is uniformly terrific. They really create a dynamic that is utterly believable as a family, and that’s why the movie works so well. It could easily melt toward the sentimental but manages to stay firmly away from the overwrought. That said, the writing is good. Very good. it rings true and feels relatable. Awkwafina is of course the light and joy of the film, but don’t expect her usual goofball act. The Farewell is not a comedy. It is subdued, and tragic. But Lulu Wang’s writing and direction keep it authentic and filled with compassion, the kind of film that unites us in our humanity.

The Red Sea Diving Resort

In the 1970s, Captain America went to Africa disguised as Captain Israel, where he assembled a crack team of Super Jews, including a harpoon-wielding Hawkeye and a Black Widow with feathered bangs.

Well, okay, that’s not exactly how it happened, and it DID mostly happen.

Ethiopian Jews were being slaughtered in their homes in the late 70s and early 80s, so Mossad agents led families on a 1000km walk to Sudan where, if they survived the journey, they became refugees waiting to be taken to Jerusalem, which was the tricky part. Sudan was receiving a stipend from the UN for each refugee they took in. The refugees starved, but the Sudanese government was not interested in losing easy money. In order to smuggle them out, the Mossad agents posed as hoteliers, actually running a resort, to remove Ethiopians by sea, toward a waiting Israeli Navy Seal ship.

The crew is run by Ari (a bearded Chris Evans), a reckless agent known for running into danger without a plan for getting out. Always by his side, the very courageous local Kabede (Michael Kenneth Williams), for whom this is not a mission but very simply life.

Anyway, I callously poked fun at the casting of Captain America in this film, but it is a genuine problem. Not Chris Evans per se – he’s fine. He’s just too identifiably heroic, and the camera knows it. The story is infatuated with the idea of this rescue mission and it pumps up the hero aspect to 11 while disregarding their humanity. We know the group’s Black Widow (ie, only female component, played by Haley Bennett) is a mother and that she has left her child(ren?) behind for months or years in order to help save strangers but literally nothing is made of it. Who is she? How does she cope? How do the kids? Where are the kids? Ari is also a father, with an ex-wife who is already tired of his bullshit before this story even begins. His backstory is almost as empty as Black Widow’s, but his guilt is exculpated by a crayon drawing that implies his daughter forgives him for his repeated abandonment. What I’m saying is: the Avengers are super heroes who are just doing their jobs. In this case, the Mossad agents are real people with real loved ones and lives back home that they’ve sacrificed in order to save people, not from Loki or Ultron or Thanos, but from genocide, a less-glamourous, real-world problem that most people look away from. But the movie takes the one thing that it’s got going for it and ignores it almost completely.

Okay, scrub that: the film had 2 potential things going for it – the heroes, sure, but also the victims. Because these Ethiopian refugees are perhaps the true heroes of this story, and maybe any story. I’ve always thought that, as bloated as End Game was, the only story I was really interested in is the one they never told – that of normal people on Earth, those left behind by the snap, and those who disappeared because of it. What is their experience? Such a global, world-shifting event deserves some story-telling but never got any (they failed to even really touch on it in Spiderman Far From Home, disappointingly). But in this case, the Ethiopians escape with little else besides their lives, and know they are lucky to have that much. Many are missing children and spouses and parents. Many will lose more along the arduous journey, only to end up in a crowded, unhygienic camp where their bodies are worth money to their captors, so they are given just barely the means to stay alive. And that’s only half the trip: next they’re going to smuggled past armed check points, onto rubber rafts, and raced through the choppy waves of the Red Sea onto vessels that will sail them into a new life, one so different as to be unimaginable from their straw hut lives in Ethiopia. Now that’s a story. But by all means let’s eschew that for more of Michiel Huisman in a speedo.

So yeah, The Red Sea Diving Resort fails to overcome the same tired old tropes. It feels like a compilation of other movies you’ve already seen, but not a best-of compilation, more like a cross-section of the just-okay bits. Which is a weird compilation, I’ll grant you that. Who’d want to watch it? Not me. Not really. Not even for a bearded Chris Evans, still very much in Captain America mode.

Stockholm

An American cowboy criminal flies to Sweden to host their first hostage situation. I mean, I don’t think he’s particularly interested in setting precedents, which is funny, because as you might have gleaned from the title, he’s about to create a situation that’ll become famous enough to named after it.

Lars Nystrom (Ethan Hawke) holds up a bank in Stockholm, but he doesn’t rob it. Instead, he uses it as leverage to have old buddy Gunnar Sorenson (Mark Strong) released from prison. On a roll, he throws in some extras, like a million dollars cash, bullet-proof vests, and a getaway car – standard bank robber demands. The dude doesn’t have an original bone in his body. He’s also not a planner: he asks specifically for a Mustang, and as someone who has not one but two of them in the driveway, I can tell you, you aren’t fitting hostages in that backseat. It’s a two-door car. When you’re running from the law, you don’t have precious minutes to waste trying to fold up grown-ups into a non-existent backseat.

But anyway. Lars has taken a couple of lovely ladies hostage, which is the kind he prefers. And also a dude, who hid rather than evacuated.

Stockholm syndrome is a condition which causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors during captivity. Sure it’s strictly irrational, but fear and stress and tension do create a rather specific kind of intimacy. Hostages and hostage-takers may feel like they’ve been through something together. It’s a form of bonding, in a weird way. It doesn’t make sense, but trauma does fucked up things sometimes. Stockholm syndrome is a fucked up thing.

Why would bank teller, wife, and mother Bianca (Noomi Rapace) bond with her captor? Perhaps partly because the cops seem inept. They’re not doing enough to save her and the others. The Prime Minister is not allowing the robbers to leave with hostages, and so they stay, festering in the bank.

Ethan Hawke and Noomi Rapace give terrific performances, but they’re stunted by a script that fails to do justice to the real events it portrays. Egregiously, it fails to sell the syndrome that gives it its title. I never felt a strong bond between captor and captives, certainly not one that would justify the three hostages not only refusing to testify, but fundraising for the dude’s defense. I rarely felt connected to anyone, or moved by anyone and I never felt any definitive chemistry between the characters either. This is not merely a missed opportunity, but supposedly the whole point of the movie, and it’s delivered so weakly it may as well not exist. I will not and cannot recommend what was ultimately a disappointment.