In nearly every church staging of the nativity story, some beatific, well-behaved little girl is cast as Mary, some lucky boy as her Joseph, and then about 30 of their friends as various sheep and camels and goats and whatnot (in Love Actually, Emma Thompson is surprised to learn there was not just one lobster but several, plus an octopus and a Spider-Man) – the point is, there are lots of kids and very few roles, so they’ve always been padded out with the animal brethren likely to be hanging around a manger.
In this particular retelling of the nativity story, the humans take a back seat to the animals; for once, they’re the stars, especially a brave young miniature donkey named Bo (Steven Yeun). Bo dreams about being in the royal caravan but in fact is locked up in a mill grinding grain all day. His buddy Dave, a dove (Keegan-Michael Key), eggs him on.
Meanwhile, Mary (Gina Rodriguez) and Joseph (Zachary Levi) are celebrating their wedding feast and about to have a VERY awkward conversation. Boy is she relieved when a wayward runaway donkey crashes the party and gives her a few minutes’ reprieve. Anyway, eventually she and Joseph start their trek to Bethlehem and Bo and Dave find a helpful sheep named Ruth (Aidy Bryant) to lead the way and help Bo with a Lassie moment.
Meanwhile, a trio camels (Tyler Perry, Oprah, Tracy Morgan) belonging to the three wisemen are also having a moment trying to get their human cargo to a baby foretold by the stars.
Every nativity scene you’ve ever seen has a donkey. Now you’ll actually appreciate him.
The Star is actually a charming little movie full of big voice talent and quirky little moments to make your season bright.
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.
Sarah (Diane Lane) comes from a big family, and they’ve all gathered in her kitchen to humiliate her. And by humiliate her, I mean that they’re throwing an intervention. That makes it sound like a party, I suppose, and it is most decidedly not. Nor is it quite as serious as it sounds. They’re not trying to send her to rehab. They’re trying to relaunch her back into the dating world after a devastating divorce. It doesn’t work – at least, not until she accidentally answers her own father’s personal ad. That’s a new low, as you can imagine. So maybe now she’s open to it. Ish. Her sister makes her a dating profile with quasi-consent (a good time to remind you that this movie was released in 2005).
Meanwhile, across town, a boat builder named Jake (John Cusack) is also newly on the market with a bruised heart that’s still trickling blood. He’s also got a friend/divorce attorney pushing him into the internet dating thing, and that’s how they wind up meeting – at a dog park, each with a borrowed canine friend. The date is shaky; Jake is so nervous he can’t stop insulting Sarah. Their next date has crazy beautiful moments of connection and chemistry, and then terrible lows that radiate awkwardness. So there’s wiggle room for a guy like Bobby (Dermot Mulroney) to enter the picture and sweep Sarah off her feet with his smooth technique. Dramaaaaa!
Anyway, it’s nice to see a rom-com for the middle aged. For the sad-sacks post divorce. For the cynics and the chronically depressed. And yet it still manages to charm. Of course, you might hope for a little more from two grown-ups who have loved and lost. You’d hope they’d have grown, that they’d have some insights. That they’d be better at this. And they’re really not.
Must Love Dogs should have Loved Rewrites. There’s nothing in here that you haven’t seen before. It’s not just that you see things coming from miles away – it’s that they’ve literally just traced a rom-com road map and hit up each and every landmark and rest stop along the way. And yet Lane and Cusack are just so good together. Never underestimate the likability of your leads.
I never got to write myself a dating profile, but even if I had, it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to write Must Love Dogs, even though that’s obviously true. And thank goodness I wasn’t able to cock-block myself, because Sean never would have answered such an ad. He grew up with cats. But my little puppy Herbie won him over. No surprise there: Herbie is a stud, he wins over everyone he meets. Sean is a harder sell, and yet he was surprisingly able to win over Herbie, which was the more important part of the equation. I’d only had Herbie about 4 months when I met Sean, but Herbie had already been subjected to quite a few gentlemen callers and let me tell you – he wasn’t impressed. He’d scowl and growl and generally do his best to look ornery and intimidating (he was a four pound fluff ball but in his mind he was a full-fledged hell hound). He kept his eye on Sean for a bit, but he made it clear they were friends. That said, Herbie will never let Sean forget that it’s me and Herbie who are the original members of this household, and Sean’s just lucky we let him in the club. Now we have 3 more dogs because we can’t get enough. And this movie definitely put me in the mood for more. I mean, a gentle wind can put me in the mood for more. I Do Love Dogs! But I live in a city where the bylaws actually state that acquiring a fifth animal would force me to declare myself a farm. And as much as I Super Duper Love Dogs, it seems like a lot of hassle. Or…is it maybe a little bit of hassle and an excellent tax write off? Or a medium amount of hassle and a whole lot more love in my life? Or quite a bit of hassle but a good excuse to buy cute cowboy boots? Or a heck of a lot of hassle that I can offload on Sean, and simply reap the rewards of puppy love while outsourcing the work?
Although this may be my favourite film in the universe, I have never been brave enough to attempt a review. The last time I was at Disney World, I was tickled to bring home a piece of the film – a pencil drawing signed by the artist, of Carl and Ellie as goofy, gap-toothed, be-goggled kids. I liked the drawing so much I had it tattooed on my shoulder. I have a grape soda pin so I can also be part of the club. I have an adventure book that is filled to bursting with our travels. It’s safe to say I’ve had a love affair with this movie, and with Carl and Ellie, who are not unlike Sean and Jay – he mostly silent, she effervescent, talkative enough for two. Though we have not experienced the heartbreak of miscarriage (which has got to be the most poignant, most difficult, most gut-wrenching scene in any cartoon in the history of the world), we are in the same way just a couple of explorers looking to get lost in the world.
Carl and Ellie are brilliantly animated in that his body is basically square, and hers is basically round. Everything around them mimics their distinct shapes. Carl’s recliner is square, while Ellie’s chair is round. His glasses are square, and hers are oval. It’s only when we meet a villain that we start to see triangles. Sean is a definite tall drink of rectangle himself, and I am the round little sausage beside him.
Recently widowed, Carl is also facing the loss of his home; pushy developers want him out, and he’s the last holdout in his neighbourhood. Carl isn’t ready for Shady Oaks Retirement Village, but it doesn’t look like he has much choice, so he breaks out the only weapon left in his arsenal: a tank or 3000 of helium (Pixar estimates he’d need between 12 and 25 million balloons to actually do the trick; they’ve animated 10286). Carl sets his sights for Paradise Falls, the destination he and Ellie always meant to visit but never did.
[Sidebar: Roughly 5 years ago, Sean and I were on a cruise in the Bahamas, and we were taking a shuttle van toward some excursion. There was an elderly couple also in the van, the old man riding shotgun needing several little hops before he made it into the passenger seat, and his wife sitting beside me in the mid section. They were very excited to finally be taking this dream vacation, and the old guy advised Sean on how to properly live his life, ie, by saving diligently so that he could afford to take me to the Bahamas when we were retired. Never mind that we were already in the Bahamas. Only come to find out, his was was actually his second wife, and the poor wife who had responsibly saved her pennies her whole life had passed before earning her reward. This has always struck me as the ultimate tragedy; perhaps it hits close to home because with my disability due to autoimmune disease, I likely have a vastly shortened lifespan. That’s why Sean and I are always traveling. That’s why we’re in Disney World right now, just a month after Mexico, because I’ll be damned if I let his second wife get the Bahamas trip. Bitch.]
Anyway, the one thing Carl doesn’t account for is a stowaway. Wilderness Explorer
Russell has been trying to earn his “assisting the elderly” badge, and just happened to be on or under Carl’s porch when the house took off. Russell is unaccountably adorable, and when you pair him with super dog Dug, the effect is positively cuteness overload. Dug wears a dog-to-English translator, so we know he says things like “I have just met you, and I love you” and that’s exactly what a dog WOULD say! This movie is Jay kryptonite. It murders me right in the emotions.
So you can imagine the puddle of feels I’ll be when I meet Russell at Disney World. In fact, I already have – and Dug, too. But since I’ve been, they’ve added UP! A Great Bird Adventure (presumably after Kevin, the infamous snipe), so I’ll be trying to keep it together in the front row in my pretty Up dress. Yes, I’m a sucker. A sucker for love. And for doing second-wife stuff during my first-wife tenure.
Laura is making her therapist proud by making and enforcing some strong, much-needed boundaries with her father. She’s also lying to her therapist about plenty of things, including the actual number of rescue animals currently residing in her home, and in her purse on the floor of the therapist’s office. But Laura’s father Jack is very good at testing boundaries, and right now, he’s a man in need. His retirement residence is kicking him out, and if Laura is unprepared to house him in the home she shares with her teenage son Henry, the least she can do is drive him cross-country to her sister’s home in L.A.. Right?
Laura (Vera Farmiga) loves her son, and her pets, and against all odds, her father. Her son is a sensitive, gym-hating, naked-picture-drawing type (Lewis MacDougall) who’s just been permanently expelled from school. Her rescued pets are a rag-tag, flea-ridden circus of mange, as pathetic as they are cute. Her dad (Christopher Plummer) is a drug dealer and a rapscallion through and through, and terminally charming.
The cast works together as a dysfunctional unit. Director Shana Feste puts together a trio that doesn’t seem like a natural fit but somehow it works – perhaps because they’re all sort of loners in their way, much like the abandoned animals they pick up along the way, and they find a reluctant companionship that turns into some genuine, heartening chemistry onscreen. Toss in a dash of Bobby Cannavale, a splash of Christopher Lloyd (and Christopher Lloyd’s balls, as Farmiga was quick to recall, and not without a blush), and sprinkling of Peter Fonda…my goodness, it’s a bowl of mixed nuts, more salty than sweet, but it went down mighty well.
I saw this at SXSW when I’d also just seen You Can Choose Your Family, and made me think: good lord, these directors have daddy issues. But I guess all art comes out of some frustration, some need to prove something to someone. But since father issues are nearly universal, I suppose these films feel at once familiar but also just removed enough that we can laugh at them, enjoy a moment of catharsis because someone else has it just a little tougher than you. Collectively the audience will laugh, and will emit a sigh of relief for having survived this awkward family trip.
In 1973, masked men kidnapped a teenager off the streets of Rome. He was the favourite American grandson of J. Paul Getty, the richest man in the world. Nobody gets that rich by being nice, and Getty is not. And of all the shitty things he is, miserly is one of them. You don’t get to be a billionaire by spending your money, after all. So when the kidnappers demand $17 million for him, Getty refuses. “Very little in life is worth paying full price for” he says, but he doesn’t plan to negotiate, he plans on just not paying. “It’s an awful lot of money for such a young boy.” But you can imagine how well that goes over with Junior’s mother.
JPG III, 16 at the time of his kidnapping, has a strong-willed mother, Gail, and thank god. But Gail (Michelle Williams) has no money of her own and no access to her former father-in-law’s fortune. Getty (Christopher Plummer) is pretty set in his ways, and to avoid dealing with his mouthy daughter-in-law, he sends his “security guy” Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to do the dealing for him. But will this weird and uneasy alliance be enough to save Junior (Charlie Plummer, no relation)? If you were alive at the time you likely already know the answer.
If you’re alive right now and not willfully burrowing under some very thick boulders, you’ve probably heard that Kevin Spacey was originally tapped to play Getty Senior. Spacey’s creepy past caught up with him just a month before this film was to be released, which left producers scrambling. Ultimately, director Ridley Scott decided to reshoot Getty’s 22 scenes with another actor who had read for the part, Christopher Plummer. They filmed for 10 days and then frantically re-edited, and what results is a role for which Plummer received an Oscar nomination. Mark Wahlberg had costar approval built into his contract, and he refused to approve Plummer unless he got paid an additional $1.5M to come in for the reshoots. This eventually blew up in his face when it was reported that Michelle Williams only received her per diem of $800 per day. Wahlberg ended up donating the $1.5M to the #TimesUp campaign to stem the backlash. It’s fair to say this movie was under a lot of scrutiny before it was ever released, and I admit I wondered if Plummer’s nomination was perhaps just a reward to the film’s production crew for so quickly doing the right thing, but now I just think it unfairly overshadowed what is indeed an Oscar-worthy performance – by Michelle Williams.
All The Money In The World obviously has a lot to say about the soul-suckingness of money, at its centre is an old man with a corroded heart, but Christopher Plummer manages to play him with just a touch of warmth, which is an interesting surprise. There’s a compelling story here with great acting (with the exception of Wahlberg, who isn’t so much bad as just useless, extraneous), but the movie is just a little muddled (and a little fond of unadorned exposition). It flits between genres – family drama, crime, thriller. At its core though it’s really about this epic tug-of-war between a frantic mother and a cold grandfather, the struggle between love and money, and that’s a story that never gets old.
My bosom is glowing. That’s what we used to call boobies when I was little: bosoms. Pronounced bazooms, of course. My grandmother told us that eating our sandwich crusts would result in big bazooms and I gobbled mine up greedily, and those of my sisters, if they left them.
Is it a digression if I lead with it? Back to my glowing bosom, which is a line I lifted from the movie itself. It’s the story of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol. He’d gotten a taste of success with Oliver Twist and was determined to live henceforth like a gentleman, but his next three attempts were flops – poorly reviewed, scarcely read. He was really under the gun to write his next best-seller and you know what pressure does to a writer: it blocks him. He pitched a vague idea for a Christmas ghost story to publisher and was laughed right out of the office, Christmas being a “minor” holiday and all. He determined to self-publish and gave himself the daunting deadline of just 6 weeks hence – a release just barely in time for Christmas. The only problem aside from funding was that not a word had been written.
The film follows Dickens (Dan Stevens) on his frantic quest to write a wildly popular novel without the merest hint of a concrete idea. He agonizes over the creation of characters and then is haunted by them, literally. Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) mocks his attempts and grumbles when he isn’t given enough lines, or enough good lines. Dicken’s father (Jonathan Pryce) is visiting and provides constant distraction. If you have even a passing knowledge of A Christmas Carol, it’s kind of fascinating to watch its author draw inspiration from his own life and everything around him, turning ordinary things into ideas that have permeated our culture and helped to define how we celebrate our holidays. While director Bharat Nalluri of course takes some dramatic license, the spirit of the thing is largely accurate.
Dan Stevens is well-cast as Dickens, and it gives me great pains to send any praise his way because I’ve always held a grudge for how he treated Lady Mary when he left Downton Abbey the way he did. But in The Man Who Invented Christmas, he brings Dickens alive, a man for whom his characters were more alive to him than his own loved ones, and though Scrooge et al literally do speak to him (and offer criticism), his genius and vivid imagination are not to be discounted. But if the film merely existed to give us Christopher Plummer as Scrooge, that alone would be enough. About to celebrate his 88th birthday, the man still has performance in his bones. He won his first Oscar at the age of 82 for Beginners, and it is possibly not his last – he’s got 4 movies in various phases of production, including his hasty replacement of Kevin Spacey in Ridley Scott’s All The Money in the World. This movie is a perfect example of why Plummer is still in demand. He turns an invented character into a real, flesh and blood man.
Shane Acker made a short, 10 minute film called 9 while he was still a student at UCLA. One wild ride later, it was nominated for Best Animated Short at the Oscars. It didn’t win, but it sure didn’t lose: Acker was offered the opportunity to expand his beloved short into a feature film, and this is it.
Although 9 is an animated film, it may not be appropriate for kids. It’s got a PG-13 rating and it is, frankly, dark. It’s set in a dystopian future in which man and machine have gone to war and likely both have lost. Only dust and destruction are left. And these dolls. They’re clearly sewed together with scraps of material and inexpert stitches, made from whatever parts are lying around but somehow injected with pieces of human souls; they’re all that’s left of humanity.
The machines that are still terrorizing them were born of the same scientist who sewed the dolls. They were made with good intentions but an evil chancellor corrupted them. This chancellor has shades of Hitler to him, and there are Nazi references throughout the film.
9 (Elijah Wood), the 9th doll sewn by the scientist, is prepared to die for humanity’s salvation, but he has to convince the 8 others (Christopher Plummer, Jennifer Connelly, and John C. Reilly among them) to join him.
The film definitely has an edge to it, criticizing our blind pursuit of progress. The film’s pitting of the simplest toy against complex machinery is pointed. That said, haven’t we seen this before? Like a million billion times? Perhaps something else could threaten us for a while? Technology is our undoing: we get it. And we’re not going to do a damn thing about it. Acker’s film is beautiful. His post-apocalyptic vision is too tempting to ignore, but I do wish there was a little more meat and a little more originality to go along with it. Maybe this one should have stayed a short.
So begins Day 4 of my trip to the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s 9:30 in the morning and I’ve already seen 9 films and am worried that TIFF fatigue may be setting in. How much enthusiasm ccan I possibly muster up in four days?
If I didn’t have such high hopes for the latest film from Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Herafter), I probably would have been more tempted to sleep in. Unfortunately, the trailer and write-up on the festival’s website had really caught my attention. I was not disappointed.
Egoyan specifically asked us to write spoiler-free reviews, which I have to admit made me feel pretty special to be getting a direct appeal from such a respected filmmaker so I want to respect his wishes. I can tell you that Christopher Plummer plays Zev, a Holocaust survivor who is now living in a nursing home. With his memory beginning to incline, he has no choice but to follow the mysterious Max (Martin Landau)’s step-by-step instructions to escape from the home and track down and exact vengence on the former Auschwitz guard who murdered both their families over 70 years ago.
Remember works equally well as a thriller as psychological thriller as it does meditation on memory and trauma. There are elements throughout the film that you may have seen before but the creative casting of the 85 year-old Plummer as the lead keeps the story from ever feeling too derivative.
For those who like a little Kids with Cancer with their heist movies, John Travolta’s latest may be for you.
Travolta plays Raymond Cutter, a skilled art forger who, upon learning that his teenage son is terminally ill, begs his old crime boss to pull some strings to get him released from prison with only months left to go on his sentence. Of course, nothing’s free in these kinds of movies and his boos wants something in return: forge me a Monet and steal me the real one. Not an easy task under the best of times but even harder when you’re trying to bond with your estranged sick son and your estranged Dad at the same time.
I had a short conversation with Khalid from The Blazing Reel last week about Travolta’s many questionable choices but I was amazed when watching The Forger how bad things really have gotten for him. I’m amazed that this wasn’t a straight-to DVD release. As I implied in my opening paragraph, the pairing of the sick kid family drama and caper picture feels awkward and a little crass. Travolta, as well as Christopher Plummer and Tye Sheridan (who play Travolta’s father and son), really seem to be trying but the family drama really doesn’t give them much to work with. Cutter spends most of his bonding time with his son by taking him to see a prostitute and teaching him to forge paintings. The father-son story takes up so much of the film’s running time that little time is left over for the planning and execution of the heist itself, which is pretty much rushed through at the end.
Still, I can’t claim indifference. I found myself wanting things to work out for these three characters. Knowing that Travolta himself has lost a son made it impossible for me to write off the story as completely trite. Unfortunately, there’s just not a single new twist or idea to be found in this movie that tries to be two movies without delivering on either one.