Tag Archives: Daveed Diggs

The Starling

Lilly and Jack Maynard are going through hell. Their baby girl died about a year ago, and Jack (Chris O’Dowd) has suffered a break down, attempted suicide, and has been hanging out in a psychiatric hospital ever since, unable to shake his depression. His wife Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) gardens. She works too, and commutes to visit her husband, and takes care of the house, and generally does her best to get on with a life that imploded around her.

The Starling is about finding that little spark, that one reason to keep going when everything feels impossible, even if it means leaving everything else, or someone else, behind.

Melissa McCarthy does wonderful work as a childless mother, an almost widow, a woman who is dangerously untethered but deprived of the usual expressions of grief. With her husband casting himself as primary mourner, Lilly’s left to grasp at the leftovers, never one to ask for much. Yet she, too, is in pain. And that pain always manifests itself one way or another. Nothing stays buried forever. But with the help of an aggressive bird and a sagacious veterinarian (Kevin Kline), Lilly is reminded that all we need is a little hope. Hope is everywhere, it can be so small, tiny even, found sometimes in the strangest and most unexpected of places, but the trick is: you have to be open to it.

Director Theodore Melfi takes on the greatest loss that we know as humans: that of a child. We can intuitively understand that such a loss opens up a sink hole of sadness, but unless we’ve been sucked down ourselves, it’s impossible to truly understand its depths. What’s more, we don’t have any practical advice for pulling someone out. It must be terrifying to be down there, and even scarier when a couple falls down separate holes. But despite this heaviest of topics, The Starling has an uplifting momentum, thanks in part to a wonderful cast, and of course the indominable spirit of woman.

The Starling is an official TIFF 2021 selection.

It is scheduled to be released in a limited theatre run on September 17, 2021, prior to streaming on Netflix on September 24, 2021.

Soul

Joe (Jamie Foxx) has jazz music in his soul and zero dollars in his bank account. His mother likes to brutally remind him of this little fact, and push him toward accepting a permanent position as a middle school music teacher. Just as he’s about to capitulate, an old student calls to offer him a wildly exciting opportunity to play with the wonderful Dorothea Williams. Ms. Williams (Angela Bassett) is impressed with his jazzing, and he’s engaged to play with her later that evening. But he doesn’t make it to later that evening; he dies on his way home.

Understandably, his soul panics on the way to heaven, and he decides to buck the system, running away from heaven or the great beyond or whatever you want to call it, but unable to get back to Earth/life. He hides out in a mentorship program instead, posing as a mentor soul assigned to help new souls find their spark. Soul #22 (Tina Fey) has been mentored by the very best for eons but has yet to find her spark. In fact, she expects that life is kind of a buzzkill, and she’s actively resisting it. Joe runs through all the obvious things like music and food, but it’s not until they sneak back down to Earth that things really start to gel for her. Of course, it probably helps that she can finally experience things in a human body, one that moves to music and tastes food and is delighted by the strange wonders of the human world. One small hiccup: in the melee, 22 took over Joe’s body, and Joe’s soul…ended up in a cat. Joe is desperate to make the Dorothea gig, but what use is it if he’s a cat? And 22 is deeply distracted by pretty much every single thing she encounters. She’s finally found her spark, but the problem is, she kind of promised it to Joe. You need a spark to get to Earth permanently, and taking 22’s is Joe’s only option. And until very recently, 22 had no use for a spark and no interest in life. She promised it freely. But now…well, what if 22 wants it too?

This movie is beautiful and tragic because life is beautiful and tragic. It is everything you want from a movie and nothing you expect from a cartoon – except it’s Pixar, so you dare to hope. They’ve done it before. They’ve done it again.

In talking about death, Soul is actually discussing how to live. Joe believes that his life will be fulfilled by achieving his dream of performing jazz, but 22 teaches him there’s plenty of pleasure and wonder to be found in simply living, in taking the time to look, listen, and learn. 22’s naivety and newness to the world inspires Joe to slow down and take a look around as well.

Directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers are not afraid to embrace the surreal and the intangible when examining the life well-lived, or to ask children to engage in a little introspection. A simple premise allows for a wonderful complexity of ideas embodying Joe’s existential crisis – which may be putting it mildly considering he’s dead and doesn’t want to be. But this spiritual scrutiny is able to include both the joy and the sadness, the fear, regret, obsession, insecurity, and the inspiration, ambition, passion, and life-affirming facets of personal philosophy because Pixar’s trademark playfulness makes it all feel non-threatening and really rather fun.

The voices are well-cast, the entities are well-designed, the movie looks amazing, but most important, it just feels good. It feels right, it feels warm, it feels like a hug from your past self to your future self, and I can’t think of a more perfect (cinematic) way to end the year.

Hamilton (!!!!!!!!) (exclamations my own)

However much you thought I was looking forward to seeing Hamilton on Disney+, double it. Then cube it. Then add 10 000 more. Then halve it. Then times it by 13.24 million billion. Then you’d at least be within a three planet range of my excitement supernova.

Hamilton: the hit Broadway play that no one could ever get tickets to, and now you don’t have to! I mean, still do, if you haven’t already. There’s an electric current to a live performance that streaming can’t quite replicate – but this one sure comes the closest. This is not a film adaptation of a play, it is the stage performance itself, taped in front of a live audience, with so many cameras and angles and microphones even Lin-Manuel Miranda’s own mother can’t get seats this good.

Miranda disrupted Broadway with his follow-up to the very well-received In The Heights. Hamilton is a very old story told in a very fresh way. American founding father Alexander Hamilton is perhaps not the most enthusiastically remembered by history, but Miranda gives just cause for his placement among the greats, and pays tribute to him with his own unique blend of culture, politics, and song. The actors portraying contemporaries such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are from diverse backgrounds, representative of today’s American population, and reflective of the period’s influx of immigrants. The costumes are relatively period-appropriate, with just a kiss of the modern to still feel true to the hip-hop-heavy numbers.

The original Broadway cast appears on stage, performing together one last time before many of them dispersed to other projects (the musical itself of course lives on, or it did before COVID darkened Broadway’s lights). This show was so electrifying that it blew up every single person in the cast – making the likes of Daveed Diggs, Anthony Ramos, Leslie Odom Jr., Jasmine Cephas Jones, and Renée Elise Goldsberry household names, or pretty near. Certainly they were the toast of Manhattan and all have continued to find fame and fortune beyond the shadow cast by Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda is chief among them of course, tapped by the folks at Disney to write songs for Moana, and to co-star in Mary Poppins Returns.

Disney was so exuberant about Hamilton that it paid a record-setting $75 million for its distribution rights, and set it for a fall 2021 release. However, COVID-19 reared its contagious head, shutting down stage and cinema alike. So Disney made the decision to bring Hamilton to the people, and Miranda made family viewing possible by sacrificing two of his 3 f-bombs (only half of one remains, the f word started and implied but not completed).

Hamilton is such a startling and tasty treat it simply must be seen. Director Thomas Kail makes sure this film feels just as vital and urgent as any live performance. The actors, having rehearsed their roles on Broadway for an entire year before filming in 2016, are at the very tops of their game; besides Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Phillipa Soo, Jonathan Groff, Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson, and Renee Elise Goldsberry all earned Tony nominations. Of its unprecedented 16 nominations, Hamilton won 11, including, of course, Best Musical. And it really is.

Velvet Buzzsaw

Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) is an art agent in the midst of losing Piers, an old, established artist who may be on his way out, but gaining Damrish, an up and coming artist with fresh talent and obligations elsewhere.

Piers (John Malkovish) is a successful artist who fears his best days are behind him now that he’s sober.

Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) is the agent who’s just stolen Piers away, and is about to discover how little output there’s been.

Damrish (Daveed Diggs) is the hot, new artist, living and showing on the street just 6 months ago, about to become the next celebrity artist.

Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is Rhodora’s protegee who finds a way of wriggling out from under her shadow when she discovers the work of an unknown artist, which is an instant success.

Gretchen (Toni Collette) is a museum curator sick of always losing the best pieces to wealthy clients, so she’s lined up a new job as a private buyer and is in search of the perfect, undiscovered piece.

Bryson (Billy Magnussen) is the gallery’s handyman, and also a struggling, jealous artist himself.

Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) is god of them all, an art critic who can make or break careers.

Velvet Buzzsaw’s art world is shook by the new paintings acquired by Josephina. SHOOK. Everyone’s falling over themselves, not to mention crossing and backstabbing each MV5BYWJiMGM1ZGQtYzMwMC00YzQ0LWJlZTUtZTNlOGY3NDE3OTMxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODEwMTc2ODQ@._V1_other, to get a piece of the pie. But the thing about this art is that it’s angry. In fact, some sort of supernatural force is exacting revenge on anyone who’s too mercenary. If you’ve let greed guide your hand, you’re in trouble. And who of the above has clean hands? I’d be very, very nervous if I was them. There’s a great deal to be nervous about as a viewer as well. Tension is layered on thicker than gouache on canvas. The film is dark and atmospheric by nature, and director Dan Gilroy heightens things at just the right moments, making the viewing experience deliciously uncomfortable at times. It’s unlikely that criticism and capitalism will escape the ghost’s judgment, which is brutal and bloody and ruthless.

The last time director Dan Gilroy teamed up with Jake Gyllenhaal, they produced Nightcrawler. You can’t blame the film community for wetting itself over this new movie, even if we’re also justifiably a little concerned about Gilroy’s more recent work, Roman J. Esquire, which was much less fantastic. Velvet Buzzsaw is somewhere in the middle, well, not just somewhere – definitely closer to Nightcrawler on the spectrum, which I’m happy to report. It’s a little uneven, the dialogue a little clunky sometimes, but the visuals don’t just make up for it – they’re unforgettable (Nightcrawler’s visionary cinematographer Robert Elswit is back, and primal as ever). A horror in technicolour! Not to mention the team of talent that pulls together this satire-horror hybrid and makes it pulse with urgency and vitality. Jake Gyllenhaal is of course the standout, bold and unwavering.

Velvet Buzzsaw isn’t everything I wish it was, but it’s a distinct piece of cinema and a real coup for Netflix.

 

SXSW: Blindspotting

So by now you know we’re in Austin, Texas for the almighty SXSW (South By Southwest, or “South By” for short) film festival (and comedy, music, gaming, plus TONNES of crazy cool conferences and networking for professionals from around the world), and we’ve seen some really cool, high profile movies like A Quiet Place, Blockers, and Ready Player One (which was a secret screening we got into by the skin of our teeth). Did we flip out to watch Ready Player One WITH Steven Spielberg? Of course we did. Did we visit the taco place recommended by Emily Blunt? You bet. But all of those movies will eventually get big theatre releases. They’re not the reason we come to film festivals. We come to festivals to see the little guys, movies that might otherwise get overlooked. In the age of Netflix, our chances of those movies being available to us are actually better than ever, but you need to hear about them in order to look them up, and we take pride in being a part of that process.

That said, Blindspotting isn’t exactly low profile; it played at Sundance earlier this year and audiences and critics came away buzzing. While Sean sat in an incredibly long line for Ready Player One (and that theatre reaching capacity two and a half hours before the screening start time!), I had a much cushier seat inside a theatre, watching a movie that just blew me away.

Written by and starring Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, it’s about some very current issues in Oakland California. Collin (Diggs) served a short term in prison and is serving MV5BMjk4YmVjMDUtZjJiZC00ODI2LTk4NDctMzRkNmYzNjA0YmM0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1642,1000_AL_his year of probation, with just 3 days left. Can he survive the next three days without any thing going wrong? The chances of that are increasingly unlikely when, while driving home before curfew one night, a young black man nearly slams into his truck at a deserted intersection. Relieved to have avoided a serious accident, Collin is unprepared for what happens next: a white cop, giving chase, pulls out his gun and shoots the man 4 times in the back, killing him.

So for the next 3 days, Collin suffers the PTSD resulting from witnessing that kind of violence, but in his neighbourhood, you’re not exactly allowed to show fear. In fact, projecting this tough guy image is maybe what got him in trouble in the first place. His best friend in the whole world, Miles (Casal), is always there for him, but he’s also always causing trouble. And though they’re both Oakland natives, born and bred, when the cops show up to break up the trouble, Collin knows that they’re more likely to blame and\or shoot him, the black guy, than Miles, who is white.

This film, directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada, takes an unflinching look at race. They understand that you can’t talk about race without mentioning the environment, which is rapidly gentrifying, or the culture, which is splitting. Everything intersects with class and opportunity and it makes for some complicated themes that the writers have unraveled a bit with hip hop, or spoken word poetry if you will, which is actually how Diggs and Casal met, at a program for at risk youth in Oakland. The script born out of their friendship and shared experience is truly genius, and makes for a movie experience that literally had  me pushed back in my seat, gulping in admiration. This movie is a cultural powder keg that the world needs right now; it’s a touch-stone that will be remembered for decades in the future as a film that really spoke not just to its time, but to the people living in it.

But please don’t think for a single minute that this film is some boring piece of art that is merely ‘important’ – it’s also wildly fun to watch, funny and thrilling and bursting with energy. Visually, it’s a love letter of sorts to Oakland. But it’s not the kind of film that pretends to have all the answers. With so many issues raised, all Blindspotting can do is point them out, and trust us to do the rest, which is a kind of self-assurance I don’t expect from a first-time film maker, but there’s a deep well of talent here, one that deserves to be tapped, so I hope I’ve inspired you to seek this one out.

Wonder

Auggie is a very special little boy. Born with a genetic condition called Treacher Collins syndrome, Auggie’s facial deformities are the least threatening of the complications but they’re what make him look so different. He’s most comfortable when he’s wearing an astronaut helmet that keep prying eyes and hurtful comments at bay. For the first ten years of his life he’s had countless surgeries and has been schooled at home, but he’s about to start middle school for real, and a classroom of students is more daunting to him (and his mom) than any operating room.

Wonder is based on the wonderful YA novel by R.J. Palacio, which you should, should, should definitely, definitely read. But happily, this is a rare case where the movie does MV5BMTIwOTUwNTEtYzMwNS00N2YxLTg0ZWYtNzM0YzVjOWYwZWM5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjg5NDY3Mw@@._V1_SY1000_SX1500_AL_the book justice. And even happilier, the movie doesn’t suck, period, which was a major concern of mine. It seemed far too easy to just let it coast on its sentimentality. But while director Stephen Chbosky doesn’t have a lengthy track record to ease my worrisome nature, he does have one credit under his belt that’s all I really needed to hear: he adapted and directed The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which he’d also penned.

Wonder is a much different beast, however. First, it necessarily involves casting the perfect but very young star. A bad child actor in a lead role will ruin the whole thing, and in this case you have to find someone who can convey a whole range of complicated emotions from underneath a mask of scars. Chbosky went with Jacob Tremblay who’s already proven his chops with the most trying and powerful of roles in Room; Chbosky calls him “a once-in-a-generation talent” and I think he may be right. But we can’t discount the fact that Chbosky surrounds Tremblay with talent.

The secret to Wonder’s success, both in novel and in film, is that yes, it tells the story from the perspective of a sweet and brave 10 year old boy who’s been through hell and is still going through it. BUT it also shares the stories of the people around him. His mother Isabel (Julia Roberts) has had to pause life itself in order to become his warrior. His father Nate (Owen Wilson) copes with humour and cries by himself. His big sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) feels like a mere planet revolving around Auggie, the sun. A disease like Auggie’s is a family affair, energy-stealing, all-encompassing, leaving no one unaffected. And no one likes to complain about that because it seems petty in the face of something life-threatening, but it’s true and Palacio’s book as well as Chbosky’s film really add legitimacy to a family suffering as a unit. Even Auggie’s only friend isn’t untouched – being his friend is a social sacrifice most 10 year olds won’t be strong enough to make. Another formidable young actor, Suburbicon‘s Noah Jupe, lands and aces this role.

Wonder is not about the suffering though; that would be too easy. It’s about overcoming that suffering, in ways that are clunky and ungraceful and sometimes accidental. That’s why Auggie’s family seems so real, and why so many real families with sick kids can relate to the material. It’s emotionally raw stuff and you may find that it touches a nerve. But it’s got a takeaway message of positivity that’s irresistible, and will help justify the numerous soggy kleenexes in your lap.