Tag Archives: death and dying

TIFF19: Blackbird

Lily (Susan Sarandon) and Paul (Sam Neill) have called their loved ones over for a very important occasion – Lily’s death.

Oldest daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet) arrives first, early, with salt and pepper shakers, a gift she immediately questions, and regrets, but feels compelled to give anyway, and a cake she made from scratch, because that’s what she does. Husband Michael (Rainn Wilson) and son Jonathan (Anson Boon) trail in behind her, at a slight remove from her chipper wake. Younger daughter Anna (Mia Wasikowska) arrives late, of course, empty-handed and with meagre excuses for having missed the last several family gatherings. She’s accompanied by unexpected/uninvited Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus), her on-again/off-again girlfriend. Also on hand: Lily’s best friend and indeed lifelong family friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan). And that’s it. These are all the people Lily wants to say goodbye to before she takes her own life before an unnamed degenerative disease can do it for her, in a likely prolonged, painful, and undignified way.

Everyone knows of Lily’s intentions and everyone tries to put on a brave face despite their own personal feelings – for a while. Lily wants to revisit some old haunts, drink some good wine, host one last Christmas dinner (despite its not being Christmas), and give out some precious heirlooms while she’s still alive to see the recipient’s face. Lily is exceptionally happy to have this last time together, but she’s the only one who can truly enjoy it. Everyone else is just sort of grimly bearing it while having private breakdowns, until one wine-fueled dinner leads to all kinds of family secrets breaking open.

This movie isn’t going to win major awards or draw major box office. It’s a remake of the 2014 Danish film ‘Silent Heart’ which I have not seen. But despite it not being particularly ground-breaking or excellent film making, it is perhaps the single movie out of the 40 or so I saw at TIFF that I’ve thought about the most.

This family believes itself to be, prides itself on being, close-knit. And it might have gone on that way forever, untested, if not for this incredibly stressful time that they’re sharing. Surrounded by her family, Lily proclaims how proud she is of her daughters – a lovely sentiment that would normally be quite harmless, but in this pressure-cooker of a weekend, daughter Anna can’t help but wonder out loud if that can really be true if her mother’s really never known her. Not her true, inner self. And if you’re the introspective type of moviegoer, I suppose you can’t help but reflect on your own family situation. These people, who are supposed to know you and love you best, are often the source of the most conflict and pain. Your own mother, who made you and cooked you in her belly, who birthed you and bathed you and cared for you – does she know you? Do you hide any part of yourself from her? Are you comfortable knowing everything about her? Are any of us truly knowable by any other?

I confess, this movie sent me into a tailspin. And to be honest, that’s exactly what I love about going to the cinema. It’s the chance, albeit a pretty slim one, that I will leave the theatre thinking. Feeling. Questioning. Considering. I did not need a movie to remind me that my mother doesn’t truly know me, but it did leave me wondering what, if anything, I would reveal of myself if I knew her time was limited.

Lily is someone to each person at her table: wife, mother, best friend, grandma, in-law, trusted confidante, role model, judge. Everyone has something different to lose, and it’s figuring out exactly what that is that makes this process so difficult. Life is an equation. Lily feels her good days are up and craves the control to prevent too many bad ones. Anna feels she isn’t ready to lose her mother. Is anyone, ever? I think both sides of this equation are reasonable, but only one can prevail. These are the seminal relationships of our lives and we are born knowing that they will end. Are we ever really ready?

Susan Sarandon is self-assured and brave. Sam Neill is a stoic, steady silver fox. Kate Winslet is anxious and authoritative. Mia Wasikowska is wounded and fragile. They are not a perfect family, which is to say: they are a family. And they’re about to break.

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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.

Wonder Park

June and her mother (Jennifer Garner) have expansive imaginations. Together they created a pretend theme park called Wonderland, a special place that peopled by June’s favourite toys: a warthog named Greta (Mila Kunis), a hedgehog named Steve (John Oliver) a blue bear named Boomer (Ken Hudson Campbell), and brought alive by the pictures and blueprints that June and her mother draw together, wallpapering June’s room with their designs.

But then June’s mother gets sick, and June can’t bring herself to play their favourite game without her. June’s dad (Matthew Broderick) thinks it’s a good idea that she spends her summer at math camp, but halfway there, she gets cold feet and heads back. But she gets so turned around she ends up in – Wonderland? But how is the amusement park in her imagination a real place? And how are her toys talking, breathing characters?

One thing’s for sure: Greta the pink warthog and friends feel abandoned by the “voices” who inspired their adventures and brought life to their home. June realizes that she’s been so afraid to lose her mom that she’s somehow lost herself. But in the meantime, saving Wonderland presents itself as a real thing. We don’t know how June has wandered into the actual iteration of the park, but she’s there, and must contend with the consequences of her neglect. Luckily, as the inventor of Wonderland, there’s no one better to fix it up and save it from the darkness.

It’s hard to make a movie with colourful, talking stuffed animals in a fanciful amusement park address grief, so the script does not, not in any meaningful or profound way, even though grief is the catalyst for June’s neglect, and her need for escape, and for pretty much 80 of the film’s 85 minute runtime. It also talks about the nature of play, and what happens when you shut down an integral part of yourself, but without really saying anything about it. The movie is really content just to a diversion for kids than to be something with a moving story or a plot that makes sense. But it’s fun and full of energy and perfectly likable if you’re 5 and think bendy straws are the shit.

Sidebar: it’s shocking how many animated kids movies have erection jokes in them. Like, it’s pretty much all of them. This one’s no exception. In fact, it’s not exceptional in any way.

BPM (Beats Per Minute)

In the early 90s, a group called ACT UP Paris is putting pressure on the government and the pharmaceutical companies to do more, to do something to combat the AIDS epidemic.

I’ve seen lots of great documentaries about AIDS advocacy in the 80s and 90s and am forever in awe of how the gay community basically saved themselves. They had to. Of course the world was immediately scared of AIDS, but this was at a time that they were still afraid of homosexuality as well. HIV as not exactly a sympathy magnet. People thought it would basically kill off a bunch of deviants and sinners, and lots were okay with that. So the gay community rallied for itself. Even as they were being decimated by a unforgiving disease, they had to organize and go to bat for basic things like treatment and education and access and understanding and when all else failed, for the right to have their partners hold their hands while dying.

1238247So the truth of a film like BPM (aka Beats Per Minute aka 120 battements par minute) hurts. It hurts to see such a strong group of people fighting to save their own lives, but watching the group, watching their friends and colleagues, go missing one by one. They send postcards with the faces of their dead comrades to the Prime Minister knowing one day that face might be theirs. They act as guinea pigs for drug companies that withhold information, and go to jail for demanding it. And they continue to fight even after it proves not to “just” be a “gay disease” but one that would spread to lots of vulnerable populations. Their hard work is what saved us all.

Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a newcomer to the group, can’t help but be enchanted by Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), an HIV-positive member who is using the last bit of his strength to fight the good fight. Even though this is inevitably a very sad movie, there is also hope, and the struggle to find positivity even when things look bleak. It’s about fellowship and caring and justice. BPM doesn’t resort to melodramatic shenanigans. It has confidence in its story. It tells it straight, and it’s actually more affecting this way. 

The Book of Henry

Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is the smartest, most responsible 11 year old you’ll ever meet. He takes care of his little brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) in the schoolyard and he takes care of his single mother Susan (Naomi Watts) financially. I mean, she’s got the income, but he’s the financial planner. He even wants to take care of the girl next door who he thinks may be abused by her stepfather, Glenn (Dean Norris). Henry’s heart is as big as his IQ, and he challenges everyone around him to be their best, which can be a lot to live up to if you’re Henry’s little brother, or worse, his mother.

Anyway, Henry is a force of nature and he’s determined to do right by his next door the-book-of-henry1neighbour, Christina. She’s silent on the subject, but he’s seen the bruises and feels compelled to act, even if the adults in his life won’t. His moral compass is ginormous. It’s tricky, though, because Glenn is the police commissioner and may be too powerful to touch. Henry makes careful plans.

But what if an eleven year old boy can’t actually carry them out? His mother finds his notebook and is guilted, and perhaps guided by said compass, to act upon it.

This film was not well-received by critics but was for the most part enjoyed by audiences, including myself. It’s directed by Colin Trevorrow, kind of a departure since he’d previously directed Jurassic World, and is the co-writer of Star Wars: Episode IX. In its way, with its modest budget, The Book of Henry also bears the marks of Trevorrow’s childlike fascination. Henry may be precocious, but there’s a sense of wonder to the movie that’s quite appealing. But it’s also an ambitious movie; its shifts in tone startling at times, and perhaps not always successful.

The characters are inconsistently realistic and their actions even more so, but some terrific performances go a long way to grounding those characters. Naomi Watts is playing an imperfect but loving mother; I don’t know from where she draws inspiration, but she gives Susan a believable base, hard as that may be. Jacob Tremblay has a meatier role than just kid brother but he’s more than equal to the task. He’s already proven he’s more than just an adorable face. Jaeden Lieberher (you know him from St Vincent, and Midnight Special) as Henry has the hardest job of all. Henry is brilliant (he prefers precocious) but he is still a kid, after all, so he has to be steadfast, confident, but still vulnerable. This script asks a lot of its actors and in some ways the cast is what this movie gets most right.

The Book of Henry crosses genres, and that’s its weakness. There’s a silliness that sometimes dilutes the tension. I don’t mind a movie reaching beyond its limits, but this one doesn’t seem to have a firm destination in mind. What movie did you mean to be? I’m not sure. But I still enjoyed it on the whole, even while mentally noting all thing things I could have done better myself.

SXSW: Pet Names

Leigh’s life revolves around caregiving. Her mother is sick and her death is slow. Slow, slow, slow, like watching a corpse decompose above ground. Leigh needs a break but her mother is obviously not in any shape to take vacation…so she invites her ex-boyfriend instead.

Leigh (Meredith Johnston) and Cam (Rene Cruz) dated for a long time, and it becomes apparent on this camping trip that their ends are pretty jagged. I mean, let’s just take a MV5BYzE5ZTJjZjEtYjJlOS00YmU0LWJkZWYtYWE1MDJkNDcwMWVhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjYzNzU5MDI@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_breather for a minute and think about whether you’d be willing to go camping with your ex. Me? Hahahaha, no. Of course, I don’t want to camp with anyone, ever, because camping is awful. But I wouldn’t go on a luxury vacation with them either. Or for a 12 minute coffee. I’m a mover-oner.

Leigh and Cam? I’m not sure they’re ready to move on, but they’ve got a lot of baggage between them and no amount of fireside whiskey is going to make it disappear. Plus, Leigh is a different person now. She’s experiencing grief and loss and it’s changing her. Maybe Cam doesn’t know her anymore. Did he ever?

Pet Names has lovely cinematography (the kind of camera trickery that might actually make camping seem like a good idea). It also has a thoughtful script, penned by Meredith Johnston herself. It’s no wonder she seems so comfortable in her character’s skin. She and Cruz have the kind of chemistry that’s believable between two people who’ve seen each other naked but aren’t supposed to anymore. Director Carol Brandt gets to the meat of this, eagerly having them confront old wounds that are not past bleeding. The camping trip may look beautiful, but with so much to unpack, it’s clear this getaway will be anything but restorative.

 

Irreplaceable You

As a little girl, Abbie knows what she wants, and she goes out and bites it. That’ll make sense when you watch the movie. What Abbie wants is Sam, and they’ve been together since they were 8. They’re extremely until-death-do-us-part, headed toward marriage and newly pregnant, except they find out what she’s pregnant with is a belly full of tumours, and she’s going to die, soon.

Abbie’s (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) last days are preoccupied with finding Sam (Michiel Huisman) a new partner. She’s grieving, she’s preparing, she wants to leave him settled, imageshe wants to know that he’ll be okay. But it’s creepy and invasive and neither Sam nor his prospective dates are super into this idea. Even Abbie’s support group is pretty skeptical. They’re also a pretty good source of humour in a movie that may have been overwhelmed by its maudlin theme. Thankfully the likes of Steve Coogan, Kate McKinnon, and Christopher Walken, all favourites of mine that I never dreamed would somehow end up sitting in the same little circle in the same film, go a long way to providing some comic relief.

The script, by Bess Wohl, is kind of terrific. There are lots of unexpected little nuggets of joy, such as the wonderful Merritt Wever’s truth bomb about the world’s only monogamous fish. Watch and learn. Frankly, I would have liked to see director Stephanie Laing push the film even further into black comedy territory. Instead its tone is confused and we’re never sure whether to laugh or weep (I had no problem doing copious amounts of both, but your experience may be different). On the whole, I liked this movie very much. I like Gugu Mbatha-Raw very much and she makes this character flawed instead of the saintly dead wife that almost any other movie would have made her out to be. Her character inhabits our worst fears while being relatable enough for us to confront them in some sort of comfort. Sure it’s tear-jerker porn, but it’s the best kind as long as you have plenty of soft, name-brand tissues to see you through.