Tag Archives: death and dying

Montana Story

Estranged siblings Cal and Erin return to the ranch where they grew up. Their father is dying; he wasn’t a good man so neither needs a tearful bedside goodbye, they’re more keen to bid farewell to the land they once loved, the horse they used to ride, the housekeeper who’s kept in touch.

Cal (Owen Teague) and Erin (Haley Lu Richardson), once close, no longer speak, their troubled childhoods breeding resentment rather than unification. But this death watch provides the opportunity to finally come to terms with what they’ve lost, and who they’ve blamed. Their father is a footnote, beyond redemption, but the relationship between the siblings, each the other’s only remaining family, could be saved if only they can overcome their regrets, sadness, disappointment, and the space that has grown between them for the past seven years. Joining their vigil are Ace (Gilbert Owuor), a philosophical nurse from Nairobi, and beloved housekeeper Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero), a Native American whose family has worked the land longer than the dying man has owned it. Originally a lawyer, the slimy kind who helps corporations pillage the land, he bought the ranch and subsequently ran it into the ground; the bank only awaits his death to repossess it.

This is a quiet movie done right. Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel understand intuitively that silence can be meaningful, can express things that too hard to say. Quiet moments can be healing as well, when done subtly, suggesting peace, or comfort. The directors let the dreamy Montana landscape become its own character, letting it fill not just the outdoor scenes, but every window and open door inside as well. Unlike The Power of the Dog, which is also set in Montana, this film actually filmed there, and they use the land to teach us about the characters – who respects it, who’s in awe of it, who’s afraid of it, who will use it up for profit.

Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens captures the natural beauty, but also helps to show that even wide open spaces can feel oppressive. In the end, when the body has been bagged, the nurse moved on to his next patient, the siblings packed up and gone their separate ways, only two things remain: the mountains, and Valentina. She and her family have cared for and protected the land for generations, and will continue to provide it stewardship through the comings and goings of many white families who treat the land as something they can own, and ranching as merely a hobby. American Indians have seven tribal reservations in Montana, home to a dozen tribes, including Blackfeet, Sioux, and Chippewa, on tiny slivers of land mere fractions of the land they once occupied. They are the real Montana story, the enduring one. This white family, with all its history and heartbreak, are but a blip.

Montana Story is an official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival 2021.

Here Today

The Premise: Charlie is a comedy writer of some renown, having started out on the Carol Burnett show, now serving out the remainder of his career writing for his protégé’s sketch show. Street singer Emma comes into his life at a strange life – dementia is slowly destroying not only his memory, but his sense of self. With his wife long dead, and his children somewhat estranged every since, Emma is a unique bridge between their generations, forming a cherished friendship just when he needs one most.

The Verdict: I liked this film, though I do have some reservations. Billy Crystal and Tiffany Haddish are both quite good – he solid as ever, she toned down just enough to exist on his wave length, yet still maintaining her own brand and style of comedy. Though this film brought them close in real life, their chemistry doesn’t always work on screen. Worse still, the dialogue is sometimes unforgivably clunky and trite. Yet there’s just something magnet about Crystal here. He is staring down a fate many of us would consider worse than death. The title itself reminds us of the stakes: Here Today (gone tomorrow) – and yet both the film and Charlie face this inevitability with light-heartedness and warmth. The important part, the part that helped me overcome the film’s flaws, is that though he may be gone tomorrow – in fact, we all may – he is still here today, and today is to be enjoyed.

Sundance 2021: One For The Road

Aood (Ice Natara) finds out he’s dying of cancer and knows just who to call: everyone! Working his way through his contact list, he calls every friend and acquaintance to thank them for whatever it was that they’d shared. At the end he’s got only a select few remaining, close friends that he must say goodbye to in person.

His first call is to estranged best friend Boss (Tor Thanapob), a club owner in New York City, who agrees to return to Thailand to help his friend with a last request. Aood has a couple of ex-girlfriends to return mementos of their past relationship to, though closure is what he’s really after, on their behalf more than his own, being quite familiar with the dull ache of being the one left behind. One girlfriend is happier to see him than another, but either way, names are getting ticked off the list, dwindling contacts deleted from his phone. You might start to wonder, as I did, with half the movie still to go, is Aood’s cancer linger just a little too long? Alas, there is one relationship left to repair: predictably, that of Aood and Boss, and an ex they more or less have in common.

At this point the film jogs backwards, illuminating their shared history, but derailing the narrative of the first film quite drastically. Surprisingly, it eventually finds its way back, but I’m not convinced this was the best path to telling the story. More than just a story, though, One For The Road is a toast to male friendship and complicated bonds between young men.

Although the film didn’t blow me away, it did have some truly stand-out moments, and even if a bit derivative, it’s clear director Baz Poonpiriya has a voice and style he’s just beginning to own. If One For the Road is manipulative, at least it’s skillfully manipulative, and delivered via some fine performances. Poonpiriya shows promise, with some room for improvement.

My Little Sister

My Little Sister is Switzerland’s official entry for the Academy Awards’ International Feature Film category this year, and its unofficial selection for Biggest Bummer of 2020, which is saying a lot.

Not that it’s a bad film, not at all. It’s just the opposite of cheery. Gloomy. Depressing. Upsetting. It’s about grown up twins Lisa (Nina Hoss), a playwright, and Sven (Lars Eidinger), a stage actor, who are dealing with his cancer diagnosis and resulting transplant. Even on the mend, Sven is still very unwell, and since their mother is a flake, Lisa’s been doing the caring. Lisa already put her life and career on hold once, to follow her husband to Switzerland where he runs an international school and she raises their children. Desperate to get back to the Berlin arts scene, Lisa isn’t happy to learn that her husband’s been contemplating extending his contract, but she’s already got more on her plate than most people can handle. Again she puts her life on hold to care for her “big brother” (born 2 minutes earlier) as he struggles to get back on his feet.

Sven’s illness is quite severe but Lisa can’t really face that. She has appointed herself the perpetual fountain of hope, and even goes back to play writing to make sure he has a meaty role to inspire his recovery. She is so committed to his recuperation she’ll even neglect her marriage to be at his bedside. Nina Hoss is nearly equally committed to the role, playing Lisa with sensitivity, and a naturalness that really helps to bolster the relationship between the twins. Clearly they are close, the kind of bond that can always be relied upon, as illustrated by Eidinger’s performance. Sven has bravado for everyone else, but in front of Lisa, he is vulnerable, he is weak. And though Hoss shows us how scared Lisa is, for him she is strong, sure, and optimistic.

Cancer dramas are a dime a dozen, but this one manages to detour away from the genre’s deepest ruts and treads new(ish) ground with intimate and instinctive performances from the two leads. Directors Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond give us a story that’s emotional without trying to be. It simply presents truth, unadorned. The death of a loved one can force us to reevaluate our own lives; Lisa’s certainly reassessing things, even with so many balls still up in the air. It’s a resonant reminder that life never stops, not even while you’re losing the person you hold most dear.

All My Life

Jennifer (Jessica Rothe) and Solomon (Harry Shum Jr.) are a happy young couple. They’ve had their share of ups and downs like anyone else, and he’s struggled to balance his desire to pursue his passion for food as a career and do the responsible thing, keeping his stable but uninspired job to provide for his new little family. Because oh yes: they’re making a go of it. Sol’s asked Jen to marry him, and she’s said yes, and they’ve got happily ever after twinkling in their eyes. Wedding plans are in the works but you know they didn’t make a movie about this couple because everything was easy for them.

Inspired by a true love story, Jennifer and Sol’s relationship is about to get tested, big time. Sol’s got liver cancer, which means wedding plans are put on hold and every last penny is poured into life saving treatment rather than cakes and dresses. But their supportive friends and family take pity on them, pitching in and asking for help from strangers to grant Jen and Sol their dream wedding, a beautiful bright spot during an otherwise terrible time.

It’s nothing we haven’t seen before. True love tested by tear-jerking terminal cancer. But All My Life is helped considerably by charismatic leads with chemistry, a supporting cast that truly uplifts, and a story that may not be original, but is nonetheless well-executed. If you’re in the mood for a weepie, this one’s going to fit the bill.

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.

Holly & Ivy

Melody (Janel Parrish) has just moved in next door to a single mom with two adorable daughters, the eponymous Holly and Ivy. Melody and mom Nina (Marisol Nichols) are fast friends, and the girls love Melody too, particularly because her car is an unofficial book mobile and the girls are avid readers. Soon (very soon), these two households are inseparable; Melody pitches in with watching the kids, and the kids are eager to help Melody settle in – although, to be fair, Melody has just bought a ‘fixer upper’ that feels more like a crack den than a home at the moment.

Sadly, Nina has just learned that her lymphoma is back, and even though it’s a really big ask, she has no one else, and Melody, friend of just a few intense days, is asked to be the guardian of dear sweet Holly and Ivy should mom Nina pass. In order to be approved for adoption, Melody is going to jump through some hoops, and fast – getting a job, for example, is probably item #1, and proving much harder than she’d anticipated. But getting the house up to code is also pretty crucial. Luckily, she meets a handsome young construction worker who’s surprisingly eager to lend a hand. I say surprisingly only because Melody and Adam (Jeremy Jordan) are younger than our typical Hallmark protagonists. Since Hallmark’s love stories typically emphasize love, commitment, and family over hot sex and passion, their love interests are always firmly in their 30s and ready to settle – at the youngest. Often they’re already widowed or looking for a second chance at love. Melody and Adam are in their 20s – can they possibly be ready for an instant family when they only just met days ago?

Well, in the same Hallmark universe where a young woman impulsively agrees to adopt a virtual stranger’s children, yes. But the first rule about parenting is that Adam and Melody will have to come to grips with some sacrifices, both professionally, and, gulp, romantically. Are they ready to face such tests? Is anybody?

Holly & Ivy is a bit of a surprise. It’s more about Melody’s relationship with the kids, and her promise to Nina, than any budding romance. Luckily by the movie’s end she’ll learn to embrace offers of help and support because hooo boy is she going to need it. Does this sound like the kind of holiday movie you can groove to? Then boogie on over to the Hallmark channel and enjoy the show.

Life In A Year

Daryn (Jaden Smith) isn’t even a senior in high school yet but he’s got his whole life laid out in front of him, a series of goals and how to achieve them. Or rather his dad does. His dad Xavier (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is a full-time dick so intent on -seeing his son accepted into Harvard that he doesn’t mind completely destroying their relationship to get it. To Xavier, Daryn’s new girlfriend Isabelle (Cara Delevingne) is nothing more than a distraction, and he’s super rude and dismissive of her accordingly.

What Daryn’s parents don’t know is that Isabelle is a rapidly dying teenage girl, and in the great cinematic tradition of dead and dying teenagers, Daryn has resolved to give her a whole life’s worth of milestones in the single year she has left. Basically, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all; the dying teenage trope isn’t exactly original and Life In A Year isn’t exactly up to redefining the genre. Just look at that title: it’s 2/10 awful, it sounds wrong, it’s thematically meaningless, and it fails to distinguish itself from close relatives (a simple Google search confuses it with All My Life, A Year In My Life, The Worst Years of My Life, Life Itself, and more).

I never imagined I’d say this, but Jaden Smith isn’t the problem with this movie, and he’s the least problematic man among the cast. He’s mostly known for being the entitled son of Will Smith who can’t stop mistaking ignorant bullshit for poetry and philosophy. In this, he does a pretty good imitation of a decent human being, and in his best moments he briefly channels his more famous and talented father. Cara Delevingne isn’t the problem either. I’m never bowled over by her, but there’s probably not an actor in the world who could salvage this terrible material. Confusingly, director Mitja Okorn almost seems hell-bent on tanking this thing, or at least that’s what’s communicated when a film offers you two cancelled perverts for the price of one. Cuba Gooding, Jr. is of course currently on trial for forcible touching and of sex abuse to the third degree; at last count 30 women had accused him of groping. Disgraced comedian Chris D’Elia stands accused of  grooming young girls and attempting to solicit nude photographs from minors. He’s also been accused of sexual misconduct by grown women, alleging that he exposes himself randomly and masturbates in front of them without consent. Mitja Okorn is the guy who said: yes, please, I’d like to work with both. Grade A stuff.

But this movie doesn’t need perverts to dissuade you, it’d be bad either way. It’s formulaic and poorly written and the characters are bizarrely one-dimensional (Daryn has a friend whose single personality trait is that he used to be fat. He isn’t even fat anymore!) or just don’t make any sense at all (D’Elia plays a “drag queen” named Phil who, though we never see him perform, is always in drag – has the script confused profession with identity?). No matter how you slice or dice it, Life In A Year (ugh, terrible title, still not over it) is a failure and there’s not a soul in the world who needs to see it.

Notes For My Son

When my dog Gertie started throwing clots in her lungs, we knew it was time to say goodbye. We held her in our arms, whispered in her ears about the lake at the cottage to inspire her dreams, and a shot given by her doctor send her off to a better place. We do for our dogs what many modern, advanced, and “civilized” countries still won’t do for its citizens.

Marie (Valeria Bertuccelli) is dying. Cancer sucks. There’s nothing the doctors can do, including giving her the compassionate end she and her husband have decided on. Or, they could give it to her, but they’re hesitating. It’s much easier to waffle when you’re not the one writhing in mind-altering pain. Of course, Marie’s got a reason to hang on as long as she can: her 3 year old son, Tomy. Whatever time she may have left, she’ll use it to write a journal so that her son may know her even when she’s gone. In it, she’s funny and witty, imparting bits of wisdom, tenderness, and personality, and a few wishes for what his life might be. Meanwhile, on Twitter, she’s nearly the opposite – sarcastic and bold, attracting a keen audience who appreciate her honesty during an impossible time.

Bertuccelli has a tall order to deliver from a hospital bed. With a son, a husband, a bouquet of friends, and a social media following, she’s the hub for grief and the receptacle of medical disappointments. This is her end of life, yet she’s still trying to be so many things to so many people. The book for her son gives her last days meaning and purpose, the perfect metaphor for the importance of time and using it well. The film isn’t sugarcoating death, nor is it dramatizing it. It’s ugly, messy, sometimes joyous, sometimes desperate. It’s not glamourous but it’s also not an excruciating sob-fest. Loosely based on a true story, Carlos Sorin’s film is about treasuring what you have while you have it.

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.