Tag Archives: grief

Love Sarah

Sarah and her best friend Isabella (Shelley Conn) were on the verge of opening up their very own bakery, a long time shared aspiration, when Sarah died tragically, leaving behind unfulfilled dreams and a lease that Isabella was now responsible for alone, despite having lost her baker, an essential element in most bakeries, you’ll find.

Sarah’s aimless daughter Clarissa (Shannon Tarbet) and her estranged mother Mimi (Celia Imrie) decide to join her in Sarah’s stead. And Sarah’s ex, Matthew (Rupert Penry-Jones), shows up too, thank goodness, because this bakery was still very much in need of a baker, although it turns out Isabella is perfectly capable of doing the baking, she just lacked the confidence. But that’s not all Matthew’s contributing to the bakery! He’s also putting out daddy vibes, leaving Clarissa to question whether he might the mystery father she’s never known and her mother never revealed. Oh, and he makes the pretty pastries of course, which do indeed look good enough to eat, so if food porn is what you’re after, this movie’s got loads, presented rather prettily on a buffet of white platters. But for some reason, they’re just not selling. The bakery makes no money at all until they decide to rebrand and start baking up international delights to lure in London’s many and varied immigrants.

The bakery thriving or failing is almost secondary to these characters’ healing, which they’re all needing to slightly different extents. Healing takes different forms of course – romance, success, family, forgiveness – and it’s not just the bakery at work but the fact that these four people have found each other in their hour of need and created a community for themselves that fosters connection and leaves everyone just a little less isolated with their grief or their loneliness.

On a scale from “microwaving for one” to “molecular gastronomy,” Love Sarah is canned pasta sauce, not particularly complex or memorable, but easy and comforting. It’s sweet, it’s got wonderful performances, it feels good in a heartening, borderline inspirational way. It’s very watchable, and would in fact pair well with a nice slice of cake and a tall glass of milk.

Over The Moon

When Fei Fei is a little girl, her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) tells her about the moon goddess Chang’e. The popular myth says that many, many years ago, ten suns rose in the sky together, scorching the Earth. The archer Houyi shot down nine of them, and was rewarded an elixir for immortality. He did not take it as he did not wish to become immortal without his beloved wife Chang’e. But one day his apprentice broke into his house to steal it, and to prevent him gaining it, Chang’e drank it herself. She ascended to the heavens, choosing the moon as her residence, where she mourns her husband to this day, because true love lasts forever.

Fei Fei’s mother passed away, and every year when her family gathers for the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, there’s an extra reason to remember her mother. But this year she is surprised to learn that her father (John Cho) has invited an unexpected guest: his new girlfriend, Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh) and her son, Chin. Upset by this sudden turn of events, Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) decides to build a rocket ship to the moon so she can enlist Chang’e’s help to remind her father that true love (ie, his first love, ie, Fei Fei’s mother) is forever. She and bunny Bungee (plus stowaway Chin) are surprisingly successful, but the moon isn’t exactly what she’d anticipated. Her first friend is Gobi (Ken Jeong), a pangolin former royal advisor who was exiled 1000 years ago; he has some important wisdom to impart about loneliness, if only Fei Fei would listen. But she’s still determined to enlist Chang’e (Phillipa Soo), a goddess in the form of a rock star, and every bit as demanding and self-interested as one.

Over The Moon is a new offering from Netflix, an animated musical film appropriate for the whole family. It’s more in the style of Laika films than Disney or Pixar, but unfortunately doesn’t reach the heights of any of these. Although it does use one of Disney’s favourite tropes, the dead mom, it teaches a lesson about a different kind of grief. The visuals are stunning and the moon adventure is sure to please any young child, with rap-battle ping pong games and softly glowing creatures, it’s hard to deny. But the moon adventure is book-ended with family scenes reminiscent of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, another movie that used food as an excuse to gather and grieve. These scenes are tinged with loss but also hint that life can move on. It is heartfelt but not emotionally manipulative. Some of the feelings are nuanced enough that they may be complicated for very young audience members to understand, but anyone who has loved and lost will feel something familiar here, and that’s a pretty good reason to watch.

The King of Staten Island

Spoiler alert: it’s Pete Davidson. He’s the king of Staten Island. Supposably. You know, Pete Davidson. The young SNL cast member who told us, from experience, that you shouldn’t choose your rehab while you’re high (I believe “equine therapy” was involved), and who was briefly engaged to Ariana Grande.

Pete Davidson has obviously had his share of addictions issues. He’s suffered from depression, anxiety, PTSD, and borderline personality disorder. His mom got him through high school by bribing him with stand-up in exchange for his attendance. He smokes weed so he can perform. He smokes weed to treat his Crohn’s, a painful medical condition. He smokes weed because he likes it. And maybe he smokes weed to forget his traumatic personal connection to the most horrific day in American history: his father, a fire-fighter, died in 9/11.

The King of Staten Island, a collaboration between Pete Davidson and Judd Apatow, is a semi-autobiographical film about Davidson’s particular relationship/struggle with growing up.

“Scott” (Davidson) is a 20-something pothead who dreams of being a tattoo artist, as evidenced by some very inconsistent ink on his friends’ bodies. One of his canvasses/victims is a 9 year old boy, and you can bet that boy’s father is soon pounding on Scott’s mom’s door. Did I mention he still lives with his mom? He does. His younger sister has recently gone off to college and now his mom Margie (Marisa Tomei) is mourning her empty nest while also not actually benefiting from it because of course Scott won’t/can’t actually leave, drawing permanent stickmen on his friends’ torsos not paying particularly well/at all. But it turns out that tattooing a 9 year old boy has an upside: the boy’s angry father Ray (Bill Burr) takes Margie out on her first date in 17 years. Which, admittedly, is nicer for her than it is for Scott, who isn’t exactly keen to see his dead father replaced, isn’t a big fan Ray, and isn’t thrilled to be displaced by him.

Judd Apatow is of course the king of comedy. He’s paired up with Steve Carell (The 40-Year-Old Virgin), Seth Rogen (Knocked Up), Adam Sandler (Funny People) and Amy Schumer (Trainwreck) – comedians at the top of their game, or just cresting their fame, and Apatow’s gotten career-best performances out of all of them. It’s weird then that this collab with Davidson has set new watermarks for both juvenile humour and serious themes. Together they navigate sacrifice and childhood trauma but manage to season generously with firehouse frat-boy antics. Like most of Apatow’s films, it’s long for a comedy; the script is loose, breezy even, and Apatow gives his actors plenty of space. It’s low-key for the most part, but it hits on both fragility and hilarity with surprising ease. Pete Davidson may not be the most versatile of actors, but he’s good enough to play some version of himself, seemingly relaxed and comfortable, and hopefully somewhat cleansed by the process. Healing comes in all shapes and sizes and grief is a malleable, personal thing. Sometimes it even looks like an R-rated comedy.

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End of Sentence

Frank (John Hawkes) is recently widowed when he picks up his estranged son Sean (Logan Lerman) from prison. Neither is exactly keen to spend time with the other, but Frank’s late wife’s last wish was for her son and her husband to travel to Ireland together to scatter her ashes in a special lake. Frank is determined to honour her wish, and Sean is determined to be in California in five days time. A deal is struck – Frank promises to deliver Sean to California by way of Ireland – and two reluctant travel companions, plus the ashes of their only common bond, are on their way east – very east.

In Ireland, Frank will come to understand his dearly departed wife a little better, while Sean will come to understand his distant father. None of these will be easy lessons. In fact, long before the mission is either accomplished or abandoned, you and I will start to suspect that the dead wife orchestrated the trip not so much out of preference for her final resting place but perhaps as one last attempt to reunite the two men in her life from beyond the grave. Of course, as in life, so in death: Frank and Sean share a complicated and painful history, and the Irish countryside, beautiful as it may be, is not a magical cure.

Michael Armbruster writes a story that is sensitive but not sentimental about two men who share the same grief but process it side by side rather than together. The story is about men, and how they will relate to each other now that their moderator/interpreter/buffer is gone. It is quite possible that Frank and Sean have never been in a room just the two of them before, and quite clear that this is their preference. And yet – mother knows best? Certainly in her last days she must have worried about them, about her son already careening down the wrong path, unlikely to succeed upon release without the one person who always believed in him, and about her husband, so unable to connect, so solitary and cold in his default demeanor. The script here is brilliant because it allows us to read and explore these things through action and inaction rather than constantly looking back, and director Elfar Adalsteins reinforces this idea by showing rather than telling. This leaves room for the audience to see a bit of themselves in this dynamic: bits of their own grief, their own fraught relationships, their own pain, desire, comfort, and hope for the future, and the story becomes that much more relatable, that much more resonant.

I knew nothing of this movie when we came upon it for rent on VOD, but it turned out to be one of those unexpected cinematic gems just waiting to be mined.

The Way Back

Jack (Ben Affleck) is a middle-aged man sleepwalking through his life, completely numb. Once a high school basketball phenom, he’s now working a shit job, drinking constantly, isolated from his family and friends, separated from his wife. His life is sad and stuck.

So I suppose Father Devine considers it a kindness to reach out with an opportunity. Jack’s alma matter is short of a basketball coach, and his glory days have not been forgotten (nor have they been repeated in the 25+ years since he left, but that’s another story). Jack tries out many refusals before grudgingly accepting, a win that is celebrated only briefly as the catholic school soon realizes that Jack is perhaps not an ideal role model, screaming and cursing his way through games.

Still, Jack seems to come out of his shell bit by bit, as his drills start paying off and his severely losing team becomes a moderately winning one. But alcoholism is a disease with deep roots, and Jack has more skeletons in his closet than we’d previously imagined.

The Way Back is a story about suffering. It’s not about redemption, but maybe just that very small first step, the most important one, the one that feels awful and aching and may or may not lead to success. The way back for alcoholics is much more complicated than most movies can show. Healing is not linear. It’s not pretty. It’s not easy. And getting sober is not a cure – not a cure for the suffering, and not a cure for the alcoholism either. Ben Affleck knows this better than most. He’s struggled with addiction himself. He’s been in and out of rehab more than once or twice. He’s seen it wreck relationships, including his marriage to Jennifer Garner. I don’t know Ben Affleck. I don’t know if he drank to ease the pain or if addiction was just in his genes. Many people who have alcoholism in the family will never succumb themselves. Some will suffer a catalyst, an event in their lives that leads to drinking. Many of us go through these hard times, but someone with a predilection for addiction won’t be able to start. I think for many celebrities, the lifestyle itself is a trigger. it can mean a lot of events, a lot of parties, and a lot of free drinks. People in the throes of addiction will do anything to feed it, including stealing from their dear sweet grandmothers or selling their own bodies. Celebrities don’t have to do this of course. Money is no object so they have no real obstacle to their using. In fact, they probably have many enablers, covering for their absences, making excuses, managing the bumps and bruises. It’s probably difficult for a celebrity to see their addiction because that’s usually done when “hitting bottom” but when you have millions of dollars and personal assistants, they form a very large cushion that keeps you from really going splat. Of course, when you have unending access to your drug of choice, you’re also at risk for a very sad death. We’ve seen those happen to many times, proving money can’t insulate you from everything.

So when you put someone like Ben Affleck in this role, you’re sending a message. Affleck carries a heaviness, a darkness within him. His anguish in this movie is real, and I can only hope it was some sort of exorcism for him. His performance has depth and authenticity, and though the story sometimes dips too far into sports movie cliche to be satisfying or worthy, Affleck more than makes up for it.

The Honor List

Once upon a time, four girls were best friends in high school. Like many young friendships, these four grew apart, drifting in different directions by senior year. But only 3 of them make it to graduation. Honor (Arden Cho) dies of an illness she kept from them, and leaves behind final wishes that they should retrieve the time capsule they once buried together and complete the bucket list found inside.

Piper (Meghan Rienks) is a popular girl (translation: mean girl) now, a party girl for whom the party never stops thanks to a water bottle filled with vodka that’s never not in hand. Isabella (Sasha Pieterse) is a social crusader, fierce in her beliefs, but vulnerable at home where her parents are divorcing acrimoniously. Sophie (Karrueche Tran) is the image of perfection, a straight A student and president of the virginity club, which she founded herself (and named only slightly more creatively). Even before we get to know their history through flashbacks, there are some pretty solid reasons why these young women might have grown apart. But grief is a powerful motivator and they resolve to complete the list, for better or worse.

High school is hard enough without throwing grief and guilt into the mix, and the movie is at its best when it’s dealing with these realities subtly with great character work from a cast who is actually (surprisingly) competent. But the tasks on the bucket list are wacky enough to be sitcom material, awkwardly ripe for trauma, painfully devoid of laughs. Their friendship is to be miraculously repaired through hardship even though it can equally be said that that’s what ripped it apart in the first place. Director Elissa Down confronts some jarring shifts in tone without enough of a plan, so even her good intentions can be sloppily offered.

The Honor List doesn’t live up to its name but is just watchable enough if you’re really jonesing for a potential tearjerker with a subplot of empowerment.

All The Bright Places

Violet and Finch meet atop a bridge. He is running across it, she is teetering on its ledge. He offers her a hand, and she takes it.

It’s a powerful and awful way to start a relationship, saving someone’s life. Violet (Elle Fanning) goes to Finch’s school. She is struggling with her sister’s death, a car accident Violet was in the passenger seat for. Finch (Justice Smith) sort of takes her under his wing, coaxing her out of her comfort zone under the guise of a school assignment. They travel to the wondrous places of Indiana, which will kill any thoughts of tourism you may have been harbouring because the wonders are underwhelming at best but Finch presents them with whimsy and charm, and how can Violet resist? But for all his saviour posturing with Violet, Finch has some pretty deep emotional scars of his own.

Despite its title, All The Bright Places can go to some very dark places. The leads are meant to be 17 but the story gives their characters some pretty heavy burdens and some serious sophistication. Fanning and Smith have great chemistry and give grounded performances, saving the film for what might have been maudlin or overwrought. Still, with Violet and Finch confronting grief, abandonment, and struggles with mental health, All The Bright Places is quite weighty for a teenage romance. I’m not sure the film quite handles itself correctly all the time; at times it feels a little superficial and easy. But on the whole I found it quite enjoyable. It’s based on a YA novel by Jennifer Niven and it feels like it. Which is not a criticism, actually, and it does deviate quite a bit from the book, it’s just that it wants to impart some wisdom, it wants to make some profound discoveries, and it doesn’t mind being rather obvious about it, like a parent or a guidance counselor might. Like, if you wanted to extrapolate that you should become your own bright place, the film will nod at you encouragingly while quietly nudging a box of tissues in your direction. Take the box.

The Nutcracker And The Four Realms

You’d think I’d have more of an affinity for this, as I once played Clara myself, in a school production. But I suppose any kinship I felt with the role died when I saw film-Clara flopping around in one sumptuous, gauzy, beaded gown after another, while I spent the whole play in a floor-length flannel nightgown.

Clara (Mackenzie Foy) has recently lost her mother, Marie. She is further aggrieved to find that the “one last Christmas gift” her mother has left each of the children is for her rather useless without a key to open it. Her godfather (Morgan Freeman) would seem to hold the answer, but just as she finds the key at his home, it is squirreled away (or perhaps I should say moused away) into a parallel world – into which of course she follows, without a second thought to the state of her beautiful dress, which she clearly doesn’t deserve.

Anyway, this other world is apparently one of her mother’s making, imaginatively speaking. There are four realms, and she meets 3 of the 4 regents right off the bat: Shiver (Richard E. Grant) of the Land of Snowflakes, Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez) of the Land of Flowers, and of course the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley) of the Land of Sweets. These three regents worship Clara as the daughter of their beloved Queen Marie, and wail upon learning news of her death. They confess that the Queen has not been around in sometime, and these 3 realms are at war with the fourth: Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) of the Land of Amusements.

Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley, using a grating Mickey Mouse voice and sporting drag queen eyebrows for unknown reasons) explains that they can use Marie’s machine, which turns toys into people, to win the war, but they need the key. Yes, the very same key that Clara is already hunting, the key stolen by the legion of mice and now in the possession of evil Mother Ginger. Clara must retrieve the key with only the help of a kind nutcracker named Philip (Jayden Fowara-Knight).

The Nutcracker is of course famously a ballet, and there is but a single scant scene of dance, starring the ephemeral Misty Copeland, which is probably the best stuff in the movie. The rest is really nothing special. It’s almost as if, the more they inflate it with CGI effects, the more magic leaks out. It’s drained of the life and wonder you may have come to expect from The Nutcracker. This one is clunky – often quite mesmerizing to look at, but the directors are depending on literal hypnotic focus on the visuals since the story, which diverges wildly from cannon, just doesn’t hold up. It’s almost amazing how unexciting a land of imagination can be made to feel, and I wouldn’t mind if co-directors Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston both had their directors cards revoked for such a failure. It’s toys come to life: the wonder is baked right in!

The Nutcracker has been around since 1892 and now accounts for 40% of a typical ballet company’s annual revenues. It’s been done to death in both movies and television: Barbie did a version. The Care Bears did a version. Mickey and Minnie did a version. Tom and Jerry did a version. And they were ALL more successful that this one, which cost over $120M to make, but you can’t put a price on heart, and this movie just didn’t have it.

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.

TIFF18: American Woman

At first glance, Deb (Sienna Miller) is all-too-easily dismissed. She’s a former teen mom turned grandmother at 31. She’s a mistress whose hot date turns out to be a trip to a sleazy motel room, where she is handed a plastic bag containing either dollar store lingerie or a slutty devil halloween costume (same difference, really). The next morning, we see that she is waking up alone in her own bed, suggesting the motel room was paid by the hour.

At that point, we’re about five minutes into American Woman, and you’re ready to write Deb off.

But don’t. Don’t you dare.

AmericanWoman_02Because Deb is worth more than she even knows, which she stars to discover after her daughter fails to come home one night after a date with her basement-dwelling baby daddy.  A loved one’s disappearance must be life-shattering. Miller lets us see the dissapearance’s drastic effects on Deb in such a restrained and measured way that Deb’s resulting character growth is organic, believable, and most impressively, almost invisible at first. Deb’s evolution is captivating, and the Deb we know by the end of the movie is at once the same core character and a woman whose outlook and attitude have evolved beyond anything I could have ever expected.

I cannot overstate the magnificence of Sienna Miller’s performance in American Woman. She is magnetic and conveys a mix of strength and vulnerability that is as authentic a performance as I can remember. And while Miller is the standout, he excellence is almost always matched by the rest of the cast, including Christina Hendricks as Deb’s sister, Amy Madigan as Deb’s mom, and Mad TV’s Will Sasso as Deb’s brother-in-law. Deb is rightly the focal point but it’s great that the strong supporting characters each get the chance to shine.

The gauntlet thrown down by the cast’s fantastic performances is picked up by those behind the camera, and they are up to the task. Brad Ingelsby’s script is smarter than it has any right to be, discarding obvious answers on a regular basis, and showing off by giving effortless depth to secondary and tertiary characters (including turning an obvious villain into an earnest guy deserving of our sympathy). Director Jake Scott uses care and moderation rather than flash and sensationalism, particularly in a crucial scene at the film’s climax, proving beyond any doubt that less is more. Scott consistently makes brilliant choices even in small details, such as by using visuals and settings to indicate the passage of time, rather than title cards.

The result of all of this individual brilliance, naturally, is a standout character study that can hold its own against anything that TIFF18 has to offer (which I can say with certainty since I saw If Beale Street Could Talk and Roma on either side of it). American Woman is as smart, rewarding and satisfying a cinematic experience as anyone could ask for, making for a film that you absolutely do not want to miss.