Tag Archives: grief

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.

TIFF18: Papi Chulo

Sean the weatherman has a meltdown on the air, so he’s sent home for some mandatory personal time off. His partner left him recently, and left a large, unpainted circle on their deck to boot. Pretty, soft-hands Sean (Matt Bomer) is out of his element in the hardware store. He buys the paint with help but the actual painting doesn’t go well, so the next day he trolls the lineup of available day workers and brings home Ernesto.

Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño) doesn’t speak English and Sean doesn’t speak Spanish. Odd couple alert!

The thing about this movie is, it sounds pretty light and predictable. And it is. But that doesn’t do it justice, because in fact it was one of my favourite movies at the festival. And maybe that’s because 90% of the movies I saw were depressing as shit and this one comes with a hint of optimism. But it’s the movie that I needed without knowing I needed it, and I felt like a life line.MV5BMTg1ODNhODQtMTQ3YS00OTY4LTk2OGItZDExZTNiM2VlMWU5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTQ1MTYzNzY@._V1_

 

Poor Sean. His friends and coworkers see him floundering and all agree that he needs to talk to someone, but to Sean, the act of doing so is the same as admitting that he’s alone and things are bad. He can’t. But he does find himself opening up to Ernesto. Ernesto who continues to be paid $20 an hour for “painting” finds himself hiking the canyons instead, and posing for Instagram pics. Although it looks like friendship, Sean is using Ernesto in at least 2 strange ways:

 

  1. As a therapist. A therapist who is easy to talk to because he can’t understand him, thus there is no fear of judgement.
  2. As a replacement boyfriend. Sean has Ernesto doing couple-y things, like renting a boat to row around the lake, and going to parties where he lets everyone assume they’re dating.

It’s not a great pretext for a relationship of any kind, but it’s done with such sweetness from both sides it’s hard to condemn…until it inevitably escalates. But your heart aches because on some level we all understand this awkward reaching out, the inability to call it what it really is, the denial and the loss that motivates it.

Matt Bomer is very vulnerable in this, he teeters between faux-cheeriness and complete abandon and at times we’re scared for him because he feels like our friend and we see him spinning out. Alejandro Patiño is great too – the perfect mix of skeptical and concerned. I love these two together so much that I don’t want the movie to end. I don’t want Sean to get better, to outgrow a friendship I understand is toxic for him. This movie makes me selfish because it has entertained me and sustained my soul during a dark day of movie watching. Papi Chulo is a huggable movie, perfect for watching in bed with a big bag of pretzels.

The Cakemaker

One day, a handsome man named Oren walks into Thomas’s German bakery, looking for cake and coffee, and possibly a gift suggestion for his  young son. By the end of the day, Oren and Thomas are lovers, but their affair must be put on hold as Oren returns to Jerusalem to see his son and wife. A month, he tells Thomas as he walks reluctantly out the door, trying to make it sound insubstantial. One month.

Only Oren never does return, and Thomas’s calls go unanswered. There’s been an accident in Jerusalem, and Oren was killed. He isn’t coming back, to Thomas or to anyone. Grief-stricken, Thomas travels to Israel to feel close again to his ex-lover, MV5BZWRjODFhZGYtYzI4NC00M2M0LWI4MmQtZjQ4ODk5ZWIwNjQzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTUwNDQ4NQ@@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,744_AL_wrapping himself up in the city where he last knew he was alive, and he finds himself in the cafe of Oren’s widow, Anat. Thomas (Tim Kalkhof) takes solace by inhabiting different aspects of his dead lover’s life, and it’s not long before he’s helping out in Anat’s cafe, and erm, doing other things for Anat (Sarah Adler) besides. Of course, Anat is unaware of the relationship her husband had with Thomas, so it’s only her grief pushing her into Thomas’s strong but unfamiliar arms.

The Cakemaker is slow and deliberate. It feels a bit like a recipe, with ingredients lovingly chosen and carefully measured, and everything kneaded together with slow, sensuous strokes. There are no surprise ingredients, but the way they’re blended makes for a very interesting movie, equal parts delicate and passionate. Writer-director Ofir Raul Graizer stirs his creation in a way which suggests that our identities, religious, political, sexual, whatever, they’re fluid. And grief is complicated. It’s sad of course, because love is inevitably sad, but it’s the journey more than the destination, the story of survival, the getting there, and the rest is just cake crumbs.

 

 

The Cakemaker screens as part of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival and if you’re lucky, you can catch it tonight, May 9, 8:30pm, at the Cineplex Cinemas Empress Walk 9.

Humor Me

Nate, a prize-winning playwright, has been writing his most recent play for the last four years. When his wife leaves him, taking his adorable son and his ability to pay rent with her, he’s forced to do the thing he’s always sworn he’d never do – move in with his father, who lives in a retirement community called Cranberry Bog.

Of course, Bob (Elliott Gould) thinks his son is a lazy, stagnant fool who’s wasting his Harvard education, so he puts him to work fluffing and folding towels in the Cranberry Bog laundry. And Nate’s talents are further wasted by producing a portion of a musical number with the local community players, ie, old ladies who are unequal parts cranky humor-me-stilland horny. Nate (Jemaine Clement) would like to reconnect with his father, but the two have been distant since the death of Nate’s mother – and he was always closest to her. Other people think Bob is very funny, but since his answers to all of Nate’s very serious questions are always jokes, the two men remain separate in their grief.

I have loved Clement since his days on Flight of the Conchords. His performance in Humor Me is more grounded in reality than usual, infusing this sad-sack with some quirks and personality tics that give Nate some real warmth. Of course, I have loved Elliott Gould for much, much longer, and his diverse professional background is evident in every line, not all of which are truly worthy of him, but he never lets them down. In fact, I’d say the casting and performances in this film are its greatest asset. Ingrid Michaelson, Maria Dizzia, Priscilla Lopez, Joey Slotnick, Willie Carpenter, Le Clanché du Rant, Rosemary Prinz, Annie Potts, and Bebe Neuwirth fill in the gaps between Bob and Nate, creating a living, breathing community not easily conveyed through film.

Humor Me manages a delicate balance that often errs on the side of comedy. It’s light, and if it’s not exactly fresh, it has a lot of talent backing up the retreads.

 

 

Humor Me is screening at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival tonight, 8pm, at the Cineplex Cinemas Empress Walk 5, and May 10, 9pm, at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. Check it out, and bring your dad.

 

The Hollars

I’m really struggling to write this review. I’m even struggling to tell you why I’m struggling with the writing. The thing is, I quite liked the movie, liked it a lot for a movie that is perhaps not meant to be ‘liked.’

It’s about a family that comes together awkwardly when things go bad. Matriarch Sally (Margo Martingale) falls ill – a tumor in her brain requires surgery. Her husband Don (Richard Jenkins) thought symptoms including numb extremities and partial blindness were due to her weight, and sent her to Jenny Craig. Their son Ron (Sharlto Copley) has just been fired from the family business where his dad was his boss, and is living in his parents’ basement. John (John Krasinski) leaves his job and pregnant girlfriend (Anna Kendrick) to be by his mother’s side but it’s immediately obvious why this family doesn’t come together more often. The dynamic is a MV5BMjIwMTEzNjY3OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjg2OTY1OTE@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_little…sticky. And perhaps in the days before a serious surgery, The Hollars could use a little less hollering and a lot more making amends.

You’ll already have noticed that this movie has a super stellar cast, and everyone’s acting like their jobs depend on it (haha – movie joke). But this could easily have just felt a little light-handed and a little familiar, but between writer Jim Strouse and director Krasinski, they manage to keep it light but not superficial.

What I adored about the film is its characters – every single one flawed. And yet even Don is sympathetic, perhaps not caring for his wife as he should but absolutely terrified of life without her. These people feel real. I feel like I’ve sat in waiting rooms with them. Crises do not bring out the best in them. They still do the wrong thing and say the wrong thing and they don’t have picture-perfect moments around the old hospital bed. Real life doesn’t work like that, and neither does this movie.

So that’s what I liked about The Hollars: the connection. Somehow it opened a creaky door to my dusty heart and beamed a bittersweet chunk of real life straight in. Dysfunction doesn’t magically iron itself out just because someone has a brush with death, but in hospitals round the globe you’ll see families trying their best to muddle through, putting on brave faces, eating vending machine junk food instead of dinner, navigating the complicated familial fault lines of in-laws and exes, making good decisions and bad decisions, wiping away secret tears, hassling doctors, re-reading the same page of a magazine twice, three times. It’s what we do. It’s not particularly dignified or graceful or entertaining, and it’s not usually the stuff movies are made of. But once in a while they sneak one through, and it’s how we know we are not alone, that other people look just as bad in bathrobes, that other families have embarrassing conflicts, that other sons have survived seeing their mothers vulnerable and scared, and lived to tell the tale.