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TIFF18: Life Itself

If you watch Dan Fogelman’s This is Us, then you know what to expect from the writer-director: a love story to make you swoon, a family saga to make your heart swell, emotional manipulation to milk your tearducts dry. Life Itself is This Is Us on steroids, and with swearing.

Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde) have the kind of love story only found in movies and imaginations. She’s wounded in a sexy way, he’s wildly devoted to her, they’re both unbearably attractive, he talks about his feelings, which are grandiose and pointed solely toward her, she doesn’t complain when he kisses her with stubble.

But – record scratch – this isn’t some ordinary rom-com, this is Life Itself! We can’t stop MV5BOTAwMjU4NjA5Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODgyOTY4NTM@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_there. No, Dan Fogelman grows the concept to include generations that cross continents. The ensemble cast includes  Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris- Mencheta, Laia Costa, Alex Monner, Mandy Patinkin, and Jean Smart. Like his hit television show, Life Itself is not so much about the destination but the journey. Fogelman plays around with the chronology, as he does, and with an unreliable narrator and its delicious implications.

I love the casting. I loved seeing Jean Smart. Oscar Isaac was a stand-out for me. He’s playing Prince Charming, only sexy, and he sells it. Coming from almost anyone else on Earth I’m sure I would have been rolling my eyes but for Oscar I was nodding and tilting my head, and wanting desperately to touch him lightly on the forearm. Alex Monner was also really solid. His part isn’t huge, but he leaves quite an impact. And I loved that his story line shot in Spain was done in Spanish and subtitled in English. I think there’s been a trend in films lately to see more characters speaking in their native tongue, and I’m all for it. It worked really well here and I hope to see this trend continue.

But before you start thinking this is to good to be true, to be honest, I had some problems with the film. Specifically with the direction taken by some of the characters that just didn’t feel right to me. I admit those choices fit the narrative; Fogelman knew where he was going and he got us there. Does that excuse it? Ugh. I’m struggling because the movie gave me emotional release, I had such a satisfying, cathartic ugly-cry that I sort of want to excuse it anything. But the truth is that no, you shouldn’t shit on your characters. If you’re going to ask me to buy some pretty extreme things, you shouldn’t spend so much time letting me get to know them first, know them well enough to call bullshit when they suddenly start acting out of character.

In the end, fans of This Is Us are extremely likely to like this movie if they aren’t too shocked by Dan’s potty mouth. I liked it myself. I can’t help it! This movie hits you right in the feels and there’s no use trying to logic it away.

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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.

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 is 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.

A Dog’s Purpose

This is the movie I promised myself  I would never see. The trailer itself made it crystal clear: this is the story of one dog who keeps coming back to life as different breeds with different owners. And in order for a dog to be reborn – you guessed it – he has to die. A lot. And it’s never, ever not sad. But the film makes no bones about death not being the worst fate for dogs – and THAT was the worst part. The part when he didn’t die, but lived a miserable life.

27-dog-purpose.w710.h473Anyway, as if a dog’s repeated death wasn’t enough to deter me, there was some controversy prior to the film’s release when a video of one of the actor dogs revealed it looking completely terrified during a stunt. Abuse was alleged, which led people to boycott the film. Not that it mattered; A Dog’s Purpose is not terribly good. It was never going to win the box office. It preys on your heartstrings. The director is so shamelessly over-sentimental that I felt like a dog on a leash being yanked along against my will.

If you’ve been paying attention here, you may have noticed that Sean and I are dog lovers, or that I am a dog lover and Sean never really stood a chance. I already had Herbie when I met Sean, and Sean had to win his approval in order to stick around. Then we got Gertie so that Herbie would always have a friend. And then we adopted Fudgie on the day we bought our house. And Bronx was given to me as a post-surgery recovery gift. So that’s 4 – the maximum amount of animals we can have on our property without legally declaring ourselves a farm. They keep my life full and happy. There’s no better way to feel like a million bucks: simply leave home and return 10 minutes later. Tails will wag, joyous barks will sound, big sloppy kisses will greet you at the door.

While watching the movie, Sean had an epiphany: what if the only god that exists is the god of dogs. And this world belongs to the dogs. And we’re just here to act as their humble servants. And OUR purpose is to create better and better domestic situations for them. If that’s the case, dogs are benevolent masters, friendly and forgiving. Me? Not so much. This is one movie that deserved to be put down, but since it wasn’t, I caution you to tell it it’s a bad boy, a very bad boy, now maybe hit it in the nose with a rolled up newspaper and tell it to go lie down in its bed. And go hug a real dog instead.

My Life As A Zucchini

Zucchini goes to live in an orphanage after his alcoholic mother dies. The orphanage is not a bad place. This is not a bad-orphanage movie. It’s about the broken children who live inside. The kids are there for many reasons (deportation, mental health, abuse, poverty, etc); some can dream of one day returning home, while others know they never will. For the most part the children band together and support one another as they cope with loss.

MV5BMGU1ZDI5Y2ItOTY2OS00ZjBiLThkYzEtZDIxOTA4NmVmMjE3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUyOTI5MQ@@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_My Life As A Zucchini is stop-motion animated in a very compelling way. It’s a simple story with colourful characters and a strange title but make no mistake, there’s little silliness awaiting you. It’s a pretty bleak story.

I watched the version dubbed in English, which features voice work by Nick Offerman, Will Forte, Ellen Page, and Amy Sedaris. But even with all this wonderful adult interference, director Claude Barras keeps the story firmly within Zucchini’s corner. The story is told through the eyes of children, almost without taint from the adult world. It is heartbreaking but also tender and compassionate. By focusing on the resilience of children and the difference even one caring person can make, hope shines its rays even on this dark little tale.

I enjoyed this very much. It’s not as heavy on the heart as it sounds, and Barras manages to wrap things up in under 70 minutes. I’m always a fan of the loving work that goes into stop-motion and this one is no exception – perhaps it is exceptional. The expressive characters and honest story give My Life As A Zucchini a sensitivity, like a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. I’m very taken by this and am heartened to see animation tackling such complex characters so deftly. Definitely worth a watch, tissues at the ready.

Short: The Present

What was the best present you got this year?

Did you ever get a dog for Christmas? Dogs are probably as close to the meaning of life as we’ll ever get, but a dog is also a responsibility more than a gift, so  you should always think twice, and maybe even three times before you give a dog to someone. Like giving a cell phone, which saddles the recipient with a monthly bill, a dog is a mouth to feed and 4 paws to clean, and about 3\4 of your bed to kiss goodbye. But they fill your heart with joy.

That said, I present to you a 4-minute short that will likely pull on your heartstrings. A boy gets an unexpected gift from his mother – and he’s less than happy about it. With thanks to Mr. Bad Bloke Bob for turning us on to it, you can watch it here (and I recommend that you do):

Attractive animation and smart, succinct story-telling accomplished in near-silence. The Present is a 4-minute gift you should give yourself right now.

Gleason

Steve Gleason was an unlikely football star: too small to do what he did, he did it anyway, for the New Orleans Saints. It was the NFL that brought him to New Orleans but it was falling in love with a free-spirited local girl named Michel that kept him there beyond his retirement in 2008. They soon found themselves expecting a baby, which would be a happy occasion  except that about 6 weeks prior Steve was diagnosed with ALS.

ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is a neurodegenerative disease where the nerve cells that control your muscles die. The brain can’t talk to muscles, leading to a loss of mobility, loss of speech and eventually the ability movie_headerto breathe. Everything is still right in your head though, so you’re still smart and alert and you see everything happening to you, helpless to do anything about it. There is no cure. It is fatal, and will likely be so within 2-5 years of diagnosis.

Within months, Steve is walking and talking with noticeable problems. As Michel’s belly grows with their baby inside, he starts keeping a video diary so that one day his unborn child may know him.

The documentary is bittersweet; the Gleason family experiences highs and lows, and no matter what we hear the clock ticking. As hard as it is for us to watch him deteriorate so quickly on film, to see that hardship mirrored on his wife, Michel’s, face, is just agony. Steve seems determined to share his struggle honestly, even when that means admitting that he’s trying to live up to this banner of ‘inspiration’ and ‘hero’ that the media has ascribed to him and not always knowing that means.

He does, however, establish the Gleason Foundation, which focuses on service and equipment. He felt that much of what ALS takes away, like speech and mobility, technology can give back. And while that’s true to an extent, it can’t quite account for everything: not time, not life. But the foundation gives him purpose, and he’s certainly in the position to bring awareness and to raise money for this disease.

It’s sucky to watch this movie. It’s hard. But as Steve himself says, it’s sad but it’s not all sad. And maybe it’s those moments of not-sad that we need to attend to: the hope, the faith, the optimism, the acceptance, and certainly the closeness and love of this family.  And as difficult as it is, it’s also an amazing piece of film. It’s raw and emotional and real. As a famous athlete and the face on a poster on many bedroom walls, many would have called him a hero. But giving a voice to those who have lost them? That’s heroic. His wife’s caregiving? That’s heroic. This film has the power to provoke the hero in all of us. I can’t recommend it enough.