Is TIFF the most wonderful time of the year? For a movie reviewer, it’s pretty close. Every year when the schedule gets locked down, I peruse the titles, research each film, and work up a short list of films I’d optimistically like to watch, if time was unlimited and schedules never conflicted and sleep was optional. In my trusty notebook, I write down titles, directors, actors, and a small blurb to job my memory as to what on earth I might be watching. I had “girl with ice cubes for teeth” and “quirky martial arts romance” and “Afro-sonic sci-fi musical”; for this one, I’d merely written “Keira Knightley Christmas movie.” I don’t normally love watching Christmas movies outside of December, but the chronology of film festivals is mystifying and not to be questioned.
What did I actually get?
A lovely Christmas party, actually, in which hostess Nell (Knightley) greets her friends and family for a fantastic meal, friendly reminiscence, merry making, followed by mass suicide.
It’s the end of the world, you see. That thing we keep predicting but doing nothing about. The environment collapses, sending a cloud of poison, more or less, into the world, where it is spreading death, horrible, horrible death, wherever it goes. Blood leaking out all your orifices kind of death. Not a great death. So the UK, generous to a fault, have provided their citizens with a suicide pill. Everyone’s enjoying one last Christmas with their families, and as the cloud approaches, the pill will ensure a peaceful death in the arms of loved ones instead of painful and bloody convulsions.
The movie broke my damn heart. The adults did their best to act jolly, or stoic when jolly couldn’t be produced, but the kids were confused and vulnerable. Nell and Simon (Matthew Goode) have three kids; the oldest, Art (Roman Griffin Davis) is old enough to be angry at what’s happening to him. He’s angry the adults neglected the environment until it came to this. He’s angry that his parents plan to murder him. He’s angry that he’s so helpless. I was angry too.
But mostly I was sad. Sad that we’d failed these kids, yes, but also sad that any parents had to make this choice, no choice at all really. Sad that there’s so little comfort to be had at the end of the world.
And I was a little impressed, impressed that writer-director Camille Griffin could use Christmas apocalypse to talk about privilege. Nell has the perfect old house to host her closest friends, their kids, and even semi-unwelcome plus ones (that would be Sophie, played by Lily-Rose Depp). But she’s also a citizen of a prosperous nation with efficient (enough) infrastructure. They’ve delivered a peaceful way out to its citizens – but not to everyone living within its borders. If you aren’t there legally, you’re not worth the pill that will save you needless agony. Even kids understand this inherent inequity, and if you think you can look a kid in the eye and attempt to justify it, you’ve got another thing coming. Come armed with kleenex; Silent Night sounds harmless but beneath its shiny gift wrap is scathing indictment and a death sentence for all.
I know I don’t need to tell you what today is. 20 years. Everyone remembers.
In 2002, artist Ruth Sergel set up a plywood video booth, inviting people, including eye witnesses of the attacks, from New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, PA to share their experiences. It wasn’t an interview; people stepped into the booth, hit a button, and shared whatever was in their hearts, as much as they could. Directors Bjørn Johnson and David Belton sifted through that raw footage and cobbled together an emotional tribute to that horrible, fateful day, telling the story from personal, intimate accounts of what it was like to survive that day, to lose on that day, to live through that day. As Johnson puts it: “the human story behind the tragedy.”
“Enjoy” is not the right word, but I did appreciate the film. It’s rather affecting to hear people speak from such a raw place, the wound not yet scabbed over. But for Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11, the filmmakers go one step further, building a new box but asking back the same people, people will revisit those wounds 20 years later and find them, if not exactly healed, then scarred at least. The tragedy is not so immediate, the emotions not so high. The people – survivors/victims/witnesses – have had time to reflect. To grow as people, to move on as casualties.
The box itself evokes the confessional, and inside, people admitted to guilt, grief, rage and resilience. We sit with them – the grieving parents, the young widower, the first responder, etc – and we hear their unfiltered stories. There are plenty of gruesome images in the media of that day; this documentary focuses not on what people saw that day, but what they felt. Like One World Trade Center (Freedom Tower) now standing in lower Manhattan, these testimonials form a de facto memorial, a living memorial, not just to people and places, but to the way the world used to be.
Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11 is an official selection of TIFF21.
Look for it on NBC/Peacock.
If you’d like some way to mark the occasion without dredging up so many painful memories, Apple TV has Come From Away, an uplifting Broadway musical about the best of humanity on that tragic day.
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.
At the big top mall and video arcade at exit 8, Mack (Bryan Cranston) is the ringleader of a tiny circus inside a shopping mall. Home to animals including elephant Stella (voiced by Angelina Jolie), poodle Snickers (Helen Mirren), baseball-playing chicken Henrietta (Chaka Khan), mangy mutt Bob (Danny DeVito), Murphy the firetruck-driving bunny (Ron Funches), a neurotic seal named and most impressively, the headlining silverback gorilla, the one and only Ivan (Sam Rockwell). But the truth is, both the mall and the circus within it have fallen upon hard times. The crowds aren’t filling the seats anymore, and the circus is barely making enough money to keep the animals fed.
Mack brings in a baby elephant named Ruby (Brooklynn Prince) to reinvigorate the show, but even though she radiates cuteness, she’s not enoujgh to save the circus. That role, as ever, belongs to Ivan. But for the first time in his life, he’s wondering if maybe circus captivity isn’t the best or only option. He’s not concerned for himself so much as for baby Ruby, who deserves to be in the wild, a concept he can hardly recall or imagine.
This movie is based on the children’s novel by K.A. Applegate, which in turn is based on the true story of Ivan, a western lowland gorilla who spent 27 years living inside a mall enclosure in Tacoma, Washington, never setting foot outdoors. You don’t have to be good at math to figure how emotional this one’s going to be.
A live action/animation hybrid, this movie looks slick, and seamless enough not to detract from its sweet but simple story. The movie, directed by Thea Sharrock based on a script by Mike White (the very one who produced scripts as varied as Beatriz at Dinner and The Emoji Movie), isn’t quite sure where to take its darker themes but it draws some very sympathetic characters and a heartwarming tale about family and home. Cranston seems to be morphing into Ian McKellan before our very eyes, but it’s little Ariana Greenblatt who steals the show and all her scenes as Julia, the arty and intrepid zookeeper’s daughter who just wants her friends to be happy. The One and Only Ivan stole my heart and quite a few tears – a small price to pay for a solid, family friendly option new to Disney+.
Time and again, we have been told that a toy’s only intrinsic value is to be useful. And when that toy ceases to be useful – either it gets broken, or a kid stops playing with it – well, that toy has met the end of its life. Yikes. Woody and friends have occasionally had the chance to grab at immortality but have always convinced themselves that to be Andy’s toy is the highest possible achievement. There is no better thing, therefore it is okay to accept the eventual certainty of death. One day, Andy WILL grow up, will leave for college, will leave them behind.
That day has come.
Andy is indeed off to college. Toy Story 3 was released in 2010, 15 years after the first one, so by any accurate count, Woody and the gang have had some bonus years. But their luck has run out. Andy is packing up his room – putting aside a few things to store in his mother’s attic, a few essentials to bring along with him, and the rest will be marked for garbage. Andy’s sentimental side has him setting aside Woody for college, and bagging the rest of his old pals for storage, but a misunderstanding leads both his mother and the toys themselves to think that they’re meant for the trash. The toys manage to save themselves from the metallic maw of the garbage truck, and they throw themselves into a donation pile destined for Sunnyside Daycare.
The toys are sad to leave Andy, but thrilled that they might once again be played with. Until now, the toys have spent their lives caring solely for Andy, wanting nothing but his happiness. Their own needs have occasionally gone unmet in this quest, especially in these last few years, with Andy the teenager no longer having time for them. The toys, and Woody in particular, have often seemed parental in their concern for him, and in fact, with Andy’s dad curiously absent and unremarked upon, Woody seems to have stepped into that of father figure. But parents too must say goodbye to their children eventually, and when they grow to become useless, they too will be placed in an institution. The toys are optimistic about the daycare centre, but it’s easy to read it as relegation to retirement living, being put out to pasture (Buzz even gets lobotomized, like a dementia patient). There’s always been this double read to Toy Story, one that often leaves us choked up. Thanks a lot, internet. I thought the well had finally run dry, and now I’m flooding my keyboard with tears.
But that’s not even the sad part! Toy Story 3’s genius has the toys not just facing oblivion and meaninglessness without a kid to serve, but it has them facing actual death. When the daycare turns out to be a pretty awful, tyrannical living situation, they find themselves embracing death. This is possibly this decade’s most traumatic and touching scene: with death mere moments away, the toys stop their futile efforts to save themselves, and hold hands to face it bravely together. Luckily, Pixar thinks better of killing off their revered heroes, and they do get a last minute reprieve and a second chance at life with Bonnie, a little girl just down the street from Andy. Even Woody, who was meant to accompany Andy to college, gets reassigned, and frankly, it’s with a sigh of relief that we find he will remain with his friends. Because for me at least, it wasn’t actually death that seemed the worst of it, it was thinking of Woody and Buzz, best buds and life partners, being separated in their twilight years. Is anyone not thinking of their grandparents, and who will die first, leaving the other to face those bleak years alone?
Toy Story 3 improves upon its predecessors in my ways. In 11 years, the animation has of course improved by big heaping gobs. In the first film, we briefly see a teddy bear that’s been relegated to the shelf; they chose not to make him part of the gang because fur was just too hard to get right. In this film, Lotso the bear is made a proper villain, and he looks glorious. Not only are the colours and textures perfect, but the animators find ways to show proper wear and tear on the toys as well. The animation is vivid and astonishing. The expressions on the toys’ faces are often so realistic that you have to pinch yourself to remember it’s just a cartoon (Woody has 229 animation points of movement in his face alone). In Toy Story 3, the Pixar animators are fearless. Whereas before they struggled to get clothes right, in this film they embrace them, with Ken making over 20 costume changes alone (and all of them fabulous). Hair swings. Fibers are differentiated. But they’re not just improving, they’re innovating. Believe it or not, in this film, the real challenge was the trash bag. They have properties that apparently you and I take for granted, but the animators truly struggled with.
But we don’t keep coming back to this franchise for the richly drawn cartoons, we come back because these characters are our friends, and the excellent story-writing has made us care. And boy did we line up in droves to see this film, even if it had been more than a decade since the last installment: it was the first animated film to make a billion dollars worldwide, which it did in just over 2 months at the box office. It was also one of only 3 animated films to score an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (Beauty and the Beast and Up were the other 2), and it did it without any of its predecessors being nominated. Toy Story has continued to surprise fans because it actually feels that each sequel is better than the last, while Hollywood of course has led us to expect exactly the opposite. Although, it should be noted: while the first and second films both had 100% ratings on Spoiled Red Fruit, this one had a mere 99.
If the nostalgia attached to vintage toys and TV shows and lunchboxes isn’t enough for you, I find it kind of neat that Toy Story has managed to keep the same guy, John Morris, as Andy’s voice for its entire run (there was an 11 year gap between this film and the one before it – the producers had no idea if adult Morris would at all be suitable, but they called him up and his voicemail convinced them on the spot). And Laurie Metcalf as his mom; Roseanne was still on network TV when the first film premiered, and now I suppose it’s kind of on again. Of course, we’ve lost some voice actors along the way: Jim Varney (Slinky) was replaced by his friend Blake Clark. And Don Rickles (Mr. Potato Head) will appear in the latest film via archival audio. But we’ve also seen some great additions. Toy Story 3 introduces Ned Beatty (Lotso), Michael Keaton (Ken), Jodi Benson (Barbie – but most famous as the voice of Ariel, of course), Timothy Dalton (Mr. Pricklepants), Kristen Schaal (Trixie), Bonnie Hunt (Dolly), and the list goes on. Toy Story 3 has over 300 characters, which is a lot for any movie, never mind one in which each needs to be rendered from scratch!
Toy Story 3 earned a place in our hearts with scenes that register both pleasure and pain – bittersweet, like life. It taps into our primal fears (uselessness, loneliness, death) but ends with a hopeful note. Toy Story 3 was the perfect way to end a beloved franchise: Andy says goodbye to his toys, and so do we. We know they’re safe and happy in their after(Andy)life, with the final scene panning up into white fluffy cloud, reminiscent of Andy’s wallpaper, but also a sure symbol of heaven. But this franchise has again proved irresistible and Disney-Pixar just couldn’t stay away: a fourth installment hits theatres this weekend, so if you’re curious what life has been like for the toys in their new home, you’re in luck. Just pray that this one holds up to the rest.
Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) and Poe (Moises Arias) are friends, roommates and teenagers who’ve known each other since they were kids. They’ve been through a lot together and their bond is undeniable. When a third wheel, Will (Cole Sprouse), moves into the building, things begin to change.
Also worth noting: Stella, Poe, and Will are all CF patients, and the building in which they live is of course a hospital. They’re all living in the same ward but because of their disease, they aren’t allowed to come any closer to each other than 6 feet. Which puts a real damper on the budding romance between Stella and Will. Of course , the looming specter of their mortality is also boner-softening, I’d imagine.
Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a fatal genetic disease for which there is no cure. It affects mostly the digestive system and the lungs. It’s the progressive lung damage from chronic infection that usually gets them in the end. Average life expectancy is almost but not quite middle age.
So here is another entry in the dead or dying teenager trope, which is weirdly having a moment. Or maybe it’s always having a moment. Teenagers like to really heighten the stakes. These teenagers know their limits and why they exist, not that it makes it any easier to follow them. They’re not trying to endanger their lives, but they are trying to live them. A warrior nurse named Barb (Kimberly Hébert Gregory) will do everything she can to keep them going, and sometimes that pits her against them. I thought constantly about how hard that must be for her. She’s the one caring for them day in and day out, likely for years, and definitely for weeks and months at a time. She has more contact with them than any friends or family. But it’s not her job to match-make, or to chaperone dates. It’s to keep them alive another day.
CF patients may find it hard to fall in love. Their time outside hospitals is limited. Their time on earth is limited. But love between CF patients can’t happen at all because they must never, ever touch. Teenagers may find forbidden love irresistible, but this is a whole other level.
It cost me some dignity to even click on this film. That’s the first thing you need to know. The dying teen trope is practically my nemesis and it’s truly difficult to picture a universe in which I don’t resent it just for existing. So, not exactly a neutral space for writing impartial film reviews. But Netflix doesn’t pay me to write impartial reviews. Netflix doesn’t pay me at all.
Calvin (Asa Butterfield) and Skye (Maisie Williams) meet at a cancer support group where they’re both working on bucket lists, only they don’t call them that because that movie’s already been done. Their impending deaths lend an air of urgency to these lists – Skye wants to do loads of very general sounding things, like learn a trade and leave a mark, but she imposes only one item on his list: asking out a girl.
He works as a baggage handler at an airport where he’s seriously crushing on a flight attendant named Izzy. Which doesn’t stop Sky for going full manic pixie dead girl on him. That might be a nice farewell gift to a dying teen, only Calvin’s hanging on to a secret. He’s not dying. He’s just a hypochondriac.
Does this mean I only hate this movie half as much, or twice as much, on principle?
Then Came You has some nice moments, mostly because Butterfield and Williams are more watchable than a bag of dicks. Stop with the effusive praise, you say. No shade to Butterfield or Williams – they really are a sweet pair, she not quite convincing as a free-spirited punk, he all too convincing as an awkward, gangly spazz.
The problem is with the words coming out of their mouths. Whoever writes these things clearly thinks dialogue should double as a pancake topping: pure syrup. Skye had cancer, but she died of an overdose of cheese. Which actually sounds like my new top favourite way to die. Too much cheese! But not movie cheese. Cheese cheese. Goat cheese. Old cheese. Soft cheese. All the cheese. But Sky’s fatal dose of cheese came from doing all the tragic dying girl things that tragic dying girls always do in movies. Just once I’d like to see them go kicking and screaming. I mean, how many 17 year olds can possibly be so stoic in the face of the big sleep? I guess anger and fear and bargaining aren’t as photogenic. We like our tragedy porn to be youthful, docile, and composed. Tears are fine, but no ugly crying, it goes without saying.
Then Came You is ten cents out of $1.20 (a dime a dozen – is that how that works?). If you’re adding to your weepies fix, I suppose this one deserves a spot on the list. Otherwise it’s not a super great use of your Netflix account.
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 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.
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, she 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.
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 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 isn’t 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.