Tag Archives: Laura Dern

TIFF19: Marriage Story

Marriage Story picks up long after most romances have wrapped up. Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) were once in love, but as disagreements piled up, they grew apart. Now, as the film begins, they can barely tolerate each other, and they now have to figure out how to uncouple. Of course, since Charlie and Nicole have had trouble agreeing on day-to-day things, agreeing on terms of separation is next-to-impossible.

UNB_Unit_09413_rgbMy synopsis might make the film seem dry, boring, or depressing. Marriage Story is none of those things. Certainly, it is often sad and difficult, but just as often, it is sweet and funny, and all the while, it is insightful and real.

There are many wonderful moments in Marriage Story, and the starting point for all of them is that neither Charlie nor Nicole is a bad person. Director Noah Baumbach never asks the audience to choose sides and never assigns blame for this breakdown. Charlie and Nicole are simply two people who have grown apart and who are being pulled in different directions.

Many films try to gloss over these stresses or claim that love will overcome them. But sometimes love is not enough. Marriage Story tackles that reality in a way that will ring true to anyone who has ever been in a serious relationship.

Marriage Story is one of those rare films that transcends genre. More than that, it is a film that is remarkably relatable and has something to offer for everyone. It is one of the best films of the year, and one you should watch as soon as it becomes available on Netflix on December 6. And if you have the chance to catch Marriage Story sooner (a limited theatrical release is scheduled for November), take it. It’s that good.

 

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Certain Women

Laura (Laura Dern) is a lawyer in smalltown America. She has a client who got a raw deal from his work after an injury. But since he took their initial offer of compensation, there’s not much she can do. Of course, for months he’s refused to believe her, and only hearing the same words from a man seems to do the trick. That is, until she gets a call  in the middle of the night that he’s taken someone hostage and thanks to an ineffectual crime response in Montana, it falls to her to defuse the situation.

Gina (Michelle Williams) and her husband are trying to build their dream home. AMV5BMjE4MDE3NzA3Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzA5OTA1NzE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1499,1000_AL_ conversation with an elderly gentleman who may or may not have some soapstone to sell exposes some cracks in the foundation of her marriage. Are they even on the same page?

Fresh out of law school,  Elizabeth couldn’t bed certain she’d land a good job so she started taking anything she could get. That’s why, despite landing a position with a law firm, she’s also driving 4 hours each way twice a week to teach an adult education class where the students don’t seem to quite appreciate what they’re doing there. Her only real connection is with an unenrolled student, a ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) who’s just wandered in off the street, curious. Curious about people, not the subject. The rancher and the teacher will converse over greasy spoon fries after class.

These three stories only intersect in the vaguest, merest of ways. Certain Women is more about the female experience in this tiny town, and what it’s like to be breaking new ground, literally and figuratively. Director Kelly Reichardt gives us these stories like she’d give a gift. She has uncommon skill at finding compassion and nuance in the smallest of everyday stories. We feel like we know her characters. There aren’t a lot of big, bold happenings, but the attempts at connection, and in fact, the missed opportunities left me bereft. Certain Women tugs so subtly at your heart. It’s full of tiny moments that you can hoard and love in whatever capacity you feel best.

TIFF18: Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy

If you were present in the literary world of the early 2000’s and you have a sharp memory, you may remember JT (Jeremiah Terminator) LeRoy as the author of a New York Times best-seller, Sarah. That is a true thing that happened.

Now here’s where it immediately gets messy. JT LeRoy was a teenage truck stop prostitute who idolized his mother Sarah, also a hooker. Except JT wasn’t actually a real person, he was just an “avatar” used by the book’s real author, Laura Victoria Albert, who developed the pseudonym in the 90s while calling suicide hotlines. She found it easier to talk about her pain if she attributed it to someone else, and she MV5BZjI3NDk1NWUtMmQ4NS00MWMzLTljMmQtZjBhNWU0NWU0ZDFjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzI0MTEwNTY@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_found male identities received more sympathy. Eventually she found a way to turn it into art, and several stories and books were published under the name. She wouldn’t be the first writer to write under an assumed name, but she might be the first to have gone to such great lengths to present a pseudonym as a real person. She recruited her boyfriend’s androgynous sister Savannah to “play” JT in person, granting interviews and posing for pictures as him – even signing the rights to a movie contract. Of course, when the truth comes out, as it nearly always does, the world was kind of mad about being duped, and there was a big backlash.

So that’s the true, and truly weird, story explored in the film, where Laura is played by Laura Dern and Savannah/JT is played by Kristen Stewart. Laura does all the talking over the phone (as a phone sex operator, she has a knack) and Savannah plays it cool and quiet in public. But both of them grow increasingly attached to the character and are possessive of him – particularly when a beautiful actress/director gets involved (Diane Kruger). Of course, the fun doesn’t stop there. Laura develops other personas, like Speedie, JT’s obnoxiously British manager who mysteriously and confoundingly does a lot of his talking for him during interviews.

Every year at TIFF, there are certain themes that pop up. This year it’s addictions, and also cops killing black kids. But a third, and quite odd theme, is literary hoaxes. Melissa McCarthy plays a forger in Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays controversial memoirist James Frey in A Million Little Pieces. Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy provides two very juicy roles for Dern and Stewart, and the tension it creates between them is pretty addictive in itself. Stewart is cast to perfection and in JT’s gender-neutral shoes, themes of sexism and identity leap out so easily. Laura Dern is similarly well-matched, and she somehow makes the juggling of personas look easy. We get the sense that Laura feels her limitations in the field keenly, while Savannah embraces this shadowy second life, perhaps feeling a bit freer in a wig and dark glasses.

I thought Laura deserved a bit more from the script, and the end in general needed a little more oomph in order to match the intensity that comes before it, but this is an interesting story you have to see to believe, with 2 out of this world performances. You should take all of your personalities to the cinema to see this one.

On Second Thought – Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I am not a Star Wars fan. I knew about it peripherally, the way it’s infused into pop culture and stuff, but I’d never seen the movies and never cared to. But Sean has always carried a special spot in his heart for Star Wars, or for the original trilogy anyway. He was just born when the first one came out but as a little boy he was enamoured with the series, with the very concept of space cowboys, and swords made out of laser beams, and cool flying cars. And while I think he respected my stance on keeping Star Wars out of my life for the most part, he kinda sorta took advantage of me when I had massive back surgery two years ago. High on back pills, he screened all 6 movies for me, and I was ambivalent at best. I’m totally okay with these movies existing in the world and I’m  happy for anyone who takes joy from them, but they aren’t for me and never will be. But I still experienced vicarious excitement for Sean when The Force Awakens was announced. It felt like we waited forever to get our hands on that one, and it felt a little out of this world to sit in a theatre and watch that famous crawl go up the screen. Ultimately, though, Sean was disappointed by TFA. He felt it was a little too similar to a previous Star Wars film and couldn’t quite work up the same enthusiasm for this retread. But don’t think that didn’t mean our butts weren’t in the seats opening night for Rogue One. And again for The Last Jedi, of course, and this time, Sean was a little more enthusiastic.

Warning: spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, steer away. Maybe check out Sean’s spoiler-free review instead, or my own of the original trilogy.

I was not. Enthusiastic, I mean. I don’t mean to be a wet blanket on his boyhood nostalgia, and it wasn’t as if the film was without merits. I didn’t think it was bad, I just didn’t care all that much. And at two and a half hours, it was long and felt it, and I couldn’t help but sneer at the scenes that I thought of as bloated – that extended Finn/Rose casino adventure that never went anywhere in particular.

But later, thinking about this one scene between Luke and Rey, I reconsidered. “I failed him” he says of his nephew Kylo Ren’s defection to the Dark Side. No, she says, “He failed you.” And that’s when the movie really opened up to me and I started thinking of the film in terms of theme – that theme being failure. Triumphs are easy. Heroes are tested when things don’t go their way. Rose and Finn are not going to accomplish their mission but they never stop trying, they never stop believing, and that doggedness inspires hope in others. That mission was never as crucial as they believed. Vice Admiral Holdo had another plan in mind the whole time, and she orders the evacuation of her ship. But this plan fails too. The escape pods are picked off one by one and Holdo ends up sacrificing herself to save them. When she reveals to Leia that she’ll stay behind in what will amount to a suicide mission Leia says “I can’t take any more loss” to which Holdo responds “Yes you can.” Never mind that it feels like Laura Dern is speaking for us, the audience, who have so recently lost Carrie Fisher. It’s also a tiny admission by a formidable General that her job is hard, and weighing on her heavily.

Leia looks weary in this movie. The toll of each loss is written in the slope of her tumblr_oxl4isuDq51ruu897o5_540shoulders. But her unwavering belief in the cause encourages her to soldier on, as a Rebel and as a Leader – a figurehead who inspires others but also a teacher who is grooming the next generation. Poe seems to be a favourite of hers, though all agree he’s a bit of a hot head who prefers the shoot-em-up approach. Poe’s whole raison d’etre this film is to learn some hard lessons. He too must fail, and learn to put the Light first and foremost, ahead of even his own ego.

And perhaps it is Luke himself who needs most to learn how to continue on in the face of failure. Having failed his nephew Ben, who then serves under Snoke as the formidable Kylo Ren, Luke is so devastated and full of self-doubt he retreats. Not just physically, though he does completely disappear at a time when, arguably, the Rebellion needs him most. But he also retreats from the Force. He cuts himself off completely. And maybe it’s his fear that he’ll fail again that prevents him from giving Rey the help she needs.

In the film’s last epic battle, between the two men who seem to have failed each other, we must contemplate what, if anything, is Kylo Ren’s failure. Though The Last Jedi is a direct continuation from where we left off in The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren seems to have grown quite a bit. He’s more self-assured and he’s more powerful. But he’s still prey to his own temper, which betrays him. He should have been able to pick up on Luke’s misdirection if he hadn’t been letting his rage dictate their interaction. The truth is, temperamental as he may be, Kylo Ren is a contender now. We’ve been underestimating him, and we’re not the only ones. But does he have a fatal flaw? Certainly, Kylo Ren has failed the Light. He’s failed his parents, and his heritage. But is he also failing himself? And if the answer is yes – does he have the means to soldier on?

Now we wait for Episode IX.

Downsizing

downsizingThe world is overpopulated and in the very near future it will become untenably crowded: fact. We don’t have enough space to comfortably house all these people, we don’t have the ecosystem to support them, or enough resources to fund the lifestyles to which we have become accustomed. The rate at which these 7 + billion people consume means we are making waste and pollution like there’s no tomorrow – and if we continue doing so, there won’t be.

Luckily for fictional Matt Damon, a Norwegian scientist will come up with a revolutionary bit of science that’s going to sound nutty at first, but hear me out. He calls it downsizing. A medical procedure will taking a willing human being and shrink him down, to about 5 inches. These small people will live in small towns – dollhouses, practically, taking up little space, generating little waste. A typical person might liquidate all his assets, pay off all his debts, and find that the $150 000 he’s left with is equivalent to about $12 million in the small world. Live like a millionaire by becoming a fraction of your former self!

Occupational therapist Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) are the kind of people to whom this kind of deal appeals. They work but never seem to get ahead. Sure this downsizing is billed as a way to save the earth, but it’s also a way to personally wipe the slate clean, and live the life you could only dream of as a normally-sized person.

As you can imagine, being only 5 inches tall comes with perks, but also some drawbacks. As writer-director Alexander Payne imagines it, there are social and economic impacts to all these people retiring from “normal” society. Illegal immigration and terrorism are facilitated. Downsizing can be used as punishment, against someone’s will. And even if you’re one of those people living in luxury, you’re suddenly vulnerable to insects, birds, even high winds.

Downsizing is a well-timed satire, science-fiction that manages not to feel too fictiony. Credit Payne’s wit for packing as much detail as he does, and if sci-fi feels a little outside the wheelhouse of the guy who did Sideways and Nebraska, he actually manages it with a lot of humour and humanity. Though the film is at times unabashedly absurdist, it stays away from easy sight gags. This is a thinking film that abounds with ideas – you’ll need to digest afterward. It’s an indictment of the American dream, people so disenfranchised that they’re willing to undergo a risky procedure just to find fulfillment. But miniaturization isn’t really the answer it’s cracked up to be, with people’s problems seeming shrinking down to follow them.

Matt Damon is perfectly cast as a nice guy who’s just a bit of a loser. But for Sean, it was Christoph Waltz as his playboy neighbour who really stole the show. He plays a Serbian sleazeball who figures that what the small community needs is a small black market, and he’s there to profit. I, on the other hand, was blown away by Hong Chau as his cleaner, Gong Jiang, a one-legged Vietnamese dissident who shows Paul there’s more to life than just keeping up with the Jason Sudeikises (he’s the classmate at his high school reunion who inspired Paul to go for the Big Shrink). When Oscar season starts heating up, I hope her name is mentioned.

Downsizing is a unique film with a lot of style. Despite being the opening night film here at the Venice Film Festival, it likely won’t be a best-picture contender for me, but it’s a film full of ideas that I found immensely enjoyable.

Wilson

Wilson (Woody Harrelson) is a grump and a misanthrope. He has no social filter or skills or clue. He’s just out in the world, spitting old man vitriol. His neuroses aren’t great company and his acidic “honesty” doesn’t do much to help with the loneliness.

But then he gets a chance to reconnect with his ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern), and he finds out that they share a daughter, given up for adoption 16 years ago. This ready-made MV5BMDU0ODI3ODAtMmYxYi00Yzk3LThlNDAtNGRiZjI1MDRiMzgwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SX667_CR0,0,667,999_AL_family appeals to him greatly, though his fantasy diverges quite archly from the reality. And because life isn’t fair, this grown-ass man gets to wreak havoc on the lives of not one but two women in order to finally grow up himself.

Woody Harrelson is an utter delight. Wilson should by all rights be detestable, and yet Harrelson makes our time with him enjoyable. Unfortunately, his great performance is just about the only thing this movie has going for it. It’s not that interesting or concerned with plot or momentum. Is Woody enough? For me, yes. I don’t regret watching Wilson. Harrelson finds humanity and humour in the awkwardness. And Dern’s not a bad counterpoint as a former party girl trying to turn her life straight. They’re a complete fucking train-wreck as far as couples go and completely unprepared to host a houseplant for the weekend let alone a teenage daughter, but by all means, let’s eavesdrop on their bold but bewilderingly inept stab at playing adults.

I suspect director Craig Johnson didn’t quite know what to do with what he had. The film feels a bit episodic and the shtick gets stale after a while. Full credit to Harrelson for making Wilson just charismatic enough to keep us watching. Otherwise, Johnson would have easily lost us with his generous seasoning of sentimentality and a lackluster finale.

 

 

Oscars 2015: Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress

In recent years, you can burn out on online Oscar debates before the nominees have even started writing their speeches yet but in 1995 all I had was Siskel and Ebert and Entertainment Tongith. I was 13 years old and hadn’t seen most of the movies but the way they talked about Oscar night, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. I laughed through Letterman’s monolgue (probably pretending to get some of the jokes), had strong opinions on Pulp Fiction and Shawkshank Redemption without having seen either one, and celebrated when my two favourites (The Lion King and Speed) each took home two statues. Awards season has been like Christmas for me ever since.

Now, I watch all the movies or at least as many as I can. No category is too minor for me and have sat through more shiity movies than I can count just because they were nominated for best Costume Design or Makeup. I don’t always agree with the winners and have found myself yelling at the tv more than once but I’m back every year with a renewed- and delusional- hope that this time justice will be done.

Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall- The JudgeWhiplash script

Ethan Hawke- Boyhood

Edward Norton- Birdman

Mark Ruffalo- Foxcatcher

J. K. Simmons- Whiplash

This category has been one of the surest bets of the night for years now. Recent winners include Javier Bardem for No Country for Old Men, Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight, Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds, and Jared Leto for last year’s Dallas Buyers Club. Even before the nominations were announced, no one had a chance against any of these guys and with J. K. Simmons as an undisputed frontrunner, this year is no exception.

He deserves it too. I finally got around to seeing Whiplash a couple of days ago and was on edge almost every time Simmons was on screen. He’s intimidating even when he’s not being overtly mean and scary even when he’s making you laugh. Best of all, he’s unpredictable, which is more than I can say for the Best Supporting Actor race this year.

It’s not that his competition is completely unworthy. I’m not sure anyone in the world is more irritating to me than Ethan Hawke is but even I had to admit that he was likeable and believable as the still maturing father in Boyhood. He’s in most of my favourite scenes in the movie- my personal favourite being his awkward safe sex talk. And of course there’s Edward Norton, one of the better performances in one of the best acted films of the year.

How Mark Ruffalo was even considered for a nomination is a complete mystery to me and I’m still not sure I understand how it happened. Channing Tatum would have made more sense.

Finally, I have nothing bad to say about Robert Duvall. All other things being equal, he’s by far the best actor in this category but there’s only so much that even he could do to elevate the hokey writing and uninspired directing in The Judge.

J. K. Simmons wins. Anyone else would be a huge upset.

Best Supporting Actress

Lately this has been the Academy’s chance to show us how much it celebrates diversity, doing its best to make up for an obvious caucasian bias in the other acting categories. Recent winners include Penelope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Monique for Precious, Octavia Spencer for The Help, and Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave.  The list of nominees this year are not nearly as diverse- or as interesting- as it had been in recent years.Patricia Arquette

Patricia Arquette- Boyhood

Laura Dern- Wild

Keira Knightley- The Imitation Game

Emma Stone- Birdman

Meryl Streep- Into the Woods

I think we could have done better.

Dern, for Wild, seemed to come out of nowhere. I’m not sure I heard even a hint of speculation that she’d be nominated. I don’t get it.

Neither Knightley or Stone are able to stand out in their own movies, let alone among the other nominees. Knightley plays an important part in The Imitation Game and we learn a lot about Alan Turing from his relationship with her character but the movie belongs to Benedict Cumberbatch and to give anyone else in it an acting award would be bizarre. As for Stone, I thought she seemed to struggle with the demands of all the dialogue that she had to memorize in Birdman. She mostly rises to the occasion and has some fantastic moments but she’s really not in the same league as Michael Keaton or Edward Norton.

Meryl Streep’s nomination makes sense. She can’t help being amazing in almost everything and has some of the best scenes in Into the Woods. But do we really want to see her up there again acting like she had no idea she was going to win? She’s already been honoured three times for better performances.

This leaves, by process of elimination, Patricia Arquette. I’d have no problem with a win for her and Boyhood was possibly my favourite movie of the year. I still struggle with the idea of calling this the best supporting performance of the year since Richard Linklater went to great lengths to try and make us forget that we were watching a performance. Her work in the film is still impressive and she’s likely to take home the Oscar.

For an asshole’s discussion on the parts available to women in Hollywood, click here.