Tag Archives: paul dano

TIFF18: Wildlife

Joe Brinson’s family has just recently moved to Montana but his dad’s already out of work. You can tell it’s 1960 because father and son play football in belted khakis with their perfectly-pressed polo shirts neatly tucked in. Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) has a lot of pride and believes he’s “just too well-liked.” Jeanette Brinson (Carey Mulligan) swallows whatever disappointment she feels with her husband out of work again after yet another move to a place she doesn’t want to be, and still manages to ask politely for his permission to find work herself. Joe goes to work too, part-time, as his father slides into depression. But when Jerry finally gets off the couch and goes to work, Jeanette finally lets her anger erupt. He’s going to fight the massive forest fires for a buck an hour, and she doesn’t think that’s worth risking his life for. When he goes anyway, the crack in their marriage fractures perhaps irreparably, and Jeanette goes off the rails.

Wildlife is a movie about people on the brink. The Brinson family are on the brink of financial ruin. Jerry and Jeanette are on the brink of divorce. With fires ever raging, theMV5BZjhiNzJkZjctZjY2Ny00YTdjLWIxMjYtNjQwZjVmNjFiNGRjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUxMjc1OTM@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,922_AL_ whole town’s on the brink of disaster. In 1960, the whole country’s on the brink of a sexual revolution, and women’s lib. But they’re not there yet. It’s shameful that Jeanette has to work instead of staying home with her son (who is 14 and never home). And they clearly don’t know how to do divorce; they forget the part about telling each other, and not committing adultery in front of the children. It’s a crazy time to be alive!

Paul Dano directed and co-wrote (with partner Zoe Kazan) Wildlife and the love and care show up on film, but he somehow holds back from showing us all the fancy tricks he can do, flexing his muscle with restraint instead. It’s impressive.

And given his pedigree I suppose it’s unsurprising how great he is with his cast. Carey Mulligan, to my  mind, turns out one great performance after another, but this still might be my favourite. It’s almost certainly the most complex. Jeanette is a woman ahead of her time. Her agency is startling, her behaviour a direct challenge to the values of 1960. The fact that her son (Ed Oxenbould) is a direct witness to her wantonness is often challenging, but Mulligan makes sure that Jeanette is given a humane treatment, while the script kindly paints the couple without heroes or villains – just two people forced to flaunt and rewrite the rules. It’s a sympathetic family portrait, if not quite an intimate one (we’re often at an emotional remove). And sometimes the story loses steam, but damn if Mulligan doesn’t just keep pulling me back in. All eyes on her.

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Okja

The new CEO of Mirando, Lucy (Tilda Swinton), announces that her company has made a discovery that will rid the world of hunger: a super piglet that looks like a cross between a rhino and an elephant that we’re assured tastes really fucking good. 26 super piglets are distributed to farmers around the world to be cared for over the next decade. In 10 years, popular TV veterinarian Dr Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) will judge them and declare one ‘the best.’

Cut to: 10 years later, Wilcox hikes up a remote Korean hillside to visit Okja, a prized super piglet raised by Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) and her father. Raised on love and freedom, Okja is objectively the best of the bunch, but that means this beloved pet must go to NYC okja-creature-littlegirl-woodsto be paraded around by its parent corporation (to disguise the secret testing) – unless of course she’s kidnapped by the Animal Liberation Front headed by Jay (Paul Dano), “not a terrorist,” along the way. And the ALF is only the first group of people Mija will come across that want to control the fate of her large friend, Okja.

Co-written and directed by Snowpiercer’s Bong Joon Ho, you can bet he’s got some interesting thing to say about these events: GMOs, image-obsessed corporations, eco-terrorism. But he cleverly brings it back to one of the most basic relationships to remind us of what’s important: the one between a girl and her best friend, the family pet. Here in North America, not only can we not imagine eating dogs, we object to it morally. Here, we name our dogs, we sleep curled up beside them, we feed them table scraps from our fingers, we look into their sweet faces and tell them they’re good boys, very good boys. If we accorded all animals the respect we give our pets, it would change the food industry okjaas we know it. This is the way Bong Joon Ho choose to frame Okja’s predicament.

Tonally, Okja is very different from Snowpiercer. If the score doesn’t alert you to its farcical nature, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s voice doesn’t do it, then the unconvincing CGI will likely push you in that very direction. But Bong Joon Ho’s skill as a director means that he juggles these switchbacks in tone very carefully, and Okja’s whimsy never fails. Yes, it’s a completely weird movie, one that can feel like a cartoon and a horror at the same time, that can make you laugh amid the darkest of scenes. I realize this movie won’t be for everyone, but I found it profoundly interesting. Tilda Swinton is excellent, and Gyllenhaal does something we’ve never seen from him before. But it’s Seo-Hyun Ahn who steals the show, her bond with Okja and her purity of heart that elevate this movie from fantasy to fable.

 

 

 

Swiss Army Man

People walked out of the theatre when this film debuted at Sundance, and they walked out of the screening I was at recently as well. And while I would never dream of insulting a film maker this way at a film festival, I can kind of understand why it happened. Swiss Army Man is profoundly uncomfortable. It’s disturbing. It’s gross. It’s also one of the most affecting and unique film-going experiences I’ve had this year, or ever.

swiss-army-manIn this cross between Castaway and Weekend at Bernie’s, Paul Dano is Hank, a man despairing of hope after living too long on a deserted island. Just as he’s about to give up completely, a ray of sunshine arrives in the form of a farting corpse (Daniel Radcliffe). Eventually named Manny, the corpse helps Hank to not feel so alone or lonely, and becomes even handier as he proves himself a veritable multi-use tool in Hank’s plot to escape the island.

I can’t praise or caution this movie enough. If the desecration of corpses is not for you, I’m sure The BFG is playing somewhere. I wouldn’t have guessed that the desecration of corpses was particularly for me, but I was completely won over by this movie. Written and directed by ‘Daniels’ (as Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan are collectively known), these men are clearly innovative thinkers who are pushing the boundaries not just of movie making but of human decency – and it works. They have used a compelling if shocking situation and made it feel completely relatable. They boil it down to themes of depression, social isolation, family dysfunction, eccentricity and resilience.

Paul Dano is as good as he’s ever been, but Daniel Radcliffe is the true surprise here. I would Swiss-Army-Man-Featuredhave loved to be a fly on the wall when these two were in negotiations to join the movie; Daniels were known for little else than a bizarre music video (Turn Down For What) yet somehow convinced two smart, bankable stars to take on the most provocative film of the year (and you thought The Lobster safely had the title!). Radcliffe stretches the part of dead body into something that’s both absurd and touching. He’s clearly set on eradicating Harry Potter from our memories by making bold and interesting choices, and this is a definitive step toward a bracing career as a versatile actor.

I also have to say I love what they did with the music. Not just the score, though that was good too. You have to see the movie to know what I’m talking about, but the way this movie uses music really made my heart soar. It really elevated for me what was already a good movie – a smart script paired with excellent acting, topped with some truly beautiful photography.

Sean and Matt will tell you that I’m probably the last person on earth to enjoy scatological humour but I did find myself laughing at this movie, more than I thought I would (although I think I might need to invoke Vanta-black once again, with feeling). But mostly it made me think, which I didn’t expect at all. It made me really think, and sometimes feel sad. It made me think on the possibilities and limitations of imagination, on the nature of self-reflection, and on the merits of choosing a best friend who is dead.

A movie like this doesn’t come along very often. I’m still buzzing with the joy I feel when I know I’ve witnessed something special. I won’t sleep tonight. This is why I go to the movies.

Sundance, Long Distance

sundance-film-festivalStupid back surgery caused us to strike Sundance from our dance card this year, but we were there in spirit.

 

Some of the best films of Sundance so far:

Agnus Dei: Set in a Polish convent attacked by Russian soldiers at the end of WWII, you know this one won’t be an easy watch. But word has it it’s beautifully acted by a strong female ensemble, including Agata Kulesza, who you may remember from last year’s feel-good drama, Ida.

The Birth of a Nation: The story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion – bound to be powerful, unflinching, and explosive, Fox Searchlight picked it up at this year’s festival for $17.5M, a new Sundance record.

dt_common_streams_StreamServerCertain Women: Based on three short stories (by Maile Meloy) that tell tender and character-driven tales around emotional quandaries. Starring Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, and a stunner of a performance from Native American actress Lily Gladstone.

 

Manchester by the Sea: Another slow-burning character study by director Kenneth Lonergan, this one stars Casey Affleck as a guy struggling to overcome his failures as a husband and father – but the other people in the movie know something about him that we, the audience, do not.

Morris From America: Craig Robinson’s going to surprise us all with thiscraigrobinson excellent performance as a father losing his grip on his son, a teen struggling to find his place while over in Germany. The script is supposedly charming without being cute and I hope it’ll be a sweet surprise.

Sing Street: John Carney (Once, Begin Again) is up to his old tricks with another intimate musical that some say is his best yet (I LOVE Once, was a bit less enthusiastic about Begin Again). This one’s an ’80s throwback that’s of course full of dizzying romance and super likeable characters that will, let’s face it, probably leave us tender-hearted viewers in tears.

This year’s most divisive title:

farting corpseSwiss Army Man: Paul Dano is stranded on an island, and instead of a volleyball named Wilson, he “befriends” a farting corpse, played by Daniel Radcliffe, who teaches him about what makes life worth living, and also which body parts might be used to get him back home – heavy subjects for such a weird and wacky movie. Lots of people walked out of this one but reviews are mixed, with some really enjoying this ode to abnormality.

 

 

Love & Mercy

beachboysLove & Mercy tells the story of two Brian Wilsons (the heart and soul of the Beach Boys): 1960s Brian, portrayed by Paul Dano, at the height of his creative genius, working doggedly on a game-changing album that no one else believes in while fighting the ugly spectre of an abusive father, and 1980s Brian, portrayed by John Cusack, a broken shell of a man under the care of and heavily medicated by a shady, domineering psychiatrist.

Both Brians are sad to watch on-screen. No matter how much or how little you know about Brian Wilson’s life going in, you do know the Beach Boys, and you understand pretty quickly that the Beach Boys were nothing without him. The man was so talented that he took a harmonizing boy band in matching shirts and pushed them toward musical complexity to rival (and inspire) The Beatles. And he did it all while in the throes of a nervous breakdown.

The recording sessions in the film were some of my favourite. Sean has a nice little vinyl collection and of course Pet Sounds has always been part of it – Rolling Stone’s definitive list of the top 500 albums OF ALL TIME rates Pet Sounds at #2, only being eclipsed by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album The Beatles made in response to their hearing and adoring Pet Sounds. So it was really neat to see and hear the hard work and the many layers and the sheer creativity that went into producing a sound that had never been heard before. And even if you don’t know the album, I guarantee you’ve known some of these songs for nearly your whole life. They’re part of our cultural lexicon. And now you get to peek behind the curtain thanks to scenes that were mostly improvised with real studio musicians and shot in a documentary style with 16mm handheld cameras.

This is not a traditional biopic. It depicts two very specific times in Brian Wilson’s life, and this parallel narrative is very effective, contrasting the height of his career with his crashing mental 01-love-and-mercy.w529.h352.2xand emotional downfall. We see him change from vitality to despondency, and to heighten that disparity, director Bill Pohlad kept actors Cusack and Dano separate so that they would each develop their own organic understanding of Wilson in their respective time periods. In the second portion, the John Cusack years, Paul Giamatti plays Dr. Landy, the evil psychiatrist while Elizabeth Banks appears as a love interest. These two are of course at odds with each other and the battle over Brian Wilson, when Wilson is too traumatized and petrified to fight for himself, or to even recognize the need for it.

Tonnes of original Beach Boys recordings are featured throughout the movie, lots flawlessly mixed in with Paul Dano’s own voice. And I’m giving props to composer Atticus Ross who had a mountain of a task to compose a score that would flow in and out of all of these iconic songs, and yet he didn’t just do a competent job, he elevated things, drawing inspiration from such varied sources as The Beatles’ Revolution 9 to Jay-Z’s The Grey Album and it sounds exciting and alive and masterful.

boysThere are significant gaps in this film, which is narrow in its scope, but it is an otherwise mournfully accurate account. Lots of the characters and events feel larger than life but if anything, Wilson felt that perhaps some were treated “too fairly” and after all he’s been through, you can understand where that’s coming from. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, from the recreation of several Beach Boys album covers to Elizabeth Banks’ impressive 80s garb, and as much as I can tell you so, you really just have to see it yourself.

Little Miss Sunshine

This is my jam. A movie I can watch again and again and it never gets old. It’s well-constructed and absorbing and there’s always some small detail to catch and enjoy.

The Hoovers are having a hard time. Sheryl brings her suicidal brother Frank to her home where he’s scarcely the most damaged. Frank (Steve Carell) has just been rejected by his lover and is suffering from acute profession angst as he watches his rival in Proustian studies get recognized while his own work languishes. Sheryl (Toni Collette) takes him in but barely has a thought to spare for him, poor guy, no matter how fresh the bandages on his wrists are. Her husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) has a self-help technique for attaining success that nobody wants. He’s a loser, and his starry-eyed MV5BNTUyNzk4NjA0Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTYzNDA2MjI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1526,1000_AL_confidence is waning by the minute. Their teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence. He can’t wait to leave his family behind to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot. Dwayne’s grandpa Edwin (Alan Arkin) has just been kicked out of his retirement residence for selling (and taking) drugs. The family’s a mess, and Sheryl’s beginning to feel emotionally bankrupt, so it’s under these circumstances that the family rallies around its youngest member, Olive (Abigail Breslin). Olive may be an unlikely candidate for the beauty pageant circuit but she’s an enthusiastic one. On a whim, the family decides to leave their troubles behind and hit the road from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, California, in pursuit of little Olive’s dream of pageant glory.

Little Miss Sunshine is about dreams, and I guess, their inverse – illusions.  This family of fuck ups needs so badly for one goddamned thing to go right. But for some of us, happiness, or contentment, needs to be found in small moments of unity. Triumph found in trying. Not everyone is a winner at life, and that’s what makes this film so funny, and so heart breaking. It’s what makes it feel real despite some increasingly absurd twists of fate.

Family dynamics are made clear to us during a long scene around a bucket of KFC. My goodness. Toni Collette has long been a favourite of mine but she’s determined with each performance to win me over again, astonishing me with her willingness to let ego go and embrace the honest dregs of each character. Steve Carell was an unknown when they cast him, and producers worried that he wasn’t famous enough to help their little movie along. But in the short time between filming and the movie’s release, Carell burst onto the scene in a star-making turn in the 40 Year Old Virgin, and then introduced himself to all of America as everyone’s favourite boss on The Office. He is quiet and introspective in Little Miss Sunshine, but his underplayed pain and ennui have a presence that take up space in the family’s forever breaking down VW bus. Little Abigail Breslin did not make her acting debut in Little Miss Sunshine (she was in 2002’s Signs) but she did become the first person born in the 90s to get a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod for her role; she was 10 at the time. She lost but Alan Arkin won in his category. His snatching of the Oscar from Mark Wahlberg was the only one of 5 categories that The Departed lost that night.

This family’s dysfunction is perhaps a little more urgent and layered than most, but almost everyone can see a slice of their own family somewhere in this script. We laugh, we cry, we have a good time, and we leave better people because we’ve witnessed someone’s pain and empathized.