Tag Archives: Susan Sarandon

TIFF18: The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is a good movie in the shadow of a great one.

As a child, Rupert Turner was enamoured with a teen hearthrob, John F. Donovan, who was actually an adult playing a teenager on some soapy high school drama. A budding actor himself, Rupert (Jacob Tremblay) writes to Donovan (Kit Harington), telling him of his ambitions and desires – namely, to one day act alongside him. Surprisingly, Donovan writes back, and a beautiful friendship is forged, strictly as pen pals. But when that relationship is discovered, first by Rupert’s mother (Natalie Portman), then by the press, the friendship is misinterpreted and Donovan vilified. He dies before our two buddies can ever meet up.

john_f_donovanTen years later, a grown-up Rupert (Ben Schnetzer) is releasing a collection of their correspondence as a book, and a skeptical reporter (Thandie Newton) is interviewing him. The truth of their friendship is revealed through flashbacks, as is Donovan’s life, which of course was not all rainbows and lollipops.

Behind his privilege, Donovan had an absent father, a family that fauns over him and resents him in equal measure, an alcoholic mother (Susan Sarandon), an agent who is decidedly not his friend (Kathy Bates), and a girlfriend/childhood friend (Emily Hampshire) who is also his beard (unknowingly). He’s hiding a lot. He lives in a world filled with illusion. He’s pulled in a thousand directions and has no friends who aren’t on the payroll, and yeah, it is kind of sad that he unburdens his soul to a kid, but it’s also kind of understandable, which is sadder still.

Director Xavier Dolan is uniquely positioned to have something to say about child actors and the celebrity beast and I really enjoyed his attempts at profundity in this film. This is his first English-language film and while there are still traces of his typically auteur-ish style, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is perhaps missing just a little of what normally makes a Dolan a Dolan. It also suffers a bit from bloat. Susan Sarandon’s performance is quite good, her character very interesting, but there isn’t a lot of room for her, as Dolan cut the movie down from 4 hours to just over 2 (and left Jessica Chastain completely on the cutting room floor). Kathy Bates’ part isn’t really a part at all, barely more than a cameo.

Dolan’s crime seems to have been starting out with too much to say and then having a hard time parting ways with any of it during editing. But I think John Donovan is a character worth getting to know. And the topic of celebrity death, and our cultural obsession with it, and possibly contribution to it, is ripe for harvesting.  I think the wording of the title has something to say about it all by itself. This movie isn’t all that it could be, and coming in to a Xavier Dolan film, I can’t help but bring high hopes and standards. But there’s something worthwhile here, and I hope it will be mined for the diamonds and not just the flaws.

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TIFF18: Viper Club

Helen’s son is a war photographer who’s been missing in the middle east for the past several weeks, perhaps months. Well, not so much missing as kidnapped and held for ransom.

The CIA and FBI are ‘helping’ Helen by telling her to keep this a secret, but a heart-pounding, nausea-inducing secret like this can really make triggers out of  literally everything and anything, and it’s hard to keep her ER colleagues in the dark when they know her so well.

The U.S. government doesn’t pay ransoms, and keeps reminding her it’s illegal for her to do it also. Not that she has any money. Selling her house would provide only a fraction of the demanded sum, and a real estate agent grimly informs her it’s a tear-down anyway. With few options and increasingly hostile communications from the kidnappers, Helen (Susan Sarandon) turns to the only person who can possibly help MV5BNjY5N2I2N2MtYmI0My00OGJiLTkwOTQtYWVlN2FlYTgwMGUxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzg3Mzc4MDQ@._V1_her – Charlotte, the mother of another kidnapped journalist who was successful in getting her son returned home. Off the record, Charlotte (Edie Falco) fund-raised the ransom among her wealthy friends and had someone walk it across the border for her in order to evade detection. They’re planning the same for Helen’s son, with a friend and colleague of his, Sam (Matt Bomer) willing to make the actual transaction. Helen can scarcely believe her son might actually come home, and isn’t sure what kind of broken man he’ll be if he does. But her focus remains on getting the work done, all of it underground, away from the unhelpful but watchful eyes of government agencies.

Director Maryam Keshavarz makes some choices that make the movie feel a little cold and distant. While I believe whole-heartedly that Helen was committed to getting her son back, we never see her cry, we never see her crack. Yes,  she’s hardened by her ER nursing, but she’s got a soft spot or two, so why no cracks in the facade? And why only drop us in on the action when the son’s been missing for several months? I feel we miss a vital part of the story by omitting Helen’s first contact with the kidnappers, or the moment she realizes she hasn’t heard from her son in too long a time. Instead we only meet her when she’s navigating bureaucracy, which is a bit dry and made me feel removed from any urgency.

There might be a bit of an awards push to get Sarandon a nomination but I’d be fine if it didn’t amount to anything. The story is upsetting but not nearly moving enough. It feels diluted. Viper Club delivers a small still where its title promised a deadly bite.

Noel

This movie’s got more Oscar winners and nominees than most, so I can’t quite figure out how I’ve never heard of this movie before. Alan Arkin plays a creepy cashier who’s obsessed with Paul Walker, who plays a cop who’s crazy-jealous over his super hot girlfriend, played by Penelope Cruz, who thinks she may be pregnant with her crazy-jealous boyfriend’s baby and she’s feeling so insecure she confides in a lonely woman played by Susan Sarandon, who’s completely alone for the holidays other than her comatose mother and a complete stranger she meets while visiting another patient, played by Robin Williams, who’s an ex-priest having a crisis of faith.

penelope_cruz_noel_still_2004_OGXxLss.sizedThis holiday movie has something for everyone: spirituality, homophobia, reincarnation, crippling depression, dead babies, and more. But in its heart of hearts it’s really just about a bunch of people who don’t want to end up alone – on Christmas, on their deathbeds, in the world just generally. Some of us feel encumbered by all our obligations to friends and family over the holidays but others are completely bankrupt when it comes to people who care, and for them, the holidays can be really, really hard.

If you’re one of those people, maybe opt for something a little more cheerful. And if you’re already feeling cheerful, why bring a good mood down? This is possibly just too depressing for Christmas fare, and that’s not even counting the fact that it stars two men now dead in real life, one of whom also expires on camera. It’s a real corker! Contrived doesn’t begin to cover it; Noel is a stocking full of sadness hung by the chimney with despair. But it does have Penelope Cruz dancing around in lingerie, so.

 

A Bad Moms Christmas

Bad Moms gets one thing right: moms get saddled with making the holidays perfect. The cooking, the cleaning, the gift buying and gift wrapping. Christmas, or whatever you celebrate, wouldn’t happen without the women in your life pulling it together. And making the holidays wonderful for everyone else makes it less wonderful for yourself.

They’re called boundaries, people, and they’ll go a long way in making not only the holidays more tolerable, but your relationship with your mother more healthy. Boundaries are a gift you give yourself. For your own sanity, I suggest they be plentiful underneath your tree this year.

Amy (Mila Kunis), Kiki (Kristen Bell), and Carla (Kathryn Hahn) are back and they’re “taking back Christmas.” Apparently what we grown women have secretly been missing from the holiday season: dry-humping Santa and getting drunk at the mall. Um, nope. Yet a-bad-moms-christmas-1920x1080-christine-baranski-mila-kunis-susan-10345again, this movie misses its mark with me. I think it’s pandering and condescending and incredibly obvious that was written and directed by MEN. But I’m not a Bad Mom, I’m a Good Aunt. And the role of Good Aunt is really easy: you buy lots of presents, you let them get away with everything three notches above murder, and you give them 100% of your time and attention once or twice a month. Being a mom, bad or not, is infinitely harder because parenting is about the details. So if carving out 104 minutes to sneak away to one of those fancy movie theatres that serve wine is all you can muster for yourself this holiday season, have at it.

The Bad Moms are confronted not just with the Mount-Everest-sized expectations of a season hallmarked by extravagance and perfectionism, but by the presence of their mothers, who are of course overbearing shrews (Cheryl Hines, Susan Sarandon, and Christine Baranksi). I don’t really relate to that because a) my mother dotes on her grandkids but is actually respectful of people’s space – my sisters will literally fight over whose house she’ll be waking up in come Christmas morning, and b) I am, again, a Good Aunt, and not a Bad Mom, which means my mother wouldn’t even notice me over the holidays unless I deliberately walk between her and one of her grandkids. Good Aunts are persona non grata during the holidays; you’ll notice the film never once cuts to a Good Aunt who is relaxing on her all-white couch, sipping spiked hot chocolate, surrounded by very fragile and carefully curated gold ornaments. Holiday movies will have you believe that children are the only reason for the season. And that harried single mothers who, as recently as 6 days ago, have “taken back Christmas” must still provide a home that looks as though Pinterest has tastefully regurgitated Christmas all over it for her darling kiddos.

The magic of Christmas is a hard thing to define and impossible to bottle. So whatever you do to make the holidays special, thank you. And whatever you do to cut corners, good for you. And if you’re desperate enough to make this movie be part of your celebrations, that can be our little secret.

 

The Meddler

A widow moves across the country to be with her only daughter. It sounds trite and cliched and we’re only one sentence in. Hold up. Does it help if I tell you that Susan Sarandon and Rose Byrne play the mother and daughter? It should. Keep reading.

In fact, The Meddler may very well be tale as old as time. After her husband’s death, themeddler_trailer1Marnie has a little bit of money and an awful lot of time, so she packs up her New Jersey home and finds herself a condo in L.A. where her daughter Lori writes for television. Marnie’s California awakening is intoxicating. She loves all the things that most of us hate about L.A. But shopping at The Grove and volunteering only fill up so many hours. The rest are spent calling or visiting her daughter. Her daughter is not impressed.

Marnie calls Lori when a new Beyonce song comes on the radio. She calls her when she hears about a serial killer roughly in the area. She calls her when Lori hasn’t called her back, and she calls her again when that one isn’t returned either. Then she texts. Then she knocks on the door with bagels. Or doesn’t knock but just comes in.

Small cracks in Marnie’s Positive Polly act surface: she’s grieving and trying hard not to show it. And she’s achingly lonely. So when Lori suggests that her therapist has meddler_xlargeencouraged her to set boundaries with her mother, Marnie sees the therapist herself. And when that doesn’t go as expected, she finds other people to mother, like the ‘genius’ she overuses at the Apple store, and a friend of her daughter’s who’s more receptive to advice and well-intended intrusiveness.

None of these really get to the heart of her pain though; her meddling is just a bandaid on her very wounded heart. She isn’t prepared to be alone so early in her golden years. She feels guilty about an inheritance that feels like blood money. And the only person who understands her grief is the daughter who’s pushing her away. Marnie wants to hold Lori close because her daughter is a piece of the husband she’s missing, but Lori needs distance from the mother who only reminds her of her father’s absence. The disparity is heart-breaking.

The Meddler is a very interesting meditation on grief and the various ways it’s expressed. The movie is marketed as far fluffier than it is, however with Susan Sarandon in the lead, there’s a lot of joy and laughter mixed in with everything else. She gracefully navigates between the bubbles of emotion as they rise to the surface. The writing is stronger as a drama than as a comedy but Sarandon is talented with any material, and lights the way with her stunning luminescence.

TIFF 2016: The Best

 

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Graduation

From time to time, we all have to compromise our own values. It’s part of growing up. But do you remember the first time that you betrayed your own moral code?

According to Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu, director of the brilliant and beautiful 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (which I have not seen), Graduation is about a lot of things. “It’s about family. It’s about aging. It’s about you. It’s about me”. But mostly, as the Cannes Best Director winner articulated at the North American premiere, it’s about that pivotal moment in one’s life where they make a conscious decision for the first time to do what they know in their heart to be wrong.

Romeo (Adrien Titieni) couldn’t be more proud of his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) when she gets accepted into a fancy British school but he still can’t relax. Despite her stellar grades, she still needs to pass her finals to get out their Romanian town. When a vicious random assault threatens to shake Eliza’s confidence just days before her exams, Romeo can’t help feeling tempted to use his position as a well-respected surgeon to bargain with her educators in exchange for some leniency.

Graduation takes its time. It takes time to establish the relationships, set up the scenario, and let the story play out. Mungiu doesn’t resort to melodrama or even a musical score to beg for our attention. Almost every scene plays out in just one meticulously framed take. It’s an approach that gives his actors plenty of room to shine and his story the time to come alive. If you don’t mind the slow pace, Graduation asks big questions and will get you talking. It’s a very rewarding experience.

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My Entire High School is Sinking Into the Sea

Dash Shaw was in high school when James Cameron’s Titanic was in theaters and couldn’t help imaging what it would be like if his school sank like the famous ship with all of his classmates inside. When you think about it, to avoid drowning to death in a sinking building, the smartest would head for the top floor and try to get to the roof. Once Shaw, director of My Entire High School is Sinking Into the Sea and apparently quite an accomplished comic book writer,  started imaging each floor being occupied by a different grade level, he knew he had a story worth telling.

To see a film called My Entire High School is Sinking Into the Sea without feeling like you’re seeing something completely unique would be a letdown. So I’m pleased to announce that, whether you love it or hate it, Shaw’s debut feature will not let you down. The unusual animation style takes a little getting used to at first and, even once you get comfortable, there is so much to look at that many of the movie’s jokes- and the jokes are almost constant- can be easy to miss. My Entire High School may eventually be best remember for its carnage (those who are spared from drowning are mostly impaled, electrocuted, or eaten by sharks) but it’s made all the more special by the hilarious and sometimes touching dynamic between three adolescent friends whose bond is in crisis just as their lives are in imminent danger. And it’s all brought to life by some of the best voice acting you’ll hear this year from Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Maya Rudolph, Reggie Watts, and Susan Sarandon.

its-only-the-end-of-the-world

It’s Only the End of the World

I was one proud Asshole walking out of the Toronto premiere of Quebec director Xavier Dolan’s latest family drama. I was genuinely moved by a Xavier Dolan film. I admired Mommy, his last movie, I really did. It was just too self-indulgent for me to really relate to it in any real way.

So I was pleased to find myself loving this movie, more than almost anything else I saw at the Festival this year. I was finally starting to get it. I was quite disappointed to see that not everyone was as impressed as I was. It’s Only the End of the World currently has a score of 48 on Metacritic. If you’re not familiar with that site, let me put that in perspective. That’s only four points higher than Batman v. Superman’s score. Ouch.

I stand by my recommendation though. Based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, It’s Only the End of the World tells the story of a family who are easier to relate to than to understand. After a 12-year absence, Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) is finally coming home but he is bringing sad news with him. He is very sick and doesn’t have much time left. He’s not quite sure how to bring it up but it wouldn’t matter anyway because his mother, brother, and sister can’t stop alternating between picking fights with him and each other and awkwardly trying to force reconciliation. They try to bond over trivial things and fight over tiny details but can’t seem to bring themselves to talk about anything important.

The claustrophobic family reunion atmosphere seems to rein Dolan in a bit. He still manages to make Lagarce’s play his own though. For such a talky film, it’s surprisingly cinematic with its unnerving score and great performances from Ulliel, Nathalie Baye, Marion Cotilliard, Lea Seydoux, and Vincent Cassell. Using his signature tight close-ups, Dolan works with the actors to find subtext amid all the shouting. No easy task. Hard to act like you’re holding back when you’re screaming at each other.

I’m still not entirely sure what they were fighting about. But the story feels real and profoundly sad.

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Nocturnal Animals

Careful with this one. The people around me at the TIFF encore screening of Nocturnal Animals were basket cases watching it.

It’s easy to imagine yourself in the same position as Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), a husband and father whose family finds themselves terrorized while driving a lonely Texas highway in the middle of the night. The tension is nearly unbearable as this story unfolds. Those around me could barely sit still watching it and Susan (Amy Adams) is getting even more stressed reading about it. See, the scary part of Nocturnal Animals is but a story within a story. It’s the plot of a manuscript that Susan’s ex-husband (also Gyllenhaal) has sent her of his latest novel. As unnerving as the novel is to watch, it’s even worse for Susan. She’s quite sure the novel is about her.

The three narratives (there are also a lot of flashbacks of Susan’s marriage) are balanced beautifully in the second film from director Tom Ford (A Single Man). Susan is a successful art dealer and everything around her is beautiful and fake. In the story within the story, Tony’s world is harsh and all too real. Nocturnal Animals is sure to be divisive. Ford lays out his themes very clearly and I’m sure I feel comfortable with all of his implications. But there’s so much to look at and so much to feel, think,about, and talk about that you kind of just have to see it.

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Oh, and if you’re not sold yet, Michael Shannon plays a crazy cop in it.

Mothers and Daughters

Mothers and daughters: a relationship so often mined by Hollywood that maybe all the diamonds are gone and all that’s left are duds.

This movie is a dud, but not for lack of trying. Susan Sarandon, plus real-life daughter Eva Amurri Martino, and Sharon Stone, and Courteney Cox, and Selma Blair, and Christina Ricci, and probably more besides that I’m forgetting. That’s an awful lot of leading ladies covering pretty much every angle of motherhood that you can imagine. In fact, one of the maxresdefaultreasons this movie fails is that it tries too hard. The script is just so stupidly earnest. It makes wonderful actresses say such flighty, cliched things. And everyone cries all the time, at the drop of a hat. It made me really wonder why the script writer has so many fucking hats, and why she’s always dropping them. Secure your hat to your head, lady.

Mira Sorvino. That’s who I was forgetting.

Anyway, are your tear ducts all clogged up? Do you have some salt water that needs purging? Were you hoping to remove one tiny strip of makeup all the way down your face? Then have I got a movie for you! Mothers and Daughters doesn’t just ask you to cry, it begs. The director probably owns stock in Kleenex. But it’s the kind of shame-crying that only makes you mad at your stupid emotions and the things that make you feel them. I watched this on Netflix at 2am, when it is perfectly acceptable to cry watching a movie you loathe as long as you have Doritos to keep you company.

The writing is ambitious, but ambitious in the way that a 19 year old writes a memoir. People will be so impressed when I use all my big words! I have a thesaurus and Irs_1024x759-160502103124-1024-courteney-cox-mothers-daughters.ls.5216 want you to watch me abuse it! I’m going to write a trite little movie that wishes it was a pretentious little novel! Script writing 101 says I should put in a conflict here! [Insert conflict]. I wonder if Sharon Stone can do polysyllabics? Either way she’ll be impressed when I whip out this tired metaphor! And I’ll make it super relatable by including a variety of white women with down-to-earth jobs like bra designer, fashion icon, and celebrity photographer. And I wonder if I can work in cancer? Watch out, heart strings!

In conclusion, Mothers and Daughters is a movie I found randomly on Netflix, having never heard of it before despite starring at least 3 Oscar-nominated actresses. It will be palatable to neither mothers nor daughters but it’s definitely a movie that exists. The end.