Tag Archives: Toni Collette

The Yellow Birds

Sean and I have been sharing the 90s movies we’re nostalgic for, movies that I so treasured in my youth that they still make me feel young to this day. I wondered if there was a specific movie that made me realize I’ve crossed over to old. Does such a movie exist? I do remember watching a not very good movie called Better Off Dead and realize that rather than empathizing with the young John Cusack character, I actually sympathized for the dad. Gah! And lately, because we’ve been able to binge-watch 30 years worth of The Simpsons on Disney+, I’ve realized that when that show first came on the air, I was Lisa’s age, and now I’m older than Homer and Marge. Oof. But today I stumbled upon the real answer: war movies. I’ve never been more acutely aware just how young 18 is than watching war movies.

Daniel Murphy (Tye Sheridan) is 18 and still has no need for a razor when he enlists in the army. He makes fast friends with Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich), who is barely older than he is, but just barely is enough for Murph’s mom (Jennifer Aniston) to make Bartle promise to look after him. Then, before they can fully lace up their boots, they’re shipped to Iraq.

I think 18 is young to choose a major in college. Not necessarily for a lack of maturity but at 18 you’ve hardly seen the world, you hardly know the choices, or what that degree actually means, and whether it will actually translate into a well-paying job you won’t immediately hate. Eighteen is certainly too young to make a commitment that could get your limbs blown off – or worse. It’s too young to really understand what you’re getting into, and what’s truly on the line. It’s too young to understand the politics of war and whether all engagements are worthy (and even seasoned politicians don’t understand, but nor do they care – it’s not their asses on the line). It’s too young to really understand the sacrifice; the teenage brain still believes itself to be invincible. Statistics are just things that happen to other people who aren’t and never could be you.

It’s achingly young; Murph sees some shit that no kid should ever see. He’s not supposed to think for himself. Orders are orders. But killing people is killing people and young Murph just can’t make that right in his head. And I don’t need to tell you how very scant the mental health resources are in the army. The army eats up young people and spits out mangled bodies and mangled souls. Murph becomes a lost soul, disconnected and disillusioned. Bartle is haunted by that promise to Murph’s mom.

When Bartle returns home, his mother (Toni Collette) finds him changed, disturbed. But Murph’s mom finds that her son is missing. Bartle knows the answers but might be too broken to tell.

The Yellow Birds has uniformly stellar performances. It’s a little familiar, perhaps not a very distinguished addition to the war movie canon, but I do think its message is worthy. We all know that war is hell, but this film reminds us that the hell extends beyond the battlefield.

TIFF19: Knives Out

Every year there are a few TIFF titles that have everyone buzzing, and those tickets become nearly impossible to get our popcorn-greasy hands on. This year, those titles were Jojo Rabbit, Joker, and Knives Out. I saw all 3 because I am very, very fortunate, but I was the only Asshole to see Knives Out, which also means that I have a pretty big responsibility to get this right.

Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a highly successful mystery writer. His family gathers under the roof of his mansion to celebrate his 85th birthday, after which, they all retire to bed. The next morning, Harlan is found on his sofa with his throat slit. Initially ruled a suicide, both the local police and a private investigator are suspicious. As they start interviewing the family it becomes clear that each and every one of them has a motive, and that they’re all pretty enthusiastic about pointing the finger at someone else.

First, let’s get the cast of characters out of the way.

Marta (Ana de Armas) is Harlon’s nurse, and the last to see him alive. She put him to bed after administering his meds. As an outsider, she becomes P.I. Benoit Blanc’s (Daniel Craig) go-to source for all the family secrets.

Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is Harlon’s daughter, a successful businesswoman. She is married to Richard (Don Johnson) who is perhaps a bit of a leech. They have a son, Ransom (Chris Evans) who is way too old to never have worked a day in his life. He is supported by Grandpa Harlan because, though rebellious, Harlan sees a lot of himself in Ransom.

Joni (Toni Collette) was married to Harlan’s now-deceased son. She and daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) are still quite close to the family, and are supported by Harlan. Joni is a bit of a free-spirit and doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the more conservative clan, though she may not realize it. She’s also at the other end of the political spectrum from brother-in-law Richard, and of course the two butt heads.

Walt (Michael Shannon) runs Harlan’s publishing empire, though with one hand tied behind his back as Harlan has no interest in selling movie rights or any other of Walt’s money-making suggestions. His wife Donna flies under the radar while his teenage son Jacob is a known weirdo and gossiped about as the family masturbator (does every family have one?).

That’s it. Those were all the people in the house the night Harlan died. It’s up to Blanc (a Poirot type, and not a little flamboyant) and police detective Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) to sift through the pieces to try to assemble the puzzle. One helpful hint: nurse Marta is incapable of lying without barfing. It’s a tell that’s going to come in handy.

The movie is a lot of fun. First, there’s the fact that Harlan himself wrote murder mysteries. His house is full of mementos and artifacts – a display of knives behind the interview chair feels particularly ominous. But the ensemble cast makes it what it is. The script feeds them all some pretty snappy lines. I really loved Lakeith Stanfield’s referring to the Thrombey mansion as a “Clue board” – thanks for that, Rian. In fact, though the trailer bills Knives Out as a “whodunnit like no one has ever dunnit,” the truth is, plenty of murder mysteries came before it, and Johnson is not afraid to reference them. Johnson is a movie lover, a genuine movie lover, which makes his own movies so goddamn much fun to watch. He’s winking at us from the director’s chair. Going to a Rian Johnson movie is like taking my 5 year old nephew to a frozen yogurt place. He fills his little bowl with the first flavour, then a second, and probably a third. His eyes are bigger than his little belly. But he’s just getting started. Next come the toppings, which are his favourite part: cherries, chocolate chips, sprinkles, bigs of sugary cereal, broken up pretzels, strawberry flavoured boba, chunks of chocolate bar, pieces of cookie, bits of brownie. Next come syrups. Just one? Ha. That’s for amateurs. Then you cover it in whipped cream. Then a few more sprinkles, for the colour. More is more. Every spoonful digs up a new layer of goodness. He (both my nephew and Johnson) delights in every bite. There’s a sumptuous deliciousness to Rian Johnson’s films. And I don’t even worry about the belly ache: Rian Johnson is the one time you can eat every last bite and you never quite get enough.

Which is not to say this movie is unsatisfying. Johnson elevates the whodunnit by throwing in timely social elements that take a bite out of the wealth and class systems that literally allow people like this to get away with murder.

Hereditary

Science tells us we should bring our dates to a scary movie because science is a cold, hard bitch and wants a second date at any cost. Basically, physiologically, our bodies respond to emotion via flushed skin, a pounding heart, increased blood pressure, dilated pupils. But our dumb, primitive minds can’t distinguish between a pounding heart due to a jump scare, and a pounding heart due to an impending, welcome kiss. So if your girl has a strong emotional response to the movie, it’s a confusable arousal where the next day she might be interpreting it as the first signs of love, and not the anxious dread that it really was. It’s a trick. A trick to scoring a second date on false premises. Thanks, science!

We were celebrating our anniversary, nothing marquee, but far enough along in the shuffle of life that Sean doesn’t need any tricks. I’m a sure thing. But Hereditary is the movie that has been looming in our lives for 11 months now. It played for a single night at SXSW last year, and despite my complete and unabashed love of Toni Collette, we skipped it. You already know I’m a chicken, and in my defense, we’d already seen A Quiet Place on opening night, and I was still recovering.

Anyway, I didn’t think I could outrun this movie forever, and I sort of didn’t want to. I MV5BMWVlNThkNTctMDU3My00Nzc5LThlZjItMzJmOGFjYTc3MWExXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjQ4ODE4MzQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1498,1000_AL_mean, it IS Toni Collette, and I’d heard good things from all of you. But every time the remote hovered over its selection, we’d managed to find a reason not to. This time, however, I was in my cups, and all loved up, and full of cheese, and I said yes.

Hereditary is not one of those horror movies that is content with merely scaring you. It lulls you with its family drama, pulls you in with its unanswerables. And then it turns on you. Sure, it uses some classic horror stuff to scare the bejesus out of you. I mean, when did we agree as a culture that the backwards crab walk was just not okay? One day it’s an exercise in elementary gym, and the next thing you know, you’re chilled to the bone when anybody does it in a dark, dank basement. But it’s legit. Director Ari Aster drills you and drills you, and you know something’s coming, in fact you’re practically asking for it because the dread is unbearable. So the minute someone slams their own face into a wall, it’s nearly a relief.

But I think the real scary thing about Hereditary is what it says about the family. Normally we think of family as our shield and our safety – and our homes as a cocoon that will protect us. No longer. Aster has the nerve to paint this family as self-menacing. Even a mother’s love is suspect. And that’s a sensation that will stick with you long after the credits roll.

Velvet Buzzsaw

Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) is an art agent in the midst of losing Piers, an old, established artist who may be on his way out, but gaining Damrish, an up and coming artist with fresh talent and obligations elsewhere.

Piers (John Malkovish) is a successful artist who fears his best days are behind him now that he’s sober.

Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) is the agent who’s just stolen Piers away, and is about to discover how little output there’s been.

Damrish (Daveed Diggs) is the hot, new artist, living and showing on the street just 6 months ago, about to become the next celebrity artist.

Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is Rhodora’s protegee who finds a way of wriggling out from under her shadow when she discovers the work of an unknown artist, which is an instant success.

Gretchen (Toni Collette) is a museum curator sick of always losing the best pieces to wealthy clients, so she’s lined up a new job as a private buyer and is in search of the perfect, undiscovered piece.

Bryson (Billy Magnussen) is the gallery’s handyman, and also a struggling, jealous artist himself.

Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) is god of them all, an art critic who can make or break careers.

Velvet Buzzsaw’s art world is shook by the new paintings acquired by Josephina. SHOOK. Everyone’s falling over themselves, not to mention crossing and backstabbing each MV5BYWJiMGM1ZGQtYzMwMC00YzQ0LWJlZTUtZTNlOGY3NDE3OTMxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODEwMTc2ODQ@._V1_other, to get a piece of the pie. But the thing about this art is that it’s angry. In fact, some sort of supernatural force is exacting revenge on anyone who’s too mercenary. If you’ve let greed guide your hand, you’re in trouble. And who of the above has clean hands? I’d be very, very nervous if I was them. There’s a great deal to be nervous about as a viewer as well. Tension is layered on thicker than gouache on canvas. The film is dark and atmospheric by nature, and director Dan Gilroy heightens things at just the right moments, making the viewing experience deliciously uncomfortable at times. It’s unlikely that criticism and capitalism will escape the ghost’s judgment, which is brutal and bloody and ruthless.

The last time director Dan Gilroy teamed up with Jake Gyllenhaal, they produced Nightcrawler. You can’t blame the film community for wetting itself over this new movie, even if we’re also justifiably a little concerned about Gilroy’s more recent work, Roman J. Esquire, which was much less fantastic. Velvet Buzzsaw is somewhere in the middle, well, not just somewhere – definitely closer to Nightcrawler on the spectrum, which I’m happy to report. It’s a little uneven, the dialogue a little clunky sometimes, but the visuals don’t just make up for it – they’re unforgettable (Nightcrawler’s visionary cinematographer Robert Elswit is back, and primal as ever). A horror in technicolour! Not to mention the team of talent that pulls together this satire-horror hybrid and makes it pulse with urgency and vitality. Jake Gyllenhaal is of course the standout, bold and unwavering.

Velvet Buzzsaw isn’t everything I wish it was, but it’s a distinct piece of cinema and a real coup for Netflix.

 

Please Stand By

Wendy went to live in a group home when her sister got pregnant. Wendy (Dakota Fanning) has never been allowed to meet her baby niece for fear of her (autistic) tantrums, but under Scottie’s (Toni Collette) care, she’s doing much better. They work on routines, sustained eye contact, and interpreting emotion. Wendy lives by the rules she carefully writes down in the notebook around her neck. She has a job at Cinnabon, a pet dog, and a penchant for speed-knitting sweaters for said dog – Pete, a chihuahua. In her spare time, she has written a 400+ page manuscript, a Star Trek episode. She’s a fan of the show and a particular fan of Spock’s, a dude whose half-Vulcan blood means he too has trouble understanding human emotion.

A visit with her sister (Alice Eve) that’s meant to be celebratory turns sour when Audrey MV5BMmQ5MzJlNmItNzg3MC00MTZjLTkwNTUtYzllOTdlZGM4ZjdhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzQxNzUzNzQ@._V1_has again not brought baby Ruby, and hints that she may be selling the family home and moving away. A meltdown seems imminent, but Wendy is fixated on her script, and getting it to Paramount Pictures on time for a contest. When she’s mysteriously not in her bed the next morning – well, let’s just say it’s not much of a mystery.

I love Toni Collette and she’s faultless in this, but it’s not her movie. It belongs to Dakota Fanning, who is Dakota Fantastic. Her portrayal may not be 100% authentic to autism, and could never be representative of everyone’s experience, the material is revived by using Star Trek as a tool for talking about her challenges. Dream sequences serve to reinforce this.

The story is slight but the heart is big. I really enjoyed Please Stand By, its attempt to show a different kind of coming-of-age, its commitment to keeping things light and fun but true. In an age where super heroes overcome astronomical, impossible, unbelievable things in at least 3 different acts of each movie, it’s refreshing to see a young woman overcome such humble obstacles and know that they mean so much more.

 

 

Birthmarked

Catherine and Ben are a couple of brilliant scientists who decide to distinguish their research from the pack by becoming field scientists like no one ever has before. They get an enthusiastic financial backer and retreat to a cabin in the woods where they’ll put nature vs nurture to the ultimate test, asking:¬†could we ever have been anyone other than who we are?

Catherine (Toni Collette) is pregnant, and she and Ben (Matthew Goode) plan to raise their son contrary to his genetic predisposition; the son of scientists will be nurtured toward the artistic. To flesh out their research, they adopt two more children, a girl from dimwit parents who will be nurtured to have high intellect, and a boy adopted from BirthmarkedFeat-1300x867violent people who will be ushered toward pacifism. Thus pass 12 years. But as time goes by, it seems evident that the kids aren’t tending toward any kind of genius. They’re mediocre, leaning toward their natural tendencies. Their benefactor isn’t pleased with the results. And with competing research on the brink of publishing, he’s pushing for things to be rather brought to a head, without seeming to realize that these are actual children we’re talking about. And though Catherine is properly horrified by the thought, Ben is perhaps slower to protest.

Birthmarked is an interesting premise, and well-acted; aside from Toni Collette, who is an absolute boss and can do no wrong, never has, I was particularly pleased by a pop-up role from Xavier Dolan muse and frequent collaborator, Suzanne Clement. But these extremely talented folk seem to ramble around in a script that needed a lot of tightening. Rambling to no particular avail, either – blink and you’ll miss the “climax” which is not a word that adequately describes something simply ending. Birthmarked felt a lot like Captain Fantastic‘s ugly cousin – looser, less successful. And since it falls way short of the oddball charm I hope like heck it was aiming for, the whole thing feels a lot more like…well, child abuse. None of the characters is the true star, so the whole thing feels rather pointless and lusterless, and I can’t help but wish it was directed by nearly anyone else since nearly everyone else has a point of view, and that’s what I missed the most in this movie with a good idea and zero execution.

Madame

Bob describes his new French manor home as a “humble pied a terre” while his wife Anne greets their VIP guests with barely contained self-satisfaction. Anne doesn’t know that Bob (Harvey Keitel) is concealing their looming bankruptcy – he has to sell a family heirloom just to keep things running but he still presents his wife new jewels ahead of the dinner party. Anne (Toni Colette) doesn’t bother to conceal that she isn’t pleased when Bob’s son Steven shows up at the last minute, upsetting the symmetry of her place settings. In a crunch, she invites her loyal maid Maria (Rossy de Palma) to dine with them, posing as a Spanish noblewoman, though Maria believes it’s a sin to tell a lie.

MV5BNDg3MGMxM2YtMzY0Yi00OTdkLThiMjItZmMyMjVmMWRhMjlkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjQzMzk3MTY@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_Oh boy. But you know what? Even with terrific advice like “be impossible” and “don’t talk like a maid,” it turns out the biggest risk is not that they’ll be found out, but that the lie will be too well accepted – a Brit described as a “dandy” falls for Maria, and pretty soon it’s Anne is in hot pursuit of her own maid, who’s being courted all over town.

The film itself looks sumptuous but feels rather light, rather flimsy. I don’t need much of an excuse to watch a Toni Collette movie, and even a not great Toni Collette movie is good enough for me. She’s such a joy to watch onscreen, even when she’s plotting and jealous and really kind of heinous. I could watch her nostrils flare with impatience all day long. Rossy De Palma proves a worthy adversary. Since Collette is the bad witch, De Palma is the good, the very good. All eyes on her. The truth is, this movie endeared itself to me the minute I saw Harvey Keitel bicycling in a jaunty scarf.

There’s more to this movie than it even knows itself. Anne and Bob are clearly struggling but don’t have the words for it, and maybe don’t care enough to try. So the thing with Maria is just a convenient escape, and the true reasons for Anne’s obsessive sabotage are many if not always obvious. The cast is talented enough to hint at things that perhaps the script was not strong enough to bring forth. For me this movie was still worth it – I could watch Toni Collette mow¬† a lawn and be satisfied – and it was perhaps a bit of a stopgap between be knowing I should really be watching Hereditary but not yet having the courage to do it.