Tag Archives: what to watch on Netflix

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

The Meyerowitz family is fractured. Danny (Adam Sandler) is a self-described ‘extremely good parker’ with little else on the horizon. A loving dad and devoted house husband, his life is in transition now that he and his wife are separating and his only daughter is off to college. Moving in with his estranged father Harold (Dustin Hoffman) seems like an opportunity to get to know him, except it turns out that feeling’s not mutual.

Harold abandoned Danny and daughter Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) in favour of a new family when they were quite young. He’s never acted as a real father to them and even now he’s mostly only interested in what they can do for him. Not to mention the complicating factor of his alcoholic wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) who MV5BN2M5YzA2ODAtOTNmMi00MGYyLWIxYWYtY2M2NmE4ZGE1ODQ1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjAwODA4Mw@@._V1_inserts herself into cramped dynamics like she’s determined to put the Wicked back into Step Mother. Both throw out the red carpet when favoured son Matthew (Ben Stiller) makes a reluctant appearance. Harold has fostered a competitive streak between his children by different mothers but they otherwise aren’t close. So when their father’s life and career necessitate them pulling together, it’s a little awkward. Actually, it’s extremely awkward and kind of heart breaking. Because they aren’t bad people, they’ve just been starved of their father’s love and have no idea how to act like a family now that there’s no real chance that things will ever be different.

This being a Noah Baumbach work, the comedy isn’t broad, but it is damn funny. When I finished it (a Netflix original) I immediately wanted to restart it, just to catch all the amazing little asides and offhand jokes that are so casually but expertly tossed out.

Although Harold is a self-absorbed contrarian, he’s not quite despicable in the hands of Dustin Hoffman and his grizzled white beard. Adam Sandler gives a nuanced performance that’ll make you believe in him as an actor once again – and it’s been a good long while since that’s been true. Actually, there are loads of big names, some in pretty small roles, but everyone is kind of spectacular in this. Having recently had no patience for Golden Exits at the New Hampshire Film Festival, I wondered if the our film lexicon was finally full to bursting with movies about privileged white people whining about their lives. But the family dysfunction in The Meyerowitz Stories feels relatable and authentic and the characters are trying too hard to be decent people in the face of it all: I kind of loved it. It’s amazing how many years later childhood resentments and jealousies can bubble to the surface, but this is the kind of movie that makes us all feel “Same” in one way or another, and it just feels good and cathartic that we aren’t alone.

 

 

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TIFF: First They Killed My Father

Angelina Jolie first visited Cambodia in her mid 20s to film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. She fell in love with the country but having to dodge landmines made her realize how much about world history she hadn’t been taught in school. While there, she bout Loung Ung’s memoir for $2 on the street, and it changed her life.

She went back to Cambodia two years later in 2002 for her work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She spent time with local schoolchildren and realized that her son was in this very country. She adopted Maddox there that same year. The book she’d read always stuck with her, and she knew it was the story she wanted to tell in order for her son to know what his countrymen were like.

Loung Ung is a survivor of what we now call the Cambodian genocide. She was just a child during the deadly rule of the Khmer Rouge led by the dictator Pol Pot. 25% of the MV5BYmI4YzY3MTAtZjk1My00NmYwLTg4MTgtMDdlZjFhZjQzM2NlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDkzNTM2ODg@._V1_Cambodian population died from malnutrition, forced labour, and mass murder in the time period between 1975-1979. Almost all Cambodian artists, actors, and film makers were killed during this regime, so getting the story out has been a difficulty. Cambodia’s film community had all but expired and is only now starting to recover. With Netflix fronting $24 million for this film, First They Killed My Father is the biggest movie shot entirely in Cambodia, and director Jolie was careful to use as many Cambodian cast and crew as she could (she herself in a Cambodian citizen since 2005). Some of them are genocide survivors themselves (such as producer Rithy Panh), so therapists were on standby on the set to avoid re-traumatizing the people who’d already lived through events depicted in the film. Jolie’s son Maddox worked on the film as well.

Though the film avoids showing us the worst of the gore, the threat and undercurrent of violence is still there. It sits quite heavily as we watch a young family try to survive the unimaginable, with constant reminders that death isn’t even the worst of it. But the camera lingers on the beauty of Cambodia too – particularly the lush greenery. The cinematography is pretty stunning.

Little Ung was only five when the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and all of sevel whens he made it out, and the film reflects her child’s eye view. Although there are plenty of emotionally powerful moments, there are also times when we struggle to MV5BZDcyYmUyZjItYmUyNS00OWIyLWIwZTQtOTllYWE2MDEyY2FmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDkzNTM2ODg@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,937_AL_adsorb all that is happening around her, like she herself must have been at that young age. The film also engages our inner protectors: watching this little girl plant land mines and fire guns is just too much to process.

For the most part, the film’s most tragic scenes are deliberately underplayed, almost but not quite detached, because we come to understand that this story is being told in retrospect. There is a greater context but mostly the film is not so much interested in the historical facts as it is in giving the genuine experience of what it felt like to live (or die) through it. There’s no triumphant spin, no big, redeeming moment. It was a bleak time and it is painstakingly recreated through the camera’s lens. Jolie avoids any typical Hollywood ending and keeps our focus right where it belongs: on a little girl who surived.

 

Our Souls At Night

Actor-comedian Patton Oswalt lost his wife suddenly in April 2016. He was very vocal in his grief following her death so it took people by surprise when he announced his engagement barely a year later. Some were critical. I, however, wish him nothing but the best, and I’d wish the same for Sean if he were ever in the same spot. I know a little about love and grief, and how they are not mutually exclusive. I’d also never want Sean to feel lonely.

That’s how Louis (Robert Redford) and Addie (Jane Fonda) are feeling when we first meet them – lonely. Both of their spouses are long dead and they’ve each been leading pretty Fondasolitary existences up until Addie gets up the courage to ring Louis’s doorbell and invites herself in for a chat and a little proposal. Why not sleep together, she suggests. No, not sex. Sex doesn’t interest her. But the nights are long. Very long. Couldn’t they come to some arrangement? After thinking on it, he agrees, so off he goes in his best blue plaid shirt, to have a platonic sleepover with a neighbour he’s lived alongside for decades but never really known.

I’m often critical about movies starring senior citizens. So many feel demeaning, unworthy of their subjects, but I must admit, this new one from Netflix feels invigorating and authentic. Addie clearly has agency. They both have plenty to offer. Of course they’re not immune to aging but they’re also not done living, and that was fantastic to see on the big screen.

Jane Fonda and Robert Redford both accepted Lifetime Achievement awards here at the our-souls-at-night'-will-reunite-'barefoot-in-the-park'-stars-robert-redford-and-jane-fondaVenice Film Festival, in a ceremony preceding the screening of their new film. They’ve co-starred in movies before: The Chase (1966), Barefoot in the Park (1967), and The Electric Horseman (1979); this is their first in 38 years. To mark the occasion, Fonda said “It was fun to kiss him in my 20s and then to kiss him again in my almost-80s.” I have to say, it was fun for the audience, too. Yes, it’s great to see mature faces getting meaty roles, but you’re also getting a masterclass in acting. These two make it look easy. Their chemistry feels effortless.

nintchdbpict000349666861Of course, if you’re looking for classic, cheesy romance, this isn’t it. Louis and Addie are too wise for that. They have responsibilities, baggage, obligations. Kent Haruf, who wrote the novel upon which this film is based, knew a little about that. He wrote his book under a death sentence: he was 71, and he finished it just months before he died of lung cancer. The novel was published posthumously, so Louis and Addie are his legacy. Fonda and Redford would have made him proud.

This is an excellent movie from Netflix that will be available for streaming later this month.

The Sweet Life

Chris Messina plays Kenny, the world’s saddest ice cream peddler. He mopes around Chicago in his stupid black bowtie, eventually ending up on a bridge that’s perfect for throwing oneself off of. EXCEPT the bridge is a little crowded: Lolita (Abigail Spencer) is also there, and she’s feeling kind of territorial about her favourite suicide spot. But before you know it, they’re bonding over their mutual depression and the crappy therapist they have in common. They don’t call their respective suicides off, but they do decide that no death is complete without one last road trip – and aren’t the bridges in San Francisco that much nicer for hosting one’s imminent death?

The-Sweet-Life-trailer-700x300.pngSo off they drive in a stolen Mercedes. They have a cross-country adventure that only two people determined to die could possibly have: madcap, in a non-urgent way.  The script doesn’t feel compelled to follow the usual formula for a road trip movie, so it’s sprinkled with surprising pit stops and hijinks. Kenny and Lolita have nothing to lose, so anything is possible.

I usually find Chris Messina quite charming, but he’s dialed way down in The Sweet Life, playing a man longing to die. It sounds quite grim but actually Messina and Spencer manage to keep things fairly light most of the time, though I’m not sure that’s a compliment. The actors are talented enough to try to convey more than the script itself allows, but the truth is, the movie treats mental illness pretty flippantly, as if suicidal ideation is just a means to a meet-cute. It also sort of implies that their mental health problems are directly attributable to one specific person, and confronting that one person should cure them for good — right?

If you aren’t too concerned about the movie’s messaging about mental health, it’s a quirky little indie dramedy that’s a great character exercise for two fearless actors. Their struggle to connect feels real, the emotional dissonance sometimes a challenge, but The Sweet Life is not as hopeless as it sounds.

 

 

The Incredible Jessica James

Two broken hearts on the rebound: Jessica (Jessica Williams) is an aspiring playwright full of youthful energy and self-confidence; Boone (Chris O’Dowd) is recently divorced and somewhat bewildered by the dating scene.

When we first meet Jessica, I was a little repelled. She comes off brash and self-serving – not the kind of person you’d want to go on a blind date with, not the kind of person I’d really care to watch onscreen for an hour and a half. But by the opening credits, she’d MV5BMTA1NDM0ODY2MDdeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDc2NTgxOTAy._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1596,1000_AL_grown on me. She dances around her apartment so unselfconsciously I couldn’t help but see myself in her. By the film’s half way point, I quite agreed with the title: incredible indeed.

Jessica insists that the friendship between herself and Boone will be based on honesty, and this pact pulls no punches. They bond over their mutual obsession with their exes. They make brutal self-disclosures. As you can imagine, the intimacy grows between them and their relationship morphs more quickly than either of them are really ready for. But Jessica James isn’t just about boys, she’s a fully realized woman with a lot more going on. She doggedly applies to any theatre program that might accept her plays, she teaches theatre to children, she pursues her passions while supporting those of her friends.

Writer-director Jim Strouse wrote The Incredible Jessica James specifically for Jessica Williams, and I sincerely hope it’s a star-making role for her. She’s infectious and luminous and I want her to be in all the things. This movie is a rom-com for 2017: it is what it says it is. It doesn’t just pay lipservice to #feminism, it gives its leading lady a wide range of interests so that she doesn’t have to find fulfillment through love, she’s already got a lot going on. Williams and O’Dowd have a sparky kind of energy that’s gorgeous to watch and I LOVE me some Chris O’Dowd, so the fact that I was equally happy when he was offscreen says a lot about the kind of movie this is, and the star power that Williams shines upon us.

You don’t have to take my word for it: The Incredible Jessica James is streaming on Netflix right this very minute. It took me about 5-10 minutes to ease into it but I went from charmed to smitten pretty quick and here’s hoping that you do too.

 

Chasing Coral

The ocean only has to warm about two degrees for coral to die, and guess what? The ocean is warming and the coral is dying. Much of it is dead already. It’s not just sad because we’re losing a beautiful animal; coral is vital to our ocean’s ecosystems, and when coral dies, so do many other species in the ocean, and it’s only a matter of time before we ourselves feel dire repercussions. Coral are the trees of the ocean, and their extinction en masse cannot and will not go unnoticed. The question is: will we notice before it’s too late?

One diver, Richard Vevers, realizes the ocean has a bit of an advertising issue: it’s out of sight, and largely out of mind. But if he could find a way to show us at home what’s going on beneath the waves, might we pay attention? Inspired by the film Chasing Ice, which captured the receding glaciers through years of time-lapse, Richard thought the same MV5BODA5ODAyNjk5M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzQ3NTE5MDI@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,785_AL_technique could be applied to the reefs, so he called up director Jeff Orlowski, and an idea was born.

Underwater time lapse meant nothing short of a new invention was necessary. A whole team built special cameras that could exist in salt water for months a time, in the cold, under great depth and pressure, subject to storms, and needing not only to be wiped clean regularly, but to host a router that would send the images back. This is how they meet Zackery Rago, who’s part of the camera building team but also has a secret passion for coral. They position their cameras in the reefs of Hawaii, the Bahamas, and Bermuda, but nature and technology conspire against them. In the end, it’s necessary for them to go down and record this massive bleaching event themselves.

Another lesson learned: watching a beautiful animal die is hard. Watching them practically go extinct is wrenching. 2016 was a bad year for coral. 29% of the Great Barrier Reef died in 2016 alone. In 30 years, we could lose it all. White coral is a shock, of course. The white is the coral’s exposed skeleton. Death is imminent. Dead coral is even sadder, devoid of any life or colour.  While the time lapse originally meant that they could observe this happening from a distance, the modified plan of divers capturing the footage themselves means they are confronted with this death and dying in person, and they find that quite devastating. I think you will too and I think you should watch anyway.

Kristen Bell recorded a song specifically for use in the film. She feels strongly about the film’s message, but I think the hope is that we all will, and feel galvanized into action. You can start with Vever’s The Ocean Agency and suggestions found at Chasing Coral. But I think just not turning away from this is the important thing.

 

 

 

Vegas Baby

Perhaps as many as 1 out of 6 couples faces some sort of fertility issue when trying to conceive a baby. To answer this need, science offers a smidgen of hope: the ability to harvest eggs, inseminate them, and plant the fertilized embryos in utero, giving conception a greater chance. Is it a perfect system? No it is not. The odds are likely still against you. But the numbers aren’t the only barrier to babies – so, too, is the cost. One fertility clinic therefore offers the chance to “win a baby” – really, just one course of in vitro fertilization. But this contest attracts many desperate people who make emotional appeals.

This is a really interesting documentary, and a heartbreaking one too. It addresses issues ranging from:

movieposter.jpga) Is it even ethical to “give away”  a baby as promotional material?

b) Is it exploitative to force fertility-challenged people to compete against one another?

c) What happens to all the “losers”?

d) Why are people willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to conceive, but unwilling to adopt?

e) Why do some countries consider infertility to be a legitimate medical condition deserving of coverage and treatment while the U.S. leaves infertile men and women high and dry?

e) After bankrupting themselves financially and emotionally, what happens to a couple who still doesn’t have a baby?

f) What happens when your heart tells you to pursue baby-making by any means possible, but your religion expressly forbids it?

Director Amanda Micheli has fertility problems of her own, and used the baby contest as a provocative conversation starter in this documentary, a film that takes a look behind the curtain at the subject that is so rarely talked about. It’s a well-made film that is interesting and worth of your time. Kudos to all the people who shared their journey and their private pain; fertility and infertility are little understood, so shining a light on this issue is an important step in humanizing a subject that really hits us at the core of our personhood. We take our fertility for granted and losing control over something our bodies are supposed to do naturally seems to be a demoralizing process. The film is full of heartbreak. But there are little rays of hope too, and Micheli does a good job of balancing the rain and the sunshine.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Little Boxes

There are a million movies about country bumpkins going to the big city: fish out of water hilarity ensues. In this case, a family does the opposite migration; they move from Brooklyn to small town Washington and culture shock ensues. In fact, the Burns family has a flat-out identity crisis. Mom Gina (Melanie Lynskey) has accepted a new tenure-track position at the local college but her new colleagues find her photography to be a little “New York centrist”. Dad Mack (Nelsan Ellis) struggles to keep up with is cooking show critiques without working appliances – the moving truck hasn’t arrived yet, so he’s chasing them instead of devoting time to his second novel. And son Clark (Armani Jackson) is finding out how it feels to be the only black kid in town as he attempts to befriend some girls who are looking for a token minority third.

You might almost want to call Little Boxes a companion piece to Jordan Peele’s Get Out for its quiet inspection of white liberal racism, but the truth is, this one lacks bite. It’s a little too tame in its condemnation. But what makes the film worthwhile is the excellent MV5BZWJmMWJmNzYtNzZhZi00MjFmLTliMmEtODdkYmQ0OWI1YzU5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTU2NDMyOTM@._V1_SY1000_SX1500_AL_family dynamic between Lynskey, Ellis, and Jackson. I always feel chuffed to see Lynskey in anything; she’s the Queen of indie movies and I bow down before her. Ellis was strong right out of the gate, but I struggled to place him. It was the voice that tipped me off: I knew him from somewhere. It took until the last scenes of the movie before I had my light bulb moment – True Blood (he played the cook, Lafayette). Even the kid is good, and I’m of the opinion that child actors can make or break your project. Too many directors don’t spend near enough time finding a kid who’s more than just cute. I’m happy to report that Jackson earns his spot in the Burns trifecta. They make a family you’ll fall in love with immediately, which is what makes it so effective when they hit a rough patch. Their disharmony transfers to us.

The messiness of life is addressed honestly if not always subtly. There are many ways in which to not fit in, and Little Boxes finds at least three. But it also finds a comforting way to put things back together, and maybe that’s the point, not the oddly-shaped puzzle pieces that life gives us, but the glue that holds them together.

Train to Busan

Seok-Woo (Yoo Gong) is a busy hedge fund manager who thinks mainly of himself, and his success. He’s pushed away his wife, who has left him, and he’s letting his mother raise his young daughter, Soo-an (Soo-an Kim). When a Wii fails to impress Soo-an for her birthday, Seok-Woo reluctantly agrees to take her on a trip to visit her mother. They board a trail from Seoul to Busan, and their timing is impeccable (although, to be honest, I’m still not 100% if it was impeccably good or impeccably bad. You decide). Just as their train is pulling away, a very fast-spreading zombie infection overtakes the station. Has the train gotten away cleanly? Well, no, not entirely.

Like Snowpiercer and Murder on the Orient Express, the train setting gives a unique twist on the genre in question, in this case, the good old zombie movie. A train, as you MV5BMGUyZDQ2NzEtZDIwMi00ZTA4LWEyM2EtNTIyZDdlZjBmNmY3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjEwNTM2Mzc@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1494,1000_AL_know, is basically a big metal tube and while it’s travelling, you’re all but locked inside. There’s no where to go. All the players, good and bad, and all the answers, good and bad, must be found within the train.

Seok-Woo is intent on protecting his daughter. It’s sad that it takes an apocalypse for this father to finally dedicate time for his daughter, but there it is. For better or worse, their fates become intertwined with those of the people in their compartment: a pregnant woman and her aggressive husband, a couple of elderly women, a vagrant, a high school baseball team, an arrogant businessman.

Director Sang-ho Yeon makes brilliant use of the cramped quarters. The action sequences are taut. He’s less confident about the wobbly social commentary he sometimes wants to make, and the zombies’ abilities do waver a little bit depending on what will service the plot, but it’s never very long before another burst of action is upon us. The characters have actual personalities; some you’ll root for, some you’ll cheer for when they get eaten.  Sure dad’s character arc is a little predictable, but when’s the last horror movie that even bothered with one? Train to Busan is a little overlong but very watchable, even for a chickenshit like me. Zombie outbreaks tend to bring out the worst in us but Yeon reminds us that we’re still capable of compassion and sacrifice as well. He elevates the film from its generic genre; though its roots are still evident, this film is as fresh and unique as it filled with spilled brains.