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Movie reviews: 'Honey Boy' depicts a reckoning between a father and son
Shia LaBeouf and Noah Jupe can be seen in this scene from 'Honey Boy.' (8FLiX)
TORONTO -- > HONEY BOY: 4 STARS
Written as an exercise while in rehab, Shia LeBeouf's script for "Honey Boy" is a biographical piece about growing up as a child actor with an addicted former rodeo clown and Vietnam vet father who didn't always have his son's best interest in mind. By turns touching and bleak, tender and therapeutic, the film is a testament to art as a tonic to heal wounds.
LeBeouf's alter ego is Otis, played as a 12-year-old by Noah Jupe, and as a twenty-two year-old Hollywood stunt man by Lucas Hedges. We first meet him as a young adult on his way to court-ordered rehab after an altercation. There he begins putting pen to paper as a way to come to grips with an unconventional young life.
Cutting between present day and the events of a decade before, "Honey Boy" documents twelve-year-old Otis's relationship with his unpredictable father James (LaBeouf). James is a frustrated and frustrating burn-out who relies on his son financially. He is the very embodiment of a man "doing the best he can" with his son, but it's not nearly enough. Otis, an innocent, is forced to grow up fast, to define his love-hate relationship with James. He imagines telling his old man, "I've always been waiting for you to act like a real dad," but, instead he says, "You work for me. I'm your boss."
"Honey Boy" is about a terrible relationship, but it isn't an angry movie. LeBeouf's script and the direction of Alma Har'el, capture the heartbreaking melancholy of a father who never recovered from having his dreams shattered. Otis may say, "The only thing my father gave me of any value was pain," but there is empathy in the words and in LeBeouf's portrayal of James. He's abusive, drunk, prone to violence, but he's broken and knows no other path. It's not an excuse, simply an observation. "Stop bringing up the past," James tells Otis. "I can't get out from under it."
The film's coda, an earnest reckoning between father and son, sheds light on the aftermath of their abusive relationship. It's here "Honey Boy" shows its greatest compassion for a damaged person. Raw and powerful, it's father and son coming to an understanding after a lifetime of turmoil. When James says, "As you get older you get to learn about life. You get to know where you come from," it feels like LeBeouf's acceptance of their relationship. The choice of closing credit song, Bob Dylan's "All I Really Want to Do" reinforces the feeling. "All I really want to do," Dylan rasps, "Is, baby, be friends with you."
SPACESHIP EARTH: 3 STARS
At a time when many of us are living in isolation comes "Spaceship Earth," a documentary about eight people who spent two years in self quarantine inside BIOSPHERE 2, an airtight man-made replica of the Earth's ecosystem. "This is an incredible moment," says one of the biospherians as they enter the facility. "The future is here."
The idea was born of a free-thinking counter-cultural community in Northern California. In a situation that could only have emerged from the 1960s, this band of thinkers and futurists came together as the Theater of All Possibilities, a company formed by a charismatic Oklahoman named John Allen to open minds to his ideas about science and ecological sustainability through experimental theatre. "Small groups are the engines of change." They travel the world on what amounts to an ark, spreading their ideas through theatre and art.
By 1991, through a series of preposterous sounding events, Allen and Co and their project BIOSPHERE 2 — which included a forest and real coral reef — become media darlings with stories on every morning show and Phil Donohue providing glowing coverage of their efforts to find a sustainable way forward for the planet.
Through archival and contemporary interviews we meet the eight main players. "We were pioneers. We were the first biospherians. You gave us this new world. We were going to take care of it."
But soon questions arise. Is it science or ecological entertainment? Who, exactly, is footing the bill? Is it possible to live inside this research facility without help from the outside?
"Spaceship Earth" is a detailed look at how this unlikely band of people created something that had never been done before. In the first half, director Matt Wolf gets weighed down by the origin story, a complicated tale of how everyone came together. It's talking head and archival footage punctuated by some truly dreadful experimental theatre. Things get more interesting in the second half, despite a lack of footage from inside the sphere, as the story of Allen's new-but-flawed Utopia blossoms.
Ultimately, the story is one not of a lack of scientific chops or bizarre experimental thinking or even of a miscalculation of carbon dioxide levels, but of big ideas brought down by the media's thirst for pageantry and investors who wanted a quick turn-around on their money. The movie could have benefitted from a more scientific approach — a few outside experts to explain the BIOSPHERE's plusses and minuses — but as a document of stranger-than-fiction innovation, it's a timely and interesting film.
EMMA: 3 ½ STARS
Like the offspring of Jane Austen's original text and "Clueless," the 1995 American coming-of-age teen comedy it inspired, the new version of "Emma" is a period piece with a modern sensibility.
Anya Taylor-Joy is the title character, a young woman of high birth. As the opening credits say, she is "handsome, clever and rich and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her." She lives in a large manor house with servants and her father (Bill Nighy), a dour gent who constantly feels a draft. Next door is the wealthy and handsome George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a landowner who is almost like a brother to Emma.
When she isn't painting portraits of her friends, Emma meddles in the life of her naive protege Harriet (Mia Goth). Harriet loves a local farmer, but Emma, hoping the young woman will marry up, pushes her toward the town vicar (Josh O'Connor). Romantic complications and status problems arise when the impossibly wealthy Frank Churchhill (Callum Turner), who catches Emma's eye, and the poor but beautiful Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) return to town at the same time.
At the heart of every scene is Taylor-Joy. As Emma she is whip smart, arrogant, devious and charismatic even when she's being unpleasant. Her journey toward self-awareness is an eventful one, speckled with manipulation, some kindness and casual cruelty. One of the film's best scenes involves an offhand remark that deeply cuts a down-on-her-luck acquaintance (Miranda Hart). In this one scene Emma's entire attitude toward class is laid bare. She can be cruel and unthinking because the subject of her insult is not of the same social strata. Taylor-Joy brings the mix of sophistication and brattiness necessary to understand why Emma is the way she is. She has lived a life with no fear of social reprisal, but will not be able to move ahead until she learns about sensitivity. It's in there, all Emma has to do is find it.
Every frame of "Emma" is sumptuous, like "Downton Abbey" on steroids, but this isn't "Masterpiece Theatre." It brims with life and mischievousness, becoming more alive as Emma inches toward adulthood.
Director Autumn de Wilde has assembled a top flight cast of character actors to decorate the already beautiful scenery. Nighy literally leaps into frame, delivering a deadpan performance tempered with some good physical humour. Hart is both annoying and vulnerable before her character's circumstance takes a heartbreaking turn. The supporting cast isn't always given much to do but each, particularly Goth as a young woman who wears her emotions on her sleeve, help us understand the mosaic of Emma's life.
"Emma" is a tad too long as the mixed messages and missed connections build up, and the story's inherent rom com format seems familiar — there's even a scene of running to the airport, or in this case a carriage — but it retains the wit that has made the story a classic.
THE ASSISTANT: 3 ½ STARS
She is the invisible woman. The assistant to a high-flying New York movie mogul, Jane (Julia Garner) floats around the office, silently collating papers, cleaning up mysterious stains from her boss's casting couch — "Never sit on the couch," her co-workers joke — wordlessly doing the jobs nobody else will do. An aspiring filmmaker with hopes of one day producing her own movies she sees the job, low level as it is, as a stepping stone.
When her boss flies in a young, pretty waitress (Kristine Froseth) he met at the Sundance Film Festival to work in his office Jane suspects it is a #MeToo situation in the making. Reporting her feelings to HR in hopes of protecting the new naive hire she is instead reminded of how power works. "I can see you have what it takes to produce," says the appropriately named HR guy Wilcock ("Succession's" Matthew Macfadyen). "Why are you trying to throw it all away?"
That harrowing scene lies at the heart of "The Assistant." A timely study of the systemic mistreatment of vulnerable and defenceless women, Jane's story is an account of the many slights and indignities suffered by subordinates to power.
"The Assistant" is a quiet movie. Much of the dialogue comes from Jane's conversations with unseen limo drivers or her boss. We see her limited interaction with co-workers, but mostly we see the day-to-day drudgery that fills her hours. She arrives before dawn, stays well into the night and is treated like she should feel lucky to be there. Director Kitty Green keeps the focus tight, allowing the viewer to feel the soul-crushing drudgery of Jane's job. She is invisible, a presence simply to absorb her boss's bad temper and get lunch for the senor staffers.
Green never strays from Jane. We don't meet the head honcho or learn about anyone's backstory. It's not that kind of movie. Instead it is a document of the degradations and power dynamic that are an accepted part of the job. The film's chattiest scene, between Jane and HR's Wilcock, is quiet but shattering in its impact. His smugness is the very attitude that enabled the very abuse that Harvey Weinstein is facing trial for today. The casual nature of Wilcock's dismissiveness is chilling, punctuated by one last parting shot. On her way out of their meeting he ‘reassuringly' adds, "You don't have anything to worry about. You're not his type."
"The Assistant" is anchored by a subtle yet devastating performance from Garner. The hard-edged bluster she brings to her character on "Ozark" is missing, replaced by anxiety as she realizes the extent of the exploitation happening around her. It's quiet, restrained and heartbreaking to watch how she is beaten down.
Based on hundreds of interviews with real-life assistants, this is more than just a movie, it is a timely document of abuse of power and complicity.
ORDINARY LOVE: 4 STARS
In "Ordinary Love," a new family drama starring Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville, the "Taken" star is up against a foe that tests his special set of skills.
Neeson and Manville are Joan and Tom, a retired Northern Ireland couple whose perfect life is upended when she finds a lump in her breast. Determined to ease his wife's journey into the medical morass of mammograms, chemotherapy and all the attendant side effects, he is optimistic and supportive. "There isn't a moment I won't be there with you," he says.
From there the film follows Joan's year-long treatment, from discovery to treatment to double mastectomy and all the emotions that come with a potentially deadly diagnosis. It is the year that will test the stay-at-home couple's bond like no other. "We're both going through this," he says. "No, we're not!" she says.
There is nothing ordinary about "Ordinary Love." It is a well-observed slice of life that celebrates the mundane things that make up a life, particularly when trauma comes to town. Never maudlin and always heartfelt, it realistically handles the seven stages of grief — shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance — and even adds in a few others that accompanies a life changer like cancer. Screenwriter Owen McCafferty carefully navigates the story as far away from melodrama as possible to delve into the more elemental emotions of everything from compassion and kindness to resentment and rage.
Neeson and Manville, ably assisted by directors Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Lyburn, appeal to the audience's sympathetic tendencies but also mine the humour that arises from the uncomfortable situations.
"Ordinary Love" avoids the pitfalls of many other films that deal with illness. It never shies away from the reality of the situation but finds tenderness in its character's humanity. After thirty years of marriage they still like one another and it shows. I defy you to watch Tom cut Joan's hair as it falls out in clumps due to chemotherapy and not feel the warm authenticity of the scene.
EXTRA ORDINARY: 3 ½ STARS
Humour and horror may elicit different reactions, a giggle or a gasp, but in many ways they are the flip sides of the same coin. Both genres rely on timing and tension to make their point and both act as steam valves for emotions. A case in point? The supernatural shenanigans of "Extra Ordinary," a new film starring Will Forte as a Satanist, that finds a very pleasing mix of silly and scary.
Set in rural Ireland, "Extra Ordinary" is the story of Rose (Maeve Higgins), a driving instructor with a gift for communicating to the dead courtesy of her late celebrity ghost buster father (Risteárd Cooper). People leave her messages asking her to use her supernatural skills for all sorts of things including, "finding my charger" and "looking into whether I'm pregnant." She has left the paranormal behind, haunted by the unfortunate childhood accident that claimed her father's life during the exorcism of a dog. "I don't use my gifts anymore," she says. "It's too dangerous."
In another part of town, a recent widower, the double-named Martin Martin (Barry Ward), is having some problems with his late wife who won't stay dead — she still runs the house and leaves messages like "You Must Pay... the Car Tax written in the steam on the bathroom mirror — and his teenage daughter Sarah (Emma Martin) has had enough. "We can't go on like this," says Sarah. "If you are too scared, I'm going to call someone." "Who you gonna call," Martin replies, in one of the film's many references to other spooky movies.
Of course, the only person in town to call is Rose. She resists but gives in when one-hit-wonder Christian Winter (Will Forte) enters the picture. He's a Satanist who needs to sacrifice a virgin so his next album will be a hit and he has his eye on Sarah. "They say the devil is in the details," Christian says, "and on this album all the details are just right."
"Extra Ordinary" works so well not because of the gross outs — which are low fi but fun — and not simply because of the jokes, but because of the characters. Higgins, as the lonely and lovable Rose shares great chemistry with Ward, who displays laser sharp comic timing as he, possessed by the ghost of his late wife, jumps from personality to personality. Forte ups the ante, bringing his "in for a penny, in for a pound" style of extreme characterization to Christian, teetering on the edge of overkill with his blend of buffoonery and mysticism but never topples over.
Directors and co-writers Enda Loughman and Mike Ahern find just the right mix of laughs and lunacy to underscore "Extra Ordinary's" story of lost souls looking to move on with their lives after loss, even if the passed-on still cast a long shadow. "You are not killing my dead wife," Martin says in a line that sums up the movie's absurdity and humanity in just seven words.
HOPE GAP: 3 STARS
In climate change circles the term "hope gap" refers to people who worry about global warming but feel powerless to do anything about it. The new film "Hope Gap" has nothing to do with the climate, but is all about change and a person who feels powerless to prevent it.
Bill Nighy and Annette Bening play mild-mannered Edward and firecracker Grace, a married couple of twenty-nine-years. Their cluttered home displays the earmarks of a life well-lived. Shelves overflow with books and knick knacks, photographs decorate the fridge. They have a seemingly comfortable relationship; they know how one another takes their tea and pad about the house working on their pet projects, his academic updating of Wikipedia history sites, her poetry projects.
When their son Jamie (Josh O'Connor) comes to their Sussex coast home to visit there is tension in the air. Grace, in an attempt to shock Edward out of what she thinks is his silent complacency, picks a brutal fight, overturning a table and slapping her husband in the face. "He should fight back," she says to Jamie. "I want a reaction."
The relative calm of the seaside home shattered, Edward announces that he has long felt inadequate in the marriage and that he's leaving, immediately. Devastated, Grace wants to try and work things out as Edward begins his new life.
"Hope Gap" has moments of humour but make no mistake, this is a downbeat story about two people who were living separate lives under one roof. The overall tone is one of melancholy, but not melodramatic. Nighy and Bening give naturalistic performances, each feeling the pain of the other's actions in a battle of wills. Bening is heartbroken, angry and yet hopeful for reconciliation. Nighy plays Edward like a wounded animal, skittish and afraid, a damaged man who has retreated from the relationship.
The beauty of the screenplay by Oscar-nominated writer-director William Nicholson, is that it doesn't take sides. Complex characters are thrown into a complicated, almost unbearable situation with no real winners. It paints a vivid picture of Grace and Edward but doesn't judge them.
"Hope Gap" is a portrait of middle-age angst. It may not make for a good date night movie but the nuance of the relationships on display is worth the price of admission.
DISAPPEARANCE AT CLIFTON HILL: 3 STARS
Niagara Falls' Clifton Hill has no shortage of haunted houses. In exchange for a few dollars the "World Famous Street of Fun" offers up scary attractions like Frankenstein's Haunted House, but a new film, "Disappearance at Clifton Hill," isn't content with a cheap scare or two, it's looking to make a deeper, psychological impact. "The haunted houses aren't actually haunted," jokes Abby (Tuppence Middleton).
"Downton Abbey's" Middleton is a woman troubled by a childhood incident. As a little girl on a fishing trip with her parents, she witnessed the kidnapping of a one-eyed boy. Years later, after the death of her mother she returns home to sell the family's run-down motel, the Rainbow Inn. Sifting through some old photos she comes across some old photos that dredge up memories of the terrible event.
Instead of packing up and leaving town she opens an investigation. "I'm someone who saw it," she says. "Saw them take him. I was seven. I was there when it happened and I have proof." When she uncovers the story of some local performers, the Magnificent Moulins, and their missing and presumed dead son she wonders if he could be the one-eyed boy. Her sister Laure (Mindhunter's Hannah Gross) doesn't believe her story — Abby is a pathological liar — but local historian and podcaster Walter (David Cronenberg) does. "Do you know what happens when a body hits the bottom of the gorge?" he asks. "Think swallowing a live grenade." That would explain why no body was ever found, but it opens the door to a conspiracy that leaves Abby questioning her sanity. "There's a lot of history round these parts," Walter says, ominously.
With the soft underbelly of Niagara Falls as a backdrop "Disappearance at Clifton Hill" effectively creates an eccentric atmosphere that hangs in the air; never forced, never obvious.
Director Albert Shin allows the city's offbeat setting, including haunted houses and the uber-kitschy Flying Saucer Restaurant, to infuse itself into the offbeat nature of Abby's story. Like the city itself, her tale isn't exactly what it seems on the surface.
Middleton subtly reveals Abby's complexity. She approaches her investigation with a certain amount of naive zeal, quickly realizing that her obsession is leading her down some very dark paths. Looking for answers, she is fearless in her search for the truth amid the ambiguity of her memory. Supporting her in a terrific turn is Cronenberg as the only person who believes she is on to something. It could have been stunt casting to bring in a master of the macabre to play a man who specializes in cataloguing the dark side of life but Cronenberg finds humour in the character while still helping move the story forward.
As a mystery, "Disappearance at Clifton Hill" doesn't have quite enough intrigue, but as a character study of a person troubled by long ago events it roars like the waterfall that sits at the heart of its story.
SORRY WE MISSED YOU: 4 STARS
In the future when we look up the word "bleak" in the dictionary there may be a picture of Ken Loach next to the definition. He has spent a career crafting dramatic and dreary portraits of social ills like poverty and homelessness, documenting the trials and tribulations of working-class people. His new film, "Sorry We Missed You," covers familiar neo-realist ground but its look at the gig economy feels fresh and timely.
In modern day Newcastle, Ricky (Kris Hitchen) and Abbie Turner (Debbie Honeywood) and their two kids, the trouble-making Seb (Rhys Stone) and sensitive daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), struggle to get by. With no education and mounting debts Ricky sees a way out of his desperate situation in the form of a parcel delivery franchise. Trouble is, he'll need to commandeer the family vehicle, the van Abbie uses to get around as a home care worker, to make his new career work.
Eager to impress his supervisor, the tough-as-nails Gavin Maloney (Ross Brewster), and working toward financial independence Ricky loses himself in the job. With fines in place if he is late with deliveries, the pressure builds and soon the family is at a breaking point.
"Sorry We Missed You" sets a new standard for bleak, even for Loach. A powerful, tragic document of the dehumanizing effects of financial strain, it masterfully details how Ricky and Abbie's family disintegrate under the strain of simply trying to make ends meet. The anguish feels real, aided by naturalistic performances that never condescend to the characters.
Honeywood, in her film debut, is remarkable. She gives Abbie the right mix of frustration, fear and feeling to bring her to vivid life. She is the film's beating heart and it is through her and not Ricky that we come to understand how deep and dire the family's situation is.
Loach uses a cast of unknowns, a clever way of ensuring the actors don't bring any baggage from previous roles to the film. Add to that Loach's documentary style, with natural light and hand held cameras, and you have a movie that feels like an intimate cinéma vérité look at the Turners.
"Sorry We Missed You" is a heartbreaker not simply because we see how Ricky's want for a better life blows up in his face but because it is about people being taken advantage of while trying to do the right thing.