By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, March 28, 2013 - 0 Comments
Brian D. Johnson on the onscreen chemistry between incendiary young women in film
Soon enough the boys of summer will invade the multiplex. In blockbusters like Man of Steel and Iron Man 3, superheroes will clash with arch-villains in heavy metal duels while the fate of the planet, and the box office, hangs in the balance. But before the onslaught, look out for the girls of spring—led by the bikini outlaws of Spring Breakers, who seize the amoral high ground from the boys in a poolside delirium of sex, drugs and guns. It’s just one of five new movies about intrepid, uncontainable young women opening in Canadian theatres in the next two weeks—along with The Host, Ginger & Rosa, The Sapphires and Beyond the Hills. Running the gamut of genres, from sci-ﬁ romance to high tragedy, these are radically different films, but they’re all, on some level, tales of girls gone wild. And each is fuelled by the volatile chemistry of female friendship as it undergoes a cataclysmic trial by fire.
At a time when Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls has lit up the zeitgeist—exploding stereotypes with its raw portrayal of twentysomething girlfriends scrambling to have a life—we’re witnessing a rare convergence of movies about gloriously messy female relationships. “It’s about time,” says Sally Potter, the British writer-director of Ginger & Rosa. “There’s been a tendency for them to be portrayed in films as either sweet and lovely—the sentimental sisterhood—or mean and nasty vixens at each others’ throats.”
By far the most incendiary attempt to subvert the girl-movie formula is Spring Breakers. Already a hit in the U.S., this R-rated rampage follows four bored college girls who bankroll a Florida bacchanal by robbing a fast-food joint—waving guns and wearing pink balaclavas reminiscent of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. With candy-coloured vistas of massive bongs, slo-mo boobs and fountaining beer, the movie plays like a cross between Natural Born Killers and a Britney Spears video—call it Apocalypstick Now! With a cocktail of titillation and nihilist satire, director Harmony Korine (Trash Humpers) cannonballs from the art-house fringe into the shallow end of the mainstream, corrupting two wholesome Disney kids, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, while he’s at it.
By Bookmarked and Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 10:47 AM - 0 Comments
This slim volume about a one-name pop star by a one-name writer flirts with biography. But Touré—journalist, co-host of MSNBC’s The Cycle and sage author of Who’s Afraid of Post Blackness?—has a higher purpose. In a triptych of propulsive essays, he’s on a mission to crack the Prince enigma and canonize him as a preacher/provocateur who has liquidated lines of race, gender and genre with music that’s both carnal and Christian. Although Prince was born on the tail end of the baby boom, Touré holds him up as a mirror ball for the author’s own Generation X—a latchkey kid and child of divorce who became a hypersexual icon of diversity. Fearful of being ghettoized as a black artist, he has always cast his musicians as a multicultural mix of black and white, male and female. And despite his voracious heterosexuality, he has cultivated a gay mystique with high heels and eye shadow—the sensitive Machiavellian.
Though Touré’s book is reverent, not trashy, in a chapter titled “The King of Porn Chic,” he draws a tantalizing portrait of Prince as a man “who loved to be with multiple girls, or to watch,” but who often preferred to bathe a woman than have sex. Recalls an ex-girfriend: “He ran the bath, he put the bubbles in, he took your clothes off, he washed you, he washed your hair . . . He put lotion on after. He’d give you a robe.” But the star of Purple Rain has always had a thing for baptism.
Raised a Seventh Day Adventist and now a Jehovah’s Witness, Prince channels religious and sexual fervour with equal intensity. And Touré shows how he’s spun the roots of blues, soul and gospel into ecstatic towers of song, more erotic and spiritual than both Michael Jackson and Madonna. As for his Messiah complex, Touré isn’t sure if Prince feels he is Jesus or merely Jesus-like. But when he calls him “the most important religious artist ever,” somehow forgetting Bob Marley, you have to wonder if he’s been drinking too much of the purple Kool-Aid.
Visit the Maclean’s Bookmarked blog for news and reviews on all things literary
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 7:22 AM - 0 Comments
If you’re impatient for the “sea of fire” promised by North Korea, and would like to see us move toward the apocalypse at a faster clip, Hollywood is in your corner this Easter weekend. In G.I. Joe: Retaliation, an elite squad of U.S. special forces out-muscle an evil genius who’s trying to blow up the world. It’s an NRA wet dream, a gun-porn action movie for those who found Olympus Has Fallen too quiet and thoughtful. Next to G.I. Joe, the White House siege staged by North Korea in Olympus Has Fallen plays like an Ingmar Bergman movie.
More on that in a moment. But there are are other ways to enjoy the End Of The World this Easter weekend. Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa, one of the best films I’ve seen this year, is a riveting story of two teenage girls, who were both born on the day the atomic bomb hit Hiroshima, and whose close friendship implodes under the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Elle Fanning and Alice Englert are superb as Ginger and Rosa. The movie belongs to these two young women, whose intimacy is rooted in the knowing detail of a script rooted in Potter’s own English youth. Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) makes a fine frustrated housewife, whose Byronic husband (Alessandro Nivola) is busy being free, changing the world—and drawing Rosa into his web. Timothy Spall, Annette Bening and Oliver Platt fill out a strong supporting cast.
Ginger & Rosa is tinted by nostalgia for the Sixties, but not the Sixties of counter-culture myth. It takes place in 1962, on the cusp of everything that’s about to happen, when the cultural balance was still tipped toward Cold War terror, before the Beatles, before flower power and feminism—before the personal became political. But in this story of young female longing, those two worlds combust. And in the lives of its two naive 16-year-olds, we see a generation lose its innocence in flight to freedom that pinwheels into tragedy. It’s similar territory to An Education, but less subdued. The story’s emotional vortex gives both Marx and Freud and run for their money.
For apocalyptic tale candy-coated in cool contemporary nihilism, there’s Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, a girls-gone-wild story of college coeds enjoying a rampage of sex, drugs, ‘n’ automatic weapons. Whatever ideas pretend to be at work in this über-guilty pleasure are swamped by the director’s flamboyant style, and shock-and-awe orgy that gets tired fast. The esthetic is that of a music video, but the looped dance-beat images of young bodies working so hard to have fun become a chore to watch. Before the long, the movie turns into a numbing trailer for itself. As its four bikini girls on dope ride into the heart of darkness, it turns out that their Kurtz—a drug lord named Alien played played by a southern-fried James Franco—has all the best scenes. So much for the riot girls. With smirking contempt for his characters, Harmony Korine splits the difference between satirizing youthful decadence and exploiting it, leaving us squarely in the middle of the road, dazed and confused.
For more on Ginger & Rosa and Spring Breakers, as well as two other new films about young women—The Host, The Sapphires, and Beyond the Hills, watch later today for my story: Girls Gone Wilder. And for a less dismissive view of that bikini outlaw flick, check out this thoughtful, provocative piece from Jessica Allen: What is it about Spring Breakers? Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, March 22, 2013 at 5:25 PM - 0 Comments
Opening this week are two Hollywood offerings from opposite ends of the brains/brawn spectrum—Admission and Olympus Has Fallen. Both are about the barbarians at the gate. The first is not as smart as its academic pedigree would suggest; the latter is not as dumb as you’d expect. And neither movie breaks the mold of its own formula—respectively a fortysomething romcom and a stars-and-stripes disaster flick. But each is entertaining, up to a point. It’s an apples and oranges choice—snakes & ladders in an ivory tower versus the wholesale destruction of the White House. I’d recommend Admission, if only for the deft, amiable performances of Tina Fey and Paul Rudd. But for an action junkie who just can’t get satisfaction from another Die Hard sequel, Olympus Has Fallen offers a generic methadone fix. (Also opening this week is Home Again, a drama about Jamaican deportees by Canadian director Sudz Sutherland, which I wrote about in last week’s magazine.)
Tina Fey plays to her strength as brisk, brittle career woman, a control freak with a quick wit who has all her ducks in a row, but is about to see them go flying every which way. She plays Portia, a straight-laced admissions officer at Princeton University—which, surprisingly, has lent its brand to a movie that doesn’t always show the institution in the most flattering light. On a recruiting visit to a rural alternative high school, Portia meets her match in its left-liberal administer, John (Rudd), a former classmate who urges her to consider one of his students (Natt Wolf) for Princeton. He’s a charming but unconventional kid, an autodidact without the required academic qualifications. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, March 22, 2013 at 1:56 PM - 0 Comments
Cannes is casting a come-hither look at Hollywood this year. First it was announced that Steven Spielberg would head the jury of the Cannes Film Festival (May 15- 26). Then came news that Cannes will open with a Hollywood premiere, The Great Gatsby. Now the official poster has been unveiled, bearing a vintage photograph of actor/director Paul Newman and actress Joanne Woodward—the model Hollywood couple whose marriage lasted five decades, until Newman’s death in 2008. The picture was taken during the shoot of A New Kind of Love (1963). For the poster, it was enhanced with a Vertigo-like pop art swirl.
Newman and Woodward were honoured by Cannes in 1958, the year of their marriage, with the Competition selection of Martin Ritt’s The Long Hot Summer, the first film in which they co-starred. As a director, Newman later cast Woodward in two movies that played in competition, The Effect of the Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1973) and The Glass Menagerie (1987).
With hyperbole that may have read better in French, the Cannes press release states: “The poster evokes a luminous and tender image of the modern couple, intertwined in perfect balance at the heart of the dizzying whirlwind that is love. The vision of these two lovers caught in a vertiginous embrace, oblivious of the world around them, invites us to experience cinema with all the passion of an everlasting desire.”
The festival has also created a video teaser of the graphic (which you can watch below) setting it to a dance-beat version of “Aquarium” from Carnival of the Animals, the classic Camille Saint-Saëns theme that plays over the red-carpet animation servers as the traditional prelude for every film programmed at the festival.
By Brian D. Johnson - Wednesday, March 20, 2013 at 1:47 PM - 0 Comments
Veteran Canadian film mogul Robert Lantos, producer of movies ranging from Black Robe to Barney’s Version, is the most prominent voice behind Starlight, a proposed TV channel that would be solely devoted to Canadian cinema. Lantos is one of Starlight’s three principal shareholders, but the company’s roster of partners is a virtual pantheon of Canadian filmmakers—including David Cronenberg, Denis Arcand, Denis Villeneuve, Atom Egoyan, Deepa Mehta, Patricia Rozema and Paul Gross. In April, the CRTC will consider Starlight’s application for “mandatory carriage,” which would require carriers including Rogers, Bell and Shaw to give it a spot on the basic tier of cable or satellite service.
Recently on this website, Maclean’s blogger Jesse Brown interviewed George Burger, a partner in VMedia, a Toronto startup offering unbundled TV channels over the Internet. Burger launched a volley of arguments against the Starlight proposal that Lantos has asked to refute, claiming that they are based on erroneous data.
Maclean’s writer Brian D. Johnson interviewed Lantos by phone. [Note: VMedia has filed an intervention with the CRTC against the Starlight proposal, and so has Rogers Communications, which owns Maclean’s.]
Q: What did you find so upsetting about Burger’s comments?
A: First you should know that George Burger was an employee of mine at Alliance, approximately from 1995 to 1998, before I sold the company. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Monday, March 18, 2013 at 7:45 AM - 0 Comments
A rag-tag opposition forms to battle the African rebel leaders who put guns in the hands of children
Outside their small village in South Sudan, a brother and sister, aged 12 and 13, were eating mangoes in the bush when the bogeyman snuck up behind them. In central Africa, the bogeyman is real, and takes the form of Joseph Kony’s infamous Lord’s Resistance Army, a terrifying cult of guerrilla fighters who, since the late 1980s, have been kidnapping children and moulding them into child soldiers and sex slaves. That day the LRA surprised the kids eating mangoes, they ran. “We fell,” the boy recalls. “They caught me and my sister and took us to the main road. They tied ropes around our necks. My sister screamed and they hit us with a machete.”
But this story ended differently than most: the villagers struck back. “We waited until dark,” says the father of the abducted kids, “then ambushed the LRA at midnight. We shot at them. Some ran away. Others died. I was overjoyed because I thought I’d never see my children again.” The father and his children tell their story in a new Canadian documentary called Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children, based on the 2010 book by Canadian senator and retired general Roméo Dallaire. And their posse is an example of villagers in South Sudan forming ragtag bands to defend their villages against kidnappers—like bush versions of a neighbourhood watch. Often armed with little more than bows, arrows, spears and machetes, they have been dubbed the “Arrow Boys.”
Patrick Reid, the film’s director, followed Dallaire through Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan on a mission to investigate the use of child soldiers. Dallaire, forever haunted by his role heading the ill-fated United Nations peacekeeping force in Rwanda that bore witness to the genocide, has made the issue his personal crusade. Joining Dallaire in Africa was photographer Peter Bregg, who also worked on the 2007 documentary Shake Hands With the Devil, based on Dallaire’s previous book. Bregg’s images offer a rare glimpse into the world of the Arrow Boys.
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, March 15, 2013 at 12:00 PM - 0 Comments
Filmmakers hitch drama about Jamaican deportees to fight against Bill C-43
The idea was sparked by a newspaper story about a young man who was gunned down in Kingston, Jamaica. Toronto film producer Jennifer Holness—sitting at the kitchen table with her husband, director Sudz Sutherland—was shocked. She knew the victim. They hung out back in junior high in Toronto, before he got in trouble with the law and was deported to Jamaica, a country he hadn’t seen since emigrating as a small child. For Holness and Sutherland, the news hit close to home. Both are children of Jamaican immigrants: she came to Canada at 7 and he was born here. Now, six years after reading that story, they have dramatized the plight of Jamaican deportees in a powerful new film.
Set almost entirely in Jamaica (but shot largely in Trinidad to take advantage of tax credits), Home Again is infused with the reggae rhythms, rude-boy dialects and flamboyant atmosphere of the Kingston ghetto—a story of migrant limbo that owes more to The Harder They Come than to Goin’ Down the Road. It’s a tale of three characters who left Jamaica as children and find themselves exiled to a strange land, where they are brutally unwelcome. Marva (Tatyana Ali), a young mother from Canada, convicted as an unwitting drug mule, is forced to leave her children behind and finds refuge with an uncle who rapes her; Dunston (Lyriq Bent), a New York drug dealer, is drafted into a Kingston gang tougher than the one he left; and Everton (Stephan James), a private school boy from England deported for pot possession, becomes a homeless crack addict.
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, March 15, 2013 at 8:28 AM - 0 Comments
In Hollywood, it has been raining magicians. Last week, in Oz the Great and Powerful—or as I prefer to call it, Disney the Great and Powerful, we saw James Franco rise from his humble station as a sideshow magician and smoke and mirrors to free the Emerald City from female sorcery. And now, in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, we see Steve Carell as a celebrated Las Vegas magician who falls from the glittering heights of phony showbiz, hits rock bottom, and, stripped of illusions, finally rediscovers the true meaning of magic and, uh, life.
Rebooting the American Dream has become as simple as producing a rabbit out of a hat. But like the Franco extravaganza, Wonderstone lacks actual magic; it’s too contrived for that. But it least it has some heart, unlike the Oz prequel, which had all the warmth of the Tin Man on steroids. Wonderstone is an undeniably amiable confection, and watchable, up to a point: Carell’s likeability goes a long way. But this is a classic case of squandered talent. The performances by Carell and his high-octane co-stars—Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey and James Gandolfini—consistently outclass the script, which tries to hoodwink the audience with a some brazen sleight of hand all its own. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, March 8, 2013 at 8:22 AM - 0 Comments
The prequel—that miracle of reverse-engineering that Hollywood uses to reboot everything from Batman to Bond, from Star Wars to Star Trek—has now been applied to one of cinema’s most cherished classics, The Wizard of Oz. And it’s impossible to approach this movie without a measure of skepticism—the notion of Disney refurbishing Oz as its own Magic Kingdom, with James Franco starring as the would-be wizard. We can take some solace in the fact that Oz the Great and Powerful does not crudely cannibalize the 1939 movie, or the famous story by L. Frank Baum—none of its major characters make an appearance. Directed by Sam Raimi (Spider-Man) and scripted by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, this 3D spectacle is a relatively original contraption, tricked out with some novel touches of ingenuity and wit.
But weighing in at 130 minutes, Oz the Great and Powerful is as cumbersome and overwrought as its title. Sandwiched between an inventive first act and a rousing finale is a long march down a yellow-brick road of plodding narrative. Perhaps I was tired to begin with, but I got so sleepy I felt I’d been dragged through Oz’s opium poppy fields. Or perhaps I was just experiencing an aversion to the movie’s deeply generic template. Driven by a trio of witches, much of the action resembles the same CGI duels between Good vs Evil that we’ve seen in every other blockbuster fantasy, from Harry Potter to Twilight—a contest of high-flying superdemons swooping around computer-generated landscapes hurling blue lightning bolts and great balls of fire. And don’t get me started on the story, an old-school witch hunt that sends Disney’s pro-princess sexual politics back to the Stone Age. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 9:07 PM - 0 Comments
Rebelle (War Witch), Montreal director Kim Nguyen’s intimate and compelling drama of an African child soldier, swept Sunday night’s inaugural edition of the Canadian Screen Awards, winning 10 of its 12 nominations. A week after the Oscars, where Rebelle inevitably lost to Amour for Best Foreign Language Film, this low budget Quebec feature triumphed over larger Canadian productions such as Midnight’s Children. And after being flown from the Democratic Republic of Congo to attend the Academy Awards, the film’s 16-year-old star, Rachel Mwanza, was on hand in Toronto to accept the CSA honour for best performance by an actress in a leading role. Mwanza, who made her acting debut in Rebelle, was a homeless street kid in Kinshasa when she was cast as 12-year-old Kimona, an orphan rape victim who tells her story to her unborn child.
Rebelle also won awards for director, original screenplay, supporting actor (Serge Kanyinda), cinematography, editing, production design and sound. That didn’t leave much for everyone else. James Cromwell took best lead actor for his role opposite Geneviève Bujold in Still Mine, its only award. Laurence Anyways, Xavier Dolan’s story of a teacher’s transsexual odyssey, won just two of its 10 nominations, for costumes and make-up. And of its eight nominations, Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children won two: Seema Biswas was named best supporting actress for Midnight’s Children, while screenwriter Salman Rushdie was awarded for adapting his own novel. David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis took best original song and score. And, as expected, Sarah Polley won the documentary feature prize for her acclaimed family memoir, Stories We Tell.
Hosted by Martin Short and broadcast live on CBC TV, the inaugural Canadian Screen Awards have melded film’s Genies and TV’s Geminis with the goal of creating a bigger, glitzier event. Short trotted out a trunk full of his beloved SCTV characters for the event—including Jiminy Glick, who dished out insults on the red carpet, and Ed Grimley, who puffed out his trouser-hoist paunch and said, “I look like Rob Ford from the back.” From his grand entrance on a swing to being cradled by Glenn Healey while giving a performance-art impression of bagpipes, Short gave a knock-out performance that put Oscar host Seth MacFarlane to shame.
Leading the TV winners were two shows that are now defunct: Flashpoint won for best dramatic series and its star, Erico Calontoni, was named best actor in a drama series, while Less Than Kind won for best comedy series, and best comedy actress (Wendy Meldrum), while Gerry D. (Mr. D) won for best comedy actor. Best actress in a dramatic series went to Meg Tilly for Bomb Girls. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, March 1, 2013 at 11:19 AM - 0 Comments
Opening this week are two very different movies about killing. Stoker, a diabolical thriller about a toxic family, is an acquired taste. The Gatekeepers, an Oscar-nominated documentary about Israel’s war on terror, is required viewing. Both explore the banality of evil.
If you want to replace the grey winter chill with something closer to the marrow—a bright, cold shock of beautiful cruelty—you might consider Stoker, an ultra-stylish horror movie for those who can handle a frisson of incest and like to see their blood splattered with sparse, painterly precision. Stoker marks the English-language debut of Korean filmmaker Park Chan Wook (Old Boy, Lady Vengeance) whose refined sadism has made him a cult favourite, and prize winner, in Cannes.
Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) stars as a privileged young woman named India, whose world is shattered by news that her father has been killed in a car crash on her 18th birthday. Uncle Charlie (Matthew Good), a mysterious man she didn’t know existed, shows up the funeral, acting strange and far too pleased with himself for someone who has just lost his brother. Before long, he has enchanted India’s unhinged mother, Evie (Nicole Kidman), while pursuing her anxious daughter with predatory gleam in his vacant gaze. Directed like Hitchcock on acid, Stoker unfolds from the teenager’s point of view as a perverse coming-of-age story, while Goode, who bears a marked resemblance to Tony Perkins, plays the crazy uncle as if channelling Norman Bates. But as the sexual tension heats up in this incestuous love triangle, it becomes clear that Uncle Charlie is not the only one who’s crazy. The whole family is psycho. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 2:38 PM - 0 Comments
For those of us who make the annual spring pilgrimage to the Riviera, today’s news that Steven Spielberg will head the jury at the 66th annual Cannes festival comes as a bit of a shock. In recent years, Hollywood has become increasingly estranged from Cannes. American studios still use the festival to premiere timely blockbusters, but after being burned by Cannes juries too many times, they tend to keep their films out of competition. And while Hollywood stars still flock to Cannes each May, they’re often promoting non-mainstream movies—such as Tree of Life (2011) and Killing Me Softly (2012), which both drew Brad Pitt to the Riviera. As the gulf widens between the American studios and the kind of auteur cinema celebrated at Cannes, for many critics no one epitomizes Hollywood’s Evil Empire more fundamentally than Spielberg, except perhaps George Lucas.
But to be fair, Spielberg is an auteur in his own right. Perhaps his biggest influence is Kurosawa. And he has developed a signature style that has been hugely influential, as sentimental as it may be. He’s also sentiment about cinema. He is one of the last major American directors still stubbornly shooting on 35 mm film. Lincoln was one of 2012′s most literate American films. And even though he pioneered the sci-fi blockbuster, even he must feel a bit left behind by the juvenile onslaught of comic book sequels, prequels and reboots.
By Brian D. Johnson - Monday, February 25, 2013 at 2:45 PM - 0 Comments
Right off the top, you knew something fishy was going on when Canada’s own William Shatner, in full Captain Kirk regalia, loomed above Oscar host Seth MacFarlane as a retro patriarch from the future, putting that young upstart in his place. Sure, the 85th annual Academy Awards belonged to Hollywood, and to America—right down to Michelle Obama announcing Best Picture from the White House. But Canada was the surprise winner in this strange spectacle, as the Great White North kept usurping the limelight throughout the evening.
Spielberg’s Lincoln led the pack with 12 nominations, but it won just two of them, for Production Design—shared by B.C. set decorator Jim Erickson—and Best Actor. (Spielberg got more notice from the orchestra, which used the theme from Jaws to amputate acceptance speeches). In the end it was Life of Pi, based on the novel by Saskatchewan-based author Yann Martel, that won the night’s biggest haul with four Oscars. They include Best Original Score for Canadian composer Mychael Danna, and a Visual Effects Oscar for Vancouver-based Guillaume Rocheron. And when the film’s director, Ang Lee, accepted his Best Director prize (favoured to go to Spielberg), he said “I need to thank Yann Martel for writing this incredibly inspiring book.” Ang also took care to thank his Canadian crew—most of the movie was shot on a Montreal soundstage. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 8:00 AM - 0 Comments
On Sunday night Hollywood will pay homage to itself with a rite of regal pageantry not seen since . . . well, Obama’s inauguration. And after a year saturated in American politics, the Oscar race has come down to what may be the most politically charged showdown in the history of the Academy—a Mexican stand-off that pits the drama of a legendary American president against two tales of heroic CIA agents battling evil Islamic fundamentalists.
Lincoln started out as the natural-born front-runner. But during the string of pre-Oscar primaries—from the Golden Globes to the directors’/producers’/actors’ guild awards—Argo surged into the lead, powered by the populist charm offensive of its self-effacing director and star, Ben Affleck.
Lincoln’s other challenger, Zero Dark Thirty, was bloodied by a Washington backlash from high-ranking senators who claimed the movie condoned torture by misrepresenting its role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Those charges effectively tainted the movie in the eyes of liberal Hollywood, and robbed director Katherine Bigelow of an Oscar nomination.
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 7:00 PM - 0 Comments
… but first the beloved comedian fields our questions
Martin Short, 62, is popping up everywhere these days, from hosting Saturday Night Live’s Christmas show to pitching Lay’s potato chips in a Super Bowl ad. A profile in Vanity Fair canonized the veteran of SCTV and SNL as “Hollywood’s most beloved comedian.” And the Hamilton, Ont.-born entertainer, who lives in Los Angeles, will host the inaugural Canadian Screen Awards in Toronto. Replacing TV’s Gemini Awards and film’s Genies with a single show, the CSA gala will air live on CBC TV on March 3 at 8 p.m.
Q: Nice to see you christening the CSAs. But after your show-stopping song-and-dance number on SNL, you should be hosting the Oscars. Why not?
A: First, I was never asked. Second, that would be a phone call where you’d say, “Oh God, I guess I have to do it, don’t I?” It’s a tough gig. People are very critical of the person doing that job. And at the end of the day, it’s not about them. You work four months on your monologue and all they write about the next day is “How about that Adrien Brody kiss!”
By Brian D. Johnson - Monday, February 11, 2013 at 11:30 AM - 0 Comments
Aging movie stars are in no rush to give up the spotlight, and a good thing for studios, too.
Not so long ago, once a movie star reached a certain age, it was time to shuffle off into minor character parts—various grandparents, coots and crones—leaving the lead roles to less wrinkled faces. Hollywood was known to be no country for old men, or even middle-aged women. These days, however, that’s changing. Hollywood may still be addicted to youth and beauty, especially when it comes to the studio blockbusters that drive its economy. But as boomer icons hit their 60s and 70s, they seem to be in no rush to relinquish the spotlight. Like the Rolling Stones, movie stars are doubling down on their longevity.
Recently we’ve seen Arnold Schwarzenegger, 65, as a creaky, small-town sheriff battling a Mexican drug cartel in The Last Stand, and Sylvester Stallone, 66, baring cast-iron abs in Bullet to the Head, while Al Pacino, 72, and Christopher Walken, 69, play grumpy old gangsters in Stand Up Guys—with 78-year-old Alan Arkin as their wheelman, sprung from a nursing home and unhooked from oxygen. There’s a whiff of desperation about these attempts to keep screen legends in the game. Despite its droll performances, Stand Up Guys fell flat at the box office, as did the Schwarzenegger and Stallone vehicles, which critics dismissed as geriatric odes to the ’80s action genre. Though Clint Eastwood may have aged well, there’s something freakish about a leathery old gladiator. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 1:00 PM - 0 Comments
The Academy Award-winning director says Behind the Candelabra is his last film. But he’s only 50.
Steven Soderbergh swears he’s getting out of the business. After he completes his Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra—which features a scene of Michael Douglas as Liberace making out with Matt Damon as his lover—the director, who just turned 50, has vowed to retire from movie-making, and focus on directing plays and painting. It’s hard to imagine. There isn’t a major filmmaker in America more prolific, or provocative, than Soderbergh. In the past two years alone, he’s made four movies, a diverse suite that includes a disaster flick (Contagion), an action picture (Haywire), and a $7-million story of a male stripper that grossed $167 million (Magic Mike). His latest film, Side Effects, is a thriller that poses as a cautionary tale about pharmaceutical drugs, then derails expectations with such diabolical mischief you can almost smell the ﬁlmmaker’s impatience with convention.
Soderbergh is Hollywood’s most successful misfit. For all his success as both a director and producer, he still hasn’t found a comfort zone. In an interview in New York magazine, he expresses mounting frustration with “the tyranny of narrative . . . or at least narrative as we’re currently defining it.” He says, “I’m convinced there’s new grammar out there somewhere.” He also complains that “the audience for the kinds of movies I grew up liking has migrated to television.” In fact, after no Hollywood studio would risk $5 million on distributing his Liberace movie (which he describes as “pretty gay”), he took it to HBO, the promised land for filmmakers aching to break out of the Hollywood straitjacket.
In Side Effects, Soderbergh casts Rooney Mara, that Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as a girl with a lethal prescription in a thriller so perversely deceptive it should come with a list of side effects all its own. The movie’s time-release narrative is a jagged little pill of retro noir, coated with a smooth, contemporary glaze of pharma politics. Emily (Mara) and Martin (Channing Tatum), a New York couple who once owned a yacht and a mansion, are struggling to rebuild their lives after Martin comes home from a four-year prison term for insider trading. A suicide attempt leaves Emily in the care of a shrink (Jude Law), who puts her on a new anti-anxiety drug called Ablixa. As her former psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) enters the picture, lies are unravelled and we’re pulled down a very different rabbit hole from the one we signed up for.
At the heart of each characer is a haze of moral ambiguity—something Hollywood abhors and Soderbergh adores. He seems to delight in aiming curveballs at his audience. But then this is a director who made his name by breaking the rules. He was just 26 when he won the Palme D’Or in Cannes with the first of his 26 features, Sex, Lies and Videotape, a brazen feat of minimalist style that helped launch a new wave of American indie cinema. He’s since won an Oscar for Traffic, which he accepted with barely a flicker of emotion. He turned George Clooney into a movie star, by stubbornly casting him until the notion stuck. And he has mastered the art-commerce shuffle, switching between studio blockbusters, like the Ocean’s Eleven franchise, and experiments on film’s wild frontier—such as casting porn star Sasha Grey as a high-priced hooker in the Godard-like verité of The Girfriend Experience (2009).
In the spirit of Godard, Soderbergh toggles between stylistic subversion and political expression. His “issue” movies range from whistleblower dramas (Erin Brockovich, The Informant!) to his Communist opus, Che. But all his films are inflected with dissent. And in a movie culture that thrives on lush sentiment, Soderbergh frames stories with a clinical, dispassionate eye—literally, given that he serves as his own cinematographer.
Along the way, he has built a cohort of loyal actors, notably Douglas and Damon, who agreed to take the plunge as gay lovers in the Liberace film. “It was great to see Michael and Matt jump off the cliff together. They just went for it,” says the director, apparently content to finesse his career with another end game of truth or dare.
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, February 1, 2013 at 7:38 AM - 0 Comments
This week’s designated blockbusters are Warm Bodies, a zombie romance, and Bullet to the Head, Sly Stallone’s latest. Sadly, I wasn’t able to pre-screen the former. And I wasn’t allowed to pre-screen the latter—the distributor decided Stallone’s movie would be better off if it were hidden from critics. (Never a good sign—last week the disastrous Movie 43 was released with the same strategy.) But also opening this week are a couple of smaller films featuring some of the best actors in the biz: Stand-up Guys, with Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin; and Denmark’s A Royal Affair, starring Mads Mikkelsen. Unfortunately, only one of them, A Royal Affair lives up to its onscreen talent. A worthy Oscar nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film, it’s a handsome period piece with a juicy intrigue. I recommend it. Too bad about the other one.
By Brian D. Johnson - Saturday, January 19, 2013 at 10:00 PM - 0 Comments
Hollywood’s myth-making machine never lets facts get in the way of a good story
It’s enough to make you wonder if Oscar is more history buff than film buff. Of the last decade’s 20 Best Actor and Actress winners, all but five starred in period films, and the majority played historical figures. They constitute a virtual Madame Tussauds, an Academy house of wax that includes Ray Charles, Harvey Milk, June Carter, Truman Capote, Queen Elizabeth II, King George VI, Idi Amin, Edith Piaf and Margaret Thatcher—and, in the chamber of horrors, serial killer Aileen Wuornos.
This year, Oscar’s love for “true” stories about momentous events remains undiminished. Leading the charge with a dozen nominations is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, with Daniel Day-Lewis appearing to have a bony-knuckled lock on Best Actor for his shrewd portrayal of America’s most iconic president. Lincoln’s rivals includes Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, both thrillers based on real-life tales of CIA crusaders fighting Islamic terror. And competing with Zero Dark Thirty’s Jessica Chastain for Best Actress is a pair of contenders who fight historic forces even more cataclysmic than al-Qaeda: Naomi Watts, as a tenacious mother swept away by the 2004 tsunami in The Impossible, and Quvenzhané Wallis as a fictional kid braving the Louisiana floodwaters of hurricane Katrina in Beasts of the Southern Wild.
But the Academy seems more in love with the idea of history than the real thing—and with movies that turn fact into fable. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The problem is the makers of Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty and Argo keep insisting their films are faithful accounts, despite glaring evidence to the contrary. The result is one of the most politically charged Oscar campaigns in recent memory. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, January 18, 2013 at 12:01 AM - 0 Comments
He’s back. Now that his marriage and political fortunes have gone up in smoke, Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a game attempt to re-ignite his career as a Hollywood action hero with his first lead role in a decade. In The Last Stand, The Governator re-enters the fray as a kind of unplugged Terminator, an old-school sheriff in a sleepy Arizona border town who ends up battling a fugitive Mexican drug lord in an armed stand-off that unleashes more firepower than the Alamo. Landing in the thick of the current debate on gun control, the timing couldn’t be worse, especially with Arnie using a school bus as a lethal weapon, along with a vintage arsenal of big, bad-ass guns that turn the sheriff’s one-horse town into an NRA fantasy camp.
The Last Stand‘s formulaic scenario, of a crusty lawman hauling himself out of semi-retirement, could be seen as Arnie’s Unforgiven, but with way more cheese and no gravitas. At best, it’s a guilty pleasure. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, January 15, 2013 at 10:40 AM - 0 Comments
It’s been a spectacular few days for Quebec writer-director Kim Nguyen. On Thursday his film Rebelle (War Witch) received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, just one of five titles plucked from a year of world cinema. And back home today, Rebelle tops the list of films honoured by the newly created Canadian Screen Awards, with a total of 12 nominations. Shot in the Democratic Republic of Congo, his modest but affecting drama about a child soldier—portrayed by Rachel Mwanza, a girl he discovered in the street—trumped much larger Canadian productions such as Midnight’s Children, Goon and Cosmopolis.
On its tail with 10 nominations is Laurence Anyways, the story of a teacher’s transsexual odyssey by Quebec auteur Xavier Dolan. Quebec features dominate the awards with four of the six best picture nominations, the two exceptions being Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children and Michael McGowan’s Still Mine. Mehta’s adaptation of the Salman Rushdie novel, led the non-Quebec field with eight nominations. Like Rebelle and Laurence Anyways, it also scored nominations for director and screenplay.
Still Mine and Nicole Robert’s l’Affaire Dumont were tied with seven nominations; both have double lead acting nods. Michael Dowse’s hockey comedy, Goon, has six nominations, including best director.
The Academy’s choices differ sharply from those of the Toronto Film Critics Associaton, which honored Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell with its $100,000 Rogers Best Canadian Film Award for 2012. The Academy has nominated Polley’s movie in the documentary feature category. Goon, one of the TFCA’s two Rogers runners-up, didn’t figure among the Academy’s six best picture nominees; and the TFCA’s other runner-up, Denis Côté’s experimental doc Bestiaire, received no nominations from the Academy.
Heading the list of TV nominees are Flashpoint, with 11 nominations, Less Than Kind with 10, and Michael with eight. Among the nation’s news programs, CBC’s The National topped the list with six nominations.
Re-engineered by the Academy’s new CEO, former TIFF director Helga Stephenson, the Canadian Screen Awards have merged cinema’s Genie Awards with TV’s Geminis. The winners of the film and TV nominees will be announced at a two-hour inaugural gala hosted my Martin Short and broadcast live Sunday March 3, 2013 at 8 p.m. (8:30 N.T) on CBC.
Replacing the Genie and Gemini trophies is a new statuette, a spike-shaped figure with a pair of enveloping cape-like arms. The form, says Stephenson, “symbolizes two screens with the public at the core of it all. The new Canadian Screen Awards statue celebrates Canadian talent and Canadian productions, now destined for multiple screens.”
Amalgamating Canada’s film and TV awards makes sense—certainly on the film side. The Genies have been limping along for many years, and just like English Canadian cinema, they’ve had a hard time finding an audience. Film is supposed to carry more prestige than TV, but that’s worthless if a Genie falls in the forest and no one hears. Film and TV are increasingly interlocked. And hitched to the industrial power of the broadcast biz, the film awards may gain more traction. With some synergy, hopefully, Canada’s film and TV glitterati can create an entertaining prime-time awards show we can proud of. And they couldn’t have a better energizer bunny than the virtuosic Martin Short, who was dazzling in his recent turn as host of SNL.
The anomaly, of course, is that the film awards include Quebec while the TV awards do not. But Quebec television is its own industry, with its own star system. Canadian film is a smaller world than Canadian TV—it sounds counter-intuitive, but the big screen is smaller than the small screen. Yet cinema is, at least theoretically, the more universal medium. Besides, if Canadian cinema can’t claim the likes of Villeneuve, Arcand, Falardeau and Nguyen among our auteurs, we would be pretty impoverished.
The TV nominees are too voluminous to list, but is the full slate films nominated for the Canadian Screen Awards:
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, January 11, 2013 at 2:35 PM - 0 Comments
Opening this weekend in Canada are two of the year’s strongest films, Amour and Zero Dark Thirty, which received five Oscar nominations apiece yesterday, and will be competing for Best Picture, Actress and Original Screenplay. In both cases, their treatment by the Academy came as a surprise. For Amour, it was a blessing. It’s hard to find a critic who questions that it’s one of the year’s finest movies, but even the best foreign films rarely escape the ghetto of the foreign-language category. Amour is the first foreign film to win a Best Picture spot since Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) and one of just three foreign films in history to score both Best Picture and Director nominations. By contrast, Zero Dark Thirty’s Oscar tally was a disappointment, as Katherine Bigelow was conspicuously snubbed for Best Director. No one could argue with the brilliance of how she directed that film. So you can only conclude that she’s the victim of the backlash generated by Washington’s condemnations of the film’s veracity, and its torture scenes.
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, January 11, 2013 at 8:30 AM - 0 Comments
American Mary has made Jen and Sylvia Soska global sensations
Most people had never heard of them, but by the time they left, everyone was talking about them. The Soska twins were by no means the biggest stars to visit last month’s Whistler Film Festival, where the guest list was led by Daniel Radcliffe, a.k.a. Harry Potter. But Radcliffe showed up in a beige sweater and rumpled jeans. The Soska twins hit the red carpet in matching skin-tight fetish gear—low-cut nurse uniforms, with hot pants and black vinyl aprons. The occasion was the late-night premiere of American Mary, a sinister little movie about surgical body modification that has made the twins a global sensation on the cult horror circuit.
From David Cronenberg to Atom Egoyan, Canadian ﬁlmmakers have a reputation for romancing the weird, but none personifies kink with as much brazen relish as Vancouver’s Jen and Sylvia Soska, 29-year-old identical twins. Sibling director duos are strangely common. But they all seem to be guys—the brothers Coen, Farrelly, Dardenne, Duplass, Hughes, Schlossberg, Weitz and Wachowski (although Larry Wachowski has switched sexes to become Lana). Casting themselves as femme-fatale auteurs, the Soska twins have carved out a unique brand. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 2:13 PM - 0 Comments
With today’s announcement of the Oscar nominees, it came as no surprise that Steven Spielberg is back in the Academy’s good graces. Lincoln leads the pack with a landslide of 12 nominations, including Best Picture, Director and three acting nods. (Expect Spielberg’s smart, dignified epic to sweep many categories—and at least Best Picture, Best Actor for Daniel-Day Lewis and Best Adapted Screenplay for Tony Kushner.) But it was more surprising, and heartening, to see Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, based on the novel by Canadian Yann Martel, so amply rewarded with 11 nominations, including Original Score and Original Song for Canadian composer Michael Danna. Life of Pi is, in a sense, this year’s Hugo, a conjuring of old-fashioned movie magic through the lens of the latest 3D visual technology.
Somehow, however, the Academy failed to recognize the remarkable performance by Life of Pi‘s novice lead, Suraj Sharma, who carried the entire film. Yet it did anoint another novice, nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, making her the youngest Best Actress nominee in history for her bravura performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild. This year’s designated Little Movie That Could, it received four nominations, including Best Director for Benh Zeitlin, a New Yorker making his feature-film debut with a magic realist fable set in the Louisiana flood-waters of Hurricane Katrina.