By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, May 17, 2013 - 0 Comments
There’s been gunfire and a jewel heist at the Cannes Film Festival, and they did not happen on screen. Shots rang out on Friday evening as actors and jury members Christoph Waltz and Daniel Auteuil were in a live interview on the beachfront set of a French TV news program called Le Grand Journal. The crowd scattered, the actors were rushed to safety, and there was chaos among the crowd of onlookers. The police then arrested a man who was reported to be firing blanks and carrying a dummy grenade. Although no one was hurt, the incident brings to mind just how exposed celebrities are in Cannes, where thousands jam the Croisette promenade each evening to get a glimpse of the stars.
The previous night, thieves broke into a hotel room and stole an estimated $1 million in jewels, which were being held in a safe by Chopard to be loaned to stars walking the red carpet. The thieves ripped the safe off the wall and carried it away. It’s as if they were paying homage to Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, which premiered that same evening—it’s based on the true story of fame-obsessed teenage burglars who broke into the homes of Hollywood celebrities. Chopard, a sponsor of the Cannes festival, also designed the Palme d’Or. Let’s hope it is sitting in a safer place.
The movies have also been pretty exciting. There’s been plenty of violence onscreen, beginning with harrowing tortures in the Mexican drug war drama Heli. And right before seeing The Bling Ring, I screened François Ozon’s Young and Beautiful, a French movie in competition about teenage delinquency of a quite different kind. It’s the sexually explicit tale of a stunning 17-year-old schoolgirl (Marine Vactch) from a nice middle-class home who leads a double life as a prostitute. She also smokes cigarettes and looks like she was put on earth to be a movie star. French films do not get more French than this. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, May 16, 2013 at 11:42 AM - 0 Comments
Cannes can always be counted on to deliver surreal contrasts. As a fierce rainstorm swept the Croisette, Leonardo DiCaprio and the gang from The Great Gatsby climbed the red stairs of the Palais, umbrellas in hand, for the premiere of a movie based on the novel that F. Scott Fitzgerald had written just a few miles away while his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, was having an affair on the same strip of beach where the Palais now stands. I’d already seen Gatsby. So as that lavish melodrama played in 3D, I sat in a wet tuxedo in the theatre next door, watching Mexican gangsters suspend a man from a ceiling of a family home in the desert and set his genitals ablaze while their children watched. The first of 20 features to be shown in the festival’s main competition, the movie was Heli, by Mexican director Amat Escalante–a grimly realist portrait of how the drug wars ravage innocent lives in his country. It was like igniting the battle for the Palme d’Or with a Molotov cocktail.
Composed with a poetic eye, Heli is a potent drama of random cruelty. Too bad its merits will be forever upstaged by the horror show of a man’s burning junk. The gratuitous killings of two dogs, which prompted walk-outs earlier in the film, seemed mild compared to this–a provocation from a young director showing us something we’ve never seen before. Most likely it’s based on a real incident; you don’t have to make this stuff up in Mexico. But as the camera lingers on the poor man, you’re yanked out of the movie. You can’t help wonder how it was done, because it’s clearly not a digital effect. And you wonder what Steven Spielberg, the president of the jury will think. The Cannes competition is like that: at every movie, it’s as if you’re watching it with an invisible date, or dates, as you try to imagine what it will look like through the eyes of a Spielberg, a Nicole Kidman or an Ang Lee.
So why was I watching a movie in a damp tux? Because my next stop was the festival’s opening night dinner for The Great Gatsby, a glittering soiree held under a vast tent with a level of glamour worthy of one Gatsby’s own parties. Sitting next to festival director Thierry Frémaux, DiCaprio held court at a long table with the Gatsby cast and the film’s director, Baz Lurhmann. It’s strange how this actor, who once struggled to shake his image as Titantic‘s boyish heartthrob, has morphed into a patrician. Incarnating a series of uber-powerful men, from Howard Hughes to J. Edgar Hoover, he has become deeply invested in his own gravitas. And he owned the room.
Next to his table sat the jury. I chatted briefly with Spielberg, who was about to dig into his appetizer of sweet onion mousse with bergamot, caviar and peas. I mentioned that at the afternoon’s press conference he seemed to be approaching jury duty with a huge sense of fun. “The great thing is, nobody’s on trial for their life here,” he said, grinning. Later I ran into his fellow juror Ang Lee, who still seemed to be weighing his responsibility with a heavy heart—”it’s my duty, I have to do it,” he sighed.
Oh yes, and there were stars. Carey Mulligan and Nicole Kidman and Elizabeth Debicki all sheathed in creamy white evening gowns. Standing next to Kidman, she seemed taller than me (I’m 6′), but I guess it was just the heels and the sculpted hair, because Google says she’s just 5’9″. Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan, jury member, was the shiniest man in the room, a vision of black sequins. And Harvey Weinstein . . . well, he looked like Harvey Weinstein.
Quebec’s Denise Robert, producer and partner of Denys Arcand, eagerly pointed out legendary shoe designer Christian Louboutin, who she considered to be by far the most desired man at the dinner. More than any movie star. He was wearing pearl-tassled patent leather shoes with red soles. I know nothing about fashion. But I ‘m learning. I just saw Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, based on a Vanity Fair article about a gang of teenage girls who robbed the homes of celebrities such as Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Orlando Bloom. The title of the article: ‘The Suspects Wore Louboutin.’ More on that later . . .
By Brian D. Johnson - Wednesday, May 15, 2013 at 12:21 PM - 0 Comments
For Steven Spielberg, president of the Cannes jury, “it’s such a relief” to be judging movies for once, rather than being judged. But his co-juror Ang Lee seemed stricken by the prospect, confessing he is “afraid to judge people’s work in public.” Those two eminent directors were fielding questions with the rest of the nine-member jury that will award the Palme d’Or to one of 20 features in competition here. It was only three months ago that Spielberg and Lee emerged from a marathon Oscar campaign with a surprise ending. Both were nominated for Best Director, but Lee won for Life of Pi over Spielberg, who was favoured to win for Lincoln. So at the jury press conference, I asked them both how it felt to now be sitting on a jury together, and how they would compare the Palme d’Or with the Oscar.
“After you,” demurred Spielberg. Lee agonized over the question. “Cannes is a prestigious film festival,” he said. “It’s full of opinions. It’s artistically driven, more highbrow. Oscar is a competition of a group with 6,000 Academy members. It has an element of popularity. It’s work. You don’t know how the wind blows. Of course, any competition is prejudiced. It’s someone’s opinion.” Clearly not one to relish conflict, Lee added, “I hope there’s something that wows us, something we cannot even verbalize, and we all look at each other like, ‘Oh my God, that’s the Palme d’Or!’ I pray that happens . . . Hopefully we won’t have to argue that fiercely.” Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 11:31 AM - 0 Comments
In an age when Hollywood has turned the movie biz into moneyball—an escalating numbers racket of sequels, franchises, reboots and spin—those of us who watch films for a living feel we’re caught in an endless loop, a Groundhog Day of déjà vu. As marketing and movie-making become indistinguishable, opening weekend is just another iteration of something we’ve seen before.
That’s why Cannes is a thrill. It’s a place of cinematic privilege where the usual rules don’t apply. Every year we make the pilgrimage to the French Riviera not knowing what to expect. Well, with one glaring exception. The festival’s May 15 opening night gala, The Great Gatsby, is by now old news. Weird. I’ve been coming to Cannes for 14 years, and it’s unheard of for the festival not to open with a world premiere. But almost a week after Gatsby’s North American debut, Warner Bros. will use Cannes for its European launch. One can only assume the festival was desperate to have the stars on its red carpet but didn’t have the clout to the force the studio to hold back its North American release. That’s an indication of how regimented global distribution has become. But it also doesn’t bode well for the regal status of the world’s most prestigious film festival.
On the other hand, opening night has always been largely ceremonial. More often than not, Cannes opens with Versailles-scale confections that turn out to be duds; and The Great Gatsby—which few critics have deemed good, never mind great— should at least serve as fodder for a lavish party. Besides, we don’t really come here to see Hollywood movies, but to get away from them. This, after all, is the Olympics of world cinema, and for those who like that sort of thing, nothing rivals the anticipation of watching the Cannes competition unfold from one day to the next. There tends to be refreshingly little advance hype about the films, so each time the lights go down it’s a journey into the dark on every level.
There are 20 features vying for the Palme D’Or this year. As we watch them, we’ll be second-guessing a heavyweight jury chaired by Steven Spielberg, whose eight cohorts includes Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (Life of Pi), and Oscar-winning actors Nicole Kidman and Christoph Waltz. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, May 10, 2013 at 9:23 AM - 0 Comments
It’s a matter of taste. And expectations. If you are looking for a film that’s faithful to the spirit and tone of F. Scott Fitzergerald’s legendary novel, Baz Luhrmann‘s vulgar, opulent 3D adaptation of The Great Gatsby will come as a disappointment. It seems as desperate to be adored as Jay Gatsby himself, and it’s suffocated by delusions of grandeur on a comparable scale. In fact, Luhrmann’s extravagant, outsized relationship to the novel mirrors that of Gatsby to the book’s modest narrator, Nick Carraway. As iconic as the novel has become, it’s a slender narrative that evokes a glittering world with subtle, glancing prose. It’s more about character than decor. The story’s most dramatic incidents are glided over, reported without embellishment or fanfare. It takes place in the Jazz Age, in the early ’20s, which is when it was published: it was a contemporary novel, and to read it now, it still feels contemporary and timeless, not a period artifact. The movie, however, is a grandiose costume drama that revels in nostalgia, and lurches from high camp to high melodrama. In every respect, it’s a wild departure from the novel, although it has embalmed Fitzgerald’s story and his writing with faithful an eye to detail.
But what else would you expect from Baz Luhrmann, the man who gave us Moulin Rouge? In fact, after everything I’d heard about his Gatsby—with Jay Z serving as a producer, André 3000 and Beyoncé covering Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, and Jack White doing U2—I was bracing myself for a musical. But despite some sensational production numbers, it’s not a musical at all. It’s a movie that wants to be a play, a Broadway play with fabulously fake sets and archly theatrical performances. It’s not a travesty. It’s a hugely ambitious, Gatsby-esque attempt to construct a mansion-like monument to the book. But amid all the conscious contrivance and ornate eye candy, the drama at the heart of it feels strangely lifeless, frozen in aspic. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, May 3, 2013 at 11:40 AM - 0 Comments
Last night I mixed with a host of iconic celebrities at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel. Most of them were not present in the flesh but on the walls, as portraits in Macleans: Face to Face, an exhibit of 50 photographs from the magazine’s archives that’s part of the Scotiabank CONTACT photography festival. Extraordinary images: Pierre Trudeau, Sarah Polley, Stephen Harper, Justin Bieber, Johnny Rotten, Henry Kissinger, June Callwood . . . and David Cronenberg, who attended last night’s opening reception for the show with his wife Carolyn. It provided a rare chance to have a casual chat with Canada’s most engaging filmmaker outside the usual strictures of the publicity mill.
He seemed to be in a good mood. A few days earlier he had just completed his first novel and had sent the manuscript off to his publishers, Penguin Canada and Scrivener in the United States. Working with star New York literary agent Andrew Wylie—whose clients include Elmore Leonard, Martin Amis, Philip Roth and Salman Rushdie—Cronenberg says he secured an advance to write the book four years ago, based an outline and a sample of writing. But then the business of making movies got in the way, and two films later (A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis) he resumed the manuscript. He said it was strange reading what he’d written years earlier and trying to re-inhabit the voice—”it was as if it had been written by someone else.” Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, May 3, 2013 at 9:43 AM - 0 Comments
The Chinese are unhappy with the Chinese version of Iron Man 3. But not for the usual reasons. Unlike Skyfall and Cloud Atlas, this Hollywood blockbuster hasn’t been cut by Chinese censors. On the contrary, it runs longer than the version released in the rest of the world, embellished with four minutes of extra scenes. One features a couple of Chinese movie stars demonstrating the superiority of Sino surgery on Tony Stark, and another sells a clunky product placement for a local milk drink with the line, “What does Iron Man rely on to revitalize his energy?” The scenes, shot in Bejing by a Chinese studio, annoyed China’s critics. (Yes, even in the land of muzzled, state-owned media, there are film critics.) But China was also miffed that China’s stars were cut from the movie the rest of the world will see—Wang Xueqi, who plays Dr. Wu, has 10 seconds of screen time in the international version.
Having seen the (non-Chinese) Iron Man 3, in 3D, I’m now wishing the studio had created yet another version of the movie. One with no action, just acting.
An action movie with no action? Yes, I’m being facetious . . . but only up to a point. My enjoyment of the film did seem to run in inverse proportion to the volume and intensity of the CGI action scenes. With each sequel, there’s seems to be a need to escalate the special effects and high-tech wizardry. Now, when Tony Stark puts on the full metal jacket, its modular pieces comes flying at him from a great distance like drone projectiles.
But the strongest asset of this franchise is still the switchblade repartee of its star, Robert Downey Jr., so immaculately cast as a playboy smartypants armoured in hubris. And in Iron Man 3 Downey Jr. is given lots to work with. It’s a better, smarter movie than the previous sequel, which played like a gladiatorial monster truck rally. Yet it’s not as strong as the first movie in the series, which was terrific. Iron Man 3 is still marred by that disconnect between the subversive wit of Stark’s dialogue and the clichéd tedium of the action. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, May 2, 2013 at 4:38 PM - 0 Comments
As expected, the April 30 Hot Docs world premiere of Unclaimed—a Canadian documentary about a man emerging from the Vietnamese jungle claiming to be a U.S. soldier given up for dead in 1968—has ignited a firestorm of media controversy. In a Maclean’s story last week, I explored the film in detail, and conducted the first media interview given by Alabama’s Gail Metcalf, the niece of MIA John Hartley Robertson, and his family’s official spokesperson. After a cathartic reunion with the self-proclaimed MIA in Edmonton, which stretched over five days, Metcalf and her family—including Robertson’s sole surviving sibling, Jean Robertson Holley—were utterly convinced the man is their “Johnny.” Meanwhile, the movie’s Alberta director, Michael Jorgensen, has had dealings with the the U.S. military that point to a possible cover-up. He said he met with one official who lied to him that Robertson’s brother (now deceased) and his sister, Jean, had cooperated with the military and provided DNA—which the family denied.
Immediately after news reports of the film’s sensational discovery went zinging around the globe, came an equally sensational backlash—a rash of headlines declaring that the man claiming to be Robertson was in fact a “slick fraudster” whose “hoax” had already been uncovered by the U.S. military. The news originated from a U.S. military memo that was fed to the U.K.’s Daily Mail website. According to a 2009 memo from the Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) that surfacedMailOnline, the man, Dang Tan Ngoc, came to the attention of U.S. personnel in Vietnam in 2006, claiming to be Sgt. John Hartley Robertson, reported killed in action during a special forces mission over Laos in 1968. The memo states that, under questioning, the man admitted that he was not Robertson, but that he tried to pose as him again in 2008, and was fingerprinted at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh—and that the FBI reported his prints did not match those in JHR’s records.
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, April 26, 2013 at 5:31 AM - 0 Comments
I’ve had an eye infection this week. I’ve been waking up with my eyelids glued shut. No wonder. Given some the movies I’ve been forced to endure lately, my eyeballs are finally saying, “Enough! Enough with the crap!” Can’t say I blame them.
This weekend’s box-office becomes a limbo-style race to the bottom as Pain and Gain and The Big Wedding compete to lower the bar for screwball comedy. And you know the wheels have come off Hollywood when you find yourself enjoying a Michael Bay movie about a trio of dimwit bodybuilders more than an all-star romantic comedy featuring Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Robin Williams, Katherine Heigl, Amanda Seyfried and Topher Grace.
More about the big fat wedding later. First let’s look at Michael Bay’s attempt to make something—everything—other than a Michael Bay movie.
With Pain and Gain, Bay, the architect of such monumental shlock as Armageddon, Pearl Harbour and The Transformers franchise, takes a walk on the wild side. Working with a paltry $25 million budget, he is virtually slumming. And he’s made what for him amounts to a personal film, or at least a personal attempt to make the kind of film he hasn’t had time to make while destroying the world. The kind not ruled by robots or special effects. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 7:08 PM - 0 Comments
Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, with 205 films from 43 countries showing April 30 to May 5. I’ve been screening them over the past few weeks. Though I haven’t seen nearly enough to provide a definitive list, here’s what I’ve found to be the most compelling so far. As I see more, the list may expand . . .
1. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer If you think you know about this feminist punk group from the media coverage of their trial, and Madonna’s flashes of solidarity, that’s not the half of it. Filmmakers Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, who won a special jury award in Sundance for this documentary, have forged a riveting account of the court case. But most of all, they have composed an fascinating and credibly heroic portrait of the three Pussy Riot members who go to trial. For all their collective bravado, they emerge as distinct and formidable personalities, who seem to be undergoing a personal transformation as the camera rolls—especially the mesmerizing Nadia (Nadezhda Tolokonnikova), who combines movie-star magnetism with insouciant wit and a sophisticated view of conceptual art. The film includes video clips of the the group’s hit-and-run performances, and interviews. But their most revealing moments come from their candid conversations as prisoners behind the glass of the court’s media scrum. Like animals in a zoo, surrounded by a phalanx of cameras, they use their trial as a stage for impromptu performance art. Supporting players range from biker-like militants of the Orthodox church to the girls’ anxious but tolerant parents—notably Nadia’s father, who co-wrote lyrics for the punk anthem that landed them in jail after its fleeting performance in the church.
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 11:26 AM - 0 Comments
He is the essential all-American movie star. California-bred as a delinquent jock and bohemian painter, he was discovered by Broadway, honed by Hollywood, and became the Great Gatsby, the Sundance Kid and the Horse Whisperer. Loveable rogue, charming outlaw and cowboy sage, he put the swagger in The Sting, exposed Watergate in All the President’s Men, and wielded a magic bat in The Natural. As the godfather of Sundance, indie cinema’s home on the range, he is also Hollywood’s frontier patriarch. Actor-director Robert Redford has put every conceivable spin on the American Dream, onscreen and off. But the thing is, he doesn’t believe in it. He talks about America with the dismay of man recalling a lover who cheated on him long ago. As for Americans, he wishes they were more like us.
Interviewed before last fall’s TIFF premiere of The Company You Keep (which opens in Toronto April 26), Redford raved about Canada. “I do love this country,” he said. “One of the things I like about it, aside from the fact that people seem to look north, is that there’s more respectful behaviour. We just don’t have it anymore. America did once, 50, 60 years ago. We were like Canadians are today. I remember that as a kid. And it’s gone.” Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, April 19, 2013 at 7:34 AM - 0 Comments
Wonders never cease. This week we have two new movies that are out of this world. By that, I mean they’re not of this world. They are cosmic odysseys, to opposite destinations.
After bombing as Jack Reacher, Tom Cruise bounces back as Jack Harper in Oblivion, a space opera that’s got more going for it than the title suggests. Also opening this week is To The Wonder, the latest transcendental opus from Tree of Life’s Terrence Malick. Oblivion is a blockbuster sci-fi spectacle with a labyrinthine plot. To the Wonder is an almost plotless meditation on spirituality, the beauty of dust motes and the quiet desolation of the American Dream. Both are visually enchanting but in utterly different ways—Oblivion is a remarkable feat of computer-graphic design; To the Wonder tries to photograph the tangible divinity of natural light. Strangely, they both feature rising star Olga Kurylenko, the Ukranian-born model and Bond girl (Quantum of Solace).
I interviewed Kurylenko at TIFF last year. For an otherwordly beauty she’s also something of a rocket scientist: an intelligent, cultivated artiste who speaks English, French and Russian fluently.
But in To the Wonder, she doesn’t get to do much talking—Malick’s not big on dialogue. And in Oblivion, she barely gets a chance to act: her most expressive moment comes in her first few seconds onscreen, when she awakes, gasping and coughing, from a 60-year “delta sleep” in a NASA space pod. As for Cruise, he keeps his head down and the gets the job done. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, April 12, 2013 at 8:12 AM - 0 Comments
Despite the fact that Hollywood has harnessed its fortunes to the blockbuster engine of sci-fi futurism, our love of the movies is fundamentally a romance with the past. The Dream Factory traffics in memory and myth. Sometimes a film feels like the fabric of memory itself.
Opening this week are three films of radically different genres that frame the past: 42, which enshrines baseball legend Jackie Robinson; The Place Beyond the Pines, a tale of crime and punishment that bleeds through generations; and Trance, a riddling intrigue of amnesia and mind control. Maybe I’m feeling especially charitable to movies that are not about heavily armed Americans saving the world from foreign megalomaniacs bent on world domination, but I happen to like all three of these films—up to a point.
This inspirational story of Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player in the major leagues, does justice to one of America’s most beloved and essential heroes, a heroic athlete who became the lead-off hitter for the civil rights movement. It’s styled as a history lesson wrapped in an old-fashioned Hollywood motion picture, a moral drama that swings for the fences in big, broad strokes and hits the message right out of the park. And the style feels utterly appropriate. With a subject so deserving of mythology, a figure plucked by history to be a hero in a brutally uncomplicated era of black and white conflict, it’s a movie that makes us want to cheer. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, April 5, 2013 at 7:47 AM - 0 Comments
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, April 4, 2013 at 8:27 PM - 0 Comments
It came as such a sad shock. Only yesterday, coining an original phrase with his last words, Roger Ebert tweeted that he was about to take “a leave of presence.” The tweet linked to a piece he had published just the day before in the Chicago Sun Times, the newspaper where he worked as a film critic for 46 years. With his customary eloquence and modest grace, Roger explained that, because his cancer had returned, he would be scaling down his activities. He usually knocks off about 200 reviews a year. But last year, despite his health issues, he said he wrote 306 reviews, more than during any year of his career, along with various blogs and articles. He then went on to map out the myriad projects he was looking forward to in the coming months of his new, scaled-down career—including the Apr. 9 launch of Ebert Digital, an interactive website that will be, among other things, a home to his archive of more than 10,000 reviews.
“What is a leave of presence?” he wrote. “It means I am not going away.”
Roger was such a prolific, essential and indefatigable critic, I couldn’t imagine him going away. It would be out of character. Continue…
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 - 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…