By Brian D. Johnson - Monday, February 25, 2013 - 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 - 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 - 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 - 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.
By Brian D. Johnson - Wednesday, January 9, 2013 at 4:43 PM - 0 Comments
I’m the last journalist in town to blog last night’s TFCA Awards gala at the Carlu in Toronto. As TFCA prez, it’s hard to run a show and write about at the same time. By now, the story has been amply reported elsewhere, so I’ll be brief.
It was a big night, not just for Toronto Film Critics Association, but for the Canadian film community. The TFCA’s newly endowed Rogers Best Canadian Film Award, now worth a staggering $100,000, has become the richest arts prize in the country. Sarah Polley won for her astonishing family memoir, Stories We Tell, while the other two nominees Denis Côté’s zoo documentary Bestiare and Michael Dowse’s hockey comedy, Goon, took home $5,000 each as runners-up. Polley also won the TFCA’s Allan King Documentary Award for Stories We Tell, accepting it from a hilarious Rick Mercer, who told a yarn about Polley visiting his parents in Newfoundland. (I wasn’t taking notes; you had to be there.) Don McKellar, who presented the Rogers prize to Polley, mused about three disparate nominees—”movies about zoo animals, hockey violence and adultery”—and quipped they could be melded into one great Canadian movie. I hope that mogul Robert Lantos, who was in attendance, was listening.
McKellar also delivered some devastating standup about the elephant in the room: the surreal incongruity of a bunch of critics presenting a prize that, for some Canadian filmmakers, would constitute multi-picture funding. He talked about how he and his colleagues have such a hard time raising money for Canadian films. Then along come the critics—”Hey, here’s $100,000!” Polley, meanwhile, gave a gracious and emotional speech as she saw her professional and personal life merge with uncanny symmetry. The gala dinner happened to take place on her 34rd birthday. Having released two features in 2012 (Take This Waltz, Stories We Tell), and giving birth to a baby girl, she said this has been “the best year of my life.” And host Cameron Bailey, TIFF artistic director, led the room of 260 guests in a singing of Happy Birthday. Praising Rogers Vice-Chair Phil Lind for supporting Canadian filmmakers with such a generous award, she spoke about the importance of the private sector lending its support to the arts. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, December 28, 2012 at 12:46 PM - 0 Comments
This week David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, makes his feature debut as the writer/director of Not Fade Away, a coming-of-age story of a garage band trying to make it in New Jersey during the 1960s. The movie has elements of memoir. Like the film’s lead character, Douglas (John Magaro), Chase spent some of his youth as a drummer in an obscure New Jersey rock band, and his romance with the era’s music has never left him. Chase cast Sopranos star James Gandolfini to portray the drummer’s exasperated father. Springsteen guitarist Steve Van Zandt, who played Silvio Dante in the TV series, serves as the movie’s meticulous music producer.
I talked to David Chase earlier this month in Toronto:
Q: I’ve seen a lot of attempts to dramatize the Sixties music scene, and I don’t think any film has nailed the details with more authenticity than Not Fade Away.
A: Glad to hear you say that. We worked pretty hard at it. I knew it was a dangerous proposition to do another ’60s movie. but I knew for sure I didn’t want to see any tie-dye or trips to San Francisco or naked girls in the mud. We’ve seen all that. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, December 21, 2012 at 12:27 AM - 0 Comments
The Christmas rush of holiday movies is upon us, and if you find this whole notion of peace on earth is already beginning to wear thin, they offer some harrowing alternatives. Two of them, Jack Reacher and Django Unchained, had their premieres cancelled last weekend because their scenes of gun violence were considered inappropriate so soon after the Newtown massacre. Jack Reacher, which reboots Tom Cruise’s career as a action hero, has landed with especially unfortunate timing in light of the Sandy Hook massacre—it opens with a scene of a sniper killing five random civilians, including a mother holding a young child. Django, Quentin Tarantino’s tale of slave liberation, is tale of merry vengeance that opens Christmas Day.
Jack Reacher opens Dec. 21, along with Judd Apatow’s fractious family comedy This is 40. Those two studio pictures will likely lead the weekend box office, but also opening Dec. 21 are The Impossible and Rust and Bone, a pair of potent dramas from European directors that could win Oscar recognition. The Impossible is the harrowing tale of a family on holiday torn apart by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami; Rust and Bone is a romance about an animal trainer (Marion Cotillard) who loses both her legs to a renegade killer whale. No one ever said escaping Christmas would be a walk in the park.
So many movies, so little time. Here’s the rundown:
As a fan of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, I was as mortified as everyone else when it was first announced that the 5’8″ Tom Cruise would play the 6’5″ Reacher It seemed like a historic coup of miscasting. Since then Child has endorsed both Cruise and the movie, which is loosely based on One Shot, the ninth novel in the Reacher series. Now that I’ve seen it, I still feel Cruise is miscast, and not just because he’s too short. Size doesn’t matter so much on the big screen. But character does. Reacher is a rugged Army veteran, a multi-decorated former U.S. Military Police Major, who has gone rogue and become a drifter. Cruise doesn’t look like he’s a veteran of anything but the gym and the red carpet. Reacher, who has a brutal manner and a forensic intellect, is cool, detached and laconic. He’s like a human bullet: smooth, fast and hot. Too intensely polished for the role. That said, he’s an athletic actor who is always impressive in hand-to-hand combat. He functions best with blunt, minimalist dialogue, and in that sense he makes the character his own. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, December 18, 2012 at 12:31 AM - 0 Comments
I bring you breaking news from the Toronto Film Critics Association—of which I’m president but do not control. It’s what they call a democratic organization; one critic, one vote. At a weekend meeting, over platters of crustless sandwiches fit for a garden party, we voted on our favorite films of 2012. There was some spirited debate, and some very close races, but no one lost an eye. Unlike the characters in the movie we liked best, we didn’t swig moonshine or wrestle each other to the ground. The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 70 mm epic about a cult leader and the ravaged war veteran who falls under his spell, dominated the TFCA winner’s circle, taking four categories, including best picture, director, screenplay and supporting actor. This is the second time an Anderson film has won the TFCA’s top prize: In 1999, his Magnolia won awards for Best Picture and Best Director, and he shared the Best Screenplay prize with Being John Malkovich author Charlie Kaufman. (Anderson was also named Best Director in 2002 for Punch-Drunk Love, making this his third time winning that award.) Yes, P.T., we like you; we really like you.
The TFCA (of which I’m president) also announced today the three finalists for the newly endowed $100,000 Rogers Best Canadian Film Award: Bestiaire, directed by Denis Côté, Goon, directed by Michael Dowse, and Stories We Tell, directed by Sarah Polley. Each of these movies defies any fixed preconceptions about the character of Canadian cinema. They’re all films of a kind we haven’t seen before. Bestiaire is a visionary documentary from Montreal that explores our relationship to the animal world. Stories We Tell, a doc from Toronto, unfolds as a procedural home movie, investigating the filmmaker’s family secrets; and Goon, shot largely in Winnipeg and set across the country, is a viciously funny comedy about hockey violence.” Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, December 14, 2012 at 4:47 PM - 0 Comments
When critics, including this one, swooned over Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life last year, much of what held us enthralled was the film’s rhapsodic images of nature and the cosmos. Malick took us on the kind of transcendental trip that has its roots in 2001: A Space Odyssey—whose director of special effects, Douglas Trumbull contributed to The Tree of Life. Well, no director does trippy transcendentalism better than Canada’s Peter Mettler, who has pushed the cosmic envelope in movies ranging from Picture of Light (1994) to Gambling, Gods and LSD (2002).
Mettler’s latest and most ambitious picture, The End of Time, is a documentary inquiry into the primal essence of what makes us tick. Its subject is time. And as if that were not a vast enough topic for a film that clocks in at just under two hours, right off the bat he brings Einstein into the equation and explains that any film about time is necessarily a film about space. The result is a film about Everything. A plot-less 2012: A Space-Time Odyssey. To call it a documentary is misleading. Mettler does not “document”; he’s one of those filmmakers who goes out into the field with the earnest intent of photographing the eye of God, whether in the cardiac-red glow of lava breaking through the Earth’s fresh-baded crust, or in the drama of a dead lime-green grasshopper being hustled off a blood-red leaf by black ant pallbearers. Cosmomentary would be a more appropriate name for the genre Mettler is pioneering. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 5:03 AM - 0 Comments
Bill Murray might have made a good Hobbit, back in the day. Playing Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, may seem like a stretch. But in Hyde Park on Hudson the FDR role fits Murray like an old pair of slippers. As for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Martin Freeman, makes a solid impression as Middle-earth’s mild-mannered Bilbo Baggins. But sadly neither film lives up to expectations. And because the expectations surrounding The Hobbit has been so huge, the hollow thud of disappointment is more resounding.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
First let me put my biases on the table. I’m not a Tolkien fan; I’ve always found his up-hill-and-down-dale prose tedious. But I was duly impressed by Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, or at least the first and final episodes. So I was expecting the same level of spectacle, character and story from The Hobbit. But I’m not sure if I even saw the movie Jackson intended to make, because I found it so hard to get past the film’s vaunted, and now controversial, 48-frame-per-second format, now acronym-ed as HFR (high-frame rate). Having tinkered with frame rates myself as a videographer, I never thought I’d see the day when they would become a subject of a mainstream media wonk. But like a lot of critics who saw The Hobbit in 48 fps 3D, I found the results disastrous.
A quicker primer. Movies have been shot at 24 frames per second since the early 20th century. That speed is part of what makes film look like film. It gives the moving image a softness and texture. So when directors started to shoot on video, they choose to shoot at 24 fps, because the more typical TV video speed of 30 fps tends to look too “crispy.” Well, Jackson has cranked the speed to 48 fps to smooth 3D camera movement, reduce strobe-like flicker and create a more immaculate sense of realism. You can see the logic behind what he’s doing— even the best 3D movies have trouble making fast action scenes look smooth. But to these eyes, The Hobbit looked even more video-like than a daytime soap opera. Everything was way too clear—the sets looked like sets, the costumes looked like costumes, the makeup like makeup. Paradoxically, everything appeared so real it looked fake. Filmmaking magic is a conjuring trick, an art of illusion. So a movie devoted to magic set in a mythical world, the contemporary video lustre of the scenes was distracting to say the least. It reminded me of watching behind-the-scenes B-roll footage of a movie being made.
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, December 4, 2012 at 7:29 PM - 0 Comments
TIFF announced Canada’s Top Ten list of features and shorts tonight at a Toronto event hosted by actress Sarah Gadon and filmmaker Don McKellar. The list of feature directors offers mostly familiar names—David Cronenberg, Sarah Polley, Deepa Mehta, Peter Mettler, Michael Dowse, Xavier Dolan and Michael McGowan—along with lesser known filmmakers such as Nisha Pahuja and Kim Nguyen. The cultural balance is unusually tipped toward English Canada, with only two Quebec directors in the mix. (Denis Arcand, Denis Villeneuve and Philippe Farardeau didn’t release movies in 2012.) Four of the 10 features are set in foreign countries. Noticeable by its absence is Picture Day, which just won the Whistler Film Festival’s $15,000 Borsos Prize for best Canadian feature.
Canada’s top 10 features, ordered alphabetically:
Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg (Entertainment One Films)
The End of Time, Peter Mettler (Mongrel Media, National Film Board)
Goon, Michael Dowse (Alliance Films)
Laurence Anyways, Xavier Dolan (Alliance Films)
Midnight’s Children, Deepa Mehta (Mongrel Media)
My Awkward Sexual Adventure, Sean Garrity (Phase 4 Films)
Rebelle, Kim Nguyen (Mongrel Media)
Still, Michael McGowan (Mongrel Media)
Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley (Mongrel Media, NFB)
The World Before Her, Nisha Pahuja (KinoSmith)
The top 10 shorts:
Bydlo, Patrick Bouchard (NFB)
Chef de meute (Herd Leader), Chloé Robichaud
Crackin’ Down Hard, Mike Clattenburg
Kaspar, Diane Obomsawin (NFB)
Ne crâne pas sois modeste (Keep a Modest Head), Deco Dawson
Lingo, Bahar Noorizadeh
Malody, Phillip Barker
Old Growth, Tess Girard
Reflexions, Martin Thibaudeau
Paparmane (Wintergreen), Joëlle Desjardins Paquette
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, December 4, 2012 at 5:05 PM - 0 Comments
I’ve been a devotee of the Whistler Film Festival for most of the past decade. Cannes and TIFF are both essential and vast, but these festivals unfold on such an industrial scale that they’re no longer, well, festive. For a film critic on the assembly line of world cinema, they’re more work than fun. Whistler, which wrapped its 12th edition this past weekend, has always been the festival I most look forward to. It doesn’t hurt that skiing is part of the program—unlike Sundance, the WFF encourages it, and with its Celebrity Ski Challenge, the mountain becomes part of the program. But Whistler’s five-day extravaganza also brings together filmmakers, media and industry folk with unparalleled energy and intimacy.
As a guest of the festival, I wore two hats this year, as a journalist and a member of the documentary jury. And it was evident to me and everyone I talked to that this was the year Whistler raised its game. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, November 27, 2012 at 9:23 AM - 0 Comments
Here’s some exciting news that I can’t report with even a shred of objectivity. It comes from Rogers Communications, which owns Maclean’s, and the Toronto Film Critics Association (TFCA), of which I’m president. The TFCA’s annual Rogers Best Canadian Film Award will now be worth a staggering $100,000. The director of the winning film, voted by the member critics of the TFCA, will receive a $100,000 cheque. The two runners-up will receive $5,000 each. This is an extraordinary boost, considering that the award was previously worth $15,000. (Last year it went to Quebec’s Philippe Falardeau for Monsieur Lazhar, which went on to get an Oscar nomination.)
Rogers has endowed the TFCA with what becomes Canadian cinema’s richest prize, by a long shot. (Until now, the country’s most lucrative film honour was the Toronto International Film Festival’s $30,000 award for the best Canadian film at the festival.) It also ranks as the country’s richest arts prize.
Rather than interview myself, I’ll quote my official reaction to the news from the TFCA press release: “We are enormously grateful to Rogers for taking such a bold initiative. This exemplary cash prize gives our cinema pride of place at the country’s top tier of arts awards. It represents a tremendous vote of confidence in Canadian filmmakers, and in the discerning role that Toronto’s robust community of film critics can play in recognizing and rewarding brilliance.” Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Monday, November 26, 2012 at 11:25 AM - 0 Comments
It’s an ensemble made in character-actor heaven. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener play a married couple who play second violin and viola, respectively, in a world-famous string quartet with Christopher Walken (its cellist) and Mark Ivanir (first violin). The quartet starts to become unstrung after Walken’s character announces that the onset of Parkinson’s Disease will force him to retire.
The drama is framed by a performance of Beethoven’s daunting Opus 131, a 40-minute opus with seven movements that are played without a break, even as instruments drift out of tune. The film is about what happens when lifelong relationships fall out of tune under stress. A tale of high-culture takes on torrid overtones as Hoffman and Keener’s flighty daughter (Imogene Potts) makes a play for her violin teacher, who happens to be their colleague in the quartet (Ivanir).
Making his dramatic feature debut, writer-director Yaron Zilberman casts his actors boldly against type, especially Walken. So often cast as a menacing weirdo or villain, Walken plays the quartet’s most benign and dignified character.
I interviewed Walken and Keener together before A Late Quartet’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. On a cold morning, we sat together in a corner of a deserted rooftop terrace above a grungy nightclub, where the movie’s PR team was headquartered. (The nightclub was so grim Walken and Keener had decamped to the roof to do interviews.) There we sat, talking about music and acting over the din of a high-rise construction site that loomed above us. Walken was dry and droll; Keener was warm and effusive—she almost never stopped laughing.
Q: Am I correct to assume that the most difficult part of your job was to mime the instruments?
Keener: I would say that’s true. To learn how to hold a bow was very difficult for someone who’s never played an instrument. There are little things. When you’re doing a crossword puzzle, you’ll walk away from it or you’ll stare and try to unlock it, and two days later it unlocks. That’s what happened. I tried with the bow and thought I’d never get this. Then one day I thought, ‘Am I holding this right?’ And I was. And everything sort of fell into place. That was my watershed moment.
Q: Christopher, did you have a watershed moment?
Walken: I never really did get the hang of it. I relied on cinematography and editing. Basically, it’s about simulating a craft, giving the impression that you could play the cello. It didn’t matter to me whether I could play the cello; it was about replicating the look. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 8:10 AM - 0 Comments
Thanks to American Thanksgiving, this weekend’s movies are opening midweek. They include two blockbuster 3D adventures suitable for the family—Life of Pi and Rise of the Guardians—plus Silver Linings Playbook, an off-kilter romantic comedy that is about family, but is not family entertainment. All three movies are about clinging to hope in the face of crazy odds. Which, of course, is where Hollywood and the holiday spirit find common ground.
Life of Pi and Rise of the Guardians offer, respectively, case-book examples of how to use and abuse 3D. Handling the medium for the first time, Oscar-winning director Ang Lee seems to understand that it’s best used as an immersive medium, one that can turn the screen into an aquarium, and is well-suited for water, which is both transparent and reflective. His is a live-action movie that employs a lot of computer graphic imagery (CGI), especially in bringing a tiger to life on a lifeboat. But the live action and CGI swim together seamlessly, drawing us into the screen’s third dimension rather than reaching out to clobber us in our seats. Rise of the Guardians, an animated feature aimed at children, uses 3D in a more military fashion, bombarding us with roller-coaster zooms and rocketing chase scenes that fly out of the screen.
Pi is scrupulously faithful to the prize-winning bestseller by Canadian novelist Yann Martel. That degree of fidelity can often limit a film’s potential. But Lee’s movie is the exception to the rule and achieves something the book can only ask us to imagine. Although the magic of Martel’s remarkable narrative is grounded in meticulous research and visual detail, it still requires a forceful suspension of disbelief: at moments, I still found myself thinking: “A boy sharing a lifeboat with a tiger? Really? Could that happen?” But by melding a CGI tiger with flesh-and-blood animals, Lee puts that tiger on the boat with such convincing power that we never question its existence.
It’s no small feat that the tiger is as believable as the humans. But the three actors who portray Pi (as a child in India, an adolescent boy on a lifeboat, and an adult raconteur in Canada) are all superb. Suraj Sharma, who makes his film debut as the teenage Pi, carries the much of the film single-handed—acting on water, in water, and with an animal co-star who was no more than a blue screen much of the time. It’s an extraordinary performance. And as the older Pi, veteran Indian actor Irrfan Khan anchors the narrative with a calm poise that personifies the transcendental clarity of Ang Lee’s direction.
It’s an exciting event when an auteur of Lee’s refinement creates a Hollywood spectacle with this kind of power. In a rare alignment of artistic vision and blockbuster ambition, Life of Pi stretches the horizon of cinema’s new technology to restore old-fashioned movie magic.
For more on Lee’s movie and my interview with the director, go to: A new life for Pi.
Rise of the Guardians
I’m sure this holiday extravaganza will be a big hit, and that kids will eat it up. But as much as I might try to simulate their point of view, I can only see it through my own battered eyeballs, which feel like they’ve aged 10 years in the 90 minutes spent watching it. In hectic, repetitive chase scenes, 3D pushes the threshold of visual tolerance to the limit. Maybe for kids there’s no such thing as too much fast-moving eye candy. Vertigo, after all, is highly subjective; some people can’t get enough of roller coasters. So I’ll set aside that complaint for the moment and look at what else this picture has to offer.
It’s based on a children’s story by William Joyce—which was sparked by a question from his six-year-old daughter, who asked if Santa and the Easter Bunny were friends. Joyce spun that innocent query into a legion of fairy-tale superheroes called the Guardians. Their leader is a Santa stripped of his Norwegian provenance and re-booted as a Cossack gangster named North (voiced by Alec Baldwin), a brash godfather who rules a Yeti sweatshop at the North Pole. His fellow Guardians include an ornery Aussie Easter Bunny (armed with boomerangs and voiced by Hugh Jackman), a sweet hummingbird Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), a mute, shape-shifting Sandman—and the freshly recruited Jack Frost (Chris Pine), a bratty lost boy who’s glum because children don’t believe he exists.
Like a superhero dream team of fairy-tale Avengers—or Xmas X-Men—the Guardians are on a mission is to keep children believing in them. With North as their crusty Jehovah, they wage a global war for the imagination. Their adversary is the bogeyman Pitch (Jude Law), who blackens the world with disbelief, unleashing a team of apocalyptic horses who could have galloped right out of The Lord of the Rings. The fight comes down to an existential clash between two outcast angels, the Christlike Jack and the satanic Pitch, mirror-image ghosts chasing different versions of their vanished childhood.
There’s a great deal of visual beauty and craft in the Guardians’ intricate toy-town universe. The script is hopping with ingenious wit. The action spits out gags at the industrial pace of the North Pole workshop. And a number of the characters are both richly drawn and drolly written, especially Jackman’s pugnacious Easter Bunny, who steals scenes like an Outback bandit.
But I found the film’s revisionist raison d’être deeply irritating. If children are young enough to believe in Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, the Byzantine plot of this the fairy tale on steroids will only confuse them. If they’ve grown out of those beliefs, the movie is too busy promoting childhood innocence to restore it. Just the notion that childhood imagination needs protection from a paramilitary force led by a Russian gangsta Santa is disturbing enough, never mind that the insidious voice behind bogeyman Pitch belongs to an actor who famously had an affair with his child’s nanny.
There’s something Orwellian about a movie that keeps telling you to believe. The Hollywood drummer boy keeps pounding home the fundamentalist faith of the Dream Machine: the message that fantasy needs to be enforced by doctrine, that magic is measured by firepower, and that good will vanquish evil with military honours. When it comes to spreading comfort and joy, these days it seems nothing short of an apocalyptic war will do the trick.
Silver Linings Playbook
Here’s a fairy tale for the grown-ups, a date movie worth hiring a babysitter for, even if its adult characters do behave like children. David O. Russell (The Fighter, Three Kings) directs Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro in a back-handed romantic comedy that has fun with mental illness. Cooper, on the verge of being typecast as the World Sexiest Master of the Universe, has re-purposed his alpha edge to play Pat, a human train wreck who has moved back into his parents’ home after being released from a mental institution. He’s lost his job and his wife—after a violent breakdown triggered by the wife’s adultery. Now, despite a restraining order, he’s determined to win her back. Pat finds an ally in Tiffany (Lawrence), a kooky Girl Interrupted who trumps him with her own record of mental delinquency, promiscuity and self-medication. She offers to serve as a go-between, relaying Pat’s deluded peace offerings to his wife, on the condition that he helps her compete in a ballroom dance contest. Big fat premise.
In an offbeat variation on his role in Meet the Fockers, De Niro plays Pat’s dad, a football fanatic with an arcane tool kit of OCD rituals for watching his cherished Philadelphia Eagles. While Pat’s mother (Jacki Weaver) helplessly tries to mediate the head-butting father-son conflict, this is a nuclear family on the verge of meltdown. Their antic scenes tend to slide into slapstick overdrive. But the volatile chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence is dynamite. By rights, this movie should belong to Cooper. Yet he’s merely the foil as Lawrence hijacks every one of their scenes with impeccable timing. After her Oscar-nominated role as an Ozark teen in Winter’s Bone, and her action-figure finesse in The Hunger Games, Lawrence reveals yet another risk-taking persona, one that cuts even closer to the bone.
Although Silver Linings Playbook is high-concept fare, it doesn’t feel formulaic. The story unfolds with such loopy, oddball energy that you almost forget it’s a romantic comedy until the fourth quarter. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so effectively blindsided by emotion in a Hollywood movie—sacked behind the line of scrimmage. Perfect counter-programming for a Grey Cup weekend.
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 5:58 AM - 0 Comments
For the climate-change skeptics out there, who cling to their God-given right to ignore science and stoke debate with the fossil fuel of old-growth ideology, Chasing Ice should be required viewing. And for those of us who are already sufficiently alarmed, and don’t think we can bear to watch any more inconvenient truths, it’s still required viewing. This is an eye-opening documentary, full of epic beauty and astonishing revelations (of the non-Biblical kind).
Which is not to say it’s a truly great film. Too much of the narrative dwells on the trials and tribulations of its hero, National Geographic photographer James Balog, whose personal quest can’t possibly compete with what he’s capturing through his lens. This story did not need “humanizing.” We could care less about Balog’s crumbling knee and its multiple surgeries as he struggles to rappel down an ice face—not when we’re about to see a section of Greenland’s ice sheet the size of Lower Manhattan, and twice as tall, calve into the Arctic Ocean in real time. Besides, the Extreme Ice Survey, which this film documents seems very much a team effort, even if Balog’s sensitive eye endows it with an esthetic grandeur reminiscent of Manufactured Landscapes, another movie that looks over the shoulder of a celebrated photographer. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, November 16, 2012 at 5:01 AM - 0 Comments
Spoiler alert: Brian D. Johnson says that just because they’ve run out of Twilight books does not mean they’ve run out of Twilight movies.
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 1:43 PM - 0 Comments
One of the strangest movie franchises every created has finally drawn its last breath. At least for now. Nothing is more undead than a blockbuster franchise, so just because they’ve run out of novels, that doesn’t rule out more movies, as James Bond has amply proven. But the series finale, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, brings Stephanie Meyer’s series to a close. Which will come as a relief to a certain breed of pallid bloodsuckers. I’m talking about film critics, of course. It’s easy for us to be cynical about these movies. Their erratic tone, which careens between unabashed romance and shabby camp, almost encourages it. And even the most devoted fans aren’t immune to the odd burst of derisive giggling. That’s part of the fun. I’m not a fan—wrong gender, wrong age.
But I’ve always been twi-curious, and as I’ve dutifully sat through each of the installments, there have been plenty of guilty pleasures along the way. Twilight‘s extended family of bloodsuckers are downright adorable—the best-looking, most wholesome collection of vampires you could ever wish to meet. It’s hard not to feel affection for them. Even while panning the honeymoon-from-hell of Breaking Dawn Part 1, I had to admit that “the actors are such a perky, spirited bunch you want to cheer them on, like a high school football team.”
The finale is, above all, a fond farewell to these characters, who are now getting along like never before.
By Brian D. Johnson - Wednesday, November 14, 2012 at 6:01 PM - 0 Comments
There’s something perverse about sending a guy old enough to have seen the Beatles play Maple Leaf Gardens on a mission to interview Justin Bieber. I’ve interviewed my share of music legends—Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Madonna, Bryan Adams, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Tina Turner, Gordon Lightfoot, k.d. lang, Shania Twain. But for some reason I felt more apprehensive about talking to Bieber. Not because I was starstruck. Just unqualified. It didn’t matter that I’d spent longer on the road as a professional musician than he has (five years back in the day). This was another world. Even after immersing myself in Bieber’s music and reading anything I could lay my hands on, meeting him was like visiting a luminary from an another planet. Then again, I can’t remember the last time I had an extended conversation with any 18-year-old, never mind a fabulously wealthy, successful pop star prodigy with 30 million Twitter followers and 3 billion YouTube viewers.
We met in his dressing room backstage at the Verizon Center, an arena in downtown Washington D.C., on the eve of the presidential election, five hours before he hit the stage. I had half an hour. He was getting dressed in front of a mirror when his bodyguard, Kenny Hamilton, ushered me in. I averted my eyes until he was decent.
When you do a celebrity interview, you always look for a spontaneous moment to break the ice, or generate some narrative. So when I spotted the ping-pong table, I mentioned I used to be pretty good. Jumping at a chance to play, he handed me a paddle. It was one of those really heavy foam jobs. For the life of me, I couldn’t get the ball to stay on the table. He gamely tried to feed me lobs, and conceded that you could tell I once knew how to play. “This isn’t working,” I said, as I threw in the towel, worried I’d frittered away my precious time slot before we got a rally going. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, November 9, 2012 at 2:33 PM - 0 Comments
- Click here to read Brian D. Johnson’s review of Skyfall.
- … and here to read his interview with Daniel Craig.
- Bonus link: Click here to see the montage Johnson created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Bond.
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, November 8, 2012 at 10:19 AM - 0 Comments
This year of presidential gunslinging has produced three films about freeing American slaves: Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Killer and Django Unchained. What if they were all the same movie? My mash-up trailer:
By Brian D. Johnson - Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 2:01 PM - 0 Comments
I saw Skyfall at a press preview in Manhattan, before the Flood, back in mid-October, when I also had the pleasure of interviewing Daniel Craig. I can’t remember the last time that my excitement to see a much ballyhooed Hollywood blockbuster was so richly rewarded. I came out of the screening thrilled by what I’d seen and immediately tweeted that Skyfall is “the best Bond movie ever—and that’s not hype.” Which drew a startled response. At least one journalist asked if I wasn’t worried I might want to recalibrate that superlative in the cold light of morning. But I had just re-watched all my favorite Bond films while researching an epic essay on the franchise for the Maclean’s special issue commemorating 50 years of 007. So I felt confident making the claim.
However, as Skyfall finally hits theatres this week, I have no desire to review it. As a film critic, I have the privilege of being able to see a movie fresh, before people like me ruin it with a lot of clever opinions and observations. With most Bond movies, there’s not much to spoil: Bond infiltrates megalomaniac’s lair, gets captured, stops world from ending, escapes with the girl. But Skyfall has a story that’s stronger than most of those dreamt up by Ian Fleming, and it has some serious surprises. So I’m not going to offer a shred plot summary—there’s more than enough in the trailer. Instead, let me spell out with a few broad strokes why Skyfall is the best Bond film ever.
Sean Connery originated the role and will always be the quintessential Bond. But Craig is the first actor to really wrestle with the tormented psychology of the character Fleming created. He’s also the first actor who does not seem trapped in the role. As Craig pointed out in his interview with me, having a strong measure of creative control was an essential part of his deal when he was cast for Casino Royale. He took that one step further by personally recruiting an Oscar-winning filmmaker, Sam Mendes, to direct Skyfall, and with him came a prime echelon of Oscar-pedigree talent like no Bond film has ever seen—notably Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, and the promotion of Judy Dench’s M into a much meatier role.
Mendes, meanwhile, recruited cinematographer Roger Deakins, the Coen brothers’ go-to DOP, whose influence cannot be overstated. Bond movies tend to revel in eye candy, but none has been so uniformly gorgeous as Skyfall, which unfolds as a suite of stunning visual compositions, from the neon aquarium of Shangai to the moors of Scotland. Deakins has nine Oscar nominations for pictures ranging from The Shawshank Redemption to No Country for Old Men; it would be cool to see him finally win for a Bond movie.
Skyfall elevates the Bond genre to a new level of A-list refinement. But it’s a game-changing movie in more ways than one.
Casino Royale smartly rebooted the franchise, which had been languishing in overblown spectacle and campy farce. Craig slammed it back to earth with a vengeance and more than earned his license to kill, and to shag. It was a movie that had a lot to prove. Then, with a script hobbled by a writers’ strike and a miscast director (Mark Forster), the follow-up, Quantum of Solace, turned out to be a mess. With Skyfall, Craig no longer looks like a guy trying to prove himself. He’s supremely comfortable in the role. And the movie reconnects his character to the franchise by embracing, and deflecting, its classic tropes with a deft wit. But it goes beyond Bond, and takes him places that Fleming never dreamt of.
The result is a rather belated coming of age for the most successful franchise hero of all-time. Coinciding with the golden anniversary, it’s something to celebrate. If you wait long enough, retro fashion eventually comes back into vogue—as a new generation discovers 007, Bond hasn’t been so cool since the 1960s. Enjoy it while it lasts.
For Brian D. Johnson’s video montage of 007 through the ages, go to: Best of Bond.