By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, November 2, 2012 - 0 Comments
Midnight’s Children is a lavish spectacle that unfolds against half a century of South Asian history with the complexity of a Russian novel and a blush of Bollywood melodrama. Based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Salman Rushdie, it’s the most sumptuous, and ambitious, Canadian movie you’re likely to see this year. It may also be the least Canadian Canadian movie you’ll see this year. Aside from director Deepa Mehta, her producer/husband, David Hamilton, and the colour of the money from Telefilm Canada, and some crew, there’s nothing
visibly tangibly Canadian about this movie—at least not the lead actors, the characters, the locations, the setting, or the story.
[Since posting this blog, the above preamble provoked a small Twitter tempest. In my first draft, I neglected to specify lead actors. Rushdie pointed out that two of the film's large cast of supporting players, Zaib Shaikh and Anita Majumdar, are most definitely Canadian. Those actors were justifiably outraged. Even after I corrected the oversight, there's been a flurry of tweets accusing me of seeing Canadians as white-only. Offense was taken at the trigger-word "visibly." But it never occurred to me that people would think I was talking about skin colour. What I meant was, if you walked into Midnight's Children cold, without knowing anything about it, from what you SAW you'd never guess it's a Canadian movie. It's about the history of India and Pakistan. My point was never to question the Canadian-ness or the talent of those Canadians involved in making Midnight's Children—just to observe that the film is an eminent example of a Canadian cinema that, in a world of co-pros, now tends to favour non-Canadian stories. ('Cosmopolis,' 'Rebelle, etc.') That may not necessarily be a bad thing. But there's a complex discussion to be had (not here) about the extinction of a traditionally "national" cinema and whether or not Telefilm should fund Canadian filmmakers regardless of where their stories are rooted. I don't have an easy answer. And none of this any bearing on my opinion of Midnight's Children, which—if you're still with me—I've tried to hammer out below.]
Writing about Cloud Atlas, another vastly ambitious literary adaptation, New York Times critic A.O. Scott said it’s “by no means the best movie of the year, but it may be the most movie you can get for the price of a single ticket.” Midnight’s Children feels like the most movie you could get out of Rushdie’s novel. With Zhivago sweep, its sprawling narrative spans three generations, six marriages, two surgical abductions, several wars, and political fires that forged three nations: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Painterly tableaux range takes us from the flooded killing fields of Pakistan’s civil war to the rubble of a New Delhi ghetto being bulldozed by the military.
The story begins in India, during the final decades of British colonial rule. A liberal doctor from Kashmir marries a patient after courting her through a hole in a bed sheet held up as a titillating concession to modesty. Settling in Agra, site of the Taj Mahal, they raise three daughters, of whom Mumtaz (Shahana Goswami) marries twice before giving birth to our protagonist, Saleem. Then the narrative finally catches up to the back story—ignited by the fireworks of India’s independence at the stroke of midnight, August 15, 1947, when Saleem is born and switched with another baby. A nurse in the maternity ward, entranced by her revolutionary lover, has the newborns trade place to “make the poor rich and the rich poor.” Saleem, a child of privilege, is given to a poor accordian-playing minstrel named Wee Winkie, whose wife has died in childbirth. Her baby boy, Shiva, is handed over to Saleem’s parents. And with Dickensian symmetry, these two class-crossed males grow up “handcuffed to history,” in the words of Rushdie, who wrote the screenplay and voices the narration for its protagonist.
With diverging destinies of Saleem and Shiva fused to India’s own, the movie propels itself through three-ring circus (binder?) of history, romance and magic. Deepa Mehta does a fabulous job of shooting this Cirque du Salman. She balances a terrific ensemble of actors who are seductive and strong. She weaves Rushdie’s busy tapestry with virtuosity and passion. And her film is beautifully crafted. There are, in fact, many good reasons to see Midnight’s Children. And for lovers of the book, it may bring the story’s elements magically to life. But the movie lacks the elegance, and coherence, of Mehta’s Oscar-nominated Water, which benefited from a simpler story and strong heroine. In Midnight’s Children, a tale of male rivalry, the female characters lack depth. And the narrative becomes is so farflung it’s hard to know where to invest our emotions. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, October 30, 2012 at 10:37 AM - 0 Comments
Robert Zemeckis and Denzel Washington turn an action movie into a drama about addiction
Not everyone has a fear of flying. But what if the smooth-talking captain on your morning flight had just swigged the last of a beer left on the hotel night table, smoked some pot, snorted a line of cocaine to jolt himself awake, then slipped two mini-bottles of vodka into his orange juice before taking off into violent turbulence? So goes the opening sequence of Flight, a compelling new film starring Denzel Washington as an addicted airline pilot named Whip. And that’s only half the premise. Shortly after takeoff, a mechanical failure sends the plane into a harrowing nosedive. Whip, a former fighter pilot, rolls the aircraft upside down to stop the dive and executes a miraculous crash landing that saves most of the passengers. Then the movie turns into an addiction drama, as the pilot’s heroic feat is tarnished by an inquiry into his fitness to fly.
What’s remarkable is that this picture comes from director Robert Zemeckis, the former whiz kid best known for such wholesome fare as Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, and the motion-capture animation of Polar Express and Beowulf. In the past three decades, the closest he’s come to provocation is Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s cartoon vamp sighing, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” With Flight, the director tackles his first live-action movie since Tom Hanks shared a beach with a volleyball in Cast Away (2000). And it opens with a full frontal shot of a naked flight attendant crawling out of our hero’s hotel bed. After the crash, as a gonzo drug dealer (John Goodman) waltzes into his hospital room to the tune of Sympathy for the Devil, we could be watching a Scorsese film.
“You make the movie you’re making,” Zemeckis shrugs when asked about his sudden move from special-effects blockbusters to risqué drama. “We were going to get an ‘R’ for cigarette smoking, so we might as well tell the truth.” The U.S. R rating requires adult accompaniment for viewers under 18. “You can’t make a movie like this for $150 million. It cost $30 million—both Denzel and I waived our fees.”
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, February 10, 2012 at 9:29 AM - 0 Comments
There are few Hollywood stars who appear to be as genuine, innocent, and downright likable as Canadian actors Ryan Reynolds and Rachel McAdams. Both have movies opening this week, his-and-her titles that present a fatal date-night choice of gonzo male action versus chick-flick romance. Reynolds co-stars with Denzel Washington as a CIA man relentlessly on the run in the hellbent thriller Safe House. And McAdams co-stars with Channing Tatum as an an amnesia victim who loses all memory of her husband after a car crash in The Vow. Both of them do a decent job, but their respective talents are squandered in stories that go through motions of Hollywood formula.
The Vow is soft-headed romance and Safe House is gritty action, but both are disingenuous confections that don’t add up. Which is not to say they don’t provide some pleasures. McAdams has never looked more adorable, and Reynolds bulls his way through the bloody gauntlet of Safe House like that steed tearing through the barbed wire in War Horse. Men all over North America will be dragged to The Vow. It’s the designated date movie for Valentine’s Day, while Safe House pays fleeting lip service to romance with a token girlfriend who’s abandoned for a frantic marathon of gunplay, chase scenes, and torture.
Rachel McAdams cruises merrily through The Vow as if she’s humouring her co-star, the script and the audience. Don’t get me wrong. I love Rachel McAdams. Who doesn’t? Not just because she has the beauty, warmth and candour of a true movie star, but because she can act: she seems incapable of a false note. So what is she doing in a phony valentine like The Vow? As Canada’s sweetheart racks up another Hollywood romance, threatening to become the Meg Ryan of her generation, she should be holding out for movies worthy of her potential. She has, in fact, wrapped a new film directed by Tree of Life director Terrence Mallick, which is exciting. But in the meantime she deserves better than The Vow‘s shlock. She deserves a more substantial suitor than an expression-challenged Tatum Channing, Hollywood’s hunk du jour. And finally, if she’s going to shoot a movie in her hometown, it should look more authentic than The Vow‘s lame attempt to pass off Toronto as Chicago. But then, everything about this romance seems inauthentic. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, November 12, 2010 at 11:45 AM - 0 Comments
What will it be? Hard-core or soft? That’s the choice if you’re planning a thrill ride at the multiplex midway this weekend—between Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours and Tony Scott’s Unstoppable. Two monster movies in which the monster is a large, heavy object. The better of the two by far is the hard-core option, 127 Hours, based on the true story of climber Aron Ralston, who spent five days pinned by a boulder in a Utah canyon before finally performing surgery on his arm with a blunt penknife. Personally, I couldn’t watch the surgery part, but among those who did there are reports of people fainting. Despite my queasiness—I couldn’t even watch my son getting his pinkie finger stitched up at emerg this week—I don’t disapprove of the graphic gore in 127 Hours. It has the necessary cathartic effect, and cutting off the damn arm is, after all, what we spend the rest of the movie waiting for.
What’s more irritating, however, is Boyle’s manic direction. Because our hero is going to spend the better part of an action movie alone and virtually immobile, the director has gone out of his way to compensate, determined that there will never be a dull moment. He jams as much gonzo action as possible into the scenes leading up to the accident, with split screens, speeded-up footage, and relentless rock music, establishing that Ralston is one crazy cowboy who’s about to get a bone-crushing lesson in hubris—Sisyphus stuck between his rock and a hard place.
Once Ralston is jammed in that canyon, Boyle performs all manner of camera tricks to keep his solitary confinement lively, from a looming water-bottle cam to showbiz soliloquies that Ralston delivers as a kind of reality-show performance art for his video camera. It’s all wildly entertaining. Gotta admit I got sucked in. I found myself along for the white-knuckled ride to the point that the climber’s final liberation was truly exhilarating—I felt I’d been shot out the end of some high-pressure water slide, and walked out of the movie physically and emotionally exhausted. But all the razzmatazz filmmaking gets in the way of the story, making you wonder what really happened. Also, Franco is such a strong and committed actor that I wish Boyle had allowed his performance more room to breathe, and taken the more dangerous option of exploring the empty, existential silence of a man trapped with his own fear.
For more on 127 Hours, go to my article in the magazine— Forget Saw 3-D. This is authentic horror, featuring interviews with Danny Boyle and Aron Ralston. As for Unstoppable, unless you have a deep and abiding affection for freight trains (not that there’s anything wrong with that), you can afford to skip it. To read my review of Unstoppable, go to: Yet another runaway Denzel vehicle.
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, November 12, 2010 at 6:20 AM - 2 Comments
In director Tony Scott’s monster movie, the villain is a shrieking behemoth of a train
With a series of trail-blazing performances playing civil rights legends such as Steve Biko, Malcolm X and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Denzel Washington became the most significant black actor in Hollywood history. But eight years after winning his second Oscar—and his first for a lead role, as a corrupt cop in Training Day—he seems stuck in Groundhog Day, making the same movie over and over. Last summer, in Tony Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Washington played a veteran employee who tries to avert catastrophe as a hijacked subway train races out of control. Now he’s in another Tony Scott thriller, Unstoppable—playing a veteran employee who tries to avert catastrophe as an unmanned freight train races out of control.
In interviews, Scott (who has cast Washington in five films) sounds a tad defensive about making two train movies in a row, and points out the differences: Unstoppable has no real bad guys, just a careless yard worker and a venal railway boss. The villain is the train itself, which Scott calls “the Beast” and compares to the shark in Jaws. So he’s made a monster movie about the largest species on wheels: Moby Dick in a full-metal jacket. Or, to quote the yard master played by Rosario Dawson, “It’s not a train, it’s a missile the size of the Chrysler Building.” Whatever it is, the Beast is a classic American she-devil, and you know some guy will inevitably yell, “We’re going to run this bitch down.”
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, June 18, 2009 at 1:00 PM - 0 Comments
‘The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3’ turbocharges a cult classic with a double dose of adrenalin
Hollywood loves to cannibalize itself. Every summer, the studios plunder past glories with sequels, prequels, reboots—and remakes. The most shameless of those ruses is the remake, which makes a virtue of unoriginality. It begs the question: why remake a perfectly good movie? Usually the motive is crassly commercial—to reproduce a proven hit for an audience unaware of the original because it’s too old, too obscure, or in French. Sometimes a remake is an auteur’s arty homage, such as Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot facsimile of Psycho (1998)—or, more perversely, Michael Haneke’s shot-for-shot American clone of his own German-language Funny Games.
Like sequels, remakes tend to be inferior to the originals. Prominent stinkers include star-driven vehicles like Swept Away (Madonna), Get Carter (Sly Stallone), The Nutty Professor (Eddie Murphy), Vanilla Sky and War of the Worlds (both with Tom Cruise). But some are classics in their own right—most famously The Wizard of Oz, which was a remake of a silent movie, and The Magnificent Seven, a western based on Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Then there are the customized knock-offs of genre films by classy directors, like Brian De Palma’s Scarface, David Cronenberg’s The Fly, and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, April 2, 2009 at 1:11 PM - 2 Comments
The filmmaker on selling out and auditioning for Tom Cruise
David Cronenberg seems to determined to reconcile the two solitudes of auteur cinema and Hollywood entertainment. Recently the Canadian filmmaker met with Tom Cruise at the actor’s house in L.A. to discuss a blockbuster action movie he’s planning to direct, starring Cruise and Denzel Washington (an adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s spy thriller, The Matarese Circle). Last night Cronenberg was at a very different social occasion—a penthouse reception atop a Toronto office tower, where France’s ambassador to Canada bestowed on the director his government’s highest honour: the Medal of Knight to the Légion d’Honneur. In a baroque ceremony ripe with elevated talk about philosophy and art, Cronenberg delivered an adroit speech, pondering his connection to Napoleon, and trumping the formal grandeur of the occasion with subversive whimsy:
“With this award,” he mused, “France has finally and inextricably become my partner in crime. I see this medal as a talisman, an amulet with magical powers that make it a shield against punishment—punishment for committing the crime of art. France has always understood the tension that exists between the innate wildness of art and the desired order of society. The crimes of art, the crimes of transgression, are not against the known laws of society, but against the unknown laws, the secret laws. So this medal is a kind of passport for me, a get-out-of-jail-free card.”
After the speeches, Maclean’s film critic Brian D. Johnson spoke with Cronenberg about palling around with Tom Cruise and the possibility of an entente cordiale between art and commerce.
Q: It’s paradoxical that just as you’re receiving this honour from France, where auteur cinema is a religion, you’re planning to make your first Hollywood blockbuster, with Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington.
A: At the same time, that appreciation of cinema in France has never flinched at considering genre work or commercial work if it had artistic merit. Howard Hawks, John Ford. It’s not quite the paradox you might think. Even if you look at A History of Violence or Eastern Promises, they’re more technically commercial obviously than Spider. But I felt very close to them when I was doing them, and I didn’t feel I was selling out. And God knows, I’m happy to sell out. The more money the better. Continue…