By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, January 10, 2013 - 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 - Friday, October 26, 2012 at 12:01 AM - 0 Comments
If you go to the movies to get a rush of head-spinning complexity, you’re in luck this weekend. For puzzle fans, we’ve got intricate thrillers from opposite ends of the art/trash spectrum. Adapted from David Mitchell’s 2004 bestseller, Cloud Atlas presents a rare anomaly for a studio picture: it’s an experimental blockbuster. Directed by a trinity of genre stylists (Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer), this epic extravaganza boasts an all-star cast that includes four Oscar winners—Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent and Susan Sarandon—who commute across a maze of six interlocking storylines spanning five centuries. This being Hallowe’en weekend, we also have the mandatory fright night sequel, Silent Hill: 3D Revelation, a beautifully art-directed yet barely comprehensible warehouse sale of horror clichés. For those who prefer simpler pleasures, the week’s new releases also include a surf drama (Chasing Mavericks) and a charming chamber piece about a man in an iron lung who hires a sex surrogate to cure his virginity (The Sessions).
An “un-filmable” book beckons filmmakers the way Everest beckons mountaineers. Cloud Atlas is one of those books. Tackling Mitchell’s novel required splitting the expedition between two teams: Tykwer directed the episodes set in 1849, 2144 and the post-apocalyptic 24th century; the Wachowski siblings directed those set in 1936, 1973 and 2012. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, April 8, 2011 at 10:45 AM - 2 Comments
Sometimes a girl just needs a paycheck. How else to explain how three Oscar-winning actresses are slumming in a trio of popcorn movies coming out this week? Natalie Portman trades her tutu for a thong as a Robin Hood hottie in Your Highness; Cate Blanchett practices high-heeled homicide as an icy spy mistress in Hanna; and Helen Hunt furrows her brow on the beach as a gnarly surf mom in Soul Surfer. The best of the bunch is Hanna—a sleek, willfully preposterous action movie starring Saoirse Ronan (Lovely Bones) as a feral killing machine, with Blanchett as her evil nemesis. As a feature-length chase scene, it’s an exotic, well-honed ride that carries a sharp kick, even if the story’s not believable for a second. Soul Surfer, based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton’s comeback on a surfboard after losing an arm to a shark, has the undeniable grip of a real-life sports flick. But it also has a cloying undertow of inspirational sentiment, and a surfer girl surfeit of blond born-again Christianity. As for Your Highness, well, I felt I was earning paycheck, and then some, just by watching it.
Killer kids are the latest craze. Last year we had Chloe Moretz playing a murderous 11-year-old scamp in the comic book bloodbath called Kick-Ass, then a teenage vampire in Let Me In. Now the ethereal Saoirse Ronan, who told a nasty lie in Atonement, graduates to wholesale slaughter in an action movie by the same director, Joe Wright. She stars as Hanna, a 16-year-old who has grown up completely cut off from society in a cabin in the snowy forests of Finland, trained as polymath killing machine by her father, Erik, a former CIA man (Eric Bana). One day, for no apparent reason, Dad decides it’s time for her to leave home and settle some family scores, which puts her on a collision course with his ex-colleague, Marissa (Cate Blanchett), a wicked witch of the West who runs a tight ship at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
The action ranges from Finland to Morocco to Berlin, and unfolds as a series of classy set pieces. Along the way, Hanna insinuates herself into a family of English tourists traveling in an RV, a satirical model of progressive post-hippie parenting. Their scenes are among the best in the film, an oasis of wit amid the the relentless action. Wright has stressed that he conceived of the movie as a Lynchian fable, which he hammers home with scenes in a fairy tale theme park. And that partly excuses the lack of narrative coherence. The film’s visual palette is stunning. It’s unusual to see a movie that begins with a scene of a teenage girl bringing down a deer with a bow and arrow in a northern snowscape, and leads to a lethal game of hide-and-seek in an industrial container yard and a grisly killing in a Hansel and Gretel cottage. But the chief pleasure here is watching Ronan play the part of an ethereal Femme Nikita, or Fille Nikita—a home-schooled wild child with a Spock-like emotional distance who discovers the world on the fly while fighting for her life. It’s also a treat to see Blanchett embrace her red-headed role as starchy villainy with an immaculate wardrobe and not a trace of a conscience. Upstaged by both of them, Eric Bana keeps his head down and does the job. This is a rare action movie where women rule.
Your Highness is a shameless adventure in bad taste, re-setting the bar for stoner comedy at a new nadir of vulgarity. Some viewers will consider that a historic triumph, a Medieval Times banquet of glorious garbage. For me, it’s the kind of exhausting extravagance that gives weed a bad name, and watching it was mostly torture. Yes, there were some rich laughs, and some jaw-dropping reactions to the taboo-busting, gross-out moments—such as the first-ever scene of inter-species sodomy that actually shows a Minotaur’s erection.
I never cease to be amazed by how Hollywood’s genetic engineers keep coming up with mutant variations on formula. Your Highness is sword-and-sorcery spoof larded with gore, gratuitous nudity and cheesy special effects, while making clumsy stabs at the wit of Monty Python and the Holy Grail through a thick haze of wannabe Cheech-and-Chong hijinks. The joker behind the camera is David Gordon Green, who made an auspiciously arty debut with George Washington, but with Pineapple Express, and now this, he seems to have settled into the stoner/action groove.
Your Highness tries to do for the questing epic what Scary Movie did for the horror genre, and it’s a royal mess. Don’t get me wrong. I’m as happy as anyone to see someone tear down the epic pretension of Lord of the Rings. But throughout the film, I was irritated by the sense that the actors were having way more fun than the audience, notably a perpetually grinning James Franco.
He stars as Fabius, a gallant crown prince who routinely slays hydra-headed monsters, and has a slacker brother named Thaddeus (co-writer Danny McBride), a homely coward who just wants to lie around, smoke weed and pleasure himself. When Fabius’s virgin bride, Beladonna (Zooey Deschanel) is kidnapped by a wicked wizard named Leezar (Justin Theroux) on her wedding day, so she can be raped during an eclipse of the two moons and give birth to a dragon that will plunge the world into eternal darkness… yadda, yadda, yadda. To save the girl and the world, Fabius cajoles his brother and his simpleton squire (Rasmus Hardiker) to join him on a rescue quest.
Portman doesn’t show up until midway through the plot. She’s the best thing in the movie, and not just because she flashes her thong-flossed butt in a semi-nude skinny dipping scene. She plays a ruthless Robin Hood ninja relatively straight, and acts circles around her mugging co-stars. But even though her character saves their asses, again and again, it’s not enough to save the movie.
Soul Surfer stars AnneSophia Robb in the inspirational role of surfer Bethany Hamilton, who fought her way back in competition after losing an arm to a shark attack. There are some gripping sequences, not the least of which is the attack itself, and the race to get Bethany to the emergency ward before she dies from blood loss. That sequence, and the surfing scenes, have a thrilling authenticity. The feel-good human drama feels more forced. Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt co-star as Bethany’s parents, playing up the friction between the father who’s trying to coax her back into the water and the overly protective mother. Quaid, who has the juicier role, gets to show off his stubbornly gym-toned physique, while a strained Hunt looks like she’s worked too hard to look good in a bathing suit. Much of the time, I found I was more anxious about the careers of these mid-life actors than Bethany’s ability to master the art of one-armed surfing. Hunt’s role as the whiny mom is especially thankless. Robb, whose arm is digitally amputated, holds her own among a cast of beach babes (including Carrie Underwood, making her film debut). The film’s tone of blond supremacy becomes a bit alarming in places. The only “bad” people are an ethnic-looking hustler trying to package Bethany’s story and her dark-haired rival in the waves, played by surfing beauty Sonya Balmores Chung, a mixed-raced former Miss Hawaii Teen USA. Directed by producer Sean McNamara, a veteran of family fare, the movie plays like a vanity project for its heroine, whose ardent Christian message is muted into triumph-of-the-human-spirit platitudes. The problem with a story like this is that the real drama lies in the first act, courtesy of the shark. After that, it’s an uphill slog to a resolution that holds no surprises, aside from some bracing surf scenes in the final competition. I think I preferred the cornball eye candy of Blue Crush to the earnest inspiration of Soul Surfer. But if you’re keen to see a good surf movie, I suggest you rent the documentary Riding Giants.
Mid-life moms, misconceived babies and stoner misfits: ‘Baby Mama,’ ‘Then She Found Me,’ ‘Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.’
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, April 25, 2008 at 11:07 AM - 184 Comments
This weekend offers three comedy options, each occupying a different spot on the sliding scale between credible and preposterous. At the silly end of spectrum, there’s Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, starring multi-culturalism’s answer to Cheech and Chong. It’s a stoner movie/homeland security satire designed for adolescent boys of all ages. The other two pictures are both romantic comedies from the viewpoint of smart, single, thirtysomething women who are rapidly losing their patience. Then She Found Me is the more mature of the two, and it’s really more of a dramedy, reflecting the angst and edge of its star and progenitor, Helen Hunt, who’s making her directorial debut. Baby Mama, hatched from the ever-percolating talent pool of Saturday Night Live, is a high-concept piece—a test-tube comedy that has its share of laugh-out-loud moments but never escapes the limitations of its sketch-comedy roots. In fact, none of these movies, live up to the talents of the actors involved.
Then She Found Me
When you know that a sexy, intelligent, Oscar-winning actress has worked her hyphenated butt off to direct, co-write, co-produce and star in a labour of love like Then She Found Me, it’s a downright shame to be sitting there watching the final product, worrying that Helen Hunt looks alarmingly gaunt. Considering that she directed the movie, you would expect she would frame herself in a more flattering light. (Hey, if it were Warren Beatty directing himself, you’d never see a bad angle.) But there’s a bravery in Hunt’s evident lack of narcissism. Also her character is meant to be at the end of her rope, more stressed-out from one moment to the next, so it works for the role—up to a point. Still, I kept thinking I was watching an actress suffering from the sleep-deprived strain of directing a movie. When her character’s suitor, played by Colin Firth, kept going on about how beautiful she is, I wanted to shout, “No! Helen, you look exhausted! When did you last take the time to eat a decent meal?”
Hunt plays April, a 39-year-old primary school teacher fretting about her ticking biological clock. She is adopted, and feels unloved, which is enough to convince her that adoption is not an option. In the opening scene, April gets dumped by her new husband, Ben (Matthew Broderick), a boyish, immature wimp with a classic fear of commitment. He’s the kind of passive-aggressive weasel who bursts into tears as he tells his wife their marriage was a mistake, then gets her to comfort him. It makes you wonder what a smart cookie like Hunt would be doing with him in the first place. Must have been the sex.
Events converge on April at a hectic rate. Mere hours after Peter Pan has slinked out of their marriage, she is being rigorously courted by Frank (Colin Firth), a single father whose daughter is one of her pupils. Frank is a Harlequin romance prototype of the perfect male: a dashing, self-deprecating Englishman with a deft wit, and a grown-up passion for amorous commitment. Mr. Darcy as a playgroup dad.
We’re still in the first act when April’s mother dies and another stranger hurtles into her life. Bernice, played with larger-than-life panache by Bette Midler, is a local TV talk show host with an exaggerated sense of her own celebrity. She’s like a poor woman’s white-bread Oprah. And she claims to be April’s birth mother. Then, completing the set-up of this elaborate scenario, April discovers she’s pregnant, which she happens through a quickie bout of break-up sex with her ex. (In case you’re worried, I’m not giving away more plot than you would find in the trailer.)
Speaking of the plot, it’s all too neatly contrived. And speaking of contrived, what in Allah’s name is Salman Rushdie doing distracting us with a cameo as April’s gynecologist? Isn’t the dude supposed to be in hiding? Also, as a self-respecting guy, I don’t see why movies geared to women have to employ the kind of the facile male stereotypes played by Broderick and Firth—just as women tend to resent the mother-whore extremes in movies geared to men.
On the plus side, the script navigates a minefield of sexual and parental politics with aplomb. The wit is disarming and the charm oblique, which is more than you can say about most four-square romantic comedies. You get the sense that Hunt is portraying a character we haven’t quite seen before, a hard-headed heroine who has come a long way from the Meg Ryan cutie-pies, the Diane Keaton klutzes, and even the Helen Hunt helpmate who scored an Oscar for lending credence to Mel Gibson’s antics in What Women Want. An actress who’s willing to risk appearing desperate, needy and unattractive in a movie of her own making at least seems to be coming from somewhere real. But the poor woman deserves a better movie.
Juno seems to have launched a baby boom of movies about misplaced motherhood. Baby Mama is another story of a high-strung professional woman who replies on a working-class girl to have her baby. But while Juno was a simple, faux naïf tale of a pregnant teen who surrenders her kid for adoption, Baby Mama is a cynical tale of an infertile businesswoman (Tina Fey), who hires a coarse white-trash grifter (SNL’s Amy Poehler) to serve as a surrogate mother. Fey’s character has a doctor who says “I don’t like your uterus,” which is described as a T-shaped anomaly deformed by fertility drugs her mother took in the ’60s and ’70s. (Ah, more ecological fallout from blind boomer greed). With just a one-in-a-million chance of conceiving, the girl goes shopping—picking out a prime batch of donor sperm, which she proudly carries home like a Fendi handbag.
When Baby Mama is funny, it’s funny. At times, the comedy crackles along like a well-honed gymnastic routine, mixing sharp one-liners and satirical broadsides. This feature debut was godfathered by SNL producer Lorne Michaels, and written and directed by Michael McCullers, whose screenplay credits include Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. But his over-torqued script is too clever by half and not credible for a second. Which might be fine if it sustained its screwball pitch throughout. But by the time Baby Mama puts on the brakes and makes a bid for some credible emotion, it’s too late.
Fey and Poehler seem stuck in their scripted stereotypes, especially Poehler who’s cast as an ignorant white-trash bitch. Later, when Fey’s character gets angry and calls her exactly that, we’re supposed to feel she has stepped unfairly over the line—but really she is just spelled out the unfortunate stereotype embedded in the script.
Some of the comedy’s best moments come from cameos by more established movie stars. In a startling return to form, Sigourney Weaver, cast as the smarmy executive of the surrogate mother agency, upstages the leads with her comic timing. And Steve Martin casually pulls off a priceless turn as Fey’s boss, a health food mogul expanding his chain of “Round Earth Foods.” As a CEO/guru with a gray ponytail, he says things like, “I was swimming with dolphins this morning in Costa Rica,” and “I’ve toasted pine nuts at the mouth of an active volcano.” Cradling a tiny spiral seashell, he says, “I found this while running barefoot through the Toronto airport,” then instructs his baffled minions to design his new Round Earth store in its spitting image. The script improves so much when Martin opens his mouth that you have to wonder if he upgraded his role with some uncredited writing. Both Martin and Weaver make you realize there’s a difference between movie stars and TV stars. Fey and Poehler don’t quite cut it. Their personalities seem pinched on the big screen. And they’re performances, which aren’t generous enough to go beyond parody, seem no more than the sum of their gags.
Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay
Seven years after Sept. 11 made a certain kind of political humour off limits, it’s now open season on Homeland Security. I’ve yet to see War, Inc., John Cusack’s spoof about American warmongering, which is also out this week. But one the most remarkable things about Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is that it busts previous taboos with such blithe abandon. It also offers an odd fusion that we haven’t seen before, grafting the poop-dick-’n'-bong genre of gross-out slacker comedy with a light satire of racial profiling and the war on terrorism. That said, this is a pretty dumb movie.
Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Pen) are Americans of East Indian and Korean descent who land on the wrong side of U.S. intelligence while on a flight to Amsterdam. Kumar, who just can’t wait to get to the city’s marijuana cafes, breaks out an allegedly smokeless bong in the plane’s washroom, which soon fills with pot smoke. Soon enough, our heroes are in the clutches of a maniacal intelligence chief (Rob Corddry of The Daily Show), who ships them off to Guantanamo Bay, where the horrors of prison life include the dreaded “cock sandwich.” Enough plot. Let’s just say, the boys get the escape part over with quickly and spend most of the movie back in the good old U.S.A. being chased by the loony feds. In the final act, a George Bush impersonator shows up to drive home the comedy with some good gags.
It’s hard to dislike this film, even though it’s so patently lame. Cho and Pen have great chemistry. And they’re so amiable and endearing on screen—so effortless in their roles—that you can’t help wondering what they might be capable of in a better movie.