By Aaron Wherry - Sunday, March 3, 2013 - 0 Comments
Dennis Rodman takes North Korea, Berlusconi rises again, and a dictator’s daughter takes over in Seoul
Bagman on the stand
Nicolo Milioto, construction magnate and alleged bagman for Montreal’s infamous Rizzuto Mafia clan, took the stand at an inquiry into Quebec’s construction industry last week. Milioto, known as “Mr. Sidewalk” for his uncanny ability to nab municipal construction jobs, stated his name and occupation—and very little else. According to one newspaper’s tally, the bullet-headed Milioto said, “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” 522 times during his testimony. He said he was insulted to be associated with the Mafia, saying he was but a friend of since-assassinated don Nick Rizzuto. It’s a surprise he remembered that much.
Former NBA bad boy Dennis Rodman is trying his hand at “basketball diplomacy” in North Korea. News that “the Worm,” as he was once known, had made it into the Hermit Kingdom to film a documentary arrived via Twitter: “It’s true, I’m in North Korea. Looking forward to sitting down with Kim Jong Un,” he said. The sentiment may be shared: growing up, Kim Jong Un, the country’s young dictator, was a huge fan of Rodman’s ’90s-era Chicago Bulls.
Enter Mr. Fixit
SNC-Lavalin Group hired a new chief compliance officer last week to help clean up the embattled engineering giant in the wake of a bribery scandal. (Two former SNC executives—former CEO Pierre Duhaime and Riadh Ben Aissa—face fraud charges relating to the firm’s contract to design, build and maintain the McGill University Health Centre’s new $1.3-billion hospital.) SNC’s incoming CCO, German executive Andreas Pohlmann, has acted as a go-to for scandal-plagued companies: he was brought in to fix Siemens after a $2-billion bribery scandal in 2006. Next, he headed up the compliance unit at German engineering firm Ferrostaal in 2010, after a bribery scandal there.
By Daniel Barna - Wednesday, February 20, 2013 at 11:57 AM - 0 Comments
Winning an Academy Award can be the worst thing for an actor’s career
This Sunday, Jennifer Lawrence will cap off a stunning year, when she’ll likely be handed the Best Actress Oscar for her firecracker performance in Silver Linings Playbook, at L.A’s Shrine auditorium. Though Jessica Chastain has an outside shot at nabbing the award from Lawrence’s clutches, the 23 year-old actress is everything to everyone these days, and her official coronation as “America’s Sweetheart” come Oscar night feels all but inevitable. So with pre-Oscar-winning Lawrence already Hollywood’s current It-girl, J-Law the Oscar winner should become the biggest star on the planet, right?
By Jessica Allen - Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 8:28 AM - 0 Comments
The people have spoken. And they love The Hunger Games, and Zac Efron.
Here are the highlights from the 39th People’s Choice Awards, which allows fans to vote for their favourite films. This gives actors like Zac Efron the chance to win Favourite Dramatic Movie Actor. (Winners are highlighted.)FAVORITE MOVIE
FAVORITE MOVIE ACTOR
- The Amazing Spider-Man
- The Avengers
- The Dark Knight Rises
- The Hunger Games
- Snow White and the Huntsman
- Channing Tatum
- Johnny Depp
- Joseph Gordon-Levitt
- Robert Downey, Jr.
- Will Smith
By Brian Bethune - Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 10:10 AM - 0 Comments
Newmakers 2012: There’s no denying Suzanne Collins’s heroine hit the zeitgeist right in the sweet spot
Katniss Everdeen has had a very good 2012, and deservedly so. The heroine of The Hunger Games series, Suzanne Collins’s highly popular trilogy of young adult novels (2008-10), already had a devoted fan base as the year began, but she exploded into a genuine pop-culture phenomenon with the March release of the film version of the first volume. Now Katniss is not only beloved by millions of teen girls—and a few boys (her film avatar, after all, is Jennifer Lawrence)—she’s also fodder for serious social commentary. American journalist Hanna Rosin, in an interview about her book The End of Men and the Rise of Women, paused while discussing the profound socio-economic changes unfolding in her country, from the erosion of traditional marriage to women’s increasing confidence and even aggression, to call Katniss an iconic figure. “She’s a classic aggressive male provider: unpleasant, self-sufficient, a total protector of her family. Those are all things that we associate with men. Twenty years ago, Katniss would have been a bizarre and unacceptable character, and now she seems completely natural.”
There’s no denying Katniss hit the zeitgeist right in the sweet spot. She’s the 16-year-old daughter of a dead coal miner who keeps her mother and beloved 12-year-old sister Primrose fed by her skill at archery (and poaching). They live in near-future Panem, an authoritarian state risen from the ashes of ecological catastrophe: worsening climate, rising sea levels and resource wars. The residents of the ruling Capitol, living in high-tech splendour, tyrannize the hardscrabble provincials, forcing each of 12 outlying districts to annually send a male child and a female child, aged 12-18, to ﬁght in the televised Hunger Games until only one remains alive.
Teenagers put in an arena to literally kill each other for the amusement of grown-ups is as savage a satire of reality TV and high school as can be imagined. (For adolescent girls, who live in a social milieu potentially even more vicious than that of boys, the appeal is obvious.) But if The Hunger Games is a pitch-perfect dystopia for our era of superstorms and economic uncertainty, it’s merely riding a wave of such storylines. Current YA fiction is dominated by dystopias, both the classic form, featuring harshly repressive societies, and post-apocalyptic scenes of chaos, all with climatic catastrophe as their root cause. The characters in the most popular series are far more often female than in past adventure stories, and the girls all have kick-ass potential, even if Katniss—who can fire an arrow through a songbird at 200 m—kicks harder than most. 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 - Friday, March 23, 2012 at 3:34 PM - 0 Comments
I’m light years removed from the target audience of The Hunger Games. Wrong age, wrong gender. And I haven’t read the hugely popular young adult novel by Suzanne Collins on which the film is based. So I feel qualified to see it as a movie, not just a pop culture phenomenon. And as a movie, The Hunger Games is not just good. It’s a knockout: stylish, suspenseful, smartly acted—and endowed with more depths of meaning than you’d ever expect from a blockbuster franchise.
There have been inevitable comparisons to the Twilight franchise, another life-and-death teen fantasy that has a heroine juggling two suitors in a love triangle. But the similarities are superficial, so let’s dispense with them right away. Twilight is supernatural fantasy that flips between extremes of earnest romance and cheesy camp. The Hunger Games is a dystopian drama with classical roots, gripping drama and a keen edge of political satire. And the love triangle plays a minor role, at least in this first movie of the series. But what makes The Hunger Games outshine Twilight right out of the gate—aside from a superior script and better direction—is the quality of the acting, especially the superb performance from Jennifer Lawrence. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, June 18, 2010 at 12:06 PM - 0 Comments
This weekend offers a classic choice between blockbuster entertainment and rugged indie drama—between cartoon fantasy and gritty Ozark realism. Movies great and small for wildly different demographics. But Toy Story 3 and Winter’s Bone are both tales of characters terrified of losing their home. In Toy Story 3, a band of played-out toys are driven out of the house as “their” child heads off to college, and trapped in a daycare gulag. In Winter’s Bone an intrepid teenage girl trying to save the family house from being sold off plunges into an Ozark mountain underworld in search of her bail-jumping dad. Both movies are worth seeing. Toy Story 3 is a solid sequel to a trusty franchise—a 3D ride to the dark side of toyland, buffered by sentiment. With enough wit to amuse the parents and enough adventure to captivate the kids. It’s had a lot of attention already. So I’m going to reverse the usual protocol and lead with the little movie, Winter’s Bone (which opens in Toronto today, and expands to Vancouver and Montreal next week) This Sundance award-winner is a superbly acted, beautifully wrought film. Chances are it will be a contender for my Top 10 list by the time winter comes around.
Talk about counter-programming. The farthest thing you could imagine from the bright summer midway of Iron Men and A-Team hijinks and Karate Kids, Winter’s Bone is an austere, harrowing suspense story of a hard-headed girl who ventures into an Ozark heart of darkness, a backwoods hell of crystal meth and family menace and unforgiving cruelty. Jennifer Lawrence delivers a powerful, unwavering performance as 17-year-old Ree Dolly, who is trying to track down her father. He put up their house for a bail bond then vanished without a trace. If she can’t find him, she will be homeless, along with the rest of her family. As she heads into woods to question friends and relatives, she runs up against an outlaw code of silence and risks her life with each step that takes her closer to the truth behind her dad’s disappearance. She confronts her ruthless addict uncle, the incongruously nicknamed Teardrop (John Hawkes), and passes through a declension of ever darkening characters. The movie’s desaturated palette is expertly controlled. This is a gray world and we don’t see a glimmer of sun in the sky, or a smile from our resilient heroine, until close to the end.
Based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, the film is set and shot in the mountains of southern Missouri, a world that is captured with stunning authenticity. I was reminded of Canadian director Jennifer Baichwal’s fine documentary, The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Adams’ Appalachia. This film portrays mountain culture with the same photographic richness, avoiding the hillbilly stereotypes, while etching Gothic character portraits of scary potency. And the stark dialogue has an archaic, almost biblical cadence. Director and co-writer Debra Granik, who shot the film in real Ozark family homes, worried about playing into the stereotypes. “Moonshine and meth,” she says, “are gasoline on the bonfire of cliches depicting mountain culture. Thirty-five years after Deliverance, even a banjo can still be a loaded symbol. But in our trips down to southern Missouri, banjos kept popping up in the most mysterious and alluring ways. Ultimately the banjo found its way into the film, offering notes of hope and perseverance. I came to think of it as a fresh start for that image.”
As for Toy Story 3, it does not depart from the safe formula of the previous installments. Don’t expect anything as ingenious as Ratatouille or Up. But the formula works. A few brief observations culled from my recent article on sequels and remakes in the magazine:
Each movie in Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story franchise conforms to a strict narrative template: led by Woody (Tom Hanks), the vintage cowboy doll, a clan of animated toys get separated from their beloved master, Andy, and have to fight their way home. In Toy Story 2, the enemy was a venal collector. In Toy Story 3, Andy is off to college and his toys are once again playing dodgeball with oblivion. Will it be the attic? A yard sale? No, they’re donated to a daycare centre—a prison camp ruled with an iron paw by a strawberry-scented stuffed bear.
While the franchise’s sentimental mould is inviolable, this sequel has a darker, more satirical edge. Some of the Orwellian daycare toys are quite scary, like the mad-eyed, cymbal-crashing monkey on surveillance duty, or the big, blank-eyed baby doll. And in an apocalyptic set piece, the toys are sent on a harrowing flume ride through trash shredders to landfill hell. I’m not giving anything away by saying that this Toy Story, like the others, ends happily. Some things will never change.