By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, January 18, 2013 - 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 - 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 - Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 12:01 AM - 0 Comments
Breaking news from the Toronto Film Critics Association. (Full disclosure: I’m TFCA president, so if much of what follows may appear to plagiarize the official press release, that’s because I can write this stuff only so many times.)
Two cosmic dramas about stubborn American patriarchs emerged as the biggest winners of the 2011 TFCA Awards. The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s transcendental epic about boyhood and the end of innocence in 1950s Texas won Best Picture, while Malick was named Best Director. Also honoured with two TFCA awards was Take Shelter: Michael Shannon won Best Actor for his portrayal of a father plagued by apocalyptic visions, and Jessica Chastain was named Best Supporting Actress for her role as his conflicted spouse. (Chastain was also a runner-up in the Supporting Actress category for The Tree of Life.)
By championing The Tree of Life, the TFCA diverged from the New York and Boston critics groups, which both chose The Artist, and from the L.A. critics, who picked The Descendants—two films that ranked as runners- up among the TFCA’s three Best Picture nominees.
Michelle Williams was voted Best Actress for her seductive, in-the-moment portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn. Canada’s Christopher Plummer won Best Supporting Actor for his role in Beginners as an elderly man who comes out of the closet after learning he has terminal cancer. And Best Screenplay went to Moneyball, the story of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, story by Stan Chervin, based on the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis. Continue…
By Jessica Allen - Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 12:55 PM - 4 Comments
Our intrepid reporter chats up Ralph Fiennes, Brian Cox and Jessica Chastain
By Brian D. Johnson - Wednesday, September 7, 2011 at 11:25 PM - 0 Comments
Here are mini-reviews of 21 films I like so far at TIFF. (Some I love.) Ten were screened in Cannes. The others I saw more recently, in advance media previews. As the festival unfolds, more favorites will be added, and the list will appear as a fixture of our dedicated TIFF page. Click on each title to read the TIFF program note and screening times:
The Artist Finally a French movie that needs no subtitles. This silent black-and-white rom-com was the biggest crowd-pleaser in Cannes. Set in Hollywood, it’s tale of star-crossed stars: a Valentino-like silent film idol sees his career sink with the advent of talkies, while an extra flirts her way into his heart, and to stardom. A wonder dog steals the show. It’s a movie you can imagine Woody Allen wishing he had made.
Café de flore After his restrained fling with British royalty (2009′s) The Young Victoria), Quebec director Jean-Marc Vallée re-embraces the French language, and the lyrical virtuosity that made C.R.A.Z.Y (2005) such an intoxicating triumph. His daredevil drama of shattered love dances a tightrope between two far-flung and seemingly unrelated storylines—a single mother (Vanessa Paradis) struggles to raise a Down Syndrome boy in 1969 Paris; a celebrated DJ (Kevin Parent) navigates a painful divorce in present-day Montreal. Emotional dynamite. Continue…
By Claire Ward - Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 5:21 PM - 4 Comments
Director Tate Taylor’s adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s wildly popular bestseller, The Help, is bright, funny, and at times uplifting. But those aren’t necessarily desirable traits for a film about the lives of black maids in segregated Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s—a town that saw some of the worst oppression and disenfranchisement of blacks in the South.
The Help centres around a young, white college graduate, Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, and two black maids—Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson. Skeeter (Emma Stone) is an atypical Southern belle—frazzle-haired, career-driven, and full of righteous indignation. She returns from university to find that her friends have all gotten married, had babies, and embraced an ugly, casual racism toward their black maids. Skeeter aspires to become a novelist and hopes to catch the notice of a New York book editor (played by a canny Mary Steenburgen) with a controversial book pitch—she will interview a group of black maids who spend their lives looking after white families.
The Help is an disturbingly palatable account of the beginnings of the civil rights movement in America. The depiction of Jackson is candy-coated, never lingering on the truly awful realities of segregation and oppression before a punchline or an endearing moment cheers you up. Major moral questions are glossed over with throwaway lines. I found myself wondering: why are the lives of these black maids filtered through this naive white girl’s story? At one point, Minny says to Skeeter, indignantly, “Why do you think black people need white peoples’ help?” She storms out, only to turn right back around and agree to cooperate. Later, when Skeeter publishes her book and the maids are implicated, I wondered what would happen to them. “Don’t worry Skeeter, we can take care of ourselves,” Minny reassures our white heroine, nodding and grinning. I wasn’t so reassured.
Nonetheless, the film showcases some fine performances. Viola Davis performs in a league of her own, bringing some real depth to Aibileen. The Oscar-nominee (Doubt) is complex in front of the camera, conveying deep sadness and hope at the same time. Octavia Spencer, as Minny, steals more than a few scenes as the eyebrow-raised, misbehaving maid who can’t contain her opinions. Playing opposite Minny is a delightful Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life), the loopy, white-trash outsider Celia Foote (their fried chicken lesson is laugh-out-loud funny). Surprisingly, the much-touted Emma Stone didn’t really stand out, but that may have been the fault of the script. Skeeter is a two-dimensional character seemingly designed to reassure us that not all whites were racist. Where her moral compass comes from (Her liberal arts education? She was born that way?) is never explained. It’s as if she’s the only sane white person in the movie—everyone else seems incurious, brainwashed, or wholly unreasonable. Her evil nemesis, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), is a cartoonish mean-girl villain whose motivations are similarly unexplained. There is no grey area—only good white people and bad white people.
The screening I attended had people laughing and crying (and had the critic next to me scowling with indignation). Frankly, I felt manipulated in much the same way I do after watching a particularly poignant episode of Grey’s Anatomy. The writer pulled my heartstrings, put the bad people in their place, and gave me a hero to look up to. The Help may have its heart in the right place, but ultimately it skims the surface. A movie about the Jim Crow laws and those who suffered under them just shouldn’t be this cute.
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, June 10, 2011 at 9:54 AM - 0 Comments
What a strange cosmic convergence we have in the Hollywood heavens this weekend: two wildly different period films set in small-town America that pit boyhood innocence against the mystery of the universe. From the cathedral ceiling of the art house comes Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which conjures nostalgia for a Paradise Lost of growing up in early 60s while contemplating all of Creation with such ambition it could be dubbed 2011: A Space Odyssey. From Hollywood’s sci-fi clubhouse comes J.J. Abrams Super 8, set in the late 1970s, about a gang of young boys who have a close encounter with an alien monster in their own backyard while shooting a homemade zombie movie. Oh, then there’s Submarine, about a teenage boy grappling with the mysteries of sex in ’80s England. It’s a batty Brit Rushmore, an idiosyncratic tonic to all this American heaviosity—but (spooky coincidence!) it, too, has super 8 footage, a home movie the precocious hero imagines he would shoot of his love affair with a classmate.
Submarine is a tiny perfect gem, and utterly charming. Vastly more ambitious, The Tree of Life and Super 8 revel in different kinds of rhapsodic excess. Super 8, which plays like an explosive homage to early Spielberg (its producer), bombards us with the heavy metal thunder of old-time alien invasion. In the Tree of Life, which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes, Malick transcends his usual transcendentalism and gets positively religious, revealing himself as a kind of spiritual pornographer (but in a good way) panning for raw divinity in rays of sunlight. Addicted to magic hour, the man never met a dust mote he didn’t like. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, June 3, 2011 at 9:50 AM - 0 Comments
The ‘Tree of Life’ star talks about being a dad, and playing one for the mysterious Malick
In a recent tweet, Steve Martin announced that he was “starting a massive new media campaign to promote the idea that I am ‘famously shy.’ ” Was Martin making a Terrence Malick joke? Hard to say. But that oxymoronic phrase “famously shy” has been attached to Malick’s name a lot lately, ever since the legendary American director shunned the red carpet in Cannes, snuck into his own premiere unnoticed, and didn’t show up to accept the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life. The movie’s famously famous star, Brad Pitt, along with almost-famous co-star Jessica Chastain, were left to defend and explain their Oz-like wizard to the press, protecting the 67-year-old director as if he were an ultra-sensitive, strangely gifted child. “He’s one of the most humble men you’ll ever come across,” said Pitt, holding court for a group of journalists in a penthouse suite of the Carlton Hotel in Cannes. “He’s a very special man, very sweet—until you get a ball or bat in his hand, and then he’s very competitive.”
Although he’s made just four other movies in four decades (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World), Malick has carved out a singular mystique as the epic poet of American cinema. His films have always doted on nature, with an eye for transcendental wonder. But The Tree of Life goes further. Set mostly in a ’50s Texas suburb, it’s a nostalgic reverie about three boys being raised by a strict father (Pitt) and an angelic mother (Chastain). But its narrative is submerged by wave upon wave of rapturous images. With just traces of dialogue, it unfolds almost entirely as montage.
The film is like a marathon trailer for itself—a symphony of images set to inspirational music and prayerlike voice-over. Midway through, Malick pauses to enact the creation of the universe with a spectacle that plays like a beatific antidote to the cosmic chill of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Malick is the anti-Kubrick. Instead of playing God, he fishes for divinity in glimmers of sunlight, wind and emotion, building a grand canvas from tiny, random moments.
By Brian D. Johnson - Monday, May 16, 2011 at 8:27 PM - 0 Comments
I hardly know where to begin to talk about The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s epic trip into spiritual rapture and boyhood nostalgia. Saw the film yesterday morning, felt duly blown away, then attended the press conference immediately after. The notoriously reclusive director was absent. His excuse: shyness. Which even the moderator found preposterous. This is Cannes, after all, the auteur festival; directors rank higher here than stars. Sean Penn was also absent, on his way back from Haiti and trying to hit the red carpet for the premiere. But his role is a minor one, just a framing device for the story.
Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, plus some of the production team, were left to hold the fort, struggling to explain the mystery of Malick. Pitt and Chastain co-star as an overbearing dad and a beatific mom in this tale of three sons growing up in a ’50s suburb of Waco, Texas. We know it’s Waco, because we see the sign on a DDT truck spraying white clouds of insecticide that the boys scamper through as if it’s just another lawn sprinkler.
Pitt, who was unusually articulate, defended Malick’s absence. “He sees himself as building a house. I don’t know why people who make things are expected to sell them.” (Though Pitt seems to have accepted that’s part of his job description as a superstar.) The actor went on to explain the logistics of the shoot. For his main location, Malick “started by renting the entire block and dressing it as the 60s.” The cast could roam around and let things happen, while the crew shot with natural light. Pitt said Malick would get up every morning and write for an hour, delivering several pages of script, single spaced to the actors. The child never saw any script. Sometimes Malick would just be “torpedoed” into a scene.
Describing the director’s method, Pitt said, “he was like the guy standing there with a butterfly net, ready for that moment of truth to go by. The best moments were not preconceived. They were happy accidents.” In fact, there’s a moment when a large monarch butterfly lands on Chastain’s hand. Usually when that occurs in a movie, there’s a butterfly wrangler. Chastain said it was just one those things that happened.
The Tree of Life‘s narrative is minimal. It’s another Malick landscape movie that goes where no Malick movie has gone before, from a suburban backyard to the outer limits of the cosmos. There are rhapsodic images of boyhood nostalgia and of Creation— stellar cataclysms, erupting volcanoes, churning seas, even dinosaurs.
These are some of Malick’s favorite things: sparklers, sprinklers, rocks thrown through windows, fireflies, a frog tied to a firecracker, curtains billowing over a heating vent, bedtime stories, climbing trees, rolling through tall grass, transparent jellyfish. . . I could go on.
For the record, I loved the movie as an rhapsodic experience, though I’m not sure what it amounts to. The ending is layered with so many wedding-caked amens that I thought we’d never reach the heavenly afterlife of the closing credits. But if the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, Terence Malick is trafficking in some serious enlightenment. His unfashionable lack of irony and cynicism is astounding, along with his apparent faith that it’s actually possible to achieve a cinematic state of grace—to glimpse the eye of God on camera. Whether or not you’re a believer, it’s a staggering vision.