By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, January 11, 2013 - 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 - Sunday, May 27, 2012 at 4:22 PM - 0 Comments
Nanni Moretti’s Cannes jury loves l’Amour, a movie about love and death. It awarded the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, to Austrian director Michael Haneke for his tender, palliative chamber piece about an elderly French couple living out their final days in a Paris apartment, as the husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant) copes with a debilitating stroke suffered by his wife (Emmanuelle Riva). It’s Haneke’s second Palme, after The White Ribbon (2009). His movie is not a marvel of direction so much as acting. Speaking to the press after the ceremony, jury president Nanni Moretti pointed out that Amour‘s elderly thespians also deserve credit, but the jury is not permitted to give other prizes to the Palme winner.
The best actor prize went to Mads Mikkelsen for his intense, finely calibrated performance in The Hunt, as a divorced man whose life is ruined after a young girl falsely accuses him of sexual abuse. Upsetting speculation that the best actress award would go to Marion Cotillard for her role as a legless amputee in Rust and Bone, it instead was shared by the actress duo in Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan)–for their roles in the harrowing true story of an exorcism performed on a young woman who tries to liberate a nun from a monastery. Mungiu, a former Palme winner for 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, also won the screenplay prize. Pointing out that his film was non-fiction, he said, “People have really suffered. I don’t think we can fix the past with our films but hopefully we can make the future a little better.”
David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis was shut out of the awards. But if it’s any consolation, with 22 features in the main competition, all of the seven North American entries were snubbed by the jury. With the strong North American presence this year, the festival seemed keen to lure stars like Brad Pitt, Robert Pattinson and Nicole Kidman to the red carpet, but honouring their work seems a bigger stretch. American director Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, a powerful drama about flood victims in the Louisiana bayou, won the Camera d’Or for best first feature. However, it played outside the competition, in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. Zeitlin said his movie was “the first film of almost everyone who worked on it. It’s an award for courage and faith as much as skill.” Effusively grateful about being recognized at the high altar of world cinema, he added: “Cannes is the temple. This is a wild movie, and you never know if you’re going to be allowed to dance in the temple.” (It was announced earlier that Suzanne Clément won the Un Certain Regard best actress award for Quebec director Xavier Dolan’s Laurence, Anyways—the only prize going to a Canadian in Cannes. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 4:29 PM - 2 Comments
This weekend offers a trio of movies for every taste—an overripe blockbuster (Lovely Bones), a gritty Canadian gem (High Life), and an austere German masterwork (The White Ribbon). Of the three, Michael Haneke’s White Ribbon, which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes last May, stands out as the most important and accomplished work. It has swept the critics awards in the foreign-language film category, and is emerging as a leading Oscar contender. High Life, by Winnipeg writer-director Gary Yates, is inconsequential, but it’s a blast. Witty, well-acted and full of surprises, its a Canadian answer to the Coen brothers, with a Tarantino kick. And The Lovely Bones, a keenly anticipated drama from Peter Jackson, is a colossal disappointment.
The Lovely Bones
Following up his triumph with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, New Zealand director Peter Jackson—who I’ll always remember as the Hobbit-like creature who conducted LORT interviews in his bare feet in a Manhattan hotel room—scales more mature dramatic terrain with this adaptation of the Alice Sebold novel. While it’s a less ambitious project than mobilizing the massed armies of Middle Earth for Armageddon, The Lovely Bones still presents a steep challenge, and despite a couple of strong performances, the film painfully underscores Jackson’s limits as a filmmaker. Set in the 1970s, the story is a murder mystery in which the audience knows the identity of the killer from the outset. The victim, 14-year-old Susie Salmon, tries to influence events from the grave, or more precisely, from the threshold of heaven, as her family remains haunted by the unsolved crime, unable to bury the past.
Saoirse Ronan, who was so effective as the young heroine of Atonement, is best thing about the movie: she has compelling radiance as as the murdered girl. And Stanley Tucci, who is unrecognizable in the role of her killer, George Harvey, is sufficiently creepy as the psychopath next door with a fetish for building doll houses. But the movie never finds a consistent tone. Jackson hurls himself into creating computer-graphic vistas of paradise, as we follow Susie through wedding-cake layers of the afterlife, as if the director himself would much rather spend his time chasing digital rainbows of pure fantasy than grapple with the finicky nuances of human psychology. The narrative back on earth—involving the bereaved Salmon family and her father’s dogged, half-crazed search for the killer—is pedestrian, clunky and contrived. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Sunday, May 24, 2009 at 11:04 PM - 0 Comments
The verdict is in. The White Ribbon won the Palme d’Or and jury president Isabelle Huppert handed the Palme d’Or to Michael Haneke personally. That’s not usually done. In the odd rigmarole of the Cannes awards ceremony, the jury president usually announces the decision, but the award gets handed out by an attending celebrity. Apparently Huppert wanted to break tradition and give it Haneke directly, which seems to underscore the fact that she may have had a certain bias towards him in the jury’s deliberations: she was, after all, the star of Haneke’s 2001 film, The Piano Teacher. Set on the eve of the First World War, The White Ribbon is the story of German village beset by a contagion of mysterious crimes. Shot in black-and-white, it’s a strong drama, though not my favorite of the festival. (For my thoughts on it, go to a previous BDJ Unscreened entry, The German Question.) By awarding the Palme to The White Ribbon, the jury chose an uncommercial film with high-art ambition and moral gravity, relegating the most critically acclaimed film of the festival, A Prophet, the second-place Grand Jury Prize. It was handicapped, no doubt, by the fact that it’s a genre movie, a prison drama. Huppert’s jury certainly saw fit to award some of the most trangressive films in the competition. Best Director went to Brillante Mendoza for Kinatay, which features a graphic real-time rape and dismemberment of a woman named Madonna. Inexplicably, best screenplay went to Spring Fever, Chinese director Lou Ye’s soggy, underwritten drama about a long-suffering woman whose husband betrays her for a gay lover. And best actress went to Charlotte Gainsbourg for expanding the frontiers of brutal torture in Lars Von Trier’s outrageous Antichrist. Personally I would have given that prize to Katie Jarvis, the 17-year-old British newcomer who starred in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, which was my favorite film of the festival, and received a minor nod with an ex-aqueo jury prize, whatever that is. No one, however, could dispute the decison to award Best Actor to Christoph Waltz for his trilingual tour-de-force as a Nazi “Jew Hunter” in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Saturday, May 23, 2009 at 8:26 PM - 0 Comments
Playing catch-up, I’m posting a bunch of blogs today, most written on the flight home. The festival officially ends with the awards Sunday, but by now it’s effectively over, as all 20 features in competition have screened. Among the more high-minded entries, one of the favorites is The White Ribbon by Austrian director Michael Haneke. Set in a Protestant village in northern Germany on the eve of the First World War—and shot in forbidding black-and-white—it has the austere look and moral gravity of an Ingmar Bergman film. The village has become cursed by a contagion of strange and violent acts, beginning with the local doctor being thrown from his horse by a wire strung between two trees. A field of cabbage is chopped to bits. A retarded child is viciously mutilated. But there’s also systemic abuse in this corrupt domain. Children are beaten, a daughter is molested, a midwife abused. So we assume the mysterious crimes are acts of punishment. Various patriarchs—a baron, a steward, a pastor, and the doctor—emerge like suspects in a Germanic game of Clue. As with Haneke’s previous film, Caché (2007), this is a whodunit that’s never clearly resolved. But with the children somehow implicated in a cycle of abuse and retribution, Haneke appears to hinting that these are the future architects of the Third Reich.
Quentin Tarantino’s, Inglourious Basterds (sic) is radically different from The White Ribbon, but it’s another picture that doesn’t exactly make one predisposed to love Germans. Tarantino concocts a Jewish revenge fantasy that rewrites history, immolating Nazis in an eye-for-an-eye conflagration, a mini-Holocaust. At the film’s press conference, pulp filmmaker Eli Roth (Hostel), who plays one of the Tarantino’s avenging “basterds,” gleefully called it “kosher porn.” Although Tarantino’s fantasia exists in a world quite divorced from history, it makes flamboyantly explicit what is darkly implied in Haneke’s film—that the Nazis’ crimes are rooted in some sort of original sin.