By Brian D. Johnson - Sunday, March 3, 2013 - 0 Comments
Rebelle (War Witch), Montreal director Kim Nguyen’s intimate and compelling drama of an African child soldier, swept Sunday night’s inaugural edition of the Canadian Screen Awards, winning 10 of its 12 nominations. A week after the Oscars, where Rebelle inevitably lost to Amour for Best Foreign Language Film, this low budget Quebec feature triumphed over larger Canadian productions such as Midnight’s Children. And after being flown from the Democratic Republic of Congo to attend the Academy Awards, the film’s 16-year-old star, Rachel Mwanza, was on hand in Toronto to accept the CSA honour for best performance by an actress in a leading role. Mwanza, who made her acting debut in Rebelle, was a homeless street kid in Kinshasa when she was cast as 12-year-old Kimona, an orphan rape victim who tells her story to her unborn child.
Rebelle also won awards for director, original screenplay, supporting actor (Serge Kanyinda), cinematography, editing, production design and sound. That didn’t leave much for everyone else. James Cromwell took best lead actor for his role opposite Geneviève Bujold in Still Mine, its only award. Laurence Anyways, Xavier Dolan’s story of a teacher’s transsexual odyssey, won just two of its 10 nominations, for costumes and make-up. And of its eight nominations, Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children won two: Seema Biswas was named best supporting actress for Midnight’s Children, while screenwriter Salman Rushdie was awarded for adapting his own novel. David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis took best original song and score. And, as expected, Sarah Polley won the documentary feature prize for her acclaimed family memoir, Stories We Tell.
Hosted by Martin Short and broadcast live on CBC TV, the inaugural Canadian Screen Awards have melded film’s Genies and TV’s Geminis with the goal of creating a bigger, glitzier event. Short trotted out a trunk full of his beloved SCTV characters for the event—including Jiminy Glick, who dished out insults on the red carpet, and Ed Grimley, who puffed out his trouser-hoist paunch and said, “I look like Rob Ford from the back.” From his grand entrance on a swing to being cradled by Glenn Healey while giving a performance-art impression of bagpipes, Short gave a knock-out performance that put Oscar host Seth MacFarlane to shame.
Leading the TV winners were two shows that are now defunct: Flashpoint won for best dramatic series and its star, Erico Calontoni, was named best actor in a drama series, while Less Than Kind won for best comedy series, and best comedy actress (Wendy Meldrum), while Gerry D. (Mr. D) won for best comedy actor. Best actress in a dramatic series went to Meg Tilly for Bomb Girls. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, January 15, 2013 at 10:40 AM - 0 Comments
It’s been a spectacular few days for Quebec writer-director Kim Nguyen. On Thursday his film Rebelle (War Witch) received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, just one of five titles plucked from a year of world cinema. And back home today, Rebelle tops the list of films honoured by the newly created Canadian Screen Awards, with a total of 12 nominations. Shot in the Democratic Republic of Congo, his modest but affecting drama about a child soldier—portrayed by Rachel Mwanza, a girl he discovered in the street—trumped much larger Canadian productions such as Midnight’s Children, Goon and Cosmopolis.
On its tail with 10 nominations is Laurence Anyways, the story of a teacher’s transsexual odyssey by Quebec auteur Xavier Dolan. Quebec features dominate the awards with four of the six best picture nominations, the two exceptions being Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children and Michael McGowan’s Still Mine. Mehta’s adaptation of the Salman Rushdie novel, led the non-Quebec field with eight nominations. Like Rebelle and Laurence Anyways, it also scored nominations for director and screenplay.
Still Mine and Nicole Robert’s l’Affaire Dumont were tied with seven nominations; both have double lead acting nods. Michael Dowse’s hockey comedy, Goon, has six nominations, including best director.
The Academy’s choices differ sharply from those of the Toronto Film Critics Associaton, which honored Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell with its $100,000 Rogers Best Canadian Film Award for 2012. The Academy has nominated Polley’s movie in the documentary feature category. Goon, one of the TFCA’s two Rogers runners-up, didn’t figure among the Academy’s six best picture nominees; and the TFCA’s other runner-up, Denis Côté’s experimental doc Bestiaire, received no nominations from the Academy.
Heading the list of TV nominees are Flashpoint, with 11 nominations, Less Than Kind with 10, and Michael with eight. Among the nation’s news programs, CBC’s The National topped the list with six nominations.
Re-engineered by the Academy’s new CEO, former TIFF director Helga Stephenson, the Canadian Screen Awards have merged cinema’s Genie Awards with TV’s Geminis. The winners of the film and TV nominees will be announced at a two-hour inaugural gala hosted my Martin Short and broadcast live Sunday March 3, 2013 at 8 p.m. (8:30 N.T) on CBC.
Replacing the Genie and Gemini trophies is a new statuette, a spike-shaped figure with a pair of enveloping cape-like arms. The form, says Stephenson, “symbolizes two screens with the public at the core of it all. The new Canadian Screen Awards statue celebrates Canadian talent and Canadian productions, now destined for multiple screens.”
Amalgamating Canada’s film and TV awards makes sense—certainly on the film side. The Genies have been limping along for many years, and just like English Canadian cinema, they’ve had a hard time finding an audience. Film is supposed to carry more prestige than TV, but that’s worthless if a Genie falls in the forest and no one hears. Film and TV are increasingly interlocked. And hitched to the industrial power of the broadcast biz, the film awards may gain more traction. With some synergy, hopefully, Canada’s film and TV glitterati can create an entertaining prime-time awards show we can proud of. And they couldn’t have a better energizer bunny than the virtuosic Martin Short, who was dazzling in his recent turn as host of SNL.
The anomaly, of course, is that the film awards include Quebec while the TV awards do not. But Quebec television is its own industry, with its own star system. Canadian film is a smaller world than Canadian TV—it sounds counter-intuitive, but the big screen is smaller than the small screen. Yet cinema is, at least theoretically, the more universal medium. Besides, if Canadian cinema can’t claim the likes of Villeneuve, Arcand, Falardeau and Nguyen among our auteurs, we would be pretty impoverished.
The TV nominees are too voluminous to list, but is the full slate films nominated for the Canadian Screen Awards:
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, September 25, 2012 at 7:32 PM - 0 Comments
As the TIFF circus folds up its tent, here are my 10 personal favorites from the festival. It’s a subjective list. I watched more than 50 features programmed at the festival, some in Cannes last May. But with so much to see and so little time, there are still bound to be some great movies that I missed. Note that four films on the list are documentaries:
1. The Act of Killing
Joshua Oppenheimer’s shattering documentary about Indonesia’s 1965 genocide is without precedent—a portrait of mass murder by the perpetrators, proud gangsters who re-enact their crimes for the camera.
2. Stories We Tell
Boldly putting her entire family on camera, Sarah Polley unwraps the riddle of her parentage with exquisite craft. Deconstructing as she goes, she turns the home movie, real and faux, into new genre of investigative memoir.
3. The Master
Acting doesn’t get any better as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, cast as a L. Ron Hubbard-like cult leader and his unstable acolyte, play truth or dare. Paul Thomas Anderson’s gorgeous 70-mm period epic decants extra-virgin snake oil of the highest order.
In a far more subtle fashion, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva give an octogenarian master class in acting. Michael Haneke, best known for visions of human cruelty, gears down with a dire, delicate chamber piece about an aged couple facing their mortality in a Paris apartment. It won the Palme d’Or in Cannes and will likely lead the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film.
5. The Hunt and Beyond the Hills
I’m calling a two-way tie between these European dramas about intolerance, which (like Amour) I haven’t seen since Cannes. Directed by Denmark’s Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), Mads Mikkelsen gives an 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. And in Beyond the Hills, Romania’s Cristian Mungiu tells a horrific but true story of an exorcism performed on a young woman who tries to liberate a nun from a monastery.
6. Silver Linings Playbook
Football, mental illness, dance and romance mix with Altman-esque chaos in an off-kilter crowd pleaser from David O. Russell. Bradley Cooper is pitch-perfect as an ex-mental patient who goes off his meds and moves back home to an OCD dad played by De Niro. Jennifer Lawrence steals the movie so deftly we don’t even realize we’re watching a romantic comedy until we’re hooked by the plot’s Hail Mary pass.
7. Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tom Ungerer Story
A documentary portrait of the artist as an old man tracks him from his origins as a Nazi-scarred child in Alsace through his various American lives as magazine illustrator, best-selling children’s author, anti-war propagandist and S&M freak. Computer graphics bring his subversive art magically to life.
The documentary camera goes where it’s never gone before in this action painting that takes us into a churning, real-time whorl of fish, men, birds and water from the deck-level POV of a fishing boat at sea. This documentary views industrial slaughter with ferocious intimacy. It also batters the optic nerve with dizzying syncopations of light and dark. So it’s hard to watch, but equally hard to forget.
9. Anna Karenina
Reunited with director Joe Wright (Atonement), and his adoring gaze, a radiant Keira Knightley brings more depth to Tolstoy’s heroine than you would ever expect. An ingenious adaptation, scripted by Tom Stoppard, frames lush visuals with a trompe l’oeil theatrical setting that, has trains thundering across a proscenium stage.
Quebec writer-director Kim Nguyen spent a decade bringing this harrowing drama of African child soldiers to the screen. Shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it’s the tale of a pregnant 14-year-old girl (Rachel Mwanza) who is forced to kill her parents and become a child soldier. Nguyen’s camera shies away from depicting atrocities, finding moments of tenderness and humour in a story of authentic horror. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, September 21, 2012 at 1:26 PM - 0 Comments
Sometimes you want to close your eyes. Art is not always an easy ride, for one reason or another. In the aftermath of the Toronto International Film Festival, still feeling the retinal burn, we look around to see that suddenly it’s fall and three acclaimed films that lit up TIFF are now opening commercially—one American, two Canadian. Each comes with a challenge. The Master, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a cult leader and Joaquin Phoenix as his tormented acolyte, is close to two-and-a-half hours long. Powered by the white-hot combustion of two great actors at the top of their game, it more than earns its length, but many viewers will come out of the theatre shaking their heads, asking “WTF was that?” Laurence Anyways, the third feature from 23-year-old Quebec wunderkind, is a epic tale of a relationship between and man and a woman that is tested when the man decides become a woman. It’s almost three hours long, and pushes our patience with a dazzling virtuosity that ventures into the red zone of auteur indulgence. Rebelle, a more modest drama from a Quebec director, is the story of a pregnant teenage African girl who has been forced to shoot her parents, endure rape, and become a child soldier. Not exactly a date movie. But most of the atrocities occur off camera, as the child’s harrowing odyssey becomes a journey out of horror into innocence—it’s far more palatable than it sounds. Rebelle is Canada’s official Oscar entry for best foreign language film, and it’s a worthy candidate.
All three films are audacious and highly original: these are movies we haven’t seen before. Some thoughts . . .
The Master, perhaps the most hotly anticipated movie at TIFF, is Paul Thomas Anderson’s first feature in five years. With his previous film, There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis won the Oscar for his portrayal of ruthless oilman carving an empire out of the ground at the dawn of the 20th century. The Master bears some resemblance to it. It’s another period epic about an American megalomaniac with a streak of Citizen Kane, but in this case he’s selling snake oil rather than fossil fuel. And while There Will Be Blood is a melodrama that steams along with locomotive linearity, The Master is a digressive cruise that messes with our heads—the same way Lancaster Dodd, the cult leader played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, plays mind games with his impressionable protegé, Freddie Quell, a Second World War veteran played by Joaquin Phoenix. Personally, I wasn’t as fond of There Will Be Blood as most critics. I found it hard to overcome my allergy to Day-Lewis’s monstrously showy performance. Not that there’s anything modest about the powerhouse performances delivered by Hoffman and Phoenix in The Master, who enact what amounts to a gladiatorial duel between the ego and the id respectively. But their work is utterly convincing and mannerism-free. And unlike Day-Lewis, who put on a virtual one-man show (pace Paul Dano), this film offers a rare example of two bravura performances joined at the hip. I don’t know how they’ll handle the Oscar nominations. Phoenix has a slightly larger part, and anchors the story’s point of view, but these are two lead performances that can’t be separated—which is why they shared the best actor prize at the Venice Film Festival.
The Master is a masterful character study. Phoenix plays a mentally unstable war vet who’s as dangerous and volatile as the homemade hootch that he spikes with gasoline. He’s seething with pent-up desire and unexplained frustration. Stuff happened during the war, and there’s girl who mattered somewhere in his past. After the war he becomes a portrait photographer in a department store, a job that ends badly when he flies into a rage and beats up a customer. Quell’s life changes in San Francisco when he wanders onto a ship bound for New York, a floating wedding party commanded by Dodd, whose daughter is getting married. The messianic founder of a movement that resembles Scientology, Dodd takes Quell under his wing, recognizing a human wreck that he can repair and make his own. He submits his recruit to a gruelling series of therapeutic interrogations, a ritual called “processing,” not unlike what Scientology calls “auditing.” Quell, the reckless skeptic, becomes an ardent acolyte, but he remains a loose cannon; there’s no telling what might set him off from one moment to the next. The two men develop a strange father-son bond laced with a homoerotic frisson. They’re not quite Oliver Reed and Alan Bates in Women in Love, but they do get on the ground and wrestle.
The Master is shaping up to be this year’s Tree of Life. Its story is far more straightforward and accessible, not to mention visceral, than the poetics of Terrence Malick. But like Malick’s epic, this is a movie that’s not afraid to baffle us. And it could have an equally polarizing effect, finding champions among film critics who embrace its double-black-diamond challenge, while leaving audiences scratching their heads. When I walked out of the theatre, I honestly didn’t know what to think. But the movie sits well in the imagination, burning on with a radioactive half-life. It’s mystery is the productive kind that pulls you back in. Like The Tree of Life, or Melancholia by Lars Von Trier, it’s a film I’m already dying to see again.
Laurence Anyways is a film I need to see again, though the prospect is less exciting. After screening it at Cannes last May, my memory of it has receded like a mirage, and couldn’t find three hours to spare during TIFF for a refresher course. This is what I remember: it’s full of brilliance, and could stand be a little less brilliant. With his third feature, Xavier Dolan has gone beyond proving he has talent to burn. Now he has to learn how to reign it in. After his semi-autobiographical tour de force, I Killed My Mother, and the impressionist watercolour of Heartbeats, with his third feature Dolan attacks a broader canvas with this sprawling portrait of a passionate relationship that runs into an impossible hurdle. What do you do when your boyfriend wants to become a woman? This is bold new ground for movie romance, something that Hollywood could turn into a godawful high-concept comedy. In Dolan’s hands, it makes for an intense yet credible drama, driven by a pair of superb performances.
A nuanced Melvil Poupaud plays Laurence, a university professor who gradually ventures out of the transsexual closet; a tempestuous Suzanne Clément co-stars as Fred, the love of his life, whose loyalty undergoes a test more daunting than mere infidelity. What has stuck with me, months after seeing the film, is that its tangential, looping narrative was more elaborate than necessary: it did not need to be so long. Most films that screen in competition in Cannes exceed two hours, so who can blame an aspiring young auteur for believing that anything less than that might disqualify him as a heavyweight contender. But it’s dangerous to make movies for festivals instead of audiences. When Dolan accepted the prize for best Canadian feature at TIFF, shaking with emotion, after apologizing to those who sat still for his film, he effusively thanked his producer and declared his love for her. But she would have done him, their movie and the audience a favour if she had not indulged his every desire. Before we vote our critics awards in December, I will give try to give Dolan the benefit of the doubt and see his movie a second time. But at this point I feel TIFF’s prize for best Canadian feature should have gone to Sarah Polley’s masterful docu-memoir Stories We Tell, or possibly Rebelle . . .
Rebelle (War Witch) is a powerful, compact, drama from another Montreal writer-director, Kim Nguyen, who spent a year bringing it to the screen. Komona (Rachel Mwanza) is a pregnant 14-year-old who tells her story to her unborn child in flashbacks, beginning with her abduction at age 12 by rebel forces, who invade her village and force her to kill her parents. Komona is put through a brutal boot camp in the jungle, trained as a child soldier, and intoxicated with a milky sap from a hallucinogenic plant. After her comrades are decimated in a battle with government troops, her miraculous survival convinces the rebel chief that Komona has powers of sorcery. Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga), the rebel leader, proclaims her his war witch. She, meanwhile, finds both an ally and a suitor in a fellow child soldier named Magician (Serge Kanyinda). Together they embark on a journey out of of the heart of darkness, and find some surprising moments of sweetness and light.
Nguyen shot the film entirely in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he captures both beauty and authenticity in a landscape that he populates with ghosts. The director discovered his star, Mwanza, in the streets, a raw talent who won best actress prizes at the Berlin and TriBeCa film festivals. She’s a quietly forceful and convincing presence.
Ngyuen says he shot the movie “as though only the present moment was real. My actors were not allowed to read the screenplay before the shoot, and we shot the film in sequence. In this way, the actors never knew what was going to happen to their characters the next day.”
Between the resolute performance of his young discovery and the verité mix of magic and realism, Rebelle has obvious parallels to Beasts of the Southern Wild, starring six-year-old dynamo Quvenzhané Wallis. It’s an extraordinary year when two girls with no acting experience—an African American from Louisiana and an African from the Congo—end up starring as resilient wilderness survivors in two underdog films backed by Oscar campaigns.