By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, April 19, 2013 - 0 Comments
Wonders never cease. This week we have two new movies that are out of this world. By that, I mean they’re not of this world. They are cosmic odysseys, to opposite destinations.
After bombing as Jack Reacher, Tom Cruise bounces back as Jack Harper in Oblivion, a space opera that’s got more going for it than the title suggests. Also opening this week is To The Wonder, the latest transcendental opus from Tree of Life’s Terrence Malick. Oblivion is a blockbuster sci-fi spectacle with a labyrinthine plot. To the Wonder is an almost plotless meditation on spirituality, the beauty of dust motes and the quiet desolation of the American Dream. Both are visually enchanting but in utterly different ways—Oblivion is a remarkable feat of computer-graphic design; To the Wonder tries to photograph the tangible divinity of natural light. Strangely, they both feature rising star Olga Kurylenko, the Ukranian-born model and Bond girl (Quantum of Solace).
I interviewed Kurylenko at TIFF last year. For an otherwordly beauty she’s also something of a rocket scientist: an intelligent, cultivated artiste who speaks English, French and Russian fluently.
But in To the Wonder, she doesn’t get to do much talking—Malick’s not big on dialogue. And in Oblivion, she barely gets a chance to act: her most expressive moment comes in her first few seconds onscreen, when she awakes, gasping and coughing, from a 60-year “delta sleep” in a NASA space pod. As for Cruise, he keeps his head down and the gets the job done. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, December 14, 2012 at 4:47 PM - 0 Comments
When critics, including this one, swooned over Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life last year, much of what held us enthralled was the film’s rhapsodic images of nature and the cosmos. Malick took us on the kind of transcendental trip that has its roots in 2001: A Space Odyssey—whose director of special effects, Douglas Trumbull contributed to The Tree of Life. Well, no director does trippy transcendentalism better than Canada’s Peter Mettler, who has pushed the cosmic envelope in movies ranging from Picture of Light (1994) to Gambling, Gods and LSD (2002).
Mettler’s latest and most ambitious picture, The End of Time, is a documentary inquiry into the primal essence of what makes us tick. Its subject is time. And as if that were not a vast enough topic for a film that clocks in at just under two hours, right off the bat he brings Einstein into the equation and explains that any film about time is necessarily a film about space. The result is a film about Everything. A plot-less 2012: A Space-Time Odyssey. To call it a documentary is misleading. Mettler does not “document”; he’s one of those filmmakers who goes out into the field with the earnest intent of photographing the eye of God, whether in the cardiac-red glow of lava breaking through the Earth’s fresh-baded crust, or in the drama of a dead lime-green grasshopper being hustled off a blood-red leaf by black ant pallbearers. Cosmomentary would be a more appropriate name for the genre Mettler is pioneering. Continue…
By Jessica Allen - Friday, September 14, 2012 at 10:13 AM - 0 Comments
The 5 most important things I learned at the ‘To The Wonder’ bash all have to do with securing the free food
The life lessons don’t come courtesy of Rachel McAdams, who cozied up on a white leather couch with friends and family in a striking green single-shouldered Elie Saab dress –and whose role in Terrence Malick’s latest film apparently got stripped to just 12 minutes. Nor from Olga Kurylenko, the former Quantum of Solace Bond girl who became the default lead in To the Wonder after Rachel Weisz’s part was cut entirely. And not from actor Michael Sheen, McAdam’s boyfriend (whose part was also cut from the film), although I think he could teach me a thing or two considering he spent the majority of the evening talking to arguably the two best-dressed ladies in the room: Darrell Kirkland (she’s thanked in the credits of Malick’s third movie, The Thin Red Line) and Rose Styron, a poet and human rights activist, whose late husband was Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Styron.
The five most important things I learned came courtesy of Lainey Lui of Laineygossip.com and CTV’s eTalk. Our paths crossed a number of times during the festival. During the second night on September 7 at Soho House, I spotted her downing a bowl of paella and then calling over a server to secure a second helping, without a hint of being self-conscious.
By Jessica Allen - Tuesday, September 11, 2012 at 3:16 PM - 0 Comments
Just a couple of girls from St. Thomas, plus a one-time supermodel from the Ukraine
By Simon Gadke - Monday, September 10, 2012 at 11:07 AM - 0 Comments
These elite filmmakers bring home the bacon doing something else
The only thing more obscure than the meaning of Terrance Malick’s fifth film, The Tree of Life, is his biography. His Wikipedia page offers two possible locations for his birth. It is known that he has directed five feature films since his stunning 1973 debut Badlands. His sixth film, To The Wonder, will have its North American premiere at TIFF on September 10.
It is also known that prior to his career as an obscure director Malick was a philosophy professor at MIT and a translator of Heidegger. Not exactly a pre-requisite for being a film-maker. Here’s a look at some other films directed by people with day jobs that wouldn’t lead one to assume that they’d be comfortable in a director’s chair.
1. Mike Nichols & Elaine May: The comedy duo hit it big in the 1950s working on stage and on television. After the huge success of Woody Allen and with Louis CK recreating himself as a sitcom-auteur, it seems natural that a comedian would become a director, but it must have been unimaginable when Mike Nichols directed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1966. While Nichols would have more commercial success as the director of such hits as The Graduate, Primary Colors, and Charlie Wilson’s War, Elaine May would create a small but distinct body of films including the Cassevetes-esque Mikey & Nicky, starring none other than John Cassavetes.
2. Bernard-Henri Levy: The controversial and wildly French Public Intellectual made a name for himself as a philosopher and social critic. Known as much for his political stands as he is for his philosophy, he also worked as a journalist before deciding to make the film Le Jour et la nuit. From all accounts it was a real debacle: the film was the subject of cat-calls and antagonistic questioning when it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 1997. The only other blunder in his career that rivals Le Jour et la nuit was when he relied heavily on a spoof system of philosophy to refute Kant. Whoops.
3. Julian Schnabel: Artists have been using film since Louis Bunuel and Salvidor Dali dragged a razor across an eyeball and called it art. But plate-smashing, pajama-wearing Julian Schnabel has managed to create a body of feature films that aren’t contemporary art, in the way that Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film of a shot of the Empire States Building is, but are actually highly regarded narrative works. While his debut film, Basquiat, may have seemed like a one-off cannibalization of a period and a moment in the art world, his second feature, Before Night Falls, proved that Schnabel was arguably better behind the camera than in front of a canvas. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly received four Academy Award Nominations.
4. Banksy: The graffiti artist has perpetually beguiled the art world. From his ascendancy to international fame without ever painting a canvas to his record auction sales, Banksy has been as much a question mark as a cultural figure. So it made sense that his sham documentary Exit Through the Giftshop was entertaining, inconclusive and contemptuous of the cult of money and the artist.
5. Madonna: She can dance. She can sing. She can write children’s books. She can promote mystical Judaism to mass heights. Why couldn’t she direct a film? In 2008 Madonna got behind the camera for Filth and Wisdom, an ensemble comedy. Last year she released the high profile W.E., riding the wave of royal-mania induced by The King’s Speech and the actual royal nuptials, and finally put her English accent to good use.
By Brian D. Johnson - Monday, September 10, 2012 at 9:32 AM - 0 Comments
Recovered memories from a lost weekend at the festival
Recovered memories from opening weekend at the Toronto International Flying Circus of Film. It’s like trying to recall a fever dream . . . Talking radical politics with Robert Redford as he eats potato chips . . . Watching hometown sweetheart Rachel McAdams vanish down the rabbit hole of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, as she searches for her lost role in an Oklahoma field with Ben Affleck . . . Then seeing her as an executive femme fatale planting a kiss on Naomi Rapace in Brian De Palma’s passionless Passion . . . Interviewing Monty Python’s Terry Jones, and having to fill in the blanks when he doesn’t have the answers . . . watching Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix give an acting master class in The Master.
Sanity was last seen at 9 a.m. Saturday as I joined a packed press screening of The Master. Had to skip the Ryan Gosling movie, The Place Beyond the Pines, which was showing at the same time. Everyone Who’s Anyone in Hollywood wants an opening weekend slot at TIFF. The result is the scheduling equivalent to overlapping dialogue in an Altman film. I chose The Master because it was buzzed as the Second Coming of Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood). And sure enough, that day it wins awards for acting and direction in Venice—as well as the runner-up Silver Lion for best picture, only because the jury wasn’t allowed to give it two prizes plus the Golden Lion.
The Master is, well, masterful. And amazing. There’s an Emperor’s New Clothes quality to the epic narrative, as if Captain Anderson is conjuring a cinematic feat no less cult-like than the Scientology-like religion created by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in the film. But the period visuals and the performances are immensely charismatic. Playing Dodd’s alcoholic acolyte, Joaquin Phoenix is so good it’s scary. After the actor’s meta exile as a bearded hip-hop prophet, he’s back in the game, yet his performance as a deranged veteran of the Second World War, his volatile peformance has the same train-wreck momentum that made us concerned for his sanity in I’m Still Here. Though this time, it’s in a good way. Together he and Hoffman are like contestants in an Ultimate Fighting match staged by the Actors’ Studio. As the guru wears down the disciple in bouts of intense psychodrama, Phoenix has a vein bulging from his forehead that looks like it might explode. Continue…
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 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 - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 at 9:55 AM - 1 Comment
Judging from this year’s Cannes screenings, cinema is obsessed with seductive angels of mercy
In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which kicked off Cannes, Owen Wilson stars as a Hollywood screenwriter vacationing in France with his fiancée, a shrewish Malibu princess played by Rachel McAdams. He’s a frustrated novelist who dreams of being a writer in the café society of the 1920s. This being a Woody Allen movie, magical thinking produces magic, and our artiste manqué time-travels to the salons of the Golden Age, mixing with the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Picasso—and falls in love with an artist’s muse portrayed by Marion Cotillard. She, in turn, considers her own era a bore, and longs to be transported back to the belle époque of the 1890s. The absinthe is always greener on the other side.
Living elsewhere, of course, is why we go to movies. And the unabashed nostalgia of Midnight in Paris served as a fitting amuse-bouche for the 64th annual Cannes International Film festival, an event where the past could not have been more present. Cannes is the shrine of auteur cinema, “the pinnacle,” as Johnny Depp acknowledged when he dropped anchor to promote Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides—part of the Hollywood sideshow that keeps the media flocking to Cannes. But as blockbuster culture erodes the fragile ecology of the art film, the art-house fortress of Cannes has never seemed more intent on honouring the past. This week it staged a tribute to Jean-Paul Belmondo, whose role in Breathless in 1960 helped launch the French New Wave. And among the 20 features in competition, one film after another conjured nostalgic visions of paradise lost, from a miraculously good black and white silent movie called The Artist, to Terrence Malick’s eye-popping vision of a ’50s childhood (and all of Creation) in The Tree of Life.
That smoky siren played by Cotillard in Midnight in Paris could be a poster girl for this festival—if the ofﬁcial poster was not already adorned by the ghostly image of another icon, a young Faye Dunaway with mascara eyes wide shut and endless legs folded in supplication. This edition of the festival feted a pantheon of mostly male directors—including Lars von Trier, Pedro Almodóvar and the Dardenne brothers—but Cannes has always held a special place in its heart for the Siren. No, not the one on the Starbucks logo, but the sort of screen goddess who embodies the mystique of cinema. Sophia Loren. Ingrid Bergman. Monica Vitti. Marilyn Monroe. We’re still looking for the latest incarnation, in the fiery brilliance of Penélope Cruz or the erotic majesty of Angelina Jolie, but it’s like hunting for a new Dalai Lama.
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.