By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, December 14, 2012 - 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 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 - Thursday, July 21, 2011 at 3:07 PM - 0 Comments
Just a note to the followers of BDJ Unscreened to let you know I will be off the grid until August 15. Time to recharge the batteries and cleanse the palate. For the next few weeks, I’ll be in a cabin in the Laurentians without movies or TV. Just a faint Internet connection that flickers on and off like a dying light bulb. Otherwise, I’m unplugged. My colleague Claire Ward will be reviewing films for Macleans.ca in my absence, beginning with a review of Captain America: The First Avenger this Friday. (Last week Claire joined me in an online conversation about the new Harry Potter.)
While I’m gone, I’ll miss the last of the summer’s action blockbusters. Can’t say I mind. But among upcoming releases, I’m still looking forward to Crazy, Stupid, Love (with that crackerjack cast of Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore and Emma Stone) and The Future, directed by Miranda July—the subject of an intriguing cover story in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine by Toronto’s own Katrina Onstad. Plus Errol Morris’ new documentary, Tabloid, which I caught at TIFF.
As for current movie recommendations, I offered a few in a recent Maclean’s piece on how to escape Hollywood’s alien invasion: Four indie films you should see this summer . The summer tends to be a dead zone for good films, as the box office is ravaged by predatory blockbusters. But is the glass half full or half empty? There’s still lots worth seeing, movies great and small. As I sign off, here’s my list of recommended titles for the summer, some of which may be harder to find than others, depending where you live: The Tree of Life, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, The Trip, Submarine, Beginners, Project Nim, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, A Better Life, and Page One: Inside the New York Times.
Enjoy the summer. See you on the other side.
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 - Sunday, May 22, 2011 at 4:35 PM - 1 Comment
Robert De Niro’s Cannes jury awarded the Palme d’Or to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life this evening, although the notoriously reclusive director was, predictably, not on hand to accept it. “It was a difficult decision,” said De Niro, who said Malick’s picture had “the size, the importance, the tension that seemed to fit the prize.” He made it clear there was some dissension around the verdict, then hastily added it was not a compromise: “Most of us felt the movie was terrific.” The Tree of Life, which stars Brad Pitt as a strict father raising three sons in 1950s America, grafts a coming-of-age nostalgia piece onto a rapturous epic about the creation of the cosmos. It polarized critics in Cannes more severely than almost any other picture (I liked it).
Other films awarded included The Artist, a silent romantic comedy in black and white, which took best actor for Jean Dujardin’s wordless performance as a silent film star whose career is ruined by talkies; and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, which won best actress for Kristen Dunst’s role as depressed bride coming terms with the imminent annihilation of the planet. In accepting her award, Dunst alluded to the controversy that dominated the final days of the festival, saying, “Wow! What a week it’s been.” She thanked the festival for “allowing our film still to be in competition” after Lars Von Trier was exiled for his inflammatory Nazi comments. De Niro said the decision to ban Von Trier from the festival had no influence on the jury’s decisions, or at least his own views about the film. And he trivialized the festival’s decision to ban Von Trier: “There was some little punishment for the director,” De Niro muttered. “He had to go away or something.”
Meanwhile, Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn won best director for Drive, starring Canada’s Ryan Gosling. It’s a smart, stylish, ultra-violent action art film. (This is an auteur who cites Texas Chainsaw Massacre as his favorite movie of all time.) Refn thanked Gosling generating the project and commissioning him—a relationship they’ve compared to Lee Marvin getting John Boormann to make Point Blank. Gosling told the press: “I’ve always wanted to make an action movie or a superhero movie, but I’m happy I did this film.” He added that he and Gosling will team up again next year in a remake of Logan’s Run. “Next time we’ll do a real Hollywood movie. Let’s get into bed with [producer] Joel Silver, because that’s the ultimate bang.” Look out. A new action hero is on the loose, and he’s Canadian.
Two films shared the second place Grand Jury Prize: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, an agonizingly slow drama by Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and The Kid With A Bike, another neo-realist gem by Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, previous Palme d’Or winners. The third place Jury Prize went to actor-director Maïwenn Le Besco for Poliss, a raucous drama set in a police youth protection unit investigating pedophile crimes. Running to the stage on stilettos, she gave a breathless speech so endless and tearful and over the top it sounded like she was trying to achieve orgasm, rather than accepting bronze. Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar won the screenplay award for Footnote, his ingenious and strangely thrilling tale of rival father-son Talmudic scholars—one of my favorites. Finally, the Camera d’Or, awarded to best feature debut by a separate jury, went to Les Acacias, by Pablo Gioregellli, an entry in the Critics Week sidebar that managed to escape me.
The most universally loved film that somehow failed to get a prize was Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre, a quiet masterpiece that I guess was too modest to impress the jury. It’s also noteworthy that This Must Be the Place—featuring a stunt performance by Sean Penn in full make-up as a retired rock star—came up empty-handed. “I thought Sean Penn was terrific in it,” offered De Niro, who seemed to have settled on “terrific” as the consolation adjective, “but we as a group had to decide.” Whenever De Niro spoke, he hummed and hawed, as if incarnating the jury’s indecision, while affecting so many of his classic shrug/grimaces it looked like he was imitating himself.
When pushed at the press conference, Jude Law, one of the jury members, listed a bunch of other films that were favourably discussed, including Sleeping Beauty, Le Havre, Pater and Papus Habemus. “And the Pedro Almodovar film,” piped up fellow jury member Uma Thurman. Which left just seven of the 20 features in competition unawarded or unmentioned.
The ceremony itself didn’t break from tradition. It’s always an awkward amateurish affair, the glaring exception to a festival that is organized with military precision the rest of the week. The highlight was watching De Niro fracture the French language, with phrases like “Nous avons décidé the best we could” and “J’espère que c’est okay.”