Journalist, film critic, documentary filmmaker, and sometimes nice guy. Member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Like horror flicks, long walks on the beach and candlelight dinners. Allergic to cats.
Very slowly the opioid crisis has made its way into film. First, as usual, through addict stories (Beautiful Boy, Ben Is Back). But now we’re reaching the institutions, in this particular case, the police, academia and Big Pharma.
Crisis is a competent film: It moves fast in spite of having three intersecting stories, the acting is mostly competent (a terrible turn by Veronica Ferres being the exception) and gets the point across: Corporate negligence is as much as fault as the kingpins pushing the stuff. But the film is as broad as it gets and you can see every major beat coming from a mile away.
The three plotlines in order of interest:
A university teacher (Gary Oldman) hired to rubberstamp a new drug grows a conscience and sounds the alarm. The corporation behind it (NOT Purdue Pharma, where did you get that idea?) puts all its might to pressure the academic to sign up on the opioid, never mind it may create dependency.
An undercover cop (Armie Hammer) tries to bust a traffic ring of oxy in Quebec (the use of “tabernac” is weirdly thrilling). While trying to keep his cover, he must also stop his out-of-rehab sister (Lily-Rose Depp) from relapsing.
A former user who has managed to get her life back (Evangeline Lilly) investigates the death of her teenage son. At first sight it seems like an accidental OD, but she suspects foul play.
While we’ve seen Hammer and Lilly’s character arcs before, writer/director Nicolas Jarecki (Arbitrage) peppers their storylines with enough factoids to keep things interesting, if not quite gripping. The corporate storyline—featuring Oldman, Luke Evans and Greg Kinnear—could have anchored a whole movie. Granted, white men in boardrooms is seldom cinematic, but in this particular case (a social crisis propelled by Big Pharma) seems appropriate.
About the elephant in the room, it wasn’t an issue for me at least. It would be unfair to review a movie involving dozens of people on the actions of a single individual outside work. 2.5/5 prairie dogs.
It’s curious Roald Amundsen was a supporting character in the main event of his life (he was the first man to reach the South Pole, but was overshadowed by Robert Scott’s doomed journey) and his biggest achievement was an afterthought (his original goal was to get to the North Pole).
The Norwegian production Amundsen: The Greatest Expedition attempts to mend this anomaly, but is torn between focusing on the explorer’s prickly personality and his life of adventure. Predictably, it doesn’t satisfy as character piece or plot-driven vehicle.
This is not to say it’s not entertaining: Roald Amundsen was single-minded about exploring places mankind had never set foot on. But while initially his main focus was science, soon enough the Norwegian’s focus turned to be the first on everything. No bigger proof of this than upon finding out Frederick Cook had reached the North Pole, he redirected his whole expedition to Antarctica.
The film is framed by a very hokey device: Amundsen’s estranged brother (Christian Rubeck) and the explorer’s American girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) tell each other secrets about Roald Amundsen they knew. The script by Ravn Lanesskog is often disjointed and fails to provide more insight than Amundsen’s Wikipedia page.
Thankfully, director Espen Sandberg (Kon Tiki, Pirates of the Caribbean 5) has a sense of spectacle that at times makes up for the unwieldly script. The scenes in the Arctic and Antarctic Circles are gorgeous, same as the aerial takes. There are a couple of crash-landings “shot” from inside Amundsen’s aeroplane that are a technical marvel.
While the film’s narrative shortcomings become evident early on, there are some savory nuggets of information to be found. As you may have learned from nearly every movie to feature them, the Explorers Club was a group of jerks who resented Amundsen for beating Scott to the South Pole and questioned his strategy (Amundsen was actually a better planner and applied lessons learned from the Inuits).
The movie briefly questions the adventurer’s squeaky clean image (Roald had a type: married women; collaborators died in his many quests; he adopted two Inuit girls, but sent them back after a while) and hints that the explorer may have been neurodivergent, but the outcome feels stately nonetheless. Two and a half prairie dogs (out of five).
Amundsen: The Greatest Expedition is now available in VOD.
There’s no two ways about it: The Monarch saga has been underwhelming so far. Both Godzilla and Godzilla: King of the Monsters had the same problem: A despondent creature and profoundly uninteresting characters. Kong: Skull Island was a notch more interesting: it’s amazing what a little character development can do for a blockbuster.
Godzilla vs. Kong is not fantastic, but gets one key element right: Kong is intrinsically sympathetic and a movie can coast on the big ape’s charisma (see Peter Jackson’s King Kong). Like Sam Raimi in Spider-Man 2, director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest) goes back to the his days as mumblecore filmmaker and infuses Godzilla vs. Kong with some of that B-movie spirit.
In Godzilla vs. Kong, the action is driven by Apex Cybernetics (get it?), a corporation intent on keeping the titans under control following a presumably unprovoked attack by the kaiju. Considering Godzilla has kept his distance after defeating King Ghidora in the previous movie, the lack of motivation seems curious, to say the least.
But Apex’ agenda goes beyond antagonizing the giant lizard. They want to get their hands on a power source located in the Hollow Earth, the center of the planet where all these monsters presumably come from. To get there, they need a guide. Someone more personable and less prone to senseless destruction than Godzilla. Someone like Kong.
Because the titans are telepathically connected and have a long standing grudge, it’s a matter of time before Godzilla and Kong start exchanging blows. Every bout is thrilling: Godzilla has size and an atomic heat beam coming out of his mouth, but Kong is cunning and more emotionally invested.
The problem is everything in between. Apex’ machinations resist no analysis. Whenever not spewing “scientific” jargon, the dialogue is boilerplate at best. The cast is all wrong (Alexander Skarsgård as a nerd, Demián Bichir as a rich villain). Rebecca Hall can barely disguise her lack of interest. Heck, even the irrepressible Julian Dennison (Ricky Baker from Hunt for the Wilderpeople) is turned into a boring sidekick. And the least said of the over-the-top intensity of Kyle Chandler, the better (at least he’s only in three scenes, as opposed to the whole of Godzilla: King of the Monsters).
Thankfully, there’s plenty of titan action and Kong has more personality than the entire cast combined (not a high bar). It’s particularly amusing to recognize the horror staples Adam Wingard gets away with because the monsters don’t bleed red. Maybe next time Wingard should bring along his pal Simon Barrett to write the script. Two and a half prairie dogs.
Godzilla vs. Kong is now playing in theatres and premium VOD.
Following the narratively audacious, emotionally satisfying WandaVision, comes the more prosaic Marvel series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Considering Wanda Maximoff, Vision, Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes fought side-by-side against that purple bruiser Thanos not that long ago, it’s hard to believe they ever inhabited the same universe after watching these two shows
As is often the norm with pilot episodes, the first chapter of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a wobbly one. There are interesting ideas (the world in chaos following the five-year blip, race is still a factor even after saving the world), but are buried under mandatory action sequences and the oldest cliché in the book: The hero’s refusal of the call.
Like every other Marvel superhero after Endgame, Sam (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) are not handling the new very normal well. In need of structure, the Falcon is back working with men in uniform. Rather than taking the mantle of Captain America like Steve Rogers wanted, Sam donates the vibranium shield to the Smithsonian and rather focus on saving the family business, a fishing venture only he seems to care about.
Bucky Barnes is not doing much better. Not particularly social to start with, without Steve around, the Winter Soldier has limited contact with the world beyond his court-appointed therapist. While in control of his faculties, he’s haunted by his past as Hydra’s muscle. He wants to make amends, but they barely make a dent on the nightmares that plague them.
Most of the episode is setup, punctuated by a nifty aerial sequence featuring the Falcon battling terrorists (led by George St. Pierre again) and a less exciting flashback depicting the Winter Soldier’s dastardly deeds. The outcome is unwieldly. Canadian filmmaker Kari Skogland (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Stone Angel) gets as much juice as she can from the script, but the writing is perfunctory. Boilerplate even.
I’m not ready to dismiss The Falcon and the Winter Soldier just yet (I’m a completist), but it’s at some distance of becoming appointment television. 2/5 prairie dogs.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, episode one is now available in Disney Plus.
Flying slightly under the radar, Disney’s latest animated feature Raya and the Last Dragon lands this weekend in Disney Plus Premier Access and selected theatres.
Loosely inspired by traditional Southeast Asian stories, Raya and the Last Dragon tells the story of a broken nation: A place where once humans and dragons lived in harmony has become a bitterly divided country (any resemblance to reality is purely coincidental).
Warring tribes battle for the last vestiges of the once thriving dragon community, gone presumably for good. Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), the last descendant of a skilled warrior clan, is out in no-man’s-land tracking down the mythical last dragon, the last hope in her effort to vanquish evil entities that turn their victims into stone (think Medusa meets the Tasmanian devil).
It’s no spoiler to say Raya finds the dragon (it’s in the poster), but Sisu (Awkwafina) turns out to be more Clueless than Game of Thrones, with confidence issues galore. The film is classic Disney: Plenty of adventure, cute and cuddly sidekicks, a princess-y lead and a message unabashedly pro-family and community (the latter, very effective). There is some risk-taking to be found: The villain du jour is more abstract than what we’re used to and two sections of the film are inspired by paper cut-out and manga animation.
As is common in Disney productions, the contingent of Canadians involved in the making of the film is considerable. Among them is Benson Shum. A Vancouver animator who has been involved in the likes of Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, Moana and the ubiquitous Frozen franchise, Shum was tasked with animating Sisu, albeit in human form (long story, watch the movie).
Because the pandemic hit early in production, the animators (Shum included) worked on the film from home. I got in touch with Benson to talk all things Raya and the life of a Disney animator:
Before talking about the movie, I’m curious about how do you get assigned a section of a film.
There’s a team of between 90 to 100 animators. Whenever a sequence comes up, we can put a request, like “I’m interested in doing some acting with the characters.” The supervisors then assign the shots for us to work on. In this particular movie, I animated mostly Raya and Sisu.
Some of the visual cues in the film seemed familiar, but couldn’t quite pinpoint the source. What were the referents?
Sometimes we watched the Asian films that inspired the filmmakers (Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada). They also drew inspiration from martial arts fighting. In the case of Namaari (Raya’s frenemy), her style is very Muay Thai. The kicking is very specific, so we had specialists to come and demonstrate it for the animators. They filmed it and used it as reference.
What was the main challenge of animating Sisu as a human?
Trying to make her specific. Sisu has certain gestures that are intrinsic to her. For example, there’s no pointing—pointing is considered very rude in this culture—so Sisu gestures towards stuff. I see my grandmother doing that. It’s a very Asian thing to do. Little things like that.
How much access did you have to the directors of Raya?
We saw them quite frequently, at least twice a week, if not more. We showed our work very often to get feedback, so there was a lot of back and forth. Very collaborative.
Before you joined Disney, you worked at Sony Imageworks in Vancouver and were involved in the making of The Smurfs and Hotel Transylvania. How’s it different to work for one and the other?
At Disney they create a lot of their own content, as they always have. At Sony, they also do live-action, so they have a variety of projects that allows you to jump from visual effects to CG animated films.
Raya and the Last Dragon opens tonight at Landmark Cinemas in Saskatoon and Regina and tomorrow in Disney Plus Premier Access.
A growing phenomenon among Canadian films is attempting to hide the country of origin in an effort to appear more appealing to international markets (before you say “Scott Pilgrim!”, remember the cult flick bombed when first released).
While this is hardly The Sinners’ biggest problem, it doesn’t help the outcome. The imagined setting—a Bible-thumping American town—is one-note and personality-free. The lack of texture also applies to the characters, each one defined by a single trait, by design and execution.
Inspired by the overheated teen thrillers of the 90’s (think The Craft meets Cruel Intentions with a dash of I Know What You Did Last Summer), the title refers to a group of teenage girls who rebel against their oppressive, overly religious surroundings by giving each other nicknames inspired by the seven deadly sins and engage in light satanism. That’ll show them.
Because the teens are also the community’s mean girls, they gang up against one of them who told the local preacher about their extracurricular activities. The girl in question (who’s also the narrator) disappears, and The Sins (that’s how the call themselves) scramble to cover their tracks even though it’s not clear they’re responsible.
Why the movie is called The Sinners and not The Sins (far better name)? It’s just one more of the bad decisions made in the making of this feature.
Directed by Courtney Paige and written by Paige, Erin Hazlehurst and Madison Smith, The Sinners is competently shot and adequately acted, but that’s about it. The script has countless problems: The dialogue is flat (more often than not, I was able to predict the following line) and story escalation from thriller to slasher is abrupt and unjustified. The big twist comes out of nowhere because it’s not built as much as dumped onto the viewer.
Even more noticeably is the blank at the center of the movie. Grace (Kaitlyn Bernard), the leader of The Sins and theoretical protagonist is underwritten and unappealing. A notch more interesting is her best friend/love interest, Tori (Breanna Coates). It’s not like it’s a better developed, but Coates has the same insouciant quality as her dad (Kim Coates), which translates into a little more depth.
A thriller with no thrills, a slasher with little gore, an indictment of religious indoctrination that misses the darkest aspects of zealotry. The Sinners swings and misses every time. Kind of remarkable in a way. One prairie dog (out of five).
Denzel Washington gets plenty of credit for his acting skills, directing abilities and being a force for good in the community but he’s curiously underrated as film noir lead. Washington has some bangers in his filmography: The Bone Collector, Fallen, Devil in a Blue Dress. His steady demeanor lets the audience know they’re in good hands, even when the script falters. Like Bogie did, many decades ago.
The Little Things deserves to be in this group. Washington is Deke, a small town policeman in pursuit a serial killer. As he travels to Los Angeles to collect evidence, we discover Deke used to be a big-shot investigator in L.A. until he had to abandon the fast line because reasons. As most obsessively good detectives, Deke is haunted by the cases he failed to solve, particularly one that bears striking similarities to the investigation he’s conducting.
Things hit a new gear when Deke strikes a begrudging partnership with the new rising star in the department, Jim Baxter (Rami Malek). Their collaboration produces a likely suspect, a socially awkward loner (Jared Leto) with a taste for true crime, but no evidence to link him to the crimes.
You may think you know where the movie is going. The similarities with Se7en can’t possibly be accidental. But then The Little Things does something more interesting than pin the blame on Kevin Spacey: it rips the ‘social contract’ thrillers have with the audience.
The movie dares to ask, why do you trust these men? Because they’re sharp and play by their own rules? Because they’re portrayed by likable actors? If the last few months have taught us something is that the thin blue line is more warped than imagined and Hollywood is taking notice.
It’s not just the plot that works. Writer/director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) stages several scenes loaded with tension and plays with your expectations like a fiddle. In addition to Washington’s reliability, Jared Leto is unnerving as the person of interest. Leto is at his best when restrained (see Dallas Buyers Club) and here he keeps the crazy just at bay.
There’s a chance The Little Things may be a notch frustrating for moviegoers accustomed to more traditional fare, but if you keep an open mind, you may be pleasantly surprised. Three and a half prairie dogs.
The Little Things opens Friday in available theatres and VOD.
It’s hard to imagine a movie starring the frequently intense Casey Affleck, happy-go-lucky Jason Segel and “it” performer Dakota Johnson. Yet here we are, talking about the meaty indie film Our Friend, starring all three.
Based on the 2015 Esquire article by Matt Teague that won the National Magazine Award (what, you don’t read Esquire?), the film is a time-hoping drama that depicts the friendship of three young adults and how the relationship becomes a lifeline when one of them faces a terminal diagnosis.
At the center of the film are the author of the piece, Matthew (Affleck), and his wife Nicole (Johnson), a couple that has endured numerous complications over the years. For the Teagues, cancer feels like a particularly unfair penalty after surviving the storm. As Nicole deteriorates, their best friend Dane (Segel) moves in. An otherwise listless, scattershot bachelor, Dane keeps the household from falling apart, both emotionally and practically.
Our Friend premiered at TIFF in 2019, back when people gathered at cinemas without masks. At the time, the movie was called The Friend. It was the only adjustment between then and now.
The film was directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Once known as a documentary filmmaker (her calling card was the stirring Blackfish), Cowperthwaite has moved into features, while preserving a naturalistic approach to storytelling. We connected over the phone recently.
Was it always the plan to approach Our Friend using a fractured narrative?
It was on the script. I thought it was a valuable way of going about a difficult narrative, one in which you know the darkness is coming. So, rather than making a film that starts at a high place and then descends for two hours, we made one that feels more like life: You have good days, days you can’t even get out of bed and days you live in your memories. This approach spoke to me and made the journey more palatable.
My outtake from the narrative is slightly different. I figured the film was making a point about giving support: It comes around.
That’s right. The characters weave in and out. It’s like a dance.
How hard was to envision Nicole Teague’s deterioration? The article is rather graphic in its depiction.
We worked on (Dakota’s) makeup, her demeanor, how she dresses and how she carries herself, to make sure you see someone who’s slowly becoming weaker, someone who doesn’t recognize herself. What the character experiences is people turning away from her, not necessarily because they can’t see her not being beautiful, but because they can’t face what’s happening to her. It’s a mirror reflection of what’s going to happen to them eventually. That became more important than having Dakota lose twenty pounds.
Having read the article, I don’t think I would have been able to take the most graphic aspects of her decline.
It would have been impossible to take the article and adapt it exactly as written. I wanted Nicole to play a role in her own death, to give her agency and have her perspective. The article couldn’t do that because it was written from Matt’s perspective. If I was going to make a film with unbearably hard content, I wanted that content to be emotional rather than physical. It would be hard enough to get through that.
Is there any aspect of the Teagues’ story you wish you had included more of?
Probably more of their girls. What’s like for a child to witness this. Then again, you’re asking a little girl to revisit the most painful parts of her life. I don’t think either of the girls was ready for that when the movie was being made.
What did you learn from making Megan Leavey (Cowperthwaite’s first dramatic feature) that you used in Our Friend?
Art is never safe, you have to protect it. You have to defend your vision and do whatever you can to bring it to life. The feature film world is a big machine and you have to drive it.
A peek inside the mind of a film critic in real time. Readers discretion is advised.
There’s a lot of good will towards the 1990 version of The Witches. Completely out of his element, director Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now) came up with creative solutions to the challenges of adapting the Roald Dahl classic. Chief among them, dudes playing witches (now, not PC).
Chris Rock’s narration (as the adult version of the protagonist) makes this movie feel like a very special episode of Everybody Hates Chris.
Octavia Spencer as the grandma is the one casting decision that’s clearly an improvement over the Roeg adaptation. As the witch-savvy healer, Spencer has agency and her charisma looms large throughout the movie.
The good thing about Warner being behind The Witches revamp is the top tier Motown soundtrack.
As the Grand High Witch/main nemesis, Anne Hathaway vamps it up, but lacks the casual cruelty of Anjelica Huston. The world needs more Anjelica Huston movies.
In turn, the kids are delightfully normal. Until Hathaway turns them into mice.
Of all the Robert Zemeckis movies, the one The Witches resembles the most is Death Becomes Her.
On a second thought, The Witches is more like a David Cronenberg romp. Those witches are gnarly. Good on Zemeckis for taking risks and pushing boundaries. Parents may disagree.
Speaking of which, Anne Hathaway issued an apology for the depiction of physical deformities as trademarks of evildoers. Did anyone think this was a true-to-life representation? This may be more of a Roald Dahl problem.
I would watch a movie about dueling concierges Stanley Tucci (1990’s Roald Dahl’s The Witches) and Rowan Atkinson (1990’s The Witches).
The top half of the movie is stronger than the latter.
Between chocolate addicts Augustus Gloop and Reginald, it seems like Roald Dahl takes issue with portly children.
Why a numerologist would build a room 666?
The ending is faithful to the book and a departure from the 1990 version. Yet I can’t help thinking the non-Dahl conclusion was better.
Alfonso Cuarón is a producer and Guillermo del Toro is a co-writer. The movie offers zero clues of their involvement outside the credits.
The controversy has been blown up out of proportion. The Witches is reasonably entertaining. But there’s something to be said about taking creative licences when adapting a book. Two and a half prairie dogs (out of five).
Roald Dahl’sThe Witches opens Christmas Day in theatres and VOD.
There’s something to be said for DC and Warner’s willingness to pivot. Wonder Woman’s 2017 solo adventure—still set in the Snyder-verse—was hamstrung by continuity and the darker tone that characterized the DC cinematic universe early on. Freed from those shackles, Wonder Woman 1984 is a better rounded and more accomplished film with an openness reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies (the third is a masterpiece of unintentional comedy, but that’s neither here nor there).
The tonal inconsistencies are still here (the comedy is forced and basic), but overall Wonder Woman 1984 is more successful than the first foray. More adventurous, even.
Set over 65 years after the events of Wonder Woman, the sequel finds Diana Prince employed at the Smithsonian in Washington, still moping for Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who sacrificed himself for the sake of London in the waning days of WWI. Diana moonlights as a superhero, the kind that doesn’t kill villains and doesn’t want to be photographed (despite her shiny red, gold and blue suit).
(Very mild spoilers ahead)
Diana’s ennui is shaken by an archeological discovery, a stone that grants wishes. Hot on its tracks is Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal channeling Tony Robbins), an entrepreneur on the verge of public humiliation and jail. Desperation is a powerful motivator, and the combination of an oily salesman and a monkey paw turns out to be world-threatening. Think of an ultra-expensive edition of Wishmaster.
The film starts with a short trip to Themyscira, in which a young Diana learns about accepting defeat. The lesson is unfortunately reminiscent of The Phantom Menace’s pod race, but it comes in handy.
Never mind the heavy handed Cold War references and Eighties-on-steroids setting, Wonder Woman 1984 has more realistic heroism than other superhero movies. Sure, the massive set pieces are there, but the acts that make the biggest difference are small in scope.
There are a few problems that prevent the film from being a smooth ride. First is the return of Steve Trevor (not a big spoiler since he’s in all the WW84 trailers) and the comedy bit with the fanny pack. Chris Pine is a good sport, but he can’t give the character consistency: At times, he adjusts quickly to his new surroundings but then he’s helpless the very next scene.
Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is a great physical performer but scenes that require emoting reveal her shortcomings as an actor. In fact, the film suffers whenever Pedro Pascal and Kristen Wiig — the charismatic villains — aren’t on screen. Pascal in particular is excellent as the sleazy, charming Maxwell Lord. So good, you’re never rooting against him.
Wonder Woman 1984‘ s feminism is showy. Nearly every man is a horndog or a predator, with the exception of, you guessed it, Steve Trevor. It’s becoming a cliché (see Birds of Prey, The Craft, Promising Young Woman). Director Patty Jenkins has leveraged journeyman competence into a blockbuster career—she’ll be helming the next Star Wars movie, Rogue Squadron—but you can’t say the filmmaker has delivered on these opportunities.
Regardless, Wonder Woman 1984 sits pretty in the top tier of DCCU movies. One has to applaud a film whose main message is to have faith in people at a time when people couldn’t be behaving any more disappointingly. Three out of five prairie dogs.
Wonder Woman 1984 opens Christmas Day in theatres and on demand.
One of Pixar’s most striking trademarks is the ability to turn abstract concepts into accessible plot points. The gold standard is Inside Out, a film as entertaining as profound, and an unexpected source of insight into the pre-adolescent mind.
Like Inside Out, Soul comes from the mind of Pete Docter (and collaborators Kemp Powers and Mike Jones) and tackles tough ideas like death, self-determination and having a purpose. Boldly, the film doesn’t answer some of the questions it introduces. Then again, nobody in history has convincingly done so.
At the center of the film is Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a jazz pianist turned disenchanted music teacher. Out of the blue he gets his big break, just to depart the land of the living moments later. Unwilling to miss his shot, Gardner breaks from the afterlife into the before-life and crosses paths with a soul reluctant to make its way to Earth. It all makes sense sooner rather than later.
As it often happens with Pixar movies, Canadians are deeply ingrained in Soul (see Duke Caboom in Toy Story 4). The film’s story head is Trevor Jiménez, an animation artist who just two years ago was nominated for an Oscar for the Toronto-set short Weekends. Jiménez has been linked to the company since we Finding Dory. We connected over Skype to talk shop.
What does a story lead do and how does it apply to Soul?
I started as a story artist and was promoted first to story lead and then story supervisor. A story lead gets key scenes in the film. You’re also in the writers’ room contributing ideas. As a story supervisor, you’re managing a team of story artists, we have six to eight per team. I made sure they were healthy, happy and in tune with the director. I was also in editorial and we would watch sequences and fine tune.
Were you also involved with the animation?
I would go to dailies to check out what the animators are doing. If a continuity or story question pops up I would answer it. We (story leads and supervisors) are the first in line: Working with the writers and director, we put together a blueprint of the whole film in drawings. We try to make sure that the scenes are working emotionally. An editor would then cut the right kind of music to capture the tone and add voice recordings. Once that’s working, an animator can take that on.
How would you prime a scene emotionally?
I don’t know if I can pinpoint what makes a scene work. It’s always different. The context is important, the music is so huge in dictating the tone and feeling. A lot of it feels like happenstance. Sometimes you get a scene in script form and you know it’s going to be amazing.
It’s something you do instinctively.
Yeah, it’s hard to articulate. It’s like watching a film or listening to music you love. You respond to it. Sometimes, when you see a scene edited together, it surprises you. You never thought it would work, but it does because of the juxtaposition of music, acting and some kind of magic.
Is there a specific contribution to Soul that you feel particularly proud of?
I was able to contribute a lot to this film. If I had to highlight one, early on, I had the honor to be asked by Pete to direct a small part of the film, the one where the protagonist is falling through black and white space.
Which is insane-looking. I haven’t seen that before.
That was our hope. We made that independently. Pete wanted us to push visually what it could be. I storyboarded the scene originally and made it all the way to the end.
Soul takes place in these two very different planes. How hard was to make them mesh?
Hearing the production designer Steve Pilcher talk about it, he tried to make them contrast as much as possible: The afterlife being soft and ethereal and New York, gritty and textured. There’s a Pixar touch that —when you get to the CG— harmonizes everything, but the stark difference between the two places remains. The story begs for that and it all fits within the concept.
Based on Paul W.S. Anderson’s filmography, I approached Monster Hunter warily. I can only recall one movie of his that has been any good, Event Horizon, and it premiered 23 years ago.
Turns out Monster Hunter is… okay. Not good, but not unbearable like Pompeii or overstuffed like The Three Musketeers. In fact, in the first half hour this thing moves and then hits a level of simplicity unheard of for Anderson. Coherence and cohesiveness, imagine that.
Based on the Capcom videogame of the same name, Monster Hunter stars Anderson’s muse/wife Milla Jovovich as Artemis, the leader of a UN elite military unit. While patrolling a war-torn country, a sandstorm takes them to a different dimension where a gigantic creature and slightly smaller spiders make mincemeat of the soldiers (given the presence of some recognizable names, you would think they would last longer).
This being a Paul W.S. Anderson movie, Milla’s character survives. Artemis establishes a reluctant partnership with only local in sight (martial arts maverick Tony Jaa) and they go on their merry way taking down monsters while searching for an interdimensional portal. It’s like The Wizard of Oz. With tactical weaponry.
Even though the dialogue is ear-splitting, Monster Hunter does an okay job unfurling the mythology while remaining mildly entertaining. Characters are introduced at a reasonable pace and the stakes are broadly established early. The intention to turn the movie into a franchise becomes evident soon enough, but I can’t say I cared enough for the characters to hope for a sequel. Except maybe Ron Perlman, but because he’s Ron Perlman (channeling David Lee Roth for some reason).
I’m fully aware nobody watches a movie called Monster Hunter for the character development or witty dialogue (that’s a bonus). The action scenes are reasonably well-staged, but at no point you forget you’re watching CGI creatures. The tension is just not there, and without anything else to capture your attention, the whole enterprise feels pointless. Nice faux Vangelis score though. Two massive maladjusted prairie dogs (out of five).
Monster Hunter is now playing at Cineplex and Landmark cinemas.
More than a year after premiering at TIFF to rave reviews, Sound of Metal is finally getting released digitally.
A sturdy drama written and directed by The Place Behind the Pines’ Darius Marder (a barrel of laughs, it’s not) , the film follows Ruben (Riz Ahmed, Rogue One), a hard-rock drummer who loses most of his hearing suddenly and irreversibly.
Considering his entire existence revolves around music, Ruben is reluctant to accept this new lot in life. His girlfriend/band mate, Lou (Olivia Cooke, Ready Player One), fears the unwelcome development may lead to a relapse (Ruben is a former heroin addict), so she convinces her beau to enter an isolated community for the hearing impaired.
Ruben is assailed by an assortment of impulses and desires: The drummer believes a cochlear implant may be the solution to his problems (his sponsors at the community know better). At the same time, Ruben discovers he has the capacity to adapt and even thrive, but stops short from accepting his condition. No matter how supportive Lou appears, he knows the relationship is doomed if he gives up on music.
While well written and directed, Sound of Metal is further elevated by Riz Ahmed’s superb performance and extraordinary sound design (if a movie ever deserved that Oscar, this is this one). The film excels at placing the audience in Ruben’s place.
Ahmed embodies the character’s complex and often contradictory emotions with ease. Ruben may have his heroin addiction under control, but his addiction to sound is going strong and the entire time he’s angling for a fix.
In spite of the lead’s intricate state of mind and the sophisticated portrait of deafness, Sound of Metal feels raw, unvarnished. Nothing about it feels fake and it’s unwavering even when courting controversy.
In the end, Sound of Metal is a story of self-acceptance and the costs of it. The two hours it lasts may feel taxing, but it’s a minor qualm given the myriad of accomplishments. Three and a half prairie dogs.
For an actor who has repeatedly delivered iconic performances, particularly in the 90’s, Kevin Costner gets little respect. Sure, two major bombs were built around him (Waterworld, The Messenger), but his successes dwarf his failures. In days of antiheroes and sensitive leading men, one would be hard-pressed to find another performer embodying the (granted, old-fashioned) strong, silent type as well as Costner.
In Let Him Go, he and Diane Lane (his screen partner in Man of Steel) become George and Margaret Blackledge, two ranchers distressed over their grandson’s wellbeing. The Blackledges’ son died and his widow married a ne’er-do-well who squirrels them out of town. Their concern is not misplaced: Margaret witnessed the stepfather physically abuse the boy.
As the Blackledges take the road in search for the kid, they realize they’re going against a particularly vicious clan, the Weboys. The matriarch, Blanche (Lesley Manville), is a force of nature who intends to rule the life of every Weboy, whether related by blood or marriage.
While set in the 60’s in the American Midwest, Let Him Go is a western at heart (not for nothing Costner’s character is a retired sheriff). Director Thomas Bezucha delivers a contemplative, compelling film with brutal bursts of violence. Based on his filmography (Selena Gómez’ Montecarlo, The Family Stone), I didn’t know he had it in him.
The plot is your standard good vs. evil clash, enhanced by terrific performances by Lane and Costner as ‘salt of the earth’ people and an appropriately camp turn by Manville, far cry from her restrained performance in Phantom Thread (few actors can say “I hope you like pork chops” in more threatening fashion). Kayli Carter as the daughter-in-law whose bad decisions started this mess doesn’t come close to match the strength of this formidable trio and it shows.
As the driver of the action, Diane Lane’s Margaret causes considerable mayhem and her husband ends up paying for all her brilliant ideas. Towards the end it becomes cartoonishly funny, not the intended outcome. Nevertheless, it’s the rare good movie daring to open in theatres and deserves some credit for that. Three prairie dogs packing heat.
Let Him Go is now playing at Scotiabank Theatre, Cineplex at The Centre and Landmark Cinemas.
Filmmaker Clark Johnson epitomizes the notion of the journeyman actor-director. He has sat behind the camera in countless TV shows, going from superhero fare (Luke Cage) to prestige productions (The West Wing) and everything in between. Not only that, he directed four episodes of The Wire, the cult HBO hit he also appeared on, and got an Emmy nomination for handling the The Shield pilot, the one in which a character in the opening credits gets offed and set the tone for the rest of the series.
Percy is far from Johnson’s first foray as a film director. Most notably, he was at the helm of S.W.A.T., the Samuel L. Jackson-Colin Farrell big screen adaptation of the 70’s TV staple. The story of the Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser who battled biotech giant Monsanto features a different kind of fireworks. The legal kind.
FarmAid and the United Nations have gotten behind Percy, increasing the film’s chances to get eyeballs around the globe. Sadly, just as the movie was unrolling in theatres across Canada, Schmeiser passed at age 89, presumably from Parkinson’s disease. There’s no word whether he got to see the movie before his death.
Clark Johnson phoned from Chelsea, New York. Really pleasant dude, we didn’t start talking about Percy until exchanging immigrant stories. Turns out the pairing of filmmaker and subject was meant to be.
I learned a lot about farming watching Percy. I presume this mirrors your own learning curve.
As kids, we weren’t allowed to have grapes, grape jelly or lettuce because of César Chavez and the action for micro-farm workers. My parents’ activism was my first connection to farmers. Jump forward 45 or so years and I get to tell the story of Percy Schmeiser. Being a city guy, I went to Whole Foods and learned the difference between corn oil and canola oil, and moved from there.
I know the answer to this, but I want to hear your take: Why was Percy shot in Manitoba and not Saskatchewan?
That’s a fair question. Tax deals. A good portion of our crew travelled to Manitoba to shoot because there’s no work in Saskatchewan. It was not lost on us we couldn’t shoot a SK movie in SK.
Was it useful to have the real-life referents at hand?
Oh, yeah. This is an homage to the Schmeisers. We relied heavily on their interactions with our writers in early stages. When you are in the farming community in the Prairies, you find a similar discourse. We shot at a farm north of Winnipeg. Everybody had the same intimate connection with the land. We felt totally engaged with the story.
How did you manage to have all four seasons on screen?
I have a lot of pull in the film industry, Jorge (laughs). We were in Toronto and our locations people called us in early June (2019) and asked us if we were planning to travel anytime soon. The canola was blooming and that would last a week or so. Our director of photography, Luc Montpellier, jumped on a plane, grabbed a camera and a drone, and shot that beautiful yellow-blooming late-spring canola. Then it snowed in September, a whole foot of snow, so we got a crew and shot, instead of coming back in January.
Don’t Ask Christopher Walken to Dance
It’s been a while since Christopher Walken has had a role as meaty as Percy Schmeiser. You would have to go back to 2015 to find the actor headlining a movie (the little seen One More Time).
Walken and Clark Johnson go way back. The filmmaker’s first film as a special effects technician was the David Cronenberg classic The Dead Zone (1983), starring Walken. Their paths crossed two more times before Percy.
How hard is to direct Christopher Walken?
He’s very conscious of how people perceive him. Like any good actor, you don’t want to be judged by what’s expected of you. He said “I’m not going to dance or anything”. I kind of wished he would. It was his suggestion that his wife would be played by Roberta Maxwell, because they started together in Stratford. The cast kind of came together in support of Chris.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many executive producers in a movie as in Percy.
I’m glad you said that. You can always tell it’s an indie by the number of EP credits. Nobody can get paid, but if this movie ever makes any money, you get EP points. I stopped counting after 18 or 19 EPs.
Mumbai Via Winnipeg
There was a lot of ingenuity at play in the making of Percy. As a good independent film, financing came down to the wire and Johnson wasn’t sure if they would be able to go to India to shoot a pivotal scene. Clark Johnson managed to make Winnipeg play the part of Mumbai, at least the interiors: “It was a wonderful surprise to find such a diverse community there.”
Eventually Johnson, Walken and crew made it to Mumbai to shoot exteriors, some time after they finished principal photography. “That was a bonus. We learned from the Indians they revere Schmeiser too. The farmers knew who he was, they all had stories about dealing with the agroindustry. That was enlightening to us and I believe added to the story.”
Monsanto is known for being litigious. Was this a concern during the creative process?
For sure. Garfield (Miller) and Hilary (Pryor, the scriptwriters) sticked fairly religiously to the trial transcripts, so we wouldn’t get any backlash from people not interested in us telling the story.
Having done so much television, is there any aspect of that process that has made your work in features more efficient?
Absolutely. You learn expediency when you’re on a TV schedule. You become highly disciplined. I use those principles to make my days. I can be spontaneous because I’m getting my meat and potatoes done as I go. Also, from being an actor, I know what that entails. It all adds up.
Percy is now playing at Cineplex Normanview and Landmark Cinemas in Regina.
For reasons worth exploring at depth, Australian cinema is uniquely adept at exploring apocalyptic scenarios: The Mad Max movies, The Rover, These Final Hours, Cargo, you name it. They’re all perfectly believable and unsettlingly dark.
2067, the latest production to join this weird little subgenre, doesn’t reach the heights of Max Rockatansky and company, but the bleakness and lack of faith in mankind is right there. Earth has gone to the dogs in believable fashion: Energy sources are dwindling, the greenhouse effect has killed most plants in the planet and the air is so rarified, oxygen is only available in synthetic form. This has also caused an acute class division in which only the employed have a shot at survival. And not for long.
Ethan Whyte (Kodi Smit-McPhee, now in proper adult roles) is a nuclear technician barely scrapping by. His main concern is the wellbeing of his partner, who’s coughing blood and not getting enough oxygen. The opportunity of a lifetime falls in his lap when he’s offered the chance to go into the future and bring back remedies to the many maladies affecting the world. But something else seems to be at play, as the time-travelling machine calls for him specifically to do the trip.
2067 deserves kudos for how far stretches a modest budget. The obvious Blade Runner influences are palpable and for the most part it’s quite effective at portraying a rundown society on the verge of collapse. The problem is not the production design, but a script that’s not nearly as clever as it thinks that it is. Every ground-shattering twist can be seen from a mile away and the family drama at the center of this sci-fi romp is the least interesting part of it.
While not well supported by the dialogue (portentous, yet barely functional), Smit-McPhee and True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten are likeable enough to carry the audience to the conclusion. The film flirts with hard sci-fi concepts like time paradoxes and religious ideas like predestination, but doesn’t develop them enough. There’s a good movie somewhere in 2067, but this one takes one wrong turn too many. 2.5/5 breathless prairie dogs.
The wave of horror laced with social content has been a respite after the umpteenth zombie movie or Paranormal Activity knockoff. Antebellum doesn’t quite reaches the heights of Get Out, but it’s a sturdy feature that makes great use of the ‘confederation nostalgia’ sweeping America’s redest corners.
The charismatic Janelle Monáe is Eden, a slave in a confederate garrison. We meet her as a breakout attempt has gone horribly wrong and she’s held as responsible. But even after the botched escape, others in the plantation see her as a leader, a position she’s reluctant to accept.
Those who saw the (perhaps too revealing) trailer know Monáe also plays a successful academic in modern times. The heart of the movie lies on how are these two characters linked, a plot twist I won’t reveal here.
Antebellum brings together these two pivotal eras to underline how little certain elements of American society have evolved. It does it first broadly, showing the excruciating cruelty of the slavery, and then bringing attention the casual racism, insidious enough to be noticed, but low-key so it’s often tolerated. The film also highlights how intelligence can be particularly irritating for bigots who think of themselves as superior (see Trump’s obsession with Obama).
The main reveal is certain to launch a thousand think pieces, but all you need to know is that it works. When you think about it, it’s horrifying because it’s not far-fetched.
Social undertones aside, Antebellum is a serviceable piece of entertainment. The movie is lusciously shot and allows a modicum of comedy when appropriate. Every so often, the writer/director duo of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz feel the need to spell out the themes of the film (“discrimination is written in the DNA of this country”, “unresolved past can wreak havoc in the present”), but overall it’s worth your time. 3/5 prairie dogs.
MLK/FBI (USA, 2020. Dir: Sam Pollard): We all have a generic idea of the contentious relationship between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the FBI. It’s common knowledge that the director of the Bureau, J. Edgar Hoover, had King under constant surveillance given his considerable influence over the black community. Turns out there’s a lot more to the story. According to recently declassified documents, the trigger was King’s acquaintance with a communist lawyer. Both Kennedy and LBJ were aware of Hoover’s illegal surveillance of MLK and didn’t do anything to stop it. In turn, reports of King’s extra-marital dalliances failed to sway his followers away from him, irritating Hoover. MLK/FBI is filled with fascinating details about this period and excellent footage. The doc does a great job putting all the pieces together. The outcome is a notch cold, but it’s definitely worth your time. 3/5 prairie dogs aware of the limits between public and private life.
Beans (Canada, 2020. Dir: Tracy Deer): A look to the Oka Crisis through the eyes of a tween, Beans is a different kind of coming-of-age story, one in which the edges are not sanded off. A 12-year-old Mohawk girl nicknamed Beans gets a crash course in adulthood when, as a result of the standoff to protect her people’s land from developers, gets to face racism, violence and police inaction first hand. Not only that, a friendship with older teens push Beans towards uncharted territory too early. The film is rough around the edges—the acting is at times amateurish and the dialogue could have used more polishing— but triggers visceral reactions other movies wish they could. 3.5/5 prairie dogs that won’t forget.
Good Joe Bell (USA, 2020. Dir: Reinaldo Marcus Green): Based on real events, Good Joe Bell is a well-intentioned effort (even though it has written “Mark Wahlberg wants an Oscar” all over) that avoids getting into difficult territory. The titular character (Wahlberg) is a grieving father whose son committed suicide after being bullied for being gay. His reaction is to walk across America to raise awareness, but his own responsibility on the tragedy slowly creeps in (reluctantly accept your kid’s homosexuality doesn’t cut it). Written by the same team behind Brokeback Mountain—Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana—Good Joe Bell doesn’t come close to break new ground: Bullying is bad, inaction is bad, platitudes are useless and people suck. We know all that. Also, why isn’t this movie about the kid and not the straight guy who wants to feel better about himself? 2.5/5 prairie dogs happy at least it’s not Entourage 2.
Concrete Cowboy (USA, 2020. Dir: Ricky Staub): You know your life has taken a turn for the worse when you’re sharing accommodations with a horse. It’s what happens with Cole (Caleb McLaughlin, Stranger Things), after his fed-up mom drops him at his father’s place in Philadelphia. Two options present themselves to Cole: Double down on his bad behavior and join a criminal enterprise or accompany his presumed deadbeat dad (Idris Elba) at the city stables and learn to tame horses. While Cole’s story is perfunctory as heck (trouble kid is redeemed by his love for horses), the setup is worth your attention: For years black cowboys have been training horses on the streets of Philly, but city development has been pushing them away. That story should have anchored this movie, not been relegated to the background. 2.5/5 prairie dogs that are all for teens developing character, but on their own time.
Violation (Canada, 2020. Dir: Madeleine Sims-Fewer, Dusty Mancinelli): We have been subjected to a fair share of rape-and-revenge films, most as tasteless as I Spit in Your Grave. Violation doesn’t bring anything new to the table plot-wise, but there’s enormous value on the female gaze, which should have dominated the conversation in the first place. Sims-Fewer (also the lead) and Mancinelli use extremely close ups to strip the movie of any possibility of titillation and to suggest they’re going deep into the psyche of the victim. Whenever not reveling in nature-inspired semiotics, the film is disturbing. Could have been more noteworthy if it wasn’t because I May Destroy You got so much more from tackling the same subject. 2.5/5 avenging prairie dogs.
Limbo (UK, 2020. Dir: Ben Sharrock): The drama of refugees trying to get into Europe has so many angles, there’s no limit to what a filmmaker with imagination can do. In the case of Ben Sharrock, that’s mining the absurdity of the situation. Omar (Amir El-Masry, Jack Ryan), a young Syrian man escaping the civil war, lands in a Scottish island in the middle of nowhere. As he waits for a response to his refugee status claim, Omar kills time by attending tone-deaf cultural awareness classes, debating with fellow asylum-seekers the plausibility of Friends and avoiding the many traps that could render his application void. While often riotous, the tragic undertones of the situation often come to the surface. Sharrock is able to maintain the balance between tragedy and comedy, but Limbo is perhaps too low-key for its own good. 3.5/5 prairie dogs waiting for Godot.
New Order (Mexico, 2020. Dir: Michel Franco): Mexican cinema can get very dark really fast and New Orderis a good example of this approach to moviemaking. Writer/director Michel Franco takes the social unrest phenomenon sweeping the world and pushes it to the next level, while stripping it of any idealistic pretensions. A wedding at a posh neighborhood in Mexico City is interrupted by impoverished rioters with no qualms about shooting the rich folk point blank. The bride ends up in military custody, but the soldiers are also in it for the money. New Order moves fast and no social group survives unscathed. The nihilism is a notch hard to take, but it’s not like the movie is wrong. The plot doesn’t hold much water, but you won’t feel like poking holes at it while watching it. 3.5/5 prairie dogs hitting the streets.
76 Days (USA, 2020. Dir: Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous): The title refers to the 76 days the Chinese province of Wuhan was under lockdown following the COVID-19 outbreak. Using footage from inside a Wuhan hospital, the documentary chronicles the early days of the pandemic, when there was little clarity about the virus modus operandi, let alone how to deal with it. The film is made mostly of vignettes of patients dealing with their hospitalization: The septuagenarian man failing to understand the concept of asymptomatic carrier, the new mother unable to see her newborn baby, the infected elderly couple kept apart within the same hospital. It’s all horrible and too relatable. For all the access and unvaluable testimonies, 76 Days is unwieldy and repetitive, and can be taxing for the casual viewer. Still, for all its shortcomings as a feature, the raw material is devastating. 3/5 prairie dogs wearing a mask and judging those who don’t.
The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel (Canada, 2020. Dir: Joel Bakan, Jennifer Abbott): 17 years ago, The Corporation proved a once controversial thesis: If corporations were people, they would be psychopaths. Now that they pretend to be model citizens—environmentally mindful, woke even—it’s time to look under the hood again. Sure enough, making money for shareholders remains the main goal (by law), but now they must seduce the public in order to profit. Bakan and Abbott put together the corporations’ playbook to increase their earnings while manipulating governments, the financial system and the public opinion. The New Corporation does a great job making its case and does it with panache. For at least one hour, it’s scarier than a horror movie. 4/5 prairie dogs in it for the money.
Falling (Canada/UK/Denmark, 2020. Dir: Viggo Mortensen): In his directorial debut, Viggo Mortensen explores love at its most difficult. At the center of Falling is Willis Peterson (career crowning performance by Lance Henriksen), an octogenarian battling failing health and dementia. Willis wasn’t an easy man to deal with at the best of times and now is truly impossible: His racist, homophobic and misogynistic ways are a challenge for his utterly patient and gay son (Mortensen). Henriksen’s work aside, the film is too broad to leave a mark and after one-too-many obscene tirades by Willis, it starts feeling repetitive. There’s also a moment in which the movie goes too far and destroys any empathy we may still have for the elderly hellion. Having said that, Mortensen has a way with actors and likely a future behind the camera. 2.5/5 prairie dogs aging disgracefully. Distributor: Mongrel.
Summer of 85 (France, 2020. Dir: François Ozon): After tackling some heavy themes for the last five years, prolific French filmmaker François Ozon returns to the subject that made him famous: The dark side of growing up. Summer of 85 can be described as a lighter The Talented Mr. Ripley: Alex, a closeted teen, becomes infatuated with David after he rescues him from a capsized boat. As with every relationship, everything is puppies and rainbows until David shows a darker side and Alex fails to manage his expectations (think Call Me by Your Name with a body count and better music). Never mind the captivating plot, there’s something delightful about spending time at the gorgeously shot Normandy coast. 3/5 prairie dogs enduring a cruel summer.
Pieces of a Woman (USA/Canada, 2020. Dir: Kornél Mundruczó): One of the reasons I attend TIFF is for the dramas with teeth, sorely lacking this year. Thankfully, here comes one that will haunt my dreams. After the birth of her first child goes horribly wrong, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) reacts by shutting down and sabotaging every relationship in her life. In turn, Shawn (Shia LaBeauf), the father of the baby, falls into old patterns (addiction, violence) and fails to provide a support system for Martha. Pieces of a Woman goes after those who think mourning is a collective experience and assume platitudes make a difference. The film is sharp as a tack and reminds us that at 88, Ellen Burstyn is a force to be reckoned with. The birth-at-home procedure that kickstarts the movie is an extended single shot that amplifies the tension to unbearable levels. Pieces of a Woman flies high until the end, when it morphs into a procedural and takes an unearned, inspirational turn (yeesh). But for everything that preceded it, it’s worth watching. 4/5 prairie dogs that don’t want your stinking casserole. Distributor: Netflix.