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REVIEW: ‘Crisis’ Drops the Hammer on Opioids

Gary Oldman in Crisis.

Very slowly the opioid crisis has made its way into film. First, as usual, through addict stories (Beautiful BoyBen 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.

Crisis is now available in VOD.

REVIEW: ‘Amundsen’ Has Identity Issues

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 TikiPirates 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. 

REVIEW: ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’: Titans Rule, Humans Not so Much

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 NextThe 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.

‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ Tries to Ground the MCU

Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) in Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick.

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 TaleThe 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.

Disney Animator Benson Shum on Chasing the (Animated) Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon. © 2020 Disney.

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 RalphBig Hero 6Moana and the ubiquitous Frozen franchise, Shum was tasked with animating Sisu, albeit in human form (long story, watch the movie).

Benson Shum. Photo by Alex Kang. ©2016 Disney.

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.

REVIEW: ‘The Sinners’ Come Short at Sinning

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).

The Sinners is now available on VOD.

REVIEW: ‘The Little Things’ Is a Step Ahead of You

Denzel tries to ignore Jared Leto in The Little Things.

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 CollectorFallenDevil 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.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of ‘Our Friend’: “You Have to Defend Your Vision”

Jason Segel and Dakota Johnson in Our Friend.

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.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of Our Friend.

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. 

Our Friend is now available on VOD.

RAW FEED: ‘Roald Dahl’s The Witches’ Flirts with Body Horror but Doesn’t Commit

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’s The Witches opens Christmas Day in theatres and VOD.

REVIEW: ‘Wonder Woman 1984’: Come for the Hero, Stay for the Villains

Wonder Woman saves the day while Steve Trevor watches.

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 PreyThe CraftPromising 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.

‘Soul’ Story Head Pulls Back the Curtain on the Making of a Pixar Movie

©2020 Disney/Pixar.

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 OutSoul 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.

Soul premieres on Disney Plus on Christmas Day.

REVIEW: ‘Monster Hunter’ Is More like Monster Gatherer

Milla Jovovich in Monster Hunter.

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. 

REVIEW: The Sweet ‘Sound of Metal’

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.

Sound of Metal is available on demand.

REVIEW: Costner and Lane Go on a Solo Mission in ‘Let Him Go’

Diane Lane and Kevin Costner in Let Him Go. Credit : Kimberley French / Focus Features

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 (WaterworldThe 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’ MontecarloThe 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. 

31 Days Of Horror: Night Of The Living Dead

“They’re coming to get you Barbara!”

Barbara (Judith O’Dea) amd her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) are in a cemetery in the country when they are attacked by a strange man. Johnny is killed and Barbara runs to a farm house.

Barbara finds no one in the house but a dead woman. Ben (Duane Jones) arrives and barricades the house from the swarming group of undead outside.

They soon discover more people hiding in the house. Harry (Karl Hardman) and his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and their injured daughter were attacked too and fled to the house. There is also Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley).

Harry thinks they should all hide in the cellar. Ben thinks that they need to make a break for it.

George A. Romero created a masterpiece of horror with this film that changed modern horror movies and the way zombies are portrayed in films.

31 Days Of Horror: The Masque of Red Death

A plague called the Red Death is sweeping through the local villages and Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) has ordered the village to be burned to the ground.

Prospero is a Satanist and rules the land ruthlessly. When two starving peasants confront Prospero he orders them killed. The one peasant’s daughter Francesca (Jane Asher) begs for mercy. Prospero takes Francesca back to his castle and imprisons the two men.

Prospero invites all the local nobility to his castle for a party. Prospero’s also tries to seduce Francesca much to Prospero’s mistress Juliana’s (Hazel Court) dismay.

Juliana wants to join Prospero’s Satanic cult. Meanwhile a red cloaked figure is lurking around and the villagers are getting desperate as the plague ravishes through them. They seek shelter at the castle while the party goes on.

Director Roger Corman had been adapting several Edgar Allen Poe stories and this is one of his more stylish and artistic interpretations. Price is excellent as always.

31 Days Of Horror: Train To Busan

A father is trying to take his daughter to her mother’s. Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is divorced amd spends more time at work than with his daughter.

kinopoisk.ru

Meanwhile a virus has broken out and is turning people into zombies. The zombie infection is spreading quickly through the city and people manage to avoid it at the train station by quickly boarding the train. Unbeknownst to everyone, an infected woman has boarded the train.

The woman turns into a zombie and quickly infects the passengers. Several of the cars are filled with the infected and the survivors have locked themselves in a safe car.

This South Korean horror movie is excellent and intense. Director Yeon Sang-ho made an animated prequel, Seoul Station. He also just made a sequel called  Peninsula that came out this year.

31 Days Of Horror: 28 Days Later

Animal rights activists free rage virus infected monkeys who quickly infect the people of London.

28 days later. London is a ghost town and Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in an abandoned hospital after being in a coma from an accident before the pandemic occured. Jim wanders the streets of London trying to figure out what has happened.

People infected with the rage virus become blood dripping fast running rage filled zombies.

Jim runs into some infected hut is saved by Selena (Naomie Harris). The two of them find two other survivors Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). They heard that there is a safe haven outside the city. They all travel there fighting their way through the infected.

Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland created a new spin on the zombie genre and the gritty cinematography works well creating an intense and horrifying movie.

31 Days Of Horror: The Thing

I know that technically The Thing isn’t a virus, but it is an organism that infects people. Granted it eats and overtakes its host but it is very infectious and extremely contagious as far as alien absorbing creatures go.

John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing is a brilliant and terrifying masterpiece.

Kurt Russell is stationed in Antarctica along with Wilford Brimley, T. K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, Joel Polis, and Thomas G. Waites. A Norwegian helicopter is chasing a dog trying to kill it and the dog runs into the American camp. The Norwegians accidentally kill themselves and the dog ends up staying in the camp.

Russel and Dysart fly to the Norwegian camp and find everyone dead there. They also find a very strange body that the Norwegians tried to burn. They bring the body back to camp to autopsy.

They find the dog trying to assimilate all the other dogs and realize after autopsying both the dog and the strange body that an alien creature is taking over the bodies on a molecular level.

Eveyone is paranoid and everyone doesn’t trust each other.

I love this movie. It’s intense and suspenseful and edge of your seat terrifying. Rob Bottin’s effects are amazing and Carpenter has crafted an excellent masterpiece of horror.

31 Days Of Horror: Isle Of The Dead

General Pherides (Boris Karloff) and reporter Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) visit the Isle of the Dead to pay their respects to the General’s long-dead wife. The island is supposed to be deserted but the general and Davis find people there after following the voice of a singung woman.

Swiss archeologist Dr. Aubrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.), his housekeeper Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig), British diplomat Mr. St. Aubyn (Alan Napier) and his pale and sickly wife (Katherine Emery), her youthful Greek companion Thea (Ellen Drew), and English tinsmith Andrew Robbins (Skelton Knaggs) are all on the island.

The houskeeper Krya believes that Thea is a vorvolaka, a kind of vampire creature that brings plagues and tells the general who laughs it off as superstition. Davis starts to fall for Thea.

The next morning Robbins is found dead and Dr. Drossos (Ernst Deutsch) diagnosis the cause of death as septicemic plague and quarantines the island until a hot dry wind comes to the island.

Mr. St. Aubyn dies and they bury him quickly much to his wife’s chagrin who fears premature burial. Soon the general starts to believe that Thea is a vorvolaka.

Producer Val Lewton made several low budget horror movies for RKO Studios and all of them were excellent thrillers that dealt with more psychological horrors rather than actual monsters. Isle of the Dead works as paranoia and superstition grab hold of the quarantined people. Karloff’s performance is fantastic.