Monday, June 27, 2011

Best of Black Sheep: Black Sheep interviews Richard Lewis

Richard's Version
An interview with Richard Lewis,
director of BARNEY'S VERSION

Toronto born filmmaker, Richard Lewis’s written version of BARNEY’S VERSION, based on the 1997 Mordechai Richler novel of the same name, is not the version that made it on to the screen. Lewis doesn’t care though. He’s just happy it finally made it there.

The idea of turning Richler’s character piece about a man named Barney Panofsky, who can almost only see things his way, has been in existence since the book came out in 1997. Famed Hollywood producer, Robert Lantos, had bought the film rights but wanted nothing to do with Lewis, an unproven talent at the time. Whenever Lewis would approach Lantos about the film, Lantos would, “scoff at me and say something like, ‘Peter Weir is going to direct it,’” Lewis tells me over the phone from his home in Los Angeles.

Lewis’s plan worked; Lantos bought the script and hired Lewis to come on as director as well.That’s where things got messy. Another writer, by the name of Michael Konyves, came along with another version of BARNEY’S VERSION, which Lantos loved. Suddenly, Lewis’s script was out and Konyve’s was in. “At first, I was really shocked and pissed,” Lewis confides. “As soon as I read it though, I was elated because Michael’s draft was better.”

It wasn’t until 2006 that Lantos would finally start to take Lewis seriously. Lewis was involved heavily with a little TV show you might know called, “C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation” at the time, directing a little here, producing a little there. In his off hours, of which there were surely few, Lewis decided to write his own script for BARNEY’S VERSION and just make Lantos believe in his connection to the material.

Konyve’s draft focused on Barney, his great love and the smaller experiments with love that led to the great one. The novel’s murder mystery plot is downgraded to subplot in the film, which allows the message of love to flourish. “It was important for us to distill the book down to its essence and that lies really with the love story between Barney and Miriam.”

Barney and Miriam are played by Paul Giamatti and Rosamund Pike. The two meet at Barney’s wedding reception to his second wife (Minnie Driver) and he knows, without any question, that she should be the mother of his child. Meeting her a few hours earlier seems like it would have been much more practical but how often does life afford anyone that kind of convenience?

It isn’t easy to love a man who makes a play for one woman less than an hour after marrying another. Yet somehow, by the time BARNEY’S VERSION comes to a close, there is a great deal of understanding and compassion for the character that was not there before, that seemingly has very little to do with the circumstances Barney finds himself in. “Paul gave me a lot to work with,” Lewis states about his Golden Globe nominated lead actor. “One of the reasons we cast him is because he has a certain likability, even in his curmudgeon-ness, even in his disdain for the world, his variable lack of ease, he is still able to bring real genuineness.That authenticity is something we’re attracted to whether the character is ‘likable’ or not.”Lewis is certain to specify that he used air quotes on the word likable so I suppose the jury is ultimately still out on Barney Panofsky.

And while support for Panofsky himself may be slim, there is no shortage for the man playing him. In fact, Lewis attributes assembling his fantastic cast – from Dustin Hoffman and Rosamund Pike to Minnie Driver and Scott Speedman – simply to Giamatti’s presence, at least in part. “The script pulls the cast. You have a good script and you have one of the finest actors of our time attached to the project and actors seem to come from all directions to play with him."

An impressive cast, romantic locations (Montreal, New York, Rome) and cherished source material make BARNEY’S VERSION a delightful and surprising experience. They also make BARNEY’S VERSION an awards contender. Lewis is new to the game but he isn’t nervous. “If it doesn’t win any Oscars – and I think Paul is quite deserving – I still think it will be regarded as a good film. I’m happy with that.”

And after people see the film, I’m sure they will be happy too.

Friday, June 24, 2011


Written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg
Directed by Jake Kasdan
Starring Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel, Lucy Punch
and Justin Timberlake

Elizabeth Halsey: I think that movies are the new books.

The movies offer a long line of great educators to draw inspiration from. There’s Edward James Olmos in STAND AND DELIVER; Morgan Freeman in LEAN ON ME; and even Michelle Pfeiffer in DANGEROUS MINDS. And while that last example might seem a bit of a stretch, she is still infinitely more admirable than Cameron Diaz in BAD TEACHER. In fact, Diaz’s first month of class curriculum consists entirely of watching these three films so that she can sleep at her desk after downing a shot of Jack first thing every morning.

Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, a man-eating, money-grubbing cheat who will say and do anything necessary to ensure she is very well taken care of. Just when she thinks she is set to retire from teaching and marry rich, she is promptly dumped and forced to head back to school for another year. Her new goal is to buy herself some new breasts in hopes of landing an even dumber, richer man than her previous fiancé. BAD TEACHER is pretty light on plot; essentially a group of teachers co-exist at school for the duration of a year and hijinks ensue. Fortunately, these teachers are made up of an incredibly amusing cast of funny people, from Justin Timberlake as Elizabeth’s naïve, new love interest with deep family pockets and very little going on upstairs to Jason Segel as Elizabeth’s obviously better-suited mate, whom she must learn to lower her standards for, as he is just gym teacher after all. It is Lucy Punch who gets the “Teacher of the Year” award though as Elizabeth’s goody-goody nemesis with emotional issues from across the hall.

Director, Jake Kasdan, isn’t kidding around with BAD TEACHER. Elizabeth is a pretty bad person altogether; her badness as a teacher, a mere offshoot of her essentially nasty core. Diaz does bad disturbingly well though, making summer school this year suddenly very cool.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Written by Ben Queen
Directed by John Lasseter
Voices by Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Emily Mortimer
and Michael Caine

Luigi: No fight more important than firendship.

CARS 2 marks the first time where I could not care less about a Pixar release. I didn’t buy the world made up entirely of cars in the first instalment and thought the idea of a race-car learning to slow down in life to be pretty dull. Getting behind the wheel again was the last thing I wanted to do but I’m sure glad I did. CARS 2 is a ton more fun than its predecessor, as it follows the best thing about the first film, tow-truck, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), through a mistaken identity spy caper. It never reaches the true greatness that most Pixar pictures achieve but by speeding up the action, Pixar revs up for some much-needed excitement for these former clunkers.

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is once again racing to prove something in CARS 2, in this case to prove his virility and quiet the taunts of another racer, Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro). In a bold move on Pixar’s part though, McQueen’s brilliantly animated race around the world is downgraded to a secondary plot for the sequel. This allows us to tag along with Mater as he joins forces with Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) to take down a bunch of lemon cars determined to dissuade the world from using new forms of fuel. The lemons are in possession of an untapped oil reserve so alternative energy is their nemesis. All the while, Mater and McQueen’s friendship is tested when McQueen is embarrassed by Mater’s naïve antics. This in turn forces Mater to pop his own hood and look inside so that he can learn to love his own make and model. Good thing too because nobody likes an insecure car.

In many ways, director, John Lasseter (who directed the first CARS and the first two TOY STORY films) has dumbed down the CARS 2 to make it even more accessible. It is completely ludicrous when you piece the plot together but its simplicity allows for a more enjoyable time that I’m certain will get little boys everywhere clamouring for more car toys, especially now that the cars come with guns and missiles attached to them. That said, this is a movie populated with talking machinery so I’m not sure whether ridiculousness should even be a consideration here. As gimmicky and forced as the spy adventure spin is, it adds some serious traction to this budding franchise that should surely carry it safely over the finish line in first place.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Best of Black Sheep: CARS

Written and Directed by John Lasseter and Joe Ranft
Voices by Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Bonnie Hunt
and Paul Newman

The crowd is uproarious. The stadium is practically shaking. Two checkered flags are waved and they’re off … to a sad and unfortunately slow start. I say “unfortunate” because I am speaking of Pixar Animation Studio’s seventh feature, CARS, and the Pixar name usually ensures sophistication, wit and insight in addition to awe-inspiring, revolutionary animation. Further to that, it usually means a darn good time but CARS drags its wheels, leading me to think Pixar might be due for a good tune-up. The problem is not with the quality of the animation, which bursts out straight away in the opening sequence. We are introduced to Lightning McQueen (voiced by the ever laid back, Owen Wilson), a spunky red sports car with a lot of scattered energy to burn and not enough experience or patience to see things through to the finish. He cruises past the rest of his competitors as he races for the Piston Cup, the highest achievement in race-car driving. The arena lights blare down on to the track and into our eyes as the cheers from the stands erupt to deafening new heights. Everything is as it should be but for one jarring detail. The patrons that fill the stands are other cars. Yes, people go to watch other people race against each other but this is a world inhabited by nothing but cars. It’s like “Planet of the Cars” and directors John Lasseter and the late Joe Ranft do very little to ground this reality. And yes, it’s an animated film but I couldn’t get past wondering how the cars managed to build the stadium and all the roads leading up to in the first place.

While on his way to another race in another town, Lightning gets lost and ends up arrested, or in this case impounded, in a middle-of-nowhere town after accidentally tearing up their road. He is sentenced to repairing the road before he can leave. Here he meets an expectedly colourful group of cars that run through a gamut of stereotypes, from the hippie minibus to the military standard hard-ass to the pimp-my-ride 59 Chevy. I have never seen the folks at Pixar deliver such one-dimensional three-dimensional characters. There is no good reason that these cars would inhabit the same town and so why would we even be there? The only resident that seems like he belongs there is a tow-truck by the name of Mater (as in to-mater). Voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, Mater is the dimwitted naïf who unknowingly bestows wisdom upon others. He is hilarious without realizing and is the most believable element of this film.

The clichés don’t stop at the characters either. The moral foundation of CARS focuses on being in too much of a hurry to get nowhere in particular. Upon being forced to slow down, Lightning learns that there is more to life than winning races and scoring cool sponsorships. When you aren’t speeding down the highway, you can see the cars around you and maybe even become their friend or fall in love. Lightning brings some much needed life to this dreary waste of a town and the inhabitants show him a thing or two about loyalty and the simpler pleasures that come from standing still. A good chunk of this lesson comes from Lightning’s love interest, Sally (a coy Bonnie Hunt), a car who studied law and climbed the corporate ladder before she realized she had no idea who she was. Ordinarily, I would find these themes engaging but cars are built for speed, not for taking the time to smell the motor oil.

The beauty of a Pixar film is best exhibited in their 1998 offering, A BUG’S LIFE. The ants and circus bugs that make up the majority of the characters have personality that more than makes up for the lack of time to develop them all. More importantly, the bug world is believable because it co-exists with a human world, bringing light to a universe that we ignorant humans don’t even know is right beneath our feet. Even the entirely unreal monsters of MONSTERS INC have doorways that lead to an earthly plain. CARS had an inherently huge obstacle to get past from the start line but instead of pushing harder, Lasseter and Ranft left CARS on cruise control. The result is more a casual Sunday drive then a high speed race – enjoyable and pleasant but lacking purpose and drive.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


Written and Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn

Mrs. O'Brien: You'll be grown before that tree is tall.

THE TREE OF LIFE is a true film experience. Writer/Director, Terrence Malick’s latest opus is an assault of the best kind on your eyes, your ears and your mind. It is mesmerizing from the moment it begins with a pattern of dancing waves of colored light flowing in the center of a black screen. Whispers can be heard in the distance, birds too, seagulls maybe. It is a total mystery what lies ahead but you can feel its weight, its magnitude, its inevitable magnificence. THE TREE OF LIFE is a journey, one with remarkable richness in every frame. When the journey ends though, its insight isn’t as revelatory as its grandness suggests it should be.

Malick has famously been tinkering and toiling over THE TREE OF LIFE for more than two years now. And while his hyper-perfectionism might drive the man himself to the brink of potential madness, it has once again served to create a film so fluid and inviting that I felt as though I was floating through space and time along with it. Despite its subject matter, which I will get into shortly, THE TREE OF LIFE has an airy quality to it. Alexandre Desplat’s (THE KING’S SPEECH) piano and string score carries you effortlessly into the sky on the wind, allowing you to look down upon Emmanuel Lubezki’s (CHILDREN OF MEN) breathtaking cinematography and just gaze longingly at its immense beauty. The film is then cut together in non-linear sequence so seamlessly that it never seems to matter at all just how little it all comes together at times.

Malick’s screenplay is a vast contemplation on life, its meanings and lack there of. It may be perhaps a tad bit too vast though. Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and the captivating Jessica Chastain) have just lost one of their three sons at the age of 19. Their grief and regrets run so deep that they transcend time, affecting not only the present but the future of their remaining children as well. As an adult, their son, Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), has never gotten over the loss of his brother, let alone the drastically different views his parents instilled on him. Malick seems to be musing on the continuity of issues and pain as passed down from generation to generation, how one moment in time can affect all the others to varying degrees. To really drive his point home hard, Malick expands his theory to the dawn of time, taking his film into a lengthy segue showcasing the creation of the universe. Life forms have always affected the others around them and they can appear and disappear without warning or explanation, rendering most of our problems completely pointless.

The obvious but supposed deeper meaning in THE TREE OF LIFE forces the viewer to think there must be more to this, that any experience this spectacular must contain clues to puzzles I’ve never been able to fully understand. Only the idea that our souls continue on throughout time, destined to struggle with the same issues the whole way, despite our ability to decide how we approach and master our troubles, is not exactly new. For as much depth as THE TREE OF LIFE portends to have, it rests fairly comfortable on the surface most of the time. It is however one of the loveliest surfaces I’ve ever stared into.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Black Sheep interviews Mike Mills

From Scratch
An interview with Mike Mills

Ordinarily, by the time a filmmaker is sitting in front of me for an interview, the film they are promoting is a distant memory in their mind. They finished it months beforehand and whatever issues went into making it have been dealt with in the process. Sitting down to speak with Mike Mills about his second feature film, BEGINNERS, is different. In talking about his film, he must inevitably discuss some of the more intimate moments of his life.

“I opened the door,” Mills tells me when I apologize in advance if anything gets too personal. The truth is, he sorta did. BEGINNERS recounts what it was like for Mills after his mother passed away and his father came out of the closet at 75 years old, only to be diagnosed shortly thereafter with terminal cancer himself. The relationship he formed with his father in the final years of his life informed Mills on all kinds of love and showed him the walls he had put up in his own life to protect himself from getting hurt.

“I started to write before he died,” Mills confides. “One night, we started getting into these intense conversations about relationships. He was way more engaging, emotionally available and he also challenged me about why I never stayed with anyone. I really appreciated how unpolite he got with me.” I’m sure spending his entire life married and in the closet gave him a fairly unique perspective on the subject. “In many ways, the film is a continuation of our talks about love, across the orientation divide and the generation divide."

As personal as BEGINNERS is, Mills believes that this only broadens its universal appeal. “I don’t believe in generalizing as a way to make things more accessible,” Mills asserts. “I believe that by making things really concrete and specific, they become more relatable. It’s like they’re real, like they have more nooks and crannies.” Mills isn’t kidding about getting particular with the details either; actual family photographs and heirlooms were used in the film’s sets.

This would mean that Ewan McGregor would be playing the role based on Mills. “I really don’t like thinking of it that way,” Mills says of the idea. “I feel like I stole from myself by any means necessary but I’m not interested in making a portrait of myself. I never looked at Ewan and thought, ‘There I am.’” The reason for this is likely twofold. The first is that Mills sees the character of Oliver (McGregor) as just a part of him that he ran with; the second is because they really look nothing alike.

And his detachment didn’t stop there either. “Even with Christopher [Plummer] playing my dad, you would imagine it would be hard sometimes but it never was,” Mills claims. This might be just a testament to how strong Plummer is in the film. His curiosity and enthusiasm are terribly endearing, which in itself also affirms Mills’ great strength as a director and his dedication to the story. “If it was bad or fake or false as a film but true to my life, who would care?”

I’m sure his parents would have cared. BEGINNERS is a touching love letter to his mother and father, told with a deep yearning to understand who they were and what they knew of love together. For Mills, this quest is ongoing. “I don’t really believe in closure. Losing your parents is so much bigger than making a movie.” This is not to say progress wasn’t made either; Mills is hardly downtrodden when speaking with me. “I really enjoyed communing with my dad and writing from their perspective. They were really interesting people just past being my parents.”

So interesting in fact that Mills’ dad would actually inspire the title for the film. “My dad was so hungry; he was just getting started; he just couldn’t get enough,” Mills describes with fondness. “He was so happy and so not dying. He was just beginning. I learned a ton from watching him. We should really try to be ourselves. It sounds trite but its pretty profound.”

And with that, it is time for Mills to begin again.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Written and Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Linda Manz and Sam Shepard

Linda: I'm telling you; the rich got it figured out.

The effect is instantaneous. The moment DAYS OF HEAVEN begins, you are fully taken into what can only be described as the cinematic incarnation of heaven itself. Striking yet sumptuous still images of America and the suffering Americans of yore, fill the screen in a montage set to a classic Ennio Morricone score. It isn’t the content that constitutes heaven but rather the bold and commanding manner in which writer/director, Terrence Malick, presents it to his audience, that transcends the filmmaking abilities of any mere mortal. In that sense, Malick is the cinematic equivalent of God, and like God, Malick is omniscient. He is aware of all the tiny moments that make up the lives of his characters and how each of them can go on to change the world around them without even realizing what is happening. Sometimes, watching through Malick’s eyes feels like you might actually be watching from the clouds.

The world we are privy to in DAYS OF HEAVEN is farm country, Texas, 1916 (actually shot in Whiskey Gap, Alberta). Bill and Abby (Richard Gere and Brooke Adams) are a couple, riding the rails with Bill’s little sister, Linda (Linda Manz). They take up work in the wheat fields just in time for harvest season, after Bill got into a fight and accidentally killed his foreman at his previous manual labour job in Chicago. Everyone they encounter knows them as brother and sister, a decision made to avoid talk amongst the other prying workers. Believing her to be unattached, Abby catches the eye of the farm owner, played by Sam Shepard and known only as The Farmer. He is unmarried and ill, with only a short time left to live and no one to share his time with. When the harvest is complete, he asks Abby to stay on with her “brother and sister” and marry him and she decides to do just that. The trouble for The Farmer is he doesn’t know that she and her lover are just waiting until he passes away so that they can inherit his fortune. The trouble for Bill and Abby is that they don’t know how long their love can survive the charade, nor when The Farmer will die.

DAYS OF HEAVEN triumphs for a number of reasons, not the least of which is Malick’s incredibly focused direction. His screenplay is as lean as the times in the film. Dialogue is sparse and the plot is forwarded instead by the activity taking place on screen, allowing literally for the action to speak much louder than the words. All the while the harvest is happening, words are barely spoken, safe for some minor exchanges about being hungry or where someone is from. This leaves the viewer to piece together what is happening through looks and body language and fractions of larger conversations that reveal just enough to connect the dots. And who wants to listen to a lot of false dialogue anyway when you can allow your ears to take in the brilliantly designed soundscape, as mixed by Barry Thomas. Whether the wind is whipping through the wheat in the fields or locusts are descending in biblical proportions upon them, the sound is always impeccable and dynamic. It had better be too to keep up with Nestor Almendros’s Oscar-winning cinematography. Together, the viewer is drawn into the drawl one would expect when staring out into the fields on a hot day in the south and watching the buffalo roam. With every element coming together so brilliantly, it’s hard to believe this is only Malick’s second feature.

Another trait Malick shares with his maker is that he does not judge, at least not from behind the camera in DAYS OF HEAVEN. As the story unfolds in front of us, Malick is not concerned with taking sides or playing sympathy, he only seems interested in how best to present it to his audience. This great respect for the audience’s capacity to appreciate the depth of his artistry grows stronger as his scope goes wider. To pull away from the central story is to see the grander setting surrounding it. In it, Malick gives us the America of the time and the great divide between rich and poor. But even as Bill, Abby and Linda go from having nothing to having so much that they feel the need to throw food around as though it were nothing, Malick does not condemn them. That said, some fairly intense punishment does befall the whole lot of them eventually but even then, Malick is just there to observe, and beautifully so, as their fates are carried out. For better or for worse, this was just the America of the time and DAYS OF HEAVEN proves Malick is just one of the greatest American filmmakers of his time.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Written and Directed by J.J. Abrams
Starring Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard

Charles: It looks like a disaster movie, doesn't it?

J.J. Abrams, the man behind the polarizing television series, “Lost” and the stellar STAR TREK reboot from a couple years back, longs for simpler times in his latest adventure, SUPER 8. The film has been shrouded in secrecy and mystery since it was announced, which I imagine excited Abrams a great deal, and it is finally time to see what all the fuss is about. Is it another big budget thrill ride from start to finish? Or will it be a long, meandering mess of confusion that doesn’t necessarily go anywhere at all? With Abrams, you never know what you’re going to get until you get it and people are never really in agreement once they have it either. With SUPER 8 though, you’re going to get something altogether new for the director – a fun time for all.

It is 1979 and a handful of geeky kids are set for the summer of their lives in Lillian, Ohio, making a zombie movie with their super-8mm camera. Their naiveté draws the viewer into their world and suddenly Abrams’ longing for a time when kids were perfectly amused riding bikes and playing with model trains, is ours as well. The tricky thing about child-like innocence though is that you never know when it will be taken away. Joe Lamb (played by impressive first-timer, 15-year-old, Joel Courtney) already knows how it feels to have his world crash like a massive train wreck, having just lost his mother in a freak accident. So by the time he actually witnesses an actual derailment, he is better prepared than his filmmaker cohorts to deal with the wreckage. There is no way he could be ready to deal with what they find amongst the debris though. And believe me, there will be times when you won’t know how to deal with it either. It’s quite scary.

Most people expected SUPER 8 to be simple homage to the film’s executive producer, Steven Spielberg, king of the family adventure film. While the influence is undeniable, the execution contains a more modern understanding of emotional communication. Films like E.T. and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND are event pictures that commanded attention but the depth in SUPER 8 is at times completely flooring. For instance, Joe has a crush on a girl he shouldn’t, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning). Their fathers (Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard) are messed up and can’t stand each other but these two can’t help but gravitate towards each other. In one scene, while watching footage of Joe’s deceased mother on a projector, Alice says through her tears, “I know I don’t know you at all, even though it feels like I do.” It is as if they’re discovering themselves and healing their hurt right before our eyes. It is truly moving.

SUPER 8 can be called a tribute and be proud to wear the moniker but the truth of it is that Abrams’ latest is a unique experience unto itself. It is often frightening and tense, surprisingly touching and contains some of the most massive special effects extravagance I’ve seen. Perhaps what it shares most in common with Spielberg’s earlier works is that it too demands to be seen and experienced in theatres, sitting amongst family and friends. It is an event that is utterly thrilling and yet somehow manages great insight and comfort as well – a rare feat as I’m sure we can all agree. In the end, watching these kids come of age made me wish my eyes were still just as wide as theirs. Thanks to SUPER 8, for a couple of hours, they actually were.

Thursday, June 09, 2011


Written and Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr
and Francois Truffaut

Interpreter: He says the sun came out at night. He says it sang to him.

Inexplicably, I have always been intrigued by alien life. I have never seen a UFO; nor have I ever been abducted. But boy oh boy do I love watching movies where these things happen to other people. One of the greatest examples of the genre is Steven Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Made in 1977 with a reported budget of $2.5 million, Spielberg created a giant blockbuster with all the awe and excitement that is expected to be there but with a few surprises as well. Just beneath the jaw-dropping special effects that still hold up against anything put out today, is a quiet level of introspection the slowly comes to a full boil by the time these encounters truly get close.

From the very start, Spielberg plants the seeds of wonder and curiosity in the viewer’s mind. An elaborate sandstorm is whipping across the screen and a bunch of men begin to arrive at different intervals. They don’t all speak the same language and ask vague questions with impossible answers like, “Are we the first?” Amidst all this chaos is the key to Spielberg’s success, the hook. The action is so disorienting and so clearly of great importance given the urgency in everyone’s tone, that one cannot help but want to know just what on earth in going on. Suddenly there are planes in a desert, found after 30 years of being missing but there are no signs of any pilots and all of this is somehow good news for the French. The need to know where all of this is going is intense.

Before you know it, we are on a farm in Indiana. The imagery is so iconic, it is almost a close encounter all unto itself. There is something unsettling in the night sky. You can sense that something is coming, something never seen before. A child runs into the night but he doesn’t know why or where he is going, just that he must. Suddenly, power everywhere is going out and an electrical lineman, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), is called out to investigate. Instead of figuring out the power problem, he comes into contact with something way bigger. Roy’s encounter is the closest we see and he is not the same after it’s done. The sounds, the colours, the lights, they all haunt him after the fact and his fascination becomes obsession, one that he is powerless to calm.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND is a grand experience and irrefutable evidence that Spielberg is one of the greatest film directors of all time. Not only does he know where he is going and how to get there, he also has an uncanny ability to inspire an immense amount of child-like enthusiasm in his audience. In this case, he divides his characters into believers and non-believers. If you choose to ignore the obvious, that we are not alone in this universe, then you check out of the film early. If you do believe, or at least if you want to, the desperate need to understand and get closer to the encounters themselves is infectious. Adult or no, your desire is innocent and simple. It is almost as if we aren’t really chasing aliens at all. Rather, we gravitate uncontrollably toward believing in our own boundless imaginations.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Best of Black Sheep: ANOTHER YEAR

Written and Directed by Mike Leigh
Starring Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville

Gerri: Change is hard, isn't it?
Janet: Nothing changes.

Aging is one of those human experiences that, if we’re fortunate enough to get up there that is, is essentially universal in theory. In practice though, some of us age much more gracefully than others. Some of us age while our dreams come true around us, while others do so while watching each of their dreams fall victim to time. Unfortunately, we don’t always get to choose how well life works out for us, so when the years continue to pass, each one has the potential to reinforce what we do or don’t have in our lives. ANOTHER YEAR is British filmmaker, Mike Leigh’s, specific look at one of these years and, in its delightful and touching execution, it contemplates the cruel little imbalances life has to offer.

There is a lot of eating in ANOTHER YEAR and all the glasses at the table are quite distinctly either half empty of half full. The table itself belongs to Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), a couple who have been together for more than 30 years, who are still just as adorable with each other today as the combination of their names suggests they should be.They are joined more often than not at their table by old friends like Mary (a heartbreaking Lesley Manville), who tells herself she is happy alone but drinks to forget she is actually alone whenever she can, and Ken (Peter Wright), who cannot fathom retiring because then he truly won’t have anything at all to do with his time. Sometimes their son, Joe (Oliver Maltman) stops by too. At 30, he hasn’t met anyone special yet and with such a great example of long lasting love to live up to, you know he knows he is missing out. The dinner conversation is never boring and, thanks to the incredible ensemble, always fascinating and enlightening.

Tom and Gerri garden together. ANOTHER YEAR follows their planting cycle from the planting itself to the period of growth, through the harvesting in the fall and finally the inevitable death in the winter. They have been planting in this garden for years, just as Leigh has been making movies for years. And if the relaxed, subtly aware tone of Leigh’s latest work tells me anything, it is that he too knows that all you can do is plant the seed and hope it grows to be strong, tall and surrounded by flowers.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Black Sheep interviews Shawn Ku

An interview with Shawn Ku

I remember thinking that I had already seen BEAUTIFUL BOY before I actually saw it. Not to say I had seen the film itself already but that I had come across a number of variations on the plot prior. Michael Sheen and Maria Bello play parents who lose a child and we watch them grieve and grow apart. Only BEAUTIFUL BOY is not that movie. Sheen and Bello do lose a child and they do grieve for him but before their only boy kills himself, he shoots and kills several other of his classmates at college. This movie, I most certainly had not seen before.

First time feature filmmaker, Shawn Ku, knows that BEAUTIFUL BOY is not an easy sell. “We set out to write a movie that touched people,” Ku tells me when we speak over the phone the week before the film’s platform release. “I guess that was a hope – that we could touch people in some way that might actually change them.” The film picked up the International Critics Prize at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival so clearly it has an impact on those who see it.

One of the reasons BEAUTIFUL BOY stands out is because of Ku’s delicate yet direct screenplay, which he co-wrote with Michael Armbruster. Ku avoids many of the trappings one would expect to find in this story. Naturally, when Sheen and Bello, who play Kate and Bill, hear of what their son, Sammy (Kyle Gallner) has done, they wonder if they are to blame. These are smart characters though; they know it isn’t as simple as that. Naturally, they have to resolve the idea of their son as the monster the media makes him out to be, and who he partly is considering what he did, with the little boy they knew and loved. Ku allows this tense journey to be had personally and painfully on screen without resorting to cheap manipulation and laying blame on one or the other.

“When we set out to write this, we acknowledged really early on that often times there is no real explanation,” Ku explains, in a tone that is both soft and humble. “Sometimes I think it is even beyond verbalization why these things happen.” Ku’s point here is key to the film as much of the communication coming from Sheen and Bello is internal. The issues they are wrestling with are so consuming that they just stumble through their days as if nothing makes any sense any more. Ku’s execution of this point is quite deliberate. “We wanted very consciously to paint these parents as regular people, doing the best they can,” he says. “Their kid did this thing. Did they contribute to it? Maybe. But is it their fault? I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

As subtle as Ku’s direction is, it would be nothing without Sheen and Bello in the lead roles. The couple’s relationship was not on the most solid of ground before their illusions were shattered and so finding peace in each other is not always an option. The two actors shift back and forth between operating as individuals and as a unit almost imperceptibly. Ku, who held separate rehearsal time with each to help foster these feelings of separation, knows how fortunate he was to have found these two particular talents. “Luckily, they are both very deep, very thoughtful people who understand all the nuances and dynamics of relationships.”

Bill and Kate’s relationship being central, the delicate balance described above was crucial. Ku elaborates, “Why does it happen just at the time you’re reaching out to someone to connect, that person is pulling away? And just when they turn around to reach for you, you’re turning away. Why are we never synchronized in relationships?”

As hard as it is to follow these parents through their grieving process, Ku hopes the dark subject matter doesn’t keep audiences away from BEAUTIFUL BOY, even those who go to the movies just to escape. “When people tell me that after seeing the movie they went home and hugged their spouse or their kid, I feel like that is a great accomplishment, that its moved them in some way.” Ku concludes, “That is our goal, so if that’s entertainment, I hope so.”

That it is; it is just entertainment of a different kind.