Thursday, November 29, 2012


An interview with BURNING MAN star, Matthew Goode

Sometimes, when there are somewhere around 300 films screening at a film festival, it can be easy for one of them to get lost in the crowd. At the 2011 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, I had the pleasure of seeing an Australian film called BURNING MAN, and the even more distinct pleasure of interviewing its star, Matthew Goode. The film was well received at TIFF but it never found its way to a prominent theatrical release. Now that it is available to rent or own though, you all have no excuses not to see it.

BURNING MAN gave Goode, a character actor best known for his work in Woody Allen’s MATCH POINT and Tom Ford’s A SINGLE MAN, his first chance to take on a major leading role. As promising as that sounds, he was not sold on the character at first. “You always want to have some sense of likability to your character or you want to get them from page one. I was 40 pages in and thinking I really hate this guy.”

This guy is Tom, a talented chef in a high class restaurant who is going through a difficult time in his life. To tell you why would ruin the film though so I will refrain from doing that. Writer/Director, Jonathan Teplitzky, who based the film on his own personal history, chose to introduce Tom to his audience at his angriest before telling the audience why he is angry. The result is a challenging interaction between audience and character that hinges entirely on Goode’s performance.

“It’s not laugh out loud,” quips Goode. “I was aghast of this character at times.”

It wasn’t always a laughing matter though. Goode had to go to some very dark places to play Tom, including a few disturbing breakdowns, but he did have strong material to make it easier on him. “It’s hard to do if the script is not particularly good. You don’t want to go there with a bad script,” Goode explains. Hard or not, Goode still needed a place to get away from it all. “I find using music is very helpful for me. Often times you’re on a set and it can be quite loud, there’s a lot of stuff going on, that’s the nature of getting a shot ready. I find it very good to just go and get my headphones on in a quiet place.”

His music of choice on this particular film, Mumford & Sons. His track of choice, the amazing “After the Storm”, an apt choice considering how many storms Tom has to weather.

Goode’s profile will be upped next spring when the highly anticipated STOKER, co-starring Nicole Kidman and directed by Chan-Wook Park (OLDBOY), a film he describes as a “phenomenal cast and phenomenal script”, hits theatres. And his approach to working with directors should ensure he keeps on getting more notice for some time to come.

“That’s how I like to work. I do whatever I can to help make the director’s vision come true. It’s not like I go AWOL and do whatever I like. Sometimes I want to, but no.”

I would watch either way.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Blu-Ray Review: GUYS AND DOLLS

Written and Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons and Vivien Blaine

GUYS AND DOLLS is one of those classical Hollywood musicals where people don’t simply walk down the street but rather do so with a pronounced bounce in their step and an exaggerated smile on their face. It requires a certain suspension of disbelief to be even remotely believed and fewer people today have the attention span to do this. For those who do delight in this enchanting style though, Warner Bros. has released a collector’s edition that will surely get them bouncing and smiling in their living rooms.

Based on the Frank Loesser Broadway show, GUYS AND DOLLS was adapted for the screen in 1955 and despite the show’s immense success, the film itself was a bit of a risk. Writer/Director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz had won four Oscars in two years before taking this project on, but he had never directed a musical. And then there is the talent. Marlon Brando was the top box office draw of the day, but he was most certainly an unproven singer. Meanwhile, Frank Sinatra, one of the most notable voices of the century, was passed over for the main role in favor of Brando and was said to have been unhappy in the role he ended up with. Despite all the potential for disaster though, GUYS AND DOLLS not only pulls it off but is a genuine classic.
Brando and Sinatra behind the scenes
The new Blu-ray edition both looks and sounds infinitely better than its previous DVD edition. While the construction of the menus is a little stiff (No “play all” option on the musical numbers? Really?), it is presented in a brilliant digibook, which highlights all of the actors’ and the film’s rich backstory. Said story is reiterated in the numerous short documentaries about the production too. It may be a movie about big gambles and large losses but GUYS AND DOLLS is a sure bet!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


An interview with PARANORMAN co-director, Sam Fell

“On the surface, I was attracted to the zombies.” Personally, I can think of worse reasons to make a movie but this is the reason PARANORMAN co-director, Sam Fell (FLUSHED AWAY) gives me when I ask what first drew him to his latest stop-motion feature film. When you allow him to elaborate, it doesn’t sound quite so creepy.

Fell, fell further in love with PARANORMAN as he got deeper into co-director, Chris Butler’s personal screenplay. “Chris was cooking this for years before I came on board. As I got into it further, I think what attracted me most was the emotion. It has so much heart and packs an emotional punch.”

Heart on the page does not always translate to the screen, especially when it needs to be communicated to children by another child. Enter Kodi Smit-McPhee, an actor no older than 16 (he was 13, the same age as his character, when the film went into production). Having caught him in THE ROAD, opposite Viggo Mortensen, Fell knew there were few young actors out there who could take on Norman like he could.

“A clever kid character can so easily be precocious. A troubled kid character can be whiny and self-pitying. There are so many ways that you can lose the audience with a kid character. We were so fortunate to find Kodi.” Fell doesn’t stop there either. His praise continues, “That kind of maturity in that young an actor is rare.”

Heart can also have a hard time getting through to an audience when its being served in a zombie movie package. This is especially true if parents worry PARANORMAN might be too scary for their younger brood. Fell, a parent himself, hopes kids don’t miss out on what PARANORMAN has to offer. “I think parents tend to worry more than they need. Kids enjoy scares. I think kids enjoy challenges as well. I think fiction can provide some challenges to kids in a safe environment. They can try out the emotion of fear and test themselves.”

Fell, centre, with Butler, to his right
Even adults have to put themselves in potentially uncomfortable positions from time to time. Going into PARANORMAN, Fell had some concerns about working with Butler on a project he was already so close to. “I didn’t sign on to be a technician; I was there to be a filmmaker,” he says about his initial concerns. He quickly dismisses these though. “In the end, we just liked each other. Some things are just a true collaboration and you’re twice as strong because there’s two of you.”

Having two people at the helm of a demanding stop-motion animation project is probably best for all, considering how much work is involved. “It’s not just people sitting at computers. It involves many disciplines, like a costume department, a lighting department, engineers that do all the rigging,” Fell explains of just a few of the elements he had to oversee during the production. All the hard work is well worth it in the end though. “It’s a very human endeavour and I think it comes across on the screen. You can see that it’s handmade and all the lovely imperfections that come with that. It’s like it’s coming to life on screen.”

So PARANORMAN has heart, scares and comes to life on screen but when it comes down to it, none of these reasons are the true reason Fell wanted to make this movie. The real reason? “This is zombies for kids. I’ve got a kid; I like to make things for him. I like to score points with my son, to be honest.”

Points scored, I’m sure.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


Written and Directed by Andrew Dominick
Starring Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins and James Gandolfini

Jackie: You ever kill someone? It can get touchy-feely. I like to kill them softly, from a distance.

Judging from how many cuts there are in the first few minutes of KILLING THEM SOFTLY, I would say writer/director, Andrew Dominick, took the criticism that his last effort, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, was a little too slow, very seriously. His latest, and second go round with Brad Pitt, is jarring, and aggressively so, from the very start. As a notable campaign speech by then senator, Barack Obama, can be heard echoing through the empty, trash ridden streets of whatever decimated American city this is, it becomes clear that Dominick is less interested in setting an actual scene and much more keen on criticizing the government.

If there is any legitimate business happening in this city, Dominick isn’t interested in it. Instead we spend all of our time with the underbelly of society, mobsters, hitmen, petty thieves looking to trade up. A few of the these thieves decide at one point to hold up a mob run poker game because if they don’t pull off a big score, they will never make it to the next playing level. This particular card game had already been held up but that was an inside job, so the thieves just figure everyone will assume it is again this time around. After the card game gets hit, the criminal economy collapses upon itself while the organization scrambles to restore order. All the while, footage or soundbites from the 2008 American election campaign and financial collapse that was happening simultaneously at that time, are incessantly thrown at the viewer to remind us when exactly this all takes place.

The insinuation of course is that the actual 2008 economic collapse, that so many people have not quite recovered from yet, mirrors this criminal model in many ways. Those that were in control of the money on Wall Street were getting greedy and were essentially robbing from each other, all made possible through loopholes and regulation. The smaller players aren’t even at the table, just like the disappearing middle class and ever increasing lower class, and the only way they can contend is by doing it by force. And of course the American government itself also seemed to run amuck trying to figure out how to rectify the situation. KILLING THEM SOFTLY thus not so subtly spends the majority of its time accusing the government of killing its people from a distance and not nearly enough time developing a satisfying plot.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


Written by John J. McLaughlin
Directed by Sasha Gervasi
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren and Scarlett Johansson

Alfred Hitchcock: You may call me Hitch; hold the cock.

If you’re going to make a movie about one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, your movie had better be good. To put it plainly, Alfred Hitchcock is simply one of the best and most famous film directors in history. And PSYCHO is arguably his most notorious film. It is an unfortunate shame, to say the least, that both the man himself, and this brilliant film, have been over simplified and stripped of all actual suspense and drama for the attempted biopic, HITCHCOCK. It is even more regrettable I’m afraid, to see two winning performances buried in such a middling movie.

HITCHCOCK adapts the modern style of biography filmmaking, choosing to focus on one particular period in the man’s life instead of a more strict adherence to portraying his life from birth to death. This approach worked quite well in films like CAPOTE and MY WEEK WITH MARILYN because, even though we only got a glimpse at their lives, we still got a grander sense of who they were and how they became these people. Screenwriter, John J. McLaughlin (BLACK SWAN), chooses to focus all of his attention on the period where Hitchcock made PSYCHO, but it seems to me it could have been any movie really. After all, all he did was take all these popular ideas of who Hitchcock was as a person, from his obsession with blondes to his overeating to his control issues, and plop them into the behind the scenes of PSYCHO. A setting should have a purpose; this slice of his life should have been so particularly telling that it would also inform on what came before and where the man would go after. Instead, we get in and out of Hitchcock’s life without getting to know very much about him at all.

HITCHCOCK is far from disastrous but it just feels so slight and unfocused, which may be the inexperience of the film's director, Sasha Gervasi. In fact, the only true anchors the film has are its two lead stars, Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, as Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock. Neither is given very much to work with but they make the most of it every moment they’re on screen. Hopkins takes the caricature he was given on the page and gives us an eye into the man’s soul. This is even more impressive given the size of the fat suit he’s got on. His Hitchcock is anxious, worried, unsure but also passionate and determined. His scenes with Mirren are what brings the film to life. They are a feisty pair and their chemistry truly feels like that of a dedicated, married couple, who have been together for ages. Together, Hopkins and Mirren make HITCHCOCK worth watching.

In conclusion and further to my first point, if you’re going to make a movie about Hitchcock, it should be a film that Hitchcock himself would be proud of. I’m not so sure he would have been able to sit through this one.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Written by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Starring Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts

We can all carry pain, often better than we might expect. French director, Jacques Audiard’s RUST AND BONE is a frank and honest reminder of just how much of that pain we can actually bear. His follow up to the brilliant, A PROPHET, creates its own narrative path toward a level of understanding that can only likely be had by those who have come to the very edge of losing everything they hold dear. For those of us fortunate enough to not know this kind of pain, and for those of us who aren’t afraid to go there, Audiard makes it possible for us to get a glimpse of just how crippling that pain can be.

RUST AND BONE is a romance for those who walk around angry with the world, for those who have lost all faith in even the idea of love. Audiard splits our time almost evenly between Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Stephanie (Marion Cotillard). He is directionless father, who has just taken responsibility for his young boy; and she is a killer whale trainer, who is in a bad relationship. They meet in a bar one night, when he breaks up a fight she gets hit in, and drives her home. Shortly afterwards, she gets into an accident at work with one of the whales during a show and loses both of her legs. They find each other again when she leaves the hospital and form a relationship that is clearly foreign, and frightening, to both of them. Both actors play their parts as entirely self-involved individuals masquerading as self-sufficient ones, so much so that they are practically oblivious to how damaged they’ve become at their own hand. Cotillard, in an inherently showy part, takes a decidedly more subtle approach than one would expect, which allows her to get uglier than I’ve ever seen her get before.

There is nothing sentimental about RUST AND BONE and it requires a certain ability on the part of the viewer to be able to handle its weight. Beneath that weight though is a tiny bit of hope that one would have thought to have been long dead. As Ali and Stephanie begin to spend more time together, and as a physical connection grows between them, they become aware, little by little, of the walls they have built around themselves over time. They were originally meant to protect but have evolved into a tool to keep them separate. The fight back is not an easy one in the least but, like the film itself, it is worth going through to come out the other side enlightened.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Written by David Magee
Directed by Ang Lee
Starring Suraj Sharma, Irfan Kahn and Rafe Spall

Francis Adirubasamy: A mouthful of water will not harm you, but panic will.

LIFE OF PI is an almost entirely unbelievable story that provides a great deal of solace and inspiration for so many who have been fortunate enough to read it. Its scope is so vastly epic, essentially biblical in nature. For years, Yann Martel’s 2001 Booker Prize winner had been called unfilmable. Directors, from M. Night Shaymalan to Alfonso Cuaron, came and went without finding a successful way to translate the incredible story of a boy trapped at sea with a bengal tiger to the screen. Enter Academy Award winning director, Ang Lee, the man with the sensitivity and vision necessary to make LIFE OF PI into the inconceivable spectacle it needs to be in order to meet its goal - proving the existence of God.

From the moment Lee sets the scene, the Pondicherry Zoo, in India, where Piscine “Pi” Patel (newcomer, Suraj Sharma, chosen by Lee from over 3,000 auditions) grew up with his family, the language of the film is light and lyrical. The animals in this zoo move with grace and a sense of purpose and Lee follows suit as though he is truly letting the nature of this wondrous tale unfold in front of us. The story is being told by a present day Pi, played by Irfan Kahn, who plays this elder incarnation like a man enlightened by all that life has shown him. Khan is telling his story to an author (Rafe Spall, in a role that was originally Tobey Maguire’s), presumably based on Martel. His narration, which is heavy at first but eventually gives way for the action itself, lends a much needed resonance to the sometimes implausible chain of events.

Pi’s family decides one day to pack up everything they own, including the great wealth of animals in their collection, and move from Pondicherry to Winnipeg. The promise of a better life is put to the ultimate test for Pi, when the freighter inexplicably sinks in the midst of a storm just a few days after leaving port. Pi is the only survivor, well, human survivor anyway, which is not at all surprising when you see how immense his escape from the sinking ship is. This is the other reason I’m happy they waited so long to make this movie. Lee’s usage of 3D is exemplary in LIFE OF PI. Not only does it make for a dazzling visual feast, but it highlights the distance the character feels from his lost family, from land, from God.

While some directors would get lost at sea for this long in a movie, Lee comes alive. His ocean, one that could be very static if not tended carefully, is a constantly changing symphony of movements that are both terrifying and mesmerizing. And to move back and forth between the never ending ocean and the confined space of the rescue boat so seamlessly, is a true testament to what mastery Lee commands and his deep understanding of the audience. A story that is supposed to make you believe in God has to be immense to accomplish such a lofty goal. What Pi endures on that boat with his feline shipmate, Richard Parker, should not be believed, but yet to read it on the page, is to behold an extraordinary tale of strength and spirit. The fact that Lee has so triumphantly captured both the bewilderment and inquisitive insight of the book is in itself enough to make me a believer. Only God could craft something so moving through the hands of one of His children.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Best of Black Sheep: LAURENCE ANYWAYS

Written and Directed by Xavier Dolan
Starring Melvil Poupaud, Suzanne Clement and Monia Chokri

LAURENCE ANYWAYS, the third film from Canadian director, Xavier Dolan, is a mesmerizing love story of epic proportion and extraordinary circumstance. After astonishing the cinema elite with his first feature, J’AI TUE MA MERE, Dolan stumbled in his sophomore effort, LES AMOURS IMAGINAIRES (in some eyes, at least, as I enjoyed the film more than most). He withdrew as a filmmaker after that experience and has now returned with a story so grand, it needs nearly three hours to be told. And while some might interpret the length as pretentious and unnecessary, I see it more as evident growth for the filmmaker himself, and furthermore, a true testament to just how deep love can run between two people.

Laurence Alia (Melvil Poupaud) is a 35-year-old college professor. He is working on his first book of poetry; he is receiving awards for his talent; and he is happily in love with his partner, Fred (Suzanne Clement). Thanks to two passionate and powerful performances, we can see quite clearly what a great bond there is between them, and that it would require a major blow to even begin cracking the foundation of what they have. That blow comes when Laurence announces to Fred that he has been living a lie for years. He can no longer go on living as a man when he knows, in his soul, that he was in fact meant to be a woman. Naturally, Fred is thoroughly freaked out. When two people are so intertwined in each other’s existences though, it can be incredibly difficult to separate from that, no matter what the reason is. Their love goes further than just the body but can changes to the body blind them to it?

Dolan continues to establish himself as a unique and fascinating Canadian voice, drawing comparisons to the likes of Wong Kar-Wai and perhaps even more aptly, Pedro Almodovar. LAURENCE ANYWAYS spans a full decade, the 90’s to be specific, which allows Dolan, who was also responsible for editing and costumes on the film, to take his time with his characters and their relationship. It also allows the viewer to come to terms on their own with Laurence’s decision and subsequent transition. Transsexuality is still taboo to this day, so setting this story twenty years ago not only highlights even more so how difficult their lives must have been, but also just how brave they both were for choosing love and holding each other’s hands throughout every moment of this great change. By the time the film closes, it is clear that Dolan has pulled off a pretty tricky feat; LAURENCE ANYWAYS transcends transsexuality to become a spectacular lament for love itself.

Writer's note: The soundtrack for this film is incredible and not available to purchase. Here is a link to a brilliant YouTube playlist of the entire thing. Click here to check it out. And click here to read my 2010 interview with Dolan himself.

Monday, November 19, 2012


Written by Seth Grossman and Yaron Zilberman
Directed by Yaron Zilberman
Starring Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir

At the onset of first time narrative filmmaker, Yaron Zilberman’s A LATE QUARTET, Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), tells his Juilliard class the story of Beethoven’s “Opus 131”. This particular piece, written specifically for a string quartet, is a challenge for even the most seasoned musician. For Beethoven wrote it without any places to break throughout the atypical seven movements. Peter, a celebrated cellist himself, asks his class to imagine what it must be like to get through such a piece, what with no opportunity to retune your instrument while playing non-stop. He asks his class but in fact, it is Zilberman’s audience that is truly being asked the question. A LATE QUARTET is his answer.

The Fugues is a string quartet that has been performing together for now 25 years. The players that make it up are some of the finest in the world and the same can be said for the actors portraying them. Walken, who anchors this emotionally unwieldy film, is joined by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and the reasonably lesser know, Mark Ivanir. When we first meet them, it is evident that they are a close group, that they know how each other plays and how to play together while elevating the group as a whole. Musical symbolism is abound in A LATE QUARTET - Is first violin higher in rank than second? Is it better to play perfectly or to take risks? - and, at first, the questions are subtle and insightful. As time goes on, say around the third or fourth movement, if you will, Zilberman starts to lean toward the melodramatic. Suddenly, this composed, elegant effort is turning into a “VH1 Behind the Music” special for the classical crowd.

As the quartet readies for their 25th season, Peter, who is much older than the remaining members, is diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson’s. As he respects the music above all else, he announces to his longtime friends and colleagues that he will do everything in his power to play with them on their first concert, but that this will be his last. Naturally, this throws everyone off and the question becomes whether the quartet should continue at all. This threat to the comfort and world they’ve all known for so long brings all of their insecurities to the surface and poses the film’s most pertinent question about the role of the individual within a larger group. With so much emotion to balance, Zilberman demonstrates great promise as a director but he still needs some more practice before he tackles his next opus.

Friday, November 16, 2012


Written and Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro

Pat Solitano: She is my friend with an F.
Danny: Capital F.
Pat Solitano: Yeah, for friend.

The one thing I took away from David O. Russell’s SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK is that you have to deal with the bad in order to get to the good stuff. Always focusing on the silver lining never gives you the opportunity to face your demons and allows them the chance to grow while you’re looking the other way. Russell makes an apt point here as applying this theory to watching this film is really the only way to enjoy it.

There is one other thing I learned while watching this film, that Bradley Cooper has the potential to take on stronger, more dramatic parts. Cooper plays Pat Solitano, whom we meet moments before he exits a mental facility, where he is being treated for bipolar disorder, convincing himself aloud that he’s better now. It is never really clear to either of his fantastically fussy parents, played by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver, whether he truly is any better but they take him in regardless. Meanwhile, it never needs to be made clear to Pat’s new friend, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), because she is often just as messed up as he is. Together they learn to heal each other ... through amateur dance?

Considering how visceral Russell went last time out with his Oscar-nominated work on THE FIGHTER, I am genuinely surprised by how tame SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK is. A fantastic ensemble elevates Russell’s screenplay, with moments both touching and amusing, but never to the point where it breaks free of its more conventional trappings. But when you weigh the film’s faults against it’s own silver linings, its still worth the experience.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Joe Wright
Starring Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Matthew MacFayden and Jude Law

Anna Karenina: This is wrong.
Count Vronsky: Makes no difference.
Anna Karenina: You’ve no right.
Count Vronsky: Makes no difference.

Director, Joe Wright, reunites with his apparent muse, Keira Knightley, for their third collaboration together and what will be the fourth film version of Leo Tolstoy’s classic, ANNA KARENINA. After branching out with his contemporary thriller, HANNA, Wright returns to the period pieces that made his career (ATONEMENT, PRIDE & PREJUDICE) and what a welcome return it is. Not only does Wright know how to translate potentially dated material for modern audiences without sacrificing the source, but his take on this particular tale only further establishes him as one of the world’s most exciting directors working today.

For those who aren’t already familiar with it, Anna’s story is a tragic one. She was married at the age of 18 to an older politician (Jude Law), bore him a son, and for some time, her life was good. Being so young though, she didn’t know what she was missing. Enter the attractive and persistent Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and suddenly, Anna learns of something she thought she had already figured out - love. An affair will ruin her standing in society though so, with the stakes raised high, she must choose between passion and position.

Wright stages this period melodrama in the only place that it can be allowed to embrace its more sensational elements, the stage itself. He playfully moves the action back and forth between a majestic theatre and exquisitely elaborate locations with transitions that energize the piece in ways that will constantly surprise and delight the more open-minded viewer. It is easy to see some more casual filmgoers being put off by Wright’s style but there is simply nothing casual about ANNA KARENINA.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012



It is a wonder to me why Pixar just cannot get a break at the Academy Awards. Sure, their feature length films pick up nods, and often wins, in the animated category almost every year (sorry, CARS 2), but for some inexplicable reason, their short films only periodically pick up the nomination. They haven’t actually won in the Animated Short category since 2002’s FOR THE BIRDS. After sifting through their latest anthology, PIXAR SHORT FILMS COLLECTION VOLUME 2, you too will surely be scratching your head and wondering the same thing.

This second collection of Pixar shorts features 12 films that run about 75 minutes in total. There is filmmaker commentary on each film and the disc also features a few rare shorts from Pixar gurus, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Pete Doctor. The most notable difference between the fare in this compilation compared to their last, is the abundance of films featuring characters from their features. Some of these films, including YOUR FRIEND THE RAT (a good natured history lesson about why rats are not the worst, featuring Remy from RATATOUILLE) or HAWAIIAN VACATION (a faux Hawaiian romp, featuring the folks from TOY STORY) stand strong on their own. Others, most notably the CARS and UP inspired shorts, seem more like after thoughts than stand alone ideas.

And then, there are four of the most endearing and wonderful animated shorts I’ve ever seen. Sure, most of the animated shorts I see are from Pixar, but that in no way takes away from how amazing these particular films are. PRESTO is a brilliant homage to Bugs Bunny, which features one hungry, little bunny forced to participate in a magic act in order to get his carrot dinner. Having had enough with playing for his pay, he decides to have a little fun with the magician’s act. PARTLY CLOUDY is a hilarious little piece about an unlucky stork who has to deliver all babies no one else wants to, like the electric eels and the baby crocs. LA LUNA, the latest Pixar short which screened before BRAVE in theatres this summer, is an absolutely gorgeous piece about a young boy finding his own path, reminiscent of “The Little Prince”. And DAY AND NIGHT, a wildly imaginative piece about the wonders that are particular to both periods of time, is by far my favorite of the bunch. Its genius is that while you delight in the spectacle, you are suddenly and subtly reminded that you should not fear what you do not know. How this particular film didn’t take home the Oscar, I will never understand.

The short film is an obscure art form. So much hard work goes into them and yet, rarely do audiences ever get to see them. Fortunately, Pixar not only continues to keep them alive in the eyes of the public, but they also continue to make great examples that will endure much longer than a lot of the disposable features out there today.

Monday, November 12, 2012


An interview with BRAVE director, Mark Andrews

Who would have ever thought that the studio who brought you rats in kitchens, robots in space and monsters in closets would be considered brave for telling a princess story? Yet, here we are. Pixar Animation Studios is set to release their 13th feature length animated film, BRAVE, this month, and all anyone can seem to focus on is the fact that for the first time in Pixar history, the protagonist is a girl.

“It is weird,” BRAVE director, Mark Andrews, tells me when I ask him if the attention his main character’s gender is garnering, is at all strange to him. “It’s not like we have a big dry erase board that says, ‘Pixar films until 2025: Girl picture, giraffe picture, something in Saudi Arabia!’ If we focused on that aspect, on marketing, on what we haven’t done, then we would be playing to that instead of playing to the strengths of the character and the story.”

These particular strengths are what Pixar has come to be known for and this can be at least in part attributed to their incredibly organic attention to detail. “We are more focused on building something from the ground up instead of hitting some bar or some expectation,” Andrews tells me of the Pixar philosophy, when we meet at Toronto’s Casa Loma, during the BRAVE press tour. “We’re still very much in the canon of Pixar, which is to say you’re going to get something where you don’t really know what to expect, but trust us, its gonna be good.”

The film had just screened, to great fanfare, for Toronto audiences the night before. Naturally, Andrews wore a kilt to the event. In what is now a great Pixar tradition, a number of the film’s animators, along with Andrews, spent a couple of weeks in and around the highlands of Scotland to take in the scenery. Andrews considers this research pilgrimage to be invaluable if you want to get out of your head. “You have to go, you have to touch everything to get here,” Andrews motions toward his heart at this point. “And once I get here, then I can get it on to a page or into a painting or tell somebody else about it because I can give them these details to hold on to. You get to the character of it all.”

Andrews, hard at work
The character everyone is talking about is Merida, a red-haired fireball of a character, as bullheaded as she is fearless and forward thinking. Not only is Merida, voiced in the film by BOARDWALK EMPIRE's Kelly McDonald, the first Pixar girl but she’s also a princess at that. “Disney’s done the princess, y’know, a lot,” Andrews jokes boisterously. “We knew we had a princess. It serves the story and raises the stakes but we knew we were making an anti-princess. She’s everything a princess is not.”

Taking on a princess in a long line of princesses, while still making sure to make the character modern and relatable to today’s crowd, meant tweaking the formula a little. “Being a princess and being a woman are very different things. It’s not this old adage that you have to be saved, that you have to fall in love to be complete,” Andrews states with the pride of a father. “Merida’s not questing for happily ever after. She’s discovering who she is and how she fits into this world, on her own terms.”

Merida marches to her own beat
And so even though I began all of this by pointing out how odd it is that there is so much focus on Pixar first’s in BRAVE (add first fairy tale and period piece to the list while you’re at it), as opposed to the film itself, Andrews is happy for the attention nonetheless. “I kinda like that everyone is gravitating to the specifics about the film so that when they see it, they’re going to see it’s so much more than just a picture about a girl.”

Best of Black Sheep: BRAVE

Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Written by Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman and Irene Mecchi
Voices by Kelly McDonald, Emma Thompson and Billy Connolly

Princess Merida: If you had a chance to change your fate, would you?

Not surprisingly in the least, Pixar’s 13th animated feature, BRAVE, is breathtaking from the very beginning. The sprawling Scottish highlands are already beautiful in their natural state but when Pixar uses their imagination and technical ability to recreate something, that place is reborn anew on screen. Ordinarily, they have the same ability to reinvigorate even the oldest of stories and this time around, they take aim at the very familiar princess archetype and while they do make BRAVE into an altogether compelling and rousing coming of age tale, I’m not sure I would call it an altogether brave effort.

Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly McDonald, who replaced Reese Witherspoon when she couldn’t do it, thank God) has always been more interested in playing with swords instead of playing with boys. Her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), encourages her while her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), strives every day to make her into a proper princess. In order to maintain the order of the land, Merida must marry one of the first born princes from the neighboring kingdoms, but Merida is adamant about not wanting to be any part of this. In fact, this is what Merida is best at, knowing what she doesn’t want as opposed to knowing what she does. This is why, when she pays a mysterious (and hilarious) witch to change her fate, she isn’t the least bit specific about how exactly she would like it to be changed. And so it is altered, but the question becomes, is this new path any better than the old one she was on or is it actually worse? And worse still, can Merida even make it back to her true path now that she’s embarked on this one?

BRAVE is efficiently told without a trace of fat to be found. And while there are no unnecessary distractions as a result, the whole thing feels a tad rushed and bit slight considering the pedigree putting it out there. That said, Pixar’s best efforts (especially for a film that changed directing hands, and subsequently changed direction drastically, half way through) do elevate BRAVE far past its minor shortcomings to be extremely enjoyable and exciting. Merida should stand strong and proud in the long line of great Pixar characters. She shows us and herself that our fates are living and breathing inside of us at all times; we need only be brave enough to see them and embrace them.

Be sure not to miss Black Sheep's interview with BRAVE director, Mark Andrews.

Thursday, November 08, 2012


Written by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves
Directed by Marc Webb
Starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans and Denis Leary

Spider-Man: Hey! Watch it! I’m swingin’ here! I’m swingin’ here!

My guess is that calling the new Spider-Man reboot, “The Occasionally Amazing but Mostly Just OK and Reasonably Redundant Spider-Man” might not have been a slam dunk, marketing wise, so I get why they went with the shorter, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN instead. The fact is, this latest film incarnation of everyone’s favorite web slinging superhero exists for one reason and one reason only. If Sony didn’t put out another film before a certain date, they would lose their rights back to Marvel, and one of their most successful film franchises would be finished. So they took a gamble and decided to start from scratch on a series that only finished five years ago, hoping that just enough time had passed for the next generation to claim Spidey as their own. The gamble has paid off financially, which is of course the only way that really counts, but as for its critical success, my opinion is still swinging from side to side.

Under the direction of (500) DAYS OF SUMMER helmer, Marc Webb, who incidentally loses all trace of originality and personal voice as part of this massive machine, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN takes us back to when our lovably geeky hero, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), was still in high school. It isn’t long before he is bit by a radio active spider when he breaks away from the group at a laboratory focused on cross-species genetics. And not long after that, Peter can just tell; something is not right from his spider bite. The problem here is that this whole spider bite bit has already been done, and not so long ago. Sure, everyone is entitled to their own different take on the tale but Webb’s doesn’t feel all that different than Sam Raimi’s 2002 version. You can’t really mess too much with an origin story, unless you want to enrage the fanboys (and girls), but that doesn’t leave today’s viewer, whose memory may not have entirely faded after just ten years, to feel like they’re watching something they haven’t already seen. By the time Parker loses his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) in a senseless mugging, it feels like a plot point we just had to get past rather than the pivotal moment it truly is.

To overcome the more plodding details of the plot, Webb must differentiate his Spider-Man visually and through character. Garfield is a great Peter Parker. In his teenage form, Parker is very shy and befuddled around others. He has a strong moral compass but he hasn’t yet figured his whole self out so his motivations can occasionally be heavily influenced by his ego. And once he’s flying through the air as Spider-Man, Garfield continues to soar in the part. He is a more aggressive, more raw, more fearless Spider-Man than Tobey Maguire ever was. His cunning often caught me off guard and Spidey’s rumbles with The Lizard (Rhys Ifans) are some of the film’s more exhilarating moments. When it comes down to it, if you’re a fan of Spider-Man movies, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN can be an incredible ride. I for one love flying through the air on nothing but a web and a prayer, but when this ride comes to its inevitable end, some may feel like they’ve already been on it before.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012


Written by Tony Kushner
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, David Strathairn, Sally Field and Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Abraham Lincoln: Do you think we choose to be born or that we are fitted into the times we are born into?

As I sit here writing this review of LINCOLN, the latest film from the figurative president of Hollywood, Steven Spielberg (WAR HORSE), millions of Americans are hitting the polls to vote in the presidential election. The race is incredibly close and there is much at stake. It is this current political climate that makes LINCOLN even more poignant than it inherently is, and elevates it to an even more meaningful place. As Spielberg positions Mr. Lincoln as a family man, as a storyteller interested in rewriting history, he gives the audience a president that is just as complex as today’s candidates. He also gives us a man that loves his country and its future so much that he transcends political party allegiance.

Based on a densely worded and often surprisingly amusing screenplay by Pulitzer Prize winner, Tony Kushner, LINCOLN focuses its attention on the weeks leading up to his assassination in 1865. In these weeks, Mr. Lincoln (as embodied here by the almost always revelatory Daniel Day-Lewis) is about to be reinstated to his second term as President of the United States. The American civil war is in its 4th grueling year, with hundreds of thousands of casualties already counted and he, like a great deal of the country, is desperate for it to end. He will not allow that end to come though unless it involves the abolishment of slavery, the central issue to the war. With a divided house and a race to make change before the war is over, Mr. Lincoln sets out to add a 13th amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery once and for all. How he goes about doing this though brings into question how far morality can be stretched in the name of the greater good.

LINCOLN is far from Spielberg’s best work but, thanks mostly to Day-Lewis’s uncanny performance (seriously, someone needs to tell me how this man consistently transforms himself so brilliantly) and Kushner’s crafty script, it is still his best film since 2005’s MUNICH. Some of the more personal elements to the story, Lincoln’s complicated relationship with his melodramatic wife (Sally Field) and almost clichéd relationship with his eldest son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who wants to enlist against his father’s wishes, distract somewhat from the bigger picture. Fortunately, that bigger picture is plenty big enough to eclipse these minor missteps. We are talking about eliminating slavery after all, which was just as much a war of a different sort behind the political scenes as it was on the battlefield. And, as the 13th Amendment to the Constitution comes closer and closer to passing, LINCOLN becomes a truly liberating film experience. Great change takes great strength and even greater men of resolve and character. LINCOLN is a wonderful and welcome reminder that we are still capable of making such momentous strides to this day.