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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.

The director of Our Friend, Gabriela Cowperthwaite.

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. Opens at the Roxy Theatre next January 29th.

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 planets/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. 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 also 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 in a year when it often feels like humans couldn’t be any more disappointing. Three stars out of five.

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 prairie dogs/planets.

Monster Hunter is now playing at Scotiabank, 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 planets.

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 planets 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.