Archive for February, 2015

Metro In Focus: A Backstage peak at the Canadian Screen Awards

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 12.50.24 AMBy Richard Crouse – Metro In Focus

Everybody knows what happens on stage at a big show like this Sunday’s Canadian Screen Awards. A host sings, dances and/or tells jokes, glamorous presenters tear open envelopes and announce award winners who thank everyone from managers to spouses to Jesus. There’s the slapping of backs, bespoke tuxedos and flowing gowns and tears.

Add in some drama, a red carpet and you have the ingredients of a big awards show, but what happens backstage?

Lots, as it turns out. Every year at the Canadian Screen Awards there’s a whole other show that happens offstage in the pressroom. Located deep in the bowels of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts it’s my domain during the live broadcast. Every year I host the room, interviewing the winners as they come off stage in front of an “audience” made up of local and national reporters there for the free food and access to the celebs. I am the purveyor of sound bites, the compère to the press who take the interviews I do and turn them into stories for the next day’s papers and newscasts.

Over the years Elvis Costello, Tatiana Maslany, William Shatner and many others have passed through, tossing out bon mots like they were candy. Jay Baruchel let it slip he was engaged to Alison Pill on our small stage. Viggo Mortensen proudly waved the Montreal Canadiens flag in the face of a roomful of Leafs fans and Jill Hennessey gushed about the Canadian Screen Awards gift bag, thanking the Academy for the Norman Jewison Maple Syrup.

It’s an easy gig for me. Everyone who comes down from the main stage is a winner, automatically in a good mood and ready to have some fun.

When Lifetime Achievement Award winner David Cronenberg was asked where the inspiration for his movies came from he took a moment to examine the assembled crowd of journalists before deadpanning, “Just standing here is giving me all kinds of ideas for horror films.”

Call Me Fitz star Tracy Dawson picked up a CSA for Best Actress but later told me that awards don’t guarantee work. She won a Gemini in 2011 for playing Meghan Fitzpatrick on the show and thought she had it made. Then her phone didn’t ring for ten months. In the pressroom she joked that she wanted to be clear—she was looking for work. “I’m totally available,” she laughed.

It’s a different show downstairs, less glitzy and more relaxed.

This year Andrea Martin is taking over hosting duties from fellow-SCTVer Martin Short but I’ll never forget last year how Short tore up the pressroom, still jacked up from hosting the show. He was hilarious when I asked if he’d try and top his spectacular flying entrance next year. “I can only fly so many times,” he said. “That harness chafes.”

Metro Canada: Adrian Martinez is proud of being “sidekick to the stars.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 12.36.37 AMBy Richard Crouse – Metro Canada

Adrian Martinez is “that guy.” You recognize his face but probably don’t know his name. He’s the actor you’ve seen in everything from American Hustle to The Amazing Spider-Man to this weekend’s Focus, standing just to the side of the main actors. He’s the sidekick to the stars, a moniker he wears proudly.

“Sidekick to the Stars?” he says. “That’s absolutely cool with me. I’m working and it’s the best film school in the world.”

From Ben Stiller, his “teacher” and Secret Life of Walter Mitty co-star, he says he learned “how to compartmentalize your energy. Nobody works harder than Ben Stiller. He was acting all day, directing and then editing.”

“Will Ferrell,” he says, “is surprisingly not funny on set except during the takes when he’s hysterical. I took discipline away from him.”

In Focus Martinez plays Farhad, a computer expert and associate of scam artist Nicky Spurgeon, played by Will Smith. It’s a small but important role, which gave Martinez the chance to watch Smith in action as they shot the film in New Orleans and Buenos Aires.

“From Will Smith I learned gratitude,” he says. “This is a guy who’s been doing this a long while and every day on set he was absolutely invested in the well being of everyone. He would gauge the temperature of the room and if he felt people were dragging he would just start dancing. Literally get jiggy with it. I felt, wow, this guy doesn’t have to do anything and he’s doing everything to lead the pack into the right place.”

He puts those lessons to work in a variety of gigs from comedy to drama, from big screen to small.

“I do television and commercials,” he says. “I don’t care. I just work. The way I’ve always seen it is that commercials are the haiku of acting, TV is like the short stories and movies are the novels. Whatever format you use as an actor you’re still a character whether it is six seconds or an hour-and-a-half.”

Finding a way to balance his professional and personal lives was a lesson he learned from a source off set.

“I have a nine-year-old daughter and she keeps it in perspective fore me,” he says. “The other day we were talking and I said, ‘Isn’t this great? I’m in Los Angeles but we can facetime and see each other.’ She said, very cogently, ‘You can’t hug in a facetime daddy.’ She doesn’t fool around. She brings it right home. I flying back to New York today and I can’t wait to hug her.”

Metro Canada: Playing a dangerous game in Elephant Song

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 12.34.14 AMBy Richard Crouse – Metro Canada

Bruce Greenwood is a busy actor who has spent much of the last year on set, away from his Los Angeles home.

“Yesterday I found myself reading a script,” he says of a rare day off. “I was lying on the coach and I put the script down and fell asleep in the sun. I woke up an hour later and said to my wife, ‘We’re home. I’m lying on the coach. I could get up and make tea but I don’t have to. My bag is not packed.’”

When he isn’t on set the actor, best known as Christopher Pike in the rebooted Star Trek series, occupies himself in the kitchen.

“I’m baking bread,” he says. “It’s my new thing. I’m making at least a couple of baguettes a day. Usually I make three in a batch, give two to the neighbours and force the other one on my wife.”

In the new psychological thriller Elephant Song—just one of four movies he has in the pipeline—Greenwood as hospital chief of staff Dr. Toby Green is lured into a cat and mouse game with Michael, a long time patient played by Xavier Dolan, who may know the whereabouts of a missing doctor.

Greenwood hadn’t met his co-star and Dolan wanted to keep it that way—at least until they shot their first scene.

“He had a great idea early on which serves to illustrate how willing he is to experiment,” says Greenwood. “He decided that when the two characters meet in the film for the first time it might be interesting that, as actors, we were meeting for the first time while the cameras were rolling. I kind of thought, ‘Well, that’s a bit of extra lifting I don’t think is really necessary.’ But he really wanted to try it so I said, ‘OK.’ When he walked into the room all this stuff started pouring through my system that I couldn’t have anticipated. It turned out to be a great idea.”

Greenwood has been so busy, he had to rely on journalists to refresh his memory about Elephant Song, a movie he shot almost two years ago.

“It is one of those things where if you are doing ten interviews in a row, the first two interviewers get the short end of the stick because during the interviews you’re reminded of what the film was about. By the third interview, twenty minutes in, you remember what it was about the film that excited you and interested you and challenged you. Today after the first couple of interviews I hung up the phone and thought, ‘God, those poor people must think I’m an idiot.’”

Big New from Grand Rock is a comedic look at small-town journalism

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 12.35.18 AMBy Richard Crouse – Metro – Canada

For several of the stars of Big News from Grand Rock, making the film was a family affair.

“Peter and I were asked to do it first,” says Leah Pinsent of her husband and co-star Peter Keleghan, “and didn’t even know Dad was going to be part of it.”

Dad, of course, is acting icon Gordon Pinsent.

“Because it is a small independent movie we were all put up at the Super 8 Motel,” says Leah. “I said, ‘You have an opportunity where the three of us are family and we’re right next to Georgian Bay so why don’t you give us the cash for the Super 8 and we’ll rent a cottage. So we actually made it into quite a nice summer affair. Brought the dog and walked along the beach. It was pretty cool.”

In the movie Ennis Esmer stars as Leonard Crane, the editor of the Grand Rock Weekly Ledger, a small town newspaper on the verge of bankruptcy. With no real local news to draw from Leonard turns to the town’s video store for inspiration. In the hope of pumping up circulation and advertising revenues, he fabricates a series of wild “news” stories based on the plots of old movies.

Leah co-stars as the town’s mayor, a part she says she based on Pamela Wallin and Rob Ford, while Keleghan is a dimwitted reporter employed by the paper’s embattled publisher played by Gordon.

We flipped the movie’s premise on Leah and Peter, asking them to take a recent headline and turn it into a movie pitch, complete with casting.

Keleghan suggested, “Harper shuts down transparency… Kills Sun TV by mistake but CBC thrives!” As for casting he says, “John Baird is looking for a job so he would play Ezra Levant. Tom Green would be Pierre-Karl Péladeau and Raymond Burr, as he is today, would co-star as Steven Harper.”

Leah chose, “Woman gives birth in first class airport lounge while waiting for flight” as her headline. “In this particular version she doesn’t have a business class ticket so they make her pay the entrance fee as her water bursts,” she says. “The person behind the desk would be me and the woman having the baby would be me. The woman with the cart, serving food who helps birth the baby would also be me. And the baby, of course, would be me.”

FOCUS: 3 ½ STARS. “Half Soderbergh, half Scorsese with a dash of “The Sting.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 4.45.56 PMNicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) is a seasoned grifter from a long line of con men. His father and grandfather were flim flam artists and now he is passing along the tricks of the trade to Jess (Margot Robbie) a beautiful newcomer with a light touch—perfect for picking pockets—who just might get Nicky to break his golden rule of never getting emotionally involved with anyone.

When Spurgeon first spots Jess she is working a low level scam in a hotel bar. He teaches her how to use misdirection to pick pockets. “You get their focus,” he says, “and then you can take whatever you like.” Using a mixture of his methods and chutzpah they hit the rubes at the Superbowl in New Orleans, raking in over a million dollars in one week.

A nervy game of one-upmanship nets another big score, and Jess, thinking she is part of the team—both professionally and romantically—imagines a life of crime with Nicky until he unceremoniously dumps her, gifting her with $80,000 and a free ride to the airport.

Three years later Nicky is in Buenos Aires working a big job for billionaire Garriga   (Rodrigo Santoro). To his surprise Jess is also there, but is she working an angle or has she gone straight?

One part Scorsese, one part Soderbergh, with a healthy dose of “The Sting” thrown in, “Focus” is a stylish crime drama more about the characters than the crime. Nicky’s maxims—“Die with the lie.”—set the scene, but the story is more about a commitment-phobe who loses himself over a woman. It works because of the chemistry between Smith and Robbie. They have great repartee, trade snappy dialogue and despite a gaping age difference, make a credible couple.

Smith hasn’t been this effortlessly charming in years and Robbie blends streetwise—“It’s a minor miracle I’m not a hooker right now,” she says.—with easy charm. The pair are a winning combo, reminiscent of the spark-plug chemistry between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in “Out of Sight.”

“Focus” could use a bit more focus in the storytelling—a late movie plot twist doesn’t ring true given the lead up to the big reveal—but it zips along at such a pace and is enough fun that you may not notice.

THE LAZARUS EFFECT: 2 STARS. “crams a lot into its scant running time.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 4.46.49 PM“The Lazarus Effect,” a new low-budget thriller starring Olivia Wilde and Mark Duplass, is about giving people a second chance. A new serum formulated by a group of young, good-looking geniuses prolongs the time after death that doctors can continue to safely try and revive patients. But, as always, when you trifle with the natural order of things there are unexpected consequences. “If we are going to be asking big questions we have to be ready for the answers,” says Zoe (Wilde), who, as it turns out, wasn’t as prepared for the answers as she thought.

Liberally borrowing from “Frankenstein’s” playing God cautionary tale, “The Lazarus Effect” sees researchers Zoe, Frank (Duplass) and Niko (Donald Glover) create a formula that defies death, bringing deceased animals back to life. (“What if we ripped him from doggie heaven?” wonders Zoe, weighing the ethics of reviving the dearly departed.) The mutts come back a little more ornery than they were the first time they were alive, but a trial run or two are successful enough that big pharma swoops in and steals their idea. In a last ditch attempt to prove their ownership over the serum they secretly do one final test but when the experiment goes awry they are forced to do an unscheduled human run with horrifying results. For such smart people they sure do a lot of stupid things.

“The Lazarus Effect” is the latest shocker from Blumhouse Productions, the folks responsible for the low-fi thrills of “Paranormal Activity,” “Sinister” and “Oculus.” They value atmosphere over actual horror, using shadows and jump scares to get pulses racing. Sometimes it’s very effective—“Insidious” leaves viewers with an icky unease that’s hard to shake—but just as often they fall flat.

“The Lazarus Effect,” clocking in at an economical 75 minutes, crams a lot into its scant running time, but fails to fully develop any of its ideas. It’s alive with Frankenstein references, but where old Frankenstein lumbered around, mostly meaning well when he wasn’t throwing little girls into lakes and being menaced by angry villagers, the recently deceased here flits around maniacally. They (THERE WILL BE NO SPOILERS HERE) have high brain activity, can read minds and move things telepathically, which you’d think would be pretty cool, but their new talents only appear to make them angry. Combine that with an undeveloped religion vs. science subplot that finds our undead reliving the most traumatic moment of their lives over and over again and you’re left with bits and pieces of a story that are never stitched together to form a whole.

“The Lazarus Effect” has some corny lines—“Did I just die?”—a few unintentionally funny moments—the human comes back to life covered in a white sheet, like a kid’s ghost costume—and atmosphere to burn. What it doesn’t have is the sense of fun necessary to pull off the cheesy moments or the scares to sell it as a full-blown horror story.

ELEPHANT SONG: 3 STARS. “long on intrigue but short on satisfaction.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 4.48.01 PM“Elephant Song” transports Nicolas Billon’s psychological thriller of the same name from the stage to the cinema but keeps the intimacy of the play on the much larger canvas of the screen.

Set in1966, Bruce Greenwood is Dr. Toby Green, chief of staff in a mental hospital investigating the mysterious disappearance of psychiatrist Dr. Lawrence (Colm Feore). Lawrence vanished after an appointment with Michael (Xavier Dolan), a long time patient who is believed to know the location of the missing doctor. Despite warnings from Nurse Susan Peterson (Catherine Keener), Green’s ex-wife and the health care worker closest to Michael, that the patient is a compulsive fantasist, Green dives into a cat and mouse game with the troubled young man.

“Elephant Song” is long on intrigue but short on satisfaction.

In his conversations with Green, Michael is meant to be a Hannibal Lecter Jr.—a comparison reinforced by Dolan’s slavish Anthony Hopkins impression and, “quid pro quo,” reference—an expert manipulator one step ahead of the doctor. Trouble is, his mannered delivery is artificial and most of his revelations are red herrings. His revelations feel simply like plot points to keep the action moving, without ever getting us much closer to the heart of the mystery. Later his more natural interactions with Peterson are a welcome relief from the affectation of his scenes with Green.

Greenwood and Keener do good work here, even though it strains credulity that Michael could hold such sway over seasoned pros like Green and Peterson.

“Elephant Song” is essentially a two-hander broken up with flashbacks, but director Charles Biname skilfully builds drama and tension throughout. It’s a shame that there is no payoff before the end credits roll.

BIG NEWS FROM GRAND ROCK: 3 STARS. “a comedy about a very serious and timely subject.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 4.49.19 PM“Big News from Grand Rock” is a comedy about a very serious and timely subject.

In the movie Ennis Esmer stars as Leonard Crane, the editor of the Grand Rock Weekly Ledger, a small town newspaper on the verge of bankruptcy. With no real local news to draw from Leonard turns to the town’s video store for inspiration. In the hope of pumping up circulation and advertising revenues, he fabricates a series of wild “news” stories based on the plots of old movies.

His desperate measure almost works as readers return to the paper, but, as Brian Williams recently found out, when you make stuff up eventually you’re going to get busted. Before you can yell, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” his comeuppance comes in the form of Lucy (Meredith MacNeill), a reporter from the city who threatens to expose Leonard’s duplicity… until she discovers that one of the ridiculous stories just might be true.

“Big News at Grand Rock” generates laughs—Esmer earns his pays with an easy charm and Shawn Ashmore is laugh out loud funny as the video store clerk—but tackles a very important topic, the slow dismantling of local newspapers. With small papers biting the dust everyday—the movie was shot in Midland, Ontario, whose newspaper shuttered just weeks before the shoot—access to local news drying up or changing in such a way that you’re not going to be able to recognize it in a few years. “Big News” wants you to think about your local voice disappearing but doesn’t beat you over the head with its message.

Keeping things light are Leah Pinsent as the Grand Rock’s mayor, Peter Keleghan as a dimwitted reporter employed by the paper’s embattled publisher played by Canadian icon Gordon Pinsent.

Story wise “Big News at Grand Rock” errs on the side of predictability but a winning cast and a timely message make it headline worthy.

AFTER THE BALL: 2 STARS. “aren’t many surprises in this fluffy commercial tale.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 4.50.22 PMLike the love child of “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Twelfth Night” and “Cinderella”—I know that doesn’t make sense, but either does much of this movie—“After the Ball” is a modern day fairy tale set against the backdrop of the fashion industry.

Portia Doubleday stars as fashion grad Kate Kassel. From the outside she seems to have it all, talent, drive and a father (Chris Noth) who is the CEO of a fashion line. Trouble is, the family name has been sullied in recent years and no one will hire her. Fashionable hat in hand she begs for a job at the family business, now being run by her evil stepmother (Lauren Holly) and talentless, vindictive stepsisters (Natalie Krill and Anna Hopkins). Her obvious talent doesn’t endear her to the sisters and soon she is framed for fashion theft and fired. Determined to set things right, and save the business, she dons a disguise—she’s now Nate—and returns to the fold.

The movie’s influences are beyond obvious—Kate is the princess, get it?—and there aren’t many surprises in the retelling of this light and fluffy commercial tale and while it is a movie probably best suited to the small screen VOD experience that doesn’t negate its modest charms.

“After the Ball” tries a bit too hard to please, but Doubleday has good chemistry with love interest/prince charming Marc-André Grondin and Holly has some one-dimensional fun as the villainous stepmother. Carlo Rota’s Stanley Tucci impression, however, brings us back to earth, reminding us we’re watching a copy of the kind of top-of-the-line rom coms that feature aerial views of Manhattan in their opening moments.