Director Peter Berg makes manly-men movies about tough guys willing to sacrifice all in the service of others. Films like “The Kingdom,” based on the 1996 bombing of the Khobar housing complex and “Lone Survivor,” his look at the unsuccessful United States Navy SEALs counter-insurgent mission Operation Red Wings, are loud action movies bound together by testosterone and sentiment.
His latest, “Deepwater Horizon,” based on the worst oil spill in US history, fits comfortably alongside “The Kingdom” and “Lone Survivor.” All three are true life tales, ripped from recent headlines, and each of them are loud, in-your-face movies that feel more motivated by muscle than brains.
Mark Wahlberg is Mike Williams, husband to Felicia (Kate Hudson), father to an adorable little girl and the chief engineer of the offshore oil drilling rig Deepwater Horizon. In April 2010 he left for a routine twenty-one day stint aboard the rig that turned disastrous when an uncontrollable gusher of crude oil caused an explosion that ultimately left 11 of the 126 crew members dead.
It takes an hour of getting to know everyone, like British Petroleum executive Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), no-nonsense crew chief Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) and rig mechanic Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), before disaster strikes, both literally and narratively. When the rig blows it takes with it any semblance of storyline, replacing with plot with forty minutes of relentless, fiery action.
Berg doesn’t just want to show you the hellish circumstances that destroyed Deepwater Horizon, he wants you to leave the theatre feeling as though you were there. Fireballs light up the screen as the sound of twisted, breaking metal fills your ears. It’s effective, if a little repetitive after thirty minutes or so. The characters get a little lost in the commotion and are frequently hard to see through the plumes of smoke that decorate the screen.
As an action movie and a story of resilience “Deepwater Horizon” is a visceral experience. As a tribute to the men who lost their lives in the blast it feels less thought through. The In Memoriam roll honours those lost, but feels tacked on after the bombast that precedes it.
Also strange by its absence is any comment on the devastating ecological consequences of the event.
“Deepwater Horizon” is a showcase for Berg’s muscular filmmaking but could have used a little more nuance.
From director Tim Burton comes “Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children,” another story of outsiders trying to find place in the world where they belong. Or in this case a place in time.
Teen years are for making friends and having fun but for Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) they are a hardship. He’s the weird kid in class, friendless except for his grandfather Abraham (Terence Stamp) who keeps the boy entertained with wild stories about a life spent travelling the world and the Home for Peculiar Children where he was raised. He grew up side-by-side with a boy made of bees, a teacher who could turn into a bird, and a balloon girl, lighter than air who had to wear lead shoes so as not to float away.
When his Abe is attacked Jake arrives in time to catch his last, strange words. “I know you think I’m crazy but the bird will explain everything,” he says before urging the youngster to venture off to find out who, what, he really is. “I should have told you years ago. I thought I could protect you.”
Thus begins Jake’s adventure, a journey that leads him to a small island where Miss Alma LeFay Perigrine (Eva Green) a.k.a. The Bird Lady, attends to her brood of peculiar child. She has created a time loop, reset every day, to keep her peculiar safe and protect them from growing old. Every day is September 3, 1943 all day. An attack by Hollows (Samuel L. Jackson and others), evil creatures who steal the eyeballs of peculiar children, upsets Perigrine’s orderly time loop and gives Jake a chance to learn why he was sent to the island.
The first hour of “Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children” is pure Tim Burton. He creates a fanciful world—imagine quirkier “X-Men”—with all his trademarks—mid-century kitsch, topiary sculptures, weird creatures and characters straight out of the outer regions of the imagination—and a mythology all its own. World building is a fantasy director’s strongest asset, and Burton paints a pretty picture, it’s just too bad he gets bogged down in the story in the second half.
The mushy second half erases the charm of the first sixty minutes as fanciful dreaminess and unique stop motion effects give way to CGI overload. The film’s long climax seems to go on forever—as though the audience is in one of Miss. Perigrine’s endless time loops—in an orgy of digital trickery that betrays the feel of the piece. An army of skeletons is a cool homage to Ray Harryhausen and setting its macabre sequence to weird amusement park dance music is a nice Burton touch, but it pales by comparison to the smaller, more intimate touches that give the movie much of its personality.
“Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children” has some beautiful images—like Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell), tethered to Jake like a balloon as he walks and she floats through an amusement park—but like many of Burton’s recent films the story feels like an afterthought.
It can take some doing, but once you get past the idea of Harry Potter as a white supremacist “Imperium” is an enjoyable potboiler.
Daniel Radcliffe plays FBI agent Nate Foster, a principled young man with an uncanny resemblance to Harry Potter, whose empathy and idealism attract the attention of his FBI superior Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette). She recruits him to
shave his hair down to the stubble and go deep undercover to take down a radical white nationalist group planning to build a dirty bomb. Inexperienced but focussed, he pilots his way through the ranks of racists, including the Ayran Brotherhood, right wing radio host Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts) and wealthy extremist Gerry Conway (“True Blood’s” Sam Trammell). Fully embedded, he finds the tricky balance between maintaining his personal beliefs without blowing his cover.
Based on real events “Imperium” is a standard undercover drama with a few standout performances. Radcliffe is very good at portraying Nate’s calm-under-pressure demeanour, while imparting a sense of urgency into the character. On the other end of the scale is Trammell who quietly plays his racist as an everyday family man who has allowed hate to infect his soul. As a provocative radio host Tracy Letts hands in another interesting performance, one that suggests that for some, money is more important than principles, no matter how skewed they may be.
“Imperium” contains some provocative and offensive images—the mere sight of Harry Potter shouting racial epithets will be enough to upset many a viewer—but the underlying story of racial intolerance doesn’t add much to the conversation. Instead of exploring the psychopathology of hatred and anti-Semitism in the United States it is content to play as a thriller and little else. As such it’s good, if not quite edge-of-your-seat stuff, but it could have been much more.
The film biz brims with wild stories but few are more far out than the tale of South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and director Shin Sang-ok as told in “The Lovers and the Despot.” The married couple were the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton of South Korean cinema, a glamorous couple, who like Liz and Dick, fell a part and the reunited, not by divorce and rekindled love, but by a dictator.
Dubbed the “Prince of Korean Cinema,” Shin was a prolific auteur but a terrible businessman. “He had huge dreams that his studio would be as big as Hollywood,” says his adopted daughter Myung-kim, but a series of flops left creditors pounding on the door. Money troubles and infidelity drove a wedge between the two and soon they divorced.
Meanwhile in the North leader Kim Jong-il wasn’t happy about the state of his country’s film industry. “We don’t have any films that get into film festivals,” he complains on secretly recorded tapes. “But in South Korea they have better technology. They are like college students. We are just in nursery school. I’ve looked at South Korean films. I asked my advisor, who’s the best director in the South? He said that his name is Shin. How could we persuade him to come here? How could I lure this director Shin?”
Turns out the “Dear Leader” was a huge film buff. With a fondness for films like “The Forty First,” a pulpy romance about a female Red Army sniper and an officer of the White Army, he had projection rooms in every one of his houses. “All of our films have crying scenes,” he said. “This isn’t a funeral. Is it?”
To up his country’s artistic game in 1978 the despot ordered Choi and Shin abducted. Choi was enticed to Hong Kong to discuss a film role with reps of the Golden Tripod Film Co. who turned out to be North Korean operatives. Four days later she was face to face with he new boss. “Thanks for coming,” he said. “I am Kim Jong.”
Shin’s road was longer and rougher. A suspect in the disappearance of Choi, he swore he would find out what happened, but ended up spending four years in North Korean detention centres before being reunited with his ex. “Kim laughed out loud,” Choi remembers, “like a triumphant general. Comrades let me introduce you. This is Director Shin, our new film advisor. This is Miss Choi, Mother of Korea.”
For the years that followed the couple remained in the North, made 17 films, enjoyed the generosity of their host, but all the while plotted their escape. “There’s acting for films,” Choi says. “And there’s acting for life.”
Fact is frequently stranger than fiction and the story of “The Lovers and the Despot,” as told by Choi, age 89, sounds like the plot of an unpublished John le Carré novel or perhaps a wild Seth Rogen movie idea. Its equal parts thrilling and absurd.
English documentary filmmakers Robert Cannan and Ross Adam use a linear approach to laying out the convoluted story. Their main asset is the first hand recollections of Choi—Shin passed away in 2006—and the remembrances of their kids. Using those interviews, the secret Kim recordings, archival footage and recreations they piece together a compelling thriller; a portrait of freedom, love and creativity in the face of totalitarianism.
One writer called the director of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetle Juice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands and this weekend’s Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, “the most widely embraced loner in contemporary cinema.”
“I always try to at least spend time, as much as I can everyday, staring out into space; staring out a window,” the director says. “I find that sometimes you get the most ideas and the most feelings when you’re not involved in things you have to do everyday; especially these days when technology is such that you can be reached any time. I try and avoid that.”
Unsurprisingly as a filmmaker the characters he champions tend to echo his sensibility. From warped Mad Hatter in his Alice in Wonderland to the grieving child in Frankenweenie who reanimated a dog’s corpse, Burton’s heroes are often misfits and outsiders.
From his debut, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Burton has showcased people on the fringes of society. “You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like me,” says man-child Pee-Wee (Paul Reubens), “I’m a loner. A rebel.” Loosely based Vittorio De Sica’s classic film The Bicycle Thief, Burton’s story sees Pee-Wee on a mission to retrieve his stolen fire engine-red customized 1940s Schwinn. David Letterman was a fan, describing the anti-social character as having, “the external structure of a bratty little precocious kid, but you know it’s being controlled by the incubus, the manifestation of evil itself.”
In his next film Burton breathed life into Betelgeuse‘s rancid lungs. In the haunted-house comedy Beetlejuice Michael Keaton plays a “bio-exorcist” with crazy hair, giant teeth and an attitude, hired by two ghosts to scare away the insufferable new owners of their old house.
“I think Beetlejuice shows the complete positive side of being misperceived and being categorized as something different,” Burton says. “He can do whatever he wants! He’s horrible and everybody knows it, so he’s a complete fantasy of all of that.”
Burton’s two greatest misfits, his most intrepid folks on the outside looking in, are the off-kilter Eds—Wood and Scissorhands.
Edward Scissorhands is the strange-but-sweet story of a man with scissors for hands. The first collaboration of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, the movie is a funny, romantic and moving fantasy was inspired by a sketch Burton created as a teenager. “One look at that drawing was all I needed to understand what Edward was about,” says Depp. “I felt very tortured as a teenager,” says Burton. “That’s where Edward Scissorhands came from. I was probably clinically depressed and didn’t know it.”
Ed Wood, played by Depp in the film of the same name, is the story of one of Hollywood’s great outcasts. Wood wrote, produced and directed low-budget anti-classics like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda. Burton says he was a fan of Wood’s films and after reading some of the director’s letters was touched by how Wood, “wrote about his films as if he was making Citizen Kane, you know, whereas other people perceived them as, like, the worst movies ever.”
Burton links his best-known creations, labelling them as “semi-antisocial, [having] difficulty communicating or relating, slightly out of touch,” and adds, “I feel very close to those characters. I really do. I feel like they are mutated children.”
Just before Tatiana Maslany flew to Los Angeles to accept an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for Orphan Black I asked her what she’s been doing lately.
“I filmed the movie Stronger and since then I’ve been chillin’ hard,” she laughed.
The Regina, Saskatchewan-born actress may have taken some downtime over the summer, but that is likely the last time off she’ll see for the foreseeable future. Right now she defines the term ‘in demand,’ enjoying the kind of popularity usually reserved for the very top of the a-list. Her Emmy win lit the internet on fire, earning millions of mentions that made her the most talked about person on facebook and twitter that night. Currently she is shooting the last season of Orphan Black and has three movies set for release, including Stronger opposite Jake Gyllenhaal and next weekend’s Two Lovers and a Bear.
The Nunavut-shot film focuses on star-crossed lovers Lucy and Roman, played by Dane DeHaan and a talking bear. Veteran actor Gordon Pinsent lent his kindly voice to the polar bear, but Maslany says she was scared of Agee, the full-size adult female who played the carnivorous title character.
“She can smell women and doesn’t like them,” Maslany said of the bear who stands over seven feet when on her hind legs. “She’s a woman and doesn’t like them. She gets ‘Agee-tated.’ I’m so sorry about that.”
Maslany doesn’t want to discuss the movie’s twists and turns. Instead she’d like audiences to enjoy the story the way she did when she was offered the part of Lucy.
“I didn’t know what to expect at any moment when I read the script. It would flip from this very heavy romance to comedy and it sort of feels like sci fi or a thriller at the end.”
She will say her character has “a restlessness to her spirit and a need to find some stillness and peace and a desperate love of Roman. She can’t live without him and can’t be with him.”
Filmed over the course of six weeks on locations in Nunavut, the shoot for Two Lovers and a Bear was often unforgiving. “Our stills photographer lost chunks of his nose [due to the cold],” she says, but adds that shooting in the isolated location was invaluable to her performance.
“Just as having a real polar bear there,” she says, “being in the actual environment is so much easier and telling and informing in terms of character and how you move through the world. You understand more about why Roman and Lucy are the way they are by being there and living in that kind of environment. You see how two people could need each other so desperately and be the only thing the other has.”
“There are such vibrant youth there. It was really cool to be part of the community. I got to meet and be part of it and see their artwork. At the same time there are a lot of issues up there in terms of things from years back and systemic things. It has this bizarre duality to it.”
“I loved it up there,” she says. “I would go back in a heartbeat.”
Chances are good, however, given her workload and popularity she won’t have time to go North any time soon.
Richard sez… “Thanks to JFL 42 for giving me the best seat in the house for the In Conversations at Second City with Trevor Noah, Jim Jefferies, Tig Notaro and Sinbad. It was a blast. Insights were made, zingers were dropped and the audiences were entertained.”
Welcome to the House of Crouse. Based on the book The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster the movie tells the tale of how Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), an illiterate girl from a very poor family in Kampala, Uganda, learns to play chess and with the help of mentor Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) moves from local tournaments to the World Chess Olympiad. Meet director Nair, real life inspirations Mutesi and Katende and star Oyelowo as they stop by the HoC.
Thanks to Bell Media for having Richard in to co-host the Festival Wrap Up, an evening with The Social’s Lainey Lui. They shared highlights from TIFF before a special screening of Their Finest – fresh off its world premiere at TIFF.