Where have all the movie stars gone? Once upon a time big names on even bigger marquees were as close to a guarantee of good box office as one gets in the movie biz, but no more.
This weekend The Divergent Series: Allegiant, the third part of the young adult series, hit theatres. Based on a series of successful books, it stars Shailene Woodley and Theo James in a teen epic about dystopia, guilt and artfully tossed pixie haircuts. In the new film the pair risk it all to go beyond the walls of their shattered city to discover the truth about their troubled world.
Woodley and James are appealing performers and despite having chiselled cheekbones, a Golden Globe nomination and a Teen Choice Award for Choice Movie: Liplock between them no one is going to see Allegiant because they’re in it. Why? Because they’re not movie stars, they’re brand ambassadors. The movie’s brand is bigger than they are and that’s the draw.
Young adult movies like Twilight made Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart famous and superhero films reignited Robert Downey Jr.’s career and turned Chris Hemsworth into a sex symbol, but none of these actors have scored recent hits outside of their best-known brands.
These days the marketing is more important than the movie star.
It’s almost a throwback to the very early days of cinema when actors weren’t given billing or publicized for the films they made. Fearing performers would demand larger paycheques if they became popular the studios gave them nicknames instead. Hamilton, Ontario born Florence Lawrence was known as the Biograph Girl, named after the studio that produced her films, but with the release of The Broken Oath in 1910 became the first entertainer to have her name appear in the credits of a film.
Floodgates opened, soon names like Mary Pickford (another Biograph Girl), Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin festooned not only movie credits but posters as well, usually above the title. The studios seized the marketing value of their actors and for years the star system was a money-spinner.
These stars were so powerful they not only sold tickets by the fistful but also influenced contemporary trends. For instance, it’s rumoured that sales of men’s undershirts plummeted in 1934 when The King of Hollywood, Clark Gable, was seen without one in It Happened One Night. As the legend goes, sales took such a hit several underwear manufacturers tried, unsuccessfully, to sue Columbia Pictures for damages.
For decades stars ruled supreme at the box office, but the business has changed. I’m guessing the movie studios love it because no film brand ever asked for more money or a bigger trailer.
Certainly Tom Cruise can still sell a ticket or three, but only if his movie has the words Mission Impossible in the title and Matt Damon was brought back in to add star sparkle to the new Jason Bourne movie after a lackluster reboot with Jeremy Renner. Jennifer Lawrence is a movie star. Her latest film Joy, the empowering story of a woman and her mop, wasn’t a big hit but without her star power would likely never have been made at all.
It’s not just the movie business’s attitude toward fame that has changed, it’s also ours. Today a proliferation of YouTube superstars and social media has democratized fame and in a world and business where everyone is famous, no one truly is, not even the stars of a blockbuster like The Divergent Series: Allegiant.
“Still Alice” has a Disease of the Week Movie plot but is elevated by a central performance from Julianne Moore. Her portrayal is deeply nuanced, self-aware but most of all, heartbreaking.
Moore plays the title character, a linguistics teacher at Columbia University in New York. She has a career, a loving husband (Alec Baldwin), three grown children Anna (Kate Bosworth), Lydia (Kristen Stewart) and Tom (Hunter Parrish) and early onset Alzheimer’s. She’s a woman who reveled in intellectual success, proud of her vocabulary and mental prowess but lately she can’t remember the small things. She blanks on people’s names and gets lost in familiar places.
Before she becomes incapable of looking after herself she records a message to her future self. In it she describes a contingency plan, a way to end the suffering that will be easy on her and the family.
Later in the film, when we finally see the video message, we are struck by the duality of Moore’s performance. The transformation from early onset to full blown Alzheimer’s has been subtle but constant. Placing her afflicted self side-by-side with her healthier being displays the depth, beauty and subtly of Moore’s work. It’s a showstopper of a sequence that cleverly displays Alice’s deterioration and Moore’s mastery of the character.
Also notable is Kristen Stewart who delivers a rough hewn but tender version of a daughter who is occasionally frustrated by her mother’s situation but slowly come s to form a deeper relationship with her than anyone else in the film. Her reading of a passage from “Angels in America” and the emotional heft that comes with it should mute the ”Twilight” jokes once and for all.
“Butterflies have short but beautiful lives,” Alice says, and while “Still Alice” doesn’t have the raw intensity of films like “Iris” and “Away From Her,” it is a showcase for a beautiful portrayal of a woman who has everything stripped away from her.
The release of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies brings Peter Jackson’s trilogy to a close, and marks the end of a life immersed in Middle Earth for the actors. For several of the cast it was a years-long journey, and like any trip it’s nice to pick up a souvenir as a keepsake.
According to director Peter Jackson the actor who played the exiled dwarf king Thorin stole “the most boring thing in the world to steal,” from the set of the penultimate film, The Desolation of Smaug, socks.
“I did steal every single pair of costume socks,” said Richard Armitage, “because we were given a brand new pair every day.”
As production on The Battle of the Five Armies wrapped Armitage was gifted with some more interesting props including the deadly goblin cleaver Orcrist, which he keeps in an umbrella stand, “cause I want to be able to pick it up.”
Martin Freeman, who plays head Hobbit Bilbo Baggins, says he doesn’t miss making the films—“I’m really proud to have done it,” he says, “and I’m really glad to have done it, but I rarely miss jobs.”—but kept his sword and prosthetic ears as mementos.
Unlike Freeman, Sir Ian McKellen does get sentimental when he reflects on making the movies because, “a lot of the audience seeing The Hobbit part three wouldn’t have been born when we started filming it.” After spending thirteen years playing wise wizard Gandalf the Grey he took two priceless props from the set, “Gandalf’s staff, which I keep with umbrellas and walking sticks, and Gandalf’s hat, which I keep in the basement.”
Many actors have pilfered props from their movies. Keira Knightley walked off with Elizabeth Bennet’s striped socks from Pride & Prejudice. Elijah Wood has the One Ring from Lord of the Rings and Daniel Radcliffe liberated two pairs of Harry Potter’s famous round glasses, even though there was a strict policy about taking props from the set.
‘The ones from the first film are absolutely tiny now,” he says, “but they are very sweet.”
Kristen Stewart kept the engagement ring Edward Cullen gave her at the end of Twilight: Eclipse and Zachary Quinto took the ears he wore as Spock in Star Trek: Into Darkness but the strangest cinematic souvenir may belong to Mark Wahlberg.
The Academy Award nominee kept the prosthetic penis he wore as Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights. “I used to keep it in my desk drawer,” he said, “and I’d take it out and slap my friends in the face with it. I don’t keep many things from my movies, but that just seemed to have personal significance.”
Anna Kendrick is perhaps best known for her break out role as the ambitious Human Resources person in Up in the Air who suggests conducting layoffs via videoconferencing to save money. Her performance opposite George Clooney created a stir at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, and now she’s back at TIFF with a much different movie.
The Last Five Years is a musical based on Jason Robert Brown’s Off-Broadway hit of same name. It’s the story of the five-year relationship between actress Cathy and her novelist husband Jamie, played by Smash star Jeremy Jordan. It’s told from two different perspectives. Her storyline begins with the breakdown of the relationship. His starts at the beginning (it’s a very good place to start, as they say in musical theatre) as they court and eventually marry.
Kendrick, last sang on screen in Pitch Perfect and will soon be seen as Cinderella in the much anticipated movie version of Into the Woods, says the decision to sing live in front of the cameras, instead of prerecording in studio, aided her performance of the complex role.
“Doing it live was something we wanted to do whenever possible,” she says. “We didn’t want to make a point of it or be precious about it because it was equally important for us to be visually dynamic and change locations and be outside occasionally. I thought I would feel that the pre-recorded days would be a breeze, but it was so much easier to act the songs live because you weren’t retroactively going, ‘Oh yeah, that’s how I was playing that in the recording booth four weeks ago.’ So doing it live was a physical challenge, because, you know, it’s your voice, but it was so much easier to be present and honest and all that with singing live.”
Kendrick plays a struggling actress and in one memorable scene details the pain of auditioning for roles. In the Climbing Uphill sequence she sings, “I’m up ev’ry morning at six, And standing in line, With two hundred girls who are younger and thinner than me.” It;’s a feeling Kendrick says she knows well.
“It’s a competitive business by nature,” she says. “I know that room and that line of two hundred girls. I didn’t have to dig all that deep to know the anxiety and self-doubt. That was a fun thing to perform and see inside her head and talk about the indignity of not being paid attention to when you are trying to perform for somebody.”
Even though she is a Tony nominee for her work on Broadway in High Society and has starred in high profile films like Twilight and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World she says she still auditions.
“If there is something really incredible everybody wants it so I audition,” she says. I see friends of mine and we’re all in business suits and then at the next one we’re all in leather jackets. I’m like, ‘Yeah, this is so embarrassing.’ But that is the grind.”
A new young adult film based on a best selling series of books is set in a world where diversity is frowned upon; sort of like Arizona without the dry heat.
In “Divergent” a Big Brother style government has divided the post-apocalyptic Chicago into five factions: the altruistic Abnegation sect, the peace loving Amity, the “I cannot tell a lie” Candor group, the militaristic arm Dauntless and the smarty-pants Erudites.
At age sixteen all citizens must submit to a personality test that will help them decide which faction they will join. “The future belongs to those who know where they belong,” is the Orwellian motto.
Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is from an Abnegation family, but chooses to join Dauntless, the warrior faction charged with protecting the city. During the grueling training “Tris” meets future love interest Four (Theo James) who helps her disguise the fact that she is “divergent,” a person who cannot be pigeonholed into just one designation. “If you don’t fit into a category they can’t control you,” she is told.
“Divergent” feels like a greatest hits version of recent young adult stories. Mixing and matching “Hunger Games” with a taste of “Harry Potter” and a splash of “Twilight,” results in a new story that feels familiar, like a sequel to a movie that doesn’t exist.
The film does take pains in the first hour to establish a world, with a unique set of rules—like once you choose a faction you can’t go back—and then promptly proceeds to break their own guidelines. The disregard for the rubrics blunts the power of the story, changing it from a high concept sci fi idea to simply a shifting situation for the characters to exist in. It’s a state of affairs passing itself off as an idea.
That won’t matter to the film’s core audience, teens, who will be more interested in Tris’s grrrl power, the dynamic of the Dauntless recruits and Four, the movie’s heart throb. Director Neil Burger aptly juggles all these elements well, and despite the plot lapses and some bloodless action—a zip line aerial scene that should be visually spectacular doesn’t make the eyeballs dance like it could—but the film is a little darker and grittier than you’d expect from a blockbuster-to-be. It would have been interesting to see what a director with true futuristic vision, like Terry Gilliam, could have done with the material, but ultimately it’s not about dystopia.
The young adult story thrives off subtext and in this case it is more about family, being yourself and facing fears, all subjects that will resonate with the target audience louder than any sci fi premise.
“Divergent” is “Hunger Games” light, but Woodley and James bring some heat to the leads and it’s fun watching Kate Winslet sneering her way through a villainous role.
In “The Host,” the new film from the Stephanie “Twilight” Meyer’s fantasy factory, most humans have been “occupied” by a race of aliens who take on the bodies of their hosts. They don’t change the world, they just perfect it—there’s no hatred, no violence, no fighting and everyone is polite. Sounds like Toronto in 1956.
When we first meet Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan) she is a human girl on the run from the Seekers, aliens in human form who have taken over the planet. To protect her brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury) she is captured and injected with a parasitic ET soul that resembles an iridescent silver fish. The alien, named Wanderer or Wanda for short, is now in control of Melanie’s body, but, using sheer strength of will, she fights back, winning over her alien invader who helps her find her brother and other human loved ones.
“The Host” is to sci fi what “Twilight” is to “Dracula.” The alien plot is an anchor for the love story, not the other way around.
That’s right, Meyer is back with another otherworldly love story.
This time around it’s a love tetragon between Melanie—or at least her consciousness—Wanderer—in the form of Melanie’s body—and two human boys, Jarrod (Max Irons) and Ian (Jake Abel). Mel loves Jarrod but Wanda loves Ian and Melanie’s inner mind becomes jealous of Wanda’s shell and her desires for Ian.
Asimov this ain’t. It does contain some interesting speculative ideas—ie: if our memories are still alive, are we?—but the framework is inherently uncinematic. For instance the push-and-pull between Melanie and her alien intruder is played out via a voice over of Mel arguing with the alien. Ronan has the unenviable task of not only delivering a massive amount of narration, but also reacting to it.
Then there is the frequently awkward way characters have to interact with Mel, Wanda or any combination thereof. At one point Ian asks Wanda, in Mel’s body, “Is there anyway Melanie could give us some privacy?” When she’s asked about having two souls trapped in her body Wanda says, “It’s crowded.” With so many characters trapped in one body Sybil has nothing on this girl.
Occasionally Melanie’s suppressed will physically manifests with a tic—she’ll force her old body to throw a pencil to the ground rather than draw a map for her Seeker captors—but instead of feeling organic to the character it looks more like an homage to a 50s b-movie camp.
“The Host” has elements of camp—unintentional probably—but it’s not “Plan Nine from Outer Space.” It’s an earnest story about love conquering all that is a little too earthbound to be called sci fi and a bit too spacy to be taken terribly seriously as anything but a Harlequin for teens.
Twilight, for the uninitiated, is Buffy’s worst nightmare. It is the first in an insanely popular series of books about seventeen-year-old Isabella “Bella” Swan who moves to Forks, Washington and finds her life in danger when she falls in love with ninety-year-old vampire Edward Cullen. The books are required reading for every sixteen year old girl on the planet and now those undead literary characters are coming to life on the big screen in what will undoubtedly be the weekend’s number one film. Vampires, despite Buffy’s best efforts, are hot again.
Twilight, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, stars Into the Wild’s Kristen Stewart as Bella, an average girl whose taste in men runs to the supernatural. She’s a sullen teenager sent to live with her father in rainy Washington state after her free spirited mother shutters their Arizona home to go on the road with her baseball player boyfriend. Life in the small town is sleepy until Bella meets Edward, a pale, otherworldly student who makes Casper the Friendly ghost look tanned. She’s immediately smitten, but he is aloof, friendly one moment, cold the next. “Your mood swings are giving me whiplash,” she says. Soon enough he reveals his true immortal self to her—he’s a vampire “vegetarian,” meaning that he doesn’t drink human blood—and the idea of getting close to a mortal, and her supply of blood, is a temptation he fights against. Rather than running away, afraid for her life, she is even more drawn to him. When a trio of nasty bloodsuckers moves into the area Edward must risk his undead life to protect Bella.
Twilight is review proof. Advance ticket sales have already surpassed the last two Harry Potter movies and guarantee theatre lobbies filled with screeching teenage girls and sold out auditoriums. It’ll be the number one movie of the weekend and not since The Dark Knight has anticipation run so deep. Lots of people have been sucked in by this vampire tale.
But is it a good movie?
I can best sum it up by paraphrasing an old beer advertising slogan. “Those who like it, will like it a lot.” Twilight is bound to please “twi-hards”—fans of the books. Robert Pattison, the unknown English actor hired to play heartthrob vampire Edward embodies the book’s romantic bloodsucker and Kristen Stewart does dreamy longing really well. Hardwicke, whose directorial career showcases her ability to portray teen angst in movies like Thirteen and The Lords of Dogtown, captures the cadences of high school life by surrounding her supernatural characters with average kids handing in natural performances. She’s distilled the 600 page book down to its basic elements, cut the fat—the most important component being the romance; that Edward goes against his natural instinct to kill because he loves Bella—and produced a romantic film that will appeal to the book’s enormous core audience.
For others, and that includes vampire purists—everyone knows that vampires can’t go out during the day and would never have a giant cross in their home—the movie may feel strangely stilted and well, anemic. Anyone expecting fangs, crazy vampire sex or even high tech visual effects will be disappointed. Twilight is about one thing and one thing only—romance. It’s a horror Harlequin, and while the constant starry-eyed craving between the two leads borders on caricature, without it there’d be very little left.