Tag Archives: Take Two

Take Two: Edward Norton

Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn

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Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn

It’s no coincidence that actor/director Edward Norton finally made his 1950s-style film noir, Motherless Brooklyn, when a real-life madman occupies the White House, and the United States is torn asunder with political, social and racial unrest. Yet, neither Norton nor his challenging drama, ever mentions Donald Trump or anything happening today. The film (which opens November 1st) is instead set nearly 70 years ago. It just happens to deal with the zeitgeist of current events in America.

Edward Norton plays a 1950s Brooklyn private eye who suffers from Tourette Syndrome.
Edward Norton plays a 1950s Brooklyn private eye who suffers from Tourette Syndrome.

“That is a fairly vital role for movies to play,” explains Norton. “Take Chinatown, which is a look back to the California of the ’30s, made in the ’70s. I don’t think it is coincidental at all that that movie comes at the end of the Vietnam War when the Watergate scandals were breaking open, made by a director (Roman Polanski) whose wife was murdered by a bunch of maniacs. It’s a very challenging film – this idea that the California of the American dream was built on crime, and that the people who committed these crimes raped their daughters, too.”

With other Canadian film journalists, I am sitting with Norton, and his co-star Gugu Mbatha-Raw, in an interview room at the Toronto International Film Festival, chatting about Norton’s first directorial effort in 19 years. This was a passion project for the highly regarded American actor, who is known for films as disparate as Rounders, American History X, Fight Club, Frida, 25th Hour, Moonrise Kingdom, The Bourne Legacy, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman.

For Motherless Brooklyn, Norton worked on his adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel for years, reorganizing the storyline and moving it from the 1990s to the 1950s. He fictionalized all the real-life characters from the ’50s. “The wisdom of doing literary versions of these things is that there is a lot of freedom to distill the essence of certain truths rather than have to explain everything,” says Norton. “There’s a reason that Citizen Kane wasn’t called Citizen Hearst,” he adds, referring to Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece. It was a fictionalized version of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s abuse of power.

Motherless Brooklyn follows a detective named Lionel Essrog, played by Norton. Afflicted with Tourette Syndrome, Lionel works for a tough, taciturn, yet sympathetic, boss played by Bruce Willis. Left alone after a tragedy, Lionel tries to unravel a multiple-murder mystery buried inside a gigantic redevelopment scheme that has racial, social and criminal implications.

Norton consulted with Lethem. “I told him that I felt that there was an issue – that he had written a ’50s hard-boiled bunch of characters, but he set them in the modern world. In film, which is very literal, I didn’t want it to feel like the Blues Brothers. You know, guys in fedoras in the modern world. And he agreed with that 100 per cent.”

Playing a man with Tourette’s, while also directing the film, posed another challenge for Norton. It was an added complication. “There were many arguments against directing and acting in this,” says Norton. “One of the arguments for it was knowing that I could experiment with the condition a lot, but also be the one who sculpted the balance of it later [in the editing room].”

Risky? Yes, but worth it, says Norton. “There aren’t a lot of things that end up being good that aren’t creatively risky on some level.”

Bruce Kirkland‘s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun.

A life-long film buff, Bruce now shares his passion and insight with Active Life readers.

bruce.kirkland@hotmail.com


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Out of Africa

Out of Africa – what they got right in the movie

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Out of Africa – what they got right in the movie

In July, I visited a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. This is no ordinary farm. It was made famous by white colonist Karen Blixen, the Danish aristocrat and author who conjured her adventures in a lyrical book, Out of Africa.

In 1985, American filmmaker Sydney Pollack turned that 1937 autobiography, and other sources, into a romantic melodrama with Meryl Streep as Blixen. Out of Africa won hearts, generated box office revenue, promoted safari tourism in Kenya and scored seven Academy Awards.

Inexplicably, the Oscar haul included best picture. More about this perplexing, if staggeringly beautiful, epic in a moment.

Blixen’s actual farm house, Mbagathi, is now the Karen Blixen Museum, located in the affluent Nairobi suburb of Karen. The handsome dwelling is filled with some of Blixen’s belongings and more so by props donated by Universal Pictures.

Because Mbagathi was unavailable at the time, Pollack positioned cinematographer David Watkin at Blixen’s first Kenyan house, the nearby Mbogani. No matter, Hollywood always takes liberties. As I have often warned, no one should ever believe most of what they see in a film, even when it is “based on” or “inspired by” a true story. Getting “the essence” right is a better benchmark.

What I did not realize when writing about Out of Africa in 1985 was how much Pollack & company did get right. It took a 2019 African safari, and time spent in Kenya with Kenyans, to understand what really matters.

This personal reassessment astounds me. Not that film critics refuse to change their minds in the years following first impressions. But rarely does it occur for the reasons I have finally come to appreciate Out of Africa, both as a book and as a movie.

Okay, the movie is still melodramatic. The focus is still on Karen Blixen’s bad marriage to a philandering Swedish baron (played by Klaus Maria Brandauer) and her subsequent love affair with English big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton (played as a pseudo-American by Robert Redford).

Streep and Brandauer are excellent. But Redford’s boyish charm cannot salvage his boring performance. His fireside proclamations as the untamed Finch Hatton ring hollow. The love affair is a fizzle, not a sizzle.

Instead, the movie soars through its dramatization of racial and cultural complexity. At a time of British racism and colonial segregation, Blixen did things differently — and the transcendent Streep delivers this message with subtle power and dignity. We feel Blixen’s empathy for, and understanding of, the indigenous peoples, especially the Kikuyu who worked on her coffee plantation. I repeatedly experienced a modern echo of that myself in Kenya.

Leave the last word to the Kenyan guide who escorted my wife, Rachel Sa, and I around the Karen Blixen Museum. “We respect and revere her,” the young woman said of Blixen, who started a school, provided medical aid, and fought to give the Kikuyu land when she returned to Denmark in 1931. “Karen Blixen was not like the others.”

This is the gift Out of Africa still offers today.

Bruce Kirkland‘s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun.

A life-long film buff, Bruce now shares his passion and insight with Active Life readers.

bruce.kirkland@hotmail.com


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Take Two: David Lynch

David Lynch is the ultimate disruptor of mainstream films

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David Lynch is the ultimate disruptor of mainstream films

No one has fully understood, properly analyzed or thoroughly dissected the life and times of American filmmaker David Lynch. For that, cinephiles are eternally grateful. We secretly yearn for surrealists, such as Lynch, to spin his elaborate tales because they defy gravity and turn logic into madness. Re-watch his television triumph Twin Peaks for all the giddy evidence you need. Plus, you get pie.

David Lynch
David Lynch

We need his cryptic mysteries because they do not always get solved in routine ‘whodunit’ ways. Re-experience Blue Velvet, his early cinematic masterpiece. Plus, you see the late Dennis Hopper, as the ultimate method actor, doing his career-best performance.

Blue Velvet (1986)
Blue Velvet (1986)

Finally, we value an artist who is the ultimate disruptor, because most mainstream filmmakers are now obliged to be mundane conformists by their Hollywood bosses. Reevaluate Mulholland Drive, Lynch’s mature masterwork, in this context. Plus, you get a dizzying trip into the machinations of old Hollywood.

Now 73, Lynch is in another lull in production since his successful return to Twin Peaks in 2017. No matter, something wonderful and/or weird is sure to happen. And, we are allowed more time to contemplate his universe. Not incidentally, in July and August, the Toronto International Film Festival launches David Lynch: The Big Dream at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Setting out to chart ‘the director’s ascension from cult favourite to cultural icon,’ TIFF will screen the features Eraserhead (1977), The Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984), Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), Lost Highway (1997), The Straight Story (1999) and Mulholland Drive (2001).

The Elephant Man (1980)
The Elephant Man (1980)

TIFF’s Brad Deane, who curated The Big Dream, has also lined up some of Lynch’s provocative shorts. These include his student-era drama, The Grandmother, the strange story of a neglected boy who, from a seed, grows his own grandmother as a caregiver. The ‘seeds’ of Lynch’s future work are found here.

But why now at TIFF? “For me,” says Deane. “It’s the new Twin Peaks series that triggered this – just seeing how relevant it all is and how innovative he still is as an artist. The lure is the mix of the most traditional forms of filmmaker with the avantgarde. So it is a good time to go back and revisit all the work.”

The Straight Story (1999)
The Straight Story (1999)

Meanwhile, no one who has ever met Lynch – and I interviewed him repeatedly for The Toronto Sun – has seen him without a cigarette. He’s a relentless chain-smoker. After 9/11, when stranded at the Toronto film fest, Lynch refused to join friends who offered him a lift home to New York in a non-smoking van. He waited until a smoking-friendly opportunity arose.

Puffing or not, Lynch is always charming. But every interview that I transcribed led to one conclusion: I still do not really know what goes on inside his mind. The inspiration that drew him into the sadomasochistic weirdness of Blue Velvet; the obsession with the road movie motif that led to such oddly diverse films such as Lost Highway and The Straight Story; his fascination with deformity that plunged him into The Elephant Man saga; these all eluded me.

And, yes, this is a good thing. Not all mysteries should be revealed.

Bruce Kirkland‘s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun.

A life-long film buff, Bruce now shares his passion and insight with Active Life readers.

bruce.kirkland@hotmail.com


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ROMA - An elegiac cinematic poem

ROMA – An elegiac cinematic poem

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ROMA – An elegiac cinematic poem

As I write this, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma has been acclaimed to a remarkable level with 10 Oscar nominations, and another 140-plus citations from critics’ circles and awards organizations world-wide.

By the time you read this, Roma will have churned through its awards season. At centre stage are the Oscars on February 24th. Roma is expected to compete with the other film tied for the nominations lead: Greek-born Yorgos Lanthimos’ wildly operatic The Favourite – an 18th century British history lesson.

No two films among Oscar’s eight best picture nominees could be more dissimilar. Their stories are radically polarized. The Favourite rips into the rich tapestry of the inept reign of Queen Anne, circa 1702 to 1714. Roma weaves a quotidian tale of a middle-class family, focusing on the clan’s indigenous nanny, in Mexico City, circa 1971.

The contrast between the two films is true for tone, mood, pace, attitude, impact, subtext, raison d’etre, socio-political acumen, stark images, and the way each director handles emotional highs/lows. Yet, both are great films.

For me, though, Roma is the stunning and timeless masterpiece, while The Favourite is a bawdy entertainment that might soon be forgotten.

Cuarón is already a double Oscar-winner for directing and editing his space drama Gravity (2013). Hurrah, but what happens (or has happened) to Roma at this year’s Academy Awards will not change its place in cinematic history as an elegiac cinematic poem. Roma is already an outlier. First, because it was produced by, and shown on, Netflix, instead of by a Hollywood studio and screened in theatres. Second, because Cuarón photographed it in lambent black-and-white, instead of lurid colour. Third, because his Spanish-language story is an intimate journey through personal memory, not a familiar English-language drama with a constructed plot.

Cuarón dedicates Roma to Lido, his own nanny of indigenous heritage. Lido raised Alfonso and his siblings from infancy. He calls her, “a second mother to us all.”

Lido is “fictionalized” as Cleo in Roma, yet feels real and authentic. She is played in her acting debut by Oscar-nominated Mexican educator Yalitza Aparicio. Her naturalistic performance is as shattering as it is understated.

Cleo works alongside Adela (also played by an indigenous newcomer, Nancy Garcia Garcia). They serve a chaotic family headed by Senora Sofia (Oscar-nominated Marina de Tavira). The husband is a lost cause. The four kids are a crazy handful. Granny is doddering. Roma charts a year of personal upheavals in their collective lives. Daily events are vividly set against the maelstrom of Mexico City earthquakes, student protests, fascist uprisings, state-sanctioned murders, government corruption and brutal oppression of indigenous people.

Yet Roma is always lyrical at its heart, if unsentimental. Much more is communicated by image than dialogue. The film’s micro scale is sometimes joyous, sometimes heart-breaking, while Cuarón subtly transcends obvious class differences. Ultimately, beautifully, the tendrils of love stretch across the class divide. Roma is a life force.

Bruce Kirkland‘s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun.

A life-long film buff, Bruce now shares his passion and insight with Active Life readers.

bruce.kirkland@hotmail.com


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TAKE TWO: Moral Dilema

Moral dilemma: How do we separate the work from the person?

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Moral dilemma: How do we separate the work from the person?

by Bruce Kirkland

The #MeToo movement has already had a profound effect on society in general, and the entertainment industry in particular, especially in the United States.

This of course is a good thing, with the rules of engagement beginning to balance out in the Battle of the Sexes. The day of reckoning for perverts, deviants and sex criminals has become a year of vengeful justice, at least in the court of public opinion. Former film producer, Harvey Weinstein, is now a pariah who faces multiple charges. In September, comedian Bill Cosby was finally convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to prison after decades of eluding punishment. There are many other guilty parties, many of whom have had their careers, reputations and lives disrupted and/or destroyed.

The fact that #MeToo has done nothing to effect change in the White House, where an accused sex offender remains as U.S. president, is no reflection on the movement. Instead, it illustrates the insanity of American partisan politics.

But this column is not about politics – it’s about the entertainment industry. Getting Weinstein out of action and into court is a blessing. With dozens of accusers, and at least 13 women who allege that Weinstein raped them, this man should never be allowed to wield power and use it to abuse women. Nor should anyone else be so empowered, on any scale.

However, I’m struggling with an unfortunate side issue. How should I, or anyone else who supports the #MeToo Movement, deal with the cultural artifacts left behind? People I know, and respect, have struggled for years when watching actor/ director Woody Allen’s films, which include a clutch of American classics. Likewise, the often stunning work of actor/ director (and convicted sex offender) Roman Polanski is under scrutiny as he continues his career in exile. Polanski is about to shoot J’accuse, a truelife, 19th century drama about the Dreyfus affair – a miscarriage of justice.

Meanwhile, what do we do about our feelings towards the dozens of films produced by Harvey Weinstein since 1981? It’s easy to forget about his debut The Burning, a cheesy horror flick. It is difficult to deal with Pulp Fiction, The English Patient, Good Will Hunting, Shakespeare in Love, Gangs of New York, Cold Mountain, The Aviator, The King’s Speech, The Artist, Django Unchained, Lion and many, many more titles.

CAPTION: Harvey Weinstein

Can we free ourselves of guilt by ignoring Weinstein’s involvement, instead focusing on the writers, directors, actors and technicians who made the films? This is my choice, but I do not feel 100 per cent confident. Doubts remain. Did any of these filmmakers know of Weinstein’s behaviour during their productions? If some of them did know, did they choose to let it slide for personal gain?

Other films not involving Weinstein are easier to deal with directly. But the moral choices are still challenging. American Beauty is also an American classic. Yet it happens to star Kevin Spacey, who is under investigation for a series of alleged sexual assaults in the U.S. and Britain. Right now, and perhaps forever, I cannot look at Spacey’s face in American Beauty, in past episodes of the otherwise brilliant TV series House of Cards, or in anything else.

And the sad truth is that Spacey is not the only one who has already ruined the experience of watching great films or TV shows.

Bruce Kirkland‘s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun.

A life-long film buff, Bruce now shares his passion and insight with Active Life readers.

bruce.kirkland@hotmail.com


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Take Two: Festival Favourites

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Take Two: Festival Favourites

Film festivals are the lotteries of cinema. Hit the right numbers and first prize is a million emotions. Bonus benefits include enough memories to last a lifetime and renewed insight into why artistic expressions so profoundly define our humanity.

Now is the time to play this cinematic sensory game. Fall means movies get more serious, especially on the film festival circuit that flows from Montreal to Telluride, Toronto, New York, Vancouver, and so on, until the next snow-bound Sundance in January. This time of year means that you’ve survived the summer silly season. We desperately need some sombre second thoughts, cutting edge drama and fresh ideas.

The Big Chill (cast)

My own perspective on cinema has been nurtured and enriched throughout my 40 years of attending the Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF was originally co-founded, with a touch of arrogance and bravado, as the Festival of Festivals in 1976. I have attended every edition since year two.

12 Years a Slave (Chiwetel Ejiofor)

The sad part is that we have now seen the demise of two of the three co-founders. My beloved friend and mentor Dusty Cohl died of colon cancer in January of 2008. We lost the feisty William (Bill) Marshall in January of this year. The only survivor is Henk Van der Kolk, the quiet voice among the original troika. Life is precious. I plan to make every minute count at TIFF 2017.

Outrageous! (Craig Russell)

As for the TIFF lottery, I have won first prize repeatedly. Here are seven highlights. Note – this is not a best-of-the-fest list. Instead, the titles that I’ve chosen made an indelible personal impression.

Outrageous! (1977) – With Dusty Cohl as a driving force behind-the-scenes, Richard Benner’s film became a seminal Canadian production starring irrepressible female impersonator Craig Russell in a fictionalized version of himself.

The Big Chill (1983) – Lawrence Kasden did not just make a film that spoke directly to me, and my own obsessions, he also introduced me to William Hurt, now a beautifully complicated friend.

Antonia’s Line (1995) – Dutch director Marleen Gorris’ little-known masterpiece remains one of the finest, and most affecting, family dramas ever made. I cherish sharing it with friends.

Betty Blue (1986) – I raved about Jean- Jacques Beineix’s brilliant French film, in a brief six-line capsule review, prior to TIFF that year. Beineix called me with thanks. I apologized for the brevity of my analysis. “No,” he protested happily. “You said it all in six lines.” Good lesson.

American Beauty (1999) – As a collaboration between director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball, this sardonic, sexy and savagely satirical film radically changed American cinema. And it triggered TIFF’s now-legendary ability to launch Oscar campaigns.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) – Not only is Danny Boyle’s India drama still a marvellous experience, it reinforced the power of festival audiences. Toronto’s rapturous response gave Boyle’s opus a distribution deal and an Oscar triumph.

12 Years a Slave (2013) – British filmmaker Steve McQueen brilliantly brought an American tragedy to vivid life at a critical time in U.S. history, although Americans obviously still have trouble learning from their mistakes.

Film critic, Bruce Kirkland’s career spans more than four decades, working at The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 35 years at the Toronto Sun. A life-long film buff, Bruce now shares his passion and insight with Active Life readers. bruce.kirkland@hotmail.com

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Take Two: Au Revoir Jonathan Demme

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Take Two: Au Revoir Jonathan Demme

In cinema, as in music, there is no age limit on genius. That is what makes me re-ask the eternal question: What if? In this case, what if the great American filmmaker Jonathan Demme did not die in April at the age of 73? What if he had been able to battle through complications from esophageal cancer and heart disease to create more stunning and/or influential films? What if he followed in the footsteps of Hollywood legend Martin Scorsese, still vigorous at 74? I asked Scorsese in December if he could stop himself from directing. “No.” he said grinning. “And I don’t want to.”

Jonathan Demme at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2007.

There is no age limit on genius – nor on the indomitable spirit of a creator.

You could also wonder if Demme could have followed the lead of another legend, John Huston. He was a Hollywood renegade who launched his career with The Maltese Falcon (1941) and finished with Under the Volcano (1984), Prizzi’s Honor (1985) and his sublime triumph The Dead (1987) in his final years. The Dead, which Scorsese cites as a Huston masterpiece, was released posthumously shortly after Huston died at 81. He had been written off as a hopeless drunk years earlier. Yet there he was at at 80, directing The Dead from a wheelchair on set in James Joyce’s Dublin. Huston famously leapt out of his conveyance with oxygen tubes dangling from his nose as he barked directions. I repeat, there is no age limit on genius – nor on the indomitable spirit of a creator.

Demme, who was born in 1944 in the hamlet of Baldwin on Long Island, New York, was a humanist, political activist, AIDS awareness campaigner and anti-apartheid spokesman when South Africa was still a racist state. He subtly blended these convictions into his best films, both dramatic and documentary. But he also had a keen sense of wry and, occasionally, wicked humour.

Demme’s best-known dramatic films were made when he was in his 40s: Something Wild (1986), The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Philadelphia (1993), although we cinephiles also adore his later effort, Rachel Getting Married (2008). In the documentary vein, Demme’s celebrated films bridged decades, starting with Stop Making Sense (1984) and spiking with Man from Plains (2007), three collaborations with Neil Young (in 2006, 2009 and 2012) and culminating with Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (2016).

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

A note on Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. It still is the only horror film (however classy it remains) that won the Oscar for Best Picture. It also boasts of being one of only three films that have swept the top Oscar categories of best film, director (Demme), screenplay (Ted Tally), actor (Anthony Hopkins) and actress (Jodie Foster).

Demme’s final dramatic film release was the wretched Ricki and the Flash (2015). No problem, Huston directed the equally awful Phobia! (1980) in the cold rain in Toronto just to prove he could still function in his 70s. More classics were still to come.

BY BRUCE KIRKLAND

Film critic, Bruce Kirkland’s career spans more than four decades, working at The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 35 years at the Toronto Sun. A life-long film buff, Bruce now shares his passion and insight with Active Life readers. bruce.kirkland@hotmail.com

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