Imagine the painstaking process that goes into making stop-motion animated films like Isle of Dogs. Instead of using computer-generated imagery, animators meticulously manipulate little puppets a centimetre or two at a time, shoot a frame or two and repeat the process until the film is done. On average, working at a good clip, a stop-motion animator can complete one or two minutes of film per week.
According to whom you speak, the process is either a labour of love or pure torture.
“People think it’s monotonous and tedious, but I think stop motion creates a dream quality,” said legendary animator Ray Harryhausen. “I never found it tedious or monotonous.”
Others, like The Boxtrolls producer Travis Knight, say “It’s the worst way to make a movie. It makes no sense.”
However you feel about the method, the results are beautiful. At its best, stop motion has a timeless quality and otherworldly charm born from the old-fashioned process that brings it to the screen. It’s handmade with a level of craftsmanship and soul that not even the most skilled programmer working on an advanced computer can imitate.
“There’s a strange quality in stop-motion photography, like in King Kong,” says Harryhausen, “that adds to the fantasy. If you make things too real, sometimes you bring it down to the mundane. In Kong, you knew he wasn’t real, but he looked like a nightmare, you know? He acted real, and the dinosaurs looked real. But there was something about them that had a magic that you don’t quite get yet in CGI.”
Director Wes Anderson says Harryhausen’s work and the stop-motion animated holiday specials of Rankin/Bass Productions inspired Isle of Dogs.
“I really liked these TV Christmas specials in America,” he said. “I always liked the creatures in the Harryhausen-type films, but really these American Christmas specials were probably the thing that really made me want to do it.”
A film still from Isle of Dogs Behind the Scenes (in virtual reality) by Paul Raphael, Felix Lajeunesse and the Isle of Dogs Production Team.
Isle of Dogs, which became the first animated film to ever open the Berlin Film Festival in February, tells the story of the exile of the dogs of Megasaki City to a vast garbage dump, and a 12-year-old boy who sets off to find his lost pet.
The film’s handmade technique is already earning rave reviews. Slate said that Anderson’s stop-motion animations, including 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, “are the warmest, the most emotionally accessible, the most real” of all of Anderson’s films.
That’s the magic of stop motion. From its earliest usage in 1897’s The Humpty Dumpty Circus, to the pioneering work of Harryhausen and Willis O’Brien, to the advanced visions of Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit movies, the exquisite Coraline from Henry Selick, and Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, who mixes stop motion with live actors, all stop-motion films have one thing in common — a humanity that shines through the technology. It isn’t perfect, it’s primal.
Animation, as Pixar’s Brad Bird says, is about creating the illusion of life. Stop motion, with its reliance on the animator’s hands-on skills, presents an imperfect but organic image that can ignite imaginations.
Harryhausen told me it was the stop motion of the original 1933 King Kong that changed his life. “I saw it when I was 13,” he said, “and I haven’t been the same since.”
We can all agree that serial killers, teenage suicide, alcoholism and unemployment are not laughing matters and yet films like Serial Mom, Heathers and Withnail & I mine those topics for giggles. They’re called dark comedies and unspool jokes about taboo subjects.
Slaughterhouse Five novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who knows a thing or two about finding the cheer in gloom, says dark comedy is about “small people being pushed this way and that way, enormous armies and plagues and so forth, and still hanging on in the face of hopelessness.”
To a certain extent his definition describes the plot of this weekend’s Gringo. David Oyelowo plays Harold, a hapless man who finds himself kidnapped, then on the run from everyone from drug lords to the DEA after a quick business trip to Mexico.
“I am somewhere in Mexico with a gun to my head!” Harold screams into the phone. “What a crybaby,” scoffs his hard-as-nails boss, played by Charlize Theron.
From slapstick to verbal humour, Gringo misses no opportunity to take a dire situation and wring out the laughs. It’s trickier than it seems. “Dark comedy is very difficult,” said Pierce Brosnan, who played up the gallows humour in the hitman farce The Matador. “You have to bring the audience in and push them away at the same time.”
You might imagine that audiences drawn to grim humour are very specific, that they’re angry or perhaps have negative attitudes — but a recent study from the Medical University of Vienna suggests otherwise. They found people who laughed at dark jokes scored highest on verbal and non-verbal IQ tests, were more educated, scored lower on aggression and had better moods.
If that sounds like you, here are some films that successfully navigate the light side of the dark side:
A Serious Man, involves two very bad weeks in the life of physics professor Larry Gopnick, played by Michael Stuhlbarg. In an escalating series of events, his life is turned upside down.
Though billed as a comedy, this may be the bleakest movie the Coen Brothers have ever made. And remember these are the guys who once stuffed someone in a wood chipper on film. The story of a man who thought he did everything right, only to be jabbed in the eye by the fickle finger of fate is a tragiomedy that shows how ruthless real life can be.
Delicatessen is a high-voltage variation on Sweeney Todd, set in post-apocalyptic France where there is very little food and no meat; when people will eat almost anything — or anyone. It’s a dark and moody world worthy of any serious science-fiction movie that stylistically owes more to music videos and animator Tex Avery’s feverishly wild Bugs Bunny cartoons than to other post apocalyptic films.
At the same time it’s filled with belly laughs — especially for vegetarians.
What could be funnier than world annihilation? Coming just a couple years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Stanley Kubrick’s comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’s story of an almost nuclear holocaust works so well because it is an exaggerated look at something that could actually happen. It’s a masterwork of dark comedy featuring one of the best lines in movie history: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”
Jennifer Lawrence says she’s taking the next year off from acting.
Instead of prancing in front of a camera she’ll join forces with Represent.Us to help get “young people engaged politically on a local level.” This weekend, before she leaves Hollywood in the rearview mirror, she gifts us with a movie Variety critic Owen Gleiberman says “shows you what true screen stardom is all about.”
In the spy thriller Red Sparrow she delivers one last blast of unadulterated star power in the form of former Russian prima ballerina Dominika Egorova. Based on a novel by former Central Intelligence Agency operative Jason Matthews, it tells Egorova’s story after an injury forces her to leave the stage.
Sent to the Sparrow School, a facility where intelligence agents are trained to seduce and manipulate, she becomes the institute’s best and deadliest student ever. “Your body belongs to the state,” says Charlotte Rampling as the school’s sadistic headmistress.
The new film is garnering raves for the star, but she’s used to that. Critics have lobbed praise at her since her breakout performance in Winter’s Bone, a bleak 2010 Ozark Mountains drama about a young woman who tries to keep her family from falling apart. Peter Travers, writing in Rolling Stone, enthused, “Her performance is more than acting, it’s a gathering storm.”
Winter’s Bone made her a critical darling but it was the Hunger Games movies that made her a superstar.
Based on the bestselling novels by Suzanne Collins, the Hunger Games films could have been run-of-the-mill young adult movies a la Divergent or The Maze Runner. The thing that elevates them is Lawrence’s character work.
Set in Panem, a dystopian world ruled by a fascistic leader played by Donald Sutherland, the movies chronicle a state-sanctioned battle to the death between 24 players, two from each of the country’s districts.
These televised games are equal parts Miss Universe, American Idol and Death Race. The story also follows two “tributes” from District 12: Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), two reluctant warriors whose survival is at stake.
Jennifer Lawrence imbues Katniss Everdeen with a rich inner life in The Hunger Games films, writes Richard Crouse.
As fans of the books know, the focus of the story is the characters. They may be thrown into a wild situation. But knowing and caring about Katniss and Peeta is as important to this story’s success as the action scenes or dystopian premise.
Lawrence imbues Katniss with a rich inner life. You can see the machinations of this character churning behind her eyes. That depth played a big part in the series’ success. She took a role that could have been buried under layers of teen ennui or simple steely-eyed determination and gave Katniss real depth.
She starred as Katniss in four blockbuster Hunger Games outings, but took time to make smaller, riskier films that paid off with critical raves and an Oscar for best performance by an actress in a leading role for Silver Linings Playbook.
Now she’s taking a break from the big screen and from her now-legendary talk show appearances. Time calls her a “late night MVP” for her outspoken and often outrageous spots with the Jimmys — Kimmel, Fallon — but perhaps there was more than a kernel of truth in her recent sit-down with Stephen Colbert. Asked why she was taking a year off she replied, “Because I’m miserable.” She laughed off the remark but given the level of intensity of her performances perhaps it’s time for her to sit back and recharge her batteries. Her fans will be there in a year when she’s ready to come back.
It’s no secret that Nicolas Cage’s taste in movie roles has changed from the days when he starred in A-list films like Raising Arizona, Moonstruck and Leaving Las Vegas. The 54-year-old actor appears to flip a coin when deciding what to make these days. Sometimes he gets lucky — The Croods has a sequel on the way and Joe made some box office bank — while other times he ends up in films like Outcast, a period piece whose outlandish story careens through Europe and Asia like a drunken soldier on shore leave.
It’s trendy to write Cage off as an actor throwing his talent away, more concerned with cash than art. YouTube brims with videos like Crazy Cage Moments and Cage Rage. Between them they’ve racked up millions of views, which is certainly more people — give or take several zeroes — that saw his recent bizarro-world revenge film Mandy or direct-to-oblivion domestic thriller Inconceivable. And yet, no matter how low rent some of his recent output is, he’s usually compelling.
The vids are an eye-opening compendium of Cage’s trademarked brand of extreme acting — a method of over-emoting perfected in the more than 80 movies he’s made since his debut (under his real name Nicolas Coppola) in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Citing The Incredible Hulk star Bill Bixby as a major influence, he has always been, for better and for worse, one of our most completely fearless actors.
This weekend’s Mom and Dad promises an extra helping of full-throttle Cage. He calls it his favourite movie in a decade, while Glen Kenny, writing in the New York Times said, “In this morbid satire about parents trying to kill their kids, Mr. Cage has plenty of opportunity to go full him.” Cage, who forever will be best known for hits like Adaptation, National Treasure and Leaving Las Vegas, has made many other movies that are worth a second look.
One writer called Cage’s work in 1989’s Vampire’s Kiss “a grand stab at all-out, no-holds-barred comic acting or one of the worst dramatic performances in a film this year,” but decades later the movie has earned cult status because of Cage’s edgy work. The story of a man who may — or may not — be turning into a vampire is best remembered as the film in which Cage ate a live cockroach, but also features one of his most unhinged performances.
A few years later, somewhere between Honeymoon in Vegas and Guarding Tess, came Red Rock West, a genre-busting movie — Ebert said it “exists sneakily between a western and a thriller, between a film noir and a black comedy” — that unfairly barely made it to theatres. Cage hands in some of his best work as a broke but honest drifter, but only took the role after Kris Kristofferson turned it down.
Existing at the intersection of Vampire’s Kiss and Red Rock West is Wild at Heart, a film that perfectly showcases Cage’s manic energy. As Sailor, a lover boy on the run from hit men hired by his girlfriend’s mother, he’s a one-of-a-kind, an Elvis wannabe with a snakeskin jacket and an attitude. It’s a bravura performance. Like the jacket, which he says “represents a symbol of my individuality,” Wild at Heart is a symbol of his artistic individuality.
The house is one of the strangest buildings ever erected. A massive 24,000 square feet, the rambling Queen Anne-style Victorian mansion has zigzagging staircases, 2,000 doors, rooms-within-rooms and over 10,000 windows. Some will even tell you the old place is haunted. Located on nine acres in Silicon Valley it is known as the Winchester Mystery House.
These days the house is open to the public but for many years it was the obsession of Sarah Winchester, the eccentric heiress of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company fortune, who envisioned the place as home to an “army of ghosts.”
This weekend, in the mystery thriller Winchester, Helen Mirren plays her. The backstory sees the widowed Winchester, reeling from the loss of her husband William in 1881, visit a psychic in hopes of finding solace. He says her recent tragedies — the loss of a daughter, father-in-law and husband — were the work of the spirits of people killed by the Winchester repeating rifle, a.k.a. The Gun That Won The West. To save herself from the restless spectres, he told her to move west and build a home big enough to accommodate all the phantoms that bedevilled her family.
She took the advice to heart, buying a large 161-acre plot of land in San Jose, Calif., and began building. And building. Legend has it that with no blueprints, Winchester, one of the richest women of the 1880s, spent the next 38 years — 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year — working on the strange dwelling.
Winchester lived in the house during construction and, to confuse curious spirits, never slept more than one night consecutively in any of the bedrooms. At night she held séances to confer with the ghosts who shared her living space, hence the nickname The Mansion Designed By Spirits. Guided by those apparitions she ordered never-ending alterations that required the use of maps to navigate. The place grew to such a size that after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake damaged the home, it took the staff hours to find her in the labyrinth of rooms.
Just as eccentric as the ever-evolving layout were Winchester’s home decor choices. She engraved the numbers 7 and 11 throughout the house for good luck and the number 13 to ward off evil spirits. A chandelier was redesigned to hold 13 candles instead of the usual 12 and drain covers on sinks were punched with 13 holes. Today, in tribute, a large 13-shaped topiary tree sits on the property and every Friday the 13th a bell is rung 13 times at 1300 hours.
Winchester lived in the home until her death in 1922. Work on the home ceased instantly and there are several half-driven nails in the walls where carpenters stopped hammering when they heard the news.
Winchester has the underpinnings of a good psychological drama but a biography dampens the mythology with a dose of reality. In the book Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune, author Mary Jo Ignoffo says Winchester “routinely dismissed workers for months at a time ‘to take such rest as I might.’”
Whatever the truth, Mirren sums it up best: “There’s nothing like it anywhere that I’ve ever seen. It grew out of such very specific circumstances that are sort of unrepeatable.”
In March 2016, production was shut down on Maze Runner: The Death Cure when star Dylan O’Brien was hurt filming an elaborate stunt. O’Brien, who rose to fame as the resident heartthrob on Teen Wolf, was strapped in a harness on top of a moving vehicle when he was suddenly thrown and struck by another car. WorkSafeBC reported his injuries included “concussion, facial fracture and lacerations.”
With production postponed, O’Brien’s publicist Jennifer Allen said, “His injuries are very serious and he needs more time to recover.”
Director Wes Ball tweeted, “Well, it’s been a whirlwind of emotions these past few days. I’ve been overwhelmed with feelings of anger and sadness and guilt. But, ultimately I find myself left with just a deep love and respect for Dylan. He is one tough cookie.”
The film, originally scheduled for release on Feb. 17, 2017, was delayed until this weekend.
O’Brien says he was “in a really fragile, vulnerable state,” and during the early days of his recuperation thought he may never act again. “I’ve gotten to a place where I’m OK with it,” he told People, “but it was definitely a rough year.”
The 26-year-old isn’t the first actor to be hurt performing a dangerous deed. Jackie Chan is famous for doing all of his own stunts — and breaking almost every bone in his body in the process — while Mission: Impossible 6 was recently put on hold after Tom Cruise broke his ankle attempting a jump across a building gap.
Sylvester Stallone broke ribs on the First Blood set and Charlize Theron herniated a disc in her spine while shooting Aeon Flux. Jason Statham joked about almost being drowned during the making of The Expendables 3, but it is serious business. How far should filmmakers go in the search for realism in stunts?
Industry insiders say the best way to keep everyone safe is to let the professionals do their jobs. Arnold Schwarzenegger, no stranger to films with wild action scenes, said, “With stunts, we have a rule that if you can get injured or killed, you let a stunt guy do it, because they are much more skilled in how to do the falls, being on fire, how to deal with all those things.”
Stunt driver Richard Lippert asserts that, stunt-wise, actors only have to know how to do three things: first, how to convincingly fake a punch; second, how to drive on and off a mark; and finally, how to credibly handle a weapon. Other than that, he says, “actors shouldn’t plan to do their own stunts no matter how ‘cool’ or exciting it may seem.”
Other than personal danger for the actor, one wrong move can shut down a set costing everyone their livelihoods. “Taking a job away from someone to stroke your ego is not a good way to become popular,” says Lippert.
CGI is another option, although many top directors prefer real action. After years of “following the CG evolution,” using computer-generated images to create beautiful animated films like Happy Feet and Babe: A Pig in the City, director George Miller used actual stunts performed by stunt men and women in his action epic Mad Max: Fury Road. “It was like going back to your old hometown and looking at it anew,” he said.
When you think of Christian Bale what picture do you conjure up in your mind’s eye? Is it as American Psycho’s square-jawed investment banker Patrick Bateman? Or is it as the gaunt whisper of a man from The Machinist? Perhaps it’s as 3:10 to Yuma’s scruffy cowboy Dan Evans or the cowled Caped Crusader of the Batman films.
The point is Bale recreates himself from film to film. “It’s helpful not to look like yourself,” he recently told The Guardian. “If I look in the mirror and go, ‘Ah, that doesn’t look like me,’ that’s helpful.”
He could make a fortune playing superheroes in action movies but instead chooses to shake things up. Since his breakthrough performance in 1987’s Empire of the Sun, he has been a chameleon, losing 60 pounds to play the skeletal lead in The Machinist and gaining a beer gut and a combover for his role in American Hustle.
Creating the “Olympian physique” of serial killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho took some discipline. “I’m English,” he said, “we don’t have many gyms around. We’d rather go to a pub instead.” A trainer and a protein diet took off the pounds.
As boxer and former drug addict Dicky Ecklund in The Fighter he dropped 30 pounds and used makeup and prosthetics to age himself. How did he lose the weight? “Usually I always say, ‘Oh, I do a lot of coke whenever I lose weight.’ I’m not sure if it’s so funny for this movie, to say that.” In reality he trained with the real-life Ecklund and boxed the pounds off.
In Velvet Goldmine he plays a London journalist looking into the life and faked death of glam rock singer Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Once again he had to physically transform, but not in the traditional way.
When his mom saw that he was working out and running at 6 a.m. she said, “Christian, what are you doing? You’re doing a film about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Why don’t you do it the way they did it? They weren’t out running. They drank a helluva lot and lived unhealthily.” “I took that to heart,” he said.
This weekend he appears in Hostiles as the elaborately moustachioed Joseph J. Blocker, an 1892-era U.S. Army captain approaching retirement, grappling with the anguish and regret that has scarred his soul. The impressive ’stache may be his biggest physical transformation for this role — the AV Club joked “Christian Bale’s moustache is the best thing about Hostiles” — but he says the biggest change here was spiritual.
To create the character’s contemplative demeanour he spent a lot of time “sitting in a room quietly staring at a wall.” He says he likes to get as “distant as possible” from his own personality. Imagining Blocker’s life journey before filming allowed him to internalize the character and “feel like you’re trying very hard by the time you get to be working.”
Next up for Bale is the biopic Backseat. He shaved his head and packed on pounds — “I’ve just been eating a lot of pies,” he says — to play former U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney. “I’ve got to stop doing it,” says the 43-year-old actor of the extreme weight gain. “I suspect it’s going to take longer to get this off.”
Last year Liam Neeson announced his retirement from action films. “Guys I’m sixty-f******-five.’ Audiences are eventually going to go: ‘Come on!'” Then, just months later, he had a change of heart. ““It’s not true, look at me! You’re talking in the past tense. I’m going to be doing action movies until they bury me in the ground. I’m unretired.”
At an age when most action stars are staying home soaking in vats of Voltaren Neeson continues his tough guy ways in this weekend’s action thriller The Commuter. He plays an everyman caught up in a race-against-the-clock criminal conspiracy on his train trip home from work. Expect a mix of blue-collar action and Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.
It’s a perfect companion to the movies Neeson has made since his actionman breakout role. It all began with Taken in 2008. He played Brian Mills a former “preventer” for the US government who contained volatile situations before they got out of control. Now retired, when his seventeen-year-old daughter is kidnapped by a child slavery ring he has only 96 hours to use his “particular set of skills” to get her back.
He admits to being, “a tiny bit embarrassed by it,” but his burly build and trademarked steely glare made him an action star.
“Believe it or not, I have even had Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis calling my agent saying, ‘How do I get these scripts?’” he said on his sixtieth birthday.
Audiences ate up his rough and tumble work. His habit of paying the rent with chest-beaters like the Taken films, Battleship, Unknown and The A-Team led one macho movie fan to post this on Facebook:
“After watching the movie The Grey, I can only come to the (very logical) conclusion that Liam Neeson should be King of the Earth. Who’s better than Liam Neeson? Nobody. That’s who. Nobody.”
But there was a time when a kinder, gentler Neeson graced the screen.
His first film, 1977s Pilgrim’s Progress, was so low budget he played several characters. He’s credited as the Evangelist, a main character in John Bunyan’s Christian allegory, but can also be seen subbing in as the crucified Jesus Christ.
It was another supporting role in a movie called Shining Through that led to his breakthrough. In it he plays a Nazi party official opposite Michael Douglas. The performance so impressed Steven Spielberg he cast Neeson as Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List, which turned him into an Oscar-nominated star.
He parlayed that fame into starring roles in period pieces like Rob Roy, Michael Collins (at the age of 43 Neeson was 12 years older than the real-life Michael Collins when he died) and Les Misérables. Then comedies Breakfast on Pluto and High Spirits showcased his more amiable side.
High on the list of his mild-mannered roles are two films with Laura Linney. He’s worked with her so often on stage and in the movies they joke they feel like “an old married couple.” They’re part of the ensemble cast of Love Actually and play husband and wife in Kinsey, about America’s leading sexologist Alfred Kinsey.
Neeson, it seems, can portray almost anything on screen but claims he doesn’t give acting much thought. “I don’t analyse it too much. It’s like a dog smelling where it’s going to do its toilet in the morning.”
Earlier this week Northern Michigan’s Lake Superior State University added the term “fake news” to its 43rd annual List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness. According to dictionary.com those two toxic words, popularized by Donald Trump and adopted by, well, almost everyone, denote “false news stories, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared online for the purpose of generating ad revenue via web traffic or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc.”
A new film, The Post, is a time capsule back to a time before exhortations of “fake news” created an atmosphere where the press is perceived as an enemy rather than the voice of the people.
Meryl Streep plays Katharine Graham, the first female publisher of a major American newspaper. With the paper bordering on insolvency she has tough decisions to make.
When the New York Times breaks the story of a massive cover-up and is shut down by the Nixon White House, hardnosed editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) sees an opportunity to scoop the Times and make a splash. “Are any of you tired of reading the news,” he asks his staff, “instead of reporting on it?” Trouble is, the story involves several people close to Graham, most notably former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who prolonged the Vietnam War despite knowing it was a no-win situation.
Graham must make the decision to publish or not. Running the so-called Pentagon Papers would expose years of government secrets, make an enemy of President Nixon and could scare off the investors she’s been courting. Not reporting could endanger young the Americans who were still being drafted and sent to fight an unwinnable war. “The only way to assert the right to publish is to publish,” argues Bradley.
The Post is a historical tale that feels as timely as any front-page story in today’s paper. A high-stakes look at journalism before the age of fake news, it reminds us of the importance of objective, investigative reporting in an era of secrecy, lies, and leaks. It’s an ‘if you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future” message movie that shines a light on a watershed but mostly forgotten slice of our past.
The Pentagon Papers were a significant turning point in our recent history. They were proof of a credibility gap between what politicians say and what they are doing. For Bradlee, publishing these documents sent a message that the White House had no influence on what stories made the front page and which don’t. “The press must serve the governed not the governors.”
Combined, all these elements add up to a movie that aims to make a statement while avoiding preaching to its audience. Director Steven Spielberg and stars Hanks and Streep are entertainers first and foremost, and they do entertain here, but they also portray a period whose reverberations in the time of fake news are being felt stronger than ever.
The air of paranoia that hung over All the President’s Men, another movie centered on the investigative reporting of The Washington Post, is missing in The Post. Instead, Spielberg film’s is a fist-pump-in-the-air look at the integrity and importance of a free press. It’s a little heavy-handed but these are heavy-handed times.