Happy Death Day’s advertising tagline sums up the entire plot in eight words. “Get Up. Live Your Day. Get Killed. Again.”
Like Groundhog Day with a terrifying twist, it’s the story of Tree Gelbman, a college student stabbed to death by a masked stranger at her own birthday party. Stuck in the twilight zone, she’s forced to relive the day of her murder again and again. The only way to save her life is to search for clues and solve her own murder. “I’ll keep dying until I figure out who my killer is,” she says.
The unlikely named Tree Gelbman is caught in a time loop, a Hollywood device screenwriters use to play with the linear nature of their plotlines. Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day role, a drunk, suicide-prone weatherman who discovers the beauty of life by living the same day endlessly, may be the granddaddy of all Hollywood déjà vu stories, but many other movie characters have been caught in cinematic time circles.
Run Lola Run sees crimson-haired Lola, played by Franka Potente, on a mission to help her boyfriend avoid a fate worse than death. He’s lost a bag with 100,000 deutschemarks and if he doesn’t find it in 20 minutes terrible things will happen. She rockets through Berlin looking for a solution, but each time she fails to find the loot and the 20-minute time loop starts again. Included in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, the film inspired an episode of The Simpsons and the music video for It’s My Life by Bon Jovi.
Before I Fall is a Young Adult time trip. Zoey Deutch stars as a woman trapped in her worst day ever. Like the time-travelling child of Groundhog Day and Mean Girls (but without Bill Murray or Rachel McAdams), it’s a study of teen angst magnified by a glitch in time. For its young adult audience the wild story raises questions about tolerance, bullying and behaviour.
The horror genre lends itself to time-bending tales as well. Camp Slaughter is a 2005 throwback to the slasher films of the 1980s. In this one, a group of modern teens stumble across Camp Hiawatha, a dangerous place where not-so-happy-campers are trapped in 1981 and forced to re-experience the night a maniacal murderer went on a killing spree. Labelled “Groundhog Day meets Friday the 13th (part 2,3,4,5,6,7,8… every one of them!)” by one critic, it’s gory good fun.
Not into gory? The Yuletide provides a less bloody backdrop for time-looping. The title Christmas Every Day is self-explanatory but 12 Dates of Christmas is better than the name suggests. Us Weekly called this Amy Smart romantic comedy about a woman stuck in an endless Christmas Eve, a sweet “nicely woven journey.”
Finally, the aptly named Repeaters is about a trio of recovering addicts who find themselves in “an impossible time labyrinth” after being electrocuted in a storm. Like most time-bending films, Repeaters is about learning from your mistakes. What sets it apart from some of the others are three unlikeable leads who use their situation to raise hell and break the law. It’s only when Kyle (Dustin Milligan) realizes they could be in big trouble if time suddenly unfreezes for them that familiar time-loop themes of redemption and self-reflection arise.
There’s a meme that occasionally pops up on my social media pages. It’s a picture of a person slumped over a typewriter, fists clenched, captioned with the words, “Writing is easy. You just sit at your typewriter until little drops of blood appear on your forehead.”
Anyone who has tried to put words on a page will understand the joke. Writing at a high level requires a combination of talent, study, life experience and dedication; a folio of concrete and ephemeral elements that can blend easily or remain frustratingly difficult to access, depending on the day.
The story of James Joyce’s exasperation while writing his modernist novel Ulysses perfectly illuminates the writer’s frustrating process. As the story goes, a friend dropped by Joyce’s home to find the author upset that after a full day of work he had only written seven words.
“Seven?” his friend says. “But James that’s good — for you, at least.”
“Yes,” Joyce says. “I suppose it is. I’m just not sure what order they go in!”
It should come as no surprise that writers love to write about writing. Screenwriters have tapped out thousands of pages in an effort to illuminate the mysterious process.
From biopics like The End of the Tour and Capote to dramas like Adaptation and Misery, movie after movie has focused on the various ways words make it to the page in the right order.
This weekend Rebel in the Rye is a glossy look at author J.D. Salinger’s unlikely journey from losing a girlfriend to Charlie Chaplin, to the Second World War, from eastern religion to writing the classic novel Catcher in the Rye.
Movies about writers often feature scenes of typewriters clacking, pages crumpled and thrown in the garbage as authors attempt to whip their manuscripts into something readable. Crumpled loose-leaf is a tangible sign of the work, but does little to explain the author’s thought process.
The movie Genius, starring Jude Law as author Thomas Wolfe, does a good job of showing the very lifeblood that flowed through his veins. The You Can’t Go Home Again author creates exciting wordplay that could be compared to the free-flowing fluidity of jazz.
To illustrate the difference between his work and the more staid style of his contemporary Henry James, he pays a jazz band to play a straightforward, traditional version of Flow Gently, Sweet Afton.
“That’s Henry James,” he says as the players plod along. But as the band heats up, splintering off into melodic tangents, he grins and says, describing himself, “That’s Thomas Wolfe.”
The process by which artists go about their work is near impossible to effectively capture on film, but this scene comes close to explaining what it feels like when the creative juices are racing.
Subtler is Paterson, a gentle look at the life of a poetry-writing Paterson, N.J., bus driver played by Adam Driver.
The poems aren’t for publication, simply a way to express his joy in the beauty and art of everyday life. When his dog eats his notebook he has to start again but learns the writer’s greatest lesson.
“Sometimes the empty page presents the most possibilities.” There is great uplift in those words. The blank page isn’t a hindrance to the work but a canvas on which to create something new. It’s the simplest and most beautiful expression of how art is made I’ve ever seen in a movie.
The “war on drugs” is one of the longest battles in American history. In 1971 President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one,” vowing combat against drug producers and dealers.
Forty years and many billions of dollars later the Global Commission on Drug Policy stated, “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.”
Last year, writing in the New York Times, Mexican journalist José Luis Pardo Veiras echoed those sentiments. “Drugs continue to stream north to the United States, the great user, and firearms enter Mexico in return, where they kill thousands.”
The fight has been a failure for everyone except Hollywood, which has consistently mined the war on drugs for stories and colourful characters. This weekend Tom Cruise stars in the latest tale from the war on drugs, American Made, the real-life story of Barry Seal, adrenaline junkie and TWA pilot.
The story begins with Seal being hired by the CIA to take reconnaissance photos of Soviet-backed insurgents in South America. His life quickly spirals out of control as he becomes a courier between the CIA and Panamanian CIA informant General Manuel Noriega while also working as a cocaine smuggler for the Medellin Cartel.
Drug cartel stories are tailor made for the movies. Populated by bigger-than-life characters like the wealthiest criminal in history, the so-called “The King of Cocaine,” Pablo Escobar, the stories have it all: glamour, drama, moral ambiguity and the primal clash of good and evil. Here are three films with three very different approaches to the war on drugs.
One critic described Sicario as a “French Connection for the drug-fuelled Mexico-US border war.” Starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin, it’s a drama about an idealistic FBI agent working with an elite task force to stem the flow of drugs between Mexico and the United States. It’s gritty and certainly not a feel-good movie about winning the war on drugs. Instead, it’s a powerful look at a seemingly unwinnable battle and the toll it takes on its soldiers.
Savages is an over-the-top Oliver Stone movie that sees Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch as drug dealers and two thirds of a love triangle with a California cutie played by Blake Lively. Their product, a potent strain of legal medical-grade marijuana, earns the attention of a Mexican Baja drug Cartel boss (Salma Hayek) who’ll do anything to create a “joint” venture, including kidnapping and murder.
Savages, at its black-hearted best, is a preposterous popcorn movie that sees Stone leave behind the restraint of movies like W and World Trade Center and kick into full bore, unhinged Natural Born Killers mode. It’s a wild, down ’n dirty look into the business of drugs and revenge.
Smaller in scale is End of Watch. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña play patrol cops in Los Angeles’s tough South Central neighbourhood. A routine traffic stop turns into something bigger when they confiscate money and guns from a cartel member. “Be careful,” they’re warned by a senior officer, “You just tugged on the tail of a snake that’s going to turn around and bite you.”
These movies and others, like Code of the West and The House I Live In, prove the winners of the war on drugs are filmmakers.
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art trained actor Taron Egerton is best known as Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin, the rebellious teenager turned super spy of Kingsman: The Secret Service.
That film plays like a violent My Fair Lady, taking a guy from the wrong side of the tracks and transforming him into a Kingsman Tailor, a super spy with manners that would make Henry Higgins proud and gadgets that James Bond would envy.
The Kingsman Tailors are the modern day knights; their finely tailored suits their armour. In the first movie Eggsy made it through “the most dangerous job interview in the world.” This weekend he returns to the glamorous and dangerous 007ish world of intrigue in a sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle.
It may be the role that made him a star, but don’t expect Egerton to revisit Eggsy time-after-time. “I’m trying to play parts which are a little more out there,” he says, “but I want variety.”
His IMDB page reveals the width and breadth of the variety he seeks in his movie career. From Legend’s psychopathic English gangster “Mad” Teddy Smith and Johnny, the soulful singing gorilla of Sing to American Ponzi schemer Dean Karny in the upcoming Billionaire Boy’s Club and the title role in Robin Hood, it’s obvious he’s trying to shake things up.
“I want to have fun,” he says. “I’m not interested in being a serious actor, because I think it’s boring, and I think we’ve got plenty of them.”
Here are a couple of his performances you may have missed that showcase what a serious actor he really is.
In Testament of Youth he co-stars opposite Alicia Vikander in a retelling of the classic World War I memoir by Vera Brittain. She plays Brittain, a tenacious young woman whose schooling is interrupted when WWI breaks out and brother Edward (Egerton), her fiancé Roland (Kit Game of Thrones Harington) and friends Victor (Colin Morgan) and Geoffrey (Jonathan Bailey) are sent to fight at the front lines. Vera opts to join them, leaving school to enrol as a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment.
Egerton‘s role is small but important. As Edward he convinces their father to allow Vera to sit for the entrance exam and later, when he is killed on the Italian Front, his passing teaches his sister about personal loss and the futility of war. It’s a sensitive and spirited performance that showcases his on screen charisma.
Egerton is looser-limbed as the title character in Eddie the Eagle. He plays the English skier whose ambitions to compete in the Olympics made him a worldwide star. Like his character, the film sets its sights high. It’s not content to simply be a feel good film, it’s aspiring to be a feel GREAT movie.
Egerton, hams it up, handing in a performance that makes Benny Hill look nuanced. With thick, ill-fitting glasses, he’s all doe eyes and determination, a stiff-upper-lipper who wants to be part of the Olympics to prove everyone who told him he wasn’t good enough wrong. It’s an underdog story of such epic proportions it makes The Bad News Bears and all other underdogs look jaded by comparison.
“I don’t want to look back at my career and see a string of incredibly commercial projects that don’t have much heart,” he says. “I’m looking for things that have soul.”
There are many types of movies about people who deal in death to make a living. There’s the cold-blooded killer story, the revenge drama and even comedic takes on killing for fun and profit. Assassins can be men, women, children and even robots.
In this weekend’s American Assassin Michael Keaton is the teacher, a Cold War veteran who trains undercover executioners. He teaches counter-terrorism operative Mitch Rapp, played by Dylan O’Brien, the ropes of the killing game.
A quick look back at decades of death merchant movies reveals a set of rules and philosophies assassins will always follow.
When we first met John Wick he resembles the Sad Keanu meme. He’s a broken hearted man whose wife has recently passed away. He’s a loner until a package arrives at his door. It’s a puppy, sent by his wife just before she died, in the hopes that the dog’s love will help ease his pain. For a time it works, but when some very bad men break into his house to steal his Mustang, the dog winds up as collateral damage. With the last living touchstone to his late wife gone, Wick reverts back to his old ways as a mad, bad and dangerous to know assassin bent on revenge. We learn that you can quit, but you’ll always get pulled back in.
“People keep asking if I’m back and I haven’t really had an answer,” says Wick. “But now, yeah, I’m thinkin’ I’m back. So you can either hand over your son or you can die screaming alongside him!“
Charles Bronson, as the skilled slayer in The Mechanic teaches his young protégé, played by Jan-Michael Vincent, some basic hitman lessons. “Murder is only killing without a license,” he says, adding that when you shoot someone do it right. “You always have to be dead sure. Dead sure or dead.”
That’s key killer advice, but slow down, there is a progression to becoming a hitman.
In The Professional Leon (Jean Reno) details the system. “The rifle is the first weapon you learn how to use,” he says, “because it lets you keep your distance from the client. The closer you get to being a pro, the closer you can get to the client. The knife, for example, is the last thing you learn.”
Along the way movie assassins also learn that relationships are verboten.
Remember what happened to Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie)? “Your aim’s as bad as your cooking sweetheart,” taunts John to Jane, “and that’s saying something!”
Day of the Jackal’s would-be Charles de Gaulle assassin (Edward Fox) adds, “In this work you simply can’t afford to be emotional,” although sometimes feelings inevitably get in the way. Just ask Prizzi’s Honor’s Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson) who memorably said, “Do I ice her? Do I marry her?”
Once they’ve learned the ropes, one question remains: Why do movie assassins kill?
Max Von Sydow plays one of the great movie killers in Three Days of the Condor, Sydney Lumet’s classic story of conspiracies and murder. His reasoning for doing what he does is chillingly simple. “The fact is, what I do is not a bad occupation,” he says. “Someone is always willing to pay.” The Matador’s Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) agrees, “My business is my pleasure,” he said.
Like millions of people I remember exactly what I was doing the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.
When the first plane hit the World Trade Center I was walking down Bloor Street in Toronto, on my way to the InterContinental hotel to do a day of Toronto International Film Festival coverage.
I didn’t register anything unusual in the air until I got to the hotel. People on the street may have been walking and talking a bit faster, acting a bit more animated than usual, but not so that I noticed.
Entering the hotel was a different story. The halls were eerily silent.
What was usually a cheery beehive of activity with camera crews, stressed publicists and actors roaming around, was now quiet, still.
At 9 a.m. I walked into our makeshift interview suite on the third floor just as the second plane hit. My crew were sitting around the television. Sobs from the rooms next to ours broke the stunned silence.
What the hell was going on?
What was going on was a change in all our lives; a new era where the unthinkable became possible.
It was a confusing day. With no details we, like many others, pressed on with the business at hand.
David Lynch came and went, smoking American Spirits and chatting about his film Mulholland Drive.
A handful of others walked the halls, unsure of what else to do, keeping previously scheduled interview slots.
When I mentioned to New York actress Adrienne Shelly that I couldn’t reach my girlfriend, who was living in Manhattan, she loaned me her cellphone.
“For some reason it seems to get through,” she said.
It did, and after a quick call to make sure she was safe, the full impact of what had just happened sunk in. Sometimes the small stuff, the personal things — like the anxious voice at the other end of the line — help you understand the magnitude of a grim situation.
We cancelled the rest of the day but I stayed put, talking to my hotel neighbours, most of whom were Americans, many from New York.
There were hugs, tears and bafflement in equal measure. TIFF elected to cancel many of the day’s events and tone down the glitz for the rest of the festival.
But the show would go on and in that moment art won over terror.
What we began to hear were stories from New York filmmakers who, with all flights cancelled to and from the city, were loading cans of film into their cars and driving to the festival.
It wasn’t about vanity and it wasn’t about ego.
It was about filmmakers, the storytellers of our times, the people who document our lives, not being silenced.
The rest of the festival was a sombre affair but there was a steeliness uncommon at the usually glitzy event. We gathered, watched films, communicated and healed, sending a message that the uncertainty of the times would not prevent us from expressing ourselves, from sharing stories.
Fourteen years later I think back to those days and realize that terror didn’t win on 9/11.
As long as we don’t allow ourselves to go silent, as long as we breathe life into our stories and experiences on film and elsewhere, we won’t and can’t live in fear.
As the sun sets on a busy summer film season I wanted to hit pause and take a look at why we fell in love with movies in the first place.
My film education began at the Astor Theatre in Liverpool, N.S. Located just blocks from my house, I practically grew up in front of that screen. I don’t remember the first movie I saw in there — I was likely just a babe in my mother’s arms — but I have vivid memories of drinking “Swamp Water,” a sugary squirt of each of the flavours from the soda fountain and getting hit with an usher’s flashlight when I put my feet up on the seat in front of me.
Mostly though, I think back to the movies. My dad and I watched as The Sting filled the screen and, along with my pals Chris and Neil, I stared agape at the watery disaster of Poseidon Adventure and I can’t begin to tell you how many hours I killed watching Bruce Lee high kick his way through martial arts epics.
I saw hundreds of movies there but one in particular made me fall in love with the magic of film. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean stars Paul Newman as an outlaw turned unconventional lawman. A character is shot in the chest and as the camera pans down we catch a glimpse of the judge’s reaction through the hole in the guy’s torso. I haven’t seen it since, possibly because it’s probably cooler in my imagination than it is in life, but it taught me anything was possible in the worlds created on screen. From then on I was hooked.
Christopher Nolan, director of Dunkirk, says Star Wars was the movie that opened his eyes.
“I saw that when I was seven years old and it still stands today in my mind as a demonstration of the absolute potential of cinema to create an immersive experience, to take you away to worlds you’ve never even imagined. That screening was followed pretty rapidly by the rerelease they did of (Stanley) Kubrick’s 2001. Watching that as a seven-year-old, I didn’t understand it. I don’t understand it any more today but the experience of it was pure cinema. You felt the opening up of the screen, this larger than life quality of the screen, you were able to pass through that portal into other worlds.”
Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve also cites the Kubrick masterpiece as a potent example of the kind of movie that lit his imagination afire.
“The biggest impact was 2001: A Space Odyssey,” he says. “The first time I saw it was on television. I remember vividly the vertigo that movie created. Even though I saw it on TV I still think it is one of the most significant cinematic experiences I have had.”
Legendary stop motion filmmaker Ray Harryhausen told me it was King Kong that changed his life. “I saw it when I was 13,” he said, “and I haven’t been the same since.”
If not for that movie, he joked, he might have become a plumber and not a filmmaker. “It took you by the hand from the depression of the 1930s and brought you into the most amazing, outrageous fantasy that’s ever been put on the screen.”
“I knew her very well,” says Penelope Cruz, “but in a way she was not exactly the same person because so many things happened to her and she changed over time, like we all do.”
Cruz isn’t talking about an old friend or a long lost relative. The Spanish superstar is referring to Macarena Granada, a character she first played a decade ago and revisits in the new film The Queen of Spain.
“She has a very intense life,” continues Cruz, “so that was the tricky thing. For the people who knew Macarena, how do I make her recognizable and what are the changes we can see in her after all these years?”
Audiences first met Macarena in 1998 when Cruz played her as an upcoming Spanish movie star in a frothy little confection called The Girl of Your Dreams. It’s years later in real and reel life as Cruz brings the character back to the screen.
Set in 1956, The Queen of Spain portrays Macarena as a huge international star lured back to her home country to star in the first American movie to be shot there since the Franco took power. It’s a wild production but complicating matters is the appearance—and subsequent disappearance—of Macarena’s former director and the man who made her a star.
“The first film was set at a time of interaction with Germany and Macarena had to protect herself from Goebbels,” says Cruz. “This time she is up against Franco. In a way every time she is acting in a film she is just not acting, she is some kind of political heroine. She is fighting for justice. What a life this woman has had! Every time she goes into making a movie she has to save somebody’s life or do something life changing for everybody. If we ever do the third one I don’t know who she’ll have to deal with. Depends on what country. Hopefully the third one will happen someday. Let’s see who she has to encounter this time.”
The Queen of Spain marks the third time Cruz has worked with Fernando Trueba, the Spanish auteur who directed her break out film Belle Époque.
“The knowledge he has of cinema, the passion he has for cinema is very contagious,” she says. “With Fernando it is always more than just entertainment. He is such a great filmmaker and he always talks about so many big subjects at the same time.
“I think Belle Époque is a masterpiece. The film was amazing and for me to start with somebody as brilliant as Fernando, well, it was a year that made it impossible for me not to fall in love with movies.”
The chance to show what goes on behind the scenes in The Queen of Spain’s film-within-the-film was another reason she decided to come back to Trueba and Macarena.
“There are not enough movies about that,” she says. “When I am on the set everything is so crazy and chaotic but at the same time it works. I feel like we need that chaos for it to work. It is magical that things happen and movies get done and get finished. I’m always on the set thinking, ‘These three days of shooting is enough material for three more movies.’”
When all is said and done Adam Driver will likely be remembered for playing Kylo Ren, grandson of villain Darth Vader, in the Star Wars movies. The thirty-three-year-old may be best known for the blockbuster role but it does not define his career. For the star of this weekend’s Logan Lucky, it’s all about a love of acting.
“For me the doing of it is the best,” he told me at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. “The things surrounding it don’t matter. Trailers, money, they don’t matter if you get to work with really great people. Hopefully what you’re making is bigger than any one person and it feels relevant, as much as you can attach meaning to your job. The love of collaborating with people who are on the same page is really exciting.”
Perhaps his collaborative spirit came from his time in the United States Marine Corps. Driver, like many young people in the aftermath of 9/11, joined the marines but an injury during a training exercise ended his military career after just three years.
“With the military I grew up very fast,” he says. “Suddenly I was responsible for things that aren’t typical for eighteen or nineteen year olds. Other people’s lives and things like that. It ages you. I loved being in the military but when I got my freedom and could be a civilian again I was interested in perusing acting. I had tunnel vision and there was a big learning curve of learning to be a civilian again; it’s not appropriate to yell at people, people are people and I can’t force my military way of thinking on them. There were a lot of things going on. I am better adjusted now.”
Post marines Driver studied at Julliard—“Believe it or not being in the military,” he laughs, “is very different than being in an acting school.”—became one of the breakout stars of HBO’s Girls and worked on the big screen with luminaries like Steven Spielberg, the Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese and Logan Lucky director Steven Soderbergh.
“It’s a director’s medium so if I get lucky enough to work with great directors, that’s the only thing as far as a game plan I have,” he says. “I have gotten to do that with really great people and it feels good. I’m lucky in that I get to choose things now, but choose things from what I’m offered. The scale doesn’t matter.”
Since his professional debut in 2009 Driver, who his This Is Where I Leave You co-star Jane Fonda calls, “our next Robert De Niro plus Robert Redford,” has carefully curated a career. From multiplex fare like Star Wars to art house offerings like Paterson and Frances Ha he is driven by artistic demands more than box office returns and immediate satisfaction.
“Really great movies have a longer shelf life,” he says. “You come back to them later and find new things in them. So many times you watch a movie and you’re not ready for it and you come back to it later because you’re a different person and suddenly it speaks to you in a different way. When they are well crafted they have that shelf life whereas a lot of things are made for one weekend.”