One of the most enduring children’s tales of the 20th century was written in a single afternoon in 1936. Author Munro Leaf says it only took “25 minutes on a rainy Saturday” to pen The Story of Ferdinand, which he planned as a make-work project for his friend, illustrator Robert Lawson.
This weekend John Cena, Kate McKinnon and Bobby Canavale lend their voices to the animated Ferdinand.
The story about a big bull with an even bigger heart has been popular with readers for generations. In 1938 Life magazine raved, “Ferdinand is the greatest juvenile classic since Winnie the Pooh” and urged adults to “buy the book largely for their own pleasure and amusement.”
The success of the book took people by surprise, including Leaf’s widow who told Publisher’s Weekly, “What happened with Ferdinand is still a mystery. After Christmas, sales increased every week, and within 13 months, eight editions had been published. Ferdinand appeared as a giant balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; a Ferdinand song made the hit parade; and in December of 1938, The Story of Ferdinand nudged Gone with the Wind off the top of the bestseller lists.”
The book has never gone out of print and has been translated into more than 60 foreign languages, including a Latin version called Ferdinandus Taurus. Luminaries like H. G. Wells, Gandhi and Franklin Roosevelt approved of the book’s story of a bull that prefers smelling flowers to bullfighting and it was the only American children’s book available in Stalin-era Poland, but it wasn’t universally loved.
Released nine months before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, supporters of Francisco Franco thought it promoted dangerous pacifist ideas. As a result it was banned in Spain and remained so until 1975. Others suggested the book promoted fascism, anarchism and communism. The Cleveland Plain Dealer even ranted that the book was “corrupting the youth of America.” The New York Times, however, rejected the political metaphors, praising the book’s message of being true to oneself.
Adolf Hitler called it “degenerate democratic propaganda” and ordered all copies burned. In reaction, at the end of the Second World War, 30,000 copies were rushed into print and distributed to Germany’s children as a symbol of peace.
Walt Disney loved the story and commissioned a short film, Ferdinand the Bull, in 1938. In addition to producing the movie, Disney supplied the voice of Ferdinand’s mother and was the model for the Matador character. The short was a big hit, winning the Oscar for Best Short Subject. The film is particularly popular in Sweden where it has aired every Christmas Eve since 1959 as a segment on the annual Disney show Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas. In 1982 the Christmas tradition was broken when Ferdinand the Bull was replaced with The Ugly Duckling on the annual broadcast. The switch caused collective national Yuletide outrage and Ferdinand was returned to the show the next year where he has remained ever since.
No one is exactly sure why Ferdinand has had such a long-lasting impact, although one scholar suggests it’s because it crosses gender lines, offering up a character that appeals to boys and girls.
Set in Cold War-era Baltimore, The Shape of Water sees Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a woman rendered mute by childhood abuse. A cleaner in a military laboratory and storage facility, she communicates through sign language with co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and best friend and neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). When a mysterious Gill Man, held captive in a giant water-filled iron lung, is brought in the cleaners are told to keep their distance.
Elisa, however, bonds with the beast. After hours, when everyone else has gone home, she stays behind, playing music for the creature, performing dance moves learned from old movies and feeding him her special hard-boiled eggs. They click. She relates to him being unable to speak. “He doesn’t know what I lack,” she signs to Giles. “He sees me for what I am. As I am. He’s happy to see me.” He responds to her gentle nature.
His captors feel differently. They see him — “The Asset” they call him — as a case study, ripe for vivisection so they can discover how he can breathe on land and underwater. Everyone except for Elisa, it seems, wants The Asset dead.
When Elisa discovers a hard-nosed coiled-ball-of-rage named Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) is torturing the beast, she hatches a catch-and-release plan. Steal the creature, hide him until the next rainstorm fills a nearby canal and set him free.
The tale of intrigue takes a romantic turn when Elisa begins to regard The Asset as more man than monster.
The Shape of Water is a dreamy slice of pure cinema. Director Guillermo del Toro uses the stark Cold War backdrop as a canvas to draw warm and vivid portraits of his characters. Elisa and Giles are an unconventional family, outsiders in a world that values conformity.
Zelda is a feisty and funny presence — “I can handle pee,” she says, mop in hand cleaning up one of The Asset’s messes. “I can handle poo. But blood? That does something awful to me.” — while the creature is an empathic being with soulful eyes who glows with blue light when he is happy.
The combination of characters and del Toro’s flights of fancy is not only a love letter to the movies — Giles and Elisa live above a movie theatre, watch old musicals on TV and there’s even an Old Hollywood fantasy sequence inside the story — but a Valentine to why we fell in love with the movies in the first place. It’s a feast for the eyes and the heart.
At the centre of it all are Hawkins and Doug Jones as The Asset. Both, one nakedly emotional, the other hidden away under layers of makeup, wouldn’t be out of place in a silent movie. The fantasy elements of the story swirl around but Hawkins’ delicate but steely presence (aided by Jenkins’ heartfelt and occasionally heartbreaking loyalty) grounds the story in reality. Jones, though covered in scales and gills, uses his physicality to project the character’s power and vulnerability.
In the story’s thriller section, Shannon provides a villain whose gangrenous fingers are a metaphor for the rot in his soul. In the actor’s hands, Strickland is as cold as the blood that runs through the creature’s veins.
Wound tightly together these elements combine to form a beautiful creature-feature ripe with romance, thrills and, above all, empathy for all.
Winston Churchill, born 143 years ago, is suddenly hot again.
“When I started work on this movie in 2016 the only Churchill I had in mind was Albert Finney’s A Gathering Storm which was brilliant,” says Darkest Hour director Joe Wright. “It had been made more than a decade ago. We weren’t aware of the Brian Cox movie, we weren’t aware of Dunkirk, The Crown hadn’t come on yet. It didn’t feel topical at all. Then suddenly the events of 2016 happened and this wave of topicality came and overcame the film.”
The fireworks in Darkest Hour begin in May 1940. It’s less than a year into the Second World War and Winston Churchill, played by Gary Oldman, is made prime minister after Neville Chamberlain lost the confidence of parliament.
He’s an unconventional choice. His own party thinks of him as a drunkard — it is said that between 1908 and 1965, he partook in 42,000 bottles of his favourite champagne Pol Roget — and members of his war cabinet favour negotiation with the Nazis over resistance and war. The so-called English Bulldog battles them and nagging self-doubt as he stays steadfast in his determination to fight the Nazis while finding an exit strategy for 300,000 British troops stranded at Dunkirk.
Wright likens Churchill’s crusade against Hitler to the resistance that has sprung up around the world in reaction to various far-right groups.
“Churchill got a lot of things wrong in his life,” Wright says, “but in this particular instance, in this context, with this enemy, he understood the perils totalitarianism and Nazism and bigotry and hate and he resisted. I think we are living in a society now that would not be the same if not for his resistance. I think that is really important to remember to fight back. To look outside of our important domestic concerns and look at our global domestic concerns.”
Darkest Hour is a historical drama with all the trappings of Masterpiece Theatre. Expect sumptuous photography, costumes and period details. What you may not expect is the light-hearted tone of much of the goings on. When Churchill becomes prime minister, his wife makes an impassioned speech about the importance of his work. He raises a glass and, cutting through the emotion of the moment, says, “Here’s to not buggering it up!” It shows a side of Churchill not often revealed in wartime biopics.
When I tell Wright I found the movie funnier than expected, he laughs. “Especially when it is called Darkest Hour.”
“I think Churchill was a very funny individual. Anyone you read who was with him, from his secretaries to his bodyguards to the politicians who were working with him, all talk about his humour. It was one of his overriding characteristics. We wanted to make sure it didn’t turn into Carry on Churchill so there were gags in there we cut.
“I think, like all of us, it was kind of a coping mechanism. The reason sex and death seem to be the main sources of humour is that they help us deal with things that might otherwise cause us anxiety. “
Wright adds that as the battle against totalitarianism unfolds the film becomes more serious. “His foe was probably the most terrifying adversary we had ever encountered, so the stakes were very high.”
The Disaster Artist details a filmmaker whose artistic ambitions outweigh his talent. Tommy Wiseau, the writer, director, producer and star of The Room, is the title character, a man who miraculously and unwittingly turns disaster into triumph.
The key to telling the story of the making of the worst film ever is not recreating The Room beat for beat — it’s actually about treating Wiseau as a person and not an object of fun. He’s an outrageous character and James Franco commits to it 100 per cent. From the marble-mouthed speech pattern that’s part Valley Girl and part Beaker from The Muppets, to the wild clothes and stringy hair, he’s equal parts creepy and lovable. But underneath his bravado are real human frailties. Depending on your point of view, he’s either delusional or aspirational, but in Franco’s hands he’s also never less than memorable.
Wiseau is undeniably a terrible filmmaker and actor. The Room is an incomprehensible mess, a movie so misguided it starts off bad, gets worse and keeps going, through sheer force of will to become enjoyable. It’s a film so awful audiences can’t take their eyes off it, like a car crash.
In that sense Wiseau reminds me of Ed D. Wood Jr., another filmmaker whose name has been synonymous with failure and ridicule. The 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards singled out Wood’s movie Plan 9 from Outer Space in the Worst Movie Ever Made category while also hanging the title of Worst Director around his neck.
To be sure Mr. Wood was no Cecil B. DeMille, but he doesn’t deserve the critical sneers levelled at his work. Certainly movies like Glen or Glenda and Jail Bait were restricted by their über-low budgets and appear hopelessly amateurish, littered by ridiculous special effects and melodramatic acting, but they are entertaining and isn’t that what it’s all about? Many directors have spent a lot more money and not come close to delivering the same kind of giddy fun that The Sinister Urge pulsates with.
Take Michael Bay for instance. His movies make loads of money at the box office, but never fail to put me to sleep. Visually his films are spectacular feasts for the eyes. The former commercial director has a knack for making everything look shiny but having great taste doesn’t make a great film director any more than great taste makes a Snickers bar a gourmet meal.
To my mind the difference between awful auteurs Wiseau and Wood and Hollywood hit-maker Bay is simple. Wiseau and Wood’s films are inexpertly but lovingly made by someone desperate to share their vision. Bay’s big glitzy movies feel like cynical money grabs more concerned with the bottom line than personal expression. I’m quite sure that if Bay had to undergo the trials and tribulations Wood had to suffer to get his movies made he would run to the hills, or maybe just back to his big house in the Hollywood Hills.
The Disaster Artist is a love letter to the movies and how they are the stuff dreams are made of. As for the success of Wiseau’s dream? It’s like what Adam Scott says about The Room in one of the film’s celebrity testimonials, “Who watches the best picture from a decade ago? But people are still watching The Room.”
Centred around a motel in a small Alaskan town, Sweet Virginia is a story of people and a place gripped by greed, frustration and murder.
“I’m originally from a small town,” says the Timmins, Ont.-born director Jamie M. Dagg, “so I’m really fascinated by how the lack of anonymity in small communities changes the dynamics and how people relate to one another where everyone is incestuously interwoven into the fabric of the community. Keeping secrets is really difficult.”
In the film, Christopher Abbott is Elwood, a dead-eyed psychopath who comes to town to do a job. He’s been hired by Lila (Imogen Poots) to kill her cheating husband. He does the hit, callously killing two innocent bystanders in the process.
Waiting for his money, he checks into the motel run by Sam (Jon Bernthal), a former rodeo star now sidelined by injuries. The two men strike up a friendship as Elwood grows edgy and unpredictable waiting for Lila to cough up his fee.
“These are communities where the ramifications of misdeeds are dramatically amplified,” says Dagg. “It often ripples across the entire population.”
Dagg, whose first film, River, won the 2016 Canadian Screen Award for best first feature, says the first actor to sign on for Sweet Virginia was Abbott. Best known for playing Marnie’s ex-boyfriend Charlie on the HBO comedy-drama series Girls, Abbott didn’t immediately seem like a good fit to play a cold-blooded killer.
“Then I watched (the movie) James White with Cynthia Nixon,” Dagg says, picking up the story. “He has incredible range. Both of us had issues with this guy being (as was originally written) a really charismatic, cool cowboy. We were both interested in pushing it into the person who was bullied in high school but could be the next Columbine shooter.”
The character is a viper, a deadly man with no remorse. Imagine No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh and you get the idea.
“I decided and Jamie agreed that Elwood is a character who inherently despises humans,” says Abbott. “It was challenging in making sure to avoid clichés. There are a lot of very good, very credible performances out there of quote-unquote ‘villains’. I found it challenging to respect the lineage of playing villains while trying to do my own thing with it.”
Abbott says he’s been inadvertently researching this role for years.
“I read books on psychology,” he says, “even books like The Psychopath Test. I used something I read in that book for this part. It is part of my job as an actor that, no matter how bad a character is, is to justify or feel sorry for him. That’s the fun of it. How do you have a soft spot for a murderous psychopath?”
Sweet Virginia takes place against a backdrop of duplicity and dread but Abbott says bringing this story of menace to the screen was relatively trouble free.
“Jamie created an atmosphere where we were able to play as actors,” says the actor, “and he really enjoyed watching us, which gave us confidence to go further and do more. It was a nice marriage that way.”
Dagg concurs. “My first film, River, was a challenging film to make. This film was sort of easy. The next one is probably going to be hell! These things are not supposed to be this easy.”
Anthony Gonzalez, the star of the new Pixar film Coco, has spent one-third of his life working on the project.
“It was a very long process,” said the 13-year old actor. “I auditioned when I was nine years old. I actually got to go to Pixar headquarters in Oakland when I was 10.
“I started doing the scratch voice, where they put my voice under the character to see what it looks like when I was 10. Eleven is when I got cast so I started going in more often to Pixar and doing the voice. At 12 I was still doing some voices. At the end of 12 I felt my voice was changing!”
In Coco he plays Miguel, a 12-year-old aspiring musician in a family with a generations-old ban on anything musical. During his village’s Day of the Dead celebrations he breaks into the ornate crypt of Ernesto de la Cruz, the world’s greatest musician, to steal the late singer’s guitar.
Then something strange happens. Guitar in hand, he finds himself transported to the colourful world of the Land of the Dead. If he can get de la Cruz‘s blessing he can go back to the world of the living and be a musician, but first he will learn the real story behind his unusual family history.
Gonzalez worked on the project for years without knowing if he would appear in the final film. “Every time they would tell me I was going to Pixar I would get so excited because it is a paradise there,” he said. “The food there is amazing, the Pixar store is just awesome and they have a big soccer field and I love to play. Every time I went to Pixar I would also be happy because I would miss school.
“When I was 11, it was around Christmas, and I went to do scratch voices. The director, Lee Unkrich, told me they had a present for me. I was so excited and I opened it and it was this big, wonderful piece of artwork that said, ‘You got the part.’”
Gonzalez has been performing in front of people since he was four years old. “I wasn’t shy,” he said. “It’s fun singing and acting. I can be free. I can express feelings when I am singing and when I act I can be stuff I never thought I could be.”
Coco has afforded Gonzalez the chance to follow his dream. He gets to travel to promote the movie — “Today I had poutine for lunch,” he enthused in his Toronto hotel room.
“It was the best thing I ever had. Who knew that French fries, bacon and gravy and cheese was a perfect mix?” — and more importantly, he gets to do what he loves. He hopes the movie will encourage other kids to follow their dreams.
“Miguel could be a role model for kids,” Gonzalez said. “Miguel in the movie really fights for what he wants. He wants to be a musician and no obstacles will stop him. He doesn’t let anyone or anything stop him from what he wants to do. I feel many kids will look up to him; kids who want to share their talent with the world.”
Hollywood is in a tizzy. Oscar magnet Harvey Weinstein has been kicked out of the Academy, Kevin Spacey’s performance in All the Money in the World, once heralded as a for-sure Oscar nod, has been edited out of the film, replaced in spirit and on-screen by Christopher Plummer. Louis CK’s movie I Love You Daddy will likely never see the light of day.
It’s the beginning of awards season. And while the Oscars, Golden Globes and others are meant to applaud the best of filmed entertainment, is a celebration even in order in a news cycle dominated by scandals, sexual predators and transgressions?
One writer suggested, “Instead of holding the Oscars, Hollywood should declare March 4, 2018, a day of atonement.” It’s not a bad idea but appropriate or not, award season will happen, because nobody likes celebrating Hollywood more than Hollywood itself. Are awards shows over the top? Yes. Is there an unnecessary amount of backslapping? Yes, of course there is.
History tells us the Oscars have only been postponed — never cancelled — three times, first because of record-breaking rainfall in Los Angeles, next in the aftermath of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and again following the 1981 assassination attempt on president Ronald Reagan. In each case, the ceremonies were rescheduled within days so don’t expect the Academy to suddenly take the moral high ground and cancel their big night.
Industry insiders point out that only a small percentage of industry folks have been accused of sexual harassment and assault. So in the spirit of keeping the flame of the creativity alive, why not hand out awards to the 99.99 per cent of the industry who haven’t been accused of sexual crimes or outed for engaging in misconduct?
With that in mind, here’s a look at some upcoming movies that deserve a look — and an award or two — in spite of the uneasy state of the industry.
In a tour-de-force performance, Darkest Hour stars Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in a movie that would make a great double bill with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Atonement director Joe Wright’s film is a spirited — and funnier than you’d imagine — retelling of the machinations behind the Second World War’s Operation Dynamo.
I, Tonya sees Tonya Harding as a rising star in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, until her future in the sport is thrown into doubt by her husband’s nefarious plan. There’s big Oscar buzz around Margot Robbie’s performance as Harding even though she didn’t know who Harding was when she took the role. “I think I was about four years old when the incident took place,” she said. “I was in Australia and totally unaware of the whole incident and the crazy controversy.”
With his latest, The Shape of Water, director Guillermo del Toro redefines the age-old maxim that beauty is not skin deep for a new generation and will likely earn an Academy Award nomination in the process. The film mixes and matches the best of Beauty and the Beast and Creature from the Black Lagoon in a story about love and appearances. It’s King Kong and Edward Scissorhands. It’s E.T. and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. After seeing the trailer, director Kevin Smith tweeted: “Seeing something as beautiful as this makes me feel stupid for ever calling myself a ‘Director.’”
What’s it like playing Cyborg, the technologically enhanced human superhero of Justice League? Ray Fisher compares his excitement to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
“It’s like someone handing you the keys to the chocolate factory and saying, ‘Go ahead, it’s yours now,’” says the 30-year-old actor.
Before he was a superhero, Cyborg was Victor Stone, a sports-obsessed young man who was cybernetically reconstructed by his scientist father after a nearly fatal car accident. Cobbled together with technology that allows him to weaponize his arms and mind, he becomes a reluctant superhero.
Fisher first played Cyborg in a cameo appearance in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and audiences took notice.
“Fans have reached out,” he says. “There have been some who are amputees. There have been kids who have implants. For Cyborg to be able to represent the underrepresented in that way is a very special thing. I didn’t know the full scope of what he would represent when I took on the mantle.”
Fisher says he’s inspired by the fact that his character gives voice and power to those who feel marginalized.
“Cyborg represents not just people who are differently abled, he is also a representation of the Black community and people of colour within the Justice League. Being able to don both those mantles with the integrity which that character would need to be portrayed and was adhered to was something that was very important. I never felt that I was in too much danger of becoming a stereotype. I never felt like I was in danger of offending anyone with that particular portrayal because it could go wrong in so many ways.”
Growing up, he thought Cyborg was a “funny character but he didn’t resonate with me.” Live action heroes did, however. “I remember watching Wesley Snipes as Blade,” he says. “I watched Michael Jai White as Spawn. I even watch Shaquille O’Neal as Steel. I felt like seeing a physical representation, a non-cartoon representation affected me in a much different way.”
Although he didn’t read comic books growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, Fisher says he was a huge fan of the animated series and movies.
“It wasn’t until I booked the role of Cyborg that I was sent literally everything Cyborg-related from DC comics. I was able to fall in love with the original iteration of Cyborg from the Teen Titans. For me to be able to bring the character into the same sphere as the shows and the animated series I loved as a kid is coming full circle.”
Fisher, who made a name for himself playing Muhammad Ali in the Off-Broadway production of Fetch Clay, Make Man says he hopes his take on the character will make an impression on DC fans.
“Hopefully it resonates with people in a positive way,” he says. “I think there is definitely a message behind Cyborg that is needed for people to hear and what he represents and the resilience of the human spirit. I hope it means as much to people watching it as it meant to me to do it.”
Let’s face it, without the batsuit Bruce Wayne is just another billionaire playboy with some cool toys. With it, he’s the Caped Crusader, keeping Gotham and the world safe. The clothes make the man, or in this case, the superhero.
To play the Dark Knight in the new Justice League movie, Ben Affleck wore a variation on his Batman v Superman costume which was a variation on every batsuit that came before it.
Designed to conceal his identity and frighten criminals, the basic batsuit is usually blue-black or dark grey, emblazoned with the chest-mounted Batsymbol. Add to that a flowing cape, finned gloves and a utility belt with a variety of crime fighting gadgets. All batsuits are topped off with a cowl with ears that mimic a bat’s head.
Costume designer Michael Wilkinson says Affleck’s new look is, “a little more aggressive.” To pump up the suit’s armour, Wilkinson drew on Bruce Wayne’s history of studying martial arts in Japan, creating new gloves based on samurai designs. Inspired by the Wayne Tech esthetic, he also revamped the cowl, adding in new ways for Batman to communicate with his trusty manservant Alfred.
Like Rick Blaine’s fedora or Annie Hall’s wide trousers, long white shirts, vests and men’s ties, the suit is crucial to Batman’s brand but it’s not always a comfortable fit.
“The first time I ever put on the (suit) myself I thought, ‘Oh, Chris (Nolan) has to re-do the cast,’” says Christian Bale, who played the Caped Crusader in three movies, “because the claustrophobia was just unbelievable.”
The Batman Begins actor says he discovered a meditative process that eased the anxiety of feeling trapped inside the hulking suit and estimates that he spent a total of 21 months encased in Batman’s armour.
He claims the discomfort actually helped him play the brooding character because he was always in a foul mood when he had to don the suit.
“Batman, he’s this very, very dark, messed-up character,” said Bale. “I found when I put on the suit I went, ‘I just feel like a bloody idiot if I don’t use this as a means to (show) his true, monstrous self that he allows to come out in that moment.’”
When Affleck took over the role from Bale he says the Welsh actor gave him one important bit of advice. “He told me to make sure I got a zipper in the suit,” Affleck laughs, “which was valuable, practical advice as it turned out.”
Perhaps the most beloved actor to wear the batsuit was the late Adam West. For 120 episodes from 1966 to 1968, West was Batman on the most popular show on television. He called putting on the suit one of his most memorable moments on the show.
“One defining moment was when I first put on the costume for real and was about to leave my trailer on the stage and walk out in front of the crew and the press, and into the light,” he told me in a 2010 interview.
“I thought, ‘Oh Lord! Are they going to laugh? What’s going to happen here?’ Well, I walked across the stage as dignified as I could and there wasn’t a sound. People stood there in awe and I thought, ‘Yes, this will work.’”