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!”
Christina Hendricks is thankful for a warm jacket. “I was shooting on a mountain only hours ago,” she says on the line from Calgary. “It is below zero but they are doing a great job of keeping me warm. Those parkas are no joke.”
The Knoxville, Tenn., native hasn’t called to talk about the weather in Canada, however. She’s on the phone to discuss her new film, the creepy killer flick The Strangers: Prey at Night.
The former Mad Men star plays a mother who moves her family to a remote community in an effort to put some distance between her daughter and the bad influences of the city. There’s no one around except for three masked psycho killers, Dollface, Man in the Mask and Pin-Up Girl who emerge from the woods with knives, axes and bad intentions.
The creep-fest is a sequel of sorts to The Strangers, a 2008 home invasion film that saw the masked marauders attack an unsuspecting family. It’s also one of Hendricks’ favourite movies.
“I am a huge, huge fan,” she says. “I’ve talked about it for years. I think it is the scariest movie I have ever seen in my life and I reference it all the time. It was coincidental that they came to me. My manager said, ‘I don’t know if you are interested in doing a horror film about The Strangers.’ And I screamed, ‘The Strangers! Are you kidding me?’”
She says the villains of The Strangers: Prey at Night unsettle her more than Dracula, Frankenstein or anything that goes bump in the night because there’s nothing supernatural about them. But at the same time there’s nothing natural about the horrors the all-too-human monsters unleash on the newcomers.
“It’s my absolute worst nightmare,” she says, “people messing with you just because. It’s not a devil thing. It’s not a monster thing. It is not an apocalypse. It is just people coming to mess with you because they can.”
The film was shot in rural Kentucky. “It is beautiful during the day but when the sun goes down it is scary,” she says. “Everything is scarier in the dark.
“I thought, ‘Certainly I won’t be that scared. I know what’s going on,’ but I was actually scared. In the moments before we had to get ourselves worked up so Bailee (Madison, who plays her daughter) and I would go off to a different area and gear ourselves up before they yelled action. You can’t turn it on immediately. You have to get yourself in that state but in between we got along so well. We listened to music and had a laugh.”
She says she enjoyed everyone on set but didn’t hang out with the entire cast.
“They did keep a little bit more separate,” she says of the actors playing the masked killers.
“In the beginning we even said, ‘Can we not see them in their masks until the last moment?’ because they are so scary. It is kind of hard to be chatting and hanging out and having a snack with Dollface and the next thing you know she says, ‘I’m just going to go over here and kill you!’ ‘OK! I’ll see you in a minute.’ A little mystery helps.”
What was it like working with Oprah? That’s the question Deric McCabe, the nine-year-old star of A Wrinkle in Time, has been asked most often since he started doing press for the new film.
The Whitefish, Mont., native has nothing but praise for the icon but adds she didn’t awe him. “I didn’t know who she was,” he says, “so I didn’t get starstruck or anything. Every day I said, ‘Good morning,’ then goodbye. I said everything to her.”
McCabe plays Charles Wallace, a precocious, intelligent child whose father, astrophysicist Alex Murry (Chris Pine), disappeared through a “wrinkle in time” when the boy was very young. Charles believes he can help locate his dad with the help of three astral travellers, Mrs. Which (Oprah), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling).
Guided by the trio of spirit beings, Charles, his sister Meg (Storm Reid) and their friend — and Meg’s crush — Calvin (Levi Miller) ascend to the universe in search of Alex. In their celestial travels they meet a helpful seer called the Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis), talking flowers — “Everyone knows the flowers are the best talkers,” says Mrs. Whatsit — and the universe’s most evil entity. They will learn life lessons along the way that may — or may not — reveal what happened to their dad.
McCabe beat out thousands of other child actors for the role of Charles Wallace. A November 2016 entry on his Instagram shows him doing “a little happy dance” when director Ava DuVernay called to tell him he’d won the part.
“Deric worked hard for this,” reads the post, “Hours of auditions, callbacks, meetings interviews… 17 page, 5 page, 3 page, 21 page scripts to learn overnight…while continuing to spend time with family, do his regular chores, and excel in school. He prayed, remained patient, and was persistent.”
“The trick is you can be nervous,” he says of the audition process, “you just can’t show it. You put a straight face on. You can’t fake smile, like you’re nervous. You can’t wave nervously. You have to act confident.” As for all the memorization? “It is kind of easy remembering all those lines. I don’t know why.”
The youngster is working alongside established stars like Winfrey, Witherspoon, Kaling and Galifianakis but it was while watching another performer that the acting bug bit.
“When I was six I saw Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers and I thought, ‘I want to do that,’” McCabe says. “My parents were super supportive. They were like, ‘OK,’ and made it happen and here I am!”
The busy preteen is already winning praise for his performance in A Wrinkle in Time and will soon star opposite Luis Guzmán in the music industry drama Hold On.
“I think I know more about sets and acting than when I started,” he says. “I like how you get to act like a different person every day. That is pretty cool. You get to meet new people.”
Looking back at his A Wrinkle in Time experience, McCabe singles out a scene where his character’s personality changes as his favourite.
“I liked the evil Charles Wallace because I got to do things a regular kid wouldn’t get to do like drag his dad, his sister and her friend down a hallway.”
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.
This is Jesse Plemons like we’ve never seen him. Best known for a trio of dramatic roles on television—Landry Clarke in the football drama Friday Night Lights, Todd Alquist in crime series Breaking Bad and Ed Blumquist in Fargo—he has made a name playing characters he describes as “intense or creepy.”
On the phone from Los Angeles to chat up his new comedy Game Night, he’s neither of those things. Friendly and soft-spoken, he says his latest character Gary, a cop with a broken heart and a suspicious nature, “feels like he was in his own movie or had snuck from some other movie and just seemed really out of place.”
Game Night sees Plemons as the oddball neighbour to Max and Annie, played by Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams. The hypercompetitive couple host weekly game nights, get-togethers Gary used to be invited to before he divorced their friend Debbie. When an innocent murder mystery game escalates to real life danger Max and Annie welcome Gary’s expertise in law enforcement.
Plemons hasn’t done a lot of comedy but says he liked Game Night immediately.
“You read a lot of scripts,” he says, “and I find that you know pretty early on whether you respond to it or not. It is pretty rare to read a comedy script and actually laugh out loud sitting by yourself.”
To create the character Plemons, who will soon be seen alongside Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in the Martin Scorsese movie The Irishman, mixed deadpan delivery with a thousand-yard-stare that is as unnerving as it is funny.
“I watched a lot of cops for inspiration,” he says. “Not to say I ever found a Gary per se, but I felt like it was an easy world to step into.”
When I mention that Gary’s situation—he’s a lonely sad sack, still pining for his ex wife—might make it easy for an audience to feel sorry for him and not laugh, he shudders.
“I didn’t even think about that,” he says. “I should have been worried about that but somehow I wasn’t. I could immediately picture him. I feel like everyone has come across someone in their lives who is a great person but you don’t necessarily want to talk to them. There is something really sweet and innocent about Gary that I really liked and I think maybe that’s what people will respond to.
“No matter what genre I am doing I still try and try to bring truth and honesty to it. That is also the kind of comedy I respond to. Not that I don’t like broad comedy but this is something I haven’t been able to play around with in the past.”
Ultimately, however, he says the only difference between playing drama and comedy is “that it is hard to escape that, ‘I hope people laugh,” thought in the back of your mind.”
He says Game Night, like his recent appearance in Oscar nominated The Post, offered up the chance to do something new and stretch as an actor.
“That’s what I love about acting,” he says. “I don’t feel like you ever really arrive or feel like you’ve done it all. There is always a new part, a new story to try and figure out.”
In its first hour, the new film Permission looks and feels a lot like a traditional romantic comedy — but this is a trick, says actress Rebecca Hall.
“When we first started out making this (director Brian Crano) said, ‘I want this to look like a classic rom-com from the ’90s. Lots of backdrops from Manhattan. Lots of completely gorgeous-looking apartments that, inexplicably, these people are living in. Everyone is beautiful. Everything is beautiful,” explains Hall.
And just when you think you’re on cosy ground, “the rug is pulled out from under you. You feel gut-punched.”
In the film, Will, played by Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, and Anna (Hall) have been sweethearts since high school. Now, on the cusp of her 30th birthday he’s about to pop the question. First though she drunkenly proposes they sleep around a bit. Not break up, but get some life experience before they settle down. At first they encourage one another in a bit of harmless fun but as their polyamorous relationships start to deepen, uncomfortable realities are revealed.
“Over the years we’ve all had conversations about relationships and where they were heading,” Hall says. “Brian noticed a general trend that happened somewhere around the ages of 27 to 30-something, where people who had been in shockingly monogamous, stable relationships either got married or broke up. This was something he was interested in because so many of his friends were children of divorce or had complex attitudes toward monogamy. Some were fundamentally monogamous while others were exploring other options.”
Permission’s final third contains the film’s most essential truths. In a dramatic shift in tone from the first hour, the harsh realisms of this arrangement appear.
“The thing we were interested in weren’t the moral rights or wrongs, if there are any, of having an open relationship,” she says. “It was more about these two people who are stuck, who have not allowed each other growth because they have been together for so long and have not had the level of communication in the relationship that is necessary. The film is really about giving ourselves permission to question a relationship that is basically good. It sounds like a nothing statement but no matter how sophisticated and evolved and progressive we have all become there is still this strange pressure to do the right thing. If the relationship is good you stay in it because if you leave it you might be mean or a failure.”
The film takes a thoughtful and mature approach to its story, asking: How far can you stray, even with permission?
“Brian and I used to play a little game,” Hall says, “where we would try and think of films and stories where women have sexual agency but aren’t kooky, crazy people who end up being psychopaths or pixie dream girl stereotypes. It was difficult to come up with. The construction of Anna was really someone who is working out what that means. She is going to discover what sexual agency means for her. She is going to own it and be empowered by it. I think that is a really important message to put out there right now.”
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.”