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.
Mountain survival movies usually end with someone eating someone else to stay alive. The Mountain Between Us features the usual mountain survival tropes — there’s a plane crash, a showdown with a cougar and broken bones — but luckily for fans of stars Idris Elba and Kate Winslet cannibalism is not on the menu.
“The combination between survival and romance is why I wanted to do this movie,” says director Hany Abu-Assad. “It is very original. I could make a different survival movie which is on the surface is about survival but deep in its heart it is about love and the spirit of human beings. On the other hand it is an opportunity to make an entertaining movie. It is an entertaining but also sophisticated movie that tells the meaning of life.”
Elba and Winslet play strangers who must bond after a devastating plane crash leaves them badly injured and stranded. They are onscreen for 99 per cent of the film so the casting of the two leads was the first major hurtle for director Abu-Assad.
“This is a very risky movie because it depends on just two characters and if the actors are not good, you’re f—ed,” he laughs. “The process was very long and thoughtful. At the end we came up with Idris and Kate after we saw them at the BAFTAs together. They were presenting. We were throwing all kinds of names around. I don’t want to say who but we wanted to be sure you would want to look at them for an hour and a half and still not get enough. The moment I saw Idris and Kate together on the stage, immediately I thought, this is the movie I want to see. There is fire between these two that made us realize these were the actors we wanted.”
Shot in Western Canada, the vistas of ice and snow — imagine Lawrence of Arabia with snow instead of sand — were real and brought a sense of authenticity to the production.
“All the snow is real, pristine but this comes with a price,” Abu-Assad says. “For example you can’t shoot long days, just six hours a day. Otherwise you will be beaten up from the cold. People from Chicago or Montreal tell me they’re used to the cold. They are used to going 10 minutes from the house to the car or for a five-minute walk in the cold but six hours? That takes a toll. The equipment won’t work so we had to leave the cameras on 24 hours. The moment we stopped them it took hours to warm them up again. Some equipment froze in a way that we couldn’t even move it or touch it.”
Abu-Assad says the elements challenged the cast, crew and him during the shoot, but that it was worth it.
“It makes you hyper-vigilant,” he says, “because you can’t afford to make a mistake. Some scenes are just one take because it is a pristine snow and you can’t go back. It’s very tiring but not frustrating because your adrenaline is pumping. It was beautiful to watch. Things happened in a way that felt so genuine. It was like an orgasm to watch these shots being made.”
Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve and I are talking about how technology impacts our lives, when technology impacts our interview. The phone goes dead.
“Sorry about that,” he says back on the line. “There was another call and I didn’t want it to be distracting but I pushed the wrong button. I was doing an interview with someone who was not understanding a word I was saying! Then I realized, I’m not talking to Richard anymore. I’m talking to an unknown person. That says a lot about where we are now.”
Villeneuve, the Oscar-nominated Trois-Rivières, Que.-born director, saw the original Blade Runner when he was 15 years old.
“It was a hybrid of film noir with sci-fi,” he says. “The world that was depicted in the first movie, it was the first time I felt like I had seen a serious vision of what could be our future. There was so much poetry involved in the characters. There is strength in the vision. It is very singular, very unique and at the time I was a science fiction addict and for me it became an instant classic.”
A self-described dreamer, Villeneuve says the movie lit his imagination on fire.
“In those years my strength was dreaming,” he recalls. “I spent the first years of my life more in dreams than in reality. There are a lot of dreams I had back then that are inspiring me today.”
Thematically the new film harkens back to Ridley Scott’s original but instead of being a reboot or a remake it grows organically out of the 1982 film. Like the original it is about discovering what is real and what it means to be human and how technology fits into that puzzle.
“I felt it had the potential to tell a very strong story about the human condition,” he says, “about our relationship with technology. These are timeless questions that were already present in the first movie but I thought it made sense to bring back those questions today, 30 years later when our relationship with technology has evolved so much. When Blade Runner was released it was the time when we were starting to see personal computers in homes. It was the very beginning of the electronic revolution and now it is a different world.
“When you make a science fiction movie it is a mirror of today. It is nothing else than that, an exploration of today.”
Blade Runner 2049 is a mix of old and new, of Scott’s classic vision and Villeneuve’s new ideas. A throwback to the first film comes in the form of Harrison Ford, who recreates his role of retired blade runner Rick Deckard. To find someone who could carry himself against the screen legend Villeneuve brought in fellow Canadian Ryan Gosling.
“I needed that taciturn quality; quiet and strong,” he says. “I needed someone with charisma, big enough to be in front of Harrison Ford and not melt. A real movie star. I knew at some point he would be face-to-face with one of the biggest stars of all time.”
Reinventing a beloved classic like Blade Runner takes guts. When I ask Villeneuve if he looked to Scott for guidance he laughs. “His advice was, ‘Don’t f-— it up.’”
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.”
“Tennis players are like warriors who singlehandedly take on each other,” says director Jonathan Dayton.
One such warrior is Billie Jean King. As a twenty-nine-year old she was vaulted into superstardom in 1973 when she trounced ex tennis champ and self proclaimed Male Chauvinist Pig Bobby Riggs in a match billed as the Battle of the Sexes. It remains television’s most watched tennis match but more than a ratings bonanza for the network it placed King at the forefront of feminism and gender politics in the 1970s. A new film, Battle of the Sexes starring Emma Stone and Steve Carrell, aims to remind audiences of the tennis champ’s importance.
“I hope this is part of a realignment,” says co-director Dayton. “She is very celebrated but since we started showing the movie I think it has been very satisfying for her to get this new level of acknowledgement. I think she felt like she had been celebrated and that was over and now other people are getting attention.”
“She is still so active in all of it,” adds co-director Valerie Faris. “She’s still working. She’s not just out to further her legacy, she’s actually just still working on these same issues. She’s all about fairness and inclusivity. She was the one who said, ‘I want to take it away from being a country club sport and make it for everybody.’”
Battle of the Sexes is undoubtedly a sports movie. The climatic 1973 match takes up much of the last half hour of the film, but it isn’t strictly a tennis drama. Like all good sports films it’s not really about the game, it’s about the human spirit that made King a hero. It also shines a light on her personal life.
Stone plays King as warm but spunky—like Mary Tyler Moore spunky—when we first meet her. The character deepens, however, when Marilyn Barnett, played by Andrea Riseborough, enters the picture. As the married and deeply in the closet King Stone blossoms as the romance with Marilyn blooms.
“It was not a happy time for her,” says Faris. “She says she hasn’t watched the match in twenty-five years. It was hard during the process because we were nervous. We wanted to make her proud and validate who she is.”
“It was very hard for her initially to even enter this process,” says Dayton, “particularly because what was important to us was to tell the story of her first relationship with a woman but, as painful as that was, she was fine with it. She knew that was the most important aspect of it.
“We wanted to show the complexity. She saw this as an affair where she was cheating on her husband. Not only was it a huge move to act on her true sexuality but she loved Larry and didn’t want us to make that relationship seem less than it was.”
As a portrait of women’s rights and the sexual revolution of the 1970s Battle of the Sexes covers a lot of ground.
“What we didn’t want is something that is so polarizing that it would divide the world into two camps,” says Dayton. “Hopefully there are entry points for everybody. Frankly, we wanted it to be entertaining, to be a fun ride.”
People call Jeff Bauman a hero but it’s not a label he enjoys.
“I don’t like being called a hero,” he says. “In my eyes, there are heroes I look up to, the people who saved my life, the caretakers, my surgeon and my wife, the love of my life. She’s my hero. I lost something but my heroes picked me up.”
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Bauman in Stronger, the story of the man whose life changed the morning of April 15, 2013. Bauman, while waiting at the Boston Marathon finish line for his ex-girlfriend to finish the race, was standing next to one of the Boston Bombers. Gravely injured after the blast he was rescued by a stranger in a cowboy hat and rushed to the hospital where both his legs were amputated above the knees. The tragedy thrust Bauman into the spotlight, making him a reluctant beacon for the Boston Strong movement.
“Through a number of circumstances the movie was hard to get made,” says Gyllenhaal who also produced the film. “Number one, movies like this, stories like this, aren’t being told as much. There is a real balance in this movie of humour and a certain type of depth that I think tonally can confuse people who want something that seems a little simpler.
“I think also, in a lot of ways, when they heard about this story people thought it was too soon or who wants to make a movie out of that event. In truth, the movie is not about the event at all. That’s why I loved it.”
Stronger is not the story of a bomb or the radical politics that saw it planted at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. It’s the story of the aftermath and Bauman’s inspirational recovery.
“The thing that is most important to me is that people see this movie,” says Gyllenhaal. “We have always been that movie that has a little of that underdog spirit. It has been a long and pretty incredible journey. I just want people to see it because I think today there are so many hard things happening in the world and Jeff’s story sort of proves to people that they can keep going, that they can take another step. That they can survive that minute or that second or that hour that they don’t think they’ll be able to get through. He is a beacon for that and I want people to see that.”
Bauman says he’s proud of the movie but says watching it for the first time was “sensory overload” as it forced him to relive the worst moment of his life.
“I cried a lot,” he says. “I kind of just went, ‘I want to go home afterward and go to sleep,’ and I did. I went home and went to sleep. The next day things hit me a little bit more. It’s emotional for me.”
Bauman may not want to be called a hero, but Gyllenhaal, who became close with the Boston native during he making of the film, says, “A lot of people have asked me over my career: ‘When are you going to play in a superhero movie?’ I feel like I finally kind-of have. To me, that’s how I feel about him. He’s a total inspiration to me.”
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.