The Digital Divide

(USA, 133 min.)
Dir. Michael Mann, Writ. Morgan Davis Foehl
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Tang Wei, Leehom Wang, John Ortiz.

Michael Mann's 2004 crime thriller Collateral marks one of the most noteworthy artistic successes of the era in which filmmakers struggled to introduce digital technology into the world of the cinema. Collateral, marks the cusp of a time when the line between digital technology and high definition technology improved significantly, yet the film still stands as one of the most truly innovative aesthetic coups for digital filmmaking. Digital cinema, especially the digital cinema from the turn of the millennium, plain and simply looks cheap and crappy, but Collateral succeeds because Mann and his cinematographers Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron harness the low-res graininess of the inferior technology and use it as a perfect visual counterpart to the cold grittiness of the drama starring a steely Tom Cruise. Mann's films since Collateral all dabble in new tricks with digital by trying to find the same fusion point between form and content with varying degrees of success. Mann's latest film, Blackhat, offers another great example of the pros and cons of going digital. It's not exactly Collateral, but there's a fine mix of spectacularly great cinematography and some amazingly turgid digital disastrousness in this clunky techno-thriller.


Cinemalinks: Weekly Reads (Sundance Edition!)

The Witch: "To the horror films of 2015, the gauntlet has been thrown down."
This week’s offering of Cinemalinks is the Sundance edition! Here’s a round-up of reviews from the folks enjoying the snow in Park City, with an emphasis on the Canadian films at the festival:

'Mommy', 'Tu dors Nicole' and Xavier Dolan Lead the Nominations for Quebec's Prix Jutra

Xavier Dolan and Suzanne Clément prepare for an intense scene in Mommy.
Photo: Shane Laverdière
A tight awards started in Quebec starting today. The nominations for the annual Prix Jutra, which honour the best in Québécois cinema, were announced today. Leading the pack with a whopping 10 nominations apiece are Mommy, Tu dors Nicole, and—get this—Xavier Dolan. (Mommy comes on strongest with an additional prize for top box office.) Dolan’s scored ten noms thanks to the strong presence of both Mommy and Tom at the Farm, netting multiple nominations for writing and directing, plus editing, costumes, and special prizes, although he missed out on acting nominations for both Tom and Miraculum, which could have actually made him the overall leader at the party. He’ll either have a very good night at the awards ceremony or cancel himself out and let Tu dors Nicole sweep the prizes.


Listen to the Canadian Screen Award Nominees for Original Song

The Valley Below. Photo by Paul Chirka
Okay, so we’ve all listened to “Everything is Awesome” more times than is commonly reasonable and we have debated whether “Lost Stars” is better in the acoustic Keira Knightley version or the power ballad by Adam Levine, but now it’s time to listen to the playlist of Canuck contenders. The five songs nominated for Achievement in Music – Original Song at this year’s Canadian Screen Awards are an eclectic bunch. The five songs feature lyrics in English, French, and Hindi with some funky ditties and soulful ballads from films that mostly flew under the radar this year. No camp songs from Stage Fright, no musical numbers from Bang Bang Baby, and no tracks from Violent’s We Are the City (maybe next year?), and no Best Film nominees in the bunch. Good job seeking out these little films, voters! Have a listen and let us know which nominee gets your vote!


Everybody's A Little Bit Racist

Dear White People
(USA, 108 min.)
Written and directed by Justin Simien
Starring: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner, Teyonah Parris, Brandon P. Bell, Dennis Haysbert
Once upon a time in my university days at Queen’s, my house on Aberdeen Street threw a party. There wasn’t a theme, just good old Halloween, and the party had a relatively chill mood with the usual mix of ironic dress-ups, scary ghouls, and slutty dresses paired with animal ears. Then some girl showed up painted completely black and wearing a dash of fluorescent and white shoes. “Oh no she didn’t!” everyone muttered into their red cups as they shifted awkwardly. It turns out that was dressed as a silhouette character from an iPod commercial. Oops.

The awkwardness of the Queen’s Halloween costume, which is actually a pretty great costume if one thinks about it aside from the obvious you-should-have-known-better guffaw, shows how well Dear White People gets it right in terms of its depiction of campus life in this supposedly post-racial age of hypersensitivity and political correctness. It’s a smart, witty, and articulate satire about the difficulty of moving beyond issues of race when some elusive, intangible pocket of culture says that we’ve moved beyond racism in the days of affirmative action and Obama. Everybody’s a little bit racist, shouts Dear White People with its loud and confrontational humour. There’s as much truth to the satire here as there is in a song from Avenue Q, and Dear White People hilariously dramatizes the fact that tensions of race are still sharp if only because they’re such a core of larger cultural identities.

Leading the charge is campus broadcaster Sam White (Selma’s Tessa Thompson) who runs a campus radio show called “Dear White People” in which she calls out the pervasive racism on her predominantly white campus. The problem with Sam’s show, however, is that it itself is vehemently racist, for Sam pools white people into a homogenous mass of over-privileged, self-serving racists. She’s articulate and funny, especially as played by Thompson’s star-in-the-making turn, and there’s an undeniable grain of truth to the observations on race she preaches into her microphone with well-cadenced anger.

Also sending her voice out to the masses is Coco (played by Teyonah Parris, aka Don Draper’s secretary Dawn on “Mad Men”), a vlogger/reality show wannabe who lays into YouTube with feisty observations on campus race relations and, more dramatically, saucy counterarguments to Sam’s show. Parris easily gives the standout performance of the film in the funniest and sassiest turn of Dear White People. She’s also best at capturing the bottled-up contradictions that characterize the creations of writer/director Justin Simien. Poised like a wannabe Betty Draper, Coco carries an overly affected awareness of her blackness that Sam treats as a kind of treason. Dear White People boldly takes the idea that race itself is a performance, and various facets of the ensemble either explode these stereotypes or work them against the grain.

The two key black males on campus, Lionel (Tyler James Williams) and Troy (Brandon P. Bell), are themselves caught in dual/binary identity clashes, but neither one is quite as interesting or as humorously confrontational of those of Sam and Coco. Lionel, for one, struggles to fit in anywhere on campus since he’s a gay black hipster, while Troy, the son of the Dean (Dennis Haysbert), aspires to public office but can’t quite shake the ongoing black-and-white rivalry between his father and the school President, Fletcher (Peter Syversten), which extends to a Capulet/Montague type rivalry between Troy and Fletcher’s racist son, Kurt (Kyle Gallner), and daughter Sofia (Brittany Curan), whom Troy is dating. Dating a black boy just to make daddy angry is one of the many “Dear White People” letters that Sam sends over the airwaves (naturally, she’s Troy’s ex), so everyone’s connected in a game of interracial criss-crossing.

Everything explodes when a campus house holds a blackface Halloween party, which, as the end credits show, is rooted in reality, and all the white folks validate Sam’s on-air Black Panther mantras. Dear White People frequently barbs its arguments and declarations on race like arguments in a term paper, rather lines of a film, but it’s often riotously funny for the honesty that infuses its satire and, as a freshman film from Simien, it’s quite impressive. People, especially young people who consider themselves progressive, still don’t know how to handle or approach questions of race without being offensive, either overtly or implicitly, and the film’s edgy take on the pulse of Obama-age youth is winningly perceptive.

Dear White People sometimes feels too contradictory for its own good as every character is a little bit racist and hypocritical with the way they present and perceive themselves, but Simien is shrewd enough to capture the complexity of contemporary relations and show that the problem lies on all sides of the spectrum. Yes, the oppression and characterization of minorities by whites is certainly the worst of offender—and every cut-and-dry Cracker of Dear White People feels authentically on point—but there’s a long way to go an all sides. Dear White People feels especially relevant now following the controversy of the racial representation in the film industry, and it’s a welcome and necessary satire for audience to see now more than ever. This promising debut holds a hilariously perceptive mirror on the way things are today.  

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Dear White People is currently playing in Ottawa at The Mayfair.

SAG Preview: The Actors of 'Birdman', the Family of 'Boyhood', or the Guests of 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'?

"Why don't I have any self-respect?!"
"You're an actress, honey."
-Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance
2015 marks this first year that Canadians can watch the Screen Actors Guild Awards live on television, rather than on the usual broadcast the day after. (Simultaneous substitution drives it off the American channels.) It’s a good year to be following the awards live, rather than on the Twitter, since the top prize from the actors probably won’t go to Oscar frontrunner Boyhood. If any film needs it’s Crash moment in which the largest branch of the Academy shows its support for a film driven by powerhouse performances, now’s the time to turn it.


Watch the #CdnScreen15 Nominee 'Improvisation No. 1'

Woo hoo! Here's one category down on the Canadian Screen Awards ballot. Catch up on the shorts with a little help from Vimeo and watch the nominated animated short Improvisation No. 1: Cumulative Loops. This experimental film by Luigi Allemano is hypnotic, trippy, jazzy fun:

Starring Johnny Depp and His Snot Mop

(USA, 106 min.)
Dir. David Koepp, Writ. Eric Aronson
Starring: Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Paul Bettany
Johnny Depp stars as 'Charlie Mortdecai' in Mortdecai. Photo: David Appleby
Mortdecai brings to the screen the Kyril Bonfiglioli’s cult novel Don’t Point That Thing at Me, the first of three books in a series featuring the bumbling art-dealer and part time rogue Charlie Mortdecai. Charlie Mortdecai is basically the result of a one-night stand between Jacques Clouseau and Johnny English, but with slightly better breeding and a significantly goofier mustache. Johnny Deep stars as the titular bon vivant, and he puts on his best(ish) English accent and worst facial hair for a spot of fun in this globetrotting art caper. Even silly, harmless, goofy films premised on mustaches jokes have limited mileage, though, and Mortdecai milks Depp’s snot mop for every laugh it can get and then some. Mortdecai misses by more than a whisker, but it’s not that bad as far as January releases go.

'Cake' And Eating It Too

(USA, 102 min.)
Dir. Daniel Barnz, Writ. Patrick Tobin
Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Anna Kendrick, Sam Worthington, Mamie Gummer, Felicity Huffman, Lucy Punch.
Last week’s Oscar nominations brought disappointing news for Jennifer Aniston and her fans when the former “Friends” star missed one of five Best Actress slots for which she had aggressively campaigned during the award season grind. She still has nominations from the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice, and the Screen Actors Guild, so no Oscar nomination doesn’t mean that Aniston can’t have her cake and eat it too. Going from the darkest horse of the race to the number one snub isn’t an easy feat and Oscar/film history might be kinder to Aniston’s turn in Cake since she missed out with the Academy. Enjoy Aniston’s work in Cake as a strong performance in its own right and not simply as another box to tick off on the Oscar cheat sheet. Cake showcases one heck of a performance from Aniston and it’s a testament to her range and skill alone that her film made it this far since debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014.


Cinemalinks: Weekly Reads

Oscar champ: The fake baby in American Sniper
This week’s round-up includes takeaways from the highs and lows of last week’s Oscar nominations, news of Mommy’s upcoming USA release (opens in NY and LA on Friday), and the most hilarious fake baby that the Interweb has ever seen.


CFI Screens Doc '50 Italians' on Jan. 27

Next Tuesday, January 27th, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and this year marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. To commemorate the victims of the Holocaust, The Canadian Film Institute (CFI) in collaboration with the Embassy of Italy in Ottawa, invites Ottawans and local cinephiles to take in a complementary screening of the Italian documentary 50 Italians and learn more about this chapter of history. 50 Italians, a 2008 doc by Flaminia Lubin, will be presented  at Library and Archives Canada (395Wellington Street) at 8:00 pm.

Going South for Winter: Canadian Films at Sundance

The Amina Profile
It’s not cold enough in Canada, so some homegrown films are heading south of the border to heat things up. They’re going to Sundance, of course, the biggest fête of independent cinema and Paris Hilton sightings in North America. The Sundance line-up has a decent sprinkling of Canadian content with some dramatic features, docs, and a trio of shorts (Take Me, Hole, and Mynarski Death Plummet) in a variety of competition and non-competition programs alike. Here’s a rundown of some of the Canuck flicks doing Sundance:


Four Grunts for 'Mr. Turner'

Mr. Turner
(UK, 150 min.)
Written and directed by Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen.

“The sun is God,” proclaims artist JMW Turner (Timothy Spall) with his dying breath in Mr. Turner. Mr. Turner, the biography of the great British painter from great British filmmaker Mike Leigh (Another Year), is an exquisitely unflattering portrait of a man who was capable of both poetic beauty and harsh cruelty. The man’s a mass of contradictions with his evocative ability to create capture landscapes and ships with awe-inspiring splendour whereas his view of humans is unbearably bleak. Leigh’s Mr. Turner epitomizes the world of warts-and-all biographies, and Leigh and Spall’s spectacularly unattractive portrait of this artist, his world, and his work is a stroke of greatness.


'Murrican Sniper

American Sniper
(USA, 132 min.)
Dir. Clint Eastwood, Writ. Jason Hall
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Look no further than American Sniper for an example of a competently crafted film that shoots itself in the foot by failing to question its own politics. American Sniper, hereafter referred to as ’MURRICAN Sniper, is a disappointingly blunt and narrow project from director Clint Eastwood. Sniper carries all the signature prowess of an Eastwood film—it’s faultless from a technical point of view—but it’s ironically shortsighted for a film about a sniper. Subject Chris Kyle, played by a beefed-up Bradley Cooper, who also receives a producing credit, is reportedly the most lethal sniper in ’Murrica’s history with an estimated 160-odd kills to his name. Cooper is strong and Eastwood’s direction is precise, but Sniper backfires because it valorizes the ideology of the American War Machine in which masculinity defines itself by guns and violence while patriotism becomes a blanket excuse for death and destruction. There’s no denying that Kyle’s life features acts of heroism, but is American Sniper really the film that America needs right now? In short, no it isn’t.


Yay for Everyone! Oscar Nominees React

Jean-Marc Vallee reviews a scene with Laura Dern while filming on location for Wild.
Stay positive. There's a lot to be happy about when it comes to today's Oscar nominations. The nominees react by sharing their enthusiasm (yay for Laura Dern!), talking up their peers (yay non-nominees!), name-dropping Canada (yay Emmanuel Lubezki) and dropping F-Bombs (yay Emma Stone!):