Meet the Genie best-picture contenders
- March 2, 2012 12:48 PM |
- By Susan Noakes
It used to be if you wanted to see Canadian movies, you had to catch them at a film festival, or turn up on the first weekend they hit commercial cinemas, because they would surely be gone by the following week. But the five films vying for best picture at the Genie Awards, English Canada's awards for the best domestic films, are still very much with us. Both Oscar nominee Monsieur Lazhar and David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method are still playing in cinemas in most cities. The Whistleblower, Starbuck and Café de Flore are already available on DVD, courtesy of the shortened time between theatrical and DVD or Pay-TV release. There is something for all tastes: a comedy, a romance, two historical dramas and a contemporary fable that had even Hollywood enthralled. Here's a look at the field for Thursday's gala.
A young mother and her Down syndrome son in Café de Flore. (Alliance Film)
Nominated for: best picture, best art direction, best cinematography, best costume, best direction (Jean-Marc Vallée), best make-up, best supporting actor (Marin Gerrier), best actress (Vanessa Paradis), best supporting actress (Hélene Florent), best sound, best sound editing, best original screenplay, best visual effects.
Café de Flore is a huge, ambitious, wildly romantic film by Quebec director Jean-Marc Vallée, best known for his 2006 film C.R.A.Z.Y. It follows two seemingly divergent storylines -- one about a Montreal-based DJ with a beautiful romantic partner, two lovely little girls and the life of an international jet-setter; the other about a single mother in Paris in 1969, struggling to build a life and provide opportunities for her son, who has Down syndrome. On the surface, all that links them is a song, Café de Flore by Doctor Rockit, which happens to be the favourite of both the little boy, Laurent, and the grown-up DJ, Antoine.
As the latter's story unfolds, we realize much of his perception is tinged with fantasy. He is actually a 40-year-old man who has screwed up his life in a very mundane way: divorcing the wife who loves him for a younger woman and leaving his daughters, and other members of his extended family hurt and angry. We come to appreciate his unfinished struggles with alcohol and see that his new house -- despite its lavish pool -- is covered with patches of plaster. Particularly telling are his ex-wife Carole's disturbing dreams, which leave her shaken and seem to be tied to the story of the boy in Paris.
I love Vallée's obsession with music and romance -- in both C.R.A.Z.Y., again about a DJ, and his follow-up film The Young Victoria. However, in Café de Flore, he keeps us waiting too long to learn what he's up to. The film is almost over before there are clear clues separating fantasy from reality and we understand that he's advancing a complex theme about soulmates and reincarnation. His ambition takes my breath away, but in Café de Flore the execution fails.
Keira Knightley as the irritating Sabina Spielrein and Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method. (Sony Pictures Classics)
Nominated for: best picture, best art direction, best costume, best direction (David Cronenberg), best editing, best music (Howard Shore), best actor (Michael Fassbender), best supporting actor (Viggo Mortensen), best sound, best sound editing, best visual effects.
A Dangerous Method sees the fathers of modern psychiatry conducting an intellectual debate about the nature of madness and how to get their theories of psychoanalysis more widely accepted, set against the backdrop of pre-First World War Vienna and Zurich. Portraying Carl Jung, Michael Fassbender begins the relationship with a series of letters before actually meeting his idol, Sigmund Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen). All of their meetings involve intense intellectual discussion -- sometimes with Freud's children listening in -- about the nature of sexuality and how much mysticism should be counted into the nature of man.
This exercise -- and it assumes the audience understands the general theories of these two eggheads -- is leavened by the relationship between Jung and a young Russian patient. Sabina Spielrein arrives at his Zurich clinic as a screaming hysteric, undergoes "the talking cure" and then heads out to medical school to become one of the first woman psychiatrists.
Unfortunately, this role is filled by Keira Knightley, who has an uncanny ability to come across as false and annoying even when she is so plainly meant to be suffering. Jung allows himself to be seduced by her and prolongs the affair after she begs him to stay, against the advice of his father figure Freud.
This German-Canadian production is a smart, solid piece of historical fiction directed by David Cronenberg. Often engrossing, it nonetheless fails to be as sexually charged as it could be, given the subject matter. Fassbender and Mortensen fully inhabit their roles and the relationship between them has so many threads that it's rewarding to watch. The costumes and cinematography are gorgeous. It's the love affair that disappoints, as well as the puzzling role of another doctor, Otto Gross, whose story is not given its due.
The young cast give very natural performances in Monsieur Lazhar. (Christal Films)
Nominated for: best picture, best director (Philippe Falardeau), best cinematography, best art direction, best editing, best music (Martin Léon), best actor (Fellag), best actress in a supporting role (Sophie Nélisse), best sound, best adapted screenplay.
Monsieur Lazhar tells the tale of an Algerian man who walks into a Montreal school and offers to take over teaching a group of 11- and 12-year-olds after their previous teacher hung herself in the classroom. One pair, Simon (Émilien Néron) and Alice (Sophie Nélisse), actually saw the body. Though the school brought in a class psychologist and re-painted the room, it can't t stop the event from rippling through all of their young lives. This could be movie-of-the-week fare, with a predictable crisis handled by a heroic and compassionate teacher. However, the charm of this movie is that director Philippe Falardeau, with a script based on a play by Évelyne de la Chenelière, avoids all the clichés.
Falardeau's first accomplishment is to capture the true dynamics of children at that age and just how much their world and thinking can be opaque to the adults around them. Their grief emerges not while under the care of a psychologist, but at odd times and in unexpected ways. Falardeau draws wonderful, natural performances from his young actors.
The new teacher, Bachir Lazhar (played admirably by Fellag), pushes them a little, including with a class assignment that requires them to write about violence. Noticing the boy struck with a migraine before every recess, Lazhar tells him to go out and run around in the sunshine and "when you get back I will still be alive" -- acknowledging the child's feeling of having failed his former teacher by not being present to stop her suicide.
Lazhar's motives are rather unclear -- he is not a teacher and landed immigrant as he told school officials, but rather a former civil servant and restaurant owner awaiting his refugee hearing. Perhaps he seeks the position in memory of his wife, a teacher killed by extremists in Algeria, or wants to be near children because he has lost his own.
Still, Lazhar's own struggle with grief is intensely moving because it is so understated. What makes Monsieur Lazhar such a masterful film is Falardeau's even hand in this contemporary fable -- no emotional crisis is ever torqued. It takes place in a world so real, recognizable and so specifically Canada that each of the characters resonates long after he or she has faded from the screen. Given its Oscar nomination, it is likely to win the best-picture Genie and it deserves the prize.
Patrick Huard, centre, is Starbuck, a sperm donor whose biological children (shown surrounding him) are suing to learn his identity. (Eone Films)
Nominated for: best picture, best original song, best actor (Patrick Huard), best supporting actor (Antoine Bertrand), best supporting actress (Julie LeBreton), best screenplay.
Starbuck is the pseudonym used by a young stud who donated repeatedly to a Montreal fertility clinic between 1990 and 1992. Two decades later, David Wozniak, the guy who dubbed himself Starbuck, is served with legal papers telling him the clinic used his sperm exclusively, hence he has fathered 533 children and 142 are suing to discover his identity. Also, because this is a comedy, Wozniak also learns that his current girlfriend is pregnant.
What sounds like a dose of something heavy is instead hilarious in the hands of director Ken Scott and star Patrick Huard, surely one of the most talented comic actors in Canada. So many children suing to learn the identity of their father seems a truly ridiculous situation and becomes the fodder of chat shows and internet forums (where Starbuck is publicly reviled).
Of course, David is also curious about his offspring -- especially when he learns one is a local soccer star. He cannot resist dabbling in their lives, playing guardian angel to one son who sings in the subway and a daughter with a drug problem -- all without revealing who he is.
David's current life is a series of mishaps. He never commits to relationships, is not fully reliable in his job delivering meat for his father's butcher shop and is $80,000 in debt to a loan shark. But he's good-natured and generous: even the son who is a rabid vegetarian -- and berates him at hilarious length for working in a butcher shop -- can't help but like him. A great supporting cast, including Igor Ovadis as David's father and Antoine Bertrand as the defrocked lawyer who defends him, help ramp up the humour. I'm not surprised to see it named the Golden Reel winner for the year's biggest Canadian box office achiever -- Starbuck is laugh out loud funny.
Rachel Weisz plays a UN peacekeeper who takes on more than she bargained for in The Whistleblower. (Eone Films)
Nominated for: best picture, best direction (Larysa Kondracki), best music (Mychael Danna), best actress (Rachel Weisz), best supporting actress (Roxana Condurache), best screenplay.
In post-war Bosnia, an American policewoman (Rachel Weisz) stumbles across a human trafficking ring. As she tries to convince some of the young women involved to testify, she realizes that the customers for these underage prostitutes mainly come from international peace-keeping forces -- her colleagues. When she moves to shut down one operation, she finds herself blocked first by local police, then by peacekeepers and finally by the bureaucrats running the UN operation.
This drama based on the real-life experiences of Kathryn Bolkovac, a Nebraska cop who publicly outed the UN's role in human trafficking, paints a grim picture of the international justice system. Debut Toronto director Larysa Kondracki has created a powerful work with a universally grim message. Particularly effective are the dark tones of the cinematography and the obvious poverty of the backdrops: the post-Communist era apartments and dirty, concrete-floored rooms of a shattered city.
It's puzzling why Bolkovac is so often alone, following up the case with apparently no manpower nor equipment. Weisz, while mesmerizing on the screen, is often required to give rather righteous speeches about what she is trying to do. The Whistleblower tells an important story well, and is necessarily bleak in outlook. It deserves more attention than it's had.
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