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Long Lost (feat. writer/director Erik Bloomquist)

Friday, March 22nd, 2019—Film

Long Lost (USA 2019, Drama/Mystery/Thriller), Writer/Director: Erik Bloomquist

When I first started watching Long Lost, the debut feature from writer/director Erik Bloomquist, I was taken aback. I’d seen some of his previous short films, so I wasn’t surprised by how polished and professional his indie feature was. (Thomson Nguyen’s cinematography is especially outstanding.) What I wasn’t expecting from someone as seemingly thoughtful and understanding as Erik, was a rather unappealing trope: the lone female character as temptress, prize, sex object. Fortunately, by the time I finished Long Lost, it became clear that things in its cineverse are not what they appear. “It’s a misdirect,” says Erik.

Long Lost is touted as an erotic thriller. Here’s the official synopsis: “Long Lost stars Adam Weppler as Seth, a young man invited to spend a long weekend at a Connecticut mansion with his long lost millionaire half-brother Richard (Nicholas Tucci), who, along with his enigmatic live-in girlfriend, Abby (Catherine Corcoran), leads Seth down a psychological rabbit hole wherein luxury and temptation are intermingled with treachery and taboo.”

Yet talk to Erik, as I was lucky to be able to, and you get the sense that there’s much more going on—that first impressions don’t reflect reality. “Long Lost is a meditation on loneliness, identity and the roles we play … wrapped up in a pulpy, dark-humoured genre package,” he says. “I hope it leaves people wanting to see it again because it’s a very different experience when you’re watching it a second time.”

He’s achieved that goal, at least for me. Our chat left me eager to take another look at the film’s screener. And it left an even more positive impression on me than the one he first made when I discovered his work nearly four years ago.

In 2015, Erik reached out to request that I review his short film, The Cobblestone Corridor. Since then, he and his production banner, Mainframe Pictures, have expanded the short into a nationally syndicated television series, which won him two 2017 New England Emmy Awards (Outstanding Writer and Outstanding Director), and garnered an Outstanding Actor win for Nick Moss, as well as six other Emmy nominations, including one for Erik as Outstanding Performer. Mainframe has also created and released several other short films, including Intermedium, which is set for this summer’s festival circuit, and has “another couple of features in the works.”

Oh, and among many more achievements, Erik delivered an excellent 2018 TEDx Talk at Saint Andrews School and was named one of Connecticut Magazine’s 40 Under 40: The Class of 2019 (along with the likes of world-renowned journalist Ronan Farrow).

So he’s been busy. “I’m definitely a very long multi-hyphenate,” he says. “Holistic storyteller, content creator, teacher, whatever—I’m lucky to be able to work in this business full-time… I think the fact that I do jump back and forth between roles and mediums only strengthens me when I move on to the next.”

He decided to create his first feature film as an independent production because, as he says, “people aren’t going to ‘let’ you direct a feature unless you’ve directed one. For (the sake of everyone involved), it was something we really wanted to do; we didn’t want to wait for permission or wait for… somebody to airdrop a bunch of money on us.”

Working with whatever private equity they could raise, Erik and his team of longtime collaborators came together, called on favours from fellow cast and crew, and found ways to stretch every dollar so they could make the film “as big (and as thoroughly considered) as it could possibly be without the seams showing.”

“I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of the same people over the past five years—super-strong creatives and technicians,” he says. “I know that’s the only way we were able to make Long Lost, a feature film shot in 10 days. It’s because we have this mental shorthand and this mutual stake in the project.”

The story, which he developed with actor/producer Adam Weppler and writer/producer Carson Bloomquist (his younger brother—although thankfully for their family, Long Lost isn’t at all autobiographical!), came about because “we were attracted to this idea of identity shifting based on who is in the room,” says Erik. “There are three characters in this movie but there are actually seven different relationship dynamics. There’s the group when it’s the three of them together, there’s each pairing of two and then there’s each individual. So even though there are only three people, there are seven different things to explore, and just watching how that shifts based on who walked into or out of a room was very interesting to me. And wrapping it up in this sexy puzzle film, we thought was the best way to do that.”

When a sprawling, isolated Connecticut estate became available, the trio crafted the narrative around the location. “Knowing what those rooms looked like and what we had access to certainly informed the choices we were making,” says Erik. “(We started from) this idea of family and what it means to be someone’s brother or kin if you’ve never met them before, what kind of allegiances that has, what kind of ties bind. Then the house sort of become a fourth character or echo chamber for the increasingly bizarre eccentricities of that relationship.”

Just as the Long Lost characters ultimately delve into questions of identity and intent, Erik hopes that viewers will see his film as an opportunity to reflect on their own lives—their personas, their loneliness, their desires—and to come together, to occupy the same space, whether literally or metaphorically.

“People are in so many different places—they move, they have work, they have whatever,” he says. “I like creating a piece of art that can magnetize people back to centre… I like making things that are social experiences and that start conversations; things that can feel like thrill rides or awaken people’s imaginations in a way that they normally aren’t.”

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Long Lost is slated for a 30-city limited theatrical run beginning March 29, 2019 and an Amazon-exclusive digital release April 10 (National Siblings Day), with more platforms to follow. It has already picked up several awards on the festival circuit, including Audience Choice at the Eastern Oregon Film Festival, Best Feature Film at the Nevermore Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize at the Laughlin International Film Festival.

You can watch the trailer here.

Vice (feat. production designer Patrice Vermette)

Thursday, January 24th, 2019—Film

Vice (USA 2018, Biography/Comedy/Drama), Writer/Director: Adam McKay

Last month, a few days after the start of what has become the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, Vice hit theatres. Just as writer/director Adam McKay’s The Big Short exposed corruption in the U.S. mortgage market, Vice explores the same beast in politics—American in particular, but also the political machine in general. In this film, though, the beast has a name: Dick Cheney (played magnificently by Christian Bale), widely known as the most powerful Vice-President in American history.

Vice lifts the curtain on Cheney’s role in American politics, starting with his internship under then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and ending with his eight years as Vice-President to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). It examines the personal motivations that drove Cheney to become a “servant to power” and underscores the tremendous, lasting impact his vice-presidency had on the world, especially regarding the Iraq War, Big Oil and foreign policy.

Sound a little dry? It’s not, because it’s dressed in McKay’s trademark fashion: quirky, comedic asides; intercut footage of actual events; a charismatic narrator along for the ride. Like The Big Short, Vice succeeds in packing a heavy, information-packed punch while also tickling the funny bone. In recognition of that agile feat, the film was recently nominated for eight Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for McKay, Best Actor (Bale), Best Supporting Actress (Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney), Best Supporting Actor (Rockwell), Best Makeup & Hairstyling and Best Film Editing (Hank Corwin).

For any film, success on that level requires an incredible amount of work from a huge team of people. When the film spans five decades, from the 1960s to the early 2000s, and includes more than 200 sets from locations as far flung and diverse as Wyoming, Texas, Italy, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq, the United Nations Headquarters, the White House, the Pentagon and many more, it becomes a Herculean effort. Add to that challenge the fact that Vice was shot in just 54 days and that every scene had to be shot in and around the Los Angeles area, and you’ve got what might seem like an insurmountable task.

Image courtesy of Patrice Vermette

Except that McKay chose his team from among the very best. I had the privilege of talking to one of his key players about exactly how they were able to pull off what they did with Vice: Patrice Vermette, the Canadian Screen Award nominated (Enemy), two-time Academy Award nominated (Arrival, The Young Victoria) production designer. Patrice graciously took time to chat with me from Budapest, where he’s currently in pre-production on a new adaptation of Dune (part one of two, due out in 2020). The project reunites him with his frequent collaborators, director Denis Villeneuve and storyboard artist Sam Hudecki. “The family is back together again,” says Patrice.

Patrice first read the script for Vice in the midst of the 2017 Oscar season, when he was nominated for Arrival. Right away, he was floored. Or, more accurately, ceilinged; one of the comedic scenes had him literally jumping for joy on the bed. “The script was really the best script I have read in my life,” he says.

The opportunity to work with McKay was also a major attraction. “I loved The Big Short for multiple reasons,” says Patrice. “First of all, it’s entertaining, but it deals with a very, very serious subject. Adam is so politicized and I think it’s part of his mission right now, after working on comedies, to use the talent he has as a storyteller to (help) people understand complex concepts. The way that he treats (each subject), it’s very unique.”

Patrice himself is always a keen student of whatever subject his current project revolves around. From royalty to aliens to drug cartels, he’s fascinated by learning, as much out of genuine curiosity as by the desire to get every detail right on his films. With Vice, he was eager to learn more about American politics because of how pervasive they are; whether or not you live in the United States, you’re most likely impacted by the country’s political decisions, to some degree.

Image courtesy of Patrice Vermette

But Patrice was also fascinated by the script because of how it shows that politics in general “have been hijacked. I don’t think it’s just the United States; it’s everywhere in the world, at different levels. Now, business techniques like focus groups are extremely useful for governments to sell policies that are unpopular… They use the same techniques as advertising companies and entertainment businesses, and it’s very bizarre; all the interest groups are extremely influential because they put so much money into getting people elected. It’s quite frightening.

“With movies, of course there’s an entertainment aspect to it, but if we can also deal with subjects that make people aware of certain aspects of the world they live in, it’s even better. When I read the script for Vice, I thought it was a perfect example of that; entertainment mixed with important subject matter, not just pure entertainment.”

Image courtesy of Patrice Vermette

Taken as he was by the script, Patrice always tasks himself with the job of “going deeper than just the written words.” As a production designer, he’s after the visual story between the lines on the page—the locations, sets and props that will project the script’s mood onto the screen and reflect it back into our hearts.

For Patrice, the process begins by creating mood boards that capture the feeling he plans to convey on each location. With Vice, everything had to be shot near Los Angeles, as requested by Bale, who wanted to stay near his family throughout production. “No Christian, no Cheney,” says Patrice. “He’s amazing in the role. He’s an awesome guy, as well.”

So, Southern California it was. Patrice, along with McKay, location manager John Panzarella and cinematographer Greig Fraser, set about securing the best spots for each scene. Given the vast list of locations, that meant shooting several scenes on sound stages.

“There were some inevitable sets that had to be shot onstage because we would never find locations for those,” says Patrice. “Obviously everything that takes place in the White House, the UN Headquarters, the Supreme Court—all these things that are well documented are obvious builds because people will know if we try to pretend that we’re at the Supreme Court and we’re not, and we want to be as accurate as we can.”

Image courtesy of Patrice Vermette

To that end, the team decided to create one-wall or sometimes two-wall sets, so they could make each scene as believable as possible within the confines of Sony’s sound stages. “It became a huge Tetris game,” says Patrice. “It was quite a challenge for my supervising art director, Brad Richer.” The film’s schedule also dictated that some of the sets be quickly redressed to serve as multiple locations within the same shooting day.

Image courtesy of Patrice Vermette

For other scenes, Patrice and the crew were able to find suitable stand-ins. “In California, the landscape is quite extraordinary,” he says. “We found mountainsides to match Afghanistan. We found a film ranch [Santa Clarita’s Blue Cloud Movie Ranch] in which there were partial sets of Iraq, and we built around that, enhanced it to shoot our scenes… There was a very flat beach around Santa Monica, and at a certain level you don’t see the sea, if the camera is low enough, so one angle works for Saudi Arabia.”

Image courtesy of Patrice Vermette

Still, it was demanding to find locations that met with the team’s high standards. Dressing LA to look like Milan, for example, was particularly difficult. “LA doesn’t look anything like Milan,” says Patrice. “But we made it work. It was a great challenge but also a fun challenge.”

Beyond the locations, he also took great care to ensure that each set helped further the story. He was thrilled to reteam with set designer Jan Pascale, with whom he collaborated on Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario. “Jan is extraordinary,” says Patrice. “We share the same passion and attention to detail, and I love her dearly.”

That commitment to detail is unwavering. But it doesn’t mean he intends for his choices to outshine any other element of the films he works on. “I think production design should be invisible,” says Patrice. “(With period pieces), I try to match the reality of the era without it being a parody. It needs to be real and discreet and subtle. I think ‘less is more’ is always the right approach.”

He takes that subtlety so far as to incorporate what he calls subliminal storytelling into his production design. For Vice, At McKay’s encouragement, that included visual references to the military, the petroleum industry and “the image of the cowboy and the Great West.”

Patrice also looked for opportunities to add little bits of humour, for those of us who are quick enough to notice. When Cheney gets the pivotal phone call asking him to consider the Vice-Presidency, Patrice prominently placed a painting in the scene. It’s an image of two dogs—a big one holding a stick and a smaller one looking up at the bigger dog, pining for the stick. “We made the big dog look a bit like Dick Cheney and the smaller dog like George W. Bush,” says Patrice. (The devil is in the details…) “It’s the fun that I have on every movie; I do things like that.”

With Amy Adams, Christian Bale; Image courtesy of Patrice Vermette

You can be sure that Patrice put just as much attention and devotion into every other part of Vice’s production design—even the parts you won’t see in the final cut. There’s the scene that made him jump up and down on the bed when he first read the script: a musical interlude set in the Capitol Building. And the Nelson Rockefeller side storyline. “Every movie leaves scenes on the cutting room floor,” says Patrice. “There were some very, very hard choices, but in the end it’s all for the better because it makes a better, tighter movie.” (And there may still be hope that we can see the omitted footage. Says Patrice, “I hear that Adam wants to add some of the cut scenes when they release the Blu Ray and DVD.”)

With Steve Carell; Image courtesy of Patrice Vermette

One sequence that Patrice was particularly sorry to see go was set in the 1950s, when Cheney witnesses his grandfather die of a heart attack. The neighbourhood outside the grandfather’s house features the cookie cutter homes built just after WWII that were “made to realize the dream that everybody could own an affordable house,” says Patrice. “Back then, the plan actually worked. They created the suburbs and it was relatively affordable, although (the houses) all looked the same.”

He planned the location to mirror similar houses shown later in the film, at a life-altering moment for the narrator, played by Jesse Plemons. “So many years later, those houses that all look the same are all built with crappy materials and are all overpriced, and unfortunately people are now all being sold the dream that everybody can live like a king, in houses that are too expensive for their means,” says Patrice. “It’s another example of how that concept totally derailed into making profits for dream sellers, which (Adam addressed) in The Big Short. It was important for me to include those cookie cutter houses, (because the scene was) in the same era that they were being taken back by banks.”

With such intense focus on every scene in each project, I’m amazed at Patrice’s ability to stay fresh throughout the massive productions he takes on. His current shoot for Dune will run through to August of this year, keeping him away from his family, based in Montreal: his wife, painter Martine Bertrand, and their 17-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son. That, he says, is the hardest part of filmmaking. “But that’s how it’s been even since before the kids. My wife was the one who was travelling all the time in the 90s, working in Europe as a costume designer for stage. Then I started travelling all the time, first working on commercials and then the movies. So we’re kind of used to that, it’s kind of our family (way), but it’s still hard.”

There’s also the mental exhaustion that must come from continually tapping the creative well to such great depths. “Trying to sleep is sometimes very, very difficult,” he says. “But (the key is to) never forget to take moments for yourself. My thing is, I love food and when I’m away from Montreal I find my little oases, which are restaurants, and I like to go out every night to eat good food. That’s my little treat at the end of the day.” The day of our interview—a Sunday, but he’s working anyway—his dinner plans are to eat at Indigo, “a great Indian restaurant in Budapest.”

Of course, those creature comforts along the way aren’t the only reward for giving so much of himself to his career. Patrice is deeply passionate about working on creative, significant projects that have the capacity to change minds, even lives. To make movies that matter.

“I hope with a movie like Vice, obviously it talks to the already converted,” he says. “But if there are a few people who realize that’s how (the political system) works—if they stop and say, ‘Wait a minute, is that for real? Is that how it works?”—I think if there’s a few people who realize that or ask that question or become more aware of how things are being played, and not just about the Iraq War but about politics in general, I think the movie will have reached its goal.”

Vice is in theatres now. Good luck to the entire team at next month’s Academy Awards.

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A big thank you to Patrice for so generously sharing his time and insights.

And thanks to Isaac for joining me at the movies. I don’t get to the theatres much these days, and getting to go with one of my nephews makes it all the more special!

Every Brilliant Thing

Wednesday, December 20th, 2017—Film

Every Brilliant Thing (USA 2016, Documentary), Writers: Duncan Macmillan, Jonny Donahoe; Directors: Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato

Babies laughing.

That would be on my list if I kept a list of Every Brilliant Thing worth living for.

That’s what the unnamed central character does in Every Brilliant Thing, a play by Duncan Macmillan, which was filmed over three performances in New York City to produce the HBO documentary of the same name.

The character started the list when he was seven years old, in response to his mother’s first suicide attempt: his own eight-page attempt to remind his mother of Every Brilliant Thing that makes life worth living. At such a tender age, his sweet, innocent, loving list included things like “staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV.”

Sadly, his mother’s struggle with mental illness continued. When she gave him cause to revisit the list, it matured along with him to include items like “the smell of old books” and “when someone actually reads the book you recommend.” Eventually, the list swelled to more than one million Things.

A one-man play, Every Brilliant Thing is narrated by an adult version of the boy, embodied by British comedian Jonny Donahoe. He recounts his life and the impact his list has had. But as with most great stories, it’s not what he says; it’s how he says it.

The show takes place in a small, bare studio and is performed in the round, with the audience surrounding Donahoe on all sides. Before the show begins, select audience members are given numbered items from the list, and Donahoe calls on them throughout the show to read the items out loud. During the performance, he also chooses audience members to play supporting characters—his first love, his father, the veterinarian who put down his beloved dog.

I happened upon this documentary while feeding my little one—and yes, listening to her laugh. As a new mom, I have much less opportunity to get out to movies, and the few I watch at home are never seen in one viewing.

I also have less time to write about movies, so I hope you’ll join me on this shortcut. Here’s my Top Three list of what I loved most about Every Brilliant Thing:

1. It presents documentary as life. There are no talking heads; it’s just a beautiful, touching story told masterfully by Donahoe and supported by heartfelt, genuine reactions from the audience. Of course, the documentary’s subject is the play itself, so it’s a bit of a cheat—there’s no call for talking heads with Donahoe leading the way. But watching audience members participate and respond provides all the commentary you would ever need. It’s a lovely reflection and telling of the play, and the film doesn’t require anything more. (Wisely, it rarely departs from straightforward footage of Donahoe and his audience, other than to nod its head at a few black and white memories, raise its voice on the soundtrack at key moments, or add a few titles here and there.)

2. The list itself. It’s such a joyous celebration of life. In a world where many people focus too often on their lists of pet peeves, what a thing to celebrate the great (and minute) details that make life on this planet worth living.

3. Audience engagement/participation. It’s a brilliant thing to behold, seeing the emotion come forward as unprepared audience members enact scenes from someone else’s story. It’s an exercise in watching what happens when people really listen to one another.

Theatre can create such a safe, welcoming space for this kind of connection. Every Brilliant Thing brings back many memories for me: of a show I saw at The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York City, a few months after 9/11, in which audience members were invited to hold hands and join the cast in communal healing; of joining National Arts Centre actors in their group exercises as they got acquainted for the first time before a read-through of Twelfth Night (directed by Kickass Canadian Jillian Keiley).

Most significantly, it reminds me of a play I saw a few years ago, Martin Moran’s The Tricky Part. Another one-man show, it bravely addresses Moran’s real-life experiences of surviving child sexual abuse and, subsequently, attempting suicide. Like Donahoe, Moran interacts with his audience. He started the show chatting with us all, and when he slipped into the scripted narration, it was so organic that I couldn’t say exactly when it happened; I just realized at some point that he had already drawn us in.

If you follow this blog, you’ll know that, in general, I’m drawn more to film than to theatre. It’s what I studied, and I love the intimacy the camera offers, the cinematography, the limitless potential with location, with sound and score. But only live theatre can create a space for real-time interaction, real community and connection, the way Donahoe and Moran do. It’s a remarkable and very special thing to be part of.

Amazingly, Every Brilliant Thing achieves what The Tricky Part also manages: handling intensely difficult subject matter with care and grace, while eliciting much more laughter from its audience than tears (though there are both, to be sure). It feels at once deeply personal and also universal. Unlike The Tricky Part, Every Brilliant Thing isn’t a true story. But it feels like one.

If you get the chance to see the documentary on HBO, I hope you’ll take it.

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For my brilliant baby girl, who tops the list.

A Better Man

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017—Film

A Better Man (Canada 2017, Documentary), Writer/Directors: Lawrence Jackman, Attiya Khan

When my friend TS told me a couple years ago about an upcoming documentary that explores conversations between a woman and her former abuser, I was amazed and excited. I’d never heard of any film like it, and I knew how important it could be.

I studied both film and psychology in university, and wrote my psych thesis on the benefits of reconciliation between survivors and perpetrators (only when the offender is able to take responsibility). I believe we need to adopt a holistic, inclusive approach to address and move away from gender-based violence. For healing to happen, we must find ways of bringing people together and facilitating an inclusive dialogue, not furthering the divide.

That’s exactly what A Better Man does, and very well. The film bravely takes on the challenge of silence, secrecy and shame that enshrouds domestic abuse situations—and then it takes an even bolder step further. By giving voice to the survivor (co-writer/co-director Attiya Khan) as well as her abuser (ex-boyfriend Steve), it reveals how much there is to gain from involving both parties in the healing process.

A Better Man paints a raw yet delicate portrait of a violent relationship. It opens with Attiya and Steve having a starkly honest, respectful conversation in a Toronto coffee shop. Then it goes on to follow them revisiting places where the abuse occurred (their old apartments—as Steve says in the film: “These things only take place where you can get away with it, where it isn’t seen.”), and to listen in on further, therapist-led conversations between the pair.

The film is never heavy handed because it doesn’t have to be; there are no dramatic re-enactments or shocked reactions from friends and family. Instead, A Better Man simply presents what happened: the truth. Its subject matter and the subjects themselves bring all the weight that’s needed, and their impact is huge.

Kudos to first-time director Khan for her remarkable work, alongside co-director Lawrence Jackman. I had the privilege of interviewing Khan for my other website, Kickass Canadians; you can read that piece here.

To learn more about the film and where you can see it, please visit

Steve and Attiya discuss their abusive relationship, in “A Better Man”

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Thanks TS for pointing me toward Khan and A Better Man.

And thank you to both Attiya and Steve for their courage and honesty. The world is better for it.


Friday, November 11th, 2016—Film

Arrival (USA 2016, Drama/Mystery/Sci-Fi), Writer: Eric Heisserer; Director: Denis Villeneuve

I write this piece with such a heavy heart. It has been a dark, difficult week.

It feels sadly fitting that the great, the legendary Leonard Cohen, who left us days ago, named his most recent album You Want It Darker. We have gotten that.

As I read about people celebrating what they see as a “white victory” south of the border, and hear of the planned changes by the upcoming administration to repeal so much progress, to weaken environmental protection (when we’ve already been told by the experts that we hadn’t been doing enough)…

It’s hard to know what to do next. Yet while some of the acts taking place right now are indefensible, there’s another side to all of this. This election, and the climate that made it possible, has illuminated the gaps, the wounds, the divides, and proven the need for better understanding, on all parts. Because we have clearly not been speaking the same language.

In Cohen’s death, we lost one of our most gifted artists. But I take solace in the fact that another talented, highly reflective Canadian artist is still hard at work, revealing elements of our true nature so we ourselves can take a good look and, with hope, do better.

Denis Villeneuve is one of the best directors working today. He has a facility for making films that examine the world around us. Perhaps more importantly, he has the desire to do so.

From Incendies to Enemy, Prisoners to Sicario, Villeneuve’s work has explored current events and social dynamics, and always made the effort to understand the human condition. He eschews gratuitous violence, encourages female empowerment and injects his artistic sensibilities into every film he makes.

And he does all this while delivering gripping entertainment. If his movies continue to be welcomed by the mainstream, we’ll all be the better for it.

Villeneuve’s latest film is so timely and so poignant that it hurts a bit to watch. But sometimes that’s how the truth works. And what a stunning piece of honesty it is.

Arrival is based on Story of Your Life, the brilliant 2000 Nebula Award-winning short story by Ted Chiang about language, love and time. In the film, 12 alien crafts descend from the skies, hovering over various points across the globe. One of those points is Montana, where linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is summoned by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to join mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in deciphering the alien language and learning to communicate with the craft’s inhabitants, called heptapods. Specifically, Louise is tasked with determining their purpose on Earth.

Nearly from beginning to end, Arrival is fraught with tension. As teams at each of the 12 points race to communicate with the heptapods, concern grows over when the exchanges will grow violent—that is, when governments will unilaterally decide to attack the heptapods. Far from cooperating, nations examining the crafts start shutting each other out, guarding their discoveries like trade secrets.

There is also, of course, the more immediate fear over Louise and Ian’s safety, as they work tirelessly to progress in their communications. Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year) gorgeously capture every one of Louise and Ian’s dimly lit, eerie but exquisite contacts with the heptapods. As envisioned by the filmmakers, the creatures are stunning, with spindly bodies looking more like giant, delicate, dexterous seven-fingered hands than any earthly body.

The heptapods’ graceful, fluid movements are mirrored by the flowing fog that pours over the Montana site when Louise and the crew first approach the craft. As they move in closer to the elegant, oblong oval poised above ground, surrounded by misty mountains, it’s impossible not to be affected by the beauty.

That clash, that collision between unknown menace and hypnotic allure, is punctuated by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s enigmatic score. Jóhannsson is the genius behind Sicario’s pulsing soundtrack, and his music plays an equally powerful, defining role in Arrival. His score is spare, spooky and otherworldly, at times melodic, others metallic and almost grinding, but always deeply poetic and affecting, the perfect mouthpiece for Villeneuve and Young’s visuals.

Together, these powerhouse artists maintain a tightrope level of tension throughout the film. But you’re never alienated from the story’s human heart because Villeneuve and the extraordinary Adams always keep Louise at the forefront.

Louise is haunted by memories of her deceased daughter, and her work with the heptapods frequently triggers words and visions from their time together. As she becomes more familiar with the heptapods’ language, Louise begins to understand that time doesn’t exist for them the way it does for us. Their language, like their physics, is out of this world.

The heptapods use a semasiographic writing system that conveys meaning without reference to speech. It isn’t confined by linearity the way spoken words are. Instead, it relies on complex symbols (brought beautifully to visual life in smoky, ink-link graphics that can be drawn into the air), which require knowing in advance everything you want to say before writing a single symbol. Once you truly learn the language, time will cease to function as it did before; you’ll be able to see the interconnection between past, present and future.

Arrival’s story structure reflects its inventive ideas about language. It weaves through chronology in an unconventional way, asking us to piece it all together at the end. Chiang did this so effectively in his short story, and screenwriter Eric Heisserer does him justice with his adaptation. Heisserer’s screenplay streamlines and consolidates where the medium demands it, but maintains the original story’s power and message. It also makes a stronger case about the need for global unity and the dangers of miscommunication, making the film all the more meaningful today.

At one point in Arrival, Louise explains a linguistic theory about how language shapes the way we think and perceive the world around us. It can enlighten. It can also enclose. In other words: The words we use matter. That’s something we dearly need to remember, as we face an increase in the language of hate and divisiveness.

I’d been looking forward to seeing Arrival since last year. I’ll happily see any Denis Villeneuve film, but after reading Story of Your Life, I was even more excited for this one. I had no idea these would be the circumstances under which I’d be watching Arrival—that the film would be so significant on so many fronts. But whether forlorn or uplifting, its relevance only adds to its importance.

See Arrival because it’s a wonderful work of art made by some of the greatest filmmakers of our time. Because it’s intelligent, thought-provoking and gripping. And because it is, ultimately, about the value of life, no matter what the outcome—that it can never really end as long as we remember it, and that it is still, always, worth looking forward, creating new life and cherishing it for however long we hold it.

In his latest album’s title song, Leonard Cohen sings this:

There’s a lover in the story / But the story’s still the same / There’s a lullaby for suffering / And a paradox to blame / But it’s written in the scriptures / And it’s not some idle claim / You want it darker / We kill the flame

But from earlier records, those that cannot be erased, there’s also this:

Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in

I’ve seen the nations rise and fall / I’ve heard their stories, heard them all / But love’s the only engine of survival


*          *          *

Thank you to Paramount for the advance ticket to Arrival.

For more on the great work of Denis Villeneuve, see my Kickass Canadians article.

The Babadook

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016—Film

The Babadook (Australia/Canada 2014, Horror), Writer/Director: Jennifer Kent

I took my time getting to The Babadook, but this one is definitely a case of “better late than never.”

Horror is a genre I tend to avoid. I hate gratuitous violence and don’t like being scared just for the hell of it. The Babadook is horror I can handle; instead of cutting up bodies, it dissects psyches.

Specifically, the film looks at the strained relationship between widowed mother Amelia (played beautifully by Essie Davis) and her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Amelia’s husband died in a car accident while driving her to the hospital for Samuel’s birth. Six years later, she still can’t bear to celebrate Samuel’s birthday on its proper day.

Things are strained in Amelia’s household to begin with. Both she and Samuel are troubled sleepers plagued by nightmares. Amelia dreams about her husband’s accident. But Samuel is haunted by a faceless monster. He can’t put a name to it; he just knows it’s there.

Every night, Samuel and his mother go through the ritual of inspecting his closet, peering beneath under his bed. And during the day, he practises magic tricks and fires off homemade weapons: “I’ll kill the monster when it comes, I’ll smash its head in!”

It’s all an attempt to protect himself and his mother from whatever darkness is descending, but it only adds to the mounting pressure on Amelia. Samuel is unruly, uncontrollable. He gets expelled from elementary school for endangering other children. His manic energy and incessant calls of “Mommm! Mahmmmmmmm!!!!” wear on her nerves, already fraught from chronic sleep deprivation. She’s quick to snap, even when he simply hugs her too hard.

And then we meet Mister Babadook. “If it’s in a word or in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” Samuel finds him in an authorless pop-up book his mother hasn’t seen before; it’s been sitting on the shelf, out of sight, perhaps not out of mind.

The book is a brilliant way of introducing the film’s demon—a dark man in a top hat and black cloak who kills children in their beds. With its chilling yet artful illustrations and eerie, poetic writing, Mister Babadook creeps into the viewer’s psyche just as much it does Amelia’s and Samuel’s.

“You start to change when I get in, the Babadook growing right under your skin.”

Amelia quickly puts an end to the story, but it’s too late; Samuel knows what’s coming. As his obsession with building weapons grows, so does Amelia’s anger and frustration with her son. She insists that the monster isn’t real, but he’s certain that it’s only getting closer.

He isn’t wrong. The question is: Where does the Babadook truly reside? In their closets, cupboards and basement? In Amelia’s mind? Maybe in both.

That, to me, is the most intriguing part of the movie—its exploration of fantasy and reality, sanity and delusion. It reminded me a bit of Take Shelter, in how it asks the audience to decide, at least for a time, whether the threat is real or imagined, and in how it throws light (and shadow) on mental illness.

The Babadook isn’t afraid to show us something really scary, and its impact is profound and disturbing. In place of cheap thrills and gore, it uses imaginative, often abstract visuals. The film does a lot with its soundscape, too; whenever the Babadook stirs, we hear a chilling mix of repetitive sounds that are almost familiar, almost identifiable, like crickets at night or the electrical buzz of an unstable light bulb about to burn out.

Amelia tries to silence the noises by destroying the book, but the more drastic her attempts to bury it, the more fiercely it returns. “The more you deny me, the stronger I get.”

The Babadook becomes a metaphor for Amelia’s grief and depression. She’s stuck in the moment of her husband’s death, unable to process her emotions. She’s also suffocated by the guilt of blaming Samuel and the unease of her son standing in as her only companion.

Their relationship never crosses any sexual lines, but there’s a tangible discomfort from Amelia. At one point, Samuel bursts in on her in the night, interrupting an intimate moment while she’s alone in bed (there’s that electrical buzzing sound again…), and it highlights the strangeness of their dynamic—how Samuel’s birth brought about her husband’s death, effectively replacing one with the other.

As the world grows ever darker for Amelia and Samuel, we’re forced to wonder exactly what’s true. Amelia is being driven into psychosis through depression and sleep deprivation. And yet there he is, Mister Babadook—lurking in corners, scuttling and spattering across the ceiling like an insect or an inkblot, morphing, indeterminate, a Rorschach test. What is he? What is it? What does it mean to Amelia? What does it mean to us? And which demon would be harder to exorcise: the supernatural or the psychological?

The Babadook shows us that we don’t always have to eradicate our demons. Sometimes it’s enough to be aware of their presence and learn how to manage them. Because sometimes these things—in the shadows, in the mind—never really go away.

The Babadook

*          *          *

Thank you to RW for flagging this film to me.

Sleeping Giant

Saturday, April 30th, 2016—Film

Sleeping Giant (Canada 2015, Adventure/Drama), Writers: Andrew Cividino, Blain Watters, Aaron Yeger; Director: Andrew Cividino

When the credits rolled on Sleeping Giant last night, the audience was completely silent for a beat or two, before erupting into applause. That’s the impact this movie has. It’s raw, real and chilling, and it gets into your head—and heart—in a way that few films do.

Sleeping Giant is adapted from writer/director Andrew Cividino’s 2014 short film of the same name. Set in Thunder Bay, Ontario, the movie spends a few summer weeks hanging out with Adam (Jackson Martin), Riley (Reece Moffett) and Nate (Nick Serino), three teens cottaging with their families on the shores of Lake Superior, near the majestic Sleeping Giant Provincial Park.

Adam stays with his well-to-do parents in their spacious abode. Riley and Nate, cousins, crash at a much smaller pad belonging to Nate’s grandma (Rita Serino). The three boys’ disparate backgrounds go beyond socioeconomics. Adam is nurtured and sheltered, for better and for worse; he’s more reserved, better mannered. Riley and Nate, on the other hand, talk rough and play rough. They’re destructive and violent with their actions and their words—especially Nate, who constantly makes a show of being stronger, raunchier and more experienced than the others.

Sleeping Giant has a few twists to its story, involving Adam’s less-than-honourable father (David Disher), and his friend Taylor (Katelyn McKerracher), an attractive teen girl who becomes a point of contention between him and Riley. But it’s mainly a summer coming-of-age story, with the three boys standing atop a pivotal cliff, deciding which way to jump—what kind of adults they will become.

A lot of this film is terrifying to watch. Seeing the trouble the boys get into, being privy to their often volatile thought processes, realizing how malleable they are; it’s a sobering reminder of the past, of how wrong things could have gone, and of what could happen in the future, what’s going on right now. It also makes me grateful for the grounded, responsible teens in my own life. Because in Sleeping Giant, things take a dive for the worse.

Walking into the theatre last night, the title of The Weeknd’s album Beauty Behind the Madness came to mind. The film does venture into that territory, or perhaps also the madness behind the beauty. These boys have potential; even Nate shows glimpses of good qualities, like intelligence and honesty, and of wanting to do more with himself. They’re at such a delicate age, each one wrestling with their own sleeping giant—id vs. ego, and the submerged darkness that threatens to take over when their burgeoning identities are threatened.

Adam, Riley and Nate don’t really know who they are yet. The film even suggests, tacitly, that Adam may be questioning his sexuality, with its lingering shots of Adam and Riley tussling, or Adam’s lingering gaze that often favours Riley over Taylor.

Watching Sleeping Giant, it was hard not to reflect on my own coming-of-age movie, Sight Lines, a short that was shot in the summer of 2002 around 1000 Islands in Gananoque, Ontario. Not to suggest that my movie is on par with Cividino’s, but it shares many elements with Sleeping Giant, from 13-year-old Fletcher’s (David Coomber) false bravado about drugs and sexual experience, and his destructive tendencies (both idle and pointed), to the cliff-jumping scene.

There are certain shared experiences about being a young teen in Canada, and about cottage living, that Cividino really captures in Sleeping Giant, making the film easy to relate to.

A large part of the credit for this goes to the extraordinary performances from the three leads. Moffett and Serino are real-life cousins, reprising their roles from the short version of Sleeping Giant. They have no prior acting experience, and perhaps because of that, achieve very real, seemingly improvised delivery. (In fact, much of the cast features non-actors or first-time actors, including Moffett and Serino’s actual grandmother as Nate’s grandma, to good effect.) Martin, who had already wet his feet in the acting world, still arrives at the same nuance and intense realism, bringing incredible subtly to Adam as he experiments with the boundaries of honesty and manipulation, compassion and cruelty.

It’s hard not to notice the contrast between the youth’s naturalistic performances and the stilted delivery from some of the adult actors, most notably Disher (ironically, the most experienced of the performers). Adam’s dad is a real dick, to use the kids’ lingo. He comments on Taylor being “new and improved” and advises 15-year-old Adam to “tap that” while the opportunity is still available. He also makes lame attempts to appear cool in front of Adam’s friends. So I wondered at times if Cividino directed Disher to deliver the awkward performance he does, to make him even less relatable or likeable.

I don’t know about that. But whatever the case, Disher’s relatively weak performance is one of the few detractions from an otherwise successful film.

From the opening sequence that surveys Sleeping Giant Provincial Park to the tune of Bruce Peninsula’s pulsing, foreboding score, to a perfect final moment that says everything without uttering a word—the ending that left the audience speechless—Sleeping Giant is imposing, impressive and important, as a work of art and a reflection of humanity.

For more insights into the film and how it was made, check out Cinemablographer’s recent interview with Cividino.

*          *          *

This post is dedicated to MJP, who introduced me to Thunder Bay and who works hard to help youth navigate the perils of their own sleeping giants.

Sleeping Giant

Zootopia (feat. David Walberg)

Thursday, April 7th, 2016—Film

Zootopia (USA 2016, Animation/Action/Adventure), Writers: Jared Bush, Phil Johnston; Directors: Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush

It’s not often I get to review a movie with one of my three nephews after having watched it together. They’re not from around here, so when we do team up, we all watch the movies separately and then have a chat.

So far, all three boys (Jon, Isaac and David) helped out with The Lego Movie, Jon and I covered The Hunger Games, and he and Isaac both joined me for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Parts 1 & 2 and Divergent.

This Zootopia review is extra-special to me because I got to take my youngest nephew, eight-year-old David, to see the Disney animated movie while he was visiting. Oh yeah, and also because it steals I mean shares the title of the book I wrote for David in 2010 through my publishing shingle, Wonderpress. (I wasn’t playing favourites; I also wrote Dinostory for Jon and Astrorocket for Isaac.)


We both really enjoyed Zootopia (the movie—though we’re partial to the book, too). Here’s the scene: It’s thousands of years since mammal predators and prey had any trouble co-existing, and a keen young bunny named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is determined to make her mark in a world where “anyone can be anything.”

Judy bounds out of her hometown, Bunnyburrow, to become the very first bunny cop at the Zootopia Police Department (ZPD). Officer Hopps takes her place alongside a menagerie of other animals, including a buffalo (Chief Bogo, perfectly voiced by Idris Elba), a rhino (Officer McHorn) and a donut-gulping cheetah (Officer Clawhauser, voiced by Nate Torrence). Judy’s relatively small stature doesn’t bode well for her career prospects; while everyone else gets juicy assignments, she’s stuck with parking ticket duty.

Judy tackles her role as meter maid with the same zeal that led her out of the carrot patch and into the sprawling mammal metropolis of Zootopia. But it isn’t long before she scrambles her way onto the city’s biggest case: the 14 missing mammals—all predators. Judy enlists the assistance of Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a wily fox and even wilier con artist she’s able to hustle into helping her.

What follows is an interesting examination of the dangers of judging animals by their species, holding pre-conceived notions about others, and prescribing expectations.

When Judy and Nick discover that the missing predators have all gone savage, Zootopia is thrown into unrest, with prey casting sidelong glances at predators. Not that everything was idyllic before the savagery; Judy never reports to work without her can of fox spray, a holdover from her parents’ mistrust of foxes and a frightening encounter from her childhood.

Zootopia’s premise is smart, timely and delivered in a very well wrapped package: Bright, bold animations with meticulous attention to detail (David especially liked the way they moved); a tight, witty, highly polished script; and an inventive world in which the animals can roam and romp.

Zootopia consists of a range of ecologically diverse districts, like Sahara Square, Tundratown and Rainforest District. Little Rodentia was especially charming, with its many roadways and overpasses made of clear plastic hamster tubes. “I liked the rodent town,” says David. “There were lots of gerbils!”

The city is built to accommodate all types of mammals. Elephants are served massive (relative to us) ice cream cones served up (somewhat) fresh by the trunkful. Mice scurry through miniature gateways and get dolled up at small-scale (but high-class) hair salons.

“I liked it when the guinea pigs chomped on the Pawpsicles,” says David. So did I; the several-tiny-bites-sized frozen treats are made in molds formed by Chihuahua footprints in the snow.

Zootopia is a playful, inventive place for Judy and Nick to guide us through a study in race (or in this case, species) relations. The messages are clear, but they extend beyond the obvious “Don’t judge a book by its cover” adage. For example, be careful what you tell people about themselves; they just might believe it.

The movie does a good job of challenging assumptions, both personal and structural. “It messed around with your expectations,” says David, pointing out a few instances when the story took surprising turns.

I asked him if he thinks all animals—predators and prey—really could get along. “Well, it depends,” says David. “They could get along if they weren’t so smart-mouthed. Like the fox, Nick, you have to admit he was pretty smart-mouthed. But he’s also quick-witted. It’s good to have someone quick-witted around. Or you could just memorize Shakespearean insults like I do. ‘Go to hell for an eternal moment or so.’ That’s from The Merry Wives of Windsor.”

(He actually said that. What a kid.)

David talked a bit more about the film’s central message, and he said something really wise: “No animal really is just one thing. Prey can also be predators—especially humans.”

He’s right. Almost all of us can attack or be attacked.

For an animated children’s film, Zootopia brings a lot to the conversation. As great as it is, though, I thought it missed a couple good opportunities for commentary.

Assistant Mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate), who is a sheep, remarks that Zootopia is comprised of 90% prey. I expected the movie to draw a parallel to the 99%, with most of the prey being smaller and more vulnerable than the predators. But it didn’t.

Then there was the highly sexualized Gazelle (Shakira), Zootopia’s mammal pop star. We see enough of scantily clad females in everyday media, put in a position where they’re expected to trade in on their bodies for success or recognition; it would have been nice if Disney hadn’t felt the need to ensnare the film’s only icon in a sequined miniskirt and crop top.

I really did like Zootopia, but, for a movie so determined to do away with stereotypes, it sure has its share of them. Like the wolves who can’t keep themselves from chiming in once the first howl is released. And the sloths who move at a, well, sloth’s pace.

Mind you, caricaturing sloths led to a priceless scene at the Department of Mammal Vehicles (DMV) when Judy and Nick drop in to pursue a lead. So I’m not complaining… Just observing.

“The sloths at the DMV were pretty funny,” says David. “It was a good joke.”

In fact, that’s where we first meet David’s favourite character in the movie, Flash the sloth (voiced by Raymond S. Persi).

Zootopia had loads of fun with anthropomorphizing the animals, shrewdly reflecting human culture and convention. Judy drew chuckles from the audience when she explains to Officer Clawhauser: “You probably didn’t know, but a bunny can call another bunny cute, but when other animals do it, it’s a little…” Her mortification at seeing animals do yoga naked is also pretty awesome. Or, as David says, “AWKWARD!!!”

After the movie, I asked David whether he’d rather be predator or prey. “Prey. I’d be an elephant. No—a panda. Or a koala.” So it doesn’t matter if you’re big or small? “Depends who I’m up against. The big ones are more out of control, like I am. That’s a joke.”

David and I both highly recommend this smart-mouthed, fun-loving foray into the animal world. Overall, it’s creative, delightful and clever, and it presents us human animals with some important things to consider.

Oh, and I loved seeing ZTV newscaster Peter Moosebridge, voiced by CBC’s Peter Mansbridge.

And you can buy my version of Zootopia, the children’s book available in English or French (Zootopie), right here.

David at the Zoo(topia)

David aboard the “Zootopia” express

Blackbird (live) & The Crucible (live)

Monday, March 28th, 2016—Film

Blackbird (Belasco Theatre, 2016), Writer: David Harrower; Director: Joe Mantello

The Crucible (Walter Kerr Theatre, 2016), Writer: Arthur Miller; Director: Ivo van Hove

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

I read these words on a plaque, embedded in the sidewalk, shortly after arriving in Manhattan last week. The plaque is one of several lining the way to the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue, but it was this quote, from Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, that spoke to me. I had tickets to see Blackbird on Broadway, starring Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, and knew it would be one of the trip’s highlights. So seeing the plaque felt like a fitting welcome to the city.

What I didn’t know then, reading those words, was that the trip would be bookended by a second highlight. There was another Broadway show I’d really wanted to see—The Crucible, featuring an extraordinary cast that includes Saoirse Ronan, Ben Whishaw, Sophie Okonedo and Ciarán Hinds. Tickets were pretty pricey, so GC and I initially passed on that play. But while wandering through Central Park, we decided, on a whim, to see if we could get rush tickets.

What we got was so much better than I imagined. We were offered an incredible discount on prime seats: centre orchestra, just a few rows back from the stage, and right beside Sean Penn. It may seem like a silly thing to mention here, but being next to one of the greatest living actors, and someone whose work and films I greatly admire, couldn’t help but amplify the experience of watching such a high caliber cast performing in such an incredible production.

To me, one of the very best things about New York is that it provides a stage for the highest concentration of the world’s most exceptional artists. In Manhattan, on any given day, you have access to performances you just wouldn’t see anywhere else. And this isn’t only on Broadway. While wandering through lower town, we saw a poster for an upcoming talk at a community centre; the speaker was David Mamet. When I lived in New York several years ago, I joined some friends at the last minute for a panel and Q&A at the Irish Arts Center with Gabriel Byrne, Helen Mirren, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. There’s always something going on and I find it exhilarating.

So as we waited for the curtain to rise in the Walter Kerr Theatre, sitting next to Sean Penn, who is easily one of my favourite actors, the point came across loud and clear: Magic happens in NYC and we happened to be catching an act that evening.

Regardless of your seatmate, The Crucible is an experience worth having. It’s directed by Ivo van Hove, the theatre legend who delivered a highly praised production of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge on Broadway late last year. Set during the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s, The Crucible was written in the 1950s as a parable about McCarthyism, but it continues to be eerily prophetic, especially in the face of today’s escalating xenophobia and religious discrimination.

John Proctor (Whishaw), the well-meaning husband of Elizabeth Proctor (Okonedo), tests the limits of the old “hell hath no fury” adage when he tries to move past his indiscretion with young Abigail Williams (Ronan). The Proctors former servant, Abigail also dabbles in witchcraft. When the townsfolk suspect her and her friends of ill doing after a few mysterious deaths and some late-night incantations in the woods—in the buff—they turn around to point their fingers at others, including the Proctors. From there, things quickly spiral down the rabbit hole.

The Crucible’s set is spare yet detailed, and dimly lit—glowing candles here, a fiery stovetop there. Among other pieces, it features an ever-present chalkboard in the background, where characters occasionally write commandments or proclamations as the audience is schooled in the dark arts of humanity: judgment, fear, dishonesty, blame.

The play’s music, by celebrated stage and screen composer Philip Glass (The Hours, Fantastic Four), feels almost ambient. It pulses throughout much of the production, sometimes with strings, others with percussion, mostly subdued but nearly always present.

The Crucible’s biggest success comes in the form of its large and highly skilled cast, delivering fine performances all around. It was a privilege to see Ronan (Atonement, The Lovely Bones), a gifted film actor, perform live. It was even more breathtaking to watch Whishaw (The Danish Girl, Q from Skyfall and Spectre) and especially Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) onstage. They deliver commanding, riveting performances that literally left me shaking after the curtain call.

As good as The Crucible is, Blackbird’s tune is the one that still echoes through my thoughts.

From the moment the play opens, we know right away that Blackbird is a story about people laid to waste. When the set, a drab meeting room in a bleak office, spins around on a turntable, finally turning to face to us, we see that it’s littered with garbage. The waste bin is overflowing, the table carelessly scattered with leftovers and other remnants. The place is filled with the ruins of exchanges and conversations past; it was abandoned and no one took the time to clean things up.

Into this room, Ray (Daniels)—or Peter, as he’s now known—forcibly marches Una (Williams). Tension is everywhere, beating through their bodies, blasting forth with every word, and it doesn’t let up for the next 90 minutes.

Through Una’s broken words and Ray’s defensive bluster, we soon learn that the pair was sexually involved 15 years ago, when he was 40 and she was only 12. They haven’t seen each other since the fateful night that separated them, when Una was stranded in a suite and Ray was charged for his crime.

Neither has recovered from their three-month affair, though both have tried (and been tried). After serving his sentence, Ray changed his name, found a new job and partner. Una, in desperate bids for both escape and control, pursued a long line of sexual partners, angrily shocking her parents with the details; based on her steady sniffle and erratic body language, she also chased down a few other lines.

I saw Blackbird from a very different vantage point than I did The Crucible. I was perched at the front of the Belasco Theatre’s third-level balcony, looking almost straight down at the stage. It made for a slightly dizzying experience that added to the play’s feeling of unease.

Watching Una and Ray, two lost souls crippled by love, anger, shame and betrayal, frantically trying to wrench themselves free of the pain, is an intense experience. Although there’s no denying how wrong their involvement was, Ray and Una did love each other; perhaps they still do. But in the aftermath, the only way they found to move forward was in darkness.

Ray’s life, as Peter, is a lie.

And Una. Una lived through public and private humiliation. Painted as both a temptress (with “suspiciously adult yearnings”) and a victim, she was repeatedly told that the love she thought Ray had for her was driven only by the sick desires of a dangerous and calculating predator. For nearly two decades, she was left to relive Ray’s final words to her, their final moments together, over and over, like a sleepless child lying in bed after the lights have gone out, with no one to talk to, no one to comfort her. Nothing there but memory and imaginings, both so easily distorted.

Daniels delivers a strong, solid performance. But Williams blew me away. She has been wonderful so many times before (Blue Valentine, Take This Waltz). As Una, she transforms herself. Her body is electric, her movements frenetic. I didn’t recognize her voice; at times, she practically growls rather than speaks.

I wish I could see Blackbird again, from another perspective, to get another glimpse—a closer view, but also just a different view, to see how the actors play the story out on another night, how they might change the key for the often lyrical dialogue they deliver.

There’s very little music in Blackbird; I recall only a few strains coming through to punctuate certain moments. But after the actors leave the stage, once the damage is done, we’re left with the most perfect song—9 Crimes by Damien Rice:

Leave me out with the waste
This is not what I do
It’s the wrong kind of place
To be thinking of you…
It’s a small crime
And I’ve got no excuse…

Is that alright?
Is that alright?
Is that alright with you?


After seeing Blackbird, on the way back to our hotel, we walked past the library again and down Library Way, revisiting the plaque I’d seen on our first night. There, on a misty, mystical night—our last in New York—I read Stevens’ emblazoned words once more. This time, revelling in the remembering of such a powerful play, the words echoed even louder:

I do not know which to prefer…
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.


*          *          *

The Crucible is currently in previews; it opens March 31, 2016 and runs until July 17. Blackbird runs until June 11. I hope you have the opportunity to see both.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Parts 1 & 2 (feat. Isaac and Jonathan Walberg)

Monday, December 14th, 2015—Film

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Parts 1 & 2 (USA 2014/2015, Adventure/Sci-Fi), Writers: Peter Craig, Danny Strong; Director: Francis Lawrence

[Spoiler Alert: This is a joint review of Parts 1 and 2 of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay. I don’t give away any key plot points from the second part, but I do reveal what happens at the end of the first. Proceed with caution!]

Here we are, back for the final installment of The Hunger Games reviews with my nephews.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know I started reviewing the series, based on the books by Suzanne Collins, at the suggestion of my eldest nephew, Jon (now 13). We jointly reviewed The Hunger Games, and my second nephew, Isaac (now 12), joined us in reviewing The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

Now all three of us are back for the third and final review, a joint write-up of Parts 1 and 2 of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay.

To recap, The Hunger Games films are set in a future world where the wealthy rule from the Capitol and the rest live in varying states of squalor and unrest, in Districts 1 through 13. For three quarters of a century, two children from each district have been offered up each year as tributes to fight to the death in a televised reminder of the Capitol’s power—and fury.

The first two films show Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) competing in the 74th and 75th Hunger Games, on behalf of their District 12. Having emerged as victors the first time around, their “reward” is to face off against the victors from games past for the Quarter Quell. But things don’t go as planned for the Gamemakers, and Katniss is rescued from the 75th Games by rebels and transported to District 13.

This is where Mockingjay picks up. Katniss, still in the throes of post-traumatic stress disorder, is being persuaded by President Alma Coin (the always wonderful Julianne Moore) and former Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (the equally wonderful, and tragically departed, Philip Seymour Hoffman) to rally the rebels and wage war against the Capitol.

While Katniss was retrieved from the 75th Hunger Games arena, Peeta was captured by the Capitol, who torture him, hijack him (a form of drug-induced brainwashing) and deploy him as a device to turn the districts against Katniss. He’s rescued at the end of Mockingjay: Part 1, but spends Part 2 grappling with his misguided hatred for Katniss and his compulsion to kill her, thanks to the Capitol’s programming.

Heavy stuff for a teen romance. But seriously, while there is a love triangle between Peeta, Katniss and her childhood friend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), who joins her in the fight against the Capitol, the filmmakers are right not to give the romantic storyline more weight than is due.

Katniss comes close to unraveling under the pressures she faces. Her life, and those of her loved ones, is almost constantly in jeopardy. If that weren’t far more than enough, she’s forced to quickly learn hard truths about her world and everyone in it. At a phase when most people take many years to figure things out, adolescent Katniss has to make sense of it all at warp speed, and under life-or-death circumstances. It’s a complex psychological task, and one that would certainly overshadow the pressure to choose a boyfriend.

“I thought it was good that Mockingjay didn’t focus too much on the relationships,” says Isaac. “The movies are about the districts trying to take over the Capitol.”

While the first two films focus on the Hunger Games themselves, Mockingjay’s two-parter is “more about the politics and strategy, more about the rebels’ insurgency against the leading government,” says Jon.

It’s less about the games than it is about refusing to play them anymore. Not that the Capitol’s President Snow (Donald Sutherland) doesn’t try to keep throwing the protagonists into the arena, especially as they hit closer and closer to home.

So, given that the series is called The Hunger Games, do the Mockingjay installments stand alone as films? Or do they require some background reading and viewing?

“They were good, I thought they related well to the book,” says Jon, who is both literary and very literal. “But if you want to see the actual plot of the Hunger Games, I recommend watching the first two movies before seeing Mockingjay.”

“You wouldn’t really get the Hunger Games part if you just saw the two Mockingjay films,” says Isaac. “But they’re still good movies overall, even if you haven’t read the series or seen the first two movies.”

Jon recently started a politics section in his junior high school’s paper. Given his interests, I asked how he thought the films relate to real-world events and what lessons we can glean from them.

“It focused on the rebels against the government in power, so it could reflect a lot of what’s happening in Syria,” he says. “I think that if (something like the Hunger Games) were to happen in the future, that a rebellion would happen faster than (the 75 years it took) in the book and the movie.”

As far as lessons learned, Jon has some very wise words: “The districts themselves should have some power. The power shouldn’t all be with the Capitol.”

Before seeing Mockingjay: Part 2, I’d been wondering how the film adaptation would handle the ending. Mockingjay the book ends with some powerful, poetic words. I knew they wouldn’t cut them. But the words are written in Katniss’ voice, as the narrator, and also I knew the films, which never use narration, wouldn’t resort to it in the last moments of the final installment.

I’ll let you see for yourself how the filmmakers dealt with the challenge. But I did want to see what Jon thought of it. “I liked how they handled the final words,” he says. “It would have been different if they’d done narration. But overall I didn’t like the ending. But I’m the worst person to ask about endings; I, for one, generally hate the endings of all final movies and books in a series because I just hate the fact that they have to end.”

I love that.

As for Isaac, even though the Mockingjay installments don’t deal as much with the actual games as the first two films, the two-parter is still “a good continuation of the series and a good conclusion,” he says.

If The Hunger Games movies do have to end, they do it well. Director Francis Lawrence, who stepped in after the first film, does a solid job bringing Mockingjay to the screen. “The action was pretty good,” says Isaac. “They had good special effects for the booby traps (when the rebels invade the Capitol) and the weapons and stuff like that.”

The Mockingjay films also draw some fantastic performances from the actors. As Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence leads the way; she more than rises to the task of making her complicated character believable—and heart wrenching.

In addition to Hoffman, Moore and Sutherland, standouts from the impressive supporting cast include: Elizabeth Banks as former tribute escort Effie Trinket; Woody Harrelson as past District 12 victor Haymitch Abernathy; Jenna Malone as embittered District 7 victor Johanna Mason; and the always-great Stanley Tucci (Spotlight, The Lovely Bones) as Hunger Games MC Caesar Flickerman.

So that’s that—the Hunger Games franchise, as seen by an aunt and two nephews. Thanks to Jon and Isaac for introducing me to the series and sharing their thoughts (and being so totally awesome).


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