Category Archives: Features

Where should we draw the line between TV and film?

Olive Kitteridge

Last week, I finally caught up with HBO’s celebrated 2014 mini-series Olive Kitteridge. Adapted from Elizabeth Strout’s novel of the same name and told over an expansive four-hour runtime, it’s broken into four parts that align with its somewhat episodic “chapter” structure.

Few people would contest the fact that Olive Kitteridge is a mini-series. In terms of narrative scope and format, it’s perfectly suited to hour-long segments. Yet in the opening credits, it’s labelled as “a film by Lisa Cholodenko”. And that feels valid too. Olive Kitteridge has a cinematic feel to it and Cholodenko, whose past films include The Kids Are All Right and Laurel Canyon, clearly brought a Hollywood pedigree to the project.

So with all of that in mind, I began to wonder, where exactly is the line between television and film?

One simplistic and perhaps obvious answer is, “it doesn’t really matter.” Great art is great art regardless of how or where you consume it. And whether something is distributed as a theatrical film or a television mini-series could very well come down to practical decisions related to its potential marketability on a given platform. When you look at it that way, the division doesn’t feel all that artistically significant.

But still, labelling something as “film” or “television” brings certain consequences. In this supposed golden age of television, the line between the two formats is blurring, but many viewers and critics still hold onto the idea that television is “lesser” than cinema. Calling something a “made for TV movie” still has a somewhat withering connotation, even in an age where it’s not uncommon for A-list Oscar winners like Al Pacino or William Hurt to star in said movies.

Even big-name talent might not get the same respect for their work on TV. Frances McDormand won an Emmy for Lead Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie for her work in Olive Kitteridge, and in my opinion quite deservedly so. We’ll never know if she would have won her second Best Actress Oscar had Olive Kitteridge been eligible for that award (her first being in 1997 for Fargo), but if you were going to introduce McDormand by her credentials, it seems a lot more likely you’d say “Academy Award winner Frances McDormand” rather than “Emmy Award winner Frances McDormand”.

It’s not all bad news for television, though, since the format obviously also affords some artistic freedom that film doesn’t. By having the luxury of taking four hours to track 25 years in its protagonist’s life, Olive Kitteridge obviously has the room to fully develop its characters. Who’s to say that it would have been so effective pared down to a standard “movie” runtime of half the length?

And it’s not as though television is so ghettoized nowadays. Series like Stranger Things or Game of Thrones are arguably bigger cultural phenomenons than almost any recent movie to hit theatres. If the quality is there people will catch on, and with online platforms enabling viewers to “binge watch” hours of content at a time, it seems the tides are turning in favour of longer-format series that fans can get invested in and discuss for longer than a “one and done” standalone movie.

One film that really worked to blur those lines was O.J.: Made in America (which I reviewed here), Ezra Eddelman’s nearly eight-hour documentary about the notorious O.J. Simpson. Documentaries have always lent themselves nicely to episodic, multi-hour miniseries, whether it be Ken Burns’ lengthy PBS examinations of American history or the Netflix sensation Making a Murder. And O.J. did break into five logical and vaguely self-contained parts to air on television or streaming. But those involved with O.J. stayed adamant that it was in fact a feature film, riding that classification all the way to a (well-deserved) Oscar win for Best Documentary. Some quibbled with the idea of O.J. being a movie, but considering it initially screened at film festivals like Sundance and Hot Docs as a single 463-minute unit, it seems illogical to argue that it’s not.

With that example in mind, perhaps the best way to classify whether something is film or television comes down to intent. If the filmmakers envision their work as an eight-hour film, then so be it. There are certainly examples of arthouse and experimental films that run nearly as long or longer, but they’d also never be broken into smaller, more easily digestible segments simply because they lack marketability, regardless of how you dice them up. If we accept those works as “films” at face value, why do we try to “punish” something like O.J. by claiming it’s not a film, simply because a studio or distributor took the opportunity to get the film out to a wider audience by choosing an alternative format for their film?

Since we’re talking about intent, let’s close with some thoughts from one of the filmmakers in question. When asked about Olive Kitteridge’s format, Cholodenko had this to say:

When I saw it back for the first time on a screen, it’s got this really lovely title sequence and says ‘A Film by Lisa Cholodenko’ — and I watched it and I thought, wow does it feel like that? Is that going to be strange?

And then at the end I really felt like, gosh, that really is a film, it was really such a great opportunity to make this four hour film, you know? It does have these chapters but for me it feels very coherent. It’s all in the piece and it hangs together and it is like a film. We shot it like a film, I approached it like a film, I think visually it feels like a film and narratively I thought of it as a film with the whole arc: Where does she go, where does she start, does it have a midpoint? All these things weave together — even though they’re episodes — into a bigger picture.”

Movie characters I want to catch up with 20 years later

Reality Bites 2

This Friday, T2 Trainspotting hits theatres in North America, bringing Renton, Spud, Sick Boy, and the rest of the crew back together. They’re a little bit older and a whole lot craggier, but they’re still alive, so I guess that’s a start.

To be honest, my reaction when I first heard about a Trainspotting sequel was to recoil. I like the original film quite a bit, which means I hold it high enough esteem that I don’t want to see it tarnished, but I’m also not such a huge fan of it that I’m desperate to jump back into that world.

However, I trust Danny Boyle, and the spirited trailers for T2 have instilled a little more hope in me. And then I started thinking about other films that could benefit from (or at least survive) similar treatment. And I was surprised by how few came to mind. A lot of movies have endings that wouldn’t work with a sequel, some already provide their own epilogue to explain what happens, and some have characters that I just don’t care about enough to revisit down the line.

But some do paint a rich world that I’d be eager to jump back into. So here are a handful of movie characters who deserve a thoughtful follow-up showing what would be in store for them 20 years later, a la T2.

(Note: No major plot spoilers ahead But, when talking about a potential movie sequel, I suppose some mild contextual spoilers are inevitable.)

Boyhood

Mason (Ellar Coltrane) – Boyhood

Is this an obvious pick? Maybe. Would it be a terrible idea to call Boyhood’s hypothetical sequel Manhood? Probably. But considering we’ve already spent 12 years following Mason’s life, what’s another 20?

In all seriousness, though, even though trying to expand on the perfection that is Boyhood might sound like a terrible idea, if any director could pull it off, it’s Richard Linklater. He somehow turned Before Sunrise (what should have been a charming little standalone about a one-night stand, essentially) into a sprawling 18+ year franchise about the perils, joy, and lived-in tragedy of interpersonal relationships. Similarly, we saw Ellar Coltrane literally grow up in front of our eyes, so there would be something inherently satisfying continuing to follow Mason through post-college life.

So bring on the Boyhood Cinematic Universe. Plus, given his commitment to Linklater’s ridiculously long-winded timelines, we know Ethan Hawke would probably be on board.

Ida

Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) – Ida

Oddly, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida was one of the first films that came to my mind for this list. And while this understated black-and-white Polish drama might not seem like a film that screams “sequel”, its central character is certainly fascinating enough to warrant further consideration.

As we see her, Ida’s life is in flux. She’s on the cusp of taking her vows to become a nun when she uncovers a family secret that shakes her self-assurance. By the end of the film, it feels like Ida’s only just starting to find the path she should truly be on. She makes some weighty choices, and I’d love to find out where they end up taking her. As well, since so much of the film revolves around personal and cultural history, it would be fascinating to see the echoes of Ida’s past reverberating in the future, and the various ways her own lived-in and inherited experiences mingle together into her adulthood.

The Panic in Needle Park

Bobby and Helen (Al Pacino and Kitty Winn) – The Panic in Needle Park

Movies that focus on a character’s addiction are kind of built to leave us wanting a sequel. Even if a character seems to be on the path to recovery by the end, there’s still that lingering question of whether they’ll be able to stay on the wagon. I think this is why the premise of a Trainspotting sequel works, and it would also apply to 1971’s The Panic in Needle Park.

Granted, we’re now well past the 20-year anniversary mark, but in a hypothetical world where we could have gotten an early-‘90s follow-up to The Panic in Needle Park, it would have been fascinating. Even the time period would have worked, with the potential of contrasting gritty 1970s New York City with the “heroin chic” trend of the ’90s.

Not to mention the fact that Bobby and Helen are just fascinating characters. The ending of the original is open-ended enough to leave us unsure of their paths, and while I unfortunately suspect that things wouldn’t go so well for them in the intervening 20 years, I’d be highly curious to see where they end up.

 The Fits.jpeg

Toni (Royalty Hightower) – The Fits

Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits finds its young protagonist Toni very much in a state of transition. The film takes an ephemeral look at the onset of womanhood, represented by mysterious and rather frightening literal “fits” that beset pubescent girls.

Were we to jump forward a couple decades and find Toni in her early 30’s, the changes and growth she’d be experiencing definitely wouldn’t be as drastic and visceral as those that we see in The Fits. However, I think Holmer crafts such a weirdly honest look at life (albeit through strange magical realism elements) that I just want to see how her worldview would translate to other stages of life.

Plus, The Fits pits Toni’s tomboyish tendencies in direct opposition with budding femininity and I’m doing to know how that internal battle plays out.

 Ethan Hawke And Winona Ryder In 'Reality Bites'

Lelaina, Troy, and Michael (Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, and Ben Stiller) – Reality Bites

If there’s one movie that’s more quintessentially ‘90s than Trainspotting, it’s probably Reality Bites. And while I do love it, but I also think there would be something oddly satisfying about watching its characters stumble to navigate a 2010s world. In true Gen X fashion, they were already angsty and disenfranchised in Reality Bites, so just think of how wholly perturbed they’d be by millennials.

Some of the issues tackled in Reality Bites were very ‘90s-specific while others were timeless, so there’d still be plenty of angst to mine. I can’t imagine that life ended up the way the film’s self-assured young characters imagined for themselves, but the, ahem, reality of it all might end up being far more interesting.

The Wolfpack

The Wolfpack – The Wolfpack

Not actually “characters” at all, the titular Wolfpack from Crystal Moselle’s documentary of the same name refers to the Angulo brothers, a closenit sextet. Raised in an extremely sheltered New York City apartment (so much so that they’d only be permitted to leave the house a couple of times a year), the brothers made their own fun by recreating and film scenes from their favourite movies. The Wolfpack examines the various ways the brothers begin to break out from their sheltered existence (or, in some cases, choose not to do so) as they reached the cusp of adulthood.

If Moselle and the Angulos decided to turn The Wolfpack into something reminiscent of the 7 Up series and caught up with them a couple decades down the line, we’d have the potential to see how the young men adjusted to the “real world” after their oppressive upbringing. Plus, who know which fantastic new movies would come out for them to reenact in the intervening 20 years?

 25th Hour

Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) – 25th Hour

Spike Lee’s 25th Hour has so much complexity and character development packed into a movie with a mere single-day span. Following Monty through the final 24 hours before he begins a seven-year prison sentence, not only is Norton’s Monty a compelling protagonist, but he’s surrounded by a fantastic supporting cast that includes Barry Pepper, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rosario Dawson, Brian Cox, and Anna Paquin.

Any excuse to spend more time with interesting characters is always a good one. But even apart from that, 25th Hour ends on a note that is somehow both ambiguous and finite, leaving the viewer wanting to know what becomes of Monty. Considering how much he goes through in a single day, I’m almost afraid to think about what another 20 years would do to him. But I’m sure Lee’s vision of it would be enthralling.

Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman

I don’t tend to say much when a celebrity dies, even if it’s someone whose work I admire. It’s always very sad, and often I feel sadness about it, even, as though a vague acquaintance of mine has passed. But when it’s someone you don’t personally know, I find it difficult to articulate exactly why a person’s death is so tragic and what their work meant. As well-intentioned as the tributes may be, they often come across as a bit hollow and repetitive when spoken by outsiders. However, I feel the need to say something about the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman. I’m sure I don’t have much to add to the conversation, but I’d like to share a bit about what his work meant to me and to celebrate some of his many, many great performances.

For a long time now, Philip Seymour Hoffman has been one of my favourite actors. Maybe even my favourite, though I’ve never been able to narrow it down to just one. I’ve also seen him in more movies than perhaps any other actor. This is just a testament to the amazing quality of his work; when I see the name “Philip Seymour Hoffman” attached to a movie, I know that it’s a movie I probably wanted to watch. Of the 23 movies of his that I’ve seen, barely any were disappointments, and even in the few that were less than great, Hoffman made the best of what he had and still turned in a strong performance.

Though I’d seen him do comedic roles in films like Twister and Along Came Polly, Hoffman first really caught my attention in Almost Famous. Granted, I came to Almost Famous at the exact perfect time in my life (I was 15 years old, obsessed with classic rock, a young outcast with writerly ambitions and a love of Rolling Stone), so almost everything to do with that movie had a big impact on my life. But Hoffman’s performance was like this little oasis in an explosive and deliciously decadent film. In other words: he was relatable to me, where everything else in Almost Famous was a fantasy.

Playing the famously ornery rock critic Lester Bangs, Hoffman brought his small but important character in Almost Famous to life in such a fully realized way that much like the film’s protagonist, William Miller, I felt like Lester Bangs was mentoring me. And while William was the character in that movie that I wanted to BE, Lester was the one I actually needed to hear from at the time. In one of William’s several telephone conversations with Lester, Bangs says this when William admits that he has befriended the band that he’s supposed to be writing about: “They make you feel cool. And hey, I met you. You are not cool […] And while women will always be a problem for us, most of the great art in the world is about that very same problem. Good-looking people don’t have any spine. Their art never lasts. They get the girls, but we’re smarter.” Lester is the thing that keeps William grounded – even when William doesn’t want to be – and he was the character who spoke to me. It’s all well and fine to be Penny Lane off gallivanting with rock stars, but eventually reality is going to hit, and Lester is the one who will talk some sense into you when that happens. And Hoffman delivered that balance of jaded snark, wisdom, and warmth to a tee.

Almost Famous is still one of my favourite Hoffman performances, but in the intervening years, I’ve seen countless other great Hoffman performances. Take his Oscar-winning turn in Capote. Transcending mere impersonation, he once again dove into the character and pulled out something wholly human. This perhaps comes across best in his scenes with Perry (played exquisitely by Clifton Collins Jr.), the murderous subject of his book whom he builds an extremely complicated relationship with.

There are also his numerous collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson, the most recent of which in The Master earned Hoffman an Oscar nomination just last year. Playing Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic cult leader, Hoffman turned in some of his most ambiguous work yet. Watching him share the screen with Joaquin Phoenix feels like a master class in acting. Not to mention his small but extremely memorable turn in Punch-Drunk Love. Say it along with me, now: “SHUT UP!

Hoffman was always great at those explosive scenes. He used them sparingly, but they always cut right to the core of things. Take his performance in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which may be one of his most underrated turns. He plays a quietly scathing man full of dysfunction, and Hoffman portrays that with alarming calculation and restraint. Suddenly, though, it all comes pouring out in one unforgettable scene, which may be Hoffman’s finest onscreen moment. The scene might not work so well out of context, and it does contain some plot spoilers, but if you’ve already seen the movie, here it is to appreciate again:

I could go on and on talking about Hoffman’s many great performances, and I’m sure other people will do so in a more comprehensive and articulate way than I could. But for me, while Hoffman always gave well-rounded, wonderful performances, he was also the master of commanding a scene, when necessary. I’m generally not one to focus on individual movie scenes, but half a dozen really great ones immediately come to mind when I think of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Along with the ones posted, here are a few more that I love (though unfortunately not all of them are on YouTube).

  • Pirate Radio is hardly the shining gem on PSH’s filmography, but he brought this wonderful rapscallion vibe to his performance as a rogue radio DJ. It’s a fun performance all around, but one scene that has always really stuck with me is the scene where his character is sitting on the deck of the boat at night and reflecting on things. “These are the best days of our lives,” he says. “It’s a terrible thing to know, but I know it.” The whole scene is so delicate, and such a nice reminder of Hoffman’s natural skill.
  • Hoffman might not have a big role in Boogie Nights, but he plays a strange, sympathetic character. Watching his harmless crush on Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler go horribly wrong is both sweet and heartbreaking to watch.
  • Magnolia is another great supporting turn from Hoffman. In particular, his final moments with Jason Robarts’ character are especially touching.
  • Watching Hoffman cut Ryan Gosling’s character down to size in The Ides of March was nothing short of spectacular.

I don’t really have specific scenes in mind, but Hoffman’s turns in Synedoche New York, 25th Hour, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The Savages are also well worth watching if you haven’t seen them.

It’s certainly a shock to see Philip Seymour Hoffman go so soon. The loss is tragic, and his presence in movies will be missed more than I can say. However, if we can find a consolation as fans, his legacy is a great one. He made more fantastic movies in his too-short life than most will make in their entire career. His filmography is expansive and surprisingly consistent, and all of those great movies are there for future generations to discover and love. Rest in peace, Mr. Hoffman, and thank you for the countless hours of fun spent watching your work.

The Music Videos of Marc Webb

I’ve been watching a few old My Chemical Romance videos on YouTube (don’t ask why), and I noticed that Marc Webb was their go-to guy for direction.

Webb, of course, directed one of my favourite movies of last year, (500) Days of Summer, and is slated to helm the new Spider-man reboot (which I’m feeling more optimistic about. Andrew Garfield! Emma Stone! Dennis Leary!). But, like a lot of contemporary directors, he got his start directing music videos. And since this all happened in the early-to-mid 2000’s, he inevitably ended up directing videos for a lot of post-grunge and “emo” bands that were popular at the time.

Being in middle school around this time, I was greatly influenced by what my peers were listening to. And I actually watched Much Music back then. So, without knowing it, I’m pretty familiar with this guy’s back catalogue. Looking at the list of videos that he’s directed, I can immediately and vividly remember the following videos (in chronological order):

And that’s not even close to half the videos that he’s done. There are a few others that I don’t remember, and a bunch that I never saw, including some with Green Day (first in 2001, and then for their 21st Century Breakdown album), Good Charlotte, Gavin DeGraw’s “I Don’t Want to Be”, Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day”, and Maroon 5’s “Harder to Breathe”.

This might not be a shining era in music history, but you have to admit that Webb directed videos for some pretty prominent songs of the time. And the fact that I can actually remember so many of his videos means that they’re at least somewhat interesting (either that, or I just watched them so many times that they’re permanently engrained in my memory).

In fact, I think that a few of those videos are actually quite good. My Chemical Romance’s “The Ghost of You” is probably one of the best directed videos I’ve seen in a while. And even though it’s melodramatic and over-the-top, the theatrical tone is spot on for their fanbase. Same goes for their gothed-out “Helena” video, and the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” rip-off that is “Teenagers”. I’m not surprised that the band worked with Webb so often, because it seems to me that he deserves a lot of credit for helping them to cultivate a very specific and successful image.

And videos like “Start All Over” and “Move Along” are surprisingly memorable, too. Their concepts are simple and certainly not groundbreaking, but whenever I think of those songs (which, admittedly, is not very often), the music video immediately comes to mind.

Despite working with such a wide array of artists, I’m surprised by what a unique, recognizable style Webb has. I can’t really pinpoint it, but most of those videos have a signature Marc Webb look to them. I had no idea going into (500) Days of Summer that this guy had defined my middle school years, to an extent.

Not to get too sentimental, but I think that time period was the twilight for the music video. Sure, you can find some really innovative videos online by smaller artists, but mainstream videos are largely dead, as far as I can tell. With the exception of Lady Gaga, it seems like the big artists today and their labels are barely putting any thought into music videos. Of course, it doesn’t help that television stations barely play videos anymore, but there’s still the while “viral” market for them online that they could try to tap into. I’m not saying that music videos from the mid-2000’s were great, because most of them weren’t. And maybe I’m just fond of them because that’s when I came of age. But artists like Green Day, My Chemical Romance, and Billy Talent at least attempted some kind of visual style (no, I don’t count Katy Perry’s penchant for sepia tone as a “style”).

So there’s a look at some of the highlights from Marc Webb’s video career (you can see a more complete list on his Wikipedia page here). You can also watch a few of the videos below. I’m hoping to write up some future segments on the music videos of Mark Romanek, Samuel Bayer, and Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

Is Young Talent Being Wasted on Superhero Movies?


I like a good superhero movie as much as the next person. I really liked the first two Spider-Man and X-Men movies, and The Dark Knight even found its way into my top 10 movies of the decade list. But I feel like we’re getting a huge overkill of suited-up action capers. Now we’re even getting superhero franchise reboots within five years of each other, and a lot of Hollywood’s most promising young stars are suiting up.

The cast of X-Men: First Class is coming together nicely. James McAvoy (Wanted, Atonement) is playing a young Professor Xavier, while Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Inglourious Basterds) will play his nemesis, Magneto. And just today, it was announced that Nicholas Hoult (A Single Man, About a Boy) will be taking on the role of Beast, while Aaron Johnson (Kick-Ass) is rumoured to be playing a young Cyclops. As much as I like all four actors, I feel like the X-Men movie franchise wore out its welcome a while ago. X-Men: The Last Stand (if only it had lived up to its title) was borderline awful, and last year’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine felt totally unnecessary.

The same goes for news of the Spider-Man reboot, which will star Andrew Garfield (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). As well, Chris Evans (who is no stranger to superhero movies) will be taking on Captain America, with An Education‘s Dominic Cooper joining the supporting cast.

But I suppose most actors try the mainstream at some point in their career, if they can. Even Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an actor known for his decidedly smaller film choices, is making his way to IMAX screens with his work in Inception, and his upcoming roles in thrillers Premium Rush and Looper.

To be clear, I don’t blame any young actor for taking a role in a big-budget movie. The goal is to get your name out there and increase your paycheck, and starring in films like Boy A and Rory O’Shea Was Here for the rest of your life is hardly the best way to accomplish that. But as I see more and more of my favourite young actors sign on to these superhero romps, I can’t help but feel slightly disheartened. As great of an opportunity as a big role in a summer blockbuster can be, I feel like a lot of these actors were already on the rise. And maybe I just take my movies to seriously, but I’d much rather see talented actors in roles that push them and evoke emotion from me. Even when I see Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, which is undeniably fun, I kind of just wish that I was watching him in a different movie, instead. It’s not so much that I’m blaming the actors for taking the roles (because, really, who could resist?), it’s more that I’m getting sick of superhero/comic book adaptations.

**(Side Note: Now that I think about it, perhaps the parade of highly-coifed photos at the top of this post, while quite enjoyable, doesn’t really fit with my plea to respect acting skill over marketability… But that doesn’t mean I’m going to ditch the eye candy any time soon.)