Denis Villeneuve is not a filmmaker who sees the light at the end of the tunnel. If you’ve ever seen any one of his movies you’ll know that there is a sense of dread and uneasiness to every frame, the feeling that nothing good will happen and that everything is just wrong. Yet, the 47-year-old director hasn’t exactly tackled melancholic stories in his career either: His movies have included child abductors, terrorists, drug lords, hitmen, high school shooters and depressed alcoholics. Yet since his American debut, Prisoners, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman, he has steadily but surely built up a following that is making him a reputable force to be reckoned with. That film’s polite but good reviews were transformed over the last few years into an undeniable cult following. The grisly murder mystery at the center of the story has typical B-movie tropes, but he has a knack for making a script better just by the way he films, paces, and directs. About this he says, “All my life, I’ve searched for good screenwriters; I love writing, but I’m not a good screenwriter and I take forever to complete a script. For the first time ever, I’m receiving screenplays from Hollywood that actually intrigue me. I had heard so many horror stories about foreign filmmakers going to Hollywood that got fucked by the system. Martin Scorsese warned me in fact that ‘You need to remain intact, that’s the most important thing.’ ”
Prisoners was a big step forward in getting his name across. He admitted, “It was a film that was horribly American, almost a kind of western.” Villneuve followed it up with Enemy, a film he shot prior to Prisoners, also starring Gyllenhaal. About Enemy he stated, “That was a very personal film adapted from a Portuguese novel by José Saramago. When I read it I felt the same sensation as when I was a kid and saw 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was very much about masculine identity.” This will probably not be the last time he works with Gyllenhaal either. “We very much were a creative team with Enemy, Jake was very into the whole process. We we’re feeding off of each other – so much so that I find the film is almost a documentary on Jake’s subconscious.”
On a personal note, I lived through the Montreal film scene when Villeneuve, Jean-Marc Vallee, and an 18-year-old Xavier Dolan among others, revolutionized French-Canadian cinema, and in the process gave themselves a shot at the Hollywood studio system. It was a very exciting time, but it was always Villeneuve that I kept an especially close eye on. People who saw his movie Maelstrom back in 2000 knew this was a talent to watch. The film, narrated by a doomed fish, features a career-making performance by Marie-Jose Croze as a depressed, suicidal woman who gets romantically linked to the son of the man she killed in a hit and run accident. The style was grimly unique and had a surrealist aspect to it that was almost too frightening to watch. Or maybe it was just the images Villeneuve conjured up with his camera – he could find the most basic looking detail in a frame and accentuate its impact just by the way he positioned a camera or had the cinematographer light up the scene. “It’s strange, when I finished Maelstrom I told myself, no more movies with a female lead. My first three films had that. Yet with my following film, Polytechnique, I made a film about the female condition and Incendies, the Middle East female. It just seems like women inspire me and that’s a good thing.”
The Polytechnique school shooting in Quebec was still a big deal many years after it happened; it affected a generation and Villeneuve was one of those people. Shooting a film about the tragedy was a daunting task, and the film he made was not without controversy in Canada. During a class, a gunman shot 28 people, killing 14 women, before committing suicide. He began his attack by entering a classroom at the university, where he separated the male and female students. He told the women that he hated feminists, claiming that he was “fighting feminism” and calling the women “a bunch of feminists.” He shot all nine women in the room, killing six. He then moved through corridors, the cafeteria, and another classroom, specifically targeting women. ”Polytechnique is an organic film, a beast. The film is alive.” The film jumps back and forth in time, meditatively trying to find some peace with the tragedy. Villeneueve’s film tries to tackle the human cost of gender warfare and comes up with varying but troubling answers. Think Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, but French-Canadian. Shot in beautiful black and white by Pierre Gill, it’s an astonishing statement by a filmmaker who wants his voice to be heard. It justly won the Best Picture Genie award (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars), his second one after 2008’s Maelstrom triumph. The following year he triumphed again with Incendies, winning his third Best Picture Genie.
The fact that Villeneuve is becoming such a hot commodity is not surprising. Before he broke through in the States, he had made four highly impressive French-Canadian films. After each one I thought, “this might break through and get him known”, but it never happened. It’s a tough business, but the films got progressively better, and when his career finally reached its peak with Incendies, his trailblazing 2010 Oscar nominated masterpiece, audiences could no longer ignore the talent. “I didn’t have time to rest. The last day of shooting Polytechnique I directly went to day one of shooting Incendies. These were two projects that I really took to heart, but they mentally and physically drained me.” Political, angry, and thoroughly engrossing, Incendies is a Middle Eastern nightmare that gets progressively more disturbing as it goes along. Brother and sister lose mom, find out their dead father is very much alive, learn that they have a sibling they never knew existed and decide to go to a violent Middle Eastern country to find out more of their mother’s past. It’s pure Villeneueve: aggressive, violent, and thoroughly pessimistic about human nature. “The anger that was in the source material really, profoundly touched me,” he recounts.
This journey has brought Villenueve to – what is so far – his best American movie with Sicario, a movie he calls a “dark poem”. Villeneuve is slowly but very surely getting to a groove of studio filmmaking that will likely propel him to join the very best in Hollywood. If that isn’t already the case, it sure as hell will happen in the next few years. Sicario is a monster of a movie. Villeneuve stages the action like a true master, moving his camera to the beat of the violence. It’s with these action scenes that you realize just how talented the man is. They seem like very simple scenes to shoot, but they aren’t. It’s a good thing then that Sicario’s full-throttled sequences are refreshing, plentiful, and the highlights of the film, as they encompass a wide array of claustrophobic feelings and put you right in the thick of the action, especially in a highway shootout that is bound to become an iconic piece of cinema.
Dealing with the Mexican-American problems at the border and beyond, Sicario is highly relevant right now. It is nothing new that this year’s political campaigning has had Mexico very much at the forefront of the discussion. All the unusual talk of wall-building notwithstanding, there are core issues to be dealt with in the future. Talking to The Guardian at Cannes earlier this year, Villeneuve has said that “The movie is about America … how America fantasizes that it can solve problems beyond its borders, and about the collateral damage that results … and the legality and moral issues around that … It’s a movie that deals with idealism and realism and the tension between both … It takes place on the Mexican border, but it could have just as easily have been set in Afghanistan or the Middle East or various countries in Africa. In North America, we allow ourselves to do things that other countries can’t afford to.”
A lot of the film’s brilliance has to do with the cinematography that Roger Deakins brings to the table. This is Deakins’ second collaboration with Villeneuve – they make a great duo – and the film is almost as much a showcase for Villeneueve as it is for the famed cinematographer. Villeneuve seems to be giving carte blanche to Deakins with every movie, which isn’t a bad idea, and the two complement each other to great degrees. “I always profoundly felt Roger wanted to make the movie. One thing I adore about Roger is his discipline and his rigor. He exudes so much respect from the cast and crew. When I started editing the movie I was just floored by what he had done.
Sicario has been compared to Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic for its investigation of the Mexican drug cartel and both starring Benicio Del Toro. That’s where comparisons should end, though. Relying heavily on atmosphere, a pulse pounding score from Jóhann Jóhannsson and a never better Emily Blunt, Villeneuve shoots the whole thing like a pro, giving us epic wide screen shots that take advantage of the breathtaking locations and his usual gloomy visual style. Its bow at Cannes came with a standing ovation and positive reviews, however it’s only now that the film is truly lifting off. Positive word of mouth – and there’s plenty of it for this movie – will propel this film into awards contention. Benicio Del Toro’s turn as the titular Sicario – a hitman by definition – is mysterious, mesmerizing and brutally brilliant.
Blunt also deserves to be part of the Best Actress conversation. She’s just one of the very best actresses around and her role as Kate Macer is an important one for Villeneuve as well. “There is obviously a lot of work to be done for women’s rights, there aren’t any good parts for women in movies these days … I think of this as my contribution.” Sicario had a bumpy road pre-production, as the movie’s backers wanted the Kate Macer role rewritten for a man. It was something his screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan, had been “advised” to do, but Villeneuve and Sheridan refused. “It isn’t easy to get a film made where the protagonist is a woman – there’s less money, people are afraid, and it’s really sad that it’s still like that today,” Villeneuve said. “It’s ludicrous, and this film shows that attitude is dépassé…” safe for Enemy and Prisoners, Villeneuve’s five other films have dealt with female identity. Much of this might have to do with his upbringing, which was dominated by two very prominent figures – his grandmothers – whom he calls “very powerful women.”
The movie feels epic in scope, but is actually very intimate in detail, which is a big part of why it works so well. Villeneuve never forgets that at the end of the day, it has to do with story and character. The fact that the 47-year-old director rarely gives interviews only enhances the intrigue of the man. I had the chance to meet him a couple of times in Montreal, and he gives off a shy but amicable feeling that is the polar opposite of his films. His passion for cinema is clearly felt, but so is the way he never fully reveals himself in conversation.
Hollywood has clearly been impressed by the man. Villeneuve has already wrapped up his next film, Story of Your Life, a science fiction film starring yet another female lead, Amy Adams. He’s also been given the outrageously important task of directing the sequel to Blade Runner, with a script by original helmer Ridley Scott, and Harrison Ford to star. “I don’t have the pretense to say I will do as Ridley Scott. I am totally different.” Of course Roger Deakins will be the cinematographer. Villeneuve has stated that his ”mind is more in America than Europe right now.” We hope it stays that way.
It’s no secret that Robert De Niro is one of the greatest actors that ever lived. Just look at the list of classics: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Godfather Part II, The Deer Hunter, The King of Comedy, Once Upon a Time in America, Brazil, The Untouchables, Midnight Run, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, Heat, and Casino. Is there any other actor that can claim to have been in this many great movies and given this many great performances? That’s of course a topic for another story, but notice how Casino was listed last. That’s where many people believe De Niro “gave up” serious films and for the next two decades resorted to choosing movies that didn’t live up to his talents. In fact, there are people in their twenties today who think De Niro is best known for the Fockers trilogy! That’s just criminal and doesn’t do justice to the now 72-year-old legend.
Well, there is great news this week that made movie geeks rejoice. While being interviewed by Digital Spy for his latest film, The Intern, De Niro was asked about the long-planned Scorsese collaboration, I Heard You Paint Houses. “We are doing it… We should be doing it sometime next year,” De Niro said. “We’re slowly, slowly getting it in place.” This is quite possibly the best news a die-hard movie fan could hear, especially with the fact that De Niro and Scorsese are not getting any younger and that Joe Pesci is rumored to be coming back after announcing his retirement back in 1999. Scorsese, Pesci, De Niro -– does it get any better than this? Their collaborative efforts are right up there with Bergman/Von Sydow, Hitchcock/Stewart, and Huston/Bogart.
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Although Scorsese has been as productive and brilliant these last few years as ever before, replacing De Niro with DiCaprio as his muse, De Niro’s career arc has been a different story. Maybe years of method acting and gaining/losing drastic amounts of weight for iconic roles took a toll on him; how else can you explain the constant duds that he’s been churning out year after year?
It’s of course not all that bad, and shades of the brilliance he once showed in abundance have poured down in a few well-chosen movies here and there. If you do catch Nancy Meyers’ The Intern, you will notice a sweet, soulful performance from De Niro that is the clear highlight of the movie. These kinds of performances from De Niro are few and far between these days, but they do happen. A few weeks from now, he’s set to appear in the highly anticipated Joy, starring Jennifer Lawrence and directed by David O’ Russell, his third film with the filmmaker. The buzz is that De Niro’s performance is great –- we all hope it is -– and that he could garner an eight Oscar nomination for it.
Despite his recent duds, here are six examples post-Casino De Niro performances that prove he’s still got it and will “bring it” next year when the new Scorsese film is shot.
Conrad Brean in Wag the Dog (1997)
A presidential sex scandal hits and his advisers try to cover it up as fast as possible. What do they do? Hire a Hollywood producer and a professional spin doctor played by De Niro. “A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow,” says De Niro’s Conrad Brean, who cooks up a phony international crisis with Albania. De Niro plays Brean as a poker-faced genius who makes you believe a spin doctor can save the day by telling lies: “We’re not gonna have a war, we’re gonna have the appearance of a war,” he says with much-garnered confidence. Just like in Ronin, De Niro seems like a match made in heaven for David Mamet’s poetic street dialogue. He’s never been this wittily relaxed before.
Sam in Ronin (1998)
“You ever kill anybody?” De Niro’s Sam is asked in Ronin. “Yeah I hurt somebody’s feelings once,” he replies in a deadpan way. In my opinion this was the last De Niro-esque performance of his illustrious career: it’s raw, edgy, and dangerous. John Frankenheimer’s movie has some of the best car chase scenes ever put on celluloid and has altogether remarkable chemistry between stars De Niro and his director, two old-school giants. Playing a CIA strategist turned mercenary, De Niro turns out be a pretty badass James Bond in a role that has him spouting out words by screenwriter David Mamet –- who also wrote a great latter De Niro role in Wag the Dog. “You worried about saving you own skin?” Sam is asked midway through the film. “Yeah, I am,” responds De Niro, “It covers my body”.
Paul Vitti in Analyze This (1999)
It’s not uncommon for De Niro to play a gangster, but it is uncommon for it to be in a comedy. Analyze This was one of the first times we saw De Niro’s comedic side. Playing respected mobster Paul Vitti, he visits Billy Crystal’s shrink to try and take control of his crumbling psyche. It works. “You got a gift my friend. You, you, you’re good,” tells Vitti to his frightened shrink. De Niro is hilarious, encompassing to perfection a viciously intimidating side to his gangster, but adding self-contained humor to his role. “Fuck Freud,” says Vitti to a scared shrink who tries everything to get rid of him as a client. The chemistry between Crystal and De Niro is contagious and feels so naturally delivered. The misbegotten sequel that followed should be forgotten, and this original movie always remembered.
Jack Byrnes in Meet the Parents (2000)
Playing father-in-law from hell Jack Byrnes, De Niro perfected the comedic gold that he started with Analyze This just a year before Meet The Parents. Byrnes is a retired horticulturalist who might also be an ex-CIA agent. It helps that co-star Ben Stiller and De Niro seem to be feeding off of each other’s manic energy. “Have you ever purchased pornographic material?” hilariously asks De Niro to Stiller’s ill-received and aptly named Greg Focker during a now iconic lie detector test. Everything about the De Niro’s performance works here, from his sizing up of Stiller’s character, to telling him that he’s going “down, down to Chinatown,” and even down to the smallest details as in the way he calls Greg “Focker”, this is pure comedic gold.
Nick Wells in The Score (2001)
It took four decades for the two Don Corleone’s -– De Niro and Marlon Brando –- to finally make a movie together. The fact that it was The Score might disappoint some, but it shouldn’t detract from the fact that it’s actually a good caper movie. A weaker actor might have overplayed the character of Nick Wells -– an aging thief who is persuaded by a rookie, played by Edward Norton, to execute one last heist -– but it’s De Niro’s steadiness that becomes part of the movie’s subtle, refraining style. Norton and De Niro basically compete to see who can under-act the other (it sounds dull but it isn’t). He’s positively mesmerizing and overshadows the Brando scenes quite a bit.
Pat Solitano Jr. in Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
De Niro richly deserved his Oscar nomination for Silver Linings Playbook. Playing Pat Sr., a sports bookie with a major case of OCD and an even unhealthier obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles, De Niro found a role worthy of his incredible talents. In a memorably touching scene, De Niro wakes up his son in the morning and, failing to convey the repressed emotions in his mind, all Pat Sr. can do is subtly cry and hug his son. In another poignant moment he tells his son to seize the moment, and seize the fortune that has been dealt in his hand: “When life reaches out at a moment like this it’s a sin if you don’t reach back, I’m telling you it’s a sin if you don’t reach back! It’ll haunt you the rest of your days like a curse.” It’s the best De Niro performance in 20 years and proof that the legendary actor still has it in him to deliver.
It is no surprise that Saoirse Ronan gives one of the most deeply felt and wonderful female performances of the year in Brooklyn. After all, this is an actress who was nominated for an Oscar when she was just 13 years old for her pivotal role in Joe Wright’s Atonement. “When Atonement happened I was just a kid, and I can’t say I expected the nomination to happen” she tells me. Now 21 years old, Ronan has blossomed into everything we thought she could be. In recent years she has starred in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, kicked serious cojones in Hanna and most recently was cast as Zero’s secret crush in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. This all in a span of just six years.
Brooklyn is a beautifully made film about good, well-intentioned people trying to do their best in life. The gorgeously crisp and colorful cinematography by Yves Belanger is to die for, as is the direction by John Crowley, which is stylishly slick enough to harken back to a time when handsomely made, feel-good pictures worked marvelously well in Hollywood. This is an old-fashioned movie done right, a heartfelt effort by people who very much care about story and character. The screenplay was written by Nick Hornby, and captures his usual impeccable ear for small talk. Saoirse Ronan plays Ellis, an Irish girl who moves to New York to start a new life, but finds herself doubting that decision once there. The movie will make her a household name, and there’s already talk of a possible Oscar nominations for her performance –- which originally had Rooney Mara cast in the lead role –- and the film itself, which is exactly the kind of crowd-pleasing treat the Academy eyes year after year. “I pronounce it Sersha,” she tells me of her name. We might as well learn it well because a performer with this much natural, freewheeling talent and personality doesn’t come along often.
The actress sits down with me at her comfy suite at the Marriott hotel and is clearly exhausted from hours of interviews with the press, but her publicist tells her that I’m the last one for the day and the atmosphere loosens up a little and a smile appears on her pale rosy cheeked face. “Let’s make this one the best damn interview. I’ve got a good feeling about you,” she says with a smile. The young actress seems to also have a tiny case of the sniffles, and is eyeing the cup of tea her publicist is holding for her. “You know I’m doing OK, but it’s weird I always get sick every time I do press,” she says. Wearing a black dress and black leather boots, she asks me about my country of origin since I strike her as “too naturally tanned”. I tell her it’s all over the map, but that the tan is due to my Moroccan heritage. “Oh my,” she responds, “we filmed Hanna in Morocco. What a crazy place. Loved it. Everywhere I’d go I would be stared at, the only pale white girl in a country of sun people.”
Her origins are particularly interesting. When recession was at its peak in Ireland, and before she was born, Ronan’s parents decided to move to New York in the early ‘80s. They worked very hard and in very blue collar ways. Her father had a steady job as a Bronx bartender, whereas her mother was a nanny. Three years after Saoirse’s New York birth, they moved back to Ireland. Saoirse’s research for her role in Brooklyn eventually led to a particularly meaningful talk with her mom, which became an emotionally overwhelming task for the actress. “To have my mom speak about her journey and when her and my dad moved over there, what that was like for them. That was tough to listen to, I’m gonna cry, but it really helped me not just for the role but for my life …” The film unintentionally has become a love letter to her mom: “When she saw the film at Sundance, I just went up to her and I literally jumped up off the stage and ran to her arms. And she said, ‘You just got it. You got exactly that fear and that excitement I had.’” Even the ones closest to her were flabbergasted by the similarities. Saoirse recounts, “There was a journalist I knew that saw the movie back home in Ireland and he said to me that when he watched it, it was the first time he saw a movie of mine where it didn’t feel like me onscreen or anyone else really, but instead he saw my mother on the screen … I don’t think I realized it in the moment, but what I did with this performance is channel my mom.”
It wasn’t just her mom though. The film was also about her own journey from Ireland to the U.S. She reminisced about a time when she was in fact the very girl she plays in Brooklyn. “A year before we went into production I had moved out, left home and I had gone through that whole emotional journey that (my character) goes through. So, I loved it from the beginning, however it was only when we actually shot it that it meant so much more to me.” I tell her she’s not the only one to have the story hit her on a personal level, but the same goes for me and my own parents and everyone else. “Exactly, I think this story is actually for everyone. For anyone who ever left home, moved away from home, moved down the road, went to college, or left the country they grew up in. Those situations give you a feeling of not knowing where you belong, we’ve all gone through it. That’s what I went through when I moved from Ireland to London for acting or when I moved from Ireland to New York quite recently. It can be very overwhelming and frustrating… I related to everything. Everything. Every single saying, every aspect of what my character’s journey was.”
Now that I’ve caught her attention and she is really gets into the conversation we’re having, she lifts her legs up on the couch and starts to make herself a little more comfortable. Her catching green eyes now glued to what the next question might be, a perfect time to ask her about the ever ongoing topic of female roles in the industry. This year, however, has been a defining one for great female performances and the one Ronan gives here is one of the very best. This is a strong performance, one in which the Irish girl she plays makes up her own decisions and decides her own fate in life with no male influence subsiding her. “She’s a woman, and she’s facing two tough choices and it’s up to her to decide. Now what’s important here is that she made the decision, that this time it was her that made the decision … not any outside influence. I want women to go see it, and to feel empowered by that and to relate to that situation.”
The film – which debuted at Sundance in January and had a strong showing this past September at TIFF, which in turn led to the triumphant screening recently at the New York Film Festival -– might be conventionally told, but the underlying feminist tones are strongly effective, and make it an atypical, curiously relevant studio-backed film. “To see a character like her, set at that time and not have it be solely about the men in her life, that’s pretty feminist. Every single woman in this film is strong and independent and yet feminism couldn’t flourish back then.” I ask her to elaborate on that and she ponders, trying to think of the right way to put it. “In a way, it’s become sort of unpopular now for us to be treated as equal citizens. Some people treat feminism as taboo. To me, feminism is just that we’re equal to men and that’s all we really want. Brooklyn has a character that truly believes in that at a time when it was taboo to think that way.” Just when she was getting revved up and ready to go to deeper places with the interview her publicist re-enters the room and tells her the interview is done. “Really? I was just getting started here,” she laughingly says, “oh well, I knew I had a good feeling about you.” The same can be said about her career –- she’s only getting started.