It’s not easy to reconcile the fact that even when you see genius in front of your eyes, you know that even brilliance can push it a little too far in the wrong direction. After a successful festival tour and launch to the south of us, Toronto’s own Matt Johnson returns to our screens with his second feature effort Operation Avalanche which is a wry and genuinely stunning piece of filmmaking that makes me hope he can actually change up the formula that brought him to prominence so that he can find some genuine success.
In the year 1967 at the height of the Cold War and two young and eager CIA agents are determined to get out of the AV department and become genuine full blown spies. Enter Operation Avalanche, where these two young men infiltrate NASA as a documentary film crew and become wrapped in a massive hoax on the eve of the Apollo 11 launch as they learn that NASA just can’t land a man on the moon and the Russians will make it there first.
An incredibly smart and whip smart social satire where Johnson has expertly crafted the feel of a period piece with his goofball charm and the tension of a spy thriller. While his sense of style as a visual story teller is truly unparralled and on display here, it is also a cautionary tale and hope that he can switch up the formula just enough in order to make movies for decades.
He rides the tone of it all with such aplomb, rolling out with such goofy enthusiasm and fun which ultimately descends into the tension and the paranoia of the time. The story beats work incredibly well and his found footage method of shooting plays into the narrative with such ease combined with the effort the effort that he put in to make this feel authentic with scratchy film esthetic and we are in the moment of it all without a doubt. No matter the scenario, Johnson never makes anything feel forced and even for the most veteran of filmmakers that isn’t always easier said then done and it can’t be discounted. It’s the kind of film that is visually infused with so much genuine energy, it’s not necessarily flashy but it is incredibly infectious as we buy the journey that these young, ambitious and more than a little naive agents are on. While I grant that his POV style of filmmaking will get tired very quickly he does manage to make it work for him like gangbusters.
Much like his other film The Dirties; Operation Avalanche is filled mostly with non or very inexperienced actors like Johnson himself and his writing partner Josh Boles along with friend Owen Williams. It plays well enough as Johnson writes all of these parts as variations of the actual people playing them but the more I see his movies the more of a problem that I have as he walks perilously close to some dangerous territory.
As skilled as he is as a writer and as a visual storyteller there is simply one unmistakable fact to draw out of this movie. As an actor Matt Johnson and his buddies, just aren’t that good. They all play well inside the formula that Johnson crafts for them but it is also terribly limiting. I am curious to see how Johnson will work with actual actors and a fully fledged cast without being able to goof around in front of the cameras with his buddies. The charm is undeniable, but even a pony with the best single trick that you’ve ever seen is still only a one trick pony.
With Operation Avalanche we can see that as a filmmaker that Matt Johnson is at a tipping point. The moment we see Johnson take himself out of the frame of whatever story he wants to tell is the moment where Johnson will be able to start writing his own ticket on a much larger scale then he already is.
- Release Date: 9/30/2016
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