Ewe-phoria: SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE gets US release date

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Aardman Animations’ little sheep’s prank leads to a grand adventure in one of the most purely delightful films of the year from the folks behind Wallace & Gromit and The Pirates! Band of Misfits. The whole flock, the farmer, and his dog all end up in the Big City where animal control and fancy hair salons await. American distributor Lionsgate has set the US release date: August 7, wide. Mark your calendars. Bonus points if you use one of those cute little lamb stickers. –Pam Grady

 

Review: Journalist becomes part of the TRUE STORY

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true storyIf nothing else, True Story reminds us that when he is not preciously playing at being a modern-day renaissance man, James Franco is one of the finest actors of his generation. Playing family annihilator Christian Longo, an Oregon man who killed his wife and three children, in Rupert Goold’s adaptation of journalist Michael Finkel’s memoir to chilling effect, Franco’s performance is his best since 127 Hours and the one compelling reason to see this drama that remains too firmly in Finkel’s corner to tell an effective story.

A New York Times reporter, Finkel (Jonah Hill) thinks he’s headed for a Pulitzer Prize with his latest feature, a Times magazine cover story on exploited boys in Africa. Instead, when his editors find out that he conflated characters and otherwise “improved” his story in ways that cross over into fiction, he’s fired, making him virtually unemployable as a journalist anywhere else. Retreating to his girlfriend Jill’s (Felicity Jones) Montana home to lick his wounds, the first ray of light in his new life is a phone call asking him comment on the Longo story. After his crimes, Longo lit out for Mexico where he claimed to be the NYT reporter until his capture. Intrigued, Finkel arranges to visit the alleged killer. A weird friendship is born. Finkel sees that there is a book to be gotten out of their meetings that might restore his reputation. Longo, too, realizes that there are things to be gained from continuing to see Finkel. It is a relationship of mutual utility.

Certainly, there is charm to Longo as Franco plays him, but with his dead eyes, evident narcissism and unlikely explanations for what happened to his family, the police, the prosecutors and even Jill see right through him. But not Finkel, who may think he’s about to write the next In Cold Blood, but for too long buys into Longo’s unlikely explanations. Is he fooled by Longo’s flattery (Longo claims to be a fan and asks Finkel to help him become a better writer)? Or is he fooling himself in his focus to fulfill the terms of his book deal?

Hill’s baby face, large blue eyes behind thick glasses, and Finkel’s gentle (if arrogant) demeanor suggest someone who could be duped, but is he really? The real Finkel has suggested that he became too involved in the story, but would that really make him buy into Longo’s version of events as much as he does? True Story’s major flaw is that while Longo comes into sharp focus, Finkel never does. That’s a limitation perhaps in adapting FInkel’s book, but it would have made for a sharper, richer drama if Goold and his co-screenwriter David Kajganich had thought more about what motivated Finkel. The man fired by The New York Times for writing fiction titled his comeback True Story, but is it? Is this a story of one man’s heinous crimes leading to another man’s redemption or is it a tale of two unreliable narrators seeing in each other the means to an end? –Pam Grady

 

Review: Alex Garland’s Turing test EX MACHINA

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Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a coder at BlueBook (think Google) is enjoying quite the heady week. Invited to BlueBoook founder Nathan’s (Oscar Isaac) remote mountain home, he has been tasked with performing a Turing test on the boss’s pride and joy, Ava (Alicia Vikander), the latest iteration in ongoing experiments in artificial intelligence. But having now interacted several times with the comely robot with a woman’s beautiful face, voice and shapely, metallic body, he wants to know why Nathan made Ava humanoid at all. Artificial intelligence doesn’t need a body to exist, after all. With that question, Caleb gets to the one of the flaws in writer Alex Garland’s (The Beach, 28 Days Later) tense, creepy directorial debut Ex Machina. It’s the wrong question, though. The correct question is why would a man clearly interested in building himself a high-tech blow-up doll bother with granting it intelligence at all?

Isaac suppresses his considerable charm to play the poster child of a tech overlord divorced from humanity. Nathan’s chilly, impersonal home, filled with surveillance equipment that lets him watch everything that goes on inside his house, reflects the personality of a man who knows how to say the right things (social cues no doubt gleaned from his endless spying on BlueBook’s users) to appear that he’s just a regular guy who just happens to be a billionaire genius—“appear” being the operative word. As Caleb’s week with him wears on, it’s is increasingly clear that Nathan has little use for the world the rest of humanity inhabits and for all his assertions that it is great to converse with an actual human being for a change, his contempt for Caleb is never far from the service. It is no wonder that Caleb becomes confused as he tests Ava: In a wig and with clothes to mask her robotic parts, she seems far more human than his host.

Stephen Hawking is among those that have expressed reservations about where the development of AI might lead. That question simmers beneath Ex Machina’s sleek surface as Caleb and Ava interact during the “tests.” But despite stunning visual effects that transform Vikander into a mechanical being, the vibe is less sci-fi than neo-noir. Gleeson is brilliant as a man seemingly in way over his head. But is he really the classic chump he appears to be, and if so, who is playing him: Nathan, Ava or both? And why?

The whys are what is problematic about Ex Machina. Nathan’s explanation for why he wanted Caleb to visit and perform the Turing test rings hollow. And his experiments in artificial intelligence don’t compute not only in the form they take with his female models but also in the fact that a guy with this man’s ego is not going to risk not being the smartest being in the room.

Looking past that, the film is a nifty thriller. The remote location, the sterile house where the rooms can only be accessed by key cards (and not all cards work for all rooms), the wild card that is Ava, and the growing distrust between Nathan and Caleb keep the tension humming even in the quietest scenes. Garland delivers the goods with this stylish and suspenseful first feature. –Pam Grady

 

Lessons learned: John Boorman remembers “hell” in the Pacific

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hell 1While recently chatting with John Boorman about his latest (and perhaps final) film Queen and Country for a San Francisco Chronicle feature, the talk turned to Hell in the Pacific. Made in 1968, a year after the tense, striking, wholly inventive thriller Point Blank established him as a directing great, the World War II drama starred the earlier film’s lead Lee Marvin and iconic Japanese leading man Toshirô Mifune as enemy soldiers stranded together on a deserted South Pacific island. It was a fraught shoot. Boorman and Marvin experienced real terror shortly before filming commenced when a plane they were on nearly crashed into a volcano. The director cut his knee and it became badly infected. Mifune, an actor Boorman had admired in so many Akira Kurosawa films, refused to take direction.

Looking back on it, Boorman describes Hell in the Pacific, which was shot on the Pacific Ocean island of Palau, as a kind of teaching moment that began when he was in Tokyo working on the script and realized that that he did not have an ending that satisfied him. He saw Kurosawa and explained the problem. Did the legendary auteur have any ideas?

“He thought for a long time, then he said, ‘They meet a girl,” Boorman laughs. “I have to say there are moments when I wish I’d taken his advice.”

Even if Mifune had been more cooperative, Marvin hadn’t been working through the trauma of returning to the same area of the world where he’d fought (and nearly been killed) during World War II, and his leading men could actually understand each other’s language, Boorman realizes in retrospect that the shoot still would have been challenging. And it didn’t need to be.

“I shot it on a very, very remote island,” he says. “We lived on a ship and went to work on this beach every day in a tank landing craft. I could have shot it in Hawaii and lived in a comfortable hotel. I’m not as foolish as that anymore.

“Sadly, the lesson I learned there was don’t make it too hard for yourself.” –Pam Grady

A search for the truth: Bennett Miller on FOXCATCHER

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FOXCATCHER

There is an old Chinese proverb: “There is your truth, my truth, and the truth.”

Director Bennett Miller has made three narrative features—Capote, Moneyball, and now Foxcatcher—inspired by real people and real events. How does he know when he has found his particular truth?

It’s almost too good a question, because if I could answer that perfectly, maybe I wouldn’t make movies,” Miller says.

I was seeking some sort of experience of what feels truthful to me about these sorts of relationships. For me, movies are most compelling when you can look at them and say, ‘That’s right. That’s life as I know it. That illuminates something I’m familiar with that had never been expressed.’”

Foxcatcher spins an American tragedy out of a true-crime tale, the 1996 murder of Olympic wrestling gold medalist Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) by John Du Pont (Steve Carell), a deeply disturbed heir to an old money dynasty. Miller’s film traces the path to the killing beginning with Du Pont luring Dave’s younger brother Mark (Channing Tatum), who, like his sibling, won a wrestling gold medal at the 1984 games, to his Pennsylvania estate, Foxcatcher Farms, to train.

I came to believe certain things about the story, including how lost and lonely John DuPont was and the discomfort of the lie he was living and the inability to process the unacceptable that life confronted with him as he tried to play this role,” says Miller.

Those moments when you see him trying to charade as a coach in front of his mother, and not have one person acknowledge it is a different kind of loneliness. He was so friendless.”

Miller points out that there is a difference between what is factual and what is the truth. The latter is what he attempts to present in “Foxcatcher.” The film is not documentary; it is drama.

There are all kinds of little details. This particular thing happened to a different wrestler, but this kind of thing happened to Mark. It’s a similar type of thing, but this works better in the story,” Miller says.

This is cinema. It’s a narrative film and you’ve got actors playing roles and it’s necessarily fictionalized. There’s no way around it, period…There is some kind of truth to be derived from this story that can only be derived via cinema. Film can do something no other medium can do and in order to do it, it does employ artifice. That doesn’t diminish the validity of the truth that the medium can expose.

Where do I draw the line? To the best of my ability, there’s nothing within the movie that violates the sense of who these characters were and the decisions that they made and the events that happened, so it’s essentially true. That’s my feeling about it.”—Pam Grady

WITNESS TO THE CITY at Roxie noir fest The French Had a Name for It

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Temoin

A taxi idles at the curb as Ancelin (Lino Ventura) steps away from the crime scene that he has just created, the car summoned only moments before the murder by the man he’s just killed. The murderer panics and runs away, only realizing later that his behavior called attention to itself. The cabbie will remember him, surely, a witness who must be dispatched before he can talk to the police. That is the set up of Édouard Molinaro’s tense Witness to the City (Un témoin dans la ville), one of the rare Gallic noirs playing Nov.14-17 as part of The French Had a Name for It at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater.

The streets of Paris become a hunting ground once Ancelin is able to identify amiable Lambert (Franco Fabrizi) as the driver who can finger him. What the desperate man fails to realize is the power of these new “radio” taxis that can be marshaled at the first hint of trouble. Lilliane (Sandra Milo), Lambert’s girlfriend is a dispatcher. The cabbies are a loyal bunch and protective of their own. Ancelin soon learns how fine the line is between the pursuer and pursued.

Ventura, who made his screen debut playing a gangster in Jacques Becker’s classic 1952 thriller Touchez pas au Grisbi, excelled in tough guy roles, but in Witness to the City, he proves himself equally adept at playing a sad, strange man motivated by fear. As the movie becomes a chase, the streets of Paris become a trap to be escaped, new danger lurking around every corner. Molinaro’s use of location is striking; this is not picture-postcard Paris, but the gritty, street-level view that becomes all too familiar to Ancelin. Henri Decaë’s moody cinematography and Barney Wilen’s evocative jazz score add to the pervasive sense of doom in this bleak, striking noir.—Pam Grady

To find out more about THE FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT, read my article at EatDrinkFilms. For tickets and further information, visit roxie.com.

Review: JOHN WICK’s bloody good time

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John Wick2I once saw him kill three men in a bar with a pencil. A pencil! He gave them all lead poisoning.” OK. I made that last line up, but if Russian mobster Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) had uttered such a thing while explaining just how dangerous fresh-out-of-retirement hit man John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is it wouldn’t be out of place in the over-the-top world of John Wick. A live-action cartoon—perhaps an Itchy & Scratchy episode with Reeves as the most insanely efficient Itchy in the world and Tarasov and his henchmen the hapless Scratchys—it is a thoroughly enjoyable exercise in grandiose action and ultra ultra-violence. Gallon upon gallon of fake blood flows in this palate cleanser before Oscar season gets underway.

Reeves turned 50 in September, but when it comes to old man Wick and his prey, Tarasov’s spoiled brat millennial son Iosef (Game of Thrones‘ Alfie Allen), there is no contest. It is all Viggo can do to try to protect his boy by unleashing his army of mobsters (including his right-hand man, played by Dean Winters aka Allstate’s “Mayhem”—are we sensing a theme here?) and putting out a general, $2-million contract on Wick’s life. Wick anticipates Viggo’s actions and just doesn’t care. Mistaking the recent widower for an ordinary New Jersey suburbanite, Iosef broke into his house to steal Wick’s cherry ’69 Mustang and killed his puppy, a parting gift from John’s dead wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan). For that, Iosef and anyone who tries to shield him will pay with their lives as Wick transforms himself into an impeccably dressed grim reaper.

Screenwriter Derek Kolstad and director Chad Stahelski have created a world in which civilians barely exist amidst operatic and very public outbursts of violence. When Wick reenters a life of crime, he returns to an entire universe where one guy (John Leguizamo) runs a mob chop shop, another (David Patrick Kelly) specializes in body disposal and crime scene cleanup, a priest (Munro M. Bonnell) protects mob cash, and John is just one among many assassins.

There is even a hotel, the Continental, that caters exclusively to the criminal class, overseen by Winston (the great Ian McShane) who enforces the joint’s one hard rule—no conducting business on the premises—from his booth in the hotel’s ’40s-syle supper club. It’s all wackily retro and a little daft, a world in which  Krugerrands (“coin”) are the means of exchange. These guys are so old-fashioned that they’ve probably never even heard of bitcoins and still think of Silk Road as an ancient Asian trade route.

Those Wick doesn’t shoot he attacks with a full-body assault, fists and legs flying. However morose the grieving character is, it’s been years since Reeves has had a role that is this much pure fun. Once Wick’s quest for vengeance is underway, the action is nearly non-stop and Reeves is the ball of kinetic energy at the center of the storm. He wears middle age as well as he does his designer suits. John Wick is a lean, mean, killing machine.

The body count is high. The plot is ludicrous. The humor is pitch black, mostly unintentionally so. No one will mistake John Wick for art, but it’s a bloody good time—emphasis on the bloody. —Pam Grady

A search for the perfect voices: Casting THE BOXTROLLS

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 snatcher

A starry cast that includes Ben Kingsley, Elle Fanning, Nick Frost, Tracy Morgan, Jared Harris, and Richard Ayoade gives voice to The Boxtrolls—the latest enchanting stop-motion animated featured from Laika, the studio behind Coraline and Paranorman—the tale of tiny, tinkering monsters that live underground; the city that fears them; and Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), the villain that hunt and exploits them. For directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, casting those famous voices and aligning voice with character were key in ensuring The Boxtrolls‘ success.

The filmmakers had a huge wish list of voices, but Annable and Stacchi realized that it wasn’t enough to simply think an actor was right for the part. They had to be sure, and so they put each voice to the test.

We knew very early on that we liked the Bran Stark character from Game of Thrones, Isaac Hempstead Wright, we liked his voice,” says Stacchi of the actor who would eventually voice Eggs, the human child raised by boxtrolls. “We edited all the dialogue we could get from Game of Thrones and from interviews that Isaac had done, then we cut it over drawings of the Eggs character and paintings of the character and even sculpture of that character to see how it felt with that voice coming out of that body.

As soon as we felt pretty strongly about that, we tried the pairings of the characters he would be talking to the most. We had always wanted to work with Elle Fanning, since her sister Dakota worked on Coraline, so we started cutting dialogue between Eggs and Winnie just using Elle Fanning’s voice from different movies and interviews that she had done. If it felt good – like they were coming from a different place and they felt good the way there were talking together. Isaac sounded like a naïve boy who’d been raised by monsters somehow and Elle Fanning sounded like the daughter of the richest man in town, even though their dialogue wasn’t making sense, it made you feel the relationship.”

Kingsley was number one on the directors’ wish list, but even his voice had to pass muster, Annable and Stacchi choosing from his five-decade long career his most adult (not to mention most profane and scabrous) role to test and see if he was right for their family film.

We cut a lot of Don Logan from Sexy Beast yelling at poor Isaac Hempstead Wright,” Stacchi laughs. “Since the dialogue does not make sense, you can feel the pure quality and the power of the voice.”

A lot of people come back to us and say, ‘We didn’t even realize that was Sir Ben Kingsley until the end of the film,’” adds Annable. “For me, that’s great in that I think his voice became that character. You really get that experience. It’s much more like the old classic animated movies like Pinocchio and Dumbo. The voice actors aren’t cast for their name and reputation. They’re cast, because they fit the character in the film.” —Pam Grady

I SAW THE LIGHT: Rodney Crowell posts an update

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The movie I am looking forward to most next year is I SAW THE LIGHT, Marc Abraham’s Hank Williams biopic starring Tom Hiddleston.  Executive Music Producer (and one of the great singer/songwriters of our times) Rodney Crowell offers a report:

PTA does Pynchon: INHERENT VICE trailer

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Coming in December! Who knew that Santa worked at Warner Bros.?

 

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