PIXELS vs. PIXELS

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This is Pixels, the feature: It stars Adam Sandler, an actor—to borrow a phrase from Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band—who doesn’t have charm. He has counter-charm. It also stars Kevin James as Paul Blart, Mall Cop gets a promotion to president of the United States. Sandler plays a one-time arcade-style video game whiz who now installs electronic equipment for a living. (The movie presents him as a loser because of his job, but screenwriters Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling might have stopped to consider that not everyone can grow up to write terrible screenplays.) These two, along with Josh Gad as a conspiracy nut and Peter Dinklage as a scammer-turned-jailbird, are what stands between the world and total annihilation when aliens in the form of beloved videogame characters attack. It has a few things going for it, namely Dinklage, who is clearly having a blast playing a jerk; a sly insertion of “jiggery-pokery;” Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” on the soundtrack not once, but twice; and a prologue that evokes summer days gone by back when nearly all American kids were free-range kids. But it is also at least 20 minutes too long (with a tacked on last act that merely serves to pad out the running time) and just feels too much like the usual summer bombastic apocalypse. Also, there is a missed opportunity here: Why did it not occur to anyone to recruit Jason Alexander to pay homage to the classic Seinfeld “Frogger” episode?

What inspired director Chris Columbus’ bid for big, dumb summer fun is something altogether more modest: Patrick Jean’s 2010 short Pixels. Less than three minutes long, there are no heroes, only aliens in the guise of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and other classic game characters invading New York. It’s sly and smart and full of more imagination in its tiny running time than anything in the feature. It’s a jewel. To watch it after seeing its new bloated companion is to be aware that just because you can make something bigger doesn’t mean that you should. When it comes to Pixels vs. Pixels, smaller is better.—Pam Grady

Cell Block Riot: THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT

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The “cells” are in a basement of the Stanford University campus. The “guards” and “prisoners” are mostly hippie kids to whom participating in a psychology experiment probably sounded more interesting than a typical summer job. But overseen by a psychology professor who loses his objectivity, it spirals quickly out of control. Welcome to The Stanford Prison Experiment, Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s drama recreating the notorious 1971 event.

Billy Crudup is Dr. Philip Zimbardo, whose study is try to get at the root of abuse in prisons and the conflicts between prisoners and guards. The experiment was funded by the US Office of Naval Research and its timing couldn’t have been more apt: three weeks before the deadly Attica Prison riot. It begins with dehumanizing the prisoners. They are not to use their names, only their assigned numbers. Their uniforms are shapeless (and emasculating) shifts—a cross between a hospital gown and a dress. Their hair is partially hidden underneath stocking caps further blurring individual identity. The guards, too, lose their individuality, wearing identical khaki outfits that mimic actual uniforms and mirrored shades that make eye contact impossible.

The situation veers toward hysteria from the start. The guards make a sport out of mistreating the prisoners in their care. One, Christopher Archer (Michael Angarano), is nicknamed “John Wayne” by the prisoners, but he’s clearly seen Cool Hand Luke a few too many times and models his behavior on that movie’s cruel overseer played by Strother Martin. He makes it his mission to make the inmates’ stay in Stanford’s basement a living hell. The convicts push back, Daniel Culp/8612 (Ezra Miller), Peter Mitchell/819 (Tye Sheridan) and other prisoners rebel in various ways and sometimes react with impotent fury. Each move by prisoner or guard escalates tensions. None of it is real, but as conditions deteriorate, it’s easy to see how the individuals involved might forget that they are playing roles.

Angarano, Miller, and Sheridan are all standouts among a huge ensemble of some of the best of today’s young actors. A cast that also includes Thomas Mann, Johnny Simmons, Logan Miller, Ki Hong Lee, and Moises Arias, is an embarrassment of riches. The scenes in mock jail are gripping and chilling, but the most fascinating thing about The Stanford Prison Experiment is not the test subjects, but the man behind the curtain, Zimbardo. “John Wayne” is a kid who doesn’t know any better. What is the excuse of the man who designed the experiment for setting aside professional objectivity and becoming so personally involved? Crudup is terrific as a man who as slippery as any shady used-car salesman as he rationalizes his experiment and his own behavior. Zimbardo wants to make a statement about obedience and authority, but he crosses a line and ends up making as big a statement about ethical behavior.—Pam Grady

 

Q&A: Carlos Marques-Marcet finds the distance in 10,000 KM

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The relationship between Barcelona couple Sergi (David Verdaguer) and his British girlfriend Alex (Natalia Tena) couldn’t be better at the start of Spanish filmmaker Carlos Marques-Marcet’s feature directing debut 10,000 Km. When Alex, a photographer, gets an opportunity to work in Los Angeles for a year, the pair vow to stay together. The internet and their cell phones allow them to text, message, and video chat, promising to make the separation easier. But real life isn’t that simple. During a recent conversation in San Francisco, Marques-Marcet talked about his film and his inspirations drawn from life and technology.

Q: This is a story specific to this technological age. Was your starting point the long-distance relationship or how technology affects those type of relationships?

Carlos Marques-Marcet: It funny. There are other movies about long-distance relationships—but those are really about long-distance love, not relationships. The person you love is abroad; you don’t really have a relationship. But now you can have a relationship.

I moved from Barcelona to Los Angeles and then I had a visit from a friend who is a photographer, who took pictures. At the same time, I was using a lot of Skype with my friends and people in Barcelona. I thought it would be nice to write a story and follow someone through photographs, discovering the city. That was the original idea and then follow all the conversations on Skype—not Skype, because we couldn’t use Skype for the movie, because Skype didn’t want any sex scenes associated with their brand, so we couldn’t use Skype. But that was a little bit the original idea.

We use cameras to say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ We use screens and cameras as a way to communicate. So, I thought why don’t we use that to make a new epistolary genre? It’s funny, I don’t know why they make all these found-footage movies and they are always just horror movies. It’s never used as a way to just show how we live.

Q: You start from a point where everything is going great for them, but then she gets an opportunity to spend a year in the States and at the same time, his work becomes more tentative. The changes in their status could have happened if they were in the same city, but you add extra pressure by separating them.

CMM: That was a big debate for us when we were writing the script. It was difficult to decide what was the conflict, because if you make a movie about a couple that is perfectly fine and then they separate, they are not going to break up. They’re perfectly fine. But at the same time, if you make a movie about a couple that is already breaking up and one moves away, well, they’re going to break up, anyway. You’re not going to make a movie about the distance. We had to find a conflict for them. I found this metaphor, it’s like a house that has cracks. You live with this crack, but then suddenly there’s a lot of humidity or it rains, the circumstances change, and at that moment, these cracks can open and break and create these problems. To me, it was a combination. Couples are not destiny. We have this idea of love, that destiny just chooses us. I don’t think it’s that. I think circumstances are very important and they shape the way we relate to each other.

Q: The fact that she’s English also plays into it. She’s been in Barcelona for seven years, but even with that and even as close as they are, there’s going to be a slight change of viewpoint.

CMM: I was interested in that. There are migrations all around the world and globalization, these inter-cultural relationships happen more and more often. If funny, because even if you think, ‘Oh, Europe,’ but Europe is almost like a fake. The British have much more in common with Americans, even though you are completely different in many ways, but there’s a bigger connection. He feels completely left out, the fact that she’s going to America. It’s a world with a [different] language. And language is important to me, also. It introduces the fact that she has the language and she’s going to that city. She integrates very easily in this new environment, while moving there would be hard for him. Learning a language—it’s a completely new world.—Pam Grady

FIVE MINUTES, MR. WELLES: THE THIRD MAN inspires an actor’s homage

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With the luminous 4K restoration of The Third Man hitting theaters now, this seems like a fine time to revisit Vincent D’Onofrio’s wonderful short, Five Minutes, Mr. Welles, in which he plays the legendary actor and auteur in preparation for shooting what has become known as The Third Man’s “Cuckoo Clock” scene. The 2005 film marked D’Onofrio’s directing debut and Will Conroy spun the screenplay out of the actor’s own, meticulously researched story.

This wasn’t the first time that D’Onofrio played Welles. In 1994, he played a 1950s version of the man in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, looking every inch the part, but voice actor Maurice LaMarche dubbed his dialogue. In a 2006 FilmStew interview, D’Onofrio admitted that he wasn’t fond of his own performance and wanted another crack at getting under the skin of a cinematic genius whose name was already synonymous with trouble by the time he took the role of The Third Man’s vicious, debonair black marketeer Harry Lime.

Carol Reed’s sublime noir reunited Welles with his friend and collaborator Joseph Cotten, cast as Holly Martins, a penniless pulp Western novelist who comes to postwar Vienna at the invitation of his old pal Lime only to arrive in time for the man’s funeral. Not satisfied with the official explanation of the hit-and-run accident that killed Harry, Martins undertakes a dangerous and clumsy investigation of his own in a city under military occupation and that has been divvied up into sections by the Americans, Soviets, British, and French. The location itself is striking, piles of rubbles sitting cheek-by-jowl next to what survives of prewar Vienna’s magnificent architecture. Long shadows fall over those exteriors and engulf the interior high ceilings, spiral staircases, and maze of sewers, Robert Krasker’s expressionistic cinematography adding to the sense of menace.

The great novelist and screenwriter Graham Greene (Brighton Rock, Our Man in Havana, The End of the Affair) wrote The Third Man’s script. What inspired D’Onofrio’s story was the discovery that it was Welles and not Greene that wrote a key piece of dialogue in which Lime makes a case for his criminal behavior by comparing the Borgias’ bloody 30-year reign over Italy with 500 years of peace in Switzerland.

That monologue is still in Welles’ future when Five Minutes, Mr. Welles opens. Alone in a room with Katherine (Janine Theriault), the assistant lent him by Universal, he is waiting to be called to the set for his next scene. But as he rehearses with her, he has trouble remembering his lines. The scene, he feels, needs something else, but she argues that there’s no time for that, and in any case, he seems stumped. This is Welles in all his magnificent contradictions, by turns charming and petulant, a man defiant in his independence, yet desperate to hang on to a job he needs if he is to have any hope of having enough money to make Othello. Katherine accuses him of acting like an aristocrat but without the money to back up his arrogance, and there is something to that.

Like The Third Man, Five Minutes, Mr. Welles is in black-and-white, the cinematography by Frank Prinzi, an Emmy winner who also shot over five dozen episodes of D’Onofrio’s series Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Composer David Mansfield adds an atmospheric score that is wholly original and yet also evokes Anton Karas’ indelible zither accompaniment to The Third Man. D’Onofrio gets his second chance at inhabiting Welles and, in the process, delivers a wonderful homage to the man and the role.

By all means, see The Third Man again or for the first time in its new restoration. It is absolutely gorgeous and nearly 70 years after its original release, it is as vital as it ever was. But spend 30 minutes with Five Minutes, Mr. Welles as well. D’Onofrio’s remarkable tribute to a classic actor and classic film deserves to be seen.—Pam Grady

Q&A: Benicio Del Toro plays a notorious villain in ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST

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It’s easy to see why Josh Hutcherson’s naïve Canadian surfer so willingly moves into first the orbit and then the inner circle of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar after his new girlfriend introduces him to her notorious uncle in actor-turned-filmmaker Andrea Di Stefano’s evocative feature debut Escobar: Paradise Lost. The kingpin is charismatic and charming, on the surface a true man of the people. It is only gradually that the young man sees what is behind the amiable mask and what he discovers is horrifying. Benicio Del Toro delivers an indelible performance as Escobar, an intricate turn that reveals the complex man behind the headlines. Getting the Oscar winner was a coup for the fledgling director, but as Del Toro explains in this interview at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival where Escobar: Paradise Lost had an early screening, it almost didn’t happen. But once it did, it gave Del Toro the opportunity to get under the skin of one of the 20th century’s most infamous villains.

Q: Escobar kind of reminded me of Michael Corleone in this, lethally charming and absolutely lethal.

Benicio Del Toro: That’s cool. I take that as a compliment. We love Al Pacino.

Andrea Di Stefano, the director, contacted me a long time ago, through other lines, not directly, and I kind of said, ‘I don’t know if I want to get into that right now.’ So then the project was floating around and it came back around. I had befriended Josh, because I directed a short in the movie 7 Days in Havana and Josh starred in it. So there was talk, ‘Could this movie be a possibility? Yes.’ And then I remember getting a phone call saying that they were looking at Josh to play the kid, and then I got really excited, because I know him and I like him very much and he’s a very good actor. I just felt like I wouldn’t be completely alone there. That was really exciting.

Q: What was your hesitation about the project when it first came around?

BDT: First of all, it was that the story was fiction. I think at the time, maybe it was a year before we shot the film, I just didn’t feel—sometimes you get projects and you think, ‘Oh, they’re going to do this movie about Escobar, but, really, it’s another story using Escobar.’ Also, at the time, I was maybe busy doing something and just said, ‘I’m not going to do this now. I’m not really completely interested.’ But then my meeting with Andrea Di Stefano, what I really liked about the idea of going fiction was that every chance you got to base the character on truth, we would, and the script does have that, also. Once I got into it, I said, ‘There are interesting angles here that would make it more interesting than just make-believe.’ There’s a lot of things about his relationship with his family, his relationship with the people…Everything that we could, we based it on truth, which was exciting. The script had that and we brought in a little bit more, perhaps.

Q: Given those fictional aspects, how deep did your research go into the actual man?

BDT: I did as much as I could, just to really understand his trajectory. He basically starts—he was bringing in goods from somewhere, it wasn’t drugs at the time. He basically did some sort of union with the workers. He said, ‘We’ll pay you a percentage of what we bring in.’ So all the workers started loving the guy. So he starts like that and eventually he gets more powerful and then he took it to another level and made it really crazy when he went political. He tried to run for office and the other politicians started saying, ‘This guy’s a drug dealer.’ He saw the people that ran the country like other gang members. He declared war on the country and he won, and then it was hell. And there were other gangs taking advantage of this and other drug dealers taking advantage and it just became really gray. Had he not run for office, I think he would probably still be alive and Colombia would not have gone through the hell it went through. But, who knows?

Q: His ambitions were understandable. Politics can be such a dirty business that he probably thought, ‘Why not a drug dealer? Why not me?’

BDT: Well, ‘Why not me? I’ve helped the poor and you been running this for how long? 100 and some years and you haven’t looked at these people and I just built a whole neighborhood here for the poor.’ The people really liked him, because he really gave back. But he ain’t all good! He’s definitely a talented man. He was a great example of a lot of talent gone the wrong way.

I think you’re right when you say, ‘Politics is a dirty business. Another dirty guy, there’s no difference.’ And that’s not true. Two wrongs don’t make a good one—if the politicians he was talking about were wrong, because there were a lot of good politicians that he killed that could have been the hope [of the country]. Actually, the one who said, ‘He’s a drug dealer,’ was the one who had not completely taken bribes from him, and so Escobar went after him and took him down. And then the press, he went after the press. If you were a writer, ‘If you don’t write a good article about me, you’d be careful, I’ll perm my hair and come after you.’ He was like that. It’s very scary. That’s how he looked at it, but he did have some beautiful family values, very much like Michael Corleone. It’s kind of like the same story, just come up and suddenly have power. The lack of being able to give in could make any person in power into a Godzilla. Without compromise, you could just turn into a terrible dictator and run amok. Who knows? With his anger and his strive towards power, he probably could have turned into a maniac had he won and ran the country. Who knows what he would have done?—Pam Grady

DOPE: Geek power

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It’s Boyz n the Hood meets Revenge of the Nerds meets After Hours for three geeky teenagers navigating the mean streets of Inglewood, CA’s tough Bottoms neighborhood in Rick Famuyiwa’s delirious coming-of-age/drug dramedy Dope. A boy’s crush on a girl leads to all sorts of complications for the trio as they are challenged to prove that they are every bit as street-smart as they are book-smart.

Gangs and drugs are part of life in the Bottoms, but lifelong friends Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), and Jib (The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori) ignore that world as much as they can. They are a self-contained unit dedicated to all things ‘90s, particularly hip hop. They are college-bound kids and Malcolm is determined to get into Harvard. It is a dream firmly within his grasp until Malcolm’s crush on Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) leads him and his friends to step out of their comfort zone and attend drug dealer Dom’s (A$ap Rocky) birthday party. By the end of the evening, they are in possession of a backpack full of molly, squeezed by both Dom’s allies and rivals and petrified of being caught with the stuff by the cops.

How Malcolm and company deal with their problem is the stuff of much raucous humor and more than a little suspense. The genius of the film, though, is not in its plot, but in its sly observations. As geeks, Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib have run of the school, particularly the areas no one else bothers with in a distressed public school where few of their peers are on an academic track: the science lab, the computer room, even the band room. As geeks, they also have an air of innocuous respectability that gives them a measure of freedom.

Within the world Famuyiwa creates there is room for everything from debate over the “n” word to Malcolm’s pointed conclusions on the all-important college application personal essay. It’s funny stuff, but what pushes Dope over the top from goodness to greatness is the charm of its three young leads. –Pam Grady

 

The time Robert Chartoff saved John Boorman’s bacon

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point blankProducer Robert Chartoff passed away last Wednesday, June 10, and left quite a legacy, nearly 40 films, a list that includes They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, the Charles Bronson thriller The Mechanic, The Gambler (both 1974 and 2014 versions), Rocky, Raging Bull, and The Right Stuff. His first credit was on John Boorman’s classic revenge neo-noir Point Blank. It was the start of a lifelong friendship. The pair collaborated two more times on the director’s 1970 comedy drama Leo the Last and his 2004 drama In My Country.

Boorman also dedicated his last film, the recent Queen and Country, to his old pal. It wasn’t purely an act of sentiment, but an acknowledgement of Chartoff’s importance as a friend and collaborator, as well as a thank you. Without an act of kindness and generosity on Chartoff’s part, Queen and Country might not exist.

The subject came up during an interview with Boorman for a piece that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle. Why the dedication? Why now, nearly 50 years since their first collaboration?

“Bob’s been a dear friend for 40 years and more,” Boorman said. “We see each regularly. We talk on the phone at least once a week. I’m very devoted to him.

“When I was trying to make this film, some of the money fell out at the last moment, about a week before we were supposed to start shooting. Bob asked me how I was doing and I said, ‘Oh, I’m a bit depressed. The money’s fallen out.’ He said, ‘How much?’ And I told him. The next day he put that money in my account. He saved the film. I’m glad to say that he’s got it back from Fox picture. He just sent it. He didn’t ask for a contract or anything. The money just appeared in my account.”

Condolences to Mr. Boorman on the loss of his friend. –Pam Grady

Trailer: THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT promises unexpected results

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One of the standouts from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Alfred P. Sloane Feature Film Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award is Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s The Stanford Prison Experiment, a riveting drama based on a real-life psychological experiment. Twenty-four young men are assigned to be either prisoners or guards in a pretend jail on the Stanford University campus where play-acting and reality quickly begin to blur. Billy Crudup is the ambitious professor who designed the experiment, starring alongside a kind of supergroup of up-and-coming talent that includes Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Tye Sheridan, James Frecheville, Thomas Mann, Moises Arias and Chris Sheffield.

Intriguing TRUE DETECTIVE, SEASON 2 teaser

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The best of the teasers and trailers for HBO’s True Detective, Season 2. Colin Farrell welcomes judgement. In two weeks, when the new season begins, it will be rendered.

5 Questions with INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3’s Hayley Kiyoko

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cyb102ravenbHayley Kiyoko is having a busy 2015. In February, the 24-year-old actor and singer/musician released an EP, This Side of Paradise, in February. In October, she’ll be seen as Aja in Jem and the Holograms, a live-action adaptation of a beloved 1980s cartoon series. She also plays a former black-hat hacker turned hacker for the FBI on the CBS series CSI: Cyber, starring opposite Oscar winner Patricia Arquette. Currently, she can be seen on movie screens as the best friend of a teenager stalked by demons in Insidious: Chapter 3. It was that horror thriller that brought her to San Francisco along with the “Into the Further 4D Experience,” a virtual reality/oculus rift haunted house installed on the grounds of a Mission district high school for Carnival weekend.

Q: How did the Insidious 3 script strike you when you first read it?

Hayley Kiyoko: I had to skip through a lot of it, ‘cause it was so scary. I definitely had to read it during the day. You can’t read those kinds of scripts at night. You end up reading them at night. You’re lying in bed and you’re like, ‘Are you kidding me? Why did I just read that? I’m about to go to bed. Now I’m going to have nightmares.’

Q: You’re a musician as well an actor. Which came first?

HK: Music was always the first thing, but music, as anyone knows, is such a long journey. You’re constantly trying to find your sound sonically, and so now I’m finally where I want to be, as well as now the acting thing is blowing up. It’s really cool. They’re kind of surfacing together.

I was a drummer since I was little, so I’m very into rhythm. I’m doing a tour on the East Coast this summer, which will be really fun. I love playing music. I’m always doing that when I’m not acting.

Q: When did you know that you wanted to do both?

HK: I never planned on being an actress. When I was little, I planned on being a performer, whatever that was, whether it was a dancer or a drummer or a singer. I knew I wanted to perform. The acting thing happened through music. I would do commercials playing guitar, doing music stuff, and then it just evolved and I started building my resume. Then I took a shot in the dark and got a great offer to do a movie, Scooby-Doo, way back when. That started the bug of loving to act. It was so different and it was such a challenge. I’d done musical theater when I was younger and stuff. It’s such a different way of performing and exuding that artistic expression from music.

Q: You’re also a regular on CSI: Cyber.

HK: I’ve never really had such a steady job as a network show before, so I’m looking forward to the challenge. I’m actually kind of nervous. It’s just such a long thing, that I’m very excited. And my character is fun. And I’m working with a Golden Globe/Oscar winner, that’s kind of cool. That’s a plus.

Q: You’re Aja in this fall’s Jem and the Holograms movie. Can you tell me about it?

HK: It’s crazy hair and makeup and wardrobe. It’s not a remake of the cartoon. It’s definitely just inspired by the cartoon and placed in a modern time. It’s going to be great for the new Jem fans. It’s really geared toward the new generation, but I think old Jem fans will really enjoy it. The trailer’s out and they’re all going, ‘It doesn’t have this and this and this.’ Well, you’re going to have to see the movie. Don’t be too scared. Go check it out.

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