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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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.?

 

Taking PRIDE in their accomplishment: Screenwriter Stephen Beresford & inspiration Jonathan Blake

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Toronto International Film Festival Screening And After Party For "Pride"Stephen Beresford first met Jonathan Blake when he was doing research for his screenplay that would eventually turn into this year’s feel-good dramedy Pride. It’s been a dream project for Beresford, 42, who first heard the story of Lesbians & Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) and the unusual alliance the London group formed with Welsh miners during the 1984-85 British coal strike over 20 years ago. Blake, 65, who grappled with what was thought to be a death sentence—an HIV diagnosis—during his involvement with LGSM, made such an impression on the screenwriter that he became one of the script’s main characters, played in the movie by The Wire‘s Dominic West.

The relationship didn’t end with Beresford’s research. A story lost to the mists of history lives again in Pride and both Beresford and Blake have been active in promoting the film. Recently, the affable Brits traveled to San Francisco to attend a San Francisco Pride screening and to spend a day meeting the press to talk about the movie and the real-life events that inspired it.

Q: Stephen, how did you first learn about Jonathan’s story?

Stephen Beresford: [When I was researching the film,] I would look at photographs, and go, ‘Who’s that?’ And there was a photograph of somebody dancing, and it was Jonathan. That was one of the first moments when I thought that Jonathan was an important part of the story. And, of course talking to Jonathan and hearing the story. Some stories just step to the front, and his did.

Q: What was your reaction when Stephen first approached you to talk about events that happened nearly 30 years ago, Jonathan?

Jonathan Blake: I was surprised, but I was very happy to speak. Shut me up! It’s my story, so I don’t find it unusual. It’s unusual that people want to hear it, but that was fine. Basically, we chatted and that was fine. Then I get this phone call from him saying, ‘I need to come and see you. If you remember, I came and interviewed you for this film. Well, I’ve written it and not only is the screenplay finished, but it’s going to be produced and I need to come and have a talk with you.’ So the doorbell rings and I open the door and there is this tall man standing there and he says, ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ He basically says, ‘There was something in your story that just sparked my imagination and I’ve written a character and he’s called Jonathan.’ That was basically it. I thought, ‘Oh, wow! This is extraordinary.’

But again, I didn’t really think anything about it and then a few months later and they are actually now in production, I get another phone call from him. ‘The director and actor who is going to play you would like to meet you.’ Stephen arrives with a bunch of flowers, amazing flowers, cabbages roses and cabbages, an amazing mix. The doorbell rings again and there is [director] Matthew Warchus and there is Dominic West standing there, an idol, The Wire, fantastic!

It was wonderful, Matthew was brilliant. He just came in, my partner was there, Nigel, and he just asked us questions. He just wanted to know how we got into political activism, what life was like, all this, just so Dominic could hear, and then later on we walked around the garden, and Dominic and I chatted. But it was very easy, it just seemed so totally natural. It’s weird. And then seeing the movie was extraordinary. It was very difficult the first time. But they have done it such justice. It just has the feel of the time and there’s an energy there, and the intention is there. They’ve been really truthful to what we were about and what the whole thing was about. That’s very special. We’ve been very fortunate.

Q: What I have find extraordinary about it is that you take a story that essentially does not have a happy ending. The strikers didn’t win. AIDS is about to sweep through the gay community, yet the audience leaves the theater feeling uplifted and you never resort to that sentimentality that kills so many films.

Stephen Beresford: It’s probably why the material appealed to me. I love things that are uplifting and have heart and are human. I love people. Even the worst people have something in them, a human nature that I respond to. I’ve always felt like that. I like that kind of stuff, but I don’t like sentimentality, so it’s great that the story has those dark elements. That’s sort of, I think, what drew me to it. There’s a message in it, which I love, which is that failure is not an excuse. They do fail, both groups, in a sense, you could say, but it’s not excuse for not doing it.

I’m very attracted to, in a sense, history, when we talk about history—Chou En-lai said very famously, when asked what were the effects of the French Revolution, ‘It is too early to tell.’ I kind of feel that way myself. We’re fond of saying, ‘Well, that was the 20th century. That’s that in a box, and now we’re something else.’ But it isn’t true, so who knows if the strike failed? Things can change. I like the idea that we’re part of a dialogue. What we perceive to be a failure may actually be a part of a journey to something else.

Q: It’s also very attractive, because it’s two groups you wouldn’t expect to have anything in common finding common ground, simply by being human beings.

Stephen Beresford: And that thing of finding that our struggles have common cause is a very important lesson, really. It’s beneficial to those people who don’t want us to band together and find solidarity, for us to believe that we’re all divided. It’s much easier—I think that on so many different issues, if we divide on race lines or if we divide on class lines or if we divide on gender lines, if we think, ‘Well, men aren’t interested in feminism,’ well, that’s great, because it keeps feminism in its exact place. If we’re interested in equality, then what man could not be interested in feminism? What white person could not be interested in racism? Once we start to think about those terms, it’s interesting what can be achieved.

Jonathan Blake: We live in such an atomized world. Everything is broken down. You can be an activist from your own front room, but you’re not with a group. You may be thinking that you’re changing the world, because you can click a button, but it’s being with other people who are like-minded people, touching them, smelling them, that’s what makes the difference. That’s, hopefully, what people, certainly youth, will get from this film. It is by coming together that things can happen.

Q: Jonathan, can you remember your initial reaction when it was first proposed that you help these miners?

Jonathan Blake: Basically, one was just right up for it. It was such an important point. Here was Thatcher and this government wanting to smash this union. What has come out latterly is the fact that she had planned and worked on it all along. There was a miners’ strike in 1972, which brought down the Tory government. Thatcher never forgave them for that, so she was out for revenge. This wasn’t just about smashing the union. This was real revenge on the miners that brought down the government. We knew that this was so important. As an activist and part of the Left, there was no question.

The fact that this small mining community was there was wonderful. There was real excitement. There was also trepidation. What had we got ourselves into? When we actually got there and met them—Mike Jackson, the secretary of the group, tells this wonderful story and sort of reminded me that when we arrived there, we were really kind of nervous before we go in. As the doors open when we’re walking in, there’s this awful hush. You just think, ‘Oh, shit! Do we run now or what?’ Then one person started applauding and then the room started applauding. We were just welcomed. It was amazing. We had such fun. In all that bleak time, they were so generous and warm. They were going through hardship, but you would never know. It was just extraordinary and life-changing, absolutely life-changing.

Q: And you were already HIV-positive.

Jonathan Blake: Yes. I was diagnosed in October 1982, so it was very early on. For me, it was also great, because it kept me busy. I didn’t have time to think about the virus and illness and getting ill. There was stuff to do. It was a real boon for me. I never expected to, a., live this long, or b., to see this magnificent creation that is Pride. I feel really blessed.

Q: Stephen, it’s been 20 years since you first heard the story and started pondering doing something with it. How does it feel now that it’s a reality?

Stephen Beresford: It took three years to make the film from beginning to end and 20 years to get someone to take it seriously. Looking back on it now, if I had done some of the work I needed to do in three years over 20 years, it would have been a much easier time. What’s interesting is everything was so intense—I was on set all day, every day; I was in on casting; everything, so it was like I never had a moment in which to stop and realize that this was happening..

Then one day we were filming in Wales and I came in a little later, like 6:10 in the morning,and they’d turned over the first shot of the day. I got out of my car and I looked up the road and there was silence. They’d just started and then I heard the band playing and they marched down the street. As I watched them, I had an extraordinary jolt back to a memory of sitting in my office in South London, a funny room with no windows and I remembered physically typing the words, ‘A brass band appears through the mist.’ I’m watching it happen. I thought, ‘Well, I wrote that sentence, and that sentence has made the band, the mist, the village, everything, they’re all here doing that, because I wrote those words and put them in that order.’ That’s an incredible feeling. –Pam Grady

On THE LAST FIVE YEARS and Robin Williams: Richard LaGravenese

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Behind the scenes during the filming of "The Last 5 Years"

Next Valentine’s Day, Richard LaGravenese’s The Last Five Years looks to be the lovers’ holiday’s hot date movie. Starring Anna Kendrick and Smash star Jeremy Jordan, it is the story of a relationship between a gentile actress and a Jewish novelist weaving backward and forward in time and told almost totally in song. LaGravenese never saw Jason Robert Brown’s award-winning play when it was produced Off-Broadway, but he had the soundtrack.

I would listen to it over and over and over,” LaGravenese says at the Toronto International Film Festival where The Last Five Years had its world premiere.

The writer/director knew Kendrick from the movie Camp, and knew she was perfect for the female lead. Casting the male was trickier. Within the film is a joke about a brilliant actor who is a terrible singer cast in the musical, a recent trend in big Hollywood musicals. LaGravenese was having none of that.

A lot of the actors who wanted to do it, couldn’t sing it,” he says. “The deal I had with Jason was I pick the actor I want, because they have to be able to act the score, but he has to tell me whether or not they can sing it, because I don’t know enough about music. I would meet them and then send them to Jason and they would have to sing for Jason. Except Jeremy. We knew Jeremy could sing, so we had to make sure he could act it.

I’m so sick of musicals, especially ones that I love, where they cast actors, ‘Oh they don’t have to sing well, they just have to act well.’ No! You have to sing the score I love.”

LaGravenese’s first love is the theater, so The Last Five Years is a way to pay homage to that. It was his wife, Anne, who first suggested he try his hand at screenwriting. After apprenticing with a friend, his first solo screenplay was The Fisher King.

I wrote it just to be a writing sample so that I could get a job,” he says. “I never thought it would get made.”

And while The Last Five Years makes its debut on the world stage, LaGravenese is touched to learn that The Fisher King is screening this weekend in San Francisco as part of the Castro Theatre’s celebration of Robin Williams’ life.

That was a heartbreaker for me,” LaGravenese says of Williams’ recent death. “I owe that man so much. That movie would not have been what it was had he not said yes. He was the most respectful, kind, lovely man. It’s a heartbreaker to think he was in so much pain.

He was wonderful,” he adds. “He ad-libbed maybe five lines, but other than that, he treated the script like the Grail. He was just fantastic.”—Pam Grady

The Last Five Years opens Friday, February 13, 2015. The Fisher King plays the Castro Theatre Sunday, September 14. For further information, contact castrotheatre.com.

A fractured married tale: Mark Duplass & Charlie McDowell on THE ONE I LOVE

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the-one-i-love-In The One I Love, Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) have reached a rough patch in their marriage. Their therapist (Ted Danson) suggests they try to reconnect during a weekend retreat at a gorgeous country house. There is much more to this wildly inventive romantic comedy than that, but the challenge in writing or talking about director Charlie McDowell’s sublime feature debut is to not give too much away.

It’s certainly tricky,” says Duplass. “It is such a good conversation piece, but at the end of the day, we have just discovered that you do better as a viewer of this movie when you don’t know what’s in there…We did this really cool test screening where we put 100 people in one theater on the left and 100 people on one theater on the right. People on the left knew everything about the movie that you would know from an average Hollywood trailer, lots of spoilers. People on the right went in blind, just with, ‘It’s a romantic comedy with Mark Duplass and Lizzie Moss. They go on a couples’ retreat to try to save their relationship.

Everybody loved the movie. It was great, but the way that people would talk about it when they didn’t know what was there, there was like an electricity in their eyes and in their voice. In particular, they would just arrest people, ‘You have to see this movie! You have to see this movie! Oh my God!’”

The One I Love was born out of Duplass and McDowell’s friendship and desire to make a movie together. Duplass furnished his pal with the kernel of an idea that McDowell and his writing partner (and the film’s eventual screenwriter) Justin Lader transformed into a 10-page outline fleshing out the story and characters.

Then we picked this location to set it in and reverse-engineered the movie to take place inside this location and wrote for all the things in there,” says Duplass. “It’s kind of following along in the thing I’ve always described as ‘the available materials school of filmmaking.’ Don’t write a script and figure out how you’re going to make it. Write a script for what you have at your disposal, so you know you can make it.”

Moss, another friend of Duplass, was quickly recruited to play Sophie, and added her input into her character. Producer Mel Eslyn also contributed notes to the story. The project came together quickly. It was only six months from the time that McDowell and Duplass started talking about the movie until they were actually shooting it.

There’s something about the energy that happens when you do that,” says Duplass. “Everyone’s still excited about the movie. It still feels fresh. It’s like the difference between getting married when you’ve been dating for six months and getting married after you’ve been dating for five years. When you’re standing there on the altar and you’ve just been together, you’re like, ‘This is so exciting! This is so exciting!’ After five years, you’re like, ‘Yeah, I suppose it’s about time we do this.’”

McDowell says he is often asked what The One I Love‘s ending means, but the ending relates to everything that comes before it. With or without that which makes the film so unusual, it is the story of a relationship. McDowell points out that it is a romantic comedy that focuses on real people with real problems rather than the usual rom-com stereotypes and conventions. Still, Duplass notes, what the film is actually about only emerged in the making of it.

The theme that came out sort of posthumously, after the first draft of the outline, is that we tend to when we’re first dating people, to put forth this perfect version of ourselves where we try to be more sensitive and more loving and more intelligent,” he says. “They bring up a book and you’ve never read it and you say, ‘Oh, I love that book!’ Then the shine comes off and how do you deal with that disparity between who you said you are and who you really are? That seemed fun and playful, but also meaningful, and we were like, ‘This is a good theme to explore through this magically real plot machination that we employ in the movie.’”

Adds McDowell, “They’re in this place a lot of us get into where you’re in a rut and it’s like, how do you get out of it and should you get out of it? A lot of times it’s, ‘Should we cut our losses and should we move on?’ We kind of came to a place in their relationship where Ethan had cheated on Sophie and so he’s kind of created this separation between them. Now, they’re stuck. A lot of times something needs to happen for a couple to get out of that rut.” —Pam Grady

New Trailer: U.K.-set labor/LGBT dramedy PRIDE

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A little-known moment from contemporary British history steps into the spotlight with Pride. In 1984, as U.K. coal miners strike in a showdown with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, they receive support from an unexpected quarter: gay and lesbian activists. Director Matthew Warchus’ comedy drama limns this unusual alliance in a film that stars Bill Nighy (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Pirate Radio), Dominic West (The Wire), Paddy Considine (Submarine, The World’s End), Andrew Scott (Locke), Sherlock‘s Moriarty), and Imelda Staunton (Maleficent, Another Year. This CBS Films release opens stateside on September 19.

CALVARY’s father and son reunion

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CalvaryWriter/director John Michael McDonagh admits he hesitated before casting Domhnall Gleeson in the small but pivotal role of serial killer Freddie Joyce in his latest film, the blackly humorous drama Calvary. For Gleeson—whose credits include both parts of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, True Grit, Anna Karenina, the upcoming comedy Frank, and a Tony-nominated turn in Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore—it would be casting again type, but that wasn’t what concerned McDonagh. It was just that in this single scene, Domhnall would be acting against Calvary‘s star, Domhnall’s dad, Brendan, playing a priest whose week starts with a death threat and doesn’t get any better with his jailhouse visit with Joyce.

I was a bit worried about it, because I thought it would bring the audience out of it. They’re going, ‘Oh, that’s Brendan Gleeson. That’s his son,” McDonagh says.

It’s a very intense scene obviously,” he adds. “There were a lot of things being said that unnerved people in the crew as they were listening to it. And we go from a very big wide into really close. It’s very intense … It’s deliberately a kind of black hole right in the middle of the film. I think it’s about 50 minutes, so it’s right dead center.”

For Brendan Gleeson, sharing the scene with his eldest child was a revelation. They have acted together before on a number of occasions, including a 2006 Irish football comedy Studs and Ian Fitzgibbon’s 2009 comic thriller Perrier’s Bounty, and Domhnall directed his old man in his 2010 short Noreen.

But Calvary is different. Brendan Gleeson remembers reading through the scene with Domhnall in rehearsal, and then the younger Gleeson went away until it was time to shoot it, adopting radio silence with his dad as he worked to find the character. On the day, Domhnall was not only in character, but McDonagh had directed hair and makeup to make him as unrecognizable as possible.

It was very difficult in a sense. It was a harrowing day,” says Brendan Gleeson.

We had kind of retreated to our separate corners and we just came out fighting on the day. Then we sat down at this table in this vast room and we didn’t really talk to each other very much. My analogy for it afterward was we were two sparring partners who were great friends or brothers or something, but when you do it in the ring for real, you have to park all that stuff and just fight your corner, basically, and that’s what we did.”

The scene between Freddie and Father Michael is an arresting one, one of the darkest in the movie, and one that McDonagh discovered, from Calvary‘s first screenings at the Sundance Film Festival where the movie premiered, has a curious effect on audiences.

After that scene, I thought, ‘That’s going to turn the film into a really dark, somber place,” says McDonagh. “What I found … was that we would still get laughs after that sequence and they would be bigger laughs than what I was expecting. I think it’s because that scene is so dark and somber that the audience wanted relief from it. They’re looking for any kind of relief and so they laugh a bit more than probably they should.”

For Brendan Gleeson, it was just a relief to finish the scene.

It was fantastic to work with Domhnall, but in retrospect, it was nice to get him back at the end of the day,” he says.

Gleeson starts to say that in that scene he saw in his son something that he’d never seen before, but then he corrects himself. That face, the expression on Freddie Joyce’s face, that was familiar.

When I tried to get him out of bed too early maybe over the years, I’ve seen that look before,” Gleeson laughs.

I think Domhnall did extraordinarily well,” he adds more seriously. “He’s quite chilling. I’d be proud of him, anyway, but I was particularly so after that.”—Pam Grady

For more of my Brendan Gleeson interview, click here.

Trailer: Stephen Hawking biopic THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

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Twenty-six years ago, book lovers and science geeks everywhere bought Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, his attempt to make cosmology understandable for the layman. The book made the astrophysicist a rock star among scientists, a legend that continues to fascinate not just for his big brain, but also for his very survival. Diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease) when he was only 21, Hawking was given two years to live. He’s now 72.

Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 7th and in theaters on November 7th, The Theory of Everything relates Hawking’s story as a young man who does not let a horrible disease prevent him from working on his theories or stop him from falling in love with fellow Cambridge student Jane Wilde. Directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire, Shadow Dancer), the film stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.

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