MISSISSIPPI GRIND: A winning gamble


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MSG_D11_0045_rgbMississippi Grind, the latest from Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson, Sugar), is getting a lot of props for the way it evokes the rhythms and naturalism of the best films of the storied ‘70s. And it does—and should, since it borrows so liberally from Robert Altman’s 1974 drama California Split, another tale of degenerate gamblers meeting over cards and forming a fast friendship. That doesn’t take anything away from Mississippi Grind, which is a sharp character study and a gift to stars Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds, but let’s give credit where credit is due.

The characters played by George Segal and Elliott Gould in Altman’s film were more up-market and could afford their addictions—at least, up to a point. The same cannot be said for Gerry (Mendelsohn), a down-at-the-heels real estate agent, and Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a well-heeled drifter whose habit of ordering top-shelf bourbon masks a threadbare life. When they meet over a poker game in a Dubuque, Iowa bar—Gerry lives in the town, Curtis is just passing through—it seems like fate. Gerry, who is as addicted to a CD lecture on the subject of “tells” as he is to gambling, sees it as a sign that both of them are the only ones at the table who noticed a rainbow the day before. Subsequent events only confirm a cosmic connection between them in his mind and he begins to see handsome, strapping Curtis—who towers over his own diminutive self—as his personal lucky leprechaun. The pot of gold at the end of their personal rainbow is a card game in New Orleans with a $25,000 buy-in. Not that they have the money, but they figure they can earn it gambling their way down south in a road trip built on sheer bravado.

There is nothing that happens on Gerry and Curtis’s journey that could not be predicted. They are, after all, compulsive gamblers. Their greatest skill is in in self-delusion, but they are no slouches when it comes to lying or stealing to further their agendas. Gerry is the needier of the two, desperate to get out from under the mess he’s made of his life and buying into Curtis’s elaborate stories. These guys don’t just have a lot of baggage. They have great big steamer trunks of past mistakes, present disasters, and future cataclysms strapped to their backs, but despite that—or maybe because of it—genuine feelings form between them. One of the great joys of Mississippi Grind is watching that relationship unfold even in moments when one or the other seems intent on screwing the other over. Aussie actor Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom, The Place Beyond the Pines) and Reynolds, in his meatiest role since 2007’s The Nines, are terrific as two beautiful losers who’ve always been willing to wager on anything, now betting—for a while, at least—on each other.

As they demonstrated with Half Nelson and Sugar, Fleck and Boden have an unerring feel for mood and place and that does not fail them here. Bars, card rooms, racetracks, casinos, and the meandering Mississippi are Gerry and Curtis’s natural habitat. That milieu, exquisitely photographed by the directors’ frequent collaborator, cinematographer Andrij Parekh, itself speaks volumes about these men. The filmmakers may have started with an idea cadged from Robert Altman, but as they layer on detail after detail, they eventually transform the story into a tawdry yet somehow gorgeous portrait of these two men’s lives. Like Gerry and Curtis, they aren’t above a little larceny, but like their protagonists, their hearts are in the right place. The payoff is a movie as transcendent as Mississippi Grind. And that’s huge.—Pam Grady

Q&A: Andrew Garfield returns to his intimate drama roots with 99 HOMES


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99Homes_00014_lo“We are a sea of Willie Lomans, trying to be known, trying to be known in fucked up ways, in the ways that we’re told to be known through these really fucked up values,” says Andrew Garfield in talking about Dennis Nash, the desperate Everyman he plays in 99 Homes.

Ramin Bahrani’s (Man Push Cart, At Any Price) latest drama is one of the best films of the year, an evocative portrait of the fallout from the 2008 economic meltdown that left so many homeowners with underwater mortgages or facing foreclosure. A construction worker at a time when all construction stops cold, unemployed single-dad Dennis loses the house he grew up in and that he now shares with his mother Lynn (Laura Dern) and his young son. The devil in the form of e-cigarette smoking, amoral realtor Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) offers him a form of “salvation” by giving him a job working on foreclosed homes, assuring him that he’ll earn enough to buy back his. But Dennis is smart and personable and soon Carver recruits him to help him with his main business: repossessing homes and evicting homeowners and their tenants on behalf of the banks. It’s something Dennis believes he has to do in order to take care of his own family, but as he meets more and more people like Frank Green (Tim Guinee)—whose circumstances are similar to Dennis’ own—he begins to question his role in adding to so much pain.

For Garfield, 99 Homes is a return to the kind of intimate dramas he made before the Spider-Man franchise made him a household name. Like the paroled child murderer in Boy A, the reporter trying to expose the crimes of the powerful in the Red Riding trilogy, or the boy born for organ-harvest in Never Let Me Go, Dennis Nash is caught in an impossible circumstance with limited options. On a recent visit to San Francisco, the 32-eyar-old Brit talked about the film and offers some words about working with director Martin Scorsese on his upcoming film Silence.

Q: It struck me that this relates to a lot of work you did earlier in your career, even something like Never Let Me Go, which is an ostensibly dystopian drama—

Andrew Garfield: As is this!

Q: Well, yes, but this is something actually happening. So far, no one’s been born to give their body parts away. But it is kind of the same thing where there are the have-nots that are meant to serve the haves. I was wondering if that theme particularly resonates with you.

AG: Yes, as it obviously does with you. I’m heartbroken, to be honest. Yeah, I’m heartbroken, because there are people that are being born to be sacrificed for someone’s Porsche or yacht or gate around the gate they already have with the barbed wire on top. It’s insidious and it takes real vision to be able to really see it and then what do you with that vision? What the fuck do you do?

I think I feel that split in myself. It’s personal, because it is. I have a friend going through it right now. I have a friend who’s fighting eviction, unlawful, in London right now. She lives in a progressive community in London, which has been there since the ‘50s or ‘60s. And there’s a guy that’s been there for 50 years. That’s his life. That’s his livelihood. That’s his community. That’s his home. This new private housing group is attempting to steal, ostensibly steal their homestead. There’s such inhumanity in it. There’s such distance and separateness and looking down their noses at these people from on high.

I’m not saying anything, apart from I feel it in a very deep way and I don’t know what to do about it. Apart from tell a story, which part of my job here, in this life, is to tell a story and maybe move the conversation forward in a way. In a baby-step way, just as being a part of telling a story.

Q: Can you talk about working with Michael Shannon and Tim Guinee. The three of you are just amazing and I think Tim Guinee is one of the most underrated actors around.

AG: He’s a great actor and such a lovely man, such a good man. I’m glad you said that. Thanks for saying that. Again, with Tim, I had so much fun with Tim. He’s so fun to be with. That nature of the relationship we had to create was really deep. We had to feel like brothers. I had to feel like he was my brother.

With Michael, it was interesting, because obviously I had more time with Michael and there was this deep love and respect that we had for each other. Even as characters, I think, even though it’s never expressed—it got close to being expressed—during the scene on the dock where we’re both a little bit confessional. Working with Michael is always so powerful. He’s got such powerful energy, so I had to make sure that I could match it and kind of crawl out of it somehow or beat my way out of it. That was an awesome challenge, because not only is his stature so big—he’s got big physical stature, but internally as well, he has power. That was a great challenge for me to match and to make sure I was a match for him. Then with Tim, it was just trying to find that deep connection and love and feeling of community.

My favorite times in my life while working is with other artists who are just there and you kind of don’t know where they’re going to go. Thank God, both of them have that ability, so I could follow and then I could lead and then I could follow. We could just dance. That majority was improvised. What I said to Ramin was, ‘I love the script and I love the essence of the journey. If I’m going to do it, I want it to feel found.’ Because as I read it, I knew there were all these vignettes of me doing evictions and me doing cash for keys and all this stuff. And I knew he was going to hire non-actors and I was like, ‘I want to be a non-actor as well. I don’t want to have any baggage. I don’t want to get it right. I want to get it wrong over and over and over again.’ He was really up for that for the most part. I’m lucky. I’m so lucky that I get to—so the short answer is I’m so lucky that I get to work with such great artists.

Q: Do you have a favorite role or is it what you’re working on right now?

AG: Every one is necessary, I think, so far, has been necessary for me to do. I don’t know if I can say a favorite. I can say that some experiences—no, every experience gave me something that I needed to get or that I needed to know. The thing that I just did, this film, Silence, with Martin Scorsese is some kind of rediscovery of how process can be with someone who knows exactly that they don’t know anything. His process is so intuitive and spontaneous and he’s so confident in his roaming and rambling and then he’ll go, ‘OK, no, it’s this. I know exactly what I want. Heheheh.’ Then another scene will come by and he’ll be, ‘I don’t know what this is. How do we do this? OK, what do you think?’ ‘Well, I’ll just do it and you can tell me.’ Then he’s like, ‘That wasn’t really it.’ I’ll go, ‘OK, well, what is it?’ ‘I don’t know.’ I’ll go, ‘OK, how about this?’ ‘That wasn’t it, either. Just keep trying.’ That’s real creativity. It’s not like you hit this, you hit this, and then you hit that. It’s like, ‘Let’s fucking get lost and scared and be in torture and agony until something real happens.’

That’s who he is and that was very fucking special. I think that kind of confidence comes with—not to use the word genius. Genius, I think, in our culture suggests only a few people. Actually, the origins of the word are that everyone has one. We all have the archetype of the genius within us and it’s just a case of finding out what that is individually. Obviously, his genius is filmmaking, storytelling, and that’s where his love and his passion live. So I think it’s possible for him to be in that free-flowing space, because of his genius and because of confidence in his genius to be lost and to roam around and to collaborate and to be open to whatever things are coming.

That’s the kind of creative process that I want to keep practicing as opposed to this rigid, I know I have to get it right, get it right, get it right, fucking nail it. I hate that. ‘You fuckin’ nailed it, bro!’ No! I fuckin’ want to make some wrong hits and then maybe one ‘Ping!’ And then a bunch of wrong hits. Ramin said a very beautiful thing to me when we first started working together. He said, ‘You know, the Persians, the Persian rugs, these really beautiful things, these beautiful, perfect things. They make these things and they turn them over and they get a knife and they slash the back, just so they know that nothing is ever perfect, as a practice, to go perfection is the enemy of the good.’ –Pam Grady




First look: Eddie Redmayne in THE DANISH GIRL


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After utterly transforming himself (and winning the Oscar for it) to play Dr. Stephen Hawking last year, Eddie Redmayne does it again to play pioneering transgender painter Lili Elbe in The King’s Speech director Tom Hooper’s latest. The drama world premieres, Saturday, Sept. 5, at the Venice Film Festival. But for now, here’s a tantalizing look at one of the most anticipated films of the fall season.

Ultimate cool cat comes to SF: Jeff Goldblum at Feinstein’s


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Jeff Goldblum has a seven-week-old son at home, but if he’s feeling the exhaustion of a new parent, he hides it well during the final performance of his weekend engagement at San Francisco’s Hotel Nikko. The headliner at Feinstein’s cabaret, the 62-year-old pianist and his jazz band, The Mildred Snitzer Orchestra—guitarist John Storie, tenor saxophonist James King,  and drummer Kenny Elliott, and joined this evening Bay Area musicians, bassist Dan Feiszli and saxophonist Lincoln Adler—have already played one show earlier in the evening before taking the stage again at 10pm.

Well, technically, the show starts at 10pm, but Goldblum begins working the room a good 20 minutes before that, playing a kind of six-degrees-of-Jeff-Goldblum movie trivia game and chatting with fans. His conversation is free form: He hates stays in his collars and always removes them from his shirts. (He had sent out his white shirt to be cleaned at the hotel and was amused/bemused that it come back with stays inserted.) He thinks he looks like a Jewish school student in his classic black suit, glasses, and porkpie hat. At one point, he asks for someone to name a standard. I call out “Stardust,” and he sings the Hoagy Carmichael classic a cappella to my section at the very back of the room.

Throughout the evening, Goldblum will digress with movie trivia (San Francisco edition and quotes); debate with fans who ask him if he prefers noodles or sandwiches, but who muddy the water by insisting pizza is a sandwich (Goldblum disagrees); chat with songwriter Dick Holler, the writer of Dion’s ‘60s hit “Abraham, Martin and John,” when the man’s companion points him out at the front of the stage; and in general, play the bandleader and show host delivering on his promise to keep his audience entertained.

With his mix of bonhomie and ineffable cool, Goldblum is the consummate showman. Not that The Mildred Snitzer Orchestra needs him to be that. When the band gets down to business, they are all business. Playing regular gigs at Rockwell Table and Stage in Los Angeles, they’ve honed themselves into a tight, soulful outfit. An elegant, intimate room like Feinstein’s suits the ensemble well, whether doing Thelonious Monk proud or performing an impromptu cover of Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.”

Being out among people, Goldblum is in his element. The show ends up with a rendition of the Duke Ellington standard “Caravan” that is both awesome and epic, allowing very member of the outfit a moment. But it’s not over for the actor/musician, who stations himself in the middle of the room for pictures, autographs, or to just mingle with any fan who approaches him. It’s a long line, he’s been hard at it for two hours or more, and he’s still as energetic and even-keeled as ever. There are cool cats. Then there’s Jeff Goldblum.—Pam Grady

The Mountain Men: Q&A with MERU’s Conrad Anker & Jimmy Chin


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Meru - 2Conrad Anker is one of the greatest mountain climbers on his generation, someone who has scaled peaks from Alaska to Antarctica. In 1999, as part of the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition to Mount Everest, he found George Mallory’s body 75 years after the pioneering mountaineer vanished during an attempted ascent. Jimmy Chin is a photographer, skier, and climber whose accomplishments have included first ascents in Asia’s Karakoram mountain range and skiing down Everest. Longtime climbing partners, the pair and their friend Renan Ozturk, dreamed of being the first to conquer a peak that has bested many a climber, the Shark’s Fin, a peak on Mount Meru in India, 21,000 feet above the Ganges River. Meru, a breathtaking and intense documentary, directed by Chin and his wife, E. Chai Vasarhelyi, and shot by Chin and Ozturk, spins the tale of two expeditions undertaken by the trio in 2008 and 2011 along with their compelling backstories.

The film, the documentary audience award winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is in theaters now where its awe-inspiring images deserve to be seen. Chin and Anker visited San Francisco recently in support of Meru. They are an amiable pair, which isn’t surprising. The film is as much a record of a friendship as it is breathtaking achievement. Their natural habitat may be a precarious alpine perch, but four years after the second expedition and eight months since they started talking about the film at Sundance, they are happy to sit in the confines of a small office and chat about it some more.

Q: How does it feel to be down on the ground again? Or, I guess I should say, how does it feel when you are down on the ground?

Jimmy Chin: I think we both prefer not be on the ground, normally. We like to be climbing. Your senses are a little bit more firing when you’re climbing. But when we first got down after 2008—I think that feeling’s always very similar. There’s just this tension that, which we love, but after a very sustained amount of time, there’s a big sense of relief. I think the best moment is when we drop the harnesses off and you let them hit the ground. You haven’t been able to drop anything in two weeks. All of the sudden, there’s this moment where you can drop stuff on the ground and it’s almost amusing that you’re not going to lose it forever.

Conrad Anker: Climbing has a nautical background. The word “belay” comes from maritime. Carabiners were adapted from the maritime. All these things, there’s this connection. The metaphor we like to look at it is we are sort of sailors in the sea of gravity. So when you’re out at sea, if you go over the edge of your boat, you’re going to drown or get really cold—it’s not going to be good unless someone rescues you pretty quick. Here, the metaphorical sea is gravity. If we let go of the equipment or drop the rope, we’re going to be stranded there, on this wall. So there’s that same similarity. It’s like when you come back to land, if you’ve been at sea two or three days, the first five minutes you’re walking on land, ‘Is it still the swaying of the boat?’ ‘Are we back down?’

Q: What was the first climb you two did together?

Conrad Anker: We climbed in Tuolumne Meadows probably 15 or 16 years ago. Then we did a trip to the Palisades range in the Sierras here. Then Pakistan, Tibet, yeah, we’ve been—Jimmy’s my main man.

Q: When you are starting a new climbing partnership, how do you do know it’s right? You’re going up with someone you’ve never climbed with before. That takes a great amount of trust.

Conrad Anker: We get to get to know each other on a local cliff and shorter climbs, but I’ll know within 15 minutes if I’m going to spend time with a person. That’s how I survive the mountains, because I’m assessing the situation and things like that…Some climbers are completely scattered and some climbers are accident-prone. Some climbers are full of themselves. I don’t want to go do a climb with them.

Jimmy Chin: Obviously, for me, there was no question about his legacy and his history as a climber. He was clearly one of the great climbers of his generation. The bigger risk was me for him, because I was this kid that just showed up and didn’t have much of a history.

Q: You begin with a shot of the top of Meru and then a shot of your portaledge suspended below the summit. It looks so precarious and really brings home just how vulnerable you are when you’re climbing and exactly what kind of risks you’re taking.

Jimmy Chin: Yeah. The weather conditions up there, if it gets bad, and you’re stuck up high, it’s like a tempest. You are very exposed. You’re in one of the most exposed places in the world. It keeps it interesting.

Q: What kind of extra challenge does it place on you to be filming? And what kind of difference has the advent of lightweight camera made for you?

Jimmy Chin: I think this film is really made possible by the DSLR revolution that happened. The Canon 5D came out and all of the sudden—I’m a still photographer, too—I had this tool that I could shoot both stills and much more cinematic footage that wasn’t possible before. Renan and I would trade cameras. He would shoot when I was climbing and I would shoot when he was climbing. You could shoot this type of material before, but it wouldn’t look the way it does now. That changed, the quality of the footage.

In terms of the extra challenge of shooting, it’s a matter of bandwidth. You’ve got a certain amount of bandwidth and a certain of energy and a certain amount of daylight. You have to parse that out between the climbing and the shooting. On a climb like this, you’re always a climber first. In a way, you have to be hyper-efficient, because it’s through your efficiencies that you can find the bandwidth, the time and moments, to shoot.

Q: At what point, did you realize that you had an extraordinarily dramatic story? Because this movie isn’t just about trying to conquer this apparently unconquerable mountain, all three of you have incredible backstories that makes the film that much more intense.

Jimmy Chin: Probably not fully until 2011, after the second climb. I was pretty much focused on surviving…I did know that I wanted to shoot this in the best possible way. Really, because in 2008 we got this footage and we shot a little bit, mostly for posterity, and we looked at and just like the climb, I was like, ‘Oh man, we could do this so much better.’ I started thinking about it as a shooter, as well as a climber. We thought about the climb the second time, ‘How can we do it better? What can we do with less of? How can we trim this down and create a tighter program?’ It was the same with the shooting. I got motivated to shoot it a lot better, but I wasn’t thinking so much about shooting it a lot better for the sake of a film. I thought of it more as shooting it better for the sake of shooting it better. The idea of putting it all together in a narrative and structurally was beyond the scope of what I was even capable of thinking at the time. I was thinking about too many other things.

Q: What you guys did with these climbs is just so special. There are so few places on the planet that offer the kind of opportunity that Meru did.

Jimmy Chin: Well, it’s just special to get out of a place where there’s cell service now, where you can’t check your social media. That’s become special. We fight really hard to get to those places at this point in our lives, because that’s where we can be calm. Being on the side of a mountain with a lot of exposure, that’s fine. Dealing with the day-to-day stuff…

Q: Looking at this film, you can’t but think about life and how people choose to live their lives.

Jimmy Chin: That’s verbatim what we talk about, Chai and I and Conrad, that the film is about how you choose to live your life, what life you choose to live. But also how complex those decisions are. The thing is, people are always, ‘You’re a climber. You’re one of those crazy climbers!’ Actually, the most successful, the best climbers that I know are hyper-calculated, understand risk at a level that very few people do, and have the capacity to make real complex, logistical decisions—they’re the furthest thing from crazy reckless.

Q: With what you do, you so have to trust and depend on your partner. It’s almost like the level of a relationship that most of us don’t experience, because we’re never in that kind of hyper-intense situation.

Conrad Anker: I started out in sports. I was a hyperactive kid. I played baseball, football, and this was when coaches were tough. I remember when I was in seventh grade, I was, ‘OK, I’m out of football. I’m not into it.’ The coach was like, ‘I knew you never had it in you!’ Encouraging me to come back to the team. Being nice to me didn’t work, so his next thing was just to beat me down so much and fill me with shame that I had to come back to it. But then I got into scouting. I had a great scoutmaster. So when Jimmy and I do a climb, or the three of us if you were to join us, our goal would be to climb El Cap. The adversaries are gravity, the weather, the intensity of the rock, but we’re not trying to outperform each individual. So if you make a mistake, we all pay the consequences, so it’s my goal to make you not make a mistake, whereas if we were to play tennis, my goal is to make you make a mistake, so I get that point. Then I win. It like, ‘Go ego!’

Q: What’s up next for the both of you?

Conrad Anker: I’ve got a trip to Nepal on October 24th. Nepal after the earthquake, see how those folk are doing. It’s always a great place to go. They’re such kind people and resourceful people.

Jimmy Chinn: I’m focused on the release of the film and I’m in development on another project. But I’m ready for another trip, basically. I’ve got to find to an excuse to go somewhere with Conrad, because I’m starting to get antsy. The last serious trip was in 2011. I’ve been to the Bugaboos and I’ve been to Yosemite and done some other climbing, but a real trip where I lose 15 pounds…

Conrad Anker: And come back with some wisdom.

Jimmy Chin: Yeah, I’m ready for something good. It’s like a purge. I’m sure it’s the same for people who need to go on a yoga retreat or go on one of those retreats where you don’t speak for 10 days. It’s like that. They’re so meaningful and they reset the priorities for you. You appreciate food again. You appreciate your friends. There’s a lot of things you get out of it.

Pastoral thriller: TOM AT THE FARM


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08-TOM-AT-THE-FARMA young man reeling after his lover dies travels to a remote farm to pay his respects to the family and finds himself in a twilight zone of anger, grief, and denial, and seemingly powerless to leave, in Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm. Made between Laurence Anyways and Mommy, this adaptation of a play by Michel Marc Bouchard with a screenplay by Dolan and Bouchard, is a compact, terrifically creepy psychological thriller made all the more disturbing by Tom’s passivity and its seemingly serene bucolic setting.

Tom (a bleached blond Dolan) is in for a couple of shocks when he arrives at the farm. The first is that apparently his lover, Guillaume, never told his mother Agathe (Lise Roy) that he was gay. Instead, she rails against the absent Sarah, the woman she believes to be her son’s girlfriend. The second is Francis (Pierre Yves-Cardinal), the brother Guillaume never told Tom he had, a glowering brute that, as becomes apparent at the funeral, the entire town avoids. The relationship between Francis and Tom is dangerous from the start. Intimidating and terrorizing others are as natural to Francis as breathing, and Tom is his special project. That there really is a Sarah (Orphan Black’s Evelyne Brochu) further complicates matters.

Why Tom puts up with what Francis dishes out is part of the mystery. There is little hint to his and Guillaume’s backstory, beyond the fact that at least one of them was good at keeping secrets, and little to indicate what Tom is like in his daily life in Montreal when his judgment is not clouded by grief. For now, he is rooted to the spot. He could flee from Francis’ bullying and brutality, but it is almost as if he is mesmerized by the man’s cruelty. And despite Francis’ evident homophobia, there is an erotic charge between the hulking farmer and the petite city slicker that makes the situation that much more combustible.

Despite opening the play up to encompass the entire property (including a cornfield where the withered plants’ leaves are razor-sharp) and forays into town, the overriding feeling of Tom at the Farm is one of claustrophobia, which only amps up the tension as Tom becomes more and more ensnared into this unhealthy household. Dolan sets a dolorous tone from the opening scene as Tom drives to the farm and an a capella version of Michel Legrand’s “Les moulins de mon cœur” (better known to English-speaking audiences as “The Windmills of Your Mind”) plays on the car stereo, while Gabriel Yared’s evocative score continually amps the tension. Ray, who originated the role of Agathe on the stage, and Brochu are both terrific, but the drama hinges on the relationship between the two men. Yves-Cardinal strikes the right note of danger as the unsettling, possibly unhinged Francis, and Dolan did not cast himself purely out vanity or economic necessity. He’s pitch-perfect as a man out of sorts and out of balance seemingly reacting to his situation out of pure, if faulty, instinct.

Like Joel Edgerton’s recent The Gift, Tom at the Farm is a corker of a thriller that extracts chills from the collision of personalities and the machinations of an unstable individual. These are dramas of the everyday, the mundane, and all the more distressing for it. What happens to Tom could happen to anybody.—Pam Grady

Stylish, shiny, and pointless: THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. reboot


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Guy Ritchie should pay his production designer, cinematographer, and art and costume departments boatloads of money. They make his films look so great. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a case in point. Look at it too closely and it’s possible to convince yourself that when Shakespeare wrote those immortal words in Macbeth, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” he was anticipating Ritchie. There’s a lot of action, but not much point to the director’s reboot of the 50-year-old TV series, but it looks dazzling. It’s the movie equivalent of presents sitting under a Christmas tree, the gorgeous wrapping promising so much and delivering…socks.

In this origin tale, CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, wrestling mightily and not always successfully with a thick Russian accent) meet cute when Kuryakin trails Solo to a meeting with East German mechanic Gaby (It Girl of the moment Alicia Vikander), who Solo plans to get over the Berlin Wall. Solo is a spy, but only because he’s been blackmailed into service after being caught out as a black marketeer after World War II. (Does this mean that Solo is really The Third Man’s Harry Lime?) Kuryakin is a whiz at planting bugs, but he’s a hitter who is most comfortable in hand-to-hand combat. The two men hate each other—clearly the start of a beautiful friendship as their respective handlers insist they partner up and work with Gaby to bring down a conspiracy involving Nazis, rich Italians, a nuclear bomb, a computer disc, and Gaby’s atomic scientist dad.

Vikander is the best thing going in the movie. Given the chance to demonstrate her comic chops, she steals every scene she’s in, particularly one where she tries to drunkenly seduce Kuryakin. Cavill does what he can with a character that is all style and no substance, but at least he’s not stuck like poor Hammer playing someone who substitutes feats of strength for a personality. Hugh Grant makes a welcome appearance as Waverly, a man who is a complete mystery to Solo and Kuryakin, but not to anyone who has seen the original TV series. Expect to see much more of him if sequels ensue.

If The Man from U.N.C.L.E. should beget a franchise, maybe Ritchie should invest in hiring better screenwriters. The script he collaborated on with producer Lionel Wigram is a collection of spy movie clichés. There is a lot of action, a lot of chases, a touch of romance, plenty of double-dealing, and the obligatory torture scene and not a frame of it is original. It is pretty and pretty empty. The cast—and movie audiences—deserve better than this empty exercise in style.—Pam Grady

Jemaine Clement nurses broken heart in PEOPLE PLACES THINGS


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When last seen on American screens, Jemaine Clement was gleefully ripping into flesh as a Kiwi vampire in What We Do in the Shadows. That character’s razor-sharp incisors would have come in handy for his new role as a heartbroken comic-book artist and single dad in James C. Strouse’s comedy drama People Places Things who is too accommodating by half in accepting whatever fate (or his ex-wife) throws at him. This is a guy who could use a little bite.

But destiny isn’t done with Clement’s Will Henry yet. A year after his marriage to Charlie (Stephanie Allynne) imploded on their twin daughters’ fifth birthday, she’s moved on, ensconced with her portly monologist lover Gary (Michael Chernus) and finding herself through improv classes. But Will is spinning his wheels, still mourning the loss of his settled family life; working as a teacher as well as an artist; stuck in a crappy apartment in Astoria, Queens; perpetually short on funds; and missing daily contact with his little girls. One of his students, Kat (Jessica Williams), identifying his loneliness, sets him up on a date with her mother, Columbia American lit professor Diane (Regina Hall), an awkward evening to add to his sense of futility.

Strouse previously made the John Cusack vehicle Grace is Gone, a road movie that similarly dealt with a husband and father of daughters shocked to find himself suddenly a single dad. People Places Things is a lighter affair, buoyed by Will’s basic decency and the sense of humor that never quite deserts him even at the worst of times. Clement delivers a warm, affable performance as the beleaguered Will, and he receives great support from Williams, Hall, and the adorable kids playing his daughters, Gia and Aundrea Gadsby. Composer Mark Orton’s (Nebraska) score adds one layer of whimsy, while cartoon panels that reflect Will’s predicament adds another. People Places Things is a small film, but it’s one with immense heart.—Pam Grady

Sony Classics unveils first pic of Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams


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Tom Hiddleston certainly looks every inch the part in this still, the first Sony Pictures Classics has released from I Saw the Light, Marc Abraham’s Hank Williams biopic. Singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell plays Williams’ dad Elonzo. More importantly, Crowell is also the film’s executive music producer and the person charged with transforming the Brit actor into an American legend. They were in the process of that when Hiddleston joined Crowell on stage last September at the Wheatland Music Festival to sing “Move It on Over” in a performance that augers well for a film that ought to have a lot of people seeing the light.

First look: Bryan Cranston as blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo


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Here’s a first peek of Bryan Cranston as screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, who served time in prison for contempt of Congress at the dawn of the Cold War after refusing to play ball with the House Un-American Activities Committee during its original fishing expedition seeking information about communist influence in Hollywood. After prison came the blacklist that kept him offically unemployable through the 1950s, although that didn’t stop Trumbo from writing the Academy Award-winning screenplay for the 1953 Audrey Hepburn-Gregory Peck romantic comedy Roman Holiday (for which credit was given to Trumbo’s “front,” Ian McLellan Hunter), or the Oscar-winning story for the 1956 drama about a young boy trying to saving his pet bull from slaughter, The Brave One (under the pseudonym Robert Rich).

Joining Cranston in Jay Roach’s drama are Diane Lane, Elle Fanning, Michael Stuhlbarg, Louis C.K., Stephen Root, John Goodman, and in what is sure to be a highlight, Helen Mirren as one of the superstar (and vicious) gossip columnists of the era, Hedda Hopper. —Pam Grady


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