Hail Caesar! The Serkis comes to SF’s Castro Theatre

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Andy Serkis on the set of Twentieth Century Fox’s “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

On Sunday, Nov. 12, SFFILM offers the rare opportunity to dig deeper into motion-capture technology and how actor Andy Serkis brings characters like Planet of the Apes’ Caesar and The Lord of the Rings trilogy’s Gollum to life with The Art & Craft of War for the Planet of the Apes with Andy Serkis and Joe Letteri. The onstage conversation between Serkis and Welta Digital Senior Visual Effects Supervisor Letteri will take place within the context of a triple bill of the most recent Planet of the Apes trilogy, and will take place prior to the day’s final screening of War for Planet of the Apes. A single ticket gives entrance (with in-and-out privileges) to the conversation and all three films.

The schedule is as follows:

12:00 pm – Rise of the Planet of the Apes (105 min)
2:00 pm – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (130 min)
6:00 pm – Onstage conversation with Andy Serkis and Joe Letteri
7:00 pm – War for the Planet of the Apes (140 min)

Sunday, Nov. 12; $13 SFFILM members/$15 general; Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street, SF. To purchase tickets, visit https://www.sffilm.org/screenings-and-events/planet-of-the-apes.  

Introducing Lemmy Caution at SF Gallic noir film fest THE FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT 4

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Eddie Constantine looked like the love child of Jack Palance and Ernest Borgnine, a real tough guy. In truth, he was the American-born son of a Russian father and Polish mother who trained as an opera singer. He pursued his career in Europe where he sang cabaret. Then, nearing 40, he switched gears and turned to acting. Cinema buffs know him from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 dystopian sci-fi/film noir hybrid Alphaville where he played secret agent Lemmy Caution.

But Alphaville was not the first nor the last time Constantine would play Lemmy Caution. In all, he played the character 14 times, the last time only two years before his 1993 death in another Godard film Germany Year 90 Nine Zero. Now, during the Fri Nov 3-Mon Nov 6 The French Had a Name for It 4 French noir film festival at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater, is a chance to see Constantine’s Lemmy Caution from the legendary character’s beginning.

Constantine first stepped into Lemmy Caution’s shoes in 1953 in two adaptation of British author Peter Cheyney’s novels, Poison Ivy and This Man Is Dangerous. The French Had a Name for It 4 is screening the latter that opens with news of American convict Lemmy Caution’s prison escape and flight to Europe. And sure enough, wicked charm with the ladies aside, Caution seems for all the world like a bad guy. The multilingual tough guy is certainly fluent in violence and he eagerly enters into a plot to kidnap an American heiress. But people on both sides of the law would be well advised to note that name, “Caution,” and take heed. It’s not so easy to get a handle on just who or what Lemmy is.

This Man Is Dangerous is a terrific introduction to Lemmy Caution, full of actions and plot twists. It is also a great introduction to Constantine and his gruff charm. On the other end of the double bill is another Constantine vehicle, Lucky Jo (1965). This late noir displays a different, more vulnerable side of the actor. As the ironically named titular character, Constantine a petty crook who can’t give up on the life even as every scheme ends in disaster and his confederates abandon him, certain that he is a jinx.

Other highlights of The French Had a Name for It 4 include Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge (1958), starring Jean-Claude Brialy who returns to his home village to find his best friend Serge (Gerard Blain) has become an embittered drunk; The Night Affair (1958), starring the great Jean Gabin as a cop investigating a jazz world murder who falls for a young junkie (Nadja Tiller); Gigolo (1951), starring legendary Arletty as a pimp who brings a young man (Georges Marchal) to debauched ruin; and The Strange Mr. Steve (1957) and Mademoiselle (1966), showing two different sides of Jeanne Moreau, as a sophisticated femme fatale in the former, and, in the latter, an adaptation of Jean Genet story scripted by Marguerite Duras and directed by Tony Richardson, as a school teacher who unleashes evil on her small village and is obsessed with a local woodsman. –Pam Grady

For tickets and further information about The French Had a Name for It 4, visit http://www.roxie.com/ai1ec_event/french-name-4/?instance_id=23567

Sibling Felony: LOGAN LUCKY & GOOD TIME

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Sibling Felony

How funny to have two films out at the exact same moment in which siblings—mainly brothers—resort to committing felonies as a career choice. Not that the two have much in common beyond that. Steven Soderbergh’s “comeback” after his insistence that he was retiring from feature filmmaking, Logan Lucky, is a joyful, rural romp as Channing Tatum’s Jimmy Logan masterminds the takedown of the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a NASCAR race and enlists his brother and sister (among others) into the scheme. Benny and Josh Safdie’s Good Time is a gritty urban crime drama in which Robert Pattinson’s Connie Nikas masterminds a Queens bank robbery—although it is quickly apparent Connie is no master nor does he have much of a mind. Each in its own, very different way is a completely captivating, tremendous achievement. Each stands to get lost in the late summer box-office doldrums. Which would be a tragedy.

And Introducing Daniel Craig as Joe Bang

The credit reads like a joke. After all, movie fans know Craig. Who doesn’t know James Bond? But, then, that’s the point. With his hair bleached white and sporting Strother Martin’s accent, Joe Bang is a Daniel Craig we’ve never seen before, a Southern reprobate who seems to have stepped right out of the 1967 classic convict drama Cool Hand Luke (the hardboiled eggs in the scene in which Joe Bang is introduced is no coincidence). Recruited for the job Jimmy has in mind while he is serving a prison sentence, the explosive expert looks askance at Jimmy, “I am in-car-ser-ray-ted.” To hear Craig draw out those syllables is worth the price of a movie ticket alone. This is an actor having fun playing a guy who no doubt prefers moonshine to martinis.

In fact, the entire cast seems to be having a blast—save for poor Katie Holmes, saddled with playing Jimmy humorless ex-wife Bobbie Jo. But then Bobbie Jo doesn’t have a lot to do, whereas most of the rest of the cast gets to enjoy taking part in the Rube Goldbergian plot machinations as Jimmy, a one-time West Virginia coal miner and frustrated at not being able to provide for his young beauty pageant-crazy daughter Sadie (Farah Mackenzie), hits on the idea of robbing the racetrack. His one-armed war vet brother, bartender Clyde (Adam Driver), is dubious—the Logans are noted for their terrible luck. But his ebullient hairdresser sister Melly (Riley Keough) is all for it. And once Jimmy agrees to bring Joe Bang’s idiot brothers Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson) into the operation, Joe’s down with it, too.

Logan Lucky seems to have been inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1956 noir The Killing, in which Sterling Hayden’s Johnny Clay similarly plans a racetrack robbery, but the similarities end there. For one thing, there is not even a hint of noir in the script credited to Rebecca Blunt—apparently a pseudonym for perhaps Soderbergh himself or his wife Jules Asner or maybe someone else entirely. The tone is light and breezy. For another, the details of the heist are far more complicated with a lot of moving parts and ancillary characters, such as Dwight Yoakam’s prison warden, who have no idea that they are playing a part in Jimmy’s grandiose scheme.

It is all a blast to watch. At the same time, for all the complex mechanics of the plot, the characters are not forgotten. Jimmy, in particular, is sharply etched, introduced describing to Sadie how the John Denver song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” came to be written. The song is his mantra, the daughter keeps him tethered. He has no prospects in his home state, but he can’t leave. His motivation in turning to a life of crime couldn’t be clearer. Tatum, looking a good deal heavier and far less fit than he did in his previous Soderbergh collaborations as Magic Mike, is pitch perfect as a good ol’ boy with a brain and an eye for the main chance. And he is surrounded by one heck of an ensemble. Every single one of the actors, even those in the tiniest of roles, delivers a knockout performance.

Really, Connie, You’ve Never Heard of Dye Packs?

After attaining superstardom as the dreamy vampire Edward in the Twilight movie, Robert Pattinson continues to reinvent himself as a character actor. To such films as David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis where he played a psychopathic, master-of-the-universe businessman and James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, in which he played a 20th-century explorer, he adds Good Time’s fast-talking, thickheaded Connie Nikas. This is Jimmy Logan’s opposite, a guy who doesn’t think things throughs. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have insisted that his mentally disabled brother Nick (Benny Safdie) accompany him to something as high risk as a bank robbery. Oh, and he would’ve done a little bit of research into banks and their theft deterrence methods. Really, Connie, you’ve never heard of dye packs?

The robbery portion of Good Time only takes a few minutes of screen time. Heavily disguised, the siblings might’ve stood the chance of getting away the robbery if only Connie had done a little bit of due diligence and considered contingencies. Poor Nick is the one who gets pinched, leaving Connie to figure out some way to get his brother out of the joint. He doesn’t have enough money for bail. But he does have an inflated ego, a mistaken belief in his own competence, and a half-baked plan to spring his sibling that eventually involves him with a naïve teenager (Taliah Webster) and Ray (Buddy Duress, who made his acting debut in the Safdie brothers’ 2015 junkie drama Heaven Knows What), a parolee who introduces Connie to a cache of liquid LSD they can sell. As with the bank robbery, the question looms, “What could possibly go wrong?” That is followed by the same answer, “Connie.”

Pattinson is brilliant playing a guy who is not even half as smart as he thinks he is. This is an actor without vanity, delivering the goods as a guy not quite bright enough to get out of his own way. Working with the Safdies was a wise choice. The brothers with their very specific take on their native New York and the hardscrabble characters that populate their films are building an independent cinema that can stand with the best of those gritty urban thrillers of the 1970s. It is easy to imagine Good Time on a double bill with something like Across 110th Street, The French Connection, or Mean Streets. Or better yet, Dog Day Afternoon. And not just because both movies are about bank robberies. No, it’s just that Dog Day Afternoon’s Sonny Wortzik and Good Time’s Connie Nikas are brothers from another mother, and unforgettable characters in indelible movies. –Pam Grady

A primate’s tragedy packs an emotional wallop in WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

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Caesar (Andy Serkis), the ape who has pushed for peace between his kind and man, pays a high price for his tolerance even as humans continue to hunt his kind in War for the Planet of the Apes, the third film in the Planet of the Apes reboot that began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). Director Matt Reeves and his co-screenwriter Mark Bomback gift Steve Zahn with his most memorable role in years and allow Woody Harrelson, playing a crazed human soldier, to riff on Marlon Brando and Apocalypse Now. But what makes this movie the best of the trio and elevates it to something truly magnificent is Caesar. It should now be apparent to the entire movie-going world that Serkis could easily play King Lear as a motion-capture ape. He has that much gravity.

Caesar’s own good nature is what leads to disaster when he expects kindness shown to humans to be returned. Instead, his actions rain holy hell down on the apes. It is a disaster for the tribe and a personal tragedy for Caesar whose roiling anger leads to both questionable decisions and a looming confrontation with the Colonel (Harrelson), a human dedicated to eradicating apes. With visions of the late, murderous chimpanzee Koba (Toby Kebbell) and his warning about the true nature of man/ape relations dancing in his head, Caesar is a man on a mission. But even as he determines to extract a terrible revenge on his enemies, Caesar’s own true nature can’t help but assert itself, especially when it comes to a little girl (Amiah Miller) who comes to depend on the kindness of primates and Bad Ape (Zahn), a mangy, fearful former zoo animal who has internalized every human insult.

As with the previous chapters in this Apes saga, the line between motion-capture apes and human actors is seamless as Reeves plunges us into a wholly believable world. The nod to Apocalypse Now, which is driven home with a hammer (let’s just say a particular piece of graffiti is wholly unnecessary—we get it), is a bit heavy-handed but still apt. Zahn is terrific, providing some comic relief and also a great deal of poignancy as a frightened creature who discovers reserves of courage he never realized he had. War for the Planet of the Apes’ action scenes pack a wallop, and even relative minor moments are filled with tension. The stakes are the highest for Caesar and the rest of the apes, and the film never loses sight of that.

Then there’s Serkis, proving once more that CGI skin in no way compromises performance. This is an actor at the top of his game and he proves it each time he returns to Caesar. That so far he’s been ignored during awards season is a scandal that ought to be rectified. As a motion-capture actor, as an actor, period, Serkis is second to none and he has never been better than in War for the Planet of the Apes as he fully inhabits Caesar’s huge heart, revealing his grief, rage, pain, and also his valor and love and dedication to his ape family (and those he embraces as extensions of his family). War for the Planet of the Apes packs an emotional wallop and Serkis is a big reason for that. This may be a summer popcorn movie; it is also one of the best films of the year. –Pam Grady

In STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI, they’ve got porg-sonality

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It would be easy to dismiss the porgs as so much Disney marketing. After all, the cuddly toys based on the avian characters have been in stores since well before Star Wars: The Last Jedi opened. But it would be a mistake to assume the only creatures in the galaxy far, far away that are more emo than Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) represent mere opportunities for merchandising. The birds with the big Keane painting eyes that come to roost in the Millennium Falcon are a nod to the wildlife that find a home on Skellig Michael, the remote island (the site, appropriately enough, of an ancient monastery), that serves as Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) reclusive home.

As a bird habitat, Skellig Michael is home to a large population of gannets—27,000 thousand pairs—as well as the storm petrel, the smallest seabird in Europe. But it was the clownish puffins that inspired the porg. Penguin coloring; large, colorful beaks; and sad eyes render the little birds irresistible. At least, Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson thought so when he came up for the idea of the porgs.

And he’s not wrong. Of all the things to love about the movie—including Chewbacca’s pained reaction to the birds as they invade his ship—the porgs rank up there, adding charm and comic relief to an intense adventure. –Pam Grady

Happy New Year! Nick Park’s EARLY MAN will brighten February screens

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Something to look forward to in the new year: The Stone Age meets the Bronze Age in Nick Park’s Early Man. The Wallace & Gromit creator’s first film since 2005’s The Curse of the Were-Rabbit stars Eddie Redmayne as the scion of a rabbit (what else?) hunting tribe and Tom Hiddleston as Bronze Age baddie Lord Nooth. Opens February 2018.

No pooh-poohing this bear: Simon Curtis on his kid lit classic creation story

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“They say never work with children or stuffed animals,” jokes director Simon Curtis in a chat during the Mill Valley Film Festival.

The director does both in Goodbye Christopher Robin, the story of how British author A.A. Milne came to create Winnie the Pooh and friends in the years following World War I.

Played by Domhnall Gleeson—who is seemingly everywhere this fall with roles in Mother!, Crash Pad, and American Made, and returning to the character of General Huck in Star Wars: The Last Jedi—Milne is at the outset of Goodbye Christopher Robin a veteran of the Great War suffering from what was then known as shell shock. A member of the upper crust, he finds reintegrating into the social whirl impossible. Relocating his family to the English countryside frustrates his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie), but it is that decision that paves the way for Milne’s classic children’s stories.

In Curtis’ mind, Daphne is in many ways the key element in the creation of Pooh. She was the person who bought the stuffed bear and other animals, giving him a voice as she played with her son.

“That joy on her face when she hands him the tiger for the first time, that’s one of my favorite moments in the film,” Curtis says.

At the same time, she inadvertently sets the stage for Pooh’s creation when she leaves her family to spend time in London, little realizing that Christopher’s nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald) would be called away at the same time.

“She’s doesn’t act like a modern mother, but she does act like a mother of that time and of that class did, which was to make sure there’s a great nanny looking after the child, and then live her own life. That’s what she does,” Curtis says.

It is in being left alone with eight-year-old Christopher (Will Tilston) that Milne finds inspiration along with discovering the fun in playing with his child. As they roam the forest around their home, Cotchford Farm, with the boy’s stuffed animals in tow, Milne’s imagination comes alive and he also begins to find a kind of peace that has eluded him since the war.

“The sequence where the father and son play together and you see the joy on their faces [is a special moment],” says Curtis. “Both Domhnall and Will rose to it so perfectly. Domhnall is an extraordinary man and an extraordinary actor, first and foremost brilliantly intelligent.  He had to travel a very long way to play this, because he’s a very gregarious, modern Irishman playing this very particular man. The character holds back, but he opens up and the joy he has with his son is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done.”—Pam Grady

DUNKIRK: Thrills, but no beating heart in Nolan’s WWII epic

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Framed as a World War II epic and a thriller, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is that at first glance. But beyond the derring-do of Royal Navy men, fighter pilots, and civilian sailors as 400,000 men await rescue on a beach after a disastrous battle, is a more intimate drama of courage and cowardice and emotions in between. That is the most intriguing aspect of Nolan’s ambitious film, and the one where it falls down, betrayed by a dearth of real flesh-and-blood characters.

The outcome of the 1940 battle around the northern French village leaves the defeated Allied soldiers stranded a scant 26 miles away from the English coast, or as one officer observes, “You can almost see home.” But with few ships available in the area that, at any rate, can’t land on the beach and with precious little air support to provide cover, the British hit on an outside-the-box solution to the problem. The Navy drafts fishing boats and pleasure craft and their crews, a civilian armada that can go where destroyers can’t.

Nolan fashions a sometimes-discombobulating story that zigzags back and forth between three separate strands. There are the men on the beach. Among them are a group of young infantrymen that include newcomer Fionn Whitehead and One Direction singer Harry Styles (in his acting debut), who are loathe to wait for rescue. They want to go home. Now. In contrast are the officers, including Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) and Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), who embody courage in the worst-case scenario as they discuss the long odds facing them.

In the air, a small contingent of Spitfires, including pilots played by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden, engage in dogfights with German Messerschmitts, a desperate skirmish to keep themselves airborne while protecting the ships at sea. On the water, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), the skipper of a yacht heading toward Dunkirk with his 19-year-old son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and 17-year-old family friend George (Barry Keoghan), is the representative of the civilian volunteers.

Clocking in at under two hours, Dunkirk, nevertheless, occupies a large canvas. The cinematography, production values, and special effects are breathtaking. The air skirmishes are thrilling, the drama’s overall vibe is tense. The disaster looming at sea, from a small, leaky boat threatening to capsize to destroyers mortally struck by bombs, bucking and listing as they sink into the water, is palpable. Dunkirk may not reinvent the war movie, but it is effective.

What the film lacks is the human element. There are no fully formed characters in the movie. Everyone is a type. Some actors are able to transcend the script’s limitations. Whitehead is especially effective in conveying sheer terror and his character’s commitment to survival. Cillian Murphy is also very good as a shell-shocked soldier reduced to a ball of quivering panic. But most of the cast, including actors of the caliber of Branagh and Rylance are stuck with cliched dialogue to go with their hoary stiff upper lips.

That lack of humanity is costly. For all its thrilling spectacle, Dunkirk has none of the power of an All Quiet on the Western Front, Gallipoli, or Saving Private Ryan. The stakes in Dunkirk are every bit as high as they are in those and countless other war movies. But it is hard to care when there is no beating heart in the movie. That is a flaw that prevents Dunkirk from achieving the greatness to which Christopher Nolan so clearly aspires. –Pam Grady

 

Give My Regards to Broadway: GHOSTBUSTERS reimagines Times Square

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ghostbusters_3My favorite part of the Ghostbusters reboot: Jefferson Sage’s production design during the movie’s climax in which the specters that plague Manhattan are not simply ghosts and goblins but Times Square’s storied and sometimes notorious past. A billboard crawl reports news from the Carter era. A movie theater marquee advertises The Godfather (1972). Bond’s, a men’s clothing store that morphed into a nightclub where The Clash famously played a set of shows in 1981, looks much as it did in postcards dating from the mid-1960s. Woolworth’s lives again. A billboard advertises “Beyond the Fringe,” an English revue starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore that played on Broadway in the early 1960s.

Ghostbusters is far funnier than the dire trailers would lead anyone to believe with some truly outstanding work from Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and Chris Hemsworth, but nothing in it is more inspired than Sage’s recreation of Midtown’s past allure. All those yesterdays merge together into a pretty glorious ghost. —Pam Grady

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First trailer: LOVING

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So looking forward to Jeff Nichols’ latest, starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga and acclaimed at Cannes. It’s the flesh-and-blood story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the plaintiffs in Loving v. Virginia, whose mixed-race marriage made them criminals in the eyes of their home state. This was the case that went to the Supreme Court in 1967 and ended with the ruling that invalidated laws against interracial marriage nationwide. — Pam Grady