THE VAST OF NIGHT CASTS A DREAMY SPELL

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Somewhere Rod Serling is smiling. Nearly 61 years after the 1959 premiere of his classic sci-fi series The Twilight Zone comes a whip-smart movie that plays as if it could be one of show’s greatest episodes. A spooky mystery tale set in 1950s New Mexico, it makes a virtue out of its small budget, creating an eerie sense of paranoia and hair-raising thrills out of offbeat characters, ingenious use of a screen gone pitch-black (and held there), evocative sound design, and a portentous score.

It seems like just an ordinary Friday night in Cayuga, NM, for 16-year-old Fay (Sierra McCormick) and her DJ friend Everett (Jake Horowitz). It is the night of the high school basketball team’s biggest game of the season, an event that will draw in most of the town. But after visiting the gym to try to diagnose a problem with flickering lights and showing Fay how to use her new reel-to-reel tape recorder, he is off to his night shift at WOTW radio. Fay, too, has a job to go to, manning the town’s switchboard. But before long, a bizarre audio tone, disconnected phone calls, a mysterious caller to Everett’s show, sudden disappearances, and other intrusions into Cayuga’s normally mundane existence suggest something strange is afoot in the isolated town.

A central conceit of The Vast of Night is that what we are watching is a Twilight Zone-like TV show. At key moments within the narrative, the view switches to that of a 1950s living room where someone is watching the events in Cayuga unfold through snowy black-and-white images on a small television set. But when the image widens and the muted color comes back up, we are thrust again into Fay and Everett’s world, the normal rules of suspension of disbelief applying.

Fay is an earnest teenager, smart but already resigned to a dead-end life, telling Everett she has no plans for college because her family cannot afford it. Everett has the beat energy of a hipster, tempered by a certain earnestness. Together, they are Nancy Drew and a Hardy boy determined to get to unravel the cause behind the strange goings on around town. As they investigate clues, they are inexorably drawn deeper and deeper into the mystery.

Director Andrew Patterson’s debut ingeniously spins the yarn written by first-time scripters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger. Told in close to real time, during the span of that high school basketball game, and full of references to classic sci-fi, The Vast of Night exists in its own off-kilter world.  Like the show that clearly inspired it, the film exists in “another dimension,” as Serling would have said, one that casts its dreamy spell not just on Fay and Everett but on anyone watching. –Pam Grady

The Vast of Night is available on Amazon Prime.

Welcome to Phoenix, Oregon

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PhoenixTwo middle-aged men decide to take a chance on themselves, swapping their dead-end lives for a shot at controlling their own destiny in an affable comedy that stars James Le Gros and Jesse Borrego. A throwback of sorts, Phoenix, Oregon tonally fits the types of indies Borrego (Lone Star, I Like it Like That) and especially Le Gros (Living in Oblivion, Floundering) made back in the 1990s, big-hearted and full of idiosyncratic characters.

In late middle age, lifelong friends Bobby (Le Gros) and Carlos (Borrego) are still living in Phoenix, their small hometown. Working at the same restaurant for the smarmy Kyle (Diedrich Bader), Bobby as a bartender and Carlos as a chef, it is a bearable but bleak existence. Both harbor dreams: Bobby spends his days in his cramped Air Stream trailer, working on a graphic novel, a long-gestating memoir with perhaps too much focus on his failed marriage. Carlos, whose exacting standards are constantly thwarted by Kyle’s insistence on stocking only cheaper—and inferior—ingredients, wants his own restaurant. When a dilapidated bowling alley comes on the market and they are able to pool their life savings with money from an angel investor found by their friend Tanya (Lisa Edelstein), it seems like the answer to an unspoken prayer.

Writer/director Gary Lundgren intersperses vivid scenes from Bobby’s novel into the action, but the most striking images are those within the bowling alley as these men discover a newfound passion for life. Both are a little bit too exacting for their own good – Carlos will not brook an ingredient as mundane as pepperoni on his artisanal pizzas, while Bobby turns up his nose at the idea of stocking Budweiser in the bar. Neither is a good negotiator, revealed as Al (a hilarious Kevin Corrigan), the repairman they hire to refurbish the lanes and pin setters, sets his price high and will not budge. As Tanya pitches in to help prepare for the opening, Bobby’s crush on her is only too evident.

The buoyant middle section of Phoenix, Oregon is pure delight as, little by little, Bobby and Carlos transform a seeming pipe dream into a tangible reality. The film hums with their pleasure and enthusiasm. Hovering over them as they work are the unspoken questions. Is this real? Can it last? Lundgren makes a lively game out of answering those questions. And he has cast his story well. Le Gros and Borrego are likable actors playing likable characters, but neither actor rests on his charm. Bobby has issues with trust and anger, and he allows his disappointments to fester into resentment. Carlo is far more optimistic, but his dreaminess can get in the way of his good sense.

Phoenix, Oregon feels as retro as Bobby and Carlos’ bowling alley. The essentially sunny outlook, the ensemble work, and its rich vein of goofy humor seem like throwbacks from another era. Not that that is bad thing. In the midst of pandemic, worldwide strife, and a dismal election year, a feel-good movie like this one is a welcome reminder that joy still exists, sometimes in the most unlikely places. –Pam Grady

Phoenix, Oregon is available on streaming and cable platforms. DVD and Blu-Ray editions are coming soon.

 

 

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon come to the end of the road in THE TRIP TO GREECE

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It almost seems cruel for Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Greece to be coming out now with COVID-19 still wreaking havoc in the world and tourism at a standstill. Like the three previous The Trip movies, this one stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as fictional versions of themselves on a culinary/cultural tour of a corner of Europe. Like the three other films, it is designed to send the viewer scurrying to guidebooks and travel sites to follow in the actors’ footsteps. For now, any plans to turn those dreams into reality are delayed. Visceral adventure is all that is available.

At least, Coogan, Brydon, and their director deliver the goods in what Winterbottom is calling the series’ final installment. This time the premise is that The Observer has once again hired Coogan to write an article, this time sending him to follow the route laid out in Homer’s The Odyssey, beginning in what is now Turkey and traveling through Greece. Brydon’s observes tartly that Odysseus’ journey back to Ithaca in the ancient epic took 10 years, while he and Coogan are devoting only six days to their CliffsNotes’ version of the trek.

However compact the trip, the odd acting couple pack in a lot of incident. If Greece has a bad angle, it is not apparent from this film. Traveling by car and sometimes boat, Coogan and Brydon take in azure seas, verdant countryside, and sleek cities. When they are not indulging in gastronomical delights, they walk in the steps of the ancients. Among the sites the pair visits are Athens’ agora, the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the Caves of Diros, and the Theatre of Epidaurus.

What is surprising about this film as The Trip series reaches its finish line is its tone. Oh, there is still plenty of humor and celebrity impressions – a highlight is Coogan and Brydon offering competing versions of the torture scene between Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man. Coogan remains dedicated to proving his superior intellect, even as Brydon gently chides him with his own displays of knowledge. Coogan is still a heat-seeking missile of all-consuming ambition. Fresh off his BAFTA-nominated success as comedian Stan Laurel in Stan and Ollie, now he has his heart set on a part in La La Land director Damian Chazelle’s latest film. The more family-oriented Brydon continues to be content with his lot in life as a character actor.

But with all that, The Trip to Greece is scarcely a comedy. Coogan is in a different place in his life and the film takes a melancholy turn as he absorbs news from home. The situation transforms his dreams into vivid, surreal nightmares. He is often distracted in his interactions with Brydon. And for all the ways the series has portrayed Coogan as the completely self-involved one, Brydon never asks the reason Coogan is so often on the phone with his son Joe (Timothy Leach).

Some will carp at this turn from humor, but The Trip to Greece is the most resonant of the quartet of films. Lost among all the praise for Coogan and Brydon’s dueling Michael Caines and other impressions is the fact their very performances are impressions – of themselves. At last, Coogan and, to a certain extent, Brydon emerge as deeper, more complex characters and the film is the richer for it. If this really is the end of The Trip‘s road, the series takes its final bow on a satisfying note. Now, if only the rest of us could take our own Greek vacations. –Pam Grady

The Trip to Greece is available in select theaters and all major digital/cable platforms.

Beanie’s Baby: HOW TO BUILD A GIRL

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“How to Build a Girl” publicity stillMost of us would be appalled to win a prize called “Asshole of the Year.” In general, no one wants to be that asshole. But in Coky Giedroyc’s acerbically funny adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s novel How to Build a Girl, rock scribe Johanna Morrican aka Dolly Wilde (Beanie Feldstein) accepts the dubious honor exultantly as a measure of her success. The bullied has become the bully and it feels good – a momentary rush inside the fantasy Johanna’s built for herself until stark reality intrudes in a comedy that tracks where one teenager’s inchoate ambition to be freed of her circumstances leads.

Feldstein, a scene stealer as the best friend in Lady Bird and one of the good girls who riotously let go in Olivia Wilde’s directing debut Booksmart, nails not just Johanna’s Wolverhampton accent but also her precociousness and her unhappiness. At school and around town, she is a target for abuse. At home, she has an ally in her brother Krissi (Laurie Kynaston), but her mother (Sarah Solemani) suffers from postpartum depression after giving birth to twin sons, and her father (Paddy Considine) is well-meaning but lives in the past of his ’70s rock musician glory days. Besides Krissi, her closest companions are the “gods” attached to her bedroom wall who come to life and commune with her in her imagination, a diverse collection of personal heroes that encompasses Elizabeth Taylor (Lily Allen), Sigmund Freud (Michael Sheen), Sylvia Plath (Lucy Punch), and more.

Johanna’s salvation – for that is how she sees it – comes in the form of an advert looking for rock critics. It is the pre-internet 1990s, but trolls are already in ascendance, not that Johanna recognizes the breed in the music tabloid’s editor and staff. She is not even a rock fan at first, but she is a quick study and a gifted writer. There are hiccups on her road to notoriety as Dolly Wilde, but once fellow critic Tony (Frank Dillane) explains that the whole point of the publication is to promote a very chosen few and denigrate the many, Johanna wholeheartedly embraces snark to stunning effect.

Only 16, Johanna is a work in progress readily adaptable to changing conditions. To interview for the job, she utterly transforms her look into that of a striking, dramatic redhead with a penchant for micro-minis. When mean-spiritedness makes her not only popular in school but also in the pop culture firmament and allows her to support her impoverished family with her earnings, she is all in with that persona. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll become her lifestyle and her religion. It makes her the asshole of the year, not just to her readers, but to her family and to John Kite (Alfie Allen), a rock star who shows her genuine kindness and friendship.

The question that hovers over How to Build a Girl is just what kind of girl is Johanna building? She is at a pivotal moment in her life. As sweet Johanna is subsumed by boisterous, malicious Dolly, can that Johanna ever return? It is to the film’s credit that that question hovers unanswered for most of the movie. How to Build a Girl has been compared to Bridget Jones’s Diary, but other than being about two ambitious young women with jobs in the media, there are few similarities. Johanna is not seeking a Mr. Darcy to give her a fairytale ending and Bridget was old enough for her selfhood to be set, not necessarily the case with Johanna. Is she capable of more transformation or is she stuck at asshole of the year?

One question is settled by How to Build a Girl. What her previous movies and her triumph on Broadway as Minnie Fay in Hello, Dolly! suggested is made manifest here: Beanie Feldstein is a young woman who is going to have a monster career. She is a charming actor, but not one that needs to be liked, and she embodies the baser aspects of Johanna’s personality in those moments when the teenager is truly abhorrent. Yet, it is impossible to dislike Johanna for long, if only because she is so funny. Feldstein is the complete package, a gifted comic with a full emotional range at her disposal. Moran has written a witty, insightful adaptation of her own book and Giedroyc has made a delightful, well-cast, and resonant film, but How to Build a Girl film lives or dies on Feldstein’s performance. It lives. –Pam Grady

How to Build a Girl is available in select theaters and on demand.

Killer fashion: DEERSKIN

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Quentin Dupieux, the writer/director who 10 years ago made a homicidal maniac out of a tire in Rubber, now turns his attention to a jacket and the goofball who wears it in the mordantly funny Deerskin. Oscar winner Jean Dujardin stars in this bloody and buoyant blend of horror and comedy that hinges on one man’s obsession.

We never learn much about who Georges might have been before the jacket comes into his life. He was once given to wearing tweedy jackets – at least that is what he wears in the opening frames, soon ditched in the most passive-aggressive way in a gas station lavatory. He was married but announces his permanent separation over a pay phone to his wife and is later shocked to learn she has blocked his access to their joint bank account. And he needs money, if only to add yet more deerskin accessories to his ensemble.

The fringed suede jacket itself – bought from an old man who has kept it in a trunk for 30 years, consigned there when it was no longer fashionable – resembles those favored by the likes of musician David Crosby in the 1960s and ’70s. It is fringed suede, a hippie’s dream of outerwear. It fits Georges like a sausage casing, but he is enamored with it. The jacket enchants this 50-something-year-old who is apparently bent on reinventing himself one sartorial choice at a time.

Settling in a hotel in a small village in the Pyrenees where he knows no one, sets about remaking himself. A home video camera given him by the man who sold him the jacket allows him to call himself a filmmaker. He finds a collaborator in Denise (Adèle Haenel), a bartender who trained as an editor. Moviemaking allows Georges to document his real project: Ridding the world of all other jackets – by any means necessary – so that his deerskin will be the only one.

The absurdity of Georges’ quest and the lengths to which he will go to tilt at that particular windmill drives Deerskin‘s humor. Dupieux has written a screenplay in which the comedy (and the horror) build in increments. Georges begins as a mild eccentric with an apparent flair for grift, his mental instability and loose grasp on reality becoming ever more apparent along with a propensity for sudden violence hidden beneath his doofus personality. Dujardin nails the character’s many shadings and does not give into an actor’s natural tendency to make his character likable. Georges is a wolf in a deerskin wrapper and Dujardin plays that to the hilt.

The Pyrenees setting was a brilliant choice on Dupieux’s part. The natural beauty and serenity of the alpine town provide a potent counterpoint to the chaos Georges creates within it. In returning to an inanimate object once more for inspiration, Dupieux has gifted audiences with a bloody good time. –Pam Grady

Deerskin is available to screen from Roxie Virtual Cinema and other VOD outlets.

Clique Bait: SELAH AND THE SPADES

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Selah And The Spades

Step aside, Mean Girls and Heathers and Election‘s Tracy Flick. Your portraits of high school power games and popularity contests are so… well, teenage, when put against the actions of the titular character in Selah and the Spades. In Tayarisha Poe’s sensational feature debut, 17-year-old Selah Summers (Lovie Simone) is more Lucrezia Borgia or John Gotti than adolescent queen bee.

Poe sets her tale in the hermetically sealed world of a boarding school. These kids are rich and have the sense of entitlement that comes from money and privilege. At the same time, they are also their parents’ prized trophies, raised with the expectation that will attend Ivies or other elite universities and go on to fabulous lives that will reflect well on the family.

It’s a lot of pressure and the kids at Haldwell School in Pennsylvania have reacted by taking the normal cliques familiar to any high school and weaponizing them. Instead of jocks and geeks and stoners, the five strata at Haldwell are teenage crime families. Working in tandem with one another in an uneasy alliance, each group plays a different role and wields far more power than their neutered headmaster (Jesse Williams). The band that Selah rules over, The Spades, keeps their classmates awash in liquor and drugs.

But, as Shakespeare noted in Henry IV, Part II, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” and so it is with Selah. On the surface, she is a picture of composure and supreme confidence. But she trusts no one, not even her second in command Maxie (Jharrel Jerome). Compounding her issues are a long-simmering feud with Bobby (Ana Mulvoy Ten), leader of a rival faction, that threatens to break into the open, and an obsession with her legacy. Selah is a senior, who will inherit the Spades when she graduates?

New student Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) might hold the key to succession. The two girls become instant besties. Paloma is smart. She’s reliable. Very little fazes her. But she also has a streak of independence that resists Selah’s attempts at control and manipulation. And not much gets past her as she observes how Selah treats Maxxie and the fraught interactions between Selah and Bobby. Can anyone truly be friends with Selah or does she ultimately see everyone as a frenemy?

At one point, Selah visits her parents. Her mother (Gina Torres) relates to her the old fable of the scorpion and the frog in which the scorpion hitches a ride with the amphibian across a river, only to sting his benefactor mid-crossing, dooming them both. The scorpion can’t help it; it’s his nature.

Selah and the Spades zeroes in on Selah’s nature, which is not so different from the scorpion’s. She is a smart young woman, but it is not her intelligence that drives her but something much more primal. Her outward calms masks a tumultuous emotional life rife with anger, resentment, and jealousy. There is also an element of fear: When she moves on from Haldwell, who is she? Who is Selah Summers when she is no longer a high school celebrity, when she is just another anonymous college freshman?

Writer/director Poe has created an outstanding first feature, one that sells the offbeat reality of the situation and the idea that these kids have successfully forged a world completely separate from their teachers and parents. Simone’s performance is indelible, a finely etched character portrait of a young woman who has found her purpose within that universe and reacts badly as the time nears to move on to her next chapter. –Pam Grady

Selah and the Spades is streaming on Amazon Prime.

 

Review: Coogan soars in faltering GREED

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1Greed plays to Steve Coogan’s strengths. He is an actor able to embody repellent characters but layer them with enough charm that an audience will keep watching and even begrudgingly like even the complete bastards he sometimes plays. And so it is with Greed, Michael Winterbottom’s latest, a misfire in which Coogan soars as billionaire jerk Sir Richard “Greedy” McCreadie even as the film flails around him in a mostly unsuccessful attempt to satirize the super-rich while calling attention to the injustices built into the garment industry.

This is Greedy McCreadie: He’s the type of person spending millions to throw himself a 60th birthday party on the Greek island of Mykonos with a guest list that includes plenty of celebrities to reflect their stardust back at him and an ancient Roman gladiator theme (complete with lion). He’s the kind of guy who upon seeing a group of Greek refugees on the beach has the police remove lest they disturb his guests’ view with their… poverty. He is someone who has built his own wealth partially by dodging taxes in Monaco but mostly by hardball bargaining with the owners of Sri Lankan sweatshops who provide the clothing for his stores. He is a vain man with blinding white teeth, who traded in his wife Samantha (Isla Fisher) for Naomi (Shanina Shaik), a girl young enough to be his daughter. Oh, and he’s such a genius businessman that as revealed through the time-shifting narrative, he has presided over serial bankruptcies of once high-flying fashion chains (gee, that scenario is somehow so familiar).

So far, so much wretched excess. Coogan knocks it out of the park, at once absolutely repulsive yet somehow oddly likeable. Winterbottom chose well in casting Jamie Blackley as Greedy’s younger self, an avaricious brat even at a tender age. Fisher is an apt match for Coogan, playing Samantha as someone who embraces her greed with cheerful amorality. The sun-drenched Mykonos setting perfectly encapsulates the rewards that accrue to those who give no thought to the rest of the world in their full embrace of the greed-is-good ethos. And if a soundtrack that includes The Flying Lizards’ “Money (That’s What I Want)” and ABBA’s “Money Money Money” is sometimes a little on the nose, it is apt.

Greed gets that much right, but it all falls apart in the film’s storytelling. Winterbottom is attempting to satirize the super-rich, but the problem is the lives so breathlessly reported by the tabloids already resemble satire. How do you exaggerate the already exaggerated?

By focusing on Greedy McCreadie Winterbottom is obscuring his own point. He wants to say something about the exploitation of labor by people like Greedy whose negotiations with sweatshop owners drive down his price , but also the conditions and pay under which the people who actually make the clothing he sells work. Even when his party manager Amanda (Dinita Gohil) relates a heartfelt story of a tragedy that rose out of one of Greedy’s deals, it feels at a remove. A drama about garment workers and their travails may not as be as sexy as a quasi-comedy about a larger-than-life lowlife (but nevertheless captivating) billionaire, but to make a story about their exploitation, it really ought to be told through their eyes. Otherwise, the real message of Greed is clear. The world belongs to people like Greedy McCreadie. The rest of us are bit players in their drama. –Pam Grady

 

 

 

Grandpa, is that you? Decoding the shared DNA of MARRIAGE STORY’s Charlie and STAR WARS’ Kylo Ren

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Marriage Story 7-horzSpoiler alert: The following discusses certain aspects and plot points of Marriage Story and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

2019 has been the year of Adam Driver with five movies hitting US theaters: Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, in which he plays a megalomaniac film director; Scott Z. Burns’ The Report that casts the actor as real-life Senate investigator Daniel Jones; Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, where Driver partners with Bill Murray and Chloë Sevigny as police fighting a zombie invasion; Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, in which he is a theater director going through a divorce; and he reprises his role of villain Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Already a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild best actor nominee for Marriage Story, Driver is all but a lock for an Oscar nomination.

It’s truly been a stellar year for Driver, but here’s the weird thing: Marriage Story and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker would make one of the oddest yet most oddly compelling double bills of all time for those remaining rep houses that still book them. On the surface, the two films have nothing in common other than a single actor. But the men Driver plays in them share certain personality traits that make it all too easy to imagine that Charlie, the theater director, is the great-great-to-however-many-powers grandfather of Kylo Ren. The seed for all that intergalactic strife was planted in 21st century New York.

Unlikely, you say? Check it out: They share the same defining personality trait, petulance. Charlie sulks his way through his divorce, further alienating his ex, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). Centuries later, Kylo’s peevishness leaves him to reject his parents Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), embrace his dark side, and eventually murder his father in Star Wars Episode VII – The Force Awakens. Despite the power he’s amassed since, Kylo’s mood hasn’t improved in The Rise of Skywalker. Instead of acting the winner, he’s a whiner.

Of course, I’m sure there are those that would defend Charlie and Kylo as emo rather than pouty, and maybe they would have a point. At least, it would explain their jobs. Charlie is supposed to be some kind of theater savant, he even wins a MacArthur “genius” grant during the course of Marriage Story. But Charlie is awkward and stunted, and it is hard to imagine that his theater doesn’t reflect that. Part of the reason Nicole leaves is because she feels smothered and much of that has to do with her work in his theater, the place pretentiousness and self-seriousness call home.

As for Kylo, sure, he embraces evil and he’s always attacking his mother’s forces, but his ways clearly don’t spark joy. One wonders what Darth Vader, the granddad he worships, would say about this sad boi, this gangly perpetual teenager who always seems on the verge of bursting into tears. Is this villainy or merely pique? You can almost hear him screaming at his mother, “I don’t want to be a Jedi and you can’t make me!”

Charlie and Kylo also share a certain sense of it is all-about-me-ness when it comes to the women they profess to love. Charlie is left poleaxed by Nicole leaving him, because he never saw it coming, never really saw her, never saw that she was unhappy in her role as an extension of his work, and ultimately, of him.

Kylo’s intensity toward Jedi warrior Rey (Daisy Ridley) is that of a stalker as he insists on their future together despite her protests. And what a future! The only thing he can imagine is the two of them sitting on the Palpatine throne as Sith king and queen. That Rey doesn’t want to embrace her own dark side and has worked damned hard to become a Jedi matters not to Kylo. Nor does it dawn on him that Rey isn’t someone likely to embrace a fate that would involve the wholesale slaughter of her friends. Of course not, because, really, it’s all about Kylo and what he wants. He’s a bad boyfriend.

There you have it. In a galaxy far, far away is a troubled man. And the seeds of that trouble aren’t in his turning his back on the Jedi and his parents or even in killing his dad, but in a theater director in our own galaxy and our own time. That ambition to conquer Broadway sprouts many years later as an ambition to conquer worlds. It’s family. It’s legacy. There is no escape. It’s family dysfunction for the ages. –Pam Grady

Review: Crime family dysfunction interrupts Line of Descent

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Similarities between the great mob classic The Godfather and Rohit Karn Batra’s debut feature Line of Descent probably aren’t coincidental. Like Francis Coppola’s gangland epic, Batra’s New Delhi-set thriller starts with a family celebration, in this case, a toddler’s birthday part, that introduces the viewers to three disparate brothers. And like the Corleone siblings, the Sinha’s are part of their father’s criminal enterprise. But Line of Descent is not The Godfather. Rather than a sweeping saga, it is tense, blood-spattered portrait of resentment and family dysfunction the plays out against the passing of the torch from one generation to the next.

What sets Line of Descent into motion is a father’s will. In life, Bharat Sinha (Prem Chopra) directed the strongarm activities of his two elder sons, level-headed Prithvi (Ronit Roy) and volatile Siddharth (Neeraj Kabi). Half-brother Suraj (Ali Haji) is much younger and has yet to join the family business. Bharat’s death shouldn’t leave a vacuum—he has set up his estate so that Prithvi is in charge. But the decision enrages Siddharth, who becomes even angrier when Prithvi has no interest in his scheme to sell arms. Not only that, Prithvi has lost his taste for crime and wants to pull the Sinhas out of the life and transform the family’s legitimate front, an electronics store, into its sole business. It is a set up for a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

Kabi is scarily good at playing a psychopath willing to put his ambitions before his family, and he’s equipped with two Lady Macbeths in his wife and his mistress. If Prithvi’s urge is to protect, Siddharth’s is to destroy anything in his path that might thwart him. He is oblivious, to the idea that the police (in the form of Abhay Deol’s Officer Raghav) might be investigating the Sinhas or that Charu (an exuberant Brendan Fraser), the American he chooses for his partner, might have second thoughts about hitching his fate to someone so mercurial.

Batra excels at atmosphere, particularly in scenes set in the bars and clubs of New Delhi nightlife where so much illicit business is conducted. If the central conflict between Prithvi and Siddharth is clear-cut, the way it plays out is less so. Bullets fly. Bodies fall. If Michael Corleone was able to build an empire out of his particular brand of grandiose psychosis in The Godfather, Siddharth hardly seems that smart or that lucky. But in tracking this crime family sibling rivalry, Batra builds a nail-biter out of a war between brothers where Siddharth might yet prevail—although perhaps not in the way he planned. –Pam Grady

Line of Descent is playing in selected theaters and on VOD.

Q&A: AERONAUTS’ director Tom Harper on his high-flying adventure

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Aeronauts

Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon
Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon
We could float among the stars together, you and I
For we can fly, we can fly – Jimmy Webb, “Up, Up and Away”

Three years after the release of his acclaimed miniseries adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and after pausing to make the Glasgow-Nashville-set contemporary drama Wild Rose, director Tom Harper returns to the 19th century with The Aeronauts. Combining fact and fiction, the story by Harper and screenwriter Jack Thorne, spins the tale of pioneering meteorologist James Glaisher and balloon pilot Amelia Wren as they take vertiginous flight in the name of science. Glaisher is obsessed with weather. To find the answers he needs takes death-defying feats of derring-do.

The Aeronauts reunites The Theory of Everything stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Glaisher and Wren, depositing the actors in a real-life replica of a 19th-century gas balloon as Harper filmed scenes as often as possible in the open air to an altitude of 3,000 feet.

On a visit to San Francisco recently to accept SFFILM’s Sloan Science in Cinema Prize on behalf of The Aeronauts and screen the film, Harper, 39, sat down with Cinezinekane to chat about his high-flying achievement.

Q: In this age of CGI, you insisted on building and flying a real balloon.

Tom Harper: We wanted it to feel as real as possible. So much of the jeopardy and the thrills come from experiencing or kind of feeling what it’s like for those characters. And I think that you can just tell the difference if you’ve done some of it for real. We’re now living in a day and age where you can create visuals in CGI that are almost impossible, if at all possible, to tell the difference. But there are other factors as well.

For example, you can shoot something that’s completely photorealistic and believable, but if the camera’s moving around the balloon and the crane, in your subconscious you’re going, ‘That it’s not possible.’ We went up in a balloon and we filmed for real and we saw some, you know, parachuters and, and actually, it’s all of the imperfections that make something believable. And that’s actually the thing that I’m most interested in in filmmaking, the imperfections. Humans are these wonderful, fallible imperfect beings.

Q: You’ve made an action adventure movie about weather. Saying it out loud sounds so daft.

Tom Harper: (laughs) I mean, it’s not the most glamorous of interests, admittedly. But James Glaisher talks about trying to understand the things that you can’t control. There is something so big involved about the weather and our atmosphere, that it is sort of unknowable.

And 170 years ago, it was thought that it would be impossible to predict the weather. Admittedly, we still have a way to go, but we’ve come an incredible way. And I like the idea that what we think is impossible now, in a hundred years will be considered commonplace. There’s something wonderful about that, and it sort of challenges us to think beyond the outer limits.

Q: James Glaisher was a real person, a pioneering aeronaut and meteorologist. Amelia Wren is a fictional character. In fictionalizing his story, you could have followed many different avenues, what led you and screenwriter Jack Thorne to Amelia?

Tom Harper: With Amelia, not only do you have that dynamic of male, female, but she is such a show person. Amelia is based on (19th-century aeronaut) Sophie Blanchard. She was a flamboyant firecracker, a woman who was an acrobat and who shot off fireworks from her basket.

We thought putting someone like Sophie in the basket with James, who’s a meticulous, methodical scientist would be a really interesting combination of characters. The main thing was OK, if you’re gonna spend 90 minutes in that basket, who are the most interesting characters to put there?

Also, there is a gender bias in science, and certain there is in film, where there aren’t enough strong female characters. So, that there was this historical woman to draw from was a wonderful thing and something we embraced wholeheartedly.

Q: In casting Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, they have great chemistry and that is enhanced by that sense memory of the two of them together in The Theory of Everything.

Tom Harper: They are great friends and they do have this great chemistry, but they also trust each other and they dare each other to take risks. I think the reason that they’re so good together is because they push each other and they have great working relationship.  And that’s reflected in the relationship that eventually evolves between the two of them in the balloon as they start out as these antagonists that are stuck in this basket together. Because of the things that happen, they have to learn how to rely and trust each other or they’re just not going to survive.

Q: And you and Eddie went through hypoxia training so that he would know what it was actually like to be deprived of oxygen?

Tom Harper:  We did, yes. And Eddie was very keen to (do it), so that he could draw from those experiences and deliver the best performance. We went to a Ministry of Defense base in in the UK and they put us in a decompression chamber and they took us up to the equivalent of 25,000 feet. They take you out, they break off oxygen, and you basically suffocate while you starve yourself of oxygen. That has a very interesting physiological effect on you. And, actually, everyone responds differently. It can lead actually to a sort of euphoria and sort of a fervid quality or you start losing your memory; all sorts of strange things can start happening to you. I just felt very sick and then, of course, forgot everything. Eddie, on the other hand, became fervid and passionate and started reciting lines from the film. He was generally very cool. I was less so.

Q: You spent a lot of time up in balloons preparing to make The Aeronauts. You built and filmed your own balloon and found drama in that tiny basket high up in the air. Has all that experience translated into a lasting addiction to ballooning?

Tom Harper: I hope so. I loved it. There is something majestic and wonderful about it. I would like to get my piloting license, I have to say. You need to be very flexible with ballooning. because it depends on the weather. So, I think it’s like the perfect retirement thing, because you have to drop out, you know, when the weather is right. You just have to drop everything and go.

Q: So, Around the World in 80 Days’ Phineas Fogg, he’s your spirit animal.

Tom Harper: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. –Pam Grady