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

Director Alma Har’el helps Shia LaBeouf find catharsis in HONEY BOY

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HONEY BOYShia LaBeouf came into the Sundance Film Festival last year a scandal-plagued actor with something to prove. The former child star and one time face of the Transformers franchise announced a career rebirth with Honey Boy, an autobiographical drama he not only stars in but wrote.

LaBeouf’s Israeli director, Alma Har’el had something to prove, as well, a documentary filmmaker making her first feature. Honey Boy premiered to glowing reviews and Har’el came away with a special jury prize for “vision and craft.” But, as she explained nearly a year later in introducing the film to a Toronto Film Festival audience, she took something else from Sundance.

“I realized how many people… have parents or childhood trauma or relationships that they have to forgive in order to move on,” Har’el said, going on to note that the film addresses the inherited, generational pain that so many people carry.

That generational pain Har’el speaks of is all on screen in Honey Boy. English actor Noah Jupe plays 12-year-old Otis Lort, a rising child actor not unlike LaBeouf 20 years ago. LaBeouf plays James, a version of his real-life father, a clown (literally, as LaBeouf’s dad was), alcoholic, and abusive ne’er-do-well living off his child and cultivating hopeless get-rich-quick schemes.

Like LaBeouf, Otis grows up to be an action star—now played by Lucas Hedges. Real life and reel life intersect when the troubled young actor is arrested and sentenced to rehab. In truth, LaBeouf’s journey to Honey Boy arose out of a 2017 incident when he was in Savannah, Georgia, making Peanut Butter Falcon. Arrested for disorderly conduct and public drunkenness in an expletive-laced incident caught on tape, LaBeouf was sentenced to rehab. His screenplay for Honey Boy began as part of his therapy as he dealt with his own alcohol issues and a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) arising from his childhood.

“It was a really big and deep long process that led to this film,” says Har’el during a visit to the Bay Area where Honey Boy screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival. “When we finished it, I feel Shia got to exorcise all of the anger he had.”

There is an odd sense of destiny that hangs over Honey Boy, a series of steps without which the film might never have been made. There is the public humiliation of LaBeouf’s arrest and court-ordered rehab, of course, but it was to Har’el that LaBeouf sent his pages, a short film set in a hotel room. It was she who suggested he expand the story and include the adult Otis. She collaborated with him through what she estimates is 80 to 90 drafts leading to the final script.

Har’el was essential to LaBeouf getting his story out there and that only happens because of the fan letter that led to their meeting. Blown away by Bombay Beach, Har’el’s award-winning 2011 documentary focused on residents of an impoverished Salton Sea community, he emailed her, leading to a dinner where they discovered they were both the children of alcoholics. A bond formed, growing tighter when he starred in her video for Sigur Rós’ “Fjögur pianó” video and then financed and executive produced her 2016 feature documentary LoveTrue. By the time, he was in rehab, LeBeouf and Har’el were close friends, so much so that she was able to convince him to overcome his qualms about playing his father.

“I think I had to just make sure that he felt safe and that he can trust me, which was something that was inherent to our relationship already,” says Har’el “The lethal combination of PTSD and alcoholism is just so real. It’s a real dive.

“So yeah, it was, it was a hard decision to make (for LaBeouf to play the role), but it was as an extremely organic continuation of the work we did. And I remember calling him and saying, ‘When you think about it, it’s exactly what we did in LoveTrue… That film was people playing with their younger selves and we had a therapist on set. It was like psychodrama… having people go into their trauma or their fears or their memories and sit next to their younger self and talk to them.”

LaBeouf’s last step before embarking on the role was to visit his father. He returned from that meeting with a sense of purpose, determined to challenge himself artistically. Meanwhile, Har’el remained mindful that the role her friend was about to embark on was a potential minefield for his mental health.

“I spoke to his therapist from the court-ordered rehab facility and she knew about everything we were doing,” Har’el says. “I tried to educate myself a lot about what is PTSD.

“She warned me about a lot of things that I should be aware of with Shia playing his father and taking on the person that has been the most abusive to him in his life. It was a learning curve for all of us.”

Perhaps, what is most surprising about Honey Boy is its lack of judgment and bitterness. LaBeouf inherited a terrible legacy from his father, but what is reflected on screen is compassion. James Lort is most certainly not a nice guy and what young Otis witnesses and experiences is disturbing. Yet, James is not portrayed simply as an abusive villain but as a troubled man beset by his own demons.

“You have to develop a sort of empathy to the person that has caused you pain,” Har’el says. “And you have to play out who he was and then you get to see what you inherited, because some of that anger and those behaviors do become yours even if they come out only when you’re triggered or they come out only when you’re put in a certain situation. That’s the tools you’ve had, that you’ve been given.

“You know, we see a lot of movies that are cathartic, but, but it’s still acting. But this was a real catharsis. Bizarrely, this was real, you know, this was a real person at a junction in his life where he thought that he’s never going to act again and was given the opportunity to act again, but only if he can connect to his father who caused him pain.”—Pam Grady

The French Had a Name for It 6 brings noir and Aznavour to the Roxie

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horace-62_01When Charles Aznavour died just over a year ago in October 2018, it brought the end of not just one of the world’s great singers but also an actor of considerable charisma. That quality is on full display in The Fabiani Affair (1962), a tense crime drama that is one of 15 1960s Gallic film noirs screening at The French Had a Name For It 6, Thursday, Nov. 14-Monday, Nov. 18 at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater.

Made two years after Aznavour starred as Charlie, the musician swept up in his brothers’ criminal activities, in François Truffaut’s sublime thriller Shoot the Piano Player, The Fabiani Affair once more casts the actor as a man entangled with his siblings in a violent clash. Aznavour plays Horace Fabiani, one of three Corsican brothers living in Paris and the latest generation to become enmeshed in a feud with the rival Colonna family that dates back to the old country. Horace is reluctant to join in; he has a family and among the opposing set of brothers the Fabianis will battle is their sister’s husband Noel (Raymond Pellegrin). But with the Fabianis’ father (Nerio Bernardi) spoiling for war, Horace really has no choice.

The directing debut of actor André Versini, The Fabiani Affair builds suspense over a long night in Paris as the two sets of brothers alternately hunt for one another. None of them really seem to have their hearts into the fight, but their clash is a matter of family honor and destiny, so they drive on. Versini displays a gift for setting atmosphere with Marcel Grignon’s striking cinematography and Paul Mauriat’s evocative jazz score. Aznavour further amps the tension through his performance as a man increasingly giving himself over to the despair of an untenable situation in a film that is as downbeat as it is suspenseful.

Among other highlight of The French Had a Name for it 6:

Joy House (1964): One of the biggest, sexiest French stars of the 1960s, Alain Delon (Purple Noon, Le Samouraï) stars alongside Americans Lola Albright and Jane Fonda in René Clement’s sly thriller. On the run from gangsters who mean him harm, Delon’s Marc thinks he has found the perfect hideout and a sweet situation when he signs on as chauffer to rich widow Barbara (Albright) and her pretty young cousin Melinda (Fonda). Perhaps Melinda’s obsessive attentions and Barbara’s one-sided dialogue with her dead husband should clue Marc into the idea that his refuge isn’t the oasis from danger it seems. But beauty doesn’t always equate with brains, and certainly not in this delicious little drama.

Le Petit Soldat (1963): Originally shot in 1960 as Jean-Luc Godard’s follow-up to his immortal Breathless, this war drama was banned by French authorities for three years. The director’s sin? Depicting torture and other war crimes in context of the then raging Algerian War. Michel Subor is a photographer in Geneva, Switzerland, who comes to grief at his other job working against the Algerians. Godard’s future wife Anna Karina is the model the photographer falls for in a film as stylistically dazzling as the director’s storied feature debut.

One Does Not Bury Sunday (1960): An interracial romantic triangle is at the heart of this downbeat noir in which Gabonese writer Philippe Valence (Philippe Mory) becomes involved with both an au pair (Margaretha Lundal) and a rich married woman (Hella Petri). Sex and murder interrupt an artist’s brilliant future in a drama that grows ever bleaker as the police (and the walls) close in on Philippe.

Objective 500 Million (1966): Pierre Schoendoerffer’s nifty thriller stars Bruno Cremer as Jean, a disgraced former air force captain sucked into a caper that involves both a beautiful femme fatale (Marisa Mell) and the man (Jean-Claude Rolland) responsible for his disgrace and imprisonment during the Algerian War. His share in the heist of millions could go along way toward fixing what’s wrong with Jean’s life but the possibility of revenge motivates him more in a tense crime drama with an arresting climax that alternates between the Paris-to-Bordeaux flight that is ferrying the cash and confederates on the ground awaiting a big payoff. –Pam Grady

The French Had a Name For It 6, Nov. 14-18, Roxie Theater, 3117 16th Street, San Francisco, $12-$14. http://midcenturyproductions.com

TIFF Q&A: Takashi Miike recalls FIRST LOVE

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firstlove_0HEROThe meeting with Japan’s great auteur Takashi Miike takes place in the conference room of a Marriott Residence Inn in Toronto where Miike has come to screen his latest genre exercise, First Love, as the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness program. The bland anonymity of the space is at odds with the man who makes a vibrant entrance in a ruched leather coat, beaded bracelets on both wrists. At 59, Miike describes himself as an “elderly” man, but the spring in his step, the fashion-forward duds, and First Love belie that assertion.

Miike’s 103rd IMDB entry, prodigious output dating back to 1991, is a mashup of sorts, blending yakuza, romance, black comedy, and even, in one arresting sequence, anime. A kind of riff on the Quentin Tarantino co-scripted True Romance, First Love spins the  action-packed tale of a drug deal and heist that comes to involve yakuza, Chinese triads, and a corrupt cop and pulls into its orbit a young woman coerced into prostitution and a boxer living under the cloud of a terminal diagnosis. For the latter, the meet is anything but cute as they are forced to flee for their lives.

For the maker of Audition, Ichi the Killer, and more recently, Blade of the Immortal, First Love was in some ways, just another day at the office. But in others, as Miike explains through an interpreter in this conversation, it was a trip back to his old neighborhood, a return to a favorite genre in the film’s yakuza elements, and a reckoning with the realities of the Japanese film industry and his own limited budgets.

Q: You have said that, “This film gives me joy like returning to my home ground.” Can you expand on that?

A: I grew up in a place that was very rough and tumble. There were a lot of rough characters. There was a lot of misery, a lot of poverty going on. There were some opposing forces of pride and love and resentment and hope. In this film, those same elements exist and a lot of people lose their lives. What I mean when I say this film is like going back to my hometown is that even in circumstances that are that dire, two humans can meet and escape together and find this love story, this profound love story. That’s something that I think unites us as humanity, that we have this strength that we can draw from, that even in those situations, we can find something good and find something positive from it.

Q: Do you see your story as a fairy tale? One of the things that struck me about the film is that there are these two innocents caught up in this world of violence and poverty, yet they are somehow able to transcend that.

A: I agree with you and I think the reason it became the movie it did become is because you have these fairytale-esque elements in there; you have these themes, also, that are almost too beautiful to express. It’s almost difficult for a shy Japanese person to express this beautiful love story and yell-at-the-top-of-the-mountains-type thing. We have to find a more subtle way to express that. As humans, we have these things we’re trying to hide. We have our own skeletons in the closet. But we have to believe there’s a reason why we’re here. There’s a reason why we were born and there’s a reason for us living. Maybe that reason does exist and maybe it doesn’t exist—it’s hard to say for sure—but we have to believe that there’s something like that that’s moving us forward. Once you start talking about those kinds of themes, you’ve already gone into the fantasy realm. You’re talking about hate and resentment versus love and hope and all these ideal values, they’re pushing up against each other. That leads you to this story, this fantastic love story. By going through this yakuza theme or motif, I felt that would give us a very interesting background that would allow me to express a very beautiful love story.

Q: Expanding on that, yakuza stories are ones you’ve returned to again and again in your work. What is their appeal to you?

A: I think what is attractive about the yakuza film genre as opposed to other film genres is that you basically have a straightforward premise. Somebody wants something and they want it fast and they want it now and the other person doesn’t want to give it them and then they fight. They have these contrived conversations, but within these contrived conversations—you don’t want to make them seem contrived, you want to make them realistic, but they are contrived because it’s fiction—you have this speed. You have this condensed version of life, right? Somebody wants something, the other person doesn’t want to give it to them and they fight. If you think about it, over 10 years, that’s probably happened to any given person, they’ve been through that situation on a micro-scale. This condenses that. With a yakuza theme, you can do all of that, all that might happen to a person in 10 years, in one night. It creates a compressed or compacted version of real life. If you extract some of the most tense and climactic moments from real life, you’re probably going to have a film that seems like a yakuza film. Any human being will have something like that, where you have betrayal; you have love; you have bickering or fighting between romantic partners. You put all that together and compact it together, and you look back at it, “Wow! My life is kind of like a yakuza film.” Yakuza movies are just a miniature version of life.

I actually feel very uncomfortable watching a normal film, a mainstream film. The reason I feel uncomfortable watching a mainstream film is because—in every film, you have bad guys, the antagonists, but the reason they exist in most mainstream films is just so they can make the good people look better. They’re there to convince everyone in this disgustingly fake way that the good guys are perfect and the bad guys are horrible. That, to me, is so absolutely fake. There’s a part of me that wants to reach out an olive branch and extend a hand to these people that are being labeled as bad guys and help them out a little bit and say, “Actually, we’re all human. The good people aren’t that great, either.” I have a kind of twisted love, in a way, for these rough-and-tumble characters.

Q: Within the film, there is a wonderful animated sequence that takes the place of a big car stunt. Most directors would have stuck with live-action throughout and accomplished what that scene does with camera tricks and green screens. Why did you opt for anime?

A: It’s very easy to create a stunt like that in Hollywood. It’s not actually technically complicated at all, but right now in Japan, we’re in a situation where the traditional car stuntmen are all getting older. Most of them are in my same age range. I love all of those actors, but there is an aversion to risk and physical danger that we have to put them through, so there’s this thinking that, “OK, you want this big fancy stunt film, well go watch a Hollywood show. We’re not going to do that here.

Part of that is also based on the fact that because most of the traditional stuntmen are getting so elderly and very little new blood is coming into the stuntman-actor category, these elderly gentlemen are kind of a national treasure. They’re an endangered species. I personally love those people and I want to protect them. We decided to do an anime scene and it worked. At the same time, there’s this burning desire within me to come up with a story idea where I can present some of those people, those aging actors, so that they can take part in that, as part of their legacy. I want to be able to pay them their guarantee fee that they really deserve and have this amazing car stunt scene or action-packed film with these elderly Japanese stunt actors and pull out all the stops, not pull any punches and really give them a film they can be proud of with the kind of structure and the kind of story arc where they would be able to say, “You know, even if I die when I’m doing this, I’ll still be glad that I did it.”

Q: Did you consider jettisoning that scene altogether before you hit on the idea of animating it?

A: When you come up to these obstacles, you really have two choices. You have budget constraints and you have other constraints but you have to find a way to work around them. You can either run away from that and say, “We’re just not going to do it. We just won’t film that scene or that movie; we’ll move on to the next thing.” Or you can say, “This is a story worth telling, so we’ll find a way to make that happen.”  If you take the first option and run away, you will end up missing the opportunity to develop your ability to find other people that are making low-budget stuff that is great and they still have to work within budget constraints and you have to find a way to work around those issues and still make a great film. If you run away, you’re not going to make those connections and finding those people you can collaborate with and still make really good films even with a limited budget.

That being said, very few people have been willing to invest enormous amounts of money in my productions so far, so I guess we’ll see what happens. –Pam Grady

A maiden voyage on the world-famous Maiden

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The two-hour sail almost didn’t happen. Maiden, the yacht made famous in Alex Holmes’ eponymous documentary about skipper Tracy Edwards and her all-female crew and their history-making bid to win the 1989 Whitbread Round the World Race, has been docked at the St. Francis Yacht Club since the evening of Monday, Aug. 19. Now, she was off with a few invited guests for a sail around the Bay, but a dredging operation with a huge barge at the mouth of the harbor dropped the water level even more than the low tide, trapping Maiden inside the marina. But cooperation is a hallmark of people who spend their lives on water. The barge moved off. The sail began.

On the boat: Skipper Wendy Tuck, a cheerful Australian who became the first woman to win a round the world race when she came in first in the 2018 Clipper Race; three sailors of the permanent crew, Matilda Ajanko, Courtney Koos, and Amalia Infante; Angela Heath, a member of the 1989 crew, joyful to find herself back in familiar surroundings; an assortment of journalists and others most of whom seemed familiar with the sport; and me—a landlubber whose boating experience can be summoned up in one word: ferries.

Ferries are big. Ferries are kind of like buses, only on water. Maiden is not that. Thrilling and terrifying at the same time. For one thing, Maiden (at least to these eyes, actual sailors may feel differently) is small, its deck narrow, ringed by a taffrail we were told to hold onto at all times when walking on the deck (not something this scaredy cat was not going to attempt—it is far too easy to imagine pitching forward overboard, so not a good look). Then there’s the heel, those moments when a boat leans more to one side than the other and it feels as if you could slide off the world.

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Despite the fear, it was a joy to be on the water. The crew invited confidence, moving around the deck as if on solid dry land. And they were kind to the newbie, particularly skipper Wendy, a surfer who came to sailing in her later 20s, and Amalia, a Spaniard who has been sailing since she was a small child.  And despite the Golden Gate being so socked in that the bridge disappeared—Wendy admits she doesn’t like sailing in fog, but we weren’t going that way—it was a beautiful day for a cruise around the inner San Francisco Bay, around Alcatraz and within shouting distance of Angel Island and Sausalito.

So, why is Maiden here? After the Whitbread race, circumstances forced Tracy Edwards to sell her beloved yacht. It passed through several hands and then dropped out of sight, only to be found in a state of profound disrepair in 2014 in the Seychelles. Edwards raised the money to buy Maiden back and brought her back to England where she was fully restored.

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Now, Maiden is sailing around the world again, but not as part of a race. Instead, she is on a two-and-a-half year world tour that will cover over 60,000 nautical miles, visit 20 countries, and make 36 stopovers, including all five stopovers the Maiden made during the Whitbread race.  The boat left the UK in Nov. 2018.

The journey is not simply one of sport, it also a way of raising awareness of as well as funds for the education of girls and the rights of women through The Maiden Factor and The Maiden Factor Foundation. Part of that effort is outreach. To that end, Maiden is offering public tours, Sat., Aug. 24, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., South Beach Yacht Club in San Francisco and Sun., Aug. 25, 12 p.m.-4 p.m. at the Richmond Yacht Club in Richmond. There is also a benefit screening of Maiden on Weds., Aug. 28, 6:30 p.m. at the Premier Theater at Lucasfilm. Original Maiden crewmembers Jo Gooding and Angela Heath will take part in a Q&A. Maiden departs from the St. Francis Yacht Club at 8:30 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 30.

And now I can say I’ve sailed. (And, yes, I would do it again despite the fear.) And I can brag, because my maiden voyage was on the world-famous Maiden. –Pam Grady

For more information about Maiden and The Maiden Factor, visit www.themaidenfactor.org

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ANGEL HAS FALLEN and can’t get up

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Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is having a very bad week in Angel Has Fallen, presumably the last chapter in the series that includes Olympus Has Fallen (2013) and London Has Fallen (2016). President Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) has offered him a promotion to head of the agency, which his wife Leah (Piper Perabo in the thankless helpmate role) would love but would take Mike out of the thick of things—no easy transition for an adrenalin junkie who is used to being the one guy who can save the world. Plus, he’s having concussion-related migraines that he’s told no one about as he’s become one of those doctor-shopping pillheads in search of relief. Plus, he reunites with his long-estranged father who turns out to be Nick Nolte and not the Nick Nolte of The Prince of Tides and Affliction, but the Nick Nolte with the crazed eyes in tabloid mug shots (but the paranoid old coot, character name Clay, does have a way with incendiary devices). To top it all off, someone has tried to kill the president in a tech-savvy Rube Goldberg operation with a flamboyant body count and a tight frame around Mike. Angel has fallen, indeed.

Lean into the ridiculous premise, just go with it.  Angel Has Fallen masquerades as an action thriller, but it is less that and more of a guilty pleasure in the way that movies with big explosions, raging gun battles, and other forms of cartoon violence so often are. It’s often funny and the humor isn’t completely unintentional—there is no way Clay Manning is meant to be anything more than a cross between the Tasmanian Devil, Yosemite Sam, and the Unibomber (the last acknowledged by Mike). The plotting is negligible. There is, after all, only one way for this to end. Mike isn’t going to fall on a grenade, after all. (Or is he?)

And anyone familiar with the cast will have sussed out who the evildoers are before the story has even engaged, further deflating what little suspense the movie has. These guys are good, even great actors, but they are so often cast for their talent for gleefully inhabiting the roles of the absolute scum of the earth. Their characters’ motivations are pretty transparent, too, although it really seems as if one of them had just upped his dose of Viagra, bought a sports car, or joined a paintball team, a lot of the mayhem could have been avoided. But then there wouldn’t be a movie, now would there?

It’s the dog days of August, the month studios dump product deemed defective on multiplex screens in hopes some will somehow capture an audience, anyway. Kind of like the movie versions of seconds, items offered as is, buyer beware. Angel Has Fallen falls neatly into that category, but it might just be one that sticks. Is it good? No. Is it amusing? Heck, yeah. And when else are moviegoers ever going to get to see the awesome sight of Gerard Butler and Nick Nolte lolling in sensory deprivation tanks? Some things are just worth the price of admission. –Pam Grady

Bitter architect of her own uprising: WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE?

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette? A better question is why should anyone care where Bernadette goes? Richard Linklater adapts Maria Semple’s bestseller, making several changes to the novel that don’t serve either the heroine or star Cate Blanchett well. Already a portrait of a family of enormous privilege—who the hell else can afford to take (on only a month’s notice, yet) a vacation to Antarctica—it adds to it an entitled protagonist whose main character trait is pissing people off.

In a way, Bernadette Fox hews close to the template of a difficult, self-involved woman with a talent for alienating people that Blanchett established in her Oscar-winning turn in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. But Bernadette lacks Jasmine’s vulnerability and she’s meaner. She lavishes what tenderness she has on young teen daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) and, to a lesser extent, husband Elgie (Billy Crudup). For the rest of the human population, this embittered architect (a MacArthur genius grant winner, at that) turned stay-at-home mom has nothing but scorn, lavishing particular venom and outright cruelty on her neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig). It is her behavior toward Audrey that at last pushes Elgie into arranging an intervention, which inspires Bernadette to run away from her family.

All roads eventually lead to Antarctica where, at last, Bernadette’s back story and just why she is so acrimonious comes into focus. Too little, too late in terms of having any empathy for the character or caring about what becomes of her. At least the location (apparently really Greenland) is pretty. Shots of Blanchette kayaking among icebergs that open the film and recur later are gorgeous. But the satire falls flat and Bernadette never gives anyone besides her beloved Bee reason to spend time with her. –Pam GradyWHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE

Ode to (Good) Boys: Tween Comedy Finds Its Sweet Spot

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Good BoysStealing a beer from my uncle’s fridge and running off to share it among the four of us behind the nearby grammar school used to be a thing for me, my two cousins, and my little sister (who we were corrupting, since we were tweens and she wasn’t). Then one day when they were going to come to my house for a sleepover, we stashed a beer in my sister’s purse where my mom discovered it. Busted. Sleepover canceled. Beer filching days over.

This I write as an intro to Good Boys, a film raucous and ribald and charming and absolutely locked into that moment of transition between childhood and full-on adolescence. Writers Gene Stupnitsky (who makes his feature directing debut) and Lee Eisenberg, both one-time The Office writers, have called forth their inner tweens to regale audiences with the tale of three sixth-graders who are trying to replace a drone they accidentally destroyed before anyone realizes it’s even missing, keep the molly that has fallen into their possession from the teenage girls it belongs to, and go to a kissing party at a cool kid’s house. If this all sounds like Superbad: The Junior High Years, well, Superbad star Jonah Hill and that comedy’s writers, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, are all producers on Good Boys.

Someone in the movie suggests that the lifelong friends at the heart of the movie are only BFFs because they live in the same neighborhood, have always gone to the same schools, and their parents are friends. There may be some truth to that as these kids—who call themselves The Beanbag Boys, because they share beanbag chairs—are so very different. Max (Room’s Jacob Tremblay) is the one in the group the cool kids recognize as one of their own and is the apparent future ladies man of the trio, currently nursing a crush on classmate Brixlee (Millie Davis). Lucas (Keith L. Williams) is tall for his age, making some people mistake him for someone older; grappling with family issues; and he would rather not get involved with some of his friends shenanigans since he likes following the rules. Thor (Brady Noon) is as blustery as his name suggests but also bullied in part because his angelic singing voice makes him stand out.

At heart, this really is a story about good boys. Max, Lucas, and Thor are sweet kids. Their hormones are raging and they try to feign sophistication none of them possess—several jokes revolve around all they don’t know about sex. Their troubles mostly stem from youthful ignorance of consequences (not to mention feelings of invincibility) and they labor under the childish conviction that while they’ve done a wrong thing, they can fix it, effecting a do-over and evading punishment.

The laughs are frequent and long—like Superbad, this is a comedy with scenes designed to make people laugh so hard they cry. And while this is a movie no tween can see—not without a parent or guardian, anyway—it’s one that embraces that age and its last gasp of innocence with affection. It also includes a scene from a middle-school production of the Broadway musical Rock of Ages that alone is worth the price of admission. A period of life most people would not choose to return to proves fertile ground for comic gold. Pam Grady

 

Conflict as fodder for comedy: Filmmaker Sameh Zoabi on TEL AVIV ON FIRE

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Tel avivTel Aviv on Fire is the name of a film. It is also the name of a soap opera within the film that has become appointment TV in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, set in 1967 in the months before the Six Day War and revolving around the affair between an Israeli officer and the gorgeous Palestinian spy sent to seduce him. Salam (Kais Nashif), a Palestinian who is the show’s Hebrew translator, gets bumped up to writer, a position he advances with covert help from Assi (Yaniv Biton), an Israeli border guard and superfan of the show.

Director/co-writer Sameh Zoabi’s third narrative feature is the rare film to come at the situation between Israel and Palestine as a comedy. Zoabi himself was born in Iksal, Israel, a Palestinian village near Nazareth. Tel Aviv on Fire is a Palestinian film that is a co-production of France, Luxembourg, Belgium—and Israel. It has been nominated for four Ophirs—the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar—including Best Screenplay and Best Film. It is a film arising out of the perspective of a filmmaker who is simultaneously an insider and an outsider.

Zoabi screened Tel Aviv on Fire at the recent San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The following day he sat down with a cinezinekane to talk about the film, using soap opera to comment on Israeli and Palestinian societies, and his unique place within those societies.

Q: Where did this story come from of this odd partnership between a Palestinian writer and an Israeli soldier?

Sameh Zoabi:    The whole idea came to me, because of that personal dilemma that I lived as a Palestinian growing up inside Israel, making movies about Palestinians, and taking Israeli money to do it. So, you’re always in that dilemma with the Israelis, ‘OK, wait a second, is he a good Arab? Is he turning too Palestinian on us with his films?’ And the Arabs are like, ‘He’s taking Israeli money? Is he selling his soul to make his movies?’ Europeans always like, you know, they always want to be balanced, because they don’t want to offend anyone. But it feels like every film you make, you go through the same thing over and over. Nobody’s made a movie about this, about the politics and the people’s agenda or even if they don’t have any agenda, people’s perception of what should be and should not and what it means. 

Q: From the outside, people think of Palestinians as living in Gaza or the West Bank. They don’t think about the sheer number of people that actually live and were born and have grown up within the state of Israel.

Sameh Zoabi: That was my experience when I came to Columbia University on a Fulbright scholarship. And so, it says, you know, in my files it’s always says he’s from Israel, because that’s what’s on my passport… I came to the US in 2000. People would ask, ‘Where are you from?’ ‘I am from Nazareth.’ ‘Oh, you know, we have a lot of Jewish family in Israel.’ ‘But I’m not Jewish.’ And then then you go through explaining yourself and 1948 and how we were there.

I mean I always have to justify and explain that we exist and we’ve been there and we didn’t come from anywhere else, you know what I mean? And that’s why it’s very important for me as a filmmaker to separate that. I would say that’s an important part of also moving forward is acceptance. Like Israelis, sometimes are not comfortable or, or Jewish Americans are not comfortable with the Palestinian Israeli term. Like you are a Palestinian but you are Israeli at the same time. A lot of people are like, ‘You’re an Arab Israeli.’ Yeah, but I’m Palestinian. You don’t have to run away from it by accepting it. Acknowledging the other, you can move forward. But by denying all the time that we existed to start with and even calling us something else is not going to lead us to anything.

I guess my film career has been kind of dedicated to show that side of Palestinians who live in Israel, who speak Hebrew, they can manage their way. They’re trying to survive. My first film [Man Without a Cell Phone, 2010] was also about that, about a young guy growing up in an Arab village trying to go university in Tel Aviv, like the lives that we actually live in Israel. A Palestinian who grew up in the West Bank would never be able to write or make this film, because my experience is different. I grew up knowing what Israelis think of us and what I think of them as a Palestinian. And, of course, stereotypes are the best form of comedy. It’s about how everyone sees the other.

Q: What was your thinking in setting the soap opera in 1967 before the Six Day War?

Sameh Zoabi: It’s about how everyone sees the other. So, in the West Bank they’re writing the Israeli general in ’67, imagining what the Israelis were thinking at that time. And Assi wants to change the story, because he thinks they should think otherwise. And that, for me it is always fascinating how our Palestinian experience dictates also the variety of filmmaking that we do. And we should not be judging that. In essence, we should be celebrating, you know, the different points of view. We have a narrative now where in the West Bank, Palestinians don’t meet Israelis. They only see, soldiers. In Gaza, they don’t see Israelis or soldiers. They see bombs or helicopters. For me, as a Palestinian who grew up inside, I have more possibility to interact and that’s why I was able to do this. It doesn’t mean that it’s only a film that depends on a Palestinian perspective, but it’s one that plays on this knowledge of both Palestinians and Israelis.

Q: The show isn’t just a soap opera. It’s a show everyone watches on both sides of the border.

Sameh Zoabi: That is true, by the way. When I was growing up, there were only two channels, Israeli and Jordanian. And on Fridays, every Friday, Israeli TV showed Egyptian films.  And Palestinians from all over, from Gaza, the West Bank, from inside, they would all watch Egyptian films on the Israel channel and the Israelis would all watch, as well.

When I wrote the script, many people said, ‘Yeah, but that show never existed where Israelis and Palestinians both watched,’ but when I showed the film to Israelis, nobody questioned it. Because it’s not farfetched. It did happen. We had elements of it.

Q: What is this film to you?

This film captures the essence of what I’ve always believed in a sense. It’s very personal in a sense. It’s broad, it’s comedy, but it has things that Palestinians love. We just had a screening back home, in my hometown. All the Palestinian activists inside Israel wrote about how Palestinian the film is, how strong of a voice it has, how it makes fun of our reality that becomes so abnormal and tragic that we can accept the idea that someone wants to change a TV show. It’s such farfetched idea, but it’s so believable there because (of what goes on).

With Israelis, it’s the same thing. They can see through humor. I mean for me; I see Israelis and Jewish audiences responding to and following the journey of a Palestinian character and they really want him to succeed. That’s the core of it, seeing each other at this humane level. What we need is for the ground to change… We live in a reality of disconnect: Walls, checkpoints, them again us. That’s not going lead to peace, of course.

I always get a few questions about what do I think of the government? It’s like they are so busy keeping the status quo, they would do anything for people not to meet, because God forbid, if they meet they’re going to like each other. –Pam Grady

Sing a song of THE NIGHTINGALE: Q&A with Aisling Franciosi

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The Nightingale - Still 1Over the course of the past seven years, Irish actress Aisling Franciosi has amassed quite a resume, counting among her characters Marie in Ken Loach’s 2014 drama Jimmy’s Hall, an award-winning turn as a serial killer-obsessed teenager in the British series The Fall (2013-2016), and Lyanna Stark, mother to Jon Snow, on Game of Thrones. In The Babadook filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s savage revenge thriller, The Nightingale, Franciosi steps into her first starring movie role. Delivering a resonant performance as Clare, a 19th-century convict of the penal colony on the Australian island of Tasmania, Franciosi convinces as a woman pushed over her limits. Forming a partnership with similarly vengeful aboriginal Billy (dancer Baykali Ganabarr in his screen debut), Clare goes on the hunt for Hawkins (Sam Claflin) and other Australian officers who have done her wrong.

In San Francisco in April for the SFFILM Festival, Franciosi was ebullient and expansive as she sat down for a conversation about The Nightingale.

Q: The film is very much in your face in terms of the off-chart-violence. Was that intensity apparent even when you read the script for the first time?

Aisling Franciosi:  I knew it would be a tough watch no matter how it was filmed, but what even I was surprised at when I saw it for the first time on the screen and what makes it so difficult to watch is how human all the characters are and how as you watch the violence inflicted on them, you can’t escape the fact that they’re human beings. Whereas in other films, I think frequently we’re quite distant from the people who are being killed or slaughtered or whatever. In this, it’s a very intimate form of violence. And I think that that makes it really, as you say, in your face, but you know, if we’re going to show it and we’re going to, if you want to talk about violence, if you want to talk about sexual violence, well, then here it is. You know, let’s look at it properly.

Q: It’s not just the visuals. It’s the sound design, as well, that really underlines the brutality.

Aisling Franciosi: Yeah. It’s amazing. Jennifer told me, ‘I don’t think we’re going to have music. Actually, I think we’re going to just have sounds.’ We had an incredible sound designer. And I think it really adds to it, because in some moments it just completely feels suffocating and inescapable in the ways it should. And then other times, it just allows you to breathe and you feel that there’s a moment of respite. There’s nothing taking away from that. You know, breathe for a second in the same way that the characters are, the audience has given a moment to kind of go, ‘Whew!’

Q: You’re Irish, so you were not raised with that history.

Aisling Franciosi: I knew a little bit about the convict history of Australia, but you’re right, I definitely didn’t know the extent to which I know now. And also I didn’t realize how systematic it was, you know, or how particularly, at a certain point, women and girls were sent there. Lots of convicts were sent for extremely petty crimes, like survival crimes, stealing bread, stealing food. But women and girls were sent very, very young and essentially to populate the island of Tasmania in particular where there was an extremely low ratio of men to women. So, you can imagine what happened when these women stepped off the ship. They were sometimes bartered for a bottle of whiskey. They endured terrible violence and terrible lives.

I remember reading one book that said a British officer there to do a survey noticed that if you were a convict, you were, you know, the lowest of the low. But if you were an Irish convict, you were like dirt. Like you were at the lowest rank of all the convicts just for being Irish. And so, if you can imagine, not only are you Irish, but you’re also a woman and you’re a convict. I found learning about it so interesting, but also found myself getting very angry. You would be sent to to Australia and frequently you would finish your term, not in the jail, but you know, working for a sergeant or whoever and if you were raped and became pregnant by him, you would go to prison and your baby was taken away. And nothing would happen to the rapist. It was just a constant battle for survival for these convicts. I find it so incredible how resilient they all were to then go on and essentially, you know, build a nation.

Q: Well, it’s that idea of institutionalized rape, some that goes on in places even now.

Aisling Franciosi: What I’m really proud about in this film is if you don’t want to acknowledge it for what it is, we’re going to make you acknowledge it for what it is. I think it’s often brushed aside, whether it’s because of shame or just not wanting to accept it for how brutal and violent that it is or how destructive it is. But like, even as part of my prep, I was watching a documentary called The Invisible War. It’s fascinating and it’s about sexual violence and rape in the US military. It was appalling, it was shocking to me. And one of the quotes that you see on the screen at the very end of the movie was from a very highly ranked officer, and he says, ‘Rape is a hazard of the job.’ Getting shot, maybe, getting hurt in battle, maybe, but rape should never be a hazard of the job.

Q: One of the things that struck me about Clare is how strong she is. And I don’t mean just after everything happened, but even before, she’s much stronger than her husband.

Aisling Franciosi: Yeah. It’s so interesting people say to me, ‘Oh, she goes from timid to Joan of Arc.’ But if you really think about it, she is actually enduring so much for the sake of her family. It’s not that she’s not strong enough to stand up to Hawkins. I mean, it would probably cut her life short, but I think she would do it if she was just on her own. But she’s trying to protect her dream of a future with her family, the safety of her husband and the safety of her baby. It’s all on her shoulders and all just kept safe by her enduring, enduring, enduring. Endurance might not be the most glamorous type of strength, but it’s a strength and she has it in spades. Then it becomes a different kind of strength going forward. But yeah, I don’t, I don’t see her as going through this transformation. I think it’s actually the opposite. It’s just her unleashing all the rage.

Q: She also undergoes a different kind of transformation, because at a certain point, she’s just like every other white person in Tasmania looking at the aboriginal people through racist eyes until she’s thrown in with Billy.

Aisling Franciosi: Well, I think it’s beautiful that it’s two very traumatized and hurt souls kind of metaphorically holding each other’s hands and just going through it together. Yeah, she absolutely does (change). She initially is quite awful to him, but I like that Jen has portrayed Clare as being a human being with her flaws and showing the not-so-great sides to her personality. You know, I like that she’s a fully formed person. And I love that it’s essentially Billy and the compassion she gets from him and then the friendship that they have that makes Clare choose survival. –Pam Grady