Edgerton fills in the contours of a BOY ERASED

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BOY ERASED

Flying Air Canada to the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival where Joel Edgerton’s second directorial effort Boy Erased was screening, two of the Australian actor/filmmaker’s movies were available to view on the airline’s entertainment system. If last year’s thriller Red Sparrow represents the more mainstream facet of his Hollywood career, 2005’s Kinky Boots, in which lives are changed when drag queen Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and her designs come to the rescue of Charlie’s (Edgerton) failing Northampton shoe factory, reflects more the impulse that led Edgerton to Boy Erased.

“It funny, I was asked by Steve Pateman, the real Kinky Boots guy, he’s written a book and asked me to write a quote for it,” Edgerton says. “I thought about it and I ended up talking about how beautiful that film is, how it’s such a mad, extravagant collision of separate worlds, which we have in Boy Erased, too, straight and gay, Southern and New York, and just a general contradiction of ideas. Kinky Boots, really, at its core, is about people accepting other people. It’s not about the madness of drag shows. It’s not about industry. Those are all sub-themes. The big macro is, ‘You’re different from me. I’m different from you. So, what?’”

Boy Erased, which Edgerton adapted from Garrard Conley’s memoir, stars Lucas Hedges as Jared, an Arkansas college student sent to gay conversion therapy by his Baptist preacher father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), and mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), after he’s outed to them. It was 2016’s Loving, in which Edgerton played one half of the couple at the heart of the 1967 Supreme Court case that struck down laws banning interracial marriage, that set him on the path to Boy Erased.

Loving is definitely why I got involved with this film,” he says. “I think it plucked the same nerves in me. It agitated the same feeling that Loving did in terms of people or a person unable to live a normal life like everybody else, because there is some quality of difference or minority difference that means they get treated differently.

“Garrard’s memoir is not just about the madness of an institution,” he adds. “The book is about the chaos and madness of a family dealing with something that shouldn’t necessarily need to create any drama and yet all this stuff happened, all this energy was output and all of this pain was created.”

Edgerton, 44, grew up in Dural, a small suburb of Sydney, and doesn’t remember any of the kids his age coming out as gay while they lived under their parents’ roofs. The kind of attitudes that lead people to seek gay conversion therapy is strong, he feels, all over the planet. But to get to the heart of Jared’s story, he relied on Conley to act as his guide into an unfamiliar world.

“Garrard was my porthole to everything that he experienced,” Edgerton says. “He was my access to other survivors of conversion therapy. He was my access to his mother and father, Herschel and Martha, who were gracious to invite me to dine at their house, to attend church. He was my porthole to John Schmidt [the head of the therapy center], who I play in the movie, on whom I based my character. I felt more a passenger of Garrard’s story as I was making the movie. He was my navigator. It was really about that. And getting access to that Baptist world was about literally going to Herschel’s church and doing a lot of research. I did a lot of research about ideas – I think during the production I had six different Bibles dotted throughout my apartment.”

BOY ERASED

Edgerton wanted to paint as detailed a picture of the world he was depicted as possible without judgment. He didn’t want a movie with obvious heroes and villains. Jared’s parents, the church elders his father goes to for advice, the people at the center, they mean well—and that’s what’s so chilling.

“I think there’s something more insidious and terrifying about being in a situation where everybody is, ‘We’re just here to help,’” Edgerton says. “That’s hard to sidestep and also because you don’t have all the information and you’re naïve going in, like Garrard was. If somebody told you there was a 84% success rate and that your sexuality, which was plaguing you during your waking hours and threatening your freedom within your community, if somebody told you that could all just be turned around, wouldn’t you sign on the dotted line, too? Who would want that if living in your community could become terrifying, and hell, you could be beaten and ostracized?

“And you’d have to go somewhere else,” he adds. “There are a lot of young people in the world who find the agency to say, ‘I do not accept that you will not accept me, and therefore, I will go and do something else, even if that means cutting family away.’ But Garrard represents, to me, the majority, because I’m like him, as in I didn’t have an agency that would have powered this rebellious, renegade, forge-my-own-path mentality. I was very much under the spell of my parents. I think most of us are rule keepers.”

On the surface, Boy Erased is a different kind of project for Edgerton. A prolific screenwriter, most of his work, including the script for his brother Nash’s 2008 thriller, The Square, and his own directing debut, 2015’s psychological thriller, The Gift, has been genre-based. For this, Edgerton had to step outside that comfort zone, but as he worked on his screenplay, he discovered that even in adapting a memoir, certain genre rules still applied.

“It was sort of just about applying it to a more dramatic scenario without the hand holds of genre,” says Edgerton. “Yet, I wanted it to have a pinch of genre feeling of suspense and the potential for danger and the tension that comes out of real life. You don’t know what’s around the corner for Jared when the men gather in the kitchen to decide his fate. What’s going to happen to him? The sense of suspense in moments like that.

“On this film, when I wrote it, I became a little possessed. I just felt, once I started writing, it came pouring out of me. Thankfully, Garrard had laid the foundation, because he lived the life and he was brave enough to talk about it. Then I felt the privilege of just being able to really just take his clay and reshape it into something else, turn it from words on page onto other worlds on a page that would allow it to become a visual thing. It felt like it wrote itself pretty easily.” –Pam Grady

To read more about Boy Erased, check out my interview with Lucas Hedges in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Joel Edgerton will be at San Francisco Embarcadero Center Cinema on Sunday, Nov. 4, to take part in Q&As after the 2 and 2:30pm screenings of Boy Erased.

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

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

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

The schedule is as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sibling Felony: LOGAN LUCKY & GOOD TIME

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Sibling Felony

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

And Introducing Daniel Craig as Joe Bang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Terry Gilliam realizes a long-time dream with THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE

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Terry Gilliam has been tilting at windmills for 30 years, trying to get his passion project, his spin on Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th century novel Don Quixote, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, made. Most famously, French actor Jean Rochefort donned Quixote’s helmet while Johnny Depp played commercials director Toby who becomes Quixote’s Sancho Panza in an aborted 200 production that was immortalized in the documentary Lost in La Mancha. Among the actors attached or considered for the role of Quixote in subsequent years were Gerard Depardieu, Robert Duvall, Gilliam’s fellow Python Michael Palin, and the late John Hurt (diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just prior to what was supposed to be a 2016 production start state) with Ewan McGregor and Jack O’Connell cast as Toby. This was a production clearly never meant to be, yet sometimes, giants are vanquished and miracles do happen as The Man Who Killed Don Quixote arrives in theaters with Gilliam’s Brazil star Jonathan Pryce as the grizzled Quixote and Adam Driver as Toby, the ad man begging for comeuppance.

The film represents probably the only opportunity to ever see Driver do an impression of vaudeville and early movie star Eddie Cantor, which he does with an inspired performance of “If You Knew Susie” that would be worth the price of admission alone even if Gilliam’s 30-years-in-the-making dream project was an utter failure. Which it isn’t, far from it. It was a given that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote would be an eyepopping production. It couldn’t help but be that, not with Gilliam’s longtime cinematographer Nicola Pecorini’s gorgeous photography, Benjamín Fernández and Gabriel Liste’s exquisite production design, and resonant locations in Spain, Portugal, and the Canary Islands that evoke both the 17th century of Quixote’s time and our modern era. What couldn’t be anticipated was just how well Gilliam succeeds in telling his story. Those three decades and all the cast changes have not gone for naught. This is the director’s most satisfying film since The Fisher King 28 years ago.

Driver is one of those rare actors that doesn’t need to be liked, which a good thing, since Toby is such a pill: arrogant, rude, craven, betrayer of his boss (Stellan Skarsgård), and just a general pain in the ass. On location in Spain where he is shooting his latest commercial, he stumbles on a DVD of his student film, a Don Quixote story shot in a nearby village. Nostalgia coupled with a need to escape his current circumstances sends him on a visit back to that ancient town where he discovers that his old leading lady Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) has gone away and become an escort, while the cobbler (Pryce) who was his Quixote has fallen into the delusion that he is the character. Reunited with Toby, he’s found his Sancho Panza.

What follows is a kind of wondrous delirium. Reality and fantasy intertwine, complete with cameos from a gallery of Gilliam monsters. Toby resists and embraces his new role, displays cowardice and courage, and wrestles with the idea that his little student film changed the course of people’s lives, and not for the better. Pryce and Driver, even at loggerheads, share a delicious chemistry. Pryce is excellent, imbuing Quixote with warmth and a gentle daftness, while Driver is magnificent as he portrays Toby’s evolution from a brat to a human being who just might reclaim his soul.

Thirty years from idea to execution is a long time to embrace a dream. It was worth the wait to see its reality. Bravo, Terry Gilliam. –Pam Grady

Dumb-NO!

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As boxer Roberto Duran might say, no mas, Tim Burton, no mas. A director whose films used to be greeted with excited anticipation now only summons dread. Somewhere along the way, Burton lost his mojo. Dumbo is merely the latest evidence that he is not getting it back anytime soon, a banal exercise in faux sentimentality and overdone CGI. He doesn’t shoulder all the blame. Disney needs to stop using its back catalog of classics as a springboard for films that lack anything resembling the enchantment of the original films.

Scarcely over an hour long, the 1941 Dumbo is one of Disney’s most tear-jerking features. Humans barely exist in this colorful, musical cartoon about a baby circus elephant who is made a laughingstock because of his extra-large ears before he becomes a star when those ears act as wings allowing him to fly. Adding to the baby’s woes is the separation from his mother, Mrs. Jumbo, locked away from the other pachyderms as a mad elephant. But from Dumbo’s tragedy comes triumph and within that short running time is a scene of sublime brilliance in “Pink Elephants on Parade” as surreal imagery dances before the eyes of a drunken Dumbo and Timothy Mouse.

Burton’s Dumbo pays homage to that number in a scene involving pink soap bubble elephants, but all that does is emphasize how bereft the new film is of inspiration and magic. The now CGI elephant, who has curiously empty eyes, is more or less a supporting character to a cast of humans that include motherless children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins); their one-armed, WWI vet and sidelined circus trick rider Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell, who really needs to stick to independent fare; his Hollywood movies tend toward the terrible); and Max Medici (Danny DeVito), owner of the threadbare tent show to which Dumbo is born.

As in the original film, Dumbo is separated from his mother, leaving him a grieving elephant, but he also seems to be the key to emotionally repairing the heartbroken Farrier family, and once his aeronautic talents are discovered, to insuring the financial health of the circus. But then big city impresario (and megalomaniac sociopath) V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton, whose reunion with his Beetlejuice and Batman director only serves as a reminder of what used to be) and the star of his show, trapeze artist Colette Marchand (Eva Green), sweep in with their own proposal to unite the two enterprises at Vandevere’s Dreamland (think Disneyland meets Coney Island, both on steroids).

There are a lot of “toos” here: The children are too precocious to tug much at heartstrings no matter how much they refer to their dead mother (who seems more of a plot device than someone who actually lived). Their father is too passive to be a true hero (an odd wrinkle in that that missing arm suggests valor to spare). Medici and Vandevere are too cartoony. (And Alan Arkin, in a cameo as a banker who holds Dreamland’s fate in his hands, steals his scenes from DeVito and Keaton with his impeccably dry delivery.) And Dumbo is too CGI. (His 1941 cel animation counterpart seemed far more real).

As usual, Burton seems to have paid most attention to his production design, the rendering of the tatty Medici circus and its sideshow and Dreamland. Dumbo is overstuffed visually and undernourished narratively. The clunky script credited to Ehren Kruger (whose credits include Scream 3, Reindeer Games, and three Transformers sequels) is charmless and prosaic. There is precious little within the movie to delight and enrapt children and even less to keep their parents awake through the long slog. Where Dumbo and its story of a flying elephant ought to soar, instead it crashes and burns. –Pam Grady

Wild Horses Couldn’t Drag Me Away: THE MUSTANG 

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Mustang

The strong bond between man and animal lives at the heart of actress Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s feature directorial debut, The Mustang, a drama with roots in a real prison rehabilitation program in which convicts train wild horses. Shot on location in a decommissioned Nevada prison and grounded by a deeply empathetic performance by Flemish actor Matthias Schoenaerts, the film captures the ugly realities of prison life while depicting one very unusual method for changing lives for the better. While these convicts break horses, the horses in a way are breaking the men and restoring them to humanity. 

Roman (Schoenaerts) could easily be irredeemable. Serving a long sentence for a terrible act of domestic violence and a frequent guest of solitary confinement, he is a sullen man who seems only able to express himself in outbursts of anger. He has a 16-year-old daughter, Martha (Gideon Adlon), with whom he is desperate to connect, but communicating his feelings is a Sisyphean challenge for him. He does not appear to be the most likely candidate for rehabilitation, nevertheless he is chosen for the program in which mustangs—recently captured in their natural habitat throughout the American West—are made ready for auction by getting them comfortable with humans. 

The first meetings between Roman and the irate buckskin who wants nothing to do with people aren’t promising. They are a matched set, as Myles (Bruce Dern), the head of the program, and Henry (Jason Mitchell), a fellow convict who has developed into a talented trainer, can see. Roman, as uncomfortable around animals as he is with people, doesn’t appear to have the skill set for calming a wild animal, not when he doesn’t even know how to calm himself. But that’s the point. In learning how to handle the horse, Roman is learning how to handle himself. 

At times, the story is a little too on the nose with Roman and the horse he names Marquis being so perfectly in sync in their temperaments, while a subplot involving a prison drug ring adds an unnecessary element of melodrama. Those are minor quibbles. With Schoenaerts, Dern, Mitchell, and a terrific supporting cast (including some non-actors, ex-convicts who graduated from programs like the one depicted and have successfully reentered society), The Mustang is a film with a lot of heart and one with an unusual take on America’s prison-industrial complex. The world tends to fixate on punishment, but most prisoners get out at some point, and then what? 

Beautifully shot by cinematographer Ruben Impens, The Mustang makes the most of its desert setting and one terrifically suspenseful scene where a driving storm threatens the horses. Clermont-Tonnerre imbues her film with a variety of tones from the simmering tensions of the prison yard to the uncomfortable atmosphere in the visitors’ room where Roman and his daughter fitfully communicate through his guilt and her anger to the camaraderie and sometimes surprising exuberance to be found among the horse trainers. The Mustang began when the director read an article about programs like the one she portrays and she has parlayed that into an impressive first feature. –Pam Grady 

Cinequest review: MINE 9

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Mine 9

Real coal miners appear on the screen during the closing credits of writer/director Eddie Mensore’s sophomore feature Mine 9, which makes its world premiere March 8 at the Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival in Silicon Valley. They talk about their work and how it is a family tradition and how long a workday is and how many years they’ve been going down in the pit. Mensore pays respect to these men in this way, even as the story he has just spun is chilling and leaves the viewer with a question: Why in the world would anyone do this kind of work?

Set in a bucolic Appalachian community and against an evocative soundtrack of country, folk, and blues songs – a few originals, mostly traditional – performed by Atlanta musician Max Godfrey, Mine 9 neatly sets up the circumstances facing a group of miners. They know conditions aren’t safe, but they don’t really have much of a choice except to descend two miles down into the earth and go back to work. Economic conditions are so harsh in the region that the choice comes down to risking one’s life for the sake of a job or starve. All except 18-year-old Ryan (Drew Starkey), joining the family business as he starts his first day of work, have families to feed.

Mensore paints a vivid picture. From the grime that encrusts the men from head to foot to the claustrophobic conditions of working in the pit, this is pitiless, backbreaking work. And that’s before the methane explosion that leaves them with caved in walls and scant oxygen. Given that the concerns expressed by Zeke (Terry Serpico), the miners de facto leader, have been utterly ignored by management, can they even expect rescue or are they truly on their own?

Mine 9 delivers on its premise as a thriller. Mensore’s storytelling is economical as he sets up a situation in which survival is always in question. Characters are only lightly sketched, but terrific performances by Serpico, Starkey, and the rest of the cast give the tale emotional weight. Mine 9 isn’t a horror movie, precisely, but it might as well be. It is certainly horrifying. –Pam Grady

 

Mikkelsen battles the elements in ARCTIC 

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Six years ago, writer/director J.C. Chandor placed an elderly sailor played by Robert Redford in the middle of the sea on a yacht steadily taking on water in the tense and nearly wordless All Is Lost. As a tale of a man trying to survive against all odds it was irresistible. Arctic, from director Joe Penna and his co-writer Ryan Morrison, is another such indelible story with similar notes to Chandor’s story but taking place in a remote, frozen wilderness after a plane crash. Mads Mikkelsen rivets in this suspenseful drama as a resourceful man who refuses to surrender to the apparent hopelessness of his situation. 

The film opens sometime after the crash. Who Mikkelsen is, what his role was on the plane, and how many people died in the disaster are questions Penna and Morrison never attempt to answer. Instead, we are introduced to this sole survivor stomping through the snow to write “SOS” in large enough letters to be seen by passing aircraft and checking fishing lines sunk into holes cut into the ice, the catch his only source of food. How long he’s been stranded is open to question, but when he strips off his socks at night before getting into his sleeping bag, he reveals feet ruined by frostbite. 

Circumstances eventually force him out of the relative safety of the plane fuselage and into the wilderness in search of a settlement where he will find rescue. Blowing snow, subzero temperatures, a questionable map, a hungry polar bear, and a blanketed topography that hides unseen dangers might end the man’s life at any moment. Still, he perseveres. Rarely has the adage, “Where there’s life, there’s hope,” been better illustrated. 

São Paulo, Brazil, native Penna makes his feature debut in this icy climate, shooting on a forbidding volcanic plateau in Iceland a world away from the sunny, subtropical temperatures of his homeland. Stunning cinematography by Tómas Örn Tómasson depicts an endless, snow-draped landscape of lethal beauty. That this was a shoot with a high degree of difficulty is evident in every frame, a situation which only underlines the dire straits Mikkelsen’s character faces. That thin line between life and death that accompanies us all every day of our existence is frayed, stretched, and nearly obliterated, but the man soldiers on. 

With little dialogue and no back story to speak of, Mikkelsen nevertheless creates a character we come to care about, his actions pointing to someone whose life we would like to see saved even as the odds against just that continue to grow. This is one of the Danish actor’s great performances. Penna and Morrison set the stage in writing a tale of nonstop suspense, but it is Mikkelsen who transforms an ice-bound thriller into something bigger, a saga of a human being reaching beyond his limits through his sheer will to live. —Pam Grady 

 

 

 

She Who Laughs Last: WHAT MEN WANT

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WHAT MEN WANT

Taraji P. Henson is a blast as Ali in the breezy screwball comedy What Men Want, a quasi-remake of the 2000 Mel Gibson comedy What Women Want. As Ali, a female sports agent in a male-dominated profession who is so laser-focused on overcoming her colleagues’ sexism and becoming partner that it leads her to ignore her friends; browbeat her loyal assistant, Brandon (Silicon Valley’s John Brener); and use her new man, single dad Will (Aldis Hodge), and his young son to further her campaign to sign basketball phenom Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie). Add to the mix a sudden ability to read men’s minds—thanks to an accident and some sips of a psychic’s (Erykah Badu) funky tea—and the stage is set for laughs, which the movie mostly delivers.

“Mostly.” Clocking it at one hour, 57 minutes, What Men Wantis one of those movies that would have benefited with some judicious pruning. Most of the fat is on the front end. Director Adam Shankman (Hairspray) and a team of screenwriters take their time setting up Ali’s situation, which makes for a flaccid initial half hour until the plot fully kicks in.

Luckily, the film’s virtues far outweigh its faults. Henson is a pure delight, throwing herself with abandon into the movie’s physical comedy and delivering her tart dialogue with aplomb. Brener is equally hilarious in a lower key as the long-suffering Brandon and so is Tracy Morgan as Jamal’s controlling, LaVar Ball-like father, while Hodge is pure sexy charm. Badu has some wonderfully daffy moments (including during the end credits) as the woman who sets the whole plot in motion. And simmering beneath the laughs is a pointed critique of the work environment that the real Alis of the world face when they are forced to compete on an uneven playing field that has been rigged against them. –Pam Grady

Orchard drops THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT trailer

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One of the more unusual thrillers to come down the pike in recent years, The Hummingbird Project revolves around the construction of a high-speed fiber optics cable to facilitate high-frequency stock trades where every millisecond counts. The project pits cousins Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and Anton (an almost unrecognizable Alexander Skarsgård) against their high-flying trader ex-boss Eva (Salma Hayak) who is determined to put a stop to the upstarts’ attempt to usurp her business. The Orchard release debuts in March.

Q&A: Pawel Pawlikowski on Poland and COLD WAR

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Pawel Pawlikowski was born in Poland, but moved to England with his mother when he was a teenager. After studying literature and philosophy at Oxford, he established his career as filmmaker, first with documentaries before turning to fiction with such films as Last Resort (2000) and My Summer of Love (2003). But then he traveled back to his native country to make his 2013 Academy Award-winning drama Ida about a 1960s era novitiate who receives life-changing news about her identity. In making the movie, Pawlikowski realized he was home. Now, he has made a new feature, Cold War, about the tumultuous relationship between a singer (Joanna Kulig) and a jazz musician (Tomasz Kot) who fall in love in Stalinist, post-World War II Poland. Pawlikowski won the directing award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. The film is on the shortlist for the foreign-language Academy Award; won five European Film Awards, including best European film; and received four BAFTA nominations, among other honors. In October, Pawlikowski was feted with a tribute at the Mill Valley Film Festival. It was during that visit to the San Francisco Bay Area that this conversation took place.

Q: You spent most of your career in the West. What brought you back to Poland?

Pawel Pawlikowski: Many things. I reached a certain age, I suppose, where I needed to change something. My kids grew up and left home. My wife died. I didn’t originally plan to move back to Poland, but when I started preparing Ida, I just started feeling very at home there. A friend, Agnieszka Holland, lent me her flat in Warsaw, very near to where I used to live. I felt very at home. It was very peculiar. Driving around Poland looking for locations, I recognized landscapes from my childhood. I suddenly felt like this is where I feel most at home. It has something to do with age. Half of one’s life, one tries to escape from somewhere and the other half, wants to get back somewhere. Poland just feels like home. It’s like finding a pair of slippers that feel very comfy. Of course, I chose a very interesting time politically—a couple of years later after the election [of Poland’s right-wing President Andrzej Duda], it doesn’t look so cozy.

When I dreamt of something, it always tended to be some corner of Warsaw. It’s also a city I feel very sentimental and affectionate about, partly because we grew up among ruins. Not literally ruins, I’m exaggerating, but I was born 13 years after the war and there were still bullet holes in the walls of my house. With every step, you find history. Here’s where 300 people were executed during the Warsaw Uprising. Here is the entrance to the sewer, just outside my flat now, the entrance to the sewer through which the insurgents were escaping to another area and here is the Ghetto. It was flattened and it’s completely different. It’s haunted. Warsaw is a haunted city. It’s not a tourist attraction, but if you have imagination, it’s the most fascinating city in the world. I actually love it very much.

Q: Since you’ve been back, the two films you’ve made Ida and now Cold War take place during the Communist era. Does that time have a particular pull for you?

PP: There are several reasons, I suppose. It’s a world in which you can tell stories where digital technology is not important and where everything you do has huge consequences. It seems like people, whatever they do, there’s something kind of fatal about it. You can look across a table or look across a room and see somebody fall in love.  Where moral problems are focused. I think in today’s world it’s very difficult to find that. Some directors do it very well, like Ruben Östlund [Force Majeure, The Square] who makes fantastic films about today with moral issues. But that [earlier era] is where I feel more confident and more attracted to, as well. I like a world that is less cluttered with images, information, sounds, where everything becomes quite expressive and you can really look properly. I find today there’s too much stuff that washes over you. For me. It’s a midlife crisis thing.

Q: Cold War is dedicated to your parents and was inspired by your parents, but the story is not about them. Talk about that inspiration and how it led to the tale of this couple.

PP: My parents had a very tempestuous marriage. Clearly, in the back of my head, I’ve had their story hovering over me for a long time. When they were still alive, it was just a source of amusement and irritation, horror, because when I was 13, they divorced. They were fighting all the time. And then I met their partners and it wasn’t great for a teenage son. I was the only son, so it was very intense. Then it became almost comical in a way in the way they couldn’t get on when they met again in the West. Then they died in total harmony, but after 40 years of [passionate conflict]. They were too tired to fight. When they died in 1989, just before the Berlin Wall came down, just before the Cold War ended, I had this feeling that I’d been the witness to an amazing love story. It didn’t look like a love story most of the time, but it actually was.

That was somewhere in the back of my head when I was inventing other stories, but I always kind of went back to this jewel, two characters who are equally strong and who don’t give in, who spend a lot of time apart from each other and fantasize each other. They build each other up and then something happens that destroys that idea of themselves. That was always the matrix of all love stories, in a way. Ten years ago, I thought, “This would be a really good story to tell.” Not because I need to tell it, but it’s a good story. It’s a very difficult story to tell, because it’s so messy, but what’s good about is you have these strong, contradictory characters who are never quite good enough or bad enough, who live in historical times, which is always really important, the way history forces their hand. Occasionally, I tried to write it up, but I was always too close to the real thing. Dramatically, it was not that interesting.  Ida gave me the confidence to tell things synthetically, elliptically. I didn’t have to be literal and explain everything.  Around then, I also thought that music would be an important element, which would change things, take it away from my parents, who were not musicians. Music brings them together, keeps them together, and then kind of illustrates all the ups and downs and the changes in their relationship.

Q: The music from that era is so evocative, the jazz from that era, even album cover designs.

PP: Exactly, and there wasn’t such a glut of stuff. Everything was meaningful. Also, jazz was banned in Stalinist Poland, so if you played jazz, it meant something. You weren’t just playing jazz because you liked it, as one of many things you could do. Also, folk music was interesting. I started with genuine folk music. I found all these performers around Poland to perform these songs. Then you see them transformed into this folk ensemble with this orchestra. When something big like that comes about, of course, politics steps in and coopts it. That’s inspired by a real story of a folk ensemble that got coopted.  The Communist regime decided that folk music was the music of the people as opposed to bourgeois, decadent jazz. Art wasn’t something that just happened; it was all pretty state controlled. The official doctrine of the Stalinist period in art was social realism. The formula for that was that the music should be popular in form and socialist in content. So, this folk ensemble that started innocently becomes the official art of the state. Then, in the West, the same number becomes a bebop number, a melody they dance to.

Music is always not just something people do. It has meaning. It has a kind of resonance. In terms of the film, the narrative, it tells you where we are and when we are. And then “Rock Around the Clock” crops up in ’57. Also, at that point, I didn’t think about it, but when I watched the film in Cannes, yeah, it’s true, because there is a 10-year difference between Zula and Viktor, and “Rock Around the Clock” he doesn’t react to at all. He just keeps talking to that other guy, whereas for her, the devil enters her and she goes off on this drunken solo dance. So, you can see the difference between them. This is a wedge between them that is generational, too. There was a 10-year gap between my father and my mother and she was much more crazy. So, yes, music is always both historical and psychological. You can use it in so many ways. It’s great that they are both musicians, so you can play with that.

Q: Both Ida and Cold War are in black and white and eschew widescreen for the narrower Academy ratio. What was your thinking behind those choices?

PP: With Ida, it was one thing. With Cold War, it’s another. Ida, I wanted to remove it from reality slightly, which is in color. Also, it was partially inspired by my family album, my photo album, which was all in black and white. Here, in Cold War, I started out thinking I was going to make a color film and then I just couldn’t find the right colors. Colors that would feel lively enough, Poland was very gray at that time. In a way, making it in black and white was a way of making it more colorful, more punchy and constrasty. If I was actually quite truthful to the colors of the time, they would have been really murky and monotonous. To invent some new colors or some different colors would have been fake. I thought black and white was more truthful. If the film had been set in the States, I would have used color, because in the States you had saturated colors in the ‘50s. I would’ve been thinking about that world, Hopper’s paintings, photographs. –Pam Grady

Q&A: Writer/Director Antonio Méndez Esparza on LIFE AND NOTHING MORE

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Antonio Méndez Esparza never thought he would make a film in the United States. But after making his first feature, 2012’s Aquí y allá: Here and There, winner of the Critics Week Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the Spanish director found himself living in the US. Taking a job teaching at Florida State University’s film school and settling in Tallahassee changed his perspective. He decided Florida was the right location for his next work, one employing a documentary style and using a non-professional cast as he’d done in his debut. The result is Life and Nothing More, a drama in which single mother Regina (Regina Williams) struggles to raise two children on her minimum-wage waitressing job and keep her eldest, 14-year-old Andrew (Andrew Bleechington)—whose father is incarcerated—on the straight and narrow. Here, Esparza talks about his latest feature, the winner of the John Cassavetes Award at the 2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards.

Q: Why a single mom?

A: We sometimes have these instincts that are hard to explain. You write a poem or you paint a picture. Sometimes it’s just something that you feel. The first reaction is unexplainable to a certain degree. Even to myself. Is because of my relationship with my mom?  My wife was a single mom when I met her, so that gave me a little insight to what her daily life was. But all of these explanations come as an afterthought in a way. There is a seed lurking, moving inside you that pushes you to that. Then you try to explain why, but it’s never a straight line for me. Also, in the context of this film, it’s me trying to understand the US. The US is maybe too big. It’s me trying to understand the place where I live, Tallahassee.

Q: Your story is clearly drawn from life. Who did you talk to? Where did your characters come from?

A: From the many interviews I did over the year and a half when I was casting. The whole process was very slow. Now when I look at the film and it’s finished and perhaps one may think, ‘That’s what he intended.’ But in a way, the movie was supposed to be about a single mom, and then over the course of it, it became about much more.  It was really all based on encounters I had with many different people. In a way, every scene has a little story—like some of the men they weren’t offended by the story of a single mom, but they told me, ‘We’re fathers. We’re not bad. We’re trying to do good.’ Many of them had been raised by single moms, and they were trying to do better with their kids.

Q: The most solidarity you see in the film is between all the women that work with Regina, all the waitresses. They’re clearly all in the same situation.

A: Those are scenes that I love very much. They are very unassuming scenes, but you see that they care for each other. They’re there to help.

Q: You are known for working with non-professional casts and this film is no different. That has to add a degree of difficulty to what you’re doing.

A: It is a challenge, but I don’t see any other way to make a film, or at least a film like this where you know little about the world and the cast really has to guide you through the process. Casting becomes a process of illumination. You meet people and even if they end up not being in the film, they still provide some jewels, some gold. Or maybe they don’t add to the story, but they end up in the film. Casting becomes everything, in a way.

Casting sometimes is as simple as an interview. With the main actors, there is more of a process. There is an improvisational exercise, and then another one, and then another one. Then we decide to shoot. The actors don’t know the script. They are unaware of what the story is about. They discover it little by little. They know a little bit, like Regina’s going to be the mom. I try to build a world, but not what’s happening. So, we build a house together. They go to the house. They like the house where they’re going to live. Are they OK with it? The school the kids go to is the one they really go to. She has to work in a place where we’ve gone a few times before, so she’s accustomed to it. I try to make it as close to reality as I can, and then we just go. –Pam Grady