Review: Coogan soars in faltering GREED

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Crime family dysfunction interrupts Line of Descent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aeronauts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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