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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French 4-Constantine

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

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

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Life

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

Paul Dano explores a fractured family in WILDLIFE

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Actor and now writer/director Paul Dano, whose inaugural feature Wildlife is playing in theaters after nearly a year on the festival circuit, and his partner and Wildlife screenplay collaborator Zoe Kazan like haunting thrift stores. They rifle through the bins of old family photos, pictures once so dear and now fallen into anonymity, and have built up a collection.

“I just find them incredible, to look at somebody standing outside of their home in 1950-something,” says Dano during a visit to the Bay Area where Wildlife screened and he was feted by the Mill Valley Film Festival. “These are all lives.”

Old photos, in a way, are a key to Dano’s adaptation of Richard Ford’s 1990 novel about a woman’s life crisis and a family falling apart in 1960 Montana. If he was going to make a movie out of the story in which teenage Joe watches helplessly as his father Jerry deserts the family to fight a wildfire and his mother vents her frustration in untoward behavior that she flaunts before her son, Dano needed a way into the story. He found it in a single line in the book in which Joe mentions that he’s taken a job in a camera store.

“That’s when I finally actually decided to write the film,” he says. “I don’t know why, but I was daydreaming. I was really turning over the film in my head for a long time, because I didn’t want to write to Richard Ford. I didn’t want to spend money on an option. I was like, ‘I want to make sure I can do it.’”

After writing a first draft, he handed his work to Kazan, already an accomplished playwright and screenwriter. She wrote the next draft and they continued to hone the work for the next five years, writing between acting jobs. The couple had Ford’s blessing to alter his story any way their film demanded, the writer telling Dano, “My book’s my book. Your picture’s your picture.”

Dano would go on to cast the couple’s friend Carey Mulligan—who had costarred with Kazan in a 2008 Broadway revival of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull—as Jeanette, Dano’s Prisoners and Okja costar Jake Gyllenhaal as Jerry, and teenaged Australian actor Ed Oxenbould as Joe. What he was looking to create was a family, dysfunctional and maybe on the verge of breaking into pieces, but still a family.

“In the book there’s a lot of struggle, but there’s still a certain amount of compassion,” Dano says. “For me, with family, there’s so much love and there’s so much struggle and pain, too. The duality that both of those things are true—I was never looking to make a film that condemned these parents or make a film about bad parents. That’s not what it’s about to me. They’re people and I love them.”

Wildlife’s story begins, really, before Jerry has even left the family home to fight the fire when Jeanette takes a job as a swimming instructor. It’s a small gesture with big ramifications. Jeanette and Jerry married and had their child young. She has followed her husband from town to town as he tries and fails to find purchase in life, her disappointment growing. Getting a job is a first step toward independence for an unhappy housewife.

“She has a part of herself that’s been hidden or not attended to. There’s a crisis of identity happening and she probably doesn’t know her full self,” says Dano.

“I just found Jeanette to be so mysterious and complicated, and through the kid’s eyes, it reminded me of the mystery of who are parents are. That was true for me in a certain way, seeing your parents change or experiencing things you didn’t know they did at a certain age. You start to see that they’re human, that they mess up or they have problems.”

The story also explores the differences between the way people present themselves publicly and privately. The Jeanette people see shopping in town or as a swim teacher is different than the one Jerry and Joe see, and even they are only privy to what she allows them to see. They have no entry into Jeanette’s interior life. And while Wildlife is set in 1960, that is something that dichotomy between public and private remains true now, perhaps never more so.

“I find it so moving that we go into the grocery store, and say, ‘Hi,’ and smile with no clue—most of us have been through something,” Dano says. “I just find it beautiful that we’re these insanely layered—like the trees with their rings—and our rings are our emotions. I’m not on social media, but you look at all these people on something like Instagram, you’re seeing people present themselves as something, but there’s something else we’re not seeing. “

He adds, “There’s a passage in the book I think is part of really what spoke to me early on where Joe is watching his mom teach swim class and he’s thinking, ‘Oh, these other people are thinking, ‘Oh, there’s a pretty woman’ or ‘There’s a woman that’s happy’ or ‘There’s a woman with a good figure,’ but he kind of knows there’s something wrong. That duality, I don’t know, I find it incredibly beautiful and moving.” –Pam Grady

To read more about Wildlife, read my interview with Carey Mulligan in the San Francisco Chronicle.

 

 

Rudd Hot American Summer: Ant-Man and the Wasp, Ideal Home, The Catcher Was a Spy

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Paul Rudd shrinks and supersizes in Ant-Man and the Wasp, but his superhero character Scott Lang aka Ant-Man’s biggest gift remains his amiability in Marvel’s latest adventure, making him the only ant anyone would ever invite to a picnic. But while millions of people will have no trouble finding that insect, no matter how small, in theaters this summer, Rudd has two more movies out now, Ideal Home and The Catcher Was a Spy. And even if one of them presents as more of an intriguing failure than anything else, to play on the title of one of his classic comedies, this season presents a Rudd hot American summer.

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Ant-Man and the Wasp

Even when he’s on the right side, ex-con Scott can’t help somehow being found in the wrong. Ant-Man and the Wasp opens with Lang nearing the end of house arrest, his punishment for taking part in that little rumble with The Avengers in Captain America: Civil War. He is looking forward to spending time with his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) unrestricted to his own four walls and partnering with Luis (Michael Peña) and their pals on a new security firm. But Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who now has her own suit and superhero identity as the Wasp, have plans for the Ant-Man. Like Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part III, Scott keeps trying to get out, but they just keep pulling him back in, this time complicated by a corrupt restaurateur (Walton Goggins) and a young woman (Hannah John-Kamen) convinced Pym and Ant-Man hold the key to what ails her.

To say more, would give away too much of the story. Big stunts provide the thrills. If the Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t always make full use of its San Francisco setting, it makes up for it with scenes set in Muir Woods and on the famously crooked part of Lombard Street. Jokes, some involving a Pez dispenser and Morrissey, provide the laughs. Director Peyton Reed and a writing team that includes Rudd have a lot of fun with the Alice-in-Wonderland-type possibilities that arise out of people, animals, and objects that enlarge and miniaturize. If there is a race between the humor and the action, it’s a tie. Both are in abundance

Of this, Ideal Home, and The Catcher Was a Spy, this is the most classic Rudd: lovable guy with a killer sense of humor. Plus, he sings a Partridge Family oldie, “Come On, Get Happy.” Just a few bars, but enough to add another layer of giddy fun to the movie. With Ant-Man and his surroundings constantly changing sizes, the Ant-Man movies are clearly as dependent as any of the Marvel movies on special effects to make their larger-than-life tales come alive, yet with Rudd at their center, they are also the most purely human. That’s a wonderful thing.

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Ideal Home

Exactly 10 years ago, Rudd starred with Seann William Scott as a pair of boy-men who attempt to influence youth as reluctant volunteers in a Big Brother-type program in Role Models. A decade later and edging ever closer to 50, Rudd’s at it again, this time with Steve Coogan in Ideal Home, streaming on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms. Written and directed by Andrew Fleming, who previously made the underrated Coogan vehicle Hamlet 2, this screwball comedy stars the two as long-time partners who find themselves saddled with a 10-year-old kid who hides his vulnerability behind endless layers of hostility and sass.

The child is actually the grandson of Erasmus, the latest in the long line of comic narcissists that Coogan plays with such brilliance, a Santa Fe chef and host of a cooking show. Rudd is Paul, his long-suffering producer, as well as lover, who keeps threatening to decamp to New York and a job with Rachel Ray. The heart wants what it wants, so he stays. But the arrival of Bill (Jack Gore) throws the couple for a loop. Paul wasn’t even aware that Erasmus had a son from a long ago fling, let alone a grandchild. The imp, who won’t even tell them his name at first and refuses to eat anything but Taco Bell, adds another layer of tension to an already fraught relationship.

There are definite sitcom elements to the story’s unfolding, particularly as it races through its third act. A messier tale would have come to an equally predictable conclusion, but might have had more emotional resonance. Still, it is funny. Some of it is just built-in sight gags, particularly the sight of the oh-so-English Coogan in cowboy duds tooling about Erasmus’ desert home. The tart dialogue is also sharp, made more hilarious by Coogan and Rudd’s dipped-in-acid delivery. As a couple, they are kind of a car wreck, yet they are also a matched set in taste and bitter wit. Neither is exactly parent material – Erasmus admits he never tried to be part of his son’s life – but when presented with a child, paternal instincts kick in.

Just what is the Ideal Home? That’s the question the movie attempts to answer. Bill has clearly had a rough upbringing, but then so has dad Beau (Jake McDorman). How much of that might have to do with Erasmus’ total neglect, the movie doesn’t attempt to answer. But as Erasmus and Paul face teachers, social workers, courts, and Beau in their quest to make a home for the boy, they have to define for themselves as much as for anyone else just what a family is. And like those man-children in Role Models, it is from learning through sometimes disastrous interactions with a child, that these middle-aged adolescents might finally grow up themselves.

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The Catcher Was a Spy

Rudd stretches his dramatic muscles to play a pro baseball player turned covert World War II agent in The Sessions‘ director Ben Lewin’s The Catcher Was a Spy. Unfortunately, the film—in limited release and streaming – serves neither actor nor subject well. What ought to be a rip-roaring yarn simply isn’t. Lewin was probably the wrong director for a story requiring a level of suspense, but the screenplay is also at fault. In adapting Nicholas Dawidoff’s book, screenwriter Robert Rodat never finds a way to make the cipher at the center of this tale a flesh-and-blood human being. Rudd’s considerable charm can only do so much.

The reality of Moe Berg was this. He was never a star, retiring with a .243 batting average. Nevertheless, he hung on through 15 seasons and four teams before finishing his career in 1939 with the Boston Red Sox. He was also a multilingual Princeton graduate with a law degree. His intellectualism made him an odd duck in dugouts, but so did the way he lived his life. He never married. The film intimates that he was bisexual (there is a frank sex scene with a live-in girlfriend played by Sienna Miller, but the drama is far more discreet in intimated same-sex encounters). And when war broke out, Berg joined the OSS, the precursor to the CIA where his ease with languages made him an asset in Europe.

The bulk of The Catcher Was a Spy follows Berg on a wartime mission to suss out where the Germans are in their attempts to beat the Allies to the development of the atom bomb. If Nazi success looks imminent, he has orders to kill Nobel Prize-winning physicist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong), the scientist spearheading the program. This should be thrilling stuff with Berg and his cohorts evading death on the battlefields they must traverse and detection as they close in on their quarry. But the tension never rises. And because Berg himself is so opaque, we never get a sense of the urgency of the mission or Berg’s own feeling of danger.

The Catcher Was a Spy is an interesting story told in the most uninteresting way. Berg deserved better and so did the actor in role. –Pam Grady

Michel Hazanavicius on poking a sacred cow in GODARD MON AMOUR

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To certain cineastes, Jean-Luc Godard is a sacred cow, an auteur who co-founded the French New Wave and who, even now as he nears 90, remains a provocateur. Michel Hazanavicius, the filmmaker best known for his OSS 117 spy parodies and his Oscar-winning silent The Artist, pokes at that sacred cow and throws a pie in his face for good measure in Godard Mon Amour, a comedy that captures the man just as his life is in transition. His films are undergoing a stylistic sea change as their author grows ever more political; he is embarking on a second marriage with his La Chinois leading lady Anne Wiazemsky, 17 years his junior; and as the strikes and riots of May ’68 explode, the 37-year-old director is intent on taking part even as his own midlife crisis rages.

“The movie is not an essay about Godard,” Hazanavicius says during a recent visit to the Bay Area where Godard Mon Amour screened at the SFFILM Festival. “It’s a comedy. I’m not a historian of cinema. I tried to make an entertaining movie. If I had to lie to do it, I would have done it. And maybe I did.”

The filmmaker remains captivated by Godard’s early work, less enchanted by the rest, but says he never intended to make a film about the man. But then he read Wiazemsky’s roman à clef, Un an après, about her relationship with Godard.

“I learned things and I fell in love with the character and the story, this love story and its themes and why it ended and the context of the period,” Hazanavicius says.

“He’s full of contradictions. There is something very freeing for a scriptwriter to work on a character who doesn’t care about being sympathetic,” he adds. “You can work on the negative parts of the character. You can put him in ridiculous situations and mix comedy with it. You can be ironic with him. My challenge was to find the right balance to make fun of him, but still hold the audience’s empathy for him.

“I think, in a way, he’s very heroic. He’s decided something, and he did it, whatever it cost him. It’s ridiculous, but also heroic. Also, he destroys everything around him, just in the name of revolution, but also himself. He’s his own victim.”

The character that emerges in Godard Mon Amour seems created out of equal parts of Charlie Chaplin’s gift for slapstick; Woody Allen’s penchant for self-deprecation; and Godard’s own intellectualism and radical politics. To play him, Hazanavicius settled on an actor not normally associated with comedy, 34-year-old Louis Garrel, a performer who has built his career on the work of auteurs: notably his father,  Philippe Garrel (with whom Louis made his screen debut at 16 in 1989’s Les baisers de secours and who directed his son to a most promising actor César in 2005’s Regular Lovers ); Bernardo Bertolucci (The Dreamers); and Christophe Honoré (Dans Paris, Love Songs, and many more). He’s also a director himself, who debuted his first feature, Two Friends, in 2015.

“I don’t think Louis had ever even made a comedy,” Hazanavicius says. “He’s not famous as a funny guy. He’s very funny, but also touching.

“In real life, he’s very handsome. But I shaved his head and he had this very specific way of talking, which is Godard’s way of talking. I transformed him. I think it was brave of him to do it, because he really worships Godard. He’s part of that sect. Godard is a god for him. He was brave. He went out of his comfort zone, to make a comedy, to make a movie with someone who’s not his father or his friend. We didn’t know each other.”

Hazanavicius was born in 1967, the year before Paris (and so much of the world) erupted in unrest. Growing up, though, he says the spirit of that time was very much present. It was an era that was familiar to him when it came to time recreate if for his film. But he also knew he needed to recreate whatthat time was like for a man like Godard who experienced it as he was undergoing personal transition.

“I tried to recapture the spirit of May ’68, which was very – it was like a nice revolution,” Hazanavicius says. “They wanted to change things for the better and for the best. The way they made that revolution, you could believe you wanted a society made by these guys. They were fun. They were sexy. It was full of good energy.

“It was important to create the contrast with the character of Godard, who was almost 40. He was much older. He wanted to be with the young generation, but they rejected him. I need that contrast; I needed to show both sides of the conflict.

“To the character—I don’t know about in real life—youth is the most important virtue,” Hazanavicius avers. “He was claiming it and he was the director of youth. He was revolutionary. He was shaking cinema, shaking the bourgeoisie, shaking everything. But, suddenly, young people were shaking more than he could do. For him, it was very disturbing. I think that’s why he became more radical than everyone.”

Anne Wiazemsky passed away on October 5, 2017 at 70. She was able to see Godard Mon Amour before she died. She gave it her seal of approval.

“She really recognized Godard,” Hazanavicius says. “She was moved by the movie. She gave me the best compliment. She told me, ‘From a tragedy, you’ve made a comedy.’ That’s what I wanted to do.” –Pam Grady

 

 

Nothing SMALL TIME about exquisite John Hawkes in rural thriller

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An ex-cop whose alcoholism cost him his job, the respect of his colleagues, and his partner’s life finds redemption in the darkest of places in writer/director Eshom and Ian Nelms’ deep dive beneath the placid surface of a rural California town. Prostitution, blackmail, and murder might make the Chamber of Commerce quail, but for Mike Kendall (John Hawkes), those felonies represent a second chance.

That Mike might even want a second chance is not evident at Small Time Crime’s start. Waking out of his latest drunken blackout to find he’s rammed his muscle car into his own fence, Mike simply shrugs and starts drinking again. A round of job interviews reveals one thing: Here is a man desperate to maintain a lifestyle that seems to consist of collecting unemployment checks that will keep him in his perpetually inebriated state. Mike touched bottom a long time ago, now he’s busy trying to see if there’s a bottom beneath the bottom. Except for his sister Kelly (Octavia Spencer), brother-in-law Teddy (Anthony Anderson), and sympathetic police detective Crawford (Michael Vartan), Mike is pretty much friendless and too snockered to mind.

That changes when he finds a dying girl by the side of the road one morning. Old instincts kick in and take over. Despite being warned off by Crawford and his partner (Daniel Sunjata), Mike can’t help himself. In pretending to be a private detective, he becomes one. He also kicks a hornet’s nest as his investigation is one more thorn in the side of people trying to keep a secret buried.

Mike might wear a cheap suit—as the dead girl’s pimp Mood (Clifton Collins, Jr.) churlishly points out—  but this character is exquisitely tailored to Hawkes, one of the greatest character actors working today. A lifetime of hurt has rendered him a shambling wreck of a man, one who can barely function unless he’s well-oiled. And, yet, when his investigative juices start flowing, he is virtually unstoppable, even as he begins to realize that there is a price to be paid for his meddling.

The Nelms brothers grew up in California’s Central Valley and clearly have an eye for small-town eccentricity and empathy for dead-end lives. They have surrounded Hawkes with a terrific supporting cast that in addition to Spencer (who also executive produced), Anderson, Vartan, and Collins, includes Robert Forster as the dead girl’s vengeance-seeking grandfather, Dale Dickey as a no-nonsense bartender, and Jeremy Ratchford as a thorn in Mike’s side. These fine actors and more populate this suspenseful, sun-drenched neo-noir that charts not just the aftermath of a crime, but one lost man’s surprising discovery that he is not as far gone as he thinks. –Pam Grady

Russell Peters amps up his acting career with THE INDIAN DETECTIVE

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Comedian Russell Peters has been in two movies with Bobby Cannavale—The Take (2007) and Chef (2014)—but they didn’t share any scenes. In fact, they never met until 2017. Peters mentioned their history to the actor.

“He said, ‘Yeah? Which ones?’ I told him, and he was like, ‘Oh, yeah? Who were you in them?’” the Toronto native recalls during a recent phone call.

“I would like to get in bigger budget films with big-name actors and stuff and actually work alongside them, rather than being in films with big-name actors and not actually ever having a scene with them. I’ve been in two movies with Scarlett Johannsson. I’ve never met her. I’ve been in a movie with Robert Downey Jr. and never met him. I was in a movie with De Niro. Never met him. With all the movies that I’ve done, I’ve never actually met the big celebrity.”

A big celebrity himself in the world of stand-up comedy, Peters is about to embark on his 2018/19 Deported world tour, but that doesn’t mean his acting ambitions are on hold. In a step toward getting him toward his goal of better parts in bigger films and actual scene work with the leads, he is starring in his own Netflix series, The Indian Detective. Peters plays Doug D’Mello, a Toronto cop with detective ambitions who stumbles on murder and conspiracy while visiting his father Stanley (Anupham Kher) in Mumbai. The series—shot in Toronto, Mumbai, and Cape Town, South Africa—debuted in Canada in November and made its US premiere on Tuesday, Dec. 19. It was tailormade for its star.

“They kind of let me do what I wanted to do as far as the character goes,” Peters says.  “They wrote the character with me in mind, so they took what they knew of me and then they gave me the freedom to fully ‘Russify’ it. [Co-creator and executive producer) Frank Spotnitz was hitting me up, saying, ‘What kind of jokes should I write?’ I said, ‘Do not write any jokes. You are a dramatic writer. Stay in your comfort zone. Write the best story you can possibly write and when I get the script, I’ll read it in my voice. Don’t write it with my voice in your head, because that is about perception, what you think I would have said. But unless you really know me, you won’t really know what I’m going to say.’

“I would try to be spontaneous on every take,” Peters adds. “But the directors would sometimes be like, ‘That’s great. Can we get one the way it was written on the page?’ And I would say, ‘What’s written on the page is more of a guideline, and some of it is a little way too expositional and I don’t think anybody would talk like that.’ ‘Can we just get one the way it was written?’ ‘Of for fuck’s sake, go ahead.’ I would give them one take of what was written on the page and then on the others, I would do what I needed to do.”

Making The Indian Detective also turned out to be an opportunity for Peters to act alongside an actual legend. Star Trek’s Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner, plays a billionaire property developer working on a project in Mumbai who crosses paths with D’Mello.  Peters was struck by how youthful the 86-year-old actor seemed. (“He looks like a hard-drinking 62,” Peters jokes.) The comedian who has dreamed of sharing scenes with stars was actually doing it.

“It’s one of those things where you walk in the room and you see Shatner,” Peters says. “As long as you’re from this planet, you know who he is, or you’ve seen him at least 10 times in your life. I walk in the room and I see him and I immediately just geeked out. In my head, I’m ‘Holy shit! That’s Shatner!’

“The funniest thing is we do the first scene and he says, ‘Should we rehearse this?’ And everything he’s saying, I’m just listening to his voice. I’m not even paying attention to the words. ‘Holy shit! That’s really him.’ He says, ‘Do you want to run this?’ ‘Yeah, yeah let’s run this.’ So, he starts the scene and he does his lines, and instead of being involved in the scene, I’m just watching him, like a fan. He finishes his lines and I’m staring at him, but I have a line right there. He’s staring at me, and he goes, ‘Don’t you have a line right there?’ I go, ‘I’m sorry! Line, please!’ I forgot the line completely, because the whole time I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, that’s TJ Hooker right there. I can’t believe I’m working with the Priceline spokesman.’ And he’s Canadian and I’m Canadian, so we were both geeking out about being Canadians.” –Pam Grady

The Indian Detective is currently streaming on Netflix.

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

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

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

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

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

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