Mikkelsen battles the elements in ARCTIC 


, , ,

ARCTIC_HS_040317__DSC8682 copy

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

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

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

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

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




She Who Laughs Last: WHAT MEN WANT


, , , ,


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

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

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

Orchard drops THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT trailer


, , ,

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

Q&A: Pawel Pawlikowski on Poland and COLD WAR


, , , ,

cold war_1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edgerton fills in the contours of a 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.”


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.

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


, , , ,


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


, , , , , ,


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


, , , , ,


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.


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.

Rudd 1_home

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.


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


, , , ,

godard mon amour

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


, , , , , , , , , ,


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