The Hitchcock Films in Truffaut’s Life

My interview with Kent Jones about his fabulous doc HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT.

EatDrinkFilms.com

The Director of Programming at the New York Film Festival has made his third movie about the movies. Kent Jones offers personal memories about growing up with Truffaut and Hitchcock as his guides. Pam Grady then interviews the maker of Hitchcock/Truffaut.

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Clothes make the woman: Tom Hooper on DANISH GIRL style

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Danish Girl2015 has been quite the year for movie fashion, from the mid-century style of Brooklyn, Carol, and Trumbo to the Swingin’ 60s mod of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Legend. But costuming is never more striking than in The Danish Girl, in which Eddie Redmayne stars as Dutch painter Einar Wegener who becomes pioneering transsexual woman Lili Elbe opposite Alicia Vikander  as Einar’s supportive wife and fellow artist Gerda Wegener. Both actors’ performances are extraordinary and they are enhanced by Paco Delgado’s costume designs that empathizes how chic and fashion-forward Gerda is in adopting the latest 1920s styles, in contrast to Lili who favors the ultra-feminine and old-fashioned.

“Paco Delgado is a genius,” says director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables) on a visit to the San Francisco Bay Area where The Danish Girl was a Mill Valley Film Festival opening-night selection. “He’s done Pedro Almodovar’s films for years and I discovered him—I was doing a commercial for Captain Morgan rum set on a pirate ship in Spain and he’s Spanish and I was told that he’s the best guy. He kind of conjured amazing costumes out of thin air. Then we did Les Miz together and I thought his eye for detail was extraordinary.

“We were led a lot by the photos we had of the real Gerda and Einar,” he adds. “There were some on the internet, but we commissioned some new research in Denmark and got a few more. At first, it became clear that Gerda’s eye for fashion was immaculate. The real Gerda was probably even more out there than some of the things we did. One of the ways she paid the bills was doing illustrations for fashion magazines. She did covers for Vogue in her life.”

The photos Hooper and his team uncovered did not just give them a sense of Gerda Wegener as a fashion plate, it also offered them another key to Lili. In searching for words to describe Lili’s sense of style, the director finally lights on “bourgeois conservative.” In a sense, he thinks she dressed so as to blend in within a conservative community.

“I think she felt safer in a kind of conventional style of clothing than to draw attention to herself with something kind of more extreme,” Hooper says. “What was extraordinary was the Lili was aspiring to a very different idea of the feminine [than Gerda].

“But it also seemed to me that the film doesn’t involve Lili learning to be like Gerda as a woman. Lili’s body language as a woman is nothing like Gerda’s. Gerda’s actually more masculine. I enjoyed the surprise of the fact that you might think that Gerda being obsessed with painting Lili that Lili would kind of become encouraged to identify with Gerda’s femininity, but they’re quite distinct. I also like the idea that Gerda’s idea of felinity is often quite masculine, so there’s a play of gender roles.”—Pam Grady

Charles Poekel talks reel life among the trees in CHRISTMAS, AGAIN

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chrismas againCharles Poekel’s evocative, downbeat Christmas, Again, a Yuletide tale of the heartbroken manager (Kentucker Audley) of a 24-hour tree lot enduring a cheerless season, is a film like no other. The story of isn’t autobiographical, but it is steeped in the writer/director’s own experience, lending the drama a heightened sense of reality. Now out on in a limited theatrical run and on VOD, Christmas, Again is also up for an Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award, given to the best film made for under $500,000. The film made its US premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival as part of the Next program, and Poekel was full of anticipation for that stateside debut when he talked to me about his unusual first feature.

Q: Why a tree lot? Is that someplace you worked?

Charles Poekel: Yeah, I actually started my own tree lot. I ran it for about three years while I was writing the screenplay so I would know firsthand what it’s like to work in the shop and try to get into the character better.

Q: Where did the story come from? It is inspired, the idea of getting to know this guy that you see briefly once a year.

Charles Poekel: It happened the first Christmas I had been living in Brooklyn. My roommates and I had gone out to get a tree at maybe 10pm. We were wondering if the place near us was still going to be open. We got there and I asked the guy, ‘I’m glad you’re still open. What time do you close?’ He looked at me and he said, ‘We don’t close. We can’t lock up these trees. We’re open 24 hours.’ And I was like, ‘Open 24 hours from Thanksgiving ‘til Christmas, that’s crazy.’ When he told me that, I realized how weird a world this was that they just set it up quickly and then they just pack it up after Christmas and they’re gone. I think as a filmmaker you’re always looking for stories or jobs that haven’t been explored or told before. I hadn’t seen this in a film before and I thought, ‘You know what? That sounds like a great idea.’

Q: It seems like such a specifically New York story, even the idea that the lot is open 24 hours.

Charles Poekel: I think it has to do with the fact that it’s so concentrated of a city that most people don’t have cars and so they are restricted to buying trees at the closest place to them. There aren’t really large lots to fence in or anything.

Q: At what point did you actually start writing your story, before or after you started selling trees?

Charles Poekel: Before. The first thing I started doing is I started talking to people who were selling trees. I recorded hours of interviews just of these guys telling stories and telling about their lives and all this stuff. But I didn’t feel like I was getting the nitty-gritty that you can only know by doing it yourself. I knew when it came time to shoot the film, nobody would ever let me shoot a film at their tree stand, because they’re trying to make money and they don’t want to scare customers away, so I just thought, ‘Why don’t I open my own tree stand? Then I can use the profits from selling trees to help fund the film.’

Q: Your film isn’t so dialogue-heavy. There are so many quiet moments where it’s just Noel. Talk about the importance of casting Kentucker Audley in that role.

Charles Poekel: Of my goodness, [casting the role] literally kept me up at night, because…the camera’s pretty much on him throughout the whole movie. There aren’t that many movies where your main actor is so much a part of it and it’s so hard to carry a movie just on one person’s shoulders. We were really fortunate that Kentucker loved it and did such a great job. There aren’t many people that could do that.

Q: What was it like shooting like that on a tree lot in the middle of New York?

Charles Poekel: I think, in many ways, the weather was the biggest challenge, but in many ways, it wasn’t. Obviously, it was freezing outside and we didn’t have any place for our crew to be. We could only fit a couple of people in that trailer. Even when we were shooting scenes in the trailer—our crew was only, I think, eight people—three or four would have to stand outside and wait until we finished the take. The adjacent buildings were nice enough to let us in and stay warm.

The weather was kind of the most annoying part, because it was constantly cold. It was a really cold December. But that stuff people can work through. You find ways to get through it. But also working with non-professional actors was challenging, as well. It’s difficult to rely on them as much, as far as showing up and preparing their lines as they were supposed to and having them do takes again and again and again. It difficult, but it’s ultimately very rewarding.

Q: How was it making a film and operating a tree stand at the same time?

Charles Poekel: It was fun. One of the reasons it took me so long to make the film was the first three years of running the tree stand, it took me—the first year was pretty crazy, the second year was a lot better, but I was still kind of fixing things. It was really the third year of selling trees, while I was finishing up the script that I felt, ‘OK, this is a turnkey operation now. I can definitely shoot a movie and have people helping out at the stand, selling trees, and not feel like my head would explode.’ I thought it was pretty fun, actually, and pretty much everyone in our crew, at some point, sold a tree. Sometimes we’d have to stop a take and help a customer. A few times we even asked a customer, ‘Hey, do you mind? We’re making this movie. Would you mind if we filmed you buying a tree? Do you want to be in it?’ So a few of the customers actually made it into the film.

Q: Did they get a discount on their trees?

Charles Poekel: Usually, we gave them the tree for free if they appeared in the film.—Pam Grady

 

Are you now or have you ever been? Jay Roach on TRUMBO

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trumboDirector Jay Roach has built a career mixing absurd comedy, including all three Austin Powers movies, Meet the Parents, and Dinner for Schmucks, with political fare that includes Recount and Game Change. Trumbo fits somewhere in the middle of both those poles, a serious subject in its retelling of the screenwriter’s imprisonment as one of the Hollywood Ten—jailed for contempt of Congress for refusing to play ball with the House Un-American Activities Committee’s communist witch hunt—and subsequent blacklisting. There is tragedy in what it costs him, particularly to relationships with old friends like actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg). But there’s also absurdity in the way Trumbo spits in the face of those who would deprive him of his life’s work and a living by employing fronts and pseudonyms to take credit for his scripts, even managing to win two Oscars that wouldn’t be properly credited for decades. It’s a subject that clearly fascinates Trumbo director Jay Roach. After weeks of promotion, he is still enthusiastic on a recent visit to San Francisco.

Q: Before you started this project, how familiar were you with the Hollywood Ten and the blacklist?

Jay Roach: I knew something about it, because one of my teachers at USC was Edward Dmytryk, and he was the tenth of the Hollywood Ten, in a way. I say tenth, only because there were nine writers and he was the only director. His story was so complicated, because he came out of jail and did name some names. I might be projecting on to him, but I always felt he was haunted by it a little bit. He made more films and was a really great guy, but I could tell that even the other faculty members had a bit of an attitude about him. I have to confess, at that time, I was just so trying to learn to make films that I didn’t delve very deeply into it.

It wasn’t until I came across this script—John McNamara, coincidentally, had also taken courses from blacklisted people; Ring Lardner Jr. and, I think, Albert Maltz, who were part of the Hollywood Ten, and Ian McLellan Hunter, taught at NYU. It was weird that we came together on this without knowing that about each other.

The more I learned, I couldn’t believe that no one had told the story. I really didn’t know anything about Trumbo, the person, the talent, the voice, all these complex aspects of his personality, that’s what hooked me…[He was] this eccentric, combative, irascible, stubborn man who could also write really great comedy. The tone of the movie, I think, is really derived from me enjoying how funny he was, but also knowing it was very high stakes, very serious. There was a tremendous cost to not just his life—and he kind of got off easy—but there was a tremendous cost and damage done to so many careers.

Q: In Bryan Cranston’s portrayal, Trumbo comes across as larger than life. He clearly sees himself in this heroic—you can see the little boy in him reading Greek myth.

Jay Roach: I love that you spotted that, because he had a kind of idealistic belief in the power of storytelling as a healing force in a civilization. ‘I’m going to tell stories about people trying to cope and figure out how we should then live and organize in a world where we don’t get along by default.’ He was Don Quixote. He really believed in the power of going after windmills like that. Any of us who fall for that are kind of doomed to disappointment, because you can’t change the world that easily, just telling a story. We hope this movie will raise questions, but it’s not necessarily going to change anything.

I always use Recount. I thought, ‘After Recount, with voting rights, there’s just going to be a giant wave of reform to make it so much easier to vote. Voter turnout will skyrocket!’ The opposite has happened, and I’m always like, ‘I have to remember, you can only do so much and it doesn’t always add up.’ But you still keep trying. I still believe in at least the power of at least the conversations that come out of the films.

Q: The script is so balanced between lighter moments and the darkness of the situation. I read Victor Navasky’s Naming Names when I was in high school, so I knew parts of the story, but I never know, for example, about the relationship between Trumbo and Edward G. Robinson. Watching that unfold is just tragic.

Jay Roach: Edward G. Robinson’s story, in general, I know there’s a whole other movie to tell about that man’s life, because of what he went through and his own battle for his soul. He was a really good guy, a really progressive guy. He started from nowhere, like a lot of these guys. Trumbo started from nothing, he was a baker. They worked their way up and Edward G. Robinson gets put in that horrible position. He’s not a communist, but he’s given money to various organizations that had associations. He gets asked three or four times and he refuses to testify. Finally, he does. He names a few names, tells himself, ‘They already had them, so it’s not such a big deal.’ But it’s so heartbreaking, knowing that—you can even tell in his autobiography that he’s haunted by that…All these guys were put in such ridiculous, painful places.

Q: And for what? These were screenwriters, filmmakers, actors, hardly enemies of the state, regardless of party affiliation.

Jay Roach: Dalton Trumbo was never trying to overthrow the United States government through movies like Roman Holiday. None of them were. It was a witch hunt, completely show trial. It was answering totalitarianism and the threat of totalitarianism with a totalitarian system to try to get people to conform to a very narrow sense of what supposedly being American was all about. That’s happening today. That’s not unusual. It’s as much about today as it is about 1947. There’s always going to be people who think they’re the patriots. ‘We’re the special patriots. You are the heretics or the traitors or whatever we want to call you.’—Pam Grady

 

VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN: Another failure of Abby Normal

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Victor FrankensteinScreenwriter Max Landis and director Paul McGuigan would recognize that tip of the hat to Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, but then they do that themselves in the course of Victor Frankenstein, their take on Mary Shelley’s classic tale that is part horror, part sci-fi/fantasy, part black comedy, part romance and part Victorian era buddy picture. For a while, McGuigan is able to keep all his balls in the air and this reimagining of the Frankenstein legend that is told from his assistant Igor’s point of view starts off as fresh and funny. But perhaps he and Landis should have paid heed to the lessons imparted by Dr. Frankenstein’s hubris. This monster of a movie is simply grafted from too many parts and escapes its makers’ control, falling flat in its last act when it morphs into yet another genre, a tired action movie. Ultimately, the experiment fails.

Daniel Radcliffe plays a nameless circus clown known only as “Hunchback,” an abused object of scorn who possesses a physical deformity and a brilliant mind. His is a life of misery, relieved only by his crush on aerialist Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay) until the day Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) visits the circus. Victor recognizes Igor’s intelligence as well as the nature of his deformity. He rescues the young man; takes him into his own home; lends him the name of a long-absent roommate, Igor; and reinvents him as a young dandy. There is a price to be paid for this kindness as Igor becomes Victor’s partner in his reanimation experiments. Lorelei and Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott), a Scotland Yard police detective convinced Victor is up to no good, warn Igor against his new friend. Igor himself has misgivings about the nature of Victor’s work in bringing the dead back to life, if not Victor himself, but he is also loyal and grateful to Frankenstein for all he’s done for him.

This is a gorgeous film with handsome cinematography by Fabian Wagner and sublime production design by Eve Stewart that is a magnificent evocation of the sleazy glamor of the circus, the bustle of Victorian London, the clutter of Victor’s digs, and the madness of his laboratories.

Landis’ screenplay, is also a plus, a novel take on an old story—at least until it all falls apart. It is a shame that neither he nor McGuigan knew what to do about that third act, because Victor Frankenstein wastes two wonderful performances from its stars. Radcliffe once again proves that he’s an actor up for anything, playing his opening scenes in ghastly clown white face, nearly bent over double, and moving about with a halting, almost crab-like gait, while McAvoy captures Frankenstein’s arrogance, a monomania that verges on madness, and a surprising kindness and generosity toward Igor. Together, the performers are quite the double act with a warm chemistry that lends conviction to Igor’s decision to go all in with his unstable friend. Radcliffe and McAvoy are fun to watch, even as the movie collapses around them, which only makes Victor Frankenstein’s climactic fail that much more hard to take.—Pam Grady

PEANUTS: Familiar and as irresistible as ever

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The Peanuts Movie is probably the most delightful unnecessary movie you’ll ever see. It’s delightful in the way it echoes and reflects the many beloved Charlie Brown TV specials and unnecessary for that same reason. The fact that it’s coming out smack dab in the middle of a fall season in which It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966), A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973), and A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) all make their annual appearance on television only underlines the fact that while The Peanuts Movie at times is magical, it’s borrowed magic. But what it lacks in a genuine reason for being it more than makes for in sheer amiability.

Everything you ever loved about the TV specials makes its way into the movie: Charlie’s crush on the little red-haired girl (which provides the film with its story arc), Lucy the psychiatrist (still only charging a nickel!), Snoopy vs. the Red Baron, Pigpen’s clouds of dust, Schroeder performing classical music miracles on his toy piano, Linus’ attachment to his blanket, the kids’ anarchic dancing, and more. Wisely, the screenwriters, which includes late Peanuts’ creator Charles Schulz’s son Craig and grandson Bryan, leave well enough alone when creating the characters’ world. There are no cell phones, computers, or Nike swooshes on clothing. There is a blue recycle bin, but that’s as far as it goes toward referencing the modern world. Instead, it’s all charmingly retro and all the more timeless for it.

The only sour note in an otherwise splendid production is the insertion of Meghan Trainor songs on the soundtrack. It’s not a knock against Trainor, but contemporary pop music does not belong in the Peanuts gang’s world. It’s distracting and more’s the pity, because the music is otherwise apt as the rest of the film. In particular, the decision to weave so much of the late Vince Guaraldi’s jazz, so familiar from the TV shows, was brilliant as well as an acknowledgment of exactly how integral that music was to creating those cartoon classics. Those gentle tunes that so came to define Charlie Brown’s world will come to be very familiar today’s children. For the rest of us, just hearing a few notes reverts us back to being small children enchanted by Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the gang for the very first time. That’s a beautiful thing and one of the things that The Peanuts Movie gets right. It’s a great film to see with kids, but it’s also a great movie to see to be a kid again. And a wonderful warm-up to the Thanksgiving and Christmas TV specials just waiting in the wings.—Pam Grady

All the rage: Bradley Cooper finds his inner angry man in BURNT

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BurntA few years ago over lunch at Waterbar in San Francisco, David O. Russell talked about how Bradley Cooper first came to his attention in The Wedding Crashers and what made him sit up and take notice, “I thought there was anger in him. That character was convincingly angry to me in an intimidating way.” Director John Wells must agree. In Burnt, he’s cast Cooper as Adam Jones, a burned-out Michelin-starred chef on the comeback trail and perhaps the angriest man in England. Adam is a diva with a nasty attitude, but luckily for the movie, Cooper also brings to it his other major attribute, his considerable charm. Burnt needs it.

A decade ago, Cooper channeled Anthony Bourdain in the sitcom inspired by the chef’s memoir Kitchen Confidential. This time he takes his cues from that foul-mouthed stroke-waiting-to-happen Gordon Ramsay, one of Burnt’s executive producers. Temper tantrums come thick and fast when Jones returns to Europe with the grand ambition of earning his third Michelin star after performing penance for blowing his first grand opportunity (and the one that earned him two Michelin stars) in New Orleans by shucking one million oysters. No one seems eager to see him, not Tony (Daniel Bruhl), the London hotelier with a restaurant that Adam expects to commandeer; not the old colleagues he recruits for his kitchen, including Michel (Omar Sy) and Max (Riccardo Scarmacio}; not Helene (Sienna Miller), a talented chef he’s eager to land who knows him by his sorry reputation; and certainly not Reece (Matthew Rhys), a frenemy who came up with Adam in the same kitchen in Paris and who now has his own restaurant.

Despite the romantic complications posed by Helene, Burnt’s focus is mainly what goes on in the kitchen as Adam works his way toward redemption. It’s not entirely convincing. Bumps along the way include the five-year-out-of-the-game Adam’s unfamiliarity with the latest trends—because apparently, there were no food shows, cooking magazines, other literature, or for that matter, fine restaurants to keep him up to date in New Orleans. Seriously? Then when he finally gets with the program, his big revelations are sous vide, which Adam seems never to have heard of before (really?), and presentation, as he begins plating his fare exactly the way food has been plated in high-end restaurants since long before he flamed out—gorgeous food porn made from tiny portions. Also, while Steven Knight’s screenplay tells us over and over again that Adam is one of the world’s great chefs—the one all the others follow, according to the jealous Reece—Burnt never actually demonstrates that.

The movie’s saving grace is Cooper, who finds that rage that David O. Russell noted so many years ago and plays it for all its worth. But if the film were simply 100 minutes of Cooper channeling Gordon Ramsay, it would be unwatchable. An egotist’s profane rants are not the stuff of drama, at least not for an arena with higher expectations than reality TV. It’s a fine line that Cooper walks. He has to be a horse’s ass, yet he also has to have qualities not so curdled sitting just below that turbulent surface. The arc of Burnt is the flowering of that humanity while the anger and arrogance gradually recede. It is a beautifully modulated performance and one that gives rooting interest in Adam’s quest for that elusive third star. Burnt is not exactly gourmet fare, but as cinematic fast food, it’s pretty tasty.—Pam Grady

A vote for women: A Q&A with SUFFRAGETTE’s Sarah Gavron & Abi Morgan

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Director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan first collaborated on Brick Lane (2007), an adaptation of Monica Ali’s novel about a young Bangladeshi woman dealing with the constraints of an arranged marriage in contemporary London. The pair are partnering again for another story set in London, but this one set 100 years back. With Suffragette, Gavron and Morgan explore Britain’s early women’s rights movement and the struggle to gain the right to vote through the eyes of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a laundress, married with a young son. A sterling supporting cast that includes Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Natalie Press, Meryl Streep, Romola Garai, Ben Whishaw, and Brendan Gleeson, supports Mulligan, but the focus is never long off Maud as she evolves from a young woman shocked at witnessing acts of civil disobedience to one willing to risk jail and worse for the cause.

In the San Francisco Bay Area recently to attend the Mill Valley Film Festival where Suffragette was the closing-night film, Gavron and Morgan sat down to talk about how the story evolved and how an early 20th century laundress’ story might resonate with women today.

Q: Where did this start? Was it an ongoing interest in women’s rights, was it inspired by a particular person, or …?

Sarah Gavron: It was kind of a long genesis for me, because I wanted to do it for about 10 years. I grew up with a mother who became a local politician and I’d watched her agency in a very male world. We hadn’t learned about the suffragettes in school. We just learned this very sanitized version. We knew the Mary Poppins version, like everybody did. It’s not a widely known story.

People began talking about it. There was a really good TV series called Shoulder to Shoulder that made an impact. People were always discussing it, but there hadn’t been a big screen version of it. It seemed extraordinary and such a timely story and overdue in telling such a story, but it also seemed to resonate with the world that we’re in in so many ways. The two producers, Faye Ward and Alison Owen, it occurred to them around the same time, so they had a conversation, ‘How about doing a thing about this?’ It so made sense to us to talk to Abi, because she’d worked with us on Brick Lane and we had such a good collaboration.

Abi Morgan: I think from my point of view, it was just very exciting. I’d done biopics before, but this felt like a different way of looking at a biopic and, in a weird way, when we started to focus in and think, ‘OK, we could do the extraordinary life of Mrs. Pankhurst or Emily Wilding Davidson, but those women will at one point have a film about their lives.’ I hope they do, but actually when we started looking at the lives of the working women and honed in on those, there was just surprising detail wherever we looked: through the police surveillance records, which were only opened in 2003, where you’d see a tiny bit of an interview or you would read the testimonial of a woman that had been taken when she took the deputation to the House of Parliament or just a tiny news article.

You’d suddenly think, ‘Gosh, these women are really interesting.’ The jeopardy on their lives and what the vote would mean for them was so profound. So many of these women were being appallingly treated at work. Their working conditions were just chronic. They were trying to manage having working lives and children. They didn’t have wealthy husbands or family wealth. They were fighting for equal pay. They were dealing with sexual violence at work and at home. So many of these issues that they were dealing with felt so profound and so 21st century.

I think that’s when we started to think, ‘OK, so what would it be like if we took a woman who was outside of that, in a place of passivity, who didn’t realize just how downtrodden and difficult her life was and then through engagement with the movement, moves towards militant activism and change?’ We realized it was the ordinary women that change history. Then we thought, ‘That might be a story for us all.’ So I think that’s when we started to feel like this could be a proper movie.

Q: How important was it that the protagonist be kind of the whole package, be married, be a mother, be someone who has, up to the point, essentially accepted her lot in life and only gradually comes to see that it doesn’t have to be her lot in life?

Abi Morgan: I think those are strains that feel very familiar to us all. We were trying to create a character who was identifiable. I don’t think you have to have been a woman who was married. I think the point of the film is it’s about empowering women, say, in Britain in the 21st century—globally, we know there are these huge inequalities that we deal with.

I think for Maud we wanted to create a woman who was not even yet engaged with how unhappy she was. This is a young woman who was institutionalized from an early age. She’s been abused by her employer. Her mother was most likely abused before her. The character of Maud has a scar on her arm. The nominal idea was she was there when her mother was burned at the laundry. You’re meant to realize this woman has a huge legacy that she has just suppressed and suppressed. An engagement with the movement, an engagement with a group of woman who say, ‘We are equal, you no longer have to deal with these conditions, your life can change,’ is the thing that activates her.

It was very important to create all those pressures that women today have. They have to bring in money. They have to raise their children. They have to deal with sexual violence or sexual intimidation. They have to find their voice, and the whole point of the film is give these voiceless woman a voice.

Sarah Gavron: And by looking at a marriage in the center of it, we were able to look at the politics of marriage in terms of the power balances and the parental rights issues and the lack of economic power within a marriage. I’m sure at the time there were many more women married because it was the convention of the day.

Q: It also raises the stakes so much higher.

Abi Morgan: That’s a good point. The film couldn’t work as just a political tract. It had to work as a piece of genuine human drama. We were trying concretize that jeopardy. That’s something Sarah worked really hard on.

Sarah Gavron: It connects with these people and their lives.

Abi Morgan: And the pace of those quite big action sequences. We sold this as an action movie. Things were going to get blown up and telegraph wires would be cut. There would be car chases.—Pam Grady

DOA: ROCK THE KASBAH

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A brain-dead comedy apparently inspired by the documentary Afghan Star, Rock the Kasbah provides an opportunity for Bill Murray to sleepwalk through a movie and he seizes it. A muddled mess from Barry Levinson, the film is completely and utterly pointless.

Murray plays Richie Lanz, a down-on-his-heels music manager who becomes stranded in Afghanistan without money and passport. When he acts as a go-between in an arms deal between shady Americans Jake (Scott Caan) and Nick (Danny McBride) and Afghan villagers, he stumbles onto Salima (Leem Lubany), an elder’s daughter with a beautiful voice. Richie, who has always lied about at one time handling major stars, sees Salima as his big chance and schemes to get her on the talent program Afghan Star.

The material never even rises to the level of a bad sitcom. Mitch Glazer’s script is tone deaf and culturally insensitive and seems to have only a passing familiarity with that thing known as “humor.” The film wastes a large cast that in addition to Caan and McBride, includes Zooey Deschanel as Ronnie, a singer and one of Lanz’s deluded clients; Kate Hudson as Merci, a hooker aiming to make her fortune through brisk trade with GIs and warlords (one has to wonder what Almost Famous’ Penny Lane was thinking in taking a role that echoes it, reminding audiences that she was once up for better parts); and Bruce Willis, saddled with the role of Bombay Brian, a mercenary without an ounce of humor. There is also a large Arabic supporting cast playing a variety of cultural stereotypes.

Nearly 30 years ago Glazer wrote (with Michael O’Donoghue) Scrooged for Murray and he also co-wrote the actor’s upcoming ‘A Very Murray Christmas.’ Levinson had one of his greatest successes with another wartime comedy, Good Morning, Vietnam. Perhaps those factors convinced Murray to sign on to Rock the Kasbah, but he apparently realized early on that he had contracted himself to a turkey. His boredom with and contempt for the material is obvious. He generates the occasional laugh, but that’s Murray being Murray in a woeful excuse for a movie.—Pam Grady

Cold War thrilling: BRIDGE OF SPIES

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bridge-of-spies

Bridge of Spies begins with a man, later revealed as Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), using a mirror to paint a self-portrait. It is a simple image of an artist at work, an ordinary guy, but as he steps out of his studio in Manhattan’s Fulton Fish Market area circa 1957, he picks up the first of several tails. Appearance can be deceiving. It’s a subtle and powerful start to what is Steven Spielberg’s most satisfying film in years, a Cold War thriller inspired by actual events.

By now, you’ve probably seen the trailer where Tom Hanks’s character James B. Donovan avers, “I’m an insurance lawyer,” this his initial answer when he is asked to defend Abel after he’s arrested as a Soviet spy. The reality is not so simple. Donovan was on the prosecution team at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. He is also a crafty litigator. Pay attention when he debates definitions of an accident with an opposing counsel in an early scene, because his philosophy in the realm of car crashes extends to foreign policy. Donovan is exactly the right man for the job he’s been asked to do, but not in the way the people who recruit him to do it—including his law partner Thomas Watters Jr. (Alan Alda)—mean it. They simply want Donovan to give a respectable sheen to a done deal—see, in America, even a filthy Russian operative gets a fair shake in court, too bad he got the electric chair—but Donovan doesn’t see it that way. He maybe reluctant to take the case, but once he’s in, he approaches Abel like any other client in need of his services. One of the delights of Bridge of Spies is watching Hanks and Rylance together and watching that wary relationship change over time.

And if the Soviets hadn’t shot down pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and his U-2 spy plane in 1960, Donovan and Abel’s place in history might have ended with his trial. But with each side holding one of the other’s agents and those men being privy to state secrets, a prisoner exchanges seems prudent. Donovan is once again pressed into service and sent to East Germany to broker the deal. He has his marching orders from the US government. The Soviets have their own expectations. But Donovan, like Spielberg, is a big-picture guy and he has his own ideas about the negotiations going in, turning a simple exchange into a high-stakes gamble.

The film could use a less of Thomas Newman’s saccharine score, and while the script—credited to Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen—dials back on Spielberg’s usual sentimentality, it’s still there, particularly in relation to Donovan’s family. Amy Ryan plays Donovan’s wife, Mary, and it’s always great to see her, but with little to do other than worry over her husband and beg him to put their family first, Mary is a thankless role. It’s easy to overlook those minor flaws, though, particularly when Donovan is in the heat of negotiations and the stakes seem higher than just prisoners gaining their freedom and getting to go home or in any scene with Donovan and Abel. Mostly, Bridge of Spies is tense and thrilling in a way that few films are now, the suspense arising not from pointed guns but from people talking—what they say and what they don’t. It’s almost a throwback to certain spy thrillers of the ’60s and ’70s and a welcome return.—Pam Grady