Shane Black mines pulp comic gold in THE NICE GUYS


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It’s magic! Guns blaze. They fire and fire and fire, never running out of bullets and with the gunmen never having to stop to reload. Writer/director Shane Black clearly remembers his ‘70s TV when that kind of fantasy gunplay was the standard and it’s just one of the delicious details in his delirious slapstick crime comedy “The Nice Guys.” In revisiting the pulp comic thriller territory of his own Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in this 1977-set movie that marries an Inherent Vice meets Freebie and the Bean vibe, employs a plot so convoluted as to be Chandlerian and casts a droll dream team in stars Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, Black comes up aces.

The Hollywood sign is in tatters, the introductory notes of The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” plays but just up to the point where the vocals would kick in, and a little boy grabs a nudie magazine from beneath his sleeping parents’ bed. Even before he has introduced any element of his plot, with these opening frames, Black sets the stage for the complicated situation that greets morose private eye Holland March (Gosling) and bull-in-a-china-shop enforcer-for-hire Jackson Healy (Crowe). The two meet not-cute when the young woman who has hired Healy to protect her from men who are stalking her discovers March has been looking for her and doesn’t bother to wait to find out why the detective is on her trail before attempting to throttle him. It’s only when they get down to comparing notes that they realize they are after the same thing and join forces.

The plot expands to pull in determined environmentalists, the seedy porn world, the auto industry, a Justice Department lawyer (Kim Basinger) with a murky agenda, and an ironically named hit man (Matt Bomer), but the story is only an excuse to put Crowe and Gosling through their paces. Crowe, who is beginning to look like his Gladiator costar Oliver Reed in middle age and who clearly relishes playing the tough guy, has his best role in years as a big palooka whose first instinct is always to hit something. Gosling as the sad sack March, an alcoholic widower and guilty father to 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice, excellent), is pure genius both in his wry line readings and his gonzo physical comedy. Tis is a man who knows how to make the most of a pratfall.

Every detail in The Nice Guys is right, from the largely cheesy soundtrack (America! Andrew Gold! A slightly anachronistic “Pina Colada Song”) to an auto show climax that will make gearheads salivate to the casting of Rice, who recalls, in her intelligence and precocious maturity, the young Jodie Foster. Holly keeps inserting herself into the case in a way that would make today’s helicopter parents blanch, but is just perfect in recreating an era in which every kid was a free-range kid.

Black times every joke, every fight, and every set piece perfectly. Not all of it makes sense and probably isn’t supposed to as the filmmaker concentrates on evoking an era, mood, comic bits, and above all the relationship between his two disparate heroes. He delivers the goods and so do Crowe and Gosling. They aren’t just Nice Guys; they are pure comedy gold. –Pam Grady

Famous photo begets lazy movie in ELVIS & NIXON


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Elvis and Nixon_edWhen future Watergate conspirator Egil Krogh is the most sympathetic character in a movie about the legendary 1970 meeting between then President Richard Nixon and the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll Elvis Presley, you have a movie that’s dead on arrival. That’s the case with Elvis & Nixon. Neither Michael Shannon (Elvis) nor Kevin Spacey (Nixon)—two of the greatest actors of the present era—emotionally connect with their characters to give more than a shallow impression (and not much of one at than in Shannon’s case) of the men they portray. Not that they have much to work with in this sorry comedy’s lame, lazy script.

The photograph memorializing the Yuletide get together between the leader of the free world and the pioneering rock star is an enduring image, but there is no record of the meeting that Presley asked for hoping to join the war against drugs as a specially appointed law enforcement officer, leaving filmmakers free to fill in the blanks. Elvis & Nixon is not the first time the tales been told. Allan Arkush (Rock ‘n’ Roll High School) made Elvis Meets Nixon for Showtime in 1997, framing the story as a hybrid between mockumentary and straight narrative with Elvis in the throes of a kind midlife crisis that sends him on a solo excursion to Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip before jetting off to Washington and his date with a hilariously out-of-touch Nixon. The new version spends a lot more time in that meeting with Elvis constantly breaking protocol and yet somehow winning over an initially hostile Nixon.

Spacey nails Nixon’s voice and mannerisms but still comes across as little more than a caricature. (In contrast, watch Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, or even Dan Hedaya in Dick.) But the big disappointment is Shannon who plays a character named Elvis Presley who does not remotely resemble the man named Elvis Presley. The gaunt actor would be a stretch in any case, but Shannon also can’t replicate the voice or the physical grace and he crucially never conveys the man’s charisma and he just plain looks uncomfortable in Presley garish wardrobe.

The most interesting aspect of Elvis & Nixon is the way both men are portrayed in relation to their handlers. Part of the Memphis Mafia, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and Sonny (Johnny Knoxville, in a sea of bad wigs, he’s stuck with the worst) have their hands full with man-child Elvis, spoiled, impetus, demanding their loyalty and attention to the detriment of their own lives. (In one subplot, Schilling is desperate to get back to Los Angeles in time to meet his girlfriend’s parents.) Nixon aides Krogh (the always reliable Colin Hanks, playing the character as a blend of political opportunist and fanboy) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) similarly manage their boss, here portrayed as a crank more interested in napping than affairs of state. As powerful as they are, both Elvis and Nixon are infants in need of constant minding. Director Liza Johnson and the film’s three screenwriters only skate the surface of these relationships, another missed opportunity.

Maybe the lesson in all this if you don’t have any real affection or feel for the story you’re trying to tell, perhaps it’s not a story you ought to be telling. There is little heart in Elvis & Nixon, and what little there is curiously belongs to Egil Krogh. But that’s all due to Hanks, the one actor who finds a way to transcend the thin material. It might be possible to make a funny, entertaining movie out of the president and Presley’s short conference (Elvis Meets Nixon comes close), but Elvis & Nixon isn’t it.—Pam Grady

Magical moments at SFIFF 2016

by Pam Grady

The Coen family has taken over the Bay Area in the first half of 2016. First, Frances McDormand, wife of Joel Coen, played to sold out houses with her turn as Lady Macbeth in Berkeley Rep’s production of Shakespeare’s Scottish play. Now, her husband and his brother Ethan are a star attraction alongside Peter Becker and Jonathan Turell of Janus/Criterion when the San Francisco International Film Festival awards its Mel Novikoff Award to Janus Films and The Criterion Collection on Saturday, April 30, at the Castro Theatre. The siblings’ first feature Blood Simple, the tense, bewitching neo-noir in which McDormand made her debut as barkeep Dan Hedaya’s cheating spouse, screens as well in what is sure to be a magical afternoon.

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CRIMINAL review: It’s criminal


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Oh to be a fly on the wall when Criminal was being pitched. In the imagination, it goes something like this: “It’s Awakenings—with guns!” Or maybe, “Remember Flowers for Algernon, that story about slow guy who becomes a genius, except there’s price. Well, this is that story, but with spies and terrorism. You know, a kind of Flowers for Algernon: This Time it’s for Real!” There’s also, in this ridiculous, heavy-handed action movie in which Kevin Costner is a stone-cold psychopath who becomes a CIA lab rat, a little of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, the “futuristic” thriller co-penned by her ex James Cameron, about a society where people use a device to relive or share experiences as if they were happening in real time.

Human testing is years away, according to the surgeon/scientist Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) who’s been conducting memory transference experiments with animals. But when agency spook Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) is murdered in London, taking with him the location of hacker Jan Stroop (Michael Pitt), a man in possession of some world-threatening software, Pope’s boss, Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman), is desperate for that information. So Franks—who warns that even if the transplant is successful, its effects are probably temporary—attempts to transfer the memories contained in the remaining electric impulses of Pope’s dying brain into violent convict Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner).

But the CIA can’t hold on to its new asset and Jericho soon has both it and terrorists led by Hagbardaka Heimbahl (Jordi Mollà) on his tail. Plus one hell of a migraine, a sudden fluency in French (even if he thinks it’s Spanish), and a growing attachment to Bill Pope’s widow Jill (Gal Gadot) and young daughter Lucy (Lara Decaro). The operation hasn’t made Jericho any less vicious and unpredictable, but it has turned him into a softy.

In 2008, Benedict Cumberbatch started in a UK miniseries, The Last Enemy, about a near-future England where the government conducts full 24/7 surveillance on everyone. Criminal presents that world as fact, only it is not the English government that can track anyone anywhere. It’s the Americans and the terrorists. Surely, MI-6 and Scotland Yard might have a few things to say about all these foreigners on both sides of the law blowing stuff up and holding raging gun battles on the streets of London, but then it’s clear that not much thought was given to the story. It’s all about that Awakenings angle, the degenerate titular criminal who gets a new lease on life, however impermanent.

It is ludicrous. Costner does what he can in playing a character that begins as a lethal Tasmanian Devil and never becomes any less lethal even as he adopts the attitudes and aptitudes of the apparently more affable Bill Pope. The character is a cartoon and so is this ridiculous movie, more brain-dead, by far, than the unfortunate Bill Pope.—Pam Grady



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Stellan Skarsgård is a boisterous Russian who pulls poetry professor Ewan McGregor into his plans to defect in this adaptation of a John le Carré thriller. Looking forward to getting an early peek at it when it makes its international premiere on Sunday, May 1, at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Becoming Hank: Tom Hiddleston and Marc Abraham see the LIGHT


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I Saw the Light_4

This is how much Tom Hiddleston got into playing Hank Williams in writer/director Marc Abraham’s I Saw the Light. When I tell Abraham that it’s possible I learned the Williams canon in utero, the country legend being a hero of my Arkansas-born father, Hiddleston interrupts. Pulling out his phone, he says he has something to play me.

It’s Williams in a live performance, joking with the audience, “We left the United States and went to Arkansas last year and played for a couple of days.”

“I was listening to that this morning,” he says simply.

Then there’s the matter of the hat. There’s a Stetson sitting on a table in the suite at San Francisco’s Fairmount Hotel that looks suspiciously like the one he wears in the film and on the movie poster. It’s not the real hat, he’s quick to say, just one the Sony Pictures Classics provided for the press tour.

“The actual hat is sitting at home in Belsize Park, the hat I wore in the movie, the special hat,” he says.

I Saw the Light is clearly an exceptional experience to the thoroughly British actor, 35, who utterly transforms himself to play a beloved son of the American South in the movie, and even more so to Abraham, a Louisville, KY native who grew up on country radio.

“Those stations, even though they were playing George Jones and Charley Pride and Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson, the DJs always played in the set, a little bit of Hank, because Hank is The Man,” says Abraham. “That’s probably the first time I started hearing Hank. … I loved country music and I never stopped loving it.”

Williams’ music and the tragic story of a brilliant, tortured songwriter who didn’t live to see 30 stayed with Abraham as he embarked on a career first as a television scriptwriter and then as a producer on such films as The Commitments, Spy Game, and Children of Men. Then several years ago, he heard that plans were in the works for a Hank Williams movie, and Abraham, who made his directing debut with the 2009 drama Flash of Genius, knew he had get moving on his own. The project was on track when he went to see Steven Spielberg’s 2011 WWI drama War Horse and spied Hiddleston in the role of Capt. Nicholls.

“I turned to my wife and said, ‘That guy looks like Hank Williams.’ She said, ‘Shut up and watched the movie,” Abraham laughs.

The filmmaker sent Hiddleston the script and Skype conversations about it turned into phone calls and eventually into discussing the movie over dinner. The actor’s star was rapidly rising with unforgettable roles in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea, and as the mesmerizing villain Loki in Thor, but that didn’t mean he automatically had the part.  Abraham had promised his casting director that he wouldn’t offer it to anyone without an audition first, since it is a technically difficult role. But then one night over a meal, caught up in the enthusiasm of their conversation, Abraham couldn’t help himself.

“We kept talking about it,” Hiddleston says. “We kept having interesting conversations about the story, up until the point where we were sitting in an Italian restaurant and Marc just kind of popped the question, basically.”

“He was really enthusiastic about it,” Abraham says. “He said to me, ‘I really love this. I really think I could do it, but just promise me one thing. Promise me you’ll allow me the time to prepare before I do a reading.’ Just very generous, and assuming, of course, there would be a reading, because that’s the natural thing.

“He didn’t put on an accent. He didn’t sing a song. He didn’t do anything like that. He just said, ‘I get it. I get it. I know what it’s going to take and I’m the kind of person—I’ll get it.’”

Hiddleston admits he was only familiar with a handful of Williams’ songs before I Saw the Light came into his life, but he found the man he got to know initially through Abraham’s script fascinating. He wanted to tell that story.

“I found the suggestion in Marc’s screenplay that the genius in his songwriting came from the turbulence of his intimate relationships a very incisive thesis, a very brilliant reading of his work,” Hiddleston says.

“It was my job as an actor to really roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty on that subject, to investigate the volatility of his relationships, especially with women, and his personal pain and his demons and his addiction to alcohol and mix all of that into a cocktail of this astonishing and charismatic performer.”

It was also Hiddleston’s job to learn to sing like Hank Williams, right down to the yodeling that was his signature. Abraham likens the process of mastering Williams’ technique not to climbing Mount Everest, but to scaling the even more daunting K2. To help Hiddleston channel a genius, another was called in, singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, who took Hiddleston into his Nashville home for several months to work on the actor’s vocal chops and record I Saw the Light’s soundtrack.

‘Rodney’s extraordinarily patient and wise, and we really sweated over it,” Hiddleston says. “We learned a lot about ourselves and each other. It was hard work, but it was joyful work. It was an extraordinary thing when we finished it, saying goodbye to each other, because we became very close. You do when you make music with people.

“I still yodel all the time,” he says.  “It’s funny. I play the guitar a lot more than I used to. I always played. I just play it for myself and I always find there’s no moment I haven’t picked up the guitar and done a little bit of ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues’ or ‘Move It Over’ or something—the yodeling songs, bizarrely enough, even though they were the most challenging, they were my K2s—they’re the ones I go back to. It was such an extraordinary and unique experience, really unlike anything I’ve ever done and very special for a lot of reasons.”

When he was a kid, Hiddleston would stay through the end credits to find out who had made the music he loved in a movie. Then he would run out to HMV to buy the record. He remembers discovering The Ronettes that way when he heard “Be My Baby” at the beginning of Dirty Dancing. Now, for the first time, it’s his own name he sees.

“When we stay to watch the credits of this film and I see all those songs come up and it says, ‘Performed by Tom Hiddleston,’ I’m like, ‘Wait a second!’” he says. “I can’t believe it, because I’m so used to that being performed by Elvis Presley, performed by Bob Dylan, performed by The Byrds, or whoever it is.”

“He can’t quite get used it,” says Abraham. “It’s sweet … He really gets joy out of it and it’s kind of amazing.” –Pam Grady

All hail HAIL, CAESAR!


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Hail, Caesar!

The last time Joel and Ethan Coen visited vintage Hollywood, it was the 1940s and John Turturro was the Clifford Odets-like Barton Fink (1991), who finds his talent, sanity, and very life threatened by a diabolical, soulless town and industry. The siblings’ strike a more buoyant tone with their return to Tinseltown’s Golden Age, Hail, Caesar!, set in the 1950s during the fading days of the studio era. Cheeky, exuberant, and salacious, this is a behind-the-scenes comic fable that allows the Coen Bros. to experiment with numerous styles while spinning several stories seemingly inspired by Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon or maybe a tattered, yellowing cache of Confidential magazines.

Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, guilt-ridden Catholic, head of production at Capitol Pictures, and designated company fixer when scandal rears its head. Putting out fires is what he does best and with the studio about to be consumed by flames, he is in for a busy 24 hours: Production on the titular Bible story (subtitled “A Tale of the Christ” a la Ben-Hur) screeches to a halt when leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) disappears from set. Musical stars DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) and Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) have potentially career-killing skeletons rattling around in their closets. Effete director Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes) is none too happy that congenial, but dimwitted singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) has been thrust upon his sophisticated, English drawing-room romance despite the boy’s disastrous accent and inability to use his words. If that weren’t enough, a cadre of Communist writers (played by a group of ace character actors including Fisher Stevens, Patrick Fischler, David Krumholtz, and Fred Melamed) are putting the squeeze on the studio and twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) are circling like sharks sensing chum in the water.

The Coens and their cast are clearly having a blast as the brothers pay homage to a Hollywood that hasn’t existed in well over half a century, capturing the feel of a big studio’s back lot when the place was still a company town. The riffs on various genres—Biblical epic, oater, and Esther Williams-style swim spectacular, among them—are spectacular. The highlight is Tatum’s big dance number, taking the lead as one of a gang of sailors in a production number that wouldn’t be out of place in a Gene Kelly musical—well, except for the homoerotic spin on it. The Coens clearly know their classics and what makes them tick.

The acting is superb, particularly from Brolin as long-suffering master juggler Mannix; Johansson as brassy screen siren DeeAnna; Ehrenreich as sweet, thick, and sincere Hobie; and in a delicious cameo, Frances McDormand as the studio’s no-nonsense editor CC Calhoun. Production design and costuming are superb, reflecting the glamor of that bygone era. The Coens’ longtime collaborator, cinematographer Roger Deakins, is back in the fold after a nearly 10-year absence and his compositions and gorgeous lensing add yet another layer of gloss to the film.

Hail, Caesar! Is a glorious piece of work. The Coens are firing on all cylinders in their recreation of Hollywood as it never quite was. How this will play to a wide, general audience is a question—is it a little too inside baseball for its own good? But for anyone who loves classic Hollywood and those willing to follow the siblings down whatever twisted path they forge, the movie is pure delight, comic gold to brighten up a dreary winter.—Pam Grady

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS: Charting a new course in a galaxy far, far away


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starwars55352fd36e73eStar Wars: The Force Awakens lives up to the hype. Disney is begging critics not to give anything away, so I won’t. I will say that J.J. Abrams successfully walks the line between paying homage to the franchise’s origins and breathing new life into it. Episode 7 begins 30 years after Return of the Jedi ended, and if it weren’t for how much Han Solo (Harrison Ford), General Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) have grayed, time scarcely seems to have passed at all as the forces of light and darkness are at it again. Abrams starts full throttle and rarely lets up the pace in a film that, in addition to bringing back old favorites like Han and the ageless Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), introduces several new characters to the Star Wars universe, including scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley, who makes the biggest impression among the freshman class), fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), disgruntled Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), petulant Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and the latest in adorable robots, the rolling BB-8.

Pitched battles of both the large-scale and intimate variety, special effects that incorporate the advances of the past four decades while very much reflecting that more lo-fi era, some arresting cameos (including a motion-captured Andy Serkis as holographic Supreme Leader Snoke—is a large-scale sci-fi/fantasy complete these days without a motion-captured Andy Serkis?), and John Williams’ latest take on his most notable score combine for a thrilling ride. If episodes 1, 2, and 3 felt like Star Wars had gotten lost in space, episode 7 feels like Abrams has righted the ship and charted an exhilarating new course in that galaxy far, far away.—Pam Grady

The Hitchcock Films in Truffaut’s Life

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

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