The Skeleton Twins: (Sad) Funny Bones

hr_The_Skeleton_Twins_1The Skeleton Twins feels so clichéd “indie” that it almost folds over into meta. That’s not entirely a bad thing—at least we’ve reached the point where delicately essayed indie-feelin’ films about human people not wearing superhero costumes or trying to blow each other up are created and appreciated often enough to be criticized for familiar sameness.

As directed by Craig Johnson from a script he co-wrote with Mark Heyman, the hyped hook for the quirky dram-com The Skeleton Twins (there’s much more dram than com) is that it reunites former SNL cast mates Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as formerly estranged twins Maggie and Milo—except now the comic actors are super-mopey instead of super-funny!

Sorry, that came off much more dismissive than I intended. Fact is, Wiig and Hader are both terrific in The Skeleton Twins, as are Luke Wilson and Ty Burrell as their supporting, “complicated” love interests. The film itself chronicles the melan-comic emotional mishaps that befall Maggie and Milo as they’re forced back together in adulthood by their mutual suicidal tendencies, and it’s all plenty enjoyable in a nice rainy-afternoon-with-Morrissey way.

Skeleton-Twins-WiigWiig has proven her dramedy chops before in films like All Good Things, Friends With Kids, and even the more emotionally honest bits of Bridesmaids. Hell, her 2012 SNL farewell, serenaded with “Ruby Tuesday” by Mick Jagger, is one of the lovelier bittersweet moments in the show’s recent history. If anything, Skeleton Twins reminds you that Wiig’s eyes’ default setting is a sad and weary skepticism—like many Wiig characters both comic and dramatic, Maggie’s long since seen through the “happy princess” lies of real life, but chooses to cling to them out of an emotional survival instinct.

So this time it’s Hader who’s getting the big “who knew he could really act?!” huzzahs. I suppose we’re still at the point—at least in the land of this sort of semi-lazy Indie film—where the gayness of gay characters is considered a “character trait.” Hader will no doubt score Oscar-buzz points for playing the sassy, self-deprecating, self-loathing complexities of Milo’s flamboyant, sometimes flailing homosexuality. (If a little Stefon outrageousness occasionally slips through, Hader deftly weaves the camp into the character.)

theskeletontwins1But under all the irony, the achievement of his performance is in playing a complicated human being opposite Wiig’s equally complicated straight human being. Because American pop culture primarily feels, accurately or not, that depression is best defined through romantic failings, The Skeleton Twins spends much of its narrative time and energy on Maggie and Milo’s broken and dysfunctional romantic relationships. Maggie serially self-shames by cheating on her loving, doting dolt of a husband (Wilson); and soon after Milo’s melodramatic, self-pitying cry-for-help suicide attempt, he revisits a former high-school English teacher (Burrell) who he was involved with as a teen.

But it’s in the brother-sister scenes between Maggie and Milo that the film finds its best moments and its strongest emotional beats, showing how, as youth, Maggie and Milo developed a symbiotic survival system in the wake of their father’s own suicide. Most of that survival system centers on making each other laugh, as evidenced in scenes of them collapsing in mutual giggles while snorting nitrous or of Milo coaxing Maggie into joining him in lip-synching to Starship’s super-cheese Mannequin theme “Nothing’s Going to Stop Us Now.”

140911_MOV_SkeletonTwins.jpg.CROP.promo-mediumlargeThat last bit is probably the film’s most memorable, not just for the joyous silliness it (cheaply) milks out of stubborn sadness, but because if as a culture we can agree on little else, we still share a not-so-ironic love of ridiculous ‘80s pop anthems. (The scene also gives Wiig a near-transcendently sweet moment as Maggie first resists then finally, gloriously gives into Milo’s relentlessly earnest stupidity.) But it also helps us see how the siblings helped each other built walls of snarky humor around their pain and how fragile and weak both of them are when those walls crumble.

The problem with The Skeleton Twins is that all that sweetness and sadness and those nicely essayed performances are served up in a formulaic script that never met a modern Indie-film cliché it didn’t embrace and render trite. With quirky emotional awkwardness as its driving aesthetic, the film paints its themes with a mighty broad brush. For example, given that their father killed himself jumping off a bridge, the film’s use of water and skeleton metaphors would elicit eye rolls from a seventh-grade Language Arts class. (Whenever someone’s really upset they break an empty aquarium, leaving goldfish to literally die out of water.)

The-Skeleton-Twins-bill-hader-kristen-wiig-3As good as the film is at showing how Maggie and Milo survived by stitching their broken selves together with morbid, self-cutting humor, it has little genuine or insightful to say about the actual broken parts. Too often substituting cliché for emotional complexity, The Skeleton Twins leaves Wiig and Hader to spin their characters’ darker struggles from whole cloth. The actors succeed to an admirable degree, but ultimately the film seems to use suicidal depression as a plot device, an expression of frustration rather than honestly exploring the subject.

Like the skeletons of its title (and its persistent visual motif), the film feels like a collection of parts—even if several are meaty ones for its actors.

Interview: Love is Strange Writer-director Ira Sachs

Ira+Sachs+Love+Strange+Portraits+2014+Sundance+egz9I3z81frlLOVE-IS-STRANGE-final-smallAt first blush, Love is Strange, independent writer and director Ira Sachs’ sixth feature, feels Woody-Allen familiar:

Gentle piano music plays; a nattily dressed couple (Alfred Molina’s George and John Lithgow’s Ben) lovingly bicker; and diverse but attractive characters gather to sing songs in a perfectly appointed New York apartment.

But Love is Strange quickly reveals itself to be so much more than those initial, surface impressions, becoming a beautifully observed and nuanced character study that weaves its way honestly and often humorously around issues of love, marriage, and family.

Soon after George and Ben are finally legally married after 40 years of partnered “marriage,” their cozy life together is upended by the institutional narrow-mindedness of George’s employer (a Catholic prep school) and the vicious financial realities of NYC rent.

Unable to find new, affordable housing together, George is stuck on a neighbor’s couch while Ben moves in with his nephew’s family (Darren E. Burrows, Marisa Tomei, and Charlie Tahan). As George struggles to find quiet and sleep amid hard-partying younger couples, Ben’s presence further upsets his nephew’s already strained marriage and his grand-nephew’s adolescent angst over love and sex.

I spoke with Ira Sachs a few weeks ago about Love is Strange.

Love is Strange opens Friday, August 29 at select theaters.

__________

love-is-strange_612x380The film pleasantly surprised me by going in different thematic directions than I anticipated. Did you purposefully set out to defy the audience’s narrative expectations?

Ira Sachs: No. My job is to be a good storyteller. I’m always interested in good characters, good drama, and humor—stuff about the way we live intimately with each other.

My modus operandi is when you make a film you’re actually on some level a personal historian–you’re documenting something. You want to get the details right and you want to be sensitive and timely. More deeply, I hope it’s about things that are very personal to an audience.

It’s about both realistic and idealistic notions of love, but also about love and relationships between friends and family members.

Sachs: “Love” is a very big word. I started writing this in the spring of 2012 with my co-writer Mauricio Zacharias. At the time I was moving from living alone in an apartment to living with my husband, our two kids, the kids’ mother, and occasional visiting family members. So I was in a perfect spot to consider the ways in which love and family intertwine within a household.

9To me, the film is very much a multi-generational story about love from a variety of perspectives. You have this older couple, Alfred and John, and you have Marisa Tomei, who is very much a woman in the middle of her life trying to figure out what she is allowed and what she should expect in terms of herself and her relationships, and then you have this kid, Joey played by Charlie Tahan, who is experiencing love for the very first time. So I think people find different points of identification in this film that touch them in different ways.

Given the change in your living situation while writing it, are the sections with Marisa Tomei’s character trying to write with Ben always around based on semi-autobiographical frustrations?

Sachs: Certainly, but Marisa talked to two friends of mine who are novelists but also mothers and wives, and who are trying to keep that creative balance. I think balance is something you struggle with. What was nice and lucky for me was to have these actors who are also sometimes comic actors, so they had skills other actors who might have played these roles may not have had. It’s to the advantage of the film that these people see the humor in life.

That’s the beauty of the film—there’s a buoyancy to the performances that keeps it from getting pulled down into melodrama.

LOVE-IS-STRANGESachs: That’s a good word, buoyancy. It helps to create an atmosphere. I don’t actually rehearse my actors before we start shooting. I want to create theater, so it’s strategically helpful to have them know their lines and the script, but then at the same time allow a level of emotional improvisational happening on set that leads to unexpected reactions.

It’s such a character-driven film—I was impressed by how Ben and George are such very different people. Often in film, long-married couples get blandly written as “twins,” two mirror halves of the marriage, with few deep emotional differences.

Sachs: The last pass of the script really refined the differences between these two characters. George is more of the caretaker while Ben is less aware of stuff. There is a kind of airy quality to Ben—his head is in the clouds, but he’s also super connected to his work and creating art. We refined these elements in that process.

And then you add in Alfred and John who are very different people. The film tries to pay attention to their differences while looking at what they’ve created historically with each other over a 40-year marriage, which is really what the film is centered on–it’s the story of marriage; not the act, but the thing itself. As John says, it’s a film with one lead: the marriage.

George is more inward and comfortable in quiet, solitude, where Ben is social and chatty.

love-is-strange-john-lithgow-600x400Sachs: But Ben’s also self-aware, which is a really nice quality. In certain ways he’s seemingly unaware, but what Lithgow reveals is that Ben’s actually paying really close attention.

A lot of us do that in terms of how we look at our families, particularly our parents. We sometimes see them as characters that are not actually the centers of their own marriages. As a parent and a child, it’s very hard for any of us to accept that other people are writing their own stories–we think they’re part of our stories.

At one point, George warns a music student of over-romanticizing an already Romantic piece. Did you deliberately try to avoid romantic and “Romantic” tropes in the film?

Sachs: I just try to be attentive to how the world is and what I observe in human relationships. At the same time, it’s cinema and you want to make something that’s exceptional in a creative way. My goal is that of the neo-realists: to make the ordinary extraordinary. There’s something very epic about all our lives, but you need to channel that in a very detailed way. It’s done by being accurate and precise with your tools–you can do both those things; create something that is very real but also has beauty.

Without giving anything away, I just love the film’s closing shot—that’s a place where you did seem to nicely tip over into a more epic, larger-than-life idealistic statement.

molina21f-2-webSachs: I really love films that have an open quality. Music has that quality, which is why I chose Chopin for the score. It’s an art that tells you enough but not too much. You want the conclusion to be something the audience can take with them and reflect on. That last moment of the film is a point of reflection.

It’s funny, there’s a story about that final scene. I had hired a girl who said she could skateboard for that shot, but when she got to the set that day, it was clear she couldn’t. And we were standing on the street trying to work this out when I saw a pony-tail go by really fast on a skateboard.

I pointed her out to our producer Jay Van Hoy, and he ran after her, followed her for three blocks in the West Village, caught up with her as she was going down the stairs to the subway, and tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Hey, you wanna be in a movie?” That’s the girl in the film. That’s the kind of accident you hope for when making a movie, especially in New York, where you’re trying to capture the ineffable and magical.

It’s also a nifty metaphor for love and how it ignores any rational plans.

Sachs: You have to know yourself very well to take advantage of those shifts. That’s something I really admire about Ben and George. I think I understand that more personally in my life now then I did the past 30 years. By knowing who I am, I have a better sense of how to love

embed-ira-sachs-love-is-strangeThat’s let me create a movie that has a real optimism about it and about being open to other people, to each other, and to connecting in deep ways. That’s a really impressive way to live your life; to have both humility and confidence. That’s what makes people want to be around Ben and George.

There’s also that sense of the idea of love—and all its complexity—being passed to the next generation. There’s a sense of education, of George and Ben teaching through example.

Sachs: Yes, to me the film is about education. We all are teaching somebody something. What do we impart as institutions, as educators, as parents, as lovers, as part of a family? That collective education is partly what the film is about.

Who Guards Against the Guardians of the Galaxy?

hr_Guardians_of_the_Galaxy_46Let’s be clear at the start: I enjoyed The Guardians of the Galaxy. Quite a bit, thank you. I had much of the good-times happy smiles with it, and I laughed a whole lot, often heartily and with great joy. It’s a totally entertaining lark (with a bit of heart), and if you like fizzy, funny, sci-fi action and you haven’t already, you should probably go see it—you’ll have a nice late-summer blast.

Keep that in mind, because later in this piece, it’s going to increasingly seem like I did not like Guardians of the Galaxy; that I blame it for some very bad things. Not true. Remember: Liked it. Had fun.

Of course you knew I was going to have a big “But…” However, after catching a second viewing of Guardians last night, I will say my “But…” is smaller than before.

I don’t think I need to tell you guys that I increasingly have issues with big-studio, big-budget, big-action, big-CGI, big-franchise, big-box-office blockbusters. Often that’s because the films that get shoved off that particular production line start to all feel the same: all just slightly above mediocre, all carefully packaged so you don’t so much notice the mediocrity but instead smile contentedly, dazzled by all the sparkly familiarity.

But several times a year there are big, expensive, VFX-laden, hyper-marketed tent-pole genre films that frustrate me more because as they suffer for their formulaic bloat, I see down inside them the smart, compelling films they could have been if they weren’t birthed through a studio-committee process intent on sanding off any edgy or unconventional originality that might hurt ticket sales in a key demographic. (Last year it was World War Z; earlier this summer it was Godzilla.)

la_ca_0415_guardians_of_the_galaxy_006In that respect, Guardians of the Galaxy bothers me more than most, even as I delighted in watching it more than most. Seeing it the first time, I could almost literally feel the two halves of my conflicted film-going soul separating and floating out to each side, like Angelic Pinto and Demonic Pinto on Tom Hulce’s shoulders.

I watched in utter, giddy glee as Chris Pratt’s “aw jeeze” space-rogue Peter Quill danced and lip-synced to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love;” I laughed constantly at the non-stop bickering between Quill and his misfit bad of cosmic screw ups as they fly around… um, fighting some bad people to keep them from getting a thing that does something something purple energy.

I was charmed by the film’s sweet idea of found family; I marveled (no pun intended at all) at the comedic, anarchic drop-ins director James Gunn and his co-writer Nicole Perlman peppered the film with (delivered almost perfectly by Pratt and his co-stars Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, and yes, Vin Diesel in his best performance since The Iron Giant).

But through all that summer cinematic party time, a part of me was frustrated that I had to dig all those happy moments out of what still felt like a big, dumb, lumbering franchise film weighted down by all the usual unnecessary CGI and over-long action scenes that studios insist mainstream audiences want, must have in their “blockbusters.”

guardians_of_the_galaxy_02In a film as effervescently irreverent as Guardians, all that extra… stuff… feels all that more intrusive so I resent it even more. This is a film about anti-authority types, made by an anti-authority director, but within the confines and sometimes stifling weight of big-studio, franchise blockbuster machine.

Director James Gunn—whose past films include the grinning B-movie gross-out Slither and the much darker, meaner costumed-hero satire Super—is a silly subversive at heart. (Not for naught did he get his start writing for Troma Films.) But while I give Gunn (and Pratt) much of the credit for everything I loved about Guardians, it feels like he had to push his way into and through the film, asserting his winning style through whatever chinks in the proscribed formula he could find.

(In the same way, Joss Whedon had to force himself around all the sharp structural corners and clunky narrative barricades of The Avengers—a film I once loved and still adore, but one that, with each subsequent viewing, works best as a strung together series of great and often hilarious character moments rather than an entire film.) (And given his experience with writing scruffy crews of space outlaws—Browncoats unite!—I wouldn’t be surprised if Joss took an un-credited swipe or two at the Guardians script.)

guardians_of_the_galaxy_01Lest you think I’m over-romanticizing the plight of the original-minded writer-director working in the new Marvel/Disney super-verse, remember that earlier this summer Edgar Wright (co-creator of films like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, and last year’s World’s End) was dismissed from his writer-director duties on Marvel/Disney’s Ant Man mere weeks before shooting was set to start.

The exact dynamics of that parting remain cloaked in “he said/they said” legal non-disclosure-land, but the gist of it was that Wright, working for the first time with a major studio on a blockbuster franchise property, had turned in multiple drafts of a presumably Wright-ian script that did not conform closely enough to what is now Hallowed Marvel/Disney Superhero Blockbuster Law. Marvel/Disney wants creative voices, but those voices better stick to the hymnbook.

Gunn, like Whedon before him, walked the line, or rather he, like Quill, charm-danced his way down it. For example, there’s plenty of ‘80s fizz coursing through Guardians, from Quill’s treasured Walkman (filled with “Awesome” ‘70s pop rock) to Gunn’s clear affinity for Buckaroo Banzai, Big Trouble in Little China, and the animated Heavy Metal feature.

guardians-of-the-galaxy-Chris-Pratt1After all, who’s Pratt’s Peter Quill but the sad, lonely little boy who gets swept up into a world of space adventure and emerges 26 years later a grown-up cross between Jack Burton, Han Solo, and Andy Dwyer? What geek child didn’t dream of such a thing? (And yes, Chris Pratt is lovable, lunk-headed comic wonder, but then Parks and Rec fans have known that for years.)

There’s plenty more good stuff in Guardians, from hilarious performances by Saldana and Bautista to the endless soft-hearted charm of the Diesel-voiced tree creature Groot. And Marvel fan-boys and –girls can revel in a huge haul of comic-continuity nods: we meet the Kree, Ronan the Accuser, the Collector, Thanos, the Nova Corps, the Infinity Stones/Gems/Gauntlet, and even Cosmo the Russian Space Dog, and we take a stunning tour inside Knowhere, the outpost inside a dead Celestial’s skull. (We even see a little flashback to a Celestial in action.) Oh, and yes, there’s a certain foul/fowl Cleveland denizen who’s trapped in a world he never made.

gaurdians-of-the-galaxyBut if you want to see where Guardians both succeeds and shows its seams, where my Angelic Self hoots loudly even as my Demonic Self grimaces, look to its two most crowd-pleasing, non-Pratt elements: the CGI character of Rocket (voiced by Cooper) and the steady use of Quill’s beloved ‘70s tunes to create kitschy-cute ironic-earnest moments.

Rocket, a genetically engineered space raccoon with seriously sociopathic self-loathing identity issues, is the film’s buzz-hook: A cute, smack-talking critter that favors big guns and bigger bombs. And most of the time, with Cooper giving him a bit of a New Yawk ‘tude, he’s the riot he’s intended to be.

But as you watch Rocket’s antics, they can’t help but feel somewhat forced, stilted, as if to say, “Here you go; we know you’re gonna love this fuzzy little nutcase because we’ve carefully built our marketing campaign around the obvious, hilarious visual incongruity of a raccoon with a machine gun.” Yes, Rocket is amusing, but eventually you start to feel as though you’re laughing more at the idea of him, as if he’s more pull-string action toy than character.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Trailer-Groot-Rocket-PrisonThe same dichotomy plays out with the toe-tapping ‘70s pop songs that spring up for musical-visual interludes every 10 minutes. I love ‘em—I’d gladly watch a 45-minute version of Guardians that’s just the song scenes. But I’m also aware Gunn goes to that well over and over and over again. It always works, but by the end you can’t help but warily feel a little manipulated for easy effect.

Lighter on its feet than most superhero action flicks, or at least as light on its feet as it can be while wearing the clunky anti-grav boots of big-studio franchise, Guardians of the Galaxy would have been twice as good if it were 20 minutes shorter, spent half as much on CGI, and cut down its action beats by two thirds. It doesn’t need all those things—the film’s greatest strengths are its cast and characters and their quips, and in its loose, lovably irreverent tone. All those charms are only slowed and diluted by extra-long fight and chase scenes. Except none such austerity in the face of two-hour overkill is allowed under the current blockbuster paradigm, currently executed most effectively by Marvel/Disney.

XXX GUARDIANS-GALAXY-MOV-JY-0704.JPG A ENTAs far as marketing and box office, as usual you have to stand in open-mouth appreciation at how well the Marvel and Disney hype machinery works. Over the course of the past year and especially the past few months, with a series of irreverent trailers set to those grin-inducing ‘70s tunes, they’ve made everyone—not just the fan-boys and geeks—not just want to see Guardians asap, but feel as if they had to.

Much about Guardians feels constructed to tap directly into fan-boys’ and -girls’ excitement not so much about Star-Wars-type space-adventure movies, but about their nostalgic memories of being excited about new summer action movies. And we are more than happy to participate in that symbiotic relationship. We love feeling like we have to be there opening day—yes, it takes us all back to the Good Old Summer Days when you arrived half a day ahead of time to stand in line for hours to see a Star Wars, Indiana Jones, or Batman movie. A part of us jumps at the opportunity to participate in the hype, no longer entirely sure how much of our enthusiasm is genuine and how much is being artificially goosed by the studio marketing department.

guardians_of_the_galaxy_03(I’ve heard a lot of praise tossed at Marvel/Disney for taking a “risk” on a film starring characters of which only a sliver of comics fans were previously aware. First, what does that say about “big” films these days? It’s a “risk” to make a movie that isn’t based on an already well-known property, franchise, character, game, or toy?

(Second, with the success of Marvel’s whole Avengers Phase One plan, they and Disney have a mammoth publicity platform on which to play. Sure, few people knew who the Guardians were a year ago—Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning rebooted the current comic-book version around the same time of the first Iron Man film—but once Marvel/Disney green-lit the project, they made sure to pre-sell it with furious purpose. It’s like a cupcake maker deciding to try a new cherry-licorice flavor, but first getting a guarantee to stock it from every 7-11 in the country.)

I know the main argument for Guardians—half of me makes it to my other half: Hey, we all had a wonderful time. What’s the problem? Why can’t we just have a little fun for a change? Because that’s not how it works in the real world. In the real world, every time Marvel and Disney’s impeccable movie-making process turns out another product (ranging from watchable to enjoyable); every time their marketing armies crank the fan-boy and –girl anticipation up to 11; and every time one of these films hits another box-office home run, the machine gets stronger, more determined, less flexible, more unstoppable.

And every time that happens, the fighting chances decrease of there being another Big Trouble in Little China or Buckaroo Banzai or Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World; of truly original and joyfully idiosyncratic genre films making it to big screens.

guardians_of_the_galaxy_ft-17415_r-dad80a6264839a6d7f064aac3a35b296eb13b545-s6-c30It’s easy to forget, nearly 40 years and five sequels and prequels and billions of merchandising sales later, that the first Star Wars was an independent film, rejected by nearly every studio, and—for better or worse—made with nothing but passion and blind devotion by a singularly obsessed creator.

Of course, the next Star Wars film is being currently made by Disney, which paid an Emperor’s sum to own the entire franchise for one reason and one reason only: The property potentially adds massive riches to the 2015 shareholders’ report.

I like Guardians of the Galaxy overall. I absolutely love many specific things about it. And that part of me is glad James Gunn made it. But that other part of me wants to believe that maybe James Gunn had—still has—his own even more subversive, more irreverent Star Wars-type obsessive film idea kicking around somewhere inside his creative mind. Something odd and original and full of rough edges and strange, satiric corners that don’t fit into a corporate franchise formula.

Two summers ago, director Colin Trevorrow and his writing partner Derek Connolly made a terrific little low-sci, low-budget quirkedy called Safety Not Guaranteed. When I talked to Trevorrow about the film, he was buzzing with ideas for future projects. Next summer (after having been on the short list to direct the new Star Wars sequel), Trevorrow is helming Jurassic Park 4, Jurassic World, co-written by Connolly, and starring none other than Chris Pratt.

I’m happy for Trevorrow’s big opportunity, and I hope it’s a terrific film and a great success for both him and Pratt—I have plenty of faith it can be. Maybe it’ll be the best Jurassic Park film yet. But if given a choice, I’d much rather have seen the small, personal, weird indie sci-fi film Trevorrow, Connolly, and Pratt might have made.

guardians_of_the_galaxy_04I can’t help but worry that the success of Guardians of the Galaxy further strengthens not just the Marvel/Disney factory but the studio-agreed-upon financial and creative blueprint for summer blockbusters, making it that much more unlikely that we’ll see Gunn’s quirky, passionate dream project—or Trevorrow’s, any other genre director’s.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go listen to “Come and Get Your Love” and picture Pratt’s joyous space sashaying for about the umptieth time today.

Interview: I Origins Writer-director Mike Cahill and Star Michael Pitt

i-origins-poster1Michael+Pitt+Mike+Cahill+Origins+Screening+2odjSkySYh8lThree years ago, writer-director Mike Cahill and his collaborator, writer-actress Brit Marling, helped lead a new sub-genre of science fiction with their breakout film Another Earth: intensely thoughtful and intelligent, smaller-budget films that aren’t afraid to raise complicated existential issues.

Cahill’s sophomore feature I Origins may have a somewhat larger budget and more expansive locales (including India) and an even richer visual palette, but Cahill, writing solo this time, doesn’t back off the Big Questions–instead, he dives in even deeper.

I Origins is the story of Ian Gray (Michael Pitt, Funny Games, The Dreamers, Boardwalk Empire), a molecular biologist specializing in ocular evolution. Around the same time Gray falls in love with Sofi, a highly spiritual young model (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), he and his research partner Karen (Marling) also make a huge scientific breakthrough.

But a series of tragedies and coincidences eventually lead Gray down a path that challenges his adherence to scientific fact over spiritual faith and could change humanity’s understanding of its very existence.

Two other writers and I sat down with Cahill and Pitt a few weeks ago in Chicago to talk about the challenges they faced in making a film that enthusiastically and earnestly tackles tough fact vs. faith questions.

I Origins is playing now at select theaters.

_________

i-origins-image-michael-pitt-astrid-berges-frisbey-2[Michael Pitt joins us a few minutes late, just back from the gym.]

Michael, you were boxing? Is that something you do all the time, or is it preparation for a film?

Michael Pitt: I try to sweat a little bit. Sweating is good for the brain, I think. I’m a little addicted to it.

Cahill: How long does it take you to start sweating?

Pitt: If you know what you are doing, about three minutes. I can get you drenched. I’m lazy, so the reason I box is that I can get to that sweating in a few minutes. I don’t have time to work out for an hour and a half. Jump rope for three minutes and you will sweat.

I Origins asks and wrestles with some big questions about science, faith, love, and death. 

Mike Cahill: We ask questions, but we try to frame them in an interesting way. Since the dawn of civilization, humans have been trying to construct narratives that make us feel peaceful. We don’t ask questions with our films and leave it wide open—it’s very precise in that the audience members put themselves there, and put their beliefs on the table as well. That’s part of the experience.

The film makes you start to see art, religion, and science as organizing metaphors for the human condition.

Cahill: Totally. It’s how we understand it all. The existential task is that it’s our responsibility to give meaning to life, otherwise it’s fucking chaos. Whether that meaning is true or not, who cares?

3033077-inline-i-2-iris-scans-and-reincarnation-filmmaker-mike-cahill-spills-origins-story-for-i-originsThe film deals with those weighty subjects but never feels heavy-handed or pretentious.

Cahill: When wishing to tackle ideas that are universal, you are dancing on the delicate edge of pretension; right on the border. Post-modernism has taken hold of the arts; painting, photography, music. I think that since Warhol, postmodernism has defined a generation of hipster-ism and young people and cynicism and irony and cool in an ironic sense.

It’s very untouchable and delicious and wonderful—and it’s also a dead end. If you as an artist are interested in going to something sincere, earnest, and emotional, it’s risky.

Pitt: It takes a lot of courage, especially in my generation and the generation coming up right behind us. It’s like, have the balls to care about something and take something seriously. At the end of the day, what are you holding onto?

I feel everything is about being ironic. And a lot of times when I sit face to face with an artist who is doing that, I see someone who is afraid to be real. Do you know what I mean? It’s a scary thing to put yourself on display. It’s an easy thing to say you don’t care. It’s a brave thing to say, “This is important to me.” Because people are going to challenge that. And that’s okay.

film-review-i-origins-cee5fb04ad66884bCahill: You might have that breakthrough, where you make someone feel. It’s like gambling. You risk it to go there. It is dangerous. You’re saying, “This is meaningful, this endeavor is important.” Hopefully.

It’s captured in that difficult dance that one does. In the scene where Ian says, “Have you ever met someone who fills that hole inside of you and when they are gone, you feel painfully vacant,” and he’s being fucking sincere, and gets caught up in that moment and he gets knocked down. For me, that was important that he goes there, so that we can go there. If we just ended on that, we would not have gotten away with it.

When Karen says, “Maybe the eyes really are the window the soul.” And he says, “Soul? Is my wife really using the word ‘soul’” Again, if you ever allow your characters to step over the edge into earnestness and sincerity and something that means something and opening their hearts and are vulnerable, we allow them to do it with a chain so that we can pull them back quickly.

Pitt: With the Internet, like Twitter and Facebook, it’s about making comments, it’s all a joke, and no one is taking it seriously. And I have smart friends who are doing all of this silly stuff; making comments that don’t mean anything, and that is why they are interested—it’s stupid, or a joke.

You are spending hours of your time doing something that is kind of a silly thing that you don’t take seriously, like watching a silly reality show. I catch myself in it, too. And it becomes about watching a train wreck.

tumblr_mxl94k1ZxA1stf63po1_500I just think that a little seriousness is in order. I don’t think you should take yourself too seriously, but I am very interested when I see someone who is passionate about an idea and is going to put themselves out there knowing that it is going to be criticized. And that’s okay.

Sarcasm and irony is best when it is intellectual. There is definitely a place for that. And a lot of stuff that I did- you can reach a dead end where it is like, “What do you believe in? What are you talking about?”

Or are you just doing it to make a point or just score cheap, easy points.

Cahill: Like that scene in Children of Men where they carry the baby out in that long shot. It’s beautiful. That’s an earnest moment in a film. It’s so easy to quip at that. But (Alfonso Cuaron) is risking to get us to feel the power of birth and newness and a new soul and what that means and how essential that is.

Ian is rational to a fault, yet still searching for something, or at least open to it. It’s fascinating to watch him balance faith and fact, spirit and science. 

Cahill: I have to give it to Michael for constructing that character. Ian is a guy who believes in facts and the scientific method and testing things, and only at the end of that process will he believe in something. Yet he follows a bunch of numerical elevens to get on a bus. That doesn’t seem to make sense as a person on paper, but it somehow resonates with real life about a person who is 95% one thing and 5% something else.

013_aIO_02664.JPGIn constructing that character, we talked about it a lot; how there’s something itching at him, and there’s a resistance to it, but he knows it’s there. And part of his attraction to Sofi was that she saw that, and like a string coming out of a suit, she started pulling on it and the seams started unraveling.

So that’s engaging for me—the idea of taking a Dawkins-esque, resistant person who believes that religion is dangerous and putting them in a situation where love and fate are the only things they hold onto.

Michael, how did you prepare for the role on both the scientific and spiritual sides?

Pitt: Normally I’m a big fan of researching and the throwing it away. We were talking about boxing. When you train as a boxer, you’re practicing a punch in super slow motion. And you’re getting that muscle memory, so that when you get in the ring you don’t think about it.

Acting is very similar to that—repetition, repetition. Get those things inside of you, forget about them, so that when the director pushes you into this world, you react. Hopefully you’ve done your work before. It’s usually the best when it’s second nature. It’s very time consuming.

Cahill: I got to witness Michael go through that process. We went to Johns Hopkins University and learned how to extract DNA and whatnot. There is a rhythm to it and mannerism to like pipetting saline solution, and Michael said to the real scientists, “Don’t show me how to do it, just do it and let me observe you for a while.” And he just watched and sucked it up like sponge. So all the scientists who watch the move are blown away by that mannerism.

_MG_2508.CR2Michael, you’ve acted for an impressive list of directors, including Bernardo Bertolucci and Michael Haneke. How does working with Mike fit into your experiences?

Pitt: I’ve been blessed to be able to work closely with some great directors, but I’m now trying to actively work with filmmakers who understand where film’s going and are changing things. Mike definitely is a filmmaker like that—he’s trying to do difficult things. I don’t see that very often with new filmmakers.

Less experienced filmmakers, I find, either they get so tied to the script that they get lost and forget that cinema is about capturing the moment, or they are so loose that they have no vision. Whether Mike is aware of it or not, it’s amazing that he’s got both.

The two love stories in this film are very different. One is emotional and passionate, the other more pragmatic and mature. Did you intend the film to advocate one over the other?

Pitt: People usually think one or the other.

Cahill: It’s more revealing about yourself. Because the movie doesn’t take a side. It just presents them as two valid, beautiful types of love. And maybe it’s something that many of us potentially have experienced; those different shades.

13901-1Do you think it’s possible to have both in one person?

Pitt: In my opinion is that there is someone out there with both, but it may take you forever to find them.

Cahill: My wife’s like that!

Transformers 4 is the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America

MV5BMjEwNTg1MTA5Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTg2OTM4MTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_No, I’m not being facetious. This isn’t winking satire. I’m stone cold Steve Austin serious: Transformers: Age of Extinction is quite possibly the single most important cinematic document so far about how America fever dreams itself into continued existence in the 21st Century.

For the most part, critics have been baffled and stymied by Michael Bay’s seemingly never-ending Transformers action-toy film franchise. Each entry feels bigger, louder, longer, dumber than the last; each one earns more than the last worldwide; and each time out, critics, pundits, fan boys, and anyone concerned about the death of cinema, the death of culture, or just the death of alien space robots that turn into cars has repeated sounded off about the movies’ spastic visual cacophony and narratives that—to the extent they exist—weave in and out of logic and coherence.

And yet, the films keep coming back. Unwavering, unrepentant. We can make snarky jokes about plot holes, and pacing problems, and product placement, and the fetishizing of both girls in jean shorts and American muscle cars until we’re blue in our intellectualized faces and it will make no difference.

Transformers director and maestro of Bayhem, Michael Fucking Bay—the perpetual bad-boy idiot bro-savant—didn’t become Michael Fucking Bay because he stays up at night worrying about what critics and fan boys think of his movies. No, he stays up at night banging hookers on the hoods of solid gold sports cars filled with cocaine because his films have become giant temples of crazed cash-making wretched genius excess. Read more »

Interview: Third Person Writer-director Paul Haggis

Paul+Haggis+Third+Person+Premieres+LA+IAVDNomvzOYl third-person-posterPaul Haggis spent two decades in the trenches writing for sit-coms like Diff’rent Strokes, One Day at a Time, Who’s the Boss, and Facts of Life and TV dramas such as LA Law, thirtysomething, and Walker Texas Ranger.

But ten years ago, Haggis broke out big as a film writer, with back-to-back Best Original Screenplay Oscars for Million Dollar Baby and Crash (which he also directed).

Since then, he’s written more scripts for Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima) and the rebooted James Bond franchise (Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace) as well as written and directed In the Valley of Elah and The Next Three Days.

Haggis’ latest film, Third Person, returns to the multiple plot-line structure of the Oscar-winning Crash, with three seemingly separate stories unfolding in three cities:

  • In Paris, an author (Liam Neeson) tries to write while juggling the emotional needs (and tragedies) of his ex-wife (Kim Basinger) and current lover (Olivia Wilde).
  • In Rome, a shady businessman (Adrien Brody) is drawn to a gypsy woman (Moran Atias) and her dark (and sometimes darkly comic) quest to ransom her daughter back from a crime lord.
  • And in New York, a once-popular actress (Mila Kunis) struggles to find even menial employment and regain custody of her son from his artist father James Franco.

I spoke with Haggis a few weeks ago in Chicago about writing about the writing process in Third Person; his own approaches as a writer and director; and writing about broken, “impossible” people struggling with love, forgiveness, and redemption.

Third Person opens today at select theaters. Read more »

Edge of Tomorrow: Cruise, Again and Again

edge-of-tomorrow_tom-cruiseI once reveled in mocking and deriding Tom Cruise for the obvious reasons: the shallow All-American Super-Jock swagger; the intense self-deprecatingly positivity; the mish-mash of film choices from soggily pretentious Oscar-lickers (Born on the Fourth of July, Rain Man, The Last Samurai) to cloying, image polishers (A Few Good Men, Jerry McGuire) to silly popcorn pandering (The Firm, Mission Impossible, and of course Interview with the Vampire).

Even when the actor took otherwise admirable steps to try something relatively daring with Eyes Wide Shut and Vanilla Sky, it still felt like the ridiculously handsome and charismatic quarterback slumming it in the theater department’s avant-garde spring production. (Like Glee’s Finn, without all the overdosing.) (To be fair, Kubrick reduced Cruise to a prop, but Kubrick reduced nearly all his actors to props.)

In the midst of this came the one truly brilliant Tom Cruise performance—the only post-Risky Business role that shows actual acting ability, as opposed to the usual wind-up charm masquerading in dress-up costumes as “Serious Acting!”

That was in P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, and of course the irony there is that Cruise is so genuinely good in it because he appears to show us a glimpse of what I suspect is the Real Thomas Cruise Mapother IV: A vicious, insecure huckster constantly attacking at full speed to hide the dark emptiness within. In other words, his best came from simply letting slip the carefully constructed mask for a moment.

(The Runner Up would be his hilarious–and once again, I suspect self-revealing–Tropic Thunder cameo as a profane mad-dog studio exec.)

And of course there was the whole Scientology thing that frankly became so entwined with Cruise’s career and persona that it was impossible to tell if he was an actor who benefited from a made-up, sci-fi, long-con “religion” or a made-up, sci-fi, long-con “religion” spokesman posing as an actor to boost his sales of L. Ron’s starter kits. Read more »

Maleficent: Witches Be Crazy

maleficent-posterLast summer, upon surviving The Lone Ranger, I felt I’d finally come to some sort of Zen-like epiphany about these giant Disney marketing events masquerading as “movies”: They aren’t really films at all; not in any classic sense of what cinema is, what it means.

My weary separate peace with these packaged, pre-sold, cross-promoted, brand-leveraged, multi-quadrant, ledger assets hinges on the acquiescence that it’s okay to give up and just accept them as some sort of “promotional entertainment.”

In the most darkly brilliant of marketing feedback loops, they are driven by and then exist solely to perpetuate brand identity: namely that “Disney Magic.” Which of course, in turn, strengthens the corporate bottom line across all fields of merchandizing, broadcasting, and theme parking.

Look here what I went and wrote last summer about The Lone Ranger:

They are large. They are aggressively marketed spectacle. They are amusement rides built around merchandizing shelves. They are corporate ambition wrapped in franchise dreams. But they’re not bad films, because they’re not really films.

In trying to sub-categorize these behemoths, I’m desperately hoping to work some sort of mid-life end-run around the creeping cynicism that has all but engulfed my enjoyment of just about any expensive studio action-adventure-fantasy “entertainment” that revolves around big-star stunt casting and an overdose of hollow CGI “dazzle.” Read more »

Interview: Cold in July Writer-director Jim Mickle

MV5BMzg2MzM2NTk5M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjcwNjc4MDE@._V1._CR5.1875,2.622161865234375,801,1192.9090881347656_SY317_CR19,0,214,317_AL_cold-in-july-poster1-405x600Last fall I chatted with writer-director Jim Mickle about his cannibal-family horror film We Are What We Are.

As we discussed the style of that film, Mickle (who comes off incredibly nice and intellectually and artistically curious) mentioned that his next film was set in the ’80s and had a very different, more neon, visual palate.

That new film, the thriller Cold in July, is out now and it’s terrific; another great cinematic growth spurt for Mickle, who with his writing partner Nick Damici, also made 2010’s acclaimed vampire film Stake Land.

Based on the 1989 novel by Joe R. Lansdale, Cold in July weaves the taut Texas tale of quiet family man Richard Dane (Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall) whose shooting of an intruder in his home makes him the target of the dead man’s vengeful father, Russel (Sam Shepard), himself a newly released felon.

But little in Cold in July is exactly what it seems, including the film itself. As he struggles with having killed another human, Dane’s understanding of the incident widens to eventually include political and police corruption, a gruesome crime ring, and Don Johnson having a ball as a charming and colorful good ol’ boy bounty hunter named Jim Bob. Meanwhile, the film serves up a solid mix of humor, tension, and, yes, some horrific violence.

When I spoke again with Jim Mickle a few weeks ago on the phone, we talked about the appeal of Lansdale’s novel, getting into an ’80s thriller Southern Fried Noir groove, and working with veteran actors like Hall, Shepard, and Johnson.

Cold in July opens today in select theaters. Read more »

Interview: For No Good Reason Director Charlie Paul and Producer Lucy Paul

For-No-Good-Reason-poster1Lucy+Paul+No+Good+Reason+Portraits+Toronto+0KixNey0u7xlMost Americans know English artist Ralph Steadman through the splatter-mad satiric illustrations he did for Hunter S. Thompson’s books and articles, most famously 1971’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

That was certainly the case with me when I attended a Steadman (splatter) signing in London in 1986. But from there I came to love Steadman for his acidic political, social, and artistic radicalism–almost in spite of his place in the HST Gonzo mythos. Here was an artist who kept moving, searching, and changing, all while still poking, prodding, and attacking.

The new Steadman documentary For No Good Reason from husband-and-wife team Charlie (director) and Lucy (producer) Paul naturally explores the expected debauched Thompson tales, but it also focuses on Steadman’s work as a political and social cartoonist-commentator in the ’60s before and the ’90s after the Hunter adventures.

no-good-reason4Best of all, Charlie Paul set up a digital camera above Steadman’s work table a decade ago and collected, frame by frame, stop-action documentation of the artist’s controlled-madness painting and drawing style.

The result is a fascinating look at how Steadman creates intricately layered artistic order and meaning out of what often starts as a wild splash of ink on the page.

For No Good Reason is hosted by Johnny Depp, who has taken on the role–with genuine devotion, it seems–of the Keeper of Hunter’s Gonzo Legacy, and it features interviews with folks like Jann Wenner, Terry Gilliam, and Richard E. Grant, as well as plenty of archival footage of Steadman and Thompson. But at the documentary’s heart is Steadman’s art–the film not only beautifully captures his process but it lays out his legacy, even in the face of the artist’s own doubts.

I sat down with Charlie and Lucy Paul in Chicago a few weeks ago to talk about their film and our shared love of Ralph Steadman’s work.

For No Good Reason opens today in select theaters. Read more »

“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

--Virginia Woolf
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