Interview: Under the Skin Writer-Director Jonathan Glazer

Jonathan+Glazer+Under+Skin+Premieres+Venice+T3LPrpuYAFhlPoster-art-for-Under-the-Skin_event_mainYou may have heard that Under the Skin is an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel. It is and it isn’t; at times the film strips away much of the book’s plot and details, leaving a very bare-bones abstraction.

You may have heard that Under the Skin is the third feature film from writer-director Jonathan Glazer. But stylistically it’s a major departure from Sexy Beast (2000) and Birth (2004). Instead the new film shares more cinematic DNA with the music videos Glazer created for Radiohead in the ’90s.

And given the banal, leering nature of our Celebrity Media Complex, you’ve no doubt heard that Under the Skin is the film in which Scarlett Johansson gets naked.

Under the Skin is technically all those things. But more importantly, it’s one of the best films of the year so far.

under-the-skin-scarlett-johannson-skipJohansson plays a mysterious woman–or rather, an alien being trying to disguise herself as a beautiful human woman–who cruises the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, in a plain white van, picking up male strangers, luring them back to her home, and then… collecting them. For something. It’s a fantastic (and fantastical) performance from the actress, in turns both deadly seductive and dangerously naive; knowing and confused.

Co-written by Walter Campbell and lensed by Daniel Landin, under Glazer’s direction Under the Skin is also an ethereal, eerie, deeply atmospheric cinematic treat, hovering between on-the-street naturalism (thanks to the film having been shot, in part, with real Glaswegians on hidden cameras) and abstract strangeness. It’s pensive and quiet, often humming with both existential dread and visual marvels.

Several other writers and I sat down with Jonathan Glazer a few weeks ago in Chicago to talk about the film, the adaption process from the novel, the secrets of shooting a film in secret, and, of course, the sexualized iconography of Scarlett Johansson.

Under the Skin opens in select theaters today.


under_the_skin-992104808-largeYou removed a lot of the detailed plot elements from the novel. Did those things fall away over a series of drafts, or did you know from the start you didn’t want them?

Jonathan Glazer: It was over drafts. The first couple of iterations of the script were more illustrative and more faithful to the novel.

It’s almost like I needed to see the draft to know I didn’t want to make that film of the book. And then you just begin to detach more and more from it, and move further and further away from it.

You still have that link to it in some way; there are still things about it which were remained, obviously–why she’s a woman, what she’s doing as a woman, Scotland, mercy, the idea of escape. Those were the pillars of the book that we took.

The design of the film is very different, much more sparse and abstract than the very sci-fi elements of the novel.

Glazer: The further we got away from the book, the better it felt. Once you go off on your own trajectory, then you have to keep going in that direction. It was probably halfway through the entire writing process that we got to how to visualize this space where she deposited these men and how she did it. I was never attached to the mechanics of it all in the book.

It took a long time to get to the design and plot of the film. I look back at it now, and I think, “Well, we could have come up with those ideas in five minutes.” It took a long time to get to something very simple, and I wanted it to be very simple. I wanted it to ground the idea of an eye witnessing us, but still have some logic and architecture to it. It’s a very complex process to get to something very simple.

under skin 2And yet, for all that alien feel, you’re still shooting in Scotland, sometimes in very natural environments.

Glazer: You have the elements, the weather, the light, the color. It’s all there, it’s mythic and unpredictable. And then you have the idea that all this is being experienced by an alien, from her point of view.

So the idea was for us to feel like we’re seeing it for the first time. But I didn’t want her to give up that alien-ness–she has to remain alien. I wanted her to be as mysterious at the end as she was at the beginning. If we understand it, it’s not alien.

Can you talk about your process of collaboration on the film score with the musician Mica Levi (Micachu)?

Glazer: I hadn’t heard her music. She is the youngest resident artist of the London Philharmonic Orchestra at South Bank. My music producer is Peter Raeburn, and I have been working with him for years, and we talk about soundtrack very closely and about what the soundtrack should be. He is a big part of how that whole process developed, and I’d told him a couple years before that I was looking for a composer who hadn’t done it before–that it would come from an unconventional place. Mica was introduced to him by his business partner, and then I then heard some of her music and I knew it was her.

movies-under-the-skin-still-02I was looking for a voice from the score, because we really needed the music to articulate things in the film that we couldn’t do with dialogue, like the atmospherics and the narrative breaks. Mica worked on the music for ten months, day-in and and day-out. I learned loads from her because she’s in her 20s, out there immersed in pop culture, doing it now.

Under the Skin moves away from science fiction tropes, but then you have that recurring seduction theme that sounds like an eerie 1950s sci-fi film. Was that intentional?

Glazer: Yeah, it was a bit. It’s quite strip club, I think, that music. Mica would describe it that way. It has this erotic charge to it. So there needed to be something almost obvious about it;the spell, it was like a perfume. There are two other music themes in the film: There’s the alien music, the alien loop which was this inextricable sound like a hive, indistinguishable from one thing from another. Then the third is the kind of burgeoning love, the burgeoning consciousness, the human impulse.

Scarlett Johansson has become such a sexualized figure through the media and pop culture. But despite our cultural objectification of her, until now she’s rarely played such a sexualized character on screen. As a result, the film almost feels like a discussion of our culture’s attitude toward Johansson. Were you thinking about that when you cast her, and how much of that cultural baggage did you want on screen?

Glazer: Well, it’s a part of Scarlett Johansson being in the public eye, and being objectified as you say–it’s fuel within that character. But she’s fully in charge of that, as I am. It’s not like it was by accident, it’s not like I wasn’t aware of it, and it’s not like she’s not aware of it. So I think the idea of using Scarlett, or rather her deploying how she is objectified as part of this character has obviously got this great weight to that because it’s her doing it.

Film Review Under the SkinIn terms of how we shot the nudity in the film and what I explained to her is de-eroticizing her image; the camera is not excited.

For instance, the scene where she looks at herself in the mirror, to my mind anyway, it’s not a male gaze sequence, it’s not titillation. I think if people go there to get their rocks off, they’re better off going to see something else.

I think she reclaims her image for herself in her decision and bravery to do what she did. It’s her body, and the character is also saying, “It’s my body.”

The dovetail between what is happening in real life with Scarlett and this story is inextricably linked, and a part of Scarlett’s power in this role, in my mind, is who she is publicly, and who she is as an actress.

Could you have made this film with a non-famous beautiful person?

Glazer: We did. Very early in casting, our first casting thoughts were exactly that. It was like, “How can we have an alien, and how can we credibly present an actress as an alien?” It’s ridiculous; it’s just a contradiction in terms. You can’t have a famous person or someone who is familiar to us. But then it dawned on me that the alien isn’t an actress, but the alien is playing the actress, and the character of the actress is played by Scarlett Johansson. It’s an actress playing an actress.

Scarlett Johansson Under The SkinYou shot many of the scenes of Johansson’s character interacting in public with hidden cameras and real-life non-actors unaware of the filming. Were there points where people recognized her? 

Glazer: People did recognize her from time-to-time, but not as you would expect. It didn’t occur to people that she would be up there. We got away with it. We were very lucky, I think. People knew she was around, but we got away with it. If you saw Angelina Jolie walking by you on a street in Glasgow, would you really think that was Angelina Jolie? You’d think, “That looks like Jolie,” but the idea of her walking down that street is kind of unlikely.

How did you come around to the idea of shooting large parts of the film that way?

Glazer: The idea of shooting the way we did came from a number of factors. I’d shot something in Toronto of a woman running, and I had 57 cameras and hid them all. She had to run 400 meters, and I wanted to shoot in in the street but not close the street and bring in extras.

glazerInstead I wanted to shoot the street as it is, as people were getting on buses, walking, in and out of restaurants, smoking cigarettes, reading newspapers, whatever. There is life, there it is.

And watching a woman run through, these cameras were all positioned so that when you were cutting something together it was real time, and life as it is. I think that was definitely a sketch for what we did with Under the Skin.

And then it was coupled with this difficulty of “How do I present Scarlett Johansson credibly an alien?” And the methodology of shooting her was equivalent to the narrative of alien there that nobody knew was there. This alien intelligence making this construction of an actress and putting her in Scotland and no one knowing anything about it and them just assuming she was a real woman. The method and the story are the same. It was a beautiful moment of realization that one equaled the other and then everything had to serve that.

The logistics were very complicated. Even when you’re going out to figure out where you want to shoot, you have to remain covert–you can’t gather in groups of more than four or five people. You feel like you’re working for the FBI, skulking around in backrooms. Your sound man has an umbrella under his arm with a microphone in it–he’s got his headphones on, and it looks like he is shuffling his iPod, but he’s actually recording what somebody might be saying to their mate at a bus stop. We made the film like that.

Your films all belong to genres but then veer off on very different directions. 

scarlett-johannson-under-the-skin-jonathan-glazer-storyGlazer: It’s what you do with it. Genre, I think for me anyway, is somewhere to launch from, and not feel like you are confined by the borders of genre, or what makes a genre movie.

Science fiction in particular is a very interesting area, a conduit for ideas that you couldn’t tell any other way? I like that about science fiction. But genre generally, I am not interested in making genre films. They have rules. I’m not into that.

So then what does draw you to the films you make? What are your thematic interests? 

Glazer: It’s not that I like existential unease, but I like things that examine the paradox of being a human being; in music, art, writing, film, and everything else. I like people who ask questions of themselves and then of me. I don’t expect to have an answer. The question, if it’s a good one, is enough to resonate. And usually the questions are better than the answers. The answers are usually untrustworthy.

Interview: Joe Director David Gordon Green and Star Tye Sheridan

joe-poster-nicolas-cage-david-gordon-green-460x681Tye+Sheridan+Joe+Premieres+Toronto+gjTHM9G373OlLast August when I sat down with writer-director David Gordon Green to talk about his excellent existential comedy Prince Avalanche, I hijacked part of the interview to pry into his next project: an adaptation of the late Larry Brown’s 1991 novel Joe starring Nicolas Cage.

Joe is now out in theaters. It follows Joe Ransom (Cage), a middle-aged former felon and work crew boss who has a taste for drinking and visiting brothels but is trying to keep his once-violent temper and distaste for authority in check. His path crosses with that of Gary (Tye Sheridan), an earnest, hard-working young man who’s trying to get out from under the fist of his own abusive, alcoholic father, Wade (Gary Poulter).


Written by Gary Hawkins (The Rough South of Larry Brown, 2002), the film is part of Green’s continued return to the sort of character-driven dramas like George Washington and Snow Angels that he made before hitting it big with comedies like Pineapple Express and The Sitter.

It’s also a terrific return to dramatic, brooding form for Cage, as well as another fine role for 17-year-old Sheridan (The Tree of Life, Mud).

Two other writers and I sat down with both Green and Sheridan last week to talk about Joe, capturing rural stoicism on-screen, and working with Nicolas Cage.

Joe opens today in select theaters nationwide.


20140411_122939 20140411_120554David, what drew you to Brown’s work and this novel in particular?

David Gordon Green: I was a production assistant on The Rough South of Larry Brown (2002), a documentary my college professor Gary Hawkins was directing. Through that experience I got to know Larry first then got to know his work.

I was really inspired by a guy who’d come from a non-traditional background, who started later in his life and tried to design a creative career for himself and had found nice success. Being a guy from Texas who didn’t know anybody in the movie industry or what my ticket in would be, it was great to have somebody say, “There are no rules, and any time they tell you there are, tell them to go fuck themselves.” That was basically Larry’s advice.

I read the novel Joe around that time and loved it and thought it was very cinematic. Whenever I read books, I imagine the movie version and who would act in it, and at the time I was picturing Robert Mitchum as Joe Ransom. Somebody who has this physicality, is curiously funny, and also has this intensity. copy 2After Larry passed away in 2004, Gary, the director of the documentary, said he’d done an adaptation of Joe and asked if I would like to read it. He just wanted to bring some of Larry’s stories to life.

I read his script and loved it, fell in love with the characters, loved what Gary had done with the novel’s story and characters.

Joe was a very personal novel for Larry, based on people he know and situations he’d experienced – there’s a real Joe somewhere. So when I read it, I was drawn to its epic sensibility but also its sensitivity.

There’s a sadness to even the most demonic of characters, and I find myself as a writer and reader drawn to them. Even the most heinous monster has a connection to reality — if they could just clean themselves and make a sensible decision for once in their life.

Even Joe is a very questionable character in a lot of ways, certainly through his community’s eyes, but he has his own strong sense of ethic. I was really drawn to these themes of men struggling with themselves, who they are and what they want. It could be they live for a drink or they give their life for someone else.

Joe7This is really a return for you to the types of dramas you were making in the first stage of your career.

Green: This was certainly my most dramatic work since Snow Angels (2007). But dealing with really difficult subject matter is something I’ve gotta do with a sense of humor. Not to be disrespectful to the subject matter, but as I deal with the characters’ struggles, I have to find that.

If I’m going to have a character bludgeon another human being to death, I need to see that there’s thread of humanity in him somewhere. I need to see him popping and locking and break-dancing, see a little bit of humor.

I cast non-traditionally trained actors in this. Wade was played by Gary Poulter who was a break dancer on the streets of downtown Austin, Texas. He was this funny, charismatic, happy guy drifting on the street who had a very tough life on him. [Poulter died several months after filming ended.]

Joe-Gary-PoulterYou cast people who have a sense of humor and have a sense of lightness and you can embrace the humanity in them. As difficult as a lot of this film’s themes are, we have to have some improvisation between Nic and Tye as they’re talking about making a cool face or flicking a lighter. Then we can, in a healthy way, go to the dangerous, dark places.

How did you approach the sort of surrogate father-son relationship between Joe and Gary?

Green: At the beginning of the film we almost tried to structure it as if it were a flashback, as if Joe were looking back on his own life, as seen through Gary and Wade. I wanted to take some leaps editorially and structure it in a way that almost gives Joe and Gary this spiritual connection.

JOE-day2-523As they get to know each other, Joe does start to see shades and shadows of himself in this young man and knows the path he’s on and the very thin line he’s walking down.

He see’s Gary’s family situation and knows this kid needs a dad, and that’s where the conflict starts: When do you get out of the car and help and when not to get your hands dirty in every little thing.

Tye, in Tree of Life, Mud, and now this, you’ve been playing boys or young men facing a certain loss of innocence.

Tye Sheridan: I’ve always wanted to play characters I was the same age as because there are certainly qualities you have a young boy that you only have one time and once you outgrow them, you don’t have them anymore.

My pet peeve is 25-year-olds playing high school roles – in part because I’d always go up for those roles and never get them because it was always the good-lucking, muscular kid getting cast. It pissed me off. [Laughs] Especially when as a kid I’d watch them in those roles and think it wasn’t real, that’s not honest about childhood. There’s a boyish curiosity that can’t be faked.

ty sheridanYour roles have also always been rural-set.

Sheridan: I’d like to do a lot of things, but rural dramas were all I was getting cast in for a while because that was the world I grew up in and those were the characters people trusted me to play.

But you change as you get older—my accent has changed, I’ve lost that Southern twang. Back home all my friends say, “You talk so different now!”

David, you worked closely with Nicolas Cage on this–did you feel he was deliberately trying to get away from the sorts of roles he’s been playing in recent years?

Green: We wanted to strip it all down and make it a kind of raw performance. Nic had never done a character like this before, but he told me this character was the closest to him that he’d ever played and that he wanted to bring himself to Joe and he wanted to trust me and give me whatever I wanted. What I wanted was a lot of ideas—I want it to be a conversation and collaboration. I want an actor’s contribution, not just their marquee value.

There’s a scene where Joe is at the bar and he’s talking about African wild dogs at a zoo that killed a young boy who fell in. We were at the bar lighting the scene, and I saw Cage was ready to go, so we started rolling and I asked, “What are you thinking about, Joe?” and that’s what Nic was thinking about—he’d read that horrible headline that morning. So as Nic was getting into Joe’s heavy headspace, he was thinking about that very negative headline in the newspaper.

11-26-12_004.CR2But you can’t get that with every actor. Every actor’s process and privacy is different. Some are willing to play more than others, but Nic was game to roll up his sleeves.

What’s the challenge of presenting really stoic characters in a film?

Green: It’s very difficult because when you get a camera on someone in close up, you don’t want it to be boring. You don’t want it to look like the actor is lethargic or uninterested. All the emotional engineering is internal. That doesn’t mean it’s any less visceral, but it’s going to be more contained and restrained. It’s a different set of tools and challenges. You’re trying to get the actors to swallow words but feel those thoughts.

I do three types of directing of a scene. We start by running the script a couple times. Then we throw the script away and improvise dialogue and try new things. If we’ve been playing it dramatically, we play it comically or vice versa.

joe-david-gordon-green-nicolas-cage-set-photoThen I do a take with no dialogue, where I tell them to hit the same marks, feel it in their heads, think exactly the same thing we’ve gone over before, make the same eye contact. Sometimes it’s just two characters pacing around each other.

Terrence Malick produced a movie of mine (2004′s Undertow) and he had me try those exercises. You end up seeing how often you don’t need to say any of it. You can say it with a look or a glance or a twitch or a scratching of the forehead — a physical gesture or that look in the eye when you know someone is really feeling something.


Interview: Nick Frost, Star of Cuban Fury

cuban_04Nick+Frost+Cuban+Fury+Premieres+London+Part+rPHyZU6aVoklBritish comic actor Nick Frost knows that he’s best known (especially in the States) for the “Three Flavours Cornetto” film genre-spoof trilogy he helped create and co-starred in with Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright: 2004′s Shaun of the Dead (zombies), 2007′s Hot Fuzz (cops), and last year’s The World’s End (aliens).

But that’s only driven Frost harder to move outside his cinematic comfort zone–so hard, in fact, that one drunken night a few years ago he emailed his long-time producing partner Nira Park with a simple, Full-Monty-esque comic idea: The rather large Frost… dancing.

The result is Cuban Fury, a sweetly charming British rom-com about Bruce (Frost), a sad sack engineer who, as a teen, had turned his heeled shoes away from a promising salsa-dancing career. Now in his 30s, having long since put away the sequined-shirts and put on a few pounds, Bruce finds himself crushing on his new boss, Julia (Rashida Jones), and competing for here with a boorish co-worker (Frost’s Pirate Radio co-star Chris O’Dowd).

cubanNaturally, Bruce does what anyone in a romantic comedy would do in this situation: He sets out to win Julia’s heart by reigniting his passion for salsa dancing.

In addition to the always stellar O’Dowd and Jones, Cuban Fury (the feature-film debut of both writer Jon Brown and director James Griffiths), also sports strong supporting comedic work from Ian McShane (as Bruce’s surly one-time dance teacher), Olivia Colman (as his sister and one-time dance partner), and especially Kayvan Novak (as an over-enthusiastic classmate).

Several other writers and I sat down with Frost in Chicago last week to talk about producing and starring in Cuban Fury, “dance lesson prison,” embarrassing nuptial customs, and life with Pegg and Wright post-Cornetto.

Cuban Fury opens everywhere this Friday.


CubanFury-T-bcWhat dance films did you look to when making this?

Nick Frost: Grease was the first film I saw in the cinema—my parents took me when I was five. I kinda love that film.

But for this, I didn’t look much further than Strictly Ballroom. That was the touchstone. In that film you believe in the characters; it’s kinda tragic, it’s funny, and the dance is beautiful, and none of those elements compromised the other – they all work together. This film is slightly broader than Ballroom, but that was what we wanted to achieve, and to do so with dance that is beautiful, passionate, and real, but with believable people.

Your Cornetto Trilogy movies are usually very physical action films, with lots of stunts. How did training for this film compare?

Frost: It was seven hours a day, every day, for seven months to be a dancer. I had to get up at 6 am every day, lift weights for an hour, then dance for six more hours. It was an absolute nightmare. It was like being in prison for seven months.

Immediately on Day One, I thought, “You fucking idiot.” You realize that as a producer you stood up in meetings and said you were gonna do all the dancing, and you can’t go back on that now. But it never got easier, there was never a point where you just “got it,” where they pulled the wires out of you head like Neo in The Matrix. As soon as you got good, they just dumped more stuff on top of you.

Cuban Fury FilmWe shot all the dances wide, even though they don’t always show up like that on screen. So I did all the dances from top to bottom. That is me. Whatever this film does at the box office, I’ll always have this: it’s something I’m really proud of, considering I was terrified of dancing in front of people.

I didn’t like dancing all that much—it was such a move away from what I was comfortable doing. Which is what I wanted to do, to be uncomfortable. Those other roles in Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and World’s End are easy because they’re me. But this guy isn’t me.

Did you always know it had to be salsa dancing in the film?

Frost: I think it had to be a couples dance and something that was so not part of my culture. We Brits don’t dance like that. We watch women dance, then we drink 10 pints of Stella Artois, then we dance a bit, then we fall over.

I did like dancing, but I had an issue about being watched. Being a big man who can dance well makes you an oddity in some circles. It’s the same look you’d get if you were a child who overcame a terrible disease to go on and complete a half marathon. I call “bullshit” on that look—I hated it, so I didn’t like to dance in public.

NickFrostI didn’t want to dance with my wife on our wedding in front of our families. It lasted about five seconds then I started kicking a potato chip across the floor and finding a piece of fluff in my jacket. Why do we have to dance at weddings? I think it’s a way of proving to your relatives that you have symbolically consummated the marriage.

Because they can’t come up to the hotel room later.

Frost: I would have preferred that! I’d have rather had my Auntie Shelia watch me make love to my wife than have to dance in public.

Honeymoon suites could have two way mirrors, like integration rooms.

Frost: Or a small set of bleachers.

But I secretly always wanted to do a dance film. I’m a fan of them; of nice, un-cynical dance films—what’s not to like? The challenge for me as an actor was to also do something absolutely different from what I do with Simon and Edgar. I hated the dance film idea at first, but it kept popping back into my mind, saying, “You need to tell somebody about this.”

CUBAN-FURY-MovieFinally after about three years of that, I came back from a party, wrote the whole idea out, and emailed it to Nira. Woke up the next morning to a reply from her saying, “Let’s have a meeting about this.” And from that email to the first day of production was 15 months. I felt like a serial killer who wanted to get caught.

There was a vague idea at the beginning that I’d dance throughout the whole thing; that I’d never not be dancing in the film. One 94-minute take. [Laughs] But we couldn’t make a story work where I’d dance through it all. It’d be like Christopher Walken in Spike Jonze “Weapons of Choice” video.

There’s that terrifically hilarious scene in the middle where you and Chris O’Dowd have a “dance fight” in a parking ramp. How do you balance the broader, more absurd physical comedy of that scene with the more gentle tone of the rest of the film?

Frost: It is hyper-real, but I think we earned it by that point. If you’re going to have a dance fight it should be long enough and be funny. I think we’re allowed to do a few flips—which are the only things I didn’t do. We wanted to make that fight scene like The Bourne Identity.

14-cuban-furyNow that The World’s End has wrapped up the Cornetto Trilogy, what’s next for you guys?

Frost: We were all pleased and proud that we did those films by sticking to our guns, we didn’t try to second guess what we thought an audience would want, which dilutes what made it good in the first place. We’re really lucky and that isn’t lost on us.

But me and Simon and Ed make a film together every four or five years, then we take four or five years off to do our own bits and pieces. That feels like kind of a nice way to do it, really. We’ve never been people who kowtowed to the expectations of fans in terms of pumping something out every 18 months because that’s what we think people will like.

If it means it takes four years for us to find a good idea and great story, then that’s what we’ll do. That enables us to do these other projects. I personally like this template of coming up with ideas and finding great young writers and directors to do them while I star or produce. That feels like a nice way for me.

Interview: The Raid 2 Director Gareth Evans and Star Iko Uwais

Gareth+Evans+Iko+Uwais+Raid+2lraid_two_berandal_ver3_xlgIn 2011, Welsh-born writer-director Gareth Evans dazzled the hard-core action-flick world with his second film, The Raid: Redemption.

The high-energy, ultra-violent Indonesian-language crime film starred Iko Uwais as a Rama, a rookie cop, martial artist, and member of a task force invading a crime lord’s fortified high-rise apartment in Jakarta.

Evans had discovered Uwais at an Indonesian pencak silat martial arts studio a few years earlier while making a martial arts documentary, and–impressed by both Uwais’ fighting skill and natural charisma–cast the young man in Evans’ first film, Merantau.

Now the pair has teamed up for the sequel The Raid 2: Berandal (“Thug”) which follows Rama as he goes undercover to root out police corruption; first to prison for several years, then into the employ of an even larger crime family. For every bit that The Raid is tightly focused in time and place (all taking place in a single building), The Raid 2 is bigger, more epic and sprawling, and of course, more viciously action-packed.

I and another writer sat down with both Evans and Uwais a few weeks ago in Chicago to talk about The Raid 2, filming fight scenes shot by shot over weeks, and how to make a car chase not boring.

The Raid 2 opens this Friday in select theaters everywhere. Read more »

300: Rise of an Empire: The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War

300-rise-empire-posterThe moment you point out the howling historical inaccuracies and possibly harmful over-the-top fantasy violence in a piece of super-stylized hard-core war porn like 300: Rise of an Empire (or in its equally offensive predecessor 300), some pundit or punter with one hand in a bucket of bloody popcorn is going to whine, “You don’t go see a 300 movie expecting subtlety, intelligence, restraint, or historical accuracy!” Which is like saying you don’t eat bacon-onion-ring-cheeseburgers expecting a healthy life free of coronary issues.

The problem is that a steady diet of either poison—popular junk-foods full of heart-stopping grease, fat, cheese, sodium and red meat; or popular junk-food movies like Rise of an Empire that slate only our basest, most blood-thirsty instincts—will slowly, eventually, insidiously kill you—either your body or your soul.

There’s an unspoken code among many film critics (let’s say, primarily under 50 and publishing on the Internet) to not be a moral scold about movies. Some of us grew up in the ‘80s, the era of Tipper Gore and the PMRC, roll our eyes at the “demons are everywhere!” anti-pop-culture ravings of the Pat Robertsons of the world, and are still treated to Bill O’Reilly’s attention-desperate pulpit pounding about the evils of rap music. Most of us critics want to grow up to be Roger (Ebert) not Rex (Reed). So the general rule is to review the film, not the film’s ideas. Read more »

2013 Faves: Mud: Take Me to the River

mud postLike the mighty Mississippi itself, for better or worse the notion of rugged frontier independence rushes wide through the American Character—sometimes contained and guided within the banks of civilized society, sometimes overflowing, overpowering and washing away those same muddy borders. And sometimes just gunking up our National Psyche with a lot of useless, miring sludge and silt.

Of course, that ebbing and flowing struggle between the wild and the tame within the tough-but-savvy heart of a boy coming of age on the river itself fills one of our Great American Novels, Huckleberry Finn.

In his 2013 film Mud, writer-director Jeff Nichols is well aware that he’s rowing his raft along the channels Twain marked 130 years ago. But Nichols (whose darkly intense psychological film Take Shelter grabbed indie in 2011 accolades for the director and his stars Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon) does what all good storytellers do: He takes familiar themes and tropes and makes them work anew.

Mud follows two modern-day 14-year-old boys in Arkansas: Ellis (Tye Sheridan, the youngest brother in Tree of Life) and his pal Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland). From their home on the banks of the Mississippi, Ellis’ father (Ray McKinnon) makes a living off the river while his mother (Sarah Paulson) strains against their emotionally closed-off marriage. Neckbone lives with his uncle (Michael Shannon), an oyster-diving rock-band reject, his concert Tee’s covered by a massive makeshift diving helmet, his development genially arrested by weed and booze. Read more »

Shut the Robo-whining: The Remake Has Something on its Mind

robocop-posterThere was no compelling reason to remake Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 RoboCop. And there’s no great reason anyone has to go see José Padilha’s 2014 remake. A healthy, happy, culturally fulfilled life can be easily led without it. Even those jonesing for a mid-winter hit of PG-13 sci-fi action violence can probably find suitable sustenance elsewhere.

And yet, if you must see the Brazilian director’s remake (itself work-for-hire in the service of Sony’s perpetual franchise machine), there’s enough going on both in front of and behind the camera in the familiar Frankenstein tale of cyborg vs. crime and humanity vs. security to make it tolerably engaging and almost not a waste of your winter doldrums time.

A mid-February week that saw the wide release of not one, not two, but three ‘80s remakes (updated versions of About Last Night and Endless Love also oozed into the Cineplexes) naturally sent the film geeks a chattering about Hollywood running out of ideas and how remakes are never as good as the originals. Of course none of this has anything to do with “Hollywood running out of ideas.” Director John Landis put it very clearly in his angry truth-to-power speech last fall at an Argentinian film fest. Listen up, because the auteur behind Animal House, The Blues Brothers, American Werewolf in London, and Three Amigos is spot on:

“There are no original ideas. What… no one understands is that it is never about the idea, it is about the execution of the idea… The film studios are all now subdivisions of huge multinational corporations… It really has to do with desperation, because they don’t know how to get people into the theaters, so they bring back 3D and make all this kind of shit… It’s very common now to spend more money selling a movie than making a movie. So the reason they make remakes and sequels is because they’re brands, like Coca Cola. They remake movies because they have presold titles.” Read more »

Interview: Labor Day Author Joyce Maynard

labor-day-maynardLabor Day is the new romantic-convict (rom-con!) from writer-director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult), based on the 2009 novel by Joyce Maynard (To Die For, At Home In the World).

Seen through the eyes of 13-year-old Henry (Gattlin Griffith), the film and novel tell the story of a Labor Day weekend in the late ’80s when Henry and his single mother Adele (Kate Winslet) play host to an escaped convict named Frank (Josh Brolin). As Henry struggles with his own pubescent emotions, Adele and Frank quickly fall in love.

I and another writer sat down with Maynard in Chicago earlier this month to talk about Labor Day–the second of her novels to be made into a film (after Gus Van Sant’s 1995 To Die For), about her affinity for writing about teenage male protagonists, and of course her attitudes about homemade peach pie.

Labor Day opens today at theaters everywhere. Read more »

The Wolf of Wall Street: What’s So Funny About Greed, Ludes, and Unchecked Capitalism?

wolf-of-wall-street-posterWhile watching Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street last month, I jotted in my notes: “Just try to write about this without mentioning Goodfellas”. So there’s that challenge already failed.

After all, as everyone has noted, Wolf and 1990’s Goodfellas share quite a bit of cinematic and structural DNA, not just through the obvious Scorsese stylistic flares (charging visual verve backed by a muscular rock soundtrack and Thelma Schoonmaker’s usual energetic order-from-chaos editing prowess) and structure (a rise-and-fall tale of amoral misbehavior narrated by a swaggering bad-boy pirate-wannabe), but also thematically: Both are supposed to capture the violent, larcenous, self-destructive, coke-and-dick-fueled, dark heart of the American Dream. You know: ScorseseLand.

However, in the month since Wolf of Wall Street opened, it’s become clear that in terms of public reception and pundit-critic discourse, the film it most resembles is last winter’s Zero Dark Thirty. As it was dragged from the Cineplex into the pundit-sphere, Kathryn Bigelow’s Kill Bin Laden epic ended up not playing, as intended, as an unblinking look at murky wartime morality, but being criticized (both unfairly and fairly) as a CIA-backed advertisement for the ends-justify-the-means usefulness of torture.

Likewise, the swirl of discussion around Wolf quickly shifted this past month from the film’s cinematic merits (which are undeniably impressive—at 70, Scorsese is working at the technical peak of his skills; like Spielberg, he’s a maestro who seems to effortlessly nail every note) to questions about Wolf’s intent and context. Does it successfully subvert the unfettered, corrosive, destructive Capitalism and excess on screen (plenty of sex, drugs, and junk bonds)? Or do its three hours of fist-pumping, adrenaline-spiking, naughty, boorish thrills end up an inadvertent advertisement for exactly the sort of behavior it set out to subvert? Read more »

David O. Russell, American Hustler

american-hustle-posterA decade ago, directors David O. Russell and Paul Thomas Anderson’s artistic paths crossed streams. Anderson started out in the mid-‘90s dabbing at genre with the gritty down-and-out drama Hard Eight (aka Sydney) and then exploding into the full-blown backstage, “a star is porn” faux-musical Boogie Nights.

Around the same time, Russell was grabbing critical attention with a couple eclectic indie films about familial dysfunction—Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster. Then both film makers swerved—Anderson into his utterly unclassifiable (and often brilliant) magnum opus Magnolia, Russell into a stab at star-driven genre with the terrific Three Kings before tackling his own utterly unclassifiable lark, I Heart Huckabees.

Both writer-directors showed the kind of innate cinematic verve and daring that makes critics and art-house connoisseurs swoon—these are guys who know how to simultaneously create meaning and tell an entertaining story with film. By the late-‘00s, however, Russell and Anderson had emerged from their creative explorations with new directions.

Anderson left behind the magpie flash and thematic catch-alls of Boogie Nights and Magnolia and began to make much more focused, emotionally nuanced films driven by character not plot, films that aggressive avoid any sort of genre labels: the flat-out cinematic genius of Punchdrunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and The Master. 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