Interview: Contracted Writer-Director Eric England

contracted poster englandWhen doing film interviews, you talk to a lot of different folks involved in different parts of film making, and like anything, different interviews go well or not-so-well for different reasons.

Sometimes you get to talk to big-name actors or legendary directors where it’s a thrill just being in the same room with them. Sometimes you talk to lesser-known names, but get into really great, deep discussions about themes and issues, or gain insights into the film-making process.

But the kind of interview I’ve come to look forward to most is with younger filmmakers who simply love to make films. Maybe the films aren’t huge, maybe you don’t know all the names involved, but while their films may be smaller in budget and scale, they’re rich with ideas–these passionate writers and directors are the ones creating the cinema of the future.

So last fall, during the Chicago International Film Festival, when I was asked if I wanted to talk to Eric England, the director of a new horror film called Contracted, I said, “Sure, why not?”

Born and raised in Arkansas, writer-director England’s previous features include the well-received Madison County (2011). His latest, Contracted, tells the creepily intimate story of a young woman (Najarra Townsend) with a sexually transmitted disease that is slowly doing… nasty things to her body. The film is a sharp, chilling, and deeply unsettling film about that most disturbing of human fears: our once-young bodies falling apart on us.

But even more than that, the 25-year-old England turned out to be enthusiastic and unbelievably friendly and forthcoming about not just his work, but the horror-film industry. As a result, this turned out to be one of my favorite interviews of the past year.

Contracted is currently available via Video On Demand. Read more »

The Secret Life of Ben Stiller

secret_life_of_walter_mitty_ver4There are a million reasons (about $100 million budgetary ones, to be exact) that I should hate Ben Stiller’s new adaptation of James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, written by Steve Conrad and directed by and starring Stiller.

For this latest update (following the 1947 Danny Kaye version), Walter Mitty (Stiller) is now a modern-day photographic archivist, a physical negative handler for LIFE Magazine at a time when both the magazine and its photography are going all-digital.

Of course Mitty still spends half his time lost in elaborate daydreams fueled by Hollywood hero fantasies, but Walter’s own flat, grey, carefully calibrated life is upended on multiple fronts when he simultaneously develops a crush on a winsome co-worker (Kristin Wiig) and learns (from a hilariously hirsute Adam Scott as his new digital-asshole boss) that the magazine (and most likely his anachronistic job) are morphing away into the Internet ether.

That one-two punch spurs Walter to impulsively set off across Greenland, Iceland, and Afghanistan by helicopter (drunkenly piloted), ship (complete with shark-infested waters), car (outrunning an erupting volcano), and skateboard in search of a mysterious missing photo from a ruggedly elusive star photographer (Sean Penn, nicely both embracing and mocking his own self-serious image). Along the way, we learn how Walter’s loss of his father at a young age deferred his plans, goals, and dreams for a not-so-wonderful dull life of George-Bailey-esque responsibility (sans the loving family and friends). Read more »

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Tolkien

desolation-smaug-official-posterWell, it’s better–at least more entertaining–than last winter’s first Hobbit film. So there’s that.

But, like Gandalf and his fellow wizards and elf lords catching vague feelings of growing darkness in the wind, for us long-time Tolkien fans (and us fans of Peter Jackson’s decade-old Lord of the Rings film trilogy) there’s a creeping sense that exactly what makes Desolation of Smaug work more effectively as popcorn entertainment is an on-screen death knoll for everything that made Tolkien’s works so special.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is an action film, pure and simple; constantly jumping, spinning, and grabbing at our YouTube-ravaged attention spans.

Sure, the battle with the Mirkwood spiders was Tolkien’s idea, but everything else comes from Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens turning relatively low-key moments like the barrel escape from the wood elves and Bilbo’s initial parlay with Smaug into full-blown action set-pieces.

As in An Unexpected Journey, the first half of Smaug is driven by a pack of hunting orcs on warg-back, whipping the narrative along at every turn. (And once again, Jackson et al insert yet another new orc big baddie into the story to act as a more visceral antagonist. You know, because A Giant Fricking Dragon wasn’t enough.)

Nothing is ever allowed anymore to just happen in the Hobbit films—everything has to be ratcheted up, drawn out, enhanced and turbo-charged. Even Bard the Bowman’s fateful Black Arrow is no longer a simple, lucky shaft, but part of a giant Super Weapon. (The character of Bard—played with Aragorn-like stoicism by Luke Evans—is equally inflated, complete with a family of adorable moppets for that extra “threat to the family” juice.) Read more »

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: You Say You Want a Revolution?

catching-fire-posterThere are times—and they come at me more frequently these days—when I feel out of step with everything and everyone. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go into full sobbing mental breakdown right here in the first paragraph—I’ll save that for later.

But when I see the movie-going public go ga-ga for a dull, corporate puppet show like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, I shake my head and wander out of the theater (two and a half hours later, thanks) and into the wild.

You know what’s so great about Catching Fire? It’s tolerably watchable. That’s it. It’s not a good film. It’s not good entertainment.

And contrary to what has now, in less than a month, become Conventional Wisdom, parroted by fans and critics alike, it’s certainly not better than last year’s relatively subtle first Hunger Games movie. Catching Fire is a piece of smoothly assembled and blisteringly marketed product that doesn’t absolutely suck.

(I find myself often saying this about big franchise action movies like Man of Steel, The Wolverine, Thor, and yes even the Twilight films: The studios have their system down pat. Unless the Powers That Be have a momentary lapse of insanity or inebriation and hire some sort of weirdo actual creative artist to make these films, the cinematic outcome—the assembly line McDonalds product—is going to turn out… eh, okay. Tolerable. Watchable. Mostly edible.) Read more »

Interview: The 25,000 Mile Love Story’s Star and Filmmakers

25KMLS-Sell-Sheet-Front-1024From 2000 to 2005, Swiss endurance athlete Serge Roetheli and his wife Nicole traveled 25,000 miles around the world, from Europe, down around Africa, across the Middle East and South Asia, through East Asia and Australia, then over to South America and up into North America before finishing up back in Europe.

The catch? Serge ran the entire way with Nicole following behind on a motorcycle loaded down with supplies.

It was not Serge Roetheli’s first such feat of endurance—a former Olympic boxer as well as a runner, cyclist, and rower, he’d previously run across Europe and the length of both South and North America, as well as logged numerous mountain climbing achievements.

But this time he was running with a purpose: to raise both money for and awareness of the health and educational needs of impoverished children around the world.

Half a dozen years later, producer and filmmaker John Davies worked alongside producer and editor Brian Kallies to take Serge and Nicole’s thousands of hours of footage from the run and shape it into The 25,000 Mile Love Story, an inspirational documentary that sets out to capture both the emotional and physical challenges of the feat. A feat that included fighting the life-threatening effects of malaria, numerous encounters with snakes, and traveling on foot through the Middle East in the months after 9/11.

I sat down in Chicago a few weeks ago to talk about both the run and the film with Davies, Kallies, and Serge Roetheli himself as they toured the country showing their film and raising more money for children’s charities. Read more »

Interview: The Armstrong Lie Writer-director Alex Gibney

hr_The_Armstrong_Lie_1gibneyDocumentarian Alex Gibney has made a name for himself by examining the murky morality of our leaders and institutions.

His films’ topics have included the Bush Administration’s war in Iraq (2007′s Taxi to the Dark Side), the scandals that brought down political figures (2010′s Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer and Casino Jack and the United States of Money, about lobbyist Jack Abramoff), corporate greed and corruption (2005′s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) and the complicated ethical behavior of Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange (this year’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks).

But in 2008, producers Frank Marshall and Matthew Tolmach approached Gibney with the idea of following world-famous cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong as the seven-time Tour de France winner attempted a comeback. It was a chance for Gibney to both follow along inside the story as it unfolded and to tell an uplifting, inspiring story for a change.

Of course that film, originally titled The Road Back, was derailed in 2010 as long-standing allegations of performance-enhancing drug use and blood doping reared up again, eventually leading the United States Anti-Doping Agency to strip Armstrong of his Tour de France titles and ban him from cycling.

As Armstrong sat down earlier this year for an interview with Oprah Winfrey in which he finally came clean about his cheating, Gibney was working to restructure his documentary into yet another tale of a hero fallen and ideals betrayed: The Armstrong Lie.

1000314_10151778507403514_480814083_nThe gripping result is a look at Armstrong’s past, how the doping accusations hounded him for a decade, how he continually and vehemently denied them, and how it involved his cycling team mates and his cancer-support organization LiveStrong.

The film also incorporates a lot of Gibney’s original 2009 Tour de France footage as the filmmaker himself steps back and asks how he too got drawn into wanting to believe Armstrong, to believe in the comeback story.

I sat down with Gibney in Chicago last week to talk about The Armstrong Lie, about the many twists and turns in the film’s production, and of course about Lance Armstrong the man, who Gibney got to know well over the course of 2009.

The Armstrong Lie opens today in select cities. Read more »

Theriously, Whath’s Up With Thor?

(Don’t complain about the title – I came this close to using “I Just Flew in from Asgard and Boy are My Arms Thor!” Consider yourselves lucky.)

thor the dark world posterWhen you stop and think about it, little about Thor the Comic-book Superhero makes sense.

(By that I mean little about Thor the character makes sense—nothing at all in the Thor movies makes sense, but we stopped expecting narrative sense from our superhero movies around about Batman Forever. Or maybe we can trace it back to when Superman reversed the spin of the planet and turned back time instead of causing massive tectonic destruction.)

If sometime around WWII costumed superheroes became our modern gods, Thor is the vestigial tail, the Missing Link. The Marvel character is either (if you go by the comics) a real Norse god who, for reasons known only to his style team, dresses like a pro wrestler, or (if you go by the new movies) he’s a cosmic alien whose people inspired Earthly Norse mythology. Either way, he sticks out like a Thor thumb. (I couldn’t resist—I’m weak.)

The original trademark of Stan Lee’s Marvel Universe was that the heroes were all-too human—flawed and failed; sometimes arrogant, sometimes haunted, sometimes both. And for a long while in the comics, Lee and co-creator and artist Jack Kirby made the notion of a Freakin’ Norse God in a Red Cape fit into their new “fallible heroes” pantheon by (almost as a cruel joke) strapping the deity to the frail body of puny human Dr. Donald Blake.

When, half a decade ago, Marvel Entertainment began what future pop-culture historians will surely see as its Great March Toward Avengers Cinematic Domination, there was no doubt much hand-wringing over What to do with Thor. Read more »

Interview: The Motel Life Co-directors Alan and Gabe Polsky

Alan Polsky and Gabe PolskyBrothers Alan and Gabe Polsky made their mark in 2009 producing Werner Herzog and Nicholas Cage’s fairly awesome (and I’m so not kidding about that) Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

But what the brothers really wanted to do was direct, and this month brings to theaters and VOD their directorial debut The Motel Life starring Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff as Frank and Jerry Lee, two down-and-out brothers struggling to stay above water in Reno, Nevada.

The Motel Life, based on the 2006 novel by musician Willy Vlautin (of the band Richmond Fontaine) nicely navigates between seedy pathos and humorous hope, punctuated by animated flights of imagination. Adapted for the screen by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, the film also stars Dakota Fanning and Kris Kristofferson.

I sat down in Chicago a few weeks ago during the Chicago International Film Festival to talk with Alan and Gabe Polsky about The Motel Life, working with actors as first-time directors, and not letting “seedy” get too seedy.

The Motel Life opens today in select theaters and is also available on Video on Demand. Read more »

Ender’s Game: Playing at Shock and Awe

o-ENDERS-GAME-POSTER-900I was struggling a bit with my reactions to the new film adaptation of Ender’s Game. No, not because of the loud, kinda silly, kinda self-righteous, kinda deserved finger wagging and soap-boxing about novel author Orson Scott Card’s outspoken anti-gay brain vomitings. (To be clear, Card’s views on marriage equality deserve derision and mockery, but the “outrage” over them and calls for a boycott of the film feel a little too self-servingly easy and convenient, as do most “causes” centered on disposable pop culture.)

Instead, I was struggling with what I’m coming to see as the Gravity Effect. A few weeks ago, while still under the immediate spell of its stunning synthesis imagery and filmmaking dexterity ago, I declared Gravity a “near-masterpiece.” What I should have written was, “a near-masterpiece of visual and visceral thrills, not of ideas or themes.”

And that got me thinking about how easy it is, in these days of watching movies on our Dick Tracy wristwatches, to get overly seduced by simple big-screen awe. There’s certainly some of that at work in writer-director Gavin Hood’s very competent, watchable Ender’s Game.

The film, of course, adapts Card’s 1985 “shocking” and “disturbing” novel about pre-teen children in the future being recruited and trained to launch a preventive strike on the mysterious insectoid alien beings that unsuccessfully tried to invade Earth a few generations earlier. Young Andrew “Ender” Wiggins (Hugo’s Asa Butterfield) is singled out by head of the military program Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) to spend years training with other children on a space station, learning and being sometimes brutally tested on battle tactics and strategy. Read more »

Interview: Wolfskinder Writer-director Rick Ostermann

Wolfskinder-directorThe historical drama Wolfskinder is set in East Prussia (present-day northern Poland) in 1946.

The film by first-time feature writer-director Rick Ostermann follows fictional orphaned brothers Hans (13-year-old Levin Liam) and Fritz (10-year-old Patrick Lorenczat) as they and other children struggle to survive in the wilderness.

But while fictional, Wolfskinder is based on the real-life history of orphaned German youth (known as “Wolf Children”) who were left to fend for themselves when the Soviet Red Army took over the region after World War II and began brutalizing and killing ethnic Germans.

I sat down in Chicago last week at the Chicago International Film Festival to talk with German-born Ostermann about Wolfskinder.

Wolfskinder is playing various film festivals. 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