Interview: Walking with the Enemy Stars Jonas Armstrong and Simon Dutton

walking-with-the-enemy-poster-castDrawing on the real-life WWII heroics of Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum, Walking with the Enemy tells the story of Elek (Jonas Armstrong), a young Hungarian Jew who, in the final months of the war, donned an SS uniform and posed as a German officer in order to save hundreds of Jews in Budapest.

Working from his and Kenny Golde’s script, first-time director Mark Schmidt has woven an epic historical action-drama, expanding on the story of Elek (the Pinchas character) to include the larger efforts of the Budapest Jewish community and the Hungarian government (led by Ben Kingsley’s Regent Horthy) to resist the Nazi’s final genocidal attempts in the face of the approaching Soviet army.

In addition to the Irish Armstrong, Walking with the Enemy also stars English actor Simon Dutton as Miklos Schoen, a Jewish leader who worked with the Swiss government to get many Jews out of Budapest on Swiss passports.

I sat down with both Armstrong and Dutton in Chicago a few weeks ago to talk about the film and how they both approached playing real-life individuals caught up in the Holocaust.

Walking with the Enemy opens today in theaters in select cities. Read more »

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. Read more »

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. Read more »

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). Read more »

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 »

“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