REVIEW: 21 Years: Richard Linklater

5 04 2016

21 Years Richard LinklaterWhen the folks assembling the Criterion Collection edition of “Boyhood” go scouting for bonus features (and apparently this is happening), I hope they include Michael Dunaway and Tara Wood’s documentary “21 Years: Richard Linklater.” Such is really the best location for an anecdotal and borderline hagiographic tribute to the perennially underappreciated director.

The directors do not necessarily cast his work in a new light or uncover latent themes running through his filmography. “21 Years” is simply a magnificent feting of Linklater as told by the people who love him the most, both collaborators and contemporaries. Linklater is noticeably absent from the proceedings, talked about but never speaking for himself.

But even without a particularly revelatory angle, Dunaway and Wood still find ways to delight, amuse and enlighten with “21 Years.” Want to know how Linklater gets such natural sounding dialogue while also maintaining a high degree of precision? Let his actors tell you an amusing story about how they got cooly chided for veering off script. Curious about Linklater’s casting instincts? Listen to Anthony Rapp or Zac Efron recount how the director believed in them when they did not necessarily believe in themselves.

The portrait sketched is one of a gentle, unassuming yet visionary artist. So maybe with a little more vision, “21 Years: Richard Linklater” would be the celebratory toast he deserves. But even absent that, it’s a worthy explainer and salute that would be all too perfect directly before or after one of the director’s masterpieces. B2halfstars

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INTERVIEW: Ramin Bahrani, co-writer and director of “99 Homes”

9 02 2016

Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” has swooped into the public imagination and awards conversation, completely changing the way we think about how movies can portray the Great Recession. Perhaps that film signals a new era of storytelling about this fraught period in American culture. The 2007-2008 financial crisis now makes for period pieces, not current events.

A cinematic history that began with “Up in the Air” gets a bookend in Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes,” a film that made an immediate impact on me at the 2014 Telluride Film Festival and landed at #4 on my top films of 2015. I have called it a “gripping look into the dark heart of capitalism” as well as an illumination of “the mechanisms through which average citizens are bamboozled into thinking the interests of corporate bigwigs are always aligned with their own.”

I had the opportunity to talk with Bahrani, the film’s co-writer and director, about just how he used a hardened real estate agent, Michael Shannon’s Rick Carver, and a desperate evictee, Andrew Garfield’s Dennis Nash, to show the systems responsible for American middle-class misery. Our conversation clarified how “99 Homes” fits in with many years of films about the recession – but also how it stands apart and alone.

Ramin Bahrani and Andrew Garfield 99 Homes

I see Up in the Air as the first film to really talk about [the recession on screen].  I do think one thing that really sets 99 Homes apart for me is that Up in the Air uses the recession as the setting and not the subject.

Right.

At the end of the day, it’s really a movie about George Clooney’s character finding human connection.  Whereas 99 Homes made the downturn both the setting and the subject.  Was that something you felt was necessary to align?

For me, it was like why go into the situation and bring a story we’ve seen a hundred times before.  Why I referenced Up in the Air is that it surprised people – they thought it was going to be one thing in terms of tone.  And that’s what true here, people think it’s going to be a foreclosure film with a sad story.  But the tone is so different from what people expected.

You’re correct to isolate a major difference because my movie is actually about the foreclosure crisis and what it meant to people as opposed to just making a romantic comedy in a situation that has to do with that.  The story kind of originated from what was happening on the ground there, the entire plot came out of the corruptions that I saw in the housing industry and the foreclosure industry.

Jason Reitman talked a lot about how when he was surveying the people who lost their jobs, it shifted the tone.  It was originally a corporate satire and eventually became more of a heartfelt drama.  Of course, he even used some of those people who had been laid off and gave them a chance to act out their experiences. 

I know that you did a lot of research and went down to Florida to survey the situation for yourself.  Did that change the film in your head when you got on the ground?

I didn’t go down there with the script; I went down there to find the story. I try to stay open to the location and the people I meet to let that inform the story. I was surprised by what I saw. I had no idea real estate brokers carried guns. I had no idea there was so much violence, so many scams. It never occurred to me that there were scams like that on the ground. So that started to inform the script.

Of course, I’m using non-professional actors in the film, but I have a history of doing that. I make features where every single person is a non-professional actor; I made three films like that. So here, I weaved that into the story – we use a real sheriff who actually does evictions. When Andrew [Garfield, who plays protagonist Dennis Nash] knocks on doors, every other one is a real person. Every other one is an actor, but Andrew never knew who was who. He never knew what the people were going to say or do. I didn’t tell him what was going to happen, he just would knock on a door and then something would happen. He would have to deal with it.

99 HOMES

Are there any other post-recessional films that 99 Homes might have been in conversation with or in response to?  At Telluride, you said, “I wanted to make this film because no one else had made it.”  Anything you thought was particularly good (or, up to you, anything bad)? Was there anything 99 Homes needed to issue a corrective to?

I don’t want to say that because I think every filmmaker should make whatever film they want. I just knew this was a story that had never been told. I like stories that have never been told. I like in a world I’ve never been in – I have a history of that.

We know the Faustian story, that is archetypically true and we can connect to it. But we didn’t know the world of foreclosures. I didn’t know that world, and the audiences like going to worlds that they don’t know about.

In terms of films, I was very much looking at movies like The Hustler, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, On the Waterfront, The Grapes of Wrath, All the President’s Men.

Is 99 Homes a continuation of At Any Price at all? I wouldn’t say they are siblings – maybe cousins?

Yeah, I think there’s a sense of that. I was conscious of it. I’m probably going to make the same film over and over and over again in a different setting. Somehow, The Age of Innocence, GoodFellas, and Mean Streets are all still Who’s Knocking at My Door? [Martin Scorsese’s first film].

I’ve found that most movies that tackled economic concerns post-recession tended to focus on upper-middle class white professionals losing their security cushion, but 99 Homes actually shows the people losing their homes and moving into motels. This tone-deaf depiction does not seem to be the case in Europe – the same day I saw 99 Homes in Telluride, I saw the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night, which does a similarly excellent job of distilling the political into the personal.

Why do you think 99 Homes feels like such a rarity in American cinema –  do you think it’s a supply or demand side problem that’s leading to the glut of these movies?  Is it too hard to get movies financed about working class Americans, or is the older, affluent arthouse crowd only interested in seeing movies about people like themselves?

I don’t know, maybe you know more about that. The movie was extremely easy to get financed. I presented the script and the actors to my financiers, and in 24 hours they all said yes because they are desperate for stories that are actually about something AND happen to be really thrilling. The script was a page-turner, and it was about something.

Actors are desperate to be in something that are about real characters and real moral crisis. Exciting stories where they can connect to other actors as human beings. Not as General Zod and Spider-Man. I can tell you, Michael and Andrew don’t want to do this General Zod, Spider-Man thing. They want to be real people in films. I think audiences want to see them.

I can’t tell you why filmmakers don’t make them. I don’t really know. Again, I just think filmmakers should make whatever film they want. I’m sure the thing – this movie is showing a system. The real villain is the system, not Michael. The film industry is also a system, where certain people claim things to be true. Like, “Audiences want such and so thing.” I don’t believe that. But I think some filmmakers feel like they have to write certain things.

But I don’t believe that either. I think artists and filmmakers should make what they want. They want to see stories about real human beings, and actors want to be in stories about real human beings. No one wants to act in front of a green screen. It’s boring as hell; I can tell you that.

Ramin Bahrani & Michael Shannon 99 Homes

A lot of these movies have also used a “bad apples” framework to depict corporate executives, which condemns individuals like Gordon Gekko but not necessarily the system of power that enables them.  But in 99 Homes, it’s not just Rick Carver we should hate – it’s the entire system, which he points out is completely rigged.  How important was it for you to have him shine a light on macro level corruption?

The real heavy in any situation is a system – it’s not just one person. There can only be so many Iagos. Otherwise, you’ve just been begotten by the system you live in.

It’s not like real estate brokers as children told their parents, “I can’t wait to grow up and evict people.” Nobody had that dream. Nobody had the dream to be an executioner in a prison, but we live in a country that has capital punishment. We live in a country that is so rigged that these guys’ jobs became doing these foreclosures.

And if Shannon [who plays real estate agent Rick Carver] didn’t do it, somebody else would. And that would mean he’d be out of a job. Out of a job means no money. No money means no rent. No rent means he and his family move into a motel.

For me, the real villain is the system, and Michael is just a product of it. As they say in the nighttime scene on the dock, my favorite scene, Michael is talking about how he carries a gun even at 5 A.M. He’s looking over his shoulder all the time. Andrew says, “Is it worth it?” And Michael says, “As opposed to what?” And that’s the question of the film. As opposed to what? What else are you supposed to do?

You developed this movie, I presume, in 2012?                  

Yeah, I started working on the research in 2012 and 2013, then we shot in 2014.

You’re pushing it out to the majority of your audience in 2015.  Do you think all that time away from the film’s events has affected the way people respond to the film – I can certainly think of a very prominent real estate mogul who loves separating America into “winners” and “losers” and is keeps Rick Carver all too relevant?

Yeah, I know. In fact, Michael talks about Donald Trump in the film. He calls Andrew “Donald Trump” at one point in the film, and now a bunch of critics and audiences are saying, “My god, he sounds just like Donald Trump!” And it’s true, he talks about winners and losers.

We live in a country where, in elementary school, they plant the flagpole on the playground. At the top of the flag, it says SUCCESS. Winners. And from there on all the way to the bottom, it’s losers. It just doesn’t make much sense.

Characters like Trump, which I hope to God – Donald Trump, if you’re listening, WATCH THIS FILM! That kind of figure starts to get attention from people because they’re hungry. Because things aren’t working, and when things aren’t working, you start to fall into line with language like that. You start to look for people to blame. Extreme wealth inequality is only going to give rise to that kind of vitriolic language.

I hope everyone goes to see this movie, especially Donald Trump.

[chuckles] Put it down, he’ll go see it maybe!

Michael Shannon Andrew Garfield 99 Homes

“99 Homes” is now available to purchase and rent on home video.





REVIEW: Men, Women & Children

16 12 2014

In 2009, Jason Reitman added a potent subplot to his film “Up in the Air” that dealt with some of the alienation people feel in a depersonalized, technology-laden society.  Five years later, he arrives with “Men, Women & Children,” a dark and moody spiritual cousin to his masterpiece.  It goes beyond the obvious stating that people live text message to text message or email to email.  Underneath it all, they are clearly living orgasm to orgasm.

Reitman finds a new writing partner, Erin Cressida Wilson, to adapt Chad Kultgen’s novel, which is perhaps the only truly honest novel about the realities of living in a digitally mediated society.  The story follows a group of teenagers and their parents, each age group struggling with the temptations of carnality made available at their fingertips.  They all seek intimacy, a rarity in a sea of screen addicts, yet cannot seems to escape their enmeshed existence in the World Wide Web.

It seems as if Reitman, likely by commercial imperatives, had to pull some punches and soften the impact of his film.  How blistering can an excoriation of an Internet pornography obsessed society be if those toxic images are never shown?  How shameful can sexual deviance feel if the acts themselves are artfully avoided?  Reitman did not have to go full NC-17 to make an effective film on this topic, and “Men, Women & Children” suffers from his cautious moves.

Still, the message gets across pretty clearly, provided the audience can put down their iPhones for two hours to listen to it. For once, the youth are neither a fountain of hope nor a convenient object for blame; they are just exploring normal curiosities in the same way that their chief role models did.  In fact, the adults of “Men, Women & Children” are every bit as clueless and juvenile in cyberspace as their kids.  Society is all in this battle together, and no one is above it because it brings out the worst in everyone.

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REVIEW: Labor Day

27 01 2014

London Film Festival

I’ve made no effort to hide my love of writer/director Jason Reitman. With each of his first four films, I’ve been impressed with his ability to push himself in terms of tone, characterization, and style. Reitman is the first director that I have followed critically since the beginning of his career, and I have truly enjoyed watching him evolve before my eyes.

His fifth feature, an adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel “Labor Day,” shows perhaps the biggest stride in his visual storytelling to date. The film boasts impressive atmospheric editing with some eerie impressionistic flashbacks. His sets and staging seem much more delicately composed here, as does the cinematography.

Yet with this step forward, the bedrock of his past films – the characters and the script – take two big steps back. The narrative is essentially stillborn, providing us with three high-strung characters but little accompanying plot tension.

Labor Day” is an odd fit for Reitman’s talents as shown by his previous films, although it’s hard to fault a director willing to go this far out of their comfort zone. The story follows the odd events in 1987 that unfold when the withdrawn Adele (Kate Winslet) takes her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) to the grocery store … and they come back home with the escaped convict Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin). At first, they appear to be his hostages, but Frank and Adele fall into an odd romance that soothes the sores of their troubled pasts.

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LISTFUL THINKING: Most Anticipated Movies of 2013

2 01 2013

I’ll still be stuck in 2012 at least until the Oscars are handed out and until then will be filling in with reviews of some of the movies I missed from the year.  But it’s time to move forward and look ahead to 2013, which could be a great year for cinema.  Several of my favorite filmmakers have projects due this year, which is what I will have to remind myself as I have to slog through a year that reportedly will give us 31 sequels and 17 reboots!

I had originally prepared a top 10 list for my most anticipated of 2013, but then I realized that since so many were TBD, there’s a chance we won’t see some of these movies until 2014.  So I added three movies at the beginning of the list that premiered on the 2012 fall festival circuit but will hit theaters for paying audiences in 2013.

Without further ado…

To The Wonder

#13
“To The Wonder” (April)
Written and directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, and Olga Kurylenko

A year ago, Terrence Malick was critical darling with his “The Tree of Life.”  Yet when “To the Wonder” arrived at Toronto and Venice, you’d have thought they were reviewing a Michael Bay movie.  How someone goes from hero to zero that meteorically is curious.  If nothing else, “To the Wonder” could be the most anticipated disaster of the year.

Frances Ha

#12
“Frances Ha” (May 17)
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig
Starring Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, and Adam Driver

Upon its many festival stops in 2012, it was called a mixture of French New Wave with early Woody Allen.  Combine that with the fact that it’s written and directed by Noah Baumbach, whose “The Squid and the Whale” knocked me off my feet, “Frances Ha” sounds like a movie custom-made for me.

The Place Beyond the Pines

#11
“The Place Beyond the Pines” (March 29)
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder
Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, and Eva Mendes

They called it a sprawling, multigenerational epic when it played Toronto.  And from the trailer for Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to the harrowing “Blue Valentine,” it looks ambitious.  And honestly, I may be looking forward to this far more than several of the movies that made the ten.

Nebraska

#10
“Nebraska” (TBD)
Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Bob Nelson
Starring Devin Ratray, Bruce Dern, and Bob Odenkirk

Alexander Payne’s “Election” alone makes anything from the director worth anticipating.  After a second writing Oscar back from a seven-year hiatus for “The Descendants,” he shortens his gap with a new movie within two years.  I’m a little skeptical, though, since the cast lacks some of the pop of Payne’s previous films, and he also didn’t write this one.

Inside Llewyn Davis

#9
“Inside Llewyn Davis” (TBD)
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, and Justin Timberlake

The Coens have gone from 1960s Jewish suburbia in “A Serious Man” to the 1880s Wild West in “True Grit.”  And now … back to the 1960s for the folk music scene of Greenwich Village?  They sure like to keep us on our feet.

The Wolf of Wall Street

#8
“The Wolf of Wall Street” (TBD)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Terence Winter
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, and Matthew McConaughey

Scorsese.  Enough said.  I suspect this will be the role that wins DiCaprio his Oscar, provided he doesn’t take Best Supporting Actor for “Django Unchained” this year.  With “The Great Gatsby” (see below) moving back to 2013, it assures us yet another fantastic one-two punch within the same year from DiCaprio.  “Gangs of New York” and “Catch Me If You Can.”  “The Departed” and “Blood Diamond.”  “Shutter Island” and “Inception.”  Boom, Leo comin’ at ya!

Catching Fire

#7
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (November 22)
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth

I enjoyed “The Hunger Games” this year, though I do see room for improvement in sequels.  Hopefully the writer of “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours” as well as the writer of “Toy Story 3” can elevate it because I’m certainly not expecting much from the director of the middling “Water for Elephants.”  And I just kind of need something to fill the void left from “Harry Potter.”

Elysium

#6
“Elysium” (August 9)
Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp
Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, and Sharlto Copley

Anything shrouded in secrecy is enough to get me interested; that’s why “Prometheus” was at the top of this list for me in 2012 (that list was just mental).  And I think “District 9” could be merely scratching the surface of what Neill Blomkamp is capable of.  With Matt Damon and Jodie Foster headlining a sci-fi class warfare pic, this could be other-worldly levels of awesome.

Gravity

#5
“Gravity” (TBD)
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Written by Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron, and Rodrigo Garcia
Starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock

Speaking of other-worldly levels of awesome, let’s talk Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.”  He hasn’t released a film for 7 years, but his last three films were the incredible stretch of “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” and “Children of Men.”  His “Gravity” has been described as “if ‘Avatar’ had been released in 1927 a week after ‘The Jazz Singer.'”  What.  Warner Bros. pushed it back from 2012 for what I imagine was fine-tuning, which just has me all the more on pins and needles.

Labor Day

#4
“Labor Day” (TBD)
Written and directed by Jason Reitman
Starring Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, and Tobey Maguire

Jason Reitman, on a subjective and personal level, is probably my favorite director.  He’s had a flawless 4-for-4 stretch of films in his career, and though “Young Adult” might have been a step down from “Up in the Air,” that’s because the latter was basically perfect.  I’m fascinated to see what he can do with Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin.

Twelve Years a Slave

#3
“Twelve Years a Slave” (TBD)
Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by Steve McQueen and John Ridley
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, and Michael Fassbender

Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” was pretty good, but his “Shame” was an absolutely ingenious triumph.  I can only imagine how he plans to top it in “Twelve Years a Slave,” the story of a New York man kidnapped and sold into slavery.  It’s got one heck of a cast, from Michael Fassbender to Brad Pitt to Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry’s first roles post-“Beasts of the Southern Wild.”  Is it too soon to cry Oscar?

Star Trek

#2
“Star Trek Into Darkness” (May 17)
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Benedict Cumberbatch

Abrams did one heck of a job turning around the “Star Trek” franchise in 2009.  And from the superb trailer, it looks like he plans to boldly go into Christopher Nolan territory with a beautifully lensed and incredibly emotional follow-up.  I can’t wait.

Gatsby

#1
“The Great Gatsby” (May 10)
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire

I heard today that Jay-Z is going to be scoring Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.”  My first reaction was to rethink my placement of the movie as my most anticipated of 2013.  Then, I thought about it and realized that it might be a stroke of inspired brilliance that makes the movie even better.  Luhrmann is unparalleled in his ability to take old texts and make them feel alive, modern, and relevant.  Just look at how he took Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and made it relevant for a post-MTV audience.  And think about how he seamlessly integrated pop songs into “Moulin Rouge,” set in 1900!  Luhrmann’s flair for the theatrical and opulent borders on gaudy on several occasions  but I think he’s the perfect match for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tale of the rich and the glamorous.  I have no doubt his use of 3D will serve the movie well too.  All in all, his “The Great Gatsby” will most definitely be for and by our times … and could wind up being the movie that defines 2013.





REVIEW: Young Adult

15 03 2012

You’ll have to pardon my French throughout this review, but there’s no other way to put it.  “Young Adult” is Diablo Cody’s courtroom drama-style comedy that puts the bitch on trial, both the Hollywood archetype and a very peculiar bitch of her own creation.  It’s really a genius work that serves as a genre deconstruction as well as a story of narcissism and self-loathing in the Facebook age that can stand up on its own two feet.  Then factor in the irresistible pathos of Jason Reitman, a director who tells the most authentic emotional narratives of anyone working in Hollywood today, and you’ve got one of the best movies of 2011.

In anyone else’s hands, Charlize Theron’s Mavis Gary would be a totally unsympathetic, curmudgeonly home-wrecker.  Her vile acts of shameless selfishness draw first our shock, then our ire.  Every minute longer she lingers on the screen, we hate her all the more.  She’s toxic, knows it, and does nothing to change it.

But dare I say it, I actually related to Mavis – way more than I should have, in fact.  While we can’t deny her agency for all her awful deeds, Cody refuses to let her be totally written off as someone mean-spirited down to her core.  Her story takes Mavis back to the root of her problems, her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota.  We get to see the society that spawns the psychotic ex-prom queen, forcing us to wonder how much of her fate is due to society and circumstance.

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Random Factoid #436

7 10 2010

Hooray for memes!  It’s been a while since I’ve been tagged in one of these … good to be back on the circuit!  Thanks to Sebastian for tagging me.  Here’s the pitch:

The idea is that you list off the first 15 directors that come to your head that have shaped the way you look at movies. You know, the ones that will always stick with you. Don’t take too long to think about it. Just churn em’ out.

Here are my 15:

  • Woody Allen
  • Judd Apatow
  • Darren Aronofsky
  • Alfonso Cuarón
  • Clint Eastwood
  • David Fincher
  • Sam Mendes
  • Fernando Meirelles
  • Christopher Nolan
  • Sean Penn
  • Roman Polanski
  • Jason Reitman
  • Martin Scorsese
  • Steven Spielberg (no, it isn’t cliched)
  • Quentin Tarantino

In case anyone was wondering, I got to about 10 and then had a major pause.