‘Somewhere’ Finds Another Movie Star Lost in Translation

Somewhere movie poster

“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.”

-Robin Williams from “World’s Greatest Dad”

“Somewhere” opens with Stephen Dorff’s character of Johnny Marco driving his Ferrari around in circles in some far-off place. It goes on for a while to the point where some in the audience might say, “ENOUGH ALREADY!!!” However, the length of the scene defines the state Johnny’s life. He’s a movie star with adoring fans, and getting women to sleep with him is easy as cake. But aside from being a successful actor, he looks completely lost compared to everyone else around him. Johnny has no direction in life, and emotion looks like a luxury he can’t afford. Even those beautiful female twins pole dancing in his hotel room at the Chateau Marmont can’t excite or arouse him, and they succeed in making him fall asleep more than anything else. We see him surrounded by so many people who profess to adore him, but all they do is make him feel more isolated from anyone and everybody.

But then one morning Johnny wakes up to find his 11-year old daughter Cleo signing the cast on his arm. From there, we see him come alive as he gets to spend time with the one person who loves him in a way no one else can. With his daughter, he gains some idea of adult responsibility, and a better sense of who he is and what he wants.

Now this may make “Somewhere” sound like a sitcom more than a movie as the story features a father getting closer to his daughter which changes his perspective and all, but it is anything but that. This is Sofia Coppola’s first movie since “Marie Antoinette,” and she makes this one anything but sentimental and manipulative. It’s more like she captures moments between Johnny and Cleo more than she films then, and it makes “Somewhere” feel all the more real.

Many have said “Somewhere” feels like a European film in how slowly it moves, and it is never in a rush to get to the next moment. This is correct, but I like the fact it takes its time. Today’s movies are always rushing from one moment to the next to where we never have enough time to digest everything we witnessed. That Sofia Coppola goes against this trend is very welcome, and it makes for a far more involving movie.

Seeing Cleo accompany her father to Italy for a movie premiere could have been clichéd and corny as hell, but seeing them together makes it feel intimate and far more original than any other filmmaker could have captured. Some will say this is autobiographical, but I believe Sofia when she says that it isn’t. Granted, she definitely has an insider’s view of show business being the daughter of Oscar winning director Francis Ford Coppola, but this story feels removed from her own life. Her parents never divorced, and she appears to come from a very loving family. Cleo, on the other hand, is a child of divorce, and we know she will suffer more from it that her parents will.

As played by Elle Fanning, Cleo comes across as far more adult than her father and it’s a kick to see her prepare breakfast for him, showing she is easily more mature. She also makes what looks like a sumptuous Eggs Benedict, and anyone who knows me best is aware I order it whenever my parents are in town and take me out to breakfast. Of course, I’m on a diet now, but seeing her cook it so successfully makes me want to head out to the nearest restaurant which serves breakfast all day.

Fanninf has been in the shadow of her older sister Dakota who has given strong performances in movies like Steven Spielberg’s “War of The Worlds” and “The Runaways.” I haven’t seen her in anything since “The Door in The Floor” where she acted opposite Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger, but she really comes into her own here with this character who is ever so charming. You never catch her acting here. She just inhabits her character with what seems like relative ease, and watching her come to life as Cleo is a joy.

Dorff is an interesting choice to play Johnny Marco. Best known for his roles in “Backbeat,” “Blade,” and “Cecil B. Demented” among other movies, Dorff does seem to have the “bad boy” image, though not necessarily to Charlie Sheen’s level. In “Somewhere,” he manages to find the right balance between being a nice guy and a thoughtless prick to where we empathize with him more than decry his irresponsibly selfish ways. Like Fanning, Dorff becomes his character more than plays him, and he keeps him from becoming a caricature of a movie star. We find ourselves wanting him to do right by his daughter even if he doesn’t always do so.

The other big character in “Somewhere” is the Chateau Marmont, a hotel on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. It has a lot of history involving movie and rock stars, many of whom have lived here for a time. John Belushi famously died of a drug overdose at the hotel, and his death still haunts all those who were the closest to him. The history of the Chateau Marmont hangs over Johnny Marco’s head as we can’t help but wonder if the hotel will suck him up whole.

Granted, this film does share similarities to Sofia’s “Lost in Translation” as it also involves a movie star who seems emotionally dried up and a young girl who is quickly maturing into a woman. But Bill Murray’s character looks lost because he is in a different country. Johnny Marco, however, looks lost in the country he was born in, so imagine how he feels when he travels overseas. His situation feels especially dire because there doesn’t seem to be a place anymore he can truly call home. Directors in general deal with similar themes throughout all their movies, and Sofia is no exception to that. At least with this one, she has a different way of exploring it than before.

If there is anything which bothered me about “Somewhere,” it’s the conclusion is a little too open-ended. I left the theater with questions over what happened from there, and while change is coming for the characters, it’s not entirely clear what direction that change is going to take. Then again, there’s a lot going on we don’t have all the details to. We never learn why Johnny split with Cleo’s mother, and we are only left with an idea of how it happened. Looking into Cleo’s eyes, she may have a better idea than anybody else of what went down.

Regardless, “Somewhere” is a well thought out film which shows Sofia Coppola to be an excellent director confident in her abilities behind the camera. Looking back, I think it will have more of an effect long after you’ve seen it as it’s not the kind of movie which leaves your consciousness all that quickly.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ Belongs in the Cinematic Abyss

Transformers Revenge of the Fallen poster

To a certain extent, I have been happy to defend Michael Bay on some of his movies. “The Rock” was a kick ass action flick, and it brought Nicholas Cage to a whole new level of stardom which he has since pissed away. When he gave us “Transformers” two years ago, it seemed really good when you compared it to his other movies. It seemed like he might turn out to be better than we typically give him credit for. Heck, Steven Spielberg worked with him on it for crying out loud!

But now comes the inevitable sequel entitled “Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen,” which I thought could be the “Empire Strikes Back” of the franchise, but this not even close to being the case. If I didn’t have an intense hatred of Bay before, I sure as hell do now. I came out of this sequel cursing his name as if he had no reason to live. “Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen” may very well represent the biggest waste of money ever spent on any film I have seen since “Waterworld” or even “Norbit”. Yes, the movie has action all over the place and the effects are incredible and incredibly loud as you would expect them to be, but I came out of it wanting to spit at the screen. This is a movie with no heart or soul, and it renders all the hard work put into it as utterly meaningless. What a pathetic waste of celluloid this is! But what’s truly depressing is no matter how critically thrashed this movie gets, it will still make tons of money.

Shia LaBeouf returns as Sam Witwicky in a performance which threatens to be as utterly annoying as Ralph Macchio’s in “The Karate Kid Part III.” Despite being a hero and helping the Autobots defeat the evil Decepticons in the first movie, he still acts like a pussy whipped bitch here. I don’t think LaBeouf is a bad actor, but he needs to stop playing characters like this lest people start thinking he’s playing himself. The first “Transformers” gave his career a huge leg up, but this god-awful sequel can take him down just the same.

Megan Fox also returns as Sam’s voraciously attractive girlfriend Mikaela Banes, and she makes her entrance by leaning over a motorcycle showing off one of her best “assets.” This will probably piss people off as Bay makes good sport of objectifying women throughout, and it wouldn’t be the first time either. Still, I would be a bit of a hypocrite if I didn’t say I enjoyed this visual even if it was from a faraway distance. Hey Fox, I know you want to be taken seriously as an actress and, believe it or not, I would like to see that happen for you. All the same, if there is a third “Transformers” movie, I strongly advise you NOT to do it. I honestly think you deserve better than this.

The plot of “Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen” is… well, it’s somewhere in there. It involves… uh, some shard from that cube lodged in Sam’s clothing which…umm…well, ends up filling his head with symbols that… Jesus this is hard to describe! It makes Sam write all these symbols that…that…I don’t know, lead him to this big fight in Egypt… Oh yeah, he meets up again with Optimus Prime from the first one… Bumblebee is back too, and he threatens to be even more of a pussy than Sam is, but he kicks ass… Then they end up in Egypt and fight alongside those military dudes from the previous film…you know, Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson? And then… uh, well… There’s a lot of action!

It’s clear from the start Bay is not concerned with developing a good story or giving us characters who are anything but shallow. It certainly would help to bring us into the action more on an emotional level. I have a pretty good idea what Bay is thinking: Fuck the critics! I make movies for the audience, not you snobs! But in the process of flipping the bird to film critics, he is also insulting the audience’s intelligence. And yes, this includes all those 12 and 13-year old’s who this movie was clearly made for. I can’t say I was a huge fan of the Transformers as a kid, but I bet the most die-hard fans will find much to hate about this horrid sequel, and the call for Bay’s blood will be as loud as the explosions are in this film.

All the hallmarks of a Bay movie can be found here; loud explosions every other millisecond, characters communicating by yelling at each other even when they are in earshot of each other, and inane dialogue which makes George Lucas’ sound like John Patrick Shanley’s. I’m sure there are many who will say this is a movie where you should “check your brain at the door,” but this sentiment only goes so far. There is a point where you take your audience for granted, and finding forgiveness for this transgression is a bitch. This isn’t the first time Bay has gone out of his way to intentionally piss off those critics who hate his films. “Bad Boys II,” another cinematic monstrosity, was Bay lighting a fire under the ass of many a film critic. But the maker of one god awful sequel has now succeeded in creating one which is far worse.

Bay flips the bird at us even more by introducing two Autobots which are nothing more than extremely offensive stereotypes of the blatantly racist kind. I’m talking about Mudflap and Skids, the Transformers’ answer to Jar Jar Binks. I figured by having an actor like Tyrese Gibson might balance out things here since he doesn’t descend into any stereotypical behavior, but this is a movie whose main audience will be kids for crying out loud! I usually think people look into the way certain people are portrayed in movies a little too much, but this time the criticism is more than justified as Mudflap and Skids are two infinitely misconceived characters.

Speaking of characters yelling at each other, this god forsaken sequel may very well contain the most yelling of multiple characters in any film. Do you have any idea of just how annoying it is when people TALK LIKE THIS AS IF YOU HAVE SOME HEARING DISABILITY AND THEY THINK YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH YOUR HEARING AID EVEN THOUGH YOU DON’T ACTUALLY HAVE ONE BUT THERE’S SO MUCH FIGHTING AND EXPLOSIONS GOING ON TO WHERE YOU DON’T HAVE THE TIME TO APOLOGIZE TO EACH OTHER BECAUSE YOU EITHER ARE RUNNING LIKE HELL FROM THOSE NASTY DECEPTICONS OR YOU HAVE TO FIGHT THEM ASSUMING YOU GOT ANY BALLS LIKE THE MILITARY DOES BUT HAVING ANY OLD GUN WON’T HELP BECAUSE YOU NEED THE EQUIVALENT OF A BAZOOKA?… I’m not sure I have seen another movie where I have been desperate to see so many tracheotomies performed in one sitting! It’s not enough to tell one person in this movie to shut the fuck up just once. You have to do it over and over, and they still will end up screaming their anxieties right out at you!

Not just that, but half the time I couldn’t even understand what the hell anyone was saying. Did Bay sneak crystal meth into everyone’s food? It’s bad enough he gave us a movie at two and a half hours long, but is this how he chooses to condense a lot of it? I wonder if Bay could actually explain to us what’s going on here. I bet the way he sees it, if he gave us all sorts of loud explosions and expensive special effects, then who are we to argue? You can get away with this in another movie, but not this one.

My reaction to this new “Transformers” movie reminds me of when I witnessed Roland Emmerich’s tragically horrific take on “Godzilla.” I went out of that movie feeling depressed and saying to myself if this is the way Hollywood is going to keep making movies, then I am not going to another one ever again. Over ten years later, it feels like we haven’t come any further. Does Bay really think this is something people will instantly embrace? In the end, it won’t really matter because “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is bound to make a ton of money no matter how bad it is.

It’s not worth it wasting any more time on this movie than I already have. Seriously, I was all but ready to spit on the ground of the theater I saw it at. If you didn’t hate Bay before this movie, you will now. As I exited the theater, I quietly said to myself, “Fuck Michael Bay! Fuck him royally! Burn in hell!”

In regards to the audience I saw it with, the best piece of praise I heard from anybody about the movie was, “It’s okay.” Talk about being generous! Right now, I am sick of movies being just okay. So far, there has only been one truly great live action movie out this summer, and that’s “Star Trek.” Coincidentally, two of the screenwriters on this massive train wreck, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, also wrote the screenplay for that one. What the hell guys? Or maybe you’ll get off easy since Bay runs through your dialogue so fast to where we can’t possibly understand what anyone is saying. But don’t worry guys, Bay is taking all the heat on this one.

Michael Bay, you have just given us a great example of how NOT to make a summer blockbuster. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go watch “No Country for Old Men” just so I won’t forget what great filmmaking looks and feels like.

ZERO out of * * * *

*This review should suffice for the “Transformers” sequel of your choice.  

‘Get Him to The Greek’ Allows Us to Forget about Sarah Marshall

Get Him to the Greek movie poster

We have sequels and franchise reboots or remakes up the wazoo this summer, but it feels like it has been forever since we had a movie spin-off. I know there are tons of them on television these days, but TV spinoffs seem to be a necessity, especially with shows like “Law & Order” and “CSI.” We’re gonna have “Law & Order: Los Angeles” in the fall, proving the cancellation of the original “Law & Order” never ended anything. Personally, I’m waiting for “Law & Order: Barstow” and “CSI: Chico.” Now those would be the ones to really shake things up!

In fact, the last time we had a movie spin-off was “US Marshalls” which took Tommy Lee Jones’ character of Sam Gerard from “The Fugitive” and gave him his own movie. Looking back, it was more of a remake of “The Fugitive” than anything else.

Now we have “Get Him To The Greek” which takes Russell Brand’s character of spaced out rock star Aldous Snow from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and has him starring in his own movie movie. Give Hollywood some credit here for being a little more creative than usual. By making a movie based on a supporting character from another, they show an air of confidence they usually only pretend to have.

Whereas Aldous was drug free in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” he is shown to haven fallen off the wagon big time in this one as we watch him suffering the after effects of a horrible song he wrote and recorded called “African Child.” The song was declared to be the worst song of the decade, and it places second to apartheid as the worst thing to happen to Africa. The love of his life, Jackie Q (Rose Byrne from “28 Weeks Later”), ends up leaving him along with their son Naples, and he proceeds to go on one drinking/drug binge after another as his life goes from worst to intolerable. Then he hits rock bottom, but this doesn’t stop his spiral any.

Several years later, a record company intern named Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) brings up at a meeting how it is coming up on the 10 year anniversary of when Aldous performed a concert at the Greek Theater, one which resulted in one of the best-selling live albums of all time. After Aldous confirmed with Aaron’s boss, Sergio (Sean Combs), that he will do a new show to celebrate this occasion, Sergio sends him out to England to fetch Aldous and to make sure he makes it to the concert on time.

Judd Apatow is of course behind this one as a producer, and the setup reminded me a lot of his movie “Funny People.” Big fan meets his celebrity idol, discovers being where the celebrity is can be the loneliest place of all, and they somehow connect at the end in a way they never thought possible. But this one is just a flat out comedy and has none of the dramatic edge of “Funny People.” Its humor is vulgar and crude, but like all good Apatow productions, it also has a heart.

Like “Knocked Up,” “Get Him To The Greek” exists in the entertainment world. Hearing Aaron talk about how a new concert will spur large revenue for the record company, allowing them to re-release Snow’s back catalog in new remastered editions with bonus material struck a cord with me. I always fall for this stuff myself; remastered CD’s which make you actually feel like you’re in the room with the band as they jam together. I have been an addict of these remastered editions ever since I bought the one for Eric Clapton’s “Behind the Sun.”

This is not to mention all the cameos from artists like Pink and television personalities including Meredith Vieira from the “Today” show. You even have Mario Lopez and Kurt Loder poking fun at their public perception, something they probably would not have done ten years ago. “Get Him To The Greek” does not take place in some fairy tale world where everything ends up all nice and tidy. The laughs end up stinging much more here because they remind us of all those celebrity controversies the media thrusts at us every single day.

Russell Brand’s own drug addled past has been chronicled for some time now, so part of the fascination with watching him here is figuring out where he ends and Aldous Snow begins. Regardless of how out there he may seem in the media, there is something about his personality that makes us watch his every move. Not once does he do anything to hide his character’s hedonistic ways, and he scores one solid laugh after another. I’m not sure what to say about him as an actor because I haven’t really seen him in anything else, but watching him again as this character was indeed worthwhile.

Jonah Hill also was in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” as a waiter, but here he plays an entirely different character. From “Superbad” to “Funny People,” he’s been basically playing the same kind of role over and over again. Here, he plays his most grown up character to date. As Aaron Green, he also gets to lose his trademark hairdo which makes him look like Little Orphan Annie. Clearly, his high school days are behind him, and he has us laughing at the most insane and compromising positions his character keeps stumbling into. Hill even has a great “Pulp Fiction” kind of moment, but I leave it to you to discover it for yourself.

But while Brand stole every other scene in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” he has this movie stolen from him by Sean Combs. That’s right, Puff Diddy is in this movie as record company executive Sergio Roma, and it allows him to parody his own image as a hip hop entrepreneur. What I loved about his performance is you never get the feeling he was trying to be funny. The more serious he gets, the more gut-bustlingly hilarious he becomes, and no one sells the term “mindfuck” the way he does here. It’s easy to fall into the trap of playing for laughs instead of playing the scene, but Combs never falls victim to it here.

You also have some nice supporting performances from actors like Colm Meaney, the “Star Trek” journeyman actor who plays Aldous’ father Jonathan, and he makes this man anything but a father figure. Having used his drug addicted son for his own gain, it is very surprising these two actually bother to be in the same room together. Rose Byrne also has some great moments as the love of Aldous’ life, Jackie Q, and her own music is ridiculously controversial in its own terms.

“Get Him to The Greek” was written and directed by Nicholas Stoller who also helmed “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Stoller does good work here, but he does let the pace drag towards the end to where there are lulls where you are waiting for the next big explosion of laughter. All the same, comedy is hard work, so you have to give him credit for the loud laughs he does get out of us.

Is this as good as “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”? Not quite. In fact, “MacGruber” was a funnier movie in retrospect, regardless of its audience not showing up when it was released. The plot itself is no different from a lot of road trip comedies, and you could compare this one a bit to John Hughes’ “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” when you think about it. Still, I had a lot of fun with it, and it is easily more fun than a “Geoffrey.” Trust me; just see the movie and then you will know what I am talking about. I’m sick of giving away the best parts of movies anyway.

* * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Sean Combs on ‘Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story’

Sean Combs, a.k.a. Puff Daddy, is many things in life: a rapper, mogul, actor and businessman whose strong work ethic came about when he was a young boy. Following his time as an intern at Uptown Records, he came to form his own label, Bad Boys, which became a highly influential foundation for hip-hop and developed the careers of many artists including the late Notorious B.I.G. Combs’ image in the media, however, has been constantly pigeonholed into something which is not altogether true, and with the documentary “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story,” he looks to correct this so the world at large can see him for who he really is.

Directed by Daniel Kaufman, “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” shows Combs at his most open and vulnerable as we learn how he became a millionaire at the young age of 19 and learned to navigate the real of corporate business. We come to see how the Bad Boy family he helped bring about filled his need for a family as he felt he never really had one before, and discusses how his world was forever shattered when the Notorious B.I.G. was murdered. We also see Combs get a Vitamin B12 shot right in the butt, and if this doesn’t show open he is willing to be on camera, then I am not sure what will.

“Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” also documents the Bad Boy artists reuniting for a 20th anniversary concert at the Barclay Center in New York which was put together in a mere three weeks, an insanely short schedule for any show to be assembled in. Among the artists, some of whom have not performed live for years, include Lil’ Kim, Mase, Faith Evans and Mario Williams among others.

I was lucky enough to speak with Combs while he was in Los Angeles, and we talked about how challenging it was for him to let go of the control he has over his image for this documentary. In addition, he also discussed the fun he had in sending up his own image in “Get Him to the Greek” and, in echoing what Nina Simone once said about being free means having no fear, admits to the place he finds himself being the most fearless in.

Please check out the interview above. “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story” opens in Los Angeles and New York on June 23, and it will be shown exclusively on Apple Music starting on June 25.

Can't Stop Won't Stop documentary poster

‘It Comes at Night’ is Not Your Average Psychological Horror Movie

It Comes at Night movie poster

It Comes at Night” cannot and should not be mistaken for your average psychological horror movie. Whereas the average genre film aims to delineate who the good guys and the bad guys are, no such distinction is made here as writer and director Trey Edward Shults has rendered the characters to be all too human. We understand their wants, needs and motivations very well, and this makes the movie even more unsettling than it already is.

We are introduced to Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as they lay Sarah’s father, Bud (David Pendleton), to rest in a most uncomfortable way. We soon learn the family has secluded themselves in their country home as some highly contagious disease has since laid waste to the world. Along with their dog, Stanley, the family keeps themselves out of danger by staying locked up at night when the danger which threatens humanity is at its most powerful point.

But their bubble is suddenly threatened when a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their home, believing it to be unoccupied and in desperate need of supplies for himself and his family. After tying Will to a tree overnight to confirm he is not infected by the disease, Paul decides he is worth helping and succeeds in bringing Will’s wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and their son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), to safety to where they are all leaving under the same roof. But even as they come to settle down comfortably with one another, the inevitable conflicts arise which will force them into a game of survival no one can back away from peacefully.

Shults made an unforgettable directorial debut with “Krisha” which was one of my favorite movies of 2016. While “Krisha” was an emotionally pulverizing motion picture, “It Comes at Night” is one which mercilessly plays with your head as it taps into your fears of the things you can’t see or understand. Paul, Sarah and Travis rarely stray far from their country home as just about everything outside of seems all too threatening to confront. Whether or not you think Shults gives the “it” of the movie’s title a clear definition, it won’t matter. The it could be anything. It could be a supernatural force, an incurable disease, or perhaps it is the realization of the violent deeds we are capable of committing when pushed to our breaking point.

“In order to appease the gods, the Druid priests held fire rituals. Prisoners of war, criminals, the insane, animals… were… burned alive in baskets. By observing the way they died, the Druids believed they could see omens of the future. Two thousand years later, we’ve come no further. Samhain isn’t evil spirits. It isn’t goblins, ghosts or witches. It’s the unconscious mind. We’re all afraid of the dark inside ourselves.”

                                                                                                                           -Donald Pleasance

                                                                                                                            “Halloween II

I put the above quote from “Halloween II” up above because those words were playing in my head while watching “It Comes at Night.” Looking at these characters, you can tell they were once decent people who wanted nothing more than to raise their families and live in peace, but the state of the world has forced them to defend what is theirs in a way they never thought they would resort to. This is especially the case with Paul who has long since become handy with a shotgun and disposing of corpses. But Edgerton, who is excellent as Paul, eventually shows the character at his most vulnerable state as he comes to see not just the person he has become, but the person he always was.

Shults shows the fears of all these characters reaching their peak at nighttime when fear and paranoia combine to create a more hostile environment than the one outside their front door. Speaking of the front door, it is painted a dark red as horror movies always feature a red door or two, and Paul makes it clear to everyone how the door must always stay locked at night, always. As Roger Corman once said, one of the scariest images in any movie is the closed door. So, when the door moves suddenly is ajar, Shults has us right in his grasp to where we are sitting straight up in our chairs.

In addition to Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison Jr. provide strong support as Paul’s wife, Sarah, and their son Travis. Together, they portray a family much like any other, struggling to survive in an increasingly insane world. Christopher Abbott, so good in “James White,” inhabits the character of Will with both a tense desperation and an easy-going attitude as he settles in with Paul and his family. This is an actor incapable of faking an emotion, and his performance in “It Comes at Night” is the latest example. Riley Keough is also excellent as Will’s wife, Kim, as she makes her an enigmatic presence to where you don’t know whether to hug her or keep your distance from her.

In making everything seem so down to earth, “It Comes at Night” does suffer as things become more underplayed than they should have been. There were times where I wished Shults had injected more energy into the story as things begin to feel way too subtle. Still, when the movie works, it really works as the tension builds to a fierce climax where I could not find myself rooting for one person over the other. Shults is also assisted by his “Krisha” collaborators Drew Daniels whose cinematography makes the darkness these characters live in all the more threatening and claustrophobic, and by composer Brian McOmber who provides another unsettling score which builds up an already intense motion picture into something feverishly intense.

The ending of “It Comes at Night” proves to be both infuriating and utterly haunting as we are left to wonder what will become of whoever is left. It feels like the movie ended sooner than it should have, but perhaps it would have been unfair to ask Shults to give us something more definitive. Still, it’s nice to see something like this occupying the local movie houses alongside the summer blockbusters as it gives us a lot to ponder once the lights come up.

As for myself, the post-apocalyptic setting of this movie is almost secondary to the one thing which should matter the most to these characters – trust. Whether we are living in the best of times or the worst of times, trust is the one thing we need more than anything else to survive one hard working day after another. Without trust, how can we survive in a crazy world? “It Comes at Night” confronts the issue of trust head-on, and it is devastating to see it break down amongst characters who might otherwise have no problem living under the same roof.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Beginners’ is a Warm-Hearted Look at the Evolution of Relationships

Beginners movie poster

Mike Mills’ “Beginners” looked like the kind of movie I live to avoid. The son caring for his father who has a terminal disease, them making amends with each other before time runs out the relationship his son is currently involved in, etc. This has been the formula for an endless number of manipulative movies which bring out the cynical bastard in all of us. But there was something about this movie’s trailer that made it look like something more unique and heartfelt, and I’m not just talking about that Jack Russell terrier speaking in subtitles (thank god this is not another “Look Who’s Talking” sequel!).

Listening to Mike Mills’ interview on “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross informed me that “Beginners” is largely autobiographical; although I’m sure the names have been changed to protect the innocent. The story centers on Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic artist with many failed relationships behind him. Upon the passing of his mother, his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) announces to him that he’s gay, and soon discovers that he is suffering from terminal cancer. In the meantime, Oliver gets involved with the very free-spirited Anna (Melanie Laurent) and finds himself exhilarated by her, but frightened at the things that could easily tear their relationship apart.

“Beginners” is told in a non-linear format with the story jumping back and forth between Oliver’s time with his dad, and the time he spends with Anna. Many people find this filmmaking technique annoying and too artsy-fartsy, but it serves this movie well and was never jarring. It moves from one part of the story to another effortlessly, and Mills never condescends to his audience in filming this way. Besides, when it comes to memories like these, we don’t remember everything that happened in the order it took place.

I was actually surprised at how emotional “Beginners” was. From the trailer, it kind of looks like a light comedy bordering on becoming a dramedy. But there is a deep sadness at its core as the revelations brought about mean different things for each character. For Oliver, it makes him look back at the time he spent with mom and wonder if she was always the unhappy wife to his father. For Hal, it is a bittersweet journey embracing his true sexuality while wishing he had more time on earth to enjoy it.

The reasons for Hal coming out now never feel contrived when he explains it to his son. He makes it clear he always loved his wife even when they both knew he was homosexual. Plus, he wanted the married life and the things which came with it: the house, the family, everything he couldn’t have had if people knew he was gay. Christopher Plummer delivers this speech simply and in a matter of fact way, never having to act it out for the benefit of the audience.

There’s no doubt this is a very personal film for Mills who previously made a movie I still need to see, “Thumbsucker.” While the end credits indicate the places and characters used are fictitious and any similarity to those living or dead is coincidental, it doesn’t change the fact Mills went through the same thing with his own dad. This is what makes “Beginners” such a good movie; it comes from an honest place and not one of simple manipulation. Its themes of love are universal and profound as relationships of all kinds need constant work to keep them strong.

This is one of the best roles Ewan McGregor has had in some time. As Oliver, he inhabits the character with a knowingness of what life has put him through, and the things he wants scare him the most. His eyes speak of a strong sadness he has trouble reconciling within himself, and you want to see him be a happier person. McGregor becomes the character right in front of us and gives a perfectly unforced performance which reminds us he’s still a terrific actor.

I really enjoyed watching Melanie Laurent here as Oliver’s girlfriend, Anna, and this is the first movie I’ve seen her in since “Inglourious Basterds.” She portrays the kind of free spirit us guys would all love to fall in love with. The chemistry she shares with McGregor is very strong, and their interactions make for some of the film’s most gleeful moments. Her demeanor, though, hides a dark spot in her life which is hinted at but never fully explained.

As for Plummer, he is simply magnificent as Hal. Seeing him embrace his sexuality is great fun as he makes new discoveries about life and “house music” among other things. Plummer is also heartbreaking as we find him experiencing joy just as his life is on the verge of expiring. For the last decade or so, he has been playing detestable villains in movies, and it’s a favorite role of his. But seeing him portray Hal reminds us of what we already should know, he’s one of the best actors working today.

But to be honest, all these great actors get completely upstaged by Cosmo who plays the Jack Russell terrier Arthur. Whether he’s with Plummer or McGregor, he’s such an adorable presence and even his eyes seem to speak words no other dog can easily speak. This may be the best performance I’ve seen by a dog since Mike the dog tossed away his dog food in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.” Watching him makes you want to rush out to the nearest pet store and get your own Jack Russell terrier. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, my apartment building doesn’t allow pets. Well, I’m better off with stuffed animals anyway.

“Beginners” shows us no matter how much experience we’ve had with relationships, we are always starting over again when it comes to a new one. It doesn’t matter what our age or sexual orientation is, relationships are an ongoing process we need to work at. We need to be open to risks and letting ourselves be vulnerable to the people we care the most about. And when all is said and done, we need to live through pain in order to experience pleasure.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Emerald Forest’ Makes the Term ‘Based on a True Story’ Mean Something

The Emerald Forest poster

The Emerald Forest” is kind of a spiritual sequel to “Deliverance” as both were directed by John Boorman. Each film deals with man’s tearing apart of nature for their own needs, and of how nature has its own set of rules which forces outsiders to survive by any means. They also take place in a wilderness where the rules of law and justice cease to exist as its inhabitants live defend what is theirs and are not exactly open to strangers. Also, they contain characters who have never been exposed to civilization as we know it. The subject of man versus nature makes for a fascinating subject, and it’s entertaining to see Boorman take it on again.

“The Emerald Forest” is “based on a true story” and was released back in 1985, back when that term actually meant something. Powers Boothe stars as Bill Markham, an engineer who has moved to Brazil with his family to complete the construction of a large hydro-electric dam. This of course necessitates large areas of the Amazon forest be cleared to make room for agriculture and living space. While on a picnic with his family, his son Tommy suddenly gets abducted by an indigenous Indian tribe. Bill ends up spending the next ten years looking for Tommy just as the dam he’s working on nears completion. He ends up finding Tommy alive, and Tommy has long since become fully integrated with the tribe known as the “Invisible People.” But will Tommy end up going home with his real dad, or will he stay with this tribe which he considers family?

I remember seeing commercials for this movie on television, and the fact it was “based on a true story” made it seem all the more frightening at the time. To be stolen from your family is a terrible fate and a horrible burden for any parent to endure, and it’s the last thing anyone should go through. The interesting aspect of “The Emerald Forest,” however, is how Tommy seems to enjoy being part of this tribe which has given his life a meaning it wouldn’t necessarily have in the real world. This makes the conflict between Bill and the tribe especially fascinating; he’s entitled to be angry at these people for kidnapping his son, but it’s not like his son has been treated badly by the tribe. Issues like this are usually black and white, but in this movie, they come to inhabit a morally gray area.

In the process of looking for his son, Bill comes across a rival tribe known as the “Fierce People” whose leader shows his admiration for the hunting skills he shows off with his machine gun, a weapon they are unfamiliar with. As a result, they give him a head start to run for his life before they hunt him down. He is fortunate enough to run into Tommy who has long since become a warrior like the Indian family which “adopted” him, and he takes his father to safety where the “Invisible People” can take care of his wounds.

The scenes showing the tribe and the rituals they perform are among the most fascinating scenes in “The Emerald Forest.” Boorman really makes us feel like we are observing something we would not be likely to see in person as we watch Tommy becoming a man. These are not just a bunch of actors trying to recreate what tribes of Indians did before and after white men stole their land, they look like the real deal. Plus, their description of Bill and those like him as “Termite People” as, like those pesky creatures, they destroy the land they come in contact with gets at the universal truth of life: Man’s attempt to create a new way of life ends up laying waste to our past.

Actually, the one actor who deserves the most credit here is the director’s son, Charley Boorman, who plays Tommy. Much of the movie’s success really hinged on his performance as a stranger to the world he has been abducted to. If you didn’t believe how sincere Tommy was to win the tribe’s respect, then “The Emerald Forest” would never have worked as a movie. But Charley is utterly believable and sucks you into his character’s reality without a second thought. It’s one of those performances where the actor becomes his character as opposed to just playing them.

Boothe was one of those actors who are impossible to cast as a wimp. I mean you could, but would you believe him in such a role? He’s always played tough guys who never go down without a fight, and here he plays a good guy who is no different. It’s hard to think of another actor who could have embodied Bill Markham better than him. Perhaps Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger could have, but casting either of them would make this become a completely different movie.

Boothe not only has to show the intense dedication this father has in finding his son, but he also has to believably portray a man who is more of a match with the wilderness elements than any other stranger to this environment. He succeeds on both fronts as the tribe accepts him despite their differences with one another, something which isn’t easy. The actor also has to convincingly portray a man who has to go against what he does for a living to protect his son and his way of living. Looking at this makes you realize just how underrated, or perhaps largely underappreciated, an actor Boothe was while he was alive.

Boorman, along with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, provides the viewer with beautiful scenery throughout. Much of it was filmed in Brazil, and we get to see sights which, all these years later, may not even exist anymore. Just as with “Deliverance,” Boorman wants to explore this part of life before it vanishes forever, and he was lucky to get any of it on film.

Like any movie “based on a true story,” much of “The Emerald Forest” has been fictionalized for dramatic considerations. This results in it having a shootout in which Boothe has to team up with the tribe which took his son so they can rescue their women who have been stolen into slavery. In some ways, it feels like a cop out for the movie to reach its conclusion, but it does have the added bonus of them dealing with another Indian tribe whose ignorance of guns has been exploited to their benefit. It seems to imply how any person who encounters the real world is more likely to corrupt themselves than advance their way of life. This ends up saving “The Emerald Forest” from turning into any other action movie.

John Boorman’s career as a director has taken him all over the critical map from classics like “Deliverance” and “Hope and Glory” to duds like “Zardoz” and “The Exorcist II: The Heretic.” “The Emerald Forest” stands in the middle of all his movies as it’s really good if not quite great. I’m glad I finally got the opportunity to see it even though it took me almost 30 years after its release to do so. It’s also nice to watch a movie “based on a true story” which actually feels like it is. These days, the term is meaningless as it has been used once too often, but back when this movie came out, it meant a lot.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘Cars 2’ Outpaces its Predecessor

Cars 2 movie poster

I’m a little befuddled at the critical notices being hurled at “Cars 2.” It’s the first Pixar movie to ever get a rotten score on Rotten Tomatoes. Granted, neither this sequel nor its predecessor represent Pixar at its best or most adventurous, but even the least of their movies are infinitely better than most of what Hollywood puts out. “Cars” was essentially an animated “Doc Hollywood,” but as predictable as the story was, it was still wonderfully entertaining and had many memorable characters. Its being made was also worth it just to hear my niece say “ka-chow!” on a regular basis.

But “Cars 2” is easily more fun because the story is not as formulaic as its predecessor’s, and it takes the characters in a refreshingly different direction. This one has Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) going with his best friend Mater (Larry The Cable Guy) to the World Grand Prix to race against the arrogant Italian Formula One car named Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro). During this time, Mater is suspected of being a spy by British Intelligence officers Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), the latter whom he takes a strong liking to. What starts off as another racing movie turns into an espionage adventure which circles the globe in an amazingly animated style.

Make no secret, “Cars 2” truly belongs to Mater more than anyone else. I’ve never been a huge fan of Larry The Cable Guy or his kind of humor, but he’s great fun here. Mater is not the brightest car in the world, but his heart shines through everything he does even as it continually gets the best of him. Most of the movie’s funniest scenes come from him dealing with customs unlike those in his home country, and his mistaking wasabi for ice cream is funnier than anything I saw in “Bad Teacher.”

Pixar continues to outdo itself in the field of animation, and the visuals they come up with are brilliant. I’ll go even further and say there were times I stared at the screen and wondered if certain things being shown were actually real instead of animated. Seriously, the resemblance between what’s real and what’s not disappeared for me at certain points,

Directing “Cars 2” is John Lassiter, and this marks the first full length Pixar film he’s directed since the original. His love of all things cars is as evident here as it was in the first film, and he also has race car drivers and announcers like Jeff Gordon, Lewis Hamilton, Darrell Waltrip, Brent Musburger, and David Hobbs voicing characters. You don’t even have to look at, or listen, hard to discover which characters they are voicing as character names are not particularly subtle. For example, we have Jeff Gorvette, Darrell Cartrip, Brent Mustangburger, David Hobbscap, and the subtlest of all, Lewis Hamilton.

I loved the addition of Michael Caine to this sequel as he makes Finn McMissile a cross between James Bond and the character he played in “Get Carter.” Years after playing Jack Carter in the 1971 classic, Caine remains as cool as ever, and not just because his car has an endless number of gadgets Bond could only wishes he had in the real world. His cockney accent is welcome in any movie he does, and this is certainly the case here.

Other additions in this automotive universe include Emily Mortimer who makes Holley Shiftwell tough and sensitive in believable fashion. Mortimer is such a sweet presence in movies like this and “Lars and the Real Girl,” and I always look forward to seeing and hearing her in any movie she does. It’s also great to have Cheech Marin, Jenifer Lewis, Tony Shalhoub, Joe Mantegna, and Bruce Campbell among others on board, and listening to them made me believe they had a blast working on “Cars 2.”

If I had any issues with “Cars 2,” it’s in regards to the character of Fillmore. This really has to do with the fact George Carlin voiced him in the original, and he has since passed on, and that Fillmore has little to do other than to say, “Wow man!” Out of respect for the late Carlin, who I still miss, I wished they had retired the character. This is nothing against Lloyd Sherr who has the unenviable task of replacing one of the great comedians ever as Fillmore, but this is one Pixar character which should have been put to rest. They retired Paul Newman’s character of Doc Hudson as he has also passed into the great beyond, and no one could have replaced him. I mean, I can understand why Pixar kept Slinky Dog on board for “Toy Story 3” even though Jim Varney died long before filming started, but Slinky had more to do in that sequel than Fillmore does here.

“Cars 2” does not equal Pixar’s artistic highs of “Up,” “Ratatouille,” or “Wall-E,” but so what? All that matters is it’s fun, and it easily outdoes the original. While its messages like the importance of being true to yourself may seem cheesy from a distance, they are handled here with a lot of heart and genuine emotion. Whatever you thought of the first one, you have to admit that you cared about the characters, and you will care for them even more in this sequel.

You can waste your money on “Green Lantern,” or you can take the family out to this one. The kids will be restless and noisy whether we like it or not, but I’m used to that by now. I saw “Cars” at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, and parents were incapable of shutting their children up there. That I did not make the same mistake with this sequel is largely why it’s getting a particularly high rating.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Batman Begins’ Revisited

Batman Begins poster

Before “The Dark Knight Rises” was released, I took the time to revisit director Christopher Nolan’s first stab at the Batman. I remember seeing “Batman Begins” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater when it first came out and thought it was very good, but I don’t remember thinking it was a masterpiece the way I thought “The Dark Knight” was. But now having watched it again, I have a better appreciation of “Batman Begins” and agree it has earned its place among the best comic book movies ever made.

The real difference here is, unlike the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher “Batman” movies, Bruce Wayne and his alter ego are not upstaged by the villains. In fact, Bruce Wayne is a much bigger character this time around and also far more complex. This is a credit to both the screenwriters (Nolan co-wrote the screenplay with David S. Goyer) and actor Christian Bale who more than makes this iconic role his own.

We first see Bruce as an 8-year-old (played by Gus Lewis) running around his parents’ garden when he accidentally falls down into a well. It is there he is met by dozens of angry bats, giving him a serious phobia of the creatures. From there, the movie establishes its main theme of fear and how Bruce works to overcome it as well the fears he has about himself.

Now a lot of times when we get a backstory to a character, it ends up taking away their mystery by telling us more than we need to know. Burton’s “Batman” and “Batman Returns” never fully explored how Bruce became this crime fighter, and this proved to be a positive and a negative. While it made Michael Keaton’s portrayal more intriguing, it also made his Bruce Wayne/Batman a lot less complex. But a good portion of “Batman Begins” is dedicated to discovering how Bruce developed his fighting skills, and we get to see different sides of him throughout.

Tortured by the memory of his parents being shot to death in front of him, Bruce yearns for justice. His journey for it takes him from the criminal underworld in South Asia to the temple of the League of Shadows led by Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). With the help of Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), Bruce is trained as a ninja and vows to fight the crime and corruption which is engulfing his hometown of Gotham.

When it comes to origin stories, I get seriously impatient with them as they take too much time to set up a character, and they can simply feel like a commercial for the sequel we know will eventually follow. I have had that issue with many comic book movies like “Blade” to where I feel the movie is nothing more than a setup for a potential franchise. But I never felt this way with “Batman Begins” and was utterly enthralled by Bruce Wayne’s transformation from a man obsessed with vengeance to one determined to not become as bad as the criminals threatening Gotham. Seeing Bruce become this instrument of justice makes him a compelling character you want to keep on watching.

In the past, the “Batman” movies have been dominated by their villains. In “Batman Begins,” the villains come in different shapes and sizes. There’s mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), corrupt police detective Arnold Flass (Mark Boone Junior), the greedy CEO William Earle (Rutger Hauer), and the twisted psychopharmacologist Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) who becomes better known by his alter ego of The Scarecrow. Of all these villains, The Scarecrow proves to be Batman’s most vicious threat here as his fear-inducing toxins devour the human mind into an almost permanent state of psychosis. Murphy, best known for his performance in “28 Days Later,” casts a spell on the viewer as he lets you look deep into his bright blue eyes to where you wonder how nasty the monster inside of him truly is.

Actually, the great thing about “Batman Begins” is how the good guys prove to be far more interesting than the villains. Until this movie came along, who would have ever thought this would be the case in a “Batman” movie?

Bale came to own the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman in a way only Keaton did before him. After Keaton left the franchise, the role basically became interchangeable to where it didn’t matter who played him. But Bale is lucky as he gets to play all the different parts of Bruce here; the vengeful son, the arrogant playboy, and the injustice-fighting warrior who likes to dress as a bat. Bale brilliantly captures each facet of Bruce to where you wish the character was this charismatic in the previous films.

Then there’s Gary Oldman, an actor who has given us some of the most intense and scariest villains in cinematic history, playing the role of Sgt. James Gordon. It would seem almost unthinkable for Oldman to play a good cop, but then again this may show how our respect for him as an actor may not have been as high as we thought. Some of the best actors can go from playing good guys/gals to bad ones with relative ease, and Oldman proves here he can do just this by making Gordon genuine in his intentions and a real cool dude overall.

As Henri Ducard, Neeson does kind of a variation of his Jedi master role from “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” and I think we all came out of “Batman Begins” wishing that Qui-Gon Jinn was as cool as Ducard. A man with fighting skills and the confidence to match them, Neeson is perfect in the role as his character trains Bruce without restraint and who ends up going in a different direction than we expect him to.

Katie Holmes plays Rachel Dawes, a character not in the original comic book series. When “Batman Begins” was first released, Holmes was in the midst of her whirlwind romance with Tom Cruise, and the way their relationship was perceived ending up spilling over to how people saw her in this movie. The general feeling at the time was that Holmes was miscast in the role, and many thought she was too young to be playing an assistant district attorney. Looking back though, Holmes was much better than we gave her credit for at the time. Either that, or her brilliantly staged divorce from Cruise gave me a new respect for her I didn’t have previously. Whatever the case, she gives her character a strong intelligence and a beautiful empathy that shines in various scenes, and that’s especially the case in her last scene with Bale.

As for Sir Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, they are two veteran character actors you can never go wrong with. Caine gives Alfred a tremendous humanity in overseeing not just Bruce but the legacy his parents left behind. And Freeman makes Lucius a really fun character to be around as well as one who deserves the upper hand he eventually gets. Other great performances come from Tom Wilkinson, Linus Roache, and Rutger Hauer.

Watching “Batman Begins” again, I am amazed with what Nolan got away with. Each “Batman” movie he has done has him dealing with a large number of characters to where he should have too many to deal with. But here, each character plays a big part in the overall story, and none of them feel extraneous to it. There was a lot of thought put into this reimagining of the caped crusader, and it paid off big time.

Nolan’s other masterstroke in making “Batman Begins” stand out from its predecessors was in giving it a contemporary realism and humanity. Gone were the gothic qualities of Burton’s movies and the overly campy qualities which waylaid the Schumacher films, and in their place we got a Bruce Wayne we could actually relate to. No longer was this a character we watched from a distance, but one we could get up close and personal with. Bruce, after all, is not an alien from another planet, but a flesh and blood human being with a lot of wealth and emotional problems he needs to overcome. He was never designed to be your average superhero.

“Batman Begins,” when looked at on closer inspection, gave this DC Comics character the respect which eluded him on a cinematic level for far too long. Sure, the Burton movies were great in bringing the character back to the darker realm he originally inhabited, but Nolan was the first director to devote more attention to him as a character over the villains surrounding him. His achievement here has made him one of the best filmmakers working today, and this movie marked the start of one of the greatest movie trilogies ever.

Bring on the Bat!

* * * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Tim Smit on His Directorial Debut, ‘Kill Switch’

Tim Smit photo

Acclaimed writer, director and visual effects artist Tim Smit makes his feature film directorial debut with “Kill Switch.” Based on his short film “What’s in The Box?” which gathered a large audience on YouTube, it stars Dan Stevens as physicist and NASA pilot Will Porter who is recruited by Alterplex, a power company which has built an enormous tower designed to harness unlimited quantum energy. The company’s vice-president, Abby (Bérénice Marlohe), informs Will a mirror universe has been created solely to drain energy from, and he is sent into it with a device called a “Redivider” which will balance the power between the two universes. But as you can imagine, nothing goes quite as planned as the mirror universe proves to more than anyone thought it could be as Will finds himself on the run from drones, soldiers, and people he is no longer sure he can trust.

“Kill Switch” takes place in a future version of our world, and it is largely a POV movie as we see much of the action from Will’s eyes as he struggles to say alive in an especially hostile universe. I talked with Smit about the movie’s origins, how the story evolved from a short into a feature film, and of how he was able to create a visual effects heavy movie in just 18 days and on a small budget.

Kill Switch poster

Ben Kenber: I really like the way this movie is set up because you are thrown into this story to where you cannot help but be gripped by everything going on. You’re not sure what is happening and, like Dan Steven’s character, you are desperate to find out. When conceiving “Kill Switch,” did you know how the story was going to end, or did you just start off with the idea and went from there?

Tim Smit: We knew that, when I did the short a couple of years ago, the box was going to be used as sort of a kill switch for destroying a parallel universe meant for energy harvesting. But we never really knew the full arc of the story before we hired the writers to get involved, so it took a while to get to the point we ended up with. It was interesting and a very steep learning curve for me to work on this as a conceptual arc as a writer and also as a director, and of course the visual effects too. It wasn’t fairly clear, but we got there as we developed the kill switch idea.

BK: The screenwriters you hired for this project, Charlie Kindinger and Omid Nooshin, what would you say they brought to this story which wasn’t in your short film?

TS: What they did is they fleshed out the characters much more than we already had in the original short. But they also wrote the dialogue and they did the screenwriting of the story. It was a difficult movie to write because of the whole POV aspect. It’s difficult to tell a story through POV. Also, we did have, for that reason, to introduce the whole flashback storyline to help us with that, and to help provide a rest for the audience so that they do not get POV tired. So, they focused on that the feeding of information so the audience knew enough to keep going with the movie, and they were more associated with that than the base idea.

BK: I did watch the short “What’s in The Box?” which led to the “Kill Switch” feature film, and the whole idea of the parallel universe is something which has been explored in science fiction constantly such as the “Dark Mirror” episode of the original “Star Trek” series. What inspirations did you draw from when putting together the short and the feature film?

TS: So, the main inspiration behind it was a couple of things actually. Visually it was inspired by a couple of video games because this was always meant to be sort of an homage to video gaming, and we used various inspirations like “Half-Life,” “Halo” and games like that. From a physics standpoint, the idea for the parallel world came from the concept of Schrödinger’s cat, a thought concept where you got a box and in it is a cat with a poison. If you keep the box closed, you don’t know if the cat survived because the poison still has a chance to kill the cat. You only know the cat is dead when you open the box. So, this is kind of like the idea for the initial mystery where you’ve got this black box and you don’t know yet what it is and you don’t know what it does, but it triggers you to go along and see what it ends up doing. So, the whole idea of Schrödinger’s cat was the main inspiration behind the short and the box as a MacGuffin.

Kill Switch POV still

BK: The POV shots reminded me a lot of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days” which also had them. When you put those shots together, did you have a set of rules you wanted your collaborators to follow during shooting?

TS: Yeah, we did a couple of things, some of them worked better than others, which we wanted to explore. One of them was, most of the time, we wanted to see the other actors. As a rule of thumb, we wanted Will Porter to be running behind the other characters so you can actually see what’s happening. So that was something we took into consideration while we filmed this because you are kind of used to the main character taking the lead, but in this case, he’s following them because otherwise it would be difficult to see them. It’s a very simple thing you have to keep in mind, and that was one of the rules we followed.

Kill Switch Dan Stevens

BK: Did Dan Stevens have to do any camerawork himself for the POV scenes?

TS: No. Obviously I would’ve loved to have used him, but we just didn’t have the budget for him for all the days. So, we just hired him on some of the days where he would be the voice, and of course on the days where we would shoot conventional scenes. Our DOP was basically the character, and then Dan came in later and did the ADR for the character.

BK: The special effects are actually pretty good for a low-budget movie like this. We see objects like train cars falling out of the sky. Did you set any rules for yourself as to what kind of objects and vehicles could fall into the echo universe?

TS: So, we focused initially on metallic objects just because that made it easier to create for us. The idea was that this parallel world is being arched for energy, but somehow the original world is fighting back as the universe is trying to balance itself out, and it does so by pulling over objects from the original universe into this echo universe. The rule of thumb was the first thing to be pulled over was small metal objects for various reasons, but you can figure out in physics that there are only four main forces, and one of them is electromagnetic. It is not inconceivable that something like metal will react first or that something else will react to metal first. It made easier for us to make these objects fall down. It’s harder to do entire buildings or something like water. It was a compromise, but I felt it worked from the basic physics ideas as well. We see this boat falling from the sky, it’s not metaphorical.

BK: The whole idea of an echo universe is interesting because the characters say there is not supposed to be any organic life in it, but we can see from the start there is.

TS: Yes, that’s what I like about the movie as well. It’s not as fleshed out as it should be, but the idea is that this company didn’t care. They were just interested in creating this echo universe, and they are telling us that it’ll be fine and there will be no organic life, but they don’t care. They just care about the energy, and of course they didn’t expect it to be that intense or of the rebellion that arrives. But I kind of like that idea of what are your priorities as a company. These huge oil companies are pretty much going across the line, and that’s what drew me to this story as well. That was something I could really personalize.

Kill Switch Berenice

BK: Dan Stevens has a very challenging role because he wasn’t on set too much, but he still had to get to the emotion of what is characters going through. Also, Bérénice Marlohe has a wonderfully intimate presence throughout the film. How did you come to cast both these actors?

TS: It was amazing to work with these two. The great thing about Bérénice and Dan is that they are both so interested in science fiction, and they are both really interested in broadening their own horizons and trying to do something new. It’s an experiment, this film. Let’s be honest, you don’t see a POV movie every day. It’s an attempt to do something new especially with a director that’s also doing all of the effects. It was an experiment on multiple levels, and they were committed and went for it, and that’s what I really appreciated about them. It was a very difficult movie especially for Bérénice because she was acting against I camera where there is no reaction, and most of the enemies are CG. It was very demanding for her to do, but she gave it her best and gave it everything she had. We had 18 days to do everything.

BK: 18 days? That’s very impressive especially for a science fiction movie.

TS: It was something I underestimated when I started working on this. I was experienced as a visual effects artist, but I wasn’t experienced as a character director. You would think shooting this movie, even though it was 18 days, would’ve given you a whole set of problems and obstacles to get over, which we had. But even after it was all done, that’s when the real challenge started. You would think that after having a number of years of the effects experience that it would be easier, but it was actually the other way around. It was very difficult for me to combine the directorial duties and the effects duties at one point. You can get so involved in the technical part that you get sort of a tunnel vision and you still have to be the director. There is the reason why the director is separate from the visual effects department because that makes the movie better.

Kill Switch vessel

BK: “Kill Switch” takes place in a future which seems not too distant from our own. We never get an exact date of the time the movie takes place in. Was that intentional on your part?

TS: Yeah, actually it was, but sometimes in the movie you do see the date on the newscasts, but it was never deliberately mentioned. I felt, in my mind, the movie was in the near future, but the concepts we are introducing we do not have access to in the near future. The problem with going further into the future is your design and your world view changes, and the budget doesn’t allow that. If you really want to know which year it was, it was actually 2043. So, it was further into the future, but not that far. It was a budget reason.

BK: You studied natural sciences as a student. Did those studies inform the science of this movie?

TS: Yeah, the studies did help. A lot of people wonder why I studied natural sciences if you wanted to be a filmmaker, but the way you were trained as a scientist really does help in making movies. There’s a certain amount of problem solving that you are used to which is really helpful as a director, and the visual effects that I did, they tend to be of a physical origin. With physics, you are trying to explain or describe the real world. With visual effects, you are kind of doing the opposite. You are using formulas to create a fake or, at least, a realistic looking fake world. To me, that is really fascinating and the physics background helped in doing that.

I want to thank Tim Smit for taking the time to talk with me. “Kill Switch” is now playing nationwide at the following theaters:

Laemmle Monica Film Center, Los Angeles

Cinema Village, New York

AMC Rio, Washington, D.C.

AMC Methuen, Boston

AMC Southfield, Detroit

AMC Arizona Center, Phoenix

AMC West Oaks, Orlando

AMC Ritz Center, Philadelphia

AMC Woodridge, Chicago

AMC Town Center, Kansas City

Poster, stills and trailer courtesy of Saban Films.

Click here to visit the movie’s website.