Helen Hunt on Portraying a Sex Surrogate in ‘The Sessions’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

Ever since her Oscar win for “As Good as It Gets,” it seems like Helen Hunt has been keeping a markedly low profile. She has kept busy with other projects and even took the time to make her directorial debut with “Then She Found Me,” but we do not hear about her as much these days as we did back in the 1990s during her “Mad About You” heyday. But now she is back in a big way with her critically acclaimed performance as sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene in Ben Lewin’s “The Sessions,” and it serves as a reminder of how great she can be when given the right material.

“The Sessions” is based on the true story of poet Mark O’Brien (played by John Hawkes) who hired Greene to help him lose his virginity at the age of 38. O’Brien had spent the majority of his life in an iron lung and was paralyzed from the neck down due to getting polio as a child. However, a certain part of his body below the waist still works, and Greene became the person he hired to help him exercise it.

Now playing a real-life person has its challenges because you want to honor the individual without impersonating them. For Hunt, however, the challenge became understanding Greene’s job of being a sex surrogate as she was never aware a job like this existed before. Talking with Greene opened Hunt up to how she could respectfully portray such a person onscreen.

“She used the term ‘sex positive,’ ” Hunt said of Greene. “And I went: ‘Wow, I want to be sex-positive. I want to be part of a movie that is that; I’ve never seen that.’ So, it was more her vibe about her positive, enthusiastic, nonjudgmental way of talking about this topic that is usually laden with weirdness.”

Hunt ended up doing 90% of her research for the role with Greene, and it was Greene’s enthusiasm and frankness about everything which made Hunt ever so excited to portray her in “The Sessions.”

“She (Greene) has a sense of adventure about her grandkids growing up, helping someone have an orgasm, making this movie, meeting me and my boyfriend, chocolate from the raw restaurant I took her to,” Hunt said. “All of those things light her up. I thought, ‘What if I could be like that about sex in a movie?’ That would be amazing.”

Greene also made it very clear to Hunt how her job as a sex surrogate differs greatly from being a prostitute.

“The prostitute wants your return business, and she (the sex surrogate) doesn’t. She wants you to learn what you need to learn, so you can go off and have a relationship. That’s a substantial difference,” Hunt said of Greene’s description of her work.

Director Lewin went even further in describing Greene as being “a middle-class soccer mom who has sex with strangers.” As a result, the role Hunt plays in “The Sessions” proved to be more complex than the one Hawkes plays.

“Her preoccupation was in achieving the emotional journey,” Lewin said of Hunt. “I got a real buzz talking with her because there were aspects of the character I hadn’t thought through that she had. She’s a frighteningly intelligent actor.”

The sex scenes between Hunt and Hawkes have a wonderfully awkward feel to them as his character gets to experience sexual intimacy for the very first time. Hunt said neither she nor Hawkes ever did a full read-thru of the script or even rehearsed together much. Instead, Hunt spent a lot of time on her own writing down her own feelings about sex, and what she ended up saying about the act really shows up in the film.

“Sex is never perfectly elegant: The light isn’t just right, and the underwear doesn’t fall on the floor perfectly, and the hands don’t clutch, and you don’t come at the same time. It’s all bullshit, basically,” Hunt said. “And the disability of this character renders all of that impossible, so you’re left with something much more like your own experience as a nondisabled person, which is that you’re human and that it’s good and it’s bad and it’s weird that it’s silly, and it’s embarrassing that it’s scary, so I think that the disability is just a way to get to what it’s actually like.”

Like her co-star Hawkes, Helen Hunt deserves all the accolades she has been getting for her performance in “The Sessions.” You believe her when she says that parts like this one don’t come around often enough, and you can sense her sheer excitement in playing Greene in this movie.

“She was someone who radiated this unabashedly humanistic view of what the human body is capable of,” Hunt said of Greene. “As an actress, I was hungry to play someone like that. As a person, I’m hungry to live that way.”

SOURCES:

Jordan Zakarin, “Helen Hunt, Star of ‘The Sessions,’ Wants to Be Sex Positive,” The Hollywood Reporter, October 19, 2012.

Julie Miller, “Helen Hunt on Overcoming Inhibitions for The Sessions, the Difficulty of Playing a Real Person, and ‘the Sexiest Quality There Is,'” Vanity Fair, October 18, 2012.

Marshall Fine, “Helen Hunt says intense emotional journey of sexual surrogate made ‘The Sessions’ a can’t-miss role,” NY Daily News, October 18, 2012.

John Horn, “Helen Hunt fully invests in ‘The Sessions,’” Los Angeles Times, August 31, 2012.

John Hawkes on Playing Mark O’Brien in ‘The Sessions

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

The Sessions” and John Hawkes’ performance in it as journalist and poet Mark O’Brien have earned some of the most rapturous praise of any movie in 2012. The film tells the story of how O’Brien, who was confined to an iron lung due to being stricken by polio as a child, hired sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt) to help him lose his virginity at the age of 38. Hawkes, who earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in “Winter’s Bone,” has talked extensively about his concerns about taking on the role as well as the physical challenges he faced in playing O’Brien.

Hawkes’ biggest concern was whether or not it might be better for a disabled actor to play O’Brien instead of him. As a result, he’s still waiting for some sort of backlash to hit him. Ben Lewin, who directed “The Sessions” and is himself a Polio survivor, did take the time to find a disabled actor to play Mark, but he eventually became convinced Hawkes was the man for the job.

“Of course, that was my first question: Why not a disabled actor? They are a uniquely qualified group of people for this role, who are undervalued and underused,” Hawkes said. “I’ve had a lot of disabled actors come to me after screenings, and they told me to get over it.”

“It is the 800-pound gorilla in the room in a way,” Hawkes continued, “but it’s something that, Ben (Lewin) being a polio survivor himself, and the fact that he put the time in to look for disabled actors, he felt like, would it be politically correct to hire a slightly disabled actor to play a severely disabled actor? He ultimately just hadn’t found his guy. We met, and he felt like I could do it.”

Once cast, Hawkes became determined to mirror the physical condition O’Brien was stuck in for the majority of his life. To that extent, he and the props department created what was described as a “torture ball;” a soccer ball-sized foam pad that he tucked under the left side of his back to force his body to curve dramatically. In addition, he also used a mouth stick which was much like the one O’Brien used to turn the pages of a book or dial a telephone. It was this “torture ball,” however, which threatened to leave Hawkes with permanent physical damage to his body.

“Finding that position was difficult and did hurt. I’ve got a guy that I’ve been seeing for years, who is a combination massage therapist and chiropractor. I’d have 15 minutes with him, two or three times a week, or half an hour, if I was lucky. He told me that I wasn’t doing very good things to my body, but it was my choice. I’m not a martyr or masochist, but when the script says that your spine is horribly curved, you can’t just lie flat on your back and pretend,” Hawkes said.

But ultimately what makes Hawkes’ performance so good is that he doesn’t turn him into just another pity case. Filmmakers are typically expected to give us an emotionally manipulative experience when it comes to portraying physically disabled characters, making us feel sorry for them and of what they are unable to accomplish because of their limitations. Hawkes and Lewin, however, were determined not to go down this route.

“A character like that had every reason to wallow, but that’s just not interesting to watch on screen,” Hawkes said. “I’ve played a lot of underdogs and I like people who aren’t equipped to solve their problems but just keep trying anyway. There’s something really noble and interesting about watching someone keep banging their head against the wall.”

One of the other things which helped Hawkes was watching the documentary “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien” which won its director Jessica Yu the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject in 1997.

“There was Mark’s body, and there was his voice,” Hawkes said, referring to the documentary. “And so, I didn’t invent a lot. I just tried to really take as much of the Mark that I saw and tried to make it my own, to embody him.”

The effect Hawkes’ performance has had on those who were very close to O’Brien has been profound. Just ask Cheryl Cohen Greene, the sex surrogate whom Hunt’s character is based on.

“The first time I heard John I got chills,” said Greene. “I’m sitting there on the set with headphones thinking, that’s Mark. It’s scaring me. John got him completely.”

John Hawkes’ performance as Mark O’Brien looks very likely to earn him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and many will agree that he deserves the recognition for his work. It marks another memorable role for this actor who first came to Hollywood over a decade ago, and he has many more great performances ahead of him.

SOURCES:

Jordan Zakarin, “John Hawkes: Hopeful, but Ready for Backlash and (Maybe) Permanent Back Pain,” The Hollywood Reporter, October 22, 2012.

Christina Radish, “John Hawkes Talks THE SESSIONS, Conveying His Performance Using Only His Face, Being Confined in an Iron Lung, and More,” Collider, October 16, 2012.

Rebecca Keegan, “John Hawkes enters virgin territory in ‘The Sessions,’” Los Angeles Times, October 11, 2012.

Oliver Gettell, “‘The Sessions’: John Hawkes and Helen Hunt on playing real people,” Los Angeles Times, October 29, 2012.

Rachel Nichols Talks About the Making of ‘Alex Cross’

RACHEL NICHOLS stars in ALEX CROSS

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2012.

She has had memorable roles in movies like “P2,” “Star Trek” and “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” but it’s going to be hard to forget about Rachel Nichols after watching her in “Alex Cross.” As Detective Monica Ashe, partner to Cross and lover to Detective Tommy Kane (Ed Burns), Nichols is a strong and alluring presence as she holds her own with a very talented cast which includes Tyler Perry. While the movie is not exactly a critics’ darling according to Rotten Tomatoes, Nichols registers as one of its best assets to where you wish her character was in it a little longer.

While at the “Alex Cross” press conference which took place at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Nichols said she was familiar with James Patterson’s books and the Alex Cross character, but what drew her to this project was the script.

Rachel Nichols: I read the script and I just thought to myself this is going to be sort of an interesting combination of the drama aspects and also a lot of action. I knew that Rob (Cohen) was attached and obviously everyone is familiar with his work, and I knew that he’d put a really exciting and very different spin on it and I wanted to be part of that.

As I said earlier, I really wish Nichols was in the movie longer. Her character ends up, shall we say, disappearing from it rather early on, and Nichols commented that she has a sad history of getting the “not” part in several movies. She also said her parents wish she would do a romantic comedy next where she survives and ends up happy in the end. Regardless, Nichols had a lot of fun during the filming of “Alex Cross.”

Rachel Nichols: I honestly felt that I was there for the entire film. When I watched it the first time I didn’t actually know where in the course of things that I would no longer be in the film. I like the element of surprise that comes along here. That and what happens to Cross’ wife supports the vigilante aspect of it and makes everyone get on Cross’ side.

Like her co-star Burns, Nichols has played her fair share of law enforcement officers on screen. When asked if this has helped her develop a talent for figuring out the mystery or solving the case in each movie she’s in, Nichols replied she certainly tries to.

Rachel Nichols: I don’t think I’m terribly successful at it. There is that element of trying to figure things out which is fun, but I certainly don’t think that I’ve accrued any new skills to do that.

But although she has played cops in the past, Nichols made clear that she still had to relearn the techniques of sweeping a room and proper weapons procedure while working with the Detroit Police Department in preparation for her role.

Rachel Nichols: You’d think it would be like getting back on a bicycle but it’s not.

In talking about working with Burns, she said the first thing they shot together was their love scene. It happened a month after they first met at the casting sessions, and she recalled that they looked at one another and said, “Hey, how are you? Let’s get naked!” Looking back, Nichols said this was totally the way to do it.

Rachel Nichols: I love that scene because two people sitting on a bed is not as dynamic as that scene was. We did the roundabout and it was moving and constantly emotional and he (Burns) is out the door. But thanks to Cohen, it felt very easy for us to do and we had a great day on set.

I am very serious when I say Rachel Nichols is really good in “Alex Cross,” and I think the roles she gets offered from here on out will be much bigger than what she’s received so far. Hearing her talk about her role as Monica Ashe shows us an actress who has done her research and never just walks through any part given to her. I look forward to seeing what she does next.

Revisiting ‘Avatar’ in its IMAX Special Edition

Avatar-rerelease-movie-poster-limited

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2010.

I really did mean to see “Avatar” in IMAX while it was still playing in theaters, but I never got around to it, unfortunately. After a bit, all the hoopla surrounding the movie was met with people deriding it and calling it a remake of “Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest” or “Dances with Wolves,” and I got worn out from hearing all the complaints. I knew “Avatar” was not going to have an original storyline, so there was no way I could have been disappointed. But after watching it on a regular screen in 3D, I was really eager to see how it played on in IMAX. With Cameron, you can always count on seeing his movies being made with the utmost technical precision. If there is a technological glitch anywhere, it’s someone else’s fault, not his.

At the end of August 2010, “Avatar” got re-released specifically in IMAX theaters around the country, and it had been extended to include scenes that were not in the original theatrical version. There is a total of 9 minutes of extra footage here, and Cameron succeeded in blending these new scenes into the film seamlessly. The new footage includes the following additions:

  • There are more of the Stingbat and Sturmbeat creatures which had their own standout scenes in the first version. The Stingbats look even more wonderful than they did previously, and that’s saying quite a bit.
  • You get more hunting sequences including one in which Jake and Neytiri fly up in the sky and shoot at the animals down below with arrows. This adds more to how Jake interacts and learns from the Na’vi, and how he becomes more open to being taken in by them.
  • There’s an additional sequence where Jake, Grace, and Norm visit a school where Grace taught which has since been turned into a storage space (and not a carefully looked after one). The moment when Jake spots bullet holes in the chalkboard says a lot about how the military infrastructure on the planet is causing more harm than doing any good for the people. It’s a haunting image that filled me with things I did not want to think about as school violence appears to be rising.
  • We get to see a Na’vi counterattack after the bulldozers have laid waste to some of the most sacred parts of Pandora. It is a foreshadowing of the devastating battle the humans will soon bring to the planet’s inhabitants, and of how fighting fire with fire does not always work to one’s advantage. This is especially the case when the other side has more firepower.
  • The sex scene between Jake and Neytiri is longer, but don’t get too excited about it. There’s no insertion of anything or any penetration on display (this is a PG-13 movie after all!), just more hugging and cuddling. We still have yet to see how the Na’vi makes out with one another. I guess we’ll have to wait for the “unrated” edition to see that (lol).
  • There’s a strong emotional scene towards the end between Jake and the Na’vi which reminded me of the final moment between Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe in “The Last Samurai.” However familiar or similar this scene may seem, it still adds much to the story as it makes Jake’s destiny on Pandora all the more important.

Basically, all the scenes don’t ever feel extraneous, and each adds much to what we had previously seen in theaters back in 2009. Say whatever you want about Cameron’s dialogue or lack of original storylines, but he remains one hell of a storyteller. Clearly, this whole movie was in his head for years and years, and he got every last detail down perfectly. Considering how long he worked on “Avatar,” it’s safe to say he waited extremely patiently until technology finally met up with him so he could tell this tale properly.

Now I’m not going into another long-winded review of “Avatar” as many of my thoughts on the movie have not changed. I do have to say, however, that it was worth the $20 bucks (yes, it was that much) to see it in IMAX. The movie didn’t fill the entire screen, more like three-quarters of it actually, but that was fine. Witnessing Cameron’s film in this format made the experience of watching it all the more immersive. I got serious vertigo watching this special edition at times as it felt like I was moving along with the characters at certain points. I had this same experience when I watched “The Dark Knight” in IMAX, and there were a number of scenes that were shot in the actual IMAX format in that one. I felt like I was floating along with the camera and wherever it went, and it is a feeling I never get enough of at the movies.

I noticed even more that the 3D really brings you into the movie more without calling too much attention to itself with scenes featuring ash falling through the air after the humans wipe out certain parts of Pandora, it started to feel like the debris was coming right off the screen.

Also, it should be clearer than ever that “Avatar” is a powerful anti-imperialist movie, and that it is not a fan of Americans invading other countries. There’s no respect for the rights of the indigenous population on Pandora, and we keep seeing this going on right here on Earth. It makes me wonder if history will ever stop repeating itself.

Seeing “Avatar” on the average-sized movie screen at your local theater is quite something, but watching it in IMAX is a whole other thing. No wonder this has been such an enormous hit around the world. Cameron sucks you visually and emotionally in ways most filmmakers only think they can. Most people I know of these days would prefer to wait until a movie comes out on DVD so they can watch it at home, but this is the kind of motion picture which was made to be seen in a cinema, let alone in IMAX.

* * * * out of * * * *

James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ – A Cinematic Spectacle Like Few Others

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2009.

“That is our (USA) job around the world; run in, free some people, and whip a little industry on them. So they can enjoy the benefits of industry that we have come to enjoy (cough).”

-George Carlin from “Class Clown”

“Some of the darkest chapters in the history of my world involve the forced relocation of a small group of people to satisfy the demands of a large one. I’d hoped that we had learned from our mistakes but it seems that some of us haven’t.”

“Jean-Luc, we’re only moving 600 people.”

“How many people does it take, Admiral before it becomes wrong? A thousand? Fifty thousand? A million? HOW MANY PEOPLE DOES IT TAKE, ADMIRAL?!”

-Patrick Stewart and Anthony Zerbe from “Star Trek: Insurrection”

We waited for this one almost as long as we waited for the release of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Chinese Democracy,” and now it is here. James Cameron has been at it again, making the most expensive movie ever, but this is nothing new and I am so burned out from hearing all the gossip about his movie budgets. The naysayers were out in full force proclaiming this would be a disaster as its release was delayed a number of times. But “Avatar” once again shows there is no one more equipped than Cameron to change the way we look at movies. With his latest epic, he has achieved the impossible and completely blurred the line between what is real and what is a special effect, and I could never tell the difference from start to finish.

You have to give a lot of credit to this ambitious director for being ever so patient. Cameron waited years for the technology to catch up to where he could tell this story most effectively, and he even invented a new camera with his brother to make the most convincing 3D movie we could ever hope to see. So many others would be in a hurry to get a movie up on the screen to where nothing but shortcuts are taken, but “Avatar” had a two year post production period (the longest ever) to get every little detail covered. This movie needs to be seen on the big screen as it was made for it. Waiting for a physical or digital release to watch it on would be tragic.

“Avatar” stars Sam Worthington as Jake Sully. Jake is a former marine who is now paralyzed from the waist down, and he does not ask for sympathy or pity. He ends up being recruited for a mission on Pandora, a moon on the far reaches of space. This mission was originally meant for his brother, but he passed away before he could take it on. Pandora is inhabited by very tall blue creatures called the Na’vi, and avatars of them have been created so that humans can walk among them undetected so they can be studied more closely.

Of course, these avatars are also being closely observed by the military as they plan to infiltrate the Na’vi and force them off their sacred land. For what reason? So that the greedy corporation (is there any other kind these days?) can get at the mineral called unobtanium (nice play on words). This mineral represents an enormous cash cow for soulless investors back on Earth, and it also serves as a much-needed source of energy it desperately needs. In the future, it appears humanity has extended the manifest destiny policy from other countries to the far reaches of space. I mean, heaven forbid we allow other cultures to handle their precious resources without our unsolicited advice! Do we ever learn?

Anyway, the story of “Avatar” has been told many times before; a disillusioned military officer comes face to face with people he has been fighting, and soon he becomes enamored with their lifestyle and code of honor to where he is integrated into their society. This has been the basis for “Dances with Wolves” and “The Last Samurai” and even “The Emerald Forest.”. We know the setup and how it’s all going to go, but Cameron still makes it work by having us invest emotionally in these characters. By doing so, all the action and the visuals presented to us become all the more enthralling.

Seriously, Cameron has been one of the very best storytellers in movies for decades now. This at times gets lost on people because his dialogue can be quite cringe inducing. You want to go up to him and make him realize people don’t talk to each other the way he thinks they do. It constantly reminds me of what Harrison Ford told George Lucas about his script for “Star Wars”:

“You can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it!”

For what’s it worth, however, Lucas makes Cameron sound like David Mamet.

Regardless, the strength of the story he has concocted makes the visuals on display all the more exhilarating. My big issue with most effects driven movies is you can tell when you are watching a CGI effect. All this does is completely take me out of the movie to where I roll my eyes and wonder why Hollywood regularly underestimates audiences.

Now at the start of “Avatar,” when Jake is looking at the creature he will be, you can definitely tell what is real and what is computer generated. But as the movie goes on, I honestly couldn’t figure out which was which. I tried, believe me I tried to see the difference, but there was just no way. Plus, the motion capture they used on the actors is astonishing. The avatars are made to look like the actors playing them, and the movements are so amazingly lifelike to where it makes every other 2009 movie see, like it was made back in 1987. That description may be stretching it a bit, but I couldn’t resist.

The art direction in this movie is incredible, and the color blue (my favorite) is used quite a lot. There are other astonishingly breathtaking visuals like the floating mountains which looked quite real…. Damn it! I am running out of words to describe what I saw. You have to see it for yourself.

As Jake Sully, Worthington keeps him from being a complete cliché and infuses him with a nobility which has served him well in life. But one of the most welcome actors here is Sigourney Weaver who is appearing in her first Cameron movie since “Aliens.” Weaver plays Dr. Grace Augustine, the head of the Avatar program. While the military wants to use her work for their own manipulative methods, she uses them to help gain the trust of the Na’vi and study their world for peaceful and scientific purposes. She is the classic Cameron female character; tough as nails, controlling, and never ever a pushover Apparently, Weaver based her character on Cameron to an extent. To steal a line from “Up in The Air,” Dr. Grace Augustine may very well be James Cameron with a vagina.

Another classic Cameron female is played by Michelle Rodriguez, still looking as hot as she did in “Fast & Furious.” Her character of helicopter pilot Trudy Chacon is somewhat similar to Jeanette Goldstein’s character of Vasquez from “Aliens”; a badass soldier who is as tough as the men, maybe even tougher. She’s certainly a lot more morally conscious than the majority of the marines in the film, and Rodriguez makes sure you never forget that.

You also have Giovanni Ribisi playing Parker Selfridge (yes, his last name rhymes with selfish), the corporate manager in charge of the mining operation on Pandora. Like Paul Reiser’s character from “Aliens,” he is only interested in making a gigantic profit which will set him up for life. I love how Ribisi plays Parker as a pragmatic ass with absolutely no moral scruples whatsoever as this character is ever so gleeful about what is in store for him once this mineral is sufficiently mined. The way he sees it, what’s the big deal?

But one of the best performances comes from Stephen Lang who plays the brutal Colonel Miles Quaritch. Despite some of the ridiculous dialogue which comes out of his mouth, Lang completely makes Miles into a soldier you would be incredibly foolish to mess with. Like Tom Berenger in “Platoon,” his face is deeply scarred, and he does nothing to hide that. Miles simply sees it as an illustration of how nasty the moon of Pandora is. His flaw, however, is that he cannot see who the Na’vi really as his anger against them has long since powered by an everlasting fear which he cannot overcome.

Now let’s talk about the Na’vi, those big blue creatures who are tall enough to play for the Los Angeles Lakers or the San Antonio Spurs. They could have made or have broken “Avatar.” Cameron has said he thought about the story long before he began working on “Titanic,” and that he even thought about these characters when he was a kid. Now having an original race of people who speak their own language may work well on “Star Trek,” but in other shows and movies, it looks more comical and ridiculous than was originally intended. This is not the case here.

This brings me to the performance of Zoë Saldaña, who you may remember as Uhura in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek.” She plays Neytiri, Princess of the Na’vi tribe Omaticaya. Neytiri is the first real Na’vi to come in contact with Jake Sully, and she later falls in love with him. In essence, a lot of “Avatar” rests on her performance, and she succeeds in making you believe in this race of beings to where you see them as more than just an amazing series of special effects. This ends up making it easier for other actors like Wes Studi and CCH Pounder to portray their characters without having to expend too much effort in helping you buy into these extra-terrestrials. Saldana sets up the groundwork, and everyone follows her from there.

“Avatar” deals with many of the same themes Cameron has dealt with throughout his career: military intervention into a foreign land, machines versus nature, love found between beings from different worlds or societies, how scientists and those with curious minds seek to understand the aliens and make peace with them, and how corporations will do anything for a profit. The parallels between what the military forces are doing in Pandora and our wars in Vietnam and Iraq, not to mention our current escalation in Afghanistan, are clear as day, and it does make the movie feel timely.

But one of the especially interesting things here is how Cameron utilizes a lot of the technology which was on display in his previous films. Those armed walkers Colonel Quaritch uses look to be an upgrade of the driver Weaver used in the climax of “Aliens” (which the Wachowski brothers all but ripped off for “The Matrix” sequels). The mind devices used to control the avatars looks a lot like the head pieces used in “Strange Days.” The scenes of humans interacting with otherworldly creatures bring to mind similar scenes from “The Abyss.” And you have characters who go from being antagonists to becoming the good guys (“Terminator 2” was a classic example of this). With all this in mind, I thought Cameron was running out of new ideas, but I love how he combines them all up to good use in “Avatar.”

But enough of me babbling about “Avatar.” Whatever weaknesses this movie may have are undone by its well-earned achievements. Once again, see this movie in a theater! I don’t care if you hate going to the movies. “Avatar” is a great and reinvigorating reminder of how sitting in a darkened movie theater can be so thrilling.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to find an IMAX theater playing this movie that is not sold out for weeks in advance. Seeing something like this on the silver screen once is never enough, ever.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Empire of Light’ – Sam Mendes’ Imperfect but Enthralling Love Letter to Cinema

One of the things which really excited me about “Empire of Light” is how it reunited director Sam Mendes with the God of all living cinematographers, Roger Deakins. Together, these two geniuses have given us visual wonders in “Revolutionary Road,” “Skyfall” and “1917.” And with “1917,” Deakins finally won his second Academy Award for Best Cinematography, so he and Mendes are a match made in cinematic heaven as far as I am concerned. As this movie itself, I had no idea what to expect, and that is just as well.

“Empire of Light” transports us back to the early 1980’s where we are taken to an English seaside town where a cinema is showing “The Blues Brothers” and “All That Jazz,” the latter which I still need to watch. We meet Hilary Small (Olivia Colman), one of the cinema’s managers who dutifully opens it up at the start of a new day and helps get everything ready for audience members eager to take in the latest feature presentation. But while she at first seems like a pleasant enough human being, we soon learn during a doctor’s appointment that she is taking lithium. It is not made entirely clear why she has been prescribed this form of medication, but it implies she has been through a wealth of emotional turmoil to where she needs some reigning in. But while the medication may be helping her, she admits to her doctor that she generally feels lifeless on a daily basis. And there’s also the cinema’s chief manager, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), who often invites her into his office to discuss professional matters which prove to be anything but professional.

And then we are introduced to the cinema’s newest employee, Stephen (Michael Ward), a young black man who has been applying to college with little success. Quickly, a relationship forms between him and Hilary as both feel a deep need for compassion which reality constantly denies them. But the times they are forced to live through constantly threatens to tear them apart in tragic ways, and their secrets may reveal more to the other than they can possibly ever hope to deal with.

The first thing I have to mention about “Empire of Light” is the performance of Olivia Colman. As always, she remains an acting dynamo as she takes Hilary from ecstatic highs to devastating lows as her character is forced to deal with a roller coaster of emotions she cannot easily control in the slightest. Every single moment she has onscreen is mesmerizing as she exhibits emotions not easily faked, and it makes Hilary’s journey from start to finish all the more emotionally extreme.

Then there is Michael Ward who portrays Stephen, the one who helps lift Hilary out of her mundane existence. Ward is wonderful in creating a character whose passion for things helps to make him all the more charismatic as he navigates through a time of cruel racism and missed opportunities which can easily bring anyone else down. He also makes the seemingly unlikely relationship between Stephen and Hilary all the more palpable as some may be quick to dismiss any possibility of something like this actually happening. What life has taught me is that anything is possible, so why shouldn’t this relationship be a distinct possibility?

And yes, there is Deakins’ cinematography which is as captivating as ever. While it may not be as orgasmic as the visuals he gave us in “Blade Runner 2049,” he succeeds in painting a lovely atmosphere of an English coastal town, the kind which ceased to exist decades ago, but whose history is still relevant in today’s world of Brexit and humanity going backwards. His work is also complimented beautifully by the wonderfully ambient film score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross who stand in for Mendes’ regular musical collaborator, Thomas Newman.

When it comes to the screenplay by Mendes, however, it does try to cover more ground than it possibly can to where the focus gets lost from time to time. Part of me wanted to see more of the racism of the time explored more deeply as the script only seemed to touch the surface of it. The same goes with Hilary’s mental illness as it felt like I only learned so much about what she has been through. Perhaps this was by Mendes’ design as he wanted to keep us at a certain distance, but had we known more, perhaps this part of the movie would have been more profound as a result.

As for the love “Empire of Light” has for movies in general, it does make for one great scene involving Toby Jones who plays the cinema’s dedicated projectionist. Norman. Hearing Jones describe the intricacies of feeding film through the projectors makes for some of this movie’s most memorable and magical moments as it reminded me of the time I worked at a cinema in my youth. It also leads to a scene later on which reminded me of the climatic one in “Cinema Paradiso,” one of the greatest movies ever made about movies.

I do have to say that this film does threaten to have as many endings as “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.” Mendes must have been searching endlessly for the right way to conclude this particular film of his. Did he succeed? Well, I’ll leave it to you to find out. All I can say is that when you think the movie is over, it isn’t.

Despite its flaws which keep it from being the perfect Mendes motion picture which “American Beauty” and “Skyfall” are, I found “Empire of Light” to be very enthralling. It captures an interesting period of history, and its love of movies and film is deeply felt. And when all is said and done, it proves that Olivia Coleman is worth the price of admission no matter what she is appearing. Heck, my dad would pay her to read the phone to him just as he would with Tilda Swinton. I’m serious!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Don’t Worry Darling’ Movie and 4K UHD Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit Correspondent, Tony Farinella.

Don’t Worry Darling” is a film that immediately caught my attention when I saw the trailer for it back in the summer.  I was impressed with Olivia Wilde’s feature film debut in 2019’s “Booksmart,” and the trailer for “Don’t Worry Darling” made me excited to see what she was going to do with her sophomore directorial film, especially considering the actors she had attached to the project.  The trailer didn’t give away too much, but it looked stylish, interesting and worth checking out.  However, as I’m sure many of you reading this are aware of, the film was not without controversy.  If you are interested in gossip (personally, I’m not), you can Google it and read about it.  I’m going to be reviewing the film on its own merits.

Florence Pugh plays Alice, a 1950’s style housewife, and she’s madly in love with her husband Jack (Harry Styles).  Her days are routine and structured, but she always looks forward to the moment Jack comes home from work at Victory Headquarters, so they can be together. They have a healthy and active sex life.  When the subject of having children is brought up, her friend Bunny (Olivia Wilde) is quick to shoot it down, as she proclaims they only have time for each other.  Jack works a lot in this utopian experimental society where all the men work and all the women cook, clean and shop.  It is the 1950’s to the core.  The men seem happy and the women seem happy as well.

However, it is all turned upside down when Margaret (KiKi Layne) is shunned from their community for not following the rules.  There is a very specific set of rules for women.  They are not to ask too many questions about their husband’s work or venture off to the headquarters.  Margaret has done something to leave her on the outside looking in when it comes to this community. Alice meets their leader Frank, played by Chris Pine, in a chilling performance.  He is a charismatic cult leader, and all of the men are looking to impress him and stay on his good side.  He has a personality where people are drawn to him and his every word. Pine really leans into this, and he’s magic on screen.  Alice, however, is starting to suspect that something is not right about Frank or Victory Headquarters.

DON’T WORRY DARLING Copyright: © 2022 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: (L-r) OLIVIA WILDE as Bunny, NICK KROLL as Dean and CHRIS PINE as Frank in New Line Cinema’s “DON’T WORRY DARLING,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Don’t Worry Darling” is truly a tale of two movies.  You have the first hour, which is a little sluggish and bland, but it’s necessary to set up this world the filmmaker and writers have created. You have the second half where things are revealed to the audience, and the film starts to let us take a peek into the inner workings of the characters and their backstories. As a viewer, I admired the fact they didn’t spell everything out to us.  The ending is even ambiguous, which I appreciated.  All in all, though, I found the film to be Wilde paying homage to a film like “The Stepford Wives” or the works of Jordan Peele.  She touches on themes of toxic masculinity, obedience and the price people will pay for the good life.

The strongest part of the film, far and away, is the performance of Florence Pugh.  She’s one of the finest young actresses working today, and she is intense, emotional and incredibly powerful in each and every scene.  In my opinion, it’s a performance worthy of an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Without her performance, this film doesn’t stand a chance.  She’s the star here, and it’s a performance which is so raw and vulnerable.  The cinematography is also beautiful, and, in 4K, it is colorful, vibrant and full of life.  It’s a great-looking film.

DON’T WORRY DARLING (L-R) OLIVIA WILDE as Bunny and NICK KROLL as Dean in New Line Cinema’s “DON’T WORRY DARLING,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The film is flawed, however, as there are pacing issues and it does have a lot of ideas but doesn’t always know where it wants to go with all of them.  When the film works, it works extremely well.  When the film doesn’t work, it’s a bit of a slog to sit through and a little too stylish for its own good.  They had a lot of ideas here, as mentioned, but not all of them are fully fleshed out or given the time to really shine on screen. Overall, though, I admired the ambition behind this film, and I left the experience feeling like I had seen a thought-provoking and multifaceted film that doesn’t get everything right, but the things it does get right are quite impactful and meaningful. If they had a clearer vision for this film, I would have liked it a lot more.

* * * out of * * * *

4K Info: “Don’t Worry Darling” is released on a two-disc 4K/Blu-ray combo pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  It is rated R for sexuality, violent content, and language, and has a running time of 122 minutes. It also comes with a digital copy of the film.

4K Video Info: The HDR is mesmerizing on this film.  A lot of the film uses natural light, and it looks fantastic in 4K. The movie stars look like movie stars, and you also get to feel like you are really living in this world with eye-popping visuals.

4K Audio Info:  The Dolby Atmos soundtrack was the right choice for this flick. There are a lot of great bubblegum pop love songs played throughout this film, and they sound flawless here. The dialogue-heavy scenes are also easy to understand and hear without any issues.  Subtitles are included in English, French and Spanish.

Special Features:

The Making of “Don’t Worry Darling”

Alice’s Nightmare Deleted Scene

Should You Buy It?

This is a tough one.  I have a feeling this film might gain cult status down the line, but as of right now I can’t recommend you buy it at full retail price.  When it goes on sale, I think it’s worth picking up.  This is an example of a film which was doomed from the start because some audiences and critics made up their mind on it before they ever sat down and watched it.  It’s a shame because this is a good movie, and I liked it.  Not everything here works, but it’s hard to deny the work of Florence Pugh and the directional eye of Olivia Wilde.  It’s far from perfect, but I think with repeated viewings, it is a film that people will appreciate in the future. There is a lot to like here, but I also can’t ignore the bloated plot.  It is a stylish looking film, but at times, it has too much style and not enough substance.  It would have benefited from a healthy balance of both.  The 4K looks and sounds really, really good.  I was very impressed with what Warner Brothers did with this 4K release.  The lack of special features is not surprising, considering the drama surrounding the film.  For now, I’d recommend you stream it on HBO Max and buy it in the future.

**Disclaimer** I received a copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.

‘The Polar Express’ Movie and 4K UHD Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

It has been eighteen years since I first watched “The Polar Express,” and quite frankly, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect because of the length between viewings.  I remembered the film had stunning visuals and great computer-animated graphics.  However, I did not remember what the film was about or how ir unfolded.  So, in a sense, I was walking into this film as a total newcomer.  It was directed by legendary director Robert Zemeckis, and it reunited him with actor Tom Hanks as they had worked together previously on “Forrest Gump” and “Castaway.” This was clearly a different project for the two of them, but they still were able to produce movie magic on screen.

Hero Boy, one of six characters voiced by Tom Hanks, is starting to wonder if Santa is real as he gets a little older.  He’s even started to put doubts into the head of his younger sister.  His parents have even noticed he’s not staying up all night anymore on Christmas Eve to wait for Santa. This doesn’t bring any joy to Hero Boy, but it’s the reality he’s living in at this point in his life.  His skepticism is put to the test when the Polar Express train arrives outside his house with the Conductor (also voiced by Hanks). The Polar Express will take him directly to the North Pole along with other children on Christmas Eve.

On the train, he meets Hero Girl (Nona Gaye), a young girl who has never, ever stopped believing in Christmas. The Christmas spirit is alive and well with her.  He also meets Know-It-All (Eddie Deezen), and he certainly lives up to his name with his mouth that runs a mile a minute with various facts and statements about trains and Christmas.  Along the way, the Polar Express picks up Billy (Peter Scolari).  He’s shy, lonely, and has had some bad luck on Christmas.  Because of this, he’s struggling to find any joy or satisfaction on Christmas, whatsoever.  Between Hero Boy, Hero Girl, and Billy, they form a friendship and help each other as they try to get to the North Pole.

On the way to the North Pole, there are dancing waiters that bring out hot chocolate (who doesn’t love hot chocolate around the holidays?), a hobo on top of the train (voiced by, you guessed it, Hanks), a mean-spirited puppet (Hanks again), and numerous other trials and tribulations.  Along the way, Hero Boy is starting to think that maybe Santa is real after all and maybe, just maybe, he should start to regain his spirit and believe again.  After all, considering all he has gone through on his way to the North Pole, it’s getting harder and harder to believe that Santa isn’t real.  The things that are happening are so fantastical and so magical, it has to be the work of Santa.

The Polar Express” absolutely blew me away.  The film runs at 100 minutes, and there is not a dull moment to be found here. What I loved most about the film was its ability to make me, as an audience member, feel something.  Even at age thirty-seven, this is a film which had me teary eyed and emotional.  The great thing about this is that none of it was forced.  It all worked out because of the out-of-this-world visuals, the big heart of this film, and the epic direction of Zemeckis.  There is no stone left unturned in this film.  It feels like a big, sweeping epic Christmas story which matters.  It also understands the importance of Christmas and believing.

I love a good old-fashioned Hollywood story told the right way.  That is exactly what “The Polar Express” is, and it gets all of the details right.  At first, the life-like nature of the characters is a little peculiar and even creepy, but before long, it adds to the charm.  I absolutely loved this movie, and it was such a pleasant surprise for me. I have seen a lot of Christmas movies in my lifetime, but very few have captured the grand scale of the event like “The Polar Express.”  Leave it to Hanks and Zemeckis to get it right.  It’s rare that I’m watching a film and I get completely lost in the story.  With each and every adventure, I was captivated and in awe.

This film warmed my heart and made me feel good.  Films like this are rare.  When they are released, they need to be praised, valued and appreciated.  This is a big screen Christmas movie that knows exactly what needs to be done and how to do it.  It’s about tugging at your heartstrings in a way that is not manipulative or cheap.  It is about making us, the audience, believe, without being too corny or silly.  It is about making us smile without ever pandering to us or trying to pull the wool over our eyes. “The Polar Express” is a Christmas classic and my kind of Christmas movie.  I wish I could stand on top of a mountain and scream, “I love this movie!”

* * * * out of * * * *

4K/Blu-ray Info: ‘The Polar Express” is released on a two-disc 4K/Blu-ray combo pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  The film is rated G and has a running time of 100 minutes.  It also comes with a digital copy of the film.

4K Info:  I recommend you watch this film with the lights off.  I noticed a vast improvement in the picture quality when I watched the movie in the dark.  It’s absolutely gorgeous in 4K HDR.  It just added to my enjoyment of the film.  When people talk about films that were made for 4K, they are talking about films like “The Polar Express.”  I couldn’t believe the attention to detail on this transfer.  They really put their heart and soul into the making of this film, and there were times where I was completely and utterly blown away by what I was watching on my TV screen.  It was a work of art.

Audio Info:  The Dolby Atmos track also enhances the viewing experience as it’s a big, booming soundtrack.  For a movie like this, which is a big movie, you expect it to look and sound big.  They accomplished both of those tasks here.

Special Features:

You Look Familiar

A Genuine Ticket to Ride

True Inspirations: An Author’s Adventure

Behind the Scenes of “Believe”

Flurry of Effects

Smokey and Steamer

Josh Groban at the Greek

Meet The Snow Angels

Theatrical Trailer

THQ Game Demo

Should You Buy It?

Yes, yes, and YES.  “The Polar Express” is a top-of-the-line 4K film, and it is also top-of-the-line with its audio and visuals.  Everything here is 4 out of 4 stars, except for the fact that the special features are transferred over from the previous Blu-ray.  Normally, I wouldn’t mind this, but I felt the special features were a little lacking here, and there are so many questions regarding this film and especially the filmmaking process.  I would have loved a commentary track with Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis, for example.  I know it can be hard to track people down these days with so much going on, but for a film of this scale, it would have been worth it.  Despite these minor issues, this film gets the highest recommendation I can give a 4K film.  I was watching it on a day where I was feeling a little down, and it instantly cheered me up.  That is the highest praise I can give to a film.  I don’t feel like enough people talk about “The Polar Express” in the same fashion they do other Christmas films, and they should, because it’s a Christmas classic in every sense of the word.

**Disclaimer** I received a copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.

‘A Christmas Story’ Movie and 4K/Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

If it’s Christmas time, you know it means twenty-four hours of “A Christmas Story” from director Bob Clark on TBS and TNT.  It has become a holiday tradition for many people and a good background distraction for families as they gather to open presents, eat and spend time together. As with any Christmas film which is hugely popular, people are known to quote the lines from this one as they hold it near and dear to their hearts.  However, how does “A Christmas Story” hold up in 2022?

A Christmas Story” is set in Northern Indiana and follows young Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), a nine-year-old kid who wants one thing for Christmas—a Red Ryder BB Gun.  However, he is told by his mother, his teacher and even a mall Santa that he will shoot his eye out.  This does not stop him from pulling out all the stops to get it though, including leaving behind little hints for his mother.  Ralphie also has a peculiar little brother named Randy who likes to play with his food and hide in tiny spaces.  He’s also joined by his overworked mother (Melinda Dillon) and cranky father (Darren McGavin).

The film is told from Ralphie POV as an adult as he looks back on this particular Christmas.  We get to see him at school as he’s trying to focus on his classes while also pining over the Red Ryder BB gun. He’s also dealing with the local school bully named Scut Farkus (Zack Ward) who terrorizes Ralphie and his friends Flick and Schwartz, played by Scott Schwartz and R.D. Robb.  They get into the usual tomfoolery at school such as Flick getting his tongue stuck to a post outside school, which causes him to need medical attention.

Ralphie’s father is also obsessed with a leg lamp which he sees as a major award, even though it brings his wife a great deal of shame and embarrassment.  The father is also dealing with being hounded by the dogs next door.  There is a lot going on in Ralphie’s life, but one thing remains the same—he wants the Red Ryder BB gun.  He is counting down the days until Christmas, and he is hoping he will find it under the tree, no matter what it takes.  I think we can all relate to that period of time in our lives as a child hoping for that special present as if it were the most important thing in the world.

I do feel though that “A Christmas Story” is overrated simply because of the fact it’s been on TNT and TBS since 1997. Sometimes if an audience sees something enough, they tend to fall in love with it based on repetition or the memories it conjures up for them. It is not a bad movie by any means.  It is based on “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash” by Jean Shepherd which, according to my research, featured semi-fictional tidbits. I just don’t think there is a story or a plot here.  It is filled with movie moments and memorable lines which have stayed with people throughout the years. My favorite Christmas movie of all time is “It’s a Wonderful Life” with “Elf” coming in at number two, which I recently reviewed.

There is humor to be found here, and I understand what they were trying to go for with the story and the theme.  I just didn’t feel like it was enough to make a full-length film.  Even though it’s only 93 minutes, there are times where the film drags and feels a little insignificant. I didn’t hate the film nor did I love it either.  It’s watchable, but there is nothing which really stands out to me.  The film doesn’t have an “it factor” like the other two Christmas movies I mentioned.  It’s just mindless silliness, which is fine, but it doesn’t make for a great movie.  It makes for an average movie.

* * ½ out of * * * *

4K/Blu-ray Info: “A Christmas Story” is released on a two-disc 4K/Blu-ray combo pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment that also comes with a digital copy of the film.  It is rated PG and runs at 93 minutes.

4K Info:  They have done a masterful job of cleaning up this picture. I’ve seen it many times over the years in bits and pieces on TV, but this is, far and away, the best it has ever looked.  There is no grain whatsoever on the picture.  It is crystal clear, and the HDR gives the film a new life.

Audio Info: The audio formats are DTS-HD MA: English 2.0 Mono and Dolby Digital: English and French. Subtitles are included in English, Spanish, and French. The audio has also never sounded better on 4K.  You can hear everything perfectly, and the sound is consistent throughout the film.

Special Features:

Audio Commentary by Bob Clark and Peter Billingsley

Christmas in Ohio: A Christmas Story House

Another Christmas Story

Daisy Red Ryder: A History

Get a Leg Up

“Flash Gordon” Deleted Script Pages

The Leg Lamp Spot

Jean Shepherd Original Radio Reading

Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid (HD, 38:07)

Flick’s Tongue

Theatrical Trailer

Should You Buy It?

If we are strictly talking about the audio and video of this 4K release of “A Christmas Story,” this is a must own if you are a fan of the film.  Having seen it on TV at many Christmas parties and also having watched the Blu-ray in the past, this is an incredible transfer on 4K.  The film looks great. Keep in mind, the filmmakers have set this story in the 1940’s, even though it was released in 1983. It looks out of this world on 4K.  I was really impressed with the audio and video here and every little detail that was popping up on screen. I give the audio and video four stars on this release.  You get the special features that were on the Blu-ray in the past, which is expected.  If you are a fan of the film, you NEED to own it on 4K, there is no question about it.  If you have grown tired of the film or don’t find it funny (I fall into the latter category), you can pass on it.  However, I have a feeling this is going to be a hot-seller for fans of Christmas movies. It just doesn’t work for me.

**Disclaimer** I received a copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.

Interview with the Cast and Director of ‘The Menu’

The Menu” is an inspired black comedy featuring an incredibly talented cast of actors who play characters invited to a remote island where celebrity chef, Julian Slowik, is preparing quite the cuisine for them. As the night goes on, however, the guests come to see that Chef Slowik’s intentions are anything but gracious as he looks to punish those who cannot take enough time to taste the food they are eating. In this day and age when we are too busy shoving food into our mouths as life moves by fast, this motion picture reminds you of the importance of savoring every bite.

I got to sit in on a press conference for “The Menu” which was moderated by Rolling Stone magazine’s senior editor, David Fear. It featured actors Nicholas Hoult, Anya Taylor-Joy, John Leguizamo, Aimee Carrero, Judith Light and Hong Chau, and they were joined by then movie’s director, Mark Mylod, who is best known for helming episodes of “Succession” and “Shameless.”

When it comes to black comedies, I always wonder how they are conceived and put together. Making a comedy movie is hard enough, but putting a black comedy has got to be even harder as you are trying to get the audience to laugh as things no one would laugh at in real life. On top of that, this movie could be described as many different things such as, as Fear put it, “a broad social satire, it’s a Grand Guignol horror film, it’s a very dry comedy, and it’s a high tragedy.” Taking all this into account, one has to wonder how Mylod managed to find the right balance for everything.

Mark Mylod:   First of all, instinctive in reading the script, I think one of the things that drew us all to the project was that lovely mashup of tones that I think as quite a small target to hit. But we were all attracted to how specific that was. And then I think for me it was the few days or the week that we spent doing our version of rehearsals, which was basically to sit together or in smaller groups in a room and just talk about issues that interested us in the script and in our story and about our characters. And in doing so, it was perhaps less about what we were actually saying and more about us all tuning in by osmosis, perhaps unconsciously to get on the same level. I think it’s a Sydney Pollack quote about everybody making the same movie, so that by the time we were on set, we all tuned in together and we continued to do so with the huge benefit of shooting the film almost entirely chronologically.

One of my favorite performances in “The Menu” comes from Hong Chau who portrays the right-hand person to celebrity chef Julian Slowik (played by Ralph Fiennes), Elsa. Considering how the screenplay only gives her so much to work with, I couldn’t help but wonder how Chau managed to give us such a fascinating character in the process. Her answer to this helps illuminate the way she creates a character.

Hong Chau: I signed on not really being able to picture what the final product would look like. That was exciting to me, because I was curious to see how it would turn out and I knew that the people involved were great collaborators to take that leap of faith with. I was a huge fan of Succession and I knew that Mark (Mylod) would be able to take these characters who are unlikable for so many reasons, and somehow weave together a story where you cared about what happened, not necessarily to them, but cared about the situation. It was just surprising that I felt even some sort of heartbreak for some of the characters, and that’s just a special gift that Mark has.

Another big question I had was for John Leguizamo who plays a movie star who is washed-up, past his prime and, most importantly, has no name. This movie star could be any we know from when we were growing up or from today’s world which is filled with an endless variety of actors playing superheroes and comic-book characters. Leguizamo wrote a book back in 2007 entitled “Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas, and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends: My Life,” and he was more than honest about the many actors and movie stars he has worked with. When it came to his nameless character, I had to wonder which actor/movie star he based him on.

John Leguizamo: I’m not being typecast here, so because I’m not washed up and I’m not an action star, so I’m not a washed-up action star. But I’ve worked with a lot of action stars who became washed up and I modeled it after one person in particular who was a bit of an a-hole and a bully. Okay, Steven Seagal. I modeled after Steven Seagal because I did a movie with him and in rehearsals, he knocked me out and he didn’t care.

The movie Leguizamo is referring to is “Executive Decision,” an action film from 1996 directed by Stuart Baird. Leguizamo played US Army Special Forces officer, Captain Carlos “Rat” Lopez, and Seagal played his superior, Lieutenant Colonel Austin Travis. There are many stories about what happened behind the scenes on “Executive Decision,” and they all describe how Seagal slammed Leguizamo against a wall when he laughed at him for taking himself far too seriously.

John Leguizamo: (Seagal) hit me with an elbow in my solar plexus and knocked me against the wall, because I was laughing at him. I forgot to mention that part. I was a bit of a dick then. Sorry, I had to give that fact. So that’s who I was modeling after. I’d seen these privileged guys, and these guys who come into a room with so much narcissism and self, it’s like they suck the oxygen out of the room because they want all the attention and everything’s got to be on them, otherwise they turn negative. So that’s what I was trying to create, because it doesn’t naturally come to me.

And when it comes to these characters in general, what I admired most was how each actor inhabited them. These characters could have been portrayed broadly, but they were not which I thought was great. When it came to character descriptions, one of my favorites came from actress Judith Light who played Anne, a longtime fan of Chef Slowik’s who often visits his restaurant along with her husband Richard (played by Reed Birney).

Judith Light: When you watch a woman who has lived her life giving up her soul and herself in order to have the privilege that she so desperately wants, and begins to realize through the course of the film is that you think it’s one way and it’s not that way. It turns into something else and you begin to see that she wakes up as she realizes that her life is not what she wanted it to be. She’s not who she wants to be and she’s not living the way that she wants to live. And so, there is this bubbling, this cauldron that’s underneath all the time within the dynamic. And where that begins to shift and play out is in relation to Anya’s character. You begin to see that there’s a uniting of these two women in a very simple-I think maybe we say three words to each other in the entire film-but you can see the process of what’s happening within the heart and soul of this person. You don’t really see it until things begin to unfold in the most powerful, painful kinds of ways. So, between the two of us, between Reed and myself, I felt a very special and deep kind of rehearsal. Mark was saying in the beginning we all had these rehearsals with each other, and we improvised something between the two of us that was so moving and poignant and powerful because you know you walk into a restaurant and you see those two people. They’re not talking to each other; they never talk to each other. And you say to your partner, “I’m never going to be that person. I’m never going to be the person in that relationship.” And there you are, and one day you wake up and there you are and you are that person. And so, we were discovering all those things all of the time. So, Mark really gave us the depth and the breadth within the creativity of those rehearsals, and being on the set as well, our reactions to other people that really illuminated, and you begin to see this character; you see her transformation over time.

“The Menu” comes to us courtesy of Searchlight Pictures, and it opens in theaters on November 18, 2022. I highly recommend you check it out!