‘Master Gardener’ – Paul Schrader Does Some Meticulous Gardening

Alright! We are back in Paul Schrader land with his latest film, “Master Gardener.” Just as with “Taxi Driver” and “First Reformed” among other films, it focuses on a loner who keeps a journal and is struggling to deal with a past which was never less than traumatizing. Some directors tend to make the same film over and over again, but I always enjoy seeing Schrader doing so as he always has an interesting angle on this, and “Master Gardener” is no exception.

Joel Edgerton stars as Narvel Roth, an infinitely meticulous horticulturist who is employed at Gracewood Gardens, a beautiful estate owned by Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). Judging from the blooming flowers featured in the opening credits, this is an individual who takes his job ever so seriously as he clearly revels in bringing a garden and the flowers in it to exquisite life. There is even a scene where Narvel invites his fellow workers to smell the soil they have been working on endlessly. Watching this, it made me wish this film came with one of those scratch and sniff cards like those Odorama cards John Waters used for “Polyester.” I would love to have smelled what these characters were taking in as it might just give new meaning to the word “organic.”

Norma, who it turns out is having an affair of sorts with Narvel, has invited her wayward step-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), to become his apprentice. While Maya may be a wealth of trouble at home, she slides into her new job with what seems like relative ease. But, as you can expect, nothing will stay sane for our main characters as revelations of who they are will truly eventually come to the surface whether everyone is prepared for it or not.

Looking at Narvel and hearing how he talks, it is tempting to think he has been a dignified individual since birth, but he eventually takes off his shirt to reveal two things: he has spent a lot of time at the gym, and he has a plethora of tattoos of swastikas and other neo-Nazi images covering his body which indicate he has had a racist past which he is trying to get past. It would have been enough if Narvel had just one swastika tattooed on him to indicate he was once a white supremacist, but the fact he has so many reminded me of a scene from Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear” remake in which Robert Mitchum looked over Robert De Niro’s heavily tattooed body and said, “Jesus! I don’t know whether to look at him or read him.”

This revelation brings about complexities as we wonder if Norma and Maya are aware of Narvel’s sordid past. Looking at this, I kept thinking Narvel would reveal the truth of his past existence to both women in an intelligent fashion. But if he did, would this film have such rich dramatic tension?

Gardening and horticulture never struck me as something which could be captured in a cinematic way as it can seem rather boring. It is a credit to Schrader and company that “Master Gardener” makes gardening seem far more immersive than it might be to some. Like I said before, I would love to smell this garden Narvel is cultivating because it is clear no one can cultivate one the way he can.

Schrader also makes the characters and their situations all the more dramatic by pointing out how different their ages are to one another. Now I have long since learned to NOT ask any women their age as serious bodily harm is likely to occur and deservedly so, Norma being almost twice Narvel’s age and Maya being close to half of his. Taboos are bexploited for dramatic effect as certain things are not quickly accepted in today’s culture, but here we may need to look more closely at what is going on.

Looking at Joel Edgerton’s resume, I wonder if I have given him enough credit as an actor. He has played a variety of roles in the “Star Wars” prequels, “The Thing” prequel, “The Felony” and “The Gift” among other films. Each has shown him going from playing good guys to villains with relative ease, and that is a gift many in his field would love to have. While it might seem like Edgerton is playing Narvel as a far too reserved, it becomes clear why this is the case as he nails this character’s complexities perfectly from start to finish.

Sigourney Weaver is a very welcome presence here. As Norma, she gives off a very regal vibe which makes her seem like a peaceful individual, but her play on words reveals someone whose anger is just simmering beneath the surface. I also love how she makes indigent sound like a four-letter word.

Quintessa Swindell does very interesting work as Maya. We learn a lot about this character before she appears onscreen, and Swindell makes Maya into something more than a mere cliché or stereotype that many might expect her to be. As we find Maya becoming involved with a man who is at least a decade older than her, Swindell comes to hold her own opposite Edgerton in their scenes together to where it becomes clear who has the upper hand in this relationship.

When it comes to Schrader and his films, he typically works with the bare minimum of budgets, and I am always impressed with what he accomplishes with them regardless of how tight they are. The cinematography by Alexander Dynan is quite lovely, the music score by Dev Hynes fits the material just fine, and kudos to those who gave Schrader the money to make this one as indie films like these do not get as much support as they once did.

How does “Master Gardener” compare to Schrader’s other works? Hard to say as there are many I still need to watch. This one does not quite reach the cinematic heights of “First Reformed” or “Affliction,” but this one reminds me of what a compelling voice he still is in cinema. Perhaps the conclusion left me wanting more as it did not quite fill my cinematic bloodlust, but maybe that was because I was expecting the wrong kind of movie. Whereas many of Schrader’s films end in an orgy of violence, this one concludes in a way which gives a certain piece of dialogue from “Natural Born Killers” an infinite amount of meaning, “Love beats the demon.”

Perhaps the loners who inhabit Schrader’s recent works have found reasons to not end their lives in an intensely dramatic and fatal fashion as the women they encounter give them a reason to live on. While the writer of “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” might be treading through familiar territory, it is clear he has found how love can alter one’s destiny. This makes “Master Gardener” stand out in a memorable way as it defies certain expectations which I never should have brought into the theater in the first place.

Moreover, this film makes me view gardening and cultivating in a whole new light. I really enjoyed the specifics Schrader gives us when it comes to certain flowers as few other writers could these details down so perfectly. Perhaps I should visit the local flower or garden shop to truly appreciate the plants and their smells which are on display here.

I am glad Schrader is still making films in this cinematic climate. There always needs to be something outside of the mainstream.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Stu Zicherman and Ben Karlin Discuss the Making of ‘A.C.O.D.’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2013, and it contains spoilers for this film.

Stu Zicherman and Ben Karlin are best known for their work as writers in film and television. Zicherman was one of the screenwriters on “Elektra” which he did not even try to hide his disappointment over, and the Hong Kong action film “2000 AD,” and he is currently working on the FX show “The Americans.” Karlin made a name for himself as a writer and executive producer on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report,” and these days he serves as one of the writers for the acclaimed ABC comedy “Modern Family.” But what you may not know is these two were best friends when they were growing up, and they are also children of divorce.

When they reunited as adults, Zicherman and Karlin began working together on the screenplay for “A.C.O.D.” which tells the story of when Carter (Adam Scott) is tasked to get his bitterly divorced parents, Hugh (Richard Jenkins) and Melissa (Catherine O’Hara), to come to their youngest son Trey’s (Clark Duke) wedding. Writing the script allowed Zicherman and Karlin to deal with their own memories of their parents separating, but they also manage to find humor in a situation which is usually filled with tremendous sadness and anger. In the process, they both succeed in turning a lot of comedy conventions on their heads and give us a movie full of endless surprises.

I got to participate in a roundtable interview with Zicherman and Karlin when they appeared for the “A.C.O.D.” press junket held at the SLS Hotel in Los Angeles, California.

Question: What was the genesis for this movie?

Stu Zicherman: Ben and I have actually been friends since we were born. What’s the quickest way to explain this? Basically, my mom was friends with Ben’s parents, and Ben’s parents were friends with my mom’s first husband who I didn’t even know about. We’ve been friends our whole lives. I have always wanted to do something with this subject matter, this generation of divorced kids. We’re both part of this generation.

Ben Karlin: Yeah. We were friends growing up and our families were friends growing up, but then, when his parents got divorced and shortly thereafter my parents got divorced, we stopped hanging out because that was the end of our families getting together and doing things.

Stu Zicherman: It was a very romantic journey where our families used to go on vacations together.

Ben Karlin: So, when we were both professional and we were established as adults in our careers, I moved to New York, and Stu was working there already and he said, “Hey, I want to write a movie about how messed up we all are” (laughs). I went, “I’m in!”

Stu Zicherman: We grew up on movies like “Kramer vs. Kramer” and dramas that were kind of tragic. Ben and I talked about this when we first started working on the movie. Our parents’ divorces were tragic and sad in their own way, but they were also not to be believed at times (laughs). They were irreverent, funny and weird. We wanted to try and find a way to make light of it and make a comedy that still had some gravity to it because it’s something that people don’t laugh about. What’s been really fun about making this movie and about taking it around and showing it at Sundance and all these places is that people are excited and relate to it. People will come up to me after screenings and want to tell their stories like, “My parents got divorced when I was 8.” We’re almost giving them license to laugh about it.

Ben Karlin: We were shooting in Atlanta, and the night before production started, it was just us. It was me, Stu, a couple of the actors, a couple of the producers, and we were out in the bar at the hotel. There was a wedding going on and there was the after party for the wedding. There was the groom, the bride, the whole bridal party. Everyone was in tuxedoes. So, it was like these two worlds. We were about to make this movie about divorce and these people who were just starting. And they were great. They were lovely people. We closed the bar down with them. And then, a week later, I got a letter from one of the bridesmaids who I had been chatting with, and she told me this long story about her family’s divorce and how it affected her. It was just so weird. Even in that moment, people were just connecting to what we were trying to do, and we found that throughout the whole process, that there seems to be something that everyone can relate to about this subject.

Question: So, everybody is trying to figure out who got married at the movie’s end…

Stu Zicherman: Well, you know, we didn’t really want to give it away. Ben and I always talked about the movie as being an anti-romantic comedy. There were certain beats we would get to in the movie as we were writing it. There’s the obvious romantic comedy beat. We were trying to turn away from that wherever we could, not to the detriment of the movie, but the end of the movie was not so much about who got married. It was more important to us that the characters, especially those three men, have evolved through the movie to a point where it could be any of them. When pressed, I always say it’s all three of them, but we like the idea of leaving it open-ended because it didn’t matter.

Ben Karlin: It didn’t really trouble us, I have to say. We wanted to create a scenario where all three characters were repaired to the point where you’d be just okay with any of them. And it could be all three of them or none of them. The point is that whatever was waiting for them in there in the church was okay.

Stu Zicherman: And it’s funny too, when editing the movie, every single time I would adjust frames or tried a different shot and put it in front of an audience, people always guessed a different person. It was bizarre. I started to lose track of why people felt what. We had to calibrate it so that it’s pretty hard to tell now. We’d had a version where there was a faceless bride running through the background.

Ben Karlin: Oh, deep, deep background. A limo, a bride, the whole thing.

Stu Zicherman: Again, it distracted from the movie. It’s such a nice, clean moment with the three of them walking in, and we like it.

Question: Everyone seems to have their own version of the movie’s ending, and that really serves as a testament to your writing because you got us so deeply invested in every single character to where we really want to know what happens to them

Ben Karlin: It’s a very hard thing to do. You want to give in. You want to give people what they want. And then, there’s the creative jerk part of you that’s like, “I know better.”

Stu Zicherman: But also, we thought about a lot of this when we were writing the movie that we didn’t want people to be right or wrong. It’s not a right or wrong thing. It’s the dad who does this impetuous thing and they get back together. He’s not wrong. He’s following his heart. What’s wrong with following your heart? And again, at the end of the movie, I always say to people it’s not a movie about divorce per se. I don’t want people just to think it’s about that. It’s really about if you’re married, if you’re not married, divorced, whatever kind of family you’re from, you’re not destined to repeat the patterns of your parents. You’re free to make your own mistakes. You’re free to live your life. That’s why I always love the word “adult” being in the movie. I always felt like you become an adult when you actually can put your past into perspective. That’s when you really start becoming an adult. And I like that about the ending because, up to that point, everybody is acting like a child.

Question: You have said the script is loosely based on your families. Have you gotten any flak from them about it?

Ben Karlin: We’ve done a pretty good job of hiding or changing details. There used to be more stuff in the script that was literally word for word from our lives. There was an incident in his family and a specific incident in mine that involved the handing off of kids on a bridge, like a prisoner transfer, but it was between the parents. And it literally, at this moment, happened to me in Cape Cod where it was my dad’s new wife actually and her children and her ex-husband, and they had to exchange and they decided the exact mid-point. It was like North Korea-South Korea. Here’s the DMZ and we’re going to trade these children over that line, and we had that exact scene in the movie for years. That probably wouldn’t have gone over so well.

Stu Zicherman: And then there was a thing in my family called the hysterectomy conspiracy that was so absurd that when it was in the script, people would read it and be like…

Ben Karlin: “That’s not real.”

Stu Zicherman: They didn’t believe it. “No, no. It’s real.” We had to take it out because people didn’t believe it. But that happened to me. There’s one moment in the movie that is sort of torn from my life and its funny. It’s the one where Carter sits his parents down. My sister was getting married, and my parents would not agree to come to the same wedding. My brother-in-law and I sat them down. What’s hilarious about that is my parents don’t remember that. They block it out.

Question: How long did it take you two to get this film made?

Ben Karlin: Oh my God! I was just talking about this the other day. I was living here (in Los Angeles) and I moved to New York in 1999, and Stu was already living there at that time. He probably approached me in 2000 or 2001 to start working on it. Obviously, we had other jobs.

Stu Zicherman: Yeah. We had other jobs, so we were working on it nights and on weekends and vacations.

Ben Karlin: The amazing thing is we were both single when we started working on this movie. I have since gotten married, had children, and gotten divorced (laughs).

Stu Zicherman: It’s crazy. We were both single when we started this thing, and now I’m married with two kids and he’s got two kids, which I think helped inform the movie a little bit.

Ben Karlin: Yes, definitely.

Stu Zicherman: It’s been a long process. It’s funny though. The movie almost got going at one point. It came really close to get going. What was great about it was once we committed to Adam Scott, the movie started to finally roll. Finally, eventually, you get so frustrated with all the games you have to play to try and get a movie made. The thing is that we always loved Adam for this. And again, it fits in a little bit with the anti-romantic idea. He’s got an anti-romantic lead in a way because he’s got a very cynical humor and perspective on life. It just worked really well. And once we got Adam, then we got Richard Jenkins. It just started to roll.

Ben Karlin: Once you have those first few pieces in place, it starts to gain a terminal velocity.

Stu Zicherman: Right. The phone starts to ring and all of a sudden people want to be in your movie. That was very exciting.

Question: What I like about the script is that you don’t know where it’s going to go. From a distance, it looks like your typical formulaic comedy, but it really isn’t. How did you go about that? Were you looking to avoid certain things that you see in a lot of comedies like this?

Ben Karlin: Yes. There are so many tropes to these kinds of movies. Because we always were around, we were like, “How do we deal with the subject of a wedding in a movie that’s essentially about divorce?” We were very resolute that if we were going to have a wedding, we were going to do it differently than that typical moment at the end of the movie where people are walking down the aisle. So, we knew we wanted that outside the wedding moment to end it. We just were acutely aware of convention and trying to understand why those conventions worked and why they existed, and then trying wherever we could to tiptoe around the obvious thing.

Stu Zicherman: But the big thing was stakes. I mean, there were so many times where we were hyperconscious with the movie, and we would do readings just to find out where we were with it. The main character, Carter, is in every single scene of the movie and he doesn’t have cancer. He isn’t beaten. It’s the kind of thing, at a certain point, where the audience could be looking at him and go, “Hey dude, get over it.” And so, there were scenes we really liked but we felt like we were going to lose the audience. We said, “We have to keep the audience rooting for him.”

Ben Karlin: We didn’t want to turn the guy into a jerk.

Stu Zicherman: So, it was this balance. At times, people would read the script and say, “Why doesn’t he want his parents to get back together?” We just had to find a way and we kept trying to find ways in through relationships. But we did at times always try to move away from the tropes like the scene with the ring that turns into the key, and moments like that. It was funny. I did a Q&A; in New York the other night and someone asked me about the whole cheating thing with Jessica Alba and how he never gets caught. In the classic romantic comedy, you always get that scene where she’s like, “What were you doing with that girl?” It never crossed our minds to go there, and the truth is because in real life most people don’t get caught. You’re just forced to live with it. And that was the great liberty of making this movie independently. We’re not beholden to a studio to hit certain tropes. Also, it made the tone what it is, because the movie is funny but it’s also got some gravity to it and it’s got this balance. I’m excited. The fact that the movie is finally coming out, I’m excited for people to see it, but I’m also going to miss it because we’ve just been carrying it around like this for so long.

“A.C.O.D.” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

John Krokidas and Austin Bunn Discuss ‘Kill Your Darlings’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place back in 2013.

John Krokidas makes his feature film directorial debut with “Kill Your Darlings” which stars Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan and Michael C. Hall. The movie is about a murder that occurred in 1944 which brought three poets of the beat generation (Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs) together for the first time. Radcliffe portrays Ginsberg as a 17-year-old who is about to start college at Columbia University, and he ends up falling under the extroverted spell of fellow classmate Lucien Carr (DeHaan) who introduces him to the poets who would later bring a new vision to writers everywhere. It is when Carr murders his love David Kammerer (Hall) that their relationship starts to become unglued.

Krokidas co-wrote the script for “Kill Your Darlings” with his Yale University roommate Austin Bunn. A former magazine journalist, fiction writer and reporter, Bunn graduated from Yale and went on to get his master’s degree at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. As for Krokidas, he later attended New York University’s Graduate Film Program where he made the short films “Shame No More” and “Slo-Mo.”

I got to hear how Krokidas and Bunn made the film under challenging circumstances when they appeared at the “Kill Your Darlings” press conference held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California.

Question: What was the division of creative responsibility between you two like?

Austin Bunn: Probably like a lot of people in this room, I discovered the beats in college. I used to go to the campus bookstore and just track down the poetry collection, find Allen’s books and read them like they were some secret transmissions from the future version of myself. I was a closeted, young creative writer from New Jersey so Allen Ginsberg’s work meant the world to me. So, I had this really strong connection with Allen and of beat biographies and the history. I read a lot of the back catalog and I had come to John with the idea. So, in terms of the division of responsibility, I would write the first draft and then John would come in. The thing about John, as you will soon learn, he wanted to raise the emotional decibel level in every scene. John is one of the most riveting and vital and least hagiographic version of this story. We didn’t want to take the beats’ greatness as a given, so John sort of demanded that we write a really emotional roller coaster. Then we just went back and forth. John talks about it as the Postal Service, like the band version of producing a script. We were living in different cities at the time; I was at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a graduate student and John was in New York finishing film school.

John Krokidas: Austin wanted to do this as a play first. He was a playwright and a short story writer of some renown, and we were college roommates and we shared ideas with each other as college roommates and good friends do. But I, of course, started seeing the movie version in the back of my head and I had just gotten out of NYU film school and started convincing him that the play would be really flat and undramatic, but as a movie…

Austin Bunn: The Jedi mind trick!

John Krokidas: This would be amazing. But I would say I’m the structure guy I think, coming from NYU’s film program. I’m very traditionalist in terms of Sidney Lumet’s “find your spine,” and Austin is really wonderful with character and dialogue. If anything, he’s on a religious crusade against expository dialogue, and I would write these three paragraph monologues for each character expressing their emotion like that scene where Jennifer Jason Leigh finally turns to Allen to give him advice. I had a two-page monologue version and Austin crossed it all out (Austin laughs) and wrote the one line that’s in the movie, “The most important thing your father ever did was fail me,” which said everything.

Question: The movie is also very visual too because of the beats’ energy and such. How did you go about creating the look with cinematographer Reed Morano?

John Krokidas: I’m so proud of what we brought to this film. The movie is set in 1944 and it’s a murder story. Even in the writing process, I looked up and saw that “Double Indemnity” won Best Picture that year, and it was the year of “Laura” and “Gilda” and all these great American Film noirs. So, I said, “Why don’t we incorporate this even in just the fabric of the movie and start with the jail scene in a place of heightened tension flashback to more innocent times, and then build again to see whether or not these characters can escape or not escape their fate?” So, I started looking at noir style at first, but I thought an academic recreation of Film noir, who wants to see that? Going back to spine and theme, I thought what this piece was really about was young people finding their voice. So, what about going from conformity, the row houses of New Jersey and the pillars of Columbia, to nonconformity? And of course, where film noir went in the hands of the French was the New Wave. So I thought, “Okay well let’s start off with these controlled, composed, expressionistic-lit shots, and then as the boys go down the rabbit hole together, let’s take the camera off the tripod. Let’s get some jazzier free-form style.” So, I made this book of the 1940s. I had learned that Ang Lee, for “The Ice Storm,” did a 50 page book on the 1970s with colors, fonts and important historical events, you name it. So, I did that with the 1940s and then gave it to Reed. The great thing that I have learned on this is you can do all the academic treatises you want, but then you hire great people. She saw the goal post of what I wanted and then she showed me Jean-Pierre Melville’s films. She showed me films that meant a lot to her and then let kind of what I wanted filter through her own imagination. What I am amazed by specifically in her work is we did this movie in 24 days. Each scene was done in two hours or less, and she has the instincts to be like a documentary camera person and is able to light like that at the same time. We wanted to make sure this film felt relevant and contemporary as opposed to just being a traditional biopic.

Austin Bunn: (We didn’t want it to be) the greatest hits version of their lives.

John Krokidas: It was looking at Ryan McGinley photographs and contemporary, counterculture, young images of today and then finding what connected them to the 1940s. What was resonant in counterculture then and today at the same time.

Question: What was the direction that you were giving your actors? We were told that sometimes you would pull them aside for a more dramatic scene, but was there a consciousness you went into to direct the film and the actors? Were they any kind of specific kind of notes you gave them?

John Krokidas: Here’s the embarrassing story; Austin and I actually met freshman year because we were both acting in a production at Yale of “The Lion in Winter.”

Austin Bunn: Yes.

John Krokidas: Neither of us were the greatest actors in the world which is, I think, why we went into writing and directing. But I trained as an actor as an undergraduate and what you learn is that each actor has their own method and way. It’s whatever it takes for them to get the emotions to the surface. So, when I met with each actor that I cast, I would just simply ask them, “Have you trained? How do you like to work and what don’t you like?” Michael C. Hall gave me one of the greatest lessons in directing in which he said, “If what I am doing is not making you happy, don’t tell me that because that will make me self-conscious and it will make me think about what I’m doing. Just tell me to add whatever you want to what I’m doing.” That’s just a great lesson for life. Dan and I, when we were working together, we spent time before production (he was so generous and hard working on this) and he wanted to approach this like it was his first film which was very poignant to me. I said, “Would you like to try learning a new method and approach acting in a different style?” He said, “Absolutely!” So, with Dan, he’s so bright and in his head, and for the intellectuals Meisner works really well in focusing your action on what you are trying to do in the scene. Dane had trained extensively, and what he does is create a Bible for the character and does tons of research before production. Then he burns it and starts really becoming the character on set. Ben Foster (who plays William Burroughs) has something I’ve never seen another actor do which is, once we’ve basically got the scene up on its feet, he goes and he does the blocking of the scene by himself in the location several times. He calls it “the dance” because once he’s memorized the dance and knows the physicality (“I need to pick up the fork here, I need to put it down there”), he doesn’t have to think about it anymore and that’s completely freeing to him. So it’s like cooking this huge seven course meal where you have to get everything done at exactly the right time, but every plate needs a little bit of love in a different way. To me the greatest thing was being able to get this dream cast and then just to work with them to find how they like to work and what got the best out of them.

Austin Bunn: John had a really intuitive idea which was to keep the actors from reading past this point in the biographies, so none of the actors came in burdened by the mythology of who these guys would become. They were just 19-year-old kids. So, I think that was really smart and it released the actors from having to play the later decisions in their lives and the kinds of writers they would become. They just got to be young people, and that was a great relief I think for them.

John Krokidas: Yeah, and for us too as writers. I had a talk with Jack Huston once when he and I shared the same room and I’m saying, “Oh my god, I’m directing you as Jack Kerouac.” But we were like, “No. You are Jack who is a college student on a football scholarship who hates the other jocks, who just wrote a book which he thinks might be completely trite and he just wants to get out of college and have some real-life experience and join the war so he could begin to have real material to write his next book. That’s who you are.” That just liberated all of us.

Question: When writing the script, how much are you tied to the truth and how much are you allowed to take creative license?

John Krokidas: We did so much research for this. We felt we had to, and I think part of it’s our academic background because there’s so much in the biographies. There are so many biographies of them out there, but then also we would find different accounts online for example from David Kammerer’s friends. They said that that relationship between him and Lucien was never portrayed accurately and that Lucien actually kept coming back to David and David was asking him to end the relationship. And then we may have broken into Jack Kerouac’s college apartment together. We did the trick of pressing all the buzzers and then somebody let us in. But what’s interesting is Columbia students were living there and they had no idea that they were in Jack Kerouac’s apartment. So, we physically went to all of the locations in which this movie took place, and that just helped inform our writing process as well; getting to be able to visualize the actual spaces. Add to that, we went to Stanford University to the Allen Ginsberg archives. It wasn’t about the lack of material out there. If anything, it was about making sure that we really just focused on who they were up until the point which the movie takes place.

Austin Bunn: Just to add to that, the people that I know that have seen the film have been really surprised at how much is actually totally accurate. The day after the murder, Allen Ginsberg went to the West End Bar, “You Always Hurt the One You Love” was playing on the jukebox and he wrote the poem that ends the film. It ends with “I am a poet;” that is a line from August 20, 1944 so we worked really hard to weave it in. But like John was saying before, we didn’t want to do the dutiful, stuffy, every box checked kind of biopic that has been around for a while. We wanted to do something that felt more in line with the spirit of the beats that was more specific and honest and transgressive, and I hope we got there.

Question: Did you two have a specific goal of what you wanted to portray and what you wanted the audience to leave with either of the time or of the characters themselves?

John Krokidas: What I want the audience to leave with is that feeling of when we were 18 and 19 years old just like these guys were in the movie; when everything seemed possible and you knew that you had something important to say about with your life. That you wanted to do something different and unique and not just what your parents taught you, not just what school taught you, but you wanted to really leave your mark on the world. The fact that after the movie these guys actually did it and created the greatest counterculture movement of the twentieth century is amazing. I have had plenty of people come up to me after seeing the movie and said, “This movie made me want to be a better writer” or “this movie made me want to go back and start playing music again.” That to me means everything. That’s ultimately, deep in my heart, why I wanted to make this movie.

Austin Bunn: The pivot point was this murder. I loved Allen Ginsberg for his openness and his honesty, and to think that at one point in his life he was called upon to defend his best friend in an honor slaying of a known homosexual, the very thing that Ginsberg went on in his life to defy and radically create change about the idea of being in the closet and the shame around that issue, that contradiction was really exciting to us dramatically.

John Krokidas: You know this movie took, from the time that we started talking about this until the time that we are getting the chance to be with you all today, over 10 years to make. When I really think about it, the thing that kept me going and kept me wanting to tell this story is that there needs to be something that pisses me off at night. The fact that in 1944 you could literally get away with murder by portraying your victim as a homosexual, that pissed me off to no end. This isn’t a political movie and it’s one scene and it’s obviously what informed how Lucien Carr got away with murder, but for me that was the thing that kept me up all night that said, “No, I have to tell the story.”

Question: The movie has different kinds of music playing throughout it like jazz and contemporary music. Did you envision using different musical styles when it came to making this movie?

John Krokidas: I originally wanted a bebop jazz score similar to Miles Davis’ score for Louis Malle’s “Elevator to the Gallows” because the transition from swing to bebop at this time was exactly what these guys wanted to do with words; to go from rhythms to exploding them into something beautiful. My music supervisor, Randal Poster, said to me, “John put down your academic treatise, put down your paper. Go make your movie. Your child’s going to start becoming the person that he or she wants to be.” So I went and I made my movie, and then I put jazz music on the film and it didn’t work at all. And then I went and did only period accurate music and it felt like Woody Allen’s “Radio Days” which is a great movie but it’s not the young rebellious movie about being 19 and wanting to change the world that we wanted to make. So, I actually went back to the playlists that Austin and I used a while writing this movie and I used Sigur Rós and stuff that was timeless but contemporary, and it brought the movie to life. Then I realized that the composer Nico Muhly had arranged all of those albums and worked with Grizzly Bear and Björk and other people that we were using as temp track. So, we got the movie to Nico and just thankfully he loved it. Now that I knew that I had contemporary music in a period film, then we get to that heist sequence. I had heist period music on it, it was so corny. The sequence didn’t work, it didn’t have any stakes to it, and I can academically tell you when the beats come on, they led to the hippies which led to the punks, and the punks led to Kurt Cobain and the 90s, etc. But the truth is that while I can intellectualize it, you go with what’s visceral and what feels honest and true to you. For me, the biggest lesson in making my first film is to do all of your homework, do all your research, know what you’re doing, but then don’t be afraid to get out of the way if your movie starts to tell you what you should be doing.

Question: How did you decide on what literary quotes to put in, and how did you work with the actors in establishing the cadence and the elocution on those?

Austin Bunn: What a great question! If you know any of the beat history, this new vision was real for them and they have written volumes about it, none of which makes any sense. We couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

John Krokidas: Do you all remember your journals when you were 20 years old or those conversations you had at three in the morning with other college students? We got to read their version of it, and there’s a reason that we hide all of our journals and don’t let them see the light of day.

Austin Bunn: It was challenging. With the uninhibited, uncensored expression of the soul, that’s actually a credible quote directly from the Ginsberg new vision manifesto. So in some ways we knew we had to distill some of that material from the Ginsberg journals to help make the argument for how valuable this manifesto was and the irony honestly of what transpires in the plot which is the very thing that Allen’s called to do which is to create this censored version of history. But in terms of the poetry itself, it was really challenging because as we all know there are movies about poets and writers where recitations happen and they are really flat and they can be corny and there’s a time where you tune out of the movie when you’re waiting for the poetry to end. Specifically, I think of Allen’s first poem that happens on the boat. We were really challenged to find a poem that would speak to audiences but was genuinely an Allen Ginsberg poem written in his voice. So what we had to do was really channel Allen. His early work is quite rough and burdened by trying to impress his dad and his professors. John had the concept of this isn’t a poem that he’s just reading to impress people, it’s a poem he’s reading to Lucien Carr. The audience knows that, you know that and Lucien finds it out on the boat at that moment. That really gave me permission to kind of rethink what the poem was going to do and how we would make it, so we came upon Allen’s method which was kind of magpie; stealing from the American vernacular and going out and finding common speech and repurposing it, creating this Whitman-esque inclusion. So you hear in the poem things that you’ve already heard in the film just like Ginsberg did himself. Things like Allen in wonderland is reworked in the poem, unbloomed stalwart is the very thing that David said to him at the party. So we’re kind of hopefully paying off not just a poem that is emotionally powerful, but also something of the method that Ginsberg would use for the rest of his life.

John Krokidas: Radcliffe was such a hard worker. While he was on Broadway doing a musical, we would meet once a week for two months before even preproduction and rehearsals began to work on the accent and to work together. I have him on my iPhone reading “Howl.” We didn’t look at the later recordings, we looked at the earliest vocal recordings possible of Allen Ginsberg to make sure that we weren’t capturing the voice of who he became, but his voice at that time and what his reading voice was like. To be honest, it’s just really telling the actor, “You’re not performing a poem. You are letting Lucien know that he is loved with this poem and that you love him and that you can see inside him.” It’s playing the emotion underneath the poem which was the direction.

Question: What does it do for you when all the main characters are gay? Normally you got the female characters who can be a love interest but they are not going to be a rival. Usually, even now in films and in life, there is a separate role where as if you are all the same gender, you can all be anything to each other.

John Krokidas: I think this is a movie with every character is discovering what their sexuality is (gay, straight, bi or all over the place), and more importantly whether or not they are worthy of being loved. I personally don’t know if Lucien Carr was straight or gay, and to me it’s irrelevant because I have seen this relationship play out amongst gay people I have known so many times where an older man who is gay and a younger man of questionable sexuality develops such a close bond. The stereotype I think would be is that the young man had an absent father figure or finds the older man’s confidence and just the care and nurturing qualities of them very attractive. What happens though is that those two get so intimate that ultimately there’s nowhere else to take the relationship but sexual, and when that happens then the power position in that relationship twists and the younger man suddenly realizes that he holds the power because he’s the sexually desired one. That’s where a lot of conflict ensues. Whatever you read about that relationship between Lucien and David, everyone knew that they were codependent. Everyone knew it was toxic and going to end badly. Nobody knew it was going to end in murder.

Austin Bunn: I think a lot of the biopics we see are kind of denatured of their sexual qualities and the edginess of the relationships in them. So, I think we were trying to do something that restored some of that ambiguity, lust, desire and confusion that is genuinely in the beats’ history. We were not making that up.

Kill Your Darlings” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

‘The Muppets’ – Jason Segel and Company Get Jim Henson’s Creations Just Right

Watching Kermit the Frog sing “Rainbow Connection” in “The Muppets” brought back one of my most cherished memories. “The Muppet Movie” was the first film I ever saw on the silver screen, and I consider myself fortunate that this was the case. I even brought along my own Kermit hand puppet with me, and I had him singing “Rainbow Connection” along with the real Kermit, and this was long before such actions might have been annoying to other audience members like when anyone takes out their cellphone during the latest cinematic spectacle which the MCU has to offer. These characters were a large part of my childhood, and I still find them endlessly entertaining all these years later.

“The Muppets” represents the kind of Muppet movie I have been yearning to see for years; one which appeals to the whole family and does not condescend to kids in the slightest. Ever since Jim Henson passed away in 1990, everything Muppet has been geared towards children without much thought to adults. The ironical humor we knew these felt characters for vanished without a trace, and Disney took over the franchise without really knowing how to sell them to either new or old generations. This became abundantly clear when “Muppets from Space” collapsed both critically and commercially back in 1999, and perhaps this was because they were not partying like it was 1999.

But with “Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s” Jason Segel and “Flight of the Conchords'” co-creator James Bobin directing and Bret McKenzie supervising the music, “The Muppets” is a movie the whole family can enjoy together, and it will put a smile on even the most jaded fan’s face. Granted, a number of puppeteers from this infamous franchise (namely Frank Oz) refused to participate because they felt the script did not respect the characters. I beg to differ on that.

Segel stars as Gary whose brother Walter is a Muppet himself, and both are die-hard fans of “The Muppet Show” in childhood. Their love for the Muppets stays strong even through puberty, and they finally get their chance to visit Muppet Studios when Gary invites Walter to come along with him and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) on a vacation to Los Angeles. But when they get there, they find the Muppet theatre it is now in a dilapidated state as Kermit and company have not performed together or seen each other in years.

Even worse, Walter overhears the evil oil magnate Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) planning to buy the Muppet theatre not to preserve it as a historic landmark, but to instead drill for oil underneath it. As a result, Walter, Gary and Mary join forces to reunite the Muppets in order to put on a telethon which will raise the money needed to save not just the Muppets, but the theatre where all the magic started.

My guess is Oz and the other puppeteers never saw the Muppets splitting up and going their separate ways, but having re-watched a lot of “Muppet Show” episodes recently, they did not always have the best time working together. Besides, they did split up, if only temporarily, in “The Muppets Take Manhattan” when Kermit got all pissed off about the gang constantly leaning on him to figure out what to do next. Heck, that Kermit didn’t ditch Miss Piggy sooner is amazing in retrospect.

Starting off with the Muppets having gone their separate ways years ago gives “The Muppets” an interesting jumping off point. Like many, these characters wonder if they are still relevant in today’s popular culture. While they are a big favorite of my generation, whether they can translate to another is still feels uncertain.

Even though the voices of the original Muppet performers are not present, the characters have not changed nor have they gotten cynical (unlike Statler and Waldorf). Steve Whitmire performs Kermit the Frog and does great work in capturing his unforgettable mannerisms without ever simply going through the motions. The same goes with the rest of the puppeteers here as they make each character from Miss Piggy to Animal all their own.

It ia also interesting to see where all these Muppets are at today. Kermit is living in a mansion which is not in the best condition, Miss Piggy is the editor in chief of Vogue Paris, Scooter works at Google, and Sam the Eagle is a Fox News-like personality which seems to be the perfect venue for his endless pomposity. But the one Muppet who practically steals this movie is Animal who we meet up with again at an anger management clinic where Jack Black is his sponsor.

As for the human actors, Segel is a hoot as Gary, and his love for the Muppets shines through every contribution he has in this film. Amy Adams remains infinitely adorable as her sweetness is no act, and she scores a huge musical highlight with the song “Party of One.” We even get to see Chris Cooper do a rap song, and it is not as terrifying as it sounds. As for Jack Black, he becomes the most unwilling guest star “The Muppet Show” has ever had.

The music is really good as well, and it never becomes cringe-inducing thank goodness. “Life’s a Happy Song” starts off the proceedings with a happiness which feels genuine, and you can tell Segel is having the time of his life while singing it. The one song though which truly deserved a Best Original Song nomination is “Man or Muppet” where both Segel and Walter bring down the house in deciding who they really are, as if the answer was not the least bit obvious. And yes, it did win the Oscar in that category, but this should not have surprised anyone as this song did not have much in the way of competition.

It is also great to see that ironic humor the Muppets were famous for back on display here. They push the bounds of the PG rating to where if the kids do not get what is being said, it is probably just as well. I loved how they got away with the Muppet chickens singing Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You” without its explicit lyrics. Oh, I’m sorry, I mean Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You” (right, whatever).

But what makes “The Muppets” so good is that everyone, be it the Muppets, the human actors or those making cameos, comes into this project without any cynicism. Making a movie with the best of intentions or one with a happy ending is greeted with our eyes rolling in the back of our heads as we come out feeling utterly and shamelessly manipulated. The filmmakers even bring back “The Muppet Show’s” opening theme song as it was performed in season three, and it looks almost exactly like it did all those years ago. Even “Mahna Mahna” is brought back, and being it was the very first sketch on “The Muppet Show,” that should show you how much these filmmakers value their childhood entertainment.

Kermit, Fozzie, and Miss Piggy will never feel or sound exactly as they did from years ago, but “The Muppets” proves they still have their charms and humor long after their glory days. It is a film made with a lot of love for the imagination Jim Henson gave us, and deep down we all would hate to see his wondrous imagination die away without a trace.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’

The Incredible Shrinking Man” comes from a genre I feel I know a lot about but have actually not seen many movies from: 1950’s science fiction. I went into it thinking it would look horribly dated and laughable for all the wrong reasons. What I instead discovered was a film which actually holds up very well after half a century with its terrific special effects and strong performances. It also deals with themes and situations which prove to be as relatable today as they were back in the time this film was released.

Scott Carey (Grant Williams) is spending an enjoyably sunny day on a boat with his wife, Louise (Randy Stuart), when a strange mist passes through him and spills some glittery substance over his body. Louise manages to not get covered by this same substance as she was down below getting a beer for her husband because men can be schmucks when they ask their spouses to get them things they should be able to get themselves (that’ll show him!). Now Scott thinks nothing of what happened until he suddenly notices his shirt is now too big for him, and then his wedding ring falls off his finger which is clearly not a good omen.

After being examined by his doctors, Scott discovers that the glittery substance is not the same kind gay groups doused Newt Gingrich with during his needless run for President of the United States. Whatever is causing him to shrink, his attempts to reverse this unfortunate condition his fail. At one point, Scott becomes so tiny to where he is forced to seek refuge in a doll house for his own safety. This makes sense until the household cat ends up mistaking him for a mouse, and he ends up running into the basement where he is forced to face dangers no human being should ever have to.

What I found endlessly fascinating about “The Incredible Shrinking Man” is that what people end up enduring after attaining an odd and unwanted fame is not much different from what anyone would experience today. Scott ends up selling his story to the press not to become famous, but because he no longer has a job and needs the money for his wife and himself to survive. The more of a curiosity he becomes, the less human he is seen by the world.

Today, if someone were going through this, we might expect them to be more forthcoming about becoming famous for something they did not exactly want to become known for as there is much money to be made, and an obscene amount at that. In the process, it is easy to forget the humanity of certain people involved, and “The Incredibly Shrinking Man” deals with the inescapable loneliness which results.

Scott clearly does not want all these photographers parked outside his front door, but he is helpless to stop their onslaught. Then again, imagine if he was dealing with this today; he would have no privacy whatsoever. It would not matter if he spent his days indoors because the damn paparazzi would find a way to get inside and snap a picture of him. Even though Scott vents at his wife against his better judgment, you I could not help but feel for him as he goes through a process no one would want to endure. That is, unless they were ridiculously desperate for some kind of attention.

“The Incredible Shrinking Man” really picks up an extraordinary amount of tension when Scott gets stuck in that basement. The special effects up to this point are very well executed, but they take on a bigger challenge when Scott is no bigger than the match box he hides in. The use of forced perspective and real physical structures makes his predicament all the more thrilling and emotionally involving. The simple act of getting food becomes a life-or-death struggle, and I felt for him as he was forced to climb up towards a stale piece of bread using only a needle and thread.

Even the simplest effects make Scott’s struggle all the more brutal as the merest failure will force right back to the start, and we can identify with the infinite frustration this causes no matter how big or small we are. But what makes his fight for survival all the more viscerally frightening is the scary-looking spider (is there any other kind?) he is forced to do battle with. It is moments Scott shares with this spider which had me the most frightened and on the edge of my seat. For a film which is now a century old, this is saying a lot. That, and I cannot stand spiders in general.

Much credit should be given to Williams here as he does not always make Scott the most likable human being. Still, whatever you may think of him, Scott is made to experience something no other human being has. While you may want to chide Scott for the way he unloads his frustrations on those closest to him, watching him makes me wonder if I would have reacted any differently. I would like to think so, but perhaps a lot of wishful thing is involved there.

“The Incredible Shrinking Man” is based on a book by Richard Matheson entitled “The Shrinking Man” (he found the “Incredible” adjective to be unnecessary). Matheson has been responsible for some of the greatest science fiction stories ever told such as “I Am Legend,” various episodes of “The Twilight Zone” like “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” and the short story “Button, Button” which became the basis for “The Box.”

I think “The Incredible Shrinking Man” represents one of the finest adaptations of Matheson’s work as it deals with the humanity of Scott’s situation as much as it does with visual effects. The effects are great, but it is our relation to Scott and what he is going through that makes this movie work so effectively. No one wants a household spider to suddenly become bigger than they are, but this film forces you to deal with these fears to where they are more real than you could ever expect them to be.

This is also a film which has a voiceover narration to accompany its events. When it comes to this way of telling a story, it can go either way; At times, it can tell us things we do not need spelled out to us, but here it also gives great depth to the film’s themes as it makes Scott’s view of his existence change throughout in ways both positive and negative.

The ending still haunts me even long after I watched it. The conclusion is solemn in a way as Scott becomes resigned to his downsized fate, but it is also strangely hopeful as he becomes convinced he will still be a part of this vast universe no matter how small he gets. Even in the 1950’s, filmmakers did not take the easy way out when wrapping up a motion picture. It is not an “everything is going to be okay” ending, but it is not a complete downer either.

I was surprised at just how much I got into “The Incredible Shrinking Man.” The title seems to imply we are about to see something endlessly cheesy, but this film proved to be thrilling and had me on the edge of my seat throughout. I imagine Hollywood will eventually remake it someday and turn it into a comedy, but they will not be able to touch the deeper meanings of what Richard Matheson was getting at. Please feel free to prove me wrong, but you will need a lot of luck in the process.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: This film is now available in a special edition from the Criterion Collection. Click here to find out more.

Charlie Hunnam on Acting in ‘Deadfall’ and Portraying a Former Boxer

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

Best known for his roles in the film “Green Street Hooligans” and on the television series “Sons of Anarchy,” actor Charlie Hunnam gets to do a variation on his tough guy image in “Deadfall.” Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, he portrays Jay, an ex-boxer who has just been released from prison. He is contemplating going back home to have Thanksgiving dinner with his parents, but things go awry for him after he seriously injures, albeit accidentally, his former coach who had betrayed him. Fearing he will be sent back to jail, Jay flees the scene and goes on the run.

While talking with Christina Radish of Collider, Hunnam said there was “real poetry” to Zach Dean’s script when he first read it and that he related to Jay’s frustration and anger over how his life felt completely out of his control. When actors study and prepare to play a role, they are always expected to go over the similarities they share with their characters as well as how they are different from them. Hunnam found that his life as an actor was similar to Jay’s career as a boxer.

“I thought that was really interesting and I could relate to it, in a way, living in Hollywood,” Hunnam told Radish. “I’m very disciplined and I have a very clear idea of how I want to be spending my time, but I’m at the mercy of everybody else who decides how I get to spend my time and whether I get to work or not. In classic storytelling terms, with the classic hero’s journey and contemporary male narrative, a man being released from prison is a dynamic that I was predisposed to be interested in and like.”

The other interesting thing Hunnam brought up in his interview with Radish was how Jay was a successful athlete. Now in crime dramas like “Deadfall,” we typically expect boxers like Jay to have failed in their profession in one way or another, be it through drugs or some sort of gambling controversy. But here, Jay proves to be a victim of circumstance which has rendered his past achievements non-existent.

“This guy seemed like a guy who had dedicated his entire life to this goal of becoming a world class athlete and actually achieved it,” Hunnam said of Jay. “We just all inherently understand the dedication and sacrifice that is needed to achieve that because we’ve all grown up watching professional athletes on TV, so I understood that. He seemed like a guy where it was day one of the rest of his life. He had ruined the prior 30 years and he was coming out completely with nothing, at all.”

One of the best things about “Deadfall” is how beautiful the snowy landscapes look and how brutally cold they appear. I got to attend the movie’s press conference at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, and it was surprising to hear Hunnam say how he looked forward to working in the freezing cold. Many actors would give anything not to work in such frigid temperatures, but for Hunnam it offered a change of pace. Still, he did find the snow to be a challenging environment to work in.

“I had actually been really excited about a period in the cold weather because we shoot ‘Sons of Anarchy’ in LA through the course of the summer, and I’m a skinny guy who wants to look as big as possible so I wear several layers of clothing; it gets really old being that hot,” Hunnam said. “But I must say that a couple of days in, I was craving the sunshine. You know when you’re really hot you get miserable and a little bit grumpy, but the cold is really debilitating.”

Hunnam did take the time to train as a boxer which helped him better understand his character. It also turned out he had a unique way of getting into Jay’s psyche which he accomplished by working out a lot and then suddenly stopping. Anyone who has exercised a lot at the gym and then stopped for a period can clearly understand how difficult it is to start all over again.

“I’ve also always been interested in boxing so I put myself through an intense boxing academy where I got up and ran five miles every morning and then went and had breakfast and boxed a couple of hours and then came home and watched fights all day long and then went and swam, and I did this seven days a week for five weeks before filming this movie. Then when I got to Montreal (where the film was shot) I wanted to stop completely and feel the absence, and I knew that was going to have a very negative effect on my psychology. It’s kind of a shortcut, rather than intellectually empathizing, to actually feeling the emotion. I got into a very dark and happy place during shooting because of that preparation,” Hunnam said.

Charlie Hunnam still has “Sons of Anarchy” to work on, and many are excited at what the show’s upcoming season finale has to offer. Up next for him is Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” in which he will be playing Raleigh Antrobus, a washed-up former pilot who has to defend the world by piloting a giant robot and fighting monsters who are rising out of the depths of the ocean. Thar one looks to be Hunnam’s biggest movie yet.


Christina Radish, “Charlie Hunnam Talks DEADFALL, SONS OF ANARCHY Season 5, PACIFIC RIM, and Writing a Movie About a Drug Lord for WB and Legendary,” Collider, December 5, 2012.

Ben Kenber, “Interview with the Cast and Director of Deadfall,” We Got This Covered, December 7, 2012.

Roger Ebert – The One Film Critic to Rule Them All

I think we all knew the end was near for Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert when he announced to the world that his cancer had returned. In his blog entitled “A Leave of Presence,” which was published just a couple of days before his death on April 4, 2013, Ebert announced he would be cutting back his workload to conquer this dreaded disease which had wreaked havoc on his body for the last decade or so. He really did fight the good fight against this indiscriminate and infuriating disease, and you had to admire how he refused to hide from the world after it robbed him of his speaking voice and made him look a little less handsome. But after all the battles, his body could only take so much. His wife Chaz described his passing as a “dignified transition,” and I am just glad it was a peaceful passing and that he was not in much pain.

Like you, I have been a big fan of Ebert’s ever since he started sharing the balcony with Gene Siskel on “At the Movies” all those years ago. Before I made going to the movies a regular event in my life, I had to settle with watching this movie review show as it was my gateway to the world of movies back when going to the local theater happened as often an eclipse of the sun. Even if they did give thumbs down to movies I loved like “Better Off Dead,” nothing could stop me from watching their show.

Eventually, I became exposed to Ebert the writer through his various “Movie Home Companion” books which later became known as his “Video Companion” and then eventually his annual “Movie Yearbook,” and I quickly purchased them year after year once they became available at my local bookstore. Sometimes I was bummed when he gave a so-so review to favorite films of mine like “Caddyshack” (he gave it * * ½ out of * * * *), but in the end he had understandably strong reasons for why he felt the way he did, and it was hard to disagree with his reasons when you thought about them.

In many ways, you did not read an Ebert review as much as you experienced one. This was the case when I read his review of the infamous “I Spit on Your Grave” which he gave one of his rare zero-star ratings to. He described it as “a vile piece of garbage” and how attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of his life. It was a review filled with spoilers as Ebert described everything which happened, and while we hate it these days when people spoil a movie for us (we have Wikipedia for that), it felt like he was doing us all a huge favor when it came to this particular film which has since become a cult classic. He even went out of his way to describe the reactions of other patrons in the theater which were very disturbing as they seemed to shamelessly cheer on the rapists, and this made his experience of seeing this dreaded movie all the more unsettling. Now while his review may have drawn more attention to this movie than he would have liked, you cannot say you were not the least bit warned as to how difficult it would be to sit through it.

As for myself, I loved how Ebert always wrote in the first person, and I am quite confident I do not need to prove to you of the effect his writing had on my own. Many websites and print publications these days do not like it in the slightest when you write in the first person, and while I understand why, it still drives me nuts. Anyone can write a movie review, but no one could write one the way Ebert did. When I first started writing my own movie reviews on the internet, I found myself writing them in the same way he did. Truth be told, it is a lot more fun to write them in the first person as there is only one of you in this universe and, the way I see it, people tend to find more enjoyment in reading those kinds of reviews anyway.

Back when I was in high school, many of my friends came to hate Ebert because, the way they saw it, he just hated movies. Now granted this made me a closeted fan of his for a while because I did not want to appear too different from everyone around me, but I was still annoyed at the summary judgment they made against him. I wanted to yell at them, “DO YOU REALLY THINK HE WOULD SPEND ALL THIS REVIEWING AND TALKING ABOUT MOVIES IF HE REALLY HATED THEM?! WHAT WORLD ARE YOU FROM ANYWAY??!!” While Ebert at times seemed to dislike more movies than he liked, it became easy to see why; many of the movies we loved as kids were no different from the ones he saw as a kid himself, and what we saw as new seemed like the same old thing to him. As we continue to get older, we have come to feel the same away about movies in general because the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Furthermore, Ebert was never a snob to me. While you may be annoyed how he gave thumbs down to “Full Metal Jacket” and yet give a thumbs up to “Cop and a Half,” he was fully aware of how not every movie could be on the same level as “Citizen Kane” or “Vertigo.” Some film critics like Rex Reed are uber snobs who revel in the power they think they have to destroy a movie, but Ebert was able to judge a movie for what it was trying to be as opposed to what he wanted it to be. “Days of Thunder” clearly earned its unofficial nickname of “’Top Gun’ on wheels,” but Ebert gave it a thumbs up because, on that level, it was effective entertainment. Sure, you could compare it to “Lawrence of Arabia,” but why?

In retrospect, if it were not for Ebert, or even Siskel, would audiences have taken the time to discover movies such as “Roger & Me” or “Hoop Dreams?” The one gift Ebert gave us was his power to give a voice to and support films which Hollywood studios were not quick to shower their attention to as they did with summer blockbusters. He made us realize it is up to us to give smaller independent movies the attention they deserve. Otherwise, they just might fall through the cracks to where they become completely obscure.

I also admired Ebert for cutting through the hyperbole which could completely engulf a film. One great example was Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” which many mistakenly saw as a call to violence. Ebert, who would later declare the film to be one of the best of the 1980’s, instead saw it as a story of where race relations were at in America, and that it was a reality call we needed to wake up to. He made you see Lee was not endorsing one course of action over the other, but that he was instead showing us what happens when people do not do the right thing. A few years later, Los Angeles was besieged by riots which came about after the Rodney King verdicts, and this made “Do The Right Thing” seem like an eerily prophetic film as a result.

Now how come other film critics could not see Lee’s film in the same way Ebert did? Maybe it was because he was a much more opened minded person than others. What a critic can say about a movie often says more about them than anything else, and even if you do not agree with Ebert on a particular film, you cannot say he was a man consumed with hate or any deep-seated bias. He was never blinded by any particular ideology or thought process, and he forever remained gifted at explaining what Lee or other filmmakers were truly getting at with their work.

Ebert’s fight with cancer made me admire him even more. Once it robbed him of his voice and a good portion of his jaw, you would have expected him to hide in a cave somewhere. But he refused to do that, and his work as a film critic and a writer never suffered as a result. In fact, he wrote even more than ever before as he expanded beyond his usual movie reviews to cover current events everyone in the world were constantly caught up in discussing. You could argue with Ebert on certain points, but he was always ready to back up what he said with the facts. Your best bet, instead of trying to prove him wrong, was to outguess him at the Oscars.

Thank you, Roger, for being a hero of mine. Thanks for all your great reviews even if you badmouthed some of my favorites. Thanks for continuing to write and not hiding from the world after cancer robbed you of your voice, and thank you for sharing the balcony with Gene Siskel and Richard Roeper for all those years. But most importantly, thank you for showing me the power of the written word. Like many others, I will miss your presence in life and on the web, but you still left us with so many great articles I still have yet to read.

WRITER’S NOTE: Down below, I am including the exclusive interview I did with director Steve James and Roger’s wife, Chaz Ebert, while they were doing press for the documentary they made entitled “Life Itself.” Based on Roger’s memoir of the same name, it was an enthralling documentary I was ever so happy to sit through.

‘Evil Dead’ Remake Has its Moments, but it Could Have Been Better

Seriously, I really wanted to love this remake of “Evil Dead” the way my fellow horror fans did. They seem to be thrilled about this one in ways they usually are not when it comes to remakes of any kind, and we knew way in advance that this remake was designed to be an incredibly gory delight. But while the filmmakers did their best to not just do the same old thing with their take on Sam Raimi’s immortal cult classic from 1981, the story of a group of young adults trapped in an old cabin and being terrorized by demons has now been told one too many times for it to thrill me anymore. Furthermore, they spent more time making this movie look bloody as hell instead of truly scary, and this is why it fell apart for me.

The character of Ash was wisely left out of this interpretation as no one would dare try to replace Bruce Campbell in this unforgettable role. Heck, even if Campbell was dead, no one would be recklessly stupid as to attempt such a foolish feat as replacing him in this role would be like replacing the late Richard Belzer as John Munch. Instead, the story centers around a young woman named Mia (Jane Levy) who has come to that horrific cabin in the woods to kick her opiate addiction once and for all. She is joined by her brother, David (Shiloh Fernandez), with whom she has not always had the best relationship, and his sexy girlfriend, because guys like him just have to have one, Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore). Also present are her friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas) who have watched Mia go through detox before, and they are not sure they can handle her going through it again.

This “Evil Dead” takes its sweet time setting up the characters and their backstories before they discover the Naturom Demonto, best known as being the Book of the Dead. I loved how so many of the pages had things written on it such as DON’T SAY THESE WORDS OUT LOUD, and yet Eric, whose job as a high school teacher has made him quite cynical, just has to read them anyway. Besides, how is a horror movie supposed to work if nobody does anything incredibly stupid? Those faceless demons then make their way to the isolated cabin with the sole intention of possessing its inhabitants and then killing them off one by one. The question is, which one of them will be left standing at the end?

This remake was directed by Fede Alvarez who made the short film “Ataque de Pánico!” (aka “Panic Attack!”) which was a big hit on You Tube, and he would later go on to make the terrific horror thriller “Don’t Breathe.” He does not seem the least bit shy about giving us tons of blood and gore, and it made me wonder what graphic images he had to cut out in order to avoid an NC-17 rating. You have one character slicing their tongue in half, another tearing chunks of flesh out of their face, and yet another using a nail gun the same way Danny Glover used one in “Lethal Weapon 2.” And let us not forgot that one person who gets a chainsaw shoved into a part of their body which would eliminate the need for a tonsillectomy. Still, no NC-17. Perhaps this is because in this version, no one gets raped by a tree.

But while Alvarez and company put a lot of work into the gory effects, I wished they had put just as much effort into the story. Things are played a lot more seriously here than they need to be, and it would have been great if they included more of the original’s sense of humor which helped to make it so memorable. With this remake, the filmmakers are already at a disadvantage because this kind of story has been told to death far too many times already. We quickly know where the characters are heading once they mistake of unlocking the door to that darn cabin, and all we can do is wonder who will be the first to die and how.

Also, there is way too much shaky camerawork going and, when this remake came out, I was getting to the point where I can no longer defend anyone going overboard with this kind filmmaking. I used to get a kick out of shaky cam, but I have since come to believe this technique is best to Paul Greengrass.

As for the actors, the majority of them are just okay. Not that the cast of the original gave Oscar worthy performances, but they were a lot livelier than this bunch. The strongest performance comes from Jane Levy, best known for her work on the television shows “Shameless” and “Suburgatory,” as Mia. While her character is one messed up individual, Levy makes you get deeply involved in Mia’s plight from start to finish to where we never want to abandon her.

When all is said and done, it is impossible not to have had high expectations for this particular horror remake as Raimi, Campbell and Robert G. Tapert (producer of the original “Evil Dead”) were on board to make sure the fans got all the blood and gore they wanted. As a result, I knew this version would not be dumbed down into some lame PG-13 flick where all the edge was rendered moot for mass consumption. I did enjoy parts of it, and it did keep me entertained for the most part. But considering the talent involved, I expected it to be a lot more than what it was.

The great thing about the original “Evil Dead” was how Raimi was able to pull off so many clever and innovative shots on such a low budget. Alvarez was able to work with a much larger budget this time around ($17 million), but while he certainly does try his hardest, he cannot top what Raimi did or bring much of anything new to this material. I do have to give him some credit as he gets away with using practical special effects instead of throwing a bunch of cheap CGI crap at us. This is what helps to keep the goings on more entertaining than they should be. In no way should this remake seem like a total loss as it did give us filmmakers and actors who have since moved on to bigger and better things, and they deserve to be where they are at. Still, I wished I liked this version much more than I did.

I came out of this “Evil Dead” remake with some hope despite my mixed reaction to it as I wondered if it could possibly give Hollywood enough of a reason to give us a fourth film with Ash Williams following the events of “Army of Darkness.” People had been praying for a fourth “Evil Dead” film for years, and we finally got one in the form of a cable series entitled “Ash vs Evil Dead.” This proved to be loads of fun, but when it was all over, Campbell made it clear he was retiring the character once and for all as he could no longer tackle the physical and emotional punishment, but we have a new one entitled “Evil Dead Rise” which looks to reinvigorate the franchise in a whole other way. Here is hoping it is worth the wait.

By the way, for those of you who have not yet watched this “Evil Dead” remake, I implore you to sit through the end credits as there is a special surprise at the very end. Trust me, it is worth the wait. And, sad to say, it was my favorite part of this film.

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘Magic Mike’s Last Dance’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

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

I thought the first two “Magic Mike” films served two different purposes, but they were entertaining and fun in different ways.  The first “Magic Mike,” directed by Steven Soderbergh, was more artistic and character driven.  It was a good film with great performances and cinematography. In “Magic Mike XXL,” we got some comedic touches to the material, and it was a charming and fun journey.  “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” features style but very little substance and almost none of the charm of the second film.  Instead, we are left with a film which really serves no purpose. I really hope it is Magic Mike’s last dance because what else is left to explore with this franchise at this point?

Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) has fallen on hard times after his furniture business went under because of the pandemic.  He is now a bartender in Miami and trying to keep a low profile.  It’s not that he is ashamed of his past, it’s just that he is looking to leave it behind and move forward. While bartending, one of Mike’s former clients recognizes him, but she plays it cool because she is with her husband.  This information gets passed onto Maxandra Mendoza (Salma Hayek Pinault) who offers him $6,000 for a dance.  He initially asked for $60,000, but they were able to settle on $6,000.  After he dances for her, she offers him a chance to earn that $60,000 in London, but she leaves out the details.

MAGIC MIKE’S LAST DANCE Copyright: © 2023 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: (L-r) SALMA HAYEK PINAULT as Maxandra Mendoza and CHANNING TATUM as Mike Lane in Warner Bros. Pictures musical comedy “MAGIC MIKE’S LAST DANCE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

While in London, we discover Max is in the middle of a divorce and is now in possession of the Rattigan Theatre. She wants Mike to choreograph dance elements into “Isabel Ascende,” a play which was being run there before she arrived and shut it down.  When Mike and Max come together, they come up with the idea of incorporating erotic dance into the production in a way which will spice things up around town.  This, however, does not come without problems from her ex-husband, Roger (Alan Cox).  Max believes Mike can find a way to put something magical out there, even if it is for only one night, as he really made an impression on her back in Miami with his dancing.

One of the biggest problems with this film is the fact it does not feature the previous crew of dancers such as Kevin Nash, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer and Adam Rodriguez. They are only shown here on a brief Zoom call, where Mike promises to get them their money back after the furniture business they invested in with him went out of business.  The film was really missing their presence and chemistry together as a group.  Overall, the film does have some great dance numbers, especially the one in the beginning between Mike and Max and some big numbers at the end.  It is everything in the middle which just seems unnecessary and unimportant to the viewers.

I liked the chemistry between Tatum and Hayek Pinault. I wanted their relationship to develop more on screen from a character perspective instead of just being a physical attraction. I thought her personal assistant, Victor (Ayub Khan-Din), had some great one-liners and used his screen time wisely. More of his character would have been appreciated. Max’s adopted daughter, Zadie, played by Jemelia George in her first film role, also showed tremendous timing and screen presence.  There is a genesis for an entertaining film here, but at nearly two hours long, it’s a real slog to sit through from start to finish. The first two films were better than I expected them to be, but this one is a drag.  There is not a lot of enjoyment to be had here as this sequel is really flat and uninspired.

* * out of * * * *

Blu-ray Info: “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” is released on a two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  It has a running time of 112 minutes and is rated R for sexual material and language. This combo pack comes with the Blu-ray, DVD, and a digital copy of the film as well.

Video Info: The 1080p High-Definition transfer looks really, really good here. I’ve always been a big fan of the look and feel of Steven Soderbergh’s films, and this is no exception here. It has a crisp, clear look, but it also knows when to light up during the dance numbers.  This is a really, really good-looking Blu-ray.

Audio Info: The DTS-HD MA: English 5.1 audio transfer is also top notch with flawless sound.  It also comes on the following audio formats: Dolby Digital: English Descriptive Audio, French, and Spanish. Subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

Magic Mike’s New Moves

Deleted Scene

Should You Buy It?

I understand they wanted to do something different with the third film. They took it to London and added Hayek Pinault. They had good intentions here.  After all, this is Tatum’s baby, and he’s a producer on the film.  However, they left behind the boys from the first two films, and they are such a big part of this franchise. They added the flavor and the fun factor.  The film also takes itself too seriously with these voiceovers which come across as too self-important.  There are good intentions here, as I mentioned, but the execution is very poor. There is no meat on the bone with the screenplay here. I did not feel like I knew any of the other dancers all that well, and I wanted to know more about Hayek Pinault’s character besides the fact she is getting divorced from a wealthy businessman.  If this is on HBO one night, you can check it out.  I would not go out of my way to see it or buy it.

**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.