Hacksaw Ridge

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I want to start off first by applauding director Mel Gibson for using the term “A True Story” as opposed to “Based on a True Story” when he starts off “Hacksaw Ridge.” You all know how much I have come to despise the term “Based on a True Story” as it has long since lost its meaning, and I have to give credit to Gibson for altering this phrase here. As a director, you know he’s not about to take the easy way out or give us something which feels emotionally false. This continues to be the case with “Hacksaw Ridge,” his first directorial effort in ten years.

This movie tells the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist Christian who joined the Army in World War II to serve as a medic. The only thing is, he joins as a conscientious objector and refuses to carry a weapon of any kind into the battlefield. At the Battle of Okinawa, he succeeded in rescuing 75 wounded soldiers without firing a single shot, and he was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his acts which went above and beyond the call of duty.

Desmond is played as a young adult by Andrew Garfield, and he is very deserving of the Oscar nomination he received for his performance. From start to finish, the British-American actor imbues Desmond with an unshakable faith in a higher power, and I never saw this faith waiver for a single second. Seeing him square off with a fellow soldier who assumes he is a coward for not picking up a rifle is fascinating as Garfield’s eyes emit a hard-won bravery the others around him only think they possess. This even comes across as he pursues Nurse Dorothy Schutte (the luminous Teresa Palmer) as obsessively as Dustin Hoffman chased Katherine Ross around town in “The Graduate” to where you wonder if anything could stand in Desmond’s way at all.

We all know Gibson is a devoutly religious person, and not just because he made “The Passion of the Christ.” Indeed, “Hacksaw Ridge” could have easily looked silly if it took its subject far too seriously or tried to indoctrinate us or push some agenda, but Gibson doesn’t make those mistakes. The director treats Desmond with the respect he deserves, and he was clearly determined not to make him look like a joke. Desmond was the real deal, and he found the perfect actor to portray him in Garfield.

Gibson also wades through a wealth of war movie clichés which do take away from the final cut, but the scenes are elevated by a number of strong performances from a well-chosen cast. Hugo Weaving of “The Matrix” and “Lord of the Rings” fame (“Welcome to Rivendale, Mr. Anderson”) is a big standout as Desmond’s father, Tom. Being a war veteran himself, Tom has seen the vicious damage it has done to the soul and the psyche. Weaving makes Tom more than the average abusive drunk you see in cinema as he shows his character’s pain over the memories he can’t drink away, and of the terror he wishes to keep his sons from experiencing themselves.

Rachel Griffiths provides the yin to Weaving’s yang in her performance as Desmond’s mom, Bertha, who enforces in her son the importance of God’s commandments, especially the one which states “thou shalt not kill.” She also gives Bertha a strong gravitas which Garfield benefits richly from as the movie goes on, and you can see how her presence remained a strong one in Desmond’s life.

Then there’s Vince Vaughn who gives his best performance in quite some time as Army Drill Sergeant Howell. While his work may pale in comparison to R. Lee Ermey’s brutal performance in “Full Metal Jacket,” at least Vaughn invests Howell with a strong dose of human you wouldn’t often expect characters like these to have in war movies.

But the real meat of “Hacksaw Ridge” comes in the last section during the battle sequences. Now Gibson might not be able to match Steven Spielberg’s powerful realism when it came to those unforgettable opening minutes of “Saving Private Ryan,” but he tops him when it comes to bloody carnage. Bullets fly everywhere, limbs are blown off and guts are laid out for rats to chew on. This should be no surprise as this movie comes from the director of “Braveheart,” “The Passion of the Christ,” and “Apocalypto,” and like those movies, it features a protagonist who has to wade through body parts and blood in order to receive any kind of salvation.

Along with director of photography Simon Duggan, Gibson gives us some of the most visceral and best war movies I have seen in a long time as he shows you the damage war leave in its wake as well as what it does to the souls of those in the front line. It also gives a real-life superhero who selflessly risked his life to help those who could no longer help themselves. While certain sections are undone a bit by an innate corniness which comes with unavoidable clichés, Gibson gives us a war movie for the ages which, in the wrong hands, could have become silly and heavy-handed, but in his, it becomes a celebration of a man who saved so many without even firing a bullet.

“Hacksaw Ridge” had been in development hell for 14 years, and the rights to it were at one point in the hands of Walden Media which wanted to turn Desmond’s story into a PG-13 movie. Something tells me this would have been a mistake as sanitizing the struggles of war would have been an insult to those who fought for our freedoms. Yes, this is an ultra-violent motion picture, but for good reason. Could we have appreciated what Desmond without having a clear view of the chaos he and other soldiers put themselves into? I think not.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

Arbitrage

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Definition of Arbitrage:

  1. The nearly simultaneous purchase and sale of securities or foreign exchange in different markets in order to profit from price discrepancies.
  2. The purchase of the stock of a takeover target especially with a view to selling it profitably to the raider.

Arbitrage” looks like the average thriller better suited to the usual made for TV movie on network television or the Lifetime Channel. However, it turns out to be a brilliant thriller which takes a seemingly simple story and spins it into a complex one filled with characters that seem easy to figure out but prove to be anything but. Just when you think this will be a film about what’s right and wrong, it becomes one in which everyone finds their moral values permanently compromised no matter how good their intentions are.

Richard Gere stars as Robert Miller, a hedge-fund magnate whose every inch of his being oozes success like it’s supposed to. Robert looks to have all the money he ever needs, a loving family, a loyal wife, grandkids and the whole nine yards. We soon find, however, that he is deeply immersed in fraudulent practices which could tear his whole empire down if exposed. Robert’s only salvation is to sell off his trading empire to a major bank before his wall street crimes are revealed so he may pay off all his debts for good.

But things get seriously complicated for Robert when he is driving to upstate New York with his mistress Julie (Laetitia Casta) and their car flips over on the road. The crash ends up killing Julie and leaves Robert in a serious predicament as he cannot report what happened to the police. If he does, it will seriously delay the sale of his company which could put him and his family on the brink of financial disaster. The walls continue to close in when NYPD Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) is assigned to the case and finds circumstantial evidence implicating Robert in Julie’s death. The question is, how much longer he can keep up this moral duplicity before it undoes him permanently?

“Arbitrage” marks the directorial debut of writer Nicholas Jarecki whose work deals with larger than life characters and morally ambiguous themes of industry, power, and corruption. What I loved about his direction here was how naturalistic everything seemed, be it the acting or the setting. No one in the cast overdoes their performance which makes for a more invigorating cinematic experience than we typically get.

Jarecki also gives us some brilliantly conceived characters who appear to represent right and wrong very clearly, but as the story goes on, we find they are not immune to moral compromises. Even the police detective who represents working class Americans sick of being screwed over by the rich proves he is not above bending the rules to get a conviction. All this time, Julie becomes less of a human being and more of a bargaining chip for everybody involved.

I was listening to an interview with Gere and NPR’s Audie Cornish who remarked how she’s always rooting for the actor no matter what character he plays. Whether he’s playing a slick defense attorney who lives for self-promotion in “Primal Fear” or as a seriously corrupt cop in “Internal Affairs,” Gere comes across as strangely likable even when his characters are jerks to say the least. His role as Robert Miller is further proof of how brilliantly he portrays the kind of people we love to hate in these endlessly difficult economic times.

Robert is at his heart a slick manipulator and a liar; he deceives his children, cheats on his wife, is knowingly committing fraud, and is not about to accept any responsibility for his mistress’ death. Throughout “Arbitrage’s” running time, Gere is riveting as he tries to stay one step ahead of the law, and we find ourselves rooting for him to do so. We should despise this man and his morally duplicitous ways, but you have to admit Robert is a very smart guy who has managed to stay afloat despite some bad decisions.

Although his New York accent sounds a little weird, Tim Roth is also excellent as NYPD detective who becomes bent on taking Robert down. His character of Michael Bryer is on the side of law and justice, but he proves to be as ruthless as Robert while he pursues witnesses relentlessly, and he has no problem threatening their livelihoods in order to get a conviction.

Nate Parker plays Jimmy Grant; a family friend of Robert’s who helps him out of and then finds himself in the middle of his problems. Jimmy is a familiar character in that he is caught between doing the right thing and keeping his mouth shut and we see so many of them in movies. But Parker does great work in conveying Jimmy’s inner turmoil to where this character seems like anything but a cliché, and he makes you feel what it’s like to walk in his shoes.

Brit Marling is wonderful as Robert’s daughter and heir-apparent Brooke, and seeing her transition from loyal daughter to one whose trust is forever shattered is heartbreaking. Her scene with Gere will remind those of us who have been put into impossible situations we cannot easily extricate ourselves from, and the look on her face is one which never goes away.

But it’s Susan Sarandon who almost steals the show as Robert’s wife Ellen, and she reminds us what a powerhouse of an actress she can be. Sarandon portrays Ellen as loyal almost to a fault, but she reveals vulnerabilities throughout which indicate she knows more about what’s going on than Robert realizes. Sarandon’s final confrontation with Gere is a knockout as she comes up with an extra strategy which is as brilliant as the one Katie Holmes pulled on Tom Cruise.

In addition, there’s also a wealth of beautiful cinematography by Yorick Le Saux and a music score by Cliff Martinez which fits this material like a glove.

I was stunned at how much I liked “Arbitrage,” and it really is one of the best movies I saw in 2012. It’s the kind of film you can’t quite prepare yourself for how good it will be because it came cloaked in trailers and advertisements which make it look ho-hum. Jarecki, however, gives us a film which is anything but average, and I thank him for that.

* * * * out of * * * *

Amy

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I remember the first time I listened to Amy Winehouse’s album “Back to Black.” It transported me to another time and place that had long ceased to exist as her music sounded like something out of the 60’s. I actually found her album at my local library and downloaded it onto my iPod with the hopes of listening to it one day. Once I did get around to listening to it, I couldn’t turn it off as I was too captivated by her amazing vocals and heartfelt lyrics.

It was profoundly sad to see Winehouse’s life get cut short at the age of 27 from alcohol poisoning. In some ways, her death wasn’t a huge surprise as she had endured a lot of substance abuse and paparazzi harassment in the years leading up to her death. She had become a tabloid punchline as it appeared as though she had no desire to hide her debaucheries from the public eye. Many of us rooted for Winehouse to pull herself out of her downward spiral and struggled to understand why she would self-destruct on such a public level, but it only goes to show just how much we know about being famous. One person described her as being an old soul in a young woman’s body, and this became even more the case as time went on.

The documentary “Amy” succeeds in giving us a very intimate look at Winehouse not just as a public figure, but as the person she was before and after she achieved worldwide fame. Many who knew her personally are interviewed here, and it gives us a picture into a life which became irrevocably damaged by fame and substance abuse. But even though we know how her story will end, the documentary brings her back to life for a short time, and it feels like she is still with us.

“Amy’s” first image will forever burn in my memory as we see the singer at her best friend’s 13th birthday party. We see her sing the song Happy Birthday and can’t take our eyes off of her as she does such an amazing job of belting it out. This proved to be the best way to start this documentary as we see right then and there a star has been born. Listening to her makes you wish she would sing at your next birthday party, seriously.

The documentary is full of never before seen home videos and footage which helps to give her more complexity and dimension than the media ever could while she was alive, and this makes seeing “Amy” all the more necessary. The singer has long sing joined the ranks of Janis Joplin and Billie Holiday, famous singers whose lives were cut short at such an early age, and like them, she deserves to be known for more than her vices.

What “Amy” shows is how Winehouse was a woman who got into music as a form of survival. Having been a child of divorce and suffered from depression, music and singing offered her an outlet from all the psychological damage life kept inflicting on her. She never saw herself having a career as a singer, and she admits early on she didn’t set out to become famous because she didn’t think she could handle it. Those words soon prove to be prophetic.

It was great to see all the home footage of Winehouse as it gives us a side of her the public never got to see until now. She appears for a time to be a fun-loving girl eager to spend her days with friends and smoke weed, but like any famous artist she was a tortured soul whose eagerness to sing was more about getting negative energy out of her system than making millions of dollars.

The fact “Amy” is such an intimate documentary isn’t a huge surprise to me as it was directed by Asif Kapadia, the same filmmaker who gave us one of the very best documentaries of the last few years with “Senna.” Just as he did with “Senna,” Kapadia invites us to spend time with a celebrity who we previously saw through the distorted lenses of corporate media.

It also gives you an up close and personal view of how damaging fame can be. One scene has Winehouse going up to the stage to accept an award, and the noise of the audience and fans quickly becomes deafening, illustrating how her life had become a fish bowl which cut her off from everyday reality. It’s not hard to feel for her as the prying and voyeuristic eyes of the media render her private life nonexistent.

Her addictions included alcohol and hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, but perhaps her biggest drug of all was the tempestuous love affair she had with Blake Fielder-Civil. The fact she and Blake didn’t meet the same fate which greeted Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen seems amazing considering how deeply intertwined they were in each other’s lives and vices. Woody Harrelson in “Natural Born Killers” said “love beats the demon,” but for Winehouse, love may have proven to be her biggest demon even as it fueled some of her most unforgettable songs.

“Amy” also calls into question how we deal with celebrities whose lives are spinning out of control. Winehouse became a punchline for comedians as her woes continued endlessly, and what might have seemed funny while she was alive now seems cruel in retrospect. Perhaps we are numbed to the suffering of celebrities as we have many examples of famous peoples’ lives getting cut short from one generation to the next, but it also shows the pleasure many took in her self-degradation. Now you may say she brought this all on herself, but did she really?

It’s horrifying and ultimately heartbreaking to see Winehouse in her last days as such a gaunt and unhealthy looking person. Many have called her a nasty diva but, as Kapadia shows here, she was really trying to escape the constant glare of the media and attention she never set out to get. At the last concert she did before her death, one she did not want to do, she refused to sing a single note even as the crowd mercilessly booed her. From a distance this looks like the antics of a spoiled pop star, but it was an act of defiance on her part as she was struggling to escape the famous persona which had been thrust upon her. Sadly, she found the escape through death.

Now I may be making “Amy” sound like a truly depressing cinematic experience, but while it is heartbreaking, it is also joyful as well. Winehouse was an exceptionally gifted singer, and hearing her voice when it is not being backed up by a band is jaw-dropping to witness. She really did have one hell of a voice. Also, Kapadia pays close attention to the lyrics she wrote and how autobiographical they proved to be. After watching “Amy,” it will be impossible to look at any of her songs the same way again.

There are wonderful moments when Winehouse performs in London for the Grammys after getting clean and sober, and it’s great to see her excitement when Tony Bennett comes onstage. When she ends up winning a Grammy, the theater she’s in bursts into applause and cheers, and it’s exhilarating to see everyone’s reactions as all the hard work paid off in a great way. Of course, this moment is also tinged with sadness as we know this will be the last true moment of happiness in Winehouse’s life.

Granted, “Amy” has been dealing with some controversy as her family has blasted the documentary as being inaccurate. Her father, Mitch, has been especially critical as he feels the filmmakers portrayed him in a very negative light. Mitch, in all fairness, has a right to feel this way, but Kapadia has given us an objective look at him and everyone else featured in a way which doesn’t moralize or demonize anyone. Any faults of Mitch shown onscreen are his to own up to, but at least the movie doesn’t show him as being completely absent throughout his daughter’s life.

For what it’s worth, Mitch comes off a lot better than her daughter’s ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who openly admits to introducing Winehouse to crack cocaine and heroin. The fact he admits this to Kapadia in an interview is astonishing, and it makes clear he is the one with the higher price to pay for Winehouse’s demise.

I’ve watched a number of documentaries recently which have been very entertaining, but many of them dig only so deep or touch at the surface of their subject’s life. It’s like there’s something missing which makes the whole endeavor seem like a loss opportunity when you look back on it. But “Amy” proves to be one of the very best documentaries in the past few years as it examines its subject objectively and without fear, and it leaves no stone unturned as it uncovers the many aspects of this troubled singer’s personality.

Just as he did with “Senna,” Kapadia has made “Amy” as a way to get to know this famous personality in a way we never had before. It’s like he has brought her back to life for a short time to where it feels like she never left, and it is nice to see her portrayed in such a way more befitting to who she was as an individual instead of how she was as a worldwide famous celebrity.

It was nice to meet you, Ms. Winehouse. Sorry you couldn’t stay with us a little while longer.

* * * * out of * * * *

A Most Violent Year

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A Most Violent Year” takes us back to the New York City of 1981 which was statistically the most dangerous year in the city’s history. It was just before crazy hairdos, Madonna, “Miami Vice,” and MTV became a reality, and it was also a time where doing business in the Big Apple became fraught with unbearable tension. Many people fled to the safety of the suburbs as immigrants arrived who were searching for the American dream, and I don’t just mean Tony Montana. In some ways, the movie’s title is misleading as this is not one filled with wall-to-wall violence. Instead, it’s more about the violence hiding beneath the surface which is just waiting to burst out as one immigrant in particular looks to start a legitimate business, but he soon discovers that the road to success is paved with devious intentions.

Oscar Isaac stars as Abel Morales, and this movie starts with him putting a down payment on a piece of land in Brooklyn where he looks to expand his small heating-oil business to a significant degree. Abel has a strong business partner in his wife, the straight out of Brooklyn Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father, a known gangster, he bought the business from. Abel makes it no secret that he intends to run this business in a legitimate fashion, but it doesn’t take long to see how incredibly difficult that will be for him.

Just as Abel’s plans look to be coming together, he finds himself dealing with competitors who are ever so eager to snag a bigger share of the market. On top of that, thieves keep attacking his drivers, stealing his fuel and selling it to illegitimate markets, and Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is investigating Abel’s accounting practices which just might reveal that he’s not the law abiding citizen he constantly claims to be. Suffice to say, this man has a lot on his plate and he now has only three days to finalize his deal on the land he wants to purchase.

What’s fascinating about “A Most Violent Year” is how all the characters are stuck in a morally gray area throughout. The difference between right and wrong is impossible to sort out because the overriding concern for Abel and Anna is to close the deal before everything falls apart and their dreams are destroyed. The movie really puts you in Abel’s shoes to where you get a full sense of his desperation to keep his head above water. What he comes to discover is that he cannot depend on others in the business community to help him with his escalating troubles. In his attempt to expand his business, he finds that he’s living in a time where it’s every man for himself.

I loved watching Isaac as he imbues Abel with such a strong aura of confidence (some may say overconfidence) as he tries to gain the trust of those who are in a position to help him. To be honest, it’s that kind of confidence I would love to exude in my own life. As “A Most Violent Year” goes on, we see that confidence start to slip ever so slightly which leads to a number of intense moments Isaac has no problem delivering on. This is the same actor who so memorably broke through into our consciousness with his performance in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and with “A Most Violent Year” he shows just how far his range as an actor goes. Even when his character becomes desperate in his attempts to make his business expansion a reality, Isaac maintains a commanding presence throughout.

But as good as Isaac is, he almost gets the movie stolen out from under him by Jessica Chastain. Her performance as Anna is a scorcher as she makes clear who the better businessman is in the family, and Chastain molds her into a Lady Macbeth-like character who is far cleverer than anyone will ever give her credit for. Knowing she’s a native of Northern California, I thought casting her as someone born and raised in Brooklyn might be a mistake. Well shame on me for thinking that because Chastain once again proves why she is a talent to be reckoned with.

“A Most Violent Year” was written and directed J.C. Chandor who also gave us “Margin Call” and “All is Lost.” All of his films to date have dealt with people caught up in crisis situations that continue to spiral out of their control, and this one proves to be every bit as enthralling. Chandor gives us a highly specific view of 1981 that never feels clichéd or obvious to the decade, and he takes us on a very tense journey with someone who may dress far better than I ever will, but who also exhibits the same anxieties and concerns we all do. His attention to character is exemplary, and he leaves on the edge of our seats in more ways than one.

It would be so nice to do business without having to go against the things we were taught to believe in, but we eventually learn business in general is never fair (and I don’t just say this because I live in Los Angeles). I found myself never quibbling too much about the things Abel ends up doing in “A Most Violent Year” because I have a very nasty feeling I wouldn’t approach his situation all that differently. Back in a time where the established way of doing business ceased to exist, I imagine I would have made the same compromises Abel is forced to make here. Whether one can live with that is a whole other story, and “A Most Violent Year” tells it in a very compelling manner that holds your attention throughout.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Kyle Patrick Alvarez about ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’

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Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment” takes us back to the year 1971 when psychology professor Philip Zimbardo (played in the movie by Billy Crudup) conducted the infamous experiment which had 24 students playing the roles of prisoners and guards in a makeshift prison located in the basement of the school’s psychology building. Things start off well, but the experiment soon goes out of control when the guards become increasingly abusive to the prisoners, and Zimbardo is unwilling to stop their brutality as he is infinitely curious to see what it will produce. Zimbardo was out to test his hypothesis of how the personality traits of prisoners and guards are the chief cause of abusive behavior between them. The experiment was supposed to last fourteen days, but it ended after 6.

What results is one of the most intense moviegoing experiences from the year 2015 as a cast of actors including Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Michael Angarano, and Logan Miller find themselves caught up in the experiment’s grip to where the line between reality and fiction is completely blurred. Whereas previous films have observed this experiment from an academic standpoint, this one observes it from an emotional one.

I got to talk with Kyle while he was in Los Angeles to promote “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” His previous films as writer and director were “C.O.G.” in which a cocky young man travels to Oregon to work on an apple farm, and “Easier with Practice” which tells the tale of a novelist going on a road trip with his younger brother to promote his unpublished novel.

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Ben Kenber: “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is one of the most movies you don’t watch as much as you experience.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez: I’m finding that out, yeah (laughs).

BK: There are only so many movies you can say that about. “Deliverance” is a good example of that.

KPA: I was really humbled. When the movie first played I think the first question at the Q&A was, “Did you feel like this movie was an experiment on the audience?” I was so taken aback by the question not in a negative way, but because no one had seen the movie before. I was actually working so hard to not overburden the audience with the story. We even tempered it down a lot. They were stripping guys by the end of day one. I think by the end it’s supposed to become burdensome to watch, and I embrace it now that that’s the reaction, but I didn’t know that that was going to be the case. So the first time the movie screened I was like. okay, it is playing this way to people and I know I can just embrace that now which is good. I hope not every movie I make is like that, but hopefully the movie earns it and then people appreciate the challenge of the experience of watching it.

BK: I remember hearing about this particular experiment while I was in a psychology class in college, and we even watched a documentary about it as well. The one thing that stood out to me the most was when the prisoners started saying “prisoner 819 did a bad thing,” and they kept saying it over and over. I kept waiting for that moment to come up in this movie.

KPA: Oh yeah. I felt like that was one of the really iconic things that you hear. You can hear it over and over and over again in your head, and I think we even joked at one point that they could release a teaser that was just that over and over again. That was interesting to me. As I read the script I had all these things that seemed larger than life, and when you read about it or saw the footage you’re like oh these things really did happen. The Frankenstein walk, to me, is so bizarre and so odd, yet it’s a real thing. To try to make a film that embodies that sort of spirit was hopefully the aim.

BK: This movie is “based on a true story,” but you didn’t use that phrase at the start of it. I was glad you didn’t because this phrase has long since lost its meaning.

KPA: I kind of fought for that a little bit actually. My whole argument was that marketing is going to say it no matter what. I’m a firm believer that you want the movie to stand on its own regardless of marketing, but at the same time I just don’t know anyone that would go to a movie called The Stanford Prison Experiment and not know anything about it and not know it was based on a true thing. I talked about it when I first got involved in the film that “based on a true story” means nothing anymore. The movie I was using for an example was the one where Eric Bana plays a cop who is hunting demons in New York City (“Deliver Us from Evil”), and the trailer says it was “based on a true story.” There are demons in New York; we know this as fact, right? There are not people who hunt demons in New York. Maybe there’s someone who said he does once, but that doesn’t mean it is based on a true story. So, it just doesn’t mean anything to people anymore and it doesn’t carry any weight or value. I tried to think of some other vernacular it could be. I didn’t want it to be like this is a true story because then that says everything in it is true, which is a lie. As soon as you make a movie on anything, nothing in it is true anymore.

BK: With movies based on real events there are dramatic liberties taken, but with this one it sounds like that wasn’t entirely the case.

KPA: I think we reduced the dramatic liberties quite a bit. I think if you look at a movie, for example, like “Lincoln” which takes voting public record and changes it. I don’t mean to slam the film, I like the film quite a bit, but when they’re voting they change the numbers to make it more suspenseful. I don’t think we took any liberties anywhere near that extreme. Maybe some people who were in the experiment could argue that it wasn’t really that intense or something like that. Others may argue that the intensity comes from putting the camera in their faces or the artistic representation of it. Two of our biggest liberties are when Ezra (Miller) and Brett (Davern) escape the prison. In real life the guy really did take a panel off. He was a guitar player and took the panel off with a sundial, broke the lock and I think they tried to open a door, but a guard was there and admonished them and told them that they had to fix the lock. We added an extra couple hundred feet. When we were doing that we said that we were gonna add this chase sequence because the movie needs to breathe and open up a bit. I thought Tim (Talbott) had done a really good job with that in the script. But then when Phil (Zimbardo) comes around and the other guys, there’s a reason we never see them touch them because they didn’t. That was where we were embellishing a little bit for the sake of the narrative, but we’re not abandoning the fundamentals of what this experiment was about. Those guys did not touch them or physically harass them so we didn’t show that, and having Phil involved was a really good and constant reminder of what those fundamentals are that we shouldn’t change. The ending, when they called it off, actually Phil and Christina kind of said that they needed to call this off and they came up with a plan to do it professionally. For me, you show that and there is an anti-climactic nature to that. I think the emotions are real and that they were being felt, and we just put them in at different times for the ending. I was really interested in making a film that could hold up. If you sit down and watch the documentary “Quiet Rage,” you will go oh, that is actually pretty similar. I didn’t want to make a movie that would replace that or replace “The Lucifer Effect.” I wanted to make a film that would work in tandem with those where it would feel like you could gain something a little more emotional and different than if you just did the academia side.

BK: The actors are all fantastic in the movie and they each give very intense performances. Watching them made me wonder if the movie was an experiment on them.

KPA: In a weird way, I almost wish I had this story to make interviews more exciting about these kids became their characters and I became like Zimbardo. But the truth was I think I was actually overtly aware of that potential, and actually it would have worked so hard against us. If you ask any of the guys, they will say that they had a lot of fun. You only have two options: either go down the path where everyone has fun and everyone gets along, or you gotta push it to go really extreme. I am not a big manipulator. If an actor wants me to manipulate them I will work with that, but on this film it was one of those things where it’s like when the camera’s rolling we’re on, and when it’s off be respectful. Some guys might need more space and might want to stay in character a little bit more, but it never took on the form of the experiment. We did spend two and a half weeks in that hallway, and we were sick of the hallway. We were ready to be done. Sure, some feelings were created, but I told them everyone every day that this is like a soccer game where we all shake hands at the end. So if something is going on that you’re not comfortable with, just say it. I said that probably more to the guards than the prisoners, but once it came down to doing those few physical things in the movie the actors loved it. Nick and Ezra had worked together before so they already respected each other, and they would just run through their scenes and had such a blast. For me, in a weird way we actually worked against that, and I think consequently the actors look back on it very fondly. I also think we got, for the nature of the movie and the tight shooting schedule, better stuff from them because they just felt more invigorated. I would just love to be able to build a career out of actors having good experiences. That’s my favorite party of the process, working with actors. I admire what they do so much because I never could, so it’s honoring that by working to each person. But this is the first time I ever did an ensemble piece and it was a little more about telling them hey this is what it’s going to be like, hey it’s not going to get out of control, guards you are going to follow the script and if you want to push something a little bit more than we’ll talk about it as opposed to unleashing them. There have been previous iterations of this project where that had been the aim where they try to create this potboiler environment where the actors really lose it, but I think what you get with that is more of a machismo quality. I jokingly refer to it as the David Ayer effect. I like his movies so it’s not a slam on them at all, but he’s making testosterone and there’s no doubt about it. I actually was more interested in making the inverse of that. The set was like a frat house, but the aggression was coming from a more complicated place. There wasn’t any actual physical violence. When you look closely at the movie there is no drop of blood other than one or two moments. No one was physically hurt, and so we were really careful to honor that while still creating tension.

BK: One interesting scene is when Ezra Miller’s character gets arrested as part of the experiment. He treats it like it’s no big deal at first, but then the cops slam his head on the car and his mood changes instantly.

KPA: They really did get real cops and they said arrest these guys like they are really criminals. This is something we didn’t have the money to shoot, but they actually took them to the police station and fingerprinted them and booked them and took photos of them and everything. They really put them through this simulation and it really got to them. The cops were really putting paper bags on their heads. Someone criticized the film once saying that they used too much on the nose imagery from Abu Ghraib, specifically referring to the bags. I was like no, no, no, Abu Ghraib just did the same exact thing.

BK: It seems like certain audience members need to be reminded that the Stanford Prison Experiment took place long before Abu Ghraib.

KPA: Oh yeah. It’s one of those stories that’s too bizarre to be true. It’s hard to accept that it was true. I knew there was no way to succeed 100% on this but I tried to work the hardest to make a film that didn’t just always say, “Well it really did happen.” That’s not enough of an answer when you make a movie like this because you have to make the audience feel like it could have happened. I wanted it to be like, “Well I understand why it happened.”

BK: By the time the movie gets to day three, it feels like we have been with these guys for a month.

KPA: Yeah (laughs), that’s how they felt too. They really did not know how many days had passed. They weren’t sleeping which I think was the biggest thing. You can go 36 hours without sleep when you start to legitimately lose your mind, and I think that’s a huge part of what happened.

BK: The Stanford Prison Experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but it ended up being shut down after 6 days. Some have said that it wasn’t because the experiment wasn’t successful, but that it was too successful. Would you say that was the case?

KPA: I think once you talk about success of the experiment you start to bring into the question its true purpose and its ethics. I was really interested in pushing questions of things like that in the movie. At the same time, I didn’t want to fall into the question of, was this okay? People are still arguing the exact same things, so I figured we are never going to solve this. 40 years later people are still arguing whether this experiment succeeded or not or whether it should have never have ever been done in the first place. What we do know now is that the experiment would never be allowed to happen today. It was military financed. Partly because of the experiment, there are so many more checks and balances in place. When I first sat down with Billy (Crudup), one of the things he said was, “How could everyone be so naïve to not realize this would happen?” And I said, “Well of course, they could have because it hadn’t happened yet.” Now it’s easier for us to go, “Well, of course, it would have gone wrong. What were they thinking?” They were doing experiments like this all the time; simulations or recreations. This was just part of what psychologists were doing at the time. This was the time it just really imploded.

BK: That’s a good point. Ever since then we have a better understanding of the power dynamic between prisoners and guards more than ever before.

KPA: Yeah, and that’s why I added a line at the end when Billy is talking to the camera. He says, “There was no sense of precedent. We didn’t know this was going to happen.” I thought that was a really important element.

I want to thank Kyle Patrick Alvarez for taking the time to talk to me. “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Running 23 Miles in the Aftermath of a Torrential Rainstorm (in Los Angeles)

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So, this past Friday in February 2017 saw Los Angeles get pummeled by the biggest rainstorm it has seen in years. Streets and sidewalks were flooded over, old trees were battered, branches were torn off and left on the road for cars to run over or hopefully swerve around, and hydroplaning was not what it used to be. Turning on the radio, it was no surprise to hear the local station playing “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, but I kept praying for someone to play the Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine” for the sake of some much-needed irony.

Yes, this was the exact same weather I and so many others endured while running the 2011 Los Angeles Marathon. It rained hard and the wind blew at us from the side to where hypothermia became a larger threat than heatstroke. The joke was we never ran the 2011 LA Marathon, we swam it. Heck, I joked I was somehow tricked into doing a triathlon instead of a marathon. Sometimes it is fun to run in the rain, but this was a huge exception.

The rainstorm which came down on us Angelinos happened the day before we Team to End AIDS runners were scheduled to run our longest run of the training season: 23 miles. As a result, I got more prepared for this run than usual. I got a new pair of Brooks running shoes, my red poncho which keeps me warm as well as dry, a new water belt which has two water bottles instead of four, and I had my Monsters University hat on as usual. The only thing I was missing was a new pair of compression tights which I really need to get before March.

Some people also took the time to put duct tape on their shoes to ensure their feet wouldn’t get wet. I should have thought of that, but anyway…

Well, the good news was the worst of the storm had pretty much passed us by when we arrived at Griffith Park at 6 a.m., one hour earlier than we usually show up because of this run’s epic length. There was a bit of drizzle, but nothing which we could possibly drown in. Regardless, the most dedicated T2EA runners could be counted on to show up as they are determined to participate come rain or come shine.

I’ve been through this training program several years now, but the 23-mile run always gets me especially anxious. I know I can do it, but I also know the agony I will be forced to endure once I am finished. Coach James reminded us this is our “celebration run,” and we should not treat this as a race in any way, shape, or form. Still, I knew it was going to be hard to celebrate once this run was concluded. Not impossible, but hard.

One thing I definitely kept in mind was to start off slow and not overdo it. It was in our best interest to save energy throughout this run as it is too frackin’ easy to burn out before we got to the halfway point. Also, it was highly likely we would hit “the wall” on this run more than ever before. “The wall” refers to the mental wall we eventually hit during the run where it feels like we can’t possibly run anymore. It doesn’t matter how big of a carbo load dinner or how many pounds of pasta we ate beforehand because we will hit the wall when we least expect it. The trick is to keep going because these 23 miles won’t run themselves, dammit.

For this run, we actually started out on Forest Lawn Drive. This surprised me as I felt the coaches had long since deemed this part off limits. It’s a dangerous stretch of road to run on, especially when it’s early in the morning, because of the blind corners we are forced to go around. There were points where we had to run single file because we have little warning of what could be coming around the curb. We were also running past a cemetery, and this threatens to serve as an omen of the most unwelcome kind.

But we did survive Forest Lawn Drive, otherwise I would not be here writing about this. The run took us through Burbank and Glendale where passed by such sights as Warner Brothers Studio, Disney Studios, and fast food joints with their burgers which are never as appealing as they look on those posters. When we passed mile signs indicating where we were at distance wise, I found myself saying the same thing, “That’s it?” For some bizarre reason, I thought I was going to complete this 23-mile run sooner than later. What the hell is wrong with me anyway?

We had a wealth of volunteers this time out, and they had plenty of water, Gatorade and other assorted goodies for us to fuel up on. I was keen on staying on top of my salt intake because last year, when I did this same run, I came out of it seriously dehydrated to where I was walking like a zombie out of a George Romero movie. Actually, it also didn’t help that I partied hard with a few Jack and Cokes afterwards. I eventually had to go to urgent care and get hooked up to an IV with fluids. Lesson learned.

I did end up eating a handful of Tostitos lime tortilla chips which had more salt in them than any chip I ever had in my life. My mouth was in shock for a few seconds to where I had to drink almost a whole bottle of water. Talk about an assault of the senses! I have never crammed that much salt into my mouth before. I’m not in a hurry to do it again.

During the last half of the run, I ended up falling behind everyone else which was a bummer. It wasn’t the first time it happened, but before I was able to catch up with my fellow runners. This time I was on my own, clinging onto an almost empty bag of Ruffles potato chips I got from the volunteers. It got to where I started to feel like Chevy Chase when he was running around in the desert and getting all delirious in “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” Granted, I wasn’t actually in the desert, and I wasn’t wearing my jacket as a hat and singing “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” but I had definitely hit that wall I was talking about earlier.

I wasn’t in immense pain, by my muscles were already very sore to where I wasn’t screaming out in agony, but instead just getting irritated over the fact I couldn’t run any faster. It started to feel like a dream where I was stuck in one place and couldn’t move any further. Whether it was Heather Langenkamp getting stuck on those stairs in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” or Patricia Arquette caught in some jelly-like substance in “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors,” I was desperate to increase my velocity before some crazed psycho with knives for fingers started coming after me for not running at my assigned pace.

I did have a map of the course with me and kept looking at it every five seconds. Of course, I lost it as it slipped out of my pocket without me even realizing it until much later. But by then, I knew where I was going, and this is even though I felt like Bugs Bunny and kept wondering if I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque.

This training season has seen me become the slowest runner on the team. It’s almost embarrassing as I used to be faster than this, but in the end I did cross the finish line. I increased my pace as fast as I could as I came up to the finish line, and there were still many people there to cheer me on as I completed my 23 miles. After I was done, all I wanted to do was sit down forever. The first thing I should have done was stretch out my legs, but I didn’t have the patience to bother.

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The coaches treated us with a feast of sandwiches which included roast beef, turkey with pesto dressing, veggie, and ham and cheese. I had one of each as those calories I had burned off needed to be welcomed back in one way or another. And yes, there was plenty of chocolate milk to go around. Us runners need chocolate milk to recover, almost a gallon it seems.

After all this running madness, I went home and crashed in bed for several hours. As I’ve gotten older, so to speak, naps have become more commonplace for me than ever before. It used to be impossible for me to nap during the day, now it’s far too easy for me to taking advantage of one. I’m starting to miss the days where I had boundless energy. Maybe I should start drinking coffee.

Do I feel good about this 23-mile run? You know what, I shouldn’t even be asking myself this question. I should feel good about it. I crossed the finish line to the delight of all the T2EA team who stayed to watch me do so. But I wonder if I can still cross the finish line with the same amount of gusto which I had in the past when it comes to marathon day. Here’s hoping I will when March comes around.

FUNDRAISING UPDATE: Thanks to the threat of me running with an oversized Eeyore on this 23-mile run, I went from having raised $729 to $1,044 in a week. After finishing this run, I finally reached my fundraising goal thanks to my brother Ed Mahoney and have now raised $1,129.70 towards AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA). But even though I did reach my goal, I still encourage you all to make a donation towards my efforts as every little bit helps those who can no longer help themselves. Even if all you can spare is $5, that will still go a long way. Just click on this ridiculously long paragraph to see how you can help.

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Capitalism: A Love Story

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“We are here to tell the truth! People say if you don’t love America, then get the hell out! Well I love America!”

                                              -Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic in “Born on The Fourth of July”

“I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies.”

                                                                                                                                                           -Thomas Jefferson

I was a little worried about Michael Moore’s film, “Capitalism: A Love Story.” It covers the catastrophic economic fallout from 2007 to 2009 and presents a very harsh indictment of the current economic order in the United States. Throughout the movie, Moore shows us families being evicted from homes which they have owned for years, and how many get swindled out of them without them realizing the trap they are ensnared in until much too late. He also looks at how Wall Street treats the country’s economy like a reckless night of gambling in Las Vegas, and at how Goldman Sachs gained a frightening amount of leverage over congress at an economically vulnerable time. In short, it is Moore’s attack on all things capitalism, and of how it is an evil which is ruining the fabric of our once great country.

While it may seem ironic how Moore would take on capitalism, especially when he has benefited so much from it over the years, he creates a very compelling case here. Whether you think he is telling the truth or simply manipulating facts to his own advantage, he remains the most entertaining documentary filmmaker in American films. “Capitalism: A Love Story” is honestly one of his best films to date, and it combines some truly devastating moments along with some very funny ones. The movie does need those humorous moments, otherwise this could have been one of the most emotionally draining cinematic experiences ever.

“Capitalism: A Love Story” starts off in a way both hilarious and frightening. Moore starts off with one of those cheesy, snicker-inducing 1950’s instructional movies about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. It resembles all those films we were constantly subjected to throughout our school years. While the movie plays out along with the stiff narration, Moore inserts clips from the Reagan era White House, and continues all the way through the Clinton era, not to mention both of the Bushes, showing us how the fate which befell the Romans is very much alike to what is happening to America right now. Clearly, he sees us following in the footsteps of a society destroyed through endless greed and avarice, and he is amazed people want to hang on to this damaged system regardless of how bad it is.

From there, Moore takes us to a family in Peoria, Illinois getting evicted from their home. It’s one of the saddest moments in the film, and to add insult to injury, the family ends up getting thrown out of their home much earlier than they had expected. They were given a couple of weeks originally, but it turns out the bank which repossessed their home had just sold it to another family who were ever so eager to get settled in it.

I’ve been looking at these foreclosures from a distance, and I felt a good portion of them were due to owners not living up to their responsibilities. But while this may be the case to a certain extent, Moore creates a very interesting case of how the banks ended up swindling many families out of their homes because the banks continued to charge them more and more for their mortgage. For those looking to become homeowners, the movie is a reminder of how important it is to read the fine print of every contract you sign.

For Moore, capitalism seemed like such a great gift to our country when he was growing up in Flint, Michigan. The way he saw it, it provided his dad with a good job, helped give his family free health care, helped to pay for him to go to college without falling into tremendous debt over student loans, etc. But then Reagan came along and ruined it all from Moore’s perspective. “Capitalism: A Love Story” doesn’t necessarily portray Reagan as an evil man, but it views him more as a puppet for the banking industry among others. Before the star of “Bedtime for Bonzo” came along, the rich were apparently given a 90% tax on what they made, so naturally, they weren’t very happy about this. With Reagan taking over as President, the banks were able to gain control of all things money related, and they created massive tax breaks for the rich. From there, the cost of living rose faster than the cost of living, and prices on things like health care skyrocketed to an exorbitant rate. Even prisons and juvenile detention halls became for-profit businesses where the sentences turned out to be longer than you were told. In short, things were changing, and the price of those things started to get higher and higher.

Much of the American public seemed to be sold on the idea we could be rich too, and therein lays the big lie of Reganomics. In actuality, his policies throughout the 1980’s resulted in creating a bigger gap between the haves and have-nots, and the middle class at times threatened to be rendered extinct. Moore presents this as the point in our country where things started to change to where the rich benefited more than anyone else. Greed became a powerful influence on everyone, and much of America turned into a “me, me, me” society as opposed to one which sought to help the less fortunate. He also shows how it went from there to the Clinton era and, more horrifyingly so, to the George W. Bush era in which the tax cuts for the rich almost became permanent.

“Capitalism: A Love Story” is kind of a semi-sequel to Moore’s “Roger & Me” which came out 20 years ago. In that film, he pursued General Motors chairman Roger Smith for an interview over the closing of the car factory in his hometown. The closing resulted in a tremendous loss of jobs, all despite the fact GM was posting record profits. All these years later, Moore still cannot get a meeting with the CEO of GM. What occurred in Flint, Michigan all those years ago gave him a chance to tell the automotive industry, “I TOLD YOU SO!!!”Unsurprisingly, after all these years, Moore can still not get inside the doors of the GM corporate headquarters to talk to the CEO. His attempts to enter other buildings are just as unsuccessful, and when he tries to get any of the bankers to explain what a “credit derivative” is, one of them says, “Stop making movies!”

Unsurprisingly, after all these years, Moore can still not get inside the doors of the GM corporate headquarters to talk to the CEO. His attempts to enter other buildings are just as unsuccessful, and when he tries to get any of the bankers to explain what a “credit derivative” is, one of them says, “Stop making movies!”

One moment in “Capitalism: A Love Story” which really stayed with me was when President Reagan addressed the bankers on Wall Street, and one of the most powerful bankers standing right next to him told, not asked, him to “speed it up.” Wait a second, Reagan was one of the most powerful people on the planet at that time, and someone next to him was telling him to speed it up? It makes you wonder who was really in charge of America back then.

A truly heart breaking scene comes when a former Wal-Mart employee talks about how, when his wife died at a young age, the company ended up making thousands of dollars off her death. It turns out Wal-Mart took out life insurance policies on all their workers, and ended up profiting from their passing. To make matters even worse, the younger the worker, the more money they get. Now fact checkers everywhere are going to point out how Wal-Mart has since ended these policies, but Moore does mention this during the closing credits.

Another section of the film which hit close to home was when Moore points out how airline pilots are paid less than the manager of a Taco Bell; about $19,000 a year for starting pay. My brother is an airline pilot, and while he makes better wages now, those first few years were a struggle to say the least. It seems almost criminal how these huge airline companies which make millions of dollars end up paying their pilots so pitifully. Thus, we get an example here of the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor.

Now let’s take a moment here because we all know many will be accusing Moore (many of whom will not even bother watching this film) with thoughtlessly manipulating his on-camera subjects and distorting what they say to his own advantage. Granted, there are moments where his camera focuses on crying family members a little longer than what feels comfortable. While the feeling of manipulation is hard to ignore, getting angry at Moore for showing this will be missing the point. He wants you to be mad. With “Capitalism: A Love Story,” he means to stir up your anger because he does not want you to react passively to what you are witnessing. He wants you to take action against what is happening because he is really sick and tired of doing this all by himself. Can you blame him? Many of us are viewing this economic breakdown and corruption from a distance, and we can’t spend the rest of our lives letting all this go unchecked.

But if scenes of everyday working class people getting heartlessly fleeced doesn’t frighten or enrage you, then the latter half of the movie where nerve-wracked members of congress get swayed by Goldman Sachs among other banks to bail them out so the banking industry could survive should do the trick. Nobody I know of was happy to hear about this, and we got even more pissed off when they got million dollar bonuses which were undeserved. There was a great article in Rolling Stone of how Goldman Sachs circumvented the economic crises of past and present to benefit themselves. Seeing this play out on the screen brought back my own deep feelings of unrestrained infuriation at what these bankers were doing with taxpayer dollars. Why exactly do we have to pay for the mess they created anyway? What happened to accountability?

Many still believe Moore is nothing more than an anti-American zealot who has nothing better to do than say bad things about our country. The conservative comedy “An American Carol” had a character like him trying to convince fellow citizens to abolish the Fourth of July as a holiday. But what made me really love the last half of this film is how he shows how the power of the people really did win out. If you still think he is a hater of this country after watching this, you may need to remove yourself from the cave you have been hiding in.

Moore shows how it was the will of the people which prevented the first economic stimulus, largely engineered by members of Goldman Sachs, from passing. At seeing what was about to occur, Americans everywhere contacted their representatives, urging them not to pass this bill. There were enough house representatives who saw how the banks were in the position of almost completely controlling the legal process, and they rallied against them for the sake of the country. This was all the result of American citizens speaking up loudly.

The spirit of the American people is shown even more strongly when we witness the laid off workers of Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago do an in-house protest at their place of employment. This came about because none of them were paid the severance promised from Bank of America. We also get a look at community groups like LIFFT in Miami which helped unfortunate families and “liberated” the houses they were evicted from. The police came out in force of course, but they ended up not arresting anybody probably because it wasn’t worth the trouble. Then we see Captain Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger III, the pilot who saved the lives of all 155 passengers aboard US Airways Flight 1549 when he landed it in the Hudson River, go before Congress to protest the way pilots were treated in general and how underpaid they are.

I should add when the section regarding Captain Sullenberger came up, I was afraid Moore would bash him in some way. But he actually applauds Sullenberger for taking his newfound fame and using it to help others who love their job of being a pilot. This leads to one of the movie’s funniest moments as Moore shows how the media seemed to like him more as a hero instead of someone who stands up against the companies for not paying pilots enough. Moore ends up putting some patriotic band music over the soundtrack to shut out Sullenberger, because no one really likes a Debbie Downer.

After all the films Moore has made criticizing people and polices of the United States, it seems amazing anyone would talk to him on camera. But he does get people like University of Missouri professor Bill Black, and Ohio Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur to talk about what they see as the ills of capitalism. Furthermore, he even talks to the Catholic priest who married him and his wife who says capitalism is a sin and not very Christian-like.

Kaptur is one of the movie’s most compelling voices, and she said the first economic stimulus bill would have been a disaster for democracy had it been passed. It would have allowed the banks to have more control over taxpayer money and the legislative process, hence rewriting the law books we have come to study all these years. The banks may want to concentrate the nation’s wealth among the 1% of the population who has it, but they cannot be allowed to silence the voices of the 99%.

Black himself comes off as one of the most intelligent people seen here, and it is heartbreaking to see how some of the smartest minds in America saw this economic disaster coming from miles away. He compares the fallout to a water damn which breaks apart, but of how we could see those little cracks forming. The fact many people like him were silenced or had their character smeared beyond all repair is shameful. For them, they saw it as only a matter of time before the banking industry came crashing down, so there was no way they could have been surprised by any of this.

I was also really pleased to see Moore stick it to the Democrats as well as the Republicans. While the Republicans may share the largest blame, the Democrats cannot be excluded because many of them are every bit as guilty in what transpired. It doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum they were on, politicians of all kinds were bought out with what seemed like very little effort. Truth is, I am seriously frustrated with both major parties, and Moore taps into this because many Americans, regardless of party affiliation, feel the same way.

By the way, if you really think that Moore is this left-leaning zealot, keep in mind he has spent many years criticizing both parties, and his ire at Democrats seems much larger because he expects more from them. I’m sure if Moore had it his way, Ralph Nader would have been President by now.

As for President Barrack Obama, Moore steers clear of saying anything bad about him, probably because many still see him as a symbol of hope. If Obama does foul things up in Afghanistan, I’m sure Moore might consider doing something on it. But that coupled with the power of people made the last half of this movie seem like the feel-good movie of the year, and this is regardless of how exaggerated it all may seem to those who cannot stand this baseball cap wearing filmmaker.

In the end, Moore is not out to make you repeat everything he says or believes in like it’s the gospels. His attack against capitalism is not entirely waterproof, and much more blame could be thrown at how corporate America has become so corrupted. But it doesn’t matter because what he wants is for you to be angry, and to fight against those who would try to wrestle away the powers given to us in the Constitution.

“Capitalism: A Love Story” is really one of his best films in how he attacks many policies this country has adopted, and then counters it with proof that the power still does belong to the people. It does to the banking industry and deregulation what “Sicko” did to the health care industry, and it is informative, funny, moving, and endlessly entertaining.

For those who wonder why Michael Moore hasn’t left America yet, see this movie to find out. Like him, you may hate what this country is doing to its people, but you are not about to leave it.

 * * * * out of * * * *

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Exclusive Interview with Andrea Iervolino and Lady Monika Bacardi on ‘In Dubious Battle’

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James Franco steps behind the camera once again for his directorial effort, and adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel “In Dubious Battle.” This movie takes us back to the 1930’s when a group of migratory workers rose up and began a strike against landowners who informed them their pay was being cut from $3 to $1 a day for their work. In addition to directing, Franco also stars as one of strike’s key leaders, Jim Nolan, who struggles to stay true to his idealism of having the courage never to submit or yield. Also, it features a fantastic cast of actors which include Robert Duvall, Vincent D’Onofrio, Bryan Cranston, Ed Harris, Nat Wolff, Selena Gomez, Sam Shepard, Zach Braff and Josh Hutcherson.

I got to speak with the producers of “In Dubious Battle,” Andrea Iervolino and Lady Monika Bacardi, recently at the Redbury Hotel in Hollywood, California. Iervolino is considered one of the most accomplished entrepreneurs in the movie business as he has financed and distributed over 50 films since he was 16 years old. Bacardi is an entrepreneur as well and a successful businesswoman, patron of the arts, philanthropist, and humanitarian. Together, they founded the AMBI Group, a multi-national consortium of vertically integrated film development, production, finance and distribution companies.

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Ben Kenber: I thought the movie was really good, and it was surprising to learn that this was one of John Steinbeck’s lesser-known books because, in today’s world, it is so timeless. Is that what really attracted you to producing this movie?

Andrea Iervolino: You know, two years ago, when we decided to produce this movie, we didn’t expect what is now happening in the United States.

Lady Monika Bacardi: A lot of the demonstrations that have happened after the release of the movie. The demonstrations in the film and people fighting for their rights, and now history is repeating itself.

AI: We decided to do this movie because, first of all, we’re big fans of John Steinbeck. He is the best author in American culture, and of course, we love James Franco. When we read the script, me and Monika, we were in two different countries; I was in New York and she was in Monte Carlo. We received the script and we talked for six hours about it.

LMB: And then we decided (to do the movie). It was very fast.

AI: Super-fast. And then we tried to do the maximum we can to promote the movie, and we also went to the Venice Film Festival where it received two awards (for James Franco and Andrea Iervolino). We went to the Toronto Film Festival, the Vail Film Festival, in Capri, etc. So everywhere we went, he received awards for the movie. So, we are proud of the quality in this movie is timeless. We believe today that in 10 years when you watch the movie, for sure a revolution will happen again. A protest will happen again for many individuals so you can think this can be me.

LMB: Yes. When people fight for their rights and they gather together, it’s the hope that they can help them because in their time there were a lot of revolutions that changed things and help the workers get the rights they deserved. So, it’s a message of hope.

BK: It’s interesting how you talk about history repeating itself because it’s a sad fact we can’t seem to escape.

LMB: Yes, it’s sad because we should be learning from history, and the same mistakes should not be made again. There must always be a positive revolution, but unfortunately, we see over and over again that history doesn’t change we make the same mistakes. It repeats itself.

BK: Yes, and that’s why it’s great this movie is being released now. Also, it feels like a miracle this movie got made in today’s world of superhero movies. Was it hard to get the financing for it?

AI: If you do a movie at the right budget, you can do every type of movie you want. The toughest ones to market are the most commercial ones. We believe this movie was made for the right budget and had the right cast, and we believe this movie respects the audience it was meant for.

BK: How much time did you have to shoot this movie in?

AI: The movie was shot in around five weeks.

BK: That sounds like a longer schedule than you like this tend to get these days. Also, it has quite the cast. Was it difficult getting all those actors together?

LMB: James Franco actually has a lot of friends, and he loves John Steinbeck. As a director, he called his friends, and for that reason, this is why he has all the stars together here. He’s a great director and a great actor.

BK: You can tell this is a film people got involved in because of their love and belief in the material, and it really shines through here. Also, you to have been working in the movie business for a while now. How would you say movies have evolved during your time in the business?

AI: You know, I did my first movie was when I was 15, so 14 years ago, I was doing a movie in digital. So, I was the first one in Italy to do a movie in digital because they don’t pay you a lot of money to make your first movie. I financed it by going door to door in my town to collect money, so I was forced to do my movie in digital. But then a few years later I became more powerful because I was the first one with the experience in digital, and I also started to make a movie in Italy with the same technology and distribution point of view, and that was when I was 21. Basically, in my point of view, in the way you can produce a movie there is change, but today I think there are more independent people, young people, with opportunities to produce their movies because the key is that the distribution system has changed. Before you can monetize your movie, you have to go to a local agent to bring your movie to a local cinema or in the local store to someone who can print your DVD, and then you need the agent to go speak with a company. So today, you can run content by yourself. You can do one deal worldwide, and you can add your movie directly to the internet platform. For big managers today, this is a problem because the distribution power is going down, down, down because if you do have good content, you can go for direct distribution, so from who produces and who watches the movie, it is only one step. Before it was 10 or 20 steps which is what managers took advantage of.

LMB: This distribution changed on us.

AI: Yes. And if you think about it, it is like going back. My mentor in Italy, Luciano Martino, he was doing movies in Italy in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and the 1970’s. He was telling me he was producing the movies by himself with his company, and he was going to the cinemas everywhere in Italy to position the movies, and then the movies ran the cinema for six months. So, it was one step production, and today it is again one step. So, it’s like going back. The powers coming back to the producer, not the distribution companies.

LMB: I agree with Andrea always 100%. We cannot speak at the same time, but we have the same opinions on film.

BK: With the changes in distribution, did that help “In Dubious Battle” or take away from it at all?

AI: It actually helped this movie for sure because we were going to go out with the DVD system so we will go out in the principal market, and the same time we will go out in the DVD system. A movie like this cannot make 20 million in one week; it’s too risky. But today, with this new platform, this movie can embrace this distribution concept where you can arrive to your audience and make your audience find the movie all around them without losing your investment.

BK: There is so much money put into advertising movies these days to where it costs more to promote them than to make them.

AI: Yes, sometimes more.

BK: So, it’s nice to see a movie like this can still find its audience while not having a huge budget for advertising.

LMB: Yes, absolutely.

AI: I really believe in three, four or five years, it will become more and more possible to produce a movie with a specific audience because you will know where you can find the audience that likes this movie. Before you needed to spend $10 million dollars in TV advertising in order to get to 300 million people, and in order to reach 3 million people who like your movie.

LMB: (Laughs). It’s absolutely true. Plus, the young people have a different concept that they look a lot of internet, and they go to the movies a lot less than our generation did. It depends on the country, and every country is different

BK: Was there any pressure to modernize this book at all when it came to making this movie?

LMB: We had to keep it as a true story because the message it gives is actually timeless about how history repeats itself. You have to keep it at the time and be true to the book so we cannot change it completely.

AI: Also, the love story component in the movie between Selena Gomez and Nat Wolff and the friendship story between James and Nat, these help the movie be more accessible to young people. Maybe 15, 16 or 18-year-olds, they don’t know or care about John Steinbeck.

LMB: And the love story makes it very human and very touching. It’s about the revolution, but it’s also about the human story and the human aspect.

BK: It almost would have been great to see this movie made in black and white. Was that ever a consideration?

AI: You know, it was in the beginning for about five minutes, but it was too difficult. Black-and-white in a distribution point of view can give you so many limitations. Maybe we can do a black-and-white animation movie someday.

I want to thank Andrea Iervolino and Lady Monika Bacardi for taking the time to talk with me. “In Dubious Battle” premieres in theaters and VOD on February 17, 2017.

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Marielle Heller and Bel Powley Discuss ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, follows 15-year-old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley, in a star-making performance) as she goes on a journey for love and acceptance, and as the movie begins she has already started to experience her sexual awakening. She becomes embroiled in an affair with Monroe Rutherford (Alexander Skarsgard) who also happens to be her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) boyfriend. What results is an honest version of what it’s like to be a teenage girl, and the movie isn’t so much about sex as it is about finding your own self-worth which is very important for young people making their way through this crazy world we all inhabit.

This movie marks the directorial debut of actress and writer Marielle Heller, and I got to talk with her and Bel Powley while they were at The London Hotel in West Hollywood, California. One of the things I remarked about it was how beautiful the movie looked and of how it really transported the audience back to the 70’s. Granted, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” does take place in San Francisco, California which, after all these years, hasn’t changed much since the 70’s, but director of photography Brandon Trost still did terrific work in bringing us back to a time period which is gone but not forgotten.

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Marielle Heller: I love telling people that the same person who shot this movie also shot movies like “The Interview” and “Neighbors” because they couldn’t be more different in terms of content. But he is a real artist and I think he just did the most incredible job. He was so dedicated to making this film look and feel exactly how we envisioned it which was in some ways like an old Polaroid picture, but not with a hipster grossness on it. We wanted it to be really authentic to the story and to the characters.

Those who know Heller best know that she has been in love with Gloeckner’s graphic novel ever since her sister gave her a copy of it 8 years ago. She spent a long time trying to get the rights to adapt the book into a stage play, and she performed the role of Minnie Goetze herself in an acclaimed off-Broadway production. From there, Heller went on to develop “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” into a screenplay at the Sundance Labs, and the film eventually debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Having spent so many years with Gloeckner’s graphic novel, I asked Heller how her view of it has evolved from when she first read the book to when she began turning it into a movie.

Marielle Heller: The film version of the book had to take on its own new life and really shift and change because the narrative structure of a film has to have a different build than a novel can. You read a book and you put it down and you pick it up and you put it down and it can have a really episodic feel, and a movie has to have a really specific kind of emotional build. I had such reverence for Phoebe’s book. I loved it more than anything I had ever read before, which is sort of a problematic place to start an adaption from. It was too much love, too much reverence, and at some point I had to sort of give myself permission to destroy parts of what I loved too and let go of it and let the reverence go away. Things changed, storylines changed, so that was a big process and luckily Phoebe really understood that because she’s such an artist herself.

Heller also remarked about a conversation she had with Gloeckner during the making of the film:

Marielle Heller: She was like, “You have to do what you have to do for this process. I took my real diaries and I wanted to make them into a piece of art. I didn’t want to write a memoir. I wanted to change them and let them become something new and let them become a book, and so I put them through this big grinder and it came out the other side hopefully with some truth intact. But it was something new, and then you took it and you put it through another kind of meat grinder and out the other end came this other project and it’s something new and hopefully that kernel of truth is still the same.” So it’s been a long process and in some ways I internalized the whole book. I got to know it inside and out and then stopped looking at it and wouldn’t let myself look at it and let the movie just grow into something totally new.

Watching “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” reminded me of my favorite movies which dealt with adolescence and being a teenager like “Pump up the Volume,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” I love movies which take adolescence seriously as so many others treat it like life won’t get any better than when you’re young. I asked Heller and Powley what their favorite teen movies which they felt treated being a teenager honestly were, and their answer pointed out how those movies are missing a particular point of view.

Marielle Heller: I think there are a lot of movies that deal with adolescence in an honest way for boys. I hadn’t really come across ones that really dealt with girls in an honest way which is why I think we wanted to make this movie. I know I really related to movies like “Stand by Me” or “Harold and Maude;” movies that felt like they were, like you said, really respecting the characters and giving adolescents a voice in it. And John Hughes’ movies too like “The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles.” Movies like that really did give voice to the teenager in a real way. And I guess actually that John Hughes did make movies about girls. “Sixteen Candles” was about being a girl, but we’re a long time from “Sixteen Candles.” We’re due for another one.

Bel Powley: I was a teenager six years ago (laughs), and I don’t think I related to anything. I found it really hard, and I think it honestly made me feel like really isolated and really alone. I think young female characters are presented in such flat, two dimensional ways especially when it came to sex. Like if you did have sex then you were this high school slut, or if you didn’t then you’re either frigid or you’re like this virgin waiting for your Prince Charming. I remember being so excited when “Juno” was coming out, and then it came out and it was like, well no one speaks like that. And also, she’s made to be kind of asexual. It was just so confusing to me, and I honestly didn’t relate to anything until “Girls” (the HBO series), and that was when I was like 19.

Hearing Heller and Powley say that makes you realize how important “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is in today’s cinematic landscape. For once we have a movie that deals with the life of a teenage girl honestly, and that makes it all the more important for audiences to seek it out in the midst of another overcrowded summer movie season. It is truly one of the best adolescent movies made in recent memory, and it deserves your attention far more than many others in this genre.

“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Alexander Skarsgard talks about ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’

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Alexander Skarsgard stars in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” as Monroe, an emotionally stunted man who finds himself in San Francisco, California and in a relationship with the free-spirited Charlotte Goetze (Kristen Wiig). But then he meets her daughter Minnie (Bel Powley) who is in the midst of her own sexual awakening, and she begins a complex love affair with him that will lead to even more awakenings about each other and their own self-worth.

I got to hang out with Skarsgard along with a few other journalists while he was at The London Hotel in West Hollywood, California to do press for “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.” Greg Srisavasdi of the website Deepest Dream asked Skarsgard how he goes about preparing for a role, and his answer illustrates why his performance as Monroe is so good.

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Alexander Skarsgard: The very first step is to connect with the material obviously. In this case, I thought it would be a really interesting challenge to play Monroe. I felt he could easily be a villain or just like a predator and I wanted to avoid that. I felt like I don’t think it will be interesting if you play it that way, and you make it too easy for the audience if they can just lean back and go, “Oh, bad guy,” and it’s not going to be interesting to the film. And that really intrigued me and I thought this would be a cool challenge to make this real and find moments where you might feel empathy and you might connect with him and almost like him, and moments where you don’t. I think it’s important to not have an opinion (about the character) in the beginning and to be open, and that’s when you go into that creative process of discovering and developing that character. You have to be very non-judgmental and be very open.”

Skarsgard is best known for playing the vampire Eric Northman on the HBO series “True Blood,” and he has turned in memorable performances in movies like “What Maisie Knew,” “Melancholia” and “Kill Your Darlings.” What’s interesting about him as an actor is how he is able to derive such strong complexity in each character he plays. It made me wonder just how much he brought to the role of Monroe which wasn’t in the script, and I asked him if he prefers playing characters like Monroe over others. For Skarsgard, it all comes down to one thing.

AS: It’s all about finding depth and it doesn’t matter in what genre it is. I just wrapped a movie called “War on Everyone” which is a comedy by John Michael McDonagh who did “The Guard” and “Calvary.” It’s a weird, fucked up comedy about corrupt cops in Albuquerque. I play a coke-snorting alcoholic cop who beats up criminals and steals their money with Michael Pena as my colleague. I had an amazing time. It was so much fun and, tonally, very different from “Tarzan” that I finished just before that or this one. But what it’s always about is that you need to find depth in the character even if it is comedy. You can’t play a caricature, or you can but I just don’t find it interesting. I don’t subscribe to good versus evil unless it’s within you. I think we’re all struggling with that, good and bad, and I think we’re all capable of good deeds and bad deeds. It’s interesting in literature or movies when you find characters that are struggling with that, and if there’s no inner struggle then it’s not interesting to me.

Watching “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” reminded me of just how much I love movies which take adolescence seriously. Some of my favorite examples of those movies are “Pump up the Volume” and “The Breakfast Club,” and I’m convinced that everyone has their own favorite movies which really spoke to them about life as a teenager. When I asked Skarsgard to name a movie that spoke to him about the truth about adolescence, he instead thought of a book.

AS: The most obvious example would be “Catcher in the Rye.” I guess as a boy growing up, as a teenager you’re like yeah, I get it dude. But I don’t have one movie that stands out or where watching it was a pivotal moment of my adolescence. What was I into as a teenager? It was the 80’s, so it was “Star Wars” I guess.

Watching Alexander Skarsgard in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is proof of just how gifted an actor he is. The role of Monroe could have been reduced to being a mere one-dimensional character, but Skarsgard dove right into the complexities of this character and made him an empathetic one even though no one can condone his actions. It’s a fascinating portrait of a man who still needs to grow up, and it’s one of the many reasons to check out this movie on DVD, Blu-ray or Digital at your earliest convenience.

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