The Help Does Not Seek To Shamelessly Manipulate Our Emotions

The Help” was released with some controversy back in 2011 as it was based on a 2009 best seller by Kathryn Stockett, a white woman who wrote about African American maids’ experience working in the houses of white people. Many would have preferred to have had a black man or woman write this story, but it is important to note Stockett was herself raised by a black maid who instilled her with a strong confidence which proved to be unwavering, and this was all while her mother was absent from her life. Plus, Stockett, as represented by the character of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, captured the voices of these ill-treated black women with really piercing honesty, and she made herself a vessel for their voices to be heard. From the start, she made it clear to the world that this book was about them and not her.

The movie version comes to us wrapped in a bow of beautiful colors and a very appealing movie poster. I kept think of Rob Reiner’s “Ghosts of Mississippi” which blew the opportunity to make audiences aware of who Medgar Evers was at the expense of some truly bland while characters, and neither Alec Baldwin or James Woods could not save the movie from its inescapable banality. “The Help” looked like it would make the same mistakes, but thankfully it does not. Regardless of whatever flaws it has, it is still a deeply felt motion picture which revisits a painful part of American history people have either forgotten or are sick of revisiting.

At its center is Skeeter (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate who gets a job writing a housekeeping column for the local paper in Jackson, Mississippi. After reuniting with good friends in her hometown, she finds herself perturbed by the senseless racism which has divided the blacks and whites in an almost unspoken way. Skeeter also becomes concerned as to the whereabouts of the maid who raised her, Constantine, as she has vanished without a trace. These events compel her to start writing a book of the travails black housekeepers go through, and she is determined to capture their pride, heartache and deep-seated anger resulting from their thoughtless mistreatment.

This could easily have been a manipulative motion picture filled with cloying emotions, but the filmmakers have given us a variety of characters, black and white that are complex and who never come across as simply caricatures. Each one has their own needs and desires which conflict with those of others, and after a while it becomes clear their problems do not always have to do with race.

The black maid Skeeter leans on the most is Aibileen Clark, played in a powerhouse of a performance by Viola Davis. Just as she did in “Doubt,” Davis inhabits her character with a pride which, while wounded, remains defiantly strong. While her voice projects a kindness and understanding on top of an obedience to her employers, Clark’s face and eyes betray a huge resentment which has long since reached its boiling point.

The next black maid who contributes to Skeeter’s book is Minny Jackson, played in another great performance by Octavia Spencer. She proves to be the most outspoken of the bunch which results in her getting fired quite often, and yet she is reluctant at first to talk with Skeeter about her experiences. We later see Jackson getting her revenge in a way which somehow feels inspired by episodes of MTV’s “Punk’d” or “Jackass.” Spencer gives “The Help” a great sense of humor it might have otherwise not had, and she is every bit Davis’ match.

Minny also develops a highly unusual relationship with the hopelessly naive Celia Foote. Unlike other working relationships, she gets the opportunity to be blunt with Celia and tells her what she needs to hear. I found the friendship between them to be one of “The Help’s” most welcome surprises. Jessica Chastain brilliantly portrays Celia Foote, and she has long since proven to be one of the best actresses working in movies today.

As for Emma Stone, she proved to be a revelation here, and she holds her own against a large number of acting stalwarts. Stone imbues Skeeter with a hard-won independence which never waivers. I love how even in Stone’s eyes you can see her determination in proving how strong a woman Skeeter is and of the sincere goodness in her heart. If she has not proven herself as a dramatic actress before this movie, she certainly did here, and now she has an Oscar to make this clearer to those foolish not to pay attention.

The majority of the white characters in “The Help” could have all been one-dimensional idiots, and while several of them make assumptions which are as ridiculous as they are racist, we see other sides of their personalities as well. One white character who can be seen as the movie’s chief villain is the snobby Hilly Holbrook, played in a truly gutsy performance by Bryce Dallas Howard. Her superiority against the black maids turns out to be driven more by fear than anything else, and realizing this at the film’s end gives Hilly a dimension we weren’t sure she had in the first place.

Howard has done phenomenal work over the years, and she was a good reason to actually see some of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies like “The Village.” She has also given us reasons to sit through “Jurassic World” and its sequel as well as “Spider-Man 3.” While those movies failed to reach the heights of greatness, she gave you a reason to watch them in the first place.

Other great performances in “The Help” come from Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte, who goes from being a stubborn mother desperate for her daughter to get a man to someone who regrets the decisions she has made in her life. Sissy Spacek is a hoot throughout as Hilly’s mother, Mrs. Walters, who delights in her daughter’s misfortunes as her dad made the unforgivable mistake of spoiling her rotten. One underrated performance comes from Chris Lowell who plays Skeeter’s eventual boyfriend, Stuart. He starts off as an arrogant young man who thinks he has women all figured out, but he later comes to his senses thank goodness.

“The Help” is not perfect and does get a bit too cute at times, but its emotions ring true thanks to the acting and the direction by Tate Taylor who is a longtime friend of Stockett’s. It skirts the conventional narrative to give us something more authentic which is not, if you will excuse the expression, white-washed like so many other Hollywood movies. It covers a subject which we have no choice but to revisit as history repeats itself much too often, and it says a lot about the movie that it jumped from number two to number one at the box office in its second week of release.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: The Interrupters – Trying to Stop Violence in America

“The Interrupters” is a truly brilliant documentary which explores violence in America, and of a group of people working desperately to stop it. It covers a period of a year in South Side Chicago, but the events we see could be happening in any other city where violence has long since engulfed its citizens. At its center is the non-profit group CeaseFire (now known today as Cure Violence) which treats violence like an infectious disease, and those employed by it work to stop the violence before it happens. While the description of this documentary sounds bleak, it is full of hope and redemption that most fiction movies can only dream of portraying honestly.

What makes CeaseFire an especially unique group is the workers have been on the wrong side of the law in the past. These are not just citizens wanting to live peacefully, but those who were once as bad as those gang members they are working with and trying to help. They are well-meaning and working to find redemption for their wicked pasts which could easily have destroyed their lives. Among them is Ameena Matthews, whose father, Jeff Fort, was a notorious gang leader. Through finding peace in her Muslim faith and having children, she turned her life around and started helping those who are travelling down the same path she once did.

The most compelling moments in “The Interrupters” involve the workers of CeaseFire themselves. We watch as Ameena struggles desperately to get through to a deeply troubled teenage girl who seems stuck in between going into a life of crime and seriously trying to find a way out of it. Seeing Ameena working with her is understandably exhausting emotionally; we all want the best for this person, but there is only so much that can be done.

Next there’s Cobe Williams who spent much of his years in and out of prison before joining CeaseFire. Cobe manages to get some footing with the toughest of people through his genuinely good nature and disarming sense of humor. Then we have Eddie Bocanegra, who served 14 years in prison for a murder which haunts him to this very day. His attempts in teaching art to children show how sincere he is in his efforts to help them avoid the mistakes he made, some of which can never be undone.

Directing “The Interrupters” is Steven James, the same filmmaker who is responsible for one of the greatest documentaries ever made, “Hoop Dreams.” Not once does Steven try to beat us over the head with statistics showing us how bad things are. We can tell the situation is bleaker than many of us could ever imagine. In capturing the memorials of those slain (most in their teens or early 20’s), we feel the innocence cruelly deprived just by looking at the names listed underneath them.

But perhaps the most powerful scene to be found here comes when a former gang member, now released from prison, visits the barbershop he robbed with friends to apologize for what he did. It is an amazing moment, and one I do not often expect to see (but certainly hope to). You can feel the raw emotions of the employees as they respond to this most unexpected of visits, and if this does not make you believe in the power of redemption, you have a heart made of stone.

“The Interrupters” is a must-see documentary which captures moments that cannot be found elsewhere, let alone in many Hollywood movies which boast about being “based on a true story.” This is real life being shown here, and it is the kind many of us do not see up close. The hope and redemption it captures is completely genuine, and it is a one of a kind cinematic experience in this or any other year. This is a must see!

* * * * out of * * * *

Kevin Smith Discusses Red State at New Beverly Cinema

WRITER’S NOTE: As the opening paragraph indicates, this article was written back in 2011.

On August 19, 2011, Kevin Smith began a one-week run of “Red State” at New Beverly Cinema making it eligible for Academy Awards consideration. Smith also came to just about every showing there to do a Q&A afterwards as he came to love “sitting back and loudly appreciating the movie.” Of course, this led one audience member to confront him at a local Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and say, “You were yelling ‘genius’ at your own movie?”

Red State” is astonishingly different from any movie Smith has previously helmed including the Bruce Willis starring “Cop Out.” This is largely the result of him and his longtime director of photography Dave Klein, who also shot “Clerks,” making use of the Red One digital camera. Smith said he loved chasing around the set with it, and he remarked how the camera looked like something out of “The Bourne Identity.” Smith, however, was aiming for “Red State” to look more like “Half Nelson” and less like “NYPD Blue,” and he told Klein him he wanted it to look unlike any movie they had made before. To this, Klein said, “Thank God!”

Smith felt he improved as a filmmaker with the Red One, and he figured the company which made them would give him one for free. However, it turned out getting a free camera was as likely as getting anything for free from Apple.

When it came to the actors, Smith saw himself as more of a cheerleader than a director. He made this blunt in saying, “You don’t direct mother fuckers like these! Who am I to tell John Goodman or Melissa Leo about acting?!”

The actor he talked about most was Michael Parks who played Abin Cooper, Pastor of the Five Points Trinity Church, a highly fanatical and conservative church which makes the Westboro Baptist Church look tame by comparison. Smith, like many of us, first saw him as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in “From Dusk Till Dawn,” and he declared that Parks “owned the first ten minutes” of it. Parks, however, told Smith he didn’t want impersonate Fred Phelps as he described him as being “boring.” Instead, Parks wanted Cooper to be “charismatic,” and his brilliant performance has Phelps only wishing he could be as such.

Speaking of the Phelps family, five of them came to a midnight screening of the movie. Or at least, five of them planned to until Megan Phelps contacted Smith and asked for 15 more tickets. Smith couldn’t resist having a laugh at the inescapable contradiction:

“God may hate fags, but the Lord loves a bargain!”

Megan described “Red State” as being “filthy” even though she kept watching it for ten minutes as a gift to Smith before walking out. She did, however, send him a couple of signs with the sayings “God Hates Fag Enablers” and “Red State Fags” on them. Smith’s wife, Jennifer Schwalbach, ordered him to throw them out, but he pointed out they were signed by all the WBC church members. Their daughter Harley ended up coming across the “Red State Fags” sign by accident. While he and his wife were looking at each other, Harley asked them, “Is this the sequel?”

Kevin Smith said “Red State” exists because of Quentin Tarantino. The Madonna speech at the beginning of “Reservoir Dogs” was such a big thing to him, and it made filmmaking seem all the more fun and possible to do. He sees “Red State” as the “true spiritual sequel” to “Clerks,” and he has had a joyous experience taking it out on the road. It’s very easy to believe to him when he said no one has had a bad experience with a premium ticket they bought for it.

Michael Biehn and Jennifer Blanc-Biehn on The Victim

Michael Biehn and his wife Jennifer Blanc reappeared at New Beverly Cinema on September 11, 2012 to do another Q&A on his directorial debut of “The Victim.” It had been playing at the famed revival movie house since Friday, September 7, and Biehn and Blanc were determined to make as many appearances there as they could to promote their fun little grindhouse flick. This particular evening had Biehn talking about its making, another movie he was involved in which did not get much of a release, and there was also a big surprise in store for yours truly.

Biehn first made his presence known to the small audience on this evening when the end credits for “The Victim” began, and he ended up doing a running commentary as they played on how he got everyone’s picture on screen whether they were acting in the movie or working on it behind the scenes. He once again alluded to the fact he had such a low budget to work with, and he described how most films don’t have end credits like this one, nor are they as fun to watch.

Among the people in the audience was Brian McQuery who served as the movie’s assistant director, and Biehn pointed out how McQuery worked 4 or 5 days “for nothing.” Biehn said this was the result of a “friend helping out a friend,” and he got the audience to applaud McQuery for his selfless efforts.

During the Q&A, Biehn talked about when he worked with filmmaker William Friedkin on the movie “Rampage” and how the filmmaker kept calling everyone on his set “Moe.” Biehn ended up working on two movies with Friedkin and he remarked how no other actor has worked with him twice. It turns out no one saw “Rampage,” Biehn said, because Dino De Laurentis’ company, which produced it, ran out of money and was not able to give it a proper release. Biehn did say he liked “Rampage” a lot and thought Ennio Morricone’s film score to it was fantastic.

Biehn also pointed out how he got some of the best directing advice ever from Friedkin. When Biehn asked Friedkin where he decides to put the camera when filming a scene, Friedkin ended up telling him, “I just think of where I would like to see the scene from, and I put the camera there.”

Even after making “The Victim,” Biehn told the audience he does not consider himself a director as he “never had a feeling for the camera, lenses, angles or close ups.” This was the result of him always being so focused as an actor to where he never learned all that stuff. Although he said he is never going to be a great director, his directorial debut showed he is better and cleverer at this job than he gives himself credit for.

Blanc also went out of her way to say that Biehn is a “phenomenal director” and that she “always looks to him for audition help.”

Biehn went on to talk about how a movie needs to be in escrow before it even gets made, and this led to him discussing how he got the money to make “The Victim.” At the time he was recovering from a hernia operation and was on Vicodin when he took a meeting at a restaurant with some guys looking to finance a movie. They told Biehn how they wanted to work with him and that they had “a small amount of money” to make a film with. Biehn, in his drugged out state, told them he would do the project but only if he had total creative control over it. They ended up agreeing to this, and the next day Blanc told Biehn the check those two gave him had cleared. Biehn, now off the Vicodin, ended up saying out loud, “What the fuck?!”

Whatever the case, Biehn clearly put a lot of effort into making “The Victim” with the limited resources he had. He described how the film was shot most days from 6 a.m. in the morning to 6 p.m. at night, how he had to write the script and do pre-production in just three weeks, and all the driving scenes were shot on some guy’s driveway which had bushes on both sides. Biehn also said the character he plays is like him but “with a few problems.”

There were also days on set where he got so upset to where Biehn became like “William Friedkin, Michael Bay, James Cameron and Val Kilmer all together on their worst day.” Blanc said his temper tantrums among other behind the scenes fodder can be found on “The Victim’s” Blu-ray which will be released on September 18, 2012.

Ok, now I don’t brag about myself too much but this is something I have to talk about: I was sitting in the front row of the New Beverly taking notes down in my journal of what was being said during this screening, and Biehn saw me writing furiously and asked me, “Are you a reporter?”

“No,” I said (for some reason, I did not consider myself an official reporter back then).

“Oh, okay,” Biehn said. “You’re not gonna write a bad review of this, are you?”

I assured him I had already written my review of “The Victim,” and that it was good. Blanc then asked who I was and I told her my name and the websites I submit reviews to. It turns out she actually read my review and thought it was awesome, and she ended up coming over to give me a hug.

Biehn then asked his wife, “was it a good review?”

“It was fantastic,” she said.

Biehn then looked right at me with open arms and said, “come here!”

Who would have thought I would get a hug from the man who played Corporal Dwayne Hicks in “Aliens,” Kyle Reese in “The Terminator” and Navy SEAL Hiram Coffey in “The Abyss?” When things like this happen while you live in Los Angeles, it reminds you of how magical this town can be.

Michael Biehn Premieres The Victim at New Beverly Cinema

Michael Biehn dropped by New Beverly Cinema on September 7, 2012 where the theater was hosting the Los Angeles premiere of his feature film directorial debut, “The Victim.” Joining Biehn for a Q&A were his wife and co-star Jennifer Blanc, Denny Kirkwood who plays one of the police detectives, producer Lorna Paul and musician Randy Chance who provided some original songs for the movie.

The first question Biehn was asked was, of course, what finally persuaded him to step behind the camera and direct. Biehn replied he was “not all that aware of really low budget movies until he worked on ‘Grindhouse‘” with Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Those two directors ended up showing him a bunch of their favorite grindhouse/exploitation movies, and Biehn recollected of how he was on the set of “The Divide” one day and saw a crew member reading Rodriguez’s book “Rebel Without a Crew” in which he wrote about his first film, “El Mariachi.” Those elements are what finally got Biehn to direct as well as Blanc’s insistence in her telling him to direct. Then again, she also said, “you can’t bully him into anything.”

Biehn also stars in “The Victim” as Kyle, a loner living in a remote cabin in the woods. He said he kept thinking of “The Shining” and of how Stanley Kubrick made the hotel look so isolated out in the snowy wilderness. It was this feeling of isolation Biehn wanted to capture, and “The Victim” ended up being shot in Topanga Canyon, California which seemed to have the perfect look. He went on to say how Blanc’s mother was especially helpful as she lives up there and talked to all her neighbors about what was going to happen. Apparently, the residents of Topanga Canyon do not like it when filmmakers come to town and shoot their movies there, but Blanc’s mom ended up making things a lot easier as a result.

“The Victim” ended up being shot in 12 days, and both Biehn and Blanc said they were “not allowed to say how small the budget was.” They did, however, say it was “much lower than what it says on the IMDB website” ($800,000).” Biehn also joked about how the budget was “so low that there’s a lot about the movie I wish was different. ‘The Terminator’ had a budget of $6.5 million, and the budget on this one was about a tenth of that.”

As a result, the crew ended up doing 35 setups a day compared to the average Hollywood blockbuster which manages just 2 or 3. All the car scenes in the movie were shot in a single day on someone’s driveway out in the woods, and Biehn joked about how the crew had to keep “driving in circles all fucking day long.” They didn’t even have money to hire a stunt coordinator, and the scenes in the house between Biehn and Kirkwood had them fighting and trying not to hurt one another in the process.

Day one of production, Biehn said, was “all about sex” as he shot the sex scene between him and Blanc. He said this was because the script wasn’t finished yet and that they “had to shoot something.” This led Blanc to tell the audience Biehn’s niece worked on the film in the makeup department, and this was her first experience in the movie business. His niece ended up watching Biehn drop his robe and go onto the set stark naked, and she was apparently so freaked out by what she saw that she didn’t speak about it for days afterwards.

This led to another funny story of when one of Biehn’s sons came to the set and ended up being traumatized by the sex scene between his dad and Blanc. Biehn even said his son has not seen “The Terminator” sex scene he had with Linda Hamilton, and that scene was, as he put it, “essential to the plot.”

All this sex talk led Biehn to point out how one of the characters in “The Victim” ends up “losing their life over a blow job.” Women’s sexuality, he said, ends up giving them a lot of power over men, and this proved to be the case in real life for John Edwards and Elliott Spitzer among others. Biehn described being amused at how some men end up messing up all the good they have done in life by “blowing it all for some pussy.” Sadly, there is a lot of truth to this.

Another scene discussed was when Biehn’s character gets put in a choke hold. He ended up telling actor Ryan Honey to put him in a real choke hold and assured the actor he would tap him on the arm if it became too much. Biehn recollected he was “surprised at how fast it worked” and that he was “gonna be lucky” if he could tap out. After this, Biehn said he was in “la la land” for a while and remembered one of the producers saying they would not be trying this again.

One audience member asked how Danielle Harris (best known for her work in the “Halloween” movies) got cast as Mary. Blanc responded she and Harris are good friends and that Harris liked the script. Biehn said he always saw Harris playing “teenagers who are always running away from monsters, but here she gets to play a woman.” He also remarked at how Harris started out as an actress at a very young age and that she at times directs herself which made him see he did not have to tell her anything.

Before “The Victim” began its screening at New Beverly Cinema, Biehn made an announcement to the audience:

“If you don’t like fucking or fighting, get up and leave now,” Biehn said. “Don’t take any of what you see seriously. Think of this movie as being food like cotton candy; it doesn’t fill you up, but you will remember having fun eating it.”

The above description says it all, and we thank Michael Biehn and his colleagues for giving us a highly entertaining time at New Beverly Cinema.

Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ is a Splendid Love Letter to the Power of Movies

Hugo movie poster

Maybe it was Martin Scorsese’s desire to utilize the 3D format which kept me from seeing “Hugo” on the first day of its release. 2011 saw 3D movies get a serious public beating as audiences became convinced it existed solely for Hollywood studios to jack up ticket prices. But to watch “Hugo” is to be reminded of how amazing 3D can be when using the right tools and not just throwing cheap gimmicks at the audience. But moreover, it is backed up by a great story and remarkable performances as Scorsese shares with us his love of all things cinema.

Seriously, the first five minutes of “Hugo” will blow you away as you will feel like you are traveling over the Paris of the 1930’s. It truly looks as though the snow it is literally blowing in your eyes, and it reminded me of when kids were grasping at the snowflakes coming off of the silver screen during “The Polar Express.” Scorsese was lucky enough to use the same Fusion Camera System which James Cameron used to superb effect in “Avatar.” The images stretch out from the screen, and the extra dimension gives these visuals a depth which at times feels remarkably real.

Based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, Asa Butterfield stars as Hugo, a young boy living alone in a Paris railway station while maintaining the clocks and stealing whatever supplies he needs in order to survive. One major obstacle he has to deal with is Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) who patrols the station with his vicious looking dog. Gustav shows no hesitation in picking up orphans and sending them straight to the orphanage which, in the kids’ eyes, seems like an unforgiving house of horrors.

Two people come to play an important role in Hugo’s life: the toy shop owner Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) and his spirited goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). They enter Hugo’s life as he continues to work on fixing an automaton he and his father, Mr. Cabret (Jude Law), were putting it back together in working order when Mr. Cabret was tragically killed in a museum fire. It is this same automaton which will draw these three together in ways none of them could ever have imagined.

By taking us back to a time when motion pictures were in their infancy, effects we now see as cheesy and simple to create come to feel as magical as they once did. Scorsese is brilliant in putting us into these characters’ shoes as we watch audiences react strongly to a film with a train which looks like it is coming straight at them, or at Buster Keaton hanging on for dear life from a clock outside a tall building. Looking at the awe which is so vivid in the faces of these children reminds us of how movies can magically draw us into another world, and this is a feeling many movies do not give us these days. In this day and age, we take the power of motion pictures for granted.

Butterfield’s performance is remarkable. Showing the pain and resourcefulness of a young boy who has lost his parents and is forced to fend for himself is no easy task, and he ended up giving one of 2011’s most underrated performances. Butterfield inhabits the character of Hugo so deeply to where, after a while, it does not feel like we are watching a performance at all.

Kudos also goes to Moretz, the star of “Kick Ass” and “Let Me In,” for adding yet another superb role to her already splendid resume. As the adventurous Isabelle, she pulls off a flawless English accent which is worth noting as we have gotten so used to actors screwing them up. The warmth of her smile onscreen is utterly genuine, and she lights up “Hugo” whenever it feels like it is getting a bit too dark.

There are other great performances to be found in “Hugo” as well. Ben Kingsley is fantastic as usual as Georges Méliès, and the late Christopher Lee has some wonderful moments as bookshop owner Monsieur Labisse. One of the big standouts in the supporting cast though is Sacha Baron Cohen who takes a break here from his “Borat” and “Bruno” mockumentaries as Inspector Gustav. He’s a hoot throughout, and his interactions with the infinitely lovely Emily Mortimer (“Lars and the Real Girl”) who plays Lisette are hilariously sweet.

Scorsese has put together a truly beautiful motion picture which deserves a bigger audience than it received while it was in theaters. The fact that more people went to see “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” than this is deeply depressing. A lot of moviegoers really hated 3D movies back in 2011, so this did not do “Hugo” any favors. But after watching it, you will find yourself believing this extra dimension is worth your money when it is put together by the best masters of filmmaking.

* * * * out of * * * *

William Friedkin Talks About ‘Killer Joe’ at Landmark Theatres

Killer Joe movie poster

Oscar winning director William Friedkin made a special appearance at Landmark Theatres in West Los Angeles on August 3, 2012 to talk about his film “Killer Joe.” He appeared in front of a sold-out audience who had just finished watching it, and Friedkin ended up paraphrasing a review from the Los Angeles Times by saying, “Welcome to the abyss!”

This remark was in reference to the fact that “Killer Joe” has already earned a bit of notoriety after receiving an NC-17 rating from the MPAA for what they described as “graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality.”

At the start of this Q&A, Friedkin went over the three things a director needs to consider before they begin working on a project:

  1. Choose the material you want to do. Friedkin said this is very important as you will have to “live with it for a year.”
  2. Cast the film with the right actors. Friedkin said if anything goes wrong with the movie, it won’t matter how good the cast is because odds are the director has chosen the wrong actors for it.
  3. You need to create an atmosphere where the actors are comfortable enough to do the work. Friedkin remarked this is 75% of what a director does, and that the remaining 25% has the same person figuring out how to put their movie together.

When it came to casting “Killer Joe,” Friedkin said he went to actors Emile Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church first as he was familiar with their work. These days, Friedkin says he continues to watch “old movies” as they continue to inspire him, and he doesn’t watch new movies much.

Friedkin also admitted he has “never seen any of Matthew McConaughey’s films” before casting him here, and he originally wanted someone “more grubby” and with “a more evil look.” However, after watching McConaughey being interviewed by Charlie Rose where he was just being himself, he realized someone like McConaughey would be more interesting as opposed to what some would call a “more obvious choice.”

McConaughey, however, read and hated the script to “Killer Joe” and that he “wanted to take a bath with a wire brush” after reading it. Regardless, McConaughey read the script again because he couldn’t get it out of his head, and he told Friedkin he found it “absurd and hilarious in a dark way.”

Friedkin also admitted he knew nothing about Juno Temple before casting her as Dottie. He was originally going to go with one of three beautiful actresses for this role, but he ended up watching an audition tape Temple put together in which she read the script along with her 10-year old brother who played the part of Joe, the cold blooded cop and contract killer played by McConaughey. Friedkin said he loved what he saw but that he was worried about her “thick British accent.” He ended up asking the cast to tell Temple when she was speaking in a way which didn’t sound like she was from Texas. From what we saw onscreen, the cast helped Temple out big time.

In talking about Gina Gershon (the mention of her name got the audience to applaud loudly), Friedkin said she was not his first choice for the role of Sharla. When it came to casting this particular role, Friedkin said he saved this question for last when interviewing prospective actresses, “Can you handle the sex and violence that is presented in this script?” It should go without saying Gershon could, and Friedkin described her as being “courageous” in playing Sharla. She is asked to portray some of the hardest things any actor is asked to do, and I don’t just mean the scene involving her and that piece of fried chicken.

“Killer Joe” marks the second film Friedkin has made from a play written by Tracy Letts whose “Bug” he turned into a film back in 2006. Friedkin said he and Letts “share the same worldview” as they both “see the absurdity of the many facets in life.” Their projects, as Friedkin sees it, deal with people “stuck in their realities and willing to do anything to get out of them,” and that neither of them is “fond of violence.”

Still, Friedkin said he did not expect the NC-17 rating the MPAA gave “Killer Joe,” but he thinks it is somewhat correct as he was not targeting young teenagers for this movie as they are more impressionable. Both he and LD Entertainment, which is distributing the film, fought the MPAA over the rating, and in trying to get it down to an R, they ended up cutting not scenes but instead frames of footage. This, however, was not enough, so Friedkin and LD Entertainment ended up appealing the decision. Friedkin joked how they “narrowly” lost the appeal (13 to nothing) and that he felt he “had to destroy the movie in order to save it.” But after all the fights he had over movies like “The Exorcist,” Friedkin declared he is “too old to get down on my knees and change the picture” for them.

When asked what the tone on set was, Friedkin described it as “light” because he and the actors already knew what was in the script. Friedkin also said he only does “one or two takes these days” when making a movie as opposed to the “15 or 20” he did when he was younger and “praying for miracles.” These days, he looks for spontaneity in his actors, and he finds the first take they give him is often the “most spontaneous” of all.

Whatever you end up thinking about “Killer Joe,” it is clear Friedkin is still a masterful filmmaker who has not lost his touch. The characters may be beyond redemption, but he is quick to point out we are all sinners, and this is an inescapably true fact. After all these years, Friedkin continues to challenge his audience, and we should be thankful for this in a time where most filmmakers choose to play it safe and to their own detriment.

‘Hanna’ Features One of Saoirse Ronan’s Best Performances

Hanna movie poster

Joe Wright’s “Hanna” on the surface looks a bit like “Kick Ass” as, like that movie, it follows the exploits of a young girl who has been trained to be an elite assassin so she can avenge her mother’s murder. But “Hanna,” however, is more down to earth in how it treats its characters and the events which envelop them. Does this make it better than “Kick Ass?” No, just different.

On top of it being an action thriller with a bit of Luc Besson sleekness in its design, “Hanna” is also a fish out of water story as the title character discovers the real world in a way previously denied to her. Hanna has spent her entire life in the woods, living in a snow-covered cabin where her dad, Erik Heller (Eric Bana), has kept her safe. But now she is heading into a world completely unfamiliar to her. Hanna’s mission of assassination is also a journey of discovery, and this movie ends up coming with more surprises than I ever could have expected.

Playing Hanna is Saoirse Ronan who has gone from her Oscar-nominated turn in “Atonement” to an excellent career which includes unforgettable performances in films like “Brooklyn,” “Lady Bird” and “Mary Queen of Scots.” On paper, Hanna seems like a completely unrealistic character who could in no way exist in real life. But the beauty of Ronan’s performance is how she makes Hanna seem as real as any 16-year old girl even as the character leads a double life the average teenager does not. Seeing her come into contact with a civilization she has been sheltered from provides her with evidence of how not everything involves guns, bullets and violence. Of course, seeing her get her first kiss is frightening because she can flip back to assassin mode in a heartbeat if she gets the wrong impression.

Most of Hanna’s adventures come as a result of her befriending a British family on a road trip whose daughter Sophie (Jessica Barden) introduces her to teenage rebellion and some rather tacky fashion statements. Sophie’s parents, Sebastian (Jason Fleming) and Rachel (“The Ghost Writer’s” Olivia Williams), come to admire Hanna and help her as she moves on to a safer haven from the government forces who look to eliminate her.

Wright comes up with several invigorating action sequences which made me feel like I was watching a Jason Bourne movie. There’s not much in the way of shaky camerawork, but you can feel the bullets flying in the air as well as the punches and kicks which land on her opponents, crushing them as if she were simply swatting flies. This is the kind of action film I like to watch as it makes you feel things instead of letting you just sit back like you’re some passive observer.

In addition, Wright gets some amazing unbroken shots as we watch characters make their way through crowds of people while being followed by their cold-hearted adversaries. It makes me want to say “eat your heart out Brian DePalma” as the choreography involved in filming an unbroken sequence like this is anything but easy.

There are other great performances to be found in “Hanna” as well. One in particular is from Eric Bana who plays Hanna’s father Erik Heller. His character is also a spy on the run whose relationship with Hanna is far more complicated than at first glance. Watching Bana here reminded me of just how much he throws himself physically and emotionally into his characters. It’s exhausting watching him here as we get reminded of his strong work in “Black Hawk Down” as well as his comedic roles like the one he had in “Funny People.”

Then there’s the infinitely brilliant Cate Blanchett who never seems to suck in anything she does. While listening to her southern accent feels a bit odd at first, she is still sharp as ever as corrupt CIA agent Marissa Wiegler. Throughout Marissa is as obsessive in eliminating Hanna and Erik as she is in cleaning her teeth. Heck, watching her brushing even while her gums bleed profusely reminded me of just how long it’s been since I’ve gone to the dentist. Blanchett also has a brilliant moment where she pays a visit to a key witness, but her face suddenly shows a wealth of pain which is mysterious in its origin. I don’t know how she did it, but it’s the one shot in “Hanna” which stays with me the most as her ruthless character succumbs to a moment of inescapable vulnerability.

On top of it all, you get a brilliantly propulsive electronic film score from The Chemical Brothers. I immediately downloaded it off of iTunes as soon as I got back to my apartment. It’s actually the first time they have ever composed for a movie. Learning this made me want to say, “duh, what about ‘Fight Club?’” But wait, it was The Dust Brothers who composed the score for that 1999 classic. I guess techno music is more of a family affair than I realized. Either that or all these brothers look alike.

“Hanna” is not without its faults. The pace of the movie tends to slag in between the action scenes which, while offering us beautiful moments for the title character, drag the proceedings down more than they should. Also, it ends without resolving the fate of several characters, leaving us wondering what happened to them and if they came out of this story alive and in one piece. As a result, the ending feels a bit too abrupt.

Still, “Hanna” is a remarkably involving action thriller which doesn’t lay out everything for you right at the start. The story continues to unfold throughout, revealing each of its secrets along the way. What brings it altogether is the fantastic performance of Saoirse Ronan who at a young age showed a professionalism and sharp focus on character equal to many acting veterans. Seeing her portray someone as innocent as she is very deadly made it one of the most unforgettable performances I had seen in any movie from 2011.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Winnie the Pooh’ Has Eeyore Stealing the Show

Winnie the Pooh 2011 movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was back in 2011 when the movie was released.

You know what? I was looking forward to this one more than “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.” Granted, I saw the latter first, but anyone who knows me best will more than understand why I was in a hurry to watch this Disney animated film: I am a die-hard Eeyore fan! I got my first Eeyore plush toy before the start of the 5th grade, and I’ve lost track of how many I have collected since. My extraordinary niece told her friends I have over 3,000, but I beg to differ. To see him play such a pivotal part in “Winnie the Pooh” was a huge delight for me after seeing him get reduced to a mere supporting role in “Pooh’s Heffalump Movie.”

Oh yeah, I should talk about the rest of the film as well. That “silly old bear” once again headlines the proceedings as his grumbling tummy develops a mind of its own due to his endless addiction to honey. Sure enough, there are beehives nearby with a wealth of honey, but the bees are understandably protective of their export. Then there’s the case of Eeyore’s missing tail that has everyone giving him another which, to put it mildly, doesn’t exactly compare to the original. To cap it all off, this classic gang mistakenly believes Christopher Robin has been kidnapped by an evil monster known as the Backson (see the movie and you’ll understand).

For some reason, watching Pooh hurriedly pursuing the delicious and sticky substance known as honey kept reminding me of Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” with its characters becoming increasingly desperate for whatever their minds craved more than their bodies, but that’s just me. I somehow doubt the animators at Walt Disney had any intention of making a G-rated movie to remind you of one of the most seriously disturbing films ever made.

“Winnie the Pooh” brings the 100 Acre Wood back to the traditional realm of hand drawn animation which is something of a rarity these days. While the characters might have looked fantastic with computer animation a la Pixar, doing things the old-fashioned way was the right choice. The “Winnie the Pooh” films and shorts have been long since relegated to the Disney channel and direct to DVD realm, and this brought about a drop in quality its most devoted films could not ignore. But seeing Pooh and company on the big screen is a terrific reminder of why we grew up loving these characters in the first place.

Jim Cummings once again provides the voice for Pooh and Tigger, and he captures the distinctive voices of each character perfectly. Travis Oates gets the innocent stuttering of Piglet down to perfection, and Craig Ferguson makes Owl as jolly as he is oblivious to his own pomposity. Rabbit, on the other hand, has always been the most anal of A.A. Milne’s characters, so I thank Tom Kenny for making him more likable and bearable than he typically is. As for Christopher Robin, Jack Boulter gives him a strong British accent even if he still sounds like a girl at times, much like the actor who voiced him in “Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore.”

Now back to the good part! Eeyore has been a great source of dry humor, and his brand of it is fully on display here. Watching him try on the tails others have given him should at the very least put a smile on your face even if it doesn’t on Eeyore’s. One of the movie’s most hilarious moments comes when Tigger trains him to be the second Tigger, leading to a montage I would love to say, but can’t quite get myself to believe, would put the one in “Rocky” to shame. Bud Luckey, who delighted us all with his great animated shorts on ” Sesame Street,” memorably voices Eeyore with all his gloominess and reduced expectations in life.

One great addition to this particular version of “Winnie the Pooh” is Zooey Deschanel. While she doesn’t appear in this movie, she does sing many of its songs including the classic opening track which introduces Christopher Robin’s friends. Her voice is lovely and it also has a whimsical quality which makes her contributions to this soundtrack all the more wonderful. While the songs by Robert and Kristin Anderson-Lopez aren’t as memorable as anything we have heard in “Beauty and the Beast” or “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut,” they fit the material nicely without indulging in any cringe-inducing cheesiness.

By bringing Pooh and his friends back to basics, “Winnie the Pooh” really proves to be a wonderfully innocent and nostalgic stroll back to the stories our parents read to us at one time or another. It’s the perfect family movie to see this summer even over the more popular, and unfairly maligned, “Cars 2.” Not once does it boil things down to the lowest common denominator for any audience prepared to pay tickets to see it, and it is a rare piece of cinematic innocence in a world filled with loud explosions and seriously crappy 3D effects. While it is a mere 69 minutes long, there is more story to this than its running time suggests. For proof of this, be sure to sit through the end credits.

Now let’s get Eeyore’s name in the title of the next A.A. Milne cinematic extravaganza! Tigger and Piglet both had enough charisma to get a headliner’s status above Winnie the Pooh, so you can’t convince me Eeyore does not deserve the same respect. It’s not like Owl, Kanga or Roo could upstage him anyway. And regardless of what Tina Fey and Seth Meyers said on “Saturday Night Live,” Eeyore did not commit suicide. As to whether auto-erotic asphyxiation was involved, I have no comment.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ Leaves You Hanging From Dizzying Heights

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol poster

Writer’s note: This review was written back in 2011.

The “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise keeps getting better and better which each successive sequel, something few other franchises can ever lay claim to. The first one directed by Brian De Palma had a confusing storyline but spectacular action set pieces. The second one had a plot which was easier to follow and the signature ballet action sequences we’ve come to love and expect from John Woo. Part three gave us the directorial debut of J.J. Abrams, had a stronger plot, a very effective villain in Phillip Seymour Hoffman and ended up remembering what made the original television series work so well. Each movie in this series has its own unique identity which allowed this franchise to have a longevity we didn’t expect it to have. Of course, with Tom Cruise’s antics upstaging “Mission: Impossible III,” it started to seem his time as Ethan Hunt had run its course.

But Cruise is back for more, and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” turns out to be the best of one yet as it features some of the most ingenious action scenes I’ve seen in a movie for quite some time. It also has the added benefit of having been filmed in part with IMAX cameras which gives certain scenes a highly realistic look and feel to where you are right in the center of the action. Just when I thought this franchise had ran out of steam, Cruise and director Brad Bird (making his live action debut) thrill us in a highly unexpected way.

It appears Hunt’s retirement from the IMF after “Mission: Impossible III” didn’t last long, and we find him at this movie’s beginning in a Moscow prison throwing a rock at the wall like he’s Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape.” But he is soon sprung from his cell with the help of Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton), and we find out he was imprisoned for a mission gone wrong, and he has since become estranged from his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) for mysterious reasons. Just like Jack Bauer in “24,” Hunt can’t stay away from what he does best when danger rears its ugly head.

After their great escape, Hunt and Dunn infiltrate the Kremlin in an effort to locate files of a nemesis with the code name of Cobalt. This mission, however, goes horribly wrong when the Kremlin is blown to smithereens, and the entire IMF is disavowed as a result. Hunt and his team are forced to take blame for the attack, but they are allowed to escape in order to locate Cobalt and stop a nuclear war. This time, Hunt and company have no support to rely on as they forced to work on their own.

As with the previous entry, Cruise lets the other actors shine as he has realized Hunt doesn’t need to do everything himself. Seeing Benji get upgraded from techno nerd to field agent is great fun, and Pegg is a real treat to watch here as he becomes much more than just comic relief. Paula Patton embodies her agent character of Jane Carter convincingly and gets to kick some serious ass in various scenes, one of which has her taking on a female assassin in something more than just your average catfight.

The best addition, however, to this “Mission: Impossible” movie is Jeremy Renner who plays William Brandt, a chief analyst for the IMF. Renner, whose career has been on a major upswing thanks to his performances in “The Hurt Locker” and “The Town,” is a great addition to this franchise, and he even gets a big action set piece as William proves to know far more than he lets on. His secrets threaten to be devastating if revealed, and Renner does excellent work in showing the turmoil Brandt endures as he is faced with a whole other kind of impossible mission.

The main antagonist this time out is Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist from the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) who is bent on starting a nuclear war so he can bring about the next evolution of the human race. Nyqvist brings a strong villainy to this role which makes you sneer at his presence whenever he’s onscreen. However, he’s upstaged by Léa Seydoux who portrays French assassin Sabine Moreau. Her cold glare penetrates your inner defenses with little difficulty, and you have to put on your best poker face in her presence to stay alive (and that may not even be enough).

But the real star of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is director Brad Bird himself. You’d think stepping outside the world of animation where he made “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “The Iron Giant” would leave him at a spectacular disadvantage as what you can get away with in that realm of filmmaking does not necessarily translate as well to live action. But it’s clear Bird allows nothing to stand in his way in terms of what can be accomplished, and he comes up with one amazing action sequence after another.

The one sequence which needs to be acknowledged above others is when Cruise scales the outside of the Burj Khalifa tower, the tallest building in the world. The IMAX cameras give this moment a reality like no other, and that feeling of intense vertigo is hard to ignore. Seriously, I felt like I was outside of that building with Cruise as he climbed up it with nothing but suction gloves. If there is a more intense action sequence with a character hanging on for dear life from one of the world’s tallest buildings, it certainly didn’t come to mind while I watched this movie. I had trouble getting to sleep afterwards because that crazy stunt was still on my mind and would not let me be.

There’s about a half hour or so of footage shot in IMAX, and Bird makes use of this format to great effect. Aside from Cruise scaling the world’s tallest building, there’s a scene of the Kremlin exploding which literally takes your breath away. While many still complain of IMAX feeling like a rip off with its high ticket prices, it’s worth the extra money in a way 3D could only dream of being at this point.

“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is a big surprise as this franchise looked like it had already hit its peak to where another sequel seemed needless. But Cruise and company successfully revive it by giving us characters to care about and root for, and they outdo themselves with stunts even more amazing than what we saw previously. Regardless of what you may think of Cruise as a person these days (many of my friends can’t stand him), he still puts on a good show even as he grows visibly older. Just when you thought he was out, he pulls himself back in!

* * * ½ out of * * * *