Steven Knight on Tobey Maguire, Bobby Fischer and ‘Pawn Sacrifice’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place back in 2014.

Pawn Sacrifice,” the movie about Bobby Fischer’s quest to beat the Russians in the game of chess, proves to be another cinematic triumph for both Edward Zwick and Tobey Maguire. Another person who deserves credit for this movie’s critical success is Steven Knight who wrote the screenplay. Knight’s previous writing credits include David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises,” Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things” and John Crowley’s “Closed Circuit,” and he wrote and directed “Hummingbird” which starred Jason Statham. He also wrote and directed “Locke” which featured Tom Hardy in what proved to be one of the most underrated movies of 2014.

I got to sit in on an interview with Knight while he was in Los Angeles, California at the Four Seasons Hotel to promote “Pawn Sacrifice,” and it was really nice to talk with him again after having interviewed him about “Locke” for the website We Got This Covered. His screenplay showed how well researched he was in Bobby Fischer and the world championship games he ended up playing against the Soviet chess grandmaster Boris Spassky.

Ben Kenber: I read that when you found out Tobey Maguire was going to be playing Bobby Fischer in this movie that it made it easier for you to write the script.

Steven Knight: Yeah, well it was Tobey who came to me with the idea, so from the outset it was always going to be Tobey playing Bobby. That really helped because this is about a battle being fought with the face if you like. It’s the intensity of the movement, and Tobey has got that intensity so much.

BK: Boris Spassky (played by Liev Schreiber) is an interesting character as presented in this movie. This could have easily become a good guy/bad guy story, but the movie avoids that thank goodness.

SK: Yeah because that wasn’t the case. If anything, Bobby was the bad guy. He was the one with the unreasonable demands. He was the one everyone chased around for reasons that we know. But Boris was a decent person, and when he applauds at the end of game six you realize that this is a man who knows how to lose and have the dignity. If there’s any message about this Cold War, it’s that when two human beings can overcome that conflict.

BK: It’s almost scary to think about how Bobby would’ve handled fame if he were to become famous in this day and age because there would have been nowhere for him to hide.

SK: No, definitely not. If he came along today, he would get the best agent and he would get the best lawyers. They would come to him. He wouldn’t choose. They would get him than make a fortune.

BK: The last image of the movie, when Bobby Fischer wins and gets what he wants, has haunted me ever since because it’s all downhill for him from there. It’s sad to see that he’s not able to enjoy the success he earned.

SK: Yeah, and the image that’s always in my mind was he’s been running away and he’s hit a brick wall, and now they are gonna get him.

BK: It’s interesting that the movie ends there instead of following Bobby and observing what happened to him afterwards. It could almost make for a good sequel.

SK: It would make for an odd sequel (laughs).

Thanks to Steven Knight for taking the time to talk about what went into his screenplay for “Pawn Sacrifice,” and I look forward to what he has in store for us next. The movie is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

CLICK HERE TO READ THE EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW I DID WITH STEVEN KNIGHT ABOUT HIS FILM LOCKE.\

Edward Zwick on the Pressures of Fame and ‘Pawn Sacrifice’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place back in 2014. This is worth noting especially when the director mentions a particular individual who has become far too famous for his or anyone else’s good.

Edward Zwick has remained one of Hollywood’s best and perhaps most underappreciated directors as he has given us such great motion pictures like “Glory,” “The Last Samurai,” “Blood Diamond” and “Legends of the Fall.” With “Pawn Sacrifice,” he takes us back to the Cold War when American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) took on the Soviet Empire and its chess grandmaster Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in a 21-game competition in an effort to end the Soviet’s domination of the game. But as Bobby contemplates which moves he could make on the chess board, he also has to deal with his mental illness and paranoia which may descend him into a realm of madness he won’t be able to escape from.

Zwick sat down for an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California to talk about “Pawn Sacrifice,” working with Maguire and the genius of Bobby Fischer. As the interview went on, it focused more on the subject of fame and how crushing it can be. Bobby was really one of the first people who had to endure a type of fame which followed him all around the world, and we eventually saw what this attention did to him.

What’s up Hollywood reporter Izumi Hasegawa brought up the fact that, while this movie takes place back in 1972, it deals with celebrity in a way which feels very relevant to what’s going on today. We see artists like Miley Cyrus gaining notoriety for doing things which Hannah Montana would never do, and Zwick really made clear why we remain so deeply interested in famous people and the effect fame has on them.

Edward Zwick: We’re fascinated by the darker sides. We are fascinated when they reveal themselves in a way that is vulnerable or fragile or they have some sort of failures. I think we seize on that, and this was the very beginning of that. The person to ask about that too would be Tobey (Maguire) because he has had to deal with a share of it as an iconic superhero. I think that people of extraordinary ambition and single-mindedness reach a place that, at the same time, makes them more vulnerable to that glare. And as they try to retire from that glare and they turn inward, there is often this weird reaction and I’ve seen it with a lot of people I have worked with and it’s hard to describe. Most people who become artists to begin with, or who aspire to greatness, there’s often some vulnerability at the base that gets exposed, I think.

“Pawn Sacrifice” was released in a year which has seen documentaries made on the lives of Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and Nina Simone; three brilliant artists whose lives were tragically destroyed because they couldn’t handle the pressures of fame which was thrust upon them. Since Bobby never had to deal with his likeness being plastered all over the internet, it’s tempting to say he got off easy, but this was not the case. Like those three, Bobby didn’t and couldn’t deal very well with fame as it isolated him more and more from the rest of humanity, and I remarked to Zwick how watching Maguire portray the chess prodigy here made me wonder how he would have dealt with fame in this day and age.

Edward Zwick: I think it would have been insufferable. Even the reason he disappeared even then was in some sense a reaction to that kind of scrutiny. It’s become so barbaric. I look at Donald Trump right now and I see someone who is now being considered in the political arena as legitimate who is famous for being famous. Not for his policies, good or bad, but because it is so important now in the culture to be famous or to be known, and he is now transitioning into this most serious realm. We’ve almost reached that height of absurdity.

What Zwick said rings absolutely true as our obsession with celebrities keeps getting bigger and bigger to where we are more likely to know who won the latest season of “American Idol” than the name of our current governor. This makes “Pawn Sacrifice” all the more important to watch, and it is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

BE SURE TO ALSO CHECK OUT THE EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW I HAD WITH EDWARD ZWICK WHICH I DID FOR THE WEBSITE WE GOT THIS COVERED DOWN BELOW

Michael Stuhlbarg on Managing an Unstable Genius in ‘Pawn Sacrifice’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place back in 2014.

Ever since he made his cinematic breakthrough in the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man,” actor Michael Stuhlbarg has presented us with an array of characters he completely disappears into in movies like “Men in Black 3,” “Lincoln,” “Seven Psychopaths,” “Blue Jasmine,” “Cut Bank” and “Steve Jobs.” In “Pawn Sacrifice,” the Julliard trained actor portrays Paul Marshall, the manager and attorney to chess prodigy Bobby Fischer (played by Tobey Maguire). Bobby proves to be a hard man to get control of, and Stuhlbarg makes you see how exhausting it was for Paul as he was determined not to lose his most famous client even as the chess genius descended into madness

Stuhlbarg was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the “Pawn Sacrifice” press day, and he talked in depth about he prepared to play a character who is based on a real-life person. Always a daunting task for any actor, Stuhlbarg appeared to handle this task with what seems like relative ease.

Ben Kenber: Your character of Paul Marshall reminded me a bit of Paul Giamatti’s character of Jerry Heller in “Straight Outta Compton” as both men are managers and forced to manage their clients under increasingly difficult circumstances. In your research, did you look a lot at different managers and how they worked with their clients?

Michael Stuhlbarg: Not so much. I stuck primarily with who Mr. Marshall was. It seemed to be enough. And also, particularly with what the script was asking of the dramatic situation, I just sort of threw myself into it and sort of said how can I get him into the next room if I need to get him there. And how can I please him as much as I can? Because it behooves all of us that he gets where he needs to go and he gets what he asks for. I tried to reason with him and just sort of placed myself in that dramatic context, so that was the dramatic result.

BK: Like Edward G. Robinson (whom he plays “Trumbo”), your character is based on a real-life person, but it’s a person most people don’t know as well as Bobby Fischer. Did this make your job as an actor harder or easier?

MS: The job is the same either way. I imagine I didn’t have to necessarily push myself to behave too much like Paul Marshall because not too many people, I believe, out there would have known him or perhaps fewer people would have known someone like him, Bobby Fischer or Edward G. Robinson. So I didn’t worry about that too much, but on the flipside of that is I tried to get as much video on him as I could so that I knew who he was, and I could listen to his rhythms and hear where he came from and try to embody it is truthfully as I could. At the same time, I was trying to be truthful to the situation.

BK: As an actor, would you say it’s more like working from the inside out or the outside in?

MS: I guess it has to be a marriage of both honestly. You ask questions enough about what you would do in a particular situation that a character finds himself in and you go from there. If he wore a particular pair of glasses which Paul did, it’s then let’s put on those glasses and how does it make me behave. Does it make me behave differently? Perhaps it does. Perhaps I hold my head a little differently. There are the outside influences that will change the way I behave, and there are questions that I could ask that he may have had to ask in his life that may also change me internally. So, I guess it’s always kind of a combination of the two for me.

Like the best character actors working in movies today, Michael Stuhlbarg shows no signs of slowing down as he has a number of projects coming up. It will be fascinating to see which role he will bring to life next.

Pawn Sacrifice” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

PLEASE CHECK OUT THE VIDEO INTERVIEW I DID WITH STUHLBARG WHICH I DID FOR WE GOT THIS COVERED DOWN BELOW:

Tobey Maguire on Chess, Poker and ‘Pawn Sacrifice’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place back in 2014.

Tobey Maguire brings his usual coiled intensity to the role of American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer in “Pawn Sacrifice.” Directed by Edward Zwick, the movie takes us back to the days of the Cold War where Russia and America were constantly facing down one another. Having become a master at chess at such an early age, Bobby eventually becomes determined to beat the Soviet Empire at the game as they have dominated it for decades. This puts Bobby in the crosshairs of Soviet chess grandmaster Boris Spassky (played by Liev Schreiber), and they come to face each other in what became known as the “Match of the Century,” a 21-game competition held in Iceland back in 1972.

Maguire dropped by the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California to talk about his experience making “Pawn Sacrifice” and playing a real-life person. In addition to being an accomplished actor and producer, he is also known for being quite the poker player as he has played in various tournaments throughout the years and has won a lot of money. Front Row Features Managing Editor Angela Dawson asked him if he was able to utilize his knowledge of poker in this role.

Tobey Maguire: I think it doesn’t hurt. I mean it’s very different, and I think Bobby himself hated games if there was any element of chance. When he was six years old he would play some other games, but where there was any element of chance, whether it was cards or dice or something like that, he would get really frustrated because his skill would maybe gain him an advantage but then the chance element might take that advantage away. He almost felt that was unfair, so he no longer played games that have any element of chance and only wanted to play a strictly skilled based game which is essentially chess. He had all of the control and it was all skill, and the communication is very pure. He loved that there was this framework and essentially this pure communication with the person he was playing with. There’s no kind of manipulation or something else that could happen. It was like a safe place to communicate purely. But I also think it doesn’t hurt that I’ve played games and sort of battled with people over boards and across felt tables.

Looking at both games, it seems like there’s a similarity between them because both games require a lot of mental energy as you constantly second guess your moves and the moves you think your opponent will make. Whether you are about to move a chess piece or put down a poker bet, there’s a lot to consider beforehand as a player has to be actively concerned about making a wrong move that will have them suffering a loss they could have avoided. I brought this up to Maguire who sees similarities between the games, but he was also quick to describe how they are different from one another.

Tobey Maguire: Yeah, although with cards you’re acting on current, partial information. You have cards that I don’t see, so I’m then kind of mostly looking at your historical behaviors as it relates to betting and less on tics and moves and stuff. I think that there’s way too much put on so-called tells of poker. I think it’s much more about patterns of betting. I think that’s much more reliable than behavioral tells. I do think it’s a huge differential because in chess there is no hidden information. On a chessboard all the information is right in front of you. There is nothing hidden. The only thing you are guessing or second-guessing is really in your preparation. Bobby Fischer was extremely consistent and would play the same opening move over and over and over and over and over and over again. He actually went and I believe, although I don’t have the proof of this but based on people I talk to, that he basically studied variations that he hadn’t played before and ended up using a different opening move in game six that was very unusual for Bobby. It’s possible that he was doing what you’re talking about, kind of not counting on but anticipating that they would not have prepared to open with that. So, in that way, that’s a comparison that I could draw in relation to what you asked.

Maguire is riveting as always in “Pawn Sacrifice,” and the movie is now available to watch on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

You can also check out my video interview with Tobey Maguire below which I conducted for We Got This Covered.

Beyond The Lights is Not Your Average Showbiz Movie

I walked into “Beyond the Lights” expecting it to be some sort of manipulative soap opera which aimed to be “The Bodyguard” for a new generation. What I got instead was a showbiz story which felt surprisingly genuine in its emotions and intentions. It does have that familiar ring of two people from opposite walks of life coming together, but the way their relationship evolves throughout proves to be very entertaining to watch.

When we first meet Noni Jean, she’s a little girl performing in a talent competition and singing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” which leaves the audience in a state of awe. However, when the judges award her a runner up prize, her mother Macy (Minnie Driver) angrily takes her out of the auditorium and orders her to “chuck” her trophy in defiance. The way Macy sees it, being second best counts for nothing in a world where you need to be number one.

We then move to years later when Noni, now played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is on the verge of stardom after having won a Billboard Award even though she hasn’t released an album yet. But after retreating to her hotel room, we come to see how much the pressures of fame are bearing down on Noni as she sits on a balcony ready to jump. Coming to her rescue is police officer Kaz Nicols (Nate Parker) who pulls her back from the edge, literally and figuratively speaking, and two quickly get lost in each other’s eyes. What happens from there is easy to guess.

Initially, Kaz feels somewhat betrayed when Macy pays him off to publicly say Noni did not try to commit suicide, but Noni warms up to him quickly as she can tell he sees something in her others do not.

While they may come from different worlds, Kaz and Noni are going through similar issues. Her mother Macy has been grooming her for stardom ever since she was little, and she has helped turn Noni into the kind of woman every man wants or at least fantasizes about. As for Kaz, his police captain father David (Danny Glover) is grooming him for public office, something he does in fact have ambitions for. However, when you look into Kaz’s eyes, you wonder just how serious he is about politics or if he really wants a different path in life.

Basically, Kaz and Noni are trying to fulfill the desires of their parents, and we have caught up with them as they have long since played a role they feel society wants them to play. In the process, they have lost touch with what they really want out of life, and we follow them as they go through a much-needed period of self-discovery. Watching these two evolve and change from start to finish is deeply involving and, even if the conclusion is never in doubt, we revel in their personal triumphs.

I am not at all familiar with Mbatha-Raw or her work as an actress, and she gives an extraordinary performance here. She is mesmerizing to watch as Noni begins to shed the public persona which has been foisted upon her, and it allows the frightened child inside of her to come out into the open. Also, she has a show stopping moment where she sings “Blackbird” by herself onstage, and you cannot take your eyes off of her for a single second.

Parker also puts in a strong performance as a well-meaning man who respects the law, wants to help people and who has, as his shirtless scenes will attest, spent a lot of time in the gym like any cop should. Looking at the actor’s past which had him involved in political activism, charitable work and working as a wrestling coach, you get the sense he was born to play Kaz. As he wades deeper into Noni’s world of fame, Parker shows Kaz to be someone who keeps his head above water and is not easily seduced by the closed-off world of show business. But there’s also no doubt that the chemistry between him and Mbatha-Raw is very palpable.

Kudos also goes out to Minnie Driver who takes what could have been a one-dimensional stage mother from hell and turns her into a complex character who is far more vulnerable than she lets on. We come to see how Macy has never had it easy, and she is eager for Noni to have everything she never had. But as much as she cares for her daughter, Macy also comes to realize her determination to make Noni a star speaks more about her ambitions than anyone else’s. Driver is a powerhouse as she lets us see how Macy has been wounded by others who had no faith in her when she was young, and it becomes understandable why Macy wants to beat everyone at their own game.

“Beyond the Lights” was written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood whose previous films include “Love & Basketball,” “Disappearing Acts” and “The Secret Life of Bees.” I regret to say I haven’t seen those films, but I am certainly willing to see them now based on the work she has done here. Prince-Bythewood succeeds in giving us a showbiz tale which actually feels grounded in reality. The atmosphere at the award shows and parties Noni attends feel authentic, and they never seem like a spectacle to be easily laughed at. She also gives us a number of complex characters who struggle to survive the high pressure world of fame and fortune where people have everything and nothing at the same time.

I also have to applaud Prince-Bythewood for sticking by Mbatha-Raw when studios were insistent on getting a bigger name cast in the role of Noni. Perhaps a music star would have done a good job here, but they also would have brought an enormous amount of baggage with them which would have had an unintentionally negative effect on this movie. Mbatha-Raw has the advantage right now of not having this baggage, and that makes her performance all the more enthralling as a result.

Sure, there are some soap opera dramatics here and there and certain moments do not ring true, but “Beyond the Lights” really did prove to be one of the big cinematic surprises of 2014. It is also another film to add to the list of worthwhile romantic movies. Just as this particular genre looked to be burning out, the movies coming from it are getting so much better. I’m starting to like these kinds of movies again. What’s wrong with me anyway?

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Click here to check out the video interviews I did with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker which I did for the website We Got This Covered.

Underseen Movie: The One I Love with Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass

The One I Love” is one of the harder movies to review because it really helps to go into it with an open mind. The less you know about what happens in it, the better the experience will be. Ever since its debut at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, its most fervent admirers have been praising it and guarding its secrets as if they have the secret formula for Coca-Cola. What I can tell you is that it is an insanely clever romantic comedy, and it belongs to a genre I typically live to avoid.

Things start off with the married couple of Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) going through troubles which usually tear a couple apart permanently. They try to recreate their romantic spark by revisiting the house they snuck into when they first met and jump in the pool, but the magic isn’t there. In the process of visiting their therapist (played by Ted Danson), he suggests they spend the weekend in this cottage he knows about so they can work on their marriage. When they get there, they find the cottage is in a beautiful location I would personally love to visit sometime, and it proves to be a very relaxing place for a vacation. But when they start to explore the other parts of the house, things quickly get very trippy.

So that’s it. This is all I am going to tell you about the plot of “The One I Love.” It is very nice we have a movie like this one where film buffs are not investigating every little detail like they do with “Star Wars” or “The Matrix.” With big blockbusters, everyone is analyzing every single moment of the movie trailers, following news updates of who is being cast, and it gets to where they have a vision of what it is going to be like inside their heads. The problem is, going into anything with such lofty expectations will usually have you living very disappointed, and perhaps for the wrong reasons. It helps that “The One I Love” is a low budget feature which is coming in under the radar because people aren’t busy overanalyzing like this one.

It should also be noted how director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader created this movie out of a 50-page document which contained the scene beats and the locations of the entire movie. The only thing this document did not contain was the dialogue, and the actors ended up improvising it themselves. Even though the actors were given ideas to work with, they pretty much drive this movie more than anyone else, and I applaud the challenges they face here and the risks they took with what they were given.

“The One I Love” serves as a terrific acting showcase for its stars Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss, both of whom get to explore different levels of their characters throughout the movie’s running time. Mark is, of course, well known for making and producing many offbeat films with his brother Jay Duplass like “Cyrus,” “Baghead” and “The Puffy Chair” among others. As an actor, he is perfectly cast in the role of an everyman husband who finds himself threatened with the various events he is forced to endure while staying at the cottage. As Ethan, we sense his desperation to save his marriage, and we also sense his desperation to not be second best at anything.

Moss has had quite the ride in recent years with her work on “Mad Men,” “Top of the Lake” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and she is currently experiencing great success on the silver screen in “The Invisible Man.” She once again proves just how wide her acting range is as Sophie. Like the movie, she is full of surprises and such a lovely presence to watch, and she renders every emotion you see Sophie going through as being totally genuine. Considering what the role has her doing, it is really quite a feat when you realize what Moss has accomplished here.

“The One I Love” is one of the few movies I have seen in recent years which takes turns I did not see coming, and I honestly have not been this riveted by a romantic comedy since “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Seriously, you really need to check your expectations at the door when you go and see it because there will be no easy way to prepare you for what will unfold. I am always waiting to see a movie which constantly surprises me throughout, and this is one of them.

If there were any expectations I had with “The One I Lovie,” it was that I was to hear Stephen Still’s song “Love the One You’re With” play over the end credits. Once you watch this movie, you will understand why this would have been the perfect piece of music to end things on. After all, “The Simpsons” made great use of it on one of their “Treehouse of Horror” episodes.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Skeleton Twins’ Has ‘SNL’ Stars Doing Drama as Well as They Do Comedy

The Skeleton Twins movie poster

Okay, I think we are way past the point where we should not be the least bit surprised when comedic actors succeed in giving strong dramatic performances. Many are stunned when funny people like Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler give strong and deeply felt performances in “The Truman Show” and “Punch Drunk Love,” and it feels like these same people are saying they were fully prepared for them to really suck because they were working outside of the genre they have gained the most recognition for. After all these years, the majority of audiences still believe drama is far more challenging to pull off than comedy, but it has always been the other way around. Making people cry is easy, but making them laugh is much harder. Frankly I am far more stunned when serious dramatic actors give terrific comedic performances because lord knows they take themselves way too seriously.

I bring this up because I just saw “The Skeleton Twins” which stars two of “Saturday Night Live’s” best alumni, Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader. It won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and it is not hard to see why. They play twins who were as close as a brother and sister could be until events like the unexpected death of their father tore them apart. The two bring their comedic talents to this sad tale, but they also dig deep into their roles to show us sides of themselves we have not seen, or never took the time to see previously.

When the movie starts, these characters have reached an emotional bottom they cannot seem to dig themselves out of. Milo (Hader) lives in Los Angeles where he is just another out of work actor, and he is inconsolable after his latest relationship falls apart. As a result, he sinks into his bathtub and tries to commit suicide. Meanwhile in New York, Maggie (Wiig) is about to take her own life when she is interrupted by a phone call informing her Milo has beat her to it, except of course for the fact he was saved from death just in the nick of time.

Maggie visits Milo in the hospital, and it marks the first time they have talked to one another face to face in a decade. It is an awkward reunion as neither is sure what to say to the other, and one of them has to spoil the ending of “Marley & Me” in the process. The wounds from childhood are still fresh in their minds, and their mother (played by Joanna Gleason) is no help as she has since become a new-age practitioner who refuses to recognize or even consider the pain her children have been enduring. But soon Milo and Maggie realize in order to fix their lives and let go of the past, they need to repair their relationship with one another first.

Now regardless of the above description, “The Skeleton Twins” is indeed a comedy, or perhaps a dramedy is a better way to describe it. In a lot of ways, it has to be a comedy because Milo and Maggie need to laugh about something or else everything will become far too painful to bear. But even though they look to be on the road to recovery, Milo and Maggie still have some severe road bumps to travel over which will test them and their broken faith in one another.

We learn Milo’s first love was his high school English teacher Rich (Ty Burrell), and it should go without saying it was a forbidden love which should never have taken place. Nevertheless, Milo still has deep feelings for Rich and has never gotten past what they shared. He tries to reconnect with Rich by pretending to be a successful actor, but Rich initially resents Milo’s reappearance in his life as he now lives with his girlfriend and son. But this does not deter Milo as he continues to pursue Rich for a relationship which is not the least bit realistic for either of them.

As for Maggie, she at first appears to be happily married to a Lance (Luke Wilson), and they tell everyone they are more than ready to start a family. Maggie, however, is secretly taking birth control pills behind Lance’s back and has developed a crush on her flirtatious scuba diving instructor, Billy (Boyd Holbrook), who is quite the Australian hunk (is there any other kind?). As well intentioned as she and Milo are, both are indulging in self-destructive behavior and do not fully realize the consequences of what they are doing until the damage has already been done.

Like other movies I really admire, the characters in “The Skeleton Twins” are refreshingly down to earth and relatable to where they are not much different from those we know in our own lives. Regardless of whether or not we ever had an affair with our high school English teacher or our scuba diving instructor, we have all been at that point where we feel infinitely lost to where we are unsure of how to make our lives better. Furthermore, none of these characters are painted in broad strokes. They all have various layers to their personalities, and there are no clear cut good or bad guys to be found here.

Wiig has long since proven to be a wonderful actress in “Bridesmaids” and “All Good Things,” and her work in “The Skeleton Twins” is the latest example. As Maggie, she uses her brilliant comedic skills to great effect, but she also inhabits her character more than she plays her to where we get caught up in the infinite sadness Maggie is trying to outrun on a daily basis. This is especially the case when Maggie is forced to face up to what she has done wrong, and this not easy for anyone.

But the most revelatory performance in “The Skeleton Twins” comes from Hader as Milo. Honestly, I am not surprised he is as good as he is here, but it feels like this is the first time we have seen him in this kind of role. Milo is gay, and this may lead some to believe Hader is simply resurrecting his Stefon character from “SNL” to where we will watch him go to Trash, the meatpacking hot spot where you can meet the Muslim Elvis impersonator Pierre, but he is a lot smarter than that. Hader gives a very nuanced performance throughout, and his story about peaking in high school really choked me up. No one wants to believe high school is the best time in their lives, but it may be the place where you end up doing your most memorable work.

And just as they proved over the years on “SNL,” Wiig and Hader are quite the team when you put them together. They play off each other brilliantly during the scene in the dentist’s office where they discover the benefits of nitrous oxide which allows their characters to open up in a way they haven’t in years. But that almost doesn’t compare to the movie’s penultimate scene where they lip sync “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship (or Jefferson Starship or Jefferson Airplane or whatever the hell you want to call that band) which proves to be hilariously moving. It’s never been one of my favorite songs, but this movie has me seeing it in a whole new light.

While I am at it, I do have to give credit to the supporting actors who take roles which could have been stock characters and render them as truly memorable. Luke Wilson is a delight throughout as Lance, the endlessly cheerful husband. Lance could have been completely indifferent to what his wife is going through or just a flat-out jerk, but Wilson humanizes this character to where we see he is truly a good-hearted man who wants to be there for his wife even when he does not know how to help her. Special mention also goes out to Ty Burrell who plays a character who, in real life, we would despise with an intense passion, and he makes Rich an empathetic character who is in his own way just as lost and self-destructive as Milo and Maggie are.

“The Skeleton Twins” does end on a rather abrupt note and leaves a couple of plot threads dangling in an unsatisfying manner. Regardless, it is one of those movies which had quite the emotional impact on me. It always feels like a gift when you watch a movie with characters you can relate to, and director Craig Johnson has given us just that.

Seriously, there can be no more talk of how amazing it is when comedy actors can do drama. Of course they can, and this should go without saying. Do not tell Hader and Wiig to stick with comedy because this movie shows they can do anything and everything at this point. No pun intended, but nothing is going to stop them now.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Guillmero Amoedo About ‘The Stranger’

Guillermo Amoedo photo

Uruguayan writer and director Guillermo Amoedo has left a solid mark on Chilean audiences with his short films and movies, and he was a co-writer on the Eli Roth productions of “Aftershock” and “The Green Inferno.” In 2014, he left his mark on American audiences with the supernatural thriller “The Stranger.”

Cristobal Tapia Montt stars as Martin, a mysterious man who arrives in a small Canadian town to look for his wife. The reasons why Martin seeks her out become clear as the movie goes on, but he quickly discovers she has died and decides to commit suicide as a result. But after he is viciously attacked by a trio of criminals, the incident soon has a snowball effect on the whole town, and its inhabitants soon find themselves ensnared in a nasty bloodbath many of them will be unable to escape.

I got to speak with Guillermo about “The Stranger” and of how he came up with the idea for it. Although it his film, Eli Roth’s name is heavily featured on the movie’s advertisements and it had me asking Guillermo how much the “Hostel” director was involved in its making. Guillermo also discussed how Cristobal was cast, of how a particularly brilliant vampire movie became a strong inspiration for “The Stranger,” and of how family always plays a big part in horror films.

The Stranger 2014 movie poster

Ben Kenber: What was the genesis of “The Stranger’s” story for you?

Guillermo Amoedo: Well it was an idea that I had five years ago in between scripts. It came actually from the idea of what kind of vampire movie I would like to see. I’m actually not a vampire movie fan, but I saw a vampire film called “Let the Right One In.” I really loved the way it is designed by genre and I really loved the way they treated the subject, and I wanted to do something very grounded in the kind of vampire films that I would like to see; more grounded and more character driven than the ones that are out there right now. I wanted to take the tone of that film and make it more grounded, but then also make it my own kind of story that was more of a character driven story about this guy who has to choose between his own family or humankind. I like this kind of character that had this deep moral conflict inside of them and has to make the tough decisions.

BK: On the surface, “The Stranger” looks like a vampire movie, but it also has elements of a ghost movie as well as supernatural elements as well. Was it always your intention to mix up genres with this movie?

GA: Yeah, that was the idea. It has of course some supernatural elements, but it’s more about the people than it was about the supernatural powers. That’s why I wanted to make all the supernatural stuff as minimal as possible. They don’t have wings, they don’t fly, they just have some stuff from the vampire mythology but they’re actually pretty human.

BK: “The Stranger” has Eli Roth’s name on the top of this movie’s advertisements and I know that you worked with him previously on “Aftershock.” What part did he play in the making of “The Stranger?”

GA: Well he helped a lot in the development of the script and had a lot of notes. He also helped us a lot in post-production with different cuts and ideas. He was involved in different stages of this process. This is the fourth film where we have been involved with Eli and we have a very friendly collaboration process with him.

BK: I really enjoyed Cristobal Tapia Montt’s performance as Martin and I love how he holds the audiences’ attention just with a single stare. What was it like directing him in “The Stranger?”

GA: He was amazing. Originally the script was written for someone older, much older, like 45 or 50 years old. But then before doing the film I made a short film and I casted him for it. I changed the age of the character in order to cast him, and he did such a wonderful job that I changed everything so he could play the role of Martin. He’s a terrific actor. He has a lot of experience working in Chilean films and TV, and I hope he can have more opportunities in the future.

BK: I liked that, as a writer, you didn’t go out of your way to spell out everything in the movie’s story for the audience. As a writer, how important is it for you to keep secrets from the audience?

GA: Well I think it has to be a balance of how much you can tell without revealing everything, but you also don’t want to reveal too much. There’s a line that says the secret to being boring is to tell everything. You have to test sometimes the script and then the movie to see how much you can hold back from the audience and how much you have to give them so it’s tricky sometimes. It also depends a lot on the kinds of audiences. Some people get mad because they want to know everything. It’s like the tip of the iceberg; you have to tell as much information as necessary so that the audience can understand the story, but then you can leave a lot of stuff that the audience can fill with their own imagination. So I like to do a lot of that stuff where people have to fill part of the story with their own imagination.

BK: Ariel Levy who plays Caleb, the town bully, was he meant to have the same hairstyle as Eminem in this movie?

GA: (Laughs) That wasn’t actually the idea, but now that you mention he does look a lot like an Eminem fan. It was to change Ariel’s aspect as much is possible, so we changed his haircut and his hair color and he was intended to resemble Ben Foster in “3:10 to Yuma,” but something like that more than Eminem. It was changing Ariel’s aspect everything to get him more involved in his character.

BK: Nicolás Durán’s character of Peter is referred to as a tagger which is slang for graffiti artist, and it was interesting to see the symbolism in what he was painting. Was there any intentional symbolism in what he was spraying over the walls in town?

GA: There is one thing: the symbol that he writes on the walls is the same as the marking that Cristobal’s character has on his wrist. That’s actually the idea that there is some kind of connection between them, and it’s a made up symbol that has to do with something the Greeks used to do. They used to mark the people who are ill before Christ, so we are trying to build a mythology between that and what kind of character that Cristobal plays.

BK: I imagine you had a very tight budget to work with on “The Stranger” and a short schedule to make it in. How much did that force you to be more creative while shooting?

GA: Always limitations, I think, are better. Sometimes you have too many limitations to work with, but when you have enough… It’s a good thing to know your limitations from before, so when I wrote the script I knew how many pages we could shoot a day and how much stuff we could do so I tried to plan everything right from the beginning. Then when there’s so much trouble that I think we were pretty much prepared for the worst, and we ended up doing a pretty good job.

BK: The town where you shot “The Stranger” in has a wonderfully Gothic feel to it as well as a great small-town vibe which fits the movie perfectly. Did you always plan to shoot the movie there, or did this town come to your attention through a location scout?

GA: Well we actually planned to shoot everything at another town that was farther away from the town (we shot in), more South. This town is near a place near another town where one of the producers of the movie has a house where he always goes to for vacation. He told me that this place was great and had lakes and volcanoes and everything. We went there and it was amazing. I mean everywhere you could shoot from anyplace and you would have three volcanoes in a lake in the town in the view and everything. It was an amazing place to shoot.

BK: How would you describe “The Stranger” to an audience that has yet to see it?

GA: I would say it is a supernatural thriller about the clash of two fathers who have to decide why on one side this father has this desire to save his son or put in danger the whole of humankind and decides to save humankind, and there’s the other one who decides to save his kid and puts the whole of humankind in danger. So there’s this clash of morals between fathers.

BK: Family always plays a big part in the best horror films.

GA: Yeah, and that’s what actually the film was about. Aside from the supernatural stuff, it’s about how far would you go to save your kid. How much would you put in and risk to save them? Even though your kid might become a monster, it’s still your kid. So that kind of challenges and creates a moral conflict, and that’s what the movie is about.

A big thank you to Guillermo Amoedo for taking the time to talk with me. “The Stranger” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Exclusive Interview with Cristobal Tapia Montt about ‘The Stranger’

Cristobal Tapia Montt in The Stranger

American audiences may not know who Cristobal Tapia Montt is, but they will not be able to forget him after watching him in Guillermo Amoedo’s horror thriller “The Stranger.” A Chilean actor who has spent much of his career acting in Spanish language movies and television, this Eli Roth production marks his first ever performance in an English language movie.

In “The Stranger,” Cristobal plays Martin, a mysterious man who arrives in a small town in the southern part of Canada to find his wife, Ana. The both of them are afflicted with a horrible disease which gives them a never ending thirst for human blood, and Martin is in town to kill her. But upon discovering that she died some time ago, he decides to commit suicide so he can eradicate this disease once and for all. However, after being brutally attacked by the town bullies, his presence in the town soon creates a snowball effect which will plunge its inhabitants into a bloodbath they have little chance of escaping.

It was a real pleasure talking with Cristobal about his performance in “The Stranger” as well as his other artistic works. Many have noted his unique approach to the characters he has played, and he has also been recognized for his work as an illustrator and musician. We talked about these things and a lot more, and I invite you to read our interview below.

The Stranger 2014 movie poster

Ben Kenber: Your performance in “The Stranger” is really good. I liked how you managed to hold the audiences’ attention with a single stare.

Cristobal Tapia Montt: Yeah, there is a lot of staring in the movie (laughs).

BK: How do you prepare for moments where you have a close-up and stare straight into the camera?

CTM: I don’t know if there’s much preparation for that. I didn’t have a lot of lines so I knew I was going to have to work on this face and attitude where you could actually understand what I was thinking or feeling, so I just jumped into it on set. Guillermo was directing me pretty well so he really knew what he wanted, so it wasn’t really hard at all. It was really easy and everything was pretty clear from the beginning.

BK: In the production notes it says you have a very unique approach to the characters you play. Could you tell us more about your approach?

CTM: Well actually I didn’t go to acting school, so every character I portray comes from a gut feeling. Whenever I try to imagine myself being that person, I see my characters as living beings as friends or people I’ve met. I just try to understand and have empathy on whatever they are going through or what they are going through and just understand them. It’s a really weird way I guess for me because I don’t know if anyone else does it that way, I try to picture living creatures and try to understand and be them for a while. It’s very intuitive and I just play it by my gut and whatever I feel. It sounds pretty scary, but I guess acting is kind of like that for me.

BK: Your character of Martin remains a very mysterious character in this movie. He’s not necessarily a vampire, but he’s also not entirely human. Did you have to create a whole backstory for this character?

CTM: Yeah of course. Actually I asked Guillermo to help me out with that because he had a backstory already, so he shared it with me and we discussed it and I kind of added my own backstory because there was a couple of years and a couple of gaps in between with his wife and what he had gone through. I just had to come up with this whole backstory and the 16 or 17 years that passed by because you don’t really know what happens. The moment that Martin appears in this northern city in Canada I just had to fill in the gap of all those years, so that’s essentially the backstory that had to come out with because no one really knew went on during those years.

BK: I’m guessing Martin has been on this planet for a lot longer than anyone realizes.

CTM: Yeah, exactly. That was the whole idea in the beginning. That was a really interesting transition because you never hear the word vampire in the movie, but you end up understanding that this movie has a lot to do with vampires. Vampires never grow old, but what we wanted to do… You can see a transition through the years. We just wanted him to have the longer beard and we wanted him to look actually beaten up a little bit just because emotionally he got beaten up so we wanted to reflect that physically. I think you see that in the movie as well because in the flashbacks we (Martin and Ana) both look not younger but fresher in a certain way and Martin looks lighter. We wanted to portray them with this burden 16 years after, and I think you can appreciate that in the movie.

BK: Speaking of emotion, this looks like a very emotionally draining part to play. How were you able to maintain such strong emotions throughout shooting?

CTM: I guess as an actor you get trained to get into it, and when you’re on set you do it and then you just disconnect. It’s kind of like a switch, you know? So in that sense it wasn’t really hard. It was just like getting into it and then stepping out of it. We were shooting at night because most of the movie was shot during the night, so whenever I went home to the cabin where we were staying in, I would just sleep so I didn’t really have any time to even think about it. I would get there at like seven in the morning and wake up at four and just go for it again. It’s exhausting as an actor to shoot at night, but emotionally I was doing pretty much okay. It was fine. It wasn’t really that draining.

BK: What was it like shooting in that small town where the movie takes place?

CTM: It was amazing. It’s this beautiful town down in the south of Chile and it’s amazing. It’s like super green, it’s way down south, it’s rainy, it’s gloomy and it sets the perfect mood for the movie as well. I think we were there for 12 or 14 days, and just to be there and to stay at a cabin that was right off the shore of the lake and wake up to that was very inspiring. It’s easier shooting a movie when you’re in such an amazing location.

BK: What interested you most in playing Martin in “The Stranger?”

CTM: Well the fact that it was in English. It was my first opportunity to play a character in English because I’m a Chilean actor so I’ve only played characters that speak Spanish. So it was a huge opportunity acting wise to try that out and see what it was like to act in English and if I could pull it off as well. The opportunity to be in a movie that is being shown in the (United) States was just very, very attractive, and that possibility existed since the beginning of the movie. I speak English and Spanish so I wouldn’t mind trying to act in English for a while because I’m a native speaker. The story was very interesting as well. I’m a horror fan and I’ve always liked vampire movies and science fiction, and it’s my kind of genre so that was pretty cool as well. It’s like, I get to play a vampire! It was a very interesting project so I was attracted to it from the beginning.

BK: What would you say are the differences between doing a movie in English and doing a movie in another language?

CTM: I thought it was going to be very, very different and maybe more difficult, but in the end it’s the same thing. It’s the same language film wise. You’re speaking a different language but you’re still telling the story. It’s very much the same, you know? I don’t think it’s different at all. But the main difference is that you will probably reach a larger audience because English is a universal language. A lot more people speak English than Spanish I’m assuming. I could be wrong, but I guess it’s easier to show in different countries if it’s in English, and I guess that’s the main difference from acting in Spanish.

BK: I also read that you are known for your music and illustrations as well as your acting. Can you tell us more about that?

CTM: Yeah sure. I’ve been drawing since I was very young. I’ve been drawn to the artistic world in all its forms. I started playing on the piano when I was 12, so I’ve been always been playing music and drawing since an early age. I dropped out of college. I was there for three years and I was interested in studying design. I just kept on drawing and playing. I’ve played a cello, I’ve played in different bands, and I have a music project that I’ve been a part of as well. I compose and sing and play instruments. I just really enjoy art as a channel of expression. Acting is just another form of that art and it just helps me get stuff out of my system. If I didn’t have that it would drive me nuts. It’s very personal though. I’ve never really gotten my music out there. At art shows I show my drawings and I’ve had two that sold, and I play live sometimes. But it’s not something that… I feel like it’s more personal. I really don’t have the urge to just like put it out there and make everyone listen to my music. It’s more about me expressing myself and putting myself out there.

I want to thank Cristobal for taking the time to talk to me. “The Stranger” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

‘Nightcrawler’ is a Brilliantly and Insanely Twisted Motion Picture

nightcrawler movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2014.

Just when I thought I wouldn’t see a 2014 movie as twisted as “Gone Girl,” along comes “Nightcrawler.” Delving into the underground world of Los Angeles freelance crime journalism, this is a thriller which feels like a cross between “Taxi Driver” and “Network” as it follows characters who do not hesitate to cross over any and all ethical or moral considerations in order to survive another day in an infinitely cruel and competitive world. You will find yourself laughing at things you would normally never laugh at, but that’s because it serves as a way to deal with the increasingly insane scenarios which will leave you staring at the screen with your mouth open.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Louis Bloom, an alienated young man struggling to find work anywhere and everywhere. The movie starts off with him stealing materials from a construction site which he then attempts to sell at a scrap yard with little success. His attempts to find a job or even an unpaid internship prove to be utterly fruitless despite his best efforts and conniving ways, and he is a symbol of how many Americans who are having the toughest time finding work. Then one night while he’s driving on the freeway, he comes across a nasty car accident and, like many, he is tempted to take a closer look. This is when a camera crew led by Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) drops by to film whatever footage he can get to sell to the local news station. Instantly intrigued, Louis goes out and buys a cheap video camera and starts filming crime scenes and human carnage which eventually catches the eye of veteran news producer, Nina (Rene Russo).

“Nightcrawler” marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy whose writing credits include “Freejack,” “Two for the Money” and “The Bourne Legacy.” With a limited budget, he succeeds in creating a crazy version of the American success story, proving it can be achieved but at a soul sucking price. Gyllenhaal, with a stare which cuts through the audience like a laser beam, gives us a character beyond determined to rise to the top of the TV news food chain. In many ways Louis is enigmatic as we don’t get to know too much about him, but no one can deny he is a full blown sociopath who has finally found something he can make a career at.

Gyllenhaal does some of his best work yet in “Nightcrawler,” and I’m not just saying this because he lost 20 to 30 pounds to play Louis. His focus as an actor is never in doubt as he makes Louis as compelling a human being as he is an insane one. Even as Louis throws all reason out the window, we cannot help but be mesmerized as Gyllenhaal makes him a highly unlikely antihero.

It’s also great to see Russo here as well as she brings Nina to a life in a way which showcases how vulnerable her character can be despite how hardened life has made her. This is a character clinging on to her job for dear life in a business prepared to chew her up and spit her out without a second thought. It should not be a surprise she crosses countless journalistic guidelines to get the bloody violent footage her audience is craving for. Whether or not she believes it is the right thing to do is beside the point because her survival in an unforgiving economy is foremost on her mind. You can chastise Nina and Louis all you want for the choices they make in life, but like anyone else, they are driven to survive by any means necessary.

I loved the scenes between Gyllenhaal and Russo as they constantly size each other up to where they firmly believe they have the other person figured out. As Louis gets more and more successful at capturing footage others could only dream of getting, and this eventually leads to him getting better equipment and a super cool car which goes super-fast, their relationship gets increasingly tense as he makes it clear to Nina who’s in charge. Nina observes Louis with both utter fascination and disgust as he stares right through her to where she can’t help but be taken in by him.

As “Nightcrawler” hurtles towards its wonderfully insane conclusion, Louis becomes a magician of sorts as he manipulates events to where he creates news he greatly profits from. We should despise him for what he does, but Gilroy has the audience firmly in his grip to where we can’t help but admire him for the devious things he has accomplished, and that’s regardless of what happens to others in his path.

Gyllenhaal was born to play Louis just as Russo was born to portray Nina, and both actors are well served by a supporting cast which matches them from scene for scene. The always reliable Bill Paxton plays Louis’ chief competitor, Joe Loder, and he is a hoot to watch as he tries to gain the upper hand only to see things blow up in his face. Also terrific is Riz Ahmed who plays Louis’ partner in crime footage coverage, Rick, a nice guy who hasn’t lost his moral bearings but is constantly forced to go against his better judgment in order to keep his job. Ahmed does great work as he makes us sympathize with Rick even as he gets into situations he can’t quite pull himself out of.

With “Nightcrawler,” Gilroy has given us a wonderfully twisted tale which shows how the American success story can become a reality if you’re willing to lose yourself in the process. What’s brilliant about the movie is it’s filled with characters molded by the world they live in. We can berate them all we want, but their actions speak more about what society has turned them into. In a time where employment opportunities are not as plentiful as they should be, it’s a little hard to blame these characters for what they do. But when we are forced to do the same, hopefully we can do it in a way that is nowhere as life threatening. Of course, that might just be wishful thinking.

I have to end this review with this piece of dialogue Louis Bloom has as it sums up the state of the world today perfectly:

“I know that today’s work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations. What I believe, sir, is that good things come to those that work their asses off, and that good people such as yourself, who reach the top of the mountain, didn’t just fall there. My motto is: if you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Please check out the interview I did with Gyllenhaal and Russo on “Nightcrawler” which I conducted on behalf of We Got This Covered down below.