‘Grandma’ Marks Lily Tomlin’s First Lead Role in a Movie in Decades

grandma movie poster

It’s a shock to realize ”Grandma” marks Lily Tomlin’s first leading role in a motion picture in 27 years, her last being in 1988’s “Big Business” opposite Bette Midler. Tomlin has been such a prolific presence in just about all forms of entertainment, be it movies, television or the theater, and there’s no stopping her even in her 70’s. But her triumphant return to lead actress proves to be well worth the wait as this movie makes great use of her endless talents.

Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a poet who is as celebrated as she is misanthropic, but even she would say this about herself. We learn her longtime partner passed away some time ago, and she’s still trying to recover from this loss. As the movie starts, she breaks up with her much younger girlfriend, Olivia (the always wonderful Judy Greer), in a genuinely cruel and dismissive way. This should have us hating Elle from the get go, but we can see there’s more to her than meets the eye.

Shortly thereafter, Elle is visited by her 18-year-old granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), who informs her she’s pregnant by her no-good stoner boyfriend and wants to get an abortion. The procedure costs $600 dollars, and she has already set up an appointment at a local clinic. Elle, however, is broke and has no credit cards as she has long since cancelled them (I guess such a thing is possible in this day and age) and turned them into tree ornaments. As a result, Elle and Sage go on a road trip to get the money, and this involves Elle reconnecting with people from her past and Sage discovering how she has to stick up for herself from now on.

From a distance “Grandma” sounds like another road/buddy comedy which goes through the motions we have gotten all too familiar with, but this is not the case. The movie allows its main characters to go on a journey which will allow them to deal with life in ways far more productive than the ones they have utilized thus far. It is also filled with wonderfully down to earth and relatable characters, something I am always pleased to see in a time where local multiplexes remain dominated by superhero movies.

It is really gratifying to see Tomlin kick ass on the silver screen even after so many years. Her character of Elle is cantankerous to say the least, but Tomlin slowly lets you see what is tearing away at her soul as she is forced to deal with past events which have left her and others in a state of disrepair. As U2 once sang, she is stuck in a moment (several actually) that she can’t get out of.

As with any other role she has played throughout her long and justly celebrated career, Tomlin infuses Elle with a complexity and a good dose of humor which makes her irreplaceable in a movie like this. Her character is not one to mess with easily as she does not let anyone take her down without a fight. Just watch her handle her granddaughter’s no good boyfriend as he refuses to take any responsibility for anything he does in his life. It should be absolutely no surprise she does him in when he acts disrespectfully towards Sage.

Also, the fact Elle is gay truly becomes an afterthought after not too long. The realization of this should make us realize how far we have come as a society. We have become far more accepting as a culture of other peoples’ difference, and coming to see this feels like a huge relief.

Julia Garner ends up making quite the impression as Sage as her character also goes on a journey which takes her from being a very vulnerable individual to one stronger and far more prepared to defend herself in a world which can be infinitely unforgiving. Garner has appeared in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,” and it’s great to watch her hold her own with Tomlin.

As for the other actors, it’s always a joy to see Judy Greer in anything, and she still looks infinitely lovely even as her character gets a number of insults hurled at her. Sam Elliott is excellent as Karl, a former lover of Elle’s who can barely hide the hurt he feels after being spurned by her years before. Marcia Gay Harden plays Elle’s daughter, Judy, and she is a powerhouse here as we see how Judy’s troubled upbringing has molded her into the obsessive-compulsive person she has long since become.

“Grandma” also marks one of the last screen performances of the late Elizabeth Pena before her death at far too young an age. Pena plays Carla, a restaurant owner who is somewhat interested in buying some books from Elle. It’s a shock to see Pena here because I felt like I had already seen the last of her on the silver screen, but there’s still a piece of her unforgettable talent for everyone to see. She was a great presence from one movie to the next, and she will be missed.

This movie was written and directed by Paul Weitz, and many of his movies like “About a Boy,” “In Good Company” and even “American Pie” deal with humanity at its most intimate. “Grandma” was made for under a million dollars, far less than what most independent films get made for these days, and this helps to make it Weitz’s most intimate movie yet. The characters and situations they experience feel real and not easily faked, and it’s always refreshing to see a movie where everything feels genuinely down to earth.

“Grandma” does deal with the very touchy subject of abortion, but it does so in a way that is thoughtful and intelligent. Weitz isn’t out to make some big political statement on the subject, but he does acknowledge the fact it is legal and that people have their reasons for getting one. But this movie is not at all about abortion. It is really about the journey Elle and Sage take together and how it helps them to move on into the future. Whether you are talking about movies or real life, it is always about the journey, not necessarily the destination.

But yes, the main reason to see “Grandma” is for Tomlin who reminds us once again why she is one of the greatest comedians and actresses of all time. She dominates each scene she’s in and holds our attention for every second. There are many reasons why Tomlin has lasted as long as she has in show business, and her performance in “Grandma” is just the latest. I don’t care how old she is because there’s no stopping her, ever.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Paul Weitz and Sam Elliott Talk About the Making of ‘Grandma’

grandma tomlin and elliott

Grandma” marked the great Lily Tomlin’s first leading role in a motion picture in 27 years, the last being 1988’s “Big Business” in which she starred opposite Bette Midler. Here she plays Ellie Reid, a misanthropic poet who is still mourning the death of her longtime partner. As the movie begins, Ellie coldly breaks up with her girlfriend (played by Judy Greer) and is met by her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) who desperately needs $600 dollars by sundown for an abortion. This leads Ellie and Sage to go on a road trip to get the money, and they find themselves uncovering dark secrets from the past which must be reckoned with.

“Grandma’s” press conference was held back in 2015 at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, California, and it was attended by Tomlin, the movie’s writer and director Paul Weitz, and co-star Sam Elliott.

Weitz’s previous films include “American Pie” which he co-directed with his brother Chris, “About a Boy” which featured one of Hugh Grant’s best performances, and “Being Flynn” which starred Robert De Niro and Paul Dano. Weitz previously worked with Tomlin on the movie “Admission,” and this led him to write the part of Ellie Reid with her in mind.

grandma movie poster

When it comes to writing a screenplay, one has to wonder how somebody does that. Does the writer treat it like a journey where they don’t know how it will end, or do they have the beginning, middle and end in mind when they start writing? I asked Weitz about this, and he gave us some insight on his writing process and of what story is really all about for him.

Paul Weitz: In terms of the script, I do think it’s a good sign for me when I kind of know what the ending is. It’s very clear that Sage ends up learning so much from Lily’s character in the movie like learning how to stand up for herself and learning not to shy away from the fight. It’s not clear to me what Lily’s character has gained from this until the end when this sort of fierce love that she has had for her dead partner, she’s able to let go of that guilt because of the protectiveness and kindness to her granddaughter. The most emotional thing in the movie to me is not the moment where Lily is crying. It’s actually a moment where she’s laughing and she’s thinking about some old joke that her partner said which made her laugh. It’s a really private moment and I really like that, and I like that it’s about letting go of stuff and moving on to something with a lot of up to miss him despite all the crap she’s been through.

Elliott plays Karl, one of Ellie’s former lovers who is quite perturbed by her sudden reappearance in his life. The actor is of course known for his deep and resonant voice which has served him well in one movie after another whether it’s “The Big Lebowski” or “Thank You for Smoking.” This led to my question of how he manages to keep his voice so deep and bold after so many years.

Sam Elliott: Uh, I don’t know. It actually gets deeper as time goes on if that makes sense. I’ve been blessed with it I guess. I sang very early on. My mom used to drag me to sing in a choir when I was a kid, and I was always involved with these acapella choruses and different things always through school. Its good fortune as it turns out. It’s not a matter of management, it’s just gravity.

“Grandma” is a terrific comedy drama filled with strong dialogue and terrific performances, and it is worth checking out. It is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

‘Where to Invade Next’ Proves the American Dream is Still a Reality, Just Not in America

Where to Invade Next poster

With his documentary “Where to Invade Next,” Michael Moore comes into it looking more run down than usual. It’s been a few years since “Capitalism: A Love Story” in which he railed against the economic order of America and the consequences of runaway greed, and since then he has weathered through numerous events including a divorce and a bout with pneumonia. However, he still has enough energy to continue his fight to make America a better place.

“Where to Invade Next” starts off with a brief history of America and the countries it has invaded, and it also makes clear how World War II was the last big war America ever won. Since then, America has been engaged in highly unpopular conflicts in Iraq and Vietnam, and it has suffered greatly in the wake of 2008 economic crash. In an effort to find ways to make America better, Moore decides to playfully invade other countries to steal their good ideas and bring them back stateside to be put to good use.

As always, Moore gives us a very entertaining time filled with unforgettable moments and laughs designed to stick in your throat when you realize how workers in other countries have it better than Americans. He interviews an Italian couple who describe in detail how they get eight weeks of paid vacation time, and they look utterly shocked when he tells them Americans only get two. There is a scene where he sits with a group of French children at lunch and sees how they are eating very healthy meals of the high-end restaurant quality, and none of them drink Coca-Cola. When those same kids look at the school lunches Americans have, they understandably recoil in disgust.

Yes, Moore is cherry picking facts here and all these countries seem to look rosier than they probably do outside of this documentary, but he admits early on he is there to “pick the flowers, not the weeds.” He’s not here to give us an in-depth overview of the places he visits, but instead to show how other countries treat their people and workers as compared to how they are treated in America. One country does not charge college students tuition, so the term “student debt,” a huge problem in America, has no real meaning. Another country offers its citizens a yearlong maternity leave as they feel the bond between a parent and their child must be formed as soon as possible. A lot of these ideas are frowned upon in the United States, and the documentary leaves you wondering why this is the case.

In some ways “Where to Invade Next” covers the same ground as “Sicko” as Moore talks with Americans who have since moved to other countries where they discover more opportunities than they ever had back home, and he talks with people of other cultures who react with horror as to how America handles education, health care and workers’ rights. It gets a little old after a while as he’s treading through familiar territory, but you have to applaud those educators who say America should do away with standardized testing.

The documentary does have one pivotal moment, however, when Moore visits Norway and talks with a father whose son was murdered. The man who committed the crime is about to be sentenced, but the father doesn’t wish him dead or yearn for revenge. His reasoning is it will not make his or anybody else’s life any better and will just crush his spirit. Now there are many people in America who think like this, but the whole “eye for an eye” saying in the Bible seems to be more preferable to the most vocal of its citizens.

Many prefer to label Moore as being “anti-American” among other things, but he’s still living in America and looking for ways to improve life for its inhabitants whether they are immigrants or natural-born citizens. Why doesn’t he just move to another country if he finds so many others to be better, you ask? Because he loves America and continues to speak out against those who greedily take away from the middle and lower classes just because they can.

Seriously, who in America thinks two weeks of vacation time is more than enough? There are many who work 40 hours a week and yet still live in poverty. Despite the advances of the Affordable Care Act, many in America cannot afford health insurance. Those who lost their jobs and savings have ended up taking jobs offering no benefits of any kind because they have little choice. If none of this bothers you, then you need to take a much more observant look of the country you live in. Many say America is still the greatest country in the world, but there’s more than enough evidence to suggest it is not even close.

More importantly, “Where to Invade Next” shows Moore at his most hopeful. He doesn’t have an axe to grind this time around and does not lash at anyone in particular. Considering how he comes to use the words of our last few Presidents against them, this never comes across as a liberal or a conservative documentary. This is one any audience can and should be able to appreciate even though it will mainly appeal to his base and not those outside of it.

But what’s especially invigorating about “Where to Invade Next” is it shows the American dream is still alive and well. Looking closely at other countries, Moore shows how their ideas have been shaped by ones which originated in America. Now if we could only make that dream a reality again in America, things would be much better.

“Where to Invade Next” may not be one of Moore’s best documentaries, but it is still very entertaining and will have you laughing as well as informed about the world around you. Moore does look beaten down after all these years, but he’s still there fighting for his home country and looking for ways to make it great again, unlike the current resident in the White House.

For those who still think this Oscar-winning filmmaker doth protest too much and should shut up, keep in mind this following quote from Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July:”

“People say that if you don’t love America, then get the hell out. Well, I love America.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Tomorrowland’ is Imaginative, But it Also Feels Incomplete

Tomorrowland movie poster

Tomorrowland” is to Brad Bird as “Interstellar” was to Christopher Nolan, an opportunity for a well-regarded filmmaker to wear their heart on their sleeve and give us a motion picture which aims to inspire and lift us up from the cynical worldview we have grown accustomed to for far too long. But whereas Nolan found success with “Interstellar,” Bird comes up short with “Tomorrowland” as his love letter to all the dreamers out there becomes undone by a thin plot lacking in narrative drive.

Britt Robertson stars as Casey Newton, a highly optimistic and tech savvy teenager who lives in Cape Canaveral, Florida and gets into trouble while trying to save a launch pad from being demolished. In the process, she comes into contact with a “T” pin which takes her to a futuristic place where imagination is infinite and possibilities for a better world are endless. When the pin suddenly loses the power to take her to that place, she seeks out Frank Walker (George Clooney), an inventor who showed a lot of promise while living in Tomorrowland but was later banished from there when his work started to frighten people off. Together, they find their way back to this wondrous place and work to save it before it is forever destroyed.

Now I love how Bird has made a movie which encourages all the dreamers out there to keep on dreaming. Despite how dark the world can seem at times, his encouragement to those who want to use their imagination to make it a better place is commendable. Many will snicker at this optimism, but their snickering will end up saying more about them than it will Bird.

Having said that, “Tomorrowland” isn’t entirely sure of what it wants to say or how to say it, and it takes forever for the movie to get to where it needs to go. By the time we do make it back to the futuristic place, the movie has devolved into a typical good versus evil plot which robs it of any uniqueness it could ever hope to have. In this kind of movie, we know good will triumph over evil, so the stakes never feel very high as a result.

It’s a real shame because Bird gets things off to a fantastic start with the movie’s prologue which introduces us to Frank Waller when he was a young boy who gets invited into the magical world of Tomorrowland, and our imaginations are quickly aroused by what we see. Watching Frank discover a place that exceeded his wildest dreams had me thinking about when I was a child and where my imagination often took me, and it was a time where anything seemed possible. Now while we find ourselves trading fantasy for reality as we get older, I like to think I have not lost any childlike innocence after all these years and watching this part of “Tomorrowland” made me realize I have not.

But after the prologue is over, “Tomorrowland quickly becomes a film unsure of what tone it wants to set, and it devolves into a typical story of an optimistic teenager trying to get a broken-down adult to reignite their potential before everything goes to hell. Furthermore, we are introduced to a number of evil robots who aim to take Casey out with extreme prejudice, but it feels like they belong in a different movie. In the process of trying to balance out the darker elements with the lighter ones, “Tomorrowland” becomes a total mess.

I felt sorry for Clooney as he is forced to play a character who has long since become embittered about the sour lemons life has handed him. As a result, he gives one of his weakest performances to date as he is forced to take Frank Walker from a state of disbelief to one of true belief in a very unbelievable way. Clooney remains one of the most dependable actors working in movies, and if he can’t make a character like this work on the big screen then no one can.

“Tomorrowland” also has a scene with Clooney and other actors travelling to another dimension in a rocket, and this is bound to bring back bad memories “Batman & Robin” which had the Oscar-winning actor in a similar situation. I guess some bad movie memories can never be permanently erased.

Robertson makes for an appealing heroine as Casey, and she is one of the reasons why “Tomorrowland” works to a certain extent. Even as the movie suffers through its various flaws, she keeps us engaged as we root for her character to triumph over those who are far too quick to crush the wonder she has about life. Without her, this movie could have been worse.

When we do get to the end of “Tomorrowland,” the whole venture ends up feeling incomplete as the writers appear to be uncertain as to how to tie everything up. You could say the ending gives hope to all the dreamers out there, but it frustrates more than anything else as “Tomorrowland” feels like it ended sooner than it should have. Judging from this movie’s opening box office weekend, the odds of it getting a sequel are pretty bad.

It really sucks to give a movie like this a bad review. “Tomorrowland” has its heart in the right place and has some wonderful images, but its story seems stuck in stasis and lacks the imagination to really inspire us. Bird remains a gifted filmmaker and has directed a number of highly entertaining movies like “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.” “Tomorrowland” marks his first directorial misfire, but I have no doubt he will be back on top before we know it. It’s just a shame he made a movie about wide-eyed optimism which was constructed in a half-hearted way.

I would also like to add this movie’s commercial failure made Disney cancel a third “Tron” movie. Blasphemy!

* * out of * * * *

‘Jurassic World’ Resurrects a Decades-Old Franchise with Fresh Blood

Jurassic World movie poster

I still vividly remember when “Jurassic Park” came out in 1993. I was in high school back then, and many of my friends got to see it before I did. Their reactions always stayed with me as they described how thrilling a movie it was. One guy kept holding his arm intensely and kept saying, “It steamed the glass!” I would later find out what he meant when I saw the movie a few days later, and it was quite the thrill ride as well as groundbreaking in terms of special effects. Steven Spielberg delivered us the kind of blockbuster he had been delivering to us since he made “Jaws” all those years ago, one which is thrilling and fills you with wonder and awe.

It was later followed by “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” which was more of the same but fun if you could get past the fact that Spielberg pretty much directed in on auto pilot. As for “Jurassic Park III,” a better title for it was “300 special effects in search of a screenplay.” Now we have “Jurassic World,” the latest sequel in this franchise which arrives over a decade after the previous installment. While there’s little chance in recapturing the wonder of the original, this sequel still proves to be a fun time at the movies.

Intended as a direct sequel to “Jurassic Park,” “Jurassic World “shows us how the island of Isla Nublar has long since become an infinitely popular theme park. John Hammond’s dream is now a reality, and guests are treated to a variety of shows and rides which depict these once extinct creatures in all their incredible glory. But now tourists have long since gotten used to dinosaurs being brought back from extinction, and now they want something more intense and scary. As a character notes, the park’s attendance level spikes when a new dinosaur is unveiled, and this makes the park operators create one which ends up scaring not just the children but their parents as well. And just as before, the results prove to be disastrous as the road to hell is always paved with good intentions and a misguided quest for profit.

What I liked most about “Jurassic World” is how its screenplay acknowledges how tired and worn out people are by watching dinosaurs in this day and age. This is exactly how I felt after watching “Jurassic Park III” as what was once thrilling and magic had since become depressingly routine. As a result, the script has a subversive feel as it ponders our need for the same level excitement we had in the past, and of how desperate we are to relive or top it. Now on one hand this sequel has a lot of things going for it as the filmmakers explore the desires of both the public and the corporate world which continues to be blinded by dollar signs at the expense of everything else. This wouldn’t be a theme park without a Starbucks or a Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville Restaurant in it, and both are on display here. Heck, even Buffet makes a cameo carrying a couple of margaritas, but when the dinosaurs start wreaking havoc, it’s clear he won’t have time to look for his lost shaker of salt.

On the other hand, the movie has its characters making incredibly dumb decisions which will have audience members scratching their heads in disbelief. Then again, this wouldn’t be much of a movie if everyone used their common sense on a regular basis. Those of you who have watched “Jurassic Park” over a thousand times will be instantly reminded of famous dialogue like when Ian Malcolm talked about how scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could create dinosaurs to where they never stopped to think if they should. Then there’s Ellie Sattler who made it clear to Hammond he will never have control because that’s the illusion he was trying to avoid.

Then again, the one line which stands out most is when Hammond said how he “spared no expense.” When we get our first glimpse of what has become of Isla Nublar, we are reminded of what Hammond said as it has accommodations your local Motel 6 can only dream of offering guests. They may leave the light on for you, but they can’t give you amazing vistas or prehistoric creatures to look at.

Actually, one of the best moments in “Jurassic World” comes from B.D. Wong who reprises his role of Dr. Henry Wu from the first movie. When asked why he and the other scientists created the new dinosaur, Indominus Rex, Henry responds, “Monster is a relative term. To a canary, a cat is a monster. We’re just used to being the cat.”

In terms of the human element, “Jurassic World” does suffer a bit. Then again, these movies have never been about complex characters as much as they have been about dinosaurs. Still, one of the best things about this long-awaited sequel is Chris Pratt who lends his “Guardians of the Galaxy” charisma to his role as Owen Grady, a former military officer and velociraptor trainer. Pratt adds the heroic element this movie demands, and his comedic skills are put to good use.

Another terrific performance comes from Bryce Dallas Howard as the park’s operations manager, Claire Dearing. It’s great to watch Howard take Claire from being a work obsessed park employee to a badass heroine who ventures out into the danger zone to save her two nephews before they become the dinosaurs’ main course.

It’s also a kick to see Vincent D’Onofrio here as the antagonist Vic Hoskins, head of security operations for InGen. The actor manages to take what could have been a simple one-dimensional villain and makes him a lot more interesting. You can see in his eyes how he has a secret plan for the dinosaurs which has yet to be revealed to our heroes. Of course, we all know how D’Onofrio’s character is going to die, and it is not pretty.

Spielberg once again stayed in the executive producer’s chair for this sequel, and the director is Colin Trevorrow who is a very lucky filmmaker as he went from directing a movie with a budget of $750,000 (“Safety Not Guaranteed”) to this $150 million summer blockbuster. While he is not able to fully recapture the wonder of “Jurassic Park,” he makes “Jurassic World” a solid piece of summer entertainment which brings out the kid in you. Trevorrow also creates moments which will have the audience cheering loudly, showing he is more than capable of giving us the kind of crowd pleasing movie we expect in the summertime.

“Jurassic World,” like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” was stuck in development hell for years before it finally came to fruition. For the most part it was worth the wait as it comes with a stronger story and screenplay than the last two “Jurassic” movies could ever hope to have. There’s plenty of great dinosaur fights, tourists getting terrified, and there are characters here worth rooting for. All in all, it does what a summer movie should do which is entertain you from beginning to end.

Of course, when you look more closely at the story, it illustrates how history keeps repeating itself when dollar signs get in the way. Once again humans deluded themselves into thinking they could control dinosaurs, and nature finds a way to prove them wrong. With “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” about to be released, I imagine we will watch humans again trying to tame these prehistoric creatures, and their efforts will prove to be largely futile. Oh well, hopefully we’ll get another entertaining sequel in the process.

* * * out of * * * *

William Zabka on Portraying a Non-Bully Character in ‘Where Hope Grows’

Where Hope Grows William Zabka

Ever since he played Johnny Lawrence in 1984’s “The Karate Kid,” actor William Zabka has forever burned himself into our collective memories as the quintessential school bully. From there he went on to play characters who were equally antagonistic in movies like “Back to School,” “Just One of the Guys” and “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” in which he does the unthinkable when he dumps Audrey Griswold as his girlfriend. All these movies serve to make you completely forget that Zabka started off his career acting in commercials which portrayed him as the all-American nice guy.

But the truth is there is more to Zabka than just playing the bully we all love to hate. Ever since “The Karate Kid,” he has gone on, unlike many of his co-stars, to earn a black belt in Tang Soo Do. On top of that, he speaks Czech fluently and is also an accomplished musician. Furthermore, he has gone on to become a noted filmmaker, and his short film “Most” earned numerous awards as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short Film.

All these years later, we catch up with Zabka in “Where Hope Grows,” a film written and directed by Chris Dowling, which has him playing Milton Malcolm. Milton looks like a successful businessman, but we come to see his life is falling apart very quickly. He descends into alcoholism with his best friend Calvin Campbell (Kristoffer Polaha), a former major league baseball player whose career was undone by panic attacks. But when Calvin finds a way to sobriety thanks to his newfound friendship with a simple-minded supermarket employee with Down syndrome who is known by his nickname of Produce (David DeSanctis), Milton ends up feeling more isolated than ever, and this sends his life into an even deeper downward spiral.

Looking at this, it becomes clear Zabka has a more complex role than any other actor in “Where Hope Grows,” and I told so during a roundtable interview held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Unlike his most famous characters, Milton cannot be easily labeled as a good or bad guy in this movie. I asked him what the challenges were for him in playing such a complex character, and he liked that I found this to be the case with Milton.

Where Hope Grows movie poster

William Zabka: This character is very complex. He has it all or appears to have it all. He’s got a beautiful wife and kids but he’s in trouble at work, he’s in the bottle, neglecting his wife, there are all kinds of stuff going on. To live in the moment of that and to feel the pain of that… The one scene where I almost come off really brazen in the scene at the golf course, I was saying to Chris, “Give me another line.” We were banned from saying the “R” word on the set. It was like no “R” words and here I am delivering it. I said, “Can’t we just find something softer? Can we be ignorant but not so brazen?” Chris really wanted that contrast for the ending and payoff. That’s a vulnerable place to go as an actor because as an actor you want to be liked or at least relatable. I’m glad you said that you could see the complexities because he wasn’t a good guy and he wasn’t a bad guy. He was misinformed. Produce’s story is kind of a second story to him. He is struggling with his own stuff, and it’s later when they come face to face and this kid gives him a gift. So, hanging onto that was the key to allow me to go down to some of those darker places.

It was a real honor to be in the presence of Zabka whose performance in “The Karate Kid” remains forever burned into my memory. But while many remember him best for playing such a hateful bully, there’s certainly much more to him than we realize.

Where Hope Grows” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital. And of course, you can see him on the YouTube Red series “Cobra Kai” as Johnny Lawrence.

 

Exclusive Video Interview with Scott Beck and Bryan Woods about ‘Nightlight’

Before they co-wrote the screenplay for “A Quiet Place” along with John Krasinski, filmmakers Bryan Woods and Scott Beck spent some time in the found footage genre with “Nightlight.”  This movie takes place in Covington forest, a place believed to be haunted as many troubled youths have gone there and committed suicide. This, however, doesn’t stop a group of five teenagers from venturing out there for an evening of flashlight games and blood curdling ghost stories. But of course, it doesn’t take long for the fun to come to a screeching halt as they end up awakening a demonic presence, an unseen evil wastes no time in preying upon their deepest fears. From there, the five friends struggle to help each other to escape the forest before they are forever plunged into the most terrifying of nightmares.

From the outset, “Nightlight” looks to be your typical found footage horror movie a la “The Blair Witch Project,” but there is one thing which helps set it apart. It is one of the recent films in this genre which deals seriously with issues teens go through. We come to discover how these kids lost a friend of theirs named Ethan to suicide, and he ended up taking his life in the same forest they are spending the night in. While trying to evade the demonic force hunting them down, they also try to make peace with Ethan’s death and of the part they feel they played in it. While a lot of horror movies are filled with dumb teenage characters, these ones in “Nightlight” feel relatable, and their problems may end up reminding you of what you felt like at their age.

I got to speak with Woods and Beck back in 2015 while they were in Los Angeles to promote “Nightlight,” and it turns out they have known each other since the sixth grade. Their early years of making movies with action figures has gotten them to where they can confidently helm their own feature films, and their careers would soon hit an even bigger peak with “A Quiet Place.” They were full of details on the making of “Nightlight” such as how they found the forest featured prominently in this movie, how they wanted to make this particular found footage stand out from so many others like it, and why they decided to cast unknown actors. In addition, they also had some interesting stories to tell about animal wranglers and the importance of sound design in a horror movie.

Please check out the interview above. “Nightlight” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Nightlight movie poster

‘Inside Out’ is One of Pixar’s Best Films

Inside Out

Inside Out” is far and away one of the very best movies Pixar has ever made. A story of a girl experiencing conflicting emotions and an ever-growing shyness after she moves with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco, it is bound to have you experiencing a wealth of emotions such as happiness and sadness. Honestly, these animated characters feel more human and real than others you find in the typical Hollywood blockbuster. If you say you came out of this movie unmoved, you are nothing but a flat-out liar. Yes, “Inside Out” is that good.

We are introduced to Riley right out of the womb as she is born to very loving parents. At the same time, we are also introduced to the emotions which occupy her mind: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). All of them take their turns at the controls of Riley’s mind, but Joy has the most influence as she is determined to keep Riley as happy no matter what. In the end, who wants to be unhappy, you know?

But then things change dramatically for Riley when her family moves from one side of America to the other and to a place which ruins pizza (watch the movie and you’ll see what I mean). While she tries to put on a brave face as the new girl in town, she finds her heart quickly breaking as she misses her old life and friends. This leads to her having an embarrassing moment in class and a hard time making friends and, as a result, Joy feels increasingly threatened as the more negative emotions begin to have increased influence over this pre-teen girl who has yet to discover the horrors of turning 13. Yes, this movie takes place before she hits puberty. Imagine what the sequel will be like!

“Inside Out” affected me deeply as I completed related to what Riley went through. When I was her age, my family moved me and from a town I felt very settled in to one which made me feel like an alien from another world. Being the new kid was no fun at all, and Riley’s emotional state should be completely understandable to those who have been through the exact same situation. In some ways she is lucky because she lives in the age of social media where she can talk with her friends via computer or Skype. I would have loved to have had this when I was her age.

This movie was directed by Pete Docter who helmed two of my favorite Pixar movies, “Monsters Inc.” and “Up,” and it was influenced by two things in his life; when his family moved to Denmark where he had trouble adapting to his new surroundings, and of the shyness his daughter began experiencing as she got older. For an animated movie, the characters like Riley and her parents feel wonderfully complex in a way you don’t necessarily expect. This isn’t the first Pixar movie to give us characters like these, but it is worth noting here.

I also liked how Riley is not portrayed as your stereotypical pre-teen girl. She is big into hockey in a way girls are more than we ever bother to realize, and she doesn’t obsess over the usual things we have been conditioned to believe girls obsess over like dresses and potential boyfriends. Docter has us see her as being like any other individual to where her gender is more or less beside the point. The feelings Riley experiences are universal, and they will quickly remind audience members of the ones they experienced when they were her tender age.

Now while I may be making “Inside Out” sound like an animated remake of “Pump up the Volume,” I assure you it is also very, very funny. This is in large part thanks to the cast which was perfectly chosen. Amy Poehler has always been one of my favorite “Saturday Night Live” stars, and it’s hard to think of another actress who could have voiced Joy better than she does. Her gleeful and spirited banter infects the character fully, and she also humanizes Joy to where she realizes why Riley can’t be happy all the time.

Phyllis Smith turns Sadness into a wonderfully funny character regardless of her infinitely depressed disposition. Bill Hader is absolutely priceless as Fear, Mindy Kaling makes Disgust more fun than she has any right to be, and who else could have done a better voicing Anger than the combustible comedian who is Lewis Black? Black steals every scene he has here as Anger, understandably, has difficulty keeping his cool. And let’s not forget Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Lane who voice Riley’s father and mother and make them into the most loving parents Riley could ever hope to have.

As “Inside Out” probes the memory banks and emotional centers of young Riley’s mind, it proves to be absolutely boundless in its imagination and visual effects. I keep waiting to see what surprises Docter had in store for us as we keep getting introduced to new characters like Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind is fabulous) and other memory centers which are presented to us as if they were giant theme parks.

The filmmakers clearly did a lot of research on the human mind. This leads to many unforgettable moments like when certain parts of Riley’s mind such as Imagination Land crumbles and falls into the Memory Dump where memories are forever forgotten. On one hand it is an amazing piece of animation, but on the other it is a reminder of the things we lose in our lives as we get older. We may want to get some of these things back, but a lot of times we cannot.

But perhaps the most important thing we can get out of watching “Inside Out” is not the fact we can’t be happy all the time, but that Joy and Sadness need to coexist with one another. You can’t have pleasure without having pain, and this is made abundantly clear in one of the movie’s closing scenes which is beautiful and will have at least one tear trickling down your cheek.

Many have said Pixar has lost its footing in the past few years with an overreliance on sequels, but I have yet to see a movie of theirs which I have not liked. “Inside Out,” however, reminds you of how amazing they can be when they focus on giving you a great story more than anything else. It’s a movie for anybody and everybody, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Take Me to the River’ Dives Right Into the Deep End

Take Me to the River poster

I came into “Take Me to the River” with little knowledge as to what the movie was about, and perhaps this is the best way to approach it. At first it looks to be a tale of a gay teenager dealing with his conservative relatives who have yet to understand how human nature really works, but then it takes a sharp left turn to reveal it is really about deep dark family secrets which are revealed in a wordless way, and the psychological impact it ends up having on its audience is far more profound than we could have ever seen coming.

We are introduced to Ryder (Logan Miller), a gay California teenager who is going with his mom Cindy (Robin Weigert) and dad Don (Richard Schiff) to a family reunion in Nebraska. Ryder is intent on revealing his sexuality to everyone there, but his parents encourage him not to. Shortly after he arrives, he is treated with suspicion from others as his red shorts look like a pair of swimming trunks and his glasses resemble something which came out of the 1980’s. His cousins, however, are crushing on him as he makes them special drawings, and they find him wonderfully rebellious. But then things go awry during a moment between him and 9-year-old Molly when she comes out of a barn with a bloodstain on her dress. Ryder is immediately suspected of abuse by his uncle Keith (Josh Hamilton), but he makes clear he didn’t do anything to her.

Now revealing more about “Take Me to the River” from there is a bit tricky because it is better not to know too much about the movie beforehand. For a time, I thought I knew where the movie was going to go, but then it becomes more like a thriller. This is especially the case when Ryder is invited to a supper with Keith and his family where Keith looks to make amends with him, but his laser-like stare indicates he has something quite devious planned for his nephew, and we are just as in the dark as Ryder is.

This movie marks the feature film directorial debut of Matt Soebel who also wrote its screenplay, and he does an excellent job of putting us right in Ryder’s shoes. Like Ryder, we have little idea of what’s going on and it leaves us with an inescapable feeling of dread.  And like “The China Syndrome,” it doesn’t have, or even need, a music score to underscore the tension which continually builds up. We don’t really hear any music until the very end, and when that final song comes on, I felt like breathing a sigh of relief as the tension finally lifted.

This is also a motion picture which derives its power from what is not said more than what is. Soebel is not interested in spelling everything out to us as our imaginations are capable of generating things far more frightening, and when the story comes to hint at a deep dark family secret, we cannot help but be unsettled at what that secret could be.

But as much as “Take Me to the River” sounds like a thriller, it is also a coming of age story as Ryder comes to better understand the people around him and develops a stronger compassion than he ever had before. The fact he is gay eventually becomes a tiny issue as their bigger things to undercover which has left his family members with very nasty emotional scars. This is saying a lot because many coming of age movies don’t come constructed like this, and it makes this one all the more unique.

I was very impressed with Miller who left a strong impression on audiences in “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” We never catch him portraying a typical teenager, let alone a gay teenager, but instead a regular kid who is caught up in a situation he can’t stay one step ahead of. I also liked Hamilton’s performance as Keith because it shows him to be quite the poker player. But the most impressive performance in “Take Me to the River” comes from Robin Weigert as Cindy. At first, she makes Cindy an overprotective mother, but her actions come to reveal someone who has suffered a serious trauma she can never fully make peace with. Weigert, just with a look, shows us how deep her emotional scars go, and it’s always impressive to see any actor pull this off without having to spell it out for the audience.

There’s always something to be said for a movie which catches you by surprise, and “Take Me to the River” is certainly one. I went into it not knowing much about it, and it took me on a ride unlike few others I have been on in recent years. In a time where movies are bound by formulaic standards and studio executives who are hell bent on starting the next big franchise, it’s nice to know there are still filmmakers out there making movies which go against the grain. Not everything can be the same, and in the end, everyone needs some variety as they can get easily bored.

If you love movies which break the mold, then “Take Me to the River” is one you need to check out. When it comes to humanity, there’s always something more to a person than meets the eye. While you might think individuals can be easily divided into groups of people you feel you can easily identify, this movie comes around to remind you this it is not as easy as you think. Family secrets are never easy to unveil, and this movie serves as a reminder as to why. I look forward to what Sobel has in store for us next.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

Sean Penn Shows How ‘The Gunman’ is Not Another ‘Taken’

The Gunman movie poster

Two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn moves into the action genre with “The Gunman,” a film from “Taken” director Pierre Morel. In the film, Penn plays Jim Terrier, a former Special Forces officer and military contractor who is intent on putting his violent past behind him after all the damage he has done. But in the process of helping an African village find clean water, three men attempt to kill him, and he suddenly finds himself on the run in an effort to clear his name. This ends up taking him from one country to another to where he is reunited with the love of his life as well as friends who have since gotten greedy with their business endeavors. In addition, Jim also has to deal with PTSD which may claim his life sooner than he thinks.

With Morel directing, it’s easy to assume “The Gunman” is another “Taken” but with Sean Penn instead of Liam Neeson. But the truth is “The Gunman” is much more of a character driven action movie, and Penn brings his usual intensity to it to where you have no reason to doubt he did his research. I got to hear Penn share his thoughts and feelings about this movie at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. One question on everybody’s mind was on the research Penn did on military snipers and what he learned about them.

Sean Penn: I think that what’s interesting to me is that there’s a disconnect between that which is trained as a facilitator or an implementer, or in this case an operator. The training is done in a way that’s depersonalizing all of that. Of course in our story, things get personalized as it happens in the real world. The experience of working as a facilitator in an emotionally detached way using things one has learned is not an unfamiliar thing to me. Using it to take life of course is not my story.

For me, this was the most fascinating aspect of “The Gunman” as Jim Terrier has to go from a depersonalized state of mind to being in a situation which keeps him from being emotionally detached. This is where the movie gets much of its intensity as Jim’s feelings are brought to the surface to where he cannot hide from them, and this threatens his life more than ever before.

I asked Penn how he was able to balance out the Jim’s depersonalization with his more emotionally naked one when those closest to him are threatened with death. His answer gave us all an idea of what really drew him to the material, and it also allowed him to make clear how “The Gunman” is much different from “Taken.”

Sean Penn: It’s an interesting movie in that regard because it’s a movie about a very conflicted man killing very bad men largely in service of himself. This is why when we have conversations about the Liam Neeson movies. Here you have a 6 foot 4 melodically voiced, masculine figure who is a very good man, fighting strictly for his children. So, I don’t really see the comparison.”

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