Exclusive Video Interview with Jonas Carpignano about ‘A Ciambra’

A Ciambra” was Italy’s official submission in the Foreign Language Film category for the 90th Academy Awards, and it was made in the heart of the country’s Romani community. A gritty coming of age story, it follows Pio Amato, a 14-year-old boy who is eager to grow up real fast. Pio spends his days smoking and drinking as well as following his older brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato) around town while learning the skills needed for survival in their hometown. While tensions between the different factions, the Italians, the African immigrants and his fellow Romani, remain high, Pio is able to slide through each in a way few others can. When Cosimo is arrested one night, Pio is quick to convince everyone he is more than ready to fill his older brother’s shoes and take care of things. But as the movie goes on, he wonders if he is truly ready to become a man.

“A Ciambra” was written and directed by Jonas Carpignano whose previous film, “Mediterranea” won various awards including Best Directorial Debut from the National Board of Review and the Gotham Award for Breakthrough Directing. What he has succeeded in doing here is giving us a motion picture which makes you feel like you are hanging out with these characters instead of just watching them from a distance. Carpignano combines biographical elements with documentary style filmmaking to give us something we experience more than anything else. There are not many movies like this one these days, and I will take them wherever I can get them.

Carpignano spent his childhood between Rome and New York City, and he currently lives in Italy where he continues his filmmaking endeavors. He was in Los Angeles to talk about “A Ciambra,” and it was a pleasure taking with him about how he went about making the film with non-professional actors. In addition, he spoke of what it was like to work alongside Martin Scorsese who is the film’s executive producer and of the most valuable piece of advice the “Goodfellas” director gave him.

“A Ciambra” opens in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Royal Theater on February 2, 2018. Be sure to check out the interview above as well as the movie’s trailer below.

A Ciambra poster

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‘The Shape of Water’ is Another Cinematic Masterpiece from Guillermo Del Toro

The Shape of Water movie poster

“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Blade II” and “The Devil’s Backbone” should be more than enough proof of how Guillermo Del Toro is a cinematic god among directors. If you need further proof of this, then I suggest you watch “The Shape of Water,” his romantic fantasy which is truly one of the best films of 2017. While I tend to scoff at romantic movies as I consider them cringe-inducing exercises in endurance which prove to be even more painful than running the Los Angeles Marathon. Please keep in mind, I have run this marathon seven years in a row, and soon I will be running it yet again.

“The Shape of Water” transports us back to Baltimore, Maryland in the year 1962 when America was stuck in the middle of the Cold War. We meet Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a janitor at a secret laboratory who was rendered mute at a young age due to a neck injury. She follows a daily routine of pleasuring herself in the bathtub while boiling eggs on her kitchen stove, and then she goes to work where she performs her duties without complaint. Luckily, she has a pair of friends to converse with, in a matter of non-speaking, like artist and closeted homosexual Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her ever so talkative co-worker Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) who also takes the time to interpret Elisa’s sign language. But even with friends like these, let alone the luck she has living above a movie theater, there is clearly something missing from her life.

Things, however, quickly change for Elisa when the laboratory she works at receives a creature in a tank. This creature was captured in South America by the cold-hearted Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), and the government officials he answers to want to dissect the creature in an effort to gain a foothold on the space race. Elisa, however, has different ideas as she develops a strong connection with the creature which will not be easily broken.

I guess this might seem like a strange love story for many to take seriously, but considering the seismic shifts in how the world views, and should view, marriage and the rights of others, “The Shape of Water” could not have been timelier. As improbable as a relationship like this one may sound, Del Toro and his cast make it one we quickly become engaged in to where we are swept up emotionally in a way few movies can.

Along with cinematographer Dan Laustsen, Del Toro gives this film a look which is at once suffocating and yet wondrous. We clearly in the world of movies while watching this one, but the while this might seem like a genre picture designed to take us out of reality, it is filled with genuine emotion which is never easily earned. We can always count on Del Toro to give us a beautifully realized motion picture, but this one deserves special recognition as it had a budget of around $20 million, and yet he made it look like cost so much more. I would love to ask him how he accomplished what he did on a limited budget. In any other case, $20 million is a lot of money. But for a film like this, it seems almost too low to work with.

Sally Hawkins has wowed us as an actress in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Made in Dagenham” and “Blue Jasmine,” but she really outdoes herself here as Elisa Esposito as this role takes her into Holly “The Piano” Hunter territory. With her character being a mute, Hawkins not only has to communicate without the use of words (vocally anyway), she has to keep her heart open in a way which we make a habit of avoiding. This actress shows little hesitation in making herself so open and vulnerable to a creature everyone else would be quick to be infinitely fearful of.

Speaking of the creature, he is played by Doug Jones, an actor who is masterful at portraying non-human characters. Whether it’s as Abe Sapien in the “Hellboy” movies, the Faun and the Pale Man in “Pan’s Labyrinth” or even as Lieutenant Commander Saru on “Star Trek: Discovery,” Jones always succeeds in finding a humanity in these characters others would never be quick to discover or find. His performance here as the Amphibian Man is every bit as good as Andy Serkis’ in “War for the Planet of the Apes,” and I put these two actors together because many believe it is the makeup or special effects which do all the acting for them, but it’s their acting which makes their characters so memorable. Jones, like Hawkins, has to communicate without the use of words, but he has an even bigger challenge as his character cannot even use sign language. His work deserves more credit than it will likely get at awards time.

“The Shape of Water” also has a terrific cast of character actors, and they are the kind who never ever let us down. Richard Jenkins is right at home as Giles, a closeted gay man who, when he tries to reach out to someone he cares about, is quickly rebuffed not just by that someone, but also by a society which thoughtlessly excluded many for all the wrong reasons. Jenkins never resorts to giving us a cliched version of a homosexual, but instead makes us see Giles as a man who is kind and considerate but still ostracized to where he is willing to break the rules to help a friend who doesn’t judge him in the slightest.

When it comes to Octavia Spencer, you can never go wrong with her, and she is a wonderful presence here as Zelda Fuller, Elisa’s co-worker who is never at a loss for words. She also makes it clear how Zelda is a force to be reckoned with, and this is something the character’s husband really should have taken into account a long time ago.

There is also Michael Stuhlbarg who portrays Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, the scientist who sees far more value in the Amphibian Man being alive as opposed to becoming a glorified science experiment worthy of dissection. This is a typical role you find in genre films, but Stuhlbarg inhabits the role to where Robert can never be dismissed as a simple stock character. Even as we learn there is more to Robert than what we initially see on the surface, Stuhlbarg makes us see this is a man who values understanding and compassion over greed. You know, the kind of person we would love to see in the White House at this moment.

But one actor I want to point out in particular is Michael Shannon who portrays Colonel Richard Strickland, a man hellbent on putting his country before everything else, including his wife and kids. Shannon succeeds in rendering Strickland into a more complex character than you might expect. As we watch Strickland get berated by his superiors for not doing his job like they want him to, Shannon shows us a patriotic American who wants to serve his country well, but we watch as his spirit becomes as corrupted and diseased as those two fingers of his which were torn off his hand by the creature and reattached with limited success. As the movie goes on, those fingers of his become a disgusting color as they come to represent the corruption of his soul. Other actors would be intent on making you despise such a villainous character, but Shannon makes you see a man whose desperation has forever blindsided his worldview.

Whether or not you think “The Shape of Water” breaks any new ground in the world of motion pictures is irrelevant. All that matter is how it is a beautifully realized film which takes you on an incredible voyage only the best of its kind can. It also reminds you of how valuable a filmmaker Del Toro is in this day and age when distinct voices in the world of cinema are continually minimized and rendered silent for the sake of profit. Here’s hoping you get to see it on the big screen where it belongs before Donald Trump leads us into a war no one in America is prepared to be drafted into.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Greatest Showman’ Reminds Audiences Hugh Jackman is the Real Deal

The Greatest Showman movie poster

When it comes to singing, I still consider it to the most challenging of all the performing arts. You can be a good singer technically by hitting all the notes just right, but none of it will matter if you don’t put your heart and soul into each of those notes. You can only hide behind technique for so long before the teacher makes you see that you have to be emotionally open and show the audience you are living the song and not just singing it.

I was strongly reminded of this while watching “The Greatest Showman,” the musical drama which stars Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, the infinitely ambitious showman and entrepreneur who created the Barnum & Bailey Circus which ran for over 140 years before shutting down in 2017. Once Jackman sings his first note, it becomes abundantly clear there is no other actor who could inhabit a man who command an audience to where no one could dare take their eyes off him. The scene threatens to be overwhelmed by a rousing musical number, strong choreography and beautiful cinematography, but nothing can upstage the passion Jackman brings to the role as he dominates every filmmaking element to command the stage like no one else can.

For those of you expecting a complex look at P.T. Barnum, you will need to look elsewhere or, better yet, read a book on the man. Director Michael Gracey along with screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon are not out to give us a multi-layered portrayal of a man whose success in life was beset by allegations of abuse of his circus animals among other things. Instead, they are more focused on him as a man eager to break out of the shackles of modern life so he can embrace a lifestyle some would say he is undeserving of. At the very least, you have to give the filmmakers credit for not saying this is “based on a true story,” a phrase you all know I abhor with a passion.

We watch as P.T. captures the heart and affection of Charity (Michelle Williams) from a young age even though they come from two different classes of people, P.T. from the poor and Charity from the rich. Nevertheless, their love for one another breaks through barriers, and they marry and bring two beautiful daughters into the world whom they share a powerful love of imagination and possibilities with.

The scene in which we watch P.T. Barnum work in an office and trying not to becoming completely numbed by a redundant work environment resembles the suffocating office Jonathan Pryce was an employee at in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” and from there I was sucked into his quest to escape a life where, as Trent Reznor put it, every day is exactly the same. Of course, his mission in starting an adventurous life is stifled by struggles new beginnings bring about. Barnum ends up buying a museum, but it’s a constant struggle to get anyone to purchase a ticket. Then he employs a number of performers which so-called “normal” people quickly dismiss as freaks of nature. But by giving the public something different, Barnum finally succeeds in making his mark to where nothing he does can be easily ignored.

I found Barnum’s story as presented here fascinating as he tries to find acceptance in a society which pretty much banished him from the day he was born. Barnum even goes out of his way to entice famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) to do a series of concerts in America in the hopes that critics who constantly bash his circus act will come to accept him as an upper-class citizen. The question is, will he leave his circus performers and business partners in the dust in the process?

The plot of “The Greatest Showman” is actually quite thin to where the narrative feels more rushed than you might expect in a movie with a running time of 105 minutes. The story of P.T. Barnum is one deserving of a complex and deeply researched screenplay, but the filmmakers here were instead determined to give us a story about a dreamer who defied the odds and led a life of adventure we all hope to live. If you can accept what they were attempting to do here, this movie will prove to be an enjoyable one, and I was willing to accept it for the movie it was trying to be.

The advertisements boast of how “The Greatest Showman” features music by the lyricists of “La La Land,” another movie dedicated to the risks dreamers take. The songs, which include “Come Alive” and “This is Me,” are rousing and will get you into a wonderfully invigorated state as you sit and take in the spectacle. Having said this, this is not the kind of musical which will remain in your mind long after you have watched it. Perhaps my standards for musicals are too high as “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” remains the best movie musical Hollywood has released in years (“La La Land” is not far behind).

Aside from Jackman, the other actors acquit themselves nicely. Michelle Williams remains one of the bravest actresses, let alone actors, working today as she never hesitates to lay herself emotionally bare in a scene. Just check out her heartbreaking scene from “Manchester by the Sea” (you’ll know it when it comes up). Williams shares the screen with Jackman to where it should be no surprise she can hold her own with Jackman as their characters’ love is threatened more often than not.

Zac Efron, while I sometimes hoped he would be livelier than he was, certainly has all the right moves as Phillip Carlyle, a playwright who becomes Barnum’s business partner. Zendaya plays Anne Wheeler, an acrobat whom Phillip quickly gains a strong affection for, and she makes her presence in this movie a memorable one. I also have to single out Keala Settle who portrays Lettie Lutz, a bearded lady, as her performance of the song “This is Me” proves to be a real show stopper as we root for her and her fellow freakish performers to come out of the shadows to where no one can ignore or easily dismiss them.

With “The Greatest Showman,” you have a movie musical which has flaws not hard to miss, but I was still enthralled with it even though I am not in a rush to buy the soundtrack. Much of this is due to the actors as there is no denying they put all their heart and soul into their roles. Jackman, who has already has had one heck of a year with his penultimate Wolverine performance in “Logan,” remains a powerful presence whether he is appearing on stage or screen, and even if you have issues with this motion picture, there’s no denying there are few actors like him working right now.

As I walked out of the theater, I was reminded of something Groucho Marx once said:

“I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.”

Does Barnum believe the same before this movie’s end? I leave it to you to find this out.

* * * out of * * * *

 

‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Defies Easy Expectations

Star Wars The Last Jedi movie poster

With “Star Wars” movies now becoming a yearly tradition, I wonder if they will begin to feel less like an event and resemble a typical episode of the “Law & Order” franchise. You know a version of the show is always on television in one form or another, but are you as excited to watch an episode as you were when you first discovered it? Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, but considering where Disney is taking this franchise, it is beginning to feel like it no longer takes place in a galaxy all that far away.

I bring this up because I couldn’t stop thinking about this during the opening crawl of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Each new “Star Wars” motion picture feels like a major event to where it should be declared a national holiday, but since it’s becoming a regular thing now since Disney bought Lucasfilm, will the franchise still feel this special with each future installment? Well, hopefully this remains the case as “The Last Jedi” proves to be a rousing piece of entertainment which stays true to the franchise’s ideals, and it even has a number of surprises up its sleeve to where I eagerly await the next episode set to come out in 2019.

While each “Star Wars” film typically takes place several years after the last one, “The Last Jedi” begins where “The Force Awakens” concluded. Rey (Daisy Ridley) comes to meet the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who has long since exiled himself on the planet Ahch-To (gesundheit), a much nicer destination than Dagobah. Meanwhile, the Resistance finds itself feeling the First Order after the latter obliterates their main base. From there, the rebels are on the run, but they can only get so far before they realize the First Order has tracked their whereabouts and to where they are trapped with little hope of escape. It is up to the daring and dashing Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) to save the day with the help of friends both old and new.

Revealing more about a “Star Wars” film just as it is released tends to result in actions which will prove to be infinitely painful to say the least, so this will be a spoiler-free review. What I can tell you is while this episode deals with the subjects of hope and the need to discover more than what can be found on the surface, the key subject writer and director Rian Johnson deals with here is failure. All the characters are dealing with failure in one way or another, and it comes to haunt every action they take. The characters we grew up with are dealing with failings they cannot escape, and the ones we were introduced to in “The Force Awakens” are now discovering the irreversible consequences of their actions.

Johnson previously wrote and directed “The Brothers Bloom” and “Brick,” but his best known film before helming “The Last Jedi” was “Looper,” a sci-fi time travel motion picture which was ingenious as it was thrilling. Having seen it, I went into this “Star Wars” extravaganza with the confidence he could pull it off, and he did. Even though “The Last Jedi” threatens to overstay its welcome at two hours and 32 minutes, making it the longest “Star Wars” movie to date, you cannot punish Johnson for his ambition as he covers a lot of ground while leaving us salivating for more.

When it came to the prequels, you had to forgive the actors because they were being directed by a man, George Lucas, who is a master storyteller but deeply deficient when it came to dealing with the human element. But Johnson, like J.J. Abrams before him, knows how to elicit strong performances from his cast, and each actor is more than up to the challenge.

Watching Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher was deeply fascinating as their adventures in the original “Star Wars” trilogy remain forever burned into my consciousness, and it still feels like I first watched those movies just yesterday. Their youthful exuberance in fighting the dark side was contagious as I wanted to fight alongside them, and I know I’m not the only who feels this way. When we catch up with their characters of Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa in “The Last Jedi,” the years of endless battles and devastating defeats show in their faces as we wonder how much of a fight they have left in them considering what they have been through. While they are heroes, both have grown weary in the face of an enemy which is every bit as imposing as the Galactic Empire, and their confidence in their abilities is shakier than ever before.

It’s especially poignant to watch Fisher here as this was her last movie before she passed away, and knowing this will be the final time we will see her as Leia is a real heartbreaker. Even as Leia’s accent changes yet again, Fisher imbues the former princess with a dignity and humility which will not be easily shattered in the face of defeat. Even as the odds get worse for the Resistance, Fisher makes Leia stand tall, and she makes clear to the audience that this sci-fi icon will not go down without a fight.

After watching Hamill’s brief appearance in “The Force Awakens,” I came into this film wondering where he would take the great Luke Skywalker. Well, he’s no Yoda here as a devastating failure has led him to believe the Jedi should end and has robbed almost completely robbed him of his sense of humor. Whether or not this is the Luke Skywalker you hoped to see in “The Last Jedi,” Hamill dares to take this character in another direction, but despite defying expectations, the actor makes Luke the powerful Jedi we always wanted him to be.

It’s also great to see “The Force Awakens” veterans Oscar Isaac and John Boyega back as Poe Dameron and Finn as their charismatic energy lends itself nicely to the special effects extravaganza which could have, but does not, overwhelm their talents. Watching Isaac here also serves as a reminder that covering him in pounds of makeup like Bryan Singer did in “X-Men: Apocalypse” is completely unnecessary and just takes away from him. Domhnall Gleeson still makes General Hux into more of a twisted tightwad than we previously saw, and Andy Serkis mesmerizes as Supreme Leader Snoke while continuing to shroud the character in mystery.

Among the newcomers to this franchise are Laura Dern as Resistance Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, Benicio Del Toro as the codebreaker DJ, and Kelly Marie Tran comes into play as Rose Tico, a maintenance worker who becomes a key player in the Resistance. While it is great to see Dern and Del Toro here, let alone in any other movie they appear in, their characters are a bit underwritten to where their talents can only go so far with the material given to them. Tran, however, makes Rose Tico into a terrific character I am very eager to see in the next “Star Wars” episode. As for the Porgs, they are delightful little creatures who do not overstay their welcome, and they serve as a reason why Chewbacca might consider becoming a vegetarian in the future.

But the performances which really held my attention more than any others came from Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. Both bring a raw intensity to their characters which left me on edge as their passions could lead them either in the right direction, or instead down a road which offers no hope of return. The connection Rey and Kylo share throughout “The Last Jedi” is one which grows stronger in each scene, and it makes me wonder if they could possibly survive without one another in Episode IX. Both actors bring a natural energy which Natalie Portman should have been allowed to bring in the prequels, and they remain as compelling as ever.

Many complained “The Force Awakens” hewed too closely to the plot of “A New Hope” to where it became an exercise in nostalgia more than anything else. So it’s only natural filmgoers are coming to “The Last Jedi” expecting something close to “The Empire Strikes Back.” However, Johnson and company have succeeded in giving us a “Star Wars” episode which surprises us more often than not. While many may be sitting in a movie theater crying out, “I knew that was going to happen,” I think they need to realize not everything is going to go the way they expect. It reminded me of the next to last episode of “The Sopranos’” second season as it left me in shock and wondering what could possibly happen next. While we feel we know and understand the formula of the average “Star Wars” movie, this one upends it to where we can only guess what will happen in the future.

“The Last Jedi” also shows us there is more to failure than we see at first, and this is an important lesson to take in as we often let failure keep us from moving forward in life. It also shows us how hope can be tested more than ever before to where we grasp onto any last piece of it. In “The Shawshank Redemption,” Morgan Freeman talked about how “hope is a dangerous thing” and that “hope can drive a man insane,” but our heroic characters still cling onto hope as nothing else will do, and surrender is not even a part of the equation.

While the continuing onslaught of “Star Wars” movies threatens to make this franchise feel a lot less special, none of my worries detracted from my enjoyment of “The Last Jedi.” It proves to be as entertaining as any other “Star Wars” movie currently out there in circulation, and yes, I include the prequels. This film also makes me look forward to Rian Johnson’s continued contributions to the franchise which look to be many, and I eagerly await the next episode as I am not sure what to expect from it. I just hope I don’t go into a future “Star Wars” movie saying to myself, “I got a bad feeling about this.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

Exclusive Interview with Ron Shelton about ‘Just Getting Started’

Just Getting Started Shelton with Jones and Freeman

When I first looked at the poster for “Just Getting Started,” I was very happy to see the following phrase on it: written and direct by Ron Shelton. Shelton is responsible for creating some of the best sports movies such as “Bull Durham,” Tin Cup” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” and he has a true gift for creating fantastic dialogue and getting wonderful performances out of his actors. Somewhere along the line, he stopped making movies to where I wondered where he was and what he was up to. Now we know.

“Just Getting Started” takes place at a luxury resort in Palm Springs, California called the Villa Capri. This resort is managed by Duke Diver (Morgan Freeman), a man with a mysterious past who is determined to make sure his residents will never ever stop partying or having fun. But while Duke is the life of the party, his ego becomes threatened by the arrival of Leo (Tommy Lee Jones), an ex-military man who wastes no time in battling Duke for the top spot of Alpha male at the Villa Capri. Things get even more complicated when a new resident, the beautiful Suzie (Rene Russo), arrives at the resort, and the two become determined to gain her affections in an effort to prove who is the better man. But once Duke’s past comes back to haunt him, he and Leo are forced to work together in an effort to stay alive.

It was a real pleasure talking with Shelton, and he spoke about what brought him back to the director’s chair for the first time in over a decade, how he goes about directing a comedy, and of what it was like to have Freeman and Jones go against type and play characters who are not so serious and eager to have fun. Shelton also talked about Glenne Headly who passed away recently, as this was the last movie she appeared in before her death.

Just Getting Started movie poster

Ben Kenber: I was very excited to learn you were directing another movie. This is your first feature film since “Hollywood Homicide.” What was it about this story which inspired you to get back in the director’s chair?

Ron Shelton: Well I had three or four movies which fell through at the last second, so it’s not like I suddenly decided to get off the couch and direct. I have been writing steadily and developing TV things and trying to finance features. In the independent world, there are so many moving parts to the financing that if one piece falls out, the whole thing falls apart. So it hasn’t been for lack of effort, and now I have a couple more I think that are gonna go. It won’t be such a dearth of time between them, and I got some other projects I’m working on. This one came together financially, that’s why this one got made.

BK: What inspired you to write this particular screenplay?

RS: Southern California where I grew up, and maybe you grew up, in the winters and Christmas, to me, I’m used to it. You go to the beach and play golf. But people from cold climates come out here and they are just like appalled; this doesn’t count as Christmas. And I started saying to half the world, this is Christmas, this kind of weather. What’s wrong with it? When the Nativity happened, it was probably more like Palm Springs (laughs). Then I remembered driving to Palm Springs at Christmas and there were dust storms and Christmas trees were blowing off lots down the street and Johnny Mathis was being piped in, and I thought, yeah, this was a good backdrop for a movie, so that’s where the backdrop came from. And then basically, the Duke Diver character is based on a hustler a producer and I knew who was a good hustler. He wasn’t a criminal hustler, but he was a guy everybody loved, and nobody ever knew what he did for a living or how he survived. So, I kind of turned that into this character, and the whole thing fell together.

BK: The characters played by Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones and Rene Russo, they are not all they appear to be at the start.

RS: Right, exactly.

BK: Your movies take place in the real world which we all understand and complain about more often than not, and they also contain fantastical elements which you can only find in the realm of fiction. How much of a challenge is it for you to balance those two elements out?

RS: It’s what I prefer to do. What I couldn’t imagine is a movie set in outer space or in the future or time travel or Death Stars blowing up or toys that turn into monsters or Transformers. That doesn’t interest me. I’m interested in human behavior whether it’s tragic or comic, and all of my movies, however disparate they are, are about how people behave. I just think that’s the most exciting thing to observe, and I tend to like movies about human behavior and not special effects. That’s just me. I’m in the minority obviously when you look at the box office results out there. I like to take the audience into a world they never would go into except for a movie whether it’s playground basketball (“White Men Can’t Jump”), minor league baseball (“Bull Durham”), or the political world of Louisiana politics in the 1950’s (“Blaze”). That’s just what interests me. It’s as simple as that.

BK: I fear many people will consider “Just Getting Started” as a movie about old people, but it really isn’t. It’s more about how no one ever really acts their age and how we roll with the punches.

RS: Well you don’t go to a retirement home to die. You go there to party. Everybody onscreen is not looking back and reliving their loses which everyone has, looking at their high school yearbooks, or thinking about what might have been. Everybody there probably is divorced or widowed, and all they are doing is looking for what’s next in their life. I’m 70. When you get to 70, that’s all you’re doing. I don’t think of myself as old. I can’t hit a golf ball as far, but I’m a better golfer. Morgan’s 80 and Tommy’s my age. We’re all about moving forward, working more, discovering things about ourselves, and that’s really what I think interests me. Most people I know who are my age, whether they are in the movie business or not, are not looking back. They are looking forward and looking forward to tomorrow. That’s all it’s about.

BK: I love how you cast Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones in these roles. Both are known for playing dramatic roles with a lot of gravitas, so seeing them let loose here is a joy because we don’t see them often in comedic roles. When it comes to directing actors to be funny, do you let them play the joke or play the scene?

RS: Play the scene always. Never play the joke. I’m not a very good joke writer anyway. I try to write behavior and interchange and exchange that’s humorous or that’s real and based on behavior, and I just say play it. You’re the actors, play it. Don’t ever look for a laugh. Don’t ever worry about where the punchline is because there’s probably not a punchline, and that’s the way we do it.

BK: That’s great because a lot of movies today, filmmakers just like to play the joke and that doesn’t work.

RS: Right.

BK: I think the trick with comedy, especially with your movies, is to play the scene and never play it like you are in on the joke.

RS:  Exactly. A lot of times an actor, not these two because they are so good, but in another movie I’d be directing, they would say this line is so funny on the page and I don’t think I’m getting the laugh out of it. I said you shouldn’t be trying to get the laugh, just play it real. Play every line real, and the laughs come or they don’t come. Sometimes you think there’s going to be a laugh in the script, and it’s a smile. Sometimes a laugh comes when you least expect it, but it’s not going to come on the punchline because there aren’t any, or they rarely are.

BK: You worked with Rene Russo in “Tin Cup,” and she looks and is fabulous in this role. It looks like a serious role for her at first, but then she pulls out the stops.

RS: Rene plays the strong woman who’s really a mess better than anybody I know (laughs).

BK: How did you direct the actors? Did you just let them loose?

RS: When a director says “action,” his work is done. It’s like you’re a basketball coach; at the first tip, you’re done. Plus, with these people, you don’t have to direct them as much as you give them a note and then get out of the way. Just help stage it and shoot it. Tommy’s note was look you’re not competing with Duke, he’s competing with you. You’re not threatened by Duke, he’s terribly threatened by you. So that’s where some of the chemistry comes from. Tommy’s toying with Duke, and Duke is fighting for his existence with Tommy. So that just needs a slightly different motivation.

BK: When you write a screenplay, you usually have a vision of it in your head of how the dialogue should sound like. What is it like when actors speak the dialogue you have written?

RS: Well then, it’s the third thing: You write one movie, you shoot another movie, and then you edit a third movie as the old saying goes. Once they have it, it takes on a new life of its own. That’s the truth. Once you’ve hired the actor and I hand them the script, I always say look, until this moment, I know more about this character than you because I have been living with this character and writing him and figuring him out. Now, it’s yours. Now you’re going to discover things about this character I didn’t even think about. So in a certain way, I’m handing this character to you.

BK: I also liked the three ladies (played by Sheryl Lee Ralph, Elizabeth Ashley and the late Glenne Headly) whom Duke flirts with, and I loved their dialogue because you expect them to not know what’s going on, but they know more than they let on. What was it like writing those characters?

RS: They were great. I wish I had more time. It was a fast shoot. We had 28 days if you can believe that. If we had more time, we could have done more with those wonderful actresses. And yes indeed, it was a shocking loss when Glenne passed. Nobody anticipated it at all, and it happened suddenly too. It wasn’t like a disease. But they were all great to work with. They were so happy to be working in a nourishing environment where everybody was having fun, and there was mutual trust and we could play. But everybody was very respectful of the script. There was virtually no improvising in the whole movie, and they were just pros. I love working with pros.

BK: I really thought the dedication you gave Glenne at the conclusion of the end credits was really lovely.

RS: Thank you.

BK: In regards to the shooting schedule you had for this movie, how did shooting it in less than 30 days affect you as a director?

RS: It’s not a shooting schedule when a movie is shot in three different cities with 80 and 70-year-old actors with about 80 locations. It’s a schedule when you’ve got sets, and we didn’t have any sets, and you’re moving the company all the time. When you’re moving the company all the time, that’s what takes time. The second unit I shot in Palm Springs because we also shot in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and I picked up a day in Valencia. So that’s a lot of movie for 28 days.

BK: Another actor I was happy to see in this movie was Jane Seymour, and she is almost completely unrecognizable here. Was this by design or was it her idea to look completely different from any role she has played previously?

RS: When she said she would love to do this, she was a late add. She said, what’s my hair look like? I said I don’t know, I hadn’t thought about that. And she said, I have two different wigs. And I said, why don’t you wear them both? We’ll just alternate them in scenes. She thought that was a great idea, and she said one is blonde and one is brunette. I said perfect, every time we cut to you, you’ll look different.

BK: How did this movie evolve for you while you were in the editing room?

RS: Well you keep finding the movie. The big question in editing was, how much should the audience know that you keep a secret? You don’t want to make it too much, and you also don’t want to say he doesn’t have a secret because when the golf cart blows up, it can’t be like, what the hell’s happening? It has to be oh, now we’re going to get to the bottom of the secret. So we were always playing with how much to share with the audience and how much not to share. That’s just a difficult kind of problem you address in post-production.

I really want to thank Ron Shelton for taking the time to talk with me. It was a real pleasure. “Just Getting Started” will open on December 8, 2017. Be sure to check it out!

Poster, photo and trailer courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.

‘Justice League’ Doesn’t Leap Tall Buildings in a Single Bound

Justice League movie poster

You know how the Daytona 500 is the Super Bowl of NASCAR racing, but it’s also the first big race of the season instead of the last? That’s what “Justice League” is. It’s the penultimate motion picture of the DC Extended Universe, and yet it’s coming to us before Aquaman, Flash and Cyborg get their own solo films. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every character was in their own movie before “The Avengers” finally arrived on the silver screen. Granted, Hawkeye and Black Widow have yet to get their own movies, but enough groundwork was laid to where the time had come for “The Avengers” to become a reality. With “Justice League,” its long-awaited appearance feels a little premature.

Following the events of “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the world is still mourning the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), and all the other superheroes are trying to move on despite the large void the Man of Steel has left in his passing. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) remains as dour as ever, but his faithful butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) threatens to be even more dour to where they seem to be having a contest in that department. Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) leads a quiet life working in a museum, Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) spends the days hiding in his apartment because everyone thinks he is dead and he hates his father for saving him through the use of cybernetics, Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is busy drinking his life away when he’s not swimming in the ocean, and Barry Allen/Flash (Ezra Miller) spends his days trying to fit in with kids his age while moving at supersonic speed. These superheroes couldn’t be more mismatched, but they of course find themselves working together to stop a fearsome enemy bent on world domination.

This enemy is Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), a supervillain determined to find three boxes of power known as the Mother Boxes and, in the process, escape the role of servitude he has been consigned to for far too long. Steppenwolf is, you know, the kind of villain bent on gaining the most power of anyone in the world, and we all know what happens to people like them; they are either defeated as we expect them to be, or they become President of the United States.

The movie gets off to a terrific start with Batman battling a common criminal on the streets of Gotham, but it turns out to be a ploy for the Caped Crusader to discover the identity of another evil foe who thrives on the fear of humans. Following this, “Justice League” becomes a labored adventure as Batman and Wonder Woman take their precious time finding all the other superheroes, some of which are hesitant to join the party even though they realize their planet is at great risk of being annihilated. Knowing those holdouts will eventually become a part of the league, this proves to be the film’s most agonizing point as too much time is spent gathering everyone together.

Ben Affleck still makes for a good Bruce Wayne/Batman, but I sense he is already tiring of the role. Gal Gadot left a powerful mark on movies this year as Wonder Woman, and she is every bit as thrilling a presence here. Of the new additions, Jason Momoa proves to be a solid choice as Aquaman, and watching him here makes me look forward to the character’s solo movie coming out next year. Ezra Miller steals every scene he is in as the Flash, and he brings a wonderful edginess to the role while also bringing the character down to earth in an especially unique way. While Miller’s character is thrilled to have these superpowers, he still yearns to fit in with everybody else, and he portrays this inner conflict very effectively.

The same can’t be said, however, for Ray Stone/Cyborg as the character has little more to do in “Justice League” other than brood, argue with his father, and try to tell everyone in hearing range of how his powers can in no way be mistaken as a gift. This is with all due respect to Ray Fisher who does what he can with an underwritten role, but I grew tiresome of his complaining, especially when we all know he’s going to be in this league eventually.

But honestly, the real heart and soul of “Justice League” belongs to Henry Cavill who returns as Clark Kent/Superman. Even I refused to believe the Man of Steel was all but finished off for good at the end of “Batman v Superman” as you can’t keep a good superhero down, and Superman remains one of the very best. Even better is the realization of how Cavill no longer has the shadow of Christopher Reeve hanging over him as he manages to bring the same dedication to this iconic character Reeve did years before, and seeing Superman fight for justice this time around brought a big smile to my face.

Indeed, “Justice League” gets better and better as it enters the third act in which our superheroes band together to defeat Steppenwolf. While I found myself not caring enough about these characters in the first half, I really rooted for their success as the movie went on because the actors looked excited to inhabit these unforgettable characters. There are times when the filmmakers succeed in arousing our childhood love for these superheroes, and this is when the movie works at its best.

Of course, I have to wonder which filmmaker deserves the most credit for “Justice League.” Zack Snyder is credited as director, but Joss Whedon came in during post-production, and it is tempting to believe Whedon, who struck gold with cinematic comic book gold with “The Avengers,” managed to tap into our childhood innocence in a way Snyder could not. With “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman,” Snyder focused more on the characters’ darkness which has enveloped their lives, and you can’t blame him for going in this direction as DC Comics tended to veer into darker territory. But they got so dark to where there wasn’t much in the way to be found, and it was said Snyder was going to go in a slighter lighter direction with “Justice League,” but we probably won’t know how much lighter he made it until we get his director’s cut, and the fans are already clamoring for one like crazy.

I also have to give credit to Danny Elfman for composing an excellent score here. Even he is eager to spark our childhood innocence as his score contains themes he created for Tim Burton’s “Batman” as well as John Williams’ theme for “Superman” which remains one of the best superhero movie scores ever composed. Those subtle little touches make a huge difference as they help to reawaken the past in a most welcome way.

Looking back, “Justice League” is enjoyable for the most part as it builds to a strong climax, but it still feels like this all-star superhero movie was brought to us earlier than it should have. The parts which were lacking keep me from giving this movie a solid recommendation. I still look forward to the solo movies like “Aquaman,” but in the end the filmmakers crammed too many characters into a story already overwhelmed by them, and what results is not completely satisfying in a way a film like this should be.

What I am left with is the wonderment over how the visual effects team managed to remove Cavill’s mustache digitally. Because of his commitment to starring in “Mission Impossible 6,” he couldn’t shave it off when “Justice League” went into reshoots. Then again, it would have been interesting to see this Superman with a mustache as it would have allowed Cavill to do something a little bit different with this iconic character. Of course, he would have to explain the unexpected presence of facial hair. How would he go about doing so?

“Well, something happened on the way to heaven…”

* * ½ out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Joe Berlinger about ‘Intent to Destroy’

Many of us grew up believing the Holocaust was the first instance of genocide in modern history, but this was not the case. The first came with the Armenian Genocide which began back in 1915 when the Ottoman Empire rounded up and executed over a million Armenians, but this horrific event ended up being swept under the rug by the Turkish government, and even today they deny such an atrocity took place. But awareness of the Armenian Genocide continues to rise all around the world with marches and motion pictures which, once upon a time, were very easy to shut down before a single frame was shot.

Among those eager to make everyone aware of this horrific part of history is filmmaker Joe Berlinger, and he does so with his documentary “Intent to Destroy.” With it, Berlinger looks deep into the facts of this horrific event to where no one can ever say it didn’t happen, and he also gives us a behind the scenes look at Terry George’s “The Promise” which was the one movie no one could stop from being made about this subject matter. Starring Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon, the movie was a box office bomb, but the fact it got made and released at all is in itself a huge miracle.

I got to speak with Berlinger about “Intent to Destroy” and this piece of history which I was never taught about in school. Berlinger is, of course, best known for directing some of the best documentaries including the “Paradise Lost” trilogy, “Brother’s Keeper” and “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” all of which show him digging deep into subject matter in a way others are unable to. With this documentary, he forces us to recognize a part of history which can no longer be suppressed.

Berlinger discussed how he first became aware of the Armenian Genocide, and of how it was a result of him having an interest in the Holocaust. He also talked about “The Promise” and of how the movie was released by Hollywood but not exactly produced by it. In addition, Berlinger also showed me how the events of this documentary relate to the events of today as we are living in a time of fake news and alternative facts which serve to keep us away from the truth those in power want to desperately suppress. Indeed, this documentary’s tagline says it best:

“Whoever controls the narrative, controls the history.”

“Intent to Destroy” opens on November 10, 2017 at the following theaters:

The Laemmle Playhouse in Los Angeles

Pacific Theatres in Glendale

Village East Cinemas in New York

Check out the interview above and enjoy!

Intent to Destroy poster

 

Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is Wonderfully Old-Fashioned

Murder on the Orient Express 2017 movie poster

Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express” marks a return of sorts for the actor and director. His last few movies as a director, “Thor,” “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” and “Cinderella,” had him embracing all the cinematic tools available to him to where his unique talents threatened to be squashed as he began to look like any other filmmaker making blockbuster motion pictures. But with this latest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel, we see him returning to his theatre roots as he directs an all-star cast to excellent performances while simultaneously playing the lead role of Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The late Leonard Nimoy said he never directed another “Star Trek” movie after “The Voyage Home” because acting and directing at the same time was just too much work. Branagh, however, makes it all look like a walk in the park, and after all these years I am astonished that he can make it look so easy.

Branagh is fantastic as Hercule, and he makes this classic character into a man of many splendors. We first see him being very picky about being served two hard-boiled eggs, both of which need to be the same size for him to eat. This scene almost makes him looks like a food snob, but then we see him solve a crime at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Hercule brings up three holy men to the front of the crowd, and immediately we think one of them is guilty, and that, once the guilty man is revealed, people will find their prejudices to be justified. But instead, Hercule implicates another man with the crime, and it shows how he sees sins as being universal and not relegated to a particular group or ethnicity. From there, we know this man will not be bound by prejudice when it comes to solving a crime.

Hercule just wants to take a holiday aboard the Orient Express, and we see him take great joy in observing perfectly baked foods as well in reading Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” which he laughs at constantly. But detectives like him can only stay on vacation for so long as the scent of crime is never far from him. And, as the movie’s title implies, a murder is committed which only he can solve with his unique set of skills. This will not be an easy case, but Hercule is quick to tell us, “If it were easy, I would not be famous.”

“Murder on the Orient Express” has been adapted several times, the most famous adaptation being Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film which, like this one, features an all-star cast. I have not seen any of the previous versions nor have I read Christie’s novel, so I am coming into this one a fresh newbie. From the start, I expected Branagh’s film to be an old-fashioned whodunit, but as it went on, I was surprised to see the story deal with themes Shakespeare wrote about time and time again. It becomes less about who the murderer is and more about the sins we allow ourselves to live with and of the different kinds of punishment we are forced to endure. Once the murderer is revealed, the story doesn’t stop there.

Branagh brings together a terrific group of actors who sink their teeth into roles which, on the surface, might seem underwritten and one-dimensional, but each actor does excellent work in creating an inner life for their characters to where their eyes tell us more than their mouths do. Even as they work on perfecting their poker faces, something which Hercule has them all beat at, their eyes betray a truth which can no longer stay buried.

Johnny Depp shows up as Edward Ratchett, an unsavory individual who becomes the victim of the story. Seeing Depp getting killed off early on in a movie is guaranteed to please many audience members who have had their fill of him, and I don’t just mean Amber Heard. I’m just glad Branagh cast him in this role instead of as Hercule. Depp would have just resurrected his Guy LaPointe character from “Tusk” and “Yoga Hosers” if he played Hercule, or perhaps he would have given us another variation on Charlie Mortdecai as, like Hercule, that character sports a truly extravagant mustache. All the same, Depp is wonderful in the role and makes Ratchett into a despicable character whose nasty fate deserves a thorough investigation.

I loved watching Penelope Cruz as Pilar Estravados as her demeanor presents the character as one with dark intentions as well as someone who has suffered far too much pain and tragedy in life. It took me a bit to recognize Josh Gad who plays Ratchett’s right-hand man, Hector MacQueen, and he is excellent as a man who has compromised his values once too often. Daisy Ridley, whom we cannot wait to see again as Rey in the next “Star Wars” movie, matches Branagh scene for scene as Mary Debenham, a lady who refuses to be investigated by Hercule for a protracted amount of time, but even her poker face falls apart before she realizes it. And you can always depend on Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi Dench and Willem Dafoe to turn in excellent performances as they rarely, if ever, have let us down.

But one performance I want to single out in particular is Michelle Pfeiffer’s who portrays Caroline Hubbard. 2017 has been a big year for Pfeiffer as she has emerged from what seems like an infinitely long hiatus and has given unforgettable and scene-stealing performances in Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” and Barry Levinson’s “The Wizard of Lies.” The same goes with her performance here as she takes the stereotypical divorced socialite and renders her into a complex figure of tragedy whose armor is harder for Hercule to break through. Pfeiffer has always been a fantastic actress, and her performance as Caroline reminded me of this and of how long her career has lasted. She has a show-stopping moment towards the movie’s end (you’ll know it when you see it), and it is further proof of how she has never been just another pretty face in Hollywood.

Branagh has directed “Murder on the Orient Express” as a theatre piece, and it is clear to me how much attention he has given the actors here. Having said that, he also gives this adaption a beautifully cinematic look. Along with his collaborators, director of photography Haris Zambarloukos and composer Patrick Doyle, he makes this film feel wonderfully old-fashioned, and it seems like forever since I have watched a movie which evokes this feeling. It should also be noted how he shot this movie on 65mm film which suits the material perfectly, and seeing those cigarette burns appear on the screen was a very welcome sight for me.

Of course, not everything about “Murder on the Orient Express” is perfect. The movie does drag a bit towards the end, and the story is at times a bit hard to follow. It also pales in comparison to another mystery movie Branagh directed back in the 1990’s, “Dead Again.” Still, it proves to be a wonderfully entertaining motion picture which reminded me of his best work even while not quite equaling it. The ending draws our attention to another Agatha Christie classic novel which implies, if this movie does well, we could be seeing the beginning of a franchise. I do hope this happens as Branagh has put together a wonderfully entertaining motion picture which begs for a continuation. Whether he can come up with a follow up remains to be seen as the world of movies remains dominated by endless superhero/comic book franchises.

I also have to say the mustache Branagh sports in this movie is very impressive. Lord knows how long it took for him to grow and keep so pointy. Many other actors would have been easily upstaged by such a mustache, but not Branagh.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Simon Curtis about ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’

Goodbye Christopher Robin Simon Curtis

Filmmaker Simon Curtis gave us one of the best adaptations of the Charles Dickens’ novel “David Copperfield” back in 1999, he brought Marilyn Monroe back to life along with the help of Michelle Williams with “My Week with Marilyn,” and he directed Helen Mirren to one of her many great performances in “Woman in Gold.” Now he gives us his latest directorial effort, “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” which looks at the creation of Winnie-the-Pooh and the other characters who inhabit the 100 Acre Wood. But while it looks to be a simple biopic focusing on the creation of classic literature, it also proves to be an examination of the scars war leaves behind, the importance of having a regular childhood, and of the damages fame can cause before others can realize it.

I got to speak with Curtis while he was in Los Angeles recently, so please feel free to check out the interview below.

Goodbye Christopher Robin poster

Ben Kenber: From a distance, this movie looked like it would be a simple story of how A.A. Milne came up with Winnie-the-Pooh, but what I really liked though was how the story developed from the effects of fame to a childhood being stolen. Was this inherent in the screenplay (written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan) when you first read it?

Simon Curtis: That’s a good comment. Yes is the answer. I loved the script from the get-go because you think it’s going to be exactly that, but it is about so many other things: family and creation and the impact of war. And yes, Christopher Robin was almost like the prototype child celebrity. And to be fair to the Milne family, it was such an unknown territory. They couldn’t have predicted that the stories would become so popular and the attention it would bring to the boy.

Ben Kenber: There’s no way they could have been prepared for it, and this is what makes A.A. Milne and his wife, Daphne, so incredibly complex. On one hand, you want to get mad at them for robbing Christopher of his childhood, but at the same time, they both come to realize the damage being done. But by the time they stop it, it is too late.

Simon Curtis: Yes, that’s right.

Ben Kenber: I found it very fascinating, and I liked how the movie deals with the PTSD flashbacks. If you’re in a theater with really good sound, you feel the impact of each bang and balloon pop.

Simon Curtis: Yeah, you do. I was trying to make the point that war doesn’t only impact on the men and the women who fight in the war, but their families and their descendants as well. So, the boy is a victim of World War I even though he wasn’t born until it ended.

Ben Kenber: When it comes to introducing the stuffed animals, I loved how Margot Robbie and Domhnall Gleeson introduced them. She had the voices, and he came up with Eeyore’s name. Was there anything about the stuffed animals which you wanted to include in the movie but were unable to?

Simon Curtis: I don’t think so. I love how it’s this almost accidental thing that they buy bear at Harrods or wherever it was, and suddenly it becomes this iconic thing. One of my favorite moments, in terms of when she first gives him the tiger and she says “happy” and then she hands it to him. Then the father says, “Well what should we call it?” “Tigger.” “Why?” “Because it’s more tiggerish” (laughs). It’s just lovely writing.

Ben Kenber: It is. The names all come by accident. It is not some pre-destined thing.

Simon Curtis: Absolutely. They were just little puppets, and that’s the great thing about art. There’s a surprising element to it.

Ben Kenber: A.A. Milne is very eager to say something about war and reality. The interesting thing is, in terms of the way the Pooh stories were written, he found a way of dealing with reality of writing readers with an escape from it.

Simon Curtis: Yes, good.

Ben Kenber: The young actor who plays Christopher Robin Milne, Alex Lawther, was excellent, and he is a very tough role to play here as you see him revel in seeing this stuff animals come to life, and yet he is thrust into a spotlight you couldn’t be less prepared to deal with. Was it hard casting this role?

Simon Curtis: It was lengthy. But I cast a nine-year-old boy would never acted before, do you know that was? Daniel Radcliffe (Curtis cast him in “David Copperfield”), and he had never acted before, so that gave me some confidence. But this boy Alex was a joy and a gift. He was fantastic.

Ben Kenber: Domhnall Gleeson brings a lot of depth to this role.

Simon Curtis: He does.

Ben Kenber: He has scenes where he says one thing, but his eyes have to say something else. How do direct an actor in scenes like those?

Simon Curtis: I don’t know is the answer. You just try to make every scene as good as possible and help the actor to do their best work, and Domhnall is one of those actors who thinks a great deal about it in advance. It brings a lot to the dad, and he was a real partner. The film improved because of his work in the scenes and elsewhere.

Ben Kenber: Margot Robbie has a very tricky part to play here because in some cases the audience may find her to be not for a likable, but she does come across as a very loving mother. It’s a British thing that they hold back. Some of my friends said Daphne is not very likable.

Simon Curtis: But that’s missing the point because that’s the way people were. Not everyone has to be likable in the world, and that’s the way people were mothers in those days. They had the baby, handed it over to a nanny, and waited for the wedding.

Ben Kenber: I always tell people it is not a question of whether a character is likable or not in a movie. It’s whether or not they are interesting.

Simon Curtis: Exactly.

Ben Kenber: Robbie’s performance is really good because she delves into the unlikable parts of her character, but you never doubt the love Daphne has for her son.

Simon Curtis: Yes, and she doesn’t shy away from it. She has such natural warmth herself as a woman, and that kind of balances it out on another level.

Ben Kenber: For many years, there has been a long battle between the Milne family and Walt Disney over the rights to the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Was this something you considered including in this film?

Simon Curtis: No because that’s in the future, that story.

Ben Kenber: The movie’s ending could have been too sentimental with two characters hugging, but they don’t hug and I like that they didn’t because it would’ve seemed too manipulative.

Simon Curtis: Yeah, that’s England. Someone said astutely I thought how in England we are the world storytellers from Shakespeare to JK Rowling, but we can’t say I love you to our kids (laughs).

Ben Kenber: I loved the scene where A.A. Milne tells Christopher you will not write another word about Winnie-the-Pooh. The way the same was played was brilliant because it’s straight to the point.

Simon Curtis: I agree. That was Domhnall’s idea for him to be seated and looking up at Christopher who is standing. It was a really good idea. As a director I look like a genius, but it was totally the actor’s idea.

Ben Kenber: Do you give a lot of freedom to your actors?

Simon Curtis: Yeah. Plus, to be perfectly honest, there are so many little things, you can’t have them all solved in your head.

Ben Kenber: The stuffed animals we see in this movie are replicas of the original ones which are now part of a museum exhibit in New York. Did you have any issues with Disney over the rights to show these stuffed animals here?

Simon Curtis: I don’t think so in this case because they all predate Disney. They are not Disney. Winnie-the-Pooh doesn’t have his little red vest. We just wanted him to be this Victorian toy.

Ben Kenber: Were there any dramatic liberties you took with the factual material?

Simon Curtis: Well I think the fame comes much more quickly than a probably would’ve done, so it was that sort of thing.

Ben Kenber: The movie takes a real left turn when the books become incredibly popular, and the sun becomes an unwitting celebrity to where A.A. Milne begins to question the effect fame is having on Christopher.

Simon Curtis: I love that scene where he thinks he is speaking to his dad on the phone, and it is revealed to be a radio interview.

Ben Kenber: It is such a painful moment because you see in the dad’s eyes that he really shouldn’t be doing this.

Simon Curtis: That’s exactly right.

Ben Kenber: Kelly Macdonald’s character of the nanny, Olive, is wonderful as she serves as the Mary Poppins of this story.

Simon Curtis: She is certainly the emotional heart of it.

Ben Kenber: How did you come to cast Macdonald in this part?

Simon Curtis: Well she did a play with my wife about 10 years ago so I’ve always loved her work, and she just struck me as the perfect person at the perfect time.

Ben Kenber: I like how you portrayed England as still recovering from World War I.

Simon Curtis: Very much so, and I think it chimes in now because it feels like were living in wounded times now.

Ben Kenber: Was that something you planned?

Simon Curtis: It just happened in a way.

Ben Kenber: There are a number of things about A.A. Milne I didn’t know before watching this movie such as the fact he was a soldier and a playwright.

Simon Curtis: Yeah, I didn’t know he was a successful playwright.

Ben Kenber: At the beginning of the movie, A.A. Milne does not look the least bit prepared to be a parent. It’s almost like the movie “Kramer vs. Kramer.”

Simon Curtis: Yes, it is. We talked about that actually. There’s the first breakfast and then there’s the expert breakfast in “Kramer vs. Kramer.”

Ben Kenber: The arc of this movie goes from father and son being strangers to them coming together and then later becoming estranged from one another.

Simon Curtis: The thing that bonded them became the thing that tore them apart.

Ben Kenber: The segment where Chris for a sent off to school was handled very quickly. Was this a segment you ever wanted to expand on?

Simon Curtis: Not really because the last thing you want at that point in the film is to be slow.

Ben Kenber: “Goodbye Christopher Robin” has a running time of 107 minutes. I usually expect biopics like this one to go one for over two hours as filmmakers seem desperate to get every little about their subject’s life onto the silver screen. Did you ever feel this pressure when making this movie?

Simon Curtis: I don’t know really how to answer that. I was just doing the script.

Ben Kenber: This movie is dedicated to Steve Christian. Can you tell me more about him?

Simon Curtis: He was one of the producers who supported this script through years of development and who unfortunately passed away after he saw the first cut.

Ben Kenber: Well, it’s nice to know he did see a cut of the film.

Simon Curtis: Yes, it is nice.

Ben Kenber: The way I see this movie, I feel it is about the long journey to happiness. When father and son come together again, they realize to get to a point of happiness, they have to experience a lot of sadness and pain in order to better appreciate joy.

Simon Curtis: To me, the theme is pay attention to your loved ones while they are around because they won’t be around forever. And also, we punish ourselves over getting this or getting that done, and actually just being with your loved ones is the greatest gift of all. Somehow, that’s embedded in the film. I’m so glad when my kids were young because it was before these (cell)phones because I would’ve been totally on them the whole time.

Ben Kenber: In the movie’s postscript, it is revealed A.A. Milne did get to write his anti-war piece. Was this something you wanted to include in the movie as well?

Simon Curtis: Yeah. He didn’t intend to be known only as the writer of Winnie-the-Pooh. There’s a quote (by A.A. Milne) in the “Goodbye Christopher Robin” book introduction by Frank Cottrell-Boyce. Just read that.

Ben Kenber: “…little thinking

                     All my years of pen-and-inking

                    Would be almost lost among

                    Those four trifles for the young.”

Simon Curtis: Yeah. In fact, it’s not almost, it’s now completely. So that’s good, isn’t it?

I want to thank Simon Curtis for taking the time to talk with me. “Goodbye Christopher Robin” will arrive in movie theaters on October 13, 2017. Click here to check out my review of the film.

‘Only the Brave’ Celebrates the Lives of Those who Risk Everything to Keep Others Safe

Only the Brave movie poster

While watching “Only the Brave,” I kept thinking of what Mike Kellerman said in an episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street:” “Fire is a living thing. It eats, it breathes air, it can be killed. Something about that power draws people in.” This dialogue played in my head while Josh Brolin stares at a wildfire off in the distance, wondering which direction it will spread in. From this, we can tell he doesn’t just see fire as simply something to be put out, but as a force to be fought with on its own term. The term fight fire with fire takes on a special meaning here, and it is shown to be more than just the title of a Metallica song.

“Only the Brave” is, yes, based on a true story. In this case, it is about an elite crew of firefighters who came to be known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots and who risked their lives on a regular basis to stop wildfires in their tracks. In June 2013, 19 of their members died while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, and it remains one of the deadliest incidents involving United States firefighters outside of the September 11th attacks. I figured the movie would be all about this fire and of who survived it and who didn’t. However, it is really about these group of men who come together to form a brotherhood of sorts as they come to depend on one another as their work is always very dangerous. In the process, we also see the bonds they have with their families and loved ones, and of the constant balance they have to work at between work and family life.

Brolin plays Eric Marsh, the leader of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who is eager to build a team of firefighters which will not simply serve as background performers while other elite firefighters push them to the side. You would think firefighters from different places would be quick to band together in the face of mother nature’s havoc, but each individual firefighting group is shown to be a competitive bunch as they want to claim the glory of being a hero before anyone else. After dealing with conflicts and money problems inherent in the realm of politics, Eric gets the funding he needs to begin training men who are infinitely eager to fight fire with fire.

Now a movie like this typically employs a number of stereotypical characters like the ladies’ man, the fearless leader, the trusted second-in-command the one who looks as if he is in the wrong place, and “Only the Brave” does traffic a bit in this area to where I thought this might become “Top Gun” but with firefighters instead of pilots. But thanks to an excellent cast which includes Miles Teller, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Scott Haze, Alex Russell and Ben Hardy, we get to be intimately involved in the exploits of these firefighters to where we have to admire their selflessness in what they do.

An actor worth noting in particular is Teller who has given excellent performances in “Whiplash” and “The Spectacular Now.” Teller plays Brendan McDonough who, at the movie’s start, is a hopeless drug addict. From the character’s first appearance, I figured Brendan would be the one to start the Yarnell Hill Fire as he carelessly is shown smoking crystal meth to where he is barely conscious, and I kept waiting for him to drop a match in a field without even realizing it. Brendan comes to discover his ex-girlfriend is pregnant, and he reacts to this news flippantly as it only increases his capacity for self-destruction. But upon seeing his baby for the first time, he suddenly begins to turn his life around and looks to get employed on Eric’s firefighting team.

Teller’s performance is superb as he doesn’t make Brendan into the typical cinematic addict, but instead a person who goes from being lost in life to one who finds a purpose as he seeks to give his child the life his father never gave him. The interview scene he has with Brolin is superb as Teller never overdoes it as Brendan knows full well he can’t fool Eric since he sees right through his addiction. I kept waiting for Brendan to relapse as this is usually the case for addicts in a movie, but Teller makes his character’s hard-fought battle towards sobriety noble and believable. This is also the second movie he’s been in these past few years where he plays a man determined not to take painkillers even though they certainly would help (the other is “Bleed for This”).

Brolin is an ace at playing blue collar workers, and he never has to do much to convince us how believable he can be in portraying a firefighter. Through his expressions and actions, we quickly see this is someone who can tame the nastiest fires he and his team come into contact with. The “No Country for Old Men” actor shares a lot of great scenes with his male-costars, but his best moments come between him and the always terrific Jennifer Connelly who plays Eric’s wife, Amanda. Their relationship is a strong one, but it takes on an increasing strain when Amanda wants kids, something Eric is not quick to agree on. From this description, it sounds like the average marital conflict we see in every other movie, but Brolin and Connelly bring a lot of raw emotion to their roles to where they inhabit their characters more than anything else. This could have felt clunky, but the actors keep this from happening, and this is especially the case when Amanda reminds Eric what she goes through every day when he walks out the door to go to work.

“Only the Brave” was directed by Joseph Kosinski whose previous films were “Tron: Legacy” and “Oblivion.” This one takes place in the real world instead of in the realm of science fiction, and yet he still brings a strong visual flair to each scene as we watch the fires lay waste to the land with an unforgiving power, and we fear for the deer running through the fields even as a wildfire gets closer and closer. At the same time, he also puts much of his attention on these men as this movie is about the job they did, not the fire which killed many of them. Kosinski makes us share in the friendships they build with one another and of the joyous moments they spend with their families to where we feel we are a part of their lives. Nobody involved with this motion picture should need to convince anyone of the emotional investment they put into this material, and this makes its tragic climax all the more devastating to witness.

Even though I knew how things would end for this group of firefighters, it didn’t make it any easier to sit through. These men had the best training and were constantly being drilled on how to protect themselves in the event of being trapped in a fire, but like other natural disaster, a fire is indiscriminate in who and what it attacks as it seeks to breathe for as long as it can. What everyone is left with are a tremendous amount of grief and survivor’s guilt, both of which deserve a movie of their own to explore.

I walked out of “Only the Brave” in tears as the filmmakers paid special tribute to the men of the Granite Mountain Hotspots, those who lived and those who died. Even the best of preparations could not spare them from the destructive flames they perished in, but it still never took away from the bravery the showed us, and this movie gives them a well-deserved memorial to their selfless efforts. While we mourn the loss of life, we celebrate the lives these men led as they deserve much more than being just a footnote in history.

“Only the Brave” marks a big leap forward for Kosinski as he shows there is more to him than directing big science-fiction films with awesome music scores. It is also worth noting how the movie’s credits are shown at the beginning as opposed to at the end like in “Tron: Legacy” and “Oblivion.” Not only that, but the credits are presented in a surprisingly subtle fashion as Kosinski must have realized his talents could not and should not upstage the firefighters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

As I write this review, wildfires have been doing tremendous damage in Northern California near where my brother lives with his family. Seeing this film makes me think about what his family and others are enduring right now as the damage left in the fires’ wake is just awful. I also find myself thinking of those firefighters up north and wonder if they are getting the respect, not to mention the funding, they deserve. Whereas “Backdraft” felt more like a Hollywood take on the lives of firefighters, “Only the Brave” feels like the real deal, and it makes me want to go up to those who are working tirelessly to keep wildfires from spreading and shake their hands. This movie is proof of how much they deserve our respect.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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