‘The Informant!’ Puts a Comedic Spin on an Insanely True Story

The Informant movie poster

“This film is based on real events, but not everything you’ll see is real, some are a fabrication. So there!”

-opening disclaimer

The Informant!” is not just your typical corporate corruption film in which the main characters are on a mission to uncover the truth and expose wrongdoings. The movie is really about getting to the truth of who Mark Whitacre is. As the film goes on, we find he is not only being dishonest to everyone around him, but also to himself. Whitacre ends up being diagnosed with bi-polar disorder which makes clear how far his mental health has unraveled. Soderbergh gets us to trust Whitacre along with Damon, and the rest of the movie involves us getting deeper into his psyche. Whitacre doesn’t just deceive his employees, he deceives the audience watching this movie as well.

Much has been said about how Damon went all Robert De Niro (or Daniel Day Lewis or Christian Bale) on this role by putting on 30 pounds and a mustache to play Whitacre. But he more than succeeds in bringing an everyman quality to this role which is not at all easy with a star like him, known for his good looks (the term actor fits him better anyway). It certainly sets his character apart from Jason Bourne, who Whitacre is clearly not like (he does liken himself to James Bond though). Damon has never been given a role like this before, and it should be considered further proof he is a better actor than many give him credit for.

Soderbergh’s decision to give “The Informant!” a comic tone is an interesting choice, and it is a reminder of how he is still one of the most unpredictable filmmakers working today. Earlier in 2009 he gave us one of his indie film experiments, “The Girlfriend Experience,” which starred Sasha Grey. While this one was done on a bigger budget, my understanding is he shot it almost as fast (30 days to be exact) perhaps because the studio wasn’t sure if people would see it or not. Looking more closely at the script, this could have been Soderbergh’s “Michael Clayton,” but he had taken this story, the kind we see in the papers every day, and made it into something a little different. While the tone is a bit inconsistent throughout, and you are not sure of how amusing the film is meant to be, that may be the whole point of this cinematic endeavor.

The humor throughout is very dry, and it sticks in your throat for good reason. Whereas everyone here looks like they are having a blast with the material, you have to remind yourself once in a while that “The Informant!” is, yes, “based on a true story” and that Whitacre’s conviction gave him a prison sentence three times longer than those he exposed. This may be one of those movies designed to thwart expectations as it has been promoted and advertised as a full out comedy. Still, it is not meant to be a laugh a minute comedy like “Airplane!

When all is said and done, “The Informant!” really belongs to Damon as much as it does to Soderbergh. As Whitacre, Damon never looks like he is just acting or simply doing an impersonation. This is also clearly not a performance that stopped at the physical appearance, but one which really gets into the inner trappings of this bio-chemist’s mind. From start to finish, we keep hearing Damon’s narration about the little things he knows and what he makes of the people around him. I somehow figured this would all lead to a big realization at the film’s climax, but it really illustrates the deteriorating state of Whitacre’s mind. Damon actually makes you empathize with this man even while he comes across as a Bernie Madoff in training.

I also have to say that for the life of me, I cannot remember the last time there was a character which inspired so many dead or befuddled stares from other people. It’s like every single character he comes into contact with has at least two or three moments where they look at Whitacre with their jaws dropping all the way to the floor. Have you ever seen another movie where so many characters look like they are about to say, “Excuse me? Would you mind repeating that? YOU WHAT??!!”

The two actors who end up giving Whitacre the most dubious glares throughout “The Informant!” are Scott Bakula and Joel McHale. Both play off of Damon perfectly, and their expressions mirror our own as we come to discover the secrets of Whitacre’s ways at the same time they do. Bakula gives us a coolly collected FBI agent instead of the intense and easily aggravated ones we see in these movies. But not to worry, he does lose his temper eventually. McHale proves to be even drier here than Bakula, and at the movie’s end, he still cannot figure out if Whitacre has been completely on the level with him. Then again, Whitacre probably can’t figure that out either. Someone once said if you believe in a lie so much, it eventually becomes the truth, and this proves to be Whitacre’s biggest affliction.

The seriousness of the story is offset by the wonderfully breezy music score by Marvin Hamlisch which treats the goings on as a bizarre farce that goes further out of the hand than anyone could have imagined…and then it gets even more bizarre from there. Even as the situation becomes increasingly serious with the walls closing in on Whitacre, Hamlisch’s score remains surprisingly upbeat throughout. Along with the retro opening credits, it’s almost like Soderbergh was trying to give the film a 1970’s look even though it takes place in the 1990’s.

So, while it’s not quite a great movie, “The Informant!” does have a lot going for it, and it is very inventive in how it presents this morally corrupted yet well-meaning character. While Whitacre may think he’s like Tom Cruise’s character in “The Firm,” he is nowhere as lucky as him. Perhaps a more dramatic motion picture could have been made about this man’s life, but none would be anywhere as entertaining as Soderbergh’s.

SO THERE!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Oliver Stone’s ‘W.’ Gives Empathy to an Unfortunate President of the United States

W movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

You really have to admire what Oliver Stone pulled off here as he himself has been a big critic of the Bush Administration (and who isn’t these days?). Like “Nixon,” Stone has given us an empathetic portrait of an infamous President and tears down the stereotypes we have about this particular person so we can see him up close for who he really is. It is not a Bush bashing piece, but that would have been pointless anyway because we bash George W. Bush on a regular basis. With “W.,” Stone has given us what is essentially a father-son story as George W. is a man who spent the majority of his life trying to get his father’s, President George H.W. Bush, respect. It is clear from the start Bush Sr. respects Jeb more than he who bears his first and last name, and this leads George W. to do things he would never have done otherwise, such as run for political office.

“W.” covers George W. Bush from his days at a Yale fraternity hazing to the end of his first term as President. His second term is not covered here which is just as well as we are deep in the muck when it comes to political and financial affairs. It flashes back and forth in time from when he is President to his days as a rootless young man who is unsure of what he wants to do with his life other than party and get drunk. The movie does have the feel of a comedy, but it gets more serious in other moments. The tone Stone sets here is not always clear, and it does take away from the movie a bit. Still. it kept me engrossed as it covered the life of a man I can’t wait to see leave the White House.

George W. Bush is played here by Josh Brolin, and he had a great streak last year with “Grindhouse,” “American Gangster” and of course “No Country for Old Men.” Christian Bale was originally cast in this role, but he dropped out at the last minute due to the makeup effects not working to his liking. It’s just as well because Brolin looks like a much better fit being from Texas and all. Playing Bush to a serious degree is a difficult challenge to say the least because we have long since gotten used to seeing him being lampooned on “Saturday Night Live,” and as a result, we cannot help but look at Brolin’s performance as a caricature of George W. But in the large scheme of things, Brolin manages to make the role his own, and it becomes more than a simple impersonation which was obviously not what he was going for in the first place.

In fact, Stone did a great job of casting as he got actors who don’t simply impersonate the people we know so well, but who instead embody and inhabit them. In the process, the actors force you to look at some of these personalities a bit differently than we have in the past. Getting past the preconceptions we have of people is always tough, but it is at times necessary in order for us to better understand how certain individuals, particularly those with the most power, tick.

One actor I was most impressed with here was Richard Dreyfuss who plays Vice President Dick Cheney. Dreyfuss has a great and frightening scene where, in a private conference with all the heads of state, he makes a case for attacking Iraq and Iran in order to get control over their vast oil supplies and keep dictators like Saddam Hussein from coming down on us ever again. The one moment which sent a chill down everyone’s spine is when someone asks Cheney what the exit strategy out of Iraq is, and he replies, “There is no exit strategy. We stay there forever.”

Everyone in the theater was frozen in silence as this is the one thing we keep begging future politicians to do, provide an exit strategy. Dreyfuss plays the scene not at all as a villain, but as a man who convinces the Commander in Chief of why he sees this path of action is the right one for the administration to take.

Another really good performance comes from Toby Jones (“The Mist”) who plays the master of smear campaigns, Karl Rove. Jones ends up making Rove seem both charismatic and likable, and he also subtly brings out the emotional manipulator in the man who succeeds in getting under George W.’s skin to make him the puppet he is today. I hate Rove for everything he has done, but Jones succeeds in making us admire him, begrudgingly so, for being so fiendishly clever. Rove’s powers of manipulation are ever so subtle to the point where we barely notice them, and Jones gets this across perfectly and with amazing subtlety.

As Bush Sr., James Cromwell makes us see that this particular U.S. President is fully aware of how his children are at a huge disadvantage. While he had to work hard to get to where he ended up at, his offspring had everything handed to them on a silver platter. Bush Sr. obviously wants the best for his children, but in seeing to his black sheep of a son’s needs and troubles, he comes to see he has done more harm than good.

As the movie goes on, Cromwell goes from presenting the elder Bush as being terribly disappointed in George W. to being deeply concerned over his son’s decisions about Iraq. We see Bush Sr. the end of the first Gulf War discussing his reasoning as to why they shouldn’t go after Saddam as it might make the dictator a hero in the eyes of many. Indeed, Stone makes us sympathize with the senior Bush in ways I never expected to. The moment where we see Bush lose the Presidential election to Bill Clinton, I actually found myself saddened as it comes across how there were many opportunities which would never be realized. This was shocking to me because I really wanted to see Clinton beat Bush, and I was thrilled he did.

In the end, however, the movie really belongs to Brolin who gives us a George W. Bush that is seemingly well intentioned and yet hopelessly naïve. You may not completely blame him for all the troubles going on in the world right now, but you can never excuse him for not taking more responsibility for his actions. We see Bush embrace God and become a born-again Christian, and while this helps him with his drinking problem, it also gives him blind faith which will prove to be his flaw as a person which will eventually undo him. Brolin makes Bush goofy yet well intentioned, and he makes clear the heartache he feels as he cannot escape the shadow of his famous father.

Stone’s “W.” is not the classic political movie “JFK” was, but it is effectively made and shows how we need to understand the human side of those we brand as criminals in order to get at what makes them act the way they do. This is an important lesson to remember as we go on in life.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘BlackkKlansman’ is Spike Lee’s Best Joint in Years

BlackkKlansman movie poster

Those who read my reviews know how much I despise the term “based on a true story” as it has long since lost its meaning for me. However, Hollywood has been looking for ways to provide variations on this phrase in recent years in an attempt to give it back the value it once had. One of my favorites was “Argo” which was advertised as being based on a “declassified” true story which made it worth seeing all the more. Still, every other movie these days is “based on a true story,” and pointing this out should make you wonder which ones were not. Besides, aren’t all movies based on or inspired by things we have experienced in real life?

BlackkKlansman,” a Spike Lee joint, is the latest movie to be “based on a true story,” but its poster has advertised as being “based on a crazy, outrageous, incredible true story.” Personally, I prefer the phrase Lee uses in the movie itself which says it is based on “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit.” This description feels far more honest as it would have seemed unbelievable were this movie released a few years ago. What results is the best joint Lee has made in years, and I could not recommend it more highly.

Based on the memoir “Black Klansman,” it stars John David Washington as Ron Stallworth who, when we first meet him, is on his way to apply at the Colorado Springs police department and become its first ever black detective. This distinction, however, doesn’t do much for him in the beginning as his fellow officers, particularly the slimy Patrolman Andy Landers (Frederick Weller) who does little to hide his racist attitudes, and he is eager to rise up in the ranks.

Following a boring stint in the records room, Stallworth gets transferred to intelligence where he comes across an advertisement for the Klu Klux Klan which looks to find new members. It is great fun watching Washington talk on the phone with Ryan Eggold who plays Walter Breachway, President of the KKK chapter of Colorado Springs, as he effortlessly convinces him he is as white as they come. This act quickly grabs the attention of Detective Flip Zimmerman who is played by Adam Driver, and it is a gas watching Driver slowly turn around in his chair once he realizes what Stallworth is up to.

Of course, Stallworth does make a critical mistake during this phone call; he uses his real name. As a result, he is forced to turn to Zimmerman who has to pretend to be Stallworth in person as they further infiltrate the KKK. This infiltration becomes a delicate balancing act as Stallworth continues to fool the racist organization over the phone while Zimmerman is forced to fool them in person. In the process, we come to discover how much easier it is for a black man to pretend to be white than it is for a white man to pretend to be black.

“BlackkKlansman” couldn’t be timelier as it digs deep into a past which has a frightening resemblance to America’s present. The KKK is shown here to be as violent and racist as they are today as they keep chanting “America first” and plot acts of violence designed to eliminate those in their way and instill fear in the general public. One of the most disturbing scenes comes as we watch them cheer unabashedly at a screening of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” which portrayed the KKK as heroic and African-Americans as being unintelligent and sexually aggressive. Lee does nothing to hide the racist caricatures Griffith put onto the silver screen back in 1915, and they are as infuriating to take in today as they were a hundred years ago.

It’s very ironic how “BlackkKlansman” was released in theaters around the same time Dinesh D’Souza’s latest propaganda piece, “Death of a Nation,” came out. Both movies deal with “Birth of a Nation” in different ways and acknowledge how it was the first American motion picture ever to be shown inside the White House. D’Souza portrays President Woodrow Wilson as getting a liberal erection from watching Griffith’s movie, and he took this a step further in “Hillary’s America” by having a KKK member on horseback leap out of the screen to where Wilson is shown as being completely hypnotized by this image. D’Souza, however, leaves out “Birth of a Nation’s” more inflammatory segments which include deeply offensive depictions of blacks, something Lee does not shy away from showing here.

As is the case with movies “based on a true story,” “BlackkKlansman” does take numerous liberties with the source material. The events of this story took place in 1979, but Lee has moved the timeline back to 1972 which allows him to acknowledge certain Blaxploitation classics as well as the re-election efforts of President Richard Nixon. It is also said how David Duke never realized Stallworth was a black man until 2006, but the change here was worth it as leads to one of the movie’s best and funniest scenes. With movies like these, it is more important to be true to the spirit of the facts than anything else, and those who have a problem with that can always read Stallworth’s memoir instead.

There’s some additional irony here with “BlackkKlansman’s” release as it is coming out not long after the “Superfly” remake. One scene has Stallworth talking with his girlfriend, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), about which movie was cooler, “Super Fly” or “Shaft.” Patrice replies how “Super Fly” unfairly stereotypes black men as criminals, but it also showed a realistic grittiness to life in the city which was complemented by the brilliant soundtrack composed by Curtis Mayfield. It would be interesting to see how Patrice would have felt about this summer’s remake which threatened to glamorize gangster life more than ever before, and it made me wonder why anyone bothered remaking this blaxploitation classic in the first place.

Then there is former President Nixon whom D’Souza tried to convince us was a true progressive like any other Republican in “Death of a Nation.” We do not see much of Nixon in “BlackkKlansman,” but we do see his re-election posters displayed prominently in KKK hangouts as they were supposedly big supporters of his. Seeing this makes me think of the old Vulcan proverb Spock spoke of in “Star Trek VI” which said “only Nixon could go to China.”

“BlackkKlansman” is designed to make us mad at how history is repeating itself as white supremacist groups have flourished under the Donald Trump administration, but it is also insanely funny at times as it is almost impossible to believe anyone could have gotten away with what Stallworth and Zimmerman did here. Then again, in a time where John Melendez, a.k.a. Stuttering John of the Howard Stern Show, managed to trick Trump into believing he was Senator Bob Menedez in a phone conversation, perhaps it doesn’t seem unbelievable in the slightest

Honestly, it has been some time since I last saw a Spike Lee joint. His movies get overwhelmed at times by his camera tricks and flourishes and overly bombastic music scores which make me want to turn the volume. But with “BlackkKlansman,” Lee has crafted a film where everything feels perfect and spot on, and what results is highly entertaining and deeply visceral. Even as the “Do the Right Thing” director wants you to see how the past never left us, he invites us to revel in Stallworth’s successful infiltration even as those in power want to bury his victories.

There is not a single weak performance to be found here. Both Washington and Driver dig deep into their characters’ complexities as they try to remain professional in an increasingly volatile situation, but their own personal beliefs threaten to get in the way. Jasper Pääkkönen proves to be a fiery presence as Felix Kendrickson, the white supremacist who looks like a grenade primed to explode at any given moment. Corey Hawkins is magnetic as Kwame Ture when he rouses his followers at a civil rights rally. And Topher Grace proves to be an inspired choice to play a young David Duke who is shown to be aloof as to who Stallworth really is, and that’s even when Stallworth is assigned to be his security detail while in Colorado Springs.

It is no mistake Lee concludes “BlackkKlansman” with footage from the Unite the Right rally which took place in Charlottesville, Virginia as the movie is being released on its first anniversary. We see white supremacists marching the streets with tiki torches saying they will not be replaced, we see the real David Duke talk about how Trump is making “America great again,” we see Trump respond to the rally by saying how there were good people on both sides, and we see the car attack perpetrated by a white supremacist which injured many and killed Heather Heyer. While we look at the past as if it is barely visible in our rearview mirrors, it is real events like these which remind us how these same mirrors have the message of how things we see in them are much closer than they appear.

The image of an upside-down American flag which fades into black and white is the perfect image to end “BlackkKlansman” on as we are truly living in “The Twilight Zone” with everything that’s going on. It also reminds me of the final image of that same flag in John Singleton’s “Higher Learning” which ended with the word “unlearn” being typed out over it. Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it, and history continues to repeat itself again and again and again. The fight for justice has never ceased, and the progress we all thought Americans had made is not as great as it seemed. Lee has made an overtly political movie which could not have come out at a more appropriate time, and it is his best one in years.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Frost/Nixon’ is Ron Howard’s Best Film Since ‘Apollo 13’

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WRITER’S NOTE: This review was originally written in 2008.

Frost/Nixon” started off as a play which was incredibly well received and went on to have a very successful run on Broadway. It has now been brought to the screen by director Ron Howard, and he ends up giving us one of his best movies to date. Like “Apollo 13,” he takes the outcome of an event which we all know about and he turns it into riveting cinema. Also, unlike John Patrick Shanley who cast different actors in his movie version of “Doubt,” Howard retains the two actors from the original stage production, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella. This is one of the very best movies to come out in 2008, and it makes sense it is coming out at the end of the year instead of the middle of it.

“Frost/Nixon” starts at the point where Nixon has resigned as the President of the United States. David Frost, just coming off of one of his talk shows, sees the image of Nixon waving goodbye before entering the helicopter which took him away from political life forever. When it is gauged as to how many witnessed Nixon’s resignation on television, Frost sees a golden opportunity in attempting to get an interview with Nixon, something which must have seemed incredibly unlikely at the time. Along with his producer John Brit (Matthew Macfadyen), he travels to America to set up the interview with a major network, but they all turn him down. As a result, he decides to fund the whole thing himself at great personal risk, and he and John hire Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell) to prep him for interview and research all the available facts on Nixon.

I liked how “Frost/Nixon” really got into the specifics of how the interviewed was prepped and researched. You might think prepping any interview wouldn’t necessarily be that hard, let alone the interview of a former President of the United States, but it is never as easy as it looks. They prep for months in advance, but Frost’s producer, as well as Bob and James, do most of the grunt work while Frost goes to parties promoting a movie he has worked on. When they finally get around to filming the interview, Frost suddenly realizes the gravity of the situation he has put himself in as the interview may very well destroy his credibility forever.

The movie becomes completely riveting when it focuses on the exchanges between Frost and Nixon in the interview and outside of it as well. Nixon proves to be a smooth operator who takes advantage of Frost as the interviewer appears to be laid back and almost completely oblivious to the seriousness of this interview. We see people from both camps focusing on the interview from other rooms, trying to control what comes out of their guy’s mouth. The intensity immediately increases when Frost starts off the interview with the question, “Why didn’t you burn the tapes?” By that, Frost meant the tapes which all but implicated Nixon’s role in the Watergate scandal.

The last part of the interview these two men do together represents some of the most riveting and intense scenes in any movie of 2008. The fact there are no guns or explosions here says a lot about Howard and the actors managed to accomplish here. The audience, even if they knew the outcome of these interviews, was so intensely drawn into this part of the movie when I saw it at Arclight Cinemas to where you could hear a pin drop during the last exchange, and the gasps from the audience were very audible. I watched it and hoped at the same time that I had remembered to silence my cell phone so it wouldn’t go off during the movie’s final round. It would have destroyed the moment if Daryl Hall & John Oates had started singing “I Can’t Go for That” (my current ring tone) out of my cell phone.

As Sir David Frost, Sheen is brilliant in making him look like a lot of fun to be around without ever seeming overly smug or easily dismissive. His transition from the casual interviewer to Nixon’s grand inquisitor is very convincing, and he makes you feel the increasing stress Frost is going through. Like his close confidents, we desperately want him to get hard on Nixon and not be so soft. When Frost finally does come around, he caps off his interview by getting in Nixon’s face and never backs down from the overbearing stature Nixon imposes on him. Sheen manages to capture all of Frost’s mannerisms and the way he talks without simply impersonating him. Having previously played Tony Blair in “The Queen,” he is great at giving a different face to people we have come to know so well, and in getting at the heart of who they are outside of the media’s perception of them.

With the role of Richard Nixon, I think it’s safe to say Langella gives the performance of his career here. Like Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s “Nixon,” he never ever tries to impersonate Nixon in this performance. Had he, it would have destroyed his performance and the movie. Langella doesn’t even try to look like Nixon either. What he does instead is dig deep into the heart and soul of Nixon to where he gives the former President a strong sense of empathy. Ever since he came to my attention in Ivan Reitman’s “Dave,” Langella has been the king of quiet menace in just about every movie he has appeared in. The menace of Nixon is always below the surface under the guise of a man always reminiscing about a past he can never get back. When Nixon finally caves in during the last interview he has Frost, Langella gives the man a sorrowful dignity as he realizes what he has done will forever haunt him unless he confronts for what it is.

Langella also makes you believe and understand what Nixon meant when he says no one can ever fully understand what it is like to be President. Nixon is never excused for what he did, nor should he be, but there is some leeway we should give him as he has experienced something the majority of us will never get to experience – being President of the United States. The Oscars better not ignore Frank Langella the same way they ignored Howard for “Apollo 13.”

\Howard almost seems like an odd choice to direct “Frost/Nixon,” and he beat out a lot of directors like Martin Scorsese and Mike Nichols to get the job. It almost seems unbelievable his career has spanned as many decades as it has, but it’s probably because many of us still have the image of him as Richie Cunningham on “Happy Days” burned forever into our heads. His last film as a director was “The Da Vinci Code” which proved to be quite sleep inducing, and yet still made tons of money. It almost made you forget what a great director he can be, and “Frost/Nixon” wakes us up from the Da Vinci coma we fell into unexpectedly.

“Frost/Nixon” is better than you would ever expect it to be, and it is one of Howard’s very best movies to date and one of the very best of 2008.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’ Director J.A. Bayona Talks About Making ‘The Impossible’

The Impossible JA Bayona photo

Spanish film director Juan Antonio Bayona, or J.A. Bayona for short, made a name for himself in 2007 with the horror movie “The Orphanage.” It earned him the respect of his fellow Spaniard Guillermo Del Toro who helped produce the film, and it became a big box office hit worldwide. These days he is known for directing “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” which is expected to be one of the biggest hits of the 2018 summer movie season.

Following “The Orphanage,” Bayona was offered a number of movies to direct including “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” but he was really interested in doing something far more challenging to take on. Bayona found the challenge he was looking for with “The Impossible,” a movie based on the true story of a family that survived the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Thailand. What Bayona accomplished showed him to have great skill in getting strong performances out of an incredibly gifted cast, and he staged a tsunami scene so horrific, it puts the one in Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” to utter shame. The movie proves to be a cinematic experience as brilliant as it is gut wrenching to watch, and you won’t be able to ignore Bayona’s talent after you have seen it.

Bayona was at the Los Angeles press conference for “The Impossible” which was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California back in 2012, and I was fortunate enough to attend his roundtable interview. We all thanked him for making this film which we agreed was one of the very best of the year.

The Impossible movie poster

Question: This is a great movie. Did you realize the scope of it when you got involved? Did you realize how inspiring it would be to moviegoers in general?

J.A. Bayona: Well it was getting bigger and bigger as much as we were getting into it. The first impact we had when we heard Maria (Belon’s) story was very emotional, and we wanted to figure out where that emotion was coming from. Even though it is a tough story and we’re talking about a tragedy, the emotion was coming not from a dark place. It was something that was coming from the way these people gave to the other ones in the worst moment. So, I thought that was very powerful and it was a very beautiful idea of approaching that. But then you talk to Maria and you realize how much suffering there is still nowadays. They call it “survivor’s guilt” even though she doesn’t like to call it that. She will talk about survival suffering because she doesn’t feel guilty for anything she did, but it’s really that there is a lot of suffering. I thought that would be interesting to tell the story of this family going there and then going back home and not talking about a disaster in a compassionate way and where you only talk about whether you live or you die. There’s a lot of gray space in the middle. From the very first meeting that we had we agreed that this was not just the family story. It was the story of many people, but the whole ending talks about that; how do you go home to the real world when your real world disappears? I like to see the film tell the story about the end of innocence. They don’t feel the same anymore, they lose the sense of security and their life is not the same anymore.

Q: How big of a challenge was this movie for you?

JAB: Well of course there was a huge challenge in the technical aspects of the film, but for me that was exciting and I was not worried about that. The real challenge was how to portray the story of the people who were there and how to give the big picture of what went on there and being respectful of the time.

Q: How much the movie was real and how much what was done with CGI? The movie looks very real even though some of those effects were probably done digitally.

JAB: Well it had to be like that because the story was very simple in reality so it could look like a visual effects movie. It had to feel real all the time. We did a lot of things for real like practical shooting and practical effects, and we also used a lot of CGI for greeneries and digital composition. But the great thing is to always mix several techniques so there’s a moment where everything gets lost so the audience doesn’t know what they are watching.

Q: Was anything done to reduce the carbon footprint of the movie or in trying to conserve resources?

JAB: Everything these days is now very regulated, so you have to be very respectful. For example, in shooting the water sequences in Spain the waters had to be darkened with a coloring used for food because that water had to be sent back again to the sea. Everything had to be natural. The water had to be decidedly desalinated before it got sent back to the sea.

Q: Did you think about shooting the movie in another country other than Spain, or was it always your intention to shoot there?

JAB: We did it in Spain because we found this huge water tank which is the second biggest in the world I think. So it was the perfect place to shoot all of the water sequences and once we finished with that we went to Thailand and we shot in the same places the tsunami took place in.

Q: The sound design in this movie is incredible, especially in the opening sequence. The screen is black but you already feel like you’re underwater. Can you tell us more about the sound design for this movie?

JAB: One of the things that I soon realized is that the characters didn’t have time to stop and think about what was happening. Everything was so fast that we had to deal more with emotions and sensory details. I was intellectualizing the sequence a lot with the actors, but in the end in front of the camera everything had to be sensorial and about the emotions. Sound has a great role in the film, and I talked a lot with Maria about the sounds and she was telling me for example that the sounds of the wave reminded her of the engine of the plane. This is the moment where I had the idea of starting with the sound of the engine because the movie was already starting and finishing on a plane. The way the plane sounds at the beginning and at the end is completely different, and that sets the behavior of the characters of how they go to Thailand and how they came back from Thailand. The sound of the way was very interesting. It sounds wilder underwater than on the surface because that’s where the danger was with all the debris and all the things which were dangerous for the people who were in the water were underwater. Maria was telling the also about the bloody birds, and I said, “What do you mean by the bloody birds?” She told me, “Once the water receded and we were completely alone in the debris and the devastation I started listening to the birds singing like nothing had happened, and I hated them at that moment because nothing happened to them.” This gave me the idea of how nature goes back to normal and that puts the characters very close to reality at the time, so of course we played a lot with this sound and with the music. It’s very interesting to see how music plays a lot with things that the characters can find the words to explain. I remember the moment when Maria was being dragged by this old man, and she sent me a message that was four pages of all these things that she felt in that moment. And in that sequence you only have a man dragging a woman so I focused only on Naomi’s eyes and I put some small music in their going up slowly, and only with that Naomi’s performance and only with their eyes and seeing the connection between this woman and this man. Using some notes of music, I was able to try to create a thought provoking experience in the audience, and that deals a lot with the four pages that Maria sent me.

Q: When this project began it was intended to be a Spanish production with Spanish actors, but then it became this huge thing. When did you decide to make this change?

JAB: Well we wrote the script in Spanish and we soon realized that 80% of the dialogue was already in English because people had to talk in English to be understandable to each other. Also I didn’t want to put the accent on nationalities because I wanted to portray all the people on the same level. I wanted to portray all the people like people, no nationalities. So it felt natural to go to English-speaking actors because first of all to finance a movie like this you need important names, but most of all I never wanted to put an accent on nationalities. If you see the film, they never say where they are from. All the time they talk about going back home. I wanted them to be very universal like a wide canvas so you can project yourself in there.

“The Impossible” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital, and “Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom” arrives in theaters on June 22, 2018.

 

Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek Make a Jailbreak in ‘Papillon’ Trailer

Papillon 2018 movie poster

Anyone remember “Papillon,” the 1973 prisoner drama starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman? Based on the autobiography of the same name, McQueen starred as Henri Charriere, a safecracker who is framed for murder and given a life sentence in the penal system in French Guyana, some of it spent on the infamous Devil’s Island, a location which more than earned its name. Well, Hollywood in its infinite wisdom has decided to remake “Papillon,” and it is set for release this summer. With its first trailer now having been released, one has to wonder if this particular remake of a Steve McQueen movie will have been worth the trouble. I mean, we all saw what happened to Alec Baldwin when he remade “The Getaway.”

Whereas the 1973 had a brutal palette of colors to work from, the trailer starts off with a beautiful image of Henri (now played by Charlie Hunnam) walking outside of the Moulin Rouge with his girlfriend Nenette (Eve Hewson), and it all looks like something out of a dream. This dream, however, is soon shattered when the police break down Henri’s door and arrest him for murder. From there he is sent to the notorious Devil’s Island where he meets Louis Dega (Rami Malek in the Hoffman role), a counterfeiter whom Henri offers to protect if he can help him escape.

The jail, as I see from the trailer, does not look like a particularly inviting place, but then again, no jail ever does. At the same time, it almost looks a little too clean compared to prisons from cinema’s past. As portrayed in the 1973 original, Devil’s Island was the most brutal of locations and one you wanted to keep as far away from as humanly possible. But in this remake, Devil’s Island almost looks like the Hilton in comparison. Furthermore, the big question I have is, how will this remake compare to one of the most brutal prison films of all time, “Midnight Express?” Every other prison film pales in comparison to that one, and watching it makes you see how smuggling hashish out of Turkey is probably not such a good idea.

Hunnam has the unenviable challenge of playing a role originated onscreen by Steve McQueen, a task almost too daunting to undertake. Still, he has proven to be a tough cookie in the past, whether it was on “Sons of Anarchy” or in “Pacific Rim.” Rami Malek, one of the stars of “Mr. Robot,” is currently seeing his stardom rise up to the heavens with the upcoming release of the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” in which he portrays Freddie Mercury. Both actors prove to have a good chemistry at work here, so this makes me a little more eager to check out the movie as a result.

Whether or not it was a good reason to remake “Papillon,” we will find out the answer for ourselves when Bleecker Street releases the film this August. Please check out the trailer below.

‘Chappaquiddick’ Revisits a Tragedy No Kennedy Can Escape

Chappaquiddick movie poster

“They eat their wounded upstairs.”

Lieutenant Al Giardello tells Detective Frank Pembleton this on an episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” to describe the politicians who have invited Pembleton to help them out on a delicate matter involving a congressman. So eager he is to impress his bosses, Pembleton suggests letting a police report get buried, covered up, and the Deputy Commissioner orders him to do so. But when this matter is made public to where a scandal erupts in the news, the Commissioner denies his own involvement and lets Pembleton take the fall. Pembleton has become one of the wounded as the higher ups in the department hang him out to dry, and we see what politicians will do to keep their political currency protected at all costs.

I kept thinking about this exchange while watching “Chappaquiddick” which takes us back to the year 1969 when Senator Ted Kennedy was involved in a car accident. While attempting to cross the Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, his car went off the side and plunged into the water. Ted was able to free himself, but his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, remained trapped inside and eventually drowned. Ted failed to report this incident to the police until 10 hours after it happened, and we watch as his closest advisers look for ways to spin the story to their advantage as the scandal threatens to derail Ted’s political career and forever tarnish the image of the Kennedy family.

The car accident is presented in bits and pieces throughout because, as anyone who has been in an accident can tell you, no one remembers everything in a linear fashion. After the initial accident, the story jumps ahead to a soggy Ted Kennedy walking slowly back to the house where he, his advisers and secretaries were having a party. When his close friend Joe Gargan sees him shivering in the back of a car, Ted simply says, “I’m not going to be President.” From there, everyone goes into damage control mode as they try to get a hold of the narrative and manipulate it to where Ted will come out of this accident in one piece. But there is still a dead body in the center of this tragedy, and some in the inner circle are not about to let this fact go away.

It’s fascinating to watch the political spin machine at work in “Chappaquiddick” as this kind of press manipulation is a regular thing these days, but even back in 1969 the truth was not so easy to bend as the truth still found a way to the surface. Still, we feel the pressure of the press as Ted and company scramble to come up with an answer which will exonerate the Senator in the eyes of his constituents and America at large. There are scenes where his advisers come up with ridiculous scenarios to explain Ted’s actions, like getting a physician to explain how Ted suffered a concussion in the accident even though he isn’t given a chance to examine the senator. Then there’s the story about how Ted was put on sedatives because of his concussion, but a reporter points out how taking sedatives in this condition could easily kill him. And let’s not forget the neck brace fiasco which Ted didn’t even bother rehearsing. There was no Facebook or social media back then, but there was still enough attention paid to where Ted could not walk away from this tragedy unscathed.

At the center of “Chappaquiddick” is Jason Clarke who portrays Ted Kennedy. Many actors could have easily fallen victim to simply playing the late senator as the icon we all see him as and saddle themselves with an accent which makes them sound like Mayor Quimby from “The Simpsons.” Clarke never falls into any of those traps and instead makes Ted as human as anybody else, full of flaws and passions which at times get the best of him. It’s a wonderfully complex performance as Clarke shows how Ted worked to control how the news of this tragedy coming out while wrestling with a conscience that will not let him escape the guilt he feels. Just watch Clarke as he phones Mary’s parents to inform them of her death. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and not an easy one to pull off.

Special mention goes to Kate Mara who plays Mary Jo Kopechne. It’s a small role, but Mara makes the most of her time onscreen as she forces us to see Mary as much more than a mere historical footnote. We learn Mary was a devoted supporter of Bobby Kennedy and his values, and she desperately wants to believe Ted can deliver on the same promises Bobby made before he was killed. This makes her final onscreen moments where Kate is desperately keeping her head above water as she hopes for a miracle which never comes. Whether or not you knew of Mary Jo’s existence before this movie, Mara’s performance ensures we never forget her once we leave the theater.

Indeed, the entire cast of “Chappaquiddick” is well chosen as each actor inhabits their role with a lot of passion and energy which makes this more than the average biopic. Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan get to break free of their comic roles here as Joe Gargan and Paul Markham, two of Ted Kennedy’s closest advisers who are desperate for him to get his story straight before he does even more damage to his image. Helms is especially worth singling out here as he makes Joe the conscience Ted desperately needs to pay attention to, and whether or not Ted does is not worth revealing here as you have to look into Helms’ eyes to see what the answer is.

One truly brilliant performance worth singling out here comes from Bruce Dern who gives an almost wordless performance as Joe Kennedy, the patriarch of this famous family. When we meet Joe, he has long since become hobbled by a stroke and aphasia, and this makes Dern’s work all the more challenging as he has to express things to the audience without the use of words. The final scene he has with Clarke is brutal as the frustrations and disappointments these two have with one another come to their breaking point.

It’s great to see Clancy Brown here as the no-nonsense Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as he cuts through the bull to make sure the narrative runs as smoothly as possible for the incumbent senator. From the first moment he appears onscreen, the “Highlander” actor shows the audience he means business as McNamara moves quickly into damage control mode and freaks when the most thoughtless of mistakes are made by subordinates.

Olivia Thirlby also shows up here as Rachel Schiff, another loyal Kennedy secretary and close friend to Mary. It’s fascinating to watch Thirlby here as she takes Rachel from being totally devastated upon learning of her friend’s death to racing into damage control mode. Whatever you may think of her actions, Thirlby shows how devoted she is to the Kennedy family as she feels the country cannot suffer over one person’s mistake.

Also worth mentioning is Vince Tycer, a noted theater director in Connecticut, who plays David Burke, an individual known as a aide to powerful men. It’s fascinating to watch Tycer in “Chappaquiddick” as he hovers in the shadows next to Ted Kennedy and looks ready to defend the senator’s honor in any possible way. This is another character who could have been played in too broad a fashion, but Tycer plays David in a thoughtfully subtle way as this is a character who is more than willing to set aside his own thoughts and desires for something he considers to be the greater good.

“Chappaquiddick” was directed by John Curran who previously helmed such movies as “The Painted Veil” and “Tracks,” and he wrote the screenplay for Michael Winterbottom’s highly controversial “The Killer Inside Me.” Curran gives this film an underplayed feel as he wants us to see these characters not as historical figures forever defined by their public images, but as people like you and me. The more we see ourselves in these characters’ shoes, the more we get sucked into the story to where this becomes more than your average biopic or just another movie which is (sigh) “based on a true story.”

The only real problem I had with this movie was it felt a little too underdone to where an infusion of energy could have come in handy. I kind of wish Curran had livened up the proceedings at times, especially when it came to watching the walls close in on Ted. There is passion on display here, but that passion could have been stronger in retrospect.

Regardless, “Chappaquiddick” proves to be a fascinating look into the broad scope of political power and at the life of a man born into privilege who uses it to escape a harsh punishment with his career mostly intact. Ted did go on to become the “Lion of the Senate” as he fought long and hard for social justice and universal health care, but I left this movie wondering if his actions were taken to atone for his part in Mary Jo’s death. In the eyes of many Americans, he earned his forgiveness, but a closeup of Clarke’s eyes in this movie’s final moments suggests Ted never fully forgave himself. Did he truly earn a redemption in the years following this accident? We may never truly know, and this makes “Chappaquiddick” especially haunting.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Toby Regbo about ‘U Want Me 2 Kill Him?’

Toby Regbo in U Want Me 2 Kill Him

In “U Want Me 2 Kill Him?,” Toby Regbo gets one of his biggest and most memorable roles yet. The movie is based on a true story which was chronicled in Vanity Fair about a 16-year old schoolboy who gets arrested for attempted murder. His explanation was he was working under orders from an MI5 agent, but the truth of the matter ends up revealing something far more shocking.

Regbo plays John, a lonely boy who gets picked on at school and is later befriended by one of the most popular students there, Mark (Jamie Blackley). The friendship comes about because John’s sister Rachel (Jaime Winstone), whom Mark has developed an online relationship with, asked him to look out for John. But when Rachel is found murdered, both John and Mark in their devastation vow revenge against the person who took her life. What happens from there is not worth giving away, but it resulted in one of England’s most shocking crimes and showed us all how much of a threat the internet can be.

I got to speak with Regbo over the phone about his role back in 2013. During our conversation we talked about how his role reminded him of his years as a teenager, how much time he spends on the internet, the challenges of playing a character based on a real life person, and he even gave me an update on “Maleficent” which he was cast in.

U Want Me 2 Kill Him poster

Ben Kenber: Were you aware of the Vanity Fair article or the true-life story this film was based on before you got the script for it?

Toby Regbo: Not before I got the script. I read originally for Mark, the other character that Jamie Blackley ended up playing which is a good thing the roles ended up that way. But no, I didn’t know anything about it until I auditioned for it, and then once I got close to getting the part then I started looking further into it. I read the article and I also had some information that wasn’t in the article. I met the journalist who wrote the Vanity Fair Article (Judy Bachrach). In fact, she came to the set. But once you know the story, you want to know as much as possible about the case. It’s so mental that this happened.

BK: What appealed to you most about the role you ended up playing in the film?

TR: It’s hard to talk about the film without giving too much away.

BK: Yes, that’s true.

TR: I guess the interesting thing for me was trying to play the scenes in the movie without giving any tells to the ending. That was the key for me, trying to create something that was believable enough that you don’t see it coming I guess, at least for not a long way away.

BK: Yes, that must have been tricky because you read the script and wonder how you can keep from revealing everything. That must have been a challenge for everybody involved.

TR: We did a lot of rehearsals which is great. It’s the most rehearsal I’ve ever done before starting a film. Andrew Douglas, the director, and his wife Lenore sort of coached us (me and Jamie) through the movie. We did three or four weeks of rehearsals beforehand and working everything out. It was about just trying to keep them real, trying to find out exactly what motivated them. We did a whole bunch of work with sort of character objectives. We used this book called Ivana Chubbuck’s “The Power of the Actor” and we worked out what motivated our characters.

BK: Do you prefer to do a lot of rehearsal before you shoot a movie or does it depend on what movie you’re working on?

TR: It just depends on the whole vibe. I do like rehearsals, but at the same time the best stuff that ever happens is stuff that you don’t plan for. You can do things to death, but you just got to get out and do it for real. I’m doing this TV show and we’ve been shooting for like ten months now, and I’ve never shot that long before. It’s like a different process. You shoot like 8 pages a day, you get scripts like a couple of days beforehand, there’s not much preparation time and you just got to sort of go with it. It’s great training as an actor.

BK: I agree. The chemistry you have with Jamie Blackley onscreen is terrific and you two come across as very down to earth and really good friends. This makes the eventual unraveling of their friendship all the more painful to witness. How did you two develop that chemistry?

TR: It came to us naturally. Jamie is one of the easiest people to get along with that I ever met in my life. And also at the same time, when we started filming we both had fallen in love with girls at the same time, so we had that camaraderie on set. We were always talking about how long we should wait until we say I love you to a girl, so we both had that commonality. It worked out for Jamie, it worked out for me.

BK: Before you made this movie, did you spend a lot of time on the internet and in chat rooms?

TR: I’ve never been in a chat room before. There was a time where we used to go on MSN Hotmail a lot when I was like 14 which was a fucking nightmare. More than anything else, the social media revolution has helped kids talk shit about each other at an exponential rate. It’s been a lot of fun on there talking about who kissed who and what boy did what, and that was a great fucking waste of time for a couple of years. I’ve sort of grown away from it now. I thought I go and do a lot of other things than just waste all this time online.

BK: Were you able to do a lot of research on the person your character was based on? We find out at the end of the movie that a lot of information can’t be revealed due to certain laws in England.

TR: Yes, and I think that’s for the best. The character that I play, I based it on the script which was based on the Vanity Fair article. But I felt very distant from whoever this unknown boy, now a man, is. I don’t know the name, I don’t know who he is, I have no connection with him at all and I think that’s the way that it should be. On Demand on my TV earlier today I saw the trailer for the “Diana” movie. The story is about Diana and how the press ruined her life and how they like ended it. However you want to look at it, it was this terrible event that happened and now she’s dead, but they’ve made a fucking movie about it. I mean the hypocrisy of like saying oh look how terrible it is that the media ruined her life, and then they’ve made a movie about it. That doesn’t seem to make any sense. But I did feel a responsibility playing someone who is real. Although they did a very terrible thing, they shouldn’t have to have this film on their shoulders for the rest of their lives. It based on a true story, but there is this creative license in it.

BK: It’s interesting because with certain movies that are based on true stories, many actors feel the need to learn as much as they can about the real person they are playing to the point where they fall into the trap of impersonating them. I guess knowing less about the person your character was based on was probably more freeing for you because you weren’t shackled to that.

TR: Yeah, I mean I think for some actors they love that. They really want to get inside the heads of the real person, but I find it very, very strange to try sort of mesh this other person over the top of you especially when it comes to your voice and like doing an accent and that sort of thing. I think its dangerous territory where it can become an impersonation. I would always approach playing a real person with extreme trepidation, but in this case I felt like I was playing the character that was written on the page rather than this actual boy who is out there in the real world.

BK: I imagine you’re not far from the age of the character you play in this film. Did playing this role bring back any memories of being a teenager for you?

TR: I was 19 when we filmed it and I’m 22 now. Bringing back memories of a teenager would’ve only been one year. To be honest, being a teenager is fucking shit most of the time. Kids are really, really horrible, and I totally understand escapism that both of these boys are sort of trying to pursue through the power of the mundane inanity being a teenager growing up in the suburbs trying to have the “mad life” as Mark would put it.

BK: I see that you were cast in Disney’s “Maleficent” as the young Stefan. Can you tell us anything about that movie?

TR: Well I can tell you that I’m not in it (laughs). I worked two weeks on that and there was some studio nonsense. Basically they wanted the character that I was playing to be younger, much younger. We were doing this prologue to the film and they wanted 10 rather than 16, but they waited two weeks into filming before making that decision. I’m still glad that I got to be on that set. I’ve never done anything like that before, and I hope that it turns out well. It’s amazing what they are doing there, and I never been in something with such a big budget. Just the level of detail… There were these chests on the set, these like fairy chests or whatever, and you open them and they are like filled with all these intricate gilded swords and beautiful linens and stuff. The level of detail was amazing. I’m sad I’m not a part of it.

I want to thank Toby Regbo for taking the time to talk with me. “U Want Me 2 Kill Him?” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Exclusive Interview with Andrew Douglas about ‘U Want Me 2 Kill Him?’

U Want Me 2 Kill Him poster

U Want Me 2 Kill Him?” is yet another in a long line of movies “based on a true story.” But after watching it, you have to believe it’s true because no one could make a story like this up. Based on the Vanity Fair article by Judy Bachrach, it stars Jamie Blackley as Mark, a very popular high school student who ends up getting into a relationship with his online girlfriend Rachel. Mark ends up becoming so hopelessly in love with Rachel to where he’s willing to do anything to win her favor, and she soon has him befriending her lonely younger brother John (Toby Regbo) who gets picked on at school every day. As a result, Mark and John develop a strong friendship which soon leads them down some very dark paths that will have them doing things they never believed they were capable of. It all leads to one of the most shocking and baffling crimes in England’s history.

The movie’s director is Andrew Douglas who is best known for making the acclaimed documentary “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus” and for helming the 2005 remake of “The Amityville Horror.” I got to speak to him about “U Want Me 2 Kill Him?” which I felt served as a reminder of how threatening technology is in this day and age, and of how the emotions of a teenager are always simmering just beneath the surface. Douglas talked about the long road it took to get this movie financed and made, how familiar he was with the real-life story, and he also gave me an update of what’s happened to Mark and John since the movie’s release.

WARNING: THIS INTERVIEW DOES CONTAIN SPOILERS.

Ben Kenber: I was not at all aware of the true story this movie was based on. Were you aware of this story or the Vanity Fair article it was based on before you got the script?

Andrew Douglas: I’m not a big magazine reader anymore because of the internet, but for some reason I did look at that magazine and I did see the article. Ever since “The Amityville Horror” I’ve always got a weather eye out for projects. I didn’t know at the time what it could be or what it might be, but it just seemed such an extraordinary story. Being in America and finding a story from back home was also very appealing, and then it took a couple of years (to get it off the ground). It had a funky journey because uncharacteristically I tried to buy the rights to the story. It wasn’t something I’m used to, but I did have an agent and I reached out to try to buy the rights to that story thinking it was so extraordinary that I got to be able to do something with this. In the meantime, Bryan Singer of all people had also reached out and snagged the rights. So, a year went by or maybe six months, and a script came out based on that story which Bad Hat Harry, Bryan Singer’s company, had produced and it was pretty good and I took a meeting on it. It went into the air as what’s called an open directing assignment, so I managed to arrange a meeting on it. In the meeting I pitched a slightly different interpretation of the same material, and then another year went by during which the studio the project was with, Warner Independent Pictures, went down the tubes taking the script with it. So, all of a sudden that material was untouchable, so Bat Hat Harry got in touch with me and said, “Remember the take that you had on this story?” I said, “Yeah.” They said, “Well could you come in and re-pitch it to Bryan?” So, I did and they really liked it and they felt it was sufficiently different from where they’ve been in order to start again with the same thing. Over the next year I developed up the script and I found a young English writer who had a great voice for authentic youth, and I presented it to Bad Hat Harry and got my commercial company, Anonymous Content, involved a little bit as well to pony up some money, and all of a sudden, we had a film. Interestingly, right around the time I was shooting, there was also in London an opera based on the same article. I went to see it and it was kind of very operatic and it couldn’t be more different from the film, but it was very interesting to me that here’s a story that grabbed at least three different people in three different ways. The first script was quite documentary in the sense that they presented the kids from a kind of adult perspective, and really to me it was a story of how weird the world is. The opera was told from the police woman’s point of view, so to some extent the story was really about a police woman being puzzled by the internet and by the strange landscape of the internet. My take on it was here’s this weird world, here’s this odd landscape that we haven’t really explored in literature or in film yet, but I’m going to approach it from the point of view of one of the inhabitants of it. The idea was to see if I could find a way through the perplexing nature of what Mark does. What was interesting to me as a kind of challenge was we have these two ordinary boys, more or less ordinary boys, who live in an ordinary town, horribly ordinary, who go to a regular school. They are not project kids, they are not kids who are used to knives or used to violence. How do they make the journey that they made? That was really a kind of interesting challenge to me, and I felt as though it would be best served by really taking on the point of view of one of the kids. It could’ve been either of them funny enough, and John certainly makes an interesting journey as well. But I thought Mark was slightly the more difficult journey to explain; a regular kid who’s handsome and good at football and popular with the girls. What is missing in his life that he needs this thing so badly, that he needs to go as far as he goes? And I just thought that was both interesting in a conventional drama, but also interesting in the context of this new landscape of the internet.

BK: Yes, absolutely. These days people seem to be more open with one another on the internet than in real life when they are face-to-face.

AD: Yeah, I think that’s true, and also not necessarily honest as well of course. One of the things that internet provides then and now, even though we have cameras now which we didn’t have in the wild west of 2003, is the secret language of texting. So, I might be projecting on this, but there is still something very alluring, hopefully not with my kids, about what is called the dark room. Being able to go into a dark room where nobody knows you and nobody can really see you and you can be anything. Maybe it was two years ago that there was a floater piece about young gamers with their avatars. They had a real portrait of the gamers and then right next to them was their avatars, and it was so interesting and, in many ways, it was like a pageant. You get for example a disabled person or another person or the most extreme avatar who is everything that they weren’t, and it was very interesting and moving to see that article. I think to some extent this is what we do and this is what my film’s about. The film doesn’t judge them. Mark says early on to John, “I want a mad life like you have,” and John gives him one. He so does for six months there; he gets a very, very mad life. John on the other hand, he’s just sort of like a brother or somebody to look out for him, and you get that. So, I try not to judge the kids and say they’re weird or they’re bad. I just try and say that in a funny way both kids got what they needed and what they weren’t getting from home. And I thought the judge was very cool. I copied the dialogue straight from the court transcripts, so when the judge says that each boy is an extension of the other, that’s actually what the judge said. I thought that was like one of the coolest judgments. You’ve got to expect courts to be that smart, and I just thought that was really interesting because it was something that nobody had really seen before. It was a new crime so John was accused of organizing his own death, and Mark equally was accused of stabbing him. So, for the judge and for all the generations of the legal institution, it was very perplexing which could have been another take on the movie of course. This is material that has many different points of view on it. Somebody else could’ve taken it from the point of view of the trial and try to figure that out. You know how cool “The Social Network” was? It was all based around those court hearings. That could have been another way to go, but you just make your choices and I am pretty happy with how it came out. There are moments where it has to kind of stretch credibility. I had Mike Walden (the movie’s screenwriter) write the characters as realistically as I could bear, but still when you look back from the end of the film they’re melodramatic. They’re still not quite real and that was kind of intentional. The film is almost more fun watching it the second time. A film like “The Usual Suspects” or “Fight Club,” when you watch these kinds of films a second time you see all the tricks, and it’s very satisfying the see how the filmmakers flirted with showing you everything.

BK: This is definitely a movie that needs to be watched at least twice to see how the characters managed to accomplish all that they did. “U Want Me 2 Kill Him?” also reminded me of what it’s like being young and how the emotions of a teenager are just simmering below the surface to where they don’t know how to deal with certain things.

AD: Right, and the stakes for a kid dealing with those emotions are always so high. So, here’s this person online who he never met. He has a girlfriend of sorts, although that other girlfriend in the real world is just kind of messing him around, but here’s this girl he’s never met and he knows the stakes are so high somehow, and that kind of felt true. You’re absolutely right in what you just said. You have a feel as though one meeting and he loves somebody, and then they die and then you have to seek revenge. Teenage emotions, they run so big really.

BK: Yes, they do. It’s almost easy to believe that a young teenage boy could do what he did, and that’s scary too because when you’re that young and you feel the need to do something, you can get easily manipulated. The other thing I found fascinating, even though we know what happens at the end, is how the movie shows the power women can have over men.

AD: Yeah, it’s all about sex in a way. What John is so instinctively clever about is that every kind of invention is really about sex or power. So, to create Rachel or somebody you talk about, but also somebody who is also in danger and in jeopardy… I didn’t really invent that, I kind of refined it. I was very careful to stay pretty close to the instant messaging transcripts, so all those characters come right from the source. So, John was kind of preternaturally clever in understanding that Mark is going to fall for both the damsel in distress and the sex, and this is going to be too alluring for him. Each time he loses Mark’s attention, he has to up the stakes to invent something even bigger. So finally, he invents the spy woman, and again the relationship is very kind of sexual. It’s funny in that there are so many ideas there and a film can only tackle a few without getting too dense. You’re right, that’s so interesting.

BK: At the movie’s end it is said that only so much can be revealed about these two boys because of their age, and they were ordered to never contact each other ever again. Since the making of the movie, has there any other news about these two boys?

AD: No, and it’s so disappointing. When I was doing screenings in London, I was so hoping that in the audience was one of them. I was so hoping that one of them would come out. I always imagined it was going to be John. My interpretation of his character was that he was kind of very proud of what he did. I tried to capture that when he’s proud of that scar. And I felt as though Mark might be more humiliated by the whole thing and that he might well disappear and use the anonymity of the court much more than John. But I felt that John would continue being a con man which is why I do that thing at the end where he’s still conning. That felt as though the con man as a character… We know now as grown-ups that they use people and that they always have to romance us and exaggerate, so the con man as kind of archetype, it’s hard to break that. But sadly, I never found out about them, and I really wish I could. Remember that film “The Fighter” that Christian Bale was so good in as the messed-up boxer? At the end of the movie you get this real satisfaction that you see the real guy (that his character was based on). I’d love to have been able to do that because it just kind of completes the circle, and it also nails down that this extraordinary thing you just saw is real. I would’ve loved to have done that. I would’ve loved to have been able to show pictures of them now. It would’ve been very satisfying to do that but no, not a glimpse.

BK: This is not a story you could easily make up. It definitely feels like it came from real life.

AD: I know, it’s too extraordinary isn’t it? Sometimes during the filming, I was going, “Oh man I wish I could put ‘based on a true story’ several times through the movie because otherwise people are just going to think I’m crazy to expect people to believe this.” But since I made this film, there was a big event here in America with that Heisman Trophy winner with that Hawaiian name. It just shows you what people will believe like Christianity or something like Mormonism. People believe what they need to believe, I think, at every kind of level. It’s almost as if the internet is like a new country or a new landscape, and I’m a bit surprised that there aren’t more movies about it. One of the things that occurred to me is that I think maybe studios are scared of films where the danger is all going to happen on the computer. I know that was certainly true for myself when I was trying to get financing for the movie. They said, “Oh is it all going to be on computer?” That’s why I kind of invented that thing where often times they are talking, so it doesn’t feel as though it’s all written onscreen. I’m just a bit surprised there aren’t more films coming out (on this subject).

BK: Yeah, it’s been a while. If you look back over the years, it’s kind of been an ongoing theme here and there like with movies such as “WarGames” from the 1980’s.

AD: Oh yes Ben, you’re absolutely right. I had forgotten about that.

BK: It’s interesting to see how technology has evolved over time. Even back then it was a threat, but technology is even more of a threat today than ever before.

AD: Right, right. I think that there was one moment in the film when the police are interviewing Mark’s parents in his bedroom and his dad says he just sits on that thing and points at the computer, not understanding that the computer is a door. It is a door to a place that the dad knows nothing about. That wasn’t kind of forefront in my mind as a parent or anything. It wasn’t meant to be a cautionary tale. It was meant to be a roller coaster to be honest. It’s really true that parents don’t quite understand that this technology is a back door, so who knows what?

BK: How did you go about casting the actors in this movie? They are all really good and very natural.

AD: Yeah, they’re terrific. It was just a normal process really. It started by trying to get real people cast. I really like Shane Meadows’ films like “This is England” and he always tends to use real people. But I quickly found that the script and the ideas and the characters were actually too complicated for real people to kind of be able to layer it, and so I went back to more conventional casting. It took a while. It took a lot of backwards and forwards with like 40 or 50 kids. Jamie was a stretch because that boy had to shave every hour (laughs). He’s got a real heavy beard. While everybody else would be having lunch, we sent him off to shave again.

BK: Much of the movie looks like it was shot handheld.

AD: That was intentional. There was a limited budget, but also it felt that the film would be best served if it looked very realistic because the story is so unrealistic. I felt if I shot it as realistically as possible, not quite documentary but very handheld and very real, I thought as though that would create a tension within the story.

BK: I liked that because you watch this movie and it just washes over you. It does feel like you’re being invited into these kids’ private lives in a way you wouldn’t necessarily be invited otherwise. In some cases, people might view this story as being rather convoluted, but it is based on a true story and the realism of it aids the movie very well.

AD: Oh good, I’m glad to hear you say that.

BK: Well thank you for your time Andrew, it has been very interesting to talk with you and I thank you for your time.

AD: Not at all. I appreciate your liking this film. Independent films need help; they need champions so it’s really great that you’re supporting independent films. It’s also easy to just go for the big studio films, but then I think we lose something. I’m a big fan of all kinds of movies. Along with everybody else I’ll be there watching the Superman or the Spiderman and I’ll be there on the first day, but equally I just love independent cinema and I love the way it deals with often times more grown-up ideas. It’s all great.

BK: I agree. My hope is that independent cinema goes through another renaissance really soon.

AD: Oh, I know, absolutely because you see films like “12 Years a Slave” or even “American Hustle” and they are very independent in spirit and they do so well. So, it just feels as though we don’t just want to watch tent pole movies. It’s just not enough because that’s too simplistic and sometimes you feel as though all you are is a consumer. You’re just consuming a kind of product. And with big movies they have less and less dialogue because they travel more easily like a “Transformers” movie. There’s not any dialogue in them anymore because that way they can just export it all over the world, and you just feel like a sucker sometimes.

“U Want Me 2 Kill Him?” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

‘The Imitation Game’ Presents Alan Turing to a New Generation

The Imitation Game poster

Movies “based on a true story” keep coming at us like Election Day fliers in the mail, but “The Imitation Game” is one of the few that actually deserves our full attention. It portrays the life and work of Alan Turing, one of Britain’s most extraordinary heroes, whose efforts and accomplishments remained unsung for far too long. At the same time, it is a movie about secrets; how we keep them, the importance of keeping them and of the damage they can do when uncovered by others. What starts off as a typical biopic becomes something much more as we watch how Turing and his crew of code breakers helped bring an end to World War II, and of how his life came to a tragic end through needless and unwarranted intolerance.

When it came to finding the right actor to portray Alan Turing, the filmmakers could not have found one better than Benedict Cumberbatch. While other actors would have made the mistake of portraying Turing as some kind of Dr. House clone, Cumberbatch turns him into a fascinatingly complex human being who is brilliant, socially awkward, and very vulnerable in a time where being vulnerable could be a huge liability.

For those who don’t know, Turing was a brilliant mathematician and cryptanalyst who worked at Bletchley Park, the top-secret Government Code and Cypher School during World War II, where he created a machine which succeeded in breaking Germany’s seemingly unbreakable Enigma machine. Cumberbatch makes it clear just how incredibly smart Turing is during his first meeting with naval commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) as he turns a hopelessly bad job interview into an unforgettable demonstration of his deduction skills.

What I loved about Cumberbatch’s performance is how he makes Turing curt with people in a way which is arrogant but not necessarily mean. It’s no surprise his fellow co-workers have a tough time warming up to him as he is determined to do things his way and has little time for anybody who doesn’t think as fast as he does. But part of the fun is watching Cumberbatch take Turing from being an anti-social human being to one who is genuinely eager to involve the rest of his crew in breaking Enigma.

One of the colleagues who came to be a big help to Turing is Joan Clarke, a Cambridge mathematics graduate played by Keira Knightley. Her entrance in the movie is great as the other men consider her to be in town only to apply for secretarial work, but Knightley makes Clarke into a very confident character who is more than ready to prove her worth in a male dominated environment. She also becomes one of Turing’s best friends through thick and thin as she helps ease him into social gatherings and become one of the guys instead of such an isolated individual. Even as Turing’s life heads down the tubes, Clarke is still there for him as she understands him in a way few others do.

I figured “The Imitation Game” would climax with Turing’s machine breaking Enigma, and the sequence where Turing and the others succeed in doing so is intensely exciting. But in a sense, it marks the beginning of the end for this group as they come to discover how the secrets they have uncovered lead to other secrets being made and kept for the good of the people. There’s even a scene where Turing’s crew discovers when a cargo ship is going to be attacked, and they debate on whether or not they will stop it as doing so risks undoing all the work they have accomplished. I love it when dramatic movies provide characters with such difficult dilemmas to solve, and this film comes with some of the most agonizing.

Again, this is a movie about secrets, and it becomes fascinating to see how the keeping of these secrets comes to deeply affect each character. True identities are revealed and compromised, and while certain secrets are kept in the dark to give England an advantage in the war, others secrets come to destroy those who had the misfortune of living in a time where certain behaviors and orientations were criminalized. Turing is the one who suffers the most as his private life is revealed to the world which forces him to face an utterly cruel and unnecessary punishment.

“The Imitation Game” was directed by Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum whose previous works include “Headhunters,” “Fallen Angels” and “Buddy,” and he also directed “Passengers” starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Tyldum has done an excellent job in transporting us back to the days of World War II in a way which feels unique and not overly familiar. His emphasis is on the characters just as it should be, and he succeeds in making this not just another traditional biopic. He pays great respect to Turing throughout as this is a man who made a huge difference not just in World War II but also in the development of future technologies we have become far too dependent on these days.

Cumberbatch has long since proved how great an actor he is with his work on the London Stage and on “Sherlock,” and he was prominently featured in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” and “Star Trek into Darkness.” In “The Imitation Game,” he takes us on quite the emotional ride as we see him triumph in what he does best and suffer horribly in a time where he doesn’t quite belong. He makes you feel Turing’s pain as it is reduced to a shell of what he once was, and the scene where he is unable to even start a crossword puzzle is devastating to witness.

But Cumberbatch isn’t the whole show here as he is surrounded by a wonderful group of actors who are every bit as good. Keira Knightley does some of her best work yet as Joan Clarke, the woman who comes to understand Turing the best. Matthew Goode, so unnerving a presence in “Stoker,” is the epitome of perfect casting as Hugh Alexander; the chess champion and man about town we would all like to be in our everyday lives. Mark Strong makes Major General Stewart Menzies a deeply enigmatic (no pun intended) character who knows far more than he ever lets on. And then there’s Rory Kinnear who portrays Detective Robert Nock, the man who investigates Turing and becomes very eager to keep his life from being ruined. Kinnear is very strong as he shows us the detective’s inner conflict in convicting a man who is truly responsible for saving many lives.

Turing ended up taking his own life at the young age of 43, and it is only in recent years that he has people have acknowledged the terrible treatment he received. In August 2009, John Graham-Cumming started a petition urging the British Government to apologize for Turing’s prosecution, and then Prime Minister Gordon Brown acknowledged and described Turing’s treatment as “appalling.” A few years later, Turing received a pardon from the Queen under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, but many are still waiting for an apology over the way he was treated chemically. This man was responsible for helping to end the Second World War, and while he was alive he was treated with derision more than respect by many. Thanks to “The Imitation Game,” people will now see the kind of person Turing really was and why he deserves to be seen and celebrated as a hero. Believe it or not, his creation of his machine became the prototype for what we today call computers.

This is a terrific film.

* * * * out of * * * *