Underseen Movie: ‘Fish Tank’ – 2009 Jury Prize Winner at Cannes

Here’s a little British independent feature which came out at the beginning of 2010 in America after being named the Jury Prize Winner at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Unfortunately, however, it barely registered in movie theaters, so here’s hoping it finds an audience on physical media and/or cable. “Fish Tank” is a raw and unsentimental character study that pulls no punches in its portrayal of a tough and troubled teenage girl growing up in an East London council estate. It was directed by Andrea Arnold, an actress turned filmmaker who previously directed “Red Road,” and it stars Katie Jarvis as Mia, the teenage girl you may figure is up to no good just by looking at her. There is no Hollywood gloss on display here, and the environment this young woman inhabits feels both real and rundown, just like the other characters who are stuck there with her.

Now council estates are to England what public housing or “the projects” are to cities all over the United States; rundown buildings designed for the economically challenged that carry a stigma of poverty and endless crime. Now whether this is true or not, this is usually the impression people have of these places. It is clear from the start that Mia, along with her mother and younger sister Tyler, have lived in this place for a long time, and it has shaped them into the people they are today. There is seemingly no room for much in the way of respect or gratitude towards neighbors or strangers.

Mia appears to have it the roughest compared as she has been kicked out of school and seemingly wanders around the estate aimlessly. We see her putting up a seriously tough front for some girls whose dancing moves she bluntly criticizes as sucking big time, and this leads to her head-butting a girl in the face which shows how quick she is to defend herself. At home in one of the many far too cramped apartments in the council estate, her mother continually treats her like dirt and appears more interested in partying and getting drunk rather than being a parent. The only real tender moment between them comes at the end of the film, and you will know it when you see it. As for Mia’s younger sister Tyler, she has a vocabulary which Chloe Grace Moretz’s character from “Kick Ass” sound PG rated in comparison.

Being the loner she is, Mia’s only escape is practicing her dance moves in an abandoned apartment near where she lives. This proves to be her only real outlet for the frustration and aggravation which has consumed her life to this point. She is shy in revealing this part of herself to just about anyone as vulnerabilities are easily spotted and exploited for all the humiliation which can be derived from them. No one is ever quick to show any weakness in this kind of environment.

Into this environment enters her mother’s latest boyfriend, Connor, a security guard at a nearby hardware store played by Michael Fassbender. Mia is never quick to warm up to others she doesn’t know well, but she quickly develops an interest in Connor who becomes the father figure she lacks. From the moment we see Mia help him catch a fish in the lake with his bare hands (it’s possible), he inspires her to try new things and open herself up to possibilities which previously seemed beyond her reach.

This leads to a great deal of tension in “Fish Tank” as we cannot help but wonder if this relationship is going to end up crossing any boundaries. There are moments captured where the chemistry between Mia and Connor is so strong, you fear the possible and destructive ways this relationship can go to. Words are not needed to illustrate the bond they have, be it when Mia films Connor with a video camera while he’s getting dressed for work, or when Connor gives Mia a piggy back ride out of the river after she injures herself. Their growing discoveries of one another and what they are capable of is impossible to ignore, and we can see the positives of this even while the negatives are never far off.

Arnold films the movie in a way where nothing feels staged, and every character and location feels authentic to what it must be like in reality. I’m not sure a movie like this could have been filmed any other way and have the same effect. She also captures the suffocating environment of being in these big government buildings which are treated more like dumps for the lowest on the economic ladder. The apartments themselves are ridiculously tiny, and there is no privacy for any family member who has to live there. Places like these must feel like prisons to those who inhabit them, and Arnold captures this mindset clearly to where you feel as helpless as these characters do.

As bleak as “Fish Tank” is though, its ending offers hope that anyone can escape such a confining environment if they have the means and the foresight to change their lives for the better. Some are too far gone to be saved, but Mia still has a chance to move forward, and her relationship with Connor makes this clear to her.

Katie Jarvis who plays Mia in had no real acting experience before she got cast in this movie. It turns out she got an audition after one of the casting assistants saw her arguing with her boyfriend quite loudly outside a train station. Indeed, this role not only requires an actress who comes off as tough, but one who inhabits a role more than play it. While a lot of struggling actors out there may hate the fact Jarvis got one of the luckiest breaks ever, it makes a lot of sense Arnold would cast someone who came from this environment.

The role Jarvis plays is not an easy one to portray. Mia has to be tough yet show just enough vulnerability to let the audience look past the defenses she has built up. She also has to be shy but angry, curious without spelling it out for the audience, and her character needs to evolve from the person we see at the start of the movie. This makes her performance all the more revelatory because you come out thinking she has been acting all her life. She successfully captures all the subtle nuances of Mia to bring out the complexities which makes her more than just any other angry young person. Truly, it’s a daunting role for even the most experienced actor, and Jarvis comes out of the picture looking like a pro.

The other key performance comes from Michael Fassbender as Connor. Fassbender has been in movies like Steve McQueen’s “Hunger,” and he stole a number of scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” As Connor, he comes across as a generous human being, and it’s commendable that he would want to try and be a father figure to someone else’s children. This is something most people would NOT want to do. But her also gives Connor an enigmatic nature which makes him hard to pin down and figure out. Like Mia, you want to more about this guy than what he is telling everyone around him.

The only real problem I had with “Fish Tank” involved one character’s revelation in the last half. It’s hard to talk about it without giving anything away, but it was one of the few times where I have watched a movie and left it begging for more answers. Mysteries which stay after a movie ends can be fascinating, but others are not so lucky. Some movies need and demand closure, and this one could have used more of one. Either that, or I completely missed something…

I meant to see this film when it briefly played in theaters back in January 2010, but I never got around to it. When I did, it was playing at New Beverly Cinema in a double feature with “An Education.” That film featured another breakout performance from Carey Mulligan, another actress who seemingly came out of nowhere. Having seen both, it was clear why the New Beverly put them together; they are both about the same thing. Each is about a young British girl who feels trapped in an environment they desperately want to escape. Just when they think they have found a way out, reality rears its ugly head and takes any possibilities for an exciting life away from them rather cruelly. Still, both women rise above the pain inflicted on them and find a way to move on in spite of what they were forced to endure.

For those of you with a hankering for dramas with raw emotion and non-manufactured realism, “Fish Tank” is definitely a movie I recommend for you to see. As I write this, the Criterion Collection has released a special edition of it on DVD and Blu-ray. It features a digital transfer of the film, some short films by Arnold, and interviews with the actors, one of which is with Fassbender. In a time where the local cinema is getting overrun by blockbuster movies and immortal franchises, movies like this demand to be seen, and this is one of them.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Richard Curtis Reflects on the Making of ‘About Time’

WRITER’S NOTE: This is from a press day which took place in 2013.

With “About Time,” writer/director Richard Curtis once again proves that he is the master of making romantic movies. While romantic films are currently a dying breed in America, Curtis gives the genre a much-needed re-invigoration. This is the same man who wrote the screenplays for “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” and he also wrote and directed “Love Actually” which has become everyone’s favorite movie to watch at Christmastime. Curtis populates his films with characters we can all relate to, and he shows us how the simplest things in life can be so wonderful.

I got to meet up with Curtis when he appeared for the “About Time” press conference at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California, and he proved to be as charming and funny as many of the characters who inhabit his films. During the roundtable interview he talked about “About Time” differs from other romantic films, how he came to cast Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams, and why this will be his last movie as a director.

While these questions came from several reporters, I did take the time to put my name to the questions I asked Richard. You will find them eventually.

Question: Why did you not tear Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mary (Rachel McAdams) apart in the middle of the movie only to bring them back together?

Richard Curtis: Well, I quite liked the idea in the film. There is a kind of habit in romantic films of getting people who hate each other when they meet; he’s a Nazi and she’s a member of the Socialist Worker’s Party (laughs), however will they fall in love? But most of us, when we bump into the people we are going to spend the rest of our life with, quite like them when we first meet them. I quite liked the idea that you could do something where people like each other, and then there was the time travel and then they liked each other again. I’m interested in if you can do it. I was writing about sort of a happiness in a funny way and writing about the interesting business of how things work rather than being really interested in the way things don’t work.

Q: Speaking of the time travel aspect, it’s something that people keep watching these movies for. They’re always keeping an eye out for the loophole or plot holes. Did that make it harder writing the script?

Richard Curtis: Look, you know you’re gonna fail, that’s the thing. I know where I failed in this so you just do your best and the people and the production keep you up to it, and anybody who spots anything that’s wrong will always say it to you because it’s a fun thing to spot when they’re reading the script. So, you know you’re getting closer to true without actually getting there, and it was fun to play with it. It’s also a thing where when you decide you’re going to do a time travel movie, it is something that is in your head as you’re walking around. The thing about not being able to go past the birth of your child was definitely the result of another conversation I was having with someone about how weird it is that you commit your entire life to people who you have no ability to choose, and then I thought that’s so true. And not only that, if I had sex four seconds later, I’d have a different child and then immediately I thought that would become a key plot point.

Q: This movie has two love stories in it. It has the father and son and it has the man and the woman. How were you able to find the balance so that one didn’t overshadow the other?

Richard Curtis: On the whole you try and rig films to make sure they turn out as you want them to turn out, but I think it seems as though perhaps the strength of the Bill Nighy story is more than I expected. It’s turned out to be more emotional than I expected, and I think that’s all down to the way Bill chose to play it. He chose to play it in such a sort of gentle way that I think, when you see the film, you can insert your own father into the space that Bill creates. Oddly enough, this film is in some ways less manipulative. If you’re doing a movie that ends in a big kiss and a romance, your kind of playing the cards all the way through to try and get the maximum emotion at the end. In this one I always knew that I was always aiming for this bizarrely simple final moment which was just gonna be a guy doing the most banal things in the course of an ordinary day. So, I didn’t think so much about the dynamics of the film, perhaps I have in others. But one of the ways of doing it was by getting them to get married halfway through, so that film’s done and there’s another film to rely on.

Q: Has it affected sort of the carpe diem qualities, or is that something you practiced before you started writing the script?

Richard Curtis: No. Oddly enough I think, and Bill and I talk about, because I’ve done the movie, I am thinking about that a lot more, I really am. My girlfriend, who never makes any concessions to me, says I always work far too hard and I always think that I’m not working as hard as I used to and always am. But even she is saying that she’s noticed that I seem to be creating more space and enjoying things a little bit more and making more time for normal things. So that’s why I have said I am not going to direct another film because I think that directing a movie is not a good way to have a happy life.

Q: Is that a Steven Soderbergh promise or are you just gonna keep coming back?

Richard Curtis: Anyone who says that, Steven is their hero because it means you can change your mind. It is becoming a great tradition; the great heroes like Jay-Z, doesn’t he resign? If I come back, I’m part of a noble tradition, but that is my intention at the moment.

Q: Can you talk about Comic Relief and how that came to you at a young age?

Richard Curtis: Wow, do other people know about that side of my life? Well, it started off by an almost comical mistake in that a girl I know asked if I would like to go with her to Africa, and I just said I would go to keep her company and then the charities decided to send us to different countries. They said we would cover more ground, so that was a mistake. So, I was in Ethiopia at a very bad time and that could not but change my life. That’s something I have to carry. We did a stage show and then we did a TV show, and the TV show made so much more money than was expected that I couldn’t not do it again, and I have just gone on doing it. Every time we do it, we make more money than I will earn in my entire career. I think of it as my difficult child, it takes exactly half my time, it changes its nature so I now, and after doing it now for 25 years I got a feeling that the money we’ve raised might be less important than the education or part of it. Kids in England have always grown up knowing a lot about poverty in Africa and problems at home, and that educational thing may have actually turned out to be the function of it. The next thing I’m doing is doing a year and a half trying to be part of making the new declaration by the United Nations in 2015 to end poverty, so it’s a never-ending big subject. I think the way it’s bounced off on my career is that I haven’t written my seven bad films. I do think a lot of times when people, when they finish the thing, say have I got any other ideas whereas I’m always a year behind. I thought of this film in 2005, and then I chose to do the pirate movie (“Pirate Radio”) because I wanted to be a bit older by the time I made it. It’s actually given me breathing time and let things stew longer, so I always believe quite a lot in the projects I do by the time I get to them.

Q: Fighting poverty seems like an even bigger challenge now with the gap between the rich and poor growing bigger and bigger. Do you feel sometimes like it’s a never-ending battle and how we are going to do this?

Richard Curtis: Well, you have to be realistic about that. Actually, statistically speaking, the lives of the very poorest people on the planet have never gotten better quicker than in the last 15 years. It’s been extraordinary so I’m paying more attention to that. But the rich and poor inside countries, I’d just think it increases your responsibility to try and make sure that people like me who do live in the bubble of comfort are really aware of how peoples’ lives are at the other end of the scale. I made all my children watch a documentary called “Poor Kids” the other day. It’s just a really brilliant, very sweet-natured documentary about four really poor kids in the UK, and they literally could not believe what they saw and that increases the desire to communicate this.

Q: You also focus a lot on the joy of real people like with the Heathrow Airport scenes in “Love Actually,” and then there are scenes in “About Time” that look like they had regular people in them. Where did you find those people?

Richard Curtis: Well with “Love Actually” we put up a little black box with curtains in Heathrow and just filmed and then sent assistants rushing around and saying do you mind signing this release. It’s very weird, you haven’t seen your mom for 17 years and somebody’s saying we’ve just filmed you crying embarrassingly. The strange thing is when we edited that, over half of what I wanted in that sequence I couldn’t use because it turned out we hadn’t got the permissions. The bit at the end of this one was sort of the same thing. Quite a lot of it was sort of staged. There are some things that weren’t. Most of that was directed by my girlfriend. That was the weird thing. It was the final day of the shoot. I woke up and I was in the most astonishing pain. I thought I had kidney stones or whatever, and she leapt out of bed in the highest of spirits and said she would ring a doctor on the way to the set (laughs). Some of the loveliest images there were got by her which I think sort of shows because she is full of an energy and joy about her. It was interesting how ordinary those images had to be. I didn’t shoot them at the beginning, so I didn’t quite know how it was going to end. When I thought that I would end with a series of just normal images, I took a film by a friend of mine called Kevin McDonald called “Life in a Day” which is a movie he made about YouTube, and I cut like ten favorite images from that in and showed that to friends and it was a disaster because they were good. They were so definitive, so beautiful, so picturesque, and everyone said the movie’s all been about ordinariness and you can’t then say that every day is a beautiful sunset and every day is an astonishing child framed perfectly in a window in Milan. So, I did try and keep those end bits as sort of banal as they could be, but still joyful.

Ben Kenber: “Love Actually” is my family’s favorite movie to watch every Christmas Eve. I love it too but I’m always hoping we can add “Bad Santa” as a double feature though.

Richard Curtis: Lauren Graham’s in “Bad Santa!” I love her!

Ben Kenber: I’m not usually a big fan of romantic movies, but what I love about your movies is that the people and what they go through feels so real and relatable. A lot of American romantic films are manipulative but your films never feel like they are. Your movies touch on issues that most other filmmakers don’t really take seriously.

Richard Curtis: Well, thank you very much. I don’t have an answer for that, but don’t down American filmmakers because I think there’s a kind of feeling that romantic films may not be in a good place at the moment. “(500) Days of Summer” I thought was an incredible movie, “Like Crazy” is an amazing movie about love, and “Lost in Translation” is the greatest ever romantic comedy even though it’s not a romantic comedy. I’ve been looking back because I’m thinking about finishing and thinking why did I write all these films on this subject and then suddenly realizing it is because it is the context of my life and what matters to me. How your family treats you, who you love, how you get on with your kids and your friends are what fills most of your emotional time, and I’m just trying to hang on to that and write about normal things because I never, never bump into serial killers.

Q: A lot of people don’t seem to realize that “Love Actually” is a Christmas movie because the holiday gets so pushed into the background.

Richard Curtis: I think the funny thing about “Love Actually” is the casting is now out of whack. Originally it was 50% well known and 50% not, and now the naked guy is in “The Hobbit,” January Jones is Betty Draper on “Mad Men,” and even the boy is now in “Game of Thrones.” Liam Neeson is the greatest action hero in the world and Andrew Lincoln is on “The Walking Dead,” so it’s a hell of a cast now.

Q: You are obviously a believer in love. Do you have thoughts on marriage?

Richard Curtis: Well in a way “Four Weddings and a Funeral” was a long way of explaining to my mum why I wasn’t married. She always found it hard to accept. I haven’t gotten married for particular, peculiar reasons, but I’m sure that marriage is a wonderful thing.

Q: You make great use of music and songs in your movies. Can you give us an insight into what your playlists are?

Richard Curtis: Well, the insight I would say is that I really do have to use music in order to get through the process of writing. It really is part of me learning what I’m trying to do, and sometimes that takes very specific forms. When I handed this movie in, it said on the front cover “About Time” or “The Luckiest” or “Golden Lapels.” I thought about those two so much and was so sure I was going to use them, and I thought I might even name the movie after them. So, in this movie, all the cues were there as I was writing and helped me write the right scenes and work out what I wanted to say. There’s a version of “Downtown Train,” a Tom Waits song, by Everything But The Girl, an English group which was all I listened to while I was writing “Notting Hill.” That was all I was trying to do in the whole of that movie was reproduce the emotional temperature of that song which I knew could not be in the movie, but it was my sort of guide. And then I just use pop music to cheer me up, so I got different playlists on my computer. I’m trying to make my tastes more modern. My sons are pushing me hard in that direction. My 16-year-old says he can’t listen to traditional pop music anymore because the lyrics of the songs he listens to by people like Jay-Z are so much better than normal pop songs. Normal pop songs are so thin and so repetitive, he says, that he can’t listen to them anymore.

Q: The scene in the underground subway station is one of the best in this movie. Your use of music in all your movies is great.

Richard Curtis: Well, thank you. That was a really interesting day because sometimes you hope something works but you don’t know how. I couldn’t work out as I was shooting it how it was going to be possible to edit it because he’s always going to be singing the wrong words of the song. It was never going to be correctly timed so I just shot all night and hoped the editor could work it out, and the editor said there was no problem when we got to it.

Q: Can you talk about casting the two main parts? How did that come about?

Richard Curtis: There are completely different ways that casting works. My friend, Mike Newell, said to me, “When the movie is cast, the movie is made.” He was extraordinary when we were casting Vicar #3 in “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” The guy came in and Mike said, “So tell him about Vicar #3,” and I said, “Well the leading character is trying to decide whether to get married and the vicar comes in and…” And Mike said, “No, no, tell me why did he join the church” (laughs). That level of detail and three dimensionality, I think that casting is hugely important. Rachel, having always loved her work and having picked up a sort of vibe about her as a human being and being very interested in this part about sort of contentment and in the idea of going from someone you meet on the first date and, by the end of the film, she is the mother of three, was based on trust and faith and things that she had seen and things I had also heard about her from the people who had worked with her. Domhnall on the other hand was seen as one of the top 25 young actors in the country, and I saw lots of them as often happens when I audition. Unless it’s the right actor, there doesn’t seem to be anything there at all. That was very much the case with the sister’s part until we found Lydia Wilson. It seemed as though there wasn’t anything there, and then we got Lydia with all her complicated emotions and Domhnall instantly made it funny which is absolutely key because he’s actually interested in comedy. So many young actors, you know, aren’t. They’re actually trying not to be funny and they’re trying to make people take them more seriously and think them cool or attractive, and he was really happy to be stupid and loving. He’s a lovely actor and a very sweet man. It was complicated because he was wearing his “Anna Karenina” beard so he looked like he’d stumbled out of the woods in “Deliverance” (laughs). The beard looked great if you’re wearing a military uniform, but if you’re wearing a t-shirt and jeans you look like you’re too fond of farmyard animals. It was a real act of faith, and then I made him do a whole day on camera, still with the beard, actually acting out the part and stuff. So, he worked very hard for it and was then sort of perfect.

Q: There’s a lot of Hugh Grant in Domhnall’s role, sort of like the younger version of him in “Notting Hill.” Was there any kind of connection made there?

Richard Curtis: I wasn’t aiming for Hugh at all. It’s obviously a voice that comes out when I write that part. I actually voted against Hugh in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” when it came down to it and I was, thank God, defeated 2 to 1 because Hugh was brilliant. But I think there’s something about Domhnall that’s much closer to my original inspiration when I started writing films. I was really inspired by “Gregory’s Girl,” “Breaking Away,” “Diner” and the guys in that except Mickey Rourke, and Woody Allen really. I was always looking for awkward, normal people, and I think when you first sit down with him at the party you don’t think that he’s the guy. You think he’ll be lucky to ever get a girlfriend. I like that side of him whereas with Hugh, girls would like him.

“About Time” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital. Please feel free to check out some other “About Time” interviews I covered for the website We Got This Covered by clicking on the names below:

Bill Nighy

Rachel McAdams

‘Sicko’ Makes a Strong Case for Universal Health Care in America

Sicko movie poster

The important thing to keep in mind about “Sicko” is how it is not about those who do not have health insurance in this country. Michael Moore’s movie begins brilliantly with the stories of those who had no health insurance and were forced to pay obscenely high fees for surgical operations. It’s a brilliant beginning because it distinguishes itself from what the rest of the movie is really about: those of us who do have health insurance and how we still end up paying obscenely high fees for medical treatment.

The problem with the American health care system is that it is more of a business run by capitalists than anything else. The bottom line is those who run this industry seek to gain as big a profit as they can, and that’s even if many Americans end up filing for bankruptcy when they cannot pay their medical bills. Moore makes his case strong and clear as he interviews many people who have come to him with their horror stories of the health care industry, and there were literally thousands of them. What is especially horrific is how many stories reveal the many ways people get rejected for health insurance. The CEOs are on a mission to keep anyone away who could be a possible threat to their profit margin.

The movie’s second act deals with Moore going to different countries to see how their health care industries operate, figuratively speaking. The difference between them and America are actually quite frightening. Canada and England seem to have it over everyone else as they do not bill their patients when they come in or leave because they are under a government run system which provides them with universal health care. There is a cashier at one hospital, but instead of billing patients, he pays them for cab fare if they were financially inconvenienced in their method of getting over to the hospital.

My only issue with the second act of “Sicko” is Moore never really gets into the negatives these countries deal with in regards to health insurance. I refuse to believe everything is as rosy as it is presented here. My understanding is Canadians and the English don’t completely love their health care systems to the same degree. Then again, what scares me is that if Moore did include some of the negatives of these countries and put them together with the positives, America would still look pretty bad in comparison.

With Moore’s films, he does manipulate the audience but usually for good reason. He wants you to be mad at those who keep us from having universal health care because it would affect their profit margin. He wants you to be angry at politicians on either side of the political spectrum for being bought out by the health care industry. He aims to wake you up to the problems surrounding us and to do something about them. He may not be telling you everything, but this does not make him a liar.

The last half of “Sicko” focuses on some of the heroes who rushed to the rubble of the World Trade Center in September 11, 2001 to help those in need, and on the medical woes they inherited from working in the toxic environment which was left for them after the destruction of the twin towers. Because they were volunteers and not employed by city fire departments and police stations, they were not given the same medical consideration as those who were. Moore takes them to Cuba which is reputed to have one of the very best health care systems in the world. This, of course, got Moore into trouble with the American government which provided him with some free publicity he may or may not have been seeking.

The difference between the prices for medication in Cuba and America as presented in “Sicko” are ridiculous and embarrassing. You feel both the heartache and relief of these people as they come to discover a place where those in power are not at all quick to suck all the money of their wallets. Whereas our country rewards those who limit health care services, others reward those who actually help their patients. Why the hell isn’t America doing this?

You feel for the families who go through illnesses they never asked for and having to pay exorbitant amounts for their health care and go into bankruptcy in the process. The fact they are forced to sell their homes and move in with their children feels so very unfair, and you know people will be quicker to shame them instead of help them.

There’s no denying “Sicko” is a highly effective and utterly devastating documentary which you cannot help but have a strong reaction to. You may come out of this documentary thinking Moore is very anti-American. I don’t think he is and never have. In his own way, he is a patriotic American who cares enough about this country to point out its weaknesses for everyone to see so we can face them rather than avoid them. We need more people like Moore, those who ruffle the feathers of the conservative firebrands who want you to believe everything is alright. We need someone to shake things up from time to time, and he continues doing this even when you think his career will be ended sooner than we think. Just remember, what you resist, you empower.

* * * * out of * * * *

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.

’28 Weeks Later’ is a Shockingly Effective Sequel

28 Weeks Later movie poster

When I heard that they were making a sequel to Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later,” I couldn’t help but wonder why. How could you make a sequel to a movie like that without it being the same old thing? 20th Century Fox put together a company called Fox Atomic which specializes in horror movies and sequels to horror movies because god forbid the money stops there! They made “The Hills Have Eyes 2.” I thought “The Hills Have Eyes” remake was great, but I was not as excited about seeing the sequel because it had a different director who made some bad horror films.

Now they have released “28 Weeks Later.” That’s great, milk it as much as you want. No mercy or respect for the franchise. Then again, these were my thoughts before I actually watched the movie. It had the good luck of at least having Danny Boyle and Alex Garland on as executive producers, so I was assured this follow-up wouldn’t be of poor quality. Under the tense direction of Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who previously directed “Intacto,” “28 Weeks Later” adds itself to the list of sequels which equal the original in terms of vision and sheer terror, and it ends up delivering what it promises; an extremely intense and unsettling movie going experience.

All the main characters from “28 Days Later” are absent here, so we have a whole new cast of characters trying to stay alive while stranded in a part of the world engulfed by the rage virus. It starts off with a group of English people who have managed to find refuge in a home where they hide from the infected. The main characters are a married couple played by Robert Carlyle and Catherine McCormick who are seen preparing dinner when the movie begins. Most of the actors here are not too familiar to audiences, and this helps the movie in its approach. Carlyle will definitely be familiar to those who remember him from “Trainspotting” and “The Full Monty,” and each of those movies show off how much of a range he has as an actor.

The opening of “28 Weeks Later” has a supreme amount of tension that never lets up. I got to see it at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and I sat in the back with my hands over my ears because I was eagerly anticipating all hell breaking loose as soon as the movie started. I typically watch most horror movies like this because it’s not what I see that gets to me, it’s the sound. Look no further than the original “Halloween” for an example of this.

The opening is brilliantly shot because you feel like you are right there with these people inside the house. You don’t see the outside world until they do, and it ain’t pleasant. When the infected make their inevitable entrance, Carlyle’s character ends up abandoning his wife who screams at him from a window in disbelief. He runs away from the infected at warp speed, and the fact he escapes with his life is both astonishing and shameful.

The story then moves to London after the outbreak with things finally returning to normal. The United States Army has taken over, and the first of the survivors are now coming back into the safe zone to start their lives over in a land now free of infection. We get to meet the children of Carlyle’s and McCormick’s characters who are played by Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton. Carlyle’s character is, of course, unprepared to tell his children how their mother perished among the infected, and he lies to them about what happened. As much as you despise him, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. Don’t you hate that?

Anyway, his lie about their mother being killed gets exposed when she is found alive in a closed off area of England. She has been bitten by the infected, but somehow has not been overtaken by the rage virus. Her blood seems to have some sort of immunity from the virus which keeps her from going completely psychotic. It is incredibly tragic that husband doesn’t have the good sense to keep himself from kissing her. A kiss is just a kiss? Not in this movie!

As you can expect, all hell breaks loose, otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie. The military tries to control the situation and they end up resorting to, when nothing else works, code red as they quickly see there’s no stopping the spread of infection. They can’t tell the difference between who is human and who is infected, so they resort to killing everyone to keep the situation contained. What makes this scenario so terrifying is how realistic is presented here, and the depressing solution the military takes to contain this horrifying situation is painfully understandable as it threatens the rest of the world. So, those young kids now have to find their way out of the “safe zone” and run away from those who have no choice but to bite and infect them.

There is a lot of shaky handheld camera work in “28 Weeks Later” which gives the movie an immediacy which sucks you in just like the original did. I have been back and forth in regards to hand held camerawork because it can veer easily from being exciting to the becoming relentlessly annoying. Don’t even get me started on the later movies of Woody Allen. I can’t even begin to tell you how nauseous I got while watching “Deconstructing Harry” on the big screen.

But here, the shaky camerawork is perfect as it brings us right into the chaos these characters are feverishly trying to escape. The camera goes all over the place to where we can’t tell where the exit is or if we can trust the person next to us. Fresnadillo is excellent in drawing you into the mindset of the chaos and confusion of what the characters are forced to experience. What if you can’t find your way out? What if the person next to you is infected? Where is the safest place to go? Everyone is running for dear life, but in which direction does one head?

What also makes “28 Weeks Later” work is it’s not just based on thrills and chills as there is an intelligence at work here. There’s a subtle critique of the seemingly endless occupation of military forces in other countries as they futilely try to control a situation completely beyond anyone’s control.

Aside from those kid actors who are terrific and very down to earth, there are a few others worth mentioning. Jeremy Renner plays Doyle, a military shooter who quickly develops a conscience when he decides not to follow orders and instead save a little boy who doesn’t deserve to die. I also want to mention Rose Byrne who plays Army doctor, Scarlet. I like it when a movie where there is a very strong female character who thinks she has found the key to eradicating infection. Of course, no one listens to her because the quick fix-it answer is to kill the host and everyone else if it comes into contact with. Byrne is very believable as a soldier who has no choice but to hold it together when the world around her quickly crumbles.

“28 Weeks Later” is an incredibly tense ride from start to finish, and it never lets up. There’s an unnerving sequence where the main characters have to flee from a chemical attack by going into the underground subway which is pitch black, and the only way they can make their way through is with night vision. This proves to be one of the scariest scenes I have seen in a motion picture in the longest time.

Whereas “28 Days Later” found a measure of hope at its conclusion, “28 Weeks Later” is unrelentingly bleak. Any hope is vanquished by the end, and its last shot features a famous landmark which shows how inevitable it is infection will spread from country to country. This sequel proves to be very respectful of its predecessor, and it goes even further into the nightmare the world is caught up in and beyond everybody’s control. It makes me eager to see “28 Months Later” which I hope will at some point in the future become a reality. But personally, I am waiting for “28 Millennium Later.” The way things are going right now, humanity is doomed in one way or another.

* * * 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.

Eye In The Sky

eye-in-the-sky-poster

When it comes to drone warfare, it seems like such an easier way to fight an enemy without having to put “boots on the ground.” But like Snake Plissken said over and over in “Escape from L.A.,” the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just as in previous wars, there will always be much destruction and an inevitable number of civilian casualties. The question comes to this: is war worth it? Is it worth having all these civilian casualties while trying to take out the enemy? Now some might think these are easy questions to answer, but this is not the case at all, especially to those at the front line.

This is made clear in Gavin Hood’s intense thriller “Eye in the Sky.” It stars Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell who has been tracking a British citizen-turned-terrorist for six years and finally has her tracked down in Kenya. Thanks to local operative Jama Farah (“Captain Phillips’” Barkhad Abdi) and his nifty high-tech surveillance, she discovers this spy is quickly preparing along with others to carry out suicide attacks. As a result, what started as a mission of capture becomes a mission to kill terrorists, and Colonel Powell has drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad”) target the safe house the terrorists are in and is prepared to take them out, but then a 9-year-old girl enters the kill zone to sell some loaves of bread, and she won’t leave until she sells them all. This quickly triggers an international dispute as the United States and British governments debate over whether or not to take action.

While most war movies enthrall viewers with bullets and bombs exploding constantly, “Eye in the Sky” leaves us in sweat-inducing suspense as we wonder if and when an explosion will go off at all. What’s great about Guy Hibbert’s screenplay is it never condescends to its characters or give us annoying ones who are out to make bone-headed decisions for their own benefit. Every reason each character gives for firing or not firing at the target makes perfect sense, and it adds to how difficult the question of attacking these terrorists with this little girl nearby is to answer. On one hand, stopping these terrorists will prevent the loss of many lives, but if the little girl is killed it will come back to aid the propaganda wars being fought against governments. Everyone is looking for a way to keep the blood off their hands, but no one gets off easy.

Watching this situation play out reminded me of a scene from “Blue Thunder.” This classic 1980’s movie is about a high-tech helicopter, and the characters see it do a demonstration of a strafing run where red dummies are terrorists and the white ones are civilians. In the course of shooting at the targets, all the red dummies are blown away as well as a few white ones. This leads the government official Fletcher to tell helicopter pilot Frank Murphy, “There’s one civilian dead for every ten terrorists. That’s an acceptable ratio.” To this Murphy replies, “Unless you’re one of the civilians.”

You almost want to laugh at the government officials who keep trying to contact their higher ups to get permission to obliterate the terrorists as it comes across as passing the buck. But whether or not there is an advantage to attacking or not attacking, there’s also how the rest of the population will interpret how their governments act. This is something governments can never fully control, and they are fully aware of the consequences of doing something and of doing nothing.

Gavin Hood has had a tough time in Hollywood ever since he won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for “Tsotsi.” His abduction thriller “Rendition” received a mixed reception, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” proved to be a mess as it was undone by too much studio interference, and “Ender’s Game’s” chances of becoming a franchise of movies crashed as soon as it opened. But with “Eye in the Sky,” Hood is really in his element as he was once a soldier and has a clear understanding of the military’s responsibilities and the conflicts they endure. He’s also smart to not answer any of the questions the movie poses as he is not about to offer easy answers. Aside from the terrorists, there are no good or bad guys here, but instead, professionals trying to win a war against terrorism as well as the minds of the people.

Hood also shows how the drone pilots actually have it even harder than troops who see the action up close. They may be many miles away from their targets, but they can still see their targets up close and still have their finger on the trigger. At the movie’s press conference, Hood told reporters drone pilots have a higher rate of post-traumatic disorder than those troops who experienced armed combat up close. Having an actor like Aaron Paul playing the drone pilot gets this point across very well as we watch him suffer just as much as he did as Jesse Pinkman on “Breaking Bad.”

Mirren remains an impeccable actress, and she follows up her nasty turn as columnist Hedda Hopper in “Trumbo” with a much different character. Eager to stop another terrorist attack from happening, she undergoes tremendous stress while waiting for an answer from her commander. Mirren makes you feel her stress two-fold, and yet she never seems to break a sweat.

It’s also great to see Abdi here as he proves his Oscar-nominated performance in “Captain Phillips” was no fluke. His character is closest to the line of fire, and we watch as he does his best to do his work while under the prying eyes of fearsome soldiers. Abdi perfectly captures Jama’s desperation as he does what he can to save the little girl from a tragic fate, and he is riveting throughout.

The movie also contains the last onscreen performance from the late Alan Rickman who portrays Colonel Powell’s commanding officer, Lieutenant General Frank Benson. Rickman is as impeccable here as he has been in any other role he has played, and he will be deeply missed. He also has one of the movie’s most definitive lines which comes up towards the end, and he delivers it in a truly unforgettable way.

“Eye in the Sky” is one of those rare thrillers which thrills you just as much as it makes you think. The reality of drone warfare is hard to escape, and this is especially the case after watching this movie. As much as many of us want to leave life and death decisions up to others, Hood forces you to question what you would do in the same situation. You may not like the answers you come up with, but you can’t turn a blind eye to it forever.

By the way, in the case you were wondering, the Alan Parsons Project song of the same name is not featured in this movie. Bummer.

* * * ½ out of * * * *