Mike Leigh Transports Us to Another Time in ‘Mr. Turner’

Mike Leigh on set of Mr. Turner

English filmmaker Mike Leigh, the man behind such masterpieces as “Secrets & Lies” and “Naked,” takes a stroll back in time with “Mr. Turner.” It stars Timothy Spall who gives one of the very best performances of 2014 as J. M. W. Turner, the landscape painter who became famous for his work in the 1800’s during the Romantic period. But as brilliant an artist as Turner was, he was also a controversial figure due to his eccentric behavior. He was full of great passion and could be very generous, but he was also quite selfish and anarchic. Leigh’s movie looks at the different aspects of Turner’s personality and how it came to inform the paintings which he became remembered for.

One of the things which really struck me about “Mr. Turner” was how fully Leigh sucked us into the time period of the 1800’s to where it felt like we were really there. From start to finish, it never felt like I was watching a movie but experiencing something very unique. Now there have been many period movies in the past few years but watching “Mr. Turner” made me realize how artificial many of them have been. They take you back in time, but there’s something very modern about their presentation which reminds you that you’re just watching a movie. This made me wonder how Leigh had succeeded in taking us back in time so effectively with this film.

Mr. Turner movie poster

I got the chance to ask Leigh about that while he was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. In describing how he perfectly captured the period “Mr. Turner” takes place in, he pointed out why authenticity is missing in so many other movies these days.

Mike Leigh: Well to be honest with you, apart from anything else, this is a function of strong views I have about period films. You get any number of period films where they say, let’s not have period language. The audience can’t deal with that. Let’s make it contemporary then the audience can access it. Let’s not make the women wear corsets because it’s not sexy, etc., etc., etc. Now the principle here with this film and with “Topsy-Turvy” and with “Vera Drake” which was also period but here not least is we said okay, let’s do everything we can in every aspect from the performance to the language to the frocks, to the props, to the places, to everything and to make it really possible for the audience to feel they have got into a time machine and have gone back and experienced it. Okay, there’ll be things people say that’s strange and you don’t quite get (what they’re saying), but that doesn’t stop people getting what that means. In fact, that smell of antiquity in some way makes it all the more plausible. I can imagine Hollywood executives being pretty twitchy about the pig’s head being eaten, but that’s what they did.

I keep thinking about “L.A. Confidential” which took place 1950’s Los Angeles but of how its director, Curtis Hanson, didn’t let the actors be governed by the period it took place in. Granted, the contemporary feel didn’t take away from that movie, but that’s the exception. With “Mr. Turner,” Mike Leigh shows us we don’t have to give every period movie a contemporary feel, and this is what makes it such a brilliantly vivid movie to watch. You come out of it feeling like you lived through part of the 19th century, and very few filmmakers can pull off such a feat these days even with the biggest of budgets.

“Mr. Turner” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

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Exclusive Interview with Ron Shelton about ‘Just Getting Started’

Just Getting Started Shelton with Jones and Freeman

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

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

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

Just Getting Started movie poster

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

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

BK: What inspired you to write this particular screenplay?

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

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

RS: Right, exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poster, photo and trailer courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.

‘Left Behind’ is as Cinematically Atrocious as Movies Get

Left Behind movie poster

The 2014 version of “Left Behind” received quite the critical smackdown upon its release, and this made me all the more interested in seeing it. How many times do you get the opportunity to say you were one of the handful people who got to see such a god-awful motion picture on the big screen which notoriously flopped at the box office during its incredibly short time in theaters? There were a few people who proudly wore t-shirts signifying they saw “Gigli” while it was in theaters, and some wear it like a badge of honor.

“Left Behind” looks like one of those so bad it’s good movies, but even on that level it is a complete failure. This cinematic version of the best-selling novel by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins is every bit as hideous as its reputation suggests. The acting is amazingly bland and lifeless, the dialogue is unforgivingly bad, and the direction is beyond incompetent. Upon coming out of this movie, one has to wonder if its best sequences were all left behind on the cutting room floor on purpose or by accident.

The movie opens on Chloe Steele (Cassi Thomson) arriving home from college to surprise her father, airline pilot Rayford Steele (Nicolas Cage), for his birthday. Rayford, however, is already set to pilot a flight to London and cannot make it. Also, his marriage to his wife Irene (Lea Thompson) is on the fritz as she has since become a devout Christian, something which drives him and Chloe up the wall. He also has his eye on an infinitely beautiful flight attendant to the point where he doesn’t hesitate to leave his wedding ring in the glove compartment of his car.

Anyway, the family members go their separate ways to do their thing, but then people suddenly vanish into thin air without any explanation, and the world quickly descends into utter chaos. Their clothes and belongings are left behind, but their bodies have apparently disappeared and don’t look to reappear anytime soon. It turns out the end of the world is much nearer than the non-believers ever bothered to realize, and those who believe in Jesus are now under his, or her, protection. As for those back on Earth, they are forced to prepare for the rapture which is certain to kill them off at some point in the not too distant future.

“Left Behind” is actually a remake of the 2000 film that starred Kirk Cameron and which received largely negative reviews upon its release. In a time where every other movie is being remade, this looked like the rare remake which could have easily improved upon the original, but no such luck. For all we know, this remake is even worse than its predecessor, and sitting through it is like pouring salt on an already gaping wound.

Where do we start with a cinematic monstrosity like this? Well, let’s take into account how the story lacks much in the way of drama. Those characters who didn’t go up to heaven are basically condemned to a hellish existence, so where’s the drama? As for what’s going on up in the sky, the characters stuck in the airplane are forced to act stupidly and utter dialogue so silly and inane to where it makes the screenplays of the “Star Wars” prequels sound like they were written by Aaron Sorkin.

The saddest thing about “Left Behind” is watching Nicolas Cage give one of the worst performances of his long career. Granted, Cage has done more bad movies than good ones these past few years, but even he can sometimes elevate a terrible motion picture into something which is, at the very least, entertaining. But here he looks like he is about to fall into a coma like Ben Carson threatens to during his campaign for President as he appears bereft of passion and meaning. What made Cage decide to do this movie anyway? He can underplay a role to great effect in movies like “Joe,” but here he only succeeds in making a terrible movie all the more infinitely pathetic.

The director of this misbegotten disaster is Vic Armstrong who is said to be the world’s most prolific stunt double in movies. He doubled for Harrison Ford in the first three “Indiana Jones” movies, Timothy Dalton in “Flash Gordon” and George Lazenby in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” Whatever lessons he gleaned from the directors he worked with on those projects did not translate to “Left Behind.” He should be forgiven for the lousy special effects he had a budget of only $16 million which, for a movie like this, is not nearly enough to, but my sympathy doesn’t extend much further than that. His direction is so amateurish to where I wondered how he got the directing job at all.

There is only so much time one can waste on a movie like “Left Behind” because there are hundreds upon hundreds of other movies out there so much better than this one. It ends on a note of seeming uncertainty as the apocalypse has only begun, but Cage stares at it so blankly as if to say he won’t be around for the sequel, assuming there will ever be one. It’s depressing to see a number of careers hit rock bottom here, but this is what happens here as movies don’t get much worse than this one. Sitting through a Dinesh D’Souza “documentary” is hard enough, but this one is a real endurance test.

For what it’s worth, it is nice to see Lea Thompson here as she always proves to be a very appealing presence in each movie or television show she appears in. What a shame it is that she disappears from this movie far too soon.

½* out of * * * *