Interview with the Cast and Director of ‘The Menu’

The Menu” is an inspired black comedy featuring an incredibly talented cast of actors who play characters invited to a remote island where celebrity chef, Julian Slowik, is preparing quite the cuisine for them. As the night goes on, however, the guests come to see that Chef Slowik’s intentions are anything but gracious as he looks to punish those who cannot take enough time to taste the food they are eating. In this day and age when we are too busy shoving food into our mouths as life moves by fast, this motion picture reminds you of the importance of savoring every bite.

I got to sit in on a press conference for “The Menu” which was moderated by Rolling Stone magazine’s senior editor, David Fear. It featured actors Nicholas Hoult, Anya Taylor-Joy, John Leguizamo, Aimee Carrero, Judith Light and Hong Chau, and they were joined by then movie’s director, Mark Mylod, who is best known for helming episodes of “Succession” and “Shameless.”

When it comes to black comedies, I always wonder how they are conceived and put together. Making a comedy movie is hard enough, but putting a black comedy has got to be even harder as you are trying to get the audience to laugh as things no one would laugh at in real life. On top of that, this movie could be described as many different things such as, as Fear put it, “a broad social satire, it’s a Grand Guignol horror film, it’s a very dry comedy, and it’s a high tragedy.” Taking all this into account, one has to wonder how Mylod managed to find the right balance for everything.

Mark Mylod:   First of all, instinctive in reading the script, I think one of the things that drew us all to the project was that lovely mashup of tones that I think as quite a small target to hit. But we were all attracted to how specific that was. And then I think for me it was the few days or the week that we spent doing our version of rehearsals, which was basically to sit together or in smaller groups in a room and just talk about issues that interested us in the script and in our story and about our characters. And in doing so, it was perhaps less about what we were actually saying and more about us all tuning in by osmosis, perhaps unconsciously to get on the same level. I think it’s a Sydney Pollack quote about everybody making the same movie, so that by the time we were on set, we all tuned in together and we continued to do so with the huge benefit of shooting the film almost entirely chronologically.

One of my favorite performances in “The Menu” comes from Hong Chau who portrays the right-hand person to celebrity chef Julian Slowik (played by Ralph Fiennes), Elsa. Considering how the screenplay only gives her so much to work with, I couldn’t help but wonder how Chau managed to give us such a fascinating character in the process. Her answer to this helps illuminate the way she creates a character.

Hong Chau: I signed on not really being able to picture what the final product would look like. That was exciting to me, because I was curious to see how it would turn out and I knew that the people involved were great collaborators to take that leap of faith with. I was a huge fan of Succession and I knew that Mark (Mylod) would be able to take these characters who are unlikable for so many reasons, and somehow weave together a story where you cared about what happened, not necessarily to them, but cared about the situation. It was just surprising that I felt even some sort of heartbreak for some of the characters, and that’s just a special gift that Mark has.

Another big question I had was for John Leguizamo who plays a movie star who is washed-up, past his prime and, most importantly, has no name. This movie star could be any we know from when we were growing up or from today’s world which is filled with an endless variety of actors playing superheroes and comic-book characters. Leguizamo wrote a book back in 2007 entitled “Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas, and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends: My Life,” and he was more than honest about the many actors and movie stars he has worked with. When it came to his nameless character, I had to wonder which actor/movie star he based him on.

John Leguizamo: I’m not being typecast here, so because I’m not washed up and I’m not an action star, so I’m not a washed-up action star. But I’ve worked with a lot of action stars who became washed up and I modeled it after one person in particular who was a bit of an a-hole and a bully. Okay, Steven Seagal. I modeled after Steven Seagal because I did a movie with him and in rehearsals, he knocked me out and he didn’t care.

The movie Leguizamo is referring to is “Executive Decision,” an action film from 1996 directed by Stuart Baird. Leguizamo played US Army Special Forces officer, Captain Carlos “Rat” Lopez, and Seagal played his superior, Lieutenant Colonel Austin Travis. There are many stories about what happened behind the scenes on “Executive Decision,” and they all describe how Seagal slammed Leguizamo against a wall when he laughed at him for taking himself far too seriously.

John Leguizamo: (Seagal) hit me with an elbow in my solar plexus and knocked me against the wall, because I was laughing at him. I forgot to mention that part. I was a bit of a dick then. Sorry, I had to give that fact. So that’s who I was modeling after. I’d seen these privileged guys, and these guys who come into a room with so much narcissism and self, it’s like they suck the oxygen out of the room because they want all the attention and everything’s got to be on them, otherwise they turn negative. So that’s what I was trying to create, because it doesn’t naturally come to me.

And when it comes to these characters in general, what I admired most was how each actor inhabited them. These characters could have been portrayed broadly, but they were not which I thought was great. When it came to character descriptions, one of my favorites came from actress Judith Light who played Anne, a longtime fan of Chef Slowik’s who often visits his restaurant along with her husband Richard (played by Reed Birney).

Judith Light: When you watch a woman who has lived her life giving up her soul and herself in order to have the privilege that she so desperately wants, and begins to realize through the course of the film is that you think it’s one way and it’s not that way. It turns into something else and you begin to see that she wakes up as she realizes that her life is not what she wanted it to be. She’s not who she wants to be and she’s not living the way that she wants to live. And so, there is this bubbling, this cauldron that’s underneath all the time within the dynamic. And where that begins to shift and play out is in relation to Anya’s character. You begin to see that there’s a uniting of these two women in a very simple-I think maybe we say three words to each other in the entire film-but you can see the process of what’s happening within the heart and soul of this person. You don’t really see it until things begin to unfold in the most powerful, painful kinds of ways. So, between the two of us, between Reed and myself, I felt a very special and deep kind of rehearsal. Mark was saying in the beginning we all had these rehearsals with each other, and we improvised something between the two of us that was so moving and poignant and powerful because you know you walk into a restaurant and you see those two people. They’re not talking to each other; they never talk to each other. And you say to your partner, “I’m never going to be that person. I’m never going to be the person in that relationship.” And there you are, and one day you wake up and there you are and you are that person. And so, we were discovering all those things all of the time. So, Mark really gave us the depth and the breadth within the creativity of those rehearsals, and being on the set as well, our reactions to other people that really illuminated, and you begin to see this character; you see her transformation over time.

“The Menu” comes to us courtesy of Searchlight Pictures, and it opens in theaters on November 18, 2022. I highly recommend you check it out!

‘The Menu’ Serves Up Quite a Devious Dish

To me, “The Menu” is what Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” would be had it been set in a restaurant. While not as insanely crazy as “Midsommar,” this film is an insidiously clever black comedy which follows a group of people as they travel to a remote island (is there any other kind in a movie like this?) where an exclusive restaurant named Hawthorn, which is run by celebrity chef Julian Slowik, is located. But while the chef has prepared quite the cuisine for his selected guests, some sinister intentions are eventually unveiled for all to see which turns a special occasion into an inescapable nightmare. It all made me wonder if the screenplay was written by individuals who had been waiting tables for too long and been stiffed on tips one too many times. Or maybe it was conceived by a talented chef who was sick of people eating food and not tasting it. Or perhaps it was written by someone eager to illustrate the ultimate wet dream of Gordon Ramsay. Seriously, I can’t wait to hear what Gordon or even the Swedish Chef have to say about this.

“The Menu” starts with us being introduced to the guests who have been carefully invited to this especially special restaurant. Among them are a trio of drunk tech workers who have plenty of money to burn, an older couple who have visited Hawthorn several times previously, a celebrated restaurant critic and her devoted magazine editor, and a middle-age Hollywood movie star whose relationship with his assistant, who is by his side on this trip, is not entirely professional. From the outset, it looks like we have the typical cast of characters here, but this will be challenged as the filmmakers are quick to play with our expectations.

Also onboard is Tyler (played by Nicholas Hoult), a super-obsessed foodie who aspires to learn everything he can about cooking from Slowik. With him is his date, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose love of food doesn’t come even close to his, and he is quick to admonish her for smoking as it will ruin her palette. When it comes to an exclusive restaurant like this, you want to spend more time tasting than eating, and this is echoed by Slowik once his guests are seated at their tables.

As everyone is led on a tour through the island by Slowik’s trusted right-hand person, Elsa (Hong Chau), they are told the ingredients for tonight’s meals come from the island and the nearby ocean. But once we get to see the employees’ sleeping quarters, which look similar to the beds those cult members slept on in “Midsommar,” this our first hint that things are going to go haywire as his fellow cooks act in a very unified way, and this made even clearer when Slowik claps his hands loudly to get everyone’s attention. Yes, that’s all he needs to do to bring his fellow cooks in line, and they are ever so quick to do so in the process.

Slowik tells everyone that the mission of this evening is not to eat, but to instead taste and savor the food given to them. But as the evening goes on, we see he is not out to congratulate his guests as he is to belittle them. This becomes apparent when he makes a deliberate mockery out of “Taco Tuesday” and presents his guests with tortillas which are as tasty as they are far too revealing. From there, the party becomes very dark and oppressive in a way only the Hawthorne employees could see coming.

Revealing more about “The Menu” might take away from your enjoyment, and I refuse to rob you of its many surprises. What I can tell you is that it is a lot like those movies which really gain my affection; it’s like an onion which invites you to peel back its many layers. And once you get past the final layer, you will find yourself wanting to watching this film again as putting all the pieces together will be irresistible. Moreover, this film held my attention from start to finish as I constantly wondered what direction the story would take next as we are taking from one food course to the next with little in the way of hesitation.

At its heart. Director Mark Mylod and screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy look to satirize the cruel divisions between the haves and have nots and of a society that never seems to have time for the finer things in life. Granted, I came out of “The Menu” thinking the satire could have been even deeper and sharper, but its is sharp enough to make for a gleefully twisted motion picture, and I am always looking for a good black comedy.

I was also struck by how good the actors are as they could have played their roles ever so broadly, but instead find nuances to where their characters are not mere cliches. Both Janet McTeer and Paul Adelstein make renowned restaurant critic Lillian Bloom and her magazine editor Ted into more than caricatures as their surface appearances can only hide the hideous takedowns they have written and published on restaurants past for so long. Rob Yang, Arturo Castro and Mark St. Cyr at first give us the kind of tech gurus who think they have it made to where money can seemingly buy everything, and each actor makes the ego-crushing their characters endure all the more brutal.

Nicholas Hoult quickly turns Tyler into a believably devoted foodie to where the reveal of his cooking style made me feel strangely sorry for him. And I can always count on John Leguizamo to give me a great time as he gives us the kind of washed-up actor here which he has had the misfortune of working with in real life, and Aimee Carrero has some choice moments as his long-time assistant Felicity who learns there is actually a downside to not having student loans to par off.

But there are some performances I really want to single out here, and among them is Ralph Fiennes’s. As celebrity chef Julian Slowik, I expected the actor who was the first to ever utter the word “fuck” in a James Bond movie (“No Time to Die” to be exact) to turn this character into some demented madman. But while Julian does have some demented plans for this evening, Fiennes makes him at times empathetic as he shows an emotional pain searing through which we can see in his eyes. This is especially apparent in his scenes Anna Taylor-Joy as her character of Margot is the one who was not actually invited to this particular dining experience, and this results in exhibiting some kind of hope that this dinner might have a positive outcome.

As for Taylor-Joy, best known for a Netflix miniseries I should have watched already, “The Queen’s Gambit,” she has the unique challenge of being the audience surrogate as, like her, we are desperately looking for a way out of this hellish situation which does not look to have a happy ending. She makes Margot an especially strong character even as fear threatens to engulf her every second. Watching her here, it’s no wonder she was picked to star in the upcoming “Furiosa” prequel.

I also really admired Hong Chau’s enigmatic performance as Chef Slowik’s right hand person, Elsa. From the screenplay, only so much is revealed about Elsa, and yet Chau turned into one of the most riveting characters to be found in “The Menu.” Watching Chau here makes me wonder what kind of backstory she created for Elsa as she dares you to see if you have the guts to peel back her many layers to reveal who she really is underneath her orderly appearance.

I really do hope audiences get to check out “The Menu” and that it doesn’t get lost in the midst of all the blockbusters and Oscar hopefuls which are about to invade multiplexes everywhere. Movies like these tend to get smothered too quickly as they have to deal with the latest superhero adventure, sequel or potential franchise installment. What’s wrong with enjoying movies which are standalone ones anyway?

Also, I cannot wait to recommend it to people like my dad and brother, both of whom love to cook. There’s no doubt they will be tickled to death by this one, and they will come out of it thankful that they are not running their own restaurants, something which is the furthest from their minds.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ is One of Wes Anderson’s Most Inspired Works

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2009.

After watching “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” I am convinced Wes Anderson should make as many stop-motion animated movies as he possibly can. Nothing against his live action work, but this form of animation seems really suited to Anderson’s unique blend of comedy and dysfunction. While his last film, “The Darjeeling Limited,” was very good, it started to seem like he had been dealing with the same themes once too often. But with the brilliantly made “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” his material is given a freshness which, for a moment, seemed to have escaped him. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this turned out to be one of the most enjoyable movies I saw in 2009. As a result, any frustration I had over not being able to see “Avatar” (it was a family outing, and it didn’t seem right for my 5-year-old niece) was completely forgiven.

“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is based on a children’s novel written by Roald Dahl whom Anderson considers one of his personal heroes. Dahl is the same man who wrote “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach” among other stories, and his work is characterized by a lack of sentimentality and a lot of dark humor. Judging from “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” with their strong black humor, it’s no wonder Anderson digs Dahl!

The Mr. Fox of the title is a cool and exceedingly clever animal, and we first see him with his wife sneaking into a farm to steal food. They are, however, caught in a trap which has his wife pointing out they should choose a safer form of work. Oh yeah, she also tells him she’s pregnant, and this changes the dynamics of their relationship in a heartbeat. We catch up with these two a couple of years later after they have found a home within a hole in the ground. Mr. Fox is now a newspaper columnist, and he and his wife are parents to a son, the sullen Ash, who constantly feels unappreciated in all he does. Still, Mr. Fox does not like where his family lives and promises to do better by them. Despite the warnings of his lawyer, Badger, he ends up buying a new home in the base of a tree. These new lodgings are also coincidently right near the gigantic farms owned by three ugly looking farmers: Walter Boggis, Nathan Bunce, and Franklin Bean. So, of course, this gets Mr. Fox all excited and back to his usual tricks of stealing food and drink while the rest of the family remains unaware. To quote another fox from a vastly different 2009 movie, “chaos reigns!”

The first thing people will notice about this movie is its “star studded” (what does that term mean anyway?) cast of actors. Voicing Mr. Fox is the most debonair of movie stars right now, George Clooney. With this, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” and “Up in The Air,” I can’t help but wonder when Clooney gets the time to sleep. At this moment, he’s everywhere, and his constant presence would be ever so annoying if he weren’t such a terrific actor. Clooney perfectly captures Mr. Fox’s confidence without ever becoming overly smug, and he exudes the cleverness this character has in getting back at the three farmers.

Meryl Streep, who has also had a busy year with this, “Julie & Julia” and “It’s Complicated,” voices Mrs. Fox. I actually wonder how much sleep she gets as well as Streep always seems to be learning a new accent she has not taken on yet. Streep is the perfect contrast to Clooney’s charmingly reckless nature, and she serves as the conscience Mr. Fox needs to hear out more often. Streep doesn’t do anything incredibly different with her voice like she did for Julia Childs, but its warmth is quite seductive at times.

Anderson has also employed many of his regulars for “Fantastic Mr. Fox” as well. Jason Schwartzman who was featured quite prominently in “Rushmore” and “The Darjeeling Limited” voices Mr. Fox’s son, Ash. Schwartzman perfectly captures the angst Ash feels at never fully winning his dad’s approval, and you feel Ash’s desperation as he goes to dangerous lengths to get any approval. Owen Wilson, who co-wrote “The Royal Tenenbaums” with Anderson, has a cameo voicing Ash’s athletic coach, Skip. You can tell its Wilson right away, and he gives Skip a wonderfully dry voice which gets a good number of laughs whenever he appears. Even Bill Murray, who has had a role in just about all of Anderson’s movies, voices Mr. Fox’s lawyer, Clive Badger, and he always seems to fit in perfectly in Anderson’s cinematic universe. And let us not forget Wallace Wolodarsky who voices the confidence challenged Kylie Sven Opossum who somehow gets sucked into Mr. Fox’s schemes against his better judgment.

Others to be found here are Michael Gambon, the current Dumbledore of the “Harry Potter” movies, who voices one of the farmers hellbent on eliminating the thieving Mr. Fox, Franklin Bean. Eric Chase Anderson, who is responsible for those illustrations of Anderson’s movies when they are given Criterion Collection releases, voices Mrs. Fox’s nephew Kristofferson who is perfect in every way Ash is not. But the most surprising voice here is from the actor who voices Rat, Bean’s security guard. Rat was a French character, so I assumed the actor voicing him was French. Turns out that it was actually Willem Dafoe! That’s right, the same guy who was in that other delightful 2009 movie with a fox, “Antichrist.”

With just about all of animated movies being done with computers and digital effects, it’s refreshing to see other filmmakers go a little retro with the stop-motion animation. The work here is brilliantly done, and I was surprised at how lifelike everything looked. Movies like these must require an exceeding amount of patience to make because they clearly take years to produce. It also fits right in with Anderson’s quirky sense of humor which remains intact a good ten years or so after “Rushmore.”

I also really dug the soundtrack Anderson chose for “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Each of his movies contain a great selection of music which veers from classic British rock songs to American rock among other genres. With this film, Anderson includes songs from the Beach Boys and Burt Ives which fuel the proceedingas with an undeniable sense of innocence and adventure. It also made me an instant fan of The Bobby Fuller Four whose song “Let Her Dance” plays during one of the most joyful moments this film has. Composing the score is Alexandre Desplat who has composed music for movies like “Firewall” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” among others. I love how Desplat captures the infectious spirit of everything which takes place.

Is this a kid appropriate movie? I think so. It did get a PG rating which seems appropriate. Sure, there are many bottles of alcoholic apple cider and some smoked chickens which might give you the wrong impression of the goings on being displayed, but I really think this movie is harmless. Compare this to the recently released sequel to “Alvin and the Chipmunks” which has not so subtle references to classic movies like “Taxi Driver” and “Silence of the Lambs” among others. This film is not just aimed at kids, but for the whole family as well.

While many will be more likely to view this movie on DVD or Blu-ray (or VHS if it’s still available), ” Fantastic Mr. Fox” really is a fantastic piece of work which deserves a big audience. Anderson, along with co-writer Noah Baumbach (“The Squid & The Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding“), has managed to take his fascination with families that are less than perfect and put them in a context which will not scar your kids for life. It was also cool to see Clooney play a character who, unlike the one he portrayed in “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” was not afraid to dance.

Was it worth not going to see “Avatar” this day and watching this instead? I hate to say it, but yeah.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Night House’ Explores Grief While Thrilling You to No End

The isolated home by the seaside or out in the wilderness always seems like the perfect location for your average horror film or psychological thriller. It’s a place where many of us go to get away from our daily troubles as well as the hustle and bustle of city life as it can become too overbearing after a time. But once characters arrive at such a peaceful destination and have fallen in love with the beautiful vistas and ambient noises, all hell breaks loose. While they want to get away from everything, a brutal form of everything is coming after them. Whether it’s “The Evil Dead,” “Gerald’s Game,” “Honeymoon,” “Silent House” or other movies which are not coming to my mind right now, I have to wonder if getting away from everything is all its cracked up to be.

These thoughts went through my mind when as I watched “The Night House,” a psychological horror film which looks to have Rebecca Hall trapped in a beautiful seaside house which is haunted. But what unfolded before my eyes proved to be much more absorbing and thrilling than I expected as it deals with the things that go bump in the night, but it also deals with universal themes such as grief and coping with such an unexpected loss. While this movie is not exactly groundbreaking, it kept me within its grasp throughout and made me jump out of my seat a few times.

Hall plays Beth, a small-town schoolteacher who is now a widow. During a rather prickly parent-teacher meeting in which a mother is a bit miffed at Beth for giving her son a C in Speech, Beth tells her that her husband had died by suicide the other week. Suffice to say, this is not your typical parent-teacher meeting, but the parent did get their offspring a higher grade as a result. Of course, the parent walked out of it all embarrassed just like she should have.

Despite all the pain and anguish she is enduring, Beth continues to reside in the house her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) built for them during the early years of their marriage. Watching Beth’s home video footage of this house being built helps bring this story down to a more relatable level for me as friends of mine in Northern California shared videos of their own houses being constructed which had them all super excited. It is always more fun for some to create something than it is to destroy anything.

But when night falls, strange things begin happening around the house. The stereo system turns on by itself to play one of Beth and Owen’s favorite songs at an ear-splitting volume. Beth hears knocking on the walls but cannot find who is doing it, and with her getting drunk on a regular basis, it is getting harder to tell what is real and what is fantasy.

I sat in the darkened theater very much enthralled by “The Night House” as director David Bruckner, who previously the 2017 British horror film “The Ritual,” keeps us guessing as to what is really going on with Beth as she struggles to get past her husband’s sudden death even as she discovers things about him she was unaware of. To say he gives the proceedings a Hitchcockian vibe feels justified as the story holds onto its secret without ruining them long before the screen goes to black.

Bruckner also does a terrific job in making this house a terrifying place as he shows us how silence can be golden. As Beth moves around in her isolated home, there is little in the way of ambient sound, and it’s moments like these where I keep waiting with unbated anxiety for something loud to come out of nowhere. Yes, there are jump scares, but the ones Bruckner pulls off are highly effective as I cannot remember the last time I leaped out of my seat like this. Seriously, there may be cracks in the ceiling.

And then there’s Rebecca Hall who reminded me once again what an undervalued actress she is. Whether it’s “Iron Man 3,” “The Town” or the little seen “Christine,” she always proves to be a memorable presence as she fully invests herself in each character she plays. As Beth, she does some of her best work yet as runs the gamut of emotions while portraying a character going through the many stages of grief. Beth is sarcastic, biting and not always the nicest person to her friends, but Hall makes you empathize with her as this is her dealing with such a devastating and unforeseen death.

Hall also has nice support from her fellow actors here. Sarah Goldberg is a heartwarming presence as Beth’s best friend, Claire. While Beth may be pushing away, Claire still attempts to help her anyway she can even as she constantly apologizes for the things she said but didn’t mean to. Goldberg makes Claire feel painfully real as the character embodies the way many of us act towards a friend who has lost someone.

Vondie Curtis-Hall shows up as Mel, a local caretaker who also wants to help Beth in her time of need. The actor manages to find a subtle balance between being helpful and also vulnerable as Mel appears to be more knowledgeable about Owen than Beth initially realizes. Not all actors are successful in pulling this off, so it is noteworthy.

Stacy Martin, best known for her work in Lars Von Trier “Nymphomaniac,” has some choice scenes as Madelyne, a woman who may know more about Owen than Beth is comfortable with. It’s interesting to watch Madelyne as she struggles to befriend Beth even when Beth looks like she wants to jump across the table and strangle her. Martin does a great job in handling the awkwardness of her situation even as she looks to be risking physical and emotional harm.

I was surprised to see how deeply I was taken into “The Night House” as it looked, on the outside anyway, to be an average horror or thriller which may be fun but not leave much of an aftertaste. This film, however, really got under my skin though thanks to the performances and Bruckner’s direction which is even further enhanced by the beautiful cinematography by   Elisha Christian and the ominous film score composed by Ben Lovett. But at the center of it all is Rebecca Hall who fully involves us in her character’s frightening path which looks to have no happy end. From start to finish, she is a marvel.

Seriously, I came out “The Night House” shaking. I watched it in sheer terror as I feared for the secrets Beth would end up discovering, and I also was terrified this movie would have some shaggy dog ending which would just pull the rug right out from under us in a terrible way. Remember the wannabe “Sixth Sense” ending that Nicholas Sparks adaptation “Safe Haven” had? Oh lord! Well, this one does not have that kind of an ending even though part of me was a bit perplexed by it.

In the end, “The Night House” is really meant to be an exploration of grief and how one person can go through its brutal stages  It’s great to see a horror thriller pull this off in an emotional and thoughtful way, and it was all accomplished with little, if any, blood and gore. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but anyway.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Matthew Goode on Portraying Such an Evil Character in ‘Stoker’

Matthew Goode in Stoker

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2013.

Matthew Goode’s performance as the enigmatic Uncle Charlie in “Stoker” brings to mind the one Joseph Cotton gave as Charlie Oakley in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt.” Both men show a pleasant and courteous exterior, but there’s something in their eyes which tells you they are really twisted. Goode has delivered many strong performances in movies like “Match Point,” “Watchmen” and “A Single Man,” but it’s going to be impossible to forget him after seeing him playing a very frightening sociopath in this one.

Now playing a character as evil as Uncle Charlie has got to be a lot of fun for actors, but at the same time they really can’t judge a character like this too much. Once they do, they fail to portray them in a truthful way and their performance eventually rings false. Goode, in an interview with Nigel M. Smith of Indiewire, however, made it clear he was not about to fall into the same trap.

“I’m not a method actor; I think that would be rather exhausting on this sort of a project. But I don’t judge the character; I think that’s safe to say,” Goode told Smith. “You’re conning yourself between action and take. I don’t think about it too much, I just do what you have to do. You know there’s a camera in your face, and there are times when you can just get completely lost in it and the take is over. Then sometimes it’s very choreographed and you have to get your head in there to match with someone’s eye line, and I love that. I love the technique.”

“So with a darker character like this, it’s quite fun,” Goode continued. “It’s something that’s very different to who I am. I’m not a sociopath and I don’t go around strangling people. It’s just like kids playing. That’s really what our job is. We haven’t grown up.”

The other important thing to remember with a role like this is not to play it as evil. Yes, Uncle Charlie is evil as can be, but to portray just that one side of him would make for a very boring performance. You have to look at this character like you would any other and examine their wants, needs and motivations. In doing so, you will give yourself different areas to explore, and your performance will be all the better for it. In talking with Katie Calautti of Spinoff Online, Goode explained how he went about preparing to play Uncle Charlie.

“You can’t just play bad,” Goode told Calautti. “I wouldn’t even know how to start playing bad, or what that even means – it’s so two-dimensional. So you have to find some sense, despite his despicable acts, some kind of psychological truth of why. And director Park (Chan-wook) talked about bad blood and the idea that there was a predisposition within the family bloodline to want or need to commit these acts, and where does evil come from, is it nature or nurture? And for me they’re all very lonely, isolated characters. So I felt like, as much as this is a coming-of-age story for Mia (Wasikowska’s) character, Charlie’s kind of trapped in the past.”

The best scene in “Stoker” comes when Goode joins Wasikowska on the piano, and the two engage in a duet which can be best described as beautifully intense. Watching these two actors duel with one another while pounding away at those black and white keys was exhilarating, and it was the one scene from this film I wanted to know the most about. Karen Benardello of We Got This Covered was at the film’s press conference and asked Goode what it was like shooting this particular scene.

“It became liberating in the end,” Goode said. “I hadn’t played the piano in 20-odd years. So coming back into the fold of the piano, it was unbelievably daunting. Luckily, I don’t have a bad-sized hand, so I didn’t have to leap or anything like that. But it was hard work, but it was great working with Mia. We learned about three quarters of it, because some of it was just too hard, and too much going on with both hands. But we were able to fake some of that, and he was able to shoot the whole thing from whatever angle he wanted. We kind of recognized that in the vocabulary of filmmaking. When someone starts playing, you think, is he actually playing that? (laughs) He was able to dip down, and you go, they are! It’s not a trick on the audience, so it was nice.”

Hopefully Matthew Goode’s performance in “Stoker” will help burn his name into our collective consciousness because every moment he is onscreen is filled with a rising tension which never lets up. While he doesn’t let you in on all his character’s secrets, you know he is like a snake waiting to strike. He has already worked with a number of well-known directors such as Woody Allen, Tom Ford and Zack Snyder, but Goode makes it clear how a lot of the opportunities which have come his way so far have been the result of sheer luck.

“I’m not the person who’s able to pick and choose their roles,” Goode said. “But I know that Nicole [Kidman], for example, has said that she’s interested now – there might be a film in the studio system, but she loves independent film and she thinks that’s much more where her desires are, and the films she kind of likes. And so I think she is able to say to herself, ‘I like to choose projects not only based on the material but also the filmmaker,’ which is wonderful for her. And I think I just happen to have been quite lucky in the fact that the material that I gravitate towards or the people that have thought I am going to be better suited to it – because it’s not my choice, they’ve picked me. I’ve been lucky as hell, and the parts have been quite varied.”

 

SOURCES:

Nigel M. Smith, “‘Stoker’ Star Matthew Goode On the Joys of Playing a Sociopath and Working for Park Chan-Wook,” Indiewire, March 5, 2013.

Katie Calautti, “‘Stoker’ Star Matthew Goode on Evil, Parenting and, Yes, Belts,” Spinoff Online, March 1, 2013.

Karen Benardello, “Interview with Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode And Chan-wook Park On ‘Stoker,'” We Got This Covered, March 8, 2013.

Mia Wasikowska Fearlessly Dives Into the Dark Side in ‘Stoker’

Mia Wasikowska in Stoker

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2013.

After watching her in Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” and seeing her portray the highly intelligent daughter of Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in “The Kids are All Right,” Australian actress Mia Wasikowska goes from lightness to darkness in “Stoker.” In it she plays India, a mysterious, dark-haired teenager whose father has just been killed in a car accident on her 18th birthday. Throughout the movie we see India trying to deal with both her emotionally unstable mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and her enigmatic uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) who has arrived to stay with them. Thanks in large part to Wasikowska, India is one of the most original and haunting teenage characters to appear in movies in quite some time.

It’s fascinating to watch Wasikowska’s transformation in “Stoker” as there is very little trace of the good-natured characters she has portrayed previously. Even her work in “Jane Eyre” felt like a fairy tale compared to the creepy nature of this film. Going into it, I wondered if Wasikowska was really looking to distance herself from the roles she has played in the past. It turns out she was, but in an interview with Helen Brown of The Telegraph, she also said it was because she was drawn to the character’s ambiguity.

“You don’t know if India’s a hero or a villain, the hunter or the hunted,” Wasikowska told Brown. “The film toys with your perception. It’s a weird love triangle between a mother, an uncle and a daughter. That feels very modern and very classic, at the same time.”

“It’s less about evil being in the bloodline than an idea of evil as contagious,” Wasikowska continued. “I think violence is something that catches on. I was interested in something India’s father says: ‘Sometimes you have to do something bad to stop you from doing something worse.'”

I loved how Wasikowska avoided making India seem like the average sullen, anti-social or Goth-like teenager we’ve seen in so many movies and TV shows. There’s something about India which feels wholly original, and it is a wonderfully complex character you spend all of “Stoker” constantly trying to figure out. Wasikowska explained to Brown what she was aiming for when she decided to play India.

“Stereotypes are much more prominent in teen movies,” Wasikowska said. “As a teenager, it’s more attractive to watch something you don’t necessarily feel you are, to watch movies about pretty people in love. But it was always exciting for me to find roles that gave me an opportunity to express what I felt was the more realistic side of teenagers.”

The most memorable scene in “Stoker” comes when Uncle Charlie joins India on the piano for one of the most exhilarating duets ever filmed. The whole moment feels like a cross between the “Dueling Banjos” scene from “Deliverance” and David Helfgott playing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s blisteringly difficult Concerto No. 3 in “Shine;” it’s a moment of harmony combined with a psychological unraveling which reaches a fever pitch. This is a movie scene I will be studying for a long time, and while talking with The Hollywood Reporter’s Rebecca Ford, Wasikowska described what it was like filming it.

“That’s sort of one of the scenes that you’re always anticipating during the shoot,” Wasikowska told Ford. “It was almost my favorite one to film, because we had the music there, playing really loudly for us, and then, to a certain extent, I felt like I didn’t have to do anything because so much of the emotion and the feeling was in the music, and if I just sort of surrendered to that, it was all there.”

“Stoker” marks the English-language debut of South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook who is best known for his “Vengeance Trilogy” of movies which includes “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy” and “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.” Both he and Wasikowska worked closely together on India to make sure they were on the same page throughout filming, and Wasikowska told Ford they kept sending each other pictures back and forth through email which helped to illustrate their thoughts on the character.

“Some of the images were from India’s perspective, so things that I thought would explain the way that she sees the world,” Wasikowska said. “And then the other images would be something that had an essence of her physicality or her emotionally, so that was really helpful.”

Now with a movie as dark and disturbing as “Stoker” is, you would think the atmosphere on set would be very serious as to not break the mood of the piece. But as we found out on this movie and many others before it, the dark nature of the script was counterbalanced by a lot of humor amongst the cast and crew. Wasikowska made this abundantly clear to contactmusic.com while at a press conference.

“I’ve often found on the films that have a more serious nature, the more light-hearted and silly and goofy it becomes in between the scenes out of necessity to counter the intensity of the scenes and material,” Wasikowska said. “I felt like we were pretty good at that!”

Watching Mia Wasikowska in “Stoker” gives you an idea of what great work lies ahead for her. Here she digs deep into a character she hasn’t previously portrayed, and she completely disappears into the part as a result. While India is still a hard character to figure out at the movie’s end, it is Wasikowska’s journey into the role which renders it all the more fascinating.

“The best way to explain it is when I’m filming, I have a definite story that I follow for her, but then when I finish and I let go of the project a bit, it’s sort of up to interpretation,” Wasikowska said. “So one of the interesting things has been seeing how people have interpreted her (India) and her character in the story. And the only thing that’s consistent is how different everybody’s opinion is of her.”

SOURCES:

Helen Brown, “Stoker’s Mia Wasikowska, interview: ‘It’s a weird love triangle between a mother, an uncle and a daughter…,'” The Telegraph, March 1, 2013.

Rebecca Ford, “‘Stoker’s’ Mia Wasikowska on Her Mysterious Character and Sexualized Piano Playing,” The Hollywood Reporter, February 28, 2013.

Mia Wasikowska: ‘Stoker’ shoot was fun,” contactmusic.com, February 28, 2013.

‘The Favourite’ is Fantastic and a Sinful Delight

The Favourite movie poster

The Favourite” is the second period film (the other being “Mary Queen of Scots”) I have seen in a week which plays around with historical facts to present us with something which could be more interesting compared to what happened in reality. Thankfully, director Yorgos Lanthimos has not besmirched the advertisements with the terms “based on a true story” or “inspired by actual events” as neither are necessary and would be a severe detriment to the finished film. Instead, he uses history to explore the power dynamics of people who are eager to maintain their place in life, sometimes at the expense of others. When you lose your place in society and have to fight your way back up the social ladder, you will eventually discover you are more devious than you led yourself to believe.

“The Favourite” takes us back to 18th century Britain during the reign of Queen Anne when the British were at war with the French. Queen Anne is played by Olivia Colman, and she makes this historical figure into a wonderfully eccentric human being who finds great glee in racing geese with her friends or playing with her 17 rabbits, each one representing a child she had later lost. She is also beset by a terrible case of gout which has her moaning and wailing in extraordinary pain during the night, and it is only with the help of her many servants that she can get through the day. When it comes to governing, however, she is not really inclined to do so.

Anne’s closest confidant proves to be the Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill, played by Rachel Weisz. Sarah is more than comfortable with the knowledge that she is the one ruling over Britain as she passing on her confidences and advisements to the Queen. We also eventually learn the two are lovers who share in secret trysts together when the rest of the world isn’t watching. It makes one wonder if love is what’s keeping them together, or if the quest for power conquers everything else.

Into the picture comes Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), Sarah’s cousin whose good name was ruined by her father due to his gambling problems which had him selling her off to a German to settle debts. Poor and desperate for work, Abigail pleads with Sarah to give her a job, and she gets what amounts to an entry level position as a maid where she does the most menial of chores. While scrubbing the floors, she endures a chemical burn which proves to be almost as bad as the one Brad Pitt gave Edward Norton in “Fight Club.”

“The Favourite” gets off to a fantastic start as it introduces the main characters with relish, and this includes Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult is fantastic), the Earl of Oxford, who is infinitely eager to get the inside coup on the Queen’s plans before they are made public. But the movie really hits its stride when Abigail begins to ingratiate herself not just with Sarah, but also with Queen Anne. It starts with Abigail finding herbs to ease the inflammation in the Queen’s legs, and from there she insinuates herself into the Queen’s life and her bed.

The scenes between Stone and Weisz in which they shoot birds for sport is sinfully delightful as they subtly test one another to see where their vulnerabilities lie. When guns are aimed in directions which threaten their existence or get blood on their faces, its to let the other know they are to be taken seriously and not be trifled with. Not once do either of them have to tell the other “don’t mess with me” or “be careful where you tread” because their actions prove to be much louder than words. Still, it doesn’t stop either from trying to get the upper hand, and they do have their own unique ways of pulling this off.

Weisz has one of her best roles to date here as Sarah as she struggles to maintain her power in spite of Abigail’s deceitful intentions. Just watching her face makes one see how much she enjoyed portraying a character who reveled in a power very few people could ever hope to have without being of royalty. Of course, when the tables turn, her face tells a different story, and I admired how subtle she was in making these painful realizations so subtle and yet deeply felt at the same time. Not once does Weisz mug for the camera or go over the top as she does just enough to show how her world is crumbling slowly but surely.

Stone could have stood out like a sore thumb here, being the sole American actor here among so many Brits. But what surprised me about her performance is how English she appeared to where it almost took me a bit to recognize her. Not only does Stone fit perfectly into this ensemble of actors with what seems like relative ease, she pulls off a remarkably effective English accent. Like Weisz, she is also subtle in the ways of showing her power, and the way she infiltrates the Queen’s home and her life is great as she makes sleeping nude with Queen look like flipping the bird to her flabbergasted opponent.

But let’s face it, “The Favourite” truly belongs to Colman who gives a tour de force performance as Queen Anne. The English actress has appeared in such movies as “Hot Fuzz,” “The Iron Lady,” and Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” and there is no forgetting her after watching her here. Coleman takes this character from ecstatic comedic heights to dramatic depths as she makes this Queen a basket case but also a leader who will rise to the occasion when her rule is threatened (or when Sarah or Abigail lead her to believe so). In her last scene, she makes clear who is in charge as the movie’s title is called into question.

This is the first Yorgos Lanthimos directed movie I have seen. I was hoping to watch “The Lobster” one night with my family, but no one could decide on what to watch other than the opening sequence of “Spectre.” Lanthimos has done a skillful job of making this far more than the average stuffy period movie to where his inclusion of an Elton John song over the end credits doesn’t feel out of place in the slightest. Being a comedy drama, the balance could have easily been uneven, but that’s not the case here as this movie feels perfectly realized. If there any flaws to be found, they probably won’t come up until long after you have walked out of the theater.

I saw “The Favourite” with my parents, and they found it to be a bit weird. True, it’s ending is abrupt as it dissolves into a collage of images to where you wonder what exactly is being said. But I loved watching the power plays between the characters who are rendered not as caricatures, but as human beings driven to extremes for one reason or another. It makes me wonder why certain people can become so selfish to the point where the needs and feelings of others do not matter in the slightest. However, I reminded of a lyric from the Peter Gabriel song “Family Snapshot:”

“If you don’t get given you learn to take, and I will take you.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Danny Boyle’s ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ Takes Us on a Journey We Do Not Often Go On

Slumdog Millionaire poster

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

Some of the best movies take us to places we most likely have never been to before. “Slumdog Millionaire” is one of them as it invites us to travel through different parts of India from the poor towns to the set of the country’s own version of “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire.” The movie starts off with our main character, Jamal Malik (played as an adult by Dev Patel), being interrogated by the police because they believe he is guilty of cheating on the infinitely popular game show. No one can believe a slum kid like him could do so well without having the answers in advance. As the police get to the bottom of how Jamal has succeeded up to this point, the movie flashes back to his childhood as we see how his answers represents the journey he has taken so far. We soon discover his motivation to be on the show has nothing to do with money, and this is regardless of how he is on the verge of either winning a fortune or losing it all.

The movie flashes back to when Jamal was a boy where he and his brother Salim are suddenly orphaned and forced into surviving on the streets by stealing goods to sell and conning naïve tourists (naïve American tourists always turn out to be the best targets) by giving them tours of the Taj Mahal which are anything but factual. During their travels on one homeless night, Jamal sees a young girl all alone in the rain whom he quickly invites to where he and his brother Salim are sleeping. From there, a relationship emerges which becomes Jamal’s one real reason to live.

I have to tell you, Danny Boyle really surprises and amazes me as a filmmaker. Every movie he makes is almost completely different from the one he gave us beforehand. Boyle first gave us “Shallow Grave” which showed us a severe paranoia among a trio of roommates, and then he gave us one of the seminal drug addiction movies with the brilliant “Trainspotting.” From there, he went Hollywood with “A Life Less Ordinary” and “The Beach,” both of which almost made us forget what made him so good in the first place. Then he went the independent route and reinvented the zombie movie genre with “28 Days Later” which he shot in digital and made for dirt cheap. After that, he made a family movie with “Millions” where a couple of young boys come across a big bag of money thrown off of a train and find creative ways of giving the money away. As you can see, Boyle has become an incredibly unpredictable filmmaker, and it shows how determined he is not to repeat himself.

“Slumdog Millionaire” seems to have come out of nowhere, and I didn’t even know Boyle was working on it. He appears to have fallen in love with the lives and culture in India and of everything which has come out of it. While it is portrayed as a place with much squalor many third world countries are forced to deal with, there is a beauty to it as we see different types of people and cultures coming together in ways not easily accomplished. Along with director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle and India co-director Loveleen Tandan, Boyle gives the town of Mumbai a beauty and vibrancy you don’t see in other places as it goes from a poor town to a city growing bigger by the minute.

The story itself is very familiar to as it is one of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl as we see Jamal never stops thinking about Latika (played as an adult by the lovely Freida Pinto) and yearns to find her wherever he goes. She makes his life worth living, and she gives Jamal something to fight for. But unlike a lot of bland Hollywood romantic comedies, it is not at all manipulative or just about rich white people. It is about people coming up from nothing and supported by a cast which does not have a single weak performance in it as the emotions and actions of its characters never feel less genuine.

The other great thing about “Slumdog Millionaire” is how it becomes even more suspenseful and thrilling as it heads towards its final act. The ending had me on the edge of my seat and quickly reminded me of what an exciting game show “Who Wants to Be Millionaire” can be.  Anil Kapoor plays the Indian host of the show, Prem Kumar, and he is basically the anti-Regis Philbin. Prem playfully insults Jamal as he finds out his job involves serving people tea while everyone works at their cubicles. He taunts Jamal into believing he will win because of the trust he has in him, but Jamal keeps his cool even while he has a hard time breaking a smile on television.

Boyle gives the movie a big advantage by casting unknowns here, and they are all wonderful. If he were forced to cast big name stars, I’m not sure “Slumdog Millionaire” would have had the same effect it does here. This one could have ended up like any other romantic movie ever made which would have been a shame considering the passion which went into the making of it. The movie succeeds in showing specific details of the world these characters inhabit, and it sucks us in almost immediately. The actors in the movie don’t act their roles as much as they inhabit them, and this makes their scavenging adventures all the more interesting.

Dev Patel is perfectly cast as Jamal as he never overplays his part or simply acts out the emotions. The same goes for the rest of the cast including Madhur Mittal who plays the adult Salim whose life has taken a different direction from Jamal’s as he heads into a life of crime to where he is employed by a `big-time drug lord in Mumbai.

Along with a great soundtrack I will most certainly purchase when it comes out on CD, “Slumdog Millionaire” is one of 2008’s most memorably exuberant movies which at its heart is a love story. While many of us come into love stories with a deep cynicism, this one gives you believable characters you root for and never want to see separated. Fox Searchlight plans to make this movie this year’s answer to “Juno” or “Little Miss Sunshine,” but don’t let any potential backlash keep you from seeing it as it a big heart and will excite you in a way many movies like this often don’t.

* * * * out of * * * *

The Best Movies of 2008

2008 Year in Review

2008 was a year more memorable for those who died as opposed to the movies which were released. We lost Heath Ledger, Brad Renfro, George Carlin, and Paul Newman among many others, and their individual deaths spread through the news like an uncontrollable wildfire. Their passing left a big mark on us all. When we look back at this year, I think people will remember where they were upon learning of their deaths more than anything else. Many of us will remember where we were when we got the news that Ledger died, but they will not remember how much money they wasted on “Righteous Kill,” the second movie featuring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro sharing the screen at the same time.

2008 did pale in comparison to 2007 which saw a wealth of great movies released. Many said this was a horrible year for movies as high expectations ruined some of the big summer tent pole franchises, and that there were too many remakes being made. The way I see it, 2008 had a lot of really good movies, but not a lot of great ones. There was a big drought of good ones worth seeing at one point in this year, and I started to wonder if I would have enough of them to create a top ten list. If it were not for all those Oscar hopefuls released towards the year’s end, I am certain I would have come up short.

So, let us commence with this fine list, if I do say so myself, of the ten best movies of 2008:

  1. The Reader/Revolutionary Road

I had to put these two together for various reasons. Of course, the most obvious being Kate Winslet starred in both movies and was brilliant and devastating in her separate roles. Also, these were movies with stories about relationships laden with secrets, unbearable pressures, and deeply wounded feelings. Both were devoid of happy endings and of stories which were designed to be neatly wrapped up. Each one also dealt with the passing of time and how it destroys the characters’ hopes and dreams.

The Reader” looked at the secret relationship between Winslet’s character and a young man, and of the repercussions from it which end up lasting a lifetime. There is so much they want to say to one another but can’t, as it will doom them to punishments they cannot bear to endure.

Speaking of escape, it is what the characters in “Revolutionary Road” end up yearning for, and the movie is brilliant in how it shows us characters who think they know what they want but have no realistic way of getting it. Each movie deals with characters who are trapped in situations they want to be free from but can never be, and of feelings just beneath the surface but never verbalized until too late.

Both Stephen Daldry and Sam Mendes direct their films with great confidence, and they don’t just get great performances from their entire cast, but they also capture the look and setting of the era their stories take place in perfectly. All the elements come together so strongly to where we are completely drawn in to the emotional state of each film, and we cannot leave either of them without being totally shaken at what we just witnessed.

 

Doubt movie poster

  1. Doubt

Looking back, I wondered if I was actually reviewing the play more than I was John Patrick Shanley’s movie of his Pulitzer Prize winning work. But the fact is Shanley brilliantly captures the mood and feel of the time this movie takes place in, and it contains one great performance after another. Meryl Streep personifies the teacher you hated so much in elementary school, Philip Seymour Hoffman perfectly captures the friendly priest we want to trust but are not sure we can, and Amy Adams illustrates the anxiety and confusion of the one person caught in the middle of everything. Don’t forget Viola Davis who, in less than 20 minutes, gives a galvanizing performance as a woman more worried about what her husband will do to their child more than the possibility of her child being molested by a priest who has been so kind to him. Long after its Broadway debut, “Doubt” still proves to be one of the most thought provoking plays ever, and it lost none of its power in its adaptation to the silver screen.

 

Vicky Cristina Barcelona movie poster

  1. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

This is the best Woody Allen movie I have seen in a LONG time. Woody’s meditation on the ways of love could have gone over subjects he has long since pondered over to an exhausting extent, but this is not the case here. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a lovely and wonderfully character driven piece filled with many great performances, the best being Penelope Cruz’s as Javier Bardem’s ex-wife. Cruz is a firecracker every time she appears on screen, and she gives one of the most unpredictable performances I have seen in a while. Just when I was ready to write Allen off completely, he comes back to surprise me with something funny, lovely and deeply moving.

One day, I will be as sexy as Javier Bardem. Just you wait!

 

Slumdog Millionaire poster

  1. Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle, one of the most versatile film directors working today, gave us a most exhilarating movie which dealt with lives rooted in crime, poverty and desperation, and yet he made it all so uplifting. It is a love story like many we have seen before, but this one is done with such freshness and vitality to where I felt like I was seeing something new and utterly original. Boyle also reminds us of how “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” was so exciting before ABC pimped it out excessively on their prime-time schedule. “Slumdog Millionaire” was pure excitement from beginning to end, and it was a movie with a lot of heart.

 

 

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  1. Frost/Nixon

Ron Howard turns in one of the best directorial efforts of his career with this adaptation of Peter Morgan’s acclaimed stage play, “Frost/Nixon,” which dealt with the infamous interview between former President Richard Nixon and TV personality David Frost. Despite us all knowing the outcome of this interview, Howard still sustains a genuine tension between these two personalities, one being larger than life. Howard also has the fortune of working with the same two actors from the original stage production, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. Langella’s performance is utterly riveting in how he gets to the heart of Nixon without descending into some form of mimicry or impersonation. You may think a movie dealing with two people having an interview would be anything but exciting, but when Langella and Sheen are staring each other down, they both give us one of the most exciting moments to be found in any film in 2008. Just as he did with “Apollo 13,” Howard amazes you in how he can make something so familiar seem so incredibly exciting and intense.

 

Rachel Getting Married movie poster

  1. Rachel Getting Married

Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” had a huge effect on me with its raw emotion, and I loved how he made us feel like we were in the same room with all these characters. When the movie ended, it felt like we had shared some time with great friends, and Demme, from a screenplay written by Jenny Lumet, gives us a wealth of characters who are anything but typical clichés. Anne Hathaway is a revelation here as Kym, the problem child of the family who is taking a break from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding. Kym is not the easiest person to like or trust, but Hathaway makes us completely empathize with her as she tries to move on from a tragic past which has long since defined her in the eyes of everyone. Great performances also come from Bill Irwin who is so wonderful as Kym’s father, Rosemarie DeWitt, and the seldom seen Debra Winger who shares a very intense scene with Hathaway towards the movie’s end. I really liked this one a lot, and it almost moved me to tears.

 

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  1. The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” has grown on me so much since I saw it. While it may be best known as the movie in which Mickey Rourke gave one hell of a comeback performance, this movie works brilliantly on so many levels. To limit its success to just Rourke’s performance would not be fair to what Aronofsky has accomplished as he surrounds all the characters in the bleakness of the urban environment they are stuck in, and he makes you feel their endless struggles to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. “The Wrestler” succeeds because Aronofsky’s vision in making it was so precise and focused, and he never sugarcoats the realities of its desperate characters. Rourke more than deserved the Oscar for Best Actor, which in the end went to Sean Penn for “Milk.” Furthermore, the movie has great performances from Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood as those closest to Rourke’s character, and who look past his faded fame to see the wounded man underneath. The more I look at “The Wrestler,” the more amazed and thrilled I am by it.

 

Let The Right One In movie poster

  1. Let the Right One In

Tomas Alfredson’s film of a friendship between a lonely boy and a vampire was so absorbing on an atmospheric level, and it surprised me to no end. What looks like an average horror movie turns out to actually be a sweet love story with a good deal of blood in it. Widely described as the “anti-Twilight,” “Let the Right One In” gives a strong sense of freshness to the vampire genre which back in the early 2000’s was overflowing with too many movies. The performances given by Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar and Lina Leandersson as Eli are pitch perfect, and despite the circumstances surrounding their improbable relationship, I found myself not wanting to see them separated from one another.

 

Wall E poster

  1. Wall-E

Pixar does it once again and makes another cinematic masterpiece which puts so many other movies to shame. With “Wall-E,” director Andrew Stanton took some big risks by leaving a good portion of the movie free of dialogue, and this allowed us to take in the amazing visuals of planet Earth which has long since become completely inhospitable. Plus, it is also one of the best romantic movies to come out of Hollywood in ages. The relationship between Wall-E and his iPod-like crush Eve is so much fun to watch, and the two of them coming together gives the movie a strong sense of feeling which really draws us into the story. The fact these two are machines quickly becomes irrelevant, especially when you compare them to the humans they meet in a spaceship who have long since become imprisoned by their laziness and gluttony.

I gave the DVD of this movie to my mom as a Christmas present, and she said you could do an entire thesis on it. Nothing could be truer as it is such a brilliant achievement which dazzles us not just on a visual level, but also with its story which is the basis from which all Pixar movies originate. “Wall-E” is the kind of movie I want to see more often, a film which appeals equally to kids and adults as this is not always what Hollywood is quick to put out.

 

The Dark Knight poster

  1. The Dark Knight

The biggest movie of 2008 was also its best. I was blown away with not just what Christopher Nolan accomplished, but of what he got away with in a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. “The Dark Knight” is not just an action movie, but a tragedy on such an epic scale. Many call it the “Empire Strikes Back” of the Batman series, and this is a very apt description. Many will point to this movie’s amazing success as the result of the untimely death of Heath Ledger whose performance as the Joker all but blows away what Jack Nicholson accomplished in Tim Burton’s “Batman,” but the sheer brilliance of the movie is not limited to the late actor’s insanely brilliant work. Each performance in the movie is excellent, and Christian Bale now effectively owns the role of the Caped Crusader in a way no one has before.

Aaron Eckhart also gives a great performance as Harvey “Two-Face” Dent, one which threatened to be the most underrated of 2008. The “white knight” becomes such a tragic figure of revenge, and we come to pity him more than we despise him. The movie is also aided greatly by the always reliable Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. Everyone does excellent work here, and there is not a single weak performance to be found.

Whereas the other “Batman” movies, the Joel Schumacher ones in particular, were stories about the good guys against the bad guys, “The Dark Knight” is a fascinating look at how the line between right and wrong can be easily blurred. Harvey’s line of how you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain perfectly personifies the dilemmas for every character here. To capture the Joker, Bruce Wayne may end up becoming the very thing he is fighting against. I can’t think of many other summer blockbusters which would ask such questions or be as dark. “The Dark Knight” took a lot of risks, and it more than deserved its huge success. It set the bar very high for future comic book movies, and they will need all the luck they can get to top this one.

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

The Shape of Water movie poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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