‘Pet Sematary’ Remake Easily Improves on the Original

Pet Sematary 2019 movie poster

Of all the Stephen King cinematic adaptations up for a remake, “Pet Sematary” is the one I looked forward to the most. I never cared much for the 1989 version directed by Mary Lambert. It wasn’t a terrible movie, but it was undone by a screenplay which tried to fit in too much from King’s novel, and ironically it was a screenplay written by King himself. While Fred Gwynne was perfectly cast as Jud Crandall, Dale Midkiff’s performance goes way over the top and contains moments which Kevin Smith and Ralph Garman are justified in describing as “exquisite acting.” And there was the ending which was undone by test screenings where the audience demanded something more graphic. Bitch, please!

Now we have the remake of “Pet Sematary” which comes to us from the directors of “Starry Eyes,” Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, and it is easily an improvement over what came before. It is not a great horror movie, but even if it were, it is nearly impossible to top King’s 1983 novel which itself is one of the darkest works of fiction ever conceived. Heck, even King himself thought he went too far with it, and that should tell you something. Still, it is an effective film which pays tribute to the spirit of the novel even as it makes changes to the source material in a way I did not see coming.

As before, the story starts with Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) driving with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two kids to their new home in the small town of Ludlow, Maine. We learn that Louis and Rachel were looking to escape big city life for something simpler and countrylike to where they could spend more time with each other and the children. When they arrive at their new home, it looks like a heavenly and peaceful place which they will serve them well, but we all know where the story will go from there as a huge 18-wheeler truck zooms by with little warning while leaving a lot of dust and dead leaves in its wake.

The first half of the “Pet Sematary” remake more or less follows King’s novel to the letter as it treads familiar ground while adding some interesting touches in the process. Upon discovering the pet cemetery of the movie’s title, we also see a procession of children wearing animal masks as they march on by while carrying a dead dog in a wheelbarrow to the place which will bring about its resurrection. Both Kolsch and Widmyer give this movie a wonderfully unnerving feeling which they keep building on throughout as things for the Creed family get worse and worse to where they have little chance to regret the deeds they have committed.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.

One of the interesting things about this version is how the filmmakers have switched elements around, but in a way which does not take away from the spirit of the novel. Instead of young Gage getting run over by a truck driver who is distracted by his cell phone (and who isn’t these days?), it is Ellie, and the reaction of her parents to this terrible tragedy feel all too real to where neither has to yell out in sheer anguish.

Jeté Laurence plays Ellie Creed, and her performance is especially impressive as she makes this resurrected character far more than a zombie with a thirst for blood. Ellie seems very aware of the fact she is not who she once was, but she also has knowledge of what lies beyond the realm of the living, and she becomes a little too eager to bring her parents to the other side of it.

Jason Clarke has long since proven to be one of our most dependable actors in movies today with his terrific performances in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “Chappaquiddick.” Clarke makes Louis Creed into an especially sympathetic character even as he comes to play God when it comes to Ellie’s life. The late Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed) warns Louis not to exceed the boundaries set for humanity, but Louis is blinded by a grief I would not wish on anyone, and his desire to undo a terrible tragedy is understandable even if it flies in the face of reason, logic and the saying of “sometimes dead is better.”

Amy Seimetz, who co-starred in “Alien: Covenant,” also makes the most of her role as Rachel Creed, an individual who has dealt with death a far too young an age. Rachel remains forever haunted by the passing of her sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine) whom she was forced to watch by her lonesome while their parents were away. Indeed, Seimetz makes you deeply feel the unfairness of Rachel’s predicament as no child should be forced into such a position at such a young age, and it proves to be one of this movie’s most haunting segments as a result.

And while there is no topping Fred Gwynne’s performance as Jud Crandall, the great John Lithgow succeeds in making this role his own. How many movies and TV shows have we watched Lithgow in anyway? He has been a constant in popular culture, and he remains a welcome presence in anything he appears in. Lithgow doesn’t have to do much to show how Jud has lived a long life which has been filled with one tragedy too many, and this is the mark of a great on camera actor.

Kölsch and Widmyer do an excellent job of raising the tension and overbearing atmosphere of the story throughout the movie’s running time, and they don’t just resort to giving us jump scares every five minutes. They are also aided by a powerful film score composed by Christopher Young which makes an already unnerving motion picture even more so.

“Pet Sematary” is one of the few books I got to read before it was turned into a movie, and this is quite the feat for me these days as filmmakers typically beat me to the punch. As a result, my perspective of the book will forever remain more powerful than any movie made out of it. Still, this cinematic version of it is a powerful one which takes chances with the source material while remaining true to its spirit. I am also quite thankful the filmmakers had enough freedom to give this movie the ambiguous conclusion it deserves. I am a big fan of ambiguity in movies, and this one has an unsettling conclusion which stays with you long after you have walked out of the theater.

Still, I would have preferred The Ramones’ version of their song “Pet Sematary” as opposed to the cover of it performed here by Starcrawler. Nothing against their version, but in this case the original reigns supreme.

* * * out of * * * *

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‘Pet Sematary’ Remake’s First Trailer is Unearthed For All to See

Pet Sematary 2019 Teaser Poster

The cinematic adaptations of Stephen King’s novels have been a mixed bag, but ever since the phenomenal success of “It,” Hollywood has been desperate to adapt his works more than ever before. But moreover, they are also not afraid to remake those films which have already been made from them like “Carrie,” “The Shining” and “Salem’s Lot.” It was only a matter of time, and an eventual escape from development hell, that we would get a remake of “Pet Sematary,” and now its first trailer has been unearthed for all to see.

To be honest, I never cared much for the 1989 version of “Pet Sematary” directed by Mary Lambert. Some of the performances were rather weak, and King, who wrote the screenplay, ended up cramming too much of the novel into the movie to where not all the plot threads were tied up in a satisfying way. Having read “Pet Sematary” myself, I can confirm it is one of King’s scariest works which left me unnerved, especially with its wonderfully ambiguous ending. Now that we are finally getting its latest cinematic incarnation, I cannot help but be intrigued.

From its trailer, it is clear directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer (“Starry Eyes”) are intent on making this version their own. The sight of children marching to the beat of a drum through the cemetery while wearing animal masks is a scary sight even if one of them reminded me of the rabbit mask from “Donnie Darko.” Granted, it starts off in a routine fashion with Louis and Rachel Creed (Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz) driving their kids to their new home in Maine. As they get their first glimpse of it, a truck comes roaring by without warning as if a gale force wind suddenly swept by, leaving trees shaking endlessly. It’s a strong moment as we are reminded of the terrible tragedies which will eventually befall these characters.

This trailer doesn’t spell out the story for its audiences, and we only glimpses of other characters like Church and Victor Pascow. Interestingly enough, these proceedings are dominated by John Lithgow who plays Jud Crandall, and he speaks his dialogue in an increasingly ominous tone and without a New England accent. It’s great to see Lithgow here as his presence lends much to what we see here. He does, however, have to contend with the shadow of the late Fred Gwynne who played Jud in the original. Whatever you may have thought about the 1989 film, there’s no denying Gwynne was perfectly cast and the best thing about it.

Overall, this trailer left me intrigued at the possibilities the remake has to offer. It features Clarke who, whether he’s in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” “Knight of Cups” or “Chappaquiddick,” is one of the most dependable actors working in movies today. However, I have to say the trailer for the original was much more frightening, especially with Dale Midkiff standing in the middle of his kitchen yelling into his phone, “WHAT DID YOU DO??!!” Even more chilling was hearing Gage’s voice saying, “Now, I want to play with you.” My hope is the next trailer for “Pet Sematary” is even more chilling than this one. My other hope is that the filmmakers will get to retain the ambiguous ending of the novel in this version. Thanks to test screenings, the 1989 movie was denied this, and I am still annoyed to this day at its conclusion.

“Pet Sematary” is set to open in April 2019. Please check out the trailer below.

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Cliffhanger’

The 1990’s were not a kind decade to Sylvester Stallone. “Rocky V,” which was supposed to be Stallone’s last go around as Rocky Balboa (LOL), proved to be a critical and commercial disappointment, and his foray into comedy with “Oscar” and “Stop or My Mom Will Shoot” was disastrous to say the least. Clearly, Stallone was in serious need of a comeback as well as a return to the dramatic action movies he became best known for. As a result, he teamed up with “Die Hard 2” director Renny Harlin and Carolco Pictures to star in the action adventure film “Cliffhanger,” and the first trailer made for it remains forever burned into my memory.

The genius of this teaser trailer was how the filmmakers scored the images to Mozart’s “Dies Irae,” a powerful piece of music which served to make this movie seem more epic than it ended up being. There is no dialogue to be heard here as the focus is on the snowy mountain landscape which proves to be as beautiful an environment as it is a brutal one for those unprepared to deal with its frigid temperatures. As we watch Stallone and his fellow cast members John Lithgow, Michael Rooker, Leon and Janine Turner battling the elements which range from climbing up a mountain without a winter jacket or being trapped in a cold lake beneath a thick sheet of ice, it made “Cliffhanger” look like the end all of mountain movies as it captured a reality which is usually faked on a Hollywood soundstage.

Then there is the trailer’s final image of Stallone making a death-defying leap from one mountain side to another, and it’s a fantastic visual to close out on before the movie’s title comes up. Watching him do this quickly reminded me of when he performed similar feats as John Rambo in “First Blood” and its sequels as he the situations Rambo was caught up in were not entirely realistic, but Stallone’s physicality and performance made us believe he one could survive such impossible circumstances to where stopped asking questions and just went along for the ride.

Of course, upon learning Stallone had co-wrote the screenplay, I went in to see “Cliffhanger” with reduced expectations as I figured it would be a variation on the story he writes about more often than not of a man haunted by a tragedy and of his need for redemption. The movie did prove to be very entertaining, but it was not as deep and epic as this trailer promised. Regardless, I look back on this particular trailer very fondly as I said to myself after watching it, “Now that’s how you sell a movie!”

Cliffhanger teaser poster

Peter Weller and Company Revisit ‘Buckaroo Banzai’ at New Beverly Cinema

Buckaroo Banzai poster

Looking back at some of the articles I have written about screenings at New Beverly Cinema, I kept saying or implying that you could never expect any screenings showing there to sell out. But now it looks like that’s becoming less and less the case. Ever since Quentin Tarantino bought the building where the theater is located and saved it from becoming another Supercuts, more and more movie geeks have descended on this establishment, the last standing movie reparatory theater in Los Angeles. Jason Reitman did a movie program there which featured “Election,” “Boogie Nights” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and it brought out huge crowds of people. Torgan and company ended up having to do something they almost never do; turn people away!

Well, the line around New Beverly once again snaked around the corner as actor Peter Weller was scheduled to introduce a screening of the 1984 cult classic, “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension,” on March 29, 2010. Every single was taken, and the screening got delayed because the line at concessions threatened to snake around the theater as well. Weller brought along two other players from Buckaroo’s crew: Billy Vera who played the bass guitarist for Banzai’s rock band the Blue Blaze Irregulars, and Gerald Peterson who played Rug Sucker. The Q&A was moderated by Jeremy Smith, Mr. Beaks from Ain’t It Cool News, and he proclaimed this to be “the nerdiest movie ever made.” Upon saying this, he got a huge applause from the audience.

Weller did look a little ragged, and he later explained it was because he didn’t go to bed until about 2 a.m. the night before as he just got through 86 hours of PhD exams at UCLA. Furthermore, he said he has been wearing the same clothes for several days straight which reek of cigar smoke as he was smoking 10 of them in a day.

“Buckaroo Banzai” turned out to be a lot of fun, and this is despite the fact I have no idea of how to explain what it’s exactly about. However, it turns out the most ardent fans of this movie and the actors who starred in it can’t really explain what the plot is about either.

“I didn’t understand it (the script) actually, and I think no actor in it does understand it. I don’t think Billy or Gerald understood it, but it was fun,” Weller said.

“If you say you understood it, you’re a liar,” Vera said.

Weller went on to say 20th Century Fox didn’t know how to market “Buckaroo Banzai” at all. The studio executives came to the set around the time they were finishing principal photography and asked him, “Is it an action movie?” Later on, the editor of the movie, Oscar nominee Richard Marks, said, “That film is a comedy! It’s a comedy and they should have known that from the jump!”

But perhaps the best way to describe “Buckaroo Banzai” is its half comedy and half drama. Vera added many television shows later took on the half comedy and half drama formula, but he couldn’t think of any which came before this movie. To this, Weller added, “Or after.”

Weller was actually not sure if he was going to do this film because he had his eye on a romance movie around the same time. But this same romantic movie was getting bounced around from studio to studio, and his agent convinced him to take “Buckaroo Banzai” since it looked more and more like the other flick was not going to happen. With a cast which included Christopher Lloyd, Ellen Barkin and John Lithgow, this could not have been easy to turn down.

“The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” marked the directorial debut of screenwriter W. D. Richter who was best known for writing Phillip Kaufman’s version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and also “Brubaker.” Richter was also responsible for co-writing another movie 20th Century Fox had trouble promoting, John Carpenter’s “Big Trouble in Little China.” Weller described Richter as a beautiful and really laid-back guy, and that he was also an intellectual from the east coast. Richter didn’t have the get up and go Hollywood thing going on, and Weller said this made him perfect for the actors to work with. Also, Richter was a musician as was Weller and several of the cast members, and Weller said his heroes have always been musicians.

Vera said he got cast after Richter and Weller saw him perform at the Viper Room in Hollywood. After he was done, Vera said Richter got a hold of him and asked, “You know, I like the way you improvise on stage. Do you think you could do that in a movie?” “Yeah, I do it every night,” Vera said. ”Do me a favor,” Richter said, “kind of tell me where you’re gonna stand so that I can have a camera ready for you.” Weller, Vera and Peterson all agreed that this was the way Richter directed the whole movie.

Mr. Beaks then started taking questions from the audience, the first one coming from a guy who read somewhere that the producers of “Buckaroo Banzai” were not at all happy with the film. He asked if this dislike of theirs bled onto the set to which Weller replied, “Uh, yeah.“ It must really suck to make a movie while knowing those who got the ball rolling and spent so much money on it don’t believe in it after viewing the dallies. And like many cult movies, this one was a box office flop, but it eventually found a cult following on video, cable, and DVD. You have to wonder how this movie among others could inspire such fans to watch it at least 57 times. Weller summed it all up perfectly:

“The longevity of it is that it’s unique. There’s a uniqueness to it,” Weller said. “They (the producers) wanted it to fit into a mold. They thought that it would be more slapstick, overt action and humor. The humor, although I have to say I don’t understand a lot of it, was fantastic. The humor was so… Just under the radar man.”

“And that’s why they cut a half hour of it,” Vera added. “The movie was a half hour longer which gave the jokes more room to breathe, but the studio said they wanted to cut it short so that they can show it more times per day.”

Particularly fascinating was Weller’s take on Christopher Lloyd whom we all know best as Doctor Emmet Brown from “Back to the Future.” Weller talked about when Lloyd’s house in Montecito burned down during the devastating Malibu fires. Lloyd had gone on television to talk about what happened, and Weller described how he and his wife were so devastated over what happened to him. But during a conversation with one of Weller’s professors at UC Santa Barbara, who brought up how sorry he was for Lloyd losing his house, Weller quoted exactly what he said:

“You’re gonna be the first to know the truth… I was already selling the house and there was nothing in it at all. I was living in an apartment in Montecito!”

Stunned at hearing this, Weller looked right at Lloyd and said, “Chris! The world, not just LA, but the whole world! We even saw this news in Italy! You looked so sad…” Lloyd’s response to this really did turn the whole thing into a comedy:

“I know! Because when the fire was going and I walked up and they put three cameras in my face, and I didn’t know what to do except LIE!”

Weller also said he met Jeff Goldblum on the same night he lost his virginity, and then he brought up an almost insane story about Goldblum which took place when he was getting married. Weller had already been married at that point and was telling Goldblum how excited he was to see him settling down. What Goldblum told him after that made us see him in different light:

“We’re on the other side now Peter!”

Other tidbits about “Buckaroo Banzai” included how the montage of Buckaroo and his comrades coming together during the end credits was actually an addition made by Richter later on. While filming this, Weller admitted he and the actors were actually walking to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.”

Before those end credits began, there was also the promise of a sequel laid out for the audience entitled “Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League.” One audience member asked why this sequel never got made, and it turns out there was more to it than the movie dying at the box office:

“Well the one guy (producer) went to prison for bank fraud, and the other guy blew his brains out in Century City Plaza,” Weller said. “Both of those guys were really good guys and I stayed in touch with the one who went to the joint, and he’s out now.”

 Just before they finally started showing the movie, Weller thanked the crowd for coming out and said that this turnout and excitement was what he had expected when he walked in to meet his professors at UCLA today. Instead, they just gave him more stuff to work on, and that was after the 86 hours of work he had already done. Suffice to say, this crowd was far more welcoming.

It was great to finally see “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th Dimension” after all these years, and it was even more fun watching it with a large audience. To see it on television is one thing, but there is nothing like experiencing it on the silver screen in a packed theater. Weller took a very unrealistic character who was a renaissance man, a top neurosurgeon, particle physicist, race car driver, rock star and comic book hero, and he made you buy into him without questioning the logic of how he found the time to take on all these disciplines.

Another memorable evening at the New Beverly Cinema!

Exclusive Interview with Ira Sachs about ‘Love is Strange’

Ira Sachs photo

Ira Sachs’ previous films have dealt with the dangers of being in love and how it can feel like an illusion, but his latest film “Love is Strange” has him dealing with love in a more positive fashion. It focuses on a gay couple, George and Ben (played by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow), who have been together for over 30 years. When gay marriage is made legal in New York, they finally get married and are super excited about starting a new chapter in their lives together. But things quickly change for them quite drastically when the Catholic school where George teaches decides to terminate his employment upon discovering he married Ben, and this forces them to spend time apart for the first time in years as they search for cheaper housing.

I very much enjoyed talking with Sachs over the phone while he was doing press for “Love is Strange.” The movie not only chronicles the challenges these newlyweds face, but of the impact that their situation has on the family and friends closest to them. During our interview, I asked Sachs how he goes about keeping his characters in the movie down to earth, why he decided not to get political considering the issues involved, and why he decided this time to make a different movie about love than he had previously.

Love is Strange movie poster

Ben Kenber: This movie has such a wonderfully organic feel to it. How do you go about keeping the characters in the story feeling so down to earth?

Ira Sachs: That’s a nice question. I try to be as open as possible to my collaborators and to the city and to the situations that are in front of me. I think of directing as not so different to acting in a way in that my job is to listen and respond organically and authentically, and you have to do that 1000 times a day when you make a film. But if you situate yourself in a place which is most open and attentive, you have to be very observant as well. I think it creates something that has the organic feeling you’re describing.

BK: John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are both brilliant in this film, and they have been friends for a long time. The rapport they have together onscreen feels just wonderfully natural. Did you have to do a lot of directing with them, or did you just let them loose?

IS: We made a pact, the three of us, that we were going to create a certain kind of texture for their relationship that was going to be different than what either actor had been asked to do in a long time. There was a level of realism and naturalism and simplicity that the roles called for. These are really modest man, Ben and George, but they maintain a confidence as individuals that I felt was very much what I witnessed in John and Alfred, and I wanted the film to share that confidence. So we had this kind of agreement that everything would be kept to a very delicate tone, and both actors are known for their larger qualities in terms of performance. What I wanted to do was rein that in, and I think that allowed for some new things to appear.

BK: What I really admired about “Love is Strange” is it could have been a polemic about intolerance and that, even with gay marriage now a reality in many states like New York, we still have a way to go for achieving equality in life. But this movie is more humane and very objective in how it views the different forces which threaten to tear these two characters apart.

IS: My interest as a director is to depict the intricacies of relationships and of intimacy, and that includes romantic relationships as well as family and community. In this case it also includes the city of New York. I set out to make a romantic film about New York. I’m also as a director at bit of a historian meaning that my job is to be accurate about the time that I live as well as my characters, so the kind of pulled from the headlines quality just gives the film shape in a certain way. I like to think of myself as a neo realist, someone who is interested in making the ordinary of everyday lives extraordinary. For me that should in addition also include some amount of documentation of the details of these characters’ lives in a way that’s very specific.

BK: One performance in particular I really wanted to point out was Charlie Tahan’s who plays the temperamental teenager Joey. It’s always great when you get an exceptional performance from a child actor because they are not always easy to get, and the character has a nice arc throughout the movie. What was it like working with Charlie?

IS: Well, to me he is the revelation of the film because we don’t know him, and what we’re actually discovering is the birth of a great, great actor. I felt like there was conversation when we were shooting the film about Leonardo DiCaprio in (“What’s Eating) Gilbert Grape;” it’s that kind of performance. It’s so open and so honest and so raw and so easy. There’s just this ease and I think that was something that impressed all of us, more experienced filmmakers and actors on set, about Charlie was how naturally it came. He is an experienced child actor. He’d been in “Charlie St. Cloud” with Zac Efron. He was the voice of the kid in “Frankenweenie” so he worked with Tim Burton. He wasn’t plucked from nowhere, but he came in and gave an audition that was breathtaking.

BK: Charlie said you really knew how to write for kids and that you really understood them and what they went through. Did Charlie stay close to the script and was there anything specifically that he added to it during shooting?

IS: Well the script is a blueprint for the emotions you hope to reveal, so actors add everything. I’m quite specific about the script and it is a very written film and it’s constructed through the screenplay, and yet I search for a kind of emotional improvisation on set that has to be very, very fresh and real. So I don’t rehearse my actors before we start shooting. We talk, we spend some time with each other, but I’ve never heard the line said nor have the other actors. What it gives the movie is a kind of freshness. I think two words that should be banned from the set are “subtext” and “motivation” because when you’re speaking to those things, you’re trying to pin down the impossibly ineffable of any one moment.

BK: Another performance I really loved in this movie was Marisa Tomei’s. Not only does she bring a naturalness to her role, but she’s also able to communicate so much without saying a word. What was it like watching her pull that off?

IS: She’s like this quiet storm because she’s so focused as an actress. There’s a scene where she has no dialogue and she’s in bed with her husband and she’s got a lot on her mind, and as a director you just watch and you think, “She’s writing paragraphs for me.” She thinks so much while doing so little. I think what was exciting about this role for Marisa, and I think what makes people connect to it, is that she was allowed to play a woman of her experience and her intelligence, and she wasn’t asked to do anything other. In this case, Marisa is the fulcrum of the story; she’s the generation in the middle. The film is really about these multiple generations: the older couple, Marisa and her husband (played by) Darren Burrows who were very much in the middle of their lives, and Charlie Tahan who’s playing in adolescent learning about love for the first time. But it all kind of centers on Marisa and she is in a way a stand-in for me, the artist who is watching these things and trying to figure out how to act.

BK: Your previous films “Delta” and “Keep the Lights On” tend to deal with love as an impossibility or an illusion among other things, but “Love is Strange” sees it in a much different light. What made you decide to do a story on love in this particular way?

IS: I think I’ve changed a lot in the last 10 years. My previous films were all about characters trying to understand themselves, and they were films of self-discovery. I think it was very much what I personally was involved in, trying to understand who I am and become comfortable with who I am, and that took a long time. In my 40’s things have been different and I feel much more at ease, and I think that has created the possibility of new kinds of relationships. I’m married and my husband and I are raising children, but it’s not just the kind of signifiers that imply change. It’s something much more internal, and I think the film is about the internal qualities of love which are so distinct for each of us.

BK: Since this is a low budget independent movie, I imagine you had very little time in which to shoot it in. How did this affect you overall as a filmmaker?

IS: I’m a producer on all my films as well as the writer and director, and I always create the situation where I have the economic means to create the aesthetic objects that I need so my sets are very calm. I’ve made films that cost $200,000 and I’ve made ones that cost multi-million dollars, and the experience is not too different. If you’re doing your job right as a filmmaker, you have what you need.

BK: Regarding Alfred Molina’s character of George, it’s interesting because the Catholic school he teaches at doesn’t seem to mind his relationship with Ben much until the two of them get married. Later on in the movie, George has a great line where he says, “Life has its obstacles, but I’ve learned early on that they will always be lessened if faced with honesty.” What inspired that line?

IS: I think it speaks to the heart of the film. The film is in some ways about education with a small e. What do we teach each other? What is our responsibility? How as a culture do we carry on our values? What do we share in relationships and as parts of family? Also, the film speaks to how loss impacts individuals not just in terms of rights but in terms of experience. You can imagine George as a teacher being somewhat, to me, like what Alfred Molina is as a person which is you want to be your best self around him, and those are the kinds of people that I have known whether it be my parents or… I was very close to a sculptor who was 99 when he died, and at 98 he began his last work which was of a teenager with his backpack, and to me the idea that he was reaching for creative opportunities at that age was something I could learn a lot from. I feel that the film talks about those kinds of educations, and I think that when you’re young you don’t realize that your parents are people and that your grandparents are also. I think this film is about perspective and how we begin to recognize that people in our family are actually human beings with their own stories.

I want to thank Ira Sachs for taking the time to talk with me. “Love is Strange” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Photo courtesy of the New York Times. Poster courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Exclusive Interview with Alfred Molina about ‘Love is Strange’

Alfred Molina Love is Strange

He has played a variety of characters in movies like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Prick Up Your Ears,” “Boogie Nights,” “Spider-Man 2” and “Not Without My Daughter” to where it seems like he can play anybody (and he probably can). Now Alfred Molina takes on a more intimate role in Ira Sachs’ “Love Is Strange” where he plays George, a Catholic school music teacher who, as the movie starts, marries his lover of 39 years, Ben (played by John Lithgow). They have a joyous ceremony, but once word reaches the school of George’s wedding, they subsequently fire him. This leads to a great deal of upheaval in the newlyweds’ life as they are forced to sell their apartment and spend time apart for the first time in years as they search for more affordable housing. The situation weighs very heavily on George to where he feels like he’s failing Ben and everyone around him.

It was a great pleasure to speak with Molina while he was doing press for “Love Is Strange.” It turns out that he and Lithgow have been friends for many years, so the fact that they have great chemistry onscreen should be no surprise. In addition, I also asked Molina about how sees the world of independent filmmaking today, why Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” inspired him to become an actor, and of what it was like to shoot this film without any rehearsals.

Love is Strange movie poster

Ben Kenber: Since you and John Lithgow have been friends for a long time, did the chemistry you two developed onscreen come easy to you?

Alfred Molina: Yes, it did. I think the advantage of being friends with John, having had a relationship as friends, helps us both in a way. For me, it just meant there was shorthand already in place. There was an ease and a rapport and a relaxation between us that was very easy and also very conducive and helpful for the roles we were playing. I think we would’ve still enjoyed the fact that we are friends if we had been playing adversaries in a movie or a good guy, bad guy. But the fact that we were playing a couple in a long-term relationship, I think our history as friends only helped and sort of aided that.

BK: What I really liked about this movie is that what the characters go through is quite ordinary, but it takes on a different feeling here. We don’t see enough movies these days about regular ordinary people, and the problems the characters go through here feel quite epic.

AM: Yeah. People lose their jobs, people lose their homes and it’s always bad news. But it happens very often for the most trivial of reasons, and I think the fact that Ira Sachs and (co-writer) Mauricio Zacharias created a couple who, by their very ordinariness, when this crisis happens to them, it takes on epic proportions. And like most crises that happen to ordinary people it becomes huge because normally in our own lives we don’t have the power or the means to overcome them quite so easily. It takes time and I think the fact that George and Ben are, for all intents and purposes, a very ordinary and a very anonymous couple adds to the strength of this story.

BK: I also wanted to congratulate you on receiving the Spotlight Award from the Creative Coalition at Sundance for your work in independent films. How do you think the world of independent films is faring today? Has it gotten easier to make them or harder?

AM: Well, I think it all depends on one’s perspective. Independent moviemaking is always a challenge. I think whenever you’re working on projects that don’t have immediate commercial appeal and you’re working outside of the studios, especially on low budget films where you’re really scrambling to raise $2 or $3 million to make a movie or however much it is, you’re working under all kinds of restrictions and challenges and the biggest one of course being time. You don’t have time. You very often don’t have time to absorb any mistakes or any accidents or anything that happens that kind of works against your schedule, so it’s always a challenge. But I think the fact that there are so many independent movies finding an eager audience means that there’s something being done right and well. There is an audience out there for good stories. There’s an audience out there for well-made, well-crafted, sincere movies about real people in real situations, and I think the reason why there’s an audience is because of the way cable TV, for instance, has welcomed movies. So many directors and writers and actors are now working on cable shows because that’s where some of the best movies are being made where young directors are getting the chance to make their films and tell their stories. The relationship between the product and the audience has changed a lot. There was a time when you were working on television that you were very much the guest in someone’s house. But now cable has changed all that because you’re paying for it. Also, our TVs have gotten bigger so it’s like watching a movie, and if you’ve got a 50-inch screen in your front room, the ratio is pretty typical of a small movie house. You can be watching movies at home and I think that changes the dynamic between the product and the audience, and there’s an audience out there for small films. The independent industry lurches from one crisis to another, and in those ups and downs there’s some great movies being made.

BK: I’ve talked with a lot of indie filmmakers recently and they usually get a shooting schedule that’s 30 days if they’re lucky, but those schedules keep getting shorter as time goes on.

AM: That’s right, yeah, because making movies gets more and more expensive. But there will always be an independent director, writer, actors who want to continue to work in that milieu because ultimately that’s where the most interesting stuff is happening. I can only speak for myself, but I think that’s where the best films are being made.

BK: Your character of George has a great line in this film where he says, “Life has its obstacles, but I’ve learned early on that they will always be lessened if faced with honesty.” I think it’s very interesting in that George teaches at a Catholic school and has for many years, but the school doesn’t always respect the individual that he is.

AM: Absolutely, and I think that’s a great shame for anyone who’s in the same position as George; losing your job or losing your home or being chastised by society in some way because of who you choose to love and who you choose to spend your life with. As a heterosexual that’s something I’ve taken completely for granted. I can take it for granted that I can love whoever the hell I want and no one can stop me, but my gay friends have only recently begun to enjoy that right. So I think that’s why lines like that in the movie are terribly important and very, very resonant not just for gay men and women but for everybody. I was talking today with John (Lithgow) about how… He’s only been to a few gay weddings in recent years, but we both found them incredibly moving. Weddings are moving anyway. Anybody who confidently stands up and says I want to spend the rest of my life with this other person is making a very dramatic and a very moving and emotional statement, but when it’s two gay people you know that it’s not just full of the romantic and emotional power of the moment. It’s full of years, sometimes decades, of struggle to reach that point, so it has even more significance.

BK: That’s a very good point. In recent years, we’ve had movies like this and “The Kids Are All Right” which are about gay couples, but the fact the couples are gay becomes irrelevant because they deal with the truth of what married life is like and the struggles which come with it.

AM: You ask anyone who’s active in any kind of human rights or equal rights campaign and I’m sure they would say that their ultimate goal is to no longer have to have conversations like this where one sexuality is no longer relevant. Whenever I come across any kind of vaguely homophobic sentiments I’ve gotten to ask people, “When did you first realize that you were straight?” It’s amazing the reaction that gets because they don’t know how to answer, and the truth is that no one should have to put up with being asked that.

BK: I once read that you said you have to believe in what you’re saying in the same way your character does. Whether it’s Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler you’re playing, you have to portray them honestly and accurately regardless of whether they were good or bad. A lot of actors like to change material to where it suits them better, but I liked what you said because it goes the fact that the part is not about you, it’s about the character you’re playing.

AM: I’ve always regarded my job as being about serving the character regardless of who the character is. At a certain point taking on a job and then once you signed the contract and taken the money then saying “oh by the way I don’t think my character would say this” or “I don’t think my character would be like this,” that’s a conversation that one should have before you sign the contract and take the money. Once you have committed to something, you should be committing to the same things that everyone’s agreed on. Just as an act of creativity, you’ve got to give the same amount of dedication to whether you’re playing Adolf Hitler or Mother Teresa.

BK: I also read you were inspired to become an actor after watching the movie “Spartacus.” What was it specifically about the movie which inspired you so much?

AM: You know, I don’t know myself. It was so long ago and I must’ve been about nine years old when the film came out. I just remember coming out of that film just knowing that’s what I wanted to do. I don’t mean I wanted to be a gladiator, but I just wanted to be doing that; making films, being in films. I’m not quite sure what it was that prompted that, but it was a very powerful feeling.

BK: There were no rehearsals of scenes when it came to filming “Love is Strange.” How did this affect you as an actor?

AM: Well it was an interesting process really because normally you have rehearsals and work things out. I would hate for you to think that it was due to a lack of preparation; it wasn’t that. Ira Sachs, our director, came to the project impeccably prepared. What he didn’t do though was that he didn’t have us rehearse the scene and then play into the camera what we had rehearsed. He just wanted us to go into the take with the camera running and to just discover it in the moment. That was a very refreshing way to work, I loved it. I’m looking forward to doing it again. It’s very rare that directors give you that kind of freedom and also, given the fact that we were under the severe constraints in terms of time and money, it worked out well.

BK: “Love is Strange” seems to give the audience a very unique look at New York whereas other movies tend to portray it as a crime ridden place among others things. Would you say this movie gives a more accurate view of New York than other recent films have?

AM: Well, I think it’s as accurate a view of New York as any other movie. I don’t think the view of the city that the movie has is a negative one by any means. The city looks beautiful in this movie especially in that last sequence with that sunset and the two young characters on their skateboards. It’s a beautiful, beautiful ending to the film. Because it’s the most photogenic city in the world, any film that takes place in New York has to deal with New York as a character in the film. There’s nothing nondescript about New York. It’s a unique looking place. No other city in the world looks quite like it, so I think it’s something any filmmaker has to embrace.

BK: The interesting thing about the way Ira Sachs frames this movie is that it could’ve taken a huge political stance but he doesn’t which feels quite appropriate. He’s not taking issue with anybody, but he’s takes good observations of the Catholic doctrine and how it affects certain people.

AM: Yeah, absolutely. It’s not a political film; it’s not a diatribe on the state of gay culture or the Catholic Church. It’s a domestic story. It’s a love story set against some real events that happened to real people, and I think it makes some very wry observations about the city and about New York real estate and about the conditions a lot of people live under. It’s not a message movie. What drives the movie is a kind of deep humanity.

I want to thank Alfred Molina for taking the time to talk with me. “Love is Strange” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

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Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was a prequel no one I knew of, including myself, was excited about seeing. The memories we have, or whatever’s left of them, of Tim Burton’s surprisingly bland and forgettable remake of “Planet of the Apes” made us not want to have those “damn dirty apes” putting their paws on us ever again. But this prequel proves to be a total surprise and an unexpected delight as it is intelligently written and features a number of interesting characters which many summer movies typically lack.

Actually, there is one real reason why “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is as good as it is: Andy Serkis. You may not know the face, but you most certainly know the name. Serkis brought Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy to life, and he inhabited the humongous ape who was in love with Naomi Watts in “King Kong.” Serkis has also done a large number of live action roles, but these are the ones he is best known for. As Caesar, Serkis does an amazing job of creating a multi-dimensional creature who is endlessly fascinating to watch as his intelligence grows exponentially.

What happens is scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is developing a genetically engineered retrovirus which may cure Alzheimer’s Disease (didn’t I just tell you that?) just like Saffron Burrows’ character in ” Deep Blue Sea” tried to accomplish. Will, on the other hand, is doing this because his dad Charles (the great John Lithgow) is in the grips of this dreaded disease, so his goal of getting to a cure is both personal and far more dangerous as a result.

Rodman and his team succeed with one chimpanzee, Bright Eyes, who develops a strong level of human intelligence after being given the retrovirus. However, Bright Eyes ends up getting killed after going on a rampage in the laboratory which is immediately blamed on Will’s experiment. It turns out, however, that Bright Eyes had given birth to a chimp, and both Will and fellow scientist Robert Franklin (Tyler Labine) realize the attack came about not because of the retrovirus, but because she was just trying to protect her baby. Since all the other chimps were euthanized after the attack, Robert asks Will to take care of the chimp until a more permanent home can be found. If the baby is discovered, she will be euthanized like the rest of the chimps were.

Now this is where the movie gets really interesting as we watch the baby chimp, which Will names Caesar, grow up and evolve at a rapid pace. The retrovirus ended up being passed on to him from his mother, so he is already imbued with human intelligence. Now I don’t know if any experiment can make chimps or apes that smart as of yet, but considering we came from them (don’t believe otherwise), the concept behind the plot feels very plausible since we know chimps can learn things like sign language (which Will teaches Caesar), and that DNA in chimps and humans is exactly identical.

“Rise of the Planet of The Apes” came out around the same time the documentary “Project Nim” was released, and that one focused on a chimp who was raised alongside a human family where he learned American Sign Language. As a result, Will bringing Caesar into his home for him and his ailing father to watch over never feels far-fetched in the slightest.

Serkis is brilliant in making Caesar appear like a frightened child as he discovers the dangers of the outside world. This is not your typical monster movie where the humans fight animals because they are considered “evil.” Caesar doesn’t start out attacking humans as much as he defends the ones he feels are being harmed. We feel for him as he gets exposed to a cold and hostile environment which treats him as inferior and brutalizes him out of sheer neglect and contempt. Watching Serkis transform Caesar from helpless victim to leader is mesmerizing, and he makes it to where we don’t see him as an animal but as more human than the humans surrounding him.

We’ve seen some movies where humans attack aliens or other species, be it “Cowboys & Aliens” or “Attack The Block,” so it’s kind of refreshing to see “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” bypass this to where the battle is more complex than it appears to be on the surface. These apes weren’t born evil, but they have evolved (take that Creationists!) to where they are no longer dependent on humans for their survival. You almost find yourself rooting for the apes as you can’t blame them for wanting to get back at their captors. Then again, not all the humans in this movie are cruel to animals.

James Franco is as excellent as scientist Will Rodman who is in the Frankenstein mold of trying to extend life even if it goes beyond scientific boundaries. Franco never makes Will out to be an obsessive genius with delusions of grandeur, but instead a regular guy doing what he feels is best. As he tries the retrovirus on other chimps and his father, even he comes to see there are and should be limits to what science can do. Human life can only last for so long, darn it.

The movie, however, stumbles a little when it comes to other characters. Freida Pinto (“Slumdog Millionaire”) plays Will’s girlfriend Caroline Aranha, but she’s not given much to do other than be his conscience. Brian Cox plays John Landon, manager of a primate facility who incarcerates Caesar when a court order takes him away from Will. Cox is great as always, but we don’t see enough of him. Then there’s Tom Felton who brings his Draco Malfoy act from the “Harry Potter” franchise to the States with an American accent as Landon’s bully of a son, Dodge. Felton’s not bad, but the character he plays is nothing more than a manipulative device to turn our sympathies towards Caesar which comes to feel unnecessary very quickly.

Directing “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is Rupert Wyatt who previously directed the British prison thriller “The Escapist.” He shows a very assured and confident style here and is clearly interested in more than just simple escapist fun with this film. He also gives more attention to the characters to where they are the ones which drive the film. The special effects are great, but they’re not the point. The complexities of the story make for a more emotionally involving cinematic experience than any “Transformers” movie could ever hope to be.

The story is a familiar one of man vs. science and of the moral implications which are heedlessly ignored in the pursuit of a greater good. We should despise Will for violating his own ethics which start off an evolution that soon leads to a revolution. But in the end, the movie implies that the destruction of the human race will not be from the apes but instead from our own willful ignorance. We should know better, and yet history keeps repeating itself.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” proved to be one of summer 2011’s best movies, and it makes me look forward to the sequel “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” The downside is Serkis still has yet to get an Oscar nomination for his work in movies like these. Regardless of how it may seem, the special effects did not do all the acting for him. It could have just seemed like a simple setup for a franchise, but it feels very much like a full movie which doesn’t exist solely for that purpose. It will appeal to a wide audience, and not just for those who are against animal testing.

* * * ½ out of * * * *