Richard Curtis Reflects on the Making of ‘About Time’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Nighy

Rachel McAdams

Max Thieriot on Playing Ryan in ‘House at the End of the Street’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

Max Thieriot’s acting career has been on the rise ever since his film debut in “Catch that Kid,” and now he gets one of his biggest roles to date in the horror movie “House at the End of the Street.” In it, he plays Ryan Jacobson, a sole survivor of a vicious attack which claimed the lives of his immediate family. Thieriot talked about how he prepared for the role and of what it was like working with Jennifer Lawrence who co-stars as the new girl in town, Elissa.

Thieriot got really excited about playing Ryan after he read the script, finding him very complex and full of many layers which get peeled back as the screenplay unfolds. The challenge of the role for him was to find a way to make this soft spoken and quiet character more unique than the ones which usually inhabit horror movies.

“I watched a lot of videos, and all sorts of stuff on people with different issues, and tried to find some common ground and similarity between them and their actions, and Ryan,” Thieriot said. “I put together a lot of stuff, and came up with what I did.”

Like many horror and thriller movies, “House at the End of the Street” contains endless twists and turns as filmmakers love to keep audiences guessing. Thieriot said it is actually rare for him to find a script like this one which has twists he did not see coming. The trick became to not reveal too much as it can be ridiculously easy to give a lot of things away.

“One of the hardest parts is when you’re playing a character and you know what’s going on with the character, it’s easier to not show it,” said Thieriot. “In this film, there are moments where you reveal little secrets without telling people that it’s happening – whether it’s a look and being able to have them noticeable enough that when you finish the movie, you go, ‘Oh!'”

Of course, many people have asked Thierlot what it was like working with Jennifer Lawrence whose career has gone into hyper drive thanks to the success of “The Hunger Games.” He spoke very highly of Lawrence and described her as really cool and that he had a lot of fun playing off her and working with her. What also made them work so well together in “House at the End of the Street” is they have similar backgrounds in regards to how they grew up.

“Immediately, I could tell she was a fantastic actress. It was always very real with her. It made it so much easier for me to come off like that,” Thieriot said. “She was a down-to-earth, small-town girl. I’m from a small town in Northern California. We understood each other. It (this movie) was before any of her success. Nobody in the industry knew her. That’s how it always is – you’re unknown until you get that one chance to show it.”

Up next for Max Thieriot is playing Norman Bates’ older brother Dylan in the upcoming A&E drama series “Bates Motel.” He has previously only been in one horror movie before “House at the End of the Street” (Wes Craven’s underappreciated “My Soul to Take”), but he is certainly making his presence felt in this genre. It will benefit from actors like Thieriot who are out to give audiences something that’s not just the same old thing.

SOURCES:

Christina Radish, “Max Thieriot Talks HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET, PSYCHO Series BATES MOTEL, and DISCONNECT,” Collider, September 20, 2012.

Joel D. Amos, “The House at the End of the Street: Max Thieriot Explores His Dark Side,” Movie Fanatic, September 20, 2012.

Steven Soderbergh Teams Up With Gina Carano For ‘Haywire’

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2012, long before Gina Carano’s acting career went in a certain direction which she did not benefit from.

Watching Steven Soderbergh’s “Haywire” brought back a lot of great memories I have of watching action heroes kicking serious ass in movies. I grew up watching Steven Seagal snap arms in half in “Hard to Kill” and “Marked for Death,”, and I always found in intensely satisfying to see him lay waste to those enemies who dared to cross him. There was also Chuck Norris who you could always count on to inflict serious pain on his adversaries and perform a pitch perfect roundhouse kick in “The Delta Force.” Those films came out in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Now we are in the year 2011, and it feels like it has been far too long since we have had an action star who can punch and kick in ways I can only dream of doing myself.

With “Haywire,” Soderbergh introduces us to Gina Carano, a now retired mixed martial arts fighter. As he did with Sasha Grey in “The Girlfriend Experience,” he throws Carano into her first mainstream acting role to see how she swims in the competitive world of Hollywood. But whereas Grey had unknown actors to work with, Carano is placed in a sea of top-notch actors which include Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Douglas. Taking this into account, I cannot help but think Grey had it a lot easier than Carano.

“Haywire” is another one of those innocent people framed for a crime they didn’t commit movies with Carano playing Mallory Kane, a black ops agent who is assigned to covert operations. Kane is quick to discover she has been set up to take a fall, and she plots her revenge against those who foolishly underestimated her vicious talents. You know she will eventually get the upper hand on her betrayers, and seeing her take them on is terrific fun as she performs stunts which I don’t always see Stallone or Schwarzenegger doing as well.

Yes, Carano’s acting range only goes so far, but she does have a strong presence whenever she’s onscreen. Furthermore, she manages to hold her own against actors who could have easily run her over and embarrass her without remorse. Having said that, she really comes alive during the action sequences which are exhilarating as she doesn’t have some stunt person filling in for her. It should be no surprise that, being MMA fighter, she can really take a punch and dish one out which looks far more painful than the one she was forced to endure.

Actually, when you think about it, Carano gives all the actors opposite her a tough acting challenge as they have to appear as tough, if not tougher, than she is. Certain actors (you’ll know them when you see them) look inescapably sheepish around her, and they look even worse when they prepare to throw punches in her general direction. Even when she’s not strangling a guy with her legs, tackling another, or smothering an unluck bastard with a pillow, those eyes of her stare at you like shiny daggers to where you feel like you should have known better than to mess with her.

The one actor who gives Carano a run for her money is Fassbender with whom she shares a dynamo fight scene where they literally beat the crap out of each other. Fassbender never makes it easy for his co-stars as he challenges them to be better than they already are, and this takes on a new meaning when they tangle to where one character’s victory is truly earned and not easily predicted.

“Haywire” may never be ranked among Soderbergh’s greatest works, but it is diverting fun as it plays around with the action movie conventions set up by the Bourne trilogy and various spy movies released over the years. It also allows him to team up again with his “Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen” composer David Holmes for another groovy music score which always proves to be so much to play on my stereo system. It will be interesting to see where Carano’s acting career goes from here. Will she advance to action star status, or will she end up in straight to video realm where many stars past their prime end up? Whatever you may think of her acting skills, she did create a memorable presence here onscreen.

At the very least, Carano is bound to have more luck on the silver screen than Howie Long has had to date. He may have been a cool dude in “Broken Arrow,” but his lead role in “Firestorm” left little to be desired.

* * * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘Let Me In’ – A Better Than Expected Remake

Let The Right One In” did not need a remake. The 2008 Swedish film was a brilliant atmospheric piece of cinema, and I find it endlessly frustrating when American audiences can’t embrace foreign movies more often. Do subtitles really have to be an impediment when they come across so much better than dopey English dubbing?

Regardless, its American remake “Let Me In” turns out to be a big surprise. Just when I was convinced Hollywood studios would simply dumb the story down to attract a youthful demographic, Matt Reeves’ take on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, which in turn inspired Tomas Alfredson’s movie, is amazingly respectful to its source material. Moreover, you can see throughout how the story deeply affected Reeves and how he personalized the actions of the characters on screen.

The story remains the same, but the characters’ names have been changed to protect the original. The setting has been moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico which, amazingly enough, appears to be as snowy as Sweden. The year is 1983 and Ronald Reagan is President of the United States, talking about the “evil empire” on television. The advantage of this film being set in the 1980’s, however, is that the characters don’t have to worry about not getting any cell phone reception because they don’t own cell phones. This makes it especially lucky for the filmmakers because they won’t have to make any stupid excuses for cell phones not working.

Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a 12-year-old boy who lives with his alcoholic mother (we never get a clear view of her face) and has no real friends to speak of. At school, he is constantly harassed by bullies who thoughtlessly subject him to even more humiliating tortures than what Oskar dealt with in “Let The Right One In.” Eventually, he comes in contact with Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), a girl who looks to be around his age, who has moved into his apartment building next door to him. Although she tells Owen they can’t be friends, a strong bond soon forms once he gives her his Rubik’s Cube to play with. She ends up solving it in a way which doesn’t involve cheating. My brother would have just taken the stickers off the cube and put them back on with the colors altogether.

I really do mean it when I say the humiliations Owen endures here are even worse than what Oskar went through to where I came out of this remake believing Oskar had it easy. Reeves, who has directed “Cloverfield,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “War of the Planet of the Apes,” really captures how kids can be utterly cruel to one another, and it will bring back memories for those of us who were humiliated in ways which left a wealth of psychological scars. Seeing him practice his revenge on the bullies all by his lonesome makes made me sadder as what we imagine doesn’t always jive with reality. While the kids at times put up a tough façade, their vulnerability is clearly evident in their eyes.

As the movie goes on, the fact Abby is a vampire, or a bloodsucker if you want to call her that, becomes a side issue. She and Owen are just two kids, one whom is older than they appear, who are struggling through the painful awkwardness of growing up. When they come in contact, they for once have someone they can relate to. Both Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz are perfectly cast, and each has moments where their faces say more than words ever could.

McPhee previously starred in for “The Road” where he played Viggo Mortensen’s’ son, and he inhabits Owen with all the isolation and helplessness the role has to offer. Chloë Grace Moretz did this after her amazing breakout performance in “Kick Ass,” and as Abby shows a strong maturity beyond her years. But I really have to applaud the adult actors who, while they don’t have as much screen time as their younger colleagues, give depth to characters that could have just been simple clichés. Richard Jenkins, still one of the most dependable character actors, plays Abby’s guardian, Thomas. Through his scenes with Moretz, he shows a caring man whose relationship with this girl has lasted longer than we could ever imagine. Jenkins makes us sympathize with this man even as he commits horrible acts for the sake of Abby’s survival. When we first meet Thomas, he has become wearier with the passing of time and the dark deeds which have weigh heavy on his soul.

Equally impressive is Elias Koteas who plays a police detective whose name never gets mentioned. The beauty of his acting here is how incredibly subtle he is to where he fully inhabits his character with what seems like relative ease. This could just have been the typical policeman whom the audience is manipulated into despising, doing all the stupid things cops do in movies. But Koteas instead gives the character a deep humanity to where you respect him even as you fear what he will do this Romeo & Juliet couple in the making. This is just a regular guy doing his job, and this makes his eventual fate all the more tragic.

“Let Me In” is not your typical jump-out-of-your-seat horror movie. There are a few jump scares, but the horror comes out of what cruelty people are subjected to, be it on the playground or anywhere else in town where you get your blood drained (and not by the Red Cross mind you). It also comes from where the line between what’s right and wrong becomes blurred as we ask ourselves if we can pull away from the people we love so much just to set things straight. What would we give up in the process?

As an American remake of a foreign film, I figured Hollywood would just change the story to where the good guys get the bad guys and justice wins out in the end. You know, the typical kind of plot designed to make us all feel good. To my astonishment, Reeves never veers in that direction once, and he has made a film whose climax is left up to the viewer to interpret. Nothing is ever easily spelled out for the audience, and I admired him for staying true to the source material.

If there is a drawback to “Let Me In,” it’s that in being respectful to “Let The Right One In,” not much has changed. For those who loved the 2008 movie as much as I did, there is much to admire but few surprises to be had. Many of the situations remain the same as before while certain characters in the background get more or less depth than they previously did. And there is all that snow like before, but it looks very beautiful and it’s a character of sorts in this movie. While Reeves doesn’t break new ground with this interpretation, we can see how deeply he relates to Lindqvist’s novel and its characters. In the end, “Let Me In”’ is not a vampire movie as much as it is one about childhood and how rocky a road it is for some more than others, especially for those who don’t grow old. It’s Reeves’ depth of feeling which informs this film, and it gives this remake a power I never expected it to have.

Oh yeah, there is 1980’s music to be heard throughout, but I kind of wished they put some more of it in here. I still love listening to music from that crazy decade, and it would have been cool to see some bloodletting done to the music of REO Speedwagon, Hall & Oates, or even Journey. How about something by Air Supply or Chicago? Oh well…

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Social Network’ Remains an Unforgettable Statement on Where Society Is

So, why was this particular David Fincher film called “The Social Network” instead of just “Facebook” or “The Facebook Movie?” When going into the movie theater back in 2010, I figured this film would be all about how Facebook came into existence and of how its audience grew so quickly, but it was not just about that. Looking more closely at “The Social Network,” I think the title is meant to be intentionally ironic as it describes the key individuals who got it off the ground, particularly Max Zuckerberg, as they were more antisocial than they cared to realize. Max was clearly more comfortable being up close and personal with a computer screen than in interacting with real people. The Facebook phenomenon may have brought people closer together than ever before, but ten years later after this film’s release, we are reminded of how it also succeeded in keeping us further apart. And in the year 2020, this is more apparent than ever before.

The beginning of “The Social Network” quickly illustrates Max Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) antisocial behavior as we watch him talk with his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), and it quickly devolves into an increasingly awkward conversation to say the least. Max can’t look her in the eye, and he ends up insulting her without even realizing it. It looks as though his mind is moving at 100 miles a minute to where he never really slows down enough to take in the reactions coming his way. This is our first look at the young man who has long since become the youngest billionaire in America thanks to his bringing about the world’s most prolific social networking website, and he is proving to be anything but social. Erica makes her frustration with his one-track mind and insensitive nature perfectly. Max fears that unless he gets into one of Harvard’s exclusive clubs, he will never be taken seriously and will just be some techno nerd in everyone’s eyes. Erica, fed up with his attitude, tells him people will keep their distance from him because he is a jerk, not because he is exceptionally bright.

Well, love has a very strange effect on us all, and instead of trying to reconcile with Erica right then and there, Max instead heads straight back to his dorm room and creates a page along with his roommates called “Face Mash.” With this page, he allows students to pick which female students at Harvard are the prettiest by comparing them to one another. Of course, this is right after Max cruelly disses his now ex-girlfriend Erica in a number of ways which includes describing her bra size. “Face Mash” ends up bringing in so many viewers in one night to where Harvard’s computer network crashes completely, and Max becomes one of the most vilified individuals on campus, by girls mostly, as well as one of Harvard’s most ingenious students. In record time, he exploited the network’s vulnerability in a way Harvard never saw coming, and the university is quick to cover their own ass as a result.

This all leads to an invitation by identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) along with their business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) to program a new website they want to put together called “Harvard Connection.” The way they see it, it will be a great way for the students at Harvard to connect with one another. Later, Max meets up with his best, and only, friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and proposes putting together a website he calls “The Facebook,” an online social networking tool which would be exclusive to Harvard University students. Eduardo agrees to help finance the site, and thus begins a phenomenon which just about everyone has a profile on except for those who have long since had their fill of anything with the name Zuckerberg attached to it. But from there on out, battle lines are drawn and lawsuits are underway as the Winklevoss twins and Narendra claim Mark stole their idea, Eduardo ends up suing Max for cutting him out of the whole thing even though he was a co-founder, and friends and acquaintances soon become the most bitter of enemies.

“The Social Network” jumps back and forth between different perspectives of what actually happened. We watch events progress as Max gets “The Facebook” up and running, and of the reaction his supposed business partners have when their friends set up profiles on it. You never know exactly where the film is going as it goes from one event to a litigation between an annoyed Zuckerberg and the infuriated Winklevoss twins and the deeply bitter Divya Narendra. It goes even further to another lawsuit Eduardo files against Max which illustrates how this endeavor forever terminated their friendship. Even if you know everything there is to know about the creation of Facebook, this film succeeds in intensifying the hurt feelings of everyone involved ever so vividly. We know this house of cards will soon collapse on all the main people involved, but you just don’t know how hard the hits will affect you and everyone else.

Now Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin working together might not sound like a match made in heaven, and it’s easier to expect them trying to strangle one another in the process of making “The Social Network.” But together, they make cinematic magic as Fincher’s razor-sharp direction more than complements Sorkin’s brilliant dialogue and story construction. This represents some of their best work, and there is nary a false note to be found here. The visual elements never upstage the script and vice versa. It’s a perfect marriage of sights and sounds in a story of friendship, power and betrayal.

Ever since Sorkin’s unforgettable work on “A Few Good Men” and “The American President,” he has mostly worked in television where he was best known for “The West Wing,” my big brother’s favorite TV show. But his screenplay for “The Social Network,” which was adapted from Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction book “The Accidental Billionaires,” is full of some of the most creative dialogue I have heard in any film I have ever seen. One standout scene comes when the Winklevoss twins meet up with Harvard President Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski) to discuss their desire to sue Max. Watching Summers dryly dismissing their accusations and politely tearing them a new one as if they had no reason to bother him in the first place is so indelibly clever to where the exchange merits a whole play unto itself.

But much of the credit for “The Social Network’s” success belongs to the actors, all of whom were perfectly cast. At the top of the list is Eisenberg who, as Max Zuckerberg, is never afraid to make his character less than likable, and I admired how he and the filmmakers were never looking to whitewash him for the sake of good press. Eisenberg makes you see how fast Max’s mind is moving and of how his single-mindedness keeps him from realizing who he is as a person. You do find yourself admiring Max in spite of himself, and Eisenberg really succeeds in creating a believable sense of empathy for him. It’s this empathy which makes us all want to follow along with this alienated genius all the way to the very end. It’s a tough role, but Eisenberg nails it perfectly while delivering Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue without missing a beat.

Rooney Mara only appears in a couple of scenes as Erica Albright, but her presence on the screen is quite powerful as she wounds Max for all he is worth. This proved to be a stronger showcase for Mara’s talents as opposed to her appearance in the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and it made me all the more excited to see her performance as Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” The fact her performance as Lisbeth was so brilliant was hinted at in her work here.

Then you have Andrew Garfield who, at the time, was more well-known for the role he was cast in as Peter Parker and his alter-ego in “The Amazing Spider-Man.” In many ways, Garfield gives this film’s best performance as the most well-meaning guy of the bunch who becomes the biggest victim of all. As we watch him lose control over something he helped create, Garfield makes us feel Eduardo’s vulnerability and pain of being so thoughtlessly cut out of this internet juggernaut all the more vivid and wrenching to witness. We relate to Eduardo’s situation as we have all been duped once or twice. This could have been a performance which might have come across as hopelessly melodramatic and manipulative, but Andrews makes his character so achingly real to where there is no forgetting him once the film has ended.

With Justin Timberlake, “The Social Network” proved there could be no denial of his acting talents with his revelatory performance as Sean Parker, founder of Napster. Fincher made Timberlake screen test for this role a dozen times, and it looks like all those times he hosted “Saturday Night Live” are giving him dividends he truly deserves. Yes, he gave terrific performances in “Alpha Dog” and “Black Snake Moan” beforehand, but his performance here feels all the more astonishing as he seduces not just Max Zuckerberg, but the audience as well. Timberlake slyly turns Sean into the guy who gets inside your skin to effortlessly take advantage of you as he can clearly see what your soul cries out for. Sean makes you believe that the world can be yours and that anything and everything is possible for you and only you. Timberlake is exquisite in Sean seem all the more appealing to be around while making you completely forget he is a back stabbing snake looking to get Eduardo Saverin out of the way.

A lot of praise is also in store for Armie Hammer who portrays the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler. It helps that Fincher chose an actor most people were not familiar with at the time because, for a while, I honestly thought it was two different actors playing these roles. Seeing an actor playing twins is nothing new, but it hasn’t been done this well since Nicolas Cage played two sides of Charlie Kaufman in “Adaptation.” Hammer nails all the specific nuances of each brother down perfectly to where you can easily tell them apart, and credit also needs to be given to Josh Pence who was a stand in for Hammer. You never catch yourself witnessing special effects whenever Hammer is onscreen, and this makes his work all the more impressive.

Seriously, even the smallest of roles in “The Social Network” are acted with the upmost skill, and no character could ever be mistaken as an easy throwaway. Actors like Max Minghella, Joseph Mazzello, Brenda Song, and Douglas Urbanski all make great use of their time onscreen, and each leaves their mark on our minds.

Trent Reznor composed the score for “The Social Network” along with Atticus Ross, and their music captures how the world around the characters becomes more and more mediatized as the world keeps turning and technology keeps advancing. The electronic sound Reznor is best known for serves to also illustrate the divisions which emerge among everyone here and of how their emotions end up being drained through anger and hurt feelings which may never be fully repaired. Fincher was convinced Fincher and Ross would not receive an Oscar nomination for their work, but they did and eventually won the Oscar for Best Original Score in a way the filmmaker did not see coming. This would lead to a remarkably creative working relationship between these three as they have composed to other Fincher films including the deliciously twisted “Gone Girl.”

“The Social Network” is not meant to be the definitive story of who is truly responsible for the creation of Facebook. Indeed, no one will ever fully know what went on other than the main people involved, and while hefty settlements were made out of court, there does not seem to be a consensus as to what truly happened. Clearly, neither Fincher or Sorkin were interested in getting down to the truth as much as they were in observing the effect this behemoth of a website had on everyone and of how Facebook came to make an inescapable mark in the realm of social media.

Frankly, I don’t give a damn if the movie is completely accurate as there is always a good dose of dramatization in movies dealing with non-fiction stories. What does matter to me is this all makes for a highly dramatic experience which holds our attention from the start to the very end. There are no gun fights or car chases to be found in “The Social Network,” but the emotionally damage inflicted feels every bit as visceral and brutal as any action picture.

The film’s last scene with Max Zuckerberg sitting alone in an office in front of his laptop computer pretty much defines what we have all become in the past decade; a slave to technology and the world wide web. It makes you wonder if we will ever be able to live without such technology as it has long become an inescapable part of our lives. Can we even remember what the world was like before the internet? These days, we are more comfortable being up front and close with our computers than we are with other people, and this was the case before the current global pandemic. Still, there is still a part of us yearning for human contact which we all need, and the fact we are more removed from it than usual is a sad statement on humanity.

* * * * out of * * * *

Skylar Astin on Being the Moral Compass in ’21 & Over’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place back in 2013.

Skylar Astin has had the privilege of entertaining us onstage in the Tony Award-winning musical “Spring Awakening” and onscreen in movies like “Hamlet 2” where he sang the song “Raped in the Face” and “Pitch Perfect” in which he appeared opposite Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson. Now he’s starring in “21 and Over,” the comedy which marks the directorial debut of “The Hangover” screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore. Astin plays Casey who quickly proves to be the moral compass the other main characters need to survive the mess they end up getting caught in.

I got to catch up with Astin while at the “21 and Over” press conference held at the Saddle Ranch Chop House off of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Now when it comes to college comedies like this one, most actors would prefer to play the character who is wild and crazy and comes across as the life of the party. Casey, however, is exactly the opposite of that even though he gets into as much trouble as his friends do. Still, Astin saw the benefits of playing such a level headed and grounded character in this film.

Skylar Astin: “You’ve got to have a moral compass of the movie and you got to like steer the ship a little. It’s cool that we all got our opportunity to be funny though.”

One pivotal scene in “21 and Over” has Astin and his co-star Miles Teller walking around campus wearing nothing but a tube sock over their privates. Now this could not have been a very comfortable scene to do, especially when you have a lot of people on set looking at you and wondering how much time you spent at the gym. Astin talked in detail about he approached this scene in the film which was filmed in Seattle, Washington.

Skylar Astin: “Funny enough, it was supposed to be approached very delicately. We were told that it was going to be a closed set and that it was gonna be the warmest day of the shoot. It turns out that it’s freezing, everyone’s there, and actually at our first costume fitting they just had a sock and a little underneath sock to keep everything in place and they’re like ‘here’s your fitting!’ At first, we had a moment of where it was like fight or flight, and I think I was just like ‘let’s just do it man. We have to do it eventually.’ I just de-robed and was like this is everything I got. I don’t think I was like proud, but I just had to play the role of being okay with it. I had the idea of making the whole crew where just socks and they didn’t oblige, especially the women, but it worked out thankfully.”

In the film, Astin and Teller take their best friend from high school, Jeff Chang (played by Justin Chon), to celebrate his 21st birthday in an appropriately drunken style. Now the really good actors are able to draw on their own experiences when playing the role, and we couldn’t help but wonder if Astin has been through similar nights in his own life. It was actually a bit surprising to hear the similarities he shares with Casey.

Skylar Astin: “Personally for me, my younger brother is my best friend and my partner in crime and I’ve definitely had several nights that had the spirit of this movie. I’ve always been the one that has a good time, but at the end of the bender it’s like ‘both of our phones are dead and we both have to call our parents and tell them we’re alive.’ That’s kind of always been my responsibility so I can relate to the feeling of just being a little irritable on those nights but also letting loose and have a good time. There is a little bit of Casey in me, but I don’t think I’m as much of an over thinker though. I always try to draw from personal experiences and my own personality whenever I play a role, and it’s not hard to play a role that close to my age, close to home and in a movie that I would go see if I wasn’t in it.”

Working with two different directors on the same film must seem challenging as this is typically a one-person job. What if one director tells you to do one thing and the other director instructs you to do the exact opposite? Where do you draw the line? Astin, however, said both Lucas and Moore were on the same page as they had written the screenplay together and have been friends for many years. As a result, there was never any conflict between either of them.

Skylar Astin: “What they have in common is that they are both the writers so it comes directly from one vessel. That’s always really great as an actor to have that wealth of knowledge coming from two voices. For me, I loved the different kinds of conversations that I would have with each one. Since I had a love story on top of the funny moments, there were different kind of conversations like the leading man type of thing I would have with Moore and to be more sincere in certain moments, and then Lucas was great because he was giving me jokes every five minutes. So, I had this well-rounded voice coming from two different people. They worked together so well, and they almost know this age better than I do and I’m closer to it. It’s kind of crazy.”

For a film filled with such drunken debauchery as “21 and Over,” Skylar Astin proves to be the most well-rounded person these characters need to get them through the night. It is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

‘Burn After Reading’ – Another Darkly Comedic Film From the Coen Brothers

WRITER’S NOTE: Ralph Garman selected this as his Video Vault pick on the August 14, 2020 episode of “The Ralph Report.” It was an excellent selection on his part.

WOW! That was quick! Following Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar-winning masterpiece “No Country for Old Men” in 2007, they gave us their follow-up of “Burn After Reading” a short later. Some filmmakers take their sweet time following up a cinematic triumph of theirs, but the Coens did not want to waste any time. This film follows the tradition of them making a movie which is the polar opposite of what they previously gave us. Most reviews at the time mentioned of how the Coens went from making “Fargo” to giving us “The Big Lebowski,” and how they went from “The Man Who Wasn’t There” to “Intolerable Cruelty.” With these brothers, it is always important to expect the unexpected because they are never out to do the same thing twice.

I’m not going to bother comparing “Burn After Reading” to “No Country for Old Men” because the only thing these two have in common is they were made by the same people. It’s like comparing the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” to Lars Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves,” and this threatens to say more about the critic than it does about the films themselves. This particular one is more of a lightweight effort you could ever expect from the Coens, and it is a reminder of how hysterically dark their comedy can get.

“Burn After Reading” is a crazy movie to say the least, and it does not really have a plot as much as it does a plethora of characters who are unleashed on us through a selfish act of utter stupidity. As a result, there is no rug of any kind which can tie this room of a movie together. The main drive of the action comes from Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) who discovers a disk at the gym he works at which contains classified information from a former CIA operative, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich). Along with his fellow co-worker, Linda Litzke (the always fantastic Frances McDormand), they both connive to act as “good Samaritans” and give the disk back to Osborne, providing he pays them several thousands of dollars as a reward. Naturally, this plan, which was not given much thought to begin with, goes awry and involves many others in this scheme, all of whom are never entirely sure of what they have gotten themselves into, or of whom they can trust.

Let’s look at the characters, shall we? Chad is a personal trainer at the Hardbodies gym who is, to put it mildly, rather dense and not playing with a full deck. His manager, Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins) doesn’t want to get involved in this blackmail plan, but he simultaneously has a huge unrequited crush on Linda, and she is upset because her insurance won’t cover the various forms of plastic surgery she wants to get. In the meantime, she is going through the motions of internet dating and ends up meeting Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). Harry is actually married and in the midst of an affair with Osborne’s wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), and she herself is planning to divorce her husband who is now in the midst of writing his memoirs. In the midst of all this, CIA Officer Palmer DeBakey Smith (David Rasche) reports to his superior (the priceless J.K. Simmons) of the goings on, and of the ways they are going to keep this all under wraps.

Are you with me so far? Clearly, this is a movie which will benefit from more than one viewing to keep up with everything. Like I said, there is no real plot to speak of, other than the blackmail of Osborne Cox. While in some movies this would be an Achilles heel, it works for the Coens as it allows you to keep guessing as to what will happen next. Just when you think you know where things are going, it has another surprise up its sleeve. There were moments both funny and shocking, and I was eager to see what would happen next.

“Burn After Reading” combines a lot of actors the Coen brothers have worked with over the years like George Clooney and Frances McDormand, and they also got to add newcomers to their strange cinematic universe like John Malkovich and Brad Pitt. It’s a kick to see all these actors let their hair down in a film which was never meant to be taken seriously by anyone.

The most inspired performance in this movie comes from Pitt. Clean shaven, thin, buff, and an avid bicycle rider, his character is a hilarious creation of a physically fit moron who has no clear idea of just how in over his head he is. It was funniest performance since his ultimate stoner of a character, Floyd, in “True Romance.”

Another one who is a huge kick to watch here is Clooney as he blows away just every bit of coolness in his system to play an increasingly neurotic philanderer who is always on the verge of anaphylactic shock as he keeps warning everyone he hangs out with about his life-threatening allergies. To see Clooney let loose here is a reminder of how he constantly tries in real life to not take himself too seriously. It also makes you wonder if he and Swinton will ever be in a movie together where they play characters who have a healthy relationship with one another. Keep in mind, they previously appeared together in “Michael Clayton.”

It’s actually a shock to realize this is the first time Malkovich has ever worked with the Coen brothers. He lets it all out here as a CIA operative who quits his job after being demoted in part because of his drinking problem. To see this actor go completely nuts at all the complete idiots he has to deal with is such a hoot. Not many actors can play a character who is quick to absorb the situation they are in and yet still remain in the dark when it comes to the truth of the matter. Malkovich may prefer the stage to the silver screen, but it is always great to see him do something like this.

Frances McDormand gives this movie one of its most lovable characters, in a manner of speaking, as she makes Linda into someone who wants to be free of the ravages of getting older. Seriously, give McDormand the smallest role in a movie, and she always succeeds in making it one of the most unforgettable. If you would like further proof of this, check her out in John Sayles’ “Lonestar.”

Richard Jenkins ends up giving us perhaps the saddest character here, and it is one we hope we don’t end up being. You know, that one person who is forever punished eternally with the pangs of unrequited love. Throughout, Jenkins shows you in his eyes of how much he wants to be with Linda, and he reminds us of how he remains one of the most dependable character actors working in movies.

And I loved the scenes between Rasche and Simmons in the offices of the CIA and how flippant they seemed about the situations which occurred here. I have yet to see another movie where you have CIA members seeming rather laid back in the decisions they make. It never comes down to doing what is best for their country, but of how to make this strange chain of events not get too overwhelming or hectic. Their inconvenience is the biggest problem because it involves secrets getting out, and of more responsibility and paperwork. Seriously, who wants that?

“Burn After Reading” may not be on the same comedic level of brilliance like “The Big Lebowski” or “Raising Arizona,” but it sure is a lot of fun and filled with more daring and originality than many movies which came out in 2008. Many have described it as a “trifle” from the Coens, but you have to admire what they accomplished here as it never fails to entertain from start to finish. We can also take comfort in the fact that these brothers continue to entertain and enthrall us from one film to the next, and their artistic brilliance never lets us down.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘MacGruber’ – The Best SNL Movie in Years

MacGruber movie poster final high resolution

When I went to see “MacGruber” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood back in 2010, I actually saw Jason Sudeikis while standing in line to buy a ticket. His impersonation of Joe Biden is a still a big hit with fans of the show, and he seemed like a very down to earth guy as he blended in with the crowd and talked with others.

Anyway, enough about him. Let’s get on with my review of this particular SNL sketch turned movie called “MacGruber.” About a decade before this one, movies from the long running comedy show were being released all the time, and many proved to be nowhere as funny as the sketches which inspired them. “The Ladies Man,” “Superstar,” or “A Night at the Roxbury” appeared to underwhelm audiences, and I wondered why none of them could come close to matching up with “Wayne’s World” or “The Blues Brothers.”

Now keep in mind, those movies were based on sketches which lasted 3 to 5 minutes on the average SNL episode. With “MacGruber,” we have a movie based on a sketch which typically lasts for a minute at most. We all know from watching this obvious spoof of “MacGyver” that they all end in the same way, with MacGruber failing to diffuse the bomb and it going off, blowing him and his whole team to smithereens. So therein lies the fascination of this movie; Can MacGruber keep himself from blowing up and killing everyone around him for more than a minute? Can he sustain a full-length motion picture when he can barely sustain himself in every control room known to man?

Well, it turns out he can and for around 99 minutes. Before it was released, “MacGruber” was bursting all over with reviews calling it the best SNL movie since “Wayne’s World.” I find this praise to be completely justified as it is consistently hilarious and filled with moments which had me laughing harder than anything I saw in the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and that was supposed to be horrific and serious. But while the jinx on SNL movies finally came to an end with “MacGruber,” this same jinx has unfortunately not been broken at the box office. It ended up grossing only $9.3 million worldwide against a budget of $10 million, but it has since become a cult classic. Trust me, “MacGruber” is great fun and contains many gut-busting laughs, and it deserved a much bigger audience than it initially got back in 2010.

Like “Hot Shots Part Deux,” the movie opens with MacGruber (Will Forte) living a post-Rambo type existence in a monastery where he finds peace from all things explosive. But Col. Jim Faith (the late Powers Boothe) brings him back into service when it is discovered his old nemesis, Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer gone wild), has acquired the X-5 nuclear missile and threatens to use it on a highly valuable target primed for utter destruction. Dieter also turns out to be the same man responsible for killing MacGruber’s fiancé, Casey (Maya Rudolph). To say this is all personal for MacGruber is pointing out the obvious. But seriously, what doesn’t this Inspector Clouseau of bomb experts not take personally? If you piss him off, please make sure he doesn’t memorize your license plate.

Forte never does quite convinces us that MacGruber is this great war hero, but that is part of the joke. He does, however, more than make us believe this character he has won more than a dozen purple hearts (how he earned all those is another story). No longer constricted by the dreaded FCC on network television, Forte really lets it loose here, getting away with stuff which would have had NBC and Lorne Michaels drop kicking him out of 30 Rockefeller Plaza if he pulled this off on live television. He also co-wrote the script, and he takes advantage of every opportunity for his character to make a supreme ass of himself while still remaining one you want to root for.

Plus, Forte does sex scenes here like no one else does in movies today, and I am certain no one has tried to match his acting in bed ever since.

Ryan Phillippe co-stars as MacGruber’s right hand man, Lt. Dixon Piper, a dedicated soldier who is of course infinitely brighter than him, and this causes a lot of violent resentment between the two of them. Phillippe does great work in playing the straight man to Forte’s idiotic lunatic. Had he tried to outdo Forte in terms of getting laughs, this pairing never would have worked. Lord knows MacGruber needs a partner, but he would never admit this unless he became incredibly desperate (and he does, so watch out). He also perfects that stony stare you get from some NFL star turned actor, and his funniest moments come when he reacts honestly to just how stupid this Miata-driving explosive expert truly is. Other actors would have overplayed this role, but Phillippe doesn’t thank goodness.

Kristin Wiig reprises her role as MacGruber’s assistant, Vicki St. Elmo. She is great as always, and MacGruber keeps stupidly putting her in such thoughtless situations where her life is in constant mortal danger. The scene in the coffee shop where she is disguised as MacGruber is nothing short of hilarious as she shivers in utter terror, having no clue what to do if things go bad. Still, you want to see Vicki get together with this clueless idiot because giving up this line of work for her music doesn’t make much sense, and this is especially the case when you listen to the songs she wrote.

Then you have Val Kilmer on board as the evil Dieter Von Cunth , and he gets to act all unhinged and crazy in a way he has not for some time. We know the only way MacGruber can defeat Cunth is through sheer luck, and Kilmer’s rubs in his character’s smug intelligence which he has in spades over this heroic douche bag. This represented a comeback for the actor, but it was sadly cut short due to his continuing battle against throat cancer.

“MacGruber” was directed by Jorma Taccone, one third of the Lonely Island comedy troupe which is responsible for all the “SNL Digital Shorts.” I was also surprised to learn he is actually the son of Tony Taccone, the former Artistic Director of Berkeley Repertory Theater. If you are ever in Northern California, be sure to check out a show there as they continue to challenge their audiences as much as entertain them. Anyway, Jorma keeps the proceedings going at a good pace, and he never lets the movie drag during its running time. While he doesn’t do anything groundbreaking with this movie or its formula driven plot, he does succeed in making this kind of satire feel fresh again. This genre has been so burnt out that we’re lucky if anything works as well as it does here.

The audience I saw “MacGruber” with at Grauman’s Chinese treated the whole thing like a rock concert, cheering when the title character first appeared on screen. It was a great crowd to experience this movie with, so it was surprising and depressing it got such a lackluster reception during its opening weekend. Even with competition from “Robin Hood,” “Iron Man 2,” and even “Shrek Forever After,” I figured it would still make a sizable dent at the box office. Still, it did eventually find its audience years later.

“MacGruber” is by no means a classic, and it is far from original, but it is certainly above average for this kind of movie. Saying it is the best SNL movie in years is faint praise. If you’re looking for a terrific comedy which emanated from the classic late-night show, then this is one you should check out. Even if you never laughed much at the skit on SNL, this movie will give you several belly laughs which we all live for. Just be sure not to eat any celery before you see it.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Beyond The Lights is Not Your Average Showbiz Movie

I walked into “Beyond the Lights” expecting it to be some sort of manipulative soap opera which aimed to be “The Bodyguard” for a new generation. What I got instead was a showbiz story which felt surprisingly genuine in its emotions and intentions. It does have that familiar ring of two people from opposite walks of life coming together, but the way their relationship evolves throughout proves to be very entertaining to watch.

When we first meet Noni Jean, she’s a little girl performing in a talent competition and singing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” which leaves the audience in a state of awe. However, when the judges award her a runner up prize, her mother Macy (Minnie Driver) angrily takes her out of the auditorium and orders her to “chuck” her trophy in defiance. The way Macy sees it, being second best counts for nothing in a world where you need to be number one.

We then move to years later when Noni, now played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is on the verge of stardom after having won a Billboard Award even though she hasn’t released an album yet. But after retreating to her hotel room, we come to see how much the pressures of fame are bearing down on Noni as she sits on a balcony ready to jump. Coming to her rescue is police officer Kaz Nicols (Nate Parker) who pulls her back from the edge, literally and figuratively speaking, and two quickly get lost in each other’s eyes. What happens from there is easy to guess.

Initially, Kaz feels somewhat betrayed when Macy pays him off to publicly say Noni did not try to commit suicide, but Noni warms up to him quickly as she can tell he sees something in her others do not.

While they may come from different worlds, Kaz and Noni are going through similar issues. Her mother Macy has been grooming her for stardom ever since she was little, and she has helped turn Noni into the kind of woman every man wants or at least fantasizes about. As for Kaz, his police captain father David (Danny Glover) is grooming him for public office, something he does in fact have ambitions for. However, when you look into Kaz’s eyes, you wonder just how serious he is about politics or if he really wants a different path in life.

Basically, Kaz and Noni are trying to fulfill the desires of their parents, and we have caught up with them as they have long since played a role they feel society wants them to play. In the process, they have lost touch with what they really want out of life, and we follow them as they go through a much-needed period of self-discovery. Watching these two evolve and change from start to finish is deeply involving and, even if the conclusion is never in doubt, we revel in their personal triumphs.

I am not at all familiar with Mbatha-Raw or her work as an actress, and she gives an extraordinary performance here. She is mesmerizing to watch as Noni begins to shed the public persona which has been foisted upon her, and it allows the frightened child inside of her to come out into the open. Also, she has a show stopping moment where she sings “Blackbird” by herself onstage, and you cannot take your eyes off of her for a single second.

Parker also puts in a strong performance as a well-meaning man who respects the law, wants to help people and who has, as his shirtless scenes will attest, spent a lot of time in the gym like any cop should. Looking at the actor’s past which had him involved in political activism, charitable work and working as a wrestling coach, you get the sense he was born to play Kaz. As he wades deeper into Noni’s world of fame, Parker shows Kaz to be someone who keeps his head above water and is not easily seduced by the closed-off world of show business. But there’s also no doubt that the chemistry between him and Mbatha-Raw is very palpable.

Kudos also goes out to Minnie Driver who takes what could have been a one-dimensional stage mother from hell and turns her into a complex character who is far more vulnerable than she lets on. We come to see how Macy has never had it easy, and she is eager for Noni to have everything she never had. But as much as she cares for her daughter, Macy also comes to realize her determination to make Noni a star speaks more about her ambitions than anyone else’s. Driver is a powerhouse as she lets us see how Macy has been wounded by others who had no faith in her when she was young, and it becomes understandable why Macy wants to beat everyone at their own game.

“Beyond the Lights” was written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood whose previous films include “Love & Basketball,” “Disappearing Acts” and “The Secret Life of Bees.” I regret to say I haven’t seen those films, but I am certainly willing to see them now based on the work she has done here. Prince-Bythewood succeeds in giving us a showbiz tale which actually feels grounded in reality. The atmosphere at the award shows and parties Noni attends feel authentic, and they never seem like a spectacle to be easily laughed at. She also gives us a number of complex characters who struggle to survive the high pressure world of fame and fortune where people have everything and nothing at the same time.

I also have to applaud Prince-Bythewood for sticking by Mbatha-Raw when studios were insistent on getting a bigger name cast in the role of Noni. Perhaps a music star would have done a good job here, but they also would have brought an enormous amount of baggage with them which would have had an unintentionally negative effect on this movie. Mbatha-Raw has the advantage right now of not having this baggage, and that makes her performance all the more enthralling as a result.

Sure, there are some soap opera dramatics here and there and certain moments do not ring true, but “Beyond the Lights” really did prove to be one of the big cinematic surprises of 2014. It is also another film to add to the list of worthwhile romantic movies. Just as this particular genre looked to be burning out, the movies coming from it are getting so much better. I’m starting to like these kinds of movies again. What’s wrong with me anyway?

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Click here to check out the video interviews I did with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker which I did for the website We Got This Covered.

Funny People – A Flawed But Fascinating Look at a Tortured Stand-Up Comedian

I always figured comedians were the best kind of people to hang out with as a kid. Hearing them tell funny stories, making joke after joke, happiness always seemed served up to them on a silver platter. But as time went on, I came to see while they were clowns on the outside, they were crying an endless river of tears inside. Comedy from these people comes from a deep pain and sadness in their lives, or out of a deep-seated anger they have at the world around them.

Look at Richard Pryor, need I say more? He had all the money, women, cars and drugs you could ever ask for. For “Superman III,” he ended up paid more than Christopher Reeve. Still, I remember reading an interview in which he said the last truly happy moment he remembers in his life was when he was jumping around in the dirt while pretending to be a cowboy at the age of 10, and he was in his 40’s when this interview was conducted. Comedy was his constant weapon against pain, and he never held anything back in his routines.

Funny People” understands very well this gloomy realm many comedians live in, and is written and directed by a filmmaker who still performs from time to time as a standup comedian, Judd Apatow. But unlike “The 40-Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” this film has a darker edge to it and doesn’t hide away from the inherent viciousness of its characters. “Funny People” has been advertised as a comedy drama, but the balance often veers more to the dramatic. There are many laughs to be had here, but this movie clearly came from a rather dark place.

Adam Sandler stars as George Simmons, a comedian turned movie star whose career looks a lot like Sander’s own. George became famous with movies like “Merman” where he played a male mermaid, and “Re-do” in which he plays a character whose body has transformed into that of an infant. Seeing George’s head digitally inserted onto a baby’s body at once gives us a great sight gag, but it also seems like the kind of silly comedy Sandler himself has made once too often. Besides, I have more than my fill of talking babies.

George has it all: a beautiful mansion overlooking the sea, a swimming pool he does laps in on a regular basis, great cars, women who don’t hesitate to sleep with him even if they have boyfriends, and all the money one could hope to live off of to the end of time. But in his eyes, we see he is a sad man who has come to truly despise himself for what he has become. All the wealth he has amassed only serves to isolate him from the rest of the world, and it makes him defensive around total strangers who are unable to see him as ever resembling a regular person. But now, his doctor has diagnosed him with a terminal disease and has only months left to live. George reacts to this news as if someone drained his blood while he wasn’t looking, and it makes him realize how much self-hatred he has. From there, he becomes to make every last minute of his life count, but this may not alter his antagonistic personality from where it currently resides.

As George Simmons, Adam Sandler gives one of his best performances to date, and its right up there with his brilliant turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love.” Not once does he back down from how George is a hard man to like. Throughout “Funny People,” George is dismissive to many around him, and he ends up being thoughtlessly mean to those who look up to him. Regardless, Sandler still manages to make you sympathize with this character and of the terminable diagnosis which he did not see coming. It’s the moments where Sandler lets it show through his eyes just how full of regret Simmons is, and it serves as proof of how this former “Saturday Night Live” performer is more talented than he thinks.

Along with this famous comedian on his cynical farewell tour is Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), an aspiring young comic who is not entirely confident with his stand-up act. George catches Ira’s act one night after he makes a surprise appearance at a comedy club, and while he is hurt when Ira discusses how he bombed onstage just moments before, George thinks this kid has got talent and offers to pay him some money to write up some jokes for an upcoming benefit show. From there, George hires Ira as his personal assistant, an employment opportunity which involves more work than the average 9 to 5 job which never pays enough.

Remember all those nasty horror stories from people who were assistants to the stars and certain sociopathic studio executives? Well, Ira may have gotten off easy compared to those people, but we fear his soul will be forever crushed the longer he stays with George.

In a lot of ways, Ira is they typical kind of character Rogen has played over and over again in movies, and not just the ones he does with Apatow. While I would love to see him take on riskier roles like the one he played in “Observe and Report,” he is the perfect match for Sandler’s endlessly cynical misanthrope of George. By the movie’s end, Rogen his performance proves to be the most underrated in the film, and he believably takes Ira from someone lacking in confidence to one who finds his voice with each standup routine he does to where he shows a strength he did not know he had. Rogen makes this transition feel seamless to where he had a stand out moment when he faces down Simmons and tries to make him see how his terminal disease has not come close to changing his outlook on life.

But the one person who almost steals “Funny People” is Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann. Having already proved what a comedy dynamo she was in her husband’s previous films, there should be no more talk from those who believe she has only gotten this far as an actress because of nepotism.

Mann plays Laura, and George describes her to Ira as “the one that got away.” Laura was and still is George’s one true love, and he finds she still yearns for him even though their relationship came to a heartbreaking end when he cheated on her. This is a moment George appears to regret more than any other, and he becomes eager to make up for it as soon as he can. Laura never tries to hide her character’s undying affection for this man who is lonelier than most, and she is willing to end her marriage to an Australian soccer nut (Eric Bana, who is hilarious) who may be cheating on her as well. As Laura, Mann succeeds in making you fall for this character even while she selfishly tries to redirect her life without realizing the consequences of her actions.

There are a lot of strong elements working in favor for “Funny People,” but it doesn’t change the fact it is a deeply flawed movie. While it is good and worth watching, it will most likely be seen as one of Apatow’s weakest movies. I do like how he dared to go in a slightly different direction with this movie compared to what he has given us previously, but the balance between comedy and drama is off kilter most of the time. For many, I don’t think it will be entirely clear as to whether they are watching something comic or very serious.

Plus, at over two hours long, this movie really could have been shorter. I’m usually cool with long movies, but only if they can justify their length. It is way too easy to come off as self-indulgent when making a three-hour epic. “Funny People’s” length does cut deeply into its comic momentum, and there are spots where it things really dragged. It does pick up towards the end, but the story still could have used a bit more tightening.

Still, I really did like “Funny People” because it shows how Apatow still succeeds in giving us characters and situations which feel very real on an emotional level. With him taking his established formulas in a different direction, it is clear his work will continue to grow with each successive project he takes on.

I also love the brilliant cameos he manages to extract from big celebrities in his films. One scene in “Funny People” has George meeting up with a lot of famous comedians like Norm McDonald, Andy Dick (wow), Charles Fleischer, Collin Quinn and Sarah Silverman who has one of the movie’s funniest scenes. But the biggest surprise cameo to be found here is Eminem’s as I never expected to see him in any movie, let alone one directed by Apatow. Seeing him dissing Ray Romano provides us with an unforgettable moment where Ira ends up saying to Ray, “I thought everybody loved you.”

One perception about “Funny People” which needs to be cleared up is that it is not what many would call a “disease movie.” It is really to Apatow’s credit here that he never gets all mushy on us like many others would have when it comes to films about people who think they are facing certain death. George’s arc here is much like the character Michael Keaton played in “Clean and Sober.” In the process of trying to improve themselves and become better people, they end up fooling themselves to where they think they are changing for the better, but are instead acting more selfishly than they realize. Their attempts to help those in desperate situations reveal just how self-involved they are, and it just gets worse for them from there. It is not until the climax which has them at a place where they realize what they truly need to do to move on from a fractured past.

“Funny People” is definitely worth seeing. Just don’t go in with the normal set of expectations you have for the average Apatow production because things are a little different here. It definitely has some hilarious moments and dramatic ones, and Sandler makes it clear to us he can be a great actor when given the right material. It is also an intimate look at the fame and success one person experiences, and of how damaging and isolating it can be.

This project was really a long time coming for both Apatow and Sandler because they did share an apartment when they first moved out to Los Angeles. “Funny People” actually starts off with home video footage of them making prank phone calls which has them laughing in hysterics. It is meant to be a look of innocence which fame forever changes, but at least we can see how in real life these two funny men have their families to keep their egos in balance. George Simmons is simply the person each of them would have become if they weren’t careful.

* * * out of * * * *