David Gordon Green Captures an Authentic Reality in ‘Joe’

Joe movie poster

One of 2014’s most underrated and overlooked movies was “Joe.” Directed by David Gordon Green, who just directed the incredibly successful reboot of “Halloween,” it stars Nicolas Cage in one of the best performances as Joe, an ex-convict and a foreman for a small tree removal crew in Texas. One day, Joe is met by Gary (Tye Sheridan), a 15-year-old drifter who has just moved into town with his wayward family, and he ends up giving the young man a job on his crew. However, Gary’s father is an alcoholic bastard who beats up everyone and anyone in his path, and this presents Joe with the choice of finding redemption in his life or meeting his maker by putting an end to this vicious situation Gary has been tragically caught up in.

For Green, “Joe” represents a return to his independent roots where he made his mark with films like “George Washington” and “All the Right Girls.” As a result, he ends up capturing a reality of life which is not easily captured in other movies as we watch characters native to the state they live in trying to get by in life. Green ended up hiring non-actors to play certain roles as he wanted to capture the realism of the environment these people live in.

I was lucky enough to attend the press junket for “Joe” held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the website We Got This Covered, and I asked Green what it was like capturing the authenticity of these people and where they live. More importantly, I was interested in finding out if capturing this authenticity was easier or harder to accomplish in this day and age where we are bombarded with an endless number of “reality shows.”

David Gordon Green: That’s a good question. We live in a world with reality television so it’s less surprising to see a camera on the street corner to see a production. Certainly, a lot of us who frequent the Los Angeles area don’t even bat an eyelash at some production that’s closing down a street and taking us on a detour. I kind of like that the production element can be that much more intimate because the mystery has been dissolved a little bit. When I was a kid you would watch a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of a movie and it would blow your mind learning the steps of folly and the art form behind it. Now I think everyone has a good, clear concept of that. There’s not that obsession with that. It’s also a world where people know where the lines of documentary, reality TV and fiction/narrative filmmaking are starting to blur a little bit. I actually think there are a lot of values there. Some of the great performances are documentary performances. You see a movie like “Grizzly Man” and you’re like, if only I could take Timothy Treadmill, I could make an amazing script for him. In that way it’s become a lot easier and it’s just about trying to market a film to be appealing to an audience. Trying to get a movie that emotionally connects with an audience and invites them into a world that does have an authenticity. It does take you to difficult places but has enough of an emotional honesty and levity to be able to be something that you want to look at and an attractive quality within the cinematography and music that brings you in and makes you feel fulfilled. All of these technical elements that come in make it a rewarding experience and not just the dramatic hammer coming down to tell you their melodrama, but really to open up insight into the characters and their revelations to each other.

With those comments, I hope audiences take the time to discover “Joe” as it is a movie deserving of a bigger audience than it ended up getting in 2014. While many think Cage makes nothing but bad movies these days, this one reminds you of what a great actor he can be given the right material.

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William Zabka on Portraying a Non-Bully Character in ‘Where Hope Grows’

Where Hope Grows William Zabka

Ever since he played Johnny Lawrence in 1984’s “The Karate Kid,” actor William Zabka has forever burned himself into our collective memories as the quintessential school bully. From there he went on to play characters who were equally antagonistic in movies like “Back to School,” “Just One of the Guys” and “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” in which he does the unthinkable when he dumps Audrey Griswold as his girlfriend. All these movies serve to make you completely forget that Zabka started off his career acting in commercials which portrayed him as the all-American nice guy.

But the truth is there is more to Zabka than just playing the bully we all love to hate. Ever since “The Karate Kid,” he has gone on, unlike many of his co-stars, to earn a black belt in Tang Soo Do. On top of that, he speaks Czech fluently and is also an accomplished musician. Furthermore, he has gone on to become a noted filmmaker, and his short film “Most” earned numerous awards as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short Film.

All these years later, we catch up with Zabka in “Where Hope Grows,” a film written and directed by Chris Dowling, which has him playing Milton Malcolm. Milton looks like a successful businessman, but we come to see his life is falling apart very quickly. He descends into alcoholism with his best friend Calvin Campbell (Kristoffer Polaha), a former major league baseball player whose career was undone by panic attacks. But when Calvin finds a way to sobriety thanks to his newfound friendship with a simple-minded supermarket employee with Down syndrome who is known by his nickname of Produce (David DeSanctis), Milton ends up feeling more isolated than ever, and this sends his life into an even deeper downward spiral.

Looking at this, it becomes clear Zabka has a more complex role than any other actor in “Where Hope Grows,” and I told so during a roundtable interview held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Unlike his most famous characters, Milton cannot be easily labeled as a good or bad guy in this movie. I asked him what the challenges were for him in playing such a complex character, and he liked that I found this to be the case with Milton.

Where Hope Grows movie poster

William Zabka: This character is very complex. He has it all or appears to have it all. He’s got a beautiful wife and kids but he’s in trouble at work, he’s in the bottle, neglecting his wife, there are all kinds of stuff going on. To live in the moment of that and to feel the pain of that… The one scene where I almost come off really brazen in the scene at the golf course, I was saying to Chris, “Give me another line.” We were banned from saying the “R” word on the set. It was like no “R” words and here I am delivering it. I said, “Can’t we just find something softer? Can we be ignorant but not so brazen?” Chris really wanted that contrast for the ending and payoff. That’s a vulnerable place to go as an actor because as an actor you want to be liked or at least relatable. I’m glad you said that you could see the complexities because he wasn’t a good guy and he wasn’t a bad guy. He was misinformed. Produce’s story is kind of a second story to him. He is struggling with his own stuff, and it’s later when they come face to face and this kid gives him a gift. So, hanging onto that was the key to allow me to go down to some of those darker places.

It was a real honor to be in the presence of Zabka whose performance in “The Karate Kid” remains forever burned into my memory. But while many remember him best for playing such a hateful bully, there’s certainly much more to him than we realize.

Where Hope Grows” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital. And of course, you can see him on the YouTube Red series “Cobra Kai” as Johnny Lawrence.

 

Arbitrage

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Definition of Arbitrage:

  1. The nearly simultaneous purchase and sale of securities or foreign exchange in different markets in order to profit from price discrepancies.
  2. The purchase of the stock of a takeover target especially with a view to selling it profitably to the raider.

Arbitrage” looks like the average thriller better suited to the usual made for TV movie on network television or the Lifetime Channel. However, it turns out to be a brilliant thriller which takes a seemingly simple story and spins it into a complex one filled with characters that seem easy to figure out but prove to be anything but. Just when you think this will be a film about what’s right and wrong, it becomes one in which everyone finds their moral values permanently compromised no matter how good their intentions are.

Richard Gere stars as Robert Miller, a hedge-fund magnate whose every inch of his being oozes success like it’s supposed to. Robert looks to have all the money he ever needs, a loving family, a loyal wife, grandkids and the whole nine yards. We soon find, however, that he is deeply immersed in fraudulent practices which could tear his whole empire down if exposed. Robert’s only salvation is to sell off his trading empire to a major bank before his wall street crimes are revealed so he may pay off all his debts for good.

But things get seriously complicated for Robert when he is driving to upstate New York with his mistress Julie (Laetitia Casta) and their car flips over on the road. The crash ends up killing Julie and leaves Robert in a serious predicament as he cannot report what happened to the police. If he does, it will seriously delay the sale of his company which could put him and his family on the brink of financial disaster. The walls continue to close in when NYPD Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) is assigned to the case and finds circumstantial evidence implicating Robert in Julie’s death. The question is, how much longer he can keep up this moral duplicity before it undoes him permanently?

“Arbitrage” marks the directorial debut of writer Nicholas Jarecki whose work deals with larger than life characters and morally ambiguous themes of industry, power, and corruption. What I loved about his direction here was how naturalistic everything seemed, be it the acting or the setting. No one in the cast overdoes their performance which makes for a more invigorating cinematic experience than we typically get.

Jarecki also gives us some brilliantly conceived characters who appear to represent right and wrong very clearly, but as the story goes on, we find they are not immune to moral compromises. Even the police detective who represents working class Americans sick of being screwed over by the rich proves he is not above bending the rules to get a conviction. All this time, Julie becomes less of a human being and more of a bargaining chip for everybody involved.

I was listening to an interview with Gere and NPR’s Audie Cornish who remarked how she’s always rooting for the actor no matter what character he plays. Whether he’s playing a slick defense attorney who lives for self-promotion in “Primal Fear” or as a seriously corrupt cop in “Internal Affairs,” Gere comes across as strangely likable even when his characters are jerks to say the least. His role as Robert Miller is further proof of how brilliantly he portrays the kind of people we love to hate in these endlessly difficult economic times.

Robert is at his heart a slick manipulator and a liar; he deceives his children, cheats on his wife, is knowingly committing fraud, and is not about to accept any responsibility for his mistress’ death. Throughout “Arbitrage’s” running time, Gere is riveting as he tries to stay one step ahead of the law, and we find ourselves rooting for him to do so. We should despise this man and his morally duplicitous ways, but you have to admit Robert is a very smart guy who has managed to stay afloat despite some bad decisions.

Although his New York accent sounds a little weird, Tim Roth is also excellent as NYPD detective who becomes bent on taking Robert down. His character of Michael Bryer is on the side of law and justice, but he proves to be as ruthless as Robert while he pursues witnesses relentlessly, and he has no problem threatening their livelihoods in order to get a conviction.

Nate Parker plays Jimmy Grant; a family friend of Robert’s who helps him out of and then finds himself in the middle of his problems. Jimmy is a familiar character in that he is caught between doing the right thing and keeping his mouth shut and we see so many of them in movies. But Parker does great work in conveying Jimmy’s inner turmoil to where this character seems like anything but a cliché, and he makes you feel what it’s like to walk in his shoes.

Brit Marling is wonderful as Robert’s daughter and heir-apparent Brooke, and seeing her transition from loyal daughter to one whose trust is forever shattered is heartbreaking. Her scene with Gere will remind those of us who have been put into impossible situations we cannot easily extricate ourselves from, and the look on her face is one which never goes away.

But it’s Susan Sarandon who almost steals the show as Robert’s wife Ellen, and she reminds us what a powerhouse of an actress she can be. Sarandon portrays Ellen as loyal almost to a fault, but she reveals vulnerabilities throughout which indicate she knows more about what’s going on than Robert realizes. Sarandon’s final confrontation with Gere is a knockout as she comes up with an extra strategy which is as brilliant as the one Katie Holmes pulled on Tom Cruise.

In addition, there’s also a wealth of beautiful cinematography by Yorick Le Saux and a music score by Cliff Martinez which fits this material like a glove.

I was stunned at how much I liked “Arbitrage,” and it really is one of the best movies I saw in 2012. It’s the kind of film you can’t quite prepare yourself for how good it will be because it came cloaked in trailers and advertisements which make it look ho-hum. Jarecki, however, gives us a film which is anything but average, and I thank him for that.

* * * * out of * * * *

Manchester By The Sea

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There are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It’s never easy recovering from grief whether it involves loss of a loved one or dealing with the now inescapable fact that Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States. Watching Casey Affleck’s character in “Manchester by the Sea,” I wonder if he will ever get past the first stage. If he’s lucky, he just might make it to the second. While some are able to get past their grief, others are doomed to be stuck in it for an eternity.

Many movies about grief have been made over the years, but few feel as bitingly honest as “Manchester by the Sea” does. It is the latest work from writer and director Kenneth Lonergan who previously gave us “You Can Count on Me” and “Margaret,” and he really tops himself with this one. While this may, on the surface, seem like a depressing movie, it is one filled a surprising amount of laughter and a wealth of interesting characters whom we watch struggle with the steep hurdles life has thrown at them as well as the snowy weather which chills all those who live in Massachusetts during the winter months.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler who, as the movie starts, works as a janitor and lives in the tiniest of apartments in Quincy, Massachusetts. He is a quiet man and one who is not quick to make friends, especially with those who stare at him for a couple of seconds too long. His face seems as frozen as the snow he constantly shovels off his front porch, so we know the movie will be a journey into discovering how Lee ended up looking so bereft of life.

One day, Lee gets word his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has passed away after suffering a heart attack. This forces Lee to drive to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to meet up with family members and relatives he has long since become estranged from, and his reaction to seeing them all seems strangely serene as if he has been preparing for this moment in a way no one else would bother to. But as the movie goes on, we come to see why Lee can never again be comfortable in his hometown as it is filled with memories and ghosts he may never ever put behind him.

Now in many ways this movie sounds like a typical one about someone reflecting on the memory of a friend who is no longer living, but Lonergan never tries to take the easy way out here. He presents us with characters who are ever so real, and their reactions to the tragedies thrown in their faces feels honest as one never responds to something so painful in the way you might expect. Everyone is far from perfect and no one here is easily likable, but the characters grow on you as they attempt to navigate past the wreckage of their lives.

Lonergan’s talent as a writer has never been in doubt, but what astounded me most about “Manchester by the Sea” is how confident his direction is. His cast ends up giving such naturalistic performances to where they inhabit their characters more than play them. I never felt like I was watching a movie, but instead it seemed like I was eavesdropping on people whose lives and problems feel more real than we ever could expect. Pulling something like this off requires major talent, and Lonergan has it in massive supply.

All eyes are on Affleck who gives what is far and away one of the best performances of 2016. His character of Lee Chandler reminded me of William Hurt in “The Accidental Tourist” and Nick Nolte in “Affliction” in that those actors played characters so damaged by horrific tragedies in life to where they could no longer process a wide range of emotions. Affleck has a tricky role here as Lee looks to be experiencing intense grief from start to finish, but at the same time he is constantly running away from circumstances which will cause those emotions to overwhelm him in a way he feels he can never handle. This must have been an exhausting role to play, but it’s no surprise to see Affleck rise to the challenge.

There is not a single weak link to be found in the cast here as each actor, no matter how small their role is, creates a multi-dimensional character worth following. Michelle Williams in particular has a show stopping moment as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, as she tries to make peace with him after all they have been through. Williams has always been fearless in exploring emotions many of us have tried to numb ourselves to whether we realize it or not and, just like she did in “Blue Valentine,” she digs deep into the tragic nature of her character as Randi appears far more ready to deal with past than Lee is.

I also have to single out Lucas Hedges who gives an honest portrayal of a teenager as Lee’s nephew, Patrick. So many teenagers in movies these days seem designed to appeal to a popular demographic regardless of whether the target audience can relate to them or not. But Hedges gives us one who quickly reminds us of how we juggled a number of girlfriends (if we were lucky to, that is) while dealing with a tragedy no one that young should ever have to deal with. Hedges is a real find as he makes Patrick a far more mature character than his emotionally wounded uncle, and he is as unforgettable as Affleck is in this movie.

In a year which proved to be a mediocre one for motion pictures, “Manchester by the Sea” is easily one of the best for many reasons. If it has any flaws, they are hard to see on the first viewing. But even if you do spot any flaws, they are not enough to take away from how great a movie this is. Lonergan has given us a cinematic masterpiece which demands your attention as it deals with a subject that is never easy to grapple with. While the movie’s ending proves to be understandably ambiguous, he never leaves these characters without a sense of hope for the future.

Watching this movie reminded me of an episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” entitled “Pit Bull Sessions” in which Frank Pembleton and Paul Falsone interrogate a man whose pit bulls have been trained for dogfighting have killed his grandfather. This man, who was played by Paul Giamatti by the way, cares for his dogs far more than he does for any member of his family to where he shows little, if any, remorse for what has happened to his grandfather. Falsone is incensed over how the son seems indifferent to what has happened to a member of his family, and it leads to a classic exchange between him and Pembleton.

“That bastard can feel,” Falsone says.

“He can’t, that’s the horror,” Pembleton replies.

Sad but very true.

* * * * out of * * * *