‘Grandma’ Marks Lily Tomlin’s First Lead Role in a Movie in Decades

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It’s a shock to realize ”Grandma” marks Lily Tomlin’s first leading role in a motion picture in 27 years, her last being in 1988’s “Big Business” opposite Bette Midler. Tomlin has been such a prolific presence in just about all forms of entertainment, be it movies, television or the theater, and there’s no stopping her even in her 70’s. But her triumphant return to lead actress proves to be well worth the wait as this movie makes great use of her endless talents.

Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a poet who is as celebrated as she is misanthropic, but even she would say this about herself. We learn her longtime partner passed away some time ago, and she’s still trying to recover from this loss. As the movie starts, she breaks up with her much younger girlfriend, Olivia (the always wonderful Judy Greer), in a genuinely cruel and dismissive way. This should have us hating Elle from the get go, but we can see there’s more to her than meets the eye.

Shortly thereafter, Elle is visited by her 18-year-old granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), who informs her she’s pregnant by her no-good stoner boyfriend and wants to get an abortion. The procedure costs $600 dollars, and she has already set up an appointment at a local clinic. Elle, however, is broke and has no credit cards as she has long since cancelled them (I guess such a thing is possible in this day and age) and turned them into tree ornaments. As a result, Elle and Sage go on a road trip to get the money, and this involves Elle reconnecting with people from her past and Sage discovering how she has to stick up for herself from now on.

From a distance “Grandma” sounds like another road/buddy comedy which goes through the motions we have gotten all too familiar with, but this is not the case. The movie allows its main characters to go on a journey which will allow them to deal with life in ways far more productive than the ones they have utilized thus far. It is also filled with wonderfully down to earth and relatable characters, something I am always pleased to see in a time where local multiplexes remain dominated by superhero movies.

It is really gratifying to see Tomlin kick ass on the silver screen even after so many years. Her character of Elle is cantankerous to say the least, but Tomlin slowly lets you see what is tearing away at her soul as she is forced to deal with past events which have left her and others in a state of disrepair. As U2 once sang, she is stuck in a moment (several actually) that she can’t get out of.

As with any other role she has played throughout her long and justly celebrated career, Tomlin infuses Elle with a complexity and a good dose of humor which makes her irreplaceable in a movie like this. Her character is not one to mess with easily as she does not let anyone take her down without a fight. Just watch her handle her granddaughter’s no good boyfriend as he refuses to take any responsibility for anything he does in his life. It should be absolutely no surprise she does him in when he acts disrespectfully towards Sage.

Also, the fact Elle is gay truly becomes an afterthought after not too long. The realization of this should make us realize how far we have come as a society. We have become far more accepting as a culture of other peoples’ difference, and coming to see this feels like a huge relief.

Julia Garner ends up making quite the impression as Sage as her character also goes on a journey which takes her from being a very vulnerable individual to one stronger and far more prepared to defend herself in a world which can be infinitely unforgiving. Garner has appeared in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,” and it’s great to watch her hold her own with Tomlin.

As for the other actors, it’s always a joy to see Judy Greer in anything, and she still looks infinitely lovely even as her character gets a number of insults hurled at her. Sam Elliott is excellent as Karl, a former lover of Elle’s who can barely hide the hurt he feels after being spurned by her years before. Marcia Gay Harden plays Elle’s daughter, Judy, and she is a powerhouse here as we see how Judy’s troubled upbringing has molded her into the obsessive-compulsive person she has long since become.

“Grandma” also marks one of the last screen performances of the late Elizabeth Pena before her death at far too young an age. Pena plays Carla, a restaurant owner who is somewhat interested in buying some books from Elle. It’s a shock to see Pena here because I felt like I had already seen the last of her on the silver screen, but there’s still a piece of her unforgettable talent for everyone to see. She was a great presence from one movie to the next, and she will be missed.

This movie was written and directed by Paul Weitz, and many of his movies like “About a Boy,” “In Good Company” and even “American Pie” deal with humanity at its most intimate. “Grandma” was made for under a million dollars, far less than what most independent films get made for these days, and this helps to make it Weitz’s most intimate movie yet. The characters and situations they experience feel real and not easily faked, and it’s always refreshing to see a movie where everything feels genuinely down to earth.

“Grandma” does deal with the very touchy subject of abortion, but it does so in a way that is thoughtful and intelligent. Weitz isn’t out to make some big political statement on the subject, but he does acknowledge the fact it is legal and that people have their reasons for getting one. But this movie is not at all about abortion. It is really about the journey Elle and Sage take together and how it helps them to move on into the future. Whether you are talking about movies or real life, it is always about the journey, not necessarily the destination.

But yes, the main reason to see “Grandma” is for Tomlin who reminds us once again why she is one of the greatest comedians and actresses of all time. She dominates each scene she’s in and holds our attention for every second. There are many reasons why Tomlin has lasted as long as she has in show business, and her performance in “Grandma” is just the latest. I don’t care how old she is because there’s no stopping her, ever.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Paul Weitz and Sam Elliott Talk About the Making of ‘Grandma’

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Grandma” marked the great Lily Tomlin’s first leading role in a motion picture in 27 years, the last being 1988’s “Big Business” in which she starred opposite Bette Midler. Here she plays Ellie Reid, a misanthropic poet who is still mourning the death of her longtime partner. As the movie begins, Ellie coldly breaks up with her girlfriend (played by Judy Greer) and is met by her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) who desperately needs $600 dollars by sundown for an abortion. This leads Ellie and Sage to go on a road trip to get the money, and they find themselves uncovering dark secrets from the past which must be reckoned with.

“Grandma’s” press conference was held back in 2015 at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, California, and it was attended by Tomlin, the movie’s writer and director Paul Weitz, and co-star Sam Elliott.

Weitz’s previous films include “American Pie” which he co-directed with his brother Chris, “About a Boy” which featured one of Hugh Grant’s best performances, and “Being Flynn” which starred Robert De Niro and Paul Dano. Weitz previously worked with Tomlin on the movie “Admission,” and this led him to write the part of Ellie Reid with her in mind.

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When it comes to writing a screenplay, one has to wonder how somebody does that. Does the writer treat it like a journey where they don’t know how it will end, or do they have the beginning, middle and end in mind when they start writing? I asked Weitz about this, and he gave us some insight on his writing process and of what story is really all about for him.

Paul Weitz: In terms of the script, I do think it’s a good sign for me when I kind of know what the ending is. It’s very clear that Sage ends up learning so much from Lily’s character in the movie like learning how to stand up for herself and learning not to shy away from the fight. It’s not clear to me what Lily’s character has gained from this until the end when this sort of fierce love that she has had for her dead partner, she’s able to let go of that guilt because of the protectiveness and kindness to her granddaughter. The most emotional thing in the movie to me is not the moment where Lily is crying. It’s actually a moment where she’s laughing and she’s thinking about some old joke that her partner said which made her laugh. It’s a really private moment and I really like that, and I like that it’s about letting go of stuff and moving on to something with a lot of up to miss him despite all the crap she’s been through.

Elliott plays Karl, one of Ellie’s former lovers who is quite perturbed by her sudden reappearance in his life. The actor is of course known for his deep and resonant voice which has served him well in one movie after another whether it’s “The Big Lebowski” or “Thank You for Smoking.” This led to my question of how he manages to keep his voice so deep and bold after so many years.

Sam Elliott: Uh, I don’t know. It actually gets deeper as time goes on if that makes sense. I’ve been blessed with it I guess. I sang very early on. My mom used to drag me to sing in a choir when I was a kid, and I was always involved with these acapella choruses and different things always through school. Its good fortune as it turns out. It’s not a matter of management, it’s just gravity.

“Grandma” is a terrific comedy drama filled with strong dialogue and terrific performances, and it is worth checking out. It is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

The Best Movies of 2008

2008 Year in Review

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

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

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

  1. The Reader/Revolutionary Road

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

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

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

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

 

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  1. Doubt

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

 

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  1. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

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

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

 

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  1. Slumdog Millionaire

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

 

 

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  1. Frost/Nixon

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

 

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  1. Rachel Getting Married

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

 

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  1. The Wrestler

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

 

Let The Right One In movie poster

  1. Let the Right One In

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

 

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  1. Wall-E

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

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

 

The Dark Knight poster

  1. The Dark Knight

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

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

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

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

Mike Leigh on set of Mr. Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duncan Jones Revisits ‘Moon’ at New Beverly Cinema

Moon movie poster

Filmmaker Duncan Jones was the guest of honor at New Beverly Cinema on November 19, 2011 where his first two movies “Moon” and “Source Code” were being shown. Right after “Moon” finished, he leapt up to the stage like a contestant on “The Price Is Right” for a Q&A alongside his “Moon” producer Stuart Fenegan. Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey were not in attendance, but Jones brought along Rockwell’s spacesuit and a balloon of Gerty’s face as their stand ins.

Jones explained how he had worked in the advertising industry for years with the goal of eventually working in movies. He originally wanted his first film to be “Mute” which takes place in a futuristic Berlin, but he and Fenegan came to the conclusion it was too big for them to make into a movie at that point. It’s amazing to learn “Moon” only cost $5 million to make, and Jones said he was determined to squeeze as much out of that amount as possible. Fenegan was quick to point out what was at stake and said, “With the first movie, commercial success is far more important than critical success as it determines whether you’ll make another.”

There were two distinctive sets Jones had to work with on “Moon;” a 360-degree space station set which everyone got stuck in for the day once it was sealed, and another for the lunar module which Rockwell’s character uses to travel outside. As for Gerty, the “2001” Hal-like character voiced by Spacey, Jones described it as a beautiful model which could be moved around the set, but that it was a CGI effect in the wide shots. The special effects ended up getting a polish from Cinesite, a digital visual effects and post-production facility in London.

One audience member asked if Rockwell’s character was named Sam on purpose, to which Jones said yes. “Moon” was made with Rockwell in mind for the lead, and since he plays different clones of the same person, Jones really wanted to mess with his head during the 33-day shoot. This way, Jones said, the actor would be constantly reminded of the movie’s thematic elements. While this made Rockwell uncomfortable at times, Jones described him as a good sport overall.

In terms of influences, Jones said “Moon” was inspired by many science fiction movies he watched in the 60’s and 70’s. Specifically, he cited Bruce Dern in “Silent Running,” Sean Connery in “Outland,” and the first chunk of “Alien” as the biggest influences on the movie’s story. The characters in these films came from a working class or blue collar environment, and the portrayal of it in an outer space setting made everything seem more real and relatable. As for must see movie recommendations, Jones replied “Blade Runner” is the be all and end all of science fiction. You could follow any character in Ridley Scott’s film, he said, and you would still have an amazing movie.

When asked of his future plans, Jones said that he has finished polishing his latest script and will be sending it to the one person he wants to star in it (he wouldn’t say who). It is another science fiction movie, but the director is eager to move beyond this particular genre. With “Moon” now being considered as one of the best science fiction movies of the past few years though, I’m sure his fans will be begging him to revisit the genre more often than not.

Exclusive Interview with Ira Sachs about ‘Love is Strange’

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

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

Love is Strange movie poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exclusive Interview with Alfred Molina about ‘Love is Strange’

Alfred Molina Love is Strange

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

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

Love is Strange movie poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

‘Rachel Getting Married’ is one of Jonathan Demme’s Best Films

Rachel Getting Married movie poster

One of the many things I have discovered about life is it is really easy to hate someone or be angry at them. As negative an emotion as it is, there is an unmistakable power from it which really makes you feel alive. At the same time, it is much harder to forgive that person for what they have done to you. You get so sick of someone getting the best of you to where you desperately don’t want to look like the fool. But eventually, it should become clear that the one person you really need to forgive most is yourself. This can be much harder than forgiving someone else, but it is necessary as it keeps you from sinking into the hideous swamp of bitterness which can eat you up. But can you forgive yourself when you have done something horrible and can’t you wipe away the cloud hanging over your existence because of what you have done? I would like to believe the answer is yes, but others may disagree.

Rachel Getting Married” is a movie about forgiveness, and the rough road people travel to get to it. It is also a movie about family and togetherness, and the joy of life. It almost moved me to tears the same way “Lars and the Real Girl” did as it deals with the saddest of things while surrounding itself in an atmosphere of love and much-needed togetherness. This is one of Jonathan Demme’s best movies as well as one of the very best of 2008. I really loved “Rachel Getting Married” and found myself wanting to hug all the characters in it. It is a movie of raw emotions, and I love seeing movies with this kind of power more often than not.

Anne Hathaway gives a phenomenal performance as Kym, the wild child of a Connecticut family who gets a vacation break from her current rehabilitation facility to go home for her sister Rachel’s wedding. It doesn’t take long to get an idea of how much of a “bad egg” she appears to be to everyone around her. As she goes into a convenience store to get a Pepsi, the female cashier behind the counter says, “Didn’t I see you on ‘Cops?’”

Kym is a full-blown drug addict and has been for several years, and while her family is happy to have her home, there are also raw emotions simmering just below the surface and waiting to come out into the open. We feel this tension from the very start, and it is illustrated in Hathaway’s face as we see her feeling like the wallflower at a party. While everyone is happy for the bride and groom, she is sullen and lost in a moment she cannot escape from. As the movie goes on, we come to see the reason for her self-destructive behavior and why she acts the way she does. I will not mention what it is here as it might take away from the emotional impact you will experience watching this movie.

This movie feels a lot different from others Demme has made in the past. He filmed the movie with high definition cameras to capture the movie on a more intimate level, and it feels like he really let the actors loose from start to finish. It is handheld camerawork going on here, so this will probably drive those who couldn’t stand all the shaky camerawork in “The Bourne Ultimatum” or “Cloverfield” crazy. While some people may experience motion sickness from this, I had no problem with it as the camerawork helped illustrate the emotionally fragile ground the characters are walking over, and how easily everything could come tumbling down.

What is so great about Demme’s direction is how he makes us feel like we really are attending the wedding along with these characters and sharing in the joys and sorrows of everyone involved. These characters feel so real, and it is so great to see no Hollywood artifice on display here. There have been so many big Hollywood movies dealing with families and marriage, and I find myself increasingly avoiding them. But the actions in “Rachel Getting Married” never felt staged for a second, and I loved that. Everyone in this movie feels like people we know from our own lives, and it connects us all the more strongly to what they go through.

“Rachel Getting Married” also, like all of Demme’s movies, has a very eclectic mix of music in it from the offbeat to the international. His movies don’t just have their own signature look, but their own significant sound. One character makes beautiful use of a Neil Young song as he sings it to another person. The audience I saw this with at Landmark Theaters in West Los Angeles were as silent as the characters onscreen during this moment, and I’ll never forget that.

I also loved how the soon to be married couple is an interracial couple, and no one ever brings this up at all. I guess none of the characters see it as an issue worth addressing. Hallelujah!

The script was by Jenny Lumet, and she gives her characters a vibrancy which elevates it from the couples we usually expect to see in movies like these. Her screenplay does tread familiar scenarios and storylines of the addict trying to go straight, but it finds its own voice and way of saying things to where everything feels fresh and new.

Demme always brings out the best in all the actors he has ever worked. There are many great performances to be had here, not just Hathaway’s. Rosemarie DeWitt plays Rachel, and she is a wonderful and real presence to be had in this movie. She goes from being so happy to seeing her sister Kym to being utterly exasperated and strung out that she is at home. It is clear that Rachel wants Kym to be well, but she constantly worries Kym will ruin the wedding in one way or another. Both Hathaway and DeWitt work really well off of each other as two sisters desperate to connect with one another despite the emotional damage between them. There’s a touching moment where Kym comes back from a rough night, and Rachel washes her clean in the shower as if she is washing her sins down the drain.

I also really liked Bill Irwin as Paul, Kym and Rachel’s dad, who is so happy to see his daughters under one roof, while at the same time harboring scars which will never fully heal. We also have Debra Winger, an actress we don’t see much of these days as the girls’ mother, Abby. She has great scenes with both daughters as she allows us to see beneath her seemingly calm exterior to the distrust she has had for Kym after all this time. The big scene between Hathaway and Wagner where the truth comes to a head is riveting and painfully raw as they each try to come to grips with the tragedy they both had a part in but are hesitant to take full responsibility for.

“Rachel Getting Married” is not just a triumph of acting, but also of writing and direction. All three elements come together to create a powerfully moving film about the flawed and fragile nature of humanity, and of the struggle for forgiveness. The movie has a very improvisatory feel to it and, despite the serious nature of the film, you cannot help but feel everyone had such a great time making it. You feel like you are with these families every step of the way, and you revel in their celebration of two families coming together as one. The reception near the end of the movie is one of ecstatic joy and happiness, even while some have wounds which take them out of the present.

But the person who carries this movie from beginning to end is Hathaway. Many see this as her escape from those “Princess Diaries” movies as she rids herself of the ever so clean image we have had of her. Truth be told, she has been doing this already with “Brokeback Mountain” and “Havoc,” but this should fully complete her transition to becoming an adult actress. All the Oscar talk she has been getting is justified. Kym is not an easily likable character, but Hathaway gives her a heart and soul and makes you care deeply about Kym all the way through. The moments where Hathaway does not say a word, her face does the acting and reveals a very uncomfortable soul trying to fit into a place which was once her home. She does brave and amazing work here, and she proves to be a dramatic force to be reckoned with.

“Rachel Getting Married” further shows how brilliant Demme is in getting to the wounded humanity of all the characters he observes. There is not one moment which feels faked in this movie, and it never really falls victim to any clichés that could easily tear it apart. This is another movie you don’t watch as much as experience, and I am always on the lookout for those. It also kept reminding me of the song “To Forgive” by The Smashing Pumpkins which kept playing in my head throughout:

“Holding back the fool again
Holding back the fool pretends
I forget to forget nothing is important
Holding back the fool again.”

Funny, I thought Billy Corgan was saying “forgive” instead of “forget.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

Norman movie poster

What I love about Richard Gere as an actor is his ability to play morally questionable characters with such a seductive charm to where I cannot help but root for him to succeed despite his morally dubious intentions. Whether he’s playing an infinitely corrupt cop in “Internal Affairs,” a fraudulent hedge fund manager in “Arbitrage” or a publicity-seeking lawyer in both “Primal Fear” and “Chicago,” Gere makes these characters hopelessly charismatic even as they sink deeper into a realm of lies, deception, and things much worse. Some actors are great at making you despise the villains they play, but Gere is brilliant at making you become enamored with the villainous characters he portrays as he makes breaking the law seem so seductive.

I was reminded of this while watching Gere in “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” as he plays a man eager to achieve great success in his lifetime. While his character of Norman Oppenheimer is not as devious as Dennis Peck or Robert Miller, he’s a guy trying to sell everyone on his financial schemes which never seem to become a reality. When things finally start working out for him, they end up leading him down a road which could lead to either great success or tragic consequences.

Norman is a loner who lives in the shadows of New York City power and money, and he works hard, perhaps much too hard, at being everyone’s friend as he offers the elite something he can’t possibly provide on his own. His efforts, however, lead to little in the way of success, and his constant networking threatens to drive people away as people are easily annoyed just by the sound of his voice. Still, he comes across as a nice guy whom you wouldn’t be quick to shoo away because Gere convinces you Norman means well even as he manipulates those around him to his benefit.

But one day he comes across Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), a charismatic Israeli politician who is alone in New York and at a very vulnerable point in his life. Norman seizes on this vulnerability and befriends Micha in a way few others would dare to, and he cements their budding friendship by buying Micha a pair of shoes. But these are not any ordinary pair of shoes which you would find at your local Payless Shoe Source. The price of this particular pair of shoes is the same as the average one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles, and while Norman initially hesitates once he sees the price, he buys them anyway to gain Micha’s respect. This pays off big time three years later when Micha becomes Prime Minister of Israel as he quickly remembers what Norman did for him. From there, Norman bathes in the respect he has craved for such a long time, and he uses Micha’s name to achieve his biggest deal ever.

When we look into Gere’s eyes, we can see when Norman is lying and when he is being honest with those around him. While other actors would have played this character in a more stereotypical or annoying fashion, Gere makes him into a genuinely well-meaning person whom you find yourself rooting for even when he doesn’t have much to back up his promises with. We also come to see what motivates him: he has a desperate need to matter. He wants his existence to be a necessary part of other peoples’ lives, and this should give you an idea of just how lonely a soul he is.

Writer and director Joseph Cedar, who previously gave us the acclaimed movies “Beaufort” and “Footnote,” leaves parts of Norman’s life ambiguous to the viewer. Norman claims he has a wife and child, but we never see them. Do they actually exist? In the end, it doesn’t matter because Norman truly believes they do, and this belief empowers him to persist in achieving what would seem out of reach to everyone else. Even when he is manipulating others, he never comes across as less than genuine, and we can’t help but root for him.

Cedar made this movie as a re-imaging of an archetypal tale about the Court Jew. Those who, like me, were unfamiliar with this tale, it involves the Court Jew meeting a man of power at a point in his life where his resistance is low, and the Jew gives this man a gift or a favor which the man remembers once he rises in stature. To say more would give a good portion of “Norman” away, but learning of this tale makes one realize why the Jewish people are often closely associating with banking as the job of a banker was one of the very few career paths available to Jews in the past. So, the next time people out there say Jews are greedy with money, remind them we narrowed down their career goals for no good reason.

In addition to Gere, there are other terrific performances worth noting in “Norman.” Charlotte Gainsbourg, looking almost unrecognizable from her tour of duty with Lars Von Trier, co-stars as Alex, one of Norman’s many marks who somehow sees right through his ways to where she is empathetic to his struggles. Steve Buscemi also shows up as Rabbi Blumenthal whose synagogue Norman is trying to save from developers. It feels weird to see Buscemi in a role like this as he plays a decent man who wants the best for others as we are so used to seeing him play unsavory characters in “Reservoir Dogs,” “Con Air,” “Fargo,” and “The Sopranos.” Either that, or there are still movies of his I need to watch.

In a lot of ways, Norman Oppenheimer is a different kind of character from the ones Gere has played in the past, but it also isn’t. He has been great at portraying people who are not easily likable, but he makes us like them as he is infinitely clever at getting us over to his side. After all these years, Gere remains an excellent actor on top of a movie star, and we are past due in realizing this. He has never been just a pretty face, and “Norman” has him giving one of his best performances to date. I have no doubt there are many more great performances from him we have yet to see.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Richard Gere and Joseph Cedar Talk about What Went Into ‘Norman’

Miami Film Festival at Olympia Theater - Opening Night

After all these years, I think Richard Gere is one of the most underappreciated actors working in movies today. Sure, he’s been a movie star for years, having appeared in such classics as “An Officer and a Gentleman” and “Pretty Woman,” but I wonder if people in general see him as more than just another pretty face after all this time. Seriously, he has pulled off a number of unforgettable turns in “Primal Fear,” “Chicago” and “Arbitrage” which had him portraying morally duplicitous characters whom you cannot help but root for. The fact he has never been nominated for an Academy Award is baffling as he has more than earned his place among the best, and it seems like he still has to keep reminding us of how good an actor he is.

The latest example of this is “Norman” in which Gere plays Norman Oppenheimer, a humble New York fixer who lives a lonely life in the margins of power and money. He is a would-be operator who dreams up financial schemes, and he strives to be everyone’s friend as he networks with anyone who can elevate him in society. In the process, he gains the attention of Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkwnazi), an Israeli politician who has yet to fully advance in his career, by buying him a super expensive pair of shoes. When Micha becomes Prime Minister of Israel, he remembers Norman’s generous gift and brings him into his inner circle. This gets Norman to set up the biggest deal of his career, but it all threatens to end in an international crisis no one can walk away from in one piece.

Norman movie poster

“Norman” was directed by Joseph Cedar. His previous films include “Campfire” which earned him Ophir awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay, “Beaufort” which won him the Silver Bear award for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival, and “Footnote” which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. “Norman” was inspired by the archetypal tale of the Court Jew which involves a Jew meeting a man with power when his resistance is very low. The Jew gives the man an incredible gift, and the man remembers him when he ends rising in stature. The Jew then becomes a consultant to the man, but when the man becomes subjected to endless antagonism, he has no choice but to get rid of the Jew because the Jew is far too easy to get rid of.

The tale of the Court Jew is one I was not familiar with, and it was fascinating to hear Cedar talk about it when he joined Gere for an interview at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Yes, this was the same hotel Gere romanced Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman,” and the irony of this fact was not lost on any of us. Anyway, Cedar got more specific about this tale with us.

Joseph Cedar: Aside from the type of personality that the Court Jew has to do what a Court Jew does, which is a combination of brilliance because otherwise he is not essential to whoever has power, and a flexibility which allows him to sell out. These are complicated characters that are in the gray area of many moral questions, and it’s part of what allows them to be of influence. But there’s another aspect to it that I think is extremely interesting me. I think all of modern progress is the result of some Court Jew, or at least in Europe. If you look at the great European monuments, none of them would have been possible without that relationship between a king, a duke, a prince or someone in power, and a Jew is able to finance things that the township or the common person, the farmers of whatever area they were in, would have never agreed to do. So rulers needed that function in order to do things that, in retrospect, we are all enjoying right now: art, culture in general, architecture. And then there are some things that are considered negative but are also important: armies, bridges. But it’s a combination of things which are objectively good together with things that are questionable. There are many taxes that Jews convinced their rulers to put up, so those taxes were seen as something bad for the people who have to pay them. But 500 years later, those taxes created beautiful cities.

Ben Kenber: Was there anything specific about the Court Jew tale which you really wanted to get across in this screenplay? It sounds like a tale many other writers are familiar with, and it has been told a number of times, but was there something specific you wanted to address?

Joseph Cedar: I don’t know. It was something I was attracted to in a very sincere way. It’s not that I was looking for this tale.

Richard Gere: Is it the fact that the Court Jew who would be sacrificed in the end and the easiest one to let go?

Joseph Cedar: I think that’s what makes this tale, this journey, this narrative so involving.

Watching Gere as Norman Oppenheimer reminded me of his great work in “Arbitrage,” “Primal Fear” and “Internal Affairs” as he is so good at playing immoral characters who somehow manage to bring you over to their side despite their duplicitous ways. But while Norman is trying to get the upper hand in a way which benefits him, we see he is a desperately lonely man who longs to be accepted by others. Deep down, we want to see Norman succeed, and you can see his lonely desperation in his eyes. This is what I asked Gere about.

Ben Kenber: The thing I love about your performance Richard is we can tell when your character is playing with peoples’ emotions and trying to get what he wants, and then there are other moments where you can see in his eyes that he is being truly honest with others. How challenging is that for you as an actor to pull off?

Richard Gere: Not so hard because he believes it every time. When he’s lying, he believes it. When he’s telling the truth, he believes it. As soon as he starts or if something happens, he has got to fix it. Someone confronts him and he’s got to make it sound like, “Well my wife babysat him…” Whatever the story is, but once he starts it, his fantasy life is so vivid to him that he totally believes it. Totally. So, to him there’s no difference.

Joseph Cedar: I believed you believing it.

Richard Gere: Well that was important.

I want to thank Richard Gere and Joseph Cedar for taking the time to talk with me. “Norman” opens in theaters on April 14, and it is a very good movie worth checking out.