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.

‘Ready Player One’ Revels More in the Virtual World Than in Reality

Ready Pkayer One movie poster

Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One” is a novel I could see a lot of directors being ever so eager to turn into a motion picture. Edgar Wright, Guillermo Del Toro, Robert Zemeckis and even (gasp) Michael Bay would have had a blast bringing to life the virtual world Cline wrote about to where the possibilities of what they could bring to the silver screen seem infinite. In the end, it makes perfect sense Steven Spielberg was the one to adapt it as no other filmmaker has captured our collective imaginations as much as he has.

The year is 2045, and Earth has long since become consumed by pollution, corruption and climate change (which is real folks, don’t let anyone tell you different), and its inhabitants, those situated in the middle or lower classes, are consigned to mobile trailers which are stacked on top of one another. While this cannot be mistaken for a glamorous lifestyle, many clueless politicians and wives of U.S. Presidents would be quick to describe them as FEMA luxury suites. Looking at how barren their existence has become, it’s no wonder these characters prefer a virtual reality as opposed to the one they are forced to live in and endure on a daily basis.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, manages to escape their depressing reality in the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a VR world which allows its users to engage in activities of either an educational, entertaining, or a profitable kind. You can be any avatar you want to be whether it’s Freddy Krueger or Godzilla, and you go into it believing it will allow you to be a somebody instead of a nobody. But eventually, even its most devoted users need to find a way to better deal with the real world as a line between the two needs to be drawn.

One of the OASIS’ most devoted users is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an 18-year-old who lives in the slums of Columbus, Ohio with his aunt. It’s no surprise how quick he is to dive into this virtual world, but his reasons for doing so run much deeper than we initially realize. We learn the OASIS was created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), an eccentric computer genius with an incredible love for 80’s pop culture. Halliday has since passed away, but he has left behind a trail of bread crumbs in the form of Easter eggs for his fans to discover. The first to find all these eggs is promised full ownership of the OASIS among other desirable gifts. Of course, there is a corporation, or a video game conglomerate if you will, named Innovative Online Industries (IOI) which is determined to gain ownership of the OASIS before anyone else. Will the rebellious users beat the greedy corporation to the finish line? Well, the answer might have seen obvious in the past, but these days it looks like the bad guys get away with far too much in the real world.

“Ready Player One” is essentially a combination of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “Tron” as our protagonists are on the search for something which will fulfill their wildest dreams, but they have to find it in a world where the laws of nature do not necessarily apply. And when it comes down to it, the winner will not be someone who is the best at gaming, but someone with a good heart who wants to do the right thing, and who has a strong spirit. Finding someone like that in this day and age, let alone in the future, is an ambitious task as everyone appears susceptible to greed and corruption, but the filmmakers went into this project with the full belief such a person still exists, and a world without hope is not one we should be quick to live in.

The challenge Spielberg has with “Ready Player One” is balancing out the real world with the wondrous virtual world the characters are ever so eager to inhabit. But with all the tools he and his fellow filmmakers had at their disposal, it is easy to see how lopsided the balance is here. Spielberg clearly revels in amazing visual effects he can put onscreen. Watching this movie just once is not enough as there are an infinite number of Easter eggs to discover and acknowledge. While you may easily recognize such pop culture artifacts like Freddy Kruger and the DeLorean time machine from “Back to the Future,” there are so many others to acknowledge here to where you will be very surprised at what Spielberg and company were able to fit into a PG-13 movie.

When it comes to the real world, I feel Spielberg could have done more to distinguish it from the OASIS. This man did give us “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.,” movies which exceeded anything our imaginations could conjure up. Years later, however, he gave us “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Munich,” films which did not shy away from the horrifying reality people are forced to endure. Surely Spielberg would be able to balance out the real world from the imaginary one to where we can see the difference between them or at least determine which one is more important to live in, right?

Well, “Ready Player One” functions a lot like the original “Jurassic Park” in that the spectacle gets the majority of attention while the human element suffers in comparison. But like “Jurassic Park,” Spielberg still has us captivated with incredible visual effects which leave us in complete awe. As the movie goes on, the avatars of the main characters start to look and feel more real than I expected, and this makes up for the limited character development they receive throughout. Cline co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn, but it feels like everyone could have gone a bit deeper with the material.

On a personal note, I loved how Spielberg digs deep into 1980’s nostalgia. Being a child of this decade, I still very much enjoy the music and movies which came out of it. To his credit, Spielberg doesn’t reference his own movies here, regardless of the fact they play a big part in Cline’s book. It’s also great to hear the music of Alan Silvestri here as his themes from the 80’s, particularly those from “Back to the Future,” never grow old. Silvestri’s score here references a number of pop culture classics, and I’m sure you will recognize many of them.

Tye Sheridan has turned in terrific performances in “The Tree of Life,” “Mud” and “Joe,” and he fits comfortably into the role of the typical young Spielberg hero who is wise beyond his years and smarter than the average adult. Olivia Cooke is a wonderful and strong presence as Samantha Cook, a fellow OASIS player whose avatar goes by the name of Art3mis. Ben Mendelsohn also shows up as Nolan Sorrento, the infinitely greedy CEO of IOI who is determined to gain full control over the OASIS. It’s a lot like the character Mendelsohn played in “The Dark Knight Rises,” but this time he is playing someone who believes they are in charge and actually is.

But if there is one performance worth singling out here, it is Mark Rylance’s as James Halliday, the main creator of the OASIS. Rylance makes Halliday into a wonderfully eccentric character whose social skills could use a bit of work, but whose heart shines through in everything he has created and accomplished. Not once does this Oscar-winning actor make Halliday into a caricature of Steve Jobs and instead presents us with a human being desperate to find someone in this world who has not been completely corrupted by the powers that be.

“Ready Player One” will not go down as one of Spielberg’s best movies, but it is far from being one of his worst. The visuals alone are worth the price of admission and watching it once will not be enough as there are so many Easter eggs to identify. Heck, if you close enough, you can even spot a poster with Wil Wheaton on it. While its message of how important it is to spend more time in the real world than the virtual one might seem a bit hypocritical, this movie was directed by a man who knows the difference between the two to where he doesn’t have to prove to us that he knows this. Still, on a story and character level, this could have dug deeper beneath the surface.

* * * out of * * * *

 

Exclusive Interview with Kyle Patrick Alvarez about ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’

kyle-patrick-alvarez-directing-stanford-prison-experiment

Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment” takes us back to the year 1971 when psychology professor Philip Zimbardo (played in the movie by Billy Crudup) conducted the infamous experiment which had 24 students playing the roles of prisoners and guards in a makeshift prison located in the basement of the school’s psychology building. Things start off well, but the experiment soon goes out of control when the guards become increasingly abusive to the prisoners, and Zimbardo is unwilling to stop their brutality as he is infinitely curious to see what it will produce. Zimbardo was out to test his hypothesis of how the personality traits of prisoners and guards are the chief cause of abusive behavior between them. The experiment was supposed to last fourteen days, but it ended after 6.

What results is one of the most intense moviegoing experiences from the year 2015 as a cast of actors including Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Michael Angarano, and Logan Miller find themselves caught up in the experiment’s grip to where the line between reality and fiction is completely blurred. Whereas previous films have observed this experiment from an academic standpoint, this one observes it from an emotional one.

I got to talk with Kyle while he was in Los Angeles to promote “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” His previous films as writer and director were “C.O.G.” in which a cocky young man travels to Oregon to work on an apple farm, and “Easier with Practice” which tells the tale of a novelist going on a road trip with his younger brother to promote his unpublished novel.

the-stanford-prison-experiment-movie-poster

Ben Kenber: “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is one of the most movies you don’t watch as much as you experience.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez: I’m finding that out, yeah (laughs).

BK: There are only so many movies you can say that about. “Deliverance” is a good example of that.

KPA: I was really humbled. When the movie first played I think the first question at the Q&A was, “Did you feel like this movie was an experiment on the audience?” I was so taken aback by the question not in a negative way, but because no one had seen the movie before. I was actually working so hard to not overburden the audience with the story. We even tempered it down a lot. They were stripping guys by the end of day one. I think by the end it’s supposed to become burdensome to watch, and I embrace it now that that’s the reaction, but I didn’t know that that was going to be the case. So the first time the movie screened I was like. okay, it is playing this way to people and I know I can just embrace that now which is good. I hope not every movie I make is like that, but hopefully the movie earns it and then people appreciate the challenge of the experience of watching it.

BK: I remember hearing about this particular experiment while I was in a psychology class in college, and we even watched a documentary about it as well. The one thing that stood out to me the most was when the prisoners started saying “prisoner 819 did a bad thing,” and they kept saying it over and over. I kept waiting for that moment to come up in this movie.

KPA: Oh yeah. I felt like that was one of the really iconic things that you hear. You can hear it over and over and over again in your head, and I think we even joked at one point that they could release a teaser that was just that over and over again. That was interesting to me. As I read the script I had all these things that seemed larger than life, and when you read about it or saw the footage you’re like oh these things really did happen. The Frankenstein walk, to me, is so bizarre and so odd, yet it’s a real thing. To try to make a film that embodies that sort of spirit was hopefully the aim.

BK: This movie is “based on a true story,” but you didn’t use that phrase at the start of it. I was glad you didn’t because this phrase has long since lost its meaning.

KPA: I kind of fought for that a little bit actually. My whole argument was that marketing is going to say it no matter what. I’m a firm believer that you want the movie to stand on its own regardless of marketing, but at the same time I just don’t know anyone that would go to a movie called The Stanford Prison Experiment and not know anything about it and not know it was based on a true thing. I talked about it when I first got involved in the film that “based on a true story” means nothing anymore. The movie I was using for an example was the one where Eric Bana plays a cop who is hunting demons in New York City (“Deliver Us from Evil”), and the trailer says it was “based on a true story.” There are demons in New York; we know this as fact, right? There are not people who hunt demons in New York. Maybe there’s someone who said he does once, but that doesn’t mean it is based on a true story. So, it just doesn’t mean anything to people anymore and it doesn’t carry any weight or value. I tried to think of some other vernacular it could be. I didn’t want it to be like this is a true story because then that says everything in it is true, which is a lie. As soon as you make a movie on anything, nothing in it is true anymore.

BK: With movies based on real events there are dramatic liberties taken, but with this one it sounds like that wasn’t entirely the case.

KPA: I think we reduced the dramatic liberties quite a bit. I think if you look at a movie, for example, like “Lincoln” which takes voting public record and changes it. I don’t mean to slam the film, I like the film quite a bit, but when they’re voting they change the numbers to make it more suspenseful. I don’t think we took any liberties anywhere near that extreme. Maybe some people who were in the experiment could argue that it wasn’t really that intense or something like that. Others may argue that the intensity comes from putting the camera in their faces or the artistic representation of it. Two of our biggest liberties are when Ezra (Miller) and Brett (Davern) escape the prison. In real life the guy really did take a panel off. He was a guitar player and took the panel off with a sundial, broke the lock and I think they tried to open a door, but a guard was there and admonished them and told them that they had to fix the lock. We added an extra couple hundred feet. When we were doing that we said that we were gonna add this chase sequence because the movie needs to breathe and open up a bit. I thought Tim (Talbott) had done a really good job with that in the script. But then when Phil (Zimbardo) comes around and the other guys, there’s a reason we never see them touch them because they didn’t. That was where we were embellishing a little bit for the sake of the narrative, but we’re not abandoning the fundamentals of what this experiment was about. Those guys did not touch them or physically harass them so we didn’t show that, and having Phil involved was a really good and constant reminder of what those fundamentals are that we shouldn’t change. The ending, when they called it off, actually Phil and Christina kind of said that they needed to call this off and they came up with a plan to do it professionally. For me, you show that and there is an anti-climactic nature to that. I think the emotions are real and that they were being felt, and we just put them in at different times for the ending. I was really interested in making a film that could hold up. If you sit down and watch the documentary “Quiet Rage,” you will go oh, that is actually pretty similar. I didn’t want to make a movie that would replace that or replace “The Lucifer Effect.” I wanted to make a film that would work in tandem with those where it would feel like you could gain something a little more emotional and different than if you just did the academia side.

BK: The actors are all fantastic in the movie and they each give very intense performances. Watching them made me wonder if the movie was an experiment on them.

KPA: In a weird way, I almost wish I had this story to make interviews more exciting about these kids became their characters and I became like Zimbardo. But the truth was I think I was actually overtly aware of that potential, and actually it would have worked so hard against us. If you ask any of the guys, they will say that they had a lot of fun. You only have two options: either go down the path where everyone has fun and everyone gets along, or you gotta push it to go really extreme. I am not a big manipulator. If an actor wants me to manipulate them I will work with that, but on this film it was one of those things where it’s like when the camera’s rolling we’re on, and when it’s off be respectful. Some guys might need more space and might want to stay in character a little bit more, but it never took on the form of the experiment. We did spend two and a half weeks in that hallway, and we were sick of the hallway. We were ready to be done. Sure, some feelings were created, but I told them everyone every day that this is like a soccer game where we all shake hands at the end. So if something is going on that you’re not comfortable with, just say it. I said that probably more to the guards than the prisoners, but once it came down to doing those few physical things in the movie the actors loved it. Nick and Ezra had worked together before so they already respected each other, and they would just run through their scenes and had such a blast. For me, in a weird way we actually worked against that, and I think consequently the actors look back on it very fondly. I also think we got, for the nature of the movie and the tight shooting schedule, better stuff from them because they just felt more invigorated. I would just love to be able to build a career out of actors having good experiences. That’s my favorite party of the process, working with actors. I admire what they do so much because I never could, so it’s honoring that by working to each person. But this is the first time I ever did an ensemble piece and it was a little more about telling them hey this is what it’s going to be like, hey it’s not going to get out of control, guards you are going to follow the script and if you want to push something a little bit more than we’ll talk about it as opposed to unleashing them. There have been previous iterations of this project where that had been the aim where they try to create this potboiler environment where the actors really lose it, but I think what you get with that is more of a machismo quality. I jokingly refer to it as the David Ayer effect. I like his movies so it’s not a slam on them at all, but he’s making testosterone and there’s no doubt about it. I actually was more interested in making the inverse of that. The set was like a frat house, but the aggression was coming from a more complicated place. There wasn’t any actual physical violence. When you look closely at the movie there is no drop of blood other than one or two moments. No one was physically hurt, and so we were really careful to honor that while still creating tension.

BK: One interesting scene is when Ezra Miller’s character gets arrested as part of the experiment. He treats it like it’s no big deal at first, but then the cops slam his head on the car and his mood changes instantly.

KPA: They really did get real cops and they said arrest these guys like they are really criminals. This is something we didn’t have the money to shoot, but they actually took them to the police station and fingerprinted them and booked them and took photos of them and everything. They really put them through this simulation and it really got to them. The cops were really putting paper bags on their heads. Someone criticized the film once saying that they used too much on the nose imagery from Abu Ghraib, specifically referring to the bags. I was like no, no, no, Abu Ghraib just did the same exact thing.

BK: It seems like certain audience members need to be reminded that the Stanford Prison Experiment took place long before Abu Ghraib.

KPA: Oh yeah. It’s one of those stories that’s too bizarre to be true. It’s hard to accept that it was true. I knew there was no way to succeed 100% on this but I tried to work the hardest to make a film that didn’t just always say, “Well it really did happen.” That’s not enough of an answer when you make a movie like this because you have to make the audience feel like it could have happened. I wanted it to be like, “Well I understand why it happened.”

BK: By the time the movie gets to day three, it feels like we have been with these guys for a month.

KPA: Yeah (laughs), that’s how they felt too. They really did not know how many days had passed. They weren’t sleeping which I think was the biggest thing. You can go 36 hours without sleep when you start to legitimately lose your mind, and I think that’s a huge part of what happened.

BK: The Stanford Prison Experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but it ended up being shut down after 6 days. Some have said that it wasn’t because the experiment wasn’t successful, but that it was too successful. Would you say that was the case?

KPA: I think once you talk about success of the experiment you start to bring into the question its true purpose and its ethics. I was really interested in pushing questions of things like that in the movie. At the same time, I didn’t want to fall into the question of, was this okay? People are still arguing the exact same things, so I figured we are never going to solve this. 40 years later people are still arguing whether this experiment succeeded or not or whether it should have never have ever been done in the first place. What we do know now is that the experiment would never be allowed to happen today. It was military financed. Partly because of the experiment, there are so many more checks and balances in place. When I first sat down with Billy (Crudup), one of the things he said was, “How could everyone be so naïve to not realize this would happen?” And I said, “Well of course, they could have because it hadn’t happened yet.” Now it’s easier for us to go, “Well, of course, it would have gone wrong. What were they thinking?” They were doing experiments like this all the time; simulations or recreations. This was just part of what psychologists were doing at the time. This was the time it just really imploded.

BK: That’s a good point. Ever since then we have a better understanding of the power dynamic between prisoners and guards more than ever before.

KPA: Yeah, and that’s why I added a line at the end when Billy is talking to the camera. He says, “There was no sense of precedent. We didn’t know this was going to happen.” I thought that was a really important element.

I want to thank Kyle Patrick Alvarez for taking the time to talk to me. “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Exclusive Interview with Rick Alverson and Gregg Turkington about ‘Entertainment’

entertainment-gregg-and-rick

Entertainment” is probably the most ironically named movie to be released in 2015 as it is not entirely fun to sit through, but to dismiss it as bad because it is not enjoyable would be missing the point. It proves to be an experience more than anything else as we watch a stand-up comic named The Comedian (played by Gregg Turkington) travel through the California desert while performing at a string of third-rate venues in front of audiences who couldn’t be less excited to watch him. During this time, he tries to get in touch with his estranged daughter and eagerly awaits a lucrative Hollywood engagement which just might revive his sagging career. But first, he has to travel through what seems like the equivalent of Dante’s Inferno in order to find any hope of salvation.

“Entertainment” was directed by Rick Alverson who previously gave us “The Comedy,” another ironically named motion picture which starred Tim Heidecker as an aging New Yorker who is indifferent to inheriting his father’s estate and passes time with friends playing games of mock sincerity and irreverence. Turkington is a noted stand-up comic best known for his alter-ego of Neil Hamburger, a persona which he brings to “Entertainment” but who is not the same character as The Comedian.

I got to speak with Alverson and Turkington while they were at Cinefamily in Los Angeles where “Entertainment” was being shown. When I told that them this interview was for Examiner.com, they joking replied how someone on the website gave them their movie the worst review imaginable and described it as anything but entertaining. We started with that review and went from there.

entertainment-movie-poster

Ben Kenber: How do you feel about reviews like that?

Rick Alverson: Well it’s weird. Obviously the movie isn’t a romp through a good time, so if somebody says it’s a failure for doing that they are right, but that’s not even engaging with the movie (laughs). It’s like you’re not even walking into the room.

Gregg Turkington: They got the details wrong, that’s what I don’t like. They seem to have thought he was trying to do something else and that he failed in trying to do that, but he was trying to do that so he didn’t fail so fuck yourself (laughs). But I like the bad reviews if sometimes it feels like the person’s taking it so personally that the review, when you are reading it, you can tell that I don’t like this person and they don’t like this and this sounds interesting to me, I’m gonna go see the movie. I’ve gone to a lot of movies with scathing reviews because I could tell we are not on the same page, and what you hate is what I like. That’s fine with me.

BK: I saw “Entertainment” a couple of weeks ago and it has stayed with me ever since. Some movies are meant to be experienced more than enjoyed, and this movie is an example of that. Not all movies are meant to be enjoyed.

RA: Great. That’s very good to hear.

BK: We’re looking at a comedian who is at the end of his rope psychologically, and you can’t turn away from his suffering.

RA: Yeah, I would say it’s even more than just psychological. I think it’s a holistic disaster biologically, psychologically, spiritually…

GT: Environmentally (laughs). Although we did win an award in Switzerland at this film Festival we went to.

RA: Environment is Quality of Life Award from the junior jury at Locarno in Switzerland.

GT: Pick the film that best sums up the environment is quality of life (laughs).

RA: It’s true, we won.

GT: Environment is low quality of life, and that environment is low quality (laughs).

BK: I can see why it won. Greg, your character of The Comedian was inspired by your character of Neil Hamburger. When you brought that character to this movie, did you have to change anything about the way you perform?

GT: The live stage show is similar to the real live stage show although me lashing out at somebody for no good reason is not something I would do in a live stage show. That was more the character. But yeah, there were a lot of things that had to be planned out and thought about and addressed. Ultimately I don’t think it is the Neil Hamburger story. It’s a very similar character and certainly it helps to have that character up our sleeves when we need it, but we had to be free to start from scratch.

BK: Rick, I read in the production notes that you had mentioned how you found failure as being very liberating. What specifically about failure do you find so liberating?

RA: Well it describes the boundaries and limitations of the world and experience, and there’s something beautiful to what we can and can’t do and understanding them. It’s like understanding what your feet are for, and your feet have a certain function. I think functionality is beautiful, and we are increasingly a society that’s divorced from form in every way and ignores the limitations which are the actual architecture of life. So we are just ignoring the shape of things and instead are wrapped up in what things could be in this idealized ephemeral flight of fancy. There is a neglecting the beauty of facts on the ground.

GT: A lot of peoples’ failures are to me successes. There’s a purity often to them that you don’t find with things that are successful.

RA: Yeah, because the idea of success is that so few can achieve it in any discipline and any particular way, whether it’s the success of becoming incredibly rich or the success of perfectly achieving the discipline. The majority of people are in some sort of muddy approximation of that. I don’t use traditionally scripted dialogue in any of my movies, so there’s improvisation and other methods of achieving tonal exchanges or content. I really like when things fall flat or there is that absence of chiseled, airtight exchange that we see in so much of popular cinema.

BK: Regardless of how people view “Entertainment,” I have a feeling it will endure over the years as it offers a different and specific view of things.

GT: I’m surprised at how people’s perceptions of things is all based on something like an opening weekend or with music too. It’s like some record comes out and it doesn’t do well, but the music is still valid at any point. The time that it comes out shouldn’t determine the value of it. It’s crazy.

RA: There are these sort of free market metrics especially in an age where we don’t even know who’s buying this stuff. Netflix isn’t releasing their numbers or whatever company. Digital platforms don’t need to release their numbers, so we really don’t know where this stuff’s going and who it’s being imbibed by. To think that our metrics for an opening weekend at the box office have any sort of say about a work is silly.

GT: It’s also replaced for a lot of people film criticism. I hear people in airports or on the street talking about box office numbers and really that should only be of interest to the investors, not to the moviegoers. What do you care if it made 30 million or 60 million? That’s nothing to do with you.

RA: Increasingly we want context for everything. We need context for our own experience. We need to understand how other people are viewing something so that we know how to view it, which is a bit of a shame. Where’s discovery?

BK: I imagine there was a lot of improvisation involved in the making of this movie.

GT: For the dialogue. The rest of it is pretty scripted out very carefully scripted out. It’s not improvised like, what will we talk about now. It’s written there what the topic is, what the town he is in and what’s being communicated. It’s just up to the actors to use the actual words.

RA: We were talking about the other day how there’s, in a tent pole blockbuster movie, a general sense that people were improvising. Because of the prowess of the spectacle, everybody is saying that they know that they (the actors) are riffing on lines in a popular sense. But I think when people talk about independent films and say that they are improvised, it’s just like you turn on the camera and everybody’s doing whatever the fuck they want. It’s so many different things for so many different people. You think you are communicating one thing by saying it, but language is useless sometimes. This was fun because we worked with different people in different ways. I was improvising lines and writing lines on the spot and feeding them to certain people. Others like John (C. Reilly) and Gregg, they have a chemistry and they are very good improvisers so the dialogue exchanges between them were in that world. For me, watching that thing sort of come apart or the attempt at it, honestly half the time if I know we are covering whatever little narrative ground we need, I’m just listening to the voices. We don’t do more than three takes, and some of that is economic. If it’s not achieved by the casting or by the sort of conditions that you’re setting up, then what are you aiming for? I like things falling kind of flat too.

GT: But it’s also true that people think it’s a big free-for-all, improvising. They should see a scene that we might do where we do the first take, me talking to somebody or whatever making up the dialogue, and Rick says, “Alright for this one I need you to move half a millimeter to your right.” That’s not a free-for-all, being told to move half a millimeter to the right. That would probably be the direction over we need you to use this line and to say this specific thing. A lot of times it was stuff like that which is really the opposite of a free-for-all.

BK: Gregg, your character gets booked at a lot of second-rate venues or places that are the worst for comedians to be stuck at. Is that something you’ve experienced in your own career, or is that something you just been a witness to?

GT: I experienced it when I’ve gone out of my way to make sure that it was happening by booking shows that I knew what have that sort of outcome. And then sometimes you go into a show with the best of intentions and it just doesn’t pan out. Things get awful and ugly. But I like a variety of responses and so I like to have shows that are successes on the traditional level, success in the failures on the traditional level. To me they are probably both successes because they gave me a different experience.

RA: I feel that way about movies. It’s strange increasingly for me to recognize how similar me and Gregg are and what we want out of the thing whether it’s comedy or drama or film or stand up. We’re kind of curious about the off-kilter event (laughs).

BK: There are some amazing shots of the California desert in this movie. On one hand they are beautiful, but on the other they illustrate how vacant and empty The Comedian’s life is. Was it challenging to get those shots with the budget you had?

RA: We stretched our budget really, really far, and that speaks to the dedication of everybody involved; the crew and the producers and the cast. So yeah, of course it’s challenging. It’s 112° outside and Lorenzo Hagerman, our cameraman, is carrying a 50-pound camera kit on his shoulder up a rocky cliff to get those wide vista shots 400 yards from something. Gregg’s shoes are melting and it’s dangerous out there. Don’t go to the desert! (Laughs)

GT: Don’t shoot in the desert is right!

RA: Me and Gregg talked about how we liked in the 70’s you see a lot of films of people just sweating and nobody’s dabbing them. They are just covered in sweat and look greasy and wrong. You started to see that becoming the sterilization of, “No that’s not quite right. We can do better than that.” So you had to sterilize the representation down to its most idealized form, but we were hoping for some more sweat actually.

BK: Tye Sheridan’s role in this movie is interesting because he basically plays a clown who doesn’t have much of an act. He just basically panders to the audience’s basest instincts. How did you work with him on that role?

RA: I showed him an idiot dance and he brought it to life. I’d ask him to do sort of these mime-ish things at events, and he stepped up on that stage and animated it in a way that shocked all of us. It was electrifying. He sort of plays the apocalypse in the movie. He definitely is the end of the spectacle. He’s reduced down to the rawest of the raw materials. He is the smut in the pig sty, the character I mean. Tye is one of the kindest, gentlest, most respectful young men that you could ever meet.

BK: What do you hope people get the most out of “Entertainment” and the experience of watching it?

RA: I hope they do what you’ve done. You can watch a film and be activated by it and be engaged with it and have an experience like you’re saying. It doesn’t necessarily in a typical sort of way expect for it to do to you what the majority of films do. There can be an outlier that doesn’t operate by those principal, and the spectrum of art is much larger than a particular metric like if you enjoyed it or if you didn’t enjoy it. It’s so much more broad.

I want to thank Rick Alverson and Gregg Turkington for taking the time to talk with me. “Entertainment” is now available to watch on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

X-Men: Apocalypse

X Men Apocalypse poster

In the whirlwind of superhero movies which have come out in 2016, “X-Men: Apocalypse” ends up being sandwiched between “Captain America: Civil War” and “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Like those two, “X-Men: Apocalypse” has far too many characters and plotlines to deal with, and its running time is much longer than it needs to be. But while this “X-Men” might not reach thrilling heights of “Captain America: Civil War,” it is far more enjoyable than the dour affair that was “Batman vs. Superman.” Still, after “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” this entry does feel like a comedown for the long running franchise.

The movie takes place in the 1980’s; a time of synth pop, “Knight Rider,” Ronald Reagan and “Return of the Jedi” among other things. The newest threat to both humans and mutants alike is En Sabah Nur, better known as Apocalypse, the world’s first and most powerful mutant. The movie starts off with him being entombed in a rocky grave after being betrayed by his followers, but he is awakened in 1983 and finds humanity has lost its way because, as he sees it, humanity was without his presence. As a result, he vows to destroy the world and remake it, and this time the X-Men may have a foe too powerful for them to defeat.

Playing Apocalypse is Oscar Isaac who enters yet another incredibly successful franchise after leaving his mark on another in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” In a way he is undone here by the large amount of makeup he is forced to wear as it threatens to rob him of his charisma. Seriously, the less makeup you put on Isaac the better as he can lock you in place with just a look from his eyes. Regardless, he is still very good here as he holds his own opposite actors who have been veterans of this franchise for quite some time.

Many of the “X-Men: First Class” cast return as well like James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hout, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne and Evan Peters. It’s great to see them all back as they are still deeply invested in these famous comic book characters as always. McAvoy, portraying Professor Charles Xavier/Professor X, shows just how mentally exhausting it is to fight an antagonist with only your mind. We also get to see how Charles lost his hair, and we leave the theater wondering how his eyebrows managed to remain intact.

Lawrence remains an enthralling presence in any movie she appears in, and she makes Raven/Mystique another in a long line of wounded warriors. The Oscar winning actress makes this comic book character into a hero as reluctant as Katniss Everdeen, and we feel for even as she feels she deserves no respect because of her regretful mistakes. While Raven/Mystique has been an antagonist for many of the “X-Men” movies, Lawrence makes her a complex character who comes to see what she must fight for most.

Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto has a setup like Logan/Wolverine had in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in which he’s found peace but eventually sees it completely destroyed to where the only thing on his mind is vengeance. It’s a familiar setup we have seen many times, but whether or not you know how Magneto will end up in this mutant tug of war, it’s worth just seeing Fassbender inhabit this role once again as he is riveting for every second he appears onscreen. Compare him all you want to Sir Ian McKellen, Fassbender imbues this iconic comic book character with a lot of raw emotion which will not leave you unmoved.

Evan Peters steals the show once again as Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver, the man who can move at supersonic speeds and yet still lives in his mother’s basement. Peters had one of “Days of Future Past’s” best scenes which was set to the tune of a classic 70’s song, and he does his thing here yet again to an 80’s song. It has been said that the next “X-Men” movie will take place in the 90’s, so we’ll have some time to guess what classic grunge song he will be saving the day to.

A number of other X-Men return as well, but this time played different actors. Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler finally returns to the franchise for the first time since “X-Men 2: X-Men United,” and he is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee who gives the character a good dose of humor. Alexandra Shipp takes on Storm and sports a mohawk which is as fierce as her attitude, so watch out. The terrific Tye Sheridan portrays Scott Summers/Cyclops, and this character gets fleshed out in a way we have not seen previously. “Game of Thrones” star Sophie Turner appears here as Jean Grey, and it’s great to see the actress portray Jean’s dark side which is her gift and her possible undoing in the future.

With Bryan Singer returning to the director’s chair for his fourth “X-Men” movie, you can’t help but walk into “Apocalypse” with high expectations. Both he and screenwriter Simon Kinberg have too many characters to deal with to where several are not developed fully enough to be satisfying, and others are simply there for dramatic conflict. The mutant hating William Stryker returns, but the character barely registers this time around. We also get introduced to new mutants like Psylocke whose talents seem no different from others like her, and more could have been done to make her stand out. However, it should be noted that Olivia Munn fills out Psylocke’s uniform very well.

But even with its inescapable flaws, Singer still makes “X-Men: Apocalypse” a summer blockbuster packed with action, and the movie also hits you on a deep emotional level. We’ve been following these characters now for nearly a dozen movies, and we still care about their predicaments regardless of whatever timeline they are living through. Other directors in this franchise, with the exception of Matthew Vaughn, have not had the same success in engaging us as Singer has, and he continues to set the bar high for others looking to helm the next entry. And once again, Singer is served well here by his longtime editor and composer John Ottman who gives us yet another rousing music score.

So yeah, “X-Men: Apocalypse” could have been better, but it still works for what it is. It has a serious yet playful tone which has been the mark of many comic book movies in recent years, and it’s better than its score on Rotten Tomatoes would suggest. Regardless of how you feel about this movie, there’s still a lot of life left in this franchise and I am eager to see how the next “Wolverine” movie turns out.

Oh by the way, the filmmakers do pull off a none-too-subtle dig at “X-Men: The Last Stand.” Trust me, you will know it when you see it. Suffice to say, I don’t think Brett Ratner will be returning to this franchise anytime soon.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * * out of * * * *