Category: Pop Culture (Page 1 of 32)
“It Comes At Night” Writer/Director Trey Edward Shults Talks About His New Film
Length: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Writer/Director: Trey Edward Shults
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Griffin Robert Faulkner, David Pendleton, Mikey the dog
Reviewer: Connie Wilson
Following the absolutely gut-wrenching preview showing of the film “It Comes At Night” in Chicago on Thursday, June 1st, writer/director Trey Edward Shults talked about how this, his second feature film, came to be. (the movie opens wide on June 9th).
At 18, Trey became an intern on a Terrence Malick shoot in Hawaii for the volcano scenes in “Tree of Life.” He was rooming with the film loader, who taught him how to load film inside a changing bag for Imax films. They were helicoptered to the volcano site and filmed lava erupting from the volcano.
Something caused the second unit film loader to be unavailable and Trey stepped in, with lava oozing down the sides of the volcano in the rain and the cinematographer yelling, “We need another mag!” After that, Trey quit college at 19 and, in addition to interning in Austin with Malick, was employed on a Jeff Nichols movie.
Shults spent this time studying movies constantly, making shorts, and trying to find his voice as a filmmaker. He says he has never worked on “a traditional film set” and is open to collaborating with actors. “Krishna,” which was Shults’ first feature-length film, premiered at SXSW in 2015, featured his family members, and earned him a 2-film deal with A24. It is a movie about family and, as he said in Chicago, “I knew I had to quit making movies that starred only my family members.” (Laughter).
So “It Comes At Night,” film number two, was born, after Shults had captured the John Cassavetes Award (2016), the Independent Spirit Awards Breakthrough Director Award , the Gotham Award (2016) and earned reviews that praised “Krishna” as “unforgettable,” “original” and “a ferociously impressive film debut.”
In this, Shults’ second full-length feature film, Joel Edgerton (“Loving,” “Midnight Special”), who plays Paul in the picture and also was an executive producer, helped with assembling the top-notch cast: Carmen Ejogo of “Selma;” Riley Keough (Elvis’ granddaughter who was in “The Girlfriend Experience” and “American Honey”) as Kim; Christopher Abbott (“James White”) as Will and new-comer Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Travis, through whose eyes the story is told. Said Shults, “I’m very blessed, because they are all very talented and amazing people. I went through the Hollywood bullshit casting. You fly to London and meet with someone and they say, ‘Oh! I’d love to be in your movie!’ and you fly home and then they say they have committed somewhere else.” Stelts shrugs and says that the role of Travis was cast during a Skype session with Kelvin Harrison, Jr. of New Orleans, who was 22 at the time, while Shults was 27. Kelvin is the person through whose eyes we experience the film. (When asked for his favorite scene in an interview, Harrison said he enjoyed the grim, gory sequence where Riley Keough straddles him in bed and oozes thick blood into his mouth. He also identified one of his favorite movies as the 1959 film “Imitation of Life,” about a light-skinned black girl passing for white).
The personal elements of the film came from Trey’s watching his father (from whom he had been estranged) slowly die a grim death from pancreatic cancer. As someone who nursed her father through terminal liver cancer in a town too small to have much of a hospice program, I could definitely relate. In sharing that commonality, I earned a hug from the director, who is the product of various strong female role models, including his actress aunt Trisha Fairchild, who starred in “Krisha.” Family is important to Trey and that line about trusting family first is used in the film’s dialogue.
The long, slow fade to black of his father’s death made a deep and indelible impression on the young filmmaker. He says, “I started writing and it started spewing out of me. For the people who dig it, that’s cool. It’s not about the disease; it’s about what the disease does to people.” He mentions genocide and paranoia and the struggle to survive, turned to maximum volume.
Set in a remote cabin in the woods, the survivors of an unnamed disease are trying to survive, using gas masks and barricading themselves from what is out there that might infect them or kill them. We never know exactly what that might be, but gas masks are used throughout, as are kerosene lanterns and natural light (much like Terrence Malick’s films and their emphasis on natural light.) The film’s tone is reminiscent of early Carpenter or “Night of the Living Dead.”
Dream Sequences: Q: You’re never really sure it is really a dream or reality. Is that intentional?
A: “Yes. The way we shot it was deliberate, from 240 to 275 to 30. The score is also subtly different and, at the end of the movie, the aspect ratio slowly changes and the reality/dream music is interwoven; we shot 3.0 for the rest of the film. The goal with the nightmares was a path into Travis and how he’s thinking and how he’s processing these things. (“Totally,” is usually Trey’s favorite one-word response.)
Q: What about the stupidness of horror movies, in general? What did you think was stupid in that way in your film, if anything?
A: Travis running into the woods after Stanley (the dog) is probably the stupidest thing. (He adds that he would probably have done it, too).
Q: What about the title?
A: A title hits you and then it sticks with you. At night is when my brain is most active. It’s a little gateway into how I think. (Laughs) I had this nightmare where I had cancer, but it was just in my finger, but I was gonna’ die. The title “It Comes At Night” is not literal. It is metaphorical. It’s intentional. The purpose was to put you in the headspace of the characters.”
As Trey says, “The entire theme is pretty minimal. Less is more,” he says, quoting Mies van der Rohe.“I really wanted to make the most of this toned-down setting. There isn’t an ounce of fat on this movie.” Shults mentions some of his Obsessive/compulsive tendencies (wrestling, when in high school, until a shoulder injury ruined that career) and says, “I mixed the gunshot sounds over and over and over.” Shults also said, “We didn’t do night lighting. You go in the woods with a flashlight or in your house and it’s dark and it’s totally terrifying. We wanted economical storytelling. It’s a low-budget film (shot in 5 weeks in one setting.) There is no hidden material.”
Shults tells the story of attending a screening of “There Will Be Blood” with his mother and how it influenced him, as have such diverse films as “Boogie Nights,” “Night of the Living Dead,” “The Shining,” and “The Thing.” For all of his admiration for such classic horror films, Shults says “It Comes At Night” is not a genre film.
“The movie is about the unknown and the fear of the unknown. Death is the ultimate unknown.” He tells the story of his cousin who, having been drug addicted but clean for years, came to a family reunion but relapsed while at the reunion (and later died). These brushes with death early in his life—whether a parent or a cousin—obviously have informed the young filmmaker’s work. His apprenticeships with Terrence Malick inform the first 45 to 50 minutes of the film, when the cinematography goes from cameras to dollies to zoom shots.
Some will not like the ending, because the film leaves us with questions.
Shults says, “I like questions. I know that’s what I love. I love the kind of movies where you think about them later and wonder about things. If this turns out to be one of those movies that stays with you afterwards, that’s cool.” (“Totally.”)
Obit: The Obituary Writers at the New York Times Discuss Their Craft
Director: Vanessa Gould
Length: 95 minutes
Actors: Bruce Weber, William McDonald, Margalit Fox, Paul Vilella, Douglas Martin, Jeff Roth
Cinematographer: Ben Wolf
Original score: Joel Goodman
Reviewer: Connie Wilson
Once, 30 people helped maintain the basement archives of 10,000 drawers in the basement of the New York Times offices, drawers stuffed with obituary clippings that documented the lives of the rich and famous. Now that staff is down to one. Say the few obituary writers at the New York Times who are left, “You can count on one hand the number of obituary writers left on staff.”
Why have old newspaper clippings in the day of the Internet? “We like to keep the paper copy because we don’t know if the online sources are going to work.”
This surprisingly light-hearted, entertaining and engrossing documentary doesn’t just interview writers. There are many film clips of the famous, such as the September 26, 1960 JFK/Nixon debate held in Chicago. The first of four televised debates, it was estimated that 70 million people tuned in; it is still considered the turning point in making the photogenic John Fitzgerald Kennedy a media darling who would go on to win the Presidency, beating Eisenhower’s Vice President, Richard M. Nixon, who showed up looking haggard, sweaty and unshaven.
The obituary this day was that of the first television media consultant (William P. Wilson, 86) who insisted on the single support podium and ran 2 blocks to purchase powder puffs and make-up for JFK, while Nixon eschewed any cosmetics and his image suffered afterwards as a result. Naturally, I perked up my ears at the news that his surname was “Wilson” and I found his savvy recognition of the fact that the far trimmer and fitter-looking Kennedy would photograph well on television with his perfectly-fitted suit, while Nixon (who had been ill) looked pallid, sweaty and nervous, was the beginning of that entire field of television on-air consultants.
There were also stories of last-of-their-kind individuals like Manson Whitlock, who repaired typewriters until his death. When asked about “prepared ahead” obituaries, the writers said that, generally, if a person was in their prime and relatively young, no advance obituary existed. That’s what made writing up the deaths of individuals like Prince, Michael Jackson, Carrie Fisher, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams so daunting. Who does the NY Times have on file now? “Stephen Sondheim, Meadowbrook Lemmon of the Harlem Globetrotters, Mort Sahl and Jane Fonda—although we hope we don’t have to use them any time soon.”
Say the few mostly male and mature obituary writer, “You’re always wrestling with a way to fold the facts in, if we can. We don’t want to stop the narration. We’re trying to weave a historical story and entice the reader. It’s a one-time chance and you can’t do it again.”
Bruce Weber, featured prominently in the documentary, gave some of the essentials of a good obituary. First, following the unfortunate announcement that a Russian ballerina had died (when she is still alive and well today), the death must be confirmed by a reputable source—possibly a family member, the police or the hospital. Says Weber, “I had to call all the Wallaces in Champaign-Urbana when (writer) David Foster Wallace died.”
Second: avoid flowery sentimental language. “No Hallmark card language to give the obituary an emotional cast.” Douglas Martin, originally from Clear Lake, Iowa, read aloud from his great grandmother’s obituary that appeared in the Clear Lake Mirror and violated that rule to the max. No euphemisms for dying are to be used, like “shuffled off this mortal coil” or “passed away.”
Third: always provide the cause of death. It has long puzzled me why obituaries tip-toe around the cause of death, often not mentioning it at all. Weber confirms that readers want to know what killed the person, especially if the individual was young.
Fourth: get it right! Weber tells the camera that he regrets a small error in an obituary (of William P. Wilson, 86) that ran that day. He had identified William Wilson’s grandfather as a Democratic Congressman from Illinois; the family has reported that Granddad was Republican. “That was such a small thing. I could have simply left out his political affiliation and it would still have been good. I regret that.”
The length? Depends on the fame of the subject. Obituaries can run 500, 800 or 900 words, but it is the more important celebrity types that garner the greatest space. Also mentioned was the pressure of getting the obituary into print on time if the celebrity—-as with Michael Jackson—dies unexpectedly, has a large body of work, and dies in the afternoon. MJ was declared dead late in the day, around 3 p.m., and that made it difficult to get it written well by 8 p.m. when the paper went to press at 9 p.m. (“We had to really scramble.”) Philip Seymour Hoffman, by contrast, was found dead early on a Sunday morning, which helped the work pace of the writers. However, in this Internet age, “the competitive pressures of journalism have increased exponentially.”
This film is an amazing piece of documentary work. The pacing was great and the quick flashes of celebrities as varied as David Bowie, Amy Winehouse, Carrie Fisher and Prince—flickering by in quick, well-edited cuts—was a good way to spice up an otherwise potentially dry, boring topic.
What sorts of unusual stories have been written by these obituary writers? There was the obit of Svetlana Stalin (daughter of the U.S.S.R.’s Josef Stalin), who defected to the U.S. and died in Topeka, Kansas. The inventors of the Slinky and the television remote were profiled. There was the sole survivor of the landmark court case Brown Vs. the Board of Education decision, an African American woman educator. Jack Albert Kenzler who averted the scrubbing of a space mission with his inventive tinkering and died at age 74, was newsworthy. The pilot of the Enola Gay who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Manson Whitlock, who repaired typewriters all his life and died in 2014, among the last of that dying breed.
Margalit Fox noted, “Obituaries are inherently retrospective things. It used to be that the only people allowed to be players on the world stage were overwhelmingly white men, but that is changing.” The obituaries point out the changing technology (from typewriters to computers), the advances of women and minorities, and the creation of brand new jobs in this sophisticated age, such as the television media consultant William P. Wilson, shown in a film clip onstage at the Kennedy/Nixon debate scene. Each person mentioned earned a film clip or photo of them during life, many of them very amusing and all of them interesting.
Doesn’t writing about death every day become dreary and depressing?
“No,” says Bruce Weber. “We want to know, ‘How did people get to be the way they are? How did the world get to be the way it is?….We’re trying to write an entertaining piece about history for those who may not know that history. Art also makes you a permanent piece of people’s history. A lot of people my age (Weber is 57) begin to think of their mortality. Seeing the full circle, the full arc. Am I accomplishing anything? Did I leave a mark? The appreciation of the universality of dying intrudes. There’s nothing you can do about dying.”
Director: Jonathan Levine
Writer: Katie Dippold
Stars: Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn, Ike Barinholtz, Wanda Sykes, Joan Cusack, Christopher Meloni
Length: 1 hour 30 minutes
Reviewer: Connie Wilson
“Snatched” is a film about a mother/daughter vacationing pair who are kidnapped while on the daughter’s non-refundable vacation (“Let’s put the FUN back in non-refundable!” says Amy in trying to convince Goldie to accompany her).
Emily Middleton (Amy Schumer) has been dumped by her boyfriend (Randall Park as Michael) in a restaurant scene that the row of middle-aged women behind me found laugh-out-loud hilarious. I have to admit: it was pretty funny ( It’s been featured in various trailers on television).
The mother in this equation is 71-year-old Goldie Hawn, an Oscar-winning comedienne whose presence in the film brought in the older crowd. Goldie is living her life very cautiously, having raised Schumer and her onscreen brother Jeffrey (Ike Barinholtz) as a single Mom after Mr. Middleton walked out on the family. Linda Middleton (Goldie Hawn) is fixated on cats and spends the evening checking the locks on her home, as she is convinced that the world is a very dangerous place. Son Jeffrey also has issues (agoraphobia) and only Emily (Amy Schumer) seems to be a free spirit who goes for adventure like a heat-seeking missile.
When Amy’s band member boyfriend dumps her, she is stuck with a trip to Puerto Cayo, Ecuador and no one to take it with. Ultimately, Emily asks Mom Linda to go with her, even though, while on the trip, Mom emerges from her hotel room swathed in multiple layers of clothing, causing Amy/Emily to say, “You look like a beekeeper.” I smiled, as I have a friend who will not expose her aging skin to sunlight, even when in Cancun for two weeks. And—let’s face it—inviting Mom to accompany her is better than leaving Linda/Goldie at home reading a book entitled “How to Cheer Up a Depressed Cat.
Goldie Hawn has not been in a film since 2002’s “The Banger Sisters” but her comic timing is just as sharp as ever, and she looks great for her age, as anyone who has seen her at various awards shows will know. Now, Goldie has become BFF with rising star comedienne Amy Schumer, who told “People” magazine, “I read the script, and, as I’m reading it, I pictured Goldie the whole time. There was never anyone else.” Schumer went on to tell a story about running into Hawn on an airplane and “sort of creepily” following her from the airport terminal and pitching the project to her. (Hawn says she does not remember the incident).
I found the interaction between the two blondes very natural and authentic, although the critics who have complained of the crassness of language and situations are not wrong. (One scene, in particular, involving Amy giving herself what used to be called “a spit bath” in a ladies’ rest room and washing all unmentionable spots, with the door swinging open at a key juncture so that the man who has been chatting her up at the bar gets a good look at her. That scene is Exhibit A, but the row behind me found it to be pretty damn funny, and I can’t argue with them.) Perhaps you’ve seen that scene in trailers, as well.
My favorite character, other than the two leads, was Christopher Meloni (television’s SUV: Special Victims’ Unit) as Roger, a cashier from Rochester who misrepresents himself as a seasoned jungle guide, when, in reality, he has only spent 3 weeks in Ecuador and is wearing a hat from J.C. Penney. When their intrepid guide instructs them to swing across a deep canyon on a vine, saying, “I’m the man so I’ll go first” and the vine instantly breaks, I laughed. When he instructed the mother/daughter combo to “take the first 10-hour shift” so he can sleep, I smiled. His character was fun and funny.
Less fun or funny was the bad guy of the piece, Morgado, played by Oscar Jaenada. It seems that Morgado employs good-looking young men (in this case, Tom Bateman as James) to lure hapless single females on adventures that will involve kidnapping them and holding them for ransom. Once in the clutches of Morgado, the women have to call home and implore Jeffrey to ransom them.
Jeffrey is one of the three most annoying characters in the film. He makes so many calls to the U.S. Embassy that the agent on duty (Bashir Salahiddin as Morgan Russell) finally says, “If you feel the urge to call again, resist it.”
The other two annoying characters are Ruth and Barb, played by Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack. I didn’t find that either of these two talented comic actors added much to the movie, but I do appreciate the studio’s savvy promotion and marketing. It was released on March 12th, which means that it was the perfect choice for Mother’s Day.
“Snatched” also cost only $42 million to make and quickly moved up to second place (behind “Guardians of the Galaxy II”) in money made, and “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a vastly more expensive film. Goldie brought in the older crowd and Schumer’s fans were also in attendance, plus the Hawaiian jungle settings were convincingly tropic, with cinematography by Florian Ballhaus. (Schumer, who just broke up with her Chicago boyfriend of 18 months, was sick for a week with bronchitis and couldn’t shoot during that time.)
Say what you will about the anatomical references (‘Your tit’s out.”) and the crass low-brow humor, if the women behind me were any indication (you could barely hear the dialogue above their raucous laughter), this feel-good movie about mother-daughter bonding will make money and potentially spawn a sequel. (Goldie says, “Definitely there’s a toe back in” and Schumer says that she’d like to make another movie with her idol “as soon as possible.”)
Genre: Sci-Fi, Comedy Thriller
Length: 110 minutes
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson, Dan Stevens
Reviewer: Connie Wilson
It’s too bad Hathaway and Vigalondo didn’t take this homage to Japanese kaiju movies and Godzilla one step further and have the two main characters (Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis as Gloria and Oscar) represent the symbolic influence that the United States has in the world, for good or bad on a colossal scale. Now would have been a particularly good time in history for that approach.But that didn’t happen in this improbable film about a young girl who drinks and parties too much and, as a result, is kicked out of cozy Manhattan digs by her British boyfriend (Dan Stevens) and returns to her small-town America hometown roots to lick her wounds and try to figure her life out. While there, Gloria (Hathaway) learns that she controls a Godzilla-like monster that is terrorizing South Korea. Vigalondo, during the Q&A after the film, acknowledged that, to a certain extent, he identified with the character Hathaway portrays, who makes it out of the small town she grew up in and seems to be making it in the Big City. She doesn’t want to go back home with her tail between her legs, a failure. Vigalondo found himself in the same position after his birth in Cabezon de la Sal, Spain, a small town, in regards to his move to the Big City of Madrid, Spain. He also cautioned against making the film into too much of an anti-alcohol polemic, laughing about his own fondness for hoisting a drink now and then.
Hathaway has seemingly made it in the Big Apple as far as most of her classmates back home know. Until she hasn’t. Her drinking is out of control and her boyfriend (Dan Stevens as Tim) wants her to rein it in. He packs her stuff in Manhattan and tells her to clear out.
Gloria goes back to a conveniently empty house—presumably her old home— in her small hometown, where old classmate Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) owns a bar and offers her employment. The signs all point to Sudeikis having carried the torch for Hathaway’s character of Gloria, keeping tabs on her and following her progress for 25 years.One cool thing that the filmmakers did to promote the film at SXSW was to have Sudeikis fly in and bartend one weekend night at the Highball Lounge, connected to the Alamo Drafthouse on Lamar Boulevard. Sudeikis makes a very good “boy-who-still-has-a-crush-on-girl” in this film, although the character arc written for him is not completely logical. (One minute Sudeikis is the good guy helping out his girlfriend. The next, he is her worst nightmare.)
When Gloria (Hathaway) accidentally discovers that her presence in a certain park at an early hour of the morning causes a huge Godzilla-like monster to go on a rampage in Seoul, South Korea, the movie veers from reality to sci fi fantasy. The premise (I’d like to have heard THIS pitch) is that anything Hathaway does remotely controls the monster, as long as she is in her local park at the bewitching hour. The monster mimics her actions, whether it is dancing, holding its arms up in the air, or killing hundreds of innocent locals under his giant feet.Later, Sudeikis learns from Gloria that he, too, can wield super power as a robot, if he shows up at the same exact moment in the small local park, so we are treated to many scenes of the robot and the Godzilla-like creature squaring off while the hapless residents of Seoul scream and run for their lives. Funny or terrifying?
The movie has been dubbed a “fascinating misfire” and “idiosyncratic and eccentric, with reviews that cite ““diminishing humor from an inherently absurd conceit” (Dennis Harvey in the September 21, 2016 “Variety”) it has been compared to Hathaway’s previous role as “Rachel Getting Married” meets “Godzilla.”
The cast does a good job with this implausible premise. Sudeikis, in particular, is asked to suddenly morph from hero to villain with very little rational motivation for changing so completely. He pulls it off, but is much more convincing as the likeable character in the first half of the film.
The feeling I got while I tried to decide whether I liked this film or not was that Hathaway was desperate to have a film portraying a female heroine who displayed empowerment, one who triumphs over the bad guy(s) and would sacrifice a plausible plot to get that opportunity. Hathaway’s actions resonated with one abused woman in the theater, who spoke to the issue and described herself as being “moved to tears.” That seemed a bit much, since the film is predominantly comic, with serious underlying issues that are never fully addressed. It was a bold choice to make this film, if not a totally successful one.
There is little focus on what steps Gloria is going to take to overcome her apparent addiction to drinking and the party life, but, as Bill Murray’s shrink in “What About Bob?” (Richard Dreyfuss) would say, “baby steps.”
The supporting performers, (Tim Blake Nelson and Austin Stowell as Garth and Joel) playing cronies of Oscar (Sudeikis) are also good, although underused. There is a puzzling romantic encounter between Joel and Gloria that seems superfluous and unnecessary—almost as though it were an after-thought or a plot line that the director introduced and then dropped.
On the bright side, Jason Sudeikis comes to the fore as a player who can provide convincing acting as the leading man/love interest in future films.
THE BAD:The plot is a flimsy premise for a movie under the best of circumstances, whether borrowing from Japenese takusatsu cinema, or an homage to films like “Godzilla.” It could have been a comic drama about people coping with normal problems— alcohol addiction, drug addiction, or domestic abuse— but it does little but scratch the surface of those weighty issues. Cast members are either not used to shed any light on same or are barely seen at all. Sudeikis’ character arc was particularly troublesome, (although it apparently rang true for at least one member of the audience).
I’m wondering whether people who shelled out up $40 minimum for a night out on the town (dinner, parking fees, movie ticket) are going to feel this slight film was worth the price of admission? During the post-film Q&A, the Director urged all of us to post a 3-word Twitter review with the hashtag #Colossal. This would enter all of us into a contest.
What should I write? “#Colossal: weird & odd. #Colossal: Inventive but slight. #Colossal: creative fail. #Colossal: fantastical concept. #Colossal: amusing failed premise. #Colossal: thin, sometimes funny.
I ddn’t enter.
The man behind me wrote: “Colossal: colossal fail.
Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched – World Premiere and Q&A
Length: 65 minutes
Cast: Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz, Fran Brill, Bill Barretta, Frank Oz
Reviewer: Connie Wilson
In 1955, creative genius Jim Henson created a troop of puppets known as The Muppets. By 1978 The Muppets” was the most-watched television show in history, with 235 million viewers in 102 countries, according to “Time” magazine. Henson’s untimely death at age 53 in 1990 left right-hand man Frank Oz (real last name: Oznowicz) more-or-less in charge of the troop, which came to fame on “Sesame Street.”
The world premiere of the documentary “Muppet Guys Talkiing” was on Sunday, March 12, at SXSW’s Paramount Theater. The film has been worked on for at least 5 years.Frank Oz worked with the Muppets from 1963 until roughly 2000. After helping Hansen film “Labyrinth” (1986) he directed “Little Shop of Horrors” (1986) with Steve Martin, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1988), “What About Bob?” with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss in 1991, “In & Out” with Kevin Kline in 1997, “Bowfinger” with Eddie Murphy in 1999, “The Score” in 2001 and “Death & a Funeral” in 2007. He also signed on to voice Yoda in the “Star Wars” movies and, initially, to perform puppeteer functions for the character (before Yoda was digitalized). Yoda’s distinctive speaking style is credited to Oz, with Lucas giving him creative license to create the character.
Frank Oz’s second wife, Producer Victoria Labalme, suggested that the main puppeteers from Henson’s hey-day get together and talk about Henson’s influence on their lives and on the world. The five appearing in the film were the now-deceased Jerry Nelson, Dave Goetz, “new guy” Bill Barretta, Oz himself and only female puppeteer, Fran Brill.
The project, germinating since 2011, morphed into this short documentary “Muppet Guys Talking,” dedicated to original puppeteer, Jerry Nelson, (“the Count” on “Sesame Street,”) who died August 23, 2012. Labalme suggested the project to her spouse shortly after their marriage on July 17, 2011.
Onscreen, we were treated to vignettes of the most famous of the Muppets and were given behind-the-scenes stories of how each member of the cast came to join as well as the details of some of the difficulties of shooting certain famous Muppet scenes. All agreed that Henson would not ask anyone else to do something that he, himself, would not undertake. His stints in a sunken metal container with breathing apparatus, underwater, for hours (sometimes they worked all night) to make it appear that Kermit the Frog was sitting on a log in the water was diagrammed. Another scene involving shooting an apple off the head of a Muppet character was mentioned (the hired archer was a 17-year-old girl who had only 9 inches between success and disaster), and one particular scene in one of the Muppet movies where the characters appear to be scampering up a pole to escape marauding wolves was explained for the interested and appreciative audience.Fellow filmmaker Robert Rodriguez (“From Dusk to Dawn,” ’96; “El Mariachi,” ’92; “Sin City,” 2005), an Austin resident, handled the Q&A onstage following the short film and the seasoned puppeteers explained that they often would find a personal flaw, isolate it, amplify it and try to make it lovable to distill their individual characters. All lauded “the sense of abandon and lunacy that Jim taught us” and one said: “I miss the sense of play that comes from a company owned by a person. Jim created a safe environment, but you felt you could be as free as you wished.” Puppeteer Dave Goetz said, “We all learned commitment from him. He was the hardest working person I’ve ever met.”
Among other accolades to the deceased Henson (who was raised a Christian Scientist) were: “He never threw his weight around. He never yelled; if he was mad, he’d get quieter. He was self-effacing.” The cast reminisced that Henson even wore a costume in the opening television scenes until others talked him out of it and handed the duty to others. Said the cast, “He was a harvester of people. He appreciated all sorts of people and brought them all together. He took a chance on sweetness. Disenfranchised people feel accepted in the Muppet world. He was promoting the oneness of the world and was generous and kind.”Individual quote: From Bill Barretta (“the new guy” even after decades) when asked about his job with the Muppets: “It’s a dream come true. To think that this is something that could happen. Unbelievable. It was an opportunity to do what I love.”
Fran Brill: “All of our lives were changed in such a way because we all met Jim Henson. He had more effect on me and my life than my parents. He treated everyone the same. This movie was made to champion what he did.”Dave Goelz (who was working at Dell computers in Silicon Valley at the time): “I was unemployable in Silicon Valley. I think they were sick of me poking my home-made puppets over the cubicle dividers. I was just too crazy. On top of that, Jim dragged us all over the world. It is important to have diversity—something that we need right now.” The crowd present at the Paramount reacted positively to his statement. Frank Oz: “I worked with Henson since the age of 19. He was just himself and we followed. Then he helped you with his kindness He wasn’t caustic. It was a collaborative effort and he was incredibly supportive.”
Reports of the lavish funeral ceremony that also lauded Henson’s basic human decency (Henson died of a virulent form of streptococcal toxic shock syndrome on May 16, 1990, 20 hours after experiencing a medical emergency).
We should all be remembered so fondly by our friends, family and colleagues.
Genre: Documentary Feature
Length: 95 minutes
Writer/Director: Brian Knappenberger
Principal Cast: Nick Denton, A.J. Daulario, John Cook, David Folkenflick, Floyd Abrams, Peter Sterne, David Houston, Margaret Sullivan, Jay Rosen, John L. Smith
The trial between wrestler Hulk Hogan and Gawker Media pitted privacy rights against freedom of the press, but ended up as a case study in how big money can silence media using legal means. This examination of the free press in an age of inequality echoes the “Vanity Fair” issue with an article by David Margolick entitled “V.C. for Vendetta.”
From that article, we learn that, outed as gay (“Peter Thiels Is Totally Gay”) by one of Gawker’s web sites in 2007, Silicon billionaire Peter Thiel ($2.7 billion as a co-founder of PayPal, and an early investor in Facebook) laid low until 2016, when he seized the opportunity to financially back Hulk Hogan’s invasion of privacy suit over a sex tape to bankrupt the entire organization.
In this documentary that interviews all the principals except Thiel (who is seen speaking at other venues), we learn that “what he’s done is to legitimize the idea that an uninvolved party can fund an effort by someone else in order to destroy a news organization. If billionaires and multi-millionaires can be behind the scenes doing this, that is conspiratorial and underhanded completely.” As Gawker founder Nick Denton, who was personally bankrupted, said, “We were outgunned here.”
Knappenberger dubs it, “abusing the justice system to go after journalists.” All these efforts have taken back a lot of 1st Amendment rights. Many others are mentioned in the piece: the Chandler family, the Salzburger family of New York, Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the “Washington Post” and, in greater detail, Sheldon Adelson’s purchase of Nevada’s largest newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
John L. Smith, the editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote a book about early investors in Las Vegas’ history entitled “Sharks in the Desert: The Founding Fathers and the Current Sharks.” There was one line mentioning Sheldon Adelson. Adelson sued Smith for the one line in the book, and lodged the $15 million dollar suit at a time when Smith was bedside in a local hospital with his young daughter Amelia, who was suffering from a brain tumor.
Smith was offered all sorts of financial inducements not to publish articles about Adelson, but resisted. He was blackmailed regarding the one line in his book, and, as he said: “Bullies always act the same.”
Then, unexpectedly, the entire staff of the Las Vegas Review-Journal was brought in to a meeting cold and told the newspaper had been sold. They were not allowed to know who had bought them.
Rather than take this without investigating, the entire staff, including one employee who had been with the paper for 39 and ½ years, dug in to find out if Adelson was behind the purchase in the face of overwhelming obfuscation.
Smith said, “”Everybody came in and everybody stayed. For us, it was preserving whatever integrity we had. We knew it was a career-ending move. Some stories are worth losing your job over.” As Smith asserted, “Journalism is a calling for a lot of us.”
As a Journalism Major (Ferner/Hearst Journalism Scholarship recipient at the University of Iowa), this documentary spoke to me. I characterize myself as “”Old School” because my stint with 5 “real” newspapers began at the age of 10 and continues today, 6 decades later. I am of the generation that grew up with only 3 television channels trusting the voice of Walter Cronkite to tell us the truth. There was no Internet. There was no cable television, and we believed in presenting both sides of the story so that readers could draw fair conclusions with all the facts at their disposal.
The idea of “hacking” Internet accounts (there was no Internet) and Wiki Leaks style dissemination of documents from the e-mail of others was decades away. I find it personally offensive that anyone in a position of authority can level wholesale charges of bias and dishonesty against the hardworking men and women of the press. One of the least honest politicians (or human beings) of all time has underscored just how important a free and independent press is from his podium in the White House. No less an authority than Thomas Jefferson talked about the importance of a free press to keep the checks and balances of this country working properly.
This documentary was depressing in that it showed the extent to which being rich means being able to destroy the very institutions we all thought were inviolate. As we watch money corrupting the very fabric of society, we are simultaneously experiencing the intentional undermining of the free press and I, for one, view it as one of the biggest tragedies our Republic has experienced since its inception.
A very informative, relevant and concerning documentary. Reading the “Vanity Fair” article by David Margolick explained much of the Peter Thiel/Nick Denton Gawker sex tape dispute in far greater detail, which added to my understanding of the film’s rehash of the trial, (which was surreal in so many ways). The revelations about the Las Vegas Review-Journal were new to me, but explained a lot.
Worth watching, if you care about remaining free and being part of an informed populace in a working democracy.
Length: 91 minutes
Writer/Directors: Ian and Eshom Nelms
Cast: John Hawkes, Octavia Spencer, Anthony Anderson, Robert Forster, Daniel Sunjata, Michael Vartan
Reviewer: Connie Wilson
When you come out of the new John Hawkes film “Small Town Crime” you know you’ve seen a special movie that has the potential to become a huge hit. Maybe even a franchise for P.I. “Jack Winter” (John Hawkes)? Written and directed by Ian and Eshom Nelms and embodying a “Dirty Harry” very sarcastic, sardonic tone, the movie follows alcoholic ex-cop John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone,” “The Sessions”) as he attempts to solve a crime in the hope that it will provide redemption for his past sins, especially the death of his partner when he was a police Sergeant.
Initially, Hawkes is even hopeful that he might get his job as a cop back. However, that doesn’t stop him from interviewing for other positions. One interviewer asks him why he’d be good for a security guard post. He replies, “I don’t take any shit.” Asked to assess his life’s accomplishments in the work world on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is high, Hawkes responds, “2 on a 10 point scale.”
At the outset, Hawkes is shown riding with veteran partner, Officer Bill Burke (Michael Flynn), but Hawkes’ Sergeant Mike Kendall is drunk while on the job. They pull over a car and Officer Burke tells Hawkes to stay in the car, after commenting earlier that he “smells like a brewery.”
The unprovoked shooting of Hawkes’ partner that happens next brings Hawkes from the squad car to return fire and kill the attacker (and, also, unfortunately, as collateral damage, a girl tied up in the trunk).
The police department is unforgiving when Hawkes blows drunk on the breathalyzer. The suits feel that Hawkes’ dissolute drinking and behavior has gotten his partner killed. This is made clear by the attitude(s) of fellow policemen who interview him, played by Michael Vartan (“Alias”) and Daniel Sunjata (“Rescue Me”).
Mike Kelly’s career as a cop is over. Or on ice. Enter the nom de plume of Private Investigator Jack Winter, Hawkes’ new identity.
Scenes after his partner’s death involve Hawkes overdoing his drinking in places with names like the Dead Dog Saloon. He is often drinking with his brother-in-law Teddy (Anthony Anderson). We learn that Hawkes was raised with Octavia Spencer as his adopted sister and Anthony Anderson is his brother-in-law.
After one blotto night, he wakes up in a field, gets in his hot car (a loud, black stripped-down Nova that he drives like a bat out of hell) and, on his way home, the now-sober Hawkes discovers a young girl by the side of the road, badly beaten.
Hawkes rushes the young hooker to the hospital, where, later that night, she dies. His car’s interior is bloody. He takes it to the car wash (where he is told that this job will cost him extra). The carwash workers find the dead girl’s phone and Hawkes’ policeman instincts kick in as he begins to investigate this small town crime.
One thing leads to another and Hawkes is soon passing out hastily-made business cards that say “Jack Winter, Private Eye.” He contacts the dead girl’s family and, eventually, ends up with a commission from her wealthy grandfather (Robert Forster, as Steve, whom the filmmakers termed “a gentleman and a half”), a gruff and wealthy grandfather to the dead girl. He is also a crack shot with a rifle and scope.
The Q&A following the film with the film-makers brought the story that Octavia (Spencer), who is also an executive producer on the film, “was the guiding light in getting John Hawkes. She wrote Hawkes, who once lived in Austin, a letter and said, ‘We’ve been in 2 films together, but we’ve never had a scene together. All I’m going to say is we play brother and sister in this film.’”Writer-Directors Ian and Eshom Nelms, Producer Brad Johnson and Director of Photography Johnny Derango (a Columbia, Chicago college grad), with whom I spoke at the showing also shared the story of trying to find a purple low-rider Camaro in Utah, where the film was shot, for Clifton Collins, Jr.’s character Mood to drive.
Mood is a pimp with style and Collins plays him like John Leguizamo on steroids. I was reminded of Leguizamo’s turn with Bryan Cranston in “The Infiltrator.” Collins, a former member of the Crips in Venice in his youth, took it much farther, procuring exactly the right brand of cigarettes for his character to smoke and modeling his hair after consulting with some current gang members.
Said the filmmakers, “It was amazing. We skyped and Clifton shared that he had been a Crip in Venice in his younger days. We asked him if he could handle a gun, and he said, ‘I’m sponsored by Glock’ and pulled out a Tech 9 and a Mossberg. We borrowed him from ‘WestWorld’ where he was working. They told us not to mess with his hair, but that didn’t happen. Clifton brought a lot of authenticity to the role of Mood.” He certainly did, and, like Leguizamo before him, made a good run at stealing every scene he’s in. As for his ride, the purple low-rider Camaro, the Writer/Directors laughed that “It’s surprisingly difficult to find one in Utah.” Car clubs came to the rescue.
Other actors in the piece who deserve special mention are Dale Dickey, playing a hardened female bartender at the Dead Dog Saloon. The filmmakers have done previous films with the actress, who has a Melissa Leo vibe, and hope for more. The hit man in what turns out to be a story about snuffing out greedy hookers, (known as Orthopedic in the credits), was also an interesting character, with a gray beard and a hearing aid. Jeremy Ratchford does the part justice.
There are also hookers (see above), such as the first girl killed, Kristy (Stefanie Barr), Heidi (Caity Lotz) and Ivy (Stefanie Scott), great sound for the muscle cars, and wonderful cinematography by Johnny Derango (“Lost on Purpose”), [who, as the filmmakers said to the audience, “has the greatest name on the planet.”]
I foresee another film for Hawkes’ character, to whom adopted sister Octavia Spencer says in the script, “All we do is help you, and all you do is ruin people’s lives.” He’s got the Clint Eastwood “Dirty Harry” vibe down, with some Jack Reacher thrown in. The ending of the film (which I won’t reveal) leaves room for hope that we’ll see much more of this interesting character and this writing team. One great line involves Robert Forster asking Mood, “Do we have to listen to this?” in the souped-up Camaro on the way to a very well-done shoot-out scene set at a deserted railroad site.
I blew off 2 other scheduled SXSW offerings this day to see the final showing of “Small Town Crime” after nearly every single person in every single line I waited in (minimum one hour wait per film) said it was their favorite feature film at the festival. It certainly is mine.
Academy Award® Nominee John Hawkes (THE SESSIONS, WINTER’S BONE, Eastbound and Down)
Academy Award® Nominee Robert Forster (JACKIE BROWN, THE DESCENDANTS, MEDIUM COOL)
Academy Award® Winner Octavia Spencer (also an EP on film) (HIDDEN FIGURES, THE HELP, FRUITVALE STATION)
Emmy Award® Nominee Anthony Anderson (Black-ish, Treme)
Emmy Award® Nominee Clifton Collins, Jr. (STAR TREK, Westworld)
Michael Vartan (Alias, Bates Motel, NEVER BEEN KISSED)
Daniel Sunjata (Graceland, Smashed, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA)
James Lafferty (One Tree Hill, LOST ON PURPOSE, WAFFLE STREET)
Caity Lotz (Legends of Tomorrow, Arrow, Mad Men)
Don Harvey (Luck, The Black List, Blue Bloods)
Dale Dickey (Vice Principals, Justified, True Blood)
Stefanie Scott (INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3, JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, A.N.T. Farm)
Genre: Science Fiction Thriller
Length: 103 minutes
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihvichnaya
Reviewer: Connie Wilson
Sony’s new sci-fi film (being heavily advertised on television recently), “Life,” with Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal headlining a cast from all over the globe closed the SXSW Film Festival in Austin Saturday night at the Zach Theater. Director Daniel Espinosa, who will celebrate his 40th birthday on March 23rd, typifies the international aura: he was born in Sweden of Chilean parents and attended the National Film School of Denmark. [His 2010 film “Easy Money” was Sweden’s biggest box office success that year.]
The rest of the cast supporting Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal in this Alien-esque film about a deadly monster that gets loose aboard the International Space Station while the crew is conducting the Mars Pilgrim Space Mission are accomplished actors whose very names scream “international”: Rebecca Ferguson as Miranda North (Swedish and raised in Britain); Olga Dinvichnaya as Katerina Golovkina (Russian); Ariyon Bakare as Hugh Derry (British); and Hiroyuki Sanada as Sho Kendo (Japanese).
If you’ve seen the trailer on television, you know that Hugh Derry, the science expert aboard the ship (Ariyon Bakare), should never have poked his gloved finger into the new organism the crew has discovered and is bringing back from Mars. As Ryan Reynolds’ character, Rory Adams, says: “You’re playing around with that thing like it’s your buddy. It’s not your buddy. I’m your buddy.”
Derry, who (in the plot) is partially paralyzed since childhood, thinks that perhaps the organism, named Calvin (through a national competition amongst elementary school children), will yield medical breakthroughs, since—much like Ridley Scott’s “Alien”—-the crew has re-animated the dormant creature, using electrical shock, glucose, variations of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and other tinkering.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays the medical officer. He’s been up in space for 473 days, longer than anyone previously. When asked why he doesn’t want to return to Earth, he reminisces about time spent in Syria and says, “I can’t stand what we do to each other down there.” He also says, “It’s hard to watch people die, isn’t it?” and that becomes a large part of our viewing experience after Calvin escapes from the lab and, as the script says, “It could be anywhere.”
The music by Jon Ekstrand is good. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography was as impressive as “Gravity” or any other recent sci-fi opus. The sets and visual effects are great. The acting is spot on, and it was very nice to see the writers, Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, receive credit from the director and cast as “brilliant.”
In the Q&A afterwards, the director hedged on whether sequels will be in the works, but the ending suggests that to be highly likely if the film is as successful as it should be.
As to the origin of the plot idea, Director Espinosa mentioned “the usual suspects” like “Alien” and “Gravity” and even paid homage to John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” He also called “Life” a tribute to film noir and “The Twilight Zone.” I can think of other films going all the way back to Bruce Dern’s 1972 film “Silent Running” or Kubrick’s iconic “2001: A Space Odyssey” that might have been mentioned, and “The Martian” (Matt Damon) came up during the Q&A.
Jonas Rasmussen gets credit for the horrible look of the creature named Calvin, equal in awfulness to “Alien’s” monster. One interesting difference, pointed out during the Q&A, is that this creature is completely silent. Director Espinosa said it was scripted that way by the “brilliant”writers, (who were then called up onstage).
Director Daniel Espinosa shared that the first long prolonged shot involved the set rotating around the actors and took a month to film. We were also told that each one of the cast was simulating zero gravity, while actually rigged up with wires. Rebecca Ferguson, who plays Miranda North, shared that their movement coach, Alexander Reynolds, worked with the cast. She said, “One day I was floating so brilliantly that I forgot my lines.”
Asked what struck them as “memorable” about the shoot, Jake Gyllenhaal said, “Being able to wear socks with no shoes was my memorable moment. This might be the first shoeless zero gravity movie.” Reynolds, who was the more light-hearted of the two, in the manner of his character in “Deadpool,” when asked if the cast had worked weightlessly in zero gravity, said, jokingly, “We were given limited permission to go into space because they weren’t doing anything important in the space station that month.”
Ryan Reynolds’ most memorable moment? “We spent so much time joking around that one day one of the producers said to me, ‘Quit joking around and get to work. You’ve wasted $100,000.’ And I said, ‘We’ve wasted $100,000 on this film, so far?’ and she said, ‘No. You’ve wasted $100,000 today.’”
One questioner in the audience asked facetiously why Matt Damon wasn’t hired for Reynolds’ part, since he’d already been to Mars,( referencing Damon’s recent film “The Martian.”) Reynolds, laughing, said, “F***** Matt Damon.” And added, “The fact is, he didn’t want to die in the first act.”
This is a professionally done, well-acted film. There are very few things to criticize. At different times, looking at the beautiful actresses onscreen, I was struck by their resemblance to a young Ingrid Bergman, (even with severe pulled-back hairstyles that would be appropriate for life in space). And a more dependable actor than Jake Gyllenhaal does not exist, with Ryan Reynolds easy on the eyes in the smart aleck-y role and manner that suits him.
Because of the international nature of the cast, it was sometimes difficult to understand some of their dialogue. If I had been watching this at home on television, much as with Thomas Hardy’s series “Taboo,” I would have had the subtitles turned on. My only other criticism would be that “there’s nothing new under the sun,” so we’re seeing many things that are derivative of other science fiction films that have gone before, but they are still enjoyable, when done well. And the film is done well.
It’s an engrossing film that will suck you in and keep you on the edge of your seat despite the nagging feeling that you have been down this cinematic road before.