FlixChatter Review: SKYSCRAPER (2018)

guestpost

Review by Vitali Gueron

I was eagerly anticipating the release of the movie Skyscraper, partially because it is not a sequel and it is one of only a few blockbusters coming out this summer that aren’t part of a franchise. The movie is written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber and stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Will Sawyer, an amputee who is forced to save his family from terrorists inside a burning building. Sawyer walks with a prosthetic leg due to a hostage situation gone wrong that costs Sawyer his leg while working as an FBI agent. This is how the movie opens, and in all places, a fictitious remote town in Minnesota in the middle of winter.

We next see Sawyer 10 years later, as a security expert consulting for the Hong Kong skyscraper known as “The Pearl.” The structure is billed as the tallest building in the world, easily eclipsing the real life tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, and nearly tripling the height of the Empire State Building in New York City, at a height of over 3,500 feet. The signature touch of the building is the spherical object at the crest of the tower, looking just like a freshly-plucked, shiny pearl form the bottom of the sea. Sawyer also brings his family to Hong Kong, including his wife Sarah (played by Neve Campbell) and two grade school children. They are put up in the yet-to-opened residential section of The Pearl, on the 98th floor of the gigantic building. While Sawyer gets ready for his security presentation to The Pearl’s owner Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), along with his fellow former FBI agent Ben (Pablo Schreiber) who has set up the meeting, his wife and kids set off to visit the famous local panda bears of Hong Kong.

When Ben leads Sawyer to an offsite apartment in Hong Kong, we realize what Ben’s true intentions are and soon enough we realize that he is not on our side. Speaking of bad guys, we are introduced to a team of villains, led by the menacing Kores Botha (Roland Moller), who have broken in to the building with highly flammable chemicals and intend to steal something belonging to Zhao Long Ji inside his penthouse, 220 stories above ground level. The situation intensifies when Sawyer’s wife Sarah calls him to tell him that they’ve returned to The Pearl after one of his kids wasn’t feeling well. When Botha’s men ignite the highly flammable chemicals on the building’s 90th floor, and manager to turn off the building’s fire suppression system, Sawyer’s family becomes trapped on the 98th floor of a burning skyscraper in the middle of Hong Kong Island. It is then up to Sawyer to return to the skyscraper and try to rescue his family before the whole building is engulfed in flames.

This is when the movie begins to completely fall of the rails as Dwayne Johnson scales a nearby construction crane – over 90 floors and without a harness – and uses the crane’s hook to break a window of the nearby skyscraper so that he can swing in – or jump inside the building, all while being chased by and shot at by the Hong Kong police who actually think he is the bad guy (I guess they’ve never seen a Dwayne Johnson movie). At times, the movie looks more like a modern day Die Hard with explosive sequences rather than a situation where it could potentially happen. But the character Will Sawyer is no John McClane, and as the action gets increasingly absurd, most of the suspense and excitement dissipates, mostly because it’s clear that neither Sawyer, nor his family are in any real danger. Although, this cannot be said for building owner Zhao Long Ji, who becomes trapped in his penthouse on the 220th floor, and when his security staff is taken out by the team of villains, he has to rely on Will Sawyer to save him. Don’t worry! The billionaire owner of The Pearl knows who to trust at the end of the day.

While Dwayne Johnson has been relatively successful in his recent movies Rampage(see Ted Saydalavong’s review from earlier this year) and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (see my review from last year), Skyscraper becomes just another film that squanders Johnson’s movie-star charisma and witty sense of humor. Apart from a few scenes where Will’s resourceful and bad-ass wife (with just a few on-screen minutes from Neve Campbell) almost single-handedly saves the day, the over-the-top CGI sequences that could have been converted to 3D and added during post production (but were not for whatever reason). The film left me wanting something more than what this scorched skyscraper disaster flick had to offer. The faster they tried to top other films in this genre in terms of sheer spectacle, the harder it became to take seriously, even as Sawyer’s children stay trapped inside the towering inferno (pun intended) facing all but certain doom. I was certain this movie was void of any character, emotion and soul from early on and sadly I was never proven wrong by the end.


Have you seen SKYSCRAPER? Well, what did you think? 

Advertisements

Indie Sci-Fi Film Spotlight: HOVER – Review + Q &A with director Matt Osterman

HOVER takes place in the near future, where environmental strain has caused food shortages around the world. Technology provides a narrow path forward, with agricultural drones maximizing the yield from what land remains. Two compassionate care providers, Claudia and her mentor John, work to assist sick farmland inhabitants in ending their lives. After John dies under mysterious circumstances, a group of locals helps Claudia to uncover a deadly connection between the health of her clients and the technology they are using.

Starring: Cleopatra Coleman, Shane Coffey, Craig muMs Grant, Beth Grant
Written by: Cleopatra Coleman
Directed by: Matt Osterman

Available on VOD (Amazon) and iTUNES: July 3, 2018
Running Time: 1h 26min
Rated: Not Yet Rated

FCInterviewBanner

It’s always a pleasure to chat with writer/director Matt Osterman. He suggested we went to a boutique coffee shop called KOPPLIN’S in St Paul’s Merriam Park Neighborhood. We chatted over the refreshing Iced Chai about his new sci-fi film HOVER. It’s been over two years since I chatted with him about 400 Days, which he wrote and directed. It’s always fun to chat about movies with someone who’s passionate about storytelling and the filmmaking craft. Just like Debra Granik, Matt also lives ‘off the grid’ away from Hollywood, as he and his family resides in a Twin Cities suburbs, but that hasn’t stopped him from making movies wherever it takes him.

Quick Thoughts on HOVER:

Hover is a sci-fi thriller set in the near future. The two main characters we saw are Claudia (Cleopatra Coleman) and John (Craig muMs Grant), two caregivers who help terminally ill farmers ‘transition’ as they call it. There’s an air of mystery that something isn’t quite right, which gives that unsettling tension throughout the movie. Without giving too much away, soon Claudia has to face her suspicion about the flying drones and uncovers a conspiracy that’s more sinister than meets the eye.

What I like about HOVER is that the film doesn’t feel like a sci-fi in the traditional sense. The characters inhabit a world we’re familiar with, with a few futuristic elements thrown in. The fact that it’s set in a rural dystopia, it sets it apart from most sci-fis that are set in urban areas and immediately feels more grounded. It helps too that both Coleman and Grant are instantly likable, which makes you want to know more about their journey.

There’s genuine tension in the initial built-up, the flying drones hovering above certainly gives that voyeuristic feel. In the world we live in now, there’s that fear of ‘Big Brother’ watching over us that is relatable. There is also a subplot about Claudia involving someone she works with that adds more complexity to her character.

I do wish there’s more to the characters. It’d be great if the relationship between Claudia and John is explored a bit deeper. Shane Coffey and Beth Grant turned up midway though the film, and both add interesting dynamic to the story, though the finale gets a bit too bombastic for my taste. The flying drones also don’t seem all that menacing, though the design itself is pretty cool looking, as is the way it kills (or you could say ‘fry’) its prey.

Overall HOVER is an enjoyable sci-fi that at 86 minutes moves at a relatively breezy pace. It’s a cautionary tale about the misuse of technology, especially deadly when mixed with corporate greed, without making it feel too heavy-handed. This is the first time I saw Cleopatra Coleman and she’s certainly got a charismatic presence on screen, as well as screenwriting talent. I certainly would love to more of her work in the future.


Here’s my Q&A with Matt:

How did you become involved in this project?

I was sent the script by a producer by the name of Travis Stevens. I’ve known Travis, we’re friends of friends for a few years. He’s kind of a big deal in the indie genre world, he’s got a great taste and he’s been producing stuff that pushes the boundaries so I’ve always wanted to work with him. He approaced me with the script and later on SyFy got involved. I had heard of Cleopatra Coleman, and when I read the script I knew I wanted to play in that world, in that sandbox, so that’s why I signed on.

So Cleopatra Coleman wrote the script and did you collaborate with her?

Yes she had written the entire thing, she built that world. When I got the script, both Travis and Cleopatra said to me, ‘Hey we need some input. We’re running into some problems here, we want to flesh this out more, etc.’ So it’s a great team approach to take it to the next level.

The theme of rural dystopia is not something that’s rarely explored in sci-fi films. Movies of that genres tend to be set in a metropolitan or large cities. What’s the inspiration behind setting this story in a rural area, especially in farmlands?

Part of it is the fact that we don’t see things set in rural areas. I mean it’s easy to set things in the future in an urban setting and I find it boring. We want to make something that showed the haves and the have-nots, something that plays out in today’s society. People who have one foot in the future, one foot in the past, we wanted to explore that kind of dichotomy a little bit further.

Cleopatra actually started with these two care providers that helped transition people, but then in the rural environment there were these farm drones. She thought those farm drones were pretty interesting and she started exploring more about the drones and how they’re affecting the farm community.

So I’m curious about how you worked with this cast, especially given the fact that the lead actor also wrote the film. How did the collaboration process go in this filmmaking scenario?

Well to be honest, that was my first concern. It could go sideways in a hurry. If you butt heads, how do you work your way out of it? But luckily for us in this case, she’s an amazing collaborator. She’s totally open to ideas. On set, performances comes first for her and that’s how I wanted it to be. Every now and then, a problem or an opportunity came along and we’d have a little powow and discuss ‘Hey what can we do here? What can we do for that? So it works in our favors quite a bit and she’s able to wear multiple hats.

Cleo came from an improv background y’know, having been in the show Last Man on Earth, so she’s really quick to turn on a dime. Because she knows her character so well, having written it, it’s easy for us to play. It helps that she’s already inhabit her character when she wrote it.

Let’s talk about the drones. They look like something we’d see in the world today, it’s not too futuristic. Did you help design the drones, capturing the movements and all that?

Yeah. We wanted the technology in this world to feel utilitarian y’know, like it’s actually being used. It’s not as if some production designer just sketched something really cool and say, let’s make that a thing. We wanted the world in our movie to feel lived in and real, because when you talk about fantastical things like killer drones, we have to ground it in as much reality as possible. So we ended up hiring a technology designer, a great artist Calder Greenwood out of L.A. He built the drones, hand-built them out of found objects. The ‘eyes’ are lens from a camera, the rotors are from slide projectors, so he built them by hand. He was able to found parts so he could build multiple of them. We have a bunch of puppet drones that we could move them around in different ways, some on a string, or on a different rig and obviously the CG drone. So they did a 3D scan of the practical drone and they built things with CGI.

Where did you film this?

Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Lots of Agriculture down there. I lobbied to shoot it in the Midwest but we were shooting in February and March. It’s perfect to shoot there in that time, it’s not too hot but the bugs aren’t out yet. The shoot was 21-22 days so things happened pretty fast.

What’s been the biggest challenges on set of HOVER?

The first day, there was lightning storm nearby. And when there’s lightning, you have to stop and wait like 60 minutes before you do anything. This is the first time I shot Louisiana so I didn’t know if it’s going to be a daily thing. Luckily it only happened a handful of times, but an hour is kind of a big deal when you’re filming. But I would say the hardest part was dealing with all the action stuff, you always want more time and more money to do those. We used every tools in the books to shoot those truck chase scenes. We used actual drones following the truck, but we only shot that scene in less than a day!

Is this film a cautionary tale about technology? What message does the film want to convey about today’s technology and where it’s heading?

Yes and no. First and foremost, it’s a movie and we want to have fun with it. There’s a lot of liberties you can take with a movie, because y’know, it’s a movie, it’s entertainment. At the same time, we’re entering a pretty scary period in terms of technology. There are some people in power using technology in ways that can be awfully scary.  So if there is a message, it’s about unchecked technology and people in power without repercussions can lead to some pretty bad things. I mean, just how fast technology is moving right now, I think it’ll get worse before it gets better. I’m a technology guy, I want to see progressive technology happen ‘cause it can make the world a better place. Some people say it’s already being used for its intent and purposes, it’s gonna get more powerful, faster, smaller… well, it can get creepy. I’m not really a tin foil-hat type of guy but when it comes to drones… I’m a little nervous.

Rightly so, I feel the same way. Now, I’d like to switch gear a bit and talk about you as a filmmaker. You live here in the Twin Cities, but you make films out in L.A. or elsewhere. How do you juggle your filmmaking career and being a dad/husband?

Yeah, the hardest part outside the production is finding a way you live your life while keeping all the plates spinning at the same time, so to speak. Luckily I have an amazing wife and cool kids. They get it you know, daddy has a job and he’s not a coal miner with black lungs, he’s not a soldier going overseas. He gets to make movie, which is not so bad and they can come and visit. They came once because they have school and my wife also has to work. It’s not easy during [filming] but the rest of the year, I mean I’m a writer first and foremost and you can do that from anywhere. Staying outside of the L.A. bubble also has its advantages too, so you can bring something fresh and original.

Lastly, any advice for aspiring and emerging filmmakers, esp. those living in the Twin Cities, away from the filmmaking hub of LA/NYC/Atlanta.

This industry is filled with ego-driven jerks. Don’t be one of those. Be grateful, communicate and most importantly, finish something. There’s so many people that start projects, they ask for help and support and they don’t finish. Then those people are hesitant to help them again, or anybody else. You’re just wasting people’s time. You gotta walk the walk. Lots of people come for the glory, for the fame, but you gotta come in [to the entertainment business] for the right reasons and work your tail off. It’s not easy, so don’t expect things to happen overnight.


Don’t miss the Twin Cities Screening!

Friday, July 13th, 2018
6:30pm – Red Carpet Interviews/Photos
7pm & 9pm – Screenings

 Q&A with Director after each screening

Location
Emagine/Willow Creek Theater
9900 Shelard Pkwy.
Plymouth, MN  55441
TICKETS
Earlybird (13+ yrs of age) – $10
Same Day (13+yrs of age) – $12
(TCFF Members receive complimentary admission – must pre-register)

Get Tickets »

*TCFF Members receive FREE entry. Another reason to become a member today!

HOVER is currently available on Amazon, iTunes, and VOD

FlixChatter Review: Ant-Man and The Wasp (2018)

I can’t believe it’s been three years since Ant-Man came out. Perhaps because we saw the character in Captain America: Civil War, it felt like I had just seen him recently. This movie actually takes place following the aftermath of Captain America 3, which explains why Ant-Man isn’t fighting with his fellow Avengers in Infinity War.

The immensely likable Paul Rudd returns as Scott Lang and here he grapples with the consequences of being a superhero and a dad. I love the opening sequence of Scott playing with his adorable daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) at his well-equipped home as he’s in house arrest (due to his involvement with the Avengers). He’s only days away of being a free man when suddenly he’s dragged back into his life as Ant-Man and re-team with Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) and Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas).

I’m not going to mention what the urgent new mission is, but those who saw the first film could probably guess what it is. Speaking of which, Michelle Pfeiffer shows up as a prominent character and she’s always lovely to watch. I wish the film would just focus more on that storyline, instead of overcrowding it with multiple plots. In fact, one of the main plots involving a ghost named Ava (Hannah John-Kamen) who can phase through objects is so boring and the serious tone feels off compared to the rest of the movie. Thankfully, for the most part Peyton Reed succeeded in creating yet another fun-filled Marvel adventure, thanks to the fantastic cast.

I love that this time Ant-Man sort of play second banana to The Wasp in many ways, especially during the action scenes. Hope is such a take-charge woman-with-a-mission character that she’s a natural born leader, while Scott is always one step behind. The dynamic works well and makes for some hilarious moments. Rudd is such comedic gold, even just him doing ordinary things around the house is funny! I truly can’t imagine anyone else in the role (another spot-on casting that Marvel Studios have done, just like Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man). The supporting cast are a hoot just like the original. I gotta say Randall Park as an FBI agent & Lang’s parole officer and Michael Peña (with his mad rapping style) as one of Lang’s bff/business partners are especially hilarious.

The quantum realm ‘science’ of the shrinking and expanding of the characters is never clear to me but what I love is that this movie knows that full well and uses it to its advantage. “So you just put quantum in front of everything?” Scott Lang quipped at one point during the discussion w/ Hank Pym’s former assistant played by Laurence Fishburne (ahah so now we’ve got Samuel L. Jackson‘s arch rival joining Marvel too, awesome!) I think the movie’s low point is the villains, what’s with Walton Goggins playing yet another lame villain after seeing him in the Tomb Raider reboot. He plays a low-level blue-collar criminal who wants to steal Pym’s technology to sell it on the black market. He’s once again outsmarted by a woman here as his character is absolutely idiotic. That said, and even with the plots and subplots piling up, this movie still moves along at a breezy pace with dynamic action scenes. I don’t normally care for 3D but this time I didn’t mind as it actually looks good.

I thoroughly enjoyed all the action scenes, especially the main chase scene through San Francisco, showcasing some of its landmarks. All of the shrinking and expanding scenes are hilarious and a joy to watch, especially when big Ant-Man rides a pick-up truck like a kiddy scooter! Oh and I’ll never be able to stop giggling every time I hear the name Antonio Banderas now 😛

I gotta hand it to Marvel Studio honcho Kevin Feige, under his leadership the Studio really thrives in creating a plethora of movies that have its own individual style yet ties in as a whole to the Avengers’ story. Like Thor: Ragnarok, this movie is mostly a comedy but more family-friendly instead of the more sardonic style of Taika Waititi’s humor.

The Ant-Man may be tiny but this sequel sure is a huge dose of fun! I don’t even mind watching it again on the big screen. Definitely check this out if you enjoyed the first one, but even if you hadn’t seen the original, I think you’d still enjoy it. Oh and Marvel fans, you want to stay for the mid-credit scene 😉

4Reels


So have you seen Ant-Man and The Wasp? Well, what did you think?

Indie Film Spotlight: ‘Leave No Trace’ review + interview w/ writer/director Debra Granik

It’s been a few months since I had the privilege to interview Debra Granik. I’m posting this today to coincide with the Twin Cities release of her latest film, Leave No Trace, tomorrow (July 6).

Thank you Minneapolis-St.Paul International Film Festival for the amazing opportunity to chat with the Oscar-nominated writer/director (forWinter’s Bone), at the MSPIFF office no less. It’s so inspiring to speak to a filmmaker who’s all about the craft of filmmaking and lives ‘off the grid’ from the Hollywood’s hustle and bustle. It’s no surprise that her film deals with the subject of living ‘off the grid,’ as she described the characters as ‘non-conformist.’

A father and his thirteen year-old daughter are living in an ideal existence in a vast urban park in Portland, Oregon, when a small mistake derails their lives forever.

My review:

I saw this film about three months ago and it still stayed with me. As I was writing my review, it made me wish someone like Debra Granik would make more films. Leave No Trace is a film that could potentially be done in a sensationalistic way but she opted for a understated-but-effective narrative approach. Nearly a decade since her Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone, her latest narrative feature tells the story of a young girl Tom (Thomasin Mckenzie) and her war-vet father Wil (Ben Foster). The two live off the grid, led by Will’s PTSD, which has rendered him incapable of rejoining civilian life. Instead they spend their days in the wilderness, practicing survivalist skills and keeping away from the crowds.

Yes it’s slow-burn but oh it’s so worth the journey. It’s also a very quiet film, reveling in its quiet grace of the wilderness around them. The main characters barely speak but yet their scenes speak volumes and emotionally evocative. It’s not a manipulative emotion, if you will, but raw emotional beats that linger long after you watch it. The performances are remarkable. Foster is a proven talented actor but it’s newcomer Thomasin McKenzie who blew me away. We’ve seen many father/daughter narratives but here it’s explored in an unusual way. I was quite taken aback by how things unfolds and the coming-of-age storyline is brought to life in a convincing and unpredictable way.

In my interview below, filmmaker Debra Granik (who wrote the script with Anne Rosellini) said she doesn’t want to judge her characters, that is Wil’s nonconformity. Instead she wants her film to ask questions about why he does what he does and the consequence of such behavior. It’s an evocative film that really allows you to immerse yourself in the characters, and analyze your own lives. It may not be a ‘fun’ film per se, but the emotional resonance is what I love about independent cinema. Truly a respite from the endless blockbuster offerings we’re overloaded with these days.


At the time of the interview of mid April, there was swirling news of the battle between the streaming giant Netflix and Cannes Film Festival organizers. You can read this Vox.com article that explains the controversy in details, which resulted in Cannes banning films with Netflix distribution to play in any section of this year’s festival. I can’t help asking Debra how she feels about that.

Ruth: Firstly, I’m glad that your film’s going to get [limited] distribution from BLEECHER STREET. I’m always glad when films get theatrical release. Considering the Netflix/Cannes battle going on now, what are your thoughts about the whole film distribution controversy?

Debra: Since I just came from the theatre [for picture/sound check before her film screening that night], I’d love for the communal film viewing experience not to get extinct. I’d like to ask for peaceful coexistence… why does one has to stamp out the other. Why does a certain corporate model have to disavow or negate this new attempt in the digital era? Some people say ‘oh we want to resist technology’ but part of it is ambition right? I mean we’ve accepted 90% of it [the new corporate model], why not keep 10% of something from the past?

But the other question from the filmmakers perspective is… why shoot a wide shot if you’re never going to see it on a wide screen. It doesn’t mean every movie can be on the big screen, and not every film needs to be. But I believe there’s power in wide distribution, especially in documentaries that have cultural changing material in it for example. I don’t think streaming should stomp on exhibition, I don’t think exhibitors should be bullied.

R: Now, transitioning to your film. You adapted the Leave No Trace script from Peter Rock’s My Abandonment novel. What drew you to that story?

D: There were many things, but the environment in which it was told was a huge draw for me. It’s very compelling to me. That area in Oregon has a very distinct geography and climate. It’s the largest temperate rainforests that stretches from the Pacific coast all the way to California, so it’s a really important piece of the planet’s geology. So there’s this magnificent part of the continent and there’s this story about forrest dwellers. In fact there are long tradition of forest dwelling among veterans, there’s a legacy of that from the previous wars.

I was interested in the idea of nonconforming people. Especially in the digital era, what does it mean to just actually withdraw from digital connectivity. What happens if you live even one kilometers away from it? What if you think your own thoughts, it’s a big theme in the film. I love that’s the main concern of the protagonist father in the film…how will we maintain our lives when we think our own thoughts? I love that he’s trying to relay that to his daughter. Plus I’ve always enjoyed stories about fully-fledged female protagonists, so stories involving young women in it always draw my attention.

R: That’s a great segue to my next question. You discovered Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone (where she nabbed her first Best Actress Oscar nomination at the age of 20). Now you’ve discovered another great young female talent, Thomasin McKenzie. How did you find her and know she’s right for the part?

D: Well she auditioned. I did not know Tom. She’s a New Zealander and she lives in Wellington. She’s really interested in working in film, that’s her passion. She had some people who were helping her find work and they gave her the script. She responded very strongly to it, then she took the initiative and read the novel. So our initial discussion was very rich. It’s very different than just showing up to an audition where someone told you to show up at such and such time. She had wrapped her mind around the story. I knew right away she’d be very motivated to investigate the role and learn a lot of things, she’s a very un-jaded individual.

And when you’re working with young talents, you’re concerned how they’ll get support from their family. Well, her parents were remarkable. They were supportive and allowed her to travel with a friend of the family, a legal guardian, which made it so conducive to the filmmaking process. They had worked with her a lot, I mean discuss the book with her and everything.

I was interested in the idea of nonconforming people. Especially in the digital era, what does it mean to just actually withdraw from digital connectivity. What happens if you live even one kilometers away from it? What if you think your own thoughts, it’s a big theme in the film.

R: She also has a great chemistry with Ben Foster. Was he cast prior to Thomasin?

D: Yeah, there’s a lightness to her. I think people would really enjoy their relationship in the movie.

I think Ben and Thomasin were cast almost the same time. Of course in the traditional financing sense, the adult lead actor should be someone who’s ‘investible’ … someone who can be an anchor for the film, in terms of story and marketability.

R: What would you say is the main themes you want audience to come away with? I read some reviews that comment about the parenting style of Ben’s character, some say it’s a coming-of-age story.

D: I definitely didn’t intend this to be a commentary about parenting. It’s not something I’m interested in people coming away with. This is not about finding nonconforming Americans and judging them. To me, I want people to ask questions. For any work I create, I want to open a dialog. Why is he doing that? What is it about post-traumatic stress… what happens to soldiers many years after the war when they feel alienated. When the society they come from no longer offer them things they can navigate. Or the digital era comes into play and what would happen if you simply don’t want to be a part of it? I love to ask the question about kinship and loyalty. What happens if you have to diverge very distinctly from someone who loves you? How painful that would be. In fact, coming of age sometimes involves that, or you have to force yourself to emancipate because the relationship wasn’t working, it wasn’t healthy.

What has been the role of storytelling in human history? It’s to be able to ask question about how we function. Why we do what we do. The Greeks did it, every culture has done it. Those same 26 stories are in every culture. We want to know why people treat each other well, and why we don’t treat others well. Why is that? What’s going on? Why we’re so sensitive, why we get hurt so easily? Why we experience bouts of courage? Those are all those why, we’re in permanent why state.

What has been the role of storytelling in human history? It’s to be able to ask question about how we function.

R: I love thought-provoking stories that really made you analyze your own lives. Now, it’s been nearly a decade since Winter’s Bone (2010) and this is your first narrative feature since then. I know you did Stray Dog documentary and a documentary series (Independent Lens). What has been the biggest challenge for you in finding projects to do next? Or are you really picky?

D: I am picky. I have read stuff that don’t interest me and I’ve also been in meetings or get involved extensively in a certain project, but then the way they want to make it doesn’t sync up… or the nature of who might be involved feels a bit overloaded for my circuits, it would require working in a way that doesn’t interest me. Just like the character [of Ben Foster’s] maybe, I want to remain outside of the celebrity culture, the star system. Because I feel like there are stories that are told in the margin, I think we need biodiversity. I think it requires that some of us [filmmakers] remain at the margin and make our work there.

For narratives, it requires a certain amount of money, the union crews, there’s a price tag that you can calculate, right across the board on that. So narrative films does take a long time to garner that money, but for documentaries it’s a bit more immediate  to start, so I always like to have something in that world going so that I can keep working. So I can wake up at 5 in the morning and haul heavy equipment into the world and try to do my job. You don’t want to lose that part of your chops.

R: Let’s talk about the wilderness, the woods, which is almost a character in itself. I love how atmospheric it is, I could almost feel the misty air, the dampness. 

D: To work in a rainforest, it’s almost a miraculous photogeneity. You never get tired. The local crew loves their forests. They’d be like, ‘Debra you’ve got to capture this dripping moss.’ The B cameras were extraordinary, whenever they have down time they’d roll off some shots which was wonderful. The opening scenes have a lot of their photography. Our DP (Michael McDonough, who also worked on Winter’s Bone) liked to collaborate with his entire crew, he likes everyone to have their own creative moments when they can.

R: Speaking of which, we have a lot of beautiful nature here in Minnesota. Would you ever consider filming here one day?

D: Oh I would love to! I’d love to capture snow and you wouldn’t need to get a snow machine here. I would love to do a film in Minnesota, there are limitless themes to explore here. Really, there’s not a state I wouldn’t want to film on. If I could live longer I’d love to do a film in a whole bunch of them.

R: Speaking of which, we have a lot of beautiful nature here in Minnesota. Would you ever consider filming here one day?

D: Oh I would love to! I’d love to capture snow and you wouldn’t need to get a snow machine here. I would love to do a film in Minnesota, there are limitless themes to explore here. Really, there’s not a state I wouldn’t want to film on. If I could live longer I’d love to do a film in a whole bunch of them.


Thanks so much Debra for chatting with me.


LEAVE NO TRACE is currently on limited theatrical release.
It opens Friday July 6, at the Uptown Theatre.


FlixChatter Review: SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018)

Denis Villeneuve’s SICARIO was one of the best films of 2015 and one of my favorites that year. It was well received by many movie critics, but it wasn’t a huge box office hit, so I didn’t expect or wanted to see a sequel. But these days Hollywood studios will try to turn ANY movie into a franchise and now part 2 of the hit man saga has been unleash to multiplexes.

The story kicks off with terrorist bombings, including one at a major convenient store in the heartland of America. Special agent Matt Gravers (Josh Brolin) has been summon by his boss Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) to find out who’s responsible for the bombings. With the blessing from the Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine), Gravers was given a mission to do whatever it takes to get a payback for the bombings.

After interrogating a Somalian pirate, he found out that the drug cartels in Mexico are smuggling terrorists through southern border of Texas. With a help of his trusted assassin Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), they devised a plan to kidnap a daughter of one of the big drug cartels and made it look like it’s another cartel who did it. Their goal is to start a war between the cartels, hoping they would all kill each other and wouldn’t be able to smuggle people to the United States. The victim is teenager named Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), whose father happens to be the biggest drug lord in Mexico. Once Graves and his men took Isabel, things went south fast and Alejandro must use skills to protect Isabel from danger.

With Villeneuve being busy with other projects, stepping into the director’s chair this time is Stefano Sollima, whose previous projects were mostly TV shows in Italy. I thought he did a decent job by following Villeneuve’s template, in fact I think most people would think this film was directed by Villeneuve if they didn’t know a new director was hired for the job. The look and feel were no different from the last film. There’s nothing wrong with following the previous director’s style but for me, if a new director takes over a franchise, I expect to see that person to bring in their own creative vision. Sollima did stage a pretty impressive action sequence in a desert where Graves and his men got ambushed.

Taylor Sheridan’s script is solid but not as good as the first one. Here he tackled several political subjects that are relevant to our real-world issues such as immigration debate, terrorism and politics bickering. But I thought with all those complex ideas he came up with, they just masked a very thin plot. If you’ve seen the trailers of this film, you pretty much know the whole story and that’s pretty disappointing to me. There were opportunities to make this one even compelling than the first film, but the story ended way too fast. I understand they’re planning a trilogy, so hopefully the third film will give us better story.

Performances were pretty decent all around, Brolin and Del Toro looked very comfortable in their respective roles and some of the young actors were pretty good. I thought Keener’s and Modine’s character were kind of wasted, they didn’t really have much to do and could’ve been played by unknown actors.

I was looking forward to this sequel and was a disappointed, mostly with the script. I think they missed an opportunity to make this one as good or better than the last film. Still a solid thriller and fans of the first film should check it out.

TedS_post


So have you seen Sicario: Day of the Soldado? Well, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

guestpost

Review by: Vitali Gueron

This year marks the 50th anniversary of what is arguably the most historic year in modern American history. 1968 was a year of social unrest, a turning point in the Vietnam War and the year both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated in the span of several months. It was also the year Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood made its US national debut on Public Television. The show was produced by Pittsburgh public broadcaster WQED and was created by and starred Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister and a lifelong Republican who possessed what’s sorely missed in present day — the compassion for others. Rogers was also fascinated by the emerging field of early childhood development, and when he became conscious of television’s potential, he reached out to the local Pittsburgh public broadcaster to create a television show that would focus on just that — early childhood development.

Directed by award winning director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? takes us on a very emotional ad heartfelt journey through the Fred Rogers’ life and a television career, which blossomed far beyond his expectations. Neville ‘s documentary traces how Rogers became a beloved national institution and how he remained resolute in his beliefs about how to reach and just plain communicate to children, despite changes in society, and with changes that happen in the world around them.

I personally did not grow up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or Sesame Street on PBS, mostly because I was already 8 years old when I immigrated to the United States from Bulgaria with my parents, but I was very aware of the amazing shows on public television. But it wasn’t until I saw Morgan Neville’s documentary that I realized what a true gem Fred Rogers was to us and how much I would have benefited from watching his show, as some of my friends had as kids.

In today’s world of partisan politics, vicious attacks on the news media and lack of civil discourse between individuals with differing opinions, the message of love, compassion and understanding that Fred Rogers highlighted in his shows is something we definitely could use more of in the present.

One of my favorite parts of the documentary happens towards the beginning, in early 1969 when Public Television it was still in its beginnings, Congress held hearings requested by then President Nixon. He sought to gut PBS’ small $20 million budget down in half or even less. In a remarkable turn of events, the historically accurate and stunning footage taken from 1960s news archives, Rogers testifies before then Senator John Pastore who was ready to decimate Public Broadcasting’s funding. In about six minutes of testimony, Rogers spoke of the need for social and emotional education that public television provided. Senator Pastore was visibly moved by Rogers’ eloquent appeal and surprised everyone watching in the room and across the country by declaring after Rogers’ testimony, “I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.” And it looks like Morgan Neville documentary just earned my praise.


Have you seen Won’t You Be My Neighbor?? Well, what did you think? 

Musings on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

The fifth installment of the Jurassic franchise already made nearly half a billion bucks before it even opened here in North America (it now stands at over $700mil). So yeah, its financial prowess still prove to be monstrous, even as the power of its monsters continue to reach diminishing returns.

If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t worry about spoilers as I marked them properly. But if you have seen it, you can highlight the hidden text to read ’em.

In reply to my meh comment about the movie, my co-worker said ‘it’s a movie about dinosaurs, you can’t expect it to win an Academy award.’ True. I never expected an Oscar-caliber movie, but still, it’d be nice for a blockbuster of this magnitude to at least aim for greatness. I recently rewatched Jurassic Park and still gasped when the dinos were first revealed. Alan Grant’s and Ellie Sattler’s reactions were so infectious that we’re vicariously living through their experience and seeing those dinos for the first time through their eyes. The moment Dr. John Hammond said ‘Welcome to Jurassic Park!’ still gave me goosebumps. Well, the genuine sense wonder of the Spielberg original is gone, and so are the characters worth rooting for. This article from Decider.com is absolutely correct that every Jurassic sequel forgot what made the Spielberg original so great.

The only genuine thrill for me in this movie is the opening sequence under water which felt JAWS-like (perhaps an input from Spielberg who still serves as executive producer?) But after that it’s more like Jaws 3-D. The movie overall is practically thrill-free as nearly every sequence is predictable. In the first Jurassic World, we saw the luxury theme park/resort destroyed to bits by the dinos. Well, as soon as the movie shows news footage of it with the remaining dinos now threatened by molten lava, we know they’ll be back on Isla Nubar in no time. So thanks to Dr. Hammond’s former partner Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), the film’s protagonist Claire is soon back to the island to save her precious dinosaurs.

Let’s try this new t-rex ride shall we?

Bryce Dallas Howard can’t seem to part w/ those darn heels, and the camera made sure (in a defiant way) that we noticed them. Never mind her choice of footwear, I just can’t fathom why Claire loves these dinos so much when she clearly didn’t mind working for a corporation which sole purpose is to profit from these creatures. But the writers didn’t bother to give any of the characters any background story or at least a semblance of real human beings. Heh, even in a fantastical universe like Star Wars and the Marvel superhero movies, you expect the characters’ drive/motivations to at least feel true. Here, the humans’ behavior are so ridiculous they should be the ones extinct!

Hello! I’m the Indoraptor, the new hybrid dino in town!

New dinos, but same old human greed. The theme of ‘greed breeds catastrophe’ is even more derivative when the novelty factor of genetically-bred dinosaurs has worn off since the last movie. As an Indonesian, I’m quite amused they keep naming the scariest dinos with ‘indo’ Indominus Rex in Jurassic World and the new one, IndoRaptor. Spoiler alert (highlight to read): the first bidder of the dino auction is from Indonesia, too, ahah.

Of course Claire’s not going back there alone without her beefcake ex boyfriend Owen. Seriously, the movie actually refers to Chris Pratt‘s character as that, complete with eye-rolling sarcasm. There is so little chemistry between Owen and Claire, but that’s not the actors’ fault as we’re given very little reason to care for either of them. Is it just me or Pratt looks bored the entire time here? And what’s with all the squinting?? Unlike his role in The Guardians of Galaxy (or even his brief appearance in Her), Owen is devoid of the wit and playful charm Pratt is known for, but then again ‘devoid’ is the perfect word to describe this movie.

Let’s heal him so he can get back to attacking all of us!

The supporting cast are basically stock characters. The wuss computer genius dude (Justice Smith) and bad ass paleo-veterinarian (Daniella Pineda), played by a black actor and a Latina actress to fulfill the diversity quota. But since the writers (Derek Connolly & Colin Trevorrow) don’t even bother to give any depth to the main characters, let alone these guys. Poor Rafe Spall and Toby Jones (more terrific Brits wasted in a giant Hollywood tentpole flick) are relegated to a vanilla run-of-the-mill corporate ‘monsters’ who merely view these dinos in terms of dollar signs.

Spoiler alert: I gotta give him points though that he somehow manage to hide some freakishly scary dino under his boss’ mansion’s basement. I mean come on! You’d think its yawning sound alone would wake up anyone within 10 mile radius?? That’s not the most absurd bit of all though, that ‘honor’ would have to go to the auction scene. I mean, a bunch of billionaires gather for dinosaur auction. We’re talking about ‘the most dangerous creature that ever walked the earth’ as the auctioneer described, on full display inside poorly-constructed cages! As if that wasn’t enough, they’re selling these for a mere $10 million dollars?? Sotheby’s auctioneers would laugh in their faces. That’s even less than a penthouse in Manhattan or the Bay Area. What is this? Dinos Rummage Sale??

“Just what the heck are we doing in this movie??”

Naturally plot holes abound in this movie, but I guess logic be damned when you go into a movie about dinosaurs roaming around on earth, facing yet another extinction no less. So the sheer lack of logic is not the movie’s biggest fault (after all my suspension-of-disbelief level is already in overdrive), it’s the fact that it’s a dull movie. Not only is the ‘dinos as war weapons’ plot is unimaginative (and incredibly stupid), many of the scenes are recycled material. There are countless moments that lazily mimic the original (i.e. ‘objects in mirror are closer than they appear’ in rearview mirror, the raptors in the kitchen, etc.) yet nary any of the suspense and terror of the original.

Here we go again, dinos in the kitchen!!

I still remember fondly, vividly, the water ripple (or even the green Jello shaking) scene because of that visceral sense of dread. Here all the dino violence and gore are on full display as they trample, maim, chomp the human victims to bits, but none of it create a genuine sense of thrilling terror. Not much of emotional resonance here either (there is one scene on Isla Nubar that tugged my heart strings a bit, but even that felt like orchestrated melodrama), as the relentless action and convoluted plot pile on. Spoiler alert: That bit about the snoopy little girl being a clone thanks to Dr. Hammond’s technology is intriguing but the movie didn’t really expand much on it at all. Instead, they borrowed a scene from Nightmare on Elm Street w/ the IndoRaptor’s trying to claw her on her bed.

Dino Nightmare on Elm Street??

I gotta mention about the music. Michael Giacchino is a great composer but the music here feels so busy. It made me miss John Williams’ spectacularly-iconic score that’s only used in bits and pieces, too brief to make any real impact.

Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona have proven his chops with his smaller-budget films The Orphanage and The Impossible. I think his directing is okay, I take more issue with the absurd, criminally-vapid script that no amount of flawless CGI or mechanical dinosaurs can cover up. So Claire later swapped her heels with the more sensible boots, but unfortunately the movie itself refuse to evolve from being a formulaic, engineered money-making machine for the studios. Honestly, it left a terrible aftertaste as soon as I left the theatre. It’s a franchise that’s way past its extinction date.

P.S. If you love Jeff Goldblum… spoiler alert: Yes, he’s back as Ian Malcolm but all his scenes are in the trailers and nope, he has zero interactions w/ any of the dinos. Another criminally-wasted talent, especially considering how fun he was in the recent Thor: Ragnarok. I mean why bother hiring Goldblum if you’re just gonna have him sit in a congressional hearing the entire time?? 


Well, what do YOU think of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

///

FlixChatter Review: Incredibles 2 (2018)

The Incredibles was released 2004 when the super hero genre was starting to dominate the box office. It was one of the biggest hits of that year but somehow a sequel never got made. Now 14 years later, the Parr/Incredibles family is back to save the world from bad guys.

Set not long after the events of the first movie, The Incredibles family just saved a city from a massive disaster but were arrested right after because superheroes are still considered illegal. With the help of an old friend, they were released from the authority. But now they are broke and homeless, Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) needs to figure out how they can support their young children. The thought of going back to the workforce as regular human being doesn’t sit well with Bob but thankfully their friend Lucius/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) came to the rescue. He told both Bob and Helen that he’d met a very rich man named Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) who wants to make super heroes legal again and he wants to meet and offer them a new gig.

Winston runs a very successful communication firm and idolizes super heroes, he wants to convince powerful government officials to make super heroes legal and save the world from danger again. With the help of his tech expert sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener), Winston came up with a plan of having only Elastigirl go out and do all the heroics stuff first to prove to the government that super heroes are not dangerous to the public. Having always been the man of the house and the alpha male, Mr. Incredible was taken aback that Winston didn’t choose him for this gig. But since he loves his wife and kids and understands that the job will be their only option to make a living, he relented and encourage his wife to take the job.

As the story progresses, we see Elastigirl fights crime and save many lives while also trying to find the identity of the movie’s main villain who goes by the name Screensaver. Meanwhile, Bob is stuck at home playing Mr. Mom and not doing a very good job of it.

All of the actors who voiced each of the characters were great, Nelson, Hunter and Jackson slipped right back into their respective roles and we audience never get the sense that they’ve been gone for such a long time. Odenkirk’s Winston is a nice addition, he’s basically playing a rich and powerful version of Saul from Breaking Bad. Let’s hope they bring him back for the third sequel. But the character who steals the show is baby Jack Jack, he’s adorable baby with several super powers and got the most laugh from the audience. Pretty sure his toy will sell quite well during the holidays season.

This is a return to form for Brad Bird who wrote and directed the picture. I thought his last film Tomorrowland was one of the worst of 2015. He crafted a fun and exciting family superhero picture. There were some complaints from parents that the first movie was too violent, so he scaled back the action in this one. But that doesn’t mean the movie don’t have any good action scenes.

The highlight action scene for me was when Elastigirl was on her motorbike racing through the streets trying to stop an out of control train. Also, the big climatic finale where all of the super heroes used their power to save a city from destruction was well done and very exciting. The only complaint I have is that the main villain was pretty weak compare to Syndrome from the first movie.

Incredibles 2 may not be a good as the first one but it’s full laughs, exciting action sequences and some social commentary on our current pop culture. It’s still early in the summer movie season but it’s definitely my favorite so far.

TedS_post


So have you seen Incredibles 2? Well, what did you think?

Indie Film Spotlight: Smitten! & Q&A w/ writer/director Barry Morrow

Ahhh… romanza. One of the films I enjoyed most at Minneapolis-St. Paul Film Festival (MSPIFF) this year is this sweet, whimsical fantasy rom-com starring Darren Criss and Mãdãlina Ghenea set in the picturesque Italian Alps. Smitten! is a directorial debut from Minnesota’s own Barry Morrow, whom cinephiles might recognize as the Oscar-winning writer of Rain Man (1988). The film won four Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay for Barry Morrow.

A young New York fashion executive’s trip to Milan takes a bad turn when he is kidnapped and whisked off to an Alpine village to be held for ransom money. Little does he (or his three abductors) know that the small, rustic cottage they end up spending the night in is under a gypsy love spell. Or that when they awaken, they will be Smitten! by the first living soul that meets their eyes.

dgss

I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation at Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel aka The Depot. We were fortunate to find an empty meeting room so we could chat uninterrupted for more than a half hour! I could’ve easily chatted with Barry all day… he’s so personable, warm, funny, and simply a delight to chat with. In fact, our interview started with him asking about me and why I have a blog. Later on I told him I have a short film screening at MSPIFF and he was curious to find out more. In fact, when I found out my press pass fell off my lanyard, he was kind enough to help me look for it! I love that Barry has such a huge heart for people with disabilities. In a way, that experience helped him in his Hollywood journey, but he has been giving back to disabled people all his life.

No wonder his film Smitten! is so joyful! He seemed like he had a blast making it, so hopefully he’ll be directing more movies in the future. So check out my interview below on Barry’s journey to Hollywood (via a TV movie that’s based on his own story), winning an Oscar for Rain Man, and making a joyful movie about love.

Q. You’re originally from Minnesota (born in Austin, MN), then you moved to teach drama in Hawaii. Would you tell me a bit of your journey to Hollywood?

I only went to Hollywood when I already had a movie already in the works. I have a wife, two little kids, plus a dog and a cat. When I left Minnesota initially, it was to teach at University of Iowa and I was there for seven years. It’s there when I wrote this story about this gentleman that my wife and I rescued, and more or less adopted him, I became his legal guardian. His name is Bill Sackter and he was institutionalized for 44 years at Faribault State Mental Health Institute. I find that Bill was an intelligent man, but that his intelligence comes in many different ways. His intelligence was reading people, he instinctively know who would shun him and who would be warm and gracious to him. So he has a deep emotional intelligence.

Q2. So the TV movie Bill (released in 1981 starring Mickey Rooney as Bill – ed) basically brought you to Hollywood?

Yes, at the time I was living in Iowa. So I said to Bill, ‘Look, I help you get a coffee shop, and now I need a career.’ I’m going to try to go to Hollywood, see how this movie works and see if I could continue to be a writer. Well I asked if he wanted to come with us and he said ‘Buddy, I hate to disappoint you but I’m happy here and lots of people need my coffee. So you’re on your own now.” So my wife and I went to California and we ended up winning an Emmy for Bill, as well as a Golden Globe for Best Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television. (Mickey Rooney also won an Emmy and Golden Globe for playing Bill – ed).

Q. So did you already start writing Rain Man by then? 

No. Bill was still alive then. The movie became so successful we made a sequel in 1983 (Bill: On His Own) and he died just before it was released. I think what Bill would’ve said was, “Oh I don’t need to see the sequel, I lived it.” By the way, when Bill saw the movie for the first time with me, we had a private screening for him in New York at CBS, he said “You know what buddy, Mickey Rooney has a rough life too.” He couldn’t distinguish that Rooney was playing him.

So after Bill passed away, I started volunteering at various organizations dealing with disabilities. I was in Texas on a committee for the Association for Retarded Citizens (now called the ARC) and that’s when I met the real Rain Man, Kim Peek. His father was there and when I saw him he was reading some books. He was reading this book upside down and I heard him groaning while I was in the hallway. I said “Can I help you with anything?” and he said, “Don’t bother me, I’m reading.” Well I found out later from his father, that he could read books upside down. I was in the room at the NASA Medical Research Hospital in Monterey CA and the scientists said after reviewing Kim’s brain scan that they’d never seen anything like it. His brain is so unique so he’s considered to be the world’s greatest mega savant. He has the largest memory capacity of probably anyone who’s ever lived. That’s how Rain Man started.

Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in ‘Rain Man’

Q. I read on IMDb that during filming, both Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise doubted the movie’s potential. Of course little did they know it went on to win awards, and Hoffman winning an Oscar for Best Actor.

Well it’s because of the subject matter. I mean nobody’s ever done a TV or movie with a starring role about a mentally-retarded man until Bill happened. Eunice Shriver said to me, “You know what you’ve done don’t you, Barry? Bill is the most sympathetic portrayal of a mentally-retarded person in television history.” Then Rain Man came along and nobody thought it’d held up to its potential. It’s two guys driving in a car and one hardly talks and doesn’t have much emotion, how’s that gonna work?

In a way it’s the same about Smitten!, I’m doing an old fashioned love story in a time where nobody does this kind of story. I like to call it ‘an analog movie in the digital age.’

Darren Criss and Madalina Ghenea

Q. That’s a perfect segue to Smitten! Now 30 years later, after years of writing dramatic projects, you not only wrote but directed a rom-com. What inspires you to do that? 

The message. This is what I’ve learned in nearly 70 years living on this planet: Everybody needs love, every wants love, but love is hard. It’s full of disappointment. Your heart will be broken more times than it’s mended, but still we pursue it, we can’t help it. I think love is in all my movies. It’s in Bill, in Rain Man. Love is there, I just never took a comedic angle.

Q. What I find particularly interesting about Smitten! is its magical realism aspect. I’m curious if there’s a certain event that happened that inspired you?

There’s actually very specific thing that happened. I have a friend who speaks and writes fluent Italian. I said to him that I’m looking for something to do in Italy as I love that country. It wasn’t even to direct a movie, I just want a good story. Then one day he sent me an obituary column in Italian. It’s about a young lady, 16 years old, on the cusp of World War I. Her boyfriend was about to go to war the next day, so they spent one night together in an old abandoned cottage. The next morning she woke up and he’s gone and never returned. He was killed in the war presumably. But she never married, she never fell in love again. She was smitten from that moment and so when she died at the age of 90, she left a small fortune to the village where that cottage was, that every year they’d have a Festival of Love to honor love. But what happened was, as the mayor was getting ready for it, the lawyer ran off with the money, he stole the money and they never got him. So I said, ‘that’s terrible!’ If we were to make a movie of it, I’d grant this woman his dying wish. So we did it, Smitten!, at least in my heart is dedicated to her.

Barry on set in the stunning Italian Alps

Q. How did the casting of Mãdãlina Ghenea and Darren Criss came about? Did you do audition for the main roles?
We first learned about Madalina Ghenea, who moved to Italy from Romania as a teen, through Lilia Trapani, our amazing casting agent in Rome. Lilia, in fact, found all of our cast’s great Italian actors, too. She knew that the film’s role of “Rosalia” required someone of striking beauty, one of the film’s conceits, and Madalina, an international super model, was certainly that. So the bigger surprise upon our first lunch meeting was to discover her vulnerable side, but most of all her inner beauty. She is a spirited but decent soul, which I believe she inherited from her mother, who visited us on set. Her mom was, and still is, a veterinarian in the small Romanian village where Madalina was raised, so farm animals and small town life is something in their family DNA. All of this came together in a kismet sort of way, so there was no doubt in my mind that Madalina was our Rosalia, and she accepted the role on the spot.

My producing partner Jules Rask and I had a more strategic way of approaching Darren Criss. Darren wasn’t on our radar when we began our search, but the more we learned about this guy, the more we knew we had to have him. What we didn’t know, and had to laugh about later, was that Darren had spent time in Italy studying acting and spoke fluent Italian. We never found a way to use that in the film, but it sure helped with all the singing and dancing and carousing we did together after work or on weekends, and of course our cast parties.

To watch and hear Darren and our Italian cast members belt out songs together in Italian was just one of the many magical moments we shared during filming. Darren, of course, has gone on to make a big splash in the recent The Assassination of Gianni Versace, and has an excellent shot at a Emmy for his role as spree killer Andrew Cunanan.  On a more personal note, everyone fell in love with Darren’s beautiful girlfriend and now fiancé, Mia Swier, as well as Darren’s parents, Bill and Cerina.  You might say we were all smitten.

Q. Many of your supporting cast are Europeans. Was there ever a language barrier or culture clash during filming?
Our cast and crew were at least 90% Italian, so we did face the inevitable language and cultural barriers. But not many. When in Italy, you can almost bypass language altogether by using gestures, facial expressions, even pantomime, and when you’re working with the caliber of talent that I had, reading one other was not a problem.

Our main shooting location was in a tiny village in northern Italy, formerly a part of Austria, so German was the dominant language there. There are still a bit of strain between the two cultures due to this history, but we overcame that almost instantly. Some credit for that, perhaps, had to do with the film we were shooting, which was light-hearted and all about love. At least I’d like to think so. But mostly it was about the people we picked to work with, and those who picked us. Everything about the making of Smitten! seemed to be fated that way.

Barry with Angela Molina and Madalina Ghenea

Q. Lastly, what tips do you have for aspiring writer/filmmaker trying to break into the business?

You’d think that after nearly 40 years of working in film and television, I’d have some sage advice for young filmmakers looking for their big break. But I don’t.  Every road to success, or failure for that matter, is a personal one, often a painful and lonely one, but everyone must find his or her own way. I can only offer a few platitudes. Work hard. Be the best you can possibly be. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Never quit. If I can think of anything else I’ll let you know. I’m still learning.


Thanks so much Barry for taking the time to chat with me! 

FlixChatter Review – Hereditary (2018)

guestpost

Directed By: Ari Aster
Written By: Ari Aster
Runtime: 127 minutes

Hereditary begins with Annie Graham (Toni Collette), her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and her children Peter (Alex Wolf) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro) coping with the recent death of Annie’s mother. Strange and terrifying events quickly begin to occur following the family matriarch’s passing, hinting at a dark family secret that might not have died with her.

This is one of the most suspenseful and unsettling horror movies I’ve seen in a while, and that tone is maintained the whole way through. The pacing is excellent; it works so well in building the tension. The beginning takes plenty of time establishing the characters’ backgrounds, but it doesn’t feel like it drags, because the exposition all feels very natural, thanks to a combination of strong writing and and stellar acting, especially from Toni Collette. The real inciting incident of the film (which is horrifying) takes so long to build up and is so drawn out, but it’s so effective.

Visually, this film is very creative, and not necessarily due to over-the-top special effects. The majority of the effects are practical rather than CGI, and for the most part, they’re pretty understated. This, combined with a good use of lighting and clever camera work, makes for a terrifying viewing experience.

I only have a couple complaints about this movie. Firstly, there isn’t much to Gabriel Byrne‘s character. I’ve enjoyed him in other movies, and I know he can act well; he just isn’t given much to work with here. He doesn’t really interact much with the rest of the family, which makes his chemistry with them so awkward that I initially thought he was the stepfather and not the actual father. It’s not that he seems emotionally distant, which I could almost understand, because it would make the tone feel even more uncomfortable. He just feels unnecessary. I know Annie and the kids are the real focus of the movie, but his character could have been removed and the film wouldn’t have lost anything vital.

Secondly, the ending kind of gives me tonal whiplash. It’s not a bad ending- it’s foreshadowed well, and it has a Rosemary’s Baby vibe that I appreciate- but it also feels more bizarre than the rest of the movie does; still twisted, but in a different, kind of jarring way. It’s a weird note to go out on.

Overall though, this is a fantastic horror movie. It’s well-written, the acting is mostly excellent, the visuals are skillfully done, and it will stick with you long after you leave the theater. If you enjoy scary movies, definitely check out this one.

laura_review


Have you seen ‘Hereditary’? Well, what did you think?