Dir: Michael Mann
Stars: William Petersen, Kim Greist, Tom Noonan, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina and Joan Allen
I’ll probably never forget the first time I saw Manhunter. I was in high school, and it was a really weird night where I was already on edge, having had a really bizarre evening at the restaurant I worked at. Long story short, this guy who used to work on the cooking line with me came in to get his last check – and essentially went berserk. I mean tossing dishes, throwing anything he could get his hands on at staff and customers alike before running out the front door. I don’t know – I heard rumors of girlfriend problems and some steroid use The man was jacked, no doubt about that. I guess the point is that I drove home thinking about how it’s really difficult to say you know anyone fully. I mean, aren’t there folks at your work place you’ve had doubts about? What do they do when they’re not with you at work, particularly that really quiet guy? Well, that night when I finished Manhunter, I figured that the fictional employees where Francis Dollarhyde worked surely had similar thoughts.
Whatever the case, watching this Michael Mann thriller after such an event was probably not a great idea. This movie is, for me personally, one of the most intense and essentially scary thriller/suspense films I can think of. And, having recently rewatched on Amazon Prime, I found myself supremely impressed with numerous aspects of the movie. We’ve got a real color palate in play, which has become a hallmark of Mann’s filmography. We have a duo of villains that scare the hell out of you every time they’re on screen, even if the scene is somewhat standard in nature. And, we have an intense, behind-the-scenes investigation, which shows us things along the way and keeps us engaged with the story from the initial, creepy images through to the last shot.
So, let’s start with a more academic discussion about the visual feel of Manhunter. Remember, Mann was an executive producer on the 1980s hit Miami Vice, which aired on NBC for seven years. Sure, you can argue that Vice was a classic example of a niche TV show that “jumped the shark,” but you can’t argue the cultural phenomenon that show sparked. Much of it was related to the neon, the pastel colors and outlandish shots of the ocean that became synonymous with the show – and influenced everything from pop music to fashion. Similarly, this 1986 film has a real palate that helps visually tell the story.
Consider the bookend scenes of the film, which take place in Captiva, FL. The blues that appear on screen, whether they’re of the Gulf of Mexico or the interior of Will Graham’s bedroom, give a sense of comfort and home. The blue hues of this temperature are not seen in the seriousness of Act Two or any scenes related to Lecktor or the killer on the loose, referred to as The Tooth Fairy, played with the utmost tone of villainy by character actor Tom Noonan. But, they sure are dominating the film’s poster, aren’t they? As discussed in previous posts about the importance of a movie’s poster, many other films could take a page out of Manhunter‘s playbook.
Instead, when Graham interviews Dr. Hannibal Lecktor – yes, that same Lecktor made infamous by Best Picture Silence of the Lambs – the cell is stark white and full of florescent overhead lighting, which fits the direct nature of Lecktor’s dialogue and the seriousness of the institutional set. One of my favorite shots is of Graham, leaving the interview in a cold sweat, running down this crazy ramp that goes up four stories into the correctional building. Look at how industrial and stark this image is compared to the rounded, comfy edges of home in Captiva. Long story short (too late) – Manhunter is a must watch for cinema students who want to apply a well thought color palate to accentuate their story. And for the casual moviegoer who finishes a film and can’t quite describe why they enjoyed it so much, Mann’s specific choices related to color are one of those subtle things that makes that kind of difference in your viewing experience.
But, as referenced in the previous paragraph, Dr. Hannibal Lecktor is indeed a character in Manhunter – and, fun fact, this was the villain’s debut on screen. Played with the same direct swagger that Anthony Hopkins so famously captured in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, Brian Cox does a thorough job of creating unease whenever his character is onscreen. I probably saw the actor for the first time in Braveheart as the hero’s Uncle Argyle. In Manhunter, everything from his dialogue to his attitude to the way Mann shoots him through the cold bars of the cell lends itself to that feeling of discomfort and terror. As in Silence, Lecktor is being used. Hero Will Graham, portrayed with genuine intensity by William Petersen, wants Lecktorto help him get inside of the at-large killer, the Tooth Fairy. Lecktor is naturally reticent, particularly considering it was Graham who put the Doc in prison for murdering college students.
So, Manhunter shares some of that plot through line of a killer helping the investigator capture another killer. And the Tooth Fairy is some kind of movie villain. Tom Noonan deserves a lot of credit for how intimidating he is in some of his scenes, and how delicate his character appears when romancing his colleague Reba McClane, played with her usual emotional truthfulness by Joan Allen. The unexpected scenes of these unlikely characters’ romance really throws us viewers for a loop, and makes the urgency of Graham’s investigation all the more hyper. In fact, Mann takes the time to pause the action, and focus on the relationships between the villain and the hero – a rare choice in a thriller/suspense film.
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I find the investigation a perfect plot for a two hour film experience. We willingly buckle up for the ride, with that safe feeling in the back of our minds that says, “no matter how bad this gets, we know it’ll all be over soon…” Well, maybe that’s why Manhunter effected me so much – this film never feels safe. Perhaps it’s the introduction of Graham’s family, or the fact that his wife is thoroughly concerned with Graham’s health after the Lecktor experience. Or, maybe it’s that I love cheering for a hero that’s willing to be shoved back into the grinder to find another killer of this violent magnitude – because he knows he’s good at it.
Whatever the case, the scenes of investigation here are noteworthy. Consider when a guard at the prison is able to lift a piece of toilet paper containing a message that the Tooth Fairy sent Lecktor. The way Graham’s investigative team pulls that evidence apart and rushes against the clock to use it and replace it in the Doc’s cell without him noticing… it’s phenomenal cinema! And, that’s where the line that I used to entitle this post came from. Will Graham is a powerful hero – but, unlike so many other cop dramas and action-adventure films, he’s not superman. When he finally does talk his way into cracking the case, the combination of Petersen’s acting, Mann’s patient, long take and the superior soundtrack combine for one of my favorite moments in the movie.
So, whether it’s the unique color palate, the skin-crawling performances of the villains or the natural intensity of the movie’s investigation, I really encourage you to try this one. I was surprised, when I did a recent audit of Ronhamprod.com that I hadn’t covered a Michael Mann film yet – and this one is a great start. I’ll put it this way – if you enjoyed HBO’s True Detective, I’m sure you’ll dig Manhunter.
And, enjoy this link, which has a lot of images from the film, many of which really capture the color palate discussed in this post – IMDB – Manhunter Cast & Crew
The Natural (1984) Dir: Barry Levinson
Cast: Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Wilford Brimley, Kim Basinger, Michael Madsen, Robert Prosky, Richard Farnsworth, Barbara Hershey, Glenn Close and Darren McGavin
*** Burke Favorite ***
When asked by a befuddled and confused Elmer Fudd “What season is it?” in one of the numerous cartoons in which they co-starred, Bugs Bunny, who’s posing as a game warden replied, “It’s baseball season, sonny!” He tossed the ball across the snow covered terrain, and Elmer went off, blasting the ball up and down the hills to conclude the episode. Well, turns out baseball season really IS upon us. And while The Natural doesn’t have such slapstick comedy included, with the exception of perhaps one montage establishing the “ne’er do well” behavior of the fictional Knights ball club, it is an ideal, excitement inducing film to watch as another glorious baseball year begins. So, in honor of Opening Day 2018, let’s look at an American version of King Arthur in the form of Roy Hobbs, who wouldn’t be complete without Wonderboy – his Excalibur.
I love, love, love this movie. Anyone who loves baseball can watch it – and anyone who detests the game, yet loves the David & Goliath story set up can watch it as well. Or, if baseball isn’t necessarily your favorite sport or movie backdrop, but you know the multiple stars in this cast, you’ll dig The Natural. Regardless, what I’m trying to say is, this is a crowd pleaser – much like the game that dominates its story. Even if you don’t care for the minutiae that makes up baseball history and stats, or you don’t care for the ball park itself except for its tasty treats, The Natural has something for everyone.
The film begins with a boy on a farm, tossing the ball with his dad. What could be more iconically American than that, right? Well, the seed is planted right from the first page of the script as the father encourages the boy to be the best he can be. That night, there’s a terrific lightning storm on the farm – one which cuts a huge tree in half right outside the farmhouse. Well, the boy takes it upon himself to take a part of that tree, which is most certainly a physical piece of the very location where he grew up, and sculpts it into a sword – or, if you prefer, a baseball bat with the name, “Wonderboy” and an image of the lightning bolt. This action suggests that Roy Hobbs, this boy who is about to follow his destiny as we watch, is one to remember such nights as true bookmarks in an extraordinary life.
Hobbs is in love with two things – baseball, and Iris (Glenn Close). On the night before he’s to take the train to go see about playing for one of the big teams, he loses his virginity with Iris in the barn. Next day, he’s on the train all right, and his manager notices a reporter, Max Mercy (Robert Duvall), traveling with none other than the Man himself, Babe Ruth (Joe Don Baker, another character actor that fills in an enormously recognizable cast). When the manager tries to introduce Hobbs, Mercy is positively rude. He has no time for hicks and hayseeds who want to play in The Show, to use a Bull Durham term. Well, when the train stops and the manager challenges The Babe to take some pitches from Hobbs, claiming he’s sure the young man can strike the legend out… we have our first “lean in” moment of the film.
Within this same episode, we’re also introduced to a single Siren in the form of Barbara Hersey. On the train, there are references to pro athletes being murdered – and Harriet Bird, for untold and mysterious reasons, is out to get The Babe. That is, until she sees Hobbs pitch to him. Seduction unfolds, and before Hobbs knows it, he’s been shot in his own hotel room by Bird, who then… flies away? We never know. She’s a Siren – who knows how they operate.
I’m not ruining anything for you as these early scenes unfold quickly before the film cuts to 16 years later. What we end up watching is not the dominant career of a ball player based on a Babe Ruth kind of star. Instead, we see an underdog, a guy who’s nearly out of time trying to make that mark he never got to make – and still has hopes of leaving a legend behind. The mythical elements continue throughout the film. There’s another hero in Hobbs’ outfield position, the current star of the Knights in the form of Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen). You might say the minotaur reveals himself in the form of the evil judge who owns the team (Robert Prosky). The judge sits in a cave or office completely in the dark, although he can see Hobbs… And his lackey is literally a Cyclops, a gambler/string-puller named Gus Sands played by none other than the father from A Christmas Story, Darren McGavin. You could even make the argument that another Siren swoops into Hobbs’ life in the form of Memo Paris (Kim Basinger).
These are very American gothic sort of settings, characters and actions, and they all fit the traditional mythical set-up of heroes and quests. The Natural is no different. And, it works. Whether you equate the American Hobbs to Hercules or King Arthur doesn’t really matter. What does count is that this guy, despite his bad luck and years of rolling around, finally gets his shot. And, isn’t that why we watch the great game itself? How many things have to go right and break their way for that batter to be up in the bottom of the 9th of the World Series with two on, two strikes and two outs…? Enjoy this new baseball season – and, The Natural.
The Departed (2006) *** Burke Favorite ***
Dir: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Adam Baldwin, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen, James Badge Dale, and Jack Nicolson
For anyone who has seen Best Picture winner The Departed as many times as I have, I’m sure you know what the title of this entry refers to. First off, this film deals with the Irish in Boston, so it’s appropriate we offer our take on St. Patty’s Day. Second, the early scenes of the film, which culminate with maybe the latest title card introduction in movie history, offers this exact question, as posed by Martin Sheen’s Captain Queenan:
“Here’s a question. Do you wanna be a cop? Or do you wanna appear to be a cop?”
Now, please, watch the film. Even if you’ve seen it before, watch it again. You’ll see that this line, as typed above, does the line no justice once Queenan’s thick, Boston accent is applied to this dialogue. Much like the movie is a two edged sword dealing with the deception and difficulty in living a life full of lies, let’s look at The Departed from two angles – not only as a great crime thriller loaded with a cast of the highest calibre, but also as the kind of film that makes superb, social fodder among the moviegoers who adore it.
Center from left to right: Sergeant Dignam (MARK WAHLBERG), Captain Ellerby (ALEC BALDWIN) and Colin Sullivan (MATT DAMON) head up the surveillance team, including Brown (ANTHONY ANDERSON, seated far right), that is monitoring a meeting between CostelloÕs gang and the Chinese Triad in Warner Bros. PicturesÕ crime drama ÒThe Departed.Ó PHOTOGRAPHS TO BE USED SOLELY FOR ADVERTISING, PROMOTION, PUBLICITY OR REVIEWS OF THIS SPECIFIC MOTION PICTURE AND TO REMAIN THE PROPERTY OF THE STUDIO. NOT FOR SALE OR REDISTRIBUTION.
When I first heard about this film, I thought someone was messing with me. In my youth, Goodfellas had been one of my first rated R experiences. I hated Casino at first – take it easy, guys – then ended up really appreciating it. Let’s not even scratch the surface of Heat. The point is, I absolutely relish the experience of watching epic crime sagas, which just happen to have everyone in Hollywood co-starring in them. So, when I heard in the trades about The Departed, then confirmed the cast on IMDB, I nearly fainted. I remember thinking, “…. and NICHOLSON, too?? Come on!”
So, when I went to Westwood on opening night in early October 2006, I had my hopes running awfully high. And the experience did not disappoint. Again, for those of you who’ve seen it, I’m sure you can appreciate how the audience of maybe 1,200 moviegoers kept gasping and crying out during the finale with the elevator. I’m sure you’ll laugh with me as I remember the “teething… gnawing RAT…” delivery by Nicholson, which was beautifully placed, much needed comic relief.
The Departed is about the truth, and the pursuit of truth always makes for a worthwhile film. To villain Frank Costello (Nicholson), is Billy Costigan, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, a cop – or is he really an undercover cop that Queenan has planted in his organization? To all his fellow investigators, is Colin Sullivan (Damon) the “worker” he seems to be, or will his shady behavior from time to time uncover something more? Well, the superb set-up from writer William Monahan establishes the neighborhood criminal kingpin in Costello. He’s been “mentoring” a group of young boys for years, and Colin Sullivan grows up under his tutelage – and becomes a cop that is willing to inform Costello of anything he’s interested in.
The “yin” to this criminal “yang” is Costigan, who is seen going through the same state police training program as the elder Sullivan does. Quickly, they graduate and enter the police force. But, there’s a problem for Costigan in that his uncle was a huge player in Costello’s organization who recently met his demise. Captain Queenan (Sheen) and his lackey, Sgt. Dignam (Wahlberg, who steals many of the scenes he’s in) advise Costigan that, if he wants to serve the commonwealth, it’ll be in the midst of a special, undercover assignment that only the three of them will know about. Because with his family’s criminal background, there’s no possibility Costigan would be a state police officer in even five years.
This story set up yields a film full of action, violence, corruption and wild visuals. Scorsese and team – especially editor Thelma Schoonmaker, whose IMDB filmography is an overwhelming volume of movie hits – are firing on all cylinders. Consider the question from earlier, which Costello was surely wondering about young Costigan suddenly entering his neighborhood. What better way to find out the truth than break open the young man’s cast holding his broken wrist in place – and proceed to smash said wrist with the man’s boot? That’s the kind of moment contained in this film. And, much like other Scorsese greats, these scenes are equally superb as stand alones as they are the necessary piece of Monahan’s labrynth puzzle.
In watching the film recently, I was fascinated by the constant editing style, which offered two different perspectives within the same scene. Consider when Sullivan is in the elevator at one point, and his Costello provided cell phone buzzes. The shot goes completely 180 from above Sullivan’s head down below his waist and looking up. It’s as if the film is visually reminding us that this man has just turned off “cop” and is about to turn on “criminal.” Another visual consistency throughout the film is the “X” in the background. In the DVD extras, Scorsese admits how he wanted to pay homage to 1930s gangster films, which would often place an “X” of some kind behind criminals who were guaranteed to join the departed by the end of the film. Keeping an eye out for these makes for a fun rewatch.
And another item I noticed in this latest viewing was the part of James Badge Dale, who plays Trooper Baragan. He’s one of the guys that Sullivan graduates from the academy with, and he plays a supporting role as one of Sullivan’s investigation team as the film progresses. Particularly once you know the twist of the film, watching this character and his reactions and when the camera gives him moments throughout becomes really interesting. It’s this character that links to another point I wanted to make, and that is that this movie is actually based on a Hong Kong film called Infernal Affairs, which was released a few years before Departed. I was fascinated in watching that original how different the ending in, and how you could certainly argue that Monahan and The Departed’s filmmakers made a conscious choice to make this Best Picture winner’s conclusion much more western.
Lastly, I love to use this film as a great example of how movies and their dialogue become a social currency, particularly among guys after a few drinks. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “Why don’t you just get me a bottle of scotch… and a hand gun” in response to close pals asking how my week has gone. I have asked and I’ve been asked at the bar, “you sure you don’t wanna make it a cranberry juice?” And of course, the “do you want to be a KWOUP… or do you want to APPEAH to be a KWOUP” dialogue from Queenan early in the film became the go-to line between my brother and a close pal a few years back. To its credit, The Departed won a lot of awards – but even if you don’t follow the accolades, it’s oftentimes the dialogue that you’re able to experience outside of viewing the film itself.
The Top Ten Films of 2017 – A Summary of Each, and Reminder Re: #10 An Annual Ronhamprod.com Presentation
Welcome to ronhamprod.com’s second annual list of the best films from last year, as always, in preparation of the Academy Awards coming up this very evening!
Here’s the list for 2017 for your consideration, discussion and pleasure. As always, these films are in no particular order, and followed by our perception of the film’s genre:
Darkest Hour (Drama/Biography)
Shape of Water, The (Independent Drama/Romance/Musical)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO (Independent Drama/Comedy)
Battle of the Sexes (Drama/Comedy)
All the Money in the World (Drama/Thriller)
As we said last year, there are a lot of films released annually in the United States. In 2017, trust Box Office Mojo reports there were 726 movies released theatrically in this country BoxOfficeMojo – 2017 Titles. You folks can probably tell by now – I adore films and always expect I will. But even I can’t make it out to see two films a day minimum. That said, I don’t see how I, or any other film critic, analyst, handicapper, etc. is qualified to say, “THESE are the top 10…”
Sure, all of this analysis and discussion is arbitrary and subjective anyhow – which is part of the fun of Awards Season. That said, we here at Ronhamprod.com will always leave #10 respectfully blank. I mean, I hate admitting that I haven’t gotten to Thor: Ragnarok, or The Phantom Thread, or Coco or Boss Baby or Wind River or The Florida Project or a host of other titles from last year just yet. I will, but… that’s why #10 is our “free space.”
But, let’s look at the film’s up for Best Picture Oscars this year that are not on our list:
The Phantom Thread
I have not seen this latest from Paul Thomas Anderson. IN fact, I may as well say that I haven’t loved any of this particular filmmaker’s works except Boogie Nights and the recent Inherent Vice – which is odd because, I can find very few film pals that liked Vice. Regardless, I’m in no hurry to see Thread, despite the legendary Day-Lewis offering his final work with this title.
Call Me By Your Name
I also haven’t seen this one. I’ve been told it’s fantastic and the footage I saw at The Contenders last November did indeed look like Name is a true “film,” and not Oscar fodder that’s in there to round out the field.
Look… I’m not the audience for this film. I went to Catholic school, as discussed in this entry here – Silence Review – Ronhamprod. I went through teenage years. Despite the fact I love independent cinema, Lady Bird didn’t resonate with me the way other recent dram-edys like The Big Sick did. I’m super glad that this title resonated with so many Academy voters, but for me, the best thing about the film is the editing. Nick Houy did a masterful job of cramming an entire senior year into 90 plus minutes. Think about your senior year of high school for a moment. Remember how there are specific, undeniable moments that will forever be etched into your mind? And, how fast it all went? The biggest impression made upon me from Lady Bird was how the film just keeps… moving…. along. Oh, we’re doing the play. Now, we’re submitting to colleges – and begging Dad to help. Then, our heart got broken – that sucked. But, then we got suspended, remember? Then we got that job that, well, didn’t last too long. So…. kudos to Houy, who did another masterful job with HBO’s The Night Of, for accurately capturing that deluge of memories and feelings into a very compact run time.
There isn’t a lot that I can say about this horror film that hasn’t already been said. I watched Key & Peele on Comedy Central for years, and was very entertained. My interest and acceptance of horror films has had a renaissance in recent years as evidenced in this entry, Oscars 2016 – The Witch, and the upcoming It blog. But, I’ll respectfully leave it at that.
I really enjoyed Tom Hanks in this Steven Spielberg directed newspaper drama. His subtle notes, like the feet on the desk that Jason Robards so adeptly worked into scenes in All the President’s Men, are easy to take for granted. I don’t suspect that I’m the only one that felt this effort was a little rushed, for lack of a better term. This is not to say it isn’t a good film or one worth seeing. And, as usual, the technical and “mise-en-scene” of the film is expert. Think of the authentic sets, costumes, cigarettes and “feel.” These are all elements that are easy to take for granted – but which are all very difficult to synthesize. In the end, I was glad to see The Post in theaters, and I enjoyed it. But, was there room for improvement for this entry in the Spielberg cannon – sure.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO
Please see my upcoming entry for this film, which I really enjoyed. I think it’s impressive to go to a theater and have multiple instances where the entire crowd was laughing hard, only to be pin-drop quiet moments later… Not every part of MO was exceptional, but I do love those films that force conversation and thought the day after you see them.
The Shape of Water
Ever since Pan’s Labyrinth, I’ve been interested in Guillermo Del Toro’s work. Shape is similar to Labyrinth in that the preview definitely gives you a sense of how the film might play for you – but leaves plenty to be revealed. Focusing on a very particular place in time with terribly unique characters, Shape is like watching your favorite symphony directed by a conductor who is new to your ear. You’ve been in love, I’ve been in love – but we’ve never experienced a love like this. This film wasn’t perfect, and I’m very, very confused how of all the awards it’s nominated for, the film is NOT up for best visual effects? I’m also confused by some of Del Toro’s choices with the story, perhaps starting with Michael Shannon’s character’s fingers. Regardless, what I think is especially worth celebrating when it comes to Shape is this – of all nominees, this and Dunkirk are the most cinematic. That is, most of their story is told through moving images – which is the way it should be. Speaking of…
I bloody loved this Christopher Nolan vision, which I first viewed with very dubious eyes. I remember when the teaser came out all the way back in the summer of 2016, a full year before its debut. My initial thought was, “they know how this WWII story went, right? They’re really going to make a full movie about this?” But, I’m fully willing to admit when I underestimate a film, and this is certainly one of those instances. I adored the script’s construct of sharing three very different storylines that unfolded within the same event. Taking several days for Tommy’s story (played by impressive newcomer Fionn Whitehead), spacing Mr. Dawson’s civilian vessel storyline across one day (the always moving Mark Rylance) and rounding the story’s foundation out with fighter pilot Ferrier’s (Tom Hardy) hour long tale was a most unusual construct – but one that worked. And, to the film’s credit, the editing by Lee Smith kept the film tight, not a moment too long. This film had the etchings of a three hour epic, but was better told in its two hour stretch. I’m really glad to see that big man cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema has been nominated for Dunkirk, as it was thrilling to see the behind-the-scenes footage at The Contenders last fall, in which he’s seen lugging the huge, 70mm Panavision cameras into the Dunkirk surf.
Please enjoy my take on this Gary Oldman starring film here!
For Your Consideration – Honorable Mentions In Season Two of Netflix’s hit drama, The Crown, I was fascinated by an episode in which one of the British subjects has the audacity, the gall, the temerity to draft an editorial suggesting what The Crown might do to (ahem) leave some traditions behind – and essentially, enter the 20th century with the rest of us. To my interest and viewing pleasure, it turns out the British monarchy actually did embrace some of the suggestions made by the young man. To that end, I think this year in particular warrants the consideration of an “Honorable Mention” for those that got write-ins, or exceptional work that there’s simply no fit for that year… I’m not even suggesting we have a moment on stage, just a simple, write-in category where these filmmakers can be given notice for jobs well done.
Top of that list, in my humble opinion, is Ridley Scott for directing All the Money in the World. The veteran director took a real stand in editing out Kevin Spacey from the film, looping in Christopher Plummer and working with the film’s financiers to successfully re-shoot, re-edit and do all of it within the weeks necessary to make the film eligible for this year’s awards season. While the awards season deadline is the icing on the cake, the real “Honorable Mention” worthy action was a veteran, A-list director taking a stand against the long running behaviors of a few in Hollywood, which needs to change and is in the process of changing. It’s easy to post on social media and make a quick speech denouncing these behaviors – but it’s quite another to spend lots of money, and convince your cast and crew to adjust their schedules and spend their valuable time on such an effort – an effort I consider to be well worth while, and worth honoring.
So, enjoy the Oscars this year! I think I really enjoyed Dunkirk and Darkest Hour most, simply because I’m such a WWII history geek. For me, my hopes are highest for Gary Oldman and the documentary Icarus. Regardless, we’ll have some follow up posts shortly, but all in all, I think we can agree it was another interesting year in the Academy’s history. And I’ll admit – I am anxiously awaiting to see how Mr. Kimmel will reference last year’s ummmmm, mis-step?
Stars: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Michael C. Hall and Jesse Plemmons
Let me ask you this – what was the last comedy you saw, in theaters, that made you laugh till you hurt? If you responded Daddy’s Home 2, Father Figures or A Bad Mom’s Christmas, well, fair enough… but I haven’t gotten to those titles just yet. I did see Baby Driver last summer (discussion here on ronhamprod forthcoming), and while that would definitely be classified an action-adventure if perhaps an action-comedy, I encourage you to try Game Night. Particularly if films like Baby Driver, True Lies, Anchorman and The Hangover are your cup of tea, I think you’ll find Night well worth the trip to cinemas. That’s right, I included The Hangover in the discussion for this new action-comedy.
So, that should give you an indication of how funny a Night it is. As you’ll see from the trailer below, Jason Bateman stars as Max and Rachel McAdams is his wife, Annie. They have great chemistry as that uber-competitive couple who has made “game night” part of their regular routine. Part of the film’s strength is that the script from Mark Perez has a great grab – we all know a couple like Max and Annie, or we ARE that couple. An early montage does an entertaining job of showing us how these two came to be husband and wife in expedited fashion, having met at a bar’s game night. We also soon learn over a discussion with the couple’s fertility doctor concerning Max’s sperm count, that Max gets a lot of stress from competing not just in games, but particularly with his big brother, Brooks.
Kyle Chandler, who many viewers will no doubt remember as Coach Taylor from TV’s Friday Night Lights, co-stars as big brother Brooks in a very different role from the wholesome, mentor/father-figure Taylor. Brooks has always got money, he’s always got another trip planned, he still picks on Max – and the sibling rivalry theme mixed into Night is part of its fun. Also, Chandler isn’t the only Friday Night Lights alumni in the cast. Jesse Plemmons, who co-starred on Lights as the lovable, n’er-do-well Landry, basically steals the show as Gary. This guy is Max and Annie’s next door neighbor. A law enforcement officer whose wife recently left him, Gary is eternally dressed for work – and apparently physically attached to his little white dog, seen in many of the film’s promotional materials. Gary is awkward to the nth degree, without pushing the schtick to the point it’s not funny anymore.
As the trailer teases, the game night that Brooks plans goes in a lot of unexpected, action-packed and funny directions. The beautiful thing about Game is that the trailer does not give it all away. Doesn’t even come close! Further, unlike a lot of comedies recently released, this one does not go too far overboard in any way. It stays within the realm of physics and reality – and does not have the gross-out humor that some movies – Dirty Grandpa comes to mind, regrettably – have resorted to in Act Three, if not throughout. Yes, there’s violence, but that’s definitely justified by Perez’s script, and it’s handled well by directors Daley & Goldstein who worked on the Vacation remake and Horrible Bosses. Incidentally, Daley has a cameo as the trivia emcee early in the film – and you might remember him from another TV show, Freaks & Geeks.
With all these references to comedies and action packed films, it’s a tribute to the producing team, who basically trusted these funny talents to do their thing – in front of and behind the camera. Just like a good suspense novel, Night sets up several unique, intriguing characters, who we’re always excited to return to as this chapter ends and the next one starts. In that respect, Game Night is like a funny, suspenseful page turner because of the other couples involved. There’s Ryan and Sarah who are on their first date. Ryan is part of the game night’s usual crew, and he’s always bringing a different date – but the smart Sarah is definitely his match. Then there’s Kevin and Michelle, who have an awkward wrench thrown in their relationship concerning a possible hookup with a celebrity. And, there’s the bad guys who shift and evolve along with the rest of the story right up to the end.
When considering my comparison to The Hangover and True Lies, I’m sure a lot of reviewers have to worry about over-delivering. But, we here at ronhamprod have no such scruples. I’m saying it loud and proud – go see Game Night. Considering an Oscar season that features awfully deep, dramatic films, I think the Game is well placed. And by the way, if you have that couple or friend that is a game fanatic, always dragging you to trivia night or scheduling the next competition at their place… it’s almost your obligation to take them.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture (2018)
Dir: David Wain
Stars: Will Forte, Domhnall Gleason, Matt Walsh, Emmy Rossum and Joel McHale
This super-fun comedy is available right now on Netflix, and there are several things it has going for it. A Futile and Stupid Gesture concerns the story of the National Lampoon, the infamous printed magazine from the 1970s that some can say was the foundation of some of the 70s and 80s funniest films, not to mention sketch show Saturday Night Live. Mind you, I’m not making these claims – these are suggestions made by the film… And, for the record, the poster here is a riff off of one of Lampoon’s more infamous magazine covers, which involved the same pistol – but a poor little puppy in place of Mr. Forte!
What I like about Futile was its balancing act between truly funny chapters in the Lampoon history, and these heartfelt, dramatic moments where you just wring your hands in frustration for Doug Kenney, the center of the story. Kenney is played by Will Forte, who with his recent roles keeps convincing me he’s one of the more under estimated actors of this generation. For example, one of my main notes of hesitation in seeing Alexander Payne’s superb family drama, Nebraska, was Forte’s inclusion in the lead role. For the record, let me just say – how wrong I was! And, Futile is no exception to this rule. It seems Forte is able to handle both the comedy, which we knew from early on in his career, and the dramatic aspects of the role.
Kenney’s story starts all the way at the beginning, as it does in a lot of “did you know” styled biographical films. But, the inclusion of Martin Mull as his narrator is an example of great, artistic writing design. For those of you who knew Kenney’s story before Futile, you’ll know what I mean. Regardless, it’s also Mull’s charm that lets the film get away with some of its really funny moments, like when they introduce many of the writers for Lampoon. Soon after, they also show us the cast of the radio show, including stars early on in their career like Bill Murray and Gilda Radner. It’s at this moment that Mull enters frame and basically calms the audience down, with a comment similar to, “Oh, you don’t think this guy looks like Bill Murray? Well do you really believe Will Forte is 27 in this scene? As matter of fact, here’s a whole list of other items we changed or altered for screen time and to make this thing more interesting….” And then, a scroll appears onscreen! Long story short – I love the film calling out today’s audience of “fact checkers.” It’s like this comedy is saying, “leave it for politics!”
Finally, Forte’s performance is made easier I think by the immensely talented – and recognizable – cast. In fact, you might say Futile and Stupid is worth a watch just for the fun of playing “who’s that actor?” The movie is so chock full of fun appearances and cameos that it really rolls along.
SPOILER, in summary:
If I had a complaint with the film, I think it’s one we all share and lament – Kenney, like so many other talents in our beloved entertainment industry, left us too early. I wish I could crack the code on how to cheer up the “sad clowns” like Kenney and others like him. Anyhow, I was impressed how the film shows his decline, and sorry to see that some of his friends were actually culpable in his self-destruction. It’s rather rare to have a comedy that makes you laugh – and makes you think the next day, too.
Fun Follow Up:
Also on Netflix is Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, which is a 2015 documentary covering very much the same subject, but with a more formal presentation. Now, Netflix is claiming I’ve seen this film – but I’ve no memory of doing so! However, having seen Futile, I am quite interested to see how the facts and fiction do compare… IMDB – Lampoon Documentary
Darkest Hour (2017)
Dir: Joe Wright
Stars: Gary Oldman, Stephan Dillane, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn and Lily James
With the Academy Award nominations nearly upon us, I feel like it’s a great time to talk about Darkest Hour. There were several aspects of the film I thought played very well, especially on the big screen. And, with Mr. Oldman a shoe-in for a nomination, now is as good a time as ever to see this compelling, entertaining historical drama. There are so many fascinating sub-chapters to WWII history that have been adapted for the big screen, and Darkest Hour certainly deserves insertion amongst these volumes.
When you think about British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, certain characteristics no doubt pop to mind. My first introduction to Mr. Churchill may well have been dining at Churchills on the Queen Mary when I was vacationing with my family back in 1988. There was his image, complete with that genuine, grand-fatherly smile, that subtle little hunch in his posture and that balding head. As I got more interested in history and came to know more about Churchill’s essential part in winning the war in Europe, more of these characteristics entered my perception of this icon. All of which makes Mr. Oldman’s performance a superlative example of biographical portrayals. Everything from the makeup to the posture to the pattern of speech to his costumes transforms the actor we’ve watched all these years into the Prime Minister, the grand lion himself. After a while, I bet you’ll stop looking for the “fat suit” or the makeup – because they’re seamless. Oldman simply is the man.
And, he is the man in May of 1940, a veritable sliver of Churchill’s voluminous history. Part of why the film deserves so much credit, in my estimation, is that it doesn’t bite off more than it can chew. Darkest is not a three and half hour epic that attempts to translate key episodes in the early life of its main character to foreshadow and somewhat explain later chapters. Instead, its thesis is that Churchill and the European theater of WWII shared a “darkest hour” in that month of May 1940. Fair enough – and refreshing to take in a more abbreviated take on an iconic character, even if I was craving more by the end! And it’s by focusing on this limited amount of time that we get some enormously interesting details. For example, I had no idea that Winston had been appointed Prime Minister the same month. For as much political clout as he had, the man was dramatically tossed into a most desperate situation.
The last element that I’ll speak to towards hopefully convincing those of you who haven’t seen Hour to see it in theaters is the phenomenal cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel. The design of the visual scheme most definitely puts you in the period, whether it’s the dust of battles, the harsh, overhead luminescence of the underground wartime offices or the softer glow of Buckingham Palace. Take a look at how different the light feels when Churchill visits with the King compared to when he holds meetings with his wartime cabinet… Also, Delbonnel goes further with a true visual representation of what it must have felt like to be Mr. Churchill in those desperate days. Much like being backed into a corner, totally isolated, most alone in his political views and his social circles, Delbonnel and director Joe Wright take the opportunity several times – without over-doing the effect – to visually illustrate Churchill’s lonely state in those days.
All told, this drama turned left when I thought it was going uphill. Hour kept me on my toes – and gave me the greater, almost patriotic feeling of envy for living under truly great leadership. What with the government shutdown only hours old, perhaps I felt more compelled to draft this entry as counter-programming to some of the stories we’ve seen in the news media as of late. How refreshing would it be if one of our representatives showed up at our workplace, or on the train, the bus or at the grocery? See Darkest Hour to see what I mean…
Final Note: the following day after seeing this title, I had a serious craving for a glass of champagne and a foot long cigar to accompany my breakfast…
The Big Sick (2017)
Dir: Michael Showalter
Stars: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano and Kurt Braunohler
This film is one of the most celebrated independent films of last year, and having seen it, I can tell why. First off, The Big Sick is legitimate “dram-edy” fare. It has that independent quirkiness like Juno or last year’s Don’t Think Twice, but moments that really make you stop, too. Second, it concerns a real comedian baring his soul, which is always a hit with critics and fans alike. Finally, Sick deals with the modern discussion of letting old customs… evolve. Perhaps this discussion is what sets the film apart, which is a credit to Nanjiani and the rest of the cast and crew. Without this comic and his real life wife sharing their story, perhaps it would have been easy to dismiss.
You should recognize star Kumail Nanjiani as soon as he appears on screen. The man has been on Portlandia, Silicon Valley, in the film Central Intelligence among many, many other recent projects. From my viewing of his work, this is Nanjiani’s first foray into drama, which is always exciting to see. See Tom Hanks, Adam Sandler and a host of other traditionally comedic actors who have dipped into drama. In this case, and perhaps it’s because it’s Nanjiani’s own, personal tale, the role is well played and convincing in every essence – both the funny moments and the heart breaking ones. His girlfriend is played by Zoe Kazan, and their chemistry is believable and fun to watch in Act One.
In Act Two, however, the story takes an unexpected turn. Emily (Kazan) discovers Kumail’s cigar box full of Pakistani women, which his dear mother has been trying to set him up with using the family dinner as the meeting place. Kumail thinks nothing of the cigar box because he didn’t ask his mother for these set ups, nor is she very subtle about them. Played by Zenobia Shroff, Kumail’s mom was one of the more difficult characters for me watching Sick. We’ll circle back to that sentiment in a while – the point is, their first major fight comes at a terrible time as Emily is sent to the hospital shortly after for symptoms that are really difficult to describe. The long and short is, the hospital staff informs Kumail – and Emily’s Mom (Holly Hunter) and Dad (Ray Romano) that they are putting her in a coma as the best option.
This “what if” is part of why this little indy works so well! I can only imagine sitting in that waiting room, sharing space with my girlfriend-ish’s parents – who I’ve never met, and who know what a bastard I am from their daughter. From here, the film twists and navigates itself adeptly. Frankly, I don’t want to ruin it for you. There are great, laugh out loud moments, and others that really make you pause – and not simply because it’s the time in the script for a pause like so many other formulaic comedies of the day.
The reason I had difficulty with Kumail’s mom is the third reason Sick works – this dialogue about tradition and when to let certain ones go, and how to let others evolve. I grew up in this country, I don’t have Pakistani roots, which makes it easy to understand how I can’t believe how a parent would simply prescribe the mate for their son or daughter. But, the very title of this entry surrounds this point. Do some parents ex-communicate their children because they don’t marry within their wishes? Apparently so! And I had a real difficulty putting myself in that kind of mindset.
In summary, please watch The Big Sick. It’s a great, crowd-pleasing dram-edy, and it raises thought provoking and relevant social questions. Perhaps a dialogue can start in your house after you watch it about some traditions that need adjustment. At the end of the day, I hope we all can find ways to keep our family close and discuss both sides of whatever conflict there may be. I mean, what a phenomenal theme for a film, eh?
Dir: Bryan Fogel
Stars: Bryan Fogel, Grigory Rodchenkov – and many other real-life characters
I remember listening to sports radio years ago – I think it was Dan Patrick, but don’t quote me – and there had been a poll of Olympic athletes. I paraphrase as I say the survey question was something to the effect of, “Would you, as an Olympian, prefer to win the Gold Medal – with the understanding you would therefore surely die by age 40 – or take Silver, and live life indefinitely…?” And the results were something overwhelmingly positive, as in 80% GOLD to 20% Silver/Live Indefinitely… So, I’ve felt for years that I am built very differently – both physically and mentally – from Olympians.
This anecdote is related to Netflix’s documentary film Icarus, which had its first success at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. As documentary films go, Icarus stands as one of the tallest in my humble opinion. The non-fiction story is impressive, as is often the case when watching this genre. But, what makes Icarus so exceptional is the way the filmmakers follow along its unexpected ride. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I mean that the movie does not start where it ends in any respect. The fact the filmmakers navigated the twists and turns of the narrative in real time, as it was playing out is a tribute to their production skill – and mettle as human beings.
Let me start at the beginning. The point of the film as it begins is for professional cyclist Bryan Fogel to gain a better understanding of how Lance Armstrong, and other cyclists like him, have been able to game the system so easily. He wants to experiment with steroids, and see how much better his performance goes from one year in competing in the Tour of Switzerland compared to the next. You’ll surely get an insight to Brian’s competitive nature when you see where he places in the field the first year – without the influence of narcotics. Anyhow, we begin this journey with Brian in the same boat – just like a scientific experiment, we’re going to state a hypothesis, run a control test and then compare that control test with an alternate test to observe and analyze the results.
Well, the whole tale takes a dramatic turn when it turns out the very advisor Fogel hires is none other than Grigory Rodchenkov, who happens to be far up in the Russian hierarchy of Russian state athletics. Rodchenkov, who is a caricature of a caricature by the way, hops on Skype in his first interaction with Fogel – and he’s got no shirt on. In the same video, he is continually distracted by the family cat, and has no qualms about broadcasting his adoration for the feline as the discussion progresses. The guy is in mis mid 50s. And he is so bizarre and funny that you almost forget you’re watching non-fiction for a moment. The point is, this character is going to advise Fogel on exactly what drugs to take, how to take them (shot to the buttocks or elsewhere, etc) and the dosages, too. We get the feeling right away that this isn’t Rodchenkov’s first rodeo – or whatever the Russian equivalent is to rodeo.
Now, as it turns out, Rodchenkov is the top of the pyramid as far as doping research and execution goes in Russia. He has been responsible for systematically enhancing the performance of Russian athletes – and Olympians in particular – since the 1980s. You might feel as if I’m ruining the film for you, but I promise I’m not. In fact, I’m confident I could relate the entire story to you and it would still be worth watching just how Rodchenkov is able to assist Fogel in his experiment – and how he ultimately becomes the thrust of the entire story. I’m struggling to remember a documentary that so dramatically shifts its focus while only increasing the suspense. Regardless, Rodchenkov has a lot to get off his chest, and Fogel and his filmmaking team deserve massive credit for making the man feel comfortable enough to share his insights and confessions with the world. But, it seems that when you name names and admit to the involvement of the KGB (also known as FSB – let’s just say “Russian Intelligence” to make it crystal clear), the despot Mr. Putin doesn’t take too kindly to it.
As a documentary, Icarus ebbs and flows with an entertaining and thrilling pace. The presentation of new characters, which range from the UCLA doctor in charge of creating the first anti-doping tests, to members of the IOC and WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency), is handled well in that we know who Fogel is talking to and the purpose of the interview. The introduction of Rodchenkov is interesting, then amusing, then appalling – and ultimately a mix of all these emotions and more. The direct involvement of Russian officials all the way to the top of their government, and how Fogel proves the links to the IOC and WADA reminded me of classics like All the President’s Men and the more recent Spotlight. This won’t spoil anything, but the film even references another world event in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine covered here on ronhamprod in the Winter on Fire entry.
The philosophical questions raised by Icarus continue to intrigue me even weeks after seeing the film. For example, from a cycling standpoint, if all of the athletes are on drugs… does that mean the contest is not actually rigged, but in a bizarre way, an even playing field has resulted? From an Olympics standpoint, I don’t see how the organization can rebound from the revelations Icarus presents without a full external audit of how both the IOC and WADA was able to miss such blatant, systematic cheating. Concerning the almost throwaway reference to Chinese steroid production, will that country be next on the list of investigations by IOC and WADA? Are there other countries who have the kind of secrets contained that Rodchenkov just confessed to here?
Lucky for you, dear Reader, Icarus is on Netflix this minute. And, perhaps you saw the news recently that Russia has been banned from the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea in less than 100 days. It’s fascinating to watch when a great film enters the social conversation – particularly when it’s true. As this is the holiday season, let me raise a glass to truth – something we can all drink to.
Last Saturday, November 4, I had the opportunity to attend The Contenders, which is an all day presentation hosted by the trade publication, Deadline. A variety of interviewers welcomed a legion of Hollywood actors, directors, producers, cinematographers, editors and other royalty onto the stage at the Director’s Guild of America on Sunset Boulevard. It’s an exciting, infinitely fun, full day of discussions surrounding this year’s best film offerings. The purpose of this event, now in its seventh year, is to help those voters in the various industry guilds and associations cull down their “short list” of films. And it’s worth noting, the trade pub does the same event in the screen for TV productions.
In an age in which an infinite number of films are released annually, I would think these voters appreciate the day and the effort that Deadline puts forth. This next comment is not a complaint at all, but worth mentioning how jarring it is to have these immense stars on stage, like Gary Oldman, Patty Jenkins and Denzel Washington – and consistently have the moderators and Deadline staff politely say, after only ten or fifteen minutes, “OK! Thanks, now… onto the next panel!”
What follows is a quick commentary on all of the films presented this year – in order of when I arrived that morning… I’m also including the trailer and IMDB links so you can get a real idea of the filmmakers involved. It was an immensely fun, educational and sometimes heartfelt day. This “Part 1” entry will take us through lunch… Enjoy!
Dir: Reginald Hudlin
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad and Kate Hudson
IMDB – Marshall
I arrived that morning in the midst of director Reginald Hudlin’s discussion. But, the little clip I saw, which showcased the film’s score, gave me a great sense of how intricate and accurate the film was in its costumes, sets and design. The interesting element that the moderator discussed as their talk wrapped up, was the inclusion of Trayvon Martin’s parents in the conclusion of the film. Basically, in an effort to make a definitive correlation between the events of Marshall to today’s race relations, the director was able to “call of friend of mine” to have Martin’s parents take the part of Marshall’s next case.
The Big Sick
Dir: Michael Showalter
Stars: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan and Holly Hunter
IMDB – The Big Sick
Let me just say that I’ve seen Mr. Nanjiani in a lot of projects over the past years – and he is just a naturally funny man. He told this story about pitching this idea to, as he said it, “a producer named Judd Apatow? Look him up… he’s done some things.” And the idea was for a “ghost witch.” Apparently, Nanjiani really likes the idea of a witch that dies, and then becomes a ghost.
Well, his wife, who was on stage with him, and Mr. Apatow didn’t like that idea so much. So, Nanjiani shifted into the story of how he and his wife met – and Apatow liked that idea very much. From there, the project continued for three years as Nanjiani, his wife and Apatow worked the script over and over. As they do throughout the day at The Contenders, they showed the clip of when Nanjiani meets Kazan in the bar, and admonishes her for heckling him during his comedy set. Well, this scene is almost identical to how the filmmakers actually met. Some real authenticity achieved!
Dir: Todd Haynes
Stars: Millicent Simmonds, Oakes Fegley and Julieanne Moore
IMDB – Wonderstruck
Cinematographer Edward Lachman talked about Wonderstruck, which frankly, was not a movie I had on my radar prior to last Saturday. He talked a little before they showed a clip from the film about how challenging it was to shoot visuals for the feeling of not being able to hear. Not to mention the fact that director Haynes, who you might remember from the recent film Brooklyn, wanted to give New York city a look of “Mean Streets” and classic 1950s films. Tall order, right?
Well, then they showed the clip. And, I have to say, after watching four minutes of this film, it has moved to my top five to see. I see that Mr. Lachman was responsible for shooting Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey and Erin Brokovich, so… I’m a fan! But I’m fascinated by a film that wants to tackle a silent film star, casts unknown child actors – one of which is actually deaf – and seeks to transform New York city to that 1950s raw look on a budget. I’m really looking forward to seeing Wonderstruck in theaters.
Last Flag Flying
Dir: Richard Linklater
Stars: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne
IMDB – Last Flag Flying
This panel featured director Richard Linklater, who has brought us amazing films in his career. And, it boasts an amazing cast. The clip they showed also hit home, as I can certainly relate with aged folks struggling with today’s technology. In the scene, Fishburne’s character is getting hit from all sides as both Carell and Cranston’s characters, along with the cell phone salesman, try to convince him to get his first mobile device.
With all of that said, I’m still dubious about Flag. I read a lot of social media conversation for work, all of which is related to films and TV shows. The “convo” in clips related to Flag from veterans and those in service say the very plot of the film is suspect. Sure, I’d like to see a road trip film with these iconic actors, but… if, as Linklater says, the film is more about “post 9/11 paranoia” than a legitimate drama featuring veterans and their sons? Concerning my suspicion, I’ve been proven wrong before!
Dir: Greta Gerwig
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Lucas Hedges and Beanie Feldstein
IMDB – Lady Bird
First off… you’re wondering, I was wondering, so let me just spell it out for you. It’s pronounced “SIR-sha,” all right? Ms. Ronan is one talented actor, and I have to say, after her role in Atonement, I will pretty much consider watching anything she’s in, including the very indy minded Lady Bird.
Although the film seems rather Mother-Daughter and “teenage angst” in its themes, and the panel definitely focused on items that were of small interest to me, I suppose I will have to give this A24 title a try. I went to Catholic school, and I know what an effect the themes and norms taught there can have on a youngster. Plus, the clips they showed and the trailer seems to contain some genuine comedy, which nestled within awkward drama always makes for great awards season fodder.
Finally, another random item brought up during the discussion with director Gerwig was Beanie Feldstein’s inclusion in the cast. The relevancy seemed specific to this actor being Jonah Hill’s younger sister. From the IMDB listing, she does not seem to have a substantial role, so this portion of the interview was lost on me. Regardless, I’ll continue to include these kinds of notes to give you a sense of the kind of things discussed on stage at The Contenders.
The Florida Project
Dir: Sean Baker
Stars: Willem Dafoe, Brooklyn Prince and Caleb Landry Jones
IMDB – The Florida Project
Director Baker and co-star, six year old Brooklyn Prince appeared for this panel. As you’ll see when you watch the preview, the story concerns all the less than economically advantaged children who live in the torn up, wretched motels around Disneyworld in central Florida. The writer came across this idea as an amazing juxtaposition, that you have children coming from around the world to visit the “happiest place on earth,” while all the kids who live down the block can’t afford to get in there – although they can see the fireworks every night.
Regardless, I’m really interested to see this film, which seems to have a real mix of hard drama and genuine laughs, all told from the perspective of a little girl. And Brooklyn Prince is incredible. On stage, as she talked, it became easy to understand why Baker cast her. When asked how Mr. Dafoe was on set, Prince said (paraphrased), “Oh, he was great! He would have lunch with me, and then when a scene was um… ready to go… he would tell everyone to give me space so I could think about it and… yeah, he was great.”
Let me put it this way – Baker said he was looking for a modern take on the classic shorts, “The Little Rascals.” And the clips they showed certainly suggest the film achieved that kind of camaraderie!
The Disaster Artist
Dir: James Franco
Stars: James Franco, Dave Franco and a LOT of high profile actors…
IMDB – The Disaster Artist
Years ago, I specifically remember seeing an outdoor ad for The Room, which is widely considered one of the “best worst movies” ever made. For context, the ad I’m describing said something like, “Tennessee Williams level drama” in its copy. Tommy Wiseau, the film’s director, is a superbly eccentric actor/producer/director/fill-in-the-blank, whose pal wrote a book all about Wiseau’s feature, The Room. In one of the most engaging discussions of last Saturday 11/4, director James Franco did a great job articulating how the material spoke to him.
I recently saw one of Marlon Brando’s interviews from late night TV on YouTube, and I bring it up only because I think it speaks to Franco’s feeling that Wiseau was on to something. Big or small, with an immense budget or micro, you have to keep the very essence of “making movies” in perspective. I also think playing the character appealed to Franco, as his immediate, on demand imitations of “Tommy” were entertaining to watch.
Finally, it was fascinating watching panels where, like Artist, the material just spoke to the actor and/or director. Other times, as I’ll try to call out, the talent had no intention of getting involved – before that “thing” happened. With Disaster, Franco just knew he had to make the film. Obviously, a very unique film has resulted.
The Phantom Thread
Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis
IMDB – The Phantom Thread
This film will allegedly be icon Daniel Day-Lewis’ last. OK! Moving on…
This film had not really grabbed me prior to last Saturday. I was certainly aware of it as it came out earlier this fall. But, part of the fun of The Contenders is the “did you know” moment, of which there are many. For Victoria, it was explained that this is indeed a true story, and the British royal family tried with great determination to get it suppressed. So, in a funny way, it was character Abdul Karim’s family that actually brought the story to the public eye. I’m a big fan of director Stephen Frears, and I expect Victoria & Abdul is a superb addition to his filmography.
Dir: Joe Wright
Stars: Gary Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn and Lily James
IMDB – Darkest Hour
The clip shown at The Contenders for Darkest Hour was.. intimidating. It featured Stephen Dillane’s character advising Mr. Churchill to, well, surrender to Hitler. The advise given was essentially that surrender and reasoning with the tyrant was preferable to total annihilation. I get a little emotional even now when I think of Gary Oldman as the heroic figure and his reaction to this suggestion. Let me just add that the applause for this clip was some of the loudest and longest-lasting of the day. It was special seeing Gary Oldman himself in person talking about the role and his experience playing Churchill.
I adore those roles, whether they are recognized with awards or not, in which the actor just sinks into the character in all respects. Physically, mentally, emotionally, you can not recognize the actor, only their character. I think Darkest Hour contains that performance, which is the latest in an impressive career for Mr. Oldman. He discussed the idea that attracted him to the film was playing the “larger than life” prime minister in all his humanity. In a career that spanned from the disaster of Gallipoli to the ultimate triumph over the Nazis, Oldman wanted to explore the “naughty schoolboy” in all his vitality, beyond what’s covered in the history books.
Dir: Jordan Peele
Stars: Daniel Kaluuya , Allison Williams and Bradley Whitford
IMDB – Get Out
Just a quick FYI that Get Out is no longer a horror film – as of “Awards Season”, it is now being re-branded as a “Psychological Thriller.” The only representative from the film, Jordan Peele wanted to discuss the “suppression of the race conversation” in this, his directorial debut. In fact, he explained on his panel that he asked himself whether or not there might be riots on opening weekend. If you have not seen Get Out yet, it is one of the best reviewed films of the year thus far.
Dir: Kathryn Bigelow
Stars: Algee Smith, Will Poulter and John Boyega
IMDB – Detroit
In case you missed Detroit this summer, the good news is that Annapurna will be re-releasing the film on December 1 in theaters. And, the film sent its best cast and crew to this panel, including director Bigelow and composer from Jimmy Fallon’s late night show, Questlove. It was an interesting panel, but I feel like viewers should be warned that this film, based on true events, is a really emotional, challenging watch from the same director as Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker.
Dir: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy
IMDB – Dunkirk
I truly enjoyed the Dunkirk panel, which featured producer and longtime Nolan collaborator, Emma Thomas, and director of photography, Hoyte van Hoytema. I never knew that Thomas is Nolan’s wife, and you would never know it unless she had said so. What was fun about the panel was watching these two filmmakers discuss, despite the challenges, how fun it was to make Dunkirk. And remember, this is a film whose script is around 80 pages, and was intended as a silent film.
This statement concerning the fun involved obviously took me by surprise – and should shock anyone who’s seen the film. But, the dedication to the story offset any and all weather challenges the film’s set endured, which were considerable. There was a goodly amount of footage of Hoytema, who is a big fella, hoisting around a 70mm camera rig in the breaks of the French beach at Dunkirk. They advised the “mole” set was destroyed and had to be rebuilt. And yet, nothing would douse that “Dunkirk Spirit.”
Dir: Patty Jenkins
Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine and Robin Wright
IMDB – Wonder Woman
I am almost ashamed to say I still haven’t seen this fantastic title from last summer. Feel free to lay it on me, I deserve it! Regardless, director Patty Jenkins was the sole rep sent for the film, and I think based on the Contenders’ audience reaction, it’s likely she will be nominated for director.
Recognition aside, Jenkins had some items to share that would hit home for any filmmaker. For example, she started working on the film way back after film Monster wrapped! Part of the reason she loved the idea of a Wonder Woman movie so much was that it was an homage to Richard Donner’s Superman, which is also a complex character told within the context of a very direct plot line.
The behind the scenes footage they showed contained a lot of video of Jenkins actually acting out what she wanted – which was both endearing and in some respects, funny. Another fascinating tidbit was that she did not have a say in the casting of the title character because Gadot was already in Batman v Superman! However.. she had no argument when she saw the footage.
Blade Runner 2049
Dir: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford and Sylvia Hoeks
IMDB – Blade Runner 2049
I am further ashamed that I have not posted my comments and thoughts on this sequel just yet. But, no time to think of that when the director himself, Denis Villeneuve is on stage. When asked about the pressure he was under to make a great 2049, he said that the original film was his first VHS, the first film he actually owned. As if that didn’t give us enough of an idea as to this “dream come true,” opportunity, he then says, and I paraphrase, “And Ridley’s basic comment to me was, don’t f*ck it up.”
Like so many of the super talented filmmakers on 11/4, Villeneuve added his voice to the list who feels that the script simply must speak to them. And, the 2049 script not only connected well to the original, but also informed the intricate effects and that feeling throughout of the winter season. He also got into how complex the sets and design were to work through from pre-production to the editing – and I think anyone who’s seen the film can agree that effort was worth it.
I just can’t wait to see this one. Anyone who knows my blog knows I love crime thrillers, and Three Billboards looks to be one of the best in recent memory. Both director McDonagh and co-star Sam Rockwell were on stage, and they did a funny little thing. When McDonagh called Rockwell one of the best actors of his generation, Rockwell patted his shoulder, got out his wallet, and stuffed some cash in the director’s coat. And, when Rockwell gave his director equal praise, he returned Rockwell’s money. Funny stuff…
The film clip showed indicates that the film has some real levity in between its serious subject line – not to mention another tour-de-force performance from Ms. McDormand. Woody Harrelson and Rockwell as small town law enforcement? John Hawkes in another deep-dive, cringe-worthy violent, salt of the earth role? Peter Dinklage playing pool? I’m all in!
The Shape of Water
Dir: Guillermo del Toro
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon and Richard Jenkins
IMDB – The Shape of Water
I had seen interviews and read articles about del Toro – but seeing and hearing him in person is another affair all together. The man is eccentric, passionate and contagious – all in a good way. He spent years of his life on this latest effort, and the clips shown by Fox Searchlight gave me every indication that Shape must be seen on the big screen – like I should have seen Pan’s Labyrinth.
Del Toro said a few things that confused me, but a lot of things I liked. For example, whenever there’s a budget shortage, he invests his own money into the problem to make a solution. He insists that he knows his audience in that, if we don’t believe it for even a couple seconds… he’s lost us! Del Toro went on to say that he spent the most time developing the creature for Shape because this “monster” is paramount to the story, its themes and moments. Essentially, it all works or falls with the believability of the creature. And, I always think it’s interesting when a writer/director makes a part for someone, and then actually gets that actor, in this case Sally Hawkins. Another “can’t wait” status for this title…
…and then, we had lunch! Kudos to Deadline and their staff for not only the day’s management and composure, but also the delicious lunch.
We’ll take a break too for now – look for Part 2 very soon…