Film Review: “Human Capital”

HUMAN CAPITAL
Starring: Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, Marisa Tomei, Maya Hawke, Alex Wolff
Directed by: Marc Meyers
Not Rated
Running Time: 95 mins.
Vertical Entertainment

An academic awards dinner serves as a turning point for multiple families when a hit and run accident leaves one of its wait staff dead in Marc Meyers’s Human Capital. The film boasts a solid cast lead by Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard and Marisa Tomei but its rigid structuring choices throw the film off balance as it delves ever deeper into the melodramatic. The resolution to its mystery proves murky and is not quite given enough space to breathe before the film’s conclusion.

Director Meyers and screenwriter Oren Moverman (adapting a novel by Stephen Amidon) split the film up in such a way that the pivotal day of the dinner leading up to the murder is shown through the lens of three characters played by Liev Schreiber, Marisa Tomei and Maya Hawke. It’s the multi-POV strategy we’ve seen with films such as Crash, but on a smaller scale. The trouble with these rigid thirds is that while they all are sort of negotiating with varying degrees of class inequality and value in humanity over money, they don’t quite convalesce in a meaningful way. Largely they depend on leaden dialogue to hit you over the head with each character arc’s Central Theme before we shift to the next one.

Unfortunately I found the first arc, that of Schreiber’s Drew, to be the most compelling of the three stories. His character figures largest into the characters who felt most genuine–his daughter Shannon (Hawke) and his pregnant wife Ronnie (Betty Gabriel, “Get Out”). Schreiber is also easily relatable as a man woefully out of his depth when trying to make a big deal with Sarsgaard’s slimy hedge fund manager Quint. While the film is in no way interested in clarifying the economics at play, Schreiber’s everyman persona makes up for it in his desperate reactions. I felt more interested in the fallout of his bad decisions than I did in getting to crux of the car accident plot.

Beyond Schreiber the film severely underserves the remainder of the cast. I found little to care about in Tomei and Sarsgaard’s relationship. They’re constantly sniping at each other and no doubt trying to hammer home that money can’t buy happiness. Tomei is eventually driven into the arms of a colleague played by Paul Sparks. Usually Sparks is a welcome addition but here it feels like he’s retreading the role he had during his tenure on “House of Cards.” Meanwhile, Aasif Mandvi is a sneering Wall Street bro sidekick to Sarsgaard and feels straight out of an 80’s movie. Eventually the film turns itself over to exciting newcomers Hawke and Alex Wolff (“Hereditary”) but again, their romance and how it all ties into the central mystery drags and feels like it’s trying to throw even more big social themes into the mix in the rush to the finish.

Human Capital is currently available on VOD

Film Review: “Feedback”

FEEDBACK
Starring: Eddie Marsan, Paul Anderson, Ivana Baquero
Directed By: Pedro C. Alonso
Not Rated
Running Time 98 min
Blue Fox Entertainment

A London radio station transforms into a pressure cooker when a late night host is held captive in his own recording studio. What starts as a not-wholly-unexpected hostage situation for the controversial host quickly reveals the thugs have more personal than political reasons for their chosen target. Director Pedro Alonso’s Feedback, which is now out on VOD and releases February 18th on DVD, is a tightly orchestrated thriller that hinges on a strong leading performance from Eddie Marsan despite a questionable point of view. 

Dolan Jarvis (Marsan) has been attacked before. Anchoring a late night radio show called “Grim Reality” where he rages on all things political (Brexit, Russian election tampering, et al), he isn’t as shaken as the average person returning to work after having been attacked by angry listeners. That said, his producer (Anthony Head) is still angling to force a co-host on him in the form of rocker Andrew Wilde (Paul Anderson, “Peaky Blinders”). As he starts his usual broadcast, a group of masked thugs trap Jarvis in his studio and threaten him to stick to their exact script when Wilde arrives. At first Jarvis balks but he gets on board when he realizes his daughter, who also happens to be in the radio offices that night, as well as his young studio technicians are threatened as well.

What should be a limiting contrivance–holding all action captive in a recording space–is actually one of the film’s strengths. Alonso goes a long way to making sure that the viewers feel Jarvis’s claustrophobia as his assailants bear down on him. The pristine studio also makes for a good visual contrast with the acts of violence. Then in the latter stages of the film, he keeps throwing Marsan further into situations where he feels more and more like a rat in a maze. It’s highly stressful and highly effective.

Marsan meanwhile as the victim gains a lot of sympathy when he’s first caught that pays off in dividends for the film. Alonso pulls a bit of a switcheroo by firmly placing the audience on Jarvis’s team so to speak before the ostensible villains of the piece get him and Wilde to expose more of their past digressions on air. If it weren’t for Marsan and Anderson’s respective charisma, I think this film would have run a real risk of losing viewers completely when all is said and done. Your mileage may vary, but despite where the film takes the characters, it still delivers several gasp-inducing thrills and is worthwhile for Marsan’s performance.

Joker, 1917 and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood Lead Winners for the 9th Annual Media Mikes Awards

Now that the Oscars dust has settled, it’s time to take a look at how we here at Media Mikes, readers and writers alike, voted for our top cinematic achievements of 2019 in our 9th Annual Media Mikes Awards

“Joker,” Todd Phillips’s dark look at the origins of Batman’s greatest enemy, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino’s fable about the summer of 1969 and Sam Mendes’s enthralling WWI drama, “1917”, topped our lists with two awards each.

“Hollywood” took home the big prize as the year’s Best Picture and also nabbed Best Supporting Actor award for Brad Pitt. “Joker” earned wins for Joaquin Phoenix as Best Actor as well as Best Original Score, written and composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir. “1917” earned the award for Best Director for Sam Mendes and was also recognized for its cinematography by the legendary Roger Deakins.

Additional winners included Reneé Zellwegger as Best Actress for her portrayal of Judy Garland in “Judy” and Scarlett Johansson as Best Supporting Actress for her work in “JoJo Rabbit.”

“Toy Story 4” was chosen as the year’s Best Animated Feature.

This year saw more than 3,000 readers submit their choices in the seven top categories, check out the complete list of our winners below

Reader Voted Awards Went to…

Best Picture – “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”
Best Director – Sam Mendes, “1917”
Best Actor – Joaquin Phoenix, “Joker”
Best Actress – Renee Zellweger, “Judy”
Best Supporting Actress – Scarlett Johansson, “Jojo Rabbit”
Best Supporting Actor – “Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”
Best Animated Feature – “Toy Story 4”

Awards chosen by our Media Mikes writers went to…

Best Original Screenplay – Bong Joon Ho and Han Jin Won, “Parasite”
Best Adapted Screenplay – Greta Gerwig, “Little Women”
Best Documentary Feature – “David Crosby: Remember my Name”
Best Cinematography – Roger Deakins, “1917”
Best Original Score – Hildur Guðnadóttir, “Joker”

Composer John Williams, who recently earned his 52nd Academy Award nomination, was name the recipient of this years Media Mikes Lifetime Achievement Award.

Congratulations to the winners and thank you to everyone who voted!

Film Review: “Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

BIRDS OF PREY
Starring: Margot Robbie, Ewan McGregor, Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ella Jay Basco
Directed By: Cathy Yan
Rated: R
Running Time: 109 mins.
Warner Brothers

After a major breakup, one Harley Quinn is down in the dumps. But dammit if she’s not going to lift herself out of it and take audiences along for the ride. And what a wild ride it is. Cathy Yan and producer/Harley herself, Margot Robbie deliver a creative, intense and above all, fun burst of action that really couldn’t be better placed on the calendar than right before Valentine’s Day. Grab your favorite colorful candy, your friends, your pet hyenas (just not any shitty exes) and go.

For those unfamiliar with Ms Quinn, director Yan opens with a helpful primer without  having to look at a single frame of Suicide Squad. HQ was a brilliant med student-turned-psychiatrist-turned-lover of the Joker, her former patient. It was a position that allowed her to get away with murder, possibly literally. No one was crossing the Clown Prince of Crime. Unfortunately for her, it was also a subjugated position. Her schemes weren’t appreciated when they succeeded, she was abused and taken for granted. Yan doesn’t go into the particulars of the breakup and blessedly doesn’t bring Jared Leto or any other iteration of “Mr. J” in here—because he’s besides the point—but Harley is a bit of a mess as a result. She’s already dealing with an identity crisis when a crime lord named Roman Sionis (McGregor) places a bounty on the young girl that Harley herself is meant to be delivering to him in 24 hours, on pain of death. 

If the above has you questioning where the “Birds of Prey” from the title come in, you would be right, but I’d also wonder if you watched a single trailer for this movie. This is very much the Harley show. Her teammates come in gradually—Black Canary (Smolett-Bell) first and most prominently, followed by police officer Renee Montoya (Perez) and Huntress (Winstead). They all have their own grievances with Roman. The good news is, Harley cheerfully gets you up to speed on their backstories as they join the party. Meanwhile the actresses truly make the most of their limited screen time. Winstead in particular sells an assassin who is as fierce in battle as she is socially awkward. I mean, if all you do is train for vengeance, yeah, you might not be great with new friends.

The person who gets the most time to balance out Harley’s zaniness with his own brand of ham is Ewan McGregor as Roman, aka The Black Mask. He and main enforcer, Mr. Zsasz (Chris Messina) are operating on their own levels of strange and flamboyant and I was into it. Again, he could have even gone for more over the top as far as I’m concerned, but his finale left me more than satisfied. Above all, if the worst I can say about this movie is I wanted more and not less in a time where bloated two and a half hour runtimes are the norm (sorry, Aquaman!) that’s not a bad thing.

Finally not to mix up my IPs or anything, but as this movie unfurled, I actually thought of Disney Imagineers. As it goes, they’re encouraged to “plus” their rides and attractions–a phrase they use when taking a solid idea and ramping it up with “what if?” possibilities. Every action sequence in Birds of Prey feels like it’s been plussed. It’s not enough that the stunt work be impeccable but what if everyone also dressed fantastic? Or what if a gunfight takes place among rainbow smoke bombs? Turn on some sprinklers while you’re at it! Have a climax in a carnival. The result is a film that feels like a comic book in the best of ways.

Going into the new year, I was majorly psyched for the trifecta of big name female-led superhero movies we have coming our way. Birds of Prey just blew the doors off 2020 and raised the shiny, glittery bar. Bring on Natasha and Diana.

Film Review: “Little Women”

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet, Eliza Scanlen
Directed By: Greta Gerwig
Rated: PG
Running Time: 135mins
Sony Pictures

Little Women has been adapted to the screen a dozen times, so approaching it hot off of her acclaimed Lady Bird, it appears writer-director Greta Gerwig decided to adhere to its own Amy March’s strict standards: “to be great or nothing” Which is to say, Gerwig’s telling is pretty great. Emphasis on the pretty. Her ensemble cast, lead by Lady Bird alum Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh (“Midsommar”), brings a fresh take to Louisa May Alcott’s iconic characters amidst an absolutely gorgeously mounted production. This adaptation of Alcott’s tale of a quartet of sisters finding their way in Civil War era New England feels both classic and vividly relevant to today.

Full disclosure time–I haven’t read Alcott’s novel. Like many kids of the 90s my introduction to the March family was with 1994’s release starring Winona Ryder and Christian  Bale. It so fit into 90s cozy family fare that it came to vhs in one of those big puffy plastic boxes like Disney cartoons. This isn’t a slight against it, I love that version. But it did make me wary that I would be plodding through some well worn territory. Happily, Ms Gerwig flips the script by shirking a linear adaptation. Instead we follow our heroine Jo March (Ronan) from the point at which she’s already pitching her life story at a New York publisher, and then we go winding back and forth through her adolescence in New England. This approach gives the tales of the March’s idyllic family history a warm veneer of nostalgia, which actually feels a more honest way to see it.

Additionally, with Jo as our primary entry point into Marches, Gerwig’s update places a greater emphasis on the sisterly bonds than their romantic entanglements. Timothee Chalamet does well as Laurie–taking over from Bale as the mischievous neighbor boy who pursues both Jo and eventually Amy (Pugh)–but for this 2019 version, he rightly takes a back seat in screen time to, for example, Jo’s bond with her ailing sister Beth (Scanlen).            

This treatment especially benefits the oft-maligned Amy March. In 1994 the duties of the youngest March were shared between a very childish Kirsten Dunst and a very cold Samantha Mathis but here Florence Pugh effortlessly takes her from tween to adulthood. Pugh is having an amazing year, from her breakthrough leading role in Fighting with My Family to a wrenching performance in Ari Aster’s Midsommar, she is exhibiting an incredible range that she flexes even more as Amy. In this non-linear telling, Amy has the advantage of being introduced not as a clingy youngest sibling, but as the aspiring artist studying in Paris. Her childhood crimes (which are numerous and feature Pugh for the second time this year participating in arson) are more readily forgiven through an adult lens whereas when they were previously presented in “real time”, she was a little monster. Meanwhile, though Pugh is given aging assistance via wardrobe decisions and some well-deployed bangs, it is her performance, her entire bearing and pitch of her voice that fully sells Amy’s growth. It’s a special performance that I am hoping will be recognized this awards season since, if Hereditary’s snubbing last year is any indication, Academy voters might not have the stomach for Midsommar. But I digress. 

Supporting all these sparkling performances, Gerwig’s production radiates warmth and beauty. She gives us a screenplay that lets the March clan talk all over each other like a living, breathing family, costumes and settings that frequently look like they could be paintings and underscores it all with yet another winning score from Alexandre Desplat (“The Shape of Water”). It is a lovely holiday gift of a film.  

Film Review: “The Two Popes”

Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujin
Directed By: Fernando Meirelles
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 126mins
Netflix

In 2013, the Catholic church faced a prospect it had not dealt with in 600 years when Pope Benedict XVI decided to step down as head of the Catholic Church. Jorge Mario Bergoglio was named as his successor, taking the title of Pope Francis. The official reason Benedict gave was declining health but he also did so in the face of mounting progressive movements among the global congregation as well as the rampant allegations of sexual abuse from clergy. In Netflix’s new film, The Two Popes, writer Anthony McCarten (“Darkest Hour”) stages an imagined meeting of the minds between Benedict and Bergoglio before this changing of the guard. Each of the men having crises of faith and trying to convince the other to keep or take on the title, respectively. Fortunately for director Fernando Meirelles, acting legends Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce stepped in to play these two. Unfortunately for viewers, their discussions do not dominate the entire film as you might hope nor do those talks address the church scandals in a meaningful way. That Meirelles’s film manages to tread through such tonally rocky terrain without more of an issue is down to great performances from Pryce and Hopkins.

Meirelles’s film opens amidst the death of Pope John Paul II and the ensuing 2005 papal conclave. The highly secretive process requires a super majority of the cardinals convening in Rome to elect a new pope. Publicly it was a spectacle in which crowds gathered in St Peter’s Square in eager anticipation of seeing white smoke to signal that choice had been made. The interior specifics of this conclave were under official oaths of secrecy. The film brings this all to vivid life within a recreation of the Vatican and introduces Bergoglio (Pryce) and Ratzinger (Hopkins) as opposing roads for the church to take at this crucial moment in time. Ratzinger is the more conservative of the two and glad-hands the other attendees like a politician while Bergoglio downplays talk from his peers who insist he is also a favorite. Ratzinger, redubbed Benedict, wins the votes. 

Anthony McCarten’s script is based on his own stage play of this story and the best parts of this film felt like a stage production. The film easily moves from the spectacle of the conclave to the intimate summit between Hopkins and Pryce with Bergoglio seeking to tender his resignation from a Benedict who refuses to grant the request. Hopkins plays Benedict here with an air of mischief that lifts all their interactions. Bergoglio is pressing Benedict with his sincere desire to leave while Benedict brushes him off and inconveniences him at every turn. Their dialogue is also peppered with charming little old man moments. Bergoglio being the more “in touch” of the two brings both ABBA and the Beatles into the discussion for example. But once the gravity of Benedict wanting to leave takes priority–he speaks of losing touch with the voice of god–and Bergoglio’s reluctance has to be supported by how he got to where he is, the film drags. As interesting as it is and as capable an actor Juan Minujín is at playing the younger version of Pryce in war torn Argentina, it shifts the focus of the film down in taking it entirely through his past.

It’s also jarring to have the two old men watching the World Cup as though they’re in a set up from Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip while literally dropping out the audio of Benedict confessing regarding the abuse scandal later in the film. Such a jarring decision when we’ve already seen a lot of Bergoglio’s rough past, made me wonder if they knew acknowledging this darkness was a bridge too far in tone, your mileage may vary. Either way, I was grateful to see these two acting legends share the screen as much as they did.  

The Two Popes is now streaming on Netflix

Film Review: “Little Joe”

LITTLE JOE
Starring: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Kit Connor
Directed By: Jessica Hausner
Rated: Not Rated
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Magnolia Pictures 

Due to the prominence of Little Shop of Horrors‘ famous “Audrey II” in pop culture, it makes sense that I approached Little Joe–the titular blossom in Jessica Hausner’s new feature, named after its lead’s young son–somewhat warily. After all, naming that unnatural plant after its owner’s closest loved one didn’t quite work out for Seymour, did it? Both the plant and the feature Little Joe are not quite the bombastic spectacle as that man-eater, but they offer a few creepy elements of their own. Part sci-fi, part social commentary and with hints of horror, Hausner’s film is visually arresting but its many thematic seedlings never fully take root.  

Alice (Emily Beecham) works in an advanced plant breeding lab, where she has just made a breakthrough in engineering: a plant that is meant to boost its keepers happiness just by breathing in its presence. This antidepressant alternative, which Alice dubs “Little Joe” after her son, sounds promising but Alice’s coworkers remain suspicious. Particularly after the Little Joes causes “his” planted neighbors to wilt. Alice’s only supporter appears to be Chris (Ben Whishaw) who’s anxious for Alice to come out for a drink with him. The first red flag comes in the form of fellow scientist, Bella’s (Kerry Fox) dog running rampant in the lab after encountering the new plant. His owner was already in opposition to Alice’s work and even more so after she becomes adamant that his encounter made the dog “not himself.” Despite this, Alice has a seedling of her own currently potted in the home she sometimes shares with her son (she is divorced), the human Joe. 

As you can imagine, suddenly Joe isn’t exactly himself either. The trouble with the film comes in how it never really commits to how malevolent Little Joe is meant to be. In some of those encountered they do gain a sort of vapid air of cheerfulness. In others, their entire personalities take hard turns. Human Joe suddenly does want to move out to live with his father while the lovelorn Chris gets more aggressive in his overtures to Alice. At times it seems to lean into critiquing what exactly is true happiness–if you’re only happy on a drug, does it count and does it matter? At the same time though, Hausner introduces this angle of the plant wanting to multiply via its human hosts and a whole lot of movie pseudo-science. A sort of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. But it’s an extreme it only really goes to in one tense sequence with Fox’s character trapped in Little Joe’s greenhouse. 

If there’s one thing that’s consistent, it’s Hausner’s overall grip on the film’s visual design.  Production designer’s Katharina Woppermann beautiful pastel palette complements Beecham’s overall aloof demeanor well from her sterile labs to her small home. Little Joe’s flower with its vibrant puffs of blood red pollen is also fittingly ominous. Meanwhile Hausner’s camera never quite stays still, even roving slowly through the quietest of conversations to keep viewers just a little on edge throughout. It’s unfortunate however that the visual team’s work is frequently undermined by a jarring score of loud clashing sounds. Again, the score is telling me horror film, but Hausner isn’t giving me enough to support it.

Overall, like a botanical garden, Little Joe is something I admired in a slow meandering sort of way for its beauty and craftsmanship more than any sort of emotional connection. 

NYCC 2019: Hulu’s Castle Rock

The cast of Hulu’s Castle Rock at MSG during New York Comic Con

Just in time for Halloween, Hulu is ready to invite viewers back to the not-so-sleepy town of Castle Rock. The fictional Maine location may sound familiar to even casual horror fans, as it features across the many works of Stephen King. To celebrate the launch of season 2, the cast of the anthology series joined fans at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden for a screening of the premiere episode at this year’s New York Comic Con.

The highlight of the premiere was the debut of Lizzy Caplan as “Stephen King’s nurse from hell” Annie Wilkes. Wilkes was the star of King’s Misery where she was willing to go to lethal lengths to get her way from James Caan’s stranded author character. Bates famously won an Academy Award for her performance and if you had asked me if I needed to see more background on her character I may have doubted you until this episode. Caplan channels her own unblinking manic energy and manages to make Wilkes’s “cockadoody” vernacular her very own. As a bonus, she has the wonderful Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade) as a daughter to play off of in this series.

Lizzy Caplan (“Annie Wilkes”) and Elsie Fisher (“Joy Wilkes”

While I won’t go into spoilers for the show, suffice to say there was at least one jaw dropping scene that made checking the show out in the massive NYCC audience incredibly satisfying.

Head over to our NYCC Facebook album to see even more photos from the panel which also featured Shawshank Redemption alum Tim Robbins

Tim Robbins (“Pop Merrill”)

Castle Rock season 2 is available on Hulu starting October 23rd.

Film Review: Jojo Rabbit

Starring: Roman Griffin Davis, Taika Waititi, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell
Directed by: Taika Waititi
Rated: PG 13 
Running Time: 108 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

I don’t know how a movie featuring an imaginary Adolf Hitler managed to be one of the most heartwarming films of the year…but it’s 2019 and every day actual reality gets more ludicrous, so that sounds about right. Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is a masterful satire that nails its tone with a kind of supernatural precision that most filmmakers can only dream of and a story still more wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.

Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a small boy who lives with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) in a village in WWII Germany. His only ambition is to fight for Hitler just like his absent father. Lacking any real warfront nearby and too young to be conscripted, Jojo instead joins up with the local division of the Hitler Youth headed by the one-eyed Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell). It’s a lot like boy scouts if all the participants were extremely racist and whose bonfires consisted of banned books. Jojo plays tough but gains his titular nickname when the older scouts test how murderous Jojo actually is and the kid fails to kill a bunny in front of the everyone.

Jojo is not only disappointed with himself but he’s royally failing Hitler! Specifically the imaginary Fuhrer, played by Waititi himself, who follows Jojo around and goads on Jojo’s tough guy persona. To be clear, Waititi isn’t actually playing Hitler (in fact when asked about ‘researching’ his portrayal, the director says he didn’t because that guy was “a fucking cunt.” Yep.) Instead, he is playing an icon to a child, which is an entirely different prospect. In Taika’s take just about the scariest thing about him is the unnatural blue contacts. He’s a playground bully who spouts back all the vile lies about Jewish people the boy’s troop leaders are trying to drill into him. Jojo’s whole bubble is popped when he finds an actual living Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in his mother’s attic.

With McKenzie’s arrival, the film begins to become something much more than the riotous comedy that Waititi achieves in laying out Jojo’s life in the scouts. (Although if this film had only given me a burnt out Sam Rockwell demonstrating deadly weapons to a group of small children, I would have still considered it a cinematic gift, but I digress.) No, rather than being fearful, Elsa leans hard into the gross mythos the Nazis are spreading about her people in order to intimidate the young Jojo. It’s one thing to tell a ten year old that Elsa is a demon, entirely another to ask him not to then be terrified when faced with her one on one. Their bond is the heart of the film and McKenzie wields what small power she has over Jojo with ferocity while Jojo steadily moves from fear into fascination and maybe even friendship. Mckenzie’s is a stunning performance that has me more excited to see her in Edgar Wright’s next feature. As for Davis, putting the weight of this movie on the ten year old is thematically fitting but a huge risk. However just like Hunt for The Wilderpeople’s Julian Dennison, Waititi’s casting of Davis proves to be spot on. 

Meanwhile these kids are surrounded by the grown actors putting in some truly beautiful work. Sam Rockwell’s one eyed captain is physically out of commission but maybe that’s not the only reason he’s not on the field. Considering there’s nothing remotely straight about him and second-in-command Finkel (Alfie Allen). Scarlett Johansson is fearless as Rosie who lovingly calls Jojo “Shitler” and whose drinking, smiling facade belies her own defiance. After all, her sheltering Elsa is a huge breech of the law. Still Rosie dances, she bike rides and she declares her dinner table neutral Switzerland. Johansson brings genuine depth and warmth to Rosie in both her bonds with Jojo and Elsa.

Jojo meeting Elsa and beginning to encounter the larger world is where Waititi really hits home. Rosie allows Jojo into the Hitler Youth only insofar as she is a single mother and there’s really no alternative daycare. But when face to face with his supposed enemy, Jojo’s whole worldview is challenged.  Hate cannot flourish without ignorance and it’s the ordinary people in this film whose small acts make the larger world better for all. Taika’s crafted a film that’s not only timely but manages to earn tears both from laughter and sadness.

Film Review: “Villains”

VILLAINS
Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Maika Monroe, Jeffrey Donovan & Kyra Sedgwick
Directed By: Dan Berk & Robert Olsen
Rated: R
Running Time: 89 minutes
ALTER

A pair of thieves with dreams of living it up in Florida make a couple of big mistakes during a gas station holdup sending them down a wildly different road in Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s Villains. First, they swear this is their “last job!”—always a no no where movie characters are concerned—and second, they forget to,  you know,  pump their escape car with any of the station’s gas. Thus they find themselves stalled out on the road and scouring the nearest secluded home for anything to help them in their journey. The home they find just so happens to have a small girl shackled in the basement. Suddenly the mission isn’t just for gas for the car but an all out battle with the unsuspecting homeowners. As I said, it’s a much different path than Florida.

Villains grabs you quickly and easily thanks to the charisma of its two leads, Jules and Mickey (Maika Monroe and Bill Skarsgård, respectively). They’re goofy as all get out—we’re introduced to them fumbling through their robbery in rubber animal masks—but it’s so obvious they’re head over heels in love with each other that you just want to root for them. Of course Monroe (It Follows) and Skarsgard (It & It Chapter Two) are no strangers to the suspenseful or violent elements Villains throws at them eventually, but as these two crazy kids they both show off a genuine knack for comedy. I can’t imagine a better time to see Villains than if you’re in need for some comedic relief after a dose of Pennywise.

Now let’s get back to that girl chained up in the basement. Turns out she belongs to the equally tight couple of Gloria and George (Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Donovan), the homeowners who combat Jules and Mickey’s manic energy with nothing but civil hospitality. The thieves are ready to fight their way out of the house with the chained little girl, but George and Gloria disarm them long enough to chat about what’s going on. Donovan in particular revels in George’s southern salesman draaaaaaaaawl to calm everyone down. The unlikely clash of these couples is strongly supported by candy colored production design and a nifty musical score that keeps the proceedings tonally in sync until very near the end of the film. The resolution of the wildcard chained child isn’t quite as much fun as how we got there, but with a runtime just shy of 90 minutes, it’s hardly an issue.

The fun of this Villains is all down to the perfect casting. The couples are equally unhinged but operating by their own internal logic while being totally devoted to their partners. Mickey and Jules are like excitable puppies in their eagerness to please each other while George keeps up a veneer of civility even though it’s clear that Gloria is way out of touch with reality. Sedgwick too puts in a delightfully bonkers turn as Gloria that includes a striptease for Mickey. Everyone is chewing so much scenery it’s a wonder anyone has room for Gloria’s shepherd’s pie.

Film Review: “Official Secrets”

Starring: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode and Ralph Fiennes
Directed By: Gavin Hood
Rated: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
IFC Films

At just 29 years old, British translator Katharine Gun became the center of UK headlines when she leaked a memo from her job at the Government Communications Headquarters to UK publication, The Observer. The memo detailed a plot between the US and UK to illegally strong arm smaller UN member countries into signing off on the ill-fated war in Iraq. When she admitted to as much, Gun spent nearly a year before being formally charged under the Official Secrets Act of 1989. Meanwhile the US and UK invaded Iraq despite lacking the support of the nations in the memo. The film adaptation of this case as directed by Gavin Hood is a well crafted political thriller driven by a top notch performance from Keira Knightley.

I had concerns going into this film that it would play out like so many Newspaper Movies (as brilliantly parodied by Seth Meyers and Co, in case you missed it) and I wasn’t entirely wrong. The hallmarks of that trope are all still here –Phone Acting, clandestine meetings on benches, the obstinate paper editor–fortunately they’re performed by a charismatic ensemble led by Matt Smith, Matthew Goode and a very shouty Rhys Ifans. As the film goes on it adds additional strong players to the field with the likes of Tamsin Grieg and Ralph Fiennes when the legal drama starts to ramp up.

More importantly though is that all those subplots and their cliches take a back seat to Keira Knightley’s tightly wound performance. As Gun, she is resolute but not without fear. Some of the most thrilling sequences of Hood’s film come as the enormity of Gun’s act bears down on the wide-eyed Knightley and she realizes how much she has at risk by forging ahead. Having an immigrant husband in Gun’s situation as she does, for example, truly raises the stakes when contending with the government. Often Hood makes some smart choices to elevate Gun’s bravery by highlighting that relationship. How easy it would have been for Katherine, as her barista husband suggests repeatedly, to just do her job and leave the consequences to her higher ups.

Gun had so much to lose but recognized an opportunity to avert a disastrous war and chose to act for her people rather than a lying government. Gavin Hood’s film adaptation of her story comes at a time when relations between the press and politics are arguably even more fraught than 2003, making her story well worth hearing. 

Film Review: “Angel of Mine”

Starring: Noomi Rapace, Yvonne Strahovski, Luke Evans, Richard Roxburgh
Directed by: Kim Farrant
Rated: R
Running Time: 98 minutes
Lionsgate

Angel of Mine, based on the French 2008 film, L’Empreinte de L’ange, sees Noomi Rapace as a woman convinced that her neighbor’s daughter is actually her own long-dead child. It’s a thriller that drew me in with its strong cast but passes too far over into melodrama before the credits roll to warrant much interest. 

Rapace stars as Lizzie who drums up a tenuous relationship with the parents of one of her son’s friends (played by Yvonne Strahovski and Richard Roxburgh) for her own ulterior motives. Turns out the friend’s little sister Lola looks so much like her dead baby daughter to Lizzie that she is desperate to spend as much time around the child as possible. Lizzie’s obsession extends so far as her ingratiating herself with Lola’s parents by pretending to be interested in buying their newly listed house. This connection is already awkward but the film does not help itself by withholding the circumstances around Lizzie’s grief for so long in the film. Revelations over the loss of Lizzie’s daughter earlier in the film to the couple may have won some understandable sympathy points for allowing Lizzie around but as it is, it strains credulity as to why these parents would allow this random woman to have so many one-on-one interactions with their young child. Lizzie’s obsession with Lola is intriguing at first due to Rapace’s haunted intensity but without knowing much about her past, I found myself spinning off many different possibilities for where this could go and the ultimate resolution had me bored. Perhaps that’s on me for wanting something more outlandish or exciting while the film so wants to be grounded. It felt as though since director Kim Farrant wanted so much for Lizzie to be our sympathetic protagonist that they could not inject her obsession with a child with any sort of genuine menace. 

Still more irritating is that so much of the film’s run time is spent with husbands choosing to downplay their wives’ legitimate concerns. This goes for both Luke Evan’s Mike as Lizzie’s ex, shunning her where she clearly needs mental help in her grief, and infuriatingly Richard Roxburgh’s Bernard who is for some reason A-OK with a woman wanting to spend time with his seven year old while his own wife sees red flags all over. Why would he take Lizzie’s word over hers? How their story lines end up in relation to Lizzie and Lola after all this drama rings hollow–and also doesn’t seem legally feasible. 

I had been drawn in by the big name cast Farrant had assembled, particularly Yvonne Strahovski fresh off of her fantastic “Handmaid’s Tale” work (is there such a thing as ‘maternity battle’ typecasting?) but they’re working in service of a basic script that doesn’t throw anything more exciting at them than a Lifetime TV movie. 

Angel of Mine opens in limited release on August 30th

The Filmmakers of YESTERDAY

Yesterday…or rather just about a month ago Danny Boyle’s new romantic comedy called Yesterday hit the red carpet as the closing night film of the Tribeca Film Festival. Written by romcom guru Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral), the film follows Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) a struggling musician who wakes up one day in a world where the Beatles never existed. In this situation, Jack takes the music world by storm reintroducing classics like “Yesterday”, “Let it Be” and “Hey Jude”.

I got to speak with the talented filmmakers at their premiere about the impact the Beatles had in their own lives and shooting some epic concert scenes.

“Just think how often life has been sort of softened and sweetened by [The Beatles]” – Richard Curtis

Lauren Damon: Soundtracks are so integral to your movies, does it pain you to imagine the world without the Beatles?

Screenwriter Richard Curtis: I think it would be worse! I mean certainly my life would have been worse. You just think how often life has been sort of softened and sweetened by them. When I was living here in America, I was terribly aware of how often you heard Frank Sinatra and I was thinking, ‘God, wouldn’t all these shoe shops be worse without Frank Sinatra to make it less painful?

LD: For the concept of this film did you ever consider other bands being gone?

Curtis: No. No and it’s interesting, is there another band? And I don’t know that there is. A lot of this movie came about was because every time I would go to see my kids’ school plays they would always end with a Beatles song. You know, William the Conqueror would hold King Harold’s hand and they would both sing “We Can Work it Out.” Or you do something about the environment and they sing “Here Comes the Sun.” So I do think at the moment that the Beatles are the most comprehensive band of all.

LD: Did you get to speak to Paul or Ringo about this concept?

Curtis: Well they know about it now. I wrote to Paul asking him if it would be okay to call it “Yesterday” And he wrote back and suggested we call it “Scrambled Eggs” which was the original name of “Yesterday” And he said ‘I think that would be the better title, but if you haven’t got the courage to call it “Scrambled Eggs”, then I don’t mind you calling it “Yesterday”

Film Composer Daniel Pemberton

Film Composer, Daniel Pemberton: Paul and Ringo were very aware of the film. But with this we took a step back because the thing is in this world the Beatles don’t exist…And we kept having to say ‘the Beatles do not exist in this film’ so you have to pretend Paul and Ringo don’t exist.

LD: When you’re starting with a film that’s based around The Beatles when you go in to compose for it, do you draw strains for them? Or is it from scratch?

Pemberton: Yeah, the score element of this film has been massively influenced by the Beatles. So that’s everything from–I tried to approach the score in a way where we would use the sort of sonic landscape the Beatles created. So that would be everything from the instruments, like the mellotron…We actually used some of the actual instruments that the Beatles recorded on. So we recorded at Abbey Road all the score. And so we used things like the Mrs. Mills piano–the piano from “Lady Madonna”. And those are the actual pianos they used on the recordings. We’d also use a similar kind of bass guitars that Paul McCartney plays. We used the same mixing desks and the same recording techniques. But then we tried to write a different score that wasn’t just a pastiche of the Beatles but just had the elements of their work. Almost as if the Beatles had scored this movie, what would it sound like?

Himesh Patel (“Jack Malik”)

Lauren Damon: What was your casting process like to go from tv into this big lead in front of thousands of extras?

Himesh Patel (“Jack”): I mean the casting was kind of just like anything else to be honest. I just got a breakdown and then I did the self-tape and then I met Danny [Boyle] and Richard. And then I met Danny again and then waited a long time and then I got a call.

LD: Do you have a singing background?

Patel: Not in any sort of professional way, no. I did a little bit on the stage in a play I did a couple of years ago. And I’d some, you know, for myself, youth theater and that kind of thing but nothing like this.

LD: What was it like recreating songs like this? Such important and monumental songs?

Patel: It was thrilling, you know but also a little bit nerve-wracking. The people I was working with, the people we got on board with were really great and so I never felt the pressure of what we were doing. And we had a little bit of leeway because narratively the songs don’t exist. So we could make them our own.

LD: Do you have a favorite?

Patel: A favorite…I mean, one of the ones I love singing was “Long and Winding Road.” I think it’s a really beautiful song…and where it sits in the movie is so beautiful too.

Yesterday is out this weekend in theaters

BookCon: The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3

The second season of Hulu’s hit series The Handmaid’s Tale left more than a few fans stunned when June (Elisabeth Moss) bucked her chance to escape to freedom in Canada with her baby and instead handed the infant off to Emily (Alexis Bleidel) while turning back into the world that still holds her other child hostage.

This weekend eager Handmaid’s fans finally got to see where June’s unexpected decision has lead the inhabitants of Gilead when showrunner Bruce Miller and actress Ann Dowd (“Aunt Lydia”) brought the premiere episode of the third season to New York’s BookCon.

Ann Dowd (“Aunt Lydia”) and Handmaid’s Tale showrunner, Bruce Miller

Without going into episode spoilers, I will say what I saw went a long way in explaining why June would make such a tremendous sacrifice in that finale and the acting across the board continues to be top notch. Alexis Bleidel’s Emily in particular had me moved to tears more than once. And the BookCon crowd broke out into applause at least twice.

While the terrifying Aunt Lydia did not appear in the premiere ep, the trailers showed that she will return after Emily very literally stabbed her in back last year. Dowd, who was also nefarious in last year’s horror hit Hereditary, is delightful and warm in person and said of Lydia, “she is doing quite well…she’s very concerned” She also offered some exciting tidbits into where season three might take Aunt Lydia.

Although in the last two seasons we’ve seen almost every protagonist’s backstory, Aunt Lydia has remained a mystery. Apparently that will change in season three. Of this insight, Dowd commented that while it wasn’t exactly what she thought it would be “it’s so true to what might have went wrong.” On that change she added that whatever happened, “her life leaned toward Gilead and [to being] one of the most staunch believers of that group.” And while Dowd clearly loves playing Lydia, she joked about her inner dialogue with the character: “I say I’m disappointed with her and she says to mind my business!”

Dowd complimenting a Handmaid cosplayer in attendance

The Handmaid’s Tale returns weekly to Hulu starting Wednesday June 5th.

Stellan Skarsgard and Emily Watson on HBO’s “CHERNOBYL”

Chernobyl filmmakers on the red carpet

In April 1986 the most catastrophic man-made incident the planet had ever seen occurred when reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded during what should have been a safety test. The effects of the accident still wreak havoc over the landscape and containing the fallout has become an industry unto itself. It’s a job which will require centuries of human support. Tonight on HBO, Craig Mazin’s five-part miniseries, CHERNOBYL, dives deep into the the accident as it happened and the human cost and bravery it required to ensure that this tragedy did not engulf still millions more.

This past week at the Tribeca Film Festival, Mazin and his talented cast debuted the first two episodes of the series on the accident’s 33rd anniversary. The premiere episode was nothing short of a nightmare as the series delves into, in brutal detail, the accident and the shocking mishandling of both the initial fire and the surrounding population in those crucial first hours and days of fallout. It was a tense first hour and a brilliant setup into the second which saw the introduction of the scientists and politicians who then had to set about handling what was to come. The second episode in particular sees a stellar performance from Stellan Skarsgard as he plays a man coming to grips with his own mortality and entreating fellow countrymen to show selflessness so that millions can be saved. I spoke with Skarsgard, who also offered brief comments on his upcoming work in DUNE, as well as co-star Emily Watson on the red carpet about their own knowledge of the accident as it happened and the timely message this series has to offer in regards to listening to scientists.

“I think it’s a parable for our times. I think you ignore the truth and scientists at your peril. ” – Emily Watson

Emily Watson plays Ulana Khomyuk, a character created for the show as an entry-point into the role of a collection of European scientists in the fallout of Chernobyl.

Lauren Damon: Your character isn’t one specific person, but represents a collection of people involved with the accident, did you speak to people who experienced this?

Emily Watson: No. It’s sort of in tribute to many of the scientists who worked on the discovery of what happened. So I kind of had a bit of a blank sheet really to make up what I wanted to do. But Craig had written the character as coming from Belarus, which is a place that suffered terribly in the second world war. And she would have been a young child at that time, so that gave me a sense of just finding someone who was very very tough. It made her the perfect person really to go after the truth and find out what happened.

Do you remember when you were first aware of the Chernobyl accident in your life?

Watson: Yeah, I was a student at university and I remember there were students at my college who were on a year out, away in Kiev, and they all had to come home pretty quickly, it was very scary.

Did you have any misconceptions about the event going into this project that the script changed for you?

Watson: Oh my god, when I started reading the script, I had no idea that sort of within a few days–sort of 48 hours after the first explosion–there could have been one that was ten times worse. That would have taken out half of Europe.

In theory you could have been in range of those effects?

Watson: Definitely in range of radiation fallout…But yeah, it could have been much much worse. It was due to the heroism of the people on the ground who contained it and prevented it from being much worse.

What’s the biggest take away you’d like viewers to get from this series?

Watson: I think it’s a parable for our times. I think you ignore the truth and scientists at your peril.

Stellan Skarsgard plays Boris Shcherbina, the Deputy Head of the Soviet Government at the time.

What did you find surprising from hearing about Chernobyl originally in 1986 and then from working on this project?

Stellan Skarsgard: What I knew from ’86 was what you got from news media, which gave you a sort of superficial idea of what actually happened. What we learned through working with this material is I know now what technically went wrong, how the reactor works and what the mistakes they made were.

You also learn about it [was] more grave, the sort of the political system–the impact that had on the accident. When you have a system that is supposed to be perfect, you cannot allow any dissent in terms of somebody criticizing anything you do or any flaws cannot be accepted. And that then means that the truth was suppressed. It was all over the Soviet Union at the time. I mean truth is suppressed also for other reasons in the west now. I mean when you talk about Fukushima that was money that suppressed truth and created disaster there. In Boeing, you sent planes that are not fit for flying because you want to make money. So another way of suppressing truth and science. I think it’s important, an important film because it–not only because it talks about what we’re doing to this planet, the environment, which is really scary, but it also talks about how important it is that we listen to people who know what they’re talking about.

Facts are facts. They are not just individual ideas. Some facts you have to deal with and you have to accept and we have to listen to scientists. I mean 98% of the scientists in the world say that we are heading for a catastrophe in terms of global warming. We cannot ignore that. Do not ignore that.

Tell us about your character

Skarsgard: My character I’m playing Boris Shcherbina who was a minister in the government and who got the responsibility for cleaning up the mess. And he’s a man who spent his entire life working within the system and defending the system and he ends up realizing that this accident is a result of the system. And he has to question the system and he also has to decide whether he should keep on defending the system that is flawed. Or if he should start defending the truth.

Skarsgard’s next film role is in the highly anticipated adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic, DUNE, where he’ll play the villainous Baron Harkonnen

Lauren Damon: Have you begun work on DUNE as Baron Harkonnen?

Skarsgard:I haven’t started shooting yet, we’re still doing prosthetics work

That’s what I was wondering! Because the Baron is such a grotesque character but when you were cast I remember looking at a shot of you as Bootstrap Bill [Skarsgard’s heavily barnacled Pirates of the Caribbean role] and thinking ‘This man can handle anything they put on him!’

Skarsgard: [Laughs] That’s very nice of you! Thank you. I will probably spend probably six to eight hours a day in makeup and it will look fantastic.

“I will probably spend probably six to eight hours a day in makeup and it will look fantastic.” -Stellan Skarsgard on his upcoming DUNE role

What are you most excited about in doing that project?

Skarsgard: It’s a great story. It’s a fantastic world and Denis Villeneuve is a director that I’ve always wanted to work with. So I’m really happy, he’s a wonderful man and a great director. So I think–except for the eight hours in makeup–I think I’ll have a fun time.

Chernobyl airs tonight at 9pm on HBO