Louis Theroux on “My Scientology Movie”

British documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux is no stranger to controversial subjects. In his wide-ranging tv career, the unflappable Theroux has immersed himself in subcultures ranging from US TV infomercials to Neo-Nazis and the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. For his first feature film documentary, Theroux acted on a years-long fascination with the Church of Scientology. When the notoriously secretive Church wouldn’t admit Theroux to film their practices directly, the documentary took a much more unique approach. Theroux, director John Dower and crew turned instead to former Scientologists to share their experiences within the church and decided to film re-enactments of their stories. Their filming, including casting their own version of Church leader David Miscavige in the form of actor Andrew Perez, quickly drew the attention of the church. The crew finds itself being tailed, filmed and even confronted on public property. The resulting documentary is at once an entertaining examination of the alleged inner workings of the church as well as a realtime account of the lengths the church goes to to defend itself. The film made its debut at last spring’s Tribeca Film Festival where I sat down with Theroux as well as John Dower and Andrew Perez to discuss their impressions of the church and how the doc came together.

Lauren Damon: Before you started making the film, how much did you know, or thought you knew about Scientology?

Louis Theroux: I think I thought I knew quite a lot—

John Dower: You do know a lot.

Louis: Yeah, I mean but then to be honest with you, I’d first been interested in Scientology you know, more than 20 years ago. And then in 2002 or thereabouts, I made my first approach and took a tour of the celebrity center and basically was in negotiation to make a tv doc that way. That fizzled out. And then about ten years after that, our producer Simon Chinn came to me and said ‘Hey what about a theatrical doc? You know, we could do it on Scientology’ And by then—it was around then that the first book, Janet Reitman’s book,  Inside Scientology came out, I read that…I mean the fact is that you could really make a full time job of kind of reading the stuff that comes out on Scientology. The challenge in a way is to not kind of sink into the quagmire…there’s so many threads that you can follow, you know what I mean?

John: You know there’s stories from the past that could be made to whole films themselves.

Louis: You could make a film about just what [ex-Church leader and My Scientology Movie star] Marty Rathbun did in the 80s.

John: The Lisa McPherson Story…

Louis: The Lisa McPherson story. Or you could do one of Clearwater in the 70s and 80s or Bob Minton. About how he went from being a critic to being a Scientology supporter. Or at least agnostic. I mean it’s a lot of individual…and then there’s whole family stories. Not just Lisa McPherson but other ones…There’s a lot. The challenge is not kind of lack of material. It’s a sort of an overabundance.

LD: And that’s also just before you even get to researching what the beliefs are which is also so involved.

Louis: That’s right.

LD: And then Andrew, what had been your experience?

John Dower, Louis Theroux and Andrew Perez

Andrew Perez: I knew just I’d heard some stories of experiences just sort of on the top—the intro levels of communications and courses. I knew that it was on the surface, or to beginners it was a kind of self-actualization, a kind of self-help, kind of therapeutic…I mean going through past trauma and weeding out sensory things that you associate with that. And seeing The Master. So I did have a kind of a good intuition about the introduction to it and why it makes some people get into it. And also the fact that there was also a sort of deep sea of mystery after that intro couple courses or whatever.

Louis: It’s really interesting because—you know when you read Dianetics, like the kernel of what Scientology is is basically just a kind of take on Pavlov’s dog, isn’t it? It’s just about sort of sensory associations.

Andrew: Yeah.

Louis: And when you read Dianetics, it’s got a volcano and it’s like “This is the most amazing book I’ve ever read in my life!” it’s all “Rome fell because of not having a science of the mind!”…Then you find out it’s all about you stubbed your toe and an ambulance went by and now every time you hear an ambulance, you get a sore toe. And you’re like “That’s IT?!” That’s the modern science of mental health? How could anyone think that that was the answer to life’s mysteries?

LD: Then going back, when you considered doing it as a tv series, what do you think it was that made it warrant making a feature movie?

Louis: That’s a good question. And in a way that’s maybe something John would be better at answering.

John: This is my first feature. Yeah, there are…little nuts and bolts, like I think you need a great musical score for instance. And I do think the music in this film is amazing. The composer Dan Jones did an extraordinary score in this film and it needs a sense of scale. If you want people to play eight or nine quid or fifteen bucks, you know they need to feel like they’re getting something with a sense of scale. And I think Scientology has that built into it anyway. And it needs to be entertaining, it needs to feel like you know, it’s…You can ask Michael Moore, he says about his films he wants them to be like date movies. That people will go on dates. You know, it’s a big deal to go to the cinema these days. And I’d like to think that that’s in our film. I’d like to think that it’s entertaining. It’s got to be, it’s a movie.

Louis: For me, I think also it has to do with like in my tv stuff, it is fundamentally journalism and so I have agency but in terms of my place in the film and how I kind of change and push through the journey through the tv shows, but in this one I really do actually really kind of take the story—take the bull by the horns in a sense. So you’ve got—I’m much more of a protagonist which I think is important for the film to work….You know I’m the guy ‘on a mission’ in a sense.

LD: Had it ever crossed your mind to try and surreptitiously join the church?

Louis: Yeah we talked about it—

John: That was floated at one point.

Louis: Obviously when you’re brainstorming, you don’t—everything’s about ‘let’s talk about…well what’re the merits? What’re the ethics of doing this? How would it feel?’ I think quite quickly we concluded that it didn’t feel right.

John: Bad faith…for something like this.

Louis: Plus you wouldn’t even get to see very much. You know without actually having access to someone inside the SeaOrg and even then it might takes months to really get deep inside…Actually while we were making it, I did go along to the Los Feliz mission to just see what happens when you go in the front door. And just show up and say ‘What is this all about?’ To me it was interesting because I’m fascinated by Scientology but imagining if we’d been filming, it would not have been very interesting. It’s just there is a sort of hard-sell that they do at the church.

Marty Rathbun and Theroux filming an auditing re-enactment

LD: How long were you shooting your re-enactments before you were aware you were being tailed?

Louis: Marty said that ‘This car has turned up before’, do you remember that?

John: I think we were probably being tailed when we didn’t realize. There was a couple of times—that car, that white Toyota pickup truck that’s in that scene—one of our PA’s Shane said ‘I’ve seen that at the hotel before.’ You know, a good few days before. Maybe even on a previous trip. So we were probably being tailed but we didn’t realize.

Louis: The first time Marty tippled that we had been tailed, though I don’t think I believed him at the time, was the day we did the drills at the studio.

John: Oh yeah, he dashed around the corner, didn’t he?

Louis: Yeah, I mean that was the same day as two people turned up filming us who were journalists. I don’t know if they actually were Scientologists but on the same day Marty said ‘This car is suspicious.’

LD: So like a couple weeks in?

Louis: Well no, it was a while, we were filming more than a year. About two months in.

John: So how did they know that we put out a casting for David Miscavige?

Louis: I mean that casting went out on the wire, didn’t it?

John: I guess so.

Louis: So it wasn’t a secret.

Andrew: But yeah that’s one thing that we’ve said was that they knew that you’d done the casting for a young David Miscavige with Marty in the room.

John: With Marty, that was the kicker. So I wonder did they follow Marty the first day he arrived—

Louis: Maybe.

John: So maybe they were following us from the—

Louis: Anytime Marty came into LA, there’s a chance they might have known about it.

LD: Andrew, when you saw that casting how did you react to it? How did you feel knowing you were kind of playing half yourself and half re-enactments?

Andrew: I just came in, I knew they were doing re-enactments, it said like a BBC documentary on Scientology and I just—I knew that they were kind of shooting outside as I was entering, so I was aware of that and I just focused on playing the role. And I didn’t know where it was all going. It was kind of fun…They would go back to England and then they would come back and have some more material for me and it was kind of a workshop at first. Mike Rinder would show up, Marty was normally there. So I was learning through Marty. They were shooting the rehearsals. There’s a lot that you don’t see that was just the process of….So we were in a blackbox theater listening, watching Marty lead some auditing kind of sessions. Then we did that day at the Mack Sennett Studios, a full day of communication TR training and things. But yeah, I knew that there would be some stuff of just me being me…but I just wanted to focus on the role.

LD: Now do you guys have any idea of where all that footage that they shot of you goes?

Louis: I think it goes into an editing suite somewhere probably in Hemet, California and I think they will be piecing it together into some kind of online video.

John: I suspect they’re waiting for the film to be here. It’s already been seen in the UK—been to festivals in the UK, I think they’re more interested about…I have no idea.

Louis: I think they’re waiting to see what happens with our film and if our film reaches a certain kind of having a profile, that they will release their counterpunch.

John: It would be great if—obviously it would never happen but—I imagine theirs is going to be a shorter film given they only filmed us on two or three occasions…It would be great if, you know how they used to have shorts before the main feature? It would be nice to have theirs.

LD: Is the church as prevalent in the UK as it is here?

Louis: No. It exists and it has high profile kind of missions in locations—orgs, they call them— on Tottenham Court Road and by Paddington…but in terms of their actual number of followers, I think it’s really small.

John: No, it’s quite telling that there’s a road in London—Tottenham Court Road— and they have an Org on Tottenham Court Road and actually there was a time when it was very, in 90s even, I worked in the company around the corner and there were always people sitting outside, always people trying to get you to do a personality test but it’s just dead now. There’s like one person at the front desk, which is quite telling in and of itself.

My Scientology Movie is in select theaters, OnDemand and available to stream on Amazon and iTunes starting March 10th. For more information visit MyScientologyMovie.com.

Film Review: “Trespass Against Us”

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson, Sean Harris, Lyndsey Marshall, Rory Kinnear
Directed By: Adam Smith
Rated: R
Running Time: 99 minutes
Film4

Our Score: 3 out of 5 Stars

For a man seeking a quiet life, Chad Cutler drums up an awful lot of trouble in Adam Smith’s rural family drama, Trespass Against Us. Set deep in the English countryside, the feature debut from Smith can be tonally uneven but boasts enough solid performances and pops of quality car chases to recommend it.

Michael Fassbender stars as Chad Cutler, the heir apparent to a family of thieves in a caravan park. His father is the blustery Colby Cutler (Brendan Gleeson) who preaches only what his father taught him. In between sending his son and their gang out on robberies, Colby interferes with Chad’s young son Tyson (Georgie Smith) getting an actual school education. It’s a life Chad wishes to escape as he sets his eyes on moving into an actual house with Tyson and his wife Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal). Unfortunately Colby’s infamy looms large over the local population, often stifling Chad’s ambitions. Also impeding his progress? Chad himself. Chad is a caring father, but his whole world has been crime and he’s great at it. Despite his illiteracy, he’s the most intelligent of his crew as well as the best driver–crucial for their hit and run robbery jobs in the neighboring towns. The entire trailer crew becomes endangered when Colby sends them unknowingly to invade a local judge’s mansion.

Fassbender isn’t often cast as the family man (Steve Jobs was hardly the best example) and here it works well. Him and Smith share some touching scenes and I also got a kick out of Chad’s chastising of Tyson at a chip stand. More importantly Fassbender skillfully conveys the simmering conflicts within Cutler. His shark-like grin when dealing with his cohorts is equal parts charming and threatening, belying his frustration with his continued position in this dim gang. Conversely Chad clearly enjoys the thrill of the car chases when he is persuaded to work. Most of the persuasion here carried out by Gleeson’s formidable Colby who growls his way through some good scenes.

The English countryside makes for an unconventional crime story background and Smith does quite a lot with it. The car chases through the village then out into the woods are well shot and thrilling despite their relatively small scale. I’d never seen cows incorporated into a manhunt quite like they are here! At times, the local population can skew too quirky (Sean Harris as a perpetually filthy yokel is a bit much) but the familial drama central to the story keeps things grounded thanks to the strong performances of Fassbender, Gleeson, Marshal and newcomer Smith.

Trespass Against Us is now out in theaters as well as on DirecTV

Film Review: “The Founder”

Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern and Linda Cardellini
Directed By: John Lee Hancock
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 115 minutes
The Weinstein Company

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

A hyper charismatic Michael Keaton drags a pair of wholesome Americans into a deal that they soon regret. No, it’s not Beetlejuice, but rather John Lee Hancock’s The Founder, the true story of the man responsible for making McDonalds the global franchise it is today. Director Hancock is no stranger to selling shrewd businessman stories having previously helmed the Disney-pursues-Mary Poppins pic Saving Mr. Banks. Like Mr Banks, The Founder relies on how charmingly its entrepreneur can overtake a profitable concept from its hesitant creators. In this respect, The Founder zips along on the boundless energy that Keaton infuses into Ray Kroc.

It’s hard to imagine America without the golden arches of McDonald’s. It’s a vision that not even the franchise’s namesake brothers had foreseen when the wily  Mr.Kroc rolled up to their booming San Bernadino burger stand in 1955 to sell his milk shake mixers. Here the brothers, Dick and Mac (played by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) devised the fast food kitchen as we know it, breaking away from the slower drive-ins of the day. Traveling salesman Kroc has had more than his fair share of drive in frustrations–slow carhops, wrong orders, cumbersome trays–and knows an opportunity when he sees one. “Franchises!” he enthuses to stoney faces of Offerman and Lynch. They prefer quality over quantity. What the McDonalds don’t know about Kroc is he falls asleep to the recorded mantra “nothing is as powerful as persistence.” Which he has in spades.

Despite Kroc’s triumph Hancock does not give Ray a pass on his swindling ways. Played by Michael Keaton (accompanied by his thematically appropriate arched eyebrows), Kroc is a magnetic presence to be sure and like many cinematic villains, fun as hell to watch work. However, the perfectly cast Offerman and Lynch are infinitely more sympathetic. Aesthetically they’re the stoic hound dogs to the fox in the henhouse that is Keaton. John Carroll Lynch specifically tugs on the heart strings multiple times as he watches his family’s vision slip out from under them. A trauma great enough to hospitalize him at one point. And if that weren’t enough, a sulking supporting turn by Laura Dern as Kroc’s first wife, Ethel, goes a long way to showing what an exhaustive personality her husband has always been without the film needing to delve much into his backstory.

Viewing this film from 2016 makes Kroc’s success in his endeavors a foregone conclusion but to Hancock’s credit, he keeps the burger flipping and legal gymnastics interesting. He manages to condense the McDonalds’s “overnight success thirty years in the making” in one balletic montage that really showcases the ingenuity of the brothers in designing their “speedee service model”. In a world where the fast food assembly line is omnipresent, it is somewhat heartening to see the genuine human element and efforts that went into its inception. That the fruits of said efforts were ultimately swiped by a ‘founder’ who hadn’t founded anything luckily let me get right back to regretting the dubious influence the fast food trend had on the dietary habits of millions…but hey, did I mention how much fun it is to watch Michael Keaton?

NYCC 2016: Adult Swim’s DREAM CORP LLC

Have you made your appointment with Dream Corp LLC yet? The mind-bending new series from creator Daniel Stessen is currently admitting new patients every Sunday night at 11:45pm on Adult Swim. Starring Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite), Stephen Merchant (“The Office”, “Hello Ladies”), Nick Rutherford (Balls Out, “Drunk History”) and a host of guest stars, the series follows a strip mall clinic that uses advanced technology to invade its patients dreams in order to solve their real life problems. At New York Comic Con this year, the Adult Swim panel was treated to the first two episodes of Dream Corp which blend live action sci-fi and trippy rotoscope animation.

Accompanying the new series to NYCC was creator Stessen with stars Gries, Rutherford and Merchant (who also serves as an executive producer on the show). I sat down with them to talk about this new addition to the Adult Swim lineup.

How did you develop Dream Corp?

Daniel Stessen: I had the concept, been developing it for a while, and created this world and kind of came over to Steve for a little guidance as to how to make it more palatable to a larger audience. Being that he has some–

Stephen Merchant and Daniel Stessen

Stephen Merchant: I think he’s being immodest–or he’s being too modest, I should say, that’s not right. Too modest. I was there as just a friend of Danny’s…to do a voice for this robot [T.E.R.R.Y] that’s in the show and inevitably whenever there’s anything creative going on, I like to start meddling, and just offering thoughts. And we started talking more and more. And it was just for me, it was something I would have done as a friend anyway…but I just thought, you know, let’s try to screw these guys for some money. (Both laugh)

Stessen: And the robot, we love the robot, he was built by Jim Henson Studios…That was one of the more validating moments of my last ten years on Earth, just getting that call that they were on board to build Terry the robot.

Merchant: There’s a really strong visual sense to the whole thing, again largely down to Danny. He’s just got an incredible visual imagination. And so you see that both in the real world–where you see this kind of twisted, eccentric sort of laboratory– and then also when you enter that dream world. And that’s done with the rotoscope animation. When you go on the set, it’s you know, it’s bits of cardboard and people with fake cardboard wings and cardboard jaws and things. All of which is going to eventually going to be animated but which only [Danny] can really see. So a lot of people I think are just stood there and like ‘you want me to what? I’m drowning in spaghetti now?’ And he’s like ‘Trust me.’ So it’s sort of extraordinary, an extraordinary kind of vibe there. Wouldn’t you say people were confused [on set]?

Stessen: It’s just, when people would walk on when we were shooting the dream world stuff, people would walk into an empty room and I would just be like ‘this is going to feel super weird, just trust me, it going to look real cool.’

Can you speak about your characters?

Nick Rutherford and Jon Gries

Nick Rutherford: I play patient 88–
Jon Gries: Nick!
Rutherford: Yeah, Nick as well, who comes to the office to work on erectile dysfunction and pretty quickly realizes that the office itself is kind of dysfunctional.
Gries: What happens is that he has to work for us because he can’t pay for his procedure
Rutherford: Yeah I can’t pay for the procedure and you think that it’s a confidence issue and I don’t have a job so you say–
Gries: A job?
Rutherford: Why don’t you work here? And I’m like this is a terrible place, but I kind of go along with the flow.
Gries: So he’s really the eyes of the audience. Because obviously he’s come into this place that is so–well from some perspectives, would be ridiculous and crazy. It’s not from my perspective.
Rutherford: It’s your life’s work.
Gries: It’s my life’s work. Dr. Roberts has this vision that this is the most transforming and necessary procedure but he’s lost his funding. So now he’s working out of a strip mall because he believes and he knows that it’s working. He knows that he’s changing people’s lives. There’s a little problem here and there but–
(Both laugh)
Rutherford: There’s a lot of problems.
Gries: There’s a couple of bugs that get worked out of the system. But it could be because the system’s really old and we haven’t had the money to update it.
Rutherford: And I think Nick, Patient 88, comes into it and kind of sees a family forming. Because everybody trusts and loves each other. Like there’s, Stephanie Allen plays Joey, his protégé–
Gries: My intern for nine years. No pay!
Rutherford: (laughs) Yeah, Nine year intern. Who loves him and obviously thinks he’s the most brilliant guy ever and he just does not give her the time of day. And Mark Proksch plays kind of the navigator of sorts, I don’t know if you know his work–
Gries: He’s amazing. And he doesn’t ever leave the building. For fifteen years he doesn’t leave the building.
Rutherford: So he’s incredible. And then [Ahmed Bharoocha] plays kind of the nurse and he’s just this big stoner who doesn’t even really care. So Everybody relies on each other in a nice way. So the meat of the story is us working together and growing together and me being thrown into this world. And it being very dangerous, but also fun. And then bringing in these amazing guest stars and throwing them into that.
Gries: He gets attacked by June Squibb at one point. She stabs him.
Rutherford: Yeah she stabs me in the neck with a a screw driver. I’m kind of like the Kenny, I get hurt a lot. (both laugh)

Have you ever had a weird celebrity dream like with [episode one guest star] Dave Coulier?

Rutherford: Yeah that was really surreal.
Gries: I did, I had a weird celebrity dream. I was very nervous, I was about to do a movie years ago and I dreamt that I was in a barbershop. And I was sitting and the man sitting in the next chair was Fred Astaire.
Rutherford: Really?
Gries: True story. And he looks at me and he goes, “Are you worried about something?” And I said “I’m just a little uncomfortable” And he said “Have fun. Just have fun.” I swear to god! And that was like two days before I started shooting Fright Night Part 2.
Rutherford: Have fun out there.

What was it like working with the rotoscope animation?

Dream Corp LLC/Adult Swim

Rutherford: It’s really fun because everything is so grand. You know it’s like now you’re falling off of a hot air balloon, or now you’re running away from your bullies in high school. So you’re playing these large characters, so you just kind of jump into it. Like, I remember thinking when I was very young and being an actor, how it must be really hard to shoot like Jurassic Park when you’re in front of a green screen and then they’re like “and THAT’S a velociraptor” and you’re like “ahhh!” I didn’t feel that at all during the production that that those scenes were difficult thing to do. Because they’re just so silly and fun and you’re wearing kind of a half costume so they can animate it later. Like I’m dressed up like Legolas–
Gries: And literally it was sometimes it was pieces of cardboard, you have cardboard on you almost like a really bad–
Rutherford: Like a play
Gries: Like a kid’s play. But you know it’s all for reference and they’re gonna draw on top of it. And the thing is, knowing how beautiful the animation is also gives you the impetus that when you’re in it, you understand what it’s going to look like, so it helps, it augments. Whatever decision or choice you’re going to make, you can go further with it because you just have that confidence behind that animation. It’s almost like ‘pay no attention to me, it wont be the real me, it will be a better me.’

Stessen: The inspiration came from working with his name’s Michael Garza [of Artbelly Productions] out of Austin, Texas. He worked on A Scanner Darkly, and then a couple other guys on the crew are Scanner Darkly. And one of the woman who was an animator on Waking Life. Which I’m a huge fan of. I saw Waking Life a while back and watched it over and over and over again. Huge inspiration. And we made a short film together that did well in festivals and kind of, we started developing that style in trying to evolve it and I think we’re pushing it forward a little bit and figuring out that we can build things out of cardboard. And make a dragon face. Because all he has to do is draw what’s there. Not that’s all he has to do–his job is to draw what’s there. So we could draw you [all] here and now you’re on a volcano, you know what I mean? So it gives us a lot of flexibility and the fact that with where we are, with little funds, we could do a ton.

What can viewers expect for the rest of the series?

Gries: Surprise after surprise after surprise. I’m not kidding you, it’s different every time!
Rutherford: Yeah it really is. I mean there’s this kind of thread of these different guest stars coming in and getting their therapy as our relationship progresses and as the interrelationships between Joey and Ahmed and…Randy–Randy’s arm gets cut off (laughs)–
Gries: There are things that happen, there’s a continuity within the core group and yet at the same time it’s absolutely ridiculous what happens–but it still stays, it still answers that continuity. And yet the people that come, the patients that come, their stories individually are so different from week to week that it just gives us a whole other area to run through.
Rutherford: yeah There’s like a couples therapy–a gay couple comes in to get like couples therapy. June squibb comes in to quit smoking but then finds out that really just she just wants to have sex.
Gries: And have a baby–and she’s never had sex in her life.
Rutherford: So Roberts appeases that in the dream world–
Gries: You know he says, it’s been a while!

Dream Corp LLC is on tonight and every Sunday on Adult Swim at 11:45pm, with the premiere episode currently streaming at AdultSwim.com

For photos from Adult Swim and many more NYCC panels, make sure to check out our Facebook page!

 

Paradiso Chapter 1 “NYC’s Most Interactive Escape Room”

In a New York Comic Con weekend filled with virtual reality experiences, nothing entertained my imagination more than Michael Counts’s escape room, PARADISO: CHAPTER 1. Billed as “part immersive theater, part escape room, part existential game,” Paradiso satisfies multiple action movie nerd fantasies in one pulse pounding hour.

The Paradiso experience begins, if you choose to provide your smartphone number, before you reach the venue with some ominous video messages ‘exposing’ the Virgil corporation who you are due to meet at your appointed time. Everyone in my party also received different clues to help us but to keep secret from each other.

In midtown we met up with our contact in a functioning karaoke bar to begin our experience. Ostensibly we are being welcomed into the offices of the Virgil Corporation who are on the lookout for genetically gifted escape artists. A wonderfully spacey secretary doled out forms and waivers in Virgil’s reception before the “normal” procedures were quickly overridden and the ‘real’ escape experience begins. Cue the Saw-ready voice changer demands from the heavens. Suddenly the office was revealed to be full of puzzles and my team sprang into action.

Chapter 1 features four more spaces after that reception office, each offering their own distinct look. For my money, the best room was a vintage library where we encountered a frantic handcuffed woman who upped the tension and hastily armed my teammate with a pistol. Other thrills included an air duct for us to feel extra John McClane-y and a massive bomb to be disarmed complete with digital countdown clock. The actors, handcuff lady included, make for an extra level of intrigue as they can help or hinder your progress and to this day none of my team can decide on if we allied ourselves correctly.

Teams who have diversified their skills roster get rewarded as the in-game puzzles range from visual clues to math and physical puzzles. If you’ve ever fantasized who would be in your Oceans-type heist amongst friends, that’s the crew to bring. And going into this Halloween weekend, Paradiso provides an excellent alternate to conventional horror houses by getting your heart-racing without scaring you silly. Ultimately my escape team was done in by some algebra in the final room–who knew that would come in handy?!–but we eagerly look forward to many more chapters to come.

View the Paradiso trailer below, and find ticketing information at its official website.

 

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“Star Trek: 50 Artists. 50 Years” Lands at New York’s Paley Center

September 16- “Star Trek: 50 Artists. 50 Years”,  which made its debut at this year’s San Diego Comic Con opens up to New York fans today at the Paley Center for Media in midtown. The exhibition, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek television series, features fifty pieces from ten nations as well as tie-in fan screenings and whimsical photo ops sure to please the Trekkies of Manhattan. Noteworthy amongst the art on display is a piece of the famous Vulcan salute by none other than the late Leonard Nimoy himself.

Work by Leonard Nimoy

To my eyes, Spock looks to be favored character by the show’s artists, including a digital illustration from Stanley Chow whom I spoke with at the exhibition preview:

Where are you from?
Stanley Chow: I’m from Manchester England.

What Inspired you to choose Spock?

SC: I think like when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s and then watching reruns of Star Trek, the first person I kind of looked up to was Spock. He seemed like the more intelligent one and slightly different. I guess with me it was–when I was growing up, I was the only Chinese boy in the village, you always kind of–I felt you needed someone different to look up to and aspire to, you know? And Spock was always the one, with his cool, calm, collected demeanor. And his pointy ears.

Artist Stanley Chow with his work

Do you have a favorite Spock moment?
SC: There’s not been a favorite moment, but I’ve always liked the kind of relationship he had with Uhura. You know? It was never kind of like a fully fledged relationship. It was always kind of like an underlying thing…Which was sort of my life with lots of girls when I was growing up.

Do you enjoy Zachary Quinto’s take on the character?
SC: Oh, I think he’s amazing! When he was picked, obviously he was off of “Heroes”…And then once he puts the ears on and he does his thing [in the] movies, he’s the only actor–it’s sounds kind of cliché to say he’s the only actor who could do Spock but he’s done it so well but that’s why it’s become a cliché isn’t it?

Head of CBS consumer products, Liz Kalodner was also on hand to celebrate the opening.

Do you have a Star Trek favorite character?
Liz Kalodner: Well Captain Kirk is the classic, c’mon! Although I have to say, Captain Janeway [From Star Trek: Voyager], also pretty good.

Do you enjoy the new film franchise?
LK: Oh, absolutely. i think JJ Abrams has done a wonderful job. It’s brought in a new, younger audience, and really has given the franchise great energy.
As you’re from consumer products, I noticed you’ve got a fictional cereal here in the exhibit, is that a favorite item?

LK: Yeah! So that’s by an artist named Juan Ortiz who loved Star Trek from when he was a kid and actually had that idea when he was a child. And he always wanted to do it. And I don’t know if you saw the back but there are cutouts, trading cards, because cereal boxes always had you know, the free in-pack or on-pack, so he created that.

Since Star Trek is coming back to TV are you getting ready with your department for that?
LK: We are getting ready! We’re working with showrunner but it’s all in the development stage. But it’s a wonderful time to be in the Star Trek business.

“Star Trek: 50 Artists. 50 Years'” brief stop in NYC concludes on September 25th. Details on the Paley Center’s screenings to coincide with the exhibit can be found here.

The Paley Center for Media is located at 25 West 52nd Street.

Top Five Things I’d Like to See in A Ghostbusters Sequel

There seems to be a whole lot of doubt swirling around a possible sequel to Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters. Sony came out of the gate proclaiming its green light but when the feature didn’t set the box office absolutely ablaze, detractors flocked to the numbers as validation for their months’ long rally against the very notion of the reboot, sight-unseen. Sony is still keeping mum on their plans, although they maintain the brand is strong with cross-platform opportunities. I’m not here to argue numbers, especially in a summer where other properties have had the privilege of quietly underperforming on a near-weekly basis from Independence Day: Resurgence to Star Trek Beyond.

All I’m saying is I have a feeling that once the paranormal dust settles and we head towards its home video release and secondary markets, the word will get out that Feig’s Ghostbusters is actually a damn good time. We’ll see this word spread by the enthusiastic little girls–oblivious to the internet furor– who saw new kinds of heroes in the unconventional quartet and take to ghostbusting on the playground. We’ll see it in the array of cosplayers inspired by the new looks of the franchise (McKinnon alone has a week’s worth of iconic outfits!) And we’ll see it when a sequel debuts to larger numbers than its predecessor because those girls will come back. And they’ll bring their friends.

Our own Mike Smith gave the film 4 stars, but my take on it briefly: The new characters, lead by Kate McKinnon’s standout weirdo Holtzmann, Leslie Jones’s NYC-history-savvy Patty and Chris Hemsworth’s much lauded comedic turn as dim receptionist Kevin, were a joy insofar as they weren’t even trying to step into the shoes of their forebears but bringing their own. Or in Kristin Wiig’s case, a pair of quirky turquoise wellies. Additionally the effects were cool, evoking the glowing spookiness of Disney’s Haunted Mansion rides–which is to say, just the right level for a Ghostbusters installment. And of course, seeing four women take up arms against a ghost army with brand new kick ass weaponry that Bill Murray and co’s point and shoot models could only dream of, was something I haven’t seen before and I need to again.

It’s with this blind hope in mind that I’m going to forge ahead with the following top five wishes for their sequel. Because I live in a world where there’s six Police Academies, four Sharknadoes and my Ecto-Cooler juice box is half full.

(Minor spoilers ahead)

1 – An equally stacked cast
The four female leads were front and center of the marketing, rightfully so, but Feig’s supporting cast was nothing to sneeze at either and one of its best surprises. “Silicon Valley” star Zach Woods’s haunted tour guide started it all off on the right foot, quickly joined by the likes of Ed Begley Jr, Cecily Strong, Andy Garcia and Michael K Williams. Heck even the taxi driver from Deadpool (Karan Soni) got big laughs. Whoever cast this thing, stick around.

2 – Some better usage of NYC
The Ghostbusters are based in New York and their strong ties are upheld at their firehouse headquarters, Hook & Ladder 8, which displays the team’s logo on the sidewalk. However for budgetary reasons, the movie was mainly filmed in Boston. Nothing wrong with saving some money, but screening the movie in Manhattan, the fake 6-line subway station raised some eyebrows. And the greatest offense? The ladies dining on Papa John’s pizza. I can suspend my disbelief to hellmouths in the middle of Times Square, but native New Yorkers opting for Papa John’s is a bridge too far. Get those product placement dollars elsewhere. And rope in some more actual locations, if only so this obsessive fan can visit them.

3 – A more sinister villain
I really did enjoy Neil Casey in his minimal screen time as Rowan from a comedic stand point. Still, he wasn’t as menacing as the original’s demonic invasion of Dana’s (Sigourney Weaver) fridge or even the first specter featured here, Gertrude Aldridge (Bess Rous, below). Later when Rowan’s spirit wound up in a couple of our heroes’ bodies and finally a CGI giant, he became still less memorable. More to the point, the Ghostbusters franchise as a whole is now 100% saturated with finales featuring behemoth figures tromping through skyscrapers. Let’s be done with that. The most effective supernatural stuff whether it was the aforementioned Aldridge Mansion, green ghouls lurking behind glass waiting to be released onto our plane, or just a regular mannequin temporarily brought to life, were smaller in scale and creepier for it. A more intimate antagonist would be novel to the team and hey, bonus, also could cut down that budget again. Are you listening, Sony?

4 – A few more original cast cameos for the completists
Rick Moranis, please. Okay, I know this is pie in the sky stuff, especially seeing as he officially turned down a cameo in this first one (wishing them well in a 2015 Hollywood Reporter interview), but juice box half full right? I have a hope that Mr. Moranis checks Feig’s work out and supports the new team in the way that his fellow cast mates did this time around.(I may or may not have yelped when Annie Potts arrived.) Plus I’m a kid of the late 80s…I just super want to see him back in front of a camera and I feel like this is the best shot we’ve got. Failing that, Peter MacNichol would not be unwelcome. If I have a soft spot for Ghostbusters 2, it’s because of him.

5 – Let Kevin join the team!
Chris Hemsworth’s dumb puppy dog of a receptionist was so adorably eager to be a Ghostbuster that in a latter portion of the film, he’d made his own jumpsuit and outfitted a motorcycle with duct taped laser canons. Unfortunately apocalypses being the inconvenience that they are, he didn’t get to realize this dream. Seeing as Hemsworth’s scenes were serious highlights, I’d be happy to see what he would do when faced with the supernatural. It’s probably a safety hazard to the general public, so Holtzmann could start him off with a pimped out laser pointer and train him up from there. At the very least, I hear he’s good with a hammer.

Seriously how can you say no to that face?

I implore you Sony, Paul Feig, Katie Dippold, cast and all the ghostly powers that be to let this team take up proton packs again in the future!

Ghostbusters is still in theaters and is expected to arrive on Blu-ray/DVD in October, hopefully in time for Halloween.

Film Review: “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”

Starring: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rachel House
Directed By: Taika Waititi
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 101 minutes
Orchard

Our Score: 5 out of 5 Stars

Last year New Zealand director Taika Waititi breathed life into the vampire genre with his brilliant What We Do in the Shadows, my favorite comedy of 2015. The director this week turns again to his home turf to even more success for the quirky tale of Ricky Baker in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Wilderpeople is an unconventional spin on the tried-and-true old mentor meeting his younger match that manages to be action packed, unpredictable and heartfelt without veering into the saccharine territory oft trod by coming of age stories. Not only has Waititi matched my expectations based on his Shadows and “Flight of the Conchords” work but he’s significantly upped my excitement for his next project–Thor: Ragnarok (as if that was even possible!)

Julian Dennison stars as a ‘real bad egg’ called Ricky Baker, an orphan from the city who’s been to his share of foster homes. Child services drops him at a remote farm in the New Zealand bush kept by the sweet Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and bearded grump Hec (Sam Neill). Bella invites Ricky to dub them Auntie and Uncle, though Ricky and Hec are less than keen. When the welcoming Bella passes away leaving Ricky under Hec’s care, his new country life looks about to be ripped from under him again by child services. Naturally Ricky flees to the wilderness with Hec following along. They quickly become a pair of outlaws–everyone believing Hec a kidnapper–and infamous for evading a country-wide manhunt.

As Ricky Baker, newcomer Julian Dennison delivers a star-making performance. He is the perfect age for this little adventure of Waititi’s. A foster child who’s been passed around with a long list of ‘offenses’ (which child service agents will rattle off at the drop of a hat to hilarious effect), Baker is on the verge of puberty and of actually buying into his own bad reputation but is still very much malleable. There’s glimpses of Ricky posturing his ”gangsta” image between his wardrobe or his Scarface references but the brilliance of Dennison is watching the child that he actually is come to the surface. Dennison’s vulnerability is exposed when faced with the prospect of being separated from his most stable home to date. Meanwhile, his curiosity and eagerness to learn the bush life chip away at his city-kid exterior and the fact that he’s wont to spout haikus only makes him all the more endearing. There are a million layers to Ricky Baker and Dennison plays them all with great heart.

This isn’t at all to belittle the terrific support Dennison receives from his adult cast. It’s been 23 since Sam Neill begrudgingly led some kids through Jurassic Park and the years and the beard have only hardened his ornery exterior to perfection. His soft center is tougher to wear down to, but Ricky is game for the challenge. And there aren’t any dinosaurs that Neill needs to evade, but as the formidable Paula from Child services, Rachel House is an absolute scene stealer with dreams of being the Terminator. Rounding out these guys is an appearance from frequent Waititi collaborator Rhys Darby used to wacky effect as Psycho Sam.

Despite some real live threats in the bush and some choice language from kids and adults alike (“Like hell!” abounds), I can’t help but feel that Hunt for the Wilderpeople might be a perfect family film. Shot in beautiful locations, it’s hilarious without being malicious, populated with quirky characters forming genuine human bonds and I can’t stress enough the joy I derived from Dennison’s honest performance. Add to all that an action packed finale and you’ve got A Summer Movie to compete with the biggest of blockbusters. As Uncle Hec says, truly “Majestical.”

June 24 – I screened Hunt for the Wilderpeople at TFF 2016, it is now in limited US release. Visit Wilderpeople.film for trailer and local release dates. 

Director Matt Brown on “The Man Who Knew Infinity”

In 1914 a self-taught math genius named Srinivasa Ramanujan left behind everything he knew when he boarded a ship that would take him from his life in Madras, India to Cambridge University in England. He was drawn to the prestigious school via a correspondence with English mathematician G. H. Hardy who recognized Ramanujan’s enormous potential not just for discovering known theorems without any formal education, but for seemingly cracking brand new ones.
Their collaboration is charted in director Matt Brown’s new feature The Man Who Knew Infinity starring Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons as Ramanujan and Hardy. Despite the left brained subject at hand, Brown’s film delves further into the very human story of a man faced with living in an entirely new world. Patel and Irons make for a compelling duo experiencing a huge, but ultimately fruitful, culture clash. The pair are supported by a roster of talented actors including Stephen Fry, Toby Jones and Kevin McNally. The road from Robert Kanigel’s book of the same name to its film adaptation was one that took over twelve years to travel and Brown spoke with me on the phone about how it all came together (Spoiler: It didn’t involve shoehorning in an unnecessary romantic subplot!)

Lauren Damon: First off, speaking as someone who knows nothing about math, you made a very touching film!

Matt Brown: [Laughs] Thanks, I don’t know much about it myself so thank you.

LD: Since this is your second feature since 2000, how long ago did you come across Ramanujan’s story and what made you decide to make it?

MB: Well…my aunt was a member of a book club and about twelve years ago I was visiting her and she introduced me to Robert Kanigel biography. I had done a small film right out of school that I never really got to finish and so this was my first sort of opportunity to do a little bit of a bigger film–or we were hoping it would be–but it was a long road. I mean it was twelve years trying to get this film made so I sometimes joke that I think I was nervous to go through the process of having to make another film and I picked maybe the hardest film in the history of the world to try to get made. [laughs]

LD: I read that you had had an interest in World War One, which this story takes place during but it’s not really the focus…

MB: No it doesn’t, it’s just with–You know I’d read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks and I was really fascinated by the period, as anyone that has read that incredible book might be afterwards, and this was set against the great war and that just sort of got my attention for a second look at it. Once I’d read it, I really fell in love with the human story and the relationships. You know, as a writer, you’re always looking for conflict and drama and it just had two characters that couldn’t have been any more different. So it drew me in. I was drawn into the isolation that Ramanujan was going through…This illness and everything he went through was something I could really relate to because I was helping caretake actually for my brother at the time. I was helping with his wife because he had cancer. He subsequently got better and wrote all the music for the movie, so it was a happy ending.

LD: That’s amazing.

MB: It was pretty amazing.

LD: There are many biopics that handle these mathematical geniuses–like Theory of Everything or A Beautiful Mind–did you look to any of those?

MB: Sure I guess like over the years, I couldn’t not have. You know it was over such a long period of time, and I’m a movie lover so I’ve them all at this point, I think! [laughs] And it’s funny because we all have perceptions of films and they’re not always totally accurate what our perception is of what the film was. I remember watching Beautiful Mind one time to try to see how they portrayed the mathematics visually in it. And it was shockingly small, the amount actually. It was like the one moment where he adjusts the tie, and he makes the pattern of the tie work. And it was like small and subtle. I don’t even know if there was another moment in the movie that did it besides doing lots of math on the chalkboards. People writing furiously. You know and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do a film that was organic. Anything we tried to do we wanted to do it in the camera. And it was really important to me to just portray the mathematicians as multidimensional human beings that weren’t crazy and weren’t like frenetically insane and were actually, you know, complex flawed characters. So I didn’t need to make it into something it wasn’t already. I think just trying to be authentic to what the story as more than enough. I mean this had so much drama: Man breaks caste, leaves his country and his home, gets trapped by the war, goes all the way to England only to find that the one person that brings him there is emotionally completely unavailable…And how these two had to come together.

LD: Throughout the film, so many of the actors have to speak so passionately about what their characters are working on. Did any of them delve into studying what they were talking about?

MB: Yeah they both spent some time trying to–Well, first of all I just would say it was really important to Robert Kanigel who wrote the book that I philosophically understood some of what was going on with the mathematics. And certainly I came to respect them as artists, pure mathematicians. It was really important to Jeremy and to Dev. Jeremy, I know read A Mathematician’s Apology, they both read the biography and I think that they both wanted to do right by this story. So they, they did a lot of research on their own and they worked with [mathematician] Ken Ono who came to set and worked with me while we were shooting which gave the actors a lot of confidence that the script was right. That when they would point at a formula or when they would look at the notebooks, everything was exactly right. And you know it’s one of those things that afterwards you know people always say that ‘well, the math people of the world will love your movie’ but I’m like ‘well, actually you don’t take that for granted.’ It’s really been humbling that I can have Freeman Dyson or Steven Strogatz be like ‘You got us. You did it.’ You know and that really means a lot to me. And so that aside, I want the movie to touch people that are not mathematicians. It’s very important that–that’s who I made for was for people like me or you or anyone that doesn’t know math and maybe we could just respect it as an art form and come to see their passion with it. Really the movie is about acceptance and the human story.

Jeremy Irons with director Matt Brown

LD: Meanwhile, I feel like Dev Patel probably wasn’t so much a household name until after Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, but you had the rights to the story for so long, how did that casting come together?

MB: I mean it’s been, it’s just been a process. I think when we started Dev was  you know just had  done [Slumdog Millionaire]. It was so long ago. You know, we went through different actors at different points over twelve years trying to get a movie made. But you know I think it was sort of–I have to think that there’s a plan for these things in some sense. And I knew that I wasn’t gonna compromise on the film in terms of the overall authenticity of it. I mean I’ve mentioned to the press at different times that [producer] Ed Pressman really stood by me when we had been offered opportunities to make the film if we would have Ramanujan fall in love with a white nurse to get it financed. And we didn’t do that. So I think there’s just a bigger plan at work and it happened the way it happened. Dev was ready to go at the right time and committed to it and felt like this was a character–he saw the nobility of the character and it was really important for him to play this role. And it’s a different kind of role for him than we’ve seen him in before and he does it brilliantly.  And for Jeremy, I think it was an opportunity to revisit something in a different way as an actor for him. And he, his performance is just so pure and beautiful.  I’m just humbled to be part of it.

LD: You also have an amazing supporting cast with Stephen Fry, Toby Jones…

MB: Yeah and Jeremy Northam, all those guys. You know, Stephen Fry is amazing–they’re all amazing–but Stephen you know he had his own project, for ten years trying to get it made,  and when we found out that we were gonna be making the film I reached out to him and I said do you wanna maybe join our team for this? And he did! And he flew all the way to Chennai for a weekend. Just took two days to shoot, to play Sir Francis Spring in it. And it was such a big thing for the movie to have the first time you see British actor to have that kind of gravitas that Stephen Fry could bring to it. That authenticity was a really great gift that he gave the film. But they were all wonderful.

Dev Patel and Stephen Fry

LD: How long were you filming in India?

MB: Not long, about nine days. Which was really…it was hard because it was an independent film and you obviously get compared to I don’t know, movies like–I mean, I’m really flattered anytime anybody ever mentions like the John Nash film for instance that was about fifteen times our budget [laughs] you know? So if it’s even in the conversation. But you know, we had a very short shoot compared to those kind of movies and we did twenty two days in England and then we had to say goodbye to our crew after we’re in a great rhythm. And then we switch to India, to Chennai, which is nothing like Madras in 1914. It was a real challenge and a brand new crew all of the sudden which is Indian and goes to a totally different rhythm. It was a tribute to my team–my production designer Luciana Arrighi, the cinematographer [Larry Smith], my costume designer [Ann Maskrey]– that they all came out alive and in one piece. [laughs]

LD: I’ve read now that you’ve also adapted an Ian Fleming biography, are you actively working with that?

MB: No that’s something I had written a while back. That’s, I’m not really sure what the state of that. I think that they said that that was going into production this year though so that was exciting. I have another movie called London Town that I think is in the Los Angeles film festival right now and then doing, I think it’s having a premiere maybe in Cannes. And that’s about falling in love with a band for the first time. A young man coming of age story with the band The Clash and Joe Strummer. Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars in that.

LD: That’s quite a change from Mathematics and World War One!

MB: Right? But you know what, it’s not though. That’s the funny thing, I thought the same thing then I was thinking about it more and more…It’s socially conscious kind of and it’s about artists, you know, so in a weird way it isn’t so different. But yeah, it is different because it’s a little easier on the face of it to rock out to Joe Strummer.

I screened The Man Who Knew Infinity as part of the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently in limited theatrical release with national expansion in the coming weeks.

TFF: Keegan-Michael Key on “Keanu” and the Upcoming “Don’t Think Twice”

Keegan Michael Key rose to fame on Comedy Central with Jordan Peele on their hit sketch show “Key & Peele”. The television duo rode off into the sunset of that series this past September but they’ve already reteamed on the big screen in the action comedy Keanu which opens today. The film finds the pair fighting drug gangs to recover Peele’s character’s stolen kitten. Keegan was in attendance at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival to premiere Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice which he stars in alongside Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs and Chris Gethard. On the red carpet, the hilarious Key was glad to joke about working with the many felines of Keanu as well as his role in the touching improv-centric Don’t Think Twice.

Lauren Damon: So how was it working with that cat?

Keegan-Michael Key: The cat was super difficult. The cat—lemme explain to you—this cat, you wouldn’t believe how fast this thing became a prima donna like ‘Nah, I’m not gonna eat cat food anymore. I’m only going to eat caviar. The salmon has to be from Alaska.’ I mean, it’s like what are we doing?? It took like—I can’t believe we got the movie finished to be quite honest with you. [laughing] In real life, it was seven cats. So the thing is it was each cat was given the job of doing a particular thing. So some cats run from point A to point B. Some cats really relax and chill out in your arms and some cats put their paws up and go ‘meeeeow!’ All this kind of stuff. So they were actually not as hard as you would think. Especially for kittens. Like they’re trained. They always say it’s hard enough to ‘herd cats’ well, imagine herding kittens! But we had amazing trainers. Really amazing trainers. And a lot of kibble. [Laughs] Like a lot of cat food and catnip to keep ‘em in line. 

LD: Was it a relief for you coming off “Key & Peele” to get to work with Jordon so soon again?

KMK: Oh yeah! And also it’s easier even though a movie’s longer, it’s easier to play one character. You know, it’s easier because there’d be times you’d be in wardrobe and looking in a mirror but learning lines for a different sketch as you’re like ‘I’m dressed like an Egyptian pharaoh but these are the lines for the gangster!’ You know, and so just to play one character and have there be an arc was really helpful.

In Don’t Think Twice, Key plays a member of an improv troupe who snags a job on an SNL-like comedy show, seriously affecting the dynamic of the whole group.

LD: Did the theme of Mike’s film–that idea of “going above” your peers [in having your own comedy show]–resonate with you? Had you experienced it from either side?

KMK: Yeah, it resonates with me. I think that because you have to remember at the end of the day, do everything in your power to just to make it be about the work. Because the success will trip you up. If you start thinking things like you’re better than somebody it’s of no use to anyone. It’s not helpful, it’s not kind. And so I think that what I’ve been trying to discover or negotiate is just working. Work as hard as you can. If somebody else is at the same level or different level works—does work that inspires you, let that continue to inspire you, even if you’re ‘higher than’…you know? That doesn’t mean anything. That’s not real. Those are just labels. Good art is good art no matter what level it’s being made at.

The cast of Don’t Think Twice

Keanu opens in theaters April 29th (read our review here). The fantastic Don’t Think Twice is scheduled for release this July.

TFF Film Review: “High-Rise”

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss
Directed By: Ben Wheatley
Rated: R
Running Time: 119 minutes
Magnet

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

Late in the chaos that engulfs Ben Wheatley’s new film High-Rise, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) welcomes a woman into his paint splattered flat exclaiming “I think I finally found the right tone!” Against all odds, he may as well be describing the film itself. An adaptation of JG Ballard’s 1975 novel that was long thought unfilmable (producer Jeremy Thomas tried 30 years ago), Wheatley and Co. have managed to create a wonderfully anarchic microcosm of a society breaking down as it builds upwards. If the social commentary–the hazards of worshiping material wealth, the “1%” literally living it up on the top floors–is simplistic, Wheatley’s production team offers it up in the most absurdly beautiful ways. From the brutalist production design to a stunning score by Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream), High-Rise is a darkly humorous, sexy, and oftentimes grotesque cinematic experience.

The film opens with a bearded, bedraggled Laing foraging for supplies in the corpse-strewn detritus of his high-rise apartment building. “For all its inconveniences,” a civilized sounding Hiddleston narrates, “Laing was satisfied with life in the high-rise.” Laing then rotisserie roasts a dog for supper. As one does. From here we go back to simpler times three months ago, when Laing was just moving into the shiny new development. At floor 25 out of 40, the good doctor quickly learns the strict class divide of the upper and lower residents between which he sits–or, nude sunbathes actually–nearly smack in the middle. Laing is welcomed into the upper echelons by Charlotte Melville (Miller) as she dallies with lower-leveled married man Richard Wilder (Evans). Laing’s even invited to the penthouse occupied by mysterious architect Royal (Jeremy Irons, regal in all white). Royal views what he has wrought, one tower in a series of five, as a “crucible for change” while brain surgeon Laing pleases Royal when he describes it more as a “diagram of an unconscious psychic event.” Royal is so impressed with Laing he attempts to invite him to a decadent fancy dress party thrown by his wife. Laing is roundly rejected by Royal’s peers and experiences the first of many power outages from within an elevator he’s been unceremoniously shoved into. The honeymoon is over.

These early sequences of life in the High-Rise had me enthralled. Laing’s exploration of the tower is paired perfectly with Clint Mansell’s driving orchestra music, which manages to capture the entrepreneurial spirit of the shiny all inclusive tower while suggesting the underlying tensions of the residents pulsing through the structure. One tiny inconvenience is enough to upset this flow and set everyone off into rage. To top it off, everyone is impeccably tailored. Meanwhile, from his place in the middle, Laing is able to interact with all levels of residents who can’t seem to grasp which ‘slot’ he is meant to fill.

Hiddleston’s Laing is a hard one to pin down and makes for a fascinating entry into the film’s madness. He initially tells Charlotte he doesn’t think he can change (he’s speaking of getting into a swimsuit but the line, like so many in Amy Jump’s script, is delivered with more weight than that) and for a while that’s true. Laing seems a neutral character, claiming he desires a blank slate in the wake of his sister’s death. When confronted with quarreling residents, he seeks to pacify the tensions between lower floor residents, the maintenance man and the architect who has accepted him. But the longer he’s in the building the more Laing’s crueler tendencies come to light. Mouthing off at a child, casually implying a deathly prognosis to a social rival–Laing’s mean streak is comparatively subtle in the shadow of Evans’s aptly named Wilder but Hiddleston is quietly menacing throughout. And his desperate need to keep his dress shirt and tie on is a nice touch.

As the tower devolves into darkness, murder and crammed garbage shoots, your enjoyment of the latter half of the film may depend upon whether you buy into the notion that the residents do not run screaming to the authorities. After all there is an outside world to this tower, this isn’t Snowpiercer. However Wheatley crams enough absurdist humor into these late stages that I, like the looney residents drolly contemplating lobotomizing their rivals, surrendered to a logic more powerful than reason. Or just damn stylish film making.

This film received its New York premiere at last week’s Tribeca Film Fest and is available to rent now onDemand, Amazon and iTunes–though for the best experience, hold out for its theatrical release May 13th!  

Owain Yeoman on the New Season of “Turn: Washington’s Spies”

4/20/2016 The cast and creators of “Turn” at the New York Historical Society

Haven’t you heard? American history is so hot right now, you guys. Between Hamilton dominating Broadway and our electoral cycle being, for better or worse, completely unprecedented, now’s as good a time as any to look back to where it all began. “Turn: Washington’s Spies” returns Mondays on AMC for its third season so you may do exactly that. “Turn,” based on a book by Alexander Rose, follows the Culper Ring, an unlikely batch of spies from Long Island who helped George Washington turn the tide of the American Revolution. After two strong seasons—which, for you binge-watchers out there, are both currently streaming on Netflix!—the third looks to be the most exciting yet. There will be the addition of their own Hamilton and more importantly, the infamous defection of Benedict Arnold.

Owain Yeoman

Originally an American war hero for his decisive actions at the Battle of Saratoga, an injured Arnold was passed over for promotions he believed were his due and eventually his bitterness swayed him into the service of the British. On the show, Arnold is played with humanity by Welsh actor Owain Yeoman as part of a love triangle that involves romantic rival, and British spymaster, John Andre (JJ Feild) and beautiful loyalist Peggy Shippen (Ksenia Solo). Yeoman was part of a premiere screening panel last week at the New York Historical Society where I talked to him about today’s politics and the exciting times to come for his role on the show.

Lauren Damon: When you’re working on a show like this and at the same time watching this year’s election, does it have a greater impact on you?

Owain Yeoman: It’s very interesting I think, the parallels between—and I think it’s something that the show is consciously trying to market this year, is the, you know the parallels between the Red states and the Blue states and how things, depressingly, probably haven’t changed for a few hundred years. You know, we’ve still got the same old gripes and the same old battles. I think it’s very smart of AMC also to kind of market a you know, “WWGWD?”—What Would George Washington Do?—type campaign… And it’s true, he’s the father of our nation, of this nation, not necessarily my nation! [laughs] But you know the nation that I’ve come to call home. And I think it’s incredible how the show really does speak to the current political climate. And we couldn’t be more in the sort of fervor of it all with [the New York primary vote] going on here last night. So I think that’s our hope, that people really see that though hundreds of years have gone by, the themes and relationships and political climate is definitely still the same.

LD: This season is really your season, getting into Benedict’s treachery, is that exciting for you?

OY: Very exciting! Yeah, I mean like I’m finally becoming the traitor I always hoped I’d be! [laughs] It’s kind of a dubious prospect. He’s one of the those characters who when you tell people who you’re playing, they’re like ‘Oh you’re playing That Guy, I’m sorry’ but it’s a great challenge. I love discovering a more human side to him because I think you know he’s known very one-sidedly as America’s biggest traitor and there’s so much more to him. He was a great hero, the hero of Saratoga, and he was a real person. And I think if you approach something in that black and white area and don’t have the gray area that is real life, it doesn’t do someone justice. So that’s what we’re concerned about, showing the journey that gets him to be that guy.

LD: Yes in grade school history he was definitely The Bad Guy.

Peggy Shippen and Benedict Arnold on “Turn: Washington’s Spies”

OY: Yeah, it’s like ‘Ooooh it’s Benedict Arnold!’ Yeah and I think you know that it’s important to understand that he was one of America’s greatest generals before he became the famous traitor. And I think you only get a sense of the drama and the tragedy of that turn if you establish him as the general that he was before that fall. So you know hopefully people can get invested in that, and people can be you know, sort of see a different side to the character than maybe grade school taught us about, you know?

LD: As on the show, is there on-set any rivalry between you and JJ Feild?

OY: Oh always! [laughs] Yeah, I mean we’ve got a fierce love triangle that really comes to a head—no pun intended you know ’cause someone loses theirs at some point [laughs], history’s the ultimate spoiler for this show so I don’t feel bad about saying that. But yeah, it’s one of those things where you know, the stakes are high. In love, in the political climate, international climate. And this show—this season is the season [creator Craig Silverstein] said he always wanted to make. So all the big stuff’s happening this year, it is the Don’t-Miss Season.

Ian Kahn (“George Washington”) and Owain Yeoman (“Benedict Arnold”) at the New York Historical Society

This Don’t-miss season of Turn: Washington’s Spies starts Monday April 25th at 10pm on AMC.

Tribeca Film Fest Review: “Holidays”

Starring: Seth Green, Clare Grant, Harley Quinn Smith
Directed by: Anthony Scott Burns, Nicholas McCarthy, Adam Egypt Mortimer, Gary Shore, Kevin Smith, Sarah Adina Smith, Scott Stewart, Kevin Kölsch, and Dennis Widmyer
Rated: R
Running Time: 144 mins
Vertical Entertainment

Our score: 1/2 star out of 5 stars

There’s no place like home for the holidays. As in stay in yours, do not flock to theaters to see the horror anthology dubbed simply Holidays which is out there today. The anthology film boasts a familiar roster of horror directors—though arguably the ‘biggest’ name, Kevin Smith, offers only Tusk on his horror resumé…so take that how you will— who gather here to tell short stories from Valentine’s Day to New Year’s Eve in chronological order. Horror anthologies thrive on bringing a lot of different things to the table. Shorts can be shocking, funny, twisted, even confusing, but if there’s one thing they shouldn’t be, it’s boring. And for seven out of eight of these, I was just plain bored.

When I called the entirety of what was going to happen in the opening short, “Valentine’s Day”, I immediately felt uneasy. Tethered to the order of the calendar year, it had to be their starting point, but it wasn’t a strong one. In short, a lovestruck-Carrie-looking outcast on a swim team is bullied by a blonde-haired Mean Girl. Commence the ten minute slog to her comeuppance. And this waiting occurs time and time again. Most egregiously in Father’s Day—a story, I admit I wholly forgot I sat through until I counted out the holidays and found I was short one. If it’s not waiting a full ten to fifteen minutes for a short’s singular predictable jump scare, it’s hitting the point of the story too fast and dragging it out. Kevin Smith’s “Halloween” is not only torturous to its main character—a Hollywood sleazebag getting what he deserves from a team of his webcam girls— but it brings the audience along with him.

The ‘scheduling’ of the holidays also hampers the flow of the film. I guess putting them in calendar order makes sense on paper but then Christmas and New Year’s wind up sharing the same murderous psycho-female trope. Neither really shocks but viewed back to back, it’s also redundant. Similarly there’s two tales revolving around pregnancy-as-horror. Really? You have all the folklore of all the holidays and twice you come up with fertility problems? It’s as if the directors didn’t realize they were making an anthology until after the fact.

Nicholas McCarthy’s “Easter”, the one in the eight that peaked my interest, offered a sick bit of creature humor in the form of the nocturnal Easter-Bunny-Jesus (complete with stigmata!) Unfortunately, we can’t follow that story down its rabbit hole and the inevitable holiday card blackout that cut off each story appeared to bring us back to the rest of the unpleasant lineup.

Tom Hiddleston and Susanne Bier Premiere AMC’S The Night Manager

Tom Hiddleston and Olivia Colman in “The Night Manager”

“The Night Manager” recently completed its first series run in the UK to much critical acclaim and strong ratings throughout. Fortunately for American viewers, the series gets its stateside premiere tonight on AMC. Based on John Le Carré’s 1993 novel of the same name, “The Night Manager” follows Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) an ex-soldier-turned-titular-customer-serviceman in a posh Egyptian hotel. He’s presented with the opportunity to help British Intelligence agent Angela Burr (Broadchurch’s Olivia Colman) take down jet-setty guest and illegal arms dealer Richard Roper (a superbly sinister Hugh Laurie) from the inside of his operation out. Outraged by Roper’s behavior, and with some very personal motivations as well, Pine swiftly accepts. What follows is a taut spy thriller that features an amazing cast that also includes Elizabeth Debicki and Tom Hollander.

The series premiere screened this weekend as part of the Tribeca Tune In series celebrating television. I caught up with Hiddleston and director of the series, Susanne Bier, for a quick chat on their red carpet.

Susanne Bier is an Oscar winning director (2011’s Best Foreign Language film, In a Better World) who was eager to take on this project in any capacity. “Well I mean, this project I would have done had it been a puppet show!” Bier enthused, “Because I love John Le Carre and I love the novel. But I was also very tempted to do TV. I mean the format of doing six hours as opposed to two hours was just really tempting and really interesting and compelling.”

With the show having already gone over so well in England, Bier was looking forward to opening it up to a new audience and maybe a new perspective on it:  “I think there’s always different perspectives. I mean American audiences are responding just as [excitedly] about it up til now, so I hope so!”

One of the chief changes made from the novel to the series was the switching of British Intelligence agent Burr from a male to a female character. For Bier “Part of it was updating it. Part of it was the fact that by updating it we could take it out of the sort of public school white heterosexual world and maybe actually have a bit of the diversity which is where the world is actually at.” And of the brilliant Olivia Colman, the director added: “And she was absolutely the right choice for it!”

Tom Hiddleston

With Tom Hiddleston‘s Pine reporting to Olivia Colman’s Burr, I wondered if the actor saw a pattern of his recent projects whereby his characters’ fate was in the hands of his strong female leads (Such as Jessica Chastain in Crimson Peak or Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive) . Hiddleston—who, it must be said gave thoughtful answers to the entirety of this NYC press line— took some time to reflect on those roles before answering  “I haven’t thought about it consciously in the work. I mean…it seems very true to life, doesn’t it? For men to be in relationship to women? [laughs]” He paused again, “I don’t know that they are, how was it you phrased it? Their ‘fates were in the hands of women’–it’s an interesting interpretation!…It rings true to me that each character would have specific relationships to women, but I would never—I would have to think about it longer to think of it whether his fate were in their hands…It is a new interpretation and I’m not disagreeing with you. My point is I think everyone is responsible for their own actions and that responsibility in each of those characters is shared out. I think Pine’s responsible for what he does and he would never discredit Burr by saying that [the mission] was her idea. He does things on his own volition that he’s responsible for and Pine’s fate is in Pine’s hands.”

As for looking back on his recent characters, he did stipulate: “The only instance who I would say that you brought up is [Crimson Peak’s] Thomas Sharpe who is governed by a very toxic relationship with his sister and out of the sense of duty and codependency he feels trapped. But again, his fates not in her hands, I just would question…I suppose I’m being pedantic about phrasing. But I think everyone’s fate is in their own hands.”

Hiddleston not only stars in “The Night Manager” but he took on the more demanding role of executive producing as well which he “loved,” adding “It recomitted my engagement with the material in a very serious way. I loved the extra responsibility. Responsible for the story, for the script, for the thing running on time and it just gives you greater–to me–the extra responsibility made me give even more commitment. So yeah, hoping there will be more of that.”

The Night Manager premieres tonight at 10pm on AMC.

 

Film Review “I Saw the Light”

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Bradley Whitford, Cherry Jones
Directed by: Marc Abraham
Rated: R
123 minutes
Sony Picture Classics

Our score: 3 out of 5 stars

There was a big fuss made last fall by Shenton Hank Williams over the casting of classically trained English actor Tom Hiddleston as his grandfather Hank Sr. Hank3 asserted the country legend should be played by an American who had ‘soul’. It is therefore a smart move that I Saw The Light frees audiences’ doubtful minds about this casting in a gorgeous opening performance of his classic “Cold Cold Heart”. Bathed in a spotlight and shadows, Hiddleston’s Hank is backed by no instrumentals as he croons the classic with all the soul you could ask for. Unfortunately, from this smooth opening, writer-director Marc Abraham launches into a biopic whose rhythm is at times overly choppy. Still, as a showcase for the versatile Hiddleston and fiery Olsen, I Saw the Light impresses.

The structurally episodic film launches straight into Williams’s first marriage to fellow aspiring singer Audrey Mae (Elizabeth Olsen) at a gas station in 1944 before bouncing onto scenes at local dive bars and radio gigs. Abraham skips over Hank’s formative years and we see him with eyes already set on the Grand Ole Opry. That is when they’re not wandering to other women or to the bottom of a bottle. The briefly happy pairing of Audrey Mae and Hank is immediately threatened by Williams’s overbearing mother (Cherry Jones) and Audrey Mae’s desire to share in Hank’s career despite her own lackluster voice. Abraham piles on these personal problems that beset Williams early and heavily before he gradually works in the mentions of Williams’s spina bifida pain which further drove his drug addiction. The trouble with this onslaught of darkness in I Saw the Light is it makes Williams’s untimely passing at age 29 feel like a foregone conclusion with little relief found in his musical achievements.

Thank goodness then for Hiddleston. No stranger to darkness (fresh off of Crimson Peak and about to engage in tv spy thriller “The Night Manager”), he’s magnetic in scenes that require him to rein in his demons–or let them loose. Pity the New York reporter who tries to raise tabloid rumors with Hank or the Hollywood exec who wants him to remove his iconic cowboy hat. He’s particularly chill inducing when invoking Hank’s on stage alter ego “Luke the Drifter,” in a scary recitation to some confused picnic goers. More importantly though he can mine the joy to be found in performing Williams’s work. Yodeling and gyrating–for all intents and purposes flirting with the audience–his striking stage presence goes a long way to selling Williams’s enduring charm despite the emphasis Abraham’s script puts on many terrible relationship choices.

In this arena at least, for most of the film Hiddleston is ably matched by Olsen’s Audrey Mae. A divorcee herself already at the time of their marriage, Audrey Mae is wont to serve Hank the divorce papers when his screwing around becomes too much. Their heated arguments make for some of the most charged interactions in the film, each nailing their southern twangs. More importantly, their tender moments–Hank’s charming as hell plea for Audrey to come back to him, his finding out about impending fatherhood–are truly touching and give the film the heart it needs. As Hank and Audrey Mae drift apart, the chemistry with Olsen is sorely missed. Wrenn Schmidt as Williams’s friend-zoned fling Bobbie Jett briefly rekindles sparks later when Hank’s regretting being a “professional of making a mess of things.” Schmidt is as world weary as Hank in their shared scenes and brings a welcome sense of humor to the ever encroaching darkness of the latter stages of the film.

Said latter stages become riddled with odd choices from Abraham such as increasingly frequent black and white “interviews” or a sudden audio narration whose presence suggests a documentary format we haven’t been privy to for the majority of the film. It undermines the brilliant work of his actors. Here, Hiddleston’s rendition of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” will make you weep. He undoubtedly gets to the heart of Williams’s appeal even as I Saw The Light struggles to illuminate it properly.

I Saw the Light is now playing in New York, LA and Nashville, it expands nationally this Friday.