Film Review “Carol”

Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy
Running Time: 118mins.
The Weinstein Company
Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

At the outset of Todd Haynes’s latest film Carol, two women meet up in a restaurant in 1950s New York City before they are interrupted by a good natured young man. He ultimately escorts the stylish younger lady off to a party and then we drift back in time. It’s a simple start to a beautifully crafted romantic drama which spends the rest of its runtime loading up this and many other minute interactions with infinite complexity. Working from Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking novel The Price of Salt, director Haynes (of 2002’s lauded Far From Heaven) once again showcases the 1950s as the backdrop for simmering social tensions and stellar work by his lead actresses.

As with everything in Haynes’s gorgeous film, the beginning of Carol and Therese’s relationship is sold in loaded small talk. Carol Aird (Blanchett), looking every bit the glamorous fifties socialite, inquires after Christmas gift suggestions from shopgirl Therese (Mara, saddled with a management-enforced goofy Santa hat). Carol eventually settles on a train set, providing Therese with all her relevant contact info to ship her order. She then sashays away with a compliment to the Santa hat. To the outside shopper, this was just a cordial transaction between two ladies but the dialogue sold through Mara and Blanchett’s eyes screams of a mutual attraction. Not to mention the lingering shots of Carol’s perfectly manicured hands that hint at a world struggling photographer Therese can only aspire to be part of. Conveniently Carol forgets a pair of gloves at Therese’s counter, offering Therese an excuse with which to follow up with this intriguing customer. Under the guise of gratitude, Carol is enabled to take Therese to lunch and from there they’re off and running. Or rather roadtripping.

It’s fitting that a trainset and a roadtrip are at the crux of Therese and Carol’s encounters with


one another because Haynes’s film is so much about these women in transitions. It’s unclear what exactly Carol sees in Therese at first except that Carol knows where her desires lie at this point in her life (a past girlfriend in the form of Sarah Paulson’s Abby remains Carol’s strongest bond besides her young daughter) and she will soon be officially divorced from her husband. Her world’s seemingly coming apart and she’s trying to grasp onto something new. Meanwhile Mara is simply heartbreaking as the younger Therese. Navigating this time period, Therese doesn’t even know how to articulate what she wants from Carol or why. A stunning Mara, who won Best Actress with this film at this year’s Cannes festival, is magnetic as her quiet turmoil eventually spills over into a teary outburst before Therese can reform into something stronger.

The leading ladies are capably supported by their would-be male counterparts who are at a loss as to what to do with these women. Kyle Chandler as Harge, Carol’s ex-husband-to-be, launches an attack of sorts on Carol’s ‘morality’ with his legal team in a move that smacks more of desperation than maliciousness. Meanwhile, Therese fends off the over eager advances of Richard (Jake Lacy) and her peers with indifference. To add to it all, Haynes is in his element with period production design along with costume designer Sandy Powell (coming off this year’s triumphant work on Cinderella) and the result is an all around marvelous drama to behold.

Carol was screened as a part of the 2015 New York Film Fest.
I got the chance to speak to Blanchett at Carol’s NY Press Conference, which you can read here.

New York Film Fest Review: “Steve Jobs”

Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg
Running Time: 122mins.
Universal Pictures

Our Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars

No one removes a limb nor falls in a pit beneath an Indian outhouse in Danny Boyle’s new awards-season biopic Steve Jobs, but I do suspect many people will accuse it of dragging the late Apple CEO through the mud. Working from a fast-paced script by Aaron Sorkin (aren’t they always?), the film pulls no punches when it comes to Jobs’ pseudo-Machiavellian pursuit of his Mac computer. Unlike Sorkin’s previous computer-minded outing, The Social Network, Steve Jobs feels even harsher for the span of time in which we’re tuning in. We stay with Mr. Jobs’s and his collateral damage, the loved ones and colleagues frequently left floundering in his wake, over the course of fourteen years and three epic product launches. It pits Jobs’s minor launch glitches against far greater interpersonal struggles and the suspense lies in what will finally warrant his attention. The small acting ensemble revolving around Michael Fassbender’s fierce portrayal of Jobs–including Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels and Michael Stuhlberg–ensures that it’s a fair fight. In this highly focused fashion, Boyle has delivered not the complete biography of Jobs, but an energetic strong impression of the man behind the curtain. And the iPod.

The three ‘acts’ that occupy the real-time action of Boyle’s film see Jobs as he successfully launches Macintosh, then outside of Apple with the disastrous NeXTCube and as the prodigal son returning with 1998’s iMac. To see the launches go off without a hitch is Jobs’s goal but through Boyle and Sorkin’s film, Steve’s launch is like a juggling act where more balls keep getting thrown into play. The major crisis with the first Macintosh is that Andy Hertzfeld (Stuhlbarg) can’t get the demo computer to say ‘hello.’ And Steve is much scarier than Yoda in the “there is no try” department. Hovering on the sidelines of the epic hello struggle is Joanna Hoffman (Winslet), Apple marketing guru and the only person able to wrangle Steve’s attention for any quantifiable amount of time. She doesn’t see why the computer must say hello, oh and also Steve should do something about his daughter and her mother waiting for Steve in the wings. The daughter he’s so publicly denied fathering, and half blames for his losing Time Magazine’s Man of the Year title. Priorities. Meanwhile Steve Wozniak (a deeply touching Rogen) just wants Steve Jobs to say thank you to the Apple 2 guys, an earlier model that the company thrived on. And for good measure, a stoic Jeff Daniels as exec John Scully steps in to remind Steve of his own parental issues (he was adopted) at exactly the wrong times.

These basic components are tossed in and out of focus over the course of the launches, with Boyle slyly throwing in the occasional additional flashbacks in time to further flesh out Steve’s relationships–especially with Wozniak and Scully. As a fiery Fassbender plays young Jobs, it’s easy to see how he sold his team of people on going on these technological ventures under his leadership. Important for us to see considering present-Jobs can so often be despicable. Jobs’s chief struggle in most of his interactions, whether he admits it or not, is with common human decency. Long-suffering Wozniak seeks only acknowledgment while Joanna is frequently going to bat on behalf of Jobs’s daughter Lisa since her mother (Katherine Waterston in a small but effective part) is drifting further away. In this core struggle, Winslet emerges as the film’s heart when its protagonist doesn’t have time for his. In Joanna, Winslet is both fearless and vulnerable. She knows Steve the best, she’s knows she’s too valuable to his enterprise to be cast off and she uses this to stand her ground. If audiences find it hard to root for Steve as he is ruthlessly scripted by Sorkin, they will definitely side with Joanna who only wants Steve to be a better person. It’s clever and Winslet is no doubt as awards-worthy as Fassbender is in this film.

Boyle and Sorkin shy away from actually showing their version of one of Jobs’s epic announcements–we have youtube for that–but at every juncture the Mac masses are omnipresent. We see stamping feet and full theater lobbies of faceless groupies which only serve to amplify Steve’s power in these spaces. While other realms of Jobs’s life were out of his control, at least at these launches every minute detail could be dictated by him. To situate the whole story around these launches is to show Jobs at his most intense. The resulting film is a vibrant, unsympathetic portrait of a man whose work continues to evolve how humans connect with each other whether or not he ever mastered that skill in his own life.

I saw Steve Jobs at this year’s New York Film Fest, the film receives its nationwide release on October 23rd.

New York Film Fest Review: The Martian

Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetal Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan
Running Time: 141 minutes
20th Century Fox

Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

If Saving Private Ryan taught us anything, it’s that you can make a damn great film about a Damon in distress. The Martian, Ridley Scott’s joyous tribute to the ingenuity of scientists, is lightyears away from Spielberg’s gritty epic but the results are still spectacular. The Martian is a massively satisfying sci-fi film on every level that’s anchored by a standout performance from Matt Damon.

When an unexpectedly harsh storm rips through their mission on Mars, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the heart wrenching decision to leave one of her crew on the surface of the planet, presumed dead. Mark Watney (Damon) in actual fact wakes to find he’s alive having taken a communication antenna directly to the equipment that monitors his vitals. Not to mention to his own abdomen. It’s really the perfect setup for a space horror and indeed Watney’s bloody DIY surgery is cringeworthy to watch, but that’s not the film we’re watching. It’s funny that the director who gave us the iconic ‘in space, no one can hear you scream’ and with Watney has added an addendum of unless you “science the shit” out of your situation and get your own communications back on line. Here Watney’s approach is that of a highly trained scientist–a botanist to be specific–who responds not with panic but with measured practicality and optimism. Watney turns immediately to video logging his progress, a clever way to clue the audience into what’s up as well as the unspoken truth that his journal, and own sense of humor, are vital to his sanity and by extension, his survival. Damon is charming as ever in his solo scenes, still grumbling at his now-absent crew mates as he rifles through their belongings for anything useful. Like Guardians of the Galaxy last year, Watney’s ship is stocked with disco records courtesy of his captain to keep the mood on Mars generally upbeat. When he has setbacks, Damon does let loose with some powerful emotional breakdowns that are all the more affecting for how strong a character we already know Watney to be.

Meanwhile on Earth, Damon is supported by a bevy of strong actors including Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean (who gets in a pretty great Lord of the Rings shout out), Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kristen Wiig. They’re faced with not only how to keep their astronaut alive, but whether to inform Watney’s crew (still on their ship and out of the loop) and how to ‘spin’ their situation with the whole world watching. I think what’s most refreshing about the Earth-bound scenes is the spirit of rational teamwork among the NASA personnel. There’s disagreements and debates but never, as too often is the case in sci-fi films, a Bad Guy or any gross caricatures of government officials hellbent on an agenda. Some of the best scenes are the NASA leaders just throwing down challenges to their tech teams and watching all their wheels turning into motion. Scott wrings suspense out of the sheer amount of options the space agencies have for a mission where if one astronaut is lost in pursuit of another, the whole thing is a failure. If anything, the enemy is determining who ultimately will take responsibility for the chosen course of action and its outcome.

Already powered by its strong cast and the gripping central dilemma, The Martian also excels in every technical aspect. Harry Gregson-Williams provides a touching, often ‘futuristic-sounding’ score that never overpowers the action while Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is gorgeous. Jessica Chastain simply floating through her ship on her rounds is already a beautiful image and in the RealD 3D I saw it in at NYFF, it soared. The film doesn’t rely on the 3D, but it is immersive in the space scenes and frequently had me in awe. A thrilling cinematic experience made even better for regarding complications in space as inevitable and workable rather than with terror. It felt like exactly what we need in a moment where NASA continues to make discoveries (just this week: water!) despite threats of shutdown.

The Martian opens on October 2nd. 

New York Film Fest Review: The Walk

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale
Running Time: 124 minutes
Sony, TriStar

Our Score: 2.5 out of 5 stars

When I saw James Marsh’s 2008 documentary Man On Wire, I recall my heart racing. Just listening to Philippe Petit rapid fire recounting his tight rope walk between the Twin Towers, and the amount of sheer luck that his plans hinged on, was exhilarating. When Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit popped up on the top of the torch of the Statue of Liberty in the opening of Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk to narrate the exact same tale, well exhilarated is not the word I’d use. In a perfect world, audiences could see the breathtaking wire walking sequence that Zemeckis has crafted appended to something as thrilling as that Oscar-winning documentary but of course this is not a perfect world. As Gordon-Levitt’s Petit would say through outrageous French accent, c’est la vie. In moving from Man on Wire to The Walk, we must revisit Petit’s spectacular tight rope act with a hefty side of fromage.

The year is 1974 and French street performer Petit, is enamored with wire walking. During his search for more places to hang his wire, he finds a newspaper heralding the nearly-completed Twin Towers in New York City. They’re perfect and he becomes obsessed with the idea of walking between them. In racing towards this vision, Zemeckis takes us through a candy colored vision of the France from the countryside to the circus and Paris. It all culminates in a newsworthy walk between the two towers of the Notre Dame cathedral–a death defying feat unto itself, presented here as a quick bit of exposition. Along the way he picks up French ‘accomplices’ in girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon in a thankless role), a photographer (Clément Sibony) and eccentric circus mentor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) who pleads with Petit to use a safety harness (he won’t). For all the fast paced camera work and bustling Parisian unicycle rides, this first act drags under Petit’s over aggressive narration. In light of the Marsh documentary where the vibrant real Petit told his own story, my mind truly boggled at having this level of wall to wall voice over. For audience members who have not seen the doc, your tolerance may be higher than mine. If anything I miss the different voices from Man on Wire, because here doubt by other characters is treated as repressing an excitable artist. His success is taken as a foregone conclusion.

In 1970s New York, the film takes on more of the heist-like mood that was established in Marsh’s documentary and the film finally takes off. Petit enlists his American accomplices and the element of suspense is restored while Petit and co employ ‘spywork’ to figure out the inner workings of the massive construction site. The level of lax security and staff eluded with charm and confidence of the crew is really something to see from a post-9/11 perspective and is one of the essential elements to Petit’s being a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment. The biggest hurdle is getting from the sky lobbies to the roof and ensuring the roof is free of guards. Here Zemeckis is great at giving us what can only be described as warm up acrophobia as the team contends with incomplete elevator shafts in the build up to the final walk across the void. That walk is undeniably breath taking and seeing it with a crowd in a theater, the level of tensed muscles was strongly felt. And the walk is not short either. As Petit the artist felt more and more connected to the wire and the towers, the more liberties he takes up there. And the sequence is stunning in spite of Petit remaining on hand to tell us how stunning it is.

With the 3D walk itself being worth price of admission, more so in vertigo-inducing IMAX, and poignant final moments that especially resonated with the New York Film Fest crowd, Zemeckis has crafted a spectacle to be sure even if the rest of the film will likely not stand the same test of time that the 2008 documentary has.

The Walk opens in limited IMAX on September 30th with a wide release on October 9th.


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New York Film Fest “Birdman” Press Conference

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s reality-bending Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) closed the 52nd New York Film Fest this past Sunday. The film which opens on October 17th stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson an actor trying to distance himself from an iconic superhero film franchise by starring and directing his own broadway production. Keaton’s huge cast of co-stars includes Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, and Andrea Riseborough, all of whom joined the director at a press conference after the film at AMC Lincoln Center.

Much of the film revolves around Riggan’s struggle with his own identity versus his public image. Specifically he’s faced with a particularly vicious theatre critic whose sole objective is  to destroy Riggan’s show with her pen. Michael Keaton however maintained that he keeps himself in the dark when it comes to critics now. “This is where I’m really a dope” laughed Keaton who looked at reviews in his early days but not so much recently.  “I thought originally…you should be courageous and read everything and I did that a couple of times and I thought ‘well I’m not doing that anymore!’  Although he did add “Admittedly if someone says ‘hey you had a got nice review’ I’ll read it. I’m open to making myself feel better!” Addressing an entire auditorium of NYC critics he concluded “I think I’ve been treated basically fairly, I know I’m the wrong person to ask…There’s probably a lot of you out there going “Oh no you haven’t!”

British theatre actress Andrea Riseborough, who plays Riggan’s co-star also avoids critical reviews “because [she finds] them debilitating, not because [she doesn’t] respect them” Riseborough added that there’s a certain element of fear when it comes to actors encountering critics, rather than hostility, especially in the world of theatre. “You know, they saw Gambon doing his bit back in the day and now they’re going to come and see me. It makes me just want to shit myself!”
 Zach Galifianakis confidently chimed in “I’ve never had a bad review, so I’m not quite sure what you’re talking about. It sounds familiar. I’ve heard people talk about it. But I’ve never had one” cracking up his cast and the audience.

Naomi Watts compared some of her theatre experience to the unorthodox way Birdman was shot: “I can say, I haven’t done a huge amount of theatre, but just from back in the days when I was studying and you know, doing plays then, a lot of my nightmares revolve around being on the stage; And forgetting my lines, or having the wrong clothes on or no clothes at all. So it is that classic recurring nightmare. A lot in the way this film was shot, with this speed and the high stakes and the technicalities and the dependency on each other and the, also the effects, you know the props and things, the cameras, the lighting and the removing of tables and putting them back, you know all those things sort of created this high level intensity and pressure that felt sort of emblematic sort of how it feels on the stage.”

Soon to be joining Watts in stage experience is Emma Stone, who in November will replace Michelle Williams in the current broadway revival of Cabaret. I asked her how she felt between making this film about a movie star entering Broadway and now actually facing that in reality.
“Well, you know, I did write the character of Sally Bowles and I’m directing the production”  the Amazing Spider-man star laughed, then added  “No, I you know, of course this movie brings up a lot of horrible fears of coming into the broadway community and having a Tabitha [the film’s villainous critic]…it feels very different. But I will say that making this  movie and kind of what we had to contend with, as actors, in making something like this, all of the pieces that Naomi was talking about had to–you know, having the table moving out and needing to rely on each other  the way the company does, I think is incredibly helpful now going into theatre in that way and realizing that you’re you know you operate very much as a unit. We all operate as a unit. And in a lot of films it’s not that way at all. It’s a very separate experience. So yeah, I’m nervous as hell. I’m shitting myself!”

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu elaborated on the challenge he and DP Emmanuel Lubezki faced in shooting Birdman in mainly long contiunous shots. “Basically all the camerawork, all the blocking and all the lighting was pre-assigned in advance, months in advance. So there was no improvisation everything was precise, meticulously…Without the editing everything has to happen in the flow and then so you have to really get everything together…So the difficulty was the point of view–where this camera would be located to tell the story right. Who has to be in frame or not. Who has to be the listener…The challenge of that was that there was no lights, shooting film lights. Everything was practical lights and sometimes it was 360 degrees in tiny cooridors with guys with microphones. So all that thing that they’re talking about–the things moving and the ‘you have to be behind him’ and then you go under the legs of somebody and then crawl over the other side. It was kind of the kids playing a theatre play and the camera going around with this 17mm lens which is a wideshot. So every bit, every line, every open door has to be performed exactly the same…it has to be right.”

Actress Amy Ryan described this process as causing a “happy accident” whereby Keaton’s character had to be laying on a dressing room counter top in order to accommodate the camera manuevers “That was the only place really that worked best for every moving part in the scene, boom operator and [Lubezki], myself, Michael. And now I can’t think of a better choice for that, that’s exactly where he should be in that moment.”

Of course with a past Hulk, a Gwen Stacy and an iconic Batman in the room, the idea of the Superhero Film had to be raised with the cast and although the film is definitely not that, it doesn’t entirely shy away from some CGI effects. Keaton was pleased with this “When the special effects come in, I mean it’s just outta nowehere! And I totally dig it. I go yeah, there’s a little treat…A little megaplex action superhero movie dose for you right there…”
He and Edward Norton previewed some footage at New York Comic Con the evening before.  “Michael and I went over to New York Comic Con last night to do a little panel there,” said Norton, “and in the dark right before we went on I looked at Michael and said ‘do think this is the ultimate bait and switch?’ Can you imagine if you go to this actually thinking it’s a superhero movie?”

Birdman is now in limited theatrical release.


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Film Review “Gone Girl”

Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens
Directed By: David Fincher
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 149 minutes
20th Century Fox

Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

It’s the most wonderful time of the year here in New York. Everything’s pumpkin flavored, the tourist crowd is momentarily lighter and last Friday David Fincher’s diabolical new thriller, Gone Girl, kicked off the 2014 New York Film Fest starting the ‘Oscar Season’ in earnest. Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name is a genuine roller coaster of a film in the best sense of the word. With it’s time-bending structure, strong cast, yellow tinged scenes and another powerful Trent Reznor score, Gone Girl has everything we’ve come to expect from the director of The Social Network and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, while offering its own set of shocks.

Gone Girl begins as Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) contemplates violently opening the back of his wife Amy’s head. What’s going on in there? Turns out it’s a valid question, albeit phrased threateningly by Nick, as Amy (Rosamund Pike) vanishes on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. Amidst signs of a struggle. Unsurprisingly a gorgeous blond, on whom it turns out a beloved children’s book series is based no less, the disappearance of “Amazing Amy” kicks into gear the type of journalistic circus we’ve seen play out countless times in American media. The prayer vigils and self-righteous angry moms come out in full force and Amy’s parents crop up with a website uncomfortably quickly for such a sudden loss don’t you think?

Amidst the chaos is Nick who, like many husbands I would guess in this situation, isn’t PR savvy. As such any fleeting smile of Nick’s is immortalized in a selfie and plastered on every TV screen in the country as proof that he is surely a sociopath. But whether or not he is is something much of the film hinges on and watching Nick being trained how to appear not guilty while we’re also not quite sure of his innocence is a fascinating line that Affleck and Fincher tread together.

By all accounts Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn had a monster of a book to adapt in Flynn’s popular novel and what’s stunning is not just how well the adaptation works but on how many levels it successfully operates on. We begin with a compelling love story that evolves into a dissection of marriage in all its facets, a thrilling possible-murder mystery, a scathing indictment of American national media and…well to go much further I’d wade into spoiler territory and honestly, this film is best experienced without them. People usually say the book is better, or read the book first, but if you’ve made it to the film’s release as I had, save the visit to the library till afterwards when you’ll be dying to find out more anyway.

What I will say is that the massive supporting cast is uniformly incredible from Casey Wilson as the Dunne’s busybody neighbor to Missi Pyle’s vicious TV ditz Ellen Abbott. Poor Pyle, how much Nancy Grace did she have to subject herself to? I shudder to think. Carrie Coon too as Nick’s sister Margo deserves praise for having the difficult task of balancing her love of her brother with a seemingly endless parade of damning information. Her Margo along with lead investigator Detective Boney (played by Kim Dickens) give the audience some desperately needed level-heads to rely on on the constantly shifting field Fincher constructs.

But the main attractions here are Affleck and Pike. The evolution these two must go through from well-integrated flashbacks of their romance to the harsher recent times is as believable as it is chilling. I would say this isn’t the best ‘date movie’ for couples, but then hopefully that’s not what one looks for in the director of Se7en. Pike in particular has the difficult task of selling much of Amy’s story in voice-overs from her journal but she completely owns it. Amy’s actual fate too allows Pike to turn in a jaw dropping performance that even those familiar with her career so far, will find themselves seeing her in a whole new light.

New York Film Festival Review “Only Lovers Left Alive”

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Anton Yelchin and Jeffrey Wright
Directed By: Jim Jarmusch
Running Time: 123 minutes
Sony Pictures Classics

Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, already pretty ethereal as they are, are well cast as vampire lovers Adam and Eve in Jim Jarmusch’s wonderful upcoming film, Only Lovers Left Alive. The film finds Adam at a low point in his long existence with wife Eve swooping in to lift him from his disappointment at the state of the modern world. It’s a clever, macabre character study that beneath its too-cool undead protagonists lies a tremendously romantic beating heart.

As Adam, Hiddleston drives away any and all comparison to that other shaggy, dark-haired immortal he has so expertly played recently. Adam is a fascinating creature who displays a wall full of iconic mortals in his den, all the while repeatedly protesting that he has no heroes. Everyone from Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde to Rodney Dangerfield and Iggy Pop are framed in a shrine to human imagination that at this point in time Adam is lamenting the “zombies” have lost. This admiration for human achievement somewhat undermines Adam’s intentions to kill himself with a wooden bullet obtained from his stoner human buddy Ian (Anton Yelchin in a Renfield-goes-Rock-n-Roll mode). Adam wants to seem the depressive loner, it’s a romantic notion that suits his look and music, but every so often there are cracks in this facade where Hiddleston lets through brilliant moments of enthusiasm. He can be completely enchanted by an unknown singer in a back alley club or excited over a new guitar despite an already huge collection. Adam gives an angry impassioned speech about the world’s dismissal of great scientists–Tesla, Darwin and the like–but that he is able to get so worked up about the fate of humanity weakens his stance that he’s lost all hope in it.

These small embers of optimism are fanned by Adam’s wife Eve and Swinton is perfect at embodying his more mischievous other half. When we meet her, Eve is living apart from Adam in Tangier trying to stir up some controversy in the mortal world by goading her friend, fellow immortal Kit Marlowe (John Hurt), into dusting off the Shakespearian authorship debate just for a bit of entertainment. She’s recalled to her husband in Detroit when she senses Adam’s melancholy over a touching video phone call they share.

Eve having to carefully engineer night flights to make such a journey possible is one of the many vampiric touches Jarmusch cleverly slips in without being explicitly expository about his brand of bloodsucker. Others include Adam’s usage of preternatural speed only when really pushed or their eyes growing paler the more in need of a drink they are. There are references to a larger crisis of contaminated human blood, causing Adam to haunt a complicit doctor (Jeffrey Wright, making a huge impact in just two scenes of bouncing dialogue off a hilariously unresponsive Hiddleston in scrubs) for a healthy supply, but that’s not the focus here.

Rather, Eve is content to share blood popsicles with Adam during a game of chess or bond over their mutual appreciation of Jack White. Such smaller moments are where Hiddleston and Swinton really shine. They have a chemistry that feels lived in without any of the negative connotations so often associated with the “old married couple.” And they really can’t get much older than these two. One gets the sense that Adam’s depression is just part of a larger cycle the two have weathered many times before with the gleeful Eve returning to turn over the hourglass that Adam says is running out of sand. In a particularly joyful scene, Eve finds Adam’s would-be means of suicide and defuses the tension by drawing him into a heartwarming dance to Denise LaSalle’s “Trapped by a Thing Called Love” instead of an argument. This tendency to physical interaction over words in many instances adds to an animalistic dynamic this little clique of vampires share. It becomes more pronounced when Eve’s party-vamp sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) drops in on the couple. In the only concrete conflict of the film, the sister from LA throws a monkey wrench into Adam and Eve’s chilled out lifestyle, demanding they all go out and over indulge on their “good” blood. Like most bingeing, it doesn’t end well. The sisters together are able to push Adam around rather like the females in a pride of lions, an idea reinforced by Gerd Zeiss’s wild hair designs which incorporated actual animal furs.

Beyond the cool makeup design, Jarmusch creates a fascinating nighttime world for his characters to inhabit. Eve is surrounded by books in her lush Tangier location while Adam’s lair in Detroit is completely wired and filled with all the things he’s engineered himself from decades of technological equipment. Both the cities are richly shot by Yorick Le Saux who finds beauty both in the dark and in locations of complete decay. Jarmusch’s own band SQURL reinforces this dark environment with a hypnotic guitar driven soundtrack that will haunt viewers long after the credits roll. Still, despite its gothic trappings, Only Lovers Left Alive is a surprisingly funny and touching character study of what it is to sustain love and inspiration throughout a very long lifetime.

Note: This film screened as part of the 51st Annual New York Film Fest where we were informed it would be aiming for spring opening in the US. For now, it’s continuing to make festival rounds and has a UK release date of February 21st. You can view a recently released trailer below and check back here for further updates as we get them! 

New York Film Festival Review “12 Years a Slave”

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano
Directed By: Steve McQueen
Fox Searchlight
Rated: R
Running Time: 133 minutes

Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

As evidenced by his first two features, Hunger and Shame, director Steve McQueen is fearless in his approach to difficult subject matters. The same is true here in his unflinching and unforgettable third feature, 12 Years a Slave.

The film is based on the true life account of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man in New York who was deceived and sold into a life of slavery from 1841 to 1853. The film opens with Northup already in this role working on a sugar cane plantation and then brings us back to his family life in New York leading up to his deception. The men who will eventually drug and betray him come in the form of Brown and Hamilton, played by Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam, who offer Solomon the promise of violin work in Washington DC. The whole sequence is reminiscent of a sort of hellish version of Pinocchio being lead off by the circus folk and it plays out with a dreadful inevitability that left my stomach churning. When Solomon is awoken in chains, Ejiofor’s bewilderment is heart-wrenching as he struggles between fighting for his identity and recognizing how powerless he’s just been rendered.

Ejiofor is at the center of an embarrassment of acting talent throughout this film with even smaller roles occupied by the likes of Brad Pitt, Michael K Williams, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, and last year’s Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild). Benedict Cumberbatch has a key role as Ford, Northrup’s first owner. Ford is initially presented as a sympathetic man, even seen as such by Solomon himself, but the way McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley disillusion us of the very notion of this idea is masterful. For all Ford’s sympathetic looks and guilt about the institution he is undoubtably a part of, he will still allow a family to be split at auction and won’t hear a word of Solomon’s story despite recognizing his intelligence. Actions speak louder than words and under Ford, Solomon still suffers through some of the harshest tortures in the film. Including selling Solomon off again to the monstrous Edwin Epps in the film’s final act.

Coming from both Hunger and Shame, Michael Fassbender successfully reteams with director McQueen again as Epps. Fassbender is fascinating to watch as his character rages against his slaves with frightening conviction he backs up with biblical scripture. He is further driven to violence by his complete inability to deal with his unhinged infatuation with his most productive slave girl, Patsey (incredible newcomer Lupita Nyong’o).

Truly however the film belongs to Chiwetel Ejifor who imbues Northup with an unwavering determination to not only survive his ordeal, but as he says, to live. To not give into despair. Moreover when it comes to his re-emancipation, we feel the weight of the time lost as much as the relief of freedom.

12 Years A Slave opens is now playing , I screened it as part of the 51st New York Film Festival, you can read our red carpet coverage from the event with an interview from the film’s star Michael Fassbender.

“12 Years A Slave” Premieres at NYFF

12 Years a Slave, an intense new drama from director Steve McQueen, made its New York premiere on Tuesday October 8th as part of the 51st Annual New York Film Fest at Lincoln Center. The film follows the true life story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man in New York, who in 1841 was deceived and sent southward to be sold as a slave. I spoke with two of the actors behind the most sinister figures in this harrowing story. They discussed the sources of their characters’ malevolence.

Paul Dano plays unstable slave driver John Tibeats who abuses his power over Solomon.

Lauren Damon: Tibeats is so spiteful in his actions, did you work out what makes him like this?
Paul Dano: Well you know that’s kind of one of the big things you do to prepare for something is you know, create a personal history for the character. So…I think he was probably somebody who was treated poorly or was made to feel like he had no authority. I don’t think he had a great life and so the only place he could take out his feelings about himself were slaves.

LD: What was the most challenging scene for you?
Dano: I have to do a song in it. That was…that was interesting.

LD: Having to cultivate all this anger for your scenes, did you do anything to come down from that after shooting?
Dano: You know it was pretty hot in those period clothes, in July, in Louisiana so a shower and a cocktail.

Michael Fassbender plays monstrous planter Edwin Epps. Fassbender has previously worked with director McQueen on critical hits Hunger and Shame.

Lauren Damon: Since this is your third film with Steve, do you think you trust him more than any other director now?
Michael Fassbender: Pretty much!

LD: You’ve been to some very dark places in his films.
Fassbender: Yeah, I think–you know, human places. Human stories.

In the film Edwin Epps’s infatuation with his own slave Patsey (played by Lupita Nyong’o) drives him to extreme violence.

LD: Where do you think all that rage that Edwin has comes from?
Fassbender: I think out of confusion. He takes it out mainly on the person that he loves because he can’t process that information. He doesn’t have the intellect to do it. Or the substance as a human being. So he thinks by destroying it, he’ll destroy his emotion towards her and of course that doesn’t work.

NYFF continues through October 13th while 12 Years a Slave opens in theaters on the 18th.

New York Film Festival Review “Exhibition”

Starring: Viv Albertine, Liam Gillick, Tom Hiddleston, Mary Roscoe
Directed By: Joanna Hogg
New York FIlm Festival
Running Time: 110 minutes

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

Set in London, “Exhibition” focuses on a middle-aged married couple, known only in the film as D (Albertine) and H (Gillick). Both artists living a spectacular modernist house, itself built by an artist, we join them at the critical moment of their decision to sell the place. D is hesitant to make the move from a home that has defined their lives for nearly two decades.

It’s surprising to learn that the two leads of the film were themselves not actors. Albertine, the guitarist for band The Slits and Gillick, who is actually a conceptual artist himself, have an amazing chemistry as a long married couple. Though much of the film finds them in a state of disconnect–they communicate with each other through a very clinical intercom system in the house–we get these small moments of levity that make their relationship feel very lived in despite their tensions. You feel a sort of united front the couple present when they are engaging with painfully chatty outsiders like their neighbor going on and on about her children or the constantly upbeat realtor attempting to reassure D they’ll find good buyers (Hogg’s former film alums Mary Roscoe and Tom Hiddleston, respectively). Albertine has most of the screentime and she goes a long way in selling her attachment to both her home and her husband through her heartfelt pleas for H not to go wandering the city at night and later her running outside to confirm the ambulance down the block has nothing to do with H. Her anxiety about a prior ‘incident’ she doesn’t wish to repeat is never fully explained in the film but the desperation you sense when D alludes to it is enough to explain her unease.

I was fortunate to see this film, Hogg’s third feature, as part of a series showcasing all her work at this week’s New York Film Festival. Her first two features, Unrelated and Archipelago, established Hogg’s tremendous control over and emphasis on setting. Though Unrelated and Archipelago took place on family holidays and Exhibition is confined to the house, the sense of place feels like an additional character in her stories. Aesthetically beautiful as they are, they can also turn alienating at a moment’s notice. “Exhibition” takes this a step further through Jovan Ajder’s amazing sound design that morphs the home from a shelter from the sirens outside, to an oversize cavern with all it’s metallic creaking and huge sliding doors that dwarf D when she is on her own. Though D professes to a friend over Skype to be able to feel the love of the previous owners of the house in the walls, the audience may need some convincing. Hogg’s sound design coupled with her meticulous visuals bring us into the growing anxiety that D feels.

“Exhibition” is screening as part of the 51st New York Film Festival taking place through October 12th in Lincoln Center. For more information on it’s remaining screening, visit


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