Truth be told, I’ve never been a big fan of the Tribeca Film Festival. I usually go to a few screenings there every year, but unlike the New York or Montclair Film Festivals, I often walk away disappointed, like I did after last year’s Youth in Oregon, a wholly unremarkable family drama memorable only for the performance of Frank Langella (I had the same experience at Tribeca in 2008 with the Langella-Elliott Gould vehicle The Caller). Perhaps because there are so many more films at Tribeca than at other festivals I’ve attended, it raises the odds that the handful I do see could be subpar. So this year I saw five films playing at Tribeca and enjoyed four of them to varying degrees. The Mets would kill for that kind of batting average.
Two of them star Steve Coogan, which is always a good start. The Brit wit has proven himself a versatile talent, whether in comedies like The Trip series with Rob Brydon — the third installment, The Trip to Spain, premiered at Tribeca this year — or dramas like Philomena, the Judi Dench adoption drama that earned him Oscar nods for cowriting and producing. That career/ego boost provides many of the laughs in Spain, as Coogan and Brydon (playing heightened versions of themselves) try to top each other with their professional achievements, personal bliss and vocal impersonations of Michael Caine, David Bowie and Mick Jagger, among other Englishmen. There’s less emphasis here than in The Trip or The Trip to Italy on the restaurants Coogan and Brydon review as part of their travelogue, and the tone seems more middle-aged melancholy. But these two are such unfailingly amusing companions, they make it a worthwhile journey no matter the destination.
Coogan’s even more impressive in a serious role as the mentally ill father of a teenager who’s committed a horrific crime in The Dinner, the latest provocative think piece from writer-director Oren Moverman. The filmmaker elicits another career-best turn from his Time Out of Mind star Richard Gere as Coogan’s politician brother, whose offspring is also implicated in the misdeed. Along with their better halves, played by Laura Linney (reteaming with Gere 20 years after the underrated Primal Fear) and Rebecca Hall, these eternally squabbling siblings attempt to make peace with each other and sense out of what their children have done. The Dinner takes a dark view of humanity, to be sure, but it’s not so bleak that you can’t enjoy the stellar performances, elegant direction and note-perfect script.
It’s a four-star cinematic meal, yet The Dinner currently stands at a 42 percent (or “Rotten”) rating on Rotten Tomatoes, only the most recent example of a top-notch film given short shrift by that aggravating aggregator. Other instances include Going in Style and The Zookeeper’s Wife, thoroughly excellent movies that didn’t win the approval of the group-think herd and may have underperformed at the box office as a result. Don’t let the basement-dwelling bloggers scare you away from The Dinner. With a resume that includes the harrowing Woody Harrelson dramas The Messenger and Rampart as well as the moving Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy, Moverman may be the most thoughtful and intriguing American filmmaker currently working.
Not that Rotten Tomatoes always gets it wrong: Chuck, a knockout boxing biopic starring Liev Schreiber, has earned an 83% fresh rating. That’s a better winning percentage than Chuck “The Bayonne Bleeder” racked up in his 35-14-2 career in the ring. The fact that such a mediocre boxer not only stood toe to toe with Muhammad Ali for nearly 15 rounds in 1975 — and inspired Sylvester Stallone to create the Rocky franchise — elevates this strange-but-true story to heavyweight status.
At 49, Schreiber is more than a decade older than Wepner was even at the sad tail end of his career, when he fought both Andre the Giant and a bear (twice!). But the star is in the shape of his life both physically and dramatically, and his scenes with Pooch Hall — who plays his boxer half-brother on Ray Donovan — as Muhammad Ali crackle with wit and energy. The entire ensemble, which includes Schreiber’s (now ex-) leading lady Naomi Watts and Elisabeth Moss as Chuck’s love interests and stand-up Jim Gaffigan doing impressive dramatic work as his hanger-on best friend, brings vigor to Wepner’s tale, which only gets more interesting after he hangs up his gloves and seeks recognition, not to mention compensation, from Sylvester Stallone (Morgan Spector, doing a dead-on impression). Wepner’s rocky real-life story makes for a smoothly entertaining movie.
If anyone ever tries to turn the real stories of the men profiled in the captivating new documentary True Detective into a scripted drama, some people might say it was too far-fetched. It’s strange but true: Christopher Scott, Jonnie Lindsey and Stephen Phillips are former prisoners who spent years in prison before being cleared of the crimes for which they had been convicted. With the settlement money they receive from the state of Texas meant to rectify the injustice that befell them, they start a detective agency and take the cases of other wrongly incarcerated inmates.
Director Jamie Meltzer spent five years following these charismatic crusaders, and the unforeseen twists their lives take (one winds up back in jail) are as fascinating as the profiles of the prisoners they seek to exonerate. The broken Texas criminal justice system not only harms the lives of the poor souls who lose decades fighting for a fair retrial but those of their kids, grandkids and other loved ones. Yet True Conviction contains at least as many moments of hope as it does of despair. Do whatever you can to see this stunning film, which will air on PBS’ Independent Lens.
Last and certainly least, The Lovers wastes the talents of Tracy Letts and Debra Winger as a long-married couple who plan the leave the other for paramours but find themselves inexorably drawn back together. While it’s always good to see actors as offbeat as these two playing romantic leads, the script by director Azazel Jacobs tries to stretch a half-hour’s worth of story over 94 minutes. Worse, he telegraphs how you’re supposed to feel about each scene with an intrusive classical score.
I’m not going to post the trailer for The Lovers, because I watched it before I saw the film, and it gives away the final twist, not that it’s all too surprising. Still, that raises a question perhaps only the collective hive-mind behind Rotten Tomatoes can answer: Can you spoil something that’s already rotten?
One of the many things I love about my recurring gig as a moderator for SAG-AFTRA Foundation Q&As, like my recent chat with Jessica Chastain, is getting to meet up-and-coming actors in the audience. One such rising star, Sonja O’Hara — like Chastain, a wildly talented redhead — breaks out this week in two newly released movies, including Ovum, a dark, sharp semi-autobiographical satire of show business and the fertility industry, which she also wrote. I sat down with Sonja in NYC to talk about everything from her days working as an assistant to the famously difficult Faye Dunaway (who inspired one of Ovum‘s characters) to her nude scenes in Ovum and Doomsday, a wickedly cool new TV drama she created and stars in.
What was the genesis of Ovum? I was living in L.A., and I was sick of doing horror movies. I’d be cast as a cheerleader, then the second day on set, they’d say, “We added a scene where you’re jumping on a trampoline topless.” I was like, “Yeah, I really don’t want to do that.” I moved back to New York and did the struggling-actor thing of going out for theatre roles. That’s when I opened up Backstage, the actors’ magazine, and saw they were looking for egg-donor actresses.
Did you know they were looking for actresses to donate eggs or did you think it was an acting part? No, they made it sound like the role of a lifetime, and it was offering so much more compensation than anything else. Instead of a $12 stipend, it was like $10,000. I thought I was doing investigative reporting and I would go meet with them and get the origin for a story.
When did you decide you’d actually go through the process? I got there, and everyone seemed like they were already a weird character in a movie. I met this ovum coordinator, who was this android-pretty woman, and I thought, “None of this is real.” From there, they gave me a callback, and they wanted more modeling pictures, and I had to meet with their psychiatrist. They made me do the Meyers-Briggs test and asked me all these intrusive questions, probably because they don’t want psychopath eggs. I was selling the ideal version of myself, like when you’re going on a first date. I felt like I was creating this character, and as I went through each step, I was getting in deeper. Then I got chosen by a couple and from there, I was balancing my actor life and traveling around with syringes in my bag and injecting my ass with egg medicine.
So did everyone assume you were a junkie? Totally. It was nuts. I was going to auditions with big bruises on my arms because I had to give blood every morning. I had a Nickelodeon audition, and I was hiding these black-and-blue bruises and being totally sketchy. Then it was time for the actual egg retrieval. The first donation I did, I got an envelope of cash. I felt like I was doing something illicit, even though it wasn’t. I used the money to make the movie. What was happening on screen was happening in my own life. Everything was very blurred.
Well, they say “Write what you know…” That’s what I did. Then I had to donate eggs one more time to fund post-production. That was also very surreal. Then people kept offering me money to donate again, and I realized there are people who probably make this a whole second career. I did lose what would have been my final donation because somebody read about Ovum in the press, but I knew that was going to happen eventually.
But by then you had your baby—the movie. Yes, but I was still walking around the city imagining someone was knocked up with my baby.
Did you want to make your own movies when you were growing up in Canada? I started acting at a very young age, and my brother got cast in a TV series called Black Harbor. It was a drama about the fishing industry in Nova Scotia. I don’t think it made a splash in America. He got his union card, and I was wildly jealous at 10. Then a girl I knew from auditions, Ellen Page (Juno), got her break, so then I knew it was possible. I wrote a one-woman show in high school, but it wasn’t especially good. It was very melodramatic and dealing with being a burgeoning bisexual. It was about an eating disorder, and it was really over the top. Then I went to acting school in New York, and we had a make your own Web series class. That was the first time I wrote something, and people were like, “You’re funny.” And I was surprised by that. I knew one day I wanted to write and direct something really great and serious, but I imagined it was far off in the future and it would come after I had an acting career, not the catalyst that would get me an acting career. So things sort of came out of order.
Why did you decide not to direct Ovum? I’m in every scene, and I figured with the weirdness of trying to handle a pivotal performance, when I had investors putting in real money, it seemed like I should have somebody to handle everything. So I hired Matt Ott, who was great, but I was super-involved. I did a lot of the casting.
How did you cast Katie Morrison, who plays your fellow egg donor and eventual lover? I had this character, who’s this fetishized art model. At one point in my life, I had posed for art classes, so I wanted to write about that experience. We saw so many girls, but none of them had the je ne sais quoi that made them really appealing. We saw a lot of really beautiful straight girls who read like really beautiful straight girls and didn’t have any sexual chemistry with me. We actually cast another girl and filmed with her, but we recast the role and reshot it because she didn’t really read and it was so crucial. And now Katie’s career is blowing up!
How did you find investors? Weirdly enough, somebody who was a year ahead of me in high school and I didn’t know at all saw a teaser trailer we shot and posted on social media. He said, “I’m in finance and I want to invest.” That made it legit, and from there we were able to get several other investors.
How did you get distribution with The Orchard? We went to festivals and we kept winning. Nobody expected that, and a sales agent picked up the film. Then I found out we would be released by The Orchard, which is good because they have really great taste. It’s very flattering.
What has surprised you the most about the reaction to Ovum? Very recently a bunch of egg donors from this blog got to see a clip out of context and they thought I was making donors look like they were all doing it for money. It’s interesting because these were donors from other parts of the country where there isn’t as large of a compensation for it as in New York City. They’re doing it for more altruistic reasons. I’m only writing about my experience as a donor at high-end places in New York, where it is eugenics-y. But I don’t think egg donation is inherently bad. The idea of helping an infertile woman is awesome. So I hope people will see there are awesome things about egg donation but also really troubling things.
The tone of the movie is very specific — it’s serious and dark, but also very funny. How did you maintain that on set? In my mind, when we were shooting it, I saw Black Swan. But the reality is, you can’t take yourself too seriously, and so much of this manic actress injecting herself in bathrooms is weirdly comedic. I didn’t know if it would skew more into a drama, but by the time we showed it to the first audience, people were laughing, and I was really relieved. It isn’t all dark — there’s a lot of levity.
I was surprised by how funny it is. It plays well as satire because it’s deadpan, not wacky, but that’s a hard note to keep hitting when you’re shooting quickly. Right, when you’re shooting so many pages per day. And the element of working for a movie star — I had once worked for a certain infamous movie star, and I was stealing real conversations from that experience. I used a lot of my own life, but I also took creative leeway with it.
Do you want to mention who the movie star is, or are you keeping that secret? No, I worked for Faye Dunaway for six months. The infamous, wonderful Faye.
How much of the crazy movie star who wants your character’s eggs is based on Faye? She was definitely a challenge to work with, but I put her on so much of a pedestal. She had that Oscar on her mantel, so I did mirror what was happening with my character being starstruck. But obviously Faye had adult children and wasn’t going through this process, so it’s what I imagine she would’ve been like in a younger stage. Also, I had Rutanya Alda in the film, and she played opposite Faye in Mommie Dearest and wrote a book about it, so it all came full circle.
Has Faye seen the movie? I don’t know. I kind of want to send it to her. She has a really good sense of humor about certain things, and we ended up on a good note. But obviously I really want to impress her, so it’s kind of terrifying. And I have a dream of casting her in Doomsday, my next project.
Speaking of Doomsday, I’ve seen the first episode, and you do a nude scene in it, as you do in Ovum. Do you feel like it’s less exploitative to do nudity when you’re creating the project? Completely. The reason I got so frustrated in L.A. was I didn’t want to do nudity. I have no problem with nudity, if it’s a great film. I’m all about it in the right context. But I didn’t want the objectification. Whereas in my own films, as you point out, I get naked all the time…
I didn’t say “all the time,” but… (laughs) I know, but I’d rather have me do it than ask other actors to do it, because I know I have final cut and if something seems tasteless I don’t want it in there. I try to show sexuality and nudity in a non-gratuitous way. There’s a scene in Ovum where I’m injecting myself and I have a distorted belly. I wanted to show the ugliness of it, how as a donor you feel like you’re being objectified because you’re being picked out of a database of hot girls, but what it does to you is so ugly. That juxtaposition was fascinating to me.
And why did you decide to do nudity in Doomsday? I play this black-widow character who seduces men to lures them into a cult. I felt like it would be fun to skewer the roles I was being offered in L.A. but also give these roles real significance and depth and not just be one-dimensional slutty girls.
What’s the origin of Doomsday? It’s an hourlong drama I wrote about a matriarchal cult in New York. It explores the idea of how youthful idealism can turn into deadly extremism. I wrote it based off when I lived in L.A. and one of my first jobs was acting in Scientology propaganda films. But I didn’t know they were that. I thought I was just doing non-union industrial films. So I became really interested in the duality of these sects — what it’s like inside it, where you feel like you’re being protected and loved and part of a community. And then the polarizing outside part of it. I just started to marinate on what it would be like if a bunch of really idealistic people came together to make something great, and it gets corrupted. Now that we shot that first hourlong episode and it went to all the big TV festivals and won, it’s suddenly attracted big representation and now it’s getting shopped around. So knock on wood, very soon I hope I’ll be able to say we get picked up on a digital platform like Netflix or Amazon.
And you have another movie coming out April 11, the same day as Ovum? Yes, I’m also in Dan Simon’s Lonely Boys. I play this Lena Dunham-obsessed millennial, who’s the most annoying part of the movie, but it’s really fun and totally different.
Is it overwhelming or exciting to have these projects all come out at the same time? It is overwhelming. I feel like I’m annoying everyone because I’m all over everyone’s news feed.
I feel the same way about the movie I’m in, Landline! Yeah, but I’m excited that now people are getting to know my work, and I hope that means the projects will be seen in a big way. That can help launch the careers of all kinds of talented people.
What’s the ultimate goal — to write, direct and star in your own feature films? I would love to be like Brit Marling, and have a show like The O.A. that I’m starring in and writing for Netflix. But I also aspire to do incredible roles, like Amy Adams. So I want to balance being a filmmaker that challenges and pushes boundaries and also be an actor who’s in other people’s projects. I’d love to make a film every year like Woody Allen and then also get to go shoot other people’s movies. Forever!
Ovum is available on iTunes, Amazon, and Video On Demand April 11.
It all started, as so many things do, on the Internet. Way back in 2010, a guy with the innocuous-sounding name Matthew Aaron Friended me on Facebook (or did I Friend him?—my memory is murky) and started commenting on my pop-culture posts. “Who is this dude?” I wondered, and I found out when he messaged me and asked if I would be guest on his podcast, The Matthew Aaron Show, which he was doing out of his parents’ basement in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove, Ill. Apparently, he was a fan of my writing in Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide Magazine.
“Sure,” I said. “Sounds like fun.”
Cut to seven years later, and I’m sitting in Chicago’s grand old Music Box Theatre with 600-plus moviegoers laughing and cheering at the world premiere of Landline. It’s a gay rom-com about the dangers of social media and the glory of the Cubs written, directed, edited, produced by and starring Matthew Aaron. It features a wonderful ensemble of character actors like Tom Arnold, Breaking Bad‘s Betsy Brandt, Parks & Recreation‘s Jim O’Heir, Justified‘s Nick Searcy, 24‘s Louis Lombardi and Treme‘s James Dumont. Plus, a healthy helping of Matt’s gut- and ball-bustingly funny buddies from Chicago, like pro wrestler-turned-stand-up/actor Jay Washington (Chi-Raq), butcher/actor Lee Kepraios, lawyer/actor Leonard Cannata, bodybuilder/actor Michael Vincenzo Terzo, cameraman/actor Steve Weirich, and HR guy/actor Chuck John. Oh, and yours truly in a small role as cable guy K. Hommel (an inside-baseball reference to TV exec Ken Hommel, another close friend Matt and I met on Facebook).
How did I get here?
The short answer is two words: Matthew Aaron. This guy is loyal to his friends in a business where loyalty is valued just below celibacy. After my initial stint as a guest on Matt’s podcast, I became a semi-regular and tried to help him book guests whom I had interviewed for EW and TV Guide and were slightly more famous than me, which is to say, famous at all, like The King of Queens co-creator Michael Weithorn, Everybody Loves Raymond mastermind Phil Rosenthal, Rescue Me show runner Peter Tolan, and yes, Breaking Bad‘s Betsy Brandt. “I know it sounds like Wayne’s World, but these guys are genuinely funny,” I’d tell them (or, in some cases, their publicists). Like me, they were charmed by Matt and his gang of gleefully filthy men and became friends with him IRL, as the kids say.
My bond with Matt and the gang was really sealed when I went to Chicago on an assignment for TV Guide in 2013, shortly after I found out I was being laid off from my dream job for the previous decade writing the “Cheers & Jeers” column — and during the nut-chilling winter known as the “polar vortex.” Ostensibly, I was there to visit the set of an ill-fated and all-too-aptly titled NBC drama called Crisis with Dermot Mulroney and Gillian Anderson and write a story about it. I did that, but more important, Matt, Lenny, Mikey, and Chuck cheered me up and showed me the real Chicago. The one you don’t find in the tour books. It didn’t matter that the temps were way below zero. They warmed my heart at a tiki bar, a glorious dive called Richard’s (ask for the hard-boiled eggs!), and a dim sum joint in an anonymous strip mall where I had some of the best food I’d ever eaten in my life at 3 a.m.
That would’ve been enough to cement our friendship for life, but soon the Matthew Aaron Repertory Company expanded from doing a podcast to making micro-budget movies in Chicago. I read the scripts and watched the rough cuts and gave Matt notes on Bromance and The Way We Talk, both of which will be released soon.
Then Matt started talking about making a slightly bigger movie, Landline, and he told me he’d written a part for me. I thought he was joking. But Matt’s jokes are way better (and way dirtier) than that. He sent me the script, and I loved it. It’s a sweet, big-hearted comedy about a PR guy (Matt) who’s passed over for a promotion to handle the Cubs account in favor of a millennial idiot (Chad Michael Singer) who’s more “connected” on social media. He decides to cut himself off from all modern communications except a landline—hence the title. And guess who comes to install the landline? Cable guy K. Hommel, who also happens to be his degenerate cousin.
At the very least, I figured, Matt can’t cut me out of the movie because I’m integral to the plot. I agreed to play the role—my first acting job since my turn as the young doctor in Yorktown High School’s production of Harvey in 1984. I took it seriously, setting up a session with one of New York City’s best acting coaches, Karl Bury (on the recommendations of two of the best actors I know, Kerry O’Malley and Matt Servitto, his fellow cast members in the too-short-lived 2006-8 Showtime drama Brotherhood, a show I loved). I only had two or three scenes, maybe 15 lines in all, but I wanted to give the best performance I could. I decided to lose my smartass-writer glasses, shave my trademark pre-hipster goatee and lose as much weight as I could, knowing the camera adds 10 pounds, and I had 20 to spare.
I showed up on set in Chicago last summer with my lines memorized, only to find one of my scenes had been cut (a post-credits gag with Nick Searcy, whose shooting schedule couldn’t be coordinated with mine). No sweat, for that reason. It was however, one of the hottest days in Chicago history—what is it with me and extreme weather in the Windy City?—and the gray jumpsuit the wardrobe people had chosen for my character was unforgivingly tight, despite my weight loss. I believe I may have displayed the world’s first (or at least the world’s worst) case of male camel-toe.
And I couldn’t have cared less. I had such a blast for those three days (out of an 18-day schedule) on set. Matt was one of the most relaxed yet focused directors I’d ever seen, and I’ve spent a lot of days on sets watching filmmakers—including greats like Sidney Lumet, Kathryn Bigelow and Barry Levinson. I’ve always loved actors, but becoming one, albeit briefly, gave me a new appreciation for what they go through on a filmed production. Yes, there’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait, but it’s the actors who have to be ready to perform on a dime once the lights, camera, etc are all ready. And you’ve got to be ready for changes on the fly. After K. Hommel installs the titular landline, he hangs out with Matt’s Ted Gout and his buddies Larry (Jay Washington) and Norm (Lee Kepraios), indulges in a little illicit activity, and explores Ted’s box of outdated gadgets. I improvised a line about New Edition, and Matt loved it. I stayed a few extra days in Chicago, went to a Cubbies game, and flew home feeling like I’d given it my best shot.
I wasn’t on set the day Matt, Tom Arnold, Jim O’Heir, Jay, Chuck, and Cubs legend RYNE FREAKING SANDBERG (who convincingly plays himself), among others, shot the film’s climactic scene at Wrigley Field. But I was wildly impressed that the film’s producers, including Anthony Giuliano and Big Len Cannata, had struck a deal with Major League Baseball to film there during one of the team’s road trips.
Oh, and then the Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years, and we knew something magical was going on. Matt and Chuck filmed themselves at one of those great Chicago dives, Friar Tuck’s, crying with joy at the end of Game 7 and added it to the end of the film. Suddenly, the movie had even more relevance, and Freestyle Releasing acquired it for distribution timed to the Cubs opening day. It’ll play for a week at the Music Box starting Friday, March 31, then be available nationwide on Video on Demand starting April 4.
At the premiere, after the credits rolled and the cheers died down, I stood up to lead a Q&A with Matt, Jim O’Heir, and Jay Washington (as well as Matt’s young nephew, Liam Martisek, who plays his nephew Liam in the film—it’s easier when kids can answer to their own names). It’s something I do frequently as part of my job, often for the SAG-AFTRA Foundation in NYC, interviewing stars like Jessica Chastain, Penelope Cruz and Sir Ian McKellen about their latest releases. But this was the first time I was doing a Q&A after a movie I was in.
As I had watched the film, my brain shut down every time I saw myself on screen. I couldn’t process the fact that I was in a movie, so I couldn’t gauge how well I’d done. I did notice, however, that my New Edition line got a laugh. With my glasses on, my goatee grown back, and a few more pounds packed back on, I introduced myself: “You probably don’t recognize me without my gray jumpsuit, but I’m Bruce Fretts, and I played K. Hommel, the cable guy. As you can probably tell from my performance, I’m not an actor—I’m a journalist and I’m here to interview a few of the film’s stars.” The Q&A with Matt, Jim, Jay and Liam was one of the easiest I’ve ever done—all I had to do was sit back and let those guys be as naturally funny as they are. I wrapped it up and we headed off to Friar Tuck’s for the after-party.
As I walked up the aisle of the Music Box with Jim O’Heir, whom I’d only met for the first time before the premiere (we didn’t share any scenes in the movie), he turned to me and said, “I didn’t realize that was you playing the cable guy until you said it after the movie.” Yes, I said, my own father hadn’t recognized me from my brief appearance in the film’s trailer because I look so different without my beard and glasses. “No,” Jim insisted. “You nailed that role. You became a different person in the movie.”
Granted, Jim O’Heir is one of the nicest guys I’ve met in or out of showbiz, and he’s one of the most in-demand actors around, with 140 Internet Movie Database credits since his big-screen debut in another baseball movie, the 1996 Matt LeBlanc monkey bomb Ed. Maybe he was just being nice. Or maybe he was just acting. But damn if it didn’t blow my mind. My own IMDB page, which I didn’t start, previously included only a couple of random appearances as myself on Entertainment Tonight and an A&E documentary called The Tragic Side of Comedy from my TV Guide days (as well as a special thanks from Matt in the end credits of Bromance). Now, there’s a bio section that begins “Bruce Fretts is an actor…”
It must be true. I read it on the Internet.
Bruce Fretts: When I decided to review Disney’s new live-action Beauty and the Beast, I asked my 15-year-old daughter, Olive, to be my guest… see what I did there?
Olive: (already exasperated) Yes, I saw what you did there.
Bruce: I did it because when you were four years old, I would put you to bed every night and we would listen to…
Olive: A cassette tape of the Beauty and the Beast soundtrack.
Bruce: I was hoping the reboot would re-evoke those feelings of warmth, coziness, joy and love. But I felt none of that. I hated this movie so much. Did you hate it as much as I did?
Olive: I didn’t totally hate it, but it’s a lot creepier when it’s real people.
Bruce: I just think it didn’t need to be made. It added nothing, and it subtracted a lot.
Olive: It had its moments, but it’s just weird when the candle has this face coming out of metal. It took the fun out of it. It was like, “Ew!”
Bruce: It’s not really live action because a lot of the characters are still animated. So what’s the point of doing it again?
Bruce: You’re a bigger Harry Potter fan than I am, so maybe you appreciate Emma Watson more than I do, but I thought she was bland.
Olive: I didn’t think she added anything. It was like, “Well, there she is. They cast someone who was exactly like we thought they would be.” I’m not the biggest Emma Watson fan. She definitely has her issues.
Bruce: What are her issues?
Olive: I used to love her when I was little and she was Hermione Granger and whatever, but now there’s this whole issue of being a white feminist. Do you know that whole thing? She used to criticize, like, Beyonce and Kim Kardashian and say, “The way to feminism isn’t by showing your body. You have to be modest.” Now recently she did a photo shoot where she was partially nude, and when people criticized her for it, she was like, “Well, I should be able to show my body.” Everyone was like, “What? Emma! Remember what you said a couple of years ago?
Bruce: So why does that make her a white feminist?
Olive: Do you know what white feminism is?
Olive: Do you know what intersectional feminism is?
Bruce: Not really.
Olive: This is a whole other thing, but intersectional feminism is basically when you respect all the realms of feminism, like women of color and trans women and people who are femme. White feminism is when you only see it as cis-gender women who aren’t of color. Emma Watson is widely pronounced as a white feminist. She’s trying to come back from it now, but it does jar my perspective on her because she was Hermione, this very powerful female role model, especially for the Harry Potter generation. Seeing her be kind of anti-feminist, it was like, “Aaah, don’t do that!”
Bruce: See, I’m learning things from you. Then Dan Stevens, who’s the Beast, is boring. When he turns into a human, he has Fabio hair.
Olive: It’s a little disappointing.
Bruce: It’s Blandy & the Bland. I also thought the film was too dark. The castle is supposed to be shadowy, but the whole movie is gray and brown and made me sleepy.
Olive: I heard you snoring at one point. It was so embarrassing.
Bruce: It was dank and depressing.
Olive: Yeah, it didn’t have a very good mood.
Bruce: It jumped all over the place. Sometimes it was a musical and when it wasn’t, it was boring. Then at the end, it became slapsticky, then it became an action movie.
Olive: I turned my phone on 30 minutes before the movie was over to check the time. It felt like it had been going on for a while.
Bruce: It’s a long movie! It’s 129 minutes. The cartoon was like 90 minutes.
Olive: I was like, “Where is the climax?” Because obviously I know this story inside and out. I was like, “Damn, it’s been a long time.” I was waiting, like “Tick tock!” Then it happened really fast and they were in love, but then it took a long time for the objects to turn into people. The pacing was really weird.
Bruce: I also didn’t believe that Beauty and the Beast fell in love. It was like, he stopped putting his face in his soup, so then she fell for him.
Olive: I thought that part was okay, but it’s just creepier when it’s real people.
Bruce: I felt like the cartoon characters were more three-dimensional. This felt very technical, and the original was hand-drawn. And the voice actors in the original, like Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury, were much better than Ewan McGregor and Emma Thompson. So are you familiar with the gay controversy about this movie?
Olive: With Josh Gad?
Bruce: Yes, Le Fou through the whole movie has a crush on Gaston.
Olive: Oh, really? I didn’t know that. At the end, they had him dancing with a guy and it’s like, “Oh, he’s gay!” But then the movie ends.
Bruce: That’s what people are calling the “gay moment,” which is being censored in some countries. I thought Josh Gad kind of overplayed the character.
Olive: When you cast Josh Gad, it’s always that character. He’s going to be that silly guy who does stupid things. Josh Gad is just like that.
Bruce: But if the gay character is the silly, stupid one, that’s not necessarily positive.
Olive: I think the movie was pretty good about having a diverse cast. The dance scene isn’t a sea of white people. And I was glad they had a nod to homosexuality. If it was needed in Le Fou, I don’t know, since he’s the character they’re making fun of the entire movie, but he does have an arc, which is good, and making him gay is important. But I don’t know if it’s a positive representation fully.
Bruce: I will say this: I liked Kevin Kline as Belle’s dad. He started out doing musicals like The Pirates of Penzance and it was good to see him back in a musical.
Olive: I don’t really know that guy. He was lovable but I wasn’t like, “He’s the best!”
Bruce: Maybe I was bringing more associations from his earlier roles. I believed the father-daughter relationship much more than any other in the movie. You didn’t feel like it was kind of like our father-daughter relationship?
Olive: No, Pop.
Bruce: Well, the movie’s going to make a ton of money, but I just want to put it out there that people should go back and watch the original and not waste their money on this unnecessary version that is less animated in every way than the cartoon.
Olive: Go see it if you want to see it. It wasn’t awful. I wasn’t disgusted by the movie. But don’t go out of your way to see it. I’m indifferent.
Bruce: I agree with the angry mob: “Kill the Beast!” Or at least this one.
Expectations are funny things. I went into Kong: Skull Island with the lowest of them. I’ve never been a fan of the franchise — I walked out of Peter Jackson’s overlong 2005 reboot, skipped the ’70s version despite Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, and was underwhelmed by the original’s primitive special effects. Yet the latest incarnation proves to be something entirely unexpected: a witty, well-acted and genuinely scary commentary on the Vietnam War, and by extension contemporary politics.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts made an impressive small-scale debut with the little-seen coming-of-age comedy The Kings of Summer a few years ago, but nothing prepared me for the scale of what he’s put on screen here. Set in 1973, just as the U.S. is pulling out of Vietnam, the story follows a team of military men (led by a scary-good Samuel L. Jackson) and scientists, along with a tracker (Tom Hiddleston, the film’s weak link—he constantly looks like he’s posing for a perfume ad) and an “anti-war photographer” (Brie Larson, an actress of preternatural gravitas). They travel to an uncharted island, ostensibly to map it, but it turns out to be part of a plot by a seeming crackpot (John Goodman) to prove the existence of monsters.
Upon arrival, the squad starts dropping bombs for bogus research purposes and awaken the sleeping giant, thus setting off a round of guerrilla — er, gorilla — warfare. A contrast is drawn between the no-win-situation Vietnam conflict (“We didn’t lose: We abandoned the war,” Jackson’s career soldier insists) and World War II via the discovery of a Pacific Theater vet (John C. Reilly, a welcome blast of comic relief) who’s been living in the jungles since 1945. “Did we win the war?” he asks, to which he’s answered, “Which one?” “Figures,” he says sardonically.
The real war turns out not to be between Kong and the humans but soldiers, who just want to blow the big guy away, and scientists, who realize he’s protecting the island’s native inhabitants from even worse monsters, including a truly terrifying species nicknamed “skull crawlers.” This conflict takes Kong: Skull Island from an evocative ’70s period piece, with sweeping visuals and a Creedence-heavy soundtrack reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, and turns it into a timely social satire. “It’s never been worse in Washington, D.C.” Goodman cracks in the opening scene, as Nixon resigns in the background. It’s a knowing joke that would be even funnier were it not for the real monster currently inhabiting the White House.
Vogt-Roberts populates his cast with top-notch actors, including Straight Outta Compton vets Jason Mitchell (as an endearing grunt) and Corey Hawkins (as a brainy scientist), Boardwalk Empire‘s consistently brilliant Shea Whigham, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘s winningly off-kilter Thomas Mann, and The Job‘s expertly understated John Ortiz. Plus, the peerless Richard Jenkins makes an uncredited cameo as a world-weary U.S. Senator. The screenplay, co-written by Dan Gilroy, writer-director of the equally eerie media satire Nightcrawler, doles out clever dialogue to everyone, and only Hiddleston fumbles his lines.
Kong: Skull Island would be worth seeing for the locations alone; shot by ex-Lost cinematographer Larry Fong in Hawaii, Australia and Vietnam, it’s one of the most beautifully photographed films in recent memory. And it’s worth staying until the very end; for once, a post-credits scene actually provides valuable information pertaining to where the franchise is headed, should it continue. I hope it does. These filmmakers are up to much more than monkey business.
Now that the 2017 Oscars are finally over (they are over, right?), it’s time to turn the spotlight—wait, that was last year’s winner… it’s time to turn the moonlight on 2017’s new releases. I’ll spare you a longer review of Fifty Shades Darker since it’s exactly what you’d expect: unintentionally funny and entirely unsexy. But I will share thoughts on six films, three of which transcend their genre, and the other three, not so much.
Let’s start with America’s No. 1 film: Logan. I’d all but sworn off superhero movies a few Iron Men ago, because I’d felt like I’d seen it all before. I did see Deadpool and found it moderately amusing (and only tolerable because Ryan Reynolds’ intolerably smug face is hidden by a mask for much of the movie). Like Deadpool, Logan is an R-rated Marvel movie, but this one’s actually mature as opposed to just “adult.”
Perhaps to set the tone, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine says the f-word about six times in the movie’s first five minutes, but the script (cowritten by Scott Frank, the gifted adapter of Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight and Get Shorty) grows considerably more elegant than that. Wolvie’s on the run with an ailing Professor X (Patrick Stewart, stellar as always) and a seemingly mute mutant girl (Dafne Keen, a remarkable rookie) from evil scientists led by the magnetic Richard E. Grant and Boyd Holbrook.
Okay, it doesn’t sound like much of a story, but cowriter-director James Mangold is a genuinely versatile filmmaker in the mode of George Stevens, whose Western Shane is quoted both visually and verbally in Logan. Mangold has made everything from crime dramas like Cop Land to musical biopics like Walk the Line, and he uses Johnny Cash’s music over the closing credits, as well as in the trailer above, to great effect. The movie attains real emotional heft, giving the occasional bursts of Walking Dead-style gore more impact than mere shock value. Jackman’s dramatically muscular performance makes it even sadder that after Logan, he’ll be an ex-X-Man.
One of the standouts in Logan‘s supporting cast, Stephen Merchant (as an albino mutant-sniffer!), fares less well in another of this weekend’s new releases, Table 19. This movie seems to have greater ambitions than to just be yet another wedding-themed rom-com, but it ends up being just that. Perhaps the original script, by mumblecore auteurs Jay and Mark Duplass, wasn’t so formulaic, but as rewritten and directed by Jeffrey Blitz, it’s even less interesting than its “Breakfast Club for adults” elevator pitch: a gang of outcasts at the worst table at a wedding band together and learn valuable lessons about life.
Anna Kendrick, whose questionable taste in roles after her throwaway part in John Krasinski’s The Hollars seems even shakier now, has what it takes to play a charming romantic lead, but she’s mismatched with Wyatt Russell as her ex-boyfriend and the wedding’s best man. The rest of the ensemble—Merchant, The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s Tony Revolori, Nebraska‘s June Squibb, and the formidable comic duo of Craig Robinson and Lisa Kudrow—do what they can with their one-dimensional characters. But it’s all so depressingly predictable, you’ll wish these actors had divorced themselves from Table 19.
Back on the plus side, two films that deliver more than might’ve been expected continue to hold up well at the box office: Jordan Peele’s horror comedy Get Out and The Batman Lego Movie. I’m generally not a fan of shockers or cartoons, but the intelligence behind these flicks elevates them above the pack. Get Out manages to be a razor-sharp satire of racist “liberals” with its inspired mashup of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Stepford Wives. And Lego Batman captures the witty spirit of the ’60s TV series while vocally reuniting Arrested Development relatives Will Arnett and Michael Cera as the Caped Crusader and his trusty sidekick Robin. Holy Bluth!
On the other hand, a pair of promising-on-paper movies that quietly made their debuts on VOD this weekend demonstrate the limitations of their creators’ imaginations. I was really hoping The Assignment would mark a return to form for Walter Hill, maker of such action classics as The Warriors and 48 Hrs. But its lurid premise—a diabolical surgeon (Sigourney Weaver) performs gender-reassignment surgery on a hood without his consent—is undercut by a ludicrous performance from Michelle Rodriguez, who’s neither convincing as a hit man nor as a hit woman.
Last and possibly least, even the feral Michael Shannon can’t redeem Wolves (not to be confused with Wolverine) from its pedestrian script by director Bart Freundlich (who’s still better known as Julianne Moore’s real-life husband than for any of his underwhelming films). Shannon plays a compulsive gambler whose debts threaten the future of his high-school basketball star son (American Crime‘s solid Taylor John Smith). Every time Wolves verges on becoming intriguing, like when the underused Carla Gugino seems attracted to her strapping son, it reverts to cliches straight out of better movies like The Gambler (the James Caan original, not the Mark Wahlberg abomination) and Hoosiers.
To put it in gambling terms, Logan, Get Out and The Lego Batman Movie are sure winners, each set to surpass $100 million in the U.S. alone, but Table 19, The Assignment and Wolves are losing bets. I’m speaking creatively, but that applies to the box office as well. Maybe the American moviegoing public is developing good taste? Then again, Fifty Shades Darker has grossed $110 million domestically. I guess there are still some gluttons for cinematic punishment.
I saw two movies last night, Gold and A Dog’s Purpose, and before my friends from PETA jump all over me for supporting a film that allegedly allowed animal abuse, let me just say: I paid for only one of them and snuck into the other. Okay, so the one I paid for was A Dog’s Purpose, but I feel like I’ve already been punished for my transgression, as both films are — to put it in puppy parlance — ruff sits.
The spectacularly ill-conceived A Dog’s Purpose (based on W. Bruce Cameron’s best-seller and adapted for the screen by him along with four other credited co-writers ranging from The Truth About Cats and Dogs‘ Audrey Wells to Infinitely Polar Bear‘s Maya Forbes) follows one canine’s soul through five lives. That’s right, a movie that has been marketed squarely to kids makes you watch adorable doggies DIE FIVE TIMES. It’s as if Disney remade Bambi but just kept replaying the scene of the deer’s mother getting fatally shot over and over again.
That’s not the only inappropriate aspect of A Dog’s Purpose, directed by Lasse Hallström, who must’ve felt like his Collie-esque first name has damned him to a destiny of making dog movies of decreasing quality, from the Oscar-nominated My Life as a Dog to Richard Gere’s shaggy-dog story Hachi: A Dog’s Tale to this mutt. He gives his cast way too long of a leash, allowing Luke Kirby (a fittingly heavy presence in Sundance TV’s slow-moving, serious masterpiece Rectify) to depict the alcoholic father of the dog’s first owner way too realistically, particularly in contrast to Josh Gad’s gag-inducingly cutesy voiceovers of the furball’s internal dialogue.
Good actors who get stranded in this wet sack of dog crap include Ray Donovan‘s aptly named Pooch Hall (sporting a tragic Jeri-Curl in an ’80s sequence), The Job‘s John Ortiz as a Chicago cop whose K-9 companion gets SHOT AND KILLED IN THE LINE OF DUTY, and Dennis Quaid and Peggy Lipton, who don’t show up until the film’s last 20 minutes. As remarkably well-preserved as Mod Squad vet Lipton is, it’s still shocking to see an age-appropriate love interest for the craggy Quaid, especially given that he’s dating a 30-year-old model in real life.
Were the makers of A Dog’s Purpose cruel to animals? I can’t answer that, but I do know they were cruel to human beings for expelling this flaming turd into theaters.
Gold, by contrast, is a precious commodity, as it marks the official end of the McConaissance. By now, you all know the story of Matthew McConaughey, who grew tired of making empty rom-coms like Fool’s Gold and threw himself into a series of gonzo roles, most notably losing 40 pounds (and winning an Oscar) as an AIDS activist in Dallas Buyers Club. For Gold, he gained them back and then some, packing on the lbs. in inverse proportion to his receding hairline to play a fictionalized version of a prospector who repeatedly got rich and lost it all during the go-go ’80s.
The trouble is, the more McConaughey tries to stretch himself into alter egos as far from his good-looking, good-‘ol-boy real-life persona, the more he resembles… Matthew McConaughey: seemingly inebriated and prone to irritatingly rhyme-y catchphrases (“Make it happen, cap’n!” “Let’s make the dolla holla!”) as well as occasional bird sounds. We’ve seen him pull these tricks in previous films like The Wolf of Wall Street, to which Gold owes a major debt.
It’s the fool’s gold version of a Scorsese flick. In this case the fool is director Stephen Gaghan (screenwriter of Traffic), who strands such stellar supporting actors as Corey Stoll, Bryce Dallas Howard, Bill Camp and Stacy Keach in one-dimensional roles as he allows McConaughey to chew the scenery, among other things, and Hands of Stone‘s Edgar Ramirez to give another stolidly dull turn as his business partner.
There might be a good movie hiding somewhere in Gold‘s hills, but this Weinstein Co. wouldn’t-be Oscar contender feels like it’s got the fingerprints of Harvey Scissorhands all over it. It seems to start in the middle — Craig T. Nelson, in a crucial role as McConaughey’s dad, dies before the opening credits — and there’s so much narration explaining the plot that you wonder if it’s not just summarizing scenes that ended up on the cutting-room floor. Maybe that’s where they should’ve left the whole movie, right atop the droppings of A Dog’s Purpose. To para-catchphrase McConaughey, I wanted to JKL: Just Keep Leavin’!