Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann (“Australia”)
Written by: Baz Luhrmann (“Australia”) and Craig Pearce (“Moulin Rouge!”)
For having a reputation of delivering gaudy visual feasts even when his scripts aren’t always spot on, filmmaker Baz Luhrmann has surprisingly become a party pooper with his adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” the classic tale by F. Scott Fitzgerald set in the early 1920s. In the past, Luhrmann has been able to take a celebrated writer like William Shakespeare and turn a story like “Romeo and Juliet” into his own fantastical creation. His work might feel overblown to some (“Moulin Rouge!,” especially, may cause a few epileptic seizures), but his more-is-more approach without apology is what makes the Australian director spectacular despite his flaws. Still, in “The Great Gatsby,” Luhrmann promises a grand circus and shows up with some really expensive silly string.
The year is 1922 in New York City. Business is booming, liquor is cheap, and the roaring jazz music is turning everyone into wild animals. For a good time on the weekends, most find their way to the mansion of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a mysterious millionaire whose shindigs are the bee’s knees. When Jay meets his new neighbor Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), he seizes the opportunity to become his friend in hopes of reuniting with Nick’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan). Daisy is a girl from Jay’s past who is now married to Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a hulking polo player and philanderer who beings to question Jay’s new-money success.
Considered one of the great American novels, Luhrmann somehow squeezes all the romance and emotional value from “The Great Gatsby” and diminishes it to a series of soap opera-like encounters. Where other renditions capture at least some of Fitzgerald’s social commentary (the most famous being the 1974 version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, which isn’t groundbreaking either), Luhrmann hides his under era garb and confetti just long enough for indiscriminate viewers to get sidetracked by the fireworks (and the Jay-Z hip-hop).
That’s not to say a more contemporary soundtrack brimming with anachronistic hits is never welcomed. Director Sofia Coppola did a fantastic job spinning Bow Wow Wow songs inside the walls of Versailles in 2006’s “Marie Antoinette,” but Luhrmann seems to use the music in a much broader way rather than have it support the narrative. Sure, a song like “$100 Bill” drops Gatsby’s name, but it all feels very overproduced and forced.
As Carraway, Maguire is a boy in men’s clothing. Never do we get a sense of the person he is or why he is enthralled with Jay’s lifestyle. He becomes a fly-on-the-wall kind of character and an afterthought long before the credits roll. While DiCaprio is sufficient as the leading man, he, too, is unable to assemble the emotion needed to make Jay’s longing for Daisy soar. It’s not until his two hot-blooded scenes with the well-cast Edgerton that DiCaprio lifts the vale from his enigmatic character. By then, however, all the Cristal has finished, everybody’s gone home, and not even Luhrmann’s decision to scroll Fitzgerald’s poetic words on screen can give another cinematic “Gatsby” reason to exist.
Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams
Directed by: Terrence Malick (“Tree of Life”)
Written by: Terrence Malick (“Tree of Life”)
In the quickest follow-up to a film in his 30 year career, director/writer Terrence Malick delivers “To the Wonder,” a drama so polarizing it earned a series of boos and cheers when it debuted at the Venice Film Festival last September. “To the Wonder” comes after Malick’s Oscar-nominated – albeit still as dividing – “Tree of Life” starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. While it might be considered a companion piece to “Tree,” “Wonder” is less experimental and far less emotionally gratifying than its predecessor. In fact, of the six films Malick has directed since 1973’s “Badlands,” it’s the only one I cannot recommend.
As with every Malick film, viewers can insert their own personal meaning behind the thinly-plotted “Wonder.” Ben Affleck stars as Neil, a man who falls in love with single mother Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in France and brings her and her daughter back to Oklahoma to start a new life together. When things don’t work out (it’s not evident why they don’t since all Affleck does is stare into the distance for most of the film), Marina moves back to France and Neil rekindles a romance with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a childhood friend who is now a rancher. When that relationship ends, Marina comes back. Plotted sloppily between the love triangle is a secondary storyline about a priest (Javier Bardem) who has lost his faith. In perfect Malick form, he walks around aimlessly trying to find it.
For a majority of the film’s 112-minute run time (a short film for Malick’s standards), not much happens. Affleck has tickle-fights with Kurylenko and McAdams on beautiful backdrops as Wagner, Hayden and Rachmaninoff music blend with sparse, meaningless dialogue. There is also verbose narration in French and Spanish that tries hard to be poetic, but proves ineffective. Malick shoots Kurylenko and McAdams like a father who is chasing his twirling toddlers with a video camera he just got for Christmas. It was probably great footage in his mind, but no one else is going to want to see it.
Of course, you can’t dismiss the beauty of “Wonder” with Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“Tree of Life,” “The New World”) at the helm again. Here, he makes a field of grain and a parking lot at a Sonic Drive-Thru restaurant look immaculate. Still, “Wonder” is exactly why Malick detractors don’t give him a fair shake. And this time they’re right. The imagery is incredible, but it’s a pretentious mess. With three more projects already in the canon for the next two years (“Knight of Cups,” “Voyage of Time,” and an untitled piece), here’s to hoping Malick’s sudden craving for rapid filmmaking isn’t his downfall.
Starring: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie
Directed by: Robert Redford (“The Conspirator”)
Written by: Lem Dobbs (“Haywire”)
It might flaunt the most impressive cast top to bottom you’re likely to see this year on the big screen (21 Oscar nominations, 4 wins), but the script behind Oscar-winning director Robert Redford’s political thriller “The Company You Keep” can only lead its actors just far enough before they’re let down by the material.
It really is unfortunate since Redford, who earned an Academy Award for directing in 1981 for “Ordinary People,” comes into the project with a lot of the pieces already in place. This should be a more intriguing look into the radical leftist organization known as the Weather Underground in the late 60s and early 70s, but it falters. The revolutionary group, whose members were charged during that time for bombing a number of sites such as the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon, were hell-bent on overthrowing the U.S. government.
In “Company,” Redford stars as Jim Grant, a New York City lawyer and former activist of the Weathermen, who has been living as a fugitive for the last 30 years after a bank heist he is involved in during his heyday claims the life of a guard. Jim is flushed from his quiet suburban home when one of his former Weather Underground colleagues Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is finally found and arrested for her involvement in the radical movement. Her arrest triggers a domino effect that leads to Jim’s participation in the crime. Now on the run with the FBI and media (Shia LaBeouf plays a scrappy newspaper reporter who cracks the case) on his trail, Jim hits the road in search of a way to clear his name.
Based on the novel of the same name by Neil Gordon, “Company” is a sort of slowly-paced road-trip movie where tons of characters join the fracas, but none are very important to the overall narrative. It’s great to see the likes of heavy-hitters like Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Chris Cooper, Nick Nolte and Stanley Tucci tag in and out like some kind of all-star contest, but the substance behind each of their individual connections to the story is thinly scripted.
The acting makes up slightly for the film’s lack of tension. We’re not looking for car chases and extensive getaway scenes here, but Redford’s inability to draw out more emotional conflict from the script is its greatest letdown. There just aren’t enough big moments the talent can sink their claws into. “Company” is never boring, but it also never shifts out of first gear, which poses a major problem when you have a fugitive on the run and a lot at stake.
In the independent film “Filly Brown,” actress Gina Rodriguez plays Majo Tonorio, a budding L.A. hip-hop artist who is trying to break into the music industry to raise money to hire a lawyer to get her mother (Jenni Rivera) out of prison. Oscar-nominated actor Edward James Olmos (“Stand and Deliver”) plays the criminal lawyer who is working with Majo, much to the chagrin of her emotionally exhausted father (Lou Diamond Phillips). “Filly Brown” was co-directed and co-written by Michael Olmos, one of Edward’s four sons.
What was it like reuniting with Lou Diamond Phillips for the first time since “Stand in Deliver” 25 years ago?
(Laughs) It was a dream come true. It was a great way to move forward and see him and rejoice in our lives. He gives a tremendous performance in this film. It might be his best performance since “Stand and Deliver” or “La Bamba,” I’m not sure.
Does it feel like 25 years?
Nah, it went by pretty quick. (Laughs) It doesn’t feel like it. Time just goes by so fast.
This is your son Michael’s third film as a director and the second time you’ve worked with him on one of those films. Over the years, how have you seen him evolve as a filmmaker?
He’s grown an awful lot. His writing has grown. He helped write “Filly Brown.” He’s grown a lot as an artist.
As a father, was there a specific time in his life where you sensed that the film industry might be something he wanted to be a part of?
I think all my kids looked at this lifestyle and kind of liked it. [Michael] came to me right out of high school and said, “Listen, I want to go to college.” I said, “OK.” He did all his prerequisite work for two years and then came back to me and said, “I’d like to graduate from Columbia and be a director.” I said, “OK. Learn how to write. Take the writing program.” He said, “But I want to direct.” I said, “That’s great, but learn how to write first. Directing is easy. Writing is hard.” So, he did and he came out of Columbia a wonderful writer. Now, his directing is catching up to his writing, so I think he is going to be right on schedule.
Would he ever go with you on movie sets when he was younger?
Oh, yeah. He went on almost all the sets. All my sons did. Bodie’s in the business. He’s an actor and producer. He worked with me on “Battlestar Galactica.” Then Mico, he wrote and performed the music and produced “Filly Brown.” My other son [Brandon] is a documentary filmmaker and musician. So, they’re all inside of it.
Were you at all worried that all four of your sons wanted to get into what I’m sure you know is a cutthroat industry?
No, because I brought them up knowing that there is no security in this business. It’s consistently fluctuating. Sometimes you’re working and sometimes you’re not. They grew up knowing what that world was like and what those sacrifices were. They could go their whole life and never make a penny. They know that, but it’s the life they chose.
Is the music in “Filly Brown” something you could get used to listening to while driving? Is that a genre we’d find you playing on your radio?
Oh, yeah. (Laughs) I really like it. A lot of the actors that are in the movie are really strong rappers. Chingo Bling is fantastic in the movie. He’s a great rapper, songwriter and entrepreneur.
Part of the film deals with how women in the entertainment industry have to sometimes use their sexuality to get people to take notice. We saw the same thing in “Selena.” Do you think much has changed in 16 years when it comes to that issue?
No, it’s gotten worse. Not just for the [Hispanic] culture, but for women in general. The sexuality in our communities is just growing and growing and growing. Of course, we have the moral majority telling us that it’s not right. What happens is that we don’t have any balance. We don’t have what Europe has. Europe has a very strong and wonderful way of looking at its sexuality. It’s much more understanding of itself. It’s more normal. Here, it’s like, “Whoa!” It’s the same way with men, too. They have to be sexier or they’re not going to make it. You have to be good-looking, suave, cool, all of that.
My favorite line in the film is said by actor Daniel Mora. He says, “You’re a real asshole, but we’re family.” Do you think family tolerance like that is exclusive to the Latino culture?
Not exclusive, but it does prevail in our culture sometimes more than in the Caucasian or African American cultures. But I think our culture definitely does have that more consistently. It’s unconditional love.
I know you don’t have any scenes with Jenni Rivera in “Filly Brown,” but can you talk to me about what she brought to this film and what you felt when you found out about her passing last year?
It’s still one of the hardest situations that has ever hit me because of the sheer shock of it. I mean, Selena was bad enough, but I didn’t make a movie with her. Here we are at our first press junket for “Filly Brown” and the movie is coming out and everyone is happy and Jenni isn’t here. There’s a huge hole. We’ve finished this little movie and it has become a very strong film and now it’s about to go out into the world and she’s not with us to rejoice. When you’re working on a real intimate film like this, you really do become family. The very last scene of the movie, when [Jenni] stands up to leave, has become a very iconic moment. She puts her hand on the window and walks away and her handprint stays there and you know it’s going to dry up and fade away. It riveted everyone in the audience so much when we saw it. No one could’ve imagined that when she turns around and walks away, it would be the last time you see her. It’s still very emotional. It brings a tear to my eye right now just talking about it.
Well, let me lighten things up a bit before I let you go. I’m wondering, has anyone has shown you the episode of “Portlandia” yet where Fred Armisen plays Jaime Escalante in “Reverse Stand and Deliver?”
(Laughs) Yes, I saw it. (Laughs) “Portlandia” did “Battlestar,” too. Of course they’re going to jump on “Stand and Deliver.” A bunch of people have done skits on “Stand and Deliver,” even Jim Carrey. It’s one of the classic teacher-student films that has ever been made.
What can we expect from your character Papi Greco in your new film “2 Guns” with Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg?
Oh, boy. Well, Denzel and Wahlberg and those guys called me up and asked me if I would help them out. If it wasn’t a direct call, I wouldn’t have been a part of that movie. It’s a very strong movie. It’s an action-packed movie, but it also has a lot of truth in it. The CIA is at the helm of narcotic drug trafficking. (Laughs) It’s very true! It’s fun and you’ll laugh and there are a lot of car chases and things blowing up, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty it’s about the inner workings of the highest covert military people we have in this country. This isn’t a fantasy. This is right on the money.
What about your new film with director John Salles, “Go For Sisters?”
Man, what a movie. Wow. Now, there’s a film that has no car chases. It has a lot of drama and great character work. John is a genius when it comes to character work. It’s about as good as “Lone Star.” The nuances are superb. Thinkers are going to love the movie.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko
Directed by: Joseph Kosinski (“TRON: Legacy”)
Written by: Joseph Kosinski (debut), Karl Gajdusek (“Trespass”), Michael Arndt (“Toy Story 3”)
Just like in his last film, the CGI-rich albeit hollow-to-the-core sequel “TRON: Legacy,” filmmaker Joseph Kosinski captures an exciting setting in his second movie “Oblivion.” In this Tom Cruise-vehicle, Kosinski’s idea of a futuristic, post-war Earth is vast and dreary. High-tech drones blaze through the sky with purpose. The planet is lifeless, but Kosinski’s vision isn’t. It’s not until characters actually speak and a plot is brought to the forefront when “Oblivion” becomes just another dull sci-fi genre flash in the pan.
Cruise, who is no stranger to substantial science fiction like “Minority Report” and “War of the Worlds,” tries his best to keep the drama high as the director maintains the fascinating world around him. He stars as Jack Harper, a security expert whose mission is to monitor drones on Earth. Along with his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), the duo is only two weeks away from clocking out and joining their fellow humans who have been transported to another planet after a nuclear war ravaged the world uninhabitable. Hanging out in the shadows of Earth are aliens called “scavs” who are hellbent on attacking machines built to harvest the Earth’s remaining ocean water.
If that read like a jumbled up narrative, that’s because it is. In fact, we haven’t even started to explain why Jack is seeing a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) in his dreams or why an annoyingly southern-accented Melissa Leo is giving him the runaround via video transmission or why the heck Morgan Freeman shows up wearing shades and smoking a cigar. Besides not wanting to ruin some of the surprises “Oblivion” has in store, we also don’t want to dilute the synopsis as much as screenwriters here do with the script. “Oblivion” is a sprawling mess filled with big, muddy ideas. It’s a perfect example of a sci-fi movie that over-thinks its mythology and ends up forcing the viewer right out of the story.
It’s also not very mindful of other recent sci-fi movies that share some of its major twists. Sure, there are plenty of movies out there that cover the same themes and a few of the scenarios seen in “Oblivion,” but it boggles the mind to understand how a couple of them didn’t set off the copycat alarms. And no, we’re not talking about Cruise reliving his fighter-pilot days in “Top Gun.” Here he’s impressive behind the controls of a high-speed spacecraft. Too bad the year is 2077 and not 1986.
Off his Oscar win for the gorgeously shot “Life of Pi,” the work of cinematographer Claudio Miranda is easily the film’s forte. From a shootout inside an abandoned library to the eye-melting landscapes and skyscapes, the images in “Oblivion” coincide with its $120-million price tag. Producers should’ve skimped on a few CGI drones, however, and transferred some of those funds to someone who could’ve tightened up the screenplay with a vise.
In the drama “Filly Brown,” Chicago-born actress Gina Rodriguez (“Go For It!”) plays Majo Tonorio, a L.A. street poet who attempts to crossover into the music industry as a hip-hop artist. The film stars late banda/norteña singer Jenni Rivera as Majo’s incarcerated mother Maria. During an interview with me, Rodriguez discussed how Filly Brown can help be part of a Latino film movement and what Rivera, who passed away last December, meant to her as a friend and co-star.
Since “Filly Brown” is the first lead role of your film career, do you feel like you are part of the industry now?
It’s still a hustle. I’m still trying to prove to the world I can act and that I have a place in this industry. But it’s been a blessing. “Filly Brown” has done wonders for my career. It has gotten me the recognition I’ve always prayed for. Let’s hope that it does well in theaters because that’s all that matters. We have to tell the Latino community we can make “Filly Brown” part of the movement. If “Filly Brown” does well, more money will go into the next Latino film.
Unfortunately, statistics show Latino moviegoers don’t go out and support Latino-themed films on a consistent basis. Why do you think the support isn’t there?
I think you hit it right on the head. Latinos don’t go out and support their own films, but at the same time it’s not their responsibility. I don’t want the Latino community to think I think the reason Latino films are not doing well is because of us. It is not fully our responsibility. There are a lot of Latino Americans out there. They want to see themselves in the movies they go out to see like “Fast and the Furious” and “Total Recall” and the movies that are blockbuster hits. We want to see our brown faces in those movies. I think there is a little discrepancy in the industry where they think the only places Latinos belong are in their own movies. That’s clearly not true with people like Zoe Saldaña and Michelle Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez. We have a few heavy hitters in the industry that are doing movies that don’t have anything to do with being Latino. I know we all desire more of that.
Do you desire that yourself as an actress?
I desire to be in a big blockbuster movie that has nothing to do with my skin color and just has to do with the fact I can act my ass off. I will play the characters with last names like Sanchez and Gonzalez until the day I die, but I also want to play the “Michelle Smiths.” I think all Latino actors want to be storytellers first. I want to be an actor first and then I want to be Latina. At the same time, a movie like “Filly Brown” is not all about “Viva la Raza.” It’s not all about me speaking Spanish. But these characters carry around their culture and what defines us as Latinos.
Although being Latina comes second to being an actress, it does sound like you are very proud of your culture.
Yeah, Latinos have power. We put the President in office! There are 50 million Latinos in this country. If two million go see “Filly Brown,” then Hollywood is going to start saying, “Oh, there they are. There’s the money. Now we have to actually start casting these brown folks because they want to see themselves on screen.” As many broke Latinos as there are – me included – we actually have the power with our $15 movie ticket.
Talk about working with the late Jenni Rivera and what she meant to you on the set.
I would give this whole movie to have her back. I would give my whole career to have her back on earth. This woman was tremendous. The woman that everyone saw when she would stop and talk to her fans, that was Jenni. She was never fake or phony. Outside of my mother, she was one of the greatest mothers I had ever seen. [Her death] is a lot to deal with because we have this movie that we are proud of and want to promote, but it feels like there is something missing. But she is our angel. She helped me so much with the music. I was terrified. I had never touched music a day in my life. But it’s time to celebrate her and what she does in this film.
Along with help from Jenni, how did you confront the musical elements of the movie?
I went to NYU School of the Arts for theater and trained my ass off as an actress, so I took the same approach for music. I watched Jenni. I watched Medicine Girl (Carolyn Rodriguez), Lala Romero, Diamonique, Chingo Bling, Chino Brown, Baby Bash for hours. I watched how far they stood from the mic. I watched how they enunciated their words. I watched the way they grooved. Now you can’t get me out of the studio!
Do you consider yourself a musician now?
Most definitely. I’m very new to the music industry and pay homage to those who came before me. By no means do I think I’m at the level of any of these musicians. I am now a musician in training. I will constantly be working on my music the same way I worked toward my acting. It’s going to take time and practice and patience. I’m far from where I want to be, but I’m on the journey.
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Luis Gnecco
Directed by: Pablo Larraín (“Tony Manero”)
Written by: Pablo Peirano (“The Maid”)
With all the junk we’re persuaded into buying on a daily basis through TV commercials, it’s a bit surprising more political campaigns haven’t tried to use the same techniques to earn more votes for their candidates. After all, if a Jack in the Box marketing team can make someone crave a bacon-flavored milkshake, anything is possible, right?
That’s exactly what happened in Chile during the 1988 referendum where citizens voted on whether or not their dictator Augusto Pinochet would continue his presidency for another term. Those who supported Pinochet voted yes. Those who did not voted no. In the Oscar-nominated film “No,” director Pablo Larraín tells the story of the No campaign to boot Pinochet out of office and the young advertising executive hired to lead the cause with some unconventional ideas.
Gael Garcia Bernal (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) stars as René Saavedra, a character you would find in “Mad Men” if the AMC show was set in 1988 Chile. Although René’s has a commercial background (he makes TV spots for products like soft drinks), he’s brought on to kick start the campaign against Pinochet in the only way he knows how: by peddling the idea of a new government to the people as if he was selling them a Coke.
The rules of the political race are simple: each night both sides are given 15 minutes on TV to convince voters they’re right. The 15-minute spots air every night for a month and then people make their decision. For René, it’s more than simply giving Chilean citizens the facts on why they should get rid of Pinochet, it’s also keeping them entertained and making their message stick. If that includes a few cheesy jingles and logos (and even a mime!), so be it.
As leftist René, Garcia Bernal sells democracy like a champion. His passion and creativity are evident and he pushes his merchandise like a snake oil salesman. Garcia Bernal does a great job matching the script’s low-key humor and satirical take on the state of politics in Chile during the era. Larraín mixes the slight comedic elements well with engaging drama and excellent archival footage. As a matter of fact, the whole film looks like it’s make up of archival footage since it was all shot on video tape. As things play out, you might think you’re watching a documentary at times. It’s fascinating, nonetheless, with Garcia Bernal at the helm and Larraín, who captures Chile’s first-ver Oscar nomination in the history of the country, offering up a story most outside of Chile don’t know.
In the Oscar-nominated Chilean film “No,” filmmaker Pablo Larraín (“Tony Manero”) tells the story of Chlie’s 1988 referendum through the eyes of an advertising executive hired to run the campaign against the country’s dictator Augusto Pinochet. Gael Garcia Bernal (“Amores Perros”) stars as René Saavedra, a commercial ad man who brings an unconventional marketing plan to the political arena in hopes of ending Pinochet’s 17 year reign.
“No” was nominated for an Oscar last year. It marked the first time Chile was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language category since the country began submitting films for Oscar consideration in 1990. What was your reaction to the news?
It was fantastic. We started submitting movies for Oscar consideration in 1990 because the dictatorship was over. Before that, it was really hard to make movies.The nomination comes on different levels. One, it helps me in my career, which is something I completely ignore. Two, it helps the movie, which is the most important thing. Now, more people will be aware of it when it’s released.
You were only a child when the national plebiscite took place in 1988. What do you remember about that time in Chile and how did it affect your family?
Well, my family was never exposed to any type of danger. We were not part of a lot of the pain and violence a lot of people suffered. But what I do remember is the mood in Chile. There was something in the air, like a sensation. That’s what I wanted to capture in the film, too. It’s not only about the story and the dramatic plot. It’s also about the atmosphere. I tried to capture that from the memories and feelings I grew up with. The sensation I’m talking about is heavy an unsettling. It was a super grey moment in Chile’s history.
What side of history was your family on during this time? Did they support Pinochet?
Yes, they supported Pinochet just like half of the country was. The people who were in danger were the ones who were against Pinochet.
So, you were brought up in a home where government and politics were part of everyday life. Your father was a senator and your mother once worked as the minister of Housing and Urbanism. How did this influence you as you grew up?
It’s hard to tell because my parents supported Pinochet, but my grandparents were on the No side. Everyone had a different perspective. What I do know is that no matter what you think, the fact that I was in this political environment just got me interested in the subject. I thought there was something there that would make a good movie.
How many of the 27 nights of advertising did you actually watch as research for the film?
All of it. Both sides. I even got access to a lot of material that didn’t air.
What surprised you the most about the campaigns during your research?
It was the freshness of the No campaign. It was something truly unbelievable in how they did it. Every day they did better and better and better. It’s unbelievable now when you watch what happened – and with the perspective of time – how something like that could be possible. During those 27 days, the guys on the No campaign just trusted so much in what they were doing. The people on the Yes side would switch what they were doing every two days because they were confused.
Talk about your decision to make this film look like it was shot on videotape. How do you think this decision enhances the story you’re trying to tell? For me, I loved the fact that you really couldn’t tell the difference between the real footage you used during that time and the film itself.
Thanks, I agree with that. It was very important for us to create an illusion. At least 1/3 of the film is real footage, so it was very important that the audience connected with the movie in that way. We didn’t want them to have to reconnect with it every time they saw the movie in a different format. Sometimes a movie uses just a little bit of real footage, so it doesn’t bother me. But for “No,” we were going to use so much of it, we thought it would be distressing for the audience and would break the illusion somehow. I think it’s pretty important that most people don’t know once the movie has begun what exactly is archival footage and what is not.
I was only six years old when “Siskel and Ebert and The Movies” (later changed simply to “Siskel & Ebert”) made its TV debut on September 20, 1986 under the Buena Vista Television umbrella. By then, Chicago-Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert had been critiquing movies for nearly two decades and in 1975 became the first film critic in history to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. During the show’s premiere year, while Ebert was passing judgment on important cinema like “Blue Velvet” and “Platoon,” I was laughing at a dancing animated Pepsi can in “The Golden Child” and crushing on Lea Thompson in “Howard the Duck.”
It was a few years later when I truly understood what being a movie critic actually entailed when I discovered “Siskel & Ebert” on TV one weekend. Two men sharing opinions about movies I had never heard of was somehow fascinating to me. Sometimes they agreed with each other. Sometimes they fought like mad dogs. Well-established critics like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris meant nothing to me. I read Sports Illustrated for Kids, not The New Yorker. Terms like “film noir” and “cinematography” were from a foreign language. I only knew the basics: “Home Alone” was the funniest thing I had ever seen in my 10 years of life — and that was satisfying enough for me.
But every weekend, I would always find my way back to “Siskel & Ebert.”
Sure, I talked to my friends on the playground about what the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were up to that week, but my infatuation with film criticism grew over the years solely because of men like Siskel and Ebert. Their show would eventually lead me to other accessible critics like Texas film journalists Bob Polunsky and Larry Ratliff. By then it was the mid-90s. The internet had just entered the public consciousness, so there was no such thing as Rotten Tomatoes yet. I read and watched critics who were available. Ebert was, and I was hooked. Later, Ebert would open the floodgates for more critics to inspire my own writing. Critics who he held in the highest regard like A.O. Scott, David Ansen, and Christy Lemire, soon received my personal thumbs up.
When I read about Ebert’s passing Thursday afternoon, I was genuinely heartbroken. It made me think about when Siskel died in 1999. I hadn’t begun working as a film critic yet (that came the following year), so I don’t remember it affecting me the same way. But with Ebert, I can say I know some of the joys of his profession that he will never get to experience again and it saddens me. Film criticism isn’t easy, despite those who deem it a dream job because “you get paid to see movies.” It’s a lost art form. So when a film critic is as respected in the industry as Ebert was for the last 50 years, you know he found his true calling; a passion he worked at till the very end.
So, thank you, Mr. Ebert, for introducing me to a world I love and a profession in which I can only hope to one day have a fraction of the influence you did. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but through the years I’ve admired your open-mindedness to the ever-changing cinematic landscape, your vast knowledge of film history, and the unflinching manner in which you could defend your opinion. You made me appreciate film in ways few teenagers would and taught me to understand that cinema — whether it’s happiness or anger or wonder — should make you feel something.
Three minutes and 50 seconds was all Uruguayan director Fede Álvarez needed. That was the total runtime of “Ataque de Pánico” (“Panic Attack”), an impressive, albeit micro-budgeted, short film Álvarez made about robots destroying Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, which he uploaded onto YouTube in 2009. It quickly garnered attention from a number of Hollywood movers and shakers, including filmmaker Sam Raimi and actor Bruce Campbell, who first offered him another movie project and then chose him to direct the “reinvention” of their “Evil Dead” franchise. Despite never having made a feature film before, Álvarez, 35, jumped on board faster than Raimi and Campbell could say, “Join us!”
A lot of 20-year-olds are going to see this movie and not know it’s a remake from an ’80s cult classic. As a fan of the original film, do you think that is a problem?
No, I don’t, but I’m also part of that group of people that bitches when they find out someone is going to remake a classic movie. When I look back to some of the movies I loved in the ’80s when I was a kid, I didn’t know some of them were remakes. Take, for example, “The Fly” (1986). It was a horror cult classic from the ’50s. [Director] David Cronenberg brought that title to a whole new generation. That’s what I think we’re doing here — bringing it to a new generation of 18-20-year-olds that would never have known [the original] existed.
Do you think new audiences will miss out on certain aspects of the remake because they haven’t seen the original?
I don’t think so, because we wanted to create a film that worked for new audiences, but at the same time please the fans of the original. That was the big challenge for me as a writer and director, but we discovered that it definitely worked both ways. If you’ve seen the original 100 times, it still works as a new film because we took the time to change a lot of things from the original. The story may feel familiar for the first 20 minutes, but then it goes into completely new places. Then, of course, new audiences will have a blast because they’re exposed to the “Evil Dead” universe for the first time.
Would you consider this horror movie only for fans of the genre?
Not at all. There’s something special about the “Evil Dead” movies. In most horror films, the characters are always just victims. Whoever survives sometimes just barely makes it out alive. But in the “Evil Dead” movies there is always a character that turns around and fights back. That’s what I love about this movie. People have told me they thought they were going to hate this movie because they don’t like horror movies, but said they had a lot of fun watching the film. “Evil Dead” movies always tend to get away from the standard slasher or supernatural horror.
When it came to the gore in the film, were there any unwritten rules you tried to follow during production or was nothing off limits?
Well, you don’t want to hold back, but you also don’t want it to turn into something too funny. When gore gets over the top it tends to not be scary anymore. The challenge was to show the right amount of gore without turning it into something that was ridiculous. I think there is really an art to it. Anybody can grab a knife and cut a body apart, so we tried to think about what triggers the pain in people’s lives. We wanted to show the gore at the right place, at the right time, and in the right amount.
What would you find more rewarding with this remake: to shock horror movie fans or scare them?
I wanted to go out there with the same spirit Sam had when he made the original — to make the scariest movie ever, but I think what I want to do most is entertain them. That’s the main goal. You can make the goriest movie and it could still be the most boring thing ever, even if you’re a fan of gory horror movies. I want to hook the audience into the story first. Then, it’s about scaring them with the right combination of shock and suspense.
Starring: Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci
Directed by: Fede Alvarez (debut)
Written by: Fede Alvarez (debut)
If you walk out of the remake of “Evil Dead” and actual think Sam Raimi’s original film was better, there is a cult-classic bias in you that can never be exorcised. Simply put: Raimi’s “Evil Dead” is so 1981. First-time feature director Fede Alvarez’s take is fresh and fiendishly entertaining.
Okay, we jest…to a point. Raimi’s original film, of course, will forever be considered a cult favorite by fans of the horror genre and deservingly so. The campy feel of it – even more today – is ridiculously amusing. But Alvarez, who has never made a feature-length film before in his life, takes Raimi’s framework and builds something even more gruesome and throws in a nastier streak that would never have made it past the censors 30 years ago. If you liked the sometimes unintentional humor of the first one, there’s not much of that in its successor. There’s no room for laughter, anyway, when so much blood is spewing all over.
That’s not to say graphic horror remakes these days have an impressive track record when it comes to impaling body parts in excess. Things like “Black Christmas” in 2006, “My Blood Valentine” in 2009, and Rob Zombie’s version of the “Halloween” franchise are a very small handful of horror movies that didn’t get it right. Despite it not being very scary at all, Alvarez’s “Evil Dead,” however, gets fewer things wrong and has a blast doing it.
Like the 1981 movie, the reincarnated “Evil Dead” follows a group of young friends into the wood where they shack up in a remote cabin. Instead of camping, however, the characters in the new flick are having a rehab session for Mia (Jane Levy), a friend who has decided she wants to kick her drug habit cold turkey. But when her friends run across a barbwire-bounded Book of the Dead in the cellar, left over from some satanic ritual, Mia and her cohorts, including her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), and their friends Eric (Lou Tatylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas), have a lot more to worry about than Mia’s manic withdrawals. She’s not vomiting blood because she needs a fix. She’s got a demon inside her.
Relying more on good old-fashioned special effects than those of the CGI brand, the new “Evil Dead” never feels fake (although a creepy female victim from the book’s past shows up in the first half and almost ruins it). With Raimi and actor Bruce Campbell, who we all know as Ash in the franchise, on board as producers, the re-visioning of “Evil Dead” is about as much fun as watching someone get shot in the face with a nail gun. Gauge your threshold for gore on your reaction to that last sentence and you should know whether or not you have the stomach for it.
In the independent film “The Girl,” filmmaker David Riker (“La Ciudad”) tells the story of Ashley (Abbie Cornish), a Texas woman whose first attempt at smuggling Mexican immigrants across the border ends with her becoming the caretaker of a young girl (Maritza Santiago Hernandez) who is separated from her mother during their journey to the U.S. During my interview with Riker, we talked about the dedication of Cornish to learn the Spanish language and what he was looking for when he cast a non-professional actor like Hernandez.
Abbie Cornish’s character Ashley is not a likeable one for a large portion of the film. What kind of conversations did you have with Abbie about what you wanted to convey about her character on screen so moviegoers would not be turned away by her immediately?
You touched the heart of the dramatic challenge for Abbie, which was this: How do you play a character that’s not likeable in a way that doesn’t just push viewers away? How do you make them feel some kind of connection to her? What the challenge really came down to was showing that Ashley is behaving the way she does because she has been dealt a bad hand. If we feel that soon enough, we can see her actions in some kind of context. [Abbie and I] both felt Ashley’s father was the dark cloud Ashley was living under. The film becomes the story of a father and daughter and whether or not the young woman will choose to break from following in her father’s behavior. Those are the kinds of conversations we were having. We were both very aware of the risks of having an unlikeable character, but we felt if the world where she comes from is established soon enough, it would make people want to know more about what Ashley is struggling with.
Talk about the dedication Abbie gave for this role. I read that she not only wanted to learn her lines in Spanish, she wanted to learn the language as fluently as possible.
I’m still shocked that she truly wanted to learn the language. She spent a great deal of time preparing for it. I think she would’ve loved even spending more time learning it. I met with a number of actors to play the role. They were all equally enthusiastic about it. All of them assured me that it wouldn’t be a problem to learn the lines in Spanish. But Abbie said she wanted to study the entire language and speak it well enough so she could step out of the scene and continue talking with young Maritza [Santiago Hernandez] and the people on the set and with the communities where we were filming. She is a very serious and very committed actor.
It must have been very beneficial for Abbie to be able to continue conversing with Maritza after the cameras stopped rolling. I could see Maritza having a lot of confidence because there wasn’t a language barrier between her and the person with whom she has all her scenes.
I knew that was the ideal scenario, but I didn’t know how we were going to get there. Maritza speaks no English nor does anyone in her family. It was so interesting because when Abbie came down for the first time, we spent several days together not working on the script. We gave Abbie and Maritza enough time together to bond. Maritza took her to the village [in Oaxaca]. They ate meals together. They went to the market together. It was wonderful to see them bond way before we even started shooting. As you know in the film, Ashley is really vicious to Maritza. It was really important to Abbie that Maritza knew that underneath that there was a different reality. There was affection and respect.
Was Maritza’s life in Mexico similar to the one portrayed in the film?
Maritza’s life is very similar to that of [her character] Rosa’s except for the fact that Maritza has not grown up in a village in the mountains of Oaxaca. She lives in one of the colonias or new neighborhoods that surround the City of Oaxaca. Historically, the City of Oaxaca was a city of about 100,000 people, but today’s it’s one million. The reason it has grown is that a huge number of people have left the mountains and the smaller villages to move into Oaxaca. You essentially have these transplanted communities that are in the central valleys. But the conditions of her life are very similar to that of Rosa. They have no running water. They have no electricity. They had no floor in their home. Although they live close to the City of Oaxaca their life is not urbanized.
When it comes to casting children who are considered non-professional actors, I’ve always wondered if directors take into consideration what happens to these young boys and girls after the film has wrapped. It’s like what happened to the kids who starred in “Slumdog Millionaire.” Studios cast these young girls and boys and bring them into this very new and exciting situation and when the movie is completed, they send them back to their regular lives. Were you conscious of that when you cast for the role of Rosa?
When you work with “non-professional actors,” you have a greater responsibility as a filmmaker. There is a risk that you can upend someone’s life and at the end of it they land hard. It can be very destructive. I know this from studying the history of cinema and some of the classic films like “Bicycle Thieves.” That film destroyed the life of the man who was cast in the main role. My starting point when I cast is thinking, “I’m not just casting for the child. I’m casting for the whole family.” I want to see that the family is solid. If I sense the mother is very excited, I’m very reluctant to cast the child. I see the mother trying to fulfill her own dreams. I’m much more interested in finding families that are rooted. Then I want to make sure they experience doesn’t turn the child’s life upside down.
How did you do that with Maritza?
Great effort went in to find a really superb tutor who was with us every day during pre-production and production. I had a strong, close relationship with Maritza’s teacher and the director of her school. We didn’t want her to miss anything in school and wanted her to excel and get even more attention. Maritza was well grounded. The risks were less that she was going to be thrown for a loop. What’s interesting is that when the film premiered in Mexico at the Morelia Film Festival, Maritza’s performance won immense praise by the Mexican press. No less than 26 outlets interviewed her over the course of two days. All of them asked the same questions: “What do you want to do now? Do you want to make more movies?” I watched over and over as Maritza said, “Right now, I want to finish my studies and then I want to be a teacher.” It felt so good to see that in many ways she came out of this film an even stronger version of herself. Any child, when given a lot of attention, can blossom. I think she did just that.
I don’t think many filmmakers think about the consequences of taking someone like Maritza out of their environment and throwing them into a different arena only to throw them back again when the film is over. I could only imagine that it would be shocking for some of them. Some probably wonder, “Where did all the attention go?”
I think filmmakers, historically, have not taken enough responsibility for what they leave behind – on an individual level with the casting; on a community level and the relationships they make during production; on a social level. Filmmakers can create a lot of damage. I’ve only made two films and I’ve been working at this for a long time. Part of the reason is because I am hyper-sensitive to trying not to destroy anything except myths.
You’ve done a lot of research on the immigrant’s story. We see that in “The Girl” and in your first film “La Ciudad” (“The City”). Do you think the immigrant’s story is a universal one for all of them, or is there something exclusive to the Mexican immigrant’s story?
I surely don’t think Mexican immigrants have a unique experience, but I do think immigrants today are experiencing what it means to be uprooted in a different way than in previous waves of immigration. We say we’re a nation of immigrants, but the truth is immigrants today face a much more hostile and dangerous journey than the great migrations of the last century. The historical achievement of the border has been to divide families. To be an immigrant today means to be uprooted alone – like a castaway in a storm. That’s what this film is trying to do. It’s trying to broaden this discussion about immigration.