Saturday, March 9, 2019

Interview: Jia Zhang-ke on Ash Is Purest White and the Evolution of China

Unshowy yet unshakably self-assured, sincere but with glimpses of a sly sense of humor, and unhesitatingly frank even about touchy topics like the Chinese government’s censorship of his work, Jia Zhang-ke comes off in person just as a fan of his films might expect. Ever since his 1997 feature debut, The Pickpocket, and 2000’s Platform, in which young people struggle to adapt to China’s increasing Westernization, Jia has been creating a kind of unofficial history of his homeland, quietly defying his government’s determination to erase its tracks as it barrels along by doing things like rewiring the economy, rewriting the social contract, and depopulating whole cities and erecting new ones in a matter of months.

Jia’s films operate in metaphorical deep focus, surfacing the ways that these sweeping societal changes affect individual lives and relationships by zeroing in on sensitively detailed portrayals of two lovers, or of a group or pair of friends, while just as clearly portraying the socioeconomic backdrops to their stories. And often at the center of his films is Zhao Tao, his wife and longtime muse. In Jia’s latest, Ash Is Purest White, Zhao reprises the role she played in 2002’s Unknown Pleasures: Qiao Qiao, a strong-willed woman from Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, this time over a span of 17 years that starts when she’s the young lover of a gangster and ends with her in charge of the gambling den he once ran.

In a conversation before Ash Is Purest White’s debut at the New York Film Festival, Jia explained what he likes about digital video, how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life, and how he deals with his government’s suppression of his work.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Interview: Asghar Farhadi on Everybody Knows

A beautifully acted ensemble piece, Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows starts with a hyper-realistic introduction to a cozy world—a bath of golden light, goblets of wine, warm hugs, and festive music as Laura’s (Penélope Cruz) large, loving family gathers for a wedding. But the film’s focus on this family’s day-to-day interactions takes a sharp turn when a crisis puts the main characters, including Paco (Javier Bardem), Laura’s old and dear friend, to the test, throwing everything about their lives into question.

Two years ago, on what turned out to be his last trip to the United States, I spoke with Farhadi in person about The Salesman. (The filmmaker, who has a green card, has stayed away since then, in protest of President Donald Trump’s travel ban.) Earlier this week, we spoke over the phone about Everybody Knows and the subject of the universal human instinct to distrust outsiders, the persistence of the past, and the strong similarities between Spanish and Iranian culture that make Farhadi feel at home in Spain.

There’s a subplot in Everybody Knows about the anti-immigrant prejudice in Spain, which makes people point fingers at foreign grape-pickers the moment something goes wrong. Were you trying to say something about how that kind of poisonous thinking seems to be spreading around the world?
My point I’m making is more general. It was this very universal reflex that we have that when there’s something wrong, suspicion is first directed against not just immigrants but the stranger, the outsider. Whereas problems may actually come from people around us—relatives, friends—and that is the case in this film.

There are a lot of reminders in Everybody Knows, starting with the title, of how hard it is to keep a secret in a small town.
Because I wanted to deal with the notion of secrets, and secrets being related to the past of the characters, I had to choose a society in which people are aware of each other’s pasts. If I had put my story in a big city it wouldn’t have made sense. People don’t know where the others come from; they aren’t aware of each other’s background. I wanted it to be in a small community in which people pretend that they don’t know anything about the others, but in reality they know everything. Read the rest in Slant Magazine.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Best TV Shows of 2018

For me, contributing to Slant Magazine's list of the year's best TV shows is as much about the process as the result: It's the motivation I need to catch up on candidates I missed earlier in the year, and to watch end-of-year debuts that sound interesting. There's so much good TV now, on network and cable and streaming services like Amazon and Hulu and Netflix, that it's not humanly possible to see it all, but I've seen probably more than was healthy. So here are my top 10 picks and my honorable mentions.

Top 10
The Handmaid's Tale (my interview with Ann Dowd about The Handmaid's Tale, among other things)
The Americans
Homeland (my review of Season 4)
Bojack Horseman
Better Call Saul
The Terror
Killing Eve
Random Acts of Flyness

Honorable Mentions
Wyatt Cenac's Problem Areas, Silicon Valley (my recaps of Season 4). The End of the F**cking World, Big Mouth, Jane the Virgin, Ozark (my review of Season 1), Pose, Claws, Dear White People, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (my review of Season 4), Wild Wild Country, The Good Place (my review of Season 2), Barry, Happy!, The Baroness Von Sketch Show, Salt Fat Acid Heat

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Interview: Pawel Pawlikowski on Cold War

Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, like his Oscar-winning Ida, highlights a traumatic period in Poland’s recent history, and how a brutal political reality warps people’s lives. In the film, Poland’s totalitarian government and the iron curtain that separates the country from the West is hardly the only thing that keeps doomed lovers Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) apart, but it’s certainly the main one. It also interferes with their ability to do good work. Wiktor is the co-founder a troupe that performs Polish folk music and dances. Zula is the star of the troupe, whose initially artistic performances become steadily more maudlin and nationalistic under the heavy hand of Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), the communist bureaucrat who runs the company.

After the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival, Pawlikowski talked to me about the echoes of modern politics that Polish audiences detect in Cold War, how the film eluded the grasp of the propagandists who maligned Ida, and why he doesn’t stick too closely to his scripts.

I’ve seen two of your earliest movies, My Summer of Love and your first documentary, about Russian writer and dissident Benedict Yerofeyev. Ida and Cold War felt to me like they’re operating on a whole different, much deeper level. Did they feel different to you too?

It’s age. Age and experience. A mixture of, you know, calming down, maturing, craft. I never went to film school, so I did all my learning on the job. A lot of these early films are just rescue jobs—a good idea, and they generally work, because there’s something about them. I was usually just gripped by a story. Benedict was a writer I really loved, so I had to make a film about him. He was dying, and there was nothing to film. I had to invent a whole film around his book, so I pieced it together any old how, as poetically as possible.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Random Acts of Flyness

In the first episode of his Afrofuturist-ish HBO sketch show, creator, director, and star Terence Nance says Random Acts of Flyness is “about the beauty and ugliness of contemporary American life.” That broad frame allows Nance to download a multiverse of thoughts and ideas, from pointed observations about casual misogyny to a satiric skewering of “white thoughts.” Building on his work in films like An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, Nance invents his own kaleidoscopic audiovisual language. Images switch frequently between realistic and surrealistic live action, obscure archival footage, and various styles of animation. Words blossom in myriad forms: as near-subliminal messages, as text exchanges that break into the action to comment on it, as fast-talking monologues or probing conversations.

The Terror

Based on the true story of a failed British expedition to find the Northwest Passage in the mid-19th century, The Terror explores the toxic combination of arrogance and bravery that fuels the exploratory missions launched by great colonial powers. After getting stuck for a year and a half in Artic ice, the men, weakened by lead poisoning and fighting the elements, set off on foot in search of salvation. The Terror brings those awful facts vividly alive—and then goes further, creating a full-blown horror story by introducing a monster called the Tuunbaq, which looks something like a giant polar bear with a human face. The men divide into two factions, battling one another as well as the monster while dying in increasingly baroque ways.


Unlike Homeland, which is based on another Israeli TV series, Fauda makes no attempt to cover the political debates or social context behind its constant action. Instead, like its main characters, it keeps its head down and its focus tight. The series follows the fictional members of an elite undercover unit of the Israeli army and whichever Palestinian freedom fighter/terrorist that Doron (Lior Raz), a rogue member of the unit, is obsessed with that season, while occasionally checking in with a handful of other Israelis and Palestinians—-family members, lovers, or commanding officers—-who either affect or are affected by the main characters’ actions. Fauda (Arabic for “chaos”) is particularly good at showing how war, especially one with no end in sight, poisons the lives of everyone—-even civilians.


This soulful soap operatic drama pays tribute to New York City’s ball culture of the 1980s. Painting in broad, dramatic strokes, the script highlights the factors—racism, homophobia, transphobia, AIDS, and the wealth gap—that inspired these men and women to create their own world and faux families, where they could show one another the love and respect that they couldn’t find anywhere else.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Interview: Nicole Holofcener on The Land of Steady Habits

In films like Lovely and Amazing and Please Give, writer-director Nicole Holofcener's characters talk and talk, taking the temperature of the relationships that both provide them emotional support and serve as yardsticks to measure their personal growth or stagnation. Holofcener's sly observational humor helps make her dialogue feel like conversations with an old friend—honest, engagingly gossipy, and studded with thought-provoking insights—and ensures that, while bad things may happen to her flawed but well-meaning protagonists, her films never slide into mawkishness.

Her latest, The Land of Steady Habits, is in many ways a typical Holofcener film. Anders (Ben Mendelsohn) is a middle-aged family man who finds himself living alone, trying to construct a new life and mend a frayed relationship with his adult son (Thomas Mann) after leaving his wife (Edie Falco) and retiring from his lifelong career. The film is also a departure for the director: the first of her six features that isn't based on an original Holofcener script (she adapted the screenplay from Ted Thompson's novel), the first not to center on female characters, and the first that doesn't feature Catherine Keener, Holofcener's fictional alter ego ever since Walking and Talking. I spoke with Holofcener this week about escaping the “chick flick” ghetto, what Mendelsohn has in common with Keener, and her plea for older actors.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Interview: Andrew Bujalski on Support the Girls

The finely tuned bullshit detector that keeps writer-director Andrew Bujalski's ego in check, nudging him to sprinkle his conversations with self-deprecating demurrals and constant reminders of his own blind spots and vulnerabilities, is part of what makes him such an excellent chronicler of our inner lives and times. The New York Times's A.O. Scott called Bujalski's first feature, Funny Ha Ha, “one of the most influential films of the '00s.” Each of his subsequent films has been very different from the others—and from nearly every film imaginable. His work seems to exist outside genre and screenwriting dogmas, featuring characters who feel like people you'd encounter only in life, and plots so subtle they barely register as such.

Bujalski's films also share a slyly comic humanism that finds both pathos and humor—often at once—in everything from the most banal of conversation to the profoundest of emotions. His latest, Support the Girls, is about a Hooters-like sports bar called Double Whammies and the women who work there. And at the center of the film is Regina Hall as Lisa, the harried, insanely competent, and warmly caring manager who protects and defends the waitresses whose prominently showcased breasts are the sports bar's main attraction by making sure it lives up to its promise of being “a family place.” I talked to Bujalski about what places like Double Whammies tell us about American culture, finding the essence of the film in the editing room, and filmmaking as a balancing act between order and chaos.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Interview: Raúl Castillo on We the Animals

After moving in 2002 from his native Texas to New York City, where he soon became a member of the prestigious off-Broadway LAByrinth Theater Company, playwright and actor Raúl Castillo spent a decade or so playing supporting roles in film and television. Then came HBO's Looking, in which he starred as the boyfriend of the neurotic lead character played by Jonathan Groff. Castillo's soulful performance as Richie brought the actor a new level of attention. This year, the actor made a notable appearance in Steven Soderberg's Unsane, and last fall he finished work on what he calls “the first Latino superhero film,” El Chicano, in which he has his first lead role.

This week, you can see Castillo in director Jeremiah Zagar's We the Animals, a Malickian tale of a loving but volatile family told from the point of view of one of three young boys (played by Evan Rosado, Josiah Gabriel, and Isaiah Kristian). Castillo is magnetically tender and explosive as Paps, the young father of the family and the sun around which his wife, Ma (Sheila Vand), and children revolve, even when he's an absent presence.

I recently spoke with Castillo about working with young nonprofessional actors in We the Animals, finding his character in Looking, and what Groff taught him about being number one on the call sheet.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Interview: Rob Reiner on Shock and Awe and the real source of fake news

Rob Reiner has acted in, written, produced, and directed almost every genre of film and TV show, but his wheelhouse is humane, sharply observational, and subtly unconventional comedy. He was deeply involved in at least three classic comedies: his own This Is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride and Norman Lear's All in the Family, in which Reiner played Michael “Meathead” Stivic, the liberal son-in-law of Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker.

Another side of Reiner, his commitment to social justice and democratic values, is front and center in his latest directorial effort, Shock and Awe. Reiner also stars in the film as real-life Knight Ridder editor John Walcott. Shock and Awe shows how two of Walcott's reporters, Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, exposed the lies behind the Bush administration's rush to war with Iraq after 9/11—and how their stories were drowned out by a tsunami of press coverage that unquestioningly amplified the White House's official story. The film is fierce in telling the history of the leadup to war and at capturing the journalists' irreverent patter and the smug prevarications of the Bush administration's cabinet members. I recently talked to Reiner about the real source of fake news, the surprising new urgency that Shock and Awe took on after the 2016 election, and why he wanted to change his name when he was eight years old.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Interview: Debra Granik on Leave No Trace and tuning into people on the margins

Debra Granik's social-realist films, which are concerned with people living on the margins of mainstream American culture, are full of engrossing and enlightening details. And like her 2014 documentary Stray Dog, about a burly Vietnam vet, Ron Hall, who's all about creating nurturing communities, Granik's three narrative features to date focus on individuals leading hardscrabble lives. The first two, Down to the Bone and Winter's Bone, catapulted Vera Farmiga and Jennifer Lawrence to stardom. Her latest, Leave No Trace, which centers around another veteran, Ben Foster's Will, may just do the same for Thomasin McKenzie

The 17-year-old New Zealand actress plays Tom, the severely traumatized Will's teenage daughter. Both live off the grid outside Portland, Oregon, until authorities arrest Will for squatting illegally in a public park and attempt to re-acclimate him and his daughter to “normal” society.

Last week, I talked with Granik at her publicist's office in New York. Animated, sincere, and intensely committed to her every word, she spoke of the importance of kindness, why her films tend to launch female actors into stardom, and what she, a liberal Northeastern artist, has learned from her work about how to connect with likely Trump voters in America's heartland.

We just accept that films like yours will play at festivals and art houses and won't garner big audiences even when they get great reviews, but sometimes I wonder why. Do you think it's because most people don't want to watch stories about people who are living in poverty or on the margins of society?

I think so. One of the things that's hard to argue with, and I think about this all the time, is that the main way we see the word “movies” is as entertainment, right? If one is going for escape or time out or relaxation, to see social realism is—if you're living it, or even if you're from a very different sort of social class and you've just never felt at ease with the way the economic culture is structured, on top of everything else you deal with, it can be hard to go seek that. It's not really entertainment any more.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Interview: Toni Collette on Hereditary

With a strong-featured, hyper-expressive face whose wide-set eyes don't appear to miss a thing and a joie de vivre that she radiates in person as well as on screen, Toni Collette imbues all her characters with a grounded sense of realism as well as layers of emotional nuance. Ever since she captured international attention as the endearingly open-hearted title character in Muriel's Wedding, she's been in constant demand, playing a wide range of parts—from warmly nurturing, realistically harried moms in films like The Sixth Sense and Little Miss Sunshine to The United States of Tara's title character, a woman with dissociative identity disorder who's fighting to keep herself and her family together while coping with an evolving cast of alter egos.

Collette has been exceptionally prolific in the past year or so, appearing in 11 films and two TV series since 2017, with three more films currently in post-production, but her tour-de-force performance in Hereditary stands out even in that tsunami of output. Always intense and increasingly desperate, Collette's Annie is our guide into the bloody heart of darkness that's writer-director Ari Aster's debut feature, a psychological horror film about a mother who keeps losing the people she loves in ever more macabre catastrophes.

I talked with Collette this week at the New York office of A24, Hereditary's U.S. distributor, about the advantages of aging and how she's learned to protect herself from the afflictions her characters endure.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Interview: Jodie Foster on Hotel Artemis

Though she's a two-time Academy Award winner (for The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs), Jodie Foster has always been a bit of an outlier in Hollywood. As a child actor, her precocious self-assurance, intelligence, and self-described “gruff” voice made her something of an anomaly when she played bright young things in family-friendly TV shows like My Three Sons and films like Napoleon and Samantha. Then, in a run of emotionally complex roles in darker fare, most notably as a 13-year-old prostitute with a riveting mixture of childish innocence and world-weariness in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, the actress's knowing gravitas found a worthy showcase.

That pattern has more or less held throughout Foster's career, as she has alternated between intelligently crafted TV shows and films like Spike Lee's Inside Man and lush melodramas or slick genre movies in which her nuanced, stubbornly realistic performances stood out like an elegant dive into a kiddie pool. Foster is now at the core of an ensemble cast in writer-director Drew Pearce's Hotel Artemis, a dystopian fantasy set in L.A. in a not-too-distant future in which the hotel of the title serves as a secret, members-only hospital reserved for criminals who pay an annual membership fee.

Last week I spoke with Foster, who plays the nurse who tends to the troublesome group of tenants, about Hotel Artemis and other things, including the time she was attacked by a lion, the memorable afternoon she spent with Toni Morrison, and the alternate lives she kicks herself for not having led.

You're quoted on IMDb as having said that you're better suited for independent films as a director and producer, and that you think you're best in mainstream films as an actress because your style of acting is too “linear” for indie films. First of all, did you actually say that?
I think I did, but I'm always cursing myself for the stupid things that I say in print. I don't think it's wrong, but I do think that indies are different now. The theatrical world and our viewing habits have changed so much that, increasingly, real story and narrative is found on cable and streaming.