Friday, April 27, 2018

Interview: Rachel Weisz on Disobedience

Less remarked on than the Me Too movement, but at least as important to the women of Hollywood, the unspoken rule that sidelined generations of actresses after they had reached 40 or so is unraveling fast. A radiant 48, Rachel Weisz is at the forefront of that change, living the kind of life that had traditionally been possible only for male actors. Still building her family with husband Daniel Craig—the baby she's due to have later this year will be the first for the couple, each of whom has a child from a previous relationship—she's starring in films by auteurs like Yorgos Lanthimos and Paolo Sorrentino.

Weisz helps make sure those roles keep piling up by developing scripts like the one for Sebastián Lelio's Disobedience. After deciding she wanted to star opposite another woman, she read all the lesbian literature she could find in search of a love story and eventually discovered Naomi Alderman's 2006 novel Disobedience, which she tried to get made for almost a decade.

At the start of Lelio's film, Weisz's character, Ronit, leaves her bohemian life in New York City for the Orthodox Jewish community in London where she grew up, to attend her rabbi father's funeral. Once there, she encounters Esti (Rachel McAdams), with whom she'd had a passionate affair that scandalized their community. The two women are drawn to each other again, causing both to question the way they're leading their lives. I talked to Weisz earlier this week at a hotel in Tribeca where she was promoting the film, which was about to screen at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Interview: Andrew Haigh on Lean on Pete and the Appeal of Passive Characters

Yorkshire-born writer-director Andrew Haigh specializes in stories about ordinary people experiencing emotional tsunamis that upend their sense of self. His latest, Lean on Pete, is about a lonely 15-year-old, Charley (Charlie Plummer), who sets out on an impulsive road trip after what's left of his already precarious family life evaporates, leaving him alone except for the quarter horse he bonded with while working in a D-level racing circuit. I met with Haigh at the offices of the film's distributor, A24, where we talked about why he prefers passive main characters, the importance of being melancholy, and how Lean on Pete finds a new way of exploring a theme that runs through all of the director's work: our struggle to feel less alone.

Your work is usually about people finding themselves through relationships with other people, but Charley finds himself by relating to a horse. What was it about this story that compelled you to film it?

I think even [in my films about] people finding themselves through other people, it's about people essentially feeling very alone in the world, and they're desperately trying to find a way to not feel alone. If it's in the case of Weekend or 45 Years, it's through relationships, I suppose. But this was dealing with a similar thing, just in a different way. We all exist in a state of aloneness, and we find ways to not be like that, but they can very easily fall apart and we can fall back into aloneness again.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Interview: Laurent Cantet on The Workshop

A latter-day neorealist working in the tradition of Roberto Rossellini and Robert Bresson, writer-director Laurent Cantet mixes professional actors with nonprofessionals to explore forces like class, race, and gender through fictional narratives. His latest, The Workshop, is set in La Ciotat, a seaside town in southern France whose once-thriving shipyard closed a generation ago, after years of struggle between the owners and the workers. The film gets its title from one of its main activities: a multicultural group of young people from the area, including the angry and alienated Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), participate in a novel-writing workshop taught by a Parisian writer named Olivia (Marina Foïs). As the class progresses and we learn more about the nationalistic, anti-immigrant propaganda Antoine is soaking up online, the violence the students are working into their story threatens to spill over into their lives.

Although he won the 2008 Palme d’Or for The Class, there’s no hint of egotism or self-importance in Cantet, who started our interview by pouring me a cup of coffee. Despite the filmmaker’s frequent frustration at being unable to find the exact word he was searching for in English, he was urgently articulate about his work, which he clearly does as much to educate himself as to encourage his audience to question their own beliefs.

I love the way your films explore social issues through fictional narratives.

I’m always interested in showing the complexity of our world. What’s always difficult is making a film that deals with reality without being too…dialectique?

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Interview: Andy Goldsworthy on Leaning Into the Wind

Director Thomas Riedelsheimer, who documented some of English artist Andy Goldsworthy's work with naturally occurring materials in 2001's Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time, explores an even wider range of Goldsworthy's works in Leaning Into the Wind: Andy Goldsworthy. Some are as ephemeral as the “rain shadows” that Goldsworthy often makes, lying down as a light rain starts and then getting up, leaving a crime scene-like shape of a body on the sidewalk—which the rain then fills in. Others are as lasting as the monumental project Sleeping Stones that Goldsworthy created by having huge slabs of stone fitted together and then having an oblong depression just wide enough to hold a human body hollowed out in the middle of the block.

As he pointed out in our interview, Goldsworthy's art crystallizes the intense exploration of the world that artists have always done, taking as its subject something that's usually part of the process. On the phone from his home in Scotland, Goldsworthy spoke easily and generously about Leaning Into the Wind and his work, often laughing or expressing enthusiastic wonder as he talked about the role photography plays in his art, pissing off the security guards at Fox News, and the sculptural nature of farming.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Interview: Oscar-Nominated Editor Tatiana S. Riegel on I, Tonya

In her 30 years as a film editor, Tatiana S. Riegel has cut five films for director Craig Gillespie, starting with 2007's Lars and the Real Girl. Her work on Gillespie's latest feature, I, Tonya, has earned her an Oscar nomination for best achievement in film editing. Reigel talked to me by phone from Berlin, where she's working on the early footage of director Fede Alvarez's The Girl in the Spider's Web—starring Claire Foy, Vicky Krieps, Claes Bang, and Lakeith Stanfield—as it's being filmed. In a conversation studded with references to intuition and instinct, Reigel talked about how editing a film is like attending a dinner party, what she learned from her years as an assistant to Quentin Tarantino's longtime editor, Sally Menke, and why it's not easy for women to find a place at the editing console.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Interview: Lee Unkrich talks Coco and Dia de Muertos

His 2018 Oscar nomination for Coco, which is up for best animated feature, is far from Lee Unkrich's first time at the awards rodeo. Unkrich joined Pixar more than two decades ago, as the company was transitioning from making just shorts and TV commercials to features. He co-edited Toy Story and went on, as Pixar employees do, to work in various capacities on many more films, including directing Toy Story 3. In Coco, Unkrich roots the story of a young musician whose family hates music in the visually sumptuous and intellectually rich soil of Mexico during a Día de Muertos holiday, creating the most emotionally resonant Pixar film since Toy Story 3. The film incorporates the gorgeous colors of Mexican treasures like Oaxacan alabrijes, the hillside houses of Guanajuato, and the strings of papel picado that festoon so many of the nation's walls and streets. The film also animates resonant Mexican concepts like the belief that we all die three deaths: the first when our hearts stop beating, the second when we are buried or cremated, and the third when there's nobody left on Earth who remembers us.

In a phone interview last week, Unkrich talked about how studying the Día de Muertos helped him deal with the death of his father, the challenges of making a film about Mexico when you're “a white guy from Ohio,” and the tension between family ties and individual freedom.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Interview: Rebecca Hall and Dan Stevens talk Permission

Will (Dan Stevens) and Anna (Rebecca Hall) are a seemingly happy couple on the brink of marriage when a drunken comment makes them question the wisdom of pledging monogamy-ever-after to the only person they've ever had sex with. Determined to see what they've been missing, the two embark on parallel yet steadily diverging experiments in dating other people in Permission. Old friends themselves, Hall and Stevens made the film with Hall's husband, Morgan Spector, and another good friend, writer-director Brian Crano. We talked by phone about the persistent pressure to couple up, why Anna and Will are “a disaster,” and the joy of watching Bill Irwin dance.

Rebecca, you got married a couple years ago, so it seems like you were going through pretty much the opposite of what your character in Permission is going through when you were preparing to make this film: settling down in a way that you maybe never have before. Was having just gone through your own thought process about all of that part of what attracted you to this role?

Rebecca Hall: I wish it were as perfect as that. [laughs] Yeah, I see what you're saying, but I don't think it ever occurred to me. Also, I married an actor, so there's nothing sort of settled about the lifestyle of two actors. In the two years that we've been married, we've lived in various sorts of places and been on the move pretty constantly. I imagine that even when we start a family and that chapter sort of starts, it will be the same. I'm not sure there are any kind of neat parallels, if I'm being honest with you.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Interview: Glenn Close and Max Irons on Crooked House

As Edith, the head of a dysfunctional household that almost certainly includes a murderer, Glenn Close twinkles with steadfast self-confidence and mischievous perception in Gilles Paquet-Brenner's Crooked House. In contrast, Max Irons plays it straight as the private detective hired to ferret out the killer, giving each member of an ensemble cast of colorful characters a chance to commandeer the spotlight as he conducts interviews and studies family dynamics. I met with Close and Irons (and Close's dog, Pip, who never strayed far from Close's feet) at the Crosby Street Hotel for an occasionally raucous conversation often punctuated by Close's merry laugh and by teasing banter or quick bursts of dialogue between the two actors, who have known each other since Max was an infant. (Max is the son of Jeremy Irons, who won an Oscar for Reversal of Fortune, which also starred Close.) We talked about Close's artistic family, how women have been treated in Hollywood and how that's changing, and how it felt for the old family friends to work together in two films in a row (Björn Runge's The Wife is coming out next year).

My sister-in-law, who lives in Wilson, Wyoming, has art by your sister.
Glenn Close: Tina! That's where Tina lives. Oh, how cool. She's really talented.

Is everyone in your family artistic?
Close: Yes, they are. My other sister is a writer, and my brother is an artist with metal. He has a metal shop. He can make anything happen. I love his brain! He lives in Belgrade, Montana, and he says: “I'm like what the blacksmith used to be.” People come in with parts that they can't find any more and he'll make something to replace what they lost, or he'll invent something. He's gotten people out of big trouble by just inventing things.

Interview: Bill Pullman on The Ballad of Lefty Brown

As the star of writer-director Jared Moshe's western The Ballad of Lefty Brown, Bill Pullman plays a sidekick turned leading man after his boss (played by Peter Fonda) is murdered and he sets out to find the killer. Pullman said he based Lefty partly on a friend from Montana who was “a third wheel” to the actor and his then-girlfriend, and now wife, Tamara when they were all in their 20s—although his pal, he added with typically self-deprecating humor, didn't look up to him the way Lefty looks up to his friend and mentor. In an interview at his publicist's Manhattan office, the affable Pullman talked about playing a self-doubting beta male, stood up for Jack Kramer, his character in The Battle of the Sexes, and joked about the awards he doesn't have.

You've played comic roles and straight roles. Lefty seems to me to be a little of each. How did you think of it when you were playing it?

It was more the perception of characters around him, that he was a fool.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Best Movies of the Year

Here's Slant's list of the best films of 2017, which I contributed to.

And here are my top 10 picks and honorable mentions.

My Top 10 
Get Out
The Phantom Thread
A Quiet Passion
Faces Places
I Am Not Your Negro
Dawson City: Frozen Time
Lady Bird (my interview with Laurie Metcalf)
4 Days in France

My Honorable Mentions
For Ahkeem, Tempestad, BPM, Harmonium, Whose Streets?, The Florida Project, Intent to Destroy, Rat Film, Donald Cried, Get Me Roger Stone

Best TV Shows of 2017

Here's Slant Magazine's list of the year's top 25 TV shows, which I contributed to. And here's my 10 top list, plus a bunch of honorable mentions--lots, since there were so many good ones again this year.

My Top 10
The Leftovers (my interview with Ann Dowd)
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Big Little Lies
One Mississippi
The Good Place
The Americans (my review of Season 4)
Master of None
The Handmaid's Tale
Chewing Gum

My Honorable Mentions
Bojack Horseman, Narcos, Blackish, People of Earth, Rick and Morty, The Black Mirror, Alias Grace, Insecure, Episodes, Veep, Ozark, Better Things, Girls, Jane the Virgin, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Mindhunter, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Silicon Valley, You’re the Worst, Crashing

Get Out

Get Out's central conceit, about a Stepford Wives-ish plot by blithely entitled suburban whites to colonize black people's bodies, is a trenchant metaphor for white supremacy. The timing, character development, and gift for social satire that writer-director Jordan Peele honed as a sketch comedian all translate effortlessly to horror, allowing the first-time filmmaker to entrance his audience as deftly as Catherine Keener's Missy mesmerizes Daniel Kaluuya's Chris with that tapping teaspoon. The Sunken Place where Missy maroons Chris is the film's most indelible image, a stomach-churning representation of how it feels to be stripped of your autonomy and personhood by a dominant culture that remains cruelly blind and deaf to your plight. In a world where almost no one is what they initially appear to be, Get Out anatomizes the evil lurking in the relatively benign-seeming prejudice that plays out as fetishization or envy, a form of racism that doesn't see itself as racist at all. Written for Slant Magazine

I Am Not Your Negro

Except for some questions he's asked by interviewers and a few puny would-be rebuttals by smug debaters, whom he swats away like so many intellectual gnats, James Baldwin's diamantine words—sometimes spoken by the writer himself on video and sometimes read by a subdued Samuel L. Jackson—are the only ones heard in I Am Not Your Negro. Fueled by a perpetually simmering cauldron of grief and rage yet unfailingly compassionate and open-minded, the elegantly world-weary Baldwin traces the thick vein of racism that runs through the heart of U.S. history and culture, identifying it as the original sin the nation must come to terms with if it is ever going to become what it claims to be. “What white people have to do is find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place,” he says, just before uttering the phrase that gives the film its title—though he doesn't use the word “negro.” Raoul Peck borrows his film's structure from an unfinished work in which Baldwin had planned to compare the lives of three black civil rights leaders who were assassinated: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. The film sketches out the differing approaches adopted by the three leaders only broadly, but Baldwin's analysis shines through with brilliant clarity. While Jackson reads from both published and unpublished texts, archival video bleeds into recent news footage about travesties like the Trayon Martin killing, making it clear how distressingly urgent Baldwin's words still are. Written for Slant Magazine

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, Season 4

Daily Show alum John Oliver has surpassed his former boss as the nation’s premier journalist/advocate disguised as a comedian. Jon Stewart’s near-nightly monologues sometimes skittered along the surface of a subject or fell into step with the rest of the stampeding media herd, but Oliver dives deep every week into a single topic, and he always chooses subjects whose bones have not been picked dry by cable news or other late-night commentators. Whether he’s discussing the true face of coal mining, the threat to local news posed by Sinclair Broadcast Group, or the many dubious products peddled by Alex Jones, he lays out facts with deadly precision, nailing what is being done and why it matters while pointing out underlying motivations and patterns. In his final show of the season, which summarized the first year since Trump’s election, he identified the three methods the president is using to undermine our democracy: delegitimizing the media, “what about-ism,” and trolling. Perhaps most impressively, he makes it fun to learn all these dry and/or depressing facts. His research and analysis may be solidly journalistic, but his delivery is acerbically comic, combining explosively expressive profanity and cheerful self-mockery with a classically British mix of verbal adroitness, instinctive distrust of authority, and an outraged contempt for hypocrisy. Written for Slant Magazine

The Good Place, Season 2

The Good Place is to a lot of its fans what its resident philosopher, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), is to bad-girl-trying-to-make-good Eleanor (Kristen Bell). At first, Eleanor’s afterlife adventure felt like a familiar enough twist on standard sitcom tropes that we took it a bit for granted even as we started falling for the series’ heart, its smarts, and how good it always left us feeling—not to mention that brilliant twist at the end of season one. Then this season tossed all our assumptions about the characters, the relationships between them, and the world they live in into the air like so many mylar balloons, and there was no denying it any more: We are in love. An exploration of what it means to be a good person, The Good Place is so buoyantly silly that you might be surprised it earns the approval of a Fordham bioethicist. And, like Brooklyn Nine Nine and Parks and Recreation, two other shows by writer-producer Michael Schur, it has a generosity of spirit and a belief in the power of community that feels particularly necessary these days. Written for Slant Magazine