Monday, November 6, 2017

Interview: Joe Berlinger on Pushing the Documentary Envelope and Intent to Destroy













After a five-year apprenticeship as a producer for the pioneering documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles, Joe Berlinger launched his directorial career with Brother's Keeper. Made in tandem with another Maysles employee, Bruce Sinofsky, the documentary did something near-revolutionary for the time: It used fiction-film techniques to tell the true story of two isolated rural brothers, one of whom was being tried for the other's death. In the 25 years since that influential debut, Berlinger has continued to make waves with films like the Paradise Lost trilogy, which covered the trials of three young men in West Memphis, Arkansas accused of the ritual killings of three boys and uncovered evidence that led to their release from prison.

I recently spoke to Berlinger at his Radical Media production company in downtown Manhattan about Intent to Destroy, a documentary about the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the Turkish government's century-long campaign to deny that it happened. Self-assured and voluble, Berlinger talked about the new wave of documentary filmmakers that he has been part of, what Turkey's denial of the genocide has in common with President Donald Trump's “alternative facts,” and why audiences have responded much better to Intent to Destroy than distributors have.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Interview: Laurie Metcalf on the Mother-Daughter Duet in Lady Bird









Laurie Metcalf is a powerfully empathetic actress whose often comic and always ferocious intensity inspires an equally intense empathy in audiences, encouraging us to love our fellow humans not so much despite their flaws as because of them. She invites her viewers to relate to a kaleidoscopic range of sometimes absurd or regrettable emotions and behaviors, not just from one part to the next, but within nearly every character she plays.

A charter member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, Metcalf still prefers live theater, and she recently won a Tony for her role as Nora in the Broadway production of Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part Two. But she has created indelible characters for TV and film as well, including Roseanne Connor's endearingly klutzy sister Jackie on Roseanne and the big-hearted but harried mother of Saoirse Ronan's main character in Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird, a coming-of-age story that is, at its core, a mother-daughter duet.

In an interview to promote the film, Metcalf talked about her aversion to working with cameras, why she runs through all her lines before every performance of a play, and how being shy helped her as a young actor.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Interview: Sean Baker on The Florida Project









Writer-director Sean Baker’s brand of neo-neorealism focuses on people, like Tangerine‘s fierce transsexual prostitute or Prince of Broadway‘s immigrant hustler, who’re ordinarily seen only in the background of films and TV shows—if at all. His latest, The Florida Project, offers a non-judgmental, child’s-eye view of life in the Magic Castle, one of the seedy but fabulous motels in the outer orbit of Orlando’s Disney World that function as temporary housing for people one step ahead of homelessness.

While helicopters take off in the background, like emissaries from another planet, six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends, Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), roam happily through the motel and the surrounding area, exploring their turf like a pack of wild dogs under the indulgent but protective eye of the motel’s manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Meanwhile, Moonee’s very young and rebellious mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), while hustling hard to support them, creates an environment risky enough to trigger an investigation by the Department of Children and Families.

Baker called me from a train from New York to Philadelphia, where the film was about to have a gala preview at the Philadelphia Film Festival. We talked about how he works with first-time actors, why it’s hard to make character studies for American audiences, and the many factors that make it hard for people like Moonee and her mother to form stable, long-term relationships.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Interview: Lakeith Stanfield










Lakeith Stanfield has been racking up standout performances in some of the most buzzed-about films of the past decade: as the guarded but sensitive resident of a group home for teens in Destin Daniel Cretton's Short Term 12; murdered civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson in Ava DuVernay's Selma; Snoop Dogg in F. Gary Gray's Straight Outta Compton; and the bodysnatched Brooklyn hipster in Jordan Peele's Get Out. He's also a standout in Donald Glover's Atlanta on FX, in which he plays the perpetually stoned and free-associative Darius.

His latest film is writer-director Matt Ruskin's harrowing but unsensationalized Crown Heights, the based-on-a-true-story tale of Colin Warner. Warner was framed as a teenager for a crime he didn't commit and spent 21 years in prison before getting out, thanks to his own efforts and the unfailing support and advocacy of a friend on the outside. In the film, Stanfield gives a powerful but understated performance, richly capturing Warner's warmth, strength of character, and philosophical nature.

In New York this week to promote the film, Stanfield spoke with me about why acting in Get Out was an out-of-body experience, how the internet nurtures creativity, and whether racial justice has made any progress in the United States in the half century-plus since the march on Selma.

Right from the start, you've played interesting roles in movies that got a lot of buzz. Do you just have really good taste, or do you get good advice?

Yeah, well, I'm a member of the Illuminati. [Laughs] I think it's a combination. I have a really hard-working agency behind me.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Interview: Aubrey Plaza on the perils of social media and of having a stroke at age 20











A master of side-eye, Aubrey Plaza became, in her own words, “a poster child for irony” for playing such worldly, antiauthoritarian characters as Parks and Recreation's April Ludgate. Lately, though, she's been getting opportunities to explore other aspects of her elastic and intense range. Plaza's characters always radiate hyper-observant intelligence, but that can express itself in very different ways, from April's sardonic ennui, to the uncanny omniscience of Legion's Lenny, to the warped but tenacious ingenuity of Ingrid, the title character of Matt Spicer's Ingrid Goes West.

In the film, Plaza plays a desperately lonely woman who interacts with other people almost exclusively through social media. After following “taste ambassador” Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) on Instagram, Ingrid becomes so enamored of the life portrayed on Taylor's feed that she moves to L.A., convinced that the two will become best friends in real life.

Talking about the film this week at the Crosby Street Hotel, Plaza was quiet and often a bit tentative, seeming as sincere as her early characters seemed snarky. She answered thoroughly and thoughtfully, whether talking about why costar O'Shea Jackson is a natural movie star, how doing TV talk shows is like improv, or how having a stroke at age 20 has informed her work.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Interview: Ann Dowd on The Leftovers, The Handmaid's Tale and Learning to Let Go











After a long but largely uncelebrated career that consisted mainly of minor roles as moms and authority figures in such films as Lorenzo's Oil and Philadelphia, Ann Dowd broke through at the age of 56, playing the harried, self-doubting fast-food restaurant manager in the 2012 film Compliance. That role paved the way for a steady stream of often complex parts in shows like True Detective, Olive Kitteridge, and Girls. This year she's nominated for two Emmys: for her performances as Aunt Lydia, a tightlipped teacher who whips handmaids-in-training into shape, in The Handmaid's Tale, and Patti Levin, a ferociously focused cult leader, in The Leftovers.

Last week, I talked to Dowd, who was in New Hampshire enjoying an annual week-long vacation with her husband, actor Lawrence Arancio, and their children. Radiating enthusiasm, emotional transparency, and an eagerness to connect that stand in stark contrast to Patti's stoic self-containment and Lydia's awkward stiffness, Dowd often slipped into character while talking, sometimes speaking as her own past self and sometimes as one of the women she's played on screen.

You've said that in your 30s, when you were waiting tables while trying to make it as an actress, a voice in your head told you that you'd make it in your mid-50s. Did you have enough faith in that voice to carry you through all those years? Or was it just something that's helped you frame your journey in retrospect, after you finally broke through?

What I knew at the time was that it was true. I had that feeling of: “You've just been given a gift here. Pay attention. Don't despair. Just let it inform you when you go south.”

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Silicon Valley recap, Season 4, Epidode 10: "Server Error"












“Server Error,” the season-four finale of Silicon Valley, checks in with almost all the main characters in Pied Piper's orbit while setting the stage for two season-five showdowns: the battle between Richard (Thomas Middleditch) and Gavin (Matt Ross) for domination of the Internet and the fight for Richard's soul. Richard lurches in the general direction of ends-justify-the-means mogul-dom with exquisite clumsiness, bouncing back and forth between maniacal determination and dejected self-loathing as his team keeps pulling him back from the brink—Jared (Zach Woods) appealing to his morals while Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) ride herd on his ego. Meanwhile, Gavin roars back into top predator mode with sociopathic ease, polishing off the amuse-bouche of Jack Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky) in one ravenous bite before making a beeline for Richard.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Interview: Kumail Nanjiani on The Big Sick's real-life love story









Kumail Nanjiani was following a well-trodden path when he came to the United States from Karachi for college, majoring in computer science (though he did muddy the waters a bit by co-majoring in philosophy) and then working as an I.T. guy (although, he says, he wasn't much good at it). But somewhere along the way he strayed from the path. He traded Islam for atheism; became a stand-up comic, writer, and actor with a talent for appearing in zeitgeist-y shows like The Colbert Report, Key & Peele, and Silicon Valley; and married an American woman who's neither Pakistani nor Muslim.

The Big Sick, a smart, emotionally honest rom-com that Nanjiani co-wrote with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, is a fictionalized retelling of their courtship, which started as a guilty secret he kept from his parents, as his mother set him up with a series of nice Pakistani-American girls in hopes of arranging a marriage. In New York this week to promote the film, Nanjiani talked to me about how his relationship with Emily has made him a better man, the pros and cons of arranged marriage, and whether he might be a desi Sidney Poitier.

I have this theory that you're the desi Sidney Poitier, or one of them. There may be a couple others, like Aziz Ansari, maybe Kal Penn.

[Laughs] No! Really? Guess who's coming to dinner! That would be great.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Silicon Valley recap: Season 4, Episode 9, “Hooli-Con”












The Pied Piper team’s slow-boiling crisis of faith in Richard’s (Thomas Middleditch) leadership, which has been coming to a head throughout Silicon Valley’s fourth season, heats up several degrees in tonight’s episode, “Hooli-Con.” The push-pull between their respect for his brilliance as a coder and their doubts about his talent as a CEO puts the rest of the team in an awkward, can’t-live-with-him, can’t-live-without-him position.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Silicon Valley recap: Season 4, Episode 8, “The Keenan Vortex”












Eager to pass on his hard-won wisdom, whether anyone wants it or not, Richard (Thomas Middleditch) tells Keenan Feldspar (Haley Joel Osment) on tonight’s episode of Silicon Valley to enjoy his success while it lasts because “this can be a tough business.” Keenan, who’s such a good bullshit artist that he wins Richard over by admitting that, yes, he really is a bullshit artist, swats away Richard’s warning, and no wonder: The wheels of Silicon Valley are greased for operators like him. But in the trip-wired world of smart nerds like Richard and the rest of the Pied Piper crew, there’s rarely time to savor a victory before it blows up and knocks them back on their asses.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Silicon Valley recap: Season 4, Episode 7, “The Patent Troll”












On Silicon Valley, good things come to those who do nothing in particular, and what appears at first to be a stroke of good luck often turns out to be quite the opposite—or vice versa. In “The Patent Troll,” Bachman (T.J. Miller) doubles down on his dumb luck in “Customer Service,” when he happened to sit at big-fish Keenan’s table in a coffee shop, and gets himself pity-hired by Bream/Hall. His new position is as unearned as Jian-Yang’s (Jimmy O. Yang) windfall for See Food or Bighead’s guest lecture position at Stanford—maybe more so, since Jian-Yang did enough coding to create a hot-dog/not-hot-dog detector and Bighead shows signs of having some talent for teaching.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Silicon Valley recap: Season 4, Episode 6, “Customer Service”












Tonight's episode of Silicon Valley starts with the Pied Piper team squirming under the imperious glare of their last investor, Gavin Belson, and ends with Richard (Thomas Middleditch), practically vibrating with unease, on the world's most awkward elevator ride with Pied Piper's new backer, Dan Melcher (Jake Broder). Between those two bookends are a series of comic meditations on the friction between socially inept Silicon Valley programmers and the equally quirky VCs they resentfully rely on.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Silicon Valley recap, Season 4, Episode 5, “The Blood Boy”












Tonight’s episode probes the disconnect between worthiness and success in a world where sizzle almost always trumps substance. Exhibit A is Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), whose brittle ego may be collapsing under the weight of a bad case of imposter syndrome. In the cluttered old garage that Gavin has preserved as a museum to “the spirit of innovation,” he shows the Pied Piper team the workstations where he and Peter Gregory created Hooli. It’s a startling moment, partly because it reminds us that Gavin and Peter’s bitter rivalry was initially a partnership, but mainly because it conjures up an unfamiliar image of Gavin as a true visionary with more to offer than Machiavellian maneuvering and unfathomable wealth.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Silicon Valley recap, Season 4, Episode 4, "Teambuilding Exercise"












Taking up where “Intellectual Property” left off, tonight's episode of Silicon Valley opens on Richard (Thomas Middleditch) arriving at the lion's den of Gavin's (Matt Ross) McMansion (it even has a giant lion's-head door knocker) to make a deal on his peer-to-peer Internet idea. Simultaneously satiric and dramatic, their meeting makes us fear for, root for, and laugh at Richard, sometimes all at the same time. Writer Meghan Pleticha and director Jamie Babbit toss in little flavor bombs of observational humor at intervals, like the decorative suits of armor Gavin toppled while rampaging through his living room after he was fired, then wind up the scene with a crisply timed slapstick rim shot as Richard's clumsy attempt at a triumphal gesture sets Gavin's couch on fire.