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.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Intent to Destroy and For Ahkeem












Much as Americans love reality television, we tend to shun documentaries, especially issue-based ones, probably because many of us see film and TV as a form of escapism. So the $100 million left by Armenian-American billionaire Kirk Kerkorian to finance a film about the genocidal killing of as estimated 1.5 million Armenians by the Turkish government in the early 20th century went to a fiction film, Terry George's The Promise, which is currently playing in theaters nationwide. Meanwhile, Joe Berlinger's Intent to Destroy has no distributor or theatrical release date after its premiere at Tribeca. And that's a shame, because it's a far better film than George's stiff costume drama. Its depiction of the horrors of the genocide is more unvarnished, and therefore more accurate. More importantly, it explains the importance of that chapter in human history and examines the century-long denial campaign by the Turkish government that's all but erased the tragedy from the world's memory.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Interview: Diane Lane









After he acted with Diane Lane in her first film, 1979's A Little Romance, Laurence Olivier called the then-14-year-old “the new Grace Kelly.” The description still feels apt. Like Kelly, Lane comes off as simultaneously hot and cool, her honey-smooth voice and air of classy self-possession paired with a mischievous sense of fun and unselfconscious sexuality. But fortunately for Lane, as she discussed in our recent conversation, she came along at a much better time for women than Kelly did, a time when Hollywood and the world at large were less prone to stereotyping women.

Lane has played everything from tough to tender in a wide roles ranging from a preternaturally self-reliant teen in Francis Ford Coppola's Rumble Fish to an inchoately frustrated young housewife in Tony Goldwyn's A Walk on the Moon to early reality television star Pat Loud, who embodied so many of the changes that rocked middle- and upper-middle-class America in the '70s, in Cinema Verite. For all their differences, her characters share a sense of integrity and a watchful intelligence that point to complicated inner lives.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Silicon Valley recap: Season 4, Episode 3, "Intellectual Property"












Tonight's episode of Silicon Valley takes a satiric look at some of the ways that the all-important yet elusive concept of intellectual property plays out in the Valley, starting with Jian-Yang (Jimmy O. Yang) and Bachman's (T.J. Miller) pitch to the Coleman Blair venture capitalists. Jian-Yang's modest recipe-app idea is quickly passed over and replaced by a purely theoretical but more exciting one: See Food, the kind of potentially transformative app every coder dreams of inventing. It's a hook so sharp and shiny that the VCs throw $200,000 in seed money at it and Monica (Amanda Crew), aware there's no substance behind the flash, uses it to try to lure in her douche-bro nemesis, Ed Chen (Tim Chiou), in hopes of triggering a failure big enough to take him down—or at least take him down a couple of notches.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Interview: Azazel Jacobs









The son of avant-garde pioneers Ken and Flo Jacobs, Azazel Jacobs has the most conventional career in his family. He's still far from a household name, but he's been steadily scooting closer to the mainstream ever since his first feature, Nobody Needs to Know, a satire of New York City's theatrical subculture that doubles as a call to resist the capitalistic powers that be.

His latest, The Lovers, which premiered at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, is a tart, smart, moving, and genuinely dramatic romantic comedy. It stars Debra Winger and Tracy Letts as Mary and Michael, a long-married couple who've both turned to affairs after growing apart but are beginning to wonder if they're even more tired of the affairs than they were of their marriage.

I spoke to Jacobs, who I last interviewed in 2011 for The L Magazine, at Manhattan's Smyth Hotel about taking inspiration from 1950s romantic comedies, the chemistry between Winger and Letts, and how it felt to cede ownership of his latest film to the audience.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Silicon Valley recap: Season 4, Episode 2, "Terms of Service"












In this week's episode of Silicon Valley, Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) takes about a minute to transition from underdog to overlord as PiperChat's new CEO, getting high on his own hot air. But it only takes him another minute to come back to earth, in a crash landing so humiliating and terrifying it even satisfies the perpetually disgruntled Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), whose rivalry with Dinesh is so deep he'd rather see Dinesh fail than see his own company succeed.