If you’re reading this, that means you’ve seen The Art of Self-Defense, right? You witnessed a satire of toxic masculinity for the ages featuring a pitch-perfect Jesse Eisenberg performance, and you were blown away by that wild ending. And, for that matter, you’ve also read the other interviews /Film writers have conducted with the cast and writer/director Riley Stearns. Good. Now, bow to Grandmaster and prepare to go in-depth with Stearns on that wild ending to the film.
In case you haven’t gathered as much, there are going to be heavy spoilers for the last of act of The Art of Self-Defense from here on out. Don’t say you weren’t warned as I delve into the origin and implications of the film’s climactic scene with Stearns.
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Future opposition researchers will have a field day with anyone who writes about Penny Lane’s documentary Hail Satan?. So I might as well lean into it and say – here goes nothing – I was shocked to learn how much I agreed with the Satanic Temple. Not as a religion, to clarify, but as a political movement. Like probably far too many people, I reflexively scoffed and laughed off the antics of the Satanic Temple when seeing their name mentioned in a headline. But as an organization devoted to holding America’s feet to the fire on honoring the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which maintains that the government is not to enact policies or laws that show favoritism towards a single religion, the group makes many a savvy maneuver.
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While 2018’s edition of the Sundance Film Festival might not have launched any major Oscar heavyweights, it turned out a steady stream of modest summer hits from first time directors (Hereditary, Sorry to Bother You, Eight Grade) as well as three non-fiction films that were blockbusters by documentary standards (Three Identical Strangers, RBG, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?). Plus, countless Sundance selections remained critical favorites that stuck around in the conversation through the end of last year (Wildlife, Minding the Gap, Hale County This Morning, This Evening).
This is all to say, never believe anyone who tells you that a given year at Sundance is a “weak” one. Fluctuations in programming focuses and projects submissions rarely yield a continuous trajectory for a festival. That may prove doubly true for the 2019 edition of the Sundance Film Festival, which is the first under Kim Yutani’s leadership as director of programming following the long reign of Trevor Groth. This year’s festival looks noticeably more inclusive and diverse, both in terms of the stories being told and the people who are telling them. The lineup pulls less obviously from established festival favorites in favor of providing a platform to emerging artists who may have only a scattered short or feature to their name.
There’s going to be a lot to follow out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and thankfully /Film will have several writers on the ground in Park City to report out the big finds and stories. But for those of us who aren’t making the trek up into the mountains of Utah for Sundance, there’s still a way to be a part of the festival.
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As the unseen prompt for Michael Scott’s long “NOOOOOOOO” that has endured to become one of the Internet’s favorite reaction GIFs, Paul Lieberstein – best known for playing Toby on The Office – has often done his best work under the radar. In addition to playing Dunder Mifflin’s favorite killjoy in front of the camera, Lieberstein was a key creative force behind production of The Office as well, serving as a writer, director and showrunner throughout the series’ run.
Since the show came to a close five years ago, Lieberstein has stayed mostly in the television world, lending his talents to both HBO’s The Newsroom and Fox’s Ghosted. But he’s begun to branch out into the world of indie film with his feature writing and directing debut Song of Back and Neck, which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Lieberstein also appears in the film as protagonist Fred Trolleycar, a middle-aged office drone who must come to terms with all the complications that stem from his chronic back and neck pain – an experience which came directly from the star’s own life.
I caught the film there back in April and reviewed it positively, writing that Lieberstein is adept at “handling some slightly morose material with equal parts sincerity and dry humor.” We were able to chat further about the film earlier this month and talked about how he made the leap from TV to movies. Our phone call was shortly after Steve Carell gathered a few former co-stars from The Office in his Saturday Night Live monologue, so naturally our conversation had to start with some discussion about a potential reunion or revival for the show.
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Your eyes don’t deceive you – Joe Alwyn really is everywhere this year. Perhaps you missed his film debut in 2016’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee’s ambitious foray into high-frame rate photography that grossed under $2 million stateside. Well, casting agents certainly didn’t. Alwyn appears in four films this year – Operation Finale, Boy Erased, Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite, each of which showcases a different side of a versatile performer.
From the moment I first encountered Alwyn at the press day for The Favourite, I could understand why he’s an heir apparent to claim the mantle of the rising young male star from the London drama school world. He can command a room like a true English gentleman – for example, he’s the rare interview subject who made a point to shake every writer’s hand at the roundtable discussion before sitting down to field questions. He radiates a genuine sincerity, too … which is perhaps why it’s so fun to watch Emma Stone and Nicholas Hoult’s characters play him for such a fool in The Favourite.
Alwyn’s character Masham, who the actor describes as an “airhead,” plays a key role for Stone’s Abigail as she plots her course out of the maids’ quarters and into the queen’s chambers. But he’s far from a wallflower or a forgettable supporting character, just like Alwyn’s other three roles this year. In our conversation, we discussed what it was like working with director Yorgos Lanthimos, how he and Rachel Weisz came to have a wild ahistorical dance number and his approach to bringing thorny characters to life.
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“There was nothing that didn’t appeal to me about it,” replied Emma Stone when asked about why she wanted to be a part of The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest directorial outing. The film has been a standout on the fall film festival circuit wherever it has played. I caught it on opening night at the New York Film Festival, and it’s been my favorite film of 2018 ever since.
The Favourite provides a delicious showcase for three tremendously talented actresses in a sumptuous period setting without ever getting mired in mothballs. Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne provides the center of gravity, shifting the equilibrium of England with her every erratic whim. At the start of the film, Anne’s mood is stabilized by a lifelong friend, Rachel Weisz’ Sarah Churchill. Her hold on the queen’s heart and purse strings receives a real challenge, however, when Sarah’s cousin, Emma Stone’s Abigail, enters the palace grounds and begins to rise in Anne’s esteem.
This is not the Wikipedia version of history by any stretch of the imagination, and as such, many more questions linger after viewing than the traditional costume drama. Luckily, I was able to run a few of them by stars Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz as well as director Yorgos Lanthimos at roundtable discussions earlier this month. We talked about how The Favourite journeyed from script to screen, how everyone tuned into Lanthimos’ particular wavelength and why we’ll never know what the director thinks about any of his endings.
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I filed a 9.5/10 review of mid90s following its world premiere at TIFF earlier this fall, declaring “writer and director Jonah Hill has struck gold.” (I mention this only because perhaps you’ve seen this particular quote in ads if A24 has been targeting your Instagram feed as aggressively as they have mine.) A second viewing of the film this month confirmed that my rapturous response was not merely festival euphoria but an enduring endearment to a film populated by deeply human characters who radiate the raw joys and frustrations of coming of age.
When I got the chance to sit down with Jonah Hill and several members of the mid90s cast, it was clear just how much the movie means to him. This protectiveness made him a bit defensive about the project’s origins. For example, Hill was quick to swat away any notions of autobiography in the film, as if admitting he pulled from personal experience might undermine the credibility of his original creation.
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Filmmaker Paul Greengrass gets most of his credit for visual innovations behind the camera. It’s his work on the Bourne series that film scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum chose as an exemplar of a dominant style in contemporary Hollywood filmmaking, “intensified continuity,” an aesthetic that prioritizes visceral shocks over all story, logic or character matters. But that style’s association with his name masks Greengrass’ pattern of tackling sensitive political issues, a thematic connection that endures whether or not he wrote the script. All his post-9/11 work engages deeply with the world left in its wake – the very root of the War on Terror in United 93, the lingering effects of post colonialism in Captain Phillips – and the institutions calling the shots – the surveillance state in the Bourne series, the military-industrial complex in Green Zone.
22 July, the latest Greengrass project, moves away from an American-centered focus to examine a recent incident of far-right extremism in Norway. But if anyone believes the change of setting exculpates them from listening and heeding the warning, think again. Greengrass offers a thoughtful, terrifying portrait of how white nationalist hatred seeks to subvert the values of liberalism to validate its own existence.
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It can be tough to take the Coen Brothers at their word – after all, the duo claims (seemingly in jest) that they never read Homer’s The Odyssey despite basing O Brother, Where Art Thou? on it. But if they were forthright about the origins of their latest work, the anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, then it serves as a kind of career compendium. They wrote the film’s first segment, a comedic musical western, decades ago when their work had a more overtly comical bent. They wrote the final segment, on the other hand, just before starting production on the film in order to put an adequate bow on the project.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs functions like a greatest hits album for the Coens, though somehow with songs we’ve never heard before. It spans and encompasses the many styles of filmmaking they mastered over decades behind the camera. Their expert wielding of tone and mood has rarely been so evident as it is within each yarn they tell, all from a book of stories complete with color plates. Read More »
There’s a sense among some liberal-minded thinkers than Steve Bannon and the alt-right should never be given any kind of platform. The theory holds that starving them of any media oxygen will serve to relegate them back to the fringe status they once occupied. A similar idea, though with significant complications, drove the public outcry that toppled Bannon as the headliner of The New Yorker Festival.
Documentarian Errol Morris, no stranger to confronting powerfully bellicose men, calls BS on this theory in his latest documentary, American Dharma. He recognizes the danger in ignoring or downplaying figures like Bannon, knowing that the disdain only feeds their theory of victimization and increases their power. Like he did with Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known, Morris engages his subject in a dialogue about their controversial work and beliefs. As the saying goes, give a man enough rope, and he’ll hang himself.
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