The newest film from Pixar Studios, Onward, begins with a look back in history—not our history, but the history of a fantasy world where all manner of mermaids, unicorns, elves, fairies, minotaurs, wizards, and just about any other creature you might find in a role-playing game would exist. But as these fantasy beings find shortcuts to doing magic—Why use your wings to fly when you can board an airplane? Why use a spell to start a fire when you can use matches?—they become lazy, and the magic that made them special starts to disappear from the world at large.
Head of Story for Onward is Kelsey Mann (I’ll let him explain exactly what that job entails), who worked as Story Supervisor (alongside Onward director Dan Scanlon) on Monsters University. He also has a story credit on 2015’s The Good Dinosaur. /Film sat down with Mann in Chicago during recently to discuss that moment in any Pixar production process where the story team literally starts with a blank page, the joy of creating and destroying one’s own fantasy world, and the practical considerations of having a pair of legs be one of your main characters. Onward is now playing nationwide.
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In the roughly six or seven years since he made his remarkable feature film debut in Short Term 12 as the troubled teen Marcus, Lakeith Stanfield has been one of the hardest-working actors in show business, collaborating with a remarkable string of both well-known filmmakers and relative newcomers in both high-profile films and smaller, indie gems. Often he pops in for a choice supporting part and takes the movie away from the leads just enough to become unforgettable (just watch him in Jordan Peele’s Get Out as an example).
Since Short Term 12, Stanfield has shown up in The Purge: Anarchy, Selma, Dope, Straight Outta Compton, Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead, Oliver Stone’s Snowden, and one of the finest films of 2018, Sorry to Bother You, as well as one finest in 2019, writer/director Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. But many know Stanfield best from his role as the hilarious stoner-savant Darius in creator Donald Glover’s FX series Atlanta, which will begin shooting its third and fourth seasons back to back in the spring of 2020. He also has a new film coming out on Valentine’s Day 2020, the romantic-drama The Photograph, co-starring Issa Rae and Kelvin Harrison Jr.
/Film spoke with Stanfield recently to discuss his other entry in the Best Films of 2019 category, Uncut Gems, from directors Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie, in which Stanfield plays a jewelry hustler named Demany, who works closely with jeweler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) by bringing in cash-flush celebrities (like Boston Celtic Kevin Garnett) into Ratner’s store to spend spend spend. As the film moves forward on its relentless course to self-destruction, Demany reveals layers to his personality and abilities that few actors beside Stanfield could handle as honestly and believably. Stanfield is a master of finding the right tone for his characters (which we talk about in our interview0, as can be witnessed by comparing the role he plays in Uncut Gems with the wildly different, more laid-back Lieutenant Elliott in Knives Out. Uncut Gems is currently in theaters nationwide.
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The path to Julia Fox‘s on-screen acting debut in Uncut Gems took her through a myriad of other successful creative endeavors, including art, photography, fashion design, writing, and even recently directing her first short film, Fantasy Girls. Fox first became well known in her native New York City for being something of an “It girl” on the club/party scene, and it was during that time in her life, nearly 10 years ago, that she became friendly with brothers and struggling filmmakers Josh and Bennie Safdie, who were developing a script set in the city’s diamond district which focused on a fast-talking jeweler named Howard Ratner, a degenerate gambler and a man who enjoys the thrill of risk more than the actual rewards it may bring.
The Safdies wrote the character of Julia for Fox, and through the many iterations of both the screenplay and the cast, Fox has remained the one constant in the production – but she still had to fight for the role and prove she could play the part of Howard’s mistress. Uncut Gems took many years to get off the ground (the brothers made their breakthrough movies Heaven Knows What and Good Time in the meantime), and when the Safdies’ first choice to play Howard, Adam Sandler, finally agreed to make the film, things fell into place fairly quickly. Fox was ready, and she’s absolutely electric as the charming, manipulative, and irresistible Julia, in a movie that feels like the cinematic equivalent of a panic attack and also happens to be one of the best of the year.
/Film spoke with with Fox recently about her long road to overnight success, how much of herself (past and present versions) she put into the Julia character, what she learned about acting from working so closely with Sandler, and the free-floating directing style that the Safdie brothers adopted to make the film both tense and funny. Read More »
1917‘s seemingly death-defying camera work from master cinematographer (and recent Oscar winner) Roger Deakins is extraordinary as it moves through varying terrains in the guise of a single take, with no place to hide lights (he’s working in natural light most of the time). The result is a powerful antiwar statement couched in a tense and emotionally gripping work, as the camera seems to hover around the action as both a ghostly observer and a character in the trenches with the film’s leads.
1917 comes courtesy of director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall, Revolutionary Road) and his co-writer (and rising talent) Krysty Wilson-Cairns, the Penny Dreadful veteran who has also co-written Edgar Wright’s next movie, the horror-thriller Last Night in Soho. /Film spoke with Mendes and Wilson-Cairns in Chicago recently to discuss the intricate process of mapping out the geographic journey of the movie’s two lead actors and how that impacted every other phase of the production, the emotional immediacy of making a film appear to occur in real time, and why the project was a deeply personal one for Mendes.
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The World War I epic 1917 is so much more than the sum of its single-take gimmick. The film is the story of two brave Lance Corporals — Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, from Blinded by the Light and Game of Thrones) and Schofield (George MacKay, of Captain Fantastic and Ophelia), who make an arduous and tense trek across what is supposed to be one active battlefield after another. The two young British soldiers are asked to deliver a message to the front line of a battle that is expected to launch the following morning. The message is meant to stop the 1,600 troops from charging into a trap that will result in the massacre of most of the men, one of whom is Blake’s brother. Along their journey, the pair stumble upon what is essentially the totality of the war experience at the time — when men with guns on horses were just beginning to be replaced by massively destructive tanks. As a result, the film gets more unbearably immediate with each passing minute.
This outstanding technical and heartfelt achievement comes courtesy of director/co-writer Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall, Revolutionary Road), who rehearsed both the geographic and emotional beats more like a stage play than a film where editing can be used to hide mistakes or combine the best parts of multiple takes. But by constructing 1917 to look like a single take, many of his directing tools were stripped away, leaving only the performances to carry the weight of this devastating story.
/Film spoke with stars Chapman and MacKay in Chicago recently to discuss how they made personal connections to a World War I story, the months-long rehearsal process that was required to pull off the single-take appearance of the film, and remembering the emotional heart of the story as well as their choreographed movement.
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Whether he does it on purpose or not, writer/director and renowned cinephile Rian Johnson has a genuine gift for selecting a genre in which to work, pulling said genre apart to see what makes it tick, and then putting it back together in new and interesting ways to make something that feels genuinely fresh, even though he’s using familiar tools of the trade. He says he’s just trying to make the best version of whatever sandbox in which he chooses to play, and I’d say he’s accomplished just that with film noir (Brick), heist movies (The Brothers Bloom), time travel (Looper), and even the Star Wars universe (The Last Jedi, and let’s be honest: Star Wars is its own genre at this point).
With his latest and arguably greatest work, Knives Out, Johnson strolls through the world of murder mysteries, crafting a modern, Agatha Christie-style whodunit with a family full of lying suspects and just as many false leads, as private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, wielding a razor-sharp Southern accent) investigates the murder of world-famous crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who is found dead at his estate just after celebrating his 85th birthday. Blanc interviews every member of Thrombey large family and the house staff to get to the truth, which may not even be the truth the true killer realizes it is.
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It may become necessary to redefine to word “autobiographical” when referring to the latest work from director Alma Har’el, Honey Boy, based on an original screenplay by actor Shia LaBeouf, who not only fashioned the story of a child actor’s relationship with his domineering father on his own experience growing up, but also cast himself as his father character James Lort in this harrowing and all-too-real portrayal. LaBeouf also shows us the Otis character (played as a child by Noah Jupe, currently also seen in Ford v Ferrari) as a young adult struggling with substance abuse and other signs of PTSD cause by his upbringing. Lucas Hedges plays the older Noah, who is eventually arrested and sent to court-ordered therapy (with a therapist played by the great Laura San Giacomo), where he begins to reflect upon his childhood rise to fame and his early struggles with his ex-rodeo clown/felon dad.
Having debuted at Sundance in January, Honey Boy is so daring and devastating, that it’s difficult to imagine that LaBeouf could find anyone he would trust to direct his own story. But he and the Israeli-born Har’el had been in communication for years before the script was even fully formed, with her guiding him through some of the more difficult structural and story moments.
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For his third feature in a row, writer/director Trey Edward Shults (Krisha, It Comes at Night) dives back into the subject of a family in crisis with Waves. This time around, he sets his drama in South Florida to trace the epic emotional journey of a suburban African-American family, led by Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), a well-intentioned father who puts a great deal of pressure on his high school athlete son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr., from Luce, last year’s Monsters and Men, and Shults’ It Comes At Night), while tending to ignore his quiet, studious daughter Emily (newcomer Taylor Russell).
When tragedy strikes, the family—who also includes stepmom Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry)—has to find the strength to regroup and forgive flaws even in the darkest times they have every faced. Emily is able to find some kind of solace with the help of a new boyfriend Luke (Lucas Hedges). Waves is a sometimes uncomfortably real and emotionally raw experience, in which all of the characters find very different paths through suffering and recovery, but it’s the journey that Shults paves for his characters that makes the film such a worthy and fulfilling experience.
/Film spoke with Shults, Harrison, and Russell in Chicago recently during the Chicago International Film Festival, where they discussed the very personal events that led to the screenplay, and the ways in which the actors found their way into their very different characters, and the way Shults represented each with unique visual languages. Waves is currently in limited release, opening in top markets on November 22, and continuing to rollout throughout the holiday season.
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There is so much more we’re going to learn about New Zealand-born actress Thomasin McKenzie in the coming years. With each new role, we see her abilities tested and our expectations exceeded. After a small role in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies when she was barely even a teenager, she continued working in shorts and local television series, until her breakthrough role in 2018 in Debra Granik’s much acclaimed Leave No Trace, opposite Ben Foster.
Not surprisingly, the offers and work came in rapidly, and in 2019, she can be seen in the just released Netflix feature The King, directed by David Michôd and co-starring Timothée Chalamet and Robert Pattinson, in which she plays Henry V’s sister Philippa. At the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, she also starred in the Australian biographical crime drama True History of the Kelly Gang, which presumably will open stateside in 2020. And in September 2020, she’ll be seen in director Edgar Wright’s latest work, Last Night in Soho.
But it’s her current remarkable take as the Jewish teenager Elsa in writer/director Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit that is garnering her significant notices in this World War II satire that follows a lonely German boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) whose world view is turned upside-down when he discovers his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl in their attic.
/Film spoke with McKenzie in Chicago during the recent Chicago International Film Festival, and she discussed the responsibility of playing the only Jewish character in a film set during World War II in Germany, the benefits of shooting chronologically, and why she thinks it’s important this story be told today. Jojo Rabbit is in limited release, opening wider in the coming weeks.
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Actor Michael Shannon has been a staple on the Chicago theater scene for decades, thanks in large part to his regularly appearing in productions at his own A Red Orchid Theatre company, but most of you know Shannon as a film actor, first appearing in smaller roles in such works as Groundhog Day, Chain Reaction, Pearl Harbor, Vanilla Sky, 8 Mile, and World Trade Center. Shannon caught many people’s eyes in the film adaptation of the Tracy Letts’ play Bug, in which Shannon had originally starred. But it was in the late 2000s that he really exploded and became the actor of choice for both new and established directors looking to tap into his intensity and inherent creepiness. He scored major roles in Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Jeff Nichols’ first feature Shotgun Stories (the two have collaborated on every Nichols’ film since, including Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special, and Loving).
But it was Shannon’s Oscar-nominated turn in the Sam Mendes-director Revolutionary Road that turned a corner for the actor, who might be best known for playing Nelson Van Alden, the FBI agent turned low-level associate of Al Capone, in five seasons of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and as General Zod in Zack Snyder’s reworking of the Superman legend in Man of Steel. Easily one of the busiest and most in-demand actors working today, Shannon was nominated for his second Academy Award for 2016’s Nocturnal Animals and made quite an impact in Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning The Shape of Water, as well as in recent miniseries like Waco and The Little Drummer Girl.
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