One of the most talked about and critically acclaimed films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (and frequent Audience Award winner at several film festivals since January) is writer/director Lulu Wang’s sophomore feature The Farewell, with Awkwafina in her first starring role.
Based on an incident in her own family (the movie opens with the title care “Based on an actual lie”), The Farewell concerns a Chinese family who discovers that the matriarch, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), has terminal cancer and on a few months left to live. In keeping with a Chinese tradition, her family opts not to tell her of the seriousness of her illness, and instead arranges to have most of the extended family members come visit her to say their goodbyes under the guise of a rushed wedding. Awkwafina plays Billi, who moved to America with her parents (Diana Lin and Tzi Ma) when she was very young and thinks keeping the truth from Nai Nai is a mistake, so everyone suggests she not come to visit, lest she spill the beans on the big secret. But she does make the trip, and the film follows Billi’s journey back to the land of her birth, where she can toe the family line or bring her modern, Western sensibilities to the situation.
It’s a remarkable, sometimes very funny, always highly emotional work that is sure to make a great number best-of-the-year lists in 2019 thanks to exceptional performances by both seasoned actors and Wang’s own family members. /Film spoke with Wang recently in Chicago (where The Farewell played to a sold-out crowd at the Chicago Critics Film Festival) to discuss the real-life inspiration behind her film and the importance of using first-time actors in such an emotionally volatile film. The Farewell has a limited release on Friday, July 12, and expands nationwide throughout July.
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Although both have made names for themselves outside of the world of movies, Kumail Nanjiani (as a stand-up comedian) and Dave Bautista (as a pro wrestler) are still relatively new faces on the big screen that have had recent, high-profile successes upon which they plan to build. After years of TV work and smaller parts in films, Nanjiani shared an Oscar nomination with wife Emily V. Gordon for their original screenplay for 2017’s The Big Sick. While Bautista co-starred in a pair of Guardians of the Galaxy movies as the mighty Drax, in addition to sizable roles in Blade Runner 2049, Hotel Artemis, and the upcoming Dune adaptation from his Blade Runner director Denis Villeneuve.
With their latest film Stuber, the pair each get to try out something they rarely get to do on screen. Bautista does something more purely comedic as Vic, an LAPD Detective in search of the drug dealer (Iko Uwais) who killed his partner (Guardian’s Karen Gillan) six months earlier. Having just gotten corrective eye surgery earlier the same day he gets a tip as to the location of said drug dealer, Vic is forced to hire an Uber driven by Stu (Nanjiani) to take him around the city in search of clues, as well as make it to his daughter’s (Natalie Morales) art show to prove he’s not a terrible father (he still is). There’s a potential love story opening itself up to Stu on the same day, with his long-time best friend, Becca (Betty Gilpin), and Vic’s boss (Mira Sorvino) is also involved, since technically the case has been passed on the feds and Vic shouldn’t be working it at all. As involved as the plot might sound, Stuber really comes down to this odd couple in an electric car driving around the worst neighborhoods in L.A., each learning things from each other about being tough and tapping into ones sensitive side. And there’s a lot of killing and crashing and exploding.
/Film spoke with Nanjiani and Bautista back in late April, not long after the’s film’s work-in-progress debut at the SXSW Film Festival. More the point of this particular interview, the interviewer had just seen a press screening of Avengers: Endgame (which features Bautista) the day before. But we also discussed the winning formula of buddy action-comedies, Nanjiani transforming into an action star, and Bautista’s attempts to broaden his range as an actor outside of the MCU. Stuber opens nationwide on Friday, July 12.
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While many have labeled the SXSW hit Booksmart the female version of Superbad (and not just because the former co-stars Jonah Hill’s sister, Beanie Feldstein), that seems slightly unfair since this film has loftier emotional ambitions. Helmed by actor-turned-first-time-director Olivia Wilde, Booksmart concerns two high school seniors—Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever—who want to change the course of their entire high school experience on the day before they graduate. The best friends have spent the last four years concentrating on scholastic achievements and put aside all thoughts of partying or socializing in any form with anyone but each other in the hopes of getting into the best colleges. But on the last day of school, Molly is confronted with the almost-unspeakable truth that all of the kids who had fun and partied every weekend also got into great schools, leaving her on a quest to have her last night as a high school student be one of throwing caution to the wind and going to a rager with best buddy.
The entire film takes place over the course of roughly a single 24-hour period, and during the course of that day, secrets and deeply buried feelings come to the surface, both girls have their friendship tested and hearts broken, and learn that judging the other kids in their school based on their public persona is perhaps a massive mistake.
Feldstein is just starting to build an impressive filmography with memorable supporting roles in such works as Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising and Lady Bird, as well as the FX series What We Do in the Shadows, while Dever has made a reputation for herself from a young age as a hugely talented actor in some very serious roles, including parts in Short Term 12, The Spectacular Now, Detroit, The Front Runner, and perhaps most memorably in the second season of FX’s Justified, in which she co-starred with Margo Martindale in one of the greatest seasons of television in modern memory. Seeing her play comedy in Booksmart with such gusto only adds to the lost list of what she’s capable of as a performer.
/Film recently spoke with Dever and Feldstein about bonding with each other and their director, the film’s powerhouse supporting cast of largely unknowns, and how celebrating intelligence is key to the film’s humor. Bookmsart is currently in theaters nationwide.
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Although he has tackled roles and projects varied in scope, both on the stage and screen, actor/director Kenneth Branagh made his name by bringing the plays of William Shakespeare to the masses (much like his hero, Lawrence Olivier) through a series of films that attracted an array of well-known faces, staged in ways that made the sometimes impenetrable words of the Bard accessible and joyous. Beginning 30 years ago with his triumphant Henry V, Branagh moved through a series of filmed adaptations (both as an actor and director, although not always both) in such works as Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Love’s Labours Lost, Othello (directed by Oliver Parker), and As You Like It.
Of course, he’s also acted and directed in non-Shakespeare works as well, most notably behind the camera for films like Dead Again, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Cinderella, and 2017’s star-studded Murder on the Orient Express, as well as acting roles in The Gingerbread Man, Wild Wild West, Valkyrie, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Dunkirk.
It seems only fitting that he would eventually star and direct a work in which he played Shakespeare. But All Is True is not your typical biopic. Commissioning a screenplay by Ben Elton, the movie examines the playwright’s later years, after he has retired from writing, as he struggles to blend back in with a wife (Judi Dench) and grown daughters whom he essentially abandoned 20 years earlier for the life of a celebrity. But he struggles with his return to Stratford with memories of a son who died too young and a family who doesn’t know what to do with him as he plays the part of a caring father. The film reveals a great deal about how Shakespeare attempted to deal with certain life struggles through his works, and Branagh delivers one of the most engaging, understated, and moving performances of his career. And if you can’t get enough of Branagh the director, he’s also got a little Disney project called Artemis Fowl on the way, based on the exceedingly popular series of books by Eoin Colfer.
/Film spoke with Branagh recently to discuss the importance of Shakespeare in his life and career; working with McKellen for the first time; his voice cameo in Avengers: Infinity War and playing detective Hercule Poirot once again in Death on the Nile (which he’ll also direct, with a cast that includes Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, and Letitia Wright). All Is True is currently playing in select cities and opens nationwide on Friday, May 17.
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O’Shea Jackson Jr. may not be guaranteed a long and successful career as a film actor, but there is certainly no shortage of motivating and inspiring factors in his life to get him there. Although he’s been acting for less than five years, he’s had a succession of fascinating roles in a short time, beginning with playing his father, the rapper Ice Cube, in the 2015 N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton. After key supporting parts in the dark comedy Ingrid Goes West (opposite Aubrey Plaza) and the brutal ensemble crime drama Den of Thieves, Jackson jumped at the chance to play Seth Rogen’s best friend Lance in Long Shot, a romantic-comedy set against the backdrop of politics, with Charlize Theron playing Charlotte Field, the current U.S. Secretary of State, who is on the verge of announcing her run at the presidency. Rogen plays journalist Fred Flarsky, who has known Charlotte since they were kids and she used to babysit for him. When she hires him to help her punch-up her speeches, the two begin to have all the feels for each other.
But Jackson’s May is just beginning. He also co-stars as the head of the secret, kaiju-fighting branch of the military in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, due May 31. And he just wrapped work on the drama Just Mercy, the latest from Short Term 12 writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton; the film co-stars Brie Larson, Michael B. Jordan, and Jamie Foxx. And it appears Jackson is gearing up to star opposite LeBron James in Space Jam 2 (working from a new script by Black Panther‘s Ryan Coogler and Searching‘s Sev Ohaniandue), for release in 2021.
/Film spoke with Jackson in Chicago recently to discuss the importance of not being pigeonholed as an actor, what he learned from working with Rogen and Theron, and just how many monsters he has scenes with in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Long Shot opens nationwide on Friday, May 3.
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The British-born Gugu Mbatha-Raw has been working so steadily as an actor in both the UK and America that you might not realize just how many things you’ve seen her in over the years, even before her breakout, one-two punch of leading roles in the 2013 period drama Belle and 2014’s music industry love story Beyond the Lights, both of which were directed by women—something that continues to mean a great deal to the actress. In fact, throughout her years in television and film, Mbatha-Raw has always sought out films with strong female characters at the center and/or works helmed by female filmmakers and scripted by female screenwriters.
After parts in such works as Concussion, Free State of Jones and The Wachowskis’ insane Jupiter Ascending, she took on more recent substantial supporting parts in films like A Wrinkle In Time and Miss Sloane, as well as the ensemble cast of Netflix’s The Cloverfield Paradox. Her latest film, Fast Color, was an audience and critical favorite at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival and is finally making it to theaters thanks to the Lionsgate imprint Codeblack Films. Directed by Julia Hart (and co-written by Hart and Jordan Horowitz). The movie focuses on Ruth, who is constantly on the run from those who wish to examine and experiment on her because she has abilities. In order to keep her family (including a young daughter) safe, she left home years ago but finds herself coming back to the family farm when she has no where else to hide. It turns out that her mother (Lorraine Toussaint) and daughter (Saniyya Sidney) also have powers, and the three must figure out how to proceed as the world comes closing in. As it turns out, this family may be the key to helping save a world that is slowly dying around them, if the paranoid folks chasing them don’t destroy these very special women.
/Film spoke with Mbatha-Raw recently to discuss the fundamental differences between Fast Color and every other film about people with special powers, how a pair of kick-ass combat boots helped her find her character, and how working in a Jim Henson-created universe is a bit of dream job for her. Fast Color is in theaters now.
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In a time when science is considered opinion and a political game piece, it’s heartwarming to find a film that celebrates ingenuity inspired by a love of science and learning. Marking the directorial debut from actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, Children of Men, Doctor Strange), The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is the true life story of 13-year-old William Kamkwamba (newcomer Maxwell Simba), who lives with his family in the African nation of Malawi. He’s a good student in his village’s private school, but when land issues and no rain lead to a poor harvest and eventually famine, William is forced to drop out of school because his family can no longer afford to send him.
After doing the necessary research using book “borrowed” from the school library, William approaches his father (played by the director, who also adapted Kamkwamba’s book) with the idea of building the windmill in order to power and irrigation system that the village could use to kick start growing again. His father is initially resistant, but after watching many villagers starving to death (with many others opting to leave or selling their land to the corrupt government), he agrees to let the boy try his experiment with the help of many of the locals.
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One of the favorites among audiences and critics alike out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival was the made-for-Netflix dramedy Paddleton, starring (and co-written by) Mark Duplass and Ray Romano as neighbors and best friends Michael and Andy, who aren’t really great at expressing feelings but are forced to do so when Michael is diagnosed with terminal cancer and makes the decision early on that he wants to die via assisted suicide with Andy’s help. And somehow Duplass and director/co-writer Alex Lehmann (who worked with Duplass on the 2016 indie Blue Jay) make this potentially oppressive scenario into a sweet and moving comedy about male friendship.
The film incorporates elements of a road movie, a buddy picture and even coming-of-age stories, as the pair hit the road to acquire the drugs necessary to carry out Michael’s wishes. If you don’t want to know how the film ends, you may not want to read these interviews until you’ve seen Paddleton, but there’s no getting around the fact that the creative team ends things with an emotional wallop that is undeniably powerful and important, with both Romano and Duplass making it clear that just because these characters are in some way stunted in the maturity department that doesn’t mean we don’t know exactly how they feel about each other.
Just days after the film’s debut at Sundance last month, /Film spoke with Duplass and Romano to go over how the idea for the film came together, how Romano took to the largely improvised acting style, and what is so inherently funny and charming about observing two guys who barely know how to communicate with each other. And after that, we spoke with director Alex Lehmann. We’ve included both interviews below.
The film is currently playing on Netflix, as is Romano’s new stand-up special Ray Romano: Right Here, Around the Corner, which marks his first comedy special in 23 years.
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Through his years of work as a writer, director, and producer (and eventually performer) on such television series as The Office, Extras, Life’s Too Short, and Hello Ladies, Stephen Merchant has proven to be not just one of the great makers of comedy currently working, but also a craftsman of awkward moments. And few moments in life are more awkward than the ones with have with our family, which may have been one of the reasons Dwayne Johnson hand-picked his Tooth Fairy co-star to write and direct Fighting with My Family, the surprisingly engaging and moving film about real-life WWE wrestler Paige (real name Saraya-Jade Bevis and played by Florence Pugh in a career-making turn) and her journey from growing up in a wrestling family in Norwich, England to becoming one of the most successful and popular female wrestlers of all time.
Only Merchant’s second feature film as writer/director (following 2010’s Cemetery Junction), this features a note-perfect group of actors playing Paige’s family, including Nick Frost and Lena Headey as her parents and Jack Lowden (Dunkirk) as brother Zak, who also dreamed of becoming a part of the WWE, only to see his sister do so instead. As much as the film is about a young woman rising through the ranks of wrestling, at its core, it’s a family drama with a great sense of humor and solid supporting roles from the likes of Vince Vaughn, Julia Davis, and Merchant himself, as well as Johnson popping in as himself at key moments in Paige’s ascent.
/Film spoke with Merchant in Chicago, just days after Fighting with My Family debuted at the Sundance Film Festival as a not-so-secret screening to talk about how The Rock convinced him to return to feature directing, making a movie about wrestlers appeal to non-fans of wrestling, and filming the climactic match in front of an audience of thousands. The film is currently playing in limited release and opens nationwide on February 22, 2019.
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One of the most anticipated films at Sundance this year, certainly among cinephiles was the latest deep-div making of work from Swiss-born filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe, who previously has looked into fandom’s disenchantment with George Lucas (The People vs. George Lucas), zombie culture (Doc of the Dead), and his critically acclaimed 2017 detailed look at Hitchcock’s Psycho shower scene (78/52).
While his new work, Memory—The Origins of Alien, began as a shot-by-shot look at that film’s ferocious chest-burster sequence, it eventually became clear to Philippe that there were forces and influences that went into the creation of Alien that went beyond standard-issue science fiction and horror. The film explores its roots in everything from Egyptian mythology, H.P. Lovecraft, parasitic wasps, comic books, and the paintings of Frances Bacon, while also making it a treat for those who want a peak behind the curtain of the film of one of Ridley Scott’s most influential works (although Scott himself is not interviewed).
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