Filmmaker Craig Brewer is a man to whom music is the key that unlocks most things. In his breakthrough film Hustle & Flow, it was the biographic, confessional (and Oscar-winning) rapping of his lead character that propelled the movie forward. In Black Snake Moan, it was swampy blues music; and in Footloose, it was pretty much anything that got your feel moving. Hell, Brewer even did a TV remake of Urban Cowboy and was one of the creative powers behind Fox TV’s Empire, which was a musical showcase in episode after episode.
When Brewer teamed up with Eddie Murphy for the first time on the devastatingly funny Netflix movie Dolomite Is My Name, Brewer was able to pack the soundtrack with tasty R&B and funk grooves from the likes of Marvin Gaye, Sly & the Family Stone, and Kool & the Gang. So when the director was given the chance to re-team with Murphy for the 33-years-in-the-making sequel Coming 2 America, Brewer had to get creative about ways to slip choice musical cues into the mix, including a song-and-dance routine with co-star Jermaine Fowler (played Prince Akeem’s illegitimate son) and choreographer/singer/actress Teyana Taylor, built around Prince’s song “Gett Off.” And to no one’s surprise, the Murphy alter-ego Randy Watson and the sweet soul stylings of his band Sexual Chocolate return as well from the 1988 Coming To America.
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Modern updates of Shakespeare are always a mixed bag. But for the most part, they have a tendency to open up the Bard’s work to a new generation of viewers, especially if the story being adapted keeps the basic plot but swaps out Shakespeare’s dense language for something more contemporary. It was always his intention to make his works accessible to the masses of his time, so it makes sense that having them be understandable to audiences today might be the way to go. This is the approach with the Australian production Measure for Measure, which takes a few necessary liberties with the original story and swaps out iambic pentameter for language that transforms the plot into a gritty love story told in the middle of a fairly terrifying crime drama set in Melbourne.
In the film, we track the lives of inhabitants of a housing housing project, whose paths cross after a shocking and bloody event occurs right in front of many of them. Easily the most memorable character and performance in Measure for Measure is the crime boss Duke, played by one of Australia’s favorite sons Hugo Weaving, who began his career moving from the stage to television to films like Proof and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (he even did an animal character’s voice in both Babe movies). But it was his portrayal of the cold-hearted bit of anthropomorphic code Agent Smith in all three Matrix films that brought him international attention.
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Not all comic book properties are created entirely equal. First published in 2017, the highly popular Image comic series The Old Guard concerns a small group of immortal warriors who live in secret, only surfacing for missions that promise large sums of money—and usually they have to be able to morally justify the mission (which typically involves killing, although they aren’t strictly assassins). Although they have lived off the radar for hundreds—perhaps thousands—of years with no explanation given as to why they are immortal, in the 21st century, it’s pretty much impossible to disappear and stay hidden. So their existence, abilities and purpose are catching the attention of those who not only wish to hire them but also those who want to exploit them.
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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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