Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Richard Linklater: A Retrospective

Of all the great, deserving, American filmmakers that haven’t won the Best Director prize yet, Richard Linklater is up there with the most deserving. His filmography is as original and diverse as any of his generation. In 2014 he released quite possibly the best movie of his career. To many of us it’s unthinkable that the Academy might fail to honor such a landmark in American cinema with Oscars for Best Picture or Best Director. It stings when any great film is denied its place in the ranks of Best Picture winners, but we can regard it as inauguration into a pantheon of films just as prestigious: “Do The Right Thing”, “Goodfellas”, “The Player”, “Pulp Fiction”, “The Shawshank Redemption”, “Fargo”, “L.A. Confidential”, “Saving Private Ryan”, “Traffic”, “Lost in Translation”, “Sideways”, “Brokeback Mountain”, “There Will Be Blood”, “The Social Network”, “The Tree of Life & Zero Dark Thirty”. Whatever happens on February 23rd, Boyhood will join an ever-growing list of classics.
1) Boyhood, 2014
You’ve heard and read countless raves for this 12-years-in-the-making masterpiece; what else is there to say? Linklater used everything he learned in his 25 year career to make this movie. The pacing, the direction, the editing, the writing and the acting are all what we’ve come to know as Linklater-esque. There’s an every-growing maturity that is starting to comfortably creep into his work and, believe it or not, I think the man has many more great movies to come. What touched me most about “Boyhood” wasn’t just the sweet performances – especially by Arquette – but the way he makes the movie flow in such an organic and beautiful pattern. Many think it was about a boy growing up, but the film hit me hardest when it dealt with the bond between mother and child. It hit notes that felt so personal to me.
2) Waking Life, 2001
“Waking Life” is where Linklater decided to take huge risks and make personal, innovative cinema. It came out in 2001 when the theme of dreams and identity was very prevalent at the movies with the release of “Mulholland Drive” and “Memento”. Shot in Rotoscope and delivering vibrantly alive images, the film was a breakthrough for Linklater, unafraid to delve into topics that would become a source of obsession for him in the years to come: The meaning of life, dreams, freewill, consciousness and many more existential questions are at the heart of the movie. Its images linger in your head for weeks, months, even years – with every frame soaked in colors and palettes that have no limits to the shapes, sizes or imagination that can be used.
3) Dazed and Confused, 1993
This was the breakthrough. The first time I saw this movie I knew I had seen a damn-near classic. The atmosphere envelops you and makes you feel like you actually know every single person on-screen. The attention to detail is astounding. You are there in 1976 Texas, on the last day of High School for the graduates of Lee High. There are so many different characters, and so many different plots that, in a way, the film seems to feel plotless. This was a sign of things to come for the young Texan filmmaker. Although this was a big studio picture, the narrative structure was anything but conventional, focusing more on character than actual storyline. Linklater’s 25 year obsession with the passage of time is very apparent here as the film seems to take place within a 24 hour time frame and uses that to further explore the routes many of the characters are about to take in their lives. 
4) Before Sunset, 2004
5) Before Midnight, 2013
Celine and Jesse.  It started with “Before Sunrise” and then continued with the beautiful “Before Sunset” and capped off with the mature, pessimistic “Before Midnight”. Richard Linklater’s trilogy of romance in European cities has been building a solid cult following for more than two decades now.  “Before Sunset” is a masterful examination of love, family life and conversation.  Never has an audience wanted an on-screen character to cheat on his wife more than when Jesse shows up at Celine’s apartment in the climactic scene. Celine is indelibly played by Julie Delpy and Jesse is superbly played by Ethan Hawke. Linklater and his two actors wrote the screenplay, much of it clearly improvised, from the artists’ own experiences and points of views. This organic style brings a real sense of authenticity to the films. These movies ask us questions about love that many studio movies refuse to ask. Is our view of love as a society conflicted, disjointed? Or can we really love someone eternally, in a “forever” sense of the term? How much can we compromise until we end up losing sense of ourselves and our own independence? There is not one answer to any of these questions. Linklater is a curiosity seeker who asks more than he answers and the way “Before Midnight” ends makes you wonder what can possibly happen next. I hope this isn’t the last we see of Celine and Jesse.
6) The School of Rock, 2003
In “Boyhood”, Ethan Hawke’s dad creates a Post-Beatles “Black Album” mixtape for his son. Something tells me it’s something Jack Black’s riotous imposter substitute teacher Dewey Finn would do for his class in “The School of Rock”. Just like Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous”, this is Linklater’s love letter to rock and roll. A passionate, studio-backed project that did exactly what it had to do and did it in such an expertly crafted way. Black’s Dewey Finn is a firm believer of the power of rock and roll – he wants to pass down his knowledge to the classically trained school kids he substitute teaches.  “I have been touched by your kids… and I’m pretty sure that I’ve touched them”, Finn exclaims to a horrified group of parents whose jaws drop at the comment. We get what he’s saying; he’s just passin’ the torch, man. 
7) Tape, 2001
The passage of time gets dealt with again in this semi-experimental film that, with “Waking Life”, kickstarted Linklater’s second phase as a filmmaker after the ill received “The Newton Boys”. Taking place inside a hotel room in real time, “Tape” stars Linklater muse Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and an incredibly powerful Uma Thurman. In the ensuing hours our trio dissects a painful high school memory that may or may not be true. Linklater, the Auteur, is in full display here with the film’s themes of memory, time and place taking center stage. However, the most fascinating aspect of Tape is that you don’t fully know what is real and what is not. Some characters may be lying or might have just perceived events in a different way.  The 86 nail biting minutes the filmmaker lays out are thought provoking to say the least. This might just be the hidden gem of the Linklater canon. 
8) Bernie, 2012
Tackling the real-life story of a Texan man who shot and killed a “companion” in the back, you might expect one of the darker films in Linklater’s filmography. Suffice to say that what we got instead was quite possibly the most likeable murderer in cinema history. Bernie Tiede, as played by a never better Jack Black, was a well-liked church going fella who didn’t seem to have a bad bone in his body. What led to him committing such a terrible crime? Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth’s screenplay tries to dissect the events and come to an understanding. However, like most of the director’s movies, the answers don’t come easy; in fact, there might not even be many by the time the movie is done. It’s a fascinating look at human nature and, if at first it seems distant from his other movies, it couldn’t be more relevant to the themes he’s been seeking out his entire career. 
9) Slacker, 1991
Here’s where it started. This classic Gen-X film was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress just a few years ago (and for good reason). Here is a director defining a generation, speaking volumes about human weirdness and connection.  “Slacker” is a film that flows from character to character on the streets, apartments and cafes of Austin, Texas. It is plotless, aimless but nevertheless mesmerizing in its random meetings and conversations that seem to connect to one another in unique, original and trippy ways. It isn’t hard to consider “Slacker” a ‘Stoner Classic’, but to call it that would also take away from the fact that it can be appreciated sober, as an organic exercise to open up your senses and make you think hard about our conscience and subconscious. 
10) Me and Orson Welles, 2010
Linklater’s ode to the stage came and went faster than any movie he has released in his 25 year career. This despite solid reviews and an incredible performance by Christian McKay as a rambunctious, youthful, Orson Welles trying to prove his worth by staging a play of “Julius Cesar”. The film takes place in 1937 New York and the attention to detail is beautifully rendered as Linklater gives us something he’s never given us: a period piece. This is a pleasingly simple but satisfying dramedy that pays tribute to one of the giants of our time and worked as a breather for Linklater, in between all the thoughtful dialogue-driven works of art he seems to consistently deliver effortlessly.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Top 10 movies directed by women

In its 87 years of existence, only four women have ever been nominated for a Best Director Oscar. All of those nominees have made my list of the greatest movies directed by women. While researching this project, the original draft was more than 100 titles; narrowing it down to 10 was not easy, which is why I encourage you to chime in with your own choices in the comment section. In honor of Ava Duvernay, the latest and probably not last snub, for her brilliant “Selma”, here are 10 movies that make a good case for more original female voices at the movies.

1) Seven Beauties

Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties is an ugly movie. Wertmuller is a female Italian director whose films weren’t supposed to be nice to look at. She consistently tried to break societal taboos over her long illustrious career. “Seven Beauties” was the best film of her career and justifiably made her become the first female director to ever get nominated for Best Director. Tackling the holocaust, WW2 and Italy’s ugly role in the war was a risk. The taboos tackled by Wertmuller were indelibly cringed in an air of shame in her native country. She wanted to push buttons with her film and make the audience as uncomfortable as possible. Wertmuller shot her scenes with no restraint, purposely going over the top with original characters that stay etched in your memory for a good, long time. “Seven Beauties” is a landmark of cinema and clearly inspired Tarantino to re-write WW2 history himself 34 years later with “Inglourious Basterds”.

2) The Hurt Locker

Here is Kathryn Bigelow’s taut, tense and incredibly terrific movie that justifiably won the Oscar for Best Picture. I could have chosen other Bigelow gems like “Point Break”, “Strange Days” and “Near Dark”, but “The Hurt Locker” was the best and most important achievement. An episodic movie that dealt with male testosterone and adrenaline by studying a man who thrived on it, and kept putting himself in the most dangerous situation imaginable. The attention to detail is staggering. “War is a Drug” the title card reads at the beginning of Bigelow’s film. This movie is a drug. Jeremy Renner’s incredible performance and Bigelow’s incredibly controlled direction changed the way we saw action films and reinvented the possibilities for the new century. Not surprising that Bigelow was the first ever woman awarded the Best Director Oscar, and this quickly became a landmark in 21st century cinema.

3) Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola’s best movie as a director was such sensitive, delicate stuff – and I do mean that as a compliment. Every frame is beautifully photographed by Lance Acord; the film is a portal to a brightly colored, anything-can-happen Japan. And the performances by the two leads – Bill Murray and Scarlett Johanssen – just sublime. In showing unrequited, unforgivable, love between these two strangers lost in a place far away, Coppola infuses every frame of her magically romantic film with a sense of purpose and free will. It’s as if every convention known to Hollywood is thrown out the window and replaced by a
freshness you usually see in Japanese films made by Wong Kar Wai or Ozu. Most surprising of all, it’s American and as purely poetic as any movie can be.

4) The Piano

Jane Campion’s “The Piano” is the most personal movie of her astonishing filmography. This almost plotless story about a group of people who aren’t, on the whole, particularly easy to sympathize with, is a stunning mood piece and a haunting adult fairy tale about a woman’s quest to control her identity and destiny. A practically silent Holly Hunter gives an Oscar Winning performance that is as mesmerizing as it is haunting, and Anna Paquin, then 11 years old, won an Oscar playing Hunter’s smart and witty young daughter. Campion, never one to shy away from Gender politics, gave us a portrait of love, fear and passion amidst a world where a woman is not supposed to have the necessary freedom to fulfill her every desires. Rarely do we witness beauty as real as what is captured in this film. Campion’s cinematic landmark is such a visually stunning film, it’s almost intoxicating how its atmosphere sweeps across the screen and ravishes the eyes.

5) The Triumph of the Will

Was there ever any doubt that this – quite possibly the most influential film of all time – would not make the list? “Triumph of the Will” is a Nazi propaganda film that, despite its disturbing subject matter, revolutionized the way movies were made. Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl singlehandedly rewrote the language of cinema with her use of cinematography and music. This is a work of staggering brilliance with shots that are still hard to achieve to this very day. It is then no surprise that filmmakers such as Peter Jackson, George Lucas and Ridley Scott have all admitted to having studied and copied Rifenstahl’s masterpiece. Watching the film with attention to all the details on screen is an incredible experience; add in the fact that this was meant as a propaganda tool by the Nazis and you have one of the most harrowing cinematic experiences imaginable.

6) Cléo de 5 à 7

The French New Wave was a boys club – that is until a young Agnes Varda showed up to shake the party. We all know “Breathless”, “The 400 Blows”, “Contempt” and “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, but no French New Wave top five could be complete without “Cléo de 5 à 7″ a rich absorbing look at a woman embracing death and looking into the unknown. The film is a staple of feminist filmmaking and introduced to us a character that we could eerily relate to. Awaiting the results of a medical exam that could potentially lead to a stomach cancer diagnosis, Cleo wanders around the streets of Paris as themes of existentialism and mortality get played out. It’s a groundbreaking movie that gave way to one of the most iconic and important female voices in cinematic history. The boys club was forever shaken.

7) Zero Dark Thirty

Forget about the Bin Laden raid, which ends the movie, what counts in Kathryn Bigelow’s film is how they actually got there in the first place. The procedural work rivals that of “All The Presidents Men” and “Zodiac”, as does the harrowing relevance that burns at its core. A great performance by Jessica Chastain infuses every frame, and Bigelow, a great action director, proves her worth as a director of considerable intellectual skill. The controversy Bigelow’s film got upon release was obviously unwarranted and cost it Best Picture to –huh? – Argo? Haters will hate, but this movie has stood the test of time and will continue to do so.

8) Winter’s Bone

Debra Granik’s second feature film, “Winter’s Bone”, is the kind of movie that gets progressively better as you delve deeper and deeper into it. It is filled with humane, authentic characterizations of a society that is rooted in evil and people who have lost all hope in life and succumbed to morally wrong choices. There are memorable scenes that linger (the gutting of a squirrel, the taking of a girl, a final ambiguous mumbling sentence) a sense of dread that might turn the most primitive of moviegoers off. It is through and through a product of American Independent cinema and we should never forget its important existence. Then newcomer Jennifer Lawrence, delved deeply into her role and created something memorable and real. It was an absolutely spellbinding lead performance that brought subtlety to her role as a teenage girl desperately looking for her – quite possibly dead – father in the wild Ozarks of Missouri.

9) Boys Don’t Cry

I still hold out hope that director Kimberly Peirce will one day make as great a movie as her 1999 debut “Boys Don’t Cry”. Featuring an Oscar Winning performance from Hilary Swank, this was ballsy, original filmmaking at its finest. The true story of Brandon Teena, a trans-man raped, beaten and murdered by acquaintances after they discover that he is anatomically female, “Boys Don’t Cry” was a statement by Peirce to stop the madness and advance as a society. She doesn’t hold any punches and knocks us out with every stinging detail in this tragic, and sadly still relevant, story

10) Big

Director Penny Marshall became the first female director ever to direct a movie that grossed more than 100 million dollars at the box office. No small feat. She was sadly one of the few true feminine voices in Hollywood to sit in the director’s chair during the 1980’s. Who can forget the iconic piano dancing scene that is the centerpiece of this constantly copied, but never bettered, 1988 movie starring Tom Hanks as a boy trapped in a grown man’s body. Marshall’s short but impressive streak would continue with “A League of Their Own” and the vastly underappreciated “Awakenings”, starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The 10 Best Movie Scenes of 2014

Jordan Ruimy’s 10 Best Scenes of 2014 

Now that almost every single film critic in the country has published their top ten list, we can sit back, relax and think about the upcoming year, a year which will bring forth more sequels than ever before and an industry that – supposedly – keeps shrinking in ideas and creative freedom. No worries. There are still great movies out there and there always will be. The rebels that keep fighting for their vision to be shown onscreen are plentiful. I decided this year that instead of naming 10 movies, which I’m sure many of you have heard of before, I’ll switch it up and make a list of the ten best moments/scenes of 2014. Moments when artists decided to break the rules, change the game and leave us gasping for air (or a bottle of oxygen). Here they are.
1. Whiplash “The Final Performance”
The editing, composition, and performance of the drum solo finale in “Whiplash” is as perfect as finales go. An artistic breakthrough happens along the way. Miles Teller’s Andrew breaks on through to the other side by giving an impressive, sweaty, blood soaked drum solo that had audiences applauding to no end once the screen went black when I first caught it at the Toronto Film Festival. The ending is meant to be a provocation of the highest order. Up until that point, writer-director Damien Chazelle had pummeled us into a corner with J.K Simmons’ mentally abusive music teacher. The finale is equal parts disturbing, rousing, confusing and emotionally liberating. It’s the moment when Chazelle’s movie becomes the masterpiece that it is.
2. Birdman “Times Square Lockout”
I could have chosen the final scene or Edward Norton getting a hard on in front of a live audience or really any scene from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s visionary film, but this is the scene everybody keeps talking about. The ballsiest moment for many reasons. Riggan, wearing only his tighty whities, accidentally gets locked out of Broadway’s St. James theater after accidentally catching his daughter making out with one of the stars of his play. Riggan goes for it, marching down Times Square naked. The camera starts with an over-the-shoulder shot, then moves laterally with Keaton, then moves in front of him, to show his reaction. People start to recognize him and dozens of cameras start flashing to take mementos of this crazy moment. The audience gasps in agony and sit at the edge of our seat cringing. Suffice it to say, Riggan makes it back to stage via the front entrance – gasps heard all around the audience – finishing his lines, completing a tour de force moment in a film filled with them.
3. Gone Girl “Coital Bloodbath”
It was this or the “cool girl” monologue, but how can you resist this shockingly bloody post coital night capper? Of course it’s the scene where Amy cuts Desi’s throat, mid-coitus, as he’s climaxing, with a box cutter she sneakily hid from him and the audience. That scene. That scene alone took two days to shoot, as Fincher meticulously constructed and de-constructed the mise-en-scene. The frame is soaked in blood and Rosamund Pike’s Amy revels in the gore all around her by beautifully acknowledging what she has just done. She’s in control, she knows what she’s doing, and she and Fincher make sure we don’t ever forget what just happened.
4. Force Majeure “The Controlled Avalanche”
The money shot in Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure happens in the first few minutes of the film. It’s a four and a half minute shot that will leave you gasping for air and in disarray about what just happened. A Swedish family dines in an outdoor patio, we overhear people nervously gasping about an innocent looking avalanche coming their way. “It’s a controlled avalanche don’t worry”, says the father. Lo and behold it looks to be more than that as the avalanche comes towards the patio enveloping the screen with whiteness and having the father run for his life without thinking about his family’s fate. Fight or flight response? Or just plain cowardice? Of course our patriarch was right, the avalanche was indeed controlled, but his actions are now questioned and his role as family patriarch is jeopardized.
5. Under the Skin “The Disfigured Man”
Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” is the most visionary movie of 2014. Scene after scene you are enveloped in its darkly deceptive web of sex and mystery. Just around the film’s halfway mark, the alien picks up a man with a facial deformity. You may assume you’re seeing an actor with a prosthetic, but in fact he’s played by amateur actor Adam Pearson, who has a condition called neurofibromatosis. Johansson’s Alien does not realize he is different, she keeps mentioning how he has beautiful hands and persists for him to touch her face. The film at the moment challenges our preconceptions about human nature, the way we see things, challenging to look at this man through the eyes of an alien who doesn’t know he is different. Yet, there’s a breaking point: our Alien is touched by this man and starts to feel things she hasn’t felt before, setting up the perplexing emotions that are about to come in this staggeringly masterful film.
6. Inherent Vice “Femme Fatale”
Here is a weirdly sexy long take that is one of many riotously dreamy moments in Paul Thomas Anderson’s messy, but at times mesmerizing, Inherent Vice. Up until then, Anderson has confused us and dared us to leap with him in a world filled with hallucinogenic madness. Shasta, who was supposedly missing, decides to stop by our beloved Doc’s apartment with the cool breezy chilled out attitude of a summer bunny femme fatale. She seduces Doc in every which way possible as she recounts tales of her past. They do finally get it on, but not before we are brought into her deceitful web of foreplay. When the coitus is done, she sensually whispers, “This doesn’t mean we’re back together.” I could have chosen Martin Short’s bravura sequence as a coked up paranoid attorney or James Brolin’s final statement, but this is the moment when Inherent Vice gives you the best high.
7. Boyhood “I Just Thought There Would Be More”
“I just thought there would be more.” That is a quote from a scene that will mostly likely be responsible for Patricia Arquette’s Best Supporting Actress statuette this February. These words are uttered near the end of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, as her teenage son is about to leave for college. It’s the kind of moment that wrenchingly breaks your heart yet never over-sentimentalizes its reach. Throughout the three hour movie, Arquette’s single mother has had to raise her two children practically on her own all in the while going through two difficult marriages and trying to get a degree. The end result is that she is now a successful working woman and is about to send her youngest off to college. It’s that moment in life when a parent has to let go. She feels underwhelmed by the moment but, having just seen 12 years zoom by in 3 hours, we feel like end result is the beauty of life.
8. Nightcrawler “The Home Invasion”
“Nightcrawler” has many incredible set pieces, but none more impressive than a mid-story LA hills home invasion that Lou Bloom and his assistant stumble upon. When Jake Gyllenhaal’s Bloom gets a camera in his hand, every law is thrown out of the window and nothing will stop him from capturing the most vicious crimes. The scene is morally questionable, but filled with undeniable tension, and aided by the brilliant work of Robert Elswit’s cinematography. This invasion of a crime scene before the police even shows up is the start of a nasty series of events that sets forth uncontrollable tensions that will undoubtedly lead to tragedy. I almost chose that incredible Chinese restaurant/car chase scene that ends the movie with a thrilling bang, but that scene wouldn’t have even happened without this creepy, deviously immoral moment.
9. Two Days, One Night “Timur”
Marion Cotillard is mesmerizing in her role as Sandra, a young Belgian mother who discovers her co-workers were pressured to choose a significant pay bonus rather than having her keep the job she so badly needs. In this mesmerizing film by the Dardennes brothers, Cotillard’s Sandra approaches each and every co-worker, asking them to change their vote. After failing to convince the last few co-workers – and on the verge of another mental breakdown – Sandra approaches Timur (Timur Magomedgadzhiev) in a soccer field. The smile on his face when he sees Sandra says everything about what is about to happen. He admits regret for voting against her for the bonus and that he’s been thinking about it ever since. He looks back at a time when he was new to the company and Sandra helped him overcome tough circumstances. Timur breaks down and bursts into tears, bringing a glimmer of hope to a story that seemed solely based in darkness. At that very moment we believe in the goodness of people.
10. Snowpiercer “Axe-Wielding Mayhem”
I could have chosen any of the car hopping, adrenaline pumping, blood running sequences from Bong Joon- ho’s “Snowpiercer” but the one that stuck with me the most was this nightmare Axe-wielding bloodbath that occurs mid-way through the film. You expect unpredictability and downright original storytelling whenever you watch a new Bong Joon-ho film, what you don’t expect is a jaw-dropping workshop on how to shoot the perfect action sequence- a sequence so tightly constructed and so visionary that it pretty much puts all of Hollywood’s action movies to shame. Axes, fish, complete darkness, complete light, a blood soaked floor and that’s only the half of it. The film’s first 90 minutes is the most brilliantly looney science fiction I’ve seen since Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Dardennes Interview

"Two Days, One Night" might be the best Dardennes movie yet. Marion Cotillard is mesmerizing in her role as Sandra, a young Belgian mother who discovers her co-workers were pressured to choose between getting a significant pay bonus and having her keep her job. The way Cotillard approaches each and every co-worker, pleading — sometimes even begging — for them to change their vote is heartbreaking. It’s a movie that once again places the talented directing duo on the short list of the very best filmmakers in the world today. I met up with them a few months back to discuss the process, Cotillard and the small details that make a Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne film so damn great.

What were the roots of this film ?
Luc Dardenne : We've been working on the screenplay for a very long time. The character of Sandra was the main focus. We always saw that character as someone who was scared but who fought through adversity no matter how intense or frustrating the times got it. There were a few questions we wanted to answer 1) Against social insecurity, how can she rebuild? 2) At the end of this voyage Sandra had to turn into a new person, a sort of rebirth. We didn't know exactly how how we would get to that point, but we knew that it would end -one way or another- with Sandra saying "I'm not scared anymore".

One of the interesting things about this film is that its episodic nature is revealed quite early in the film and that you know exactly what kind of film this is going to be
L. D. : We had to to take this formula seriously. We always knew there would be suspense with each of the meetings she had with her co-workers. Who will open the door? Will they say yes or no? Given her psychological instability, how will Sandra take it? We know from the first few minutes that she isn't a fighter. At the end of all this will she be able to rally the troops and get them to vote for her. We always knew repetition or an episodic kind of film would make for good drama if done right. We purposely had her co-workers give similar replies, such as "put yourself in my position" or "what are the others saying". It was a also a case of: If we told you that 10 out of the 15 people agreed to change their votes, would you be less scared?
Sandra doesn't really stigmatize her co-workers
L.D : It is not a story about good vs. evil.  Every meeting is very complex. Sandra understands them and sometimes you feel as if she doesn't blame them for taking the bonus. Would she have done the same thing in their position? She might have, that's part of the complexities of the film. We purposely chose a small-scale company where there weren't enough workers for there to be a union. The film would have been very different if it was unionized.
Most of your films have had less famous actors and that brought a feeling of realism to the surroundings. Cotillard is not an unknown actress, this was a stroke of genius in casting. What led you to choosing Marion?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne : 
Choosing a big name actress was a gamble and potentially dangerous for the realism we were going for, This became a somewhat exciting challenge for us, Marion found a way to deliver something she hadn't really delivered before, a new body, a new face, a new side to the Marion we all dearly knew.

We always wanted to work with Marion. We co-produced Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone and we wanted to meet when the film was going to shoot in Belgium. We met briefly for  around 10 minutes. We actually wanted to cast Marion as a doctor for another screenplay we were working on. When we abandoned the doctor project, the character of Sandra came back to the fold and Marion was the obvious choice. It had to be Marion. We had to make sure she was fine with the role, since we abandoned the doctor project, her response was "I really don't care, I just want to work with you guys" We rehearsed for a month and a half, as we do with all our projects. All that rehearsal and repetition really prepared Marion to be as raw and bar bones for a role that is very complicated and layered with undertones.

L.D It became quite obvious we made the right decision the moment we started shooting. There was something in those eyes and the expressions on her face that instantly made it an ideal match.
One thing that struck me is the color of the clothes Sandra wears. That -now iconic- pink top and other lively colors. Anything behind that?
L. D. : Good catch. We tried to dress up Sandra in colors that a person coming out of a past depression would wear. Colorful, never wanting to go back to the dark side. Even if at times she does fall off the bandwagon, the colors stay the same with the hope of going back to the light. We also were very careful with the shoes we chose for Marion to wear, the noise they made. We had the choice for lighter shoes but they didn't make any noise when she walked. We wanted every step heard on this journey she was in.
Do you guys do many takes?
L. D. : Depends. For the scene where Sandra breaks down in the room we did around 81 takes. If we have a scene where we find the flow is not right we will say something like : « Now Marion, can you please take a shorter silence in between so and so words and say so and so a little faster » but really it all comes down to how it flows in the editing room, thats why getting many takes is sometimes a great thing. Our editing has a lot to do with the certain flow we are going for even before we shoot the movie.

To end this interview I'm going to ask you guys a question that I tend to ask most filmmakers at the conclusion of an interview. Is there a movie that you've discovered recently that has renewed or solidified your passion for movies?

J.P.D Too many to name. The last Jia Zhang-Ke was phenomenal. Abbas Kiarostami never disappoints. Wong Kar-Wai. "Boyhood" the last linklater was phenomenal.

L.D. There's a great scene in that movie where the mother played by Patricia Arquette sits at the kitchen table and sends her son off to college and there's just such a simplicity and attention to detail that really just got to me. Everything in that scene just works right. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Moore, Witherspoon and the inevitable

Julianne Moore. There, I said it. That’s a name you’re likely going to be hearing a lot in the coming weeks, hell, probably months. She is the surest thing to come out of this year’s awards race. Ever since I saw her incredibly moving performance in “Still Alice”, back in September, it seemed like a no-brainer. Based on Lisa Genova’s 2007 best-selling novel, the film is a striking look at the nastiness and brutality that falls upon an American family when one of their loved ones is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Moore is ever so brilliant in the movie, encompassing the way a person can lose track of herself and her own identity even when she tries ever so hard to retain it. Just through Moore’s eyes you can witness the slow detachment Alice is going through from society, friends, family, and herself. It’s a devastating film because, just like Alice, her ever deteriorating brain keeps getting erased of its precious memories without you even noticing the effects – it isn’t until the last few scenes that the devastation this disease has caused hits you.

“Still Alice” has some of the hardest scenes to watch of any movie this year, but it’s all so worth it for the humbling journey that is involved with it. Indie filmmakers Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer don’t try to pull at the heartstrings, they just tell their story in the simplest way possible, and why wouldn’t they? They have Julianne Moore at their disposal, one of the great actresses of our time (“Short Cuts”, “The Kids Are All Right”, “Boogie Nights”, “Far From Heaven”, “Safe”, “Magnolia”, “Children of Men”, “The Hours” and even next year’s “Maps to the Stars” directed by David Cronenberg, in which she plays a down-and-out actress, desperate for her next big shot). Every time she’s on screen, Cronenberg’s film ignites with excitement and his pitch black Hollywood satire gets even darker.

If Moore is the surest thing to come out of this year’s race, it doesn’t mean that the other nominees should pack it up and call it a night. For example, if Reese Witherspoon hadn’t won back in 2006 for “Walk the Line” we’d be talking about a close race to the finish. Witherspoon’s work in Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Wild” is astounding, equaling her Best Actress work as June Carter Cash. Coming out next week, the same week “Still Alice” is released, Vallée’s film is a stirring portrait of love, despair and hope. You can call it “Eat, Pray, Hike”, but that’s where comparisons should end with that Julia Roberts vehicle. Vallée, who directed last year’s “Dallas Buyers Club”, is an artist through and through. Ever since his beginnings in Quebec cinema I’ve kept a watchful eye on him. Just check out “Café de Flore” or “C.R.A.Z.Y” to see how great of a filmmaker he can truly be.

“Wild” has a more conventional storyline than those aforementioned films but he and Witherspoon make up for it with sheer artistry. It also helps that gifted writer/novelist Nick Hornby and Cheryl Strayed – on whose book this is based – wrote the screenplay. After a brutal divorce and losing her mom to cancer, Strayed went on an 1100 mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself to try to bring meaning to a life that was crumbling. It sounds like the kind of stuff the Hallmark channel would dig, but don’t kid yourself, Vallée knows better than to stoop down to that level. Apart from Witherspoon’s emotionally resonant performance, the other major thing you notice in the film is how incredibly well edited it is.

Going back and forth between present day, flashbacks, flash forwards and dream-like imagery can be a tricky business, but Vallée and his longtime editing partner Martin Pensa (“Dallas Buyers Club”) nail every detail. And Witherspoon, what more can be said about an actress who had me at hello ever since the day I first saw her in Alexander Payne’s “Election” (still the best performance she’s ever given). It wasn’t just that movie – her enormous talent has shone through over the years in films such as “Pleasantville”, “American Psycho”, “Cruel Intentions”, “I Walk the Line” and last year’s underrated “Mud”.

 How refreshing it is to have not one but two top notch female performances coming out in the same week. These two actresses are on par with the incredible work Felicity Jones has done in the recently released “Theory of Everything”, Rosamund Pike’s harrowingly hypnotic femme fatale in David Fincher’s “Gone Girl”, Anne Dorval in “Mommy”, Scarlett Johansson in “Under the Skin” and my dark horse favorite Marion Cotillard and the mesmerizing performance she gives in “Two Days, One Night”. The latter three might not get the nominations they deserve, but I advise you to seek these performances out because they will absolutely blow you away.