Monday, July 22, 2013

Q&A for Film Racket with Gabriela Cowperthwaite and John Hargrove of "Blackfish"

Yeah, it looks pretty, but once the show ends? Not so much.
A terrific movie and, I must say, a really good experience: Cowperthwaite and Hargrove were eager and eloquent. And they have a very reason to be: Blackfish has a lot to say and does it in a measured but compassionate way. It was hard to cut the transcript down to size. 

One thing I did learn from this interview--which took place in a Philadelphia hotel on a broiling June day--is that I can walk four blocks wearing jeans and a collared shirt on a 95 degree day and not sweat like James Brown on his second encore. That information will come in very handy some day, I think. And it's one reason why I wear shorts whenever possible. I would have gotten married in them if I were given the opportunity. 

And there's the backstory, kids. You can read the Q&A right here.  

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Big Review: "Unfinished Song"

Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave in a scene from Unfinished Song
OK, Bob and Harvey. You got me. This review previously appeared in the July issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission. 

The preview I saw for Unfinished Song was a raging thunderstorm of crowd-pleasing cute—from the sight of senior citizens robot dancing to Terence Stamp taking the old curmudgeon trope out for a spin. It’s a given that the movie is being distributed by The Weinstein Company, whose titles frequently mistakes maudlin for genuine. And, of course, the glorious Canadian warbling ham herself, Celine Dion, sings the end-credits song. I can’t make this stuff up. That makes the final product surprising, even remarkable. Writer-director Paul Andrew Williams’ love for his characters and his unwillingness to condescend allow this film to dance between the raindrops.

In a working-class English town, retiree Arthur (Stamp) and his wife, Marion (Vanessa Redgrave), are settling in for the final stretch. Her cancer has returned and is determined to finish the job. Arthur and Marion handle the news in their own way. Bright and bubbly, she wants to return to her choir, a collection of old coots singing classic rock and rap songs. Arthur insists Marion rest instead of participating with what he calls, if memory serves, “a flaming nuisance.”

Arthur eventually relents. Williams has the character reach that point in an understated, and lovely way: He and Marion talk like grown-ups, simply and directly. The scenes between Redgrave and Stamp, wonderful, lived-in actors, level us. They infuse words and gestures with effortless earnestness, so a line like “I haven’t made you happy for a long time” hits you right in the gut. “You’re my rock,” she replies. That bedtime discussion encapsulates their entire marriage.

Unfinished Song shows rather than tells, which makes Stamp’s performance so astounding. He turns that great, rugged face of his into a permanent scowl. Combine that with his favorite item of clothing—a drab overcoat borrowed from the Willy Loman Collection— and Arthur looks forever engaged in a series of unpleasant tasks. Even when Arthur talks to his granddaughter on the school playground, the scene feels like a hitman meeting his handler.

When Marion dies, Arthur reluctantly steps in for her at the choir, getting help from the young director (Gemma Arterton, whom Williams has no idea how to use.). Most times, this development would turn Unfinished Song into a pile of sugary goo. Since Williams and Stamp have made Arthur into a man who has treated any hint of sentimentality as a threat to his standing as the steely patriarch—a role that Marion appreciates and his only son (Christopher Eccleston) resents—the move to the choir isn’t just a tribute to Marion: it relieves the unbearable heaviness of never letting his guard down. When Marion, sick and wobbly, sings a touching rendition of “True Colors” at an event, Arthur doesn’t stick around to congratulate her.

The details surrounding the choir—it’s competing in some kind of sing-off where Arthur has to face a giant crowd and skeptical judges—are secondary. The “someone spiked the prune juice” antics in the preview don’t define Unfinished Song, which is a pleasant surprise. Feel-good movies are usually so concerned with making you smile that the approach doesn’t matter. Cast an attractive couple, throw in a Van Morrison song or two, have a 70-year-old make a sex joke, and call it a day. The sad part is, we’ve been suckered into feeling warm and fuzzy so many times that we’re numb to the process. (Why do you think Kate Hudson was allowed to irritate the masses for so long?) Unfinished Song shocks us because it favors people over an emotional assault. But it’s so genuine and perceptive that we know it’s something special. [PG-13]

The Film Round-Up for July 2013: The Hunt, Blackfish, Before Midnight, The Bling Ring

I had every intention of posting this on July 1st or July 2nd, but I spent the July 4th week on a family vacation. And, well, everything came undone. 

I'm in favor of vacations, generally speaking. They clear the mind and fill the belly and give you memories that last at least for a month or two. Preparing for them is a whole other matter. The week before I leave always features a crisis or urgent deadline or some other disaster fresh from hell's oven. This time around the AC unit in my rental property went kaput on Friday, meaning a day away from the office--my laptop forgotten at home--waiting for a technician to never arrive, followed by a flurry of phone calls the next day. 

Getting back is no picnic either. I feel like I've just gotten my head above water, which is why I can present this batch of reviews for your loving eyes before I move on to the next set of deadlines. 

These reviews previously appeared in ICON and are reprinted with permission. 

The Hunt (Dir: Thomas Vinterberg). Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp, Lasse Fogelstrøm, Susse Wold, Anne Louise Hassing, Lars Ranthe, Alexandra Rapaport. It’s only a matter of time before the brooding good looks and somber sexuality of Mikkelsen (currently starring on TV’s Hannibal) become the permanent property of big studios with small ideas, so cherish his riveting performance in this unsettling, gripping character study from Denmark. He plays Lucas, a divorced, middle-aged kindergarten teacher on the verge of professional and personal peace when a snubbed student (Wedderkopp) falsely accuses him of sexual assault. No one is willing to hear Lucas’ side of the story as concerned adults protect the child without hearing her pleas to correct herself. The tight-knit community shuns Lucas, including his best friend (Larsen), who is also the child’s father. Vinterberg bitingly satiric drama examines how the values that govern suburban harmony can turn exclusionary and toxic. It is a psychological face slap. We leave not knowing if we ever get the chance to define ourselves or if we are doomed to play the roles others assign to us. [R] ****

Blackfish (Dir: Gabriela Cowperthwaite). In 2010, veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed while performing with Tilikum, a usually happy 12,000-pound orca that was a longtime staple of the amusement park’s shows. Sadly, this was not the first time Tilikum had lashed out. Housed in conditions befitting an oversized goldfish and subjected to abuse from other orcas, “Tillie” had killed another trainer during his stint at a Canadian park in the early 1990s, a fact that SeaWorld’s powers-that-be conveniently overlooked at purchase time. Cowperthwaite uncovers that and loads more in this stirring documentary that boasts the organization and narrative allure of a great magazine feature. The director stays out of the way and lets her subjects (countless former SeaWorld employees) and expertly abbreviated video footage (we see Brancheau in her final moments alive) do the talking. Blackfish is a devastating examination of what happens when man thinks it can corral nature to fit the parameters of a business. [NR] ****

The Bling Ring (Dir: Sofia Coppola). Starring: Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Claire Julien, Taissa Farmiga, Leslie Mann. Modern-day youth gone wild tale chronicles the real-life exploits of a group of wealthy suburban LA teens that robbed the houses of celebrities (including Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan) before the authorities got wise. The attitudes on both sides boggle the mind. Some people have no problem leaving a mansion full of jewelry, cash, and clothes unlocked; who a person is wearing maters more than the person sporting the clothes. Coppola doesn’t delve enough into those mind-sets or skewer this new era of conspicuous consumption. We need five more scenes like Mann’s vacuous mom home-schooling her kids based on the wish-upon-a-star idiocy of The Secret and two more characters like the beautiful, self-flagellating mope played by Broussard. Coppola focuses mostly on the brazenness of the kids’ partying thug life, which grows old pretty quick. Watson is terrific as one of the burglars, an aspiring actress whose bimbo monotone speaks volumes about her character—or lack of it. Based on Nancy Jo Sales’ article for Vanity Fair, which became a book. [R] **1/2

Before Midnight (Dir: Richard Linklater). Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy. How many times have the sequels in a series been released because there was a story to tell? That’s the beauty of the nearly 20-year odyssey of Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy), who went from meeting on a train in Before Sunrise (1995) to reuniting in Before Sunset (2004) to becoming an established, honest-to-goodness couple. They’re wrapping up their summer in a Greek paradise, but chemistry is amiss. Jesse has put his son from a previous marriage on a U.S.-bound plane and feels like he’s falling short as a dad. It’s not helping that the kid is sharing secrets with Celine, who is worried that Jesse wants to move stateside. This prelude of concerns brings up years’ worth of issues, which reaches a crescendo during a romantic night away from the kids. Linklater, who wrote the dialogue-driven script with Delpy and Hawke, offers a touching snapshot of a couple trying to merge the past and the future into a pleasant now, eloquently capturing the romance and realism of married life without making a precious fuss. Before Midnight is an enchanting ode to words, acting, and understatement—exactly like the previous two movies. [R] ****

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

It's Hard to Believe, But Celebrities are People

Not pictured: A swarm of overprotective publicists.
Last week Vinay Menon, a staff writer for The Toronto Star, wrote a scathing "profile" of Selena Gomez, who was on a publicity tour for her new album, Stars Dance. Basically, the PR phalanx Menon had to run through was at the heart his lengthy whine about today's music and the vapidness of celebrity and the soulless gears of the PR machine. 

The worst part is that it didn't have to be that way. Criticwire's Sam Adams, NPR's Linda Holmes, and others had a really interesting Twitter discourse about it, which writer Cailley Hammel captured. 

  • The answer to this is "Don't do the interview." And "How would you describe yourself?" is a *terrible*…
  • Seriously, there are pieces that can get away with "let me tell you how I hated interviewing this person" and not seem jerky. Most can't.
  • @nprmonkeysee If you ask a tough question and they walk, you have a story. If you accede, the story is "I am a terrible journalist."
  • @SamuelAAdams Well, and my question to that particular writer would be, "What piece did you *go* there to write?"
  • @nprmonkeysee The interesting piece that would might out of that would ignore the interview entirely.
  • @SamuelAAdams Well, sometimes you have to acknowledge that the profound cynicism is coming from inside the house.
  • @nprmonkeysee Those restrictions -- no written notes? -- are absurd. But guess who agreed to them?
  • @nprmonkeysee This is an interesting story about not getting the interview:…
  • @nprmonkeysee The ones that really grate are the clearly vengeful ones, as if a snarky piece will balance the scales.
  • @nprmonkeysee One the one hand, this whole scenario sets any writer up for failure. On the other, what an asshole.
  • @spacecitymarc Exactly! That's why I say the answer is don't do it.
  • @nprmonkeysee I think the choice of subject makes it seem like a cheap shot as well. Disney celebrities are easy to complain about.
  • @wordsmith85 Well, exactly. You want to be cheered, write that about somebody where loss of access to them actually costs you something.
  • .@nprmonkeysee The lack of self-awareness in this piece is stunning. "They prevented me from doing journalism by not letting me talk gossip"
  • @nprmonkeysee @TaraDBennett It's like asking someone, " What kind of music do you like?" Who doesn't answer, "all kinds"?
  • @jphilogden Right. It's ungracious to ask a lazy question and not expect a lazy answer.
  • @jphilogden @nprmonkeysee And if you say yes to such inane stipulations for an interview, then you better bring your A+ game with your Q's.
  • And Hammel's take on the article is outstanding, so I feel like I'm about to use a housepainter's brush to add my little touch to the canvas. In reading Menon's article, the one thing that came across was his inability to treat Gomez like a human being. Yes, she's another manufactured pop idol rolling off the assembly line, but she's still a 20-year-old kid, living a life that isolates her from the experiences of her peers. OK, so you cannot ask about Justin Beiber. Her music stinks. But there are questions you can ask that are connected to "the music." Ask her about what it's like to have an army of publicists cater to her every whim for this interview? Does she have any friends her own age who aren't on arena tours? Does she get tired of this Disney-bred publicity grind? (It would seem to me she is, given her participation in Spring Breakers.) Would she like to go to college and be normal after the music stops? 

    Here's my guess, and it's purely a guess. In arranging the interview Menon probably got enraged dealing with the publicists and their insane demands. That is completely understandable, but not if you let it tarnish your job. And if the demands are too much, well, as Holmes wrote, pass on the interview. Tell your editor to run the AP story. Life goes on. 

    But if you accept the story, and aggravation rules, you have to rise above it. Why? Because shit like this happens all the time. Every journalist has a story to tell, even me. 

    A few years ago, I interviewed legendary record producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who have been profiled roughly eight billion times, for ICON. I had an hour with them, and within five minutes you could tell they were bored stiff. (Huff started our talk by doodling on a notepad; Gamble jotted down song ideas for an upcoming concert.) I thought I had good questions, but their answers were uninspired and rambling. Long story short, I didn't think I had enough for my original plan, a straight-ahead Q&A. So, I started making phone calls and came up with a retrospective on these two men, their music, and how it defined Philadelphia. My editor was happy, I was satisfied, and I still enjoy the Sound of Philadelphia to this day.

    Let's go back to Gomez. As Hammel writes, it can be intimidating to interview celebrities. And this is whether it's one-on-one or in a group setting. (When I participated in a roundtable interview last year with Maggie Gyllenhaal, whom I adore, I felt like a eighth-grader sitting across from his crush. I'm still shocked I didn't ask her out to winter formal.) But everyone you interview is a person. Singing, acting, writing: they're all occupations. A good interviewer has to find the person inside the occupation. Menon did not do that. And what's worse, he didn't even try.