How to Watch: “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”

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Step 1: Bring it to life. A big-screen adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s best-selling novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies took some time to reach theaters, but it was worth the wait. PPZ is rip-roaring, zombie guts-spewin’, conventional Jane Austen  fun.

Step 2: Twist something classic. Grahame-Smith’s whole point in writing this absurd novel is to take Austen’s classic tale of pride and prejudices in the Victorian aristocracy — keeping all the wonderful characterizations, including the independent Elizabeth Bennett navigating her way through the BS of the time – and throw in a twist about a plague of zombies ravaging England. And why not? Most stories are made better with zombies, I’d say. Love those undead brain munchers.

Step 3: Realize killing zombies works for the Bennetts. Instead of just sparring with words, Liz Bennett (Lily James) and her maddeningly pragmatic but ultimately dashing Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) clash swords as well. In that pivotal moment when Darcy first proclaims his love for Liz, despite his better judgment and her breeding and whatever else he finds wrong with her, she not only looks at him like he’s completely nuts, she also beats the crap out of him. Brilliant. It’s all the repressed frustrations of the era played out in a kick-ass milieu because these Bennett sisters, including Jane (Bella Heathcote), Kitty (Suki Waterhouse), Lydia (Ellie Bamber) and Mary (Millie Brady), have all been expertly trained in the Chinese arts to kill zombies. Their progressive father (Charles Dance) has made sure his girls can take care of themselves, and whenever they all go out, they take plenty of weapons hidden in their garters and undergarments. The Bennett girls’ buffoonish mother (Sally Phillips) naturally still wants to marry them all off. PPZ follows Austen’s novel to the letter in that regard, introducing the lovesick Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) as Jane’s paramour; the doofus Parson Collins (Matt Smith) as a potential husband for Liz; caddish soldier George Wickham (Jack Huston), who causes more than a little trouble for the Bennetts; and finally Mr. Darcy, one of the most romantic characters in all of literature. Any love attachments, or lack thereof, are tampered with the fact the undead are most assuredly encroaching, and their little section of English countryside has to be fortified and protected, at least long enough for them all to be married!

Step 4: Cast young, beautiful and mostly British people (Bella Heathcote is Australian). They all handle the Austen speak with aplomb, as is their birthright to do so. These young actors – James, Riley, Smith, Booth, Huston – are quickly becoming the new “It” Brits in film, especially the lovely James, who made a splash in Downton Abbey but hit it big when she starred in Disney’s Cinderella. Her spunky Elizabeth Bennett might not be the best one to date (still partial to the Keira Knightley version), but James fits well into this absurd new Pride and Prejudice, as does Heathcote as Liz’s older, more refined blonde-haired sister, Jane. And they both handle the weaponry like pros. As for the boys, Riley does a fine job as Mr. Darcy but slightly misses the opportunity to be more romantic towards the end because, well, there are zombies to fight. Smith, who is best known as Dr. Who from 2010-2014, is the one who nearly steals the show as the geeky Collins, with his little asides and gestures. He’s flat-out hilarious. Oh, and we have to mention Lena Headey as Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, an eye-patch wearing, once glorious zombie-killing warrior. A real badass take on that character.

Step 5: Reiterate that this Pride and Prejudice remains completely faithful to Austen’s classic. Director Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) films PPZ as if it’s the BBC production, with lush English countryside vistas, gorgeous period costumes and hair, and with many of the book’s iconic moments intact. But by simply adding the zombie component, the whole feel just lends a fantastical element to the proceedings, and enhances many of the classic novel’s themes. Some of the supernatural plot points go a little over the top (primarily with the “levels” of zombie-hood that could be reached), but PPZ is completely entertaining all the way through. Those young folks into zombies will also get a literary lesson and while they might not rush out to read Austen’s novel, they might check out another, more traditional cinematic version of Pride and Prejudice.

How to Interview: ‘Hail, Caesar’ Cast on the Coen Brothers

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Hail, Caesar! is Joel and Ethan Coen’s homage to the old Hollywood studio system. It takes place in 1950s Hollywood and centers on a studio executive and “fixer” by the name of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who, on any given day, has to put numerous fires and keep the studio’s big stars out of the gossip columns.

But on one particularly bad day, the studio’s big star, the buffoonish Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) goes missing, which is a big deal since he is starring in the studio’s grandest film to date – a sword and sandal epic about a Roman tribune who encounters the power of Jesus Christ. So it’s up to the multitasking Eddie to figure out how to get him back (and it has something do with Trumbo-like writers, all hardcore Communists).

The film also stars Channing Tatum, as Burt Gurney, a Gene Kelley/Donald O’Connor type star who has one helluva a musical number; Scarlett Johansson as DeeAnna Moran, an Esther Williams-type star whose really not all that “sweet”; newcomer Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures) as Hobie Doyle, a young Western star ill-fitted to do much else; Tilda Swinton as twin sister gossip columnists (yes, like THOSE gossip columnists of the 1950s); Ralph Fiennes as director Laurence Laurentz who wants to do serious films; and Jonah Hill, as Joseph Silverman, an accountant who’ll do anything for the job, including going to jail or adopting a big star’s baby.

At a recent press conference, some of the boys – specifically Clooney, Brolin, Ehrenreich, Hill and Tatum – chatted with us about working with the very laid back and cool Coen brothers. Continue reading ‘How to Interview: ‘Hail, Caesar’ Cast on the Coen Brothers’

How to React to the 2016 Oscar Nominations

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The 2016 Oscar nominations were announced on Thursday and those who know me well know this is always a very exciting time for me. While most of the noms I expected, there were some very odd omissions. See the complete list of nominations here.

Step 1: Expect the expected. The intense The Revenant picked up the most nominations, 12 in total, including Best Picture, Director (Alejandro G. Inarritu), Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Supporting Actor (Tom Hardy). Mad Max: Fury Road came in second with nine nominations, including Best Picture and Director (George Miller), and both films garnered a bunch of technical noms. Others films I knew would show up on the Best Pic list included The Big ShortRoomThe Martian, Spotlight. All high quality films.

Step 2: Tilt your head in puzzlement. One of the biggest snubs was Todd Haynes’ lush love story Carol not getting a Best Picture nod. It’s been on every Oscar prognosticator’s list, and has been picking up many critic awards, so it seemed like a lock. But alas, it was not to be, despite the fact both actresses Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara picked up nominations, as did the screenplay and a few other nods. Instead, a Best Picture nod went to the sweet Brooklyn, about an Irish girl immigrating to New York in the 1950s. And no Best Pic nod for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but the film is definitely represented in some key visual and sound areas.

Step 3: Now tilt it the other way. Other surprises included Room director Lenny Abrahamson getting a Best Director nod over The Martian‘s Ridley Scott, who didn’t make the cut. Now I fully support Abrahamson’s inclusion on this list for the tremendous job he did with Room. But I really thought Ridley would get a nod and even thought he might finally win his career Oscar because The Martian was really a combo effort between Drew Goddard’s screenplay (which got nominated), Matt Damon’s performance (which was also recognized in the Best Actor category) and Ridley’s expert direction. So this one really had me scratching my head. Also Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant Steve Jobs didn’t receive an Original Screenplay nomination. Huh? Maybe there’s a backlash against the prolific writer that I don’t know about because leaving that unbelievably whip-smart script off the table doesn’t make any sense.

Anyhow, I discussed in further detail with my fellow ScreenPicks colleagues in the podcast below:

The 88th Academy Awards will be presented Sunday, February 28, with host Chris Rock.

How to Interview: Cast of “Hateful Eight” and Quentin Tarantino

Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino’s latest Western opus The Hateful Eight offers stellar moments for the entire acting ensemble.

Set in the years following the Civil War, the story follows a Wyoming bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), who is bringing wanted criminal Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the gallows in a local town. They get sidelined by a blizzard and are forced to hole up in Minnie’s haberdashery with six other strangers to wait out the storm. The inhabitants include a black bounty hunter (Samuel L. Jackson), a British lawman (Tim Roth), the local sheriff (Walton Goggins), a Civil War general (Bruce Dern), a Mexican running the haberdashery in Minnie’s absence (Damien Bichir), and a rogue cowboy (Michael Madsen). Soon, they all find themselves in a plot of betrayal and deception, and it’s not certain who will survive.

In one of the most animated press conferences ever, Tarantino and his actors, including newbie Channing Tatum, spoke with reporters about the film and hearing great stories about working with Quentin. Continue reading ‘How to Interview: Cast of “Hateful Eight” and Quentin Tarantino’

How to Watch: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

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Step 1: Rejoice! Star Wars: The Force Awakens is just what the fans have been hoping and dreaming about for a long, long time. It honestly feels like the last 32 years has just been a blink of an eye, as you immediately ease back into that familiar galaxy far, far away and hang with our beloved favorites – and some kickass new faces, too.

Step 2: Keep it a secret. Now having seen the movie, I can truly appreciate the secrecy surrounding The Force Awakens and its plot because you really don’t want too much given away. This wonderful film needs to be experienced as fresh and exciting as it can be in this age of “let’s tell the whole thing online right away!” So, in that vein, the story will be kept brief:

It’s been several years since Return of the Jedi and the defeat of the Empire by the valiant Rebels, but in those ashes has grown a new threat to peace in the galaxy, the First Order. Yep, same deal, just as evil yada, yada. The villains now have names like General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), Captain Phasma (Gwedoline Christie) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a First Order baddie who has an obsession with the late Darth Vader (you remember him, right?) The only person who could disturb their Force is the infamous Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), so the First Order wants him destroyed. Problem is, he’s gone AWOL, and they can’t find him. No one can, not even the good guys, the Republic; Luke is off the grid. Thus begins The Force Awakens real journey, which introduces our heroes, Finn (John Boyega), a First Order Stormtrooper who decides to defect, and a feisty desert scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley). These two inadvertently get caught up in the race to find Luke and end up teaming up with Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), ace Rebel pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and of course, the Resistance fearless leader, General Leia (Carrie Fisher).

Step 3: Have faith. Yeah, pretty much what’s been seen in the trailers but know that the script from Star Wars veteran Lawrence Kasdan and director/co-writer J.J. Abrams is filled with the same kind of Empire Strikes Back humor and charm and plenty of jaw-dropping, heart-wrenching plot twists that will leave you clamoring for more Episodes. All the special effects are spot on, with just the right amount of action sequences. When that Millennium Falcon takes off, cheers will ring round the theater, and the dog fights between the X-Wings and Tye fighters are just as seat clenching.

Step 4: Praise J.J. Abrams. The director is also painstakingly on point with this sequel, the look and feel, how he frames each moment, and how he packs the film with so many glorious Star Wars throwbacks. The film might be criticized for being almost too nostalgic (and honestly, that’s a bad thing?), but Abrams seems to be cleansing the palette with Episode VII. He’s allowing fans to return to a world they’ve missed so very much, while getting rid of the bad taste those prequels left. J.J. succeeds – I, II and III are now a faint memory. And make no mistake, Force Awakens also propels the story forward. Those who’ve never seen a Star Wars movie before should be immediately hooked, especially the young Padwans being introduced to this world. The next two films will most likely be a whole new experience.

Step 5: Remember the vets. The other aspect that sells Force Awakens is the amazing cast. I don’t think I can remember a big ensemble film of this nature hitting all the right notes in its casting choices. Veterans Ford and Fisher are a given. It’s sort of unbelievable how easy it is to see Ford play Han Solo again. Sure, he’s older but it’s like the actor never stopped playing him. Of course, through the years, Ford has stated again and again he’d be just fine never flying the Millennium Falcon again, but something in Abrams and Kasdan’s script spoke to him – and now we can see why.

Fisher, too, brings an incredible gravitas to Leia. She’s calmer but still has that fierce determination. And seeing Han and Leia together again will melt you. They’ve always been the heart and soul of this franchise, and a return to this galaxy would not be complete if there was no reunion between our favorite nerf herder and his princess. What about Mark Hamill as Luke since he’s not featured on the poster and Hamill didn’t do any of the press? Again, this review won’t spoil anything, but Luke is still integral to the story. Period. Oh, and of course, Chewie is just as furry and wonderful as ever, while C-3PO and R2-D2 make the appropriate cameos. The droid to love, love, however, is BB-8. Those toys are gonna fly off the shelves.

Step 6: Be impressed with the new faces. As for the newbies, they simply all excel. Ridley inspires as the young heroine Rey, full of curiosity and spunk, but with an underlying sadness stemming from being alone. And she also very convincingly kicks ass. Boyega, too, nails his conflicted character and his want to escape the madness he’s been born and raised in, and when these two meet and are forced to go on an adventure, it’s immediate chemistry. The real standout is Driver as Kylo Ren. He’s always been the best part of the HBO show Girls, so it made sense to cast him as a villain conflicted by the light and the dark. Those are the best kind of bad guys because at points, they elicit empathy ala Darth Vader himself. Driver handles those chores with aplomb. Kylo has issues and it’ll be fascinating to see how this character may progress in the coming sequels.

Step 7: Look forward to more. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the Star Wars sequel experience we all needed, and now that we have it, we can move on to bigger and better Episodes.

How to Interview: Cast of “Krampus”

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Krampus, which took the top spot at the box office this past weekend, is one of those fun horror/comedy flicks that might just be a great intro for those slightly older kids ready for their first horror movie.

The story revolves around a dysfunctional family, who come together for their annual Christmas holiday. Young Max (Emjay Anthony) still believes in Santa but is finding harder and harder to stick to his beliefs, especially when everyone around him has lost that Christmas spirit. His estranged parents, Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette), host the gathering because they have the big house and lots of money, but when Sarah’s sister, Linda (Fargo‘s Allison Tolman) and her red-neck brood, including husband Howard (David Koechner), drunk aunt (Conchata Ferrell) and their four obnoxious kids, come barreling in, it’s just chaos. Only Max’s German grandmother, Omi (Krista Sadler), tries to keep Max’s hope alive because she has experienced first-hand what happens when you give up on Christmas — instead of Santa and gifts, you get the mythical creature Krampus and a world of hurt.

But it’s too late. After a very embarrassing moment with his mean cousins and squabbling family, Max tears up his letter to Santa, thus releasing that bad mojo into the air and summoning Krampus and his evil Christmas-y minions, all ready to take the souls of Max’s whole family. Now it’s up to the clan to overcome their differences and band together to fight Krampus and regain their holiday cheer. Good luck!

ScreenPicks had a great time at the press day, talking with stars Collette, Tolman and Scott, along with director Michael Dougherty, about the film’s themes, their own Christmas memories and what scary things they couldn’t get out of their heads when they were a kid. Continue reading ‘How to Interview: Cast of “Krampus”’

How to Podcast: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2”

Mockingjay Part 2

Well, it’s all over. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has drawn back her last arrow and let it fly in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2, thus concluding her long, arduous journey to find peace and happiness in Panem.

Is it a satisfying ending to a successful film franchise? I would say so. It follows the last half of the book almost to the tee, so if you were a fan (like me), seeing all the harrowing parts come to life is pretty spectacular. I understand some of the criticism that the last two Hunger Games movies didn’t hold the same punch as the first two, especially since there technically were no games to survive, and how being dark just for darkness sake only drags the whole thing down. But the Mockingjay, Part 2 is still very compelling, made even more so by Lawrence’s performance, who has always made the series better.

We at ScreenPicks talk at length about the Hunger Games finale, along with The Night Before, Secret in Their Eyes and Oscar bait Carol and Legend. 

How to Watch: “By the Sea”

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Step 1: Hang out By the Sea. Angelina Jolie Pitt efforts to create a languid and lush ’70s European art movie and reunites with her onscreen with real-life hubby Brad Pitt as they play out a disintegrating marriage. However, the intent to show something meaningful, something personal is lost in the slow, morose drag of it all.

Step 2: Cry by the sea: Pitt plays Roland, a stalled writer desperate to find inspiration for his next book who brings his depressed wife — Vanessa (Jolie Pitt), a former dancer – to a quaint and beautiful French seaside town so he can write. There is some unknown tragedy that hovers over them, some past hurt that clouds their relationship, and once they get there, all Roland does is drink at the local cafe, while Vanessa just sits around in their hotel room, refusing to participate in any way whatsoever. She’d rather just cry or drink wine and take mind-numbing drugs, while lounging on the balcony or in the bathtub, her dark makeup smeared around her eyes. Good times!

Step 3: Peep by the sea. Hope comes, however, when young newlyweds (Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) take up residence in the room next door. Roland and Vanessa befriend the couple through casual meet and greets, but through a peephole they discover in the wall near the floor, Roland and Vanessa also find a new hobby – watching the couple have lots of sex. Together. As they eat and drink and set up pillows on the floor. This act of voyeurism brings Roland and Vanessa closer together (because this is the ’70s and there is no Internet porn) and so they spark. Not even close to the hotness the superstars showed in Mr. and Mrs. Smith but it happens. This connection with the other couple, however, also tears open even more wounds that Roland and Vanessa can no longer ignore, and in a twisted turn of events, they finally find a way to heal.

Step 4: Try to care by the sea. Problem is, the film doesn’t really give us a reason to give a crap if Roland and Vanessa make it or not, and that’s a failure on Jolie Pitt’s part in not crafting a more solid script. The characters are pretty unlikable and without much back story — or scenes in which we see them happy, thus gaining some sympathy — just watching them mope around in such a gorgeous locale quickly grows tiresome. How many times do we have to see Roland smoke a thousand cigarettes and get sloppy drunk or Vanessa stare vacantly out at the sea? You can sort of guess what the major issue is between them, but once it’s revealed, the impact is minimal. Still, this is Angelina and Brad playing these people, so the lackluster script is made almost palpable because these two command the screen, in whatever iteration that is. The moments they are seriously hashing it out are the best in the film. Also good is the supporting cast including Laurent, Poupaud and Niels Arestrup as a simple but world-wise local barkeep.

Step 5: Walk on By the Sea. As a director, Jolie Pitt clearly handles her job as a consummate professional, eliciting good performances from her actors (especially from Brad) and showing her keen eye in capturing honesty and beauty in either grand or very intimate ways. But unlike her two previous films, In the Land of Blood and Honey and Unbroken, By the Sea‘s personal story isn’t as suited to her skills set. She wants this to be an artsy French film from the ’70s, with moody music, little dialogue, lots of flowing scarves and long shots of a car driving on a winding road down to the sea — but it’s too aloof. There’s a lack of passion behind the camera that she’s shown in her other movies. Angelina could have also benefited from a stronger editor, one who could have convinced her to shave off about a half hour. All in all, By the Sea is compelling at times but misses its intended mark. Whatever that is.

How to Interview: Catherine Hardwicke on “Miss You Already”

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Miss You Already delves into familiar territory, telling a story about a close friendship between two women (Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette) that is rocked by a breast cancer diagnosis, but it also surprises you with its honesty, humor and all-too-real way this disease affects the people it touches.

But first and foremost, it’s a story about women, directed and written by women, and it’s empowering. ScreenPicks sat down with director Catherine Hardwicke to talk about making Miss You Already and how she’s standing up for equal rights for women filmmakers!

Step 1: Find the project

“I really hadn’t thought about the subject. Of course, I’ve had three friends who have gone through this, my dad’s gone through this, so there’s nobody that’s been exempt from this. But then this beautiful script came from the producer. I met him in 2003 with Thirteen and he said he was riding his bike in London and my face popped into his head. And he thought, ‘Maybe Catherine would be the one to direct this.’ So I started getting drawn in, coming up with little changes, things I wanted to do. Met with the writer [Morwenna Banks] who was very open to it.” Continue reading ‘How to Interview: Catherine Hardwicke on “Miss You Already”’

How to Interview: The Cast of “Trumbo”

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The excellent Trumbo examines a black time in Hollywood history. In the 1950s when the Cold War was just beginning it’s ugly reign, the perceived threat of an invading Communist regime threw most Americans into a panic. As the Red scare spread, it hit the entertainment industry particularly hard, as those with any affiliation with what was deemed “unpatriotic” were placed on a blacklist and lost their livelihoods.

The film follows one blacklisted screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), part of the Hollywood 10, who decided to fight back using the only weapon he had at his disposal: his words. After being demonized by the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), led primarily by the hugely popular gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), and even sent to jail for a time for contempt, Trumbo came out swinging. He continued to write in any way he could, finding like-minded, low budget producers to buy his scripts under aliases and also buy the work of his blacklisted friends. Trumbo even won two uncredited screenwriting Oscars (for Roman Holidayand The Brave One) during this time. The man never gave up, and when he finally received credit for his work on Spartacus in 1960, Trumbo’s in-your-face coup was instrumental in dismantling the Hollywood blacklist.

At the film’s press conference, stars Cranston, Diane Lane (who plays Trumbo’s wife, Cleo), Elle Fanning (who plays Trumbo’s oldest daughter, Niki), Michael Stuhlbarg (who plays Edward G. Robinson) and director Jay Roach all discuss the impact Trumbo made on the industry, how the blacklist history relates to today’s climate, and more. Continue reading ‘How to Interview: The Cast of “Trumbo”’