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”


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”’

How to Podcast: “Spectre” and More


Spectre has the unenviable task of following one of the best James Bond movies ever.

Skyfall was so brilliant in so many ways, taking the James Bond myth into a very real and dark place, and highlighting why Daniel Craig’s grittier 007 has made him the second best person to play the character (first is still Sean Connery, because, let’s face it, he created the persona). Skyfall also had the one of the best villains in its history, Silva, played with relish by Javier Bardem.

While Spectre is a serviceable Bond movie, it just doesn’t quite measure up. It falls more into the run-of-the-mill Bond flick, with expected rather than spectacular action and a lackluster villain (Sorry, Christophe Waltz, your evilness is starting to wear thin). And the love interest/Bond girl, Lea Seydoux, has almost zero chemistry with Craig, which is really a shame. Spectre, however, does not fall into the worst Bond movie category (like Moonraker or Die Another Day) and still has many merits, including the always good Craig.

I discuss Spectre with my ScreenPicks pals, while also talking the truly superb SpotlightTrumbo, Brooklyn and more.

How to Podcast: “Our Brand Is Crisis”

brand crisis

Now that we’re knee-deep in fall movies and Oscar contenders, with stellar indie flicks like Steve JobsRoomSuffragette and bigger movies like Bridge of Spies, The Martian and Goosebumps doing well at the box office, I’m surprised there have been just as many flops, especially in the past few weeks. This is supposed to be a time when studios laser-point their efforts to release quality movies with big-name director/actors.

But Joe Wright’s Pan was panned (and rightly so — they just can’t get a live-action Peter Pan movie right), while Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak failed to peak the interest of moviegoers with its lack of scares (although I appreciated the Gothic romance of it all). Then there was the completely dismal week of openers, including Jem and the Holograms, The Last Witch Hunter and Rock the Kasbah (so sad since I really wanted to laugh with Bill Murray again).

Now we have the openers for Halloween week, with the highly anticipated political drama Our Brand Is Crisis taking the lead (there’s also the chef drama Burnt with Bradley Cooper). Sandra Bullock once again turns in a great performance as a former political strategist, hanging by a thread of sanity, whose dragged back into it and the lunacy when she agrees to help a presidential candidate win an election in Bolivia. It’s based on a true story, and while it had its moments, it still failed to leave any lasting impact. Rather, it fell into some typical scenarios, including the one in which politicians are inherently all liars and sneaky and so the puppet master who puts him charge has to wrestle with some moral dilemmas. Yeah, yeah.

Anyway, I discuss with two of my fellow ScreenPicks guys, who were more into it because of their love for political machinations (they both studied the subject in college). Take a listen!

Good thing this month looks WAY more promising, with big movies like SpectreHunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 and more Oscar bait like TrumboSpotlightBy the Sea. Stay tuned…

How to Interview: The Cast of “Room”


The indie heart-breaker Room is a movie you won’t be able to stop thinking about. Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, who also wrote the screenplay, the story follows 5-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who has lived his whole life in one room with his Ma (Brie Larson). You find out this room is actually a prison for Ma, who was abducted and forced to live there for seven years, but for Jack, it’s his whole world and one filled with endless possibilities.

Ma, however, desperately wants to escape and now that Jack is somewhat old enough to understand, she tells him about her plan to get out, for which she needs Jack’s help. Once the plan is in action, Jack is suddenly faced with a more awe-inspiring revelation: There is an even bigger, more amazing world outside of Room.

At the film’s press conference, writer Donoghue, stars Larson, Tremblay and Joan Allen (who plays Grandma) and director Lenny Abrahamson speak about the powerful emotions in making this film and about how the absolute purity of working with young Tremblay made everyone bring their A game.

Step 1: Turning the book into the film

Emma Donoghue: “I relished the opportunity because cinema has different techniques and offers different pleasures. One thing I love, which is different from the book, is when you’re looking at Jacob’s face on screen and you don’t know what’s going through his mind. I love the un-spelled out nature of that. In the book you know exactly what they’re thinking. I love that Ma and Jack is a real two-hander in the film – you get equal access to both of them. In many ways, that’s a huge improvement on the book. There were many moments where I’d change things in the script and Lenny would say let’s get back to the book. I didn’t feel opposition. It felt as if he and I were both trying to translate the magic.” Continue reading ‘How to Interview: The Cast of “Room”’

How to Podcast: “The Martian,” “The Walk”

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It was a good week for opening movies, particularly with the excellent space search and rescue mission The Martian. Matt Damon stars as botanist Mark Watney, who is on Mars with a crew to study the planet but is left for dead when he is swept away by a freak storm that forces the others to flee for their lives. When Watney wakes up and realizes he’s alone, his survival journey is about as compelling as it gets, as the folks on Earth try to find a way to rescue him before its too late.

I discuss the Ridley Scott film (a real return for the director clearly in his element) with my ScreenPicks pals, along with the harrowing visual treat The Walk.

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How to Watch: ‘Everest’


Step 1: Catch your breath. Everest is a true story about a climbing expedition in 1996 that goes horribly wrong, and while the film does all the right things to deliver a thrilling experience, it also tries to answer the question: Why go in the first place?

Step 2: Give Everest the hashtag #RichWhitePeopleProblems. The film follows a group of mostly white, generally affluent thrill-seekers who see the formidable Mt. Everest as something that has to be conquered. Never mind the fact that it’s the tallest, most treacherous peak in the world – a place where a human can barely survive. It’s freaking sub-freezing; there’s avalanches and breaking ice shelves; and most importantly, you literally cannot breathe because at Everest’s summit – as expedition leader Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) tells us – it’s like being outside a 747 at its cruising altitude. For me, it’s a head-scratcher, but for those eager to do it, those odds are just like posting a big “Climb Me” sign. They trek to Nepal to face the great mountain time and time again… and many of them die trying to reach the top.

Step 3: Emphasize your point: In 1996, Hall, a New Zealander with a struggling mountain climbing business, took an expedition to Everest. Some of the clients were there for a second time, like Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a kindly school teacher who raised funds so he could return since he failed to reach the summit the first time around, and millionaire Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), an adrenaline junkie just there for the ride. Also joining the group was journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), who was there to write a feature story about Hall’s Adventure Consultants. Hall succeeded in getting his high-paying customers to the top, but things took a turn for the very worse when a freak and deadly rogue storm swept over them as they started their descent and many lives were lost (we won’t say who here, but if you know the real story, you know who dies).

Step 4: Explain the why. Survivor Krakauer, who wrote the best-selling book Into Thin Air about the ordeal, asks in the film the all-important question of why. Why be there, facing these tremendous odds? Why risk your life when it’s not necessary to do so? Most of them just say, “’Cause it’s there‘” but only Hansen has a legit answer: Because he wants to show his kids that if you really want to achieve a goal, you should stop at nothing to do it. Okay, being a hero to your kids is admirable, but don’t you think he could have done it a less dangerous way? Just sayin’…

Step 5: Recognize the frustration. Everest also shows how the mountain’s popularity and Nepal’s need for tourism sends hundreds of thrill-seekers to the area each year. The crowding erodes the already unstable terrain, and the trails crafted by experts with proper ropes and equipment become worn. It also creates competition between rival adventure companies. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Scott Fischer, the owner of another expedition business, who is, for all intents and purposes, in a race with Rob Hall to see who can reach the top first. This kind of reckless environment, coupled with the fact that they have to give their clients what they want or they’ll go under, leads both Hall and Fischer into making some pretty bad decisions in critical moments. It’s frustrating to watch, especially since you know what’s about to happen.

Step 6: Try to find someone to root for. The performances are all adequate. Clarke and Brolin actually scaled other mountains in preparation, so they could really understand the mentality, and it works to their advantage. As for character development, however, there isn’t much, and it’s a definite flaw in the film. There is really no one you feel connected to – except maybe Clarke’s Hall, who was expecting his first child with his wife (played by Keira Knightley, nailing a New Zealand accent). But when Hall makes those choices that go against everything he knows as an expert climber, you don’t feel sorry for him when it goes awry. One standout is Emma Watson as Helen Wilton, Hall’s main person at the base. As it looks dire for her boss, the accomplished actress shows it all on her face.

Step 7: At least marvel at the mountain. The real hero of Everest is action director Baltasar Kormákur (2 Guns, Contraband). Much of the film was shot in Nepal, including the real Everest’s base camp, but the most dangerous moments were actually filmed in the Italian Alps. Guess it would be really difficult to make a movie on the actual Mt. Everest, but Kormákur makes you feel like you are right there, gasping for breath and cursing your stupid guide for not making you turn back when you had the chance. Everest stuns with its spectacular visuals and snowy vistas, and has you holding onto your seat when the harrowing action gets intense. Watching Everest is about the only way you’d ever get me to scale a big-ass mountain.

How to Interview: Talking “Cooties” and Chicken Nuggets


In the new horror comedy Cooties, one seriously contaminated chicken nugget makes it way to an elementary school cafeteria in middle-town USA, and after an unfortunate little girl eats said disgusting nugget, she suddenly isn’t quite herself. No, instead she turns into a flesh-eating little monster, infecting her fellow classmates with “cooties,” and turning them all into rampaging zombies.

Now, it’s left to the poor hapless teachers (Alison Pill, Elijah Wood, Jack McBrayer, Rainn Wilson, Leigh Whannell, Nasim Pedrad), to figure out what’s happening and escape the school grounds before they become the next lunch meat.

ScreenPicks had fun talking with Pill, Wood and McBrayer about those days when chicken nuggets and McDonald’s Playlands ruled and how they dealt with cooties on the playground.

Make sure to check out the hilarious Cooties, now playing in select theaters and on VOD!

Fall Movies 2015: 10 Films to Look Forward To


As the summer season comes to a close, we can now look forward to the fall movie season, which typically combines big flicks (Star Wars: The Force Awakens anyone?) with those films getting their Oscar buzz on.

Here’s a list of 10 films you shouldn’t miss (in order of release date):

The Martian (Oct. 2)

Who: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwitel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels; directed by Ridley Scott

What: Damon plays an astronaut stranded on Mars after being left for dead and as he finds ways to survive and let Earth know he’s still alive, the peeps at NASA rush to rescue him before its too late.

Why: Ridley Scott in space always works, plus Matt Damon’s quippy delivery of lines like, “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” just makes it more entertaining.

Continue reading ‘Fall Movies 2015: 10 Films to Look Forward To’