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Rory Kennedy on Laird Hamilton and Her New Movie “Take Every Wave”

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Copyright 2017 Moxie Firecracker

Rory Kennedy usually makes documentaries about complicated issues, with more than 30 films on topics like poverty, political corruption, domestic abuse, drug addiction, human rights, and mental illness. Her latest film is something different. Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton is the story of a man who became one of the world’s most accomplished sports figures even though he does not compete in organized events.

Your cinematography of the surfing scenes is remarkable. I kept asking myself as I watched, “Where is the camera? And how can it be so steady?”

To capture Laird on these ginormous waves was certainly something that I had never come across before in my own career. I explored using a drone or jet-ski or somebody in the water but they all had their own limitations and ultimately I really leaned on the helicopter shot. The thing is about these waves that is funny and interesting is that you can have a really huge wave and if you shoot it at a certain angle it looks teeny. And what I found is actually being below the wave looking up at it with a little bit of distance was the most dramatic shot but of course that means the helicopter needs to be below the wave. Don King has worked extensively with Laird and Don Shearer has also worked with him as a helicopter pilot.

You assembled an extraordinary collection of archival footage with some rare and very personal material. Where did it all come from?

It’s a bit of a scavenger hunt really trying to find the best footage. We went to Laird and Gabby first and foremost but there was also footage through the archive houses at NBC, ABC, and CBS, who had some archives that we used. Then reaching out to friends and family and really asking people to go deep into their garages and their basements to retrieve some of the footage, a lot of which has never been seen before. The footage of Laird rescuing his friend came from the production company that they had because that was something that they were filming as it happened. We were able to track it down and it was pretty dramatic.

Laird is married to a world-class athlete who competed in the Olympics, Gabrielle Reece. He is covered by sporting journalists but he does not participate in conventional competition.

He has a comfort in competing in say a foot race where there’s an objective winner but what bothers him in surfing competitions was the sense of judgment. Laird is probably one of if not the most competitive person that I know and there are pretty extreme stories about him in that respect but I think ultimately he didn’t want to bring that to his surfing experience. Part of what he loves about surfing is being out on the water and being in touch with nature and being up against these gigantic waves. And I think that you’re up against your own kind of personal chatter in your head that’s telling you to get off the wave and that you might die. You know that’s a pretty intense adrenaline moment, right? So then you add on other things to that like competition and judgments and all the rest of it and it might feel a little deflating or less interesting.

He is an extraordinary athlete and a big part of that is his exceptional mental focus and drive.

That was part of a huge part of what drove me to make this film. Surfing is really the backdrop of the film but the story is what you’re tapping into which is what drives a guy to surf and go up against 80-foot waves. He has the personal drive towards water. I think that manifests at his very young age. I think he was exposed to some of the biggest waves in the world and he was surrounded by surfers. From age two, three; he was in the ocean every day and going out into water that most of us would never even dream of going into even as adult. He had a childhood that was a broken home. He’s lived in poverty. He had an abusive family situation and I think the outside environment was also difficult where he was one of the only white guys in Hawaii at the time. There was a lot of anger towards people who were not Hawaiian and who were white who had brought a lot of disease and devastation to the island though. Because of all those factors he ended up really focusing and finding refuge in the water.

Even though he doesn’t have much formal education he and the other surfers have really PhD level understanding of the properties of water; the physics of it.

Their level of knowledge is striking. One of the scenes that we have in the film is Laird working with the Oracle team, Jimmy Spithill who is the captain of the America’s Cup because they really looked to him for expertise in terms of foil boarding. And these are guys are engineers and they’re analyzing with computer technology the most efficient way to get a boat to move across a lot of water and they’re looking at Laird for his personal expertise in that and I think there’s a good reason for it. When you have spent that much time as a human being engaging in something, you have kind of an instinctual understanding of it that they’re able to translate in pretty beautiful ways both in terms of the language that they use and the poetry and the beauty of it but also on a very technical level in terms of how it works and how a wave is formed. He’s incredibly articulate and knowledgeable about that.

Would you say that there’s a common theme in your films?

A great story.

Carlos Sanz on “Stronger” with Jake Gyllenhaal

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Copyright 2017 Lionsgate

One of the most powerful scenes in Stronger, with Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman, who survived the Boston Marathon bombing, was the scene where Jeff finally meets Carlos Arredondo, the man who saved his life. A photograph of the two of them at the scene became instantly iconic as a symbol of humanity, heroism, and resilience in the midst of unspeakable horror.

Arredondo is played by actor Carlos Sanz, who told that he and Gyllenhaal did not meet before they filmed the scene, to heighten the authentic feelings of uncertainty. “We agreed that Jake and I wouldn’t interact until we did this scene so we didn’t rehearse it at all. I was outside the bar, it was really early and David Gordon Green comes out and he says ‘How do you feel about just shooting this thing?’ And I said ‘let’s do it.’ so when I walk in and I say to him, ‘Carlos,’ and he says, ‘Jeff,’ that’s the first time we actually connect. It had this kind of real organic quality to it that I think you’d really feel, at least I did on the day. This particular type of scene is so intimate that you feel like you’re in that third chair, you feel like you’re almost sitting at that table.”

He spoke about his audition, and how he prepared to tell the film’s most emotional story. “What’s interesting is that when I got the audition and I looked at the scene in particular I couldn’t get through it. Every time I started reading it I would get halfway through the scene and I would be just like, ‘Oh my God, this poor guy,’ and it took me quite a bit of time just to put together this idea of who this guy was. When I went to the audition my goal was just ‘don’t break down like you did in your office.’ I managed to get through the whole thing and I just put my head down and I let a little sigh of release out and when I looked up everybody in the room was crying and I thought. ‘Well, that’s how you do the job.’”

“I spoke to David Gordon Green quite a bit mostly just about trying to keep it very real and grounded and centered.” He watched Arredondo interviews to get the accent right, but declined to meet him before shooting. “I did meet him I think it was the last or second to last day I was working in Boston but I didn’t want to meet him beforehand because it felt like I had a firm grasp on who this guy was and I didn’t want to do an impersonation. When I met him he was such a sweet, sweet man that I think it might have changed what I ended up doing….For me, mostly I always feel like every character I play is me. It’s a different part of me, it’s a version of me and what I have to find is the truth and the reality of every single moment. For this particular character I think the real connection was that love you have for your children and then when they’re gone the kind of devastation and the kind of fortitude that you have to have as a person to overcome that. I felt that there was not a moment in this thing where I didn’t really connect. So for me it was easy to latch onto every aspect of this character’s persona. We did the scene a myriad of different ways and each time it was more powerful. There were obviously different types of takes but the take that eventually makes the movie is probably as close to what we got at the audition than some of the other stuff that we did.”

He says that playing Carlos affected him as a person as well as an actor. “I kept thinking about how there’s a kind of a strength in caring and taking care of others. That’s what this guy is saying and that’s what he’s doing and that was his great lesson in his life and it reverberated for me when I was dealing with my mom and my brother and my family after my father died because I sort of have that role in my family. I remembered that and it’s interesting because now it’s sort of life imitating art and it is a part of who I am now.”

Originally published on HuffPost.

A Plus on the Need for More Female Film Critics

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Jill O’Rourke of A Plus has an excellent article about why it is important to have diversity in film criticism as well as in filmmaking.

AWFJ amplifies the voices of women who write about film — a group still very underrepresented in all forms of media — and focuses film industry and audience attention on the work of women behind and in front of the lens,” Merin said her organization, which was founded in 2006. The AWFJ website highlights feminist Movies of the Week, with reviews written by women, as well as spotlighting a female creator once a month. “Raising awareness through these ongoing AWFJ projects opens opportunity for women in film and hopefully will lead to a gender-equal playing field.”…”AWFJ invites all to join our THE FEMALE GAZE FORUM group on Facebook, where they can post information and recommendations about ‘feminist’ films and projects, applaud special achievements by women in film, and engage in substantive discussions about how to equal the playing field for women in film,” Merin suggests, in addition to creating viewing clubs and supporting the films recommended on the organization’s website. “Women represent more than 50 percent of the movie-going population. We want to see films that tell our stories and reflect our interests.”

Diversity in entertainment goes beyond just the faces on our screens. All aspects of the industry should reflect the people who consume its media. Chaz Ebert, widow of film critic Roger Ebert and publisher of RogerEbert.com, put it simply in The Daily Beast in 2015: “It is critical that the people who write about film and television and the arts — and indeed the world — mirror the people in our society.”

I am very lucky to be a longtime member of AWFJ and a contributor to Chaz Ebert’s rogerebert.com.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

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C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, some bullying, war images and brief language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Nudity/ Sex: Childbirth scene (non-explicit)
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence, post-traumatic stress
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 13, 2017
Copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight

This telling of the story behind the creation of some of the world’s most beloved books for children is sincere and well-intentioned but what Pooh might call a bit of a muddle. The movie is not at all clear about whose perspective it is giving us or what story it is trying to tell.

Author A.A. Milne, called Blue by his family and played by Domhnall Gleeson, was a successful playwright and humorist before the Great War, but came back badly shaken from the experience of combat and carnage. His wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) is affectionate but impatient. Neither one of them is very interested in their son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), who spends most of his time with his devoted nanny, Nou (Kelly Macdonald). Milne insists the family move to the country, where Daphne feels isolated from the parties and friends she enjoys. She goes back to London, saying she won’t return until Milne begins to write again, just as Nou has to take some time off to care for her mother. This leaves Milne alone with his son, called Billy Moon by the family, and for the first time they spend time together, playing in the woods with the child’s stuffed bear, named Winnie after the bear in the zoo. It is these days that inspire the two chapter books and two books of poems that have been read aloud to generations of children who have grown up and read them to their own children, plus, Disney movies and a television series (Disney now own the rights to the characters) and more books and toys.

And it is these days that are the best part of the film, especially when Milne’s friend, the illustrator Ernest Howard Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore) comes to visit, and we see the stories Milne and Billy Moon tell melting into the sketches that are as beloved as the writing.

The problem is the rest of the movie, which is really four movies fighting with each other, none of them very good. There is the story of a shattered veteran trying to find a way to return to civilian life and work that is meaningful to him. There is the story of a man and a boy who do not realize how much they need each other discovering a common language. There is the story of enormous success that benefits one family member but at great cost to another.  The stories lead to feelings of betrayal and bitterness when Billy Moon becomes famous, more famous than his father, and much more famous than his boarding school classmates.  And there is the story of estrangement and partial reconciliation.

It is never clear what the point of view of the movie is, or what the point of the movie is.  Is it that art can be healing and wounding at the same time?  Is it that behind tales of wonder and enchantment there can be pain and bitterness?  Fans of the Winnie the Pooh books may enjoy some of the classic biopic “ah, that’s where this part I loved came from” moments, but they do not provide any additional insight or depth to the work itself, not even an exploration of what the books have to say about childhood and whether they represent a child’s perspective or a parent’s.  Most of all, unlike Pooh, Piglet, Kanga, Roo, and Owl, these characters are not very interested or interesting.

Parents should know that this movie includes wartime violence, PTSD, marital estrangement, sad offscreen death of a parent, apparent death of a child, and social drinking.

Family discussion:  What should Blue and Daphne have done differently?  Why did Christopher want to go into the army?  Is “the great thing” finding something to be happy about?

If you like this, try: the books of A.A. Milne

Marshall

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B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Nudity/ Sex: Sexual references and situations, accusations of rape
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Allegations of rape and attempted murder, fights and beatings, gun
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 13, 2017

Copyright 2017 Open Road
“It’s a real life Bigger Thomas,” says a character describing the new case assigned to a young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman). Bigger Thomas was the young black protagonist who could not escape the fundamental racism of American society in Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, accused of rape and murder. In this real-life case, a black chauffeur named Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown of “This is Us”) was accused of rape and attempted murder of his employer, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), a wealthy Connecticut socialite. Marshall, then the entire legal staff of the NAACP, was going from town to town representing black defendants, many whom “confessed” after being beaten and starved, but, Marshall insists, only those who are innocent. They do not have time or resources to devote to those who did what they are accused of.

This case is unusual because it is in the North and because it is so high-profile. It has been a front page story in the newspapers and many white families are firing their domestic employees because they are so terrified.

Connecticut may not have the overt, explicit racism of the Jim Crow laws, but in some ways that makes fighting its version of bigotry more difficult. The judge (James Cromwell) refuses Marshall the normally automatic courtesy of allowing him to represent Spell in court without being a member of the state bar association. Instead, a local lawyer named Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) must argue the case, even though he has no experience in criminal trials and is very reluctant to get involved. “That must be difficult,” Marshall tells him wryly. “To have a reputation to think of.” Marshall may sit at the counsel’s table but may not address the judge or examine witnesses. He says that not being allowed to speak is the worst blow he has had as a lawyer, worse than having to enter the courthouse by the back door.

This is an absorbing drama on many levels, working purely as an “Anatomy of a Murder”-style courtroom mystery, as a historical depiction of the roots and mechanics of social change, and as the personal story of the two young lawyers facing enormous professional and personal challenges, developing a friendship, and becoming better at what they do.

The screenplay by father and son Michael and Joseph Koskoff is forthright in addressing the complicated ethics of preparing a defense for an individual client that many not always be consistent with the larger political imperatives. It also delicately if not always sucessfully skirts the complicated problem faced by contemporary films based on real-life events: if the white character teaches the black character, it’s condescending, but if the black character teaches the white character it’s “magical Negro.” In real life, Samuel Friedman was already active in civil rights cases before the Spell case, and he was slender and athletic. But for dramatic purposes, here he is played by Josh Gad and his character only takes insurance cases. We first see him winning for an insurance company on a technicality that leaves the disabled plaintiff without any damage payment. And Marshall’s character changes very little over the course of the film. He is sophisticated, tough, smart, and confident all the way through which is great as a tribute to one of the towering figures of the 20th century, but without some kind of character arc like the one given to Friedman, the risk is that he becomes a supporting character in the movie that has his name in the title. Fortunately Boseman is intensely charismatic and a gifted actor who is able to bring a great deal to the role, and he and Gad have a strong chemistry that benefits and is benefited by director Reginald Hudlin’s gift for understanding when comedy is needed to lessen the tension. Brown is also excellent in a role far removed from the high educated and successful characters on “This is Us” and “People v. O.J.” Indeed, the entire cast is outstanding, especially Hudson, Ahna O’Reilly as a juror, and Barrett Doss as Marshall’s host and friend.

The film balances the personal, the political, and the professional lives of its heroes and is frank about the opportunism — and the opportunity — of their choices. It places it in the context of its time, as Friedman’s family in Eastern Europe is captured by the Nazis and white thugs attack both lawyers. It makes its case as effectively as Friedman and Marshall make theirs — that courage and persistence bring change and that there are good people out there who will work, with all of our help, to make it happen.

Parent should know that this story concerns a real-life trial for rape and attempted murder with sexual references and situations, themes of racism including beatings and police brutality, some strong language, domestic violence, and some strong and racist language.

Family discussion: Why did Marshall represent only innocent clients? Did Spell have a fair trial? What has improved since that time? What has not?

If you like this, try: “Separate But Equal” and “Mr. Civil Rights: Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP”