LAUREN DAMON

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Yesterday Red Carpet Premiere

June 28, 2019


Yesterday…or rather just about a month ago Danny Boyle’s new romantic comedy called Yesterday hit the red carpet as the closing night film of the Tribeca Film Festival. Written by romcom guru Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral), the film follows Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) a struggling musician who wakes up one day in a world where the Beatles never existed. In this situation, Jack takes the music world by storm reintroducing classics like “Yesterday”, “Let it Be” and “Hey Jude”.

I got to speak with the talented filmmakers at their premiere about the impact the Beatles had in their own lives and shooting some epic concert scenes.

Lauren Damon: Soundtracks are so integral to your movies, does it pain you to imagine the world without the Beatles?

Screenwriter Richard Curtis: I think it would be worse! I mean certainly my life would have been worse. You just think how often life has been sort of softened and sweetened by them. When I was living here in America, I was terribly aware of how often you heard Frank Sinatra and I was thinking, ‘God, wouldn’t all these shoe shops be worse without Frank Sinatra to make it less painful?

LD: For the concept of this film did you ever consider other bands being gone?

Curtis: No. No and it’s interesting, is there another band? And I don’t know that there is. A lot of this movie came about was because every time I would go to see my kids’ school plays they would always end with a Beatles song. You know, William the Conqueror would hold King Harold’s hand and they would both sing “We Can Work it Out.” Or you do something about the environment and they sing “Here Comes the Sun.” So I do think at the moment that the Beatles are the most comprehensive band of all.

LD: Did you get to speak to Paul or Ringo about this concept?

Curtis: Well they know about it now. I wrote to Paul asking him if it would be okay to call it “Yesterday” And he wrote back and suggested we call it “Scrambled Eggs” which was the original name of “Yesterday” And he said ‘I think that would be the better title, but if you haven’t got the courage to call it “Scrambled Eggs”, then I don’t mind you calling it “Yesterday.”

Film Composer, Daniel Pemberton: Paul and Ringo were very aware of the film. But with this we took a step back because the thing is in this world the Beatles don’t exist…And we kept having to say ‘the Beatles do not exist in this film’ so you have to pretend Paul and Ringo don’t exist.

LD: When you’re starting with a film that’s based around The Beatles when you go in to compose for it, do you draw strains for them? Or is it from scratch?

Pemberton: Yeah, the score element of this film has been massively influenced by the Beatles. So that’s everything from–I tried to approach the score in a way where we would use the sort of sonic landscape the Beatles created. So that would be everything from the instruments, like the mellotron…We actually used some of the actual instruments that the Beatles recorded on. So we recorded at Abbey Road all the score. And so we used things like the Mrs. Mills piano–the piano from “Lady Madonna”. And those are the actual pianos they used on the recordings. We’d also use a similar kind of bass guitars that Paul McCartney plays. We used the same mixing desks and the same recording techniques. But then we tried to write a different score that wasn’t just a pastiche of the Beatles but just had the elements of their work. Almost as if the Beatles had scored this movie, what would it sound like?

Lauren Damon: What was your casting process like to go from tv into this big lead in front of thousands of extras?

Himesh Patel (“Jack”): I mean the casting was kind of just like anything else to be honest. I just got a breakdown and then I did the self-tape and then I met Danny [Boyle] and Richard. And then I met Danny again and then waited a long time and then I got a call.

LD: Do you have a singing background?

Patel: Not in any sort of professional way, no. I did a little bit on the stage in a play I did a couple of years ago. And I’d some, you know, for myself, youth theater and that kind of thing but nothing like this.

LD: What was it like recreating songs like this? Such important and monumental songs?

Patel: It was thrilling, you know but also a little bit nerve-wracking. The people I was working with, the people we got on board with were really great and so I never felt the pressure of what we were doing. And we had a little bit of leeway because narratively the songs don’t exist. So we could make them our own.

LD: Do you have a favorite?

Patel: A favorite…I mean, one of the ones I love singing was “Long and Winding Road.” I think it’s a really beautiful song…and where it sits in the movie is so beautiful too.

Yesterday was released on June 28th in theaters.

BookCon 2019: The Handmaid's Tale Season 3 Panel

June 2, 2019

The second season of The Handmaid's Tale left more than a few fans stunned when June (Elisabeth Moss) bucked her chance to escape to freedom in Canada with her baby and instead handed the infant off to Emily (Alexis Bleidel) while turning back into the world that still holds her first child hostage.

This weekend eager Handmaid's fans finally got to see where June's unexpected decision has lead the inhabitants Gilead when showrunner Bruce Miller and actress Ann Dowd ("Aunt Lydia") brought the premiere episode of the third season to Bookcon.

Without going into episode spoilers, I will say what I saw went a long way in explaining why June would make such a tremendous sacrifice in that finale and the acting across the board continues to be top notch. Alexis Bleidel's Emily in particular had me moved to tears more than once. And the BookCon crowd broke out into applause at least twice.

While the terrifying Aunt Lydia didn't appear in the premiere ep, the trailers showed that she will return after Emily very literally stabbed her in back last year. Dowd, who was also nefarious in last year's horror hit Hereditary, is delightful and warm in person said of Lydia, "she is doing quite well...she's very concerned" She also offered some exciting tidbits into where season three might take Aunt Lydia.

Although in the last two seasons we've seen almost every protagonist's backstory, Aunt Lydia has remained a mystery. Apparently that will change in season three. Of this insight, Dowd commented that while it wasn't exactly what she thought it would be "it's so true to what might have went wrong." On that change she added that whatever happened, "her life leaned toward Gilead and [to being] one of the most staunch believers of that group." And while Dowd clearly loves playing Lydia, she joked about her inner dialogue with the character: "I say I'm disappointed with her and she says to mind my business!"

The Handmaid's Tale returns weekly to Hulu starting Wednesday June 5th.

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Stellan Skarsgard on HBO's Chernobyl and DUNE

May 6, 2019

As part of my press coverage for the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, I attended the premiere of HBO's miniseries, Chernobyl, below is my interview with Stellan Skarsgard on his character as well as his upcoming work on the film adaptation of Frank Herbert's DUNE.

Stellan Skarsgard plays Boris Shcherbina, the Deputy Head of the Soviet Government at the time [of the Chernobyl meltdown].

What did you find surprising from hearing about Chernobyl originally in 1986 and then from working on this project?

Stellan Skarsgard: What I knew from ’86 was what you got from news media, which gave you a sort of superficial idea of what actually happened. What we learned through working with this material is I know now what technically went wrong, how the reactor works and what the mistakes they made were.

You also learn about it [was] more grave, the sort of the political system–the impact that had on the accident. When you have a system that is supposed to be perfect, you cannot allow any dissent in terms of somebody criticizing anything you do or any flaws cannot be accepted. And that then means that the truth was suppressed. It was all over the Soviet Union at the time. I mean truth is suppressed also for other reasons in the west now. I mean when you talk about Fukushima that was money that suppressed truth and created disaster there. In Boeing, you sent planes that are not fit for flying because you want to make money. So another way of suppressing truth and science. I think it’s important, an important film because it–not only because it talks about what we’re doing to this planet, the environment, which is really scary, but it also talks about how important it is that we listen to people who know what they’re talking about.

Facts are facts. They are not just individual ideas. Some facts you have to deal with and you have to accept and we have to listen to scientists. I mean 98% of the scientists in the world say that we are heading for a catastrophe in terms of global warming. We cannot ignore that. Do not ignore that.

Tell us about your character.
Skarsgard: My character I’m playing Boris Shcherbina who was a minister in the government and who got the responsibility for cleaning up the mess. And he’s a man who spent his entire life working within the system and defending the system and he ends up realizing that this accident is a result of the system. And he has to question the system and he also has to decide whether he should keep on defending the system that is flawed. Or if he should start defending the truth.

Skarsgard’s next film role is in the highly anticipated adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic, DUNE, where he’ll play the villainous Baron Harkonnen

Lauren Damon: Have you begun work on DUNE as Baron Harkonnen?

Skarsgard:I haven’t started shooting yet, we’re still doing prosthetics work.

That’s what I was wondering! Because the Baron is such a grotesque character but when you were cast I remember looking at a shot of you as Bootstrap Bill [Skarsgard’s heavily barnacled Pirates of the Caribbean role] and thinking ‘This man can handle anything they put on him!’

Skarsgard: [Laughs] That’s very nice of you! Thank you. I will probably spend probably six to eight hours a day in makeup and it will look fantastic.

What are you most excited about in doing that project?

Skarsgard: It’s a great story. It’s a fantastic world and Denis Villeneuve is a director that I’ve always wanted to work with. So I’m really happy, he’s a wonderful man and a great director. So I think–except for the eight hours in makeup–I think I’ll have a fun time.

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AVENGERS: FRIENDGAME

April 21, 2019

My friend Alicia over at POMEgranate Magazine featured me in a chat she had with her circle of fellow MCU nerds ahead of this week's release of Avengers: Endgame.

She asked for insights regarding our experiences up to this point in MCU viewing as well as our wildest hopes for the film.


Check it out here!

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WELCOME

April 2019

While I work on getting back into posting regularly, I've chosen to feature some recent interviews I've done alongside a selection of some of my favorite 5-star reviewed films below!

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MY TOP 5 FILMS OF 2018

January 5, 2018

1.BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE – I cannot speak highly enough of Drew Goddard’s follow up to one of my Halloween faves, THE CABIN IN THE WOODS. Once again Goddard holes up his small cast in a single location that is not quite what it seems and is a joy to explore. And what a cast! While bigger names like Jeff Bridges and Jon Hamm deliver reliably solid performances (the latter chewing all the scenery with a fabulous southern accent), the real revelations are from relative newcomers Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman. The Tony­winning Erivo is the film’s heart as a struggling singer who checks into the El Royale ahead of a nearby gig. When she gets wrapped up in a scheme with Bridges’ character, Goddard uses her powerhouse voice to deliver “You Can’t Hurry Love” in easily my favorite single sequence of the year. Meanwhile Pullman is just barely holding everything together as the hotel’s lone caretaker whose role entails much more than cleaning towels and whose past is bubbling beneath his boyish, twitchy surface. I really just wanted to hug him. Finally, as with CABIN, Goddard goes ahead and subverts Chris Hemsworth’s affable hero persona. This time by casting him as a vile Charles Manson type–this is the 60’s in California after all– whose limited screen time serves merely to concentrate the sinister vibes emanating off his gyrating abs. Everyone is supported by top notch production design, a rocking soundtrack and some gorgeous Seamus McGarvey cinematography. It just really sizzles.

2. HEREDITARY – This slow burning descent of one family after the death of their secretive matriarch may be an all time fave viewing experience in a packed theater. Where a lot of modern horror relies on jump scares, Ari Aster held us captive in many scenes by showing the terrors just slightly to the side in the gloom of the frame or holding on the silence after a traumatic event–all while my audience slowly lost its mind. Which was fitting, because we were watching Toni Collette’s character doing roughly the same. It’s a crime that Collette isn’t in the major film awards conversations (yet? C’mon Academy!) because she was so engrossing and almost painful to watch.

3. BLACK PANTHER – Ryan Coogler’s brilliant entry into Marvel was remarkable for so fully realizing a whole new world within a “Universe” we’ve already been living in for the past decade. And unlike some chapters of the MCU, he did it right here on Earth. Wakanda was beautiful and populated by such a well drawn cast of characters, it was nearly impossible to pick a favorite (but it’s Shuri, come on). Meanwhile, unlike some big purple menaces, Erik Kilmonger’s (Michael B Jordan) ‘villainous’ motives were some of the most complex that the franchise has dealt with. So much so that Chadwick Boseman’s T’challa had to face a real crisis of conscience that not many Marvel heroes do!

4. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU – I feel like the less I say about this film, the better new viewers’ experiences will be. Boots Riley’s take on the desolate modern economic landscape just throws a LOT at you with a notable hard turn in the second half that will likely decide where you land on this one. As someone who is rarely surprised at movies today, I was fully on board.

5. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR – I knew going in that every outlet in the Disney­Marvel Marketing Machine kept saying “It’s Thanos’s movie, it’s really going to belong to Thanos” but boy, I was not prepared for...Thanos’s movie! Not only did the Russo brothers bring to life a presence worthy of scaring the bejeezus out of ten years of assembled super heroes, but that they let him Do That was a true shocker. It’s hard for me to judge INFINITY WAR fully until I see what goes down in ENDGAME because, to quote THE PRESTIGE, “making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back.” But for now, I sit stunned.

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“CGI just doesn’t cut it for me, man!” Blindspot’s Heidi Schnappauf Speaks About Stunt Work

October 6, 2018

When Blindspot enters its fourth season this Friday on NBC, it will of course be bringing the action that has garnered the series multiple Emmy nominations for Outstanding Stunt Coordination. While last year burst onto the scene with, amongst other things, Jane Doe and Co in a tank, this year’s premiere has taken Jane (Jaimie Alexander) to Tokyo where she engages in some impressive swordplay with a new adversary. Behind Jane’s hardest hits is Alexander’s stunt double, Heidi Schnappauf, who has been with the show from the first season. Speaking with me at New York Comic Con*, Jaimie Alexander said of Heidi: “Just the hits she takes, the body slams…I don’t know how she’s OK. Half the time I’m terrified for her because she does a lot of the heavy lifting in the fights…And she’s just incredible, she’s an incredible lady.”

Besides Blindspot Schnappauf has an impressive credits list that includes Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Broad City and Orange is the New Black. I was lucky enough to speak with Heidi about her action-packed job this past weekend when Warner Brothers sent us along with her and Jaimie to, fittingly, a beginner Kendo sword lesson!

Lauren Damon: How long have you been with the show?

Heidi Schnappauf: I’ve been with the show all the four seasons, however, I came in toward the end of the first season. I think episode twenty. So right at the end kind of filling in for her old double [Ky Furneaux].

LD: What are your favorite types of stunts?

HS: I love to fight. My main background was fighting. This, sword fighting, was not something I grew up with, but definitely something I picked up on the way and trained a little bit. But fighting, which includes all the falling that we do—getting thrown around—I started at such a young age that I got thrown around a lot when I was in karate as a kid, moving into college years. But I really do love all the hard hits and driving. I’ve been doing stunts driving now for about eight years. So yeah, anything where I’m maybe flying through some glass or getting thrown out of a car, I totally dig it! Any of that.

LD: Have you ever had any major injuries?

HS: I’ve had a few. Biggest injury was not on Blindspot, actually it was right before I got on Blindspot. I was recovering from my biggest injury which was I was doing a high fall and there was faulty landing equipment, it was nobody’s fault, just a one in a billion chance I ended up injuring my neck pretty badly. I was out for about ten months from work, which was a really big bummer actually. And the doctor—I was in the ER from that injury and with you know, on morphine and valium and a neck brace and tears coming out of my eyes—the doctor’s like ‘Oh I guess this is gonna put a damper on your career’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, I really know what I’m going to do next time so I don’t hurt myself’ and he’s like ‘Next time?! Are you nuts?!’…I’m like ‘Well, yeah, I’m just bummed that it’s gonna be a while!’ So that was my most devastating injury. Everyone wanted to cut me open, everyone wanted to do surgery, they wanted to replace my disc, or fuse my spine and all this stuff…I kind of basically talked to doctors until I got the answer I wanted and then I found more doctors to support that.

LD: As a viewer, what are some of your favorite films or tv shows for stunts?

HS: Um…Blindspot? [laughs]…Oh, I really like Supergirl, is that WB? I do like Supergirl. I’m not gonna lie, I don’t watch a lot of TV because I work and I sleep and I try to watch Blindspot. But I do, actually, this new season of Iron Fist is probably my favorite bit of action on tv or Netflix…Blacklist, I love Blacklist. They just have such a variety of stunts on that show. And Game of Thrones. Come on, man, you can’t deny that setting like seventy five stunt people on fire is NOT cool. From a DRAGON. It’s insane.

LD: There’s a faction out there that is pushing for a Best Stunts category at the Academy Awards, how do you feel about that?

HS: I think that’s a good idea since like every other category is out there. I mean, I don’t know how you’d delegate that but I think that’s a good start to just recognizing it. I don’t do stunts, obviously, to be recognized. I love it because I get to kind of be the magician of the action world of film and tv. You don’t really want to give your tricks away, you want to make it an illusion…most, some people I know anyway, don’t do it for the glory. It’s not really about that. It’s about making good work. I would love to see it so it’s recognized as an art and as you know, that magical things that happens isn’t actually magic. It’s people that are putting their bodies and their lives on the line to bring everyone a cool product. CGI just doesn’t cut it for me, man!

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Martin Freeman on Carrying Netflix’s CARGO

May 17, 2018

Martin Freeman was last seen on screen this year providing comic support to Wakandans in the blockbuster Marvel smash, Black Panther but this Friday on Netflix, he jumps to the forefront of a very different sci-fi landscape in Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke’s Cargo. This fantastic zombie plague story sees Freeman playing Andy, the father of adorable baby Rosie, who is unfortunately bitten by zombies and is racing against the clock to carry Rosie to safety across the Australian outback. Cargo made its stateside premiere last month at the Tribeca Film Festival, after which I got to speak with Martin by phone about working in the horror genre, and of course what tech he’d like to lift from Shuri’s lab!

Lauren Damon: Before the Tribeca premiere had you seen the film?

Martin Freeman: I had, yeah. But only a long time ago on a laptop.

LD: I imagine it was more effective with other people around…

MF: [laughs] Yeah, it went down very well actually, yeah. It was very well received. It was late and people need not hang around for questions but they did. I think it seemed very positive, yeah.

LD: With the film going to Netflix next, are you excited? Are you a big Netflix user yourself?

MF: I am a frequent Netflix user, yes, very much so. I think when you make a film initially, you always envision it having a theatrical release. But maybe generations now don’t envision that. But my generation envisions a theatrical release and it’s getting that in Australia. The rest of [the world] is on Netfilx, that platform, and you think ‘ok, well fair enough.’ But then you actually think it’s more than fair enough because way more people are going to see it on Netflix eventually than would do in a theatrical setting. Just the accessibility of it, the ease with which you could see the amount of things you could see, yeah, I’m more than happy about it.

LD: With Cargo filming mainly being outdoors and with your character carrying the baby everywhere, what was the hardest part about shooting?

MF: Probably just getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. That was pretty challenging. Holding babies on my back was kind of alright. Sort of felt like free gym work, really.

LD: So you lost weight by shooting the film?

MF: I probably did. I probably did. I ate sort of reasonably healthily…but yeah I was constantly carrying a backpack.

LD: I assume there were multiple babies to rotate through?

MF: Yeah, two sets of twins. One pair of twins turned out, quite quickly, to be the more amenable pair. And the other pair was used more for in sort of wide shots.

LD: When you’re acting in an apocalyptic film or a zombie film, do you start thinking about the choices your character is making and whether you’d agree with Andy?

MF: Yeah, I think he did everything he could really. Part of what makes it relatable for me is that his actions seem very human.

LD: Do you think about if a zombie plague broke out what you—as Martin—would do?

MF: I haven’t thought about that a lot, no. No, not a lot. I don’t really fear zombies…but when the shit really hits the fan, whatever form that’s gonna come in…No, I guess like everybody else I’d panic [laughs]. Most people just hole up…

LD: Meanwhile, you’ve also just appeared in Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories. If you don’t fear zombies, what about ghosts and the supernatural?

MF: Not really. I mean I kind of…I’m open to belief in the supernatural if it can’t be empirically disproved or proved. But no, I haven’t ever seen a ghost. I’ve had, you know, the occasional spooky night. Once you hear something that goes bump or bang and you start making up your own narrative for it. And I’ve been rooted to the spot a few times on my stairs thinking ‘is that a ghost or is it a burglar?’ And fortunately it was neither.

LD: Do you have any favorite horror films or ghost stories?

MF: I don’t know if they count it as horror…The first one I saw as a young child was Psycho. So that was when I was about seven and that was—it really affected me a lot. That first experienced of being very very frightened.

LD: In some sequences of Ghost Stories you get to play sinister, which I’m not used to seeing you in that way, was it fun to go there?

MF: Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. I loved it. It’s just always nice to lean into another part of your personality and be able to perform in a different way. Because I think as the film goes on and what I’m doing goes on, it was allowed to get a little more heightened and theatrical. You don’t always, in front of the camera, get the license to be that theatrical and that slightly camp. Your job in front of the camera is usually to be very real and not do any acting at all. Or at least that’s the job I give myself. But to do something a little bit more arch—you know, he becomes a function of the story then, as opposed to a three dimensional character. He becomes the function of the story to do something to Professor Goodman he has to have an effect on [him]. And I really enjoyed, yeah, just having to fuck with Andy Nyman. That was really good fun, yeah.

LD: Between Ghost Stories and Cargo, you undergo some pretty heavy makeup prosthetics, is that fun to get more into it? Or something more challenging?

MF: It is a bit of both, really. It is fun, because I’ve not done loads of it so it’s still—it doesn’t feel too much like the day job for me. It isn’t boring yet to do prosthetics. But yeah, the challenges are just the time it takes and the relative discomfort of it. Just there is a layer between you and the outside world that you’re not used to. There’s a layer between you and the other actors that you’re not used to. I guess with Cargo it was meant to be uncomfortable. And as I say, where we were filming at that time was quite hot…

LD: Yeah and then I imagine being under a bunch of zombie makeup in the hot sun…

MF: Yeah, just getting eaten by mosquitoes and I didn’t get on very well with the contact lenses. I didn’t get on very well with those [laughs]

LD: It looked good!

MF: Good. Yeah, then it’s for a good cause.

LD: Between Cargo and Ghost Stories, which order did you shoot them in? Was it close together?

MF: They were quite close together actually. Yeah, I shot Cargo first and then about a month later I shot Ghost Stories. The month after I came back from Australia, I went up to northern England and shot Ghost Stories.

LD: So you were in like horror genre mode.

MF: Kind of yeah, it sort of worked out like that. And of course it, you know, as far as the actor’s concerned, that’s never The Plan. Because you very rarely have any plan at all other than, you know, be able to pay the rent. It’s just what comes to you that you respond to for whatever reason and I’ve got pretty poor taste in what I like—what I like as a viewer. And what I like doing as an artist….I guess there’s more genre around now than there was twenty years ago. There’s more genre around now. And I’m still from the old school of ‘hey it’s the story’. It has be as story that I like. That I would like to participate in totally regardless of genre. I never give a single second thought to genre.

LD: Speaking of being able to pay the rent—congratulations on being in Black Panther, only the highest US grossing movie ever right now, that’s pretty exciting!

MF: Yeah. Yeah, very exciting.

LD: I am just a giant Marvel nerd, so I’m also wondering, if you could have any of the tech from Shuri’s lab in real life, what would you pick?

MF: Hmmm. Well…anything involving the black sand so it could move around and make shit. If you can picture it, if you can envision it, then the black sand would make it to be like that, that would be very helpful.

LD: What would you use it for?

MF: I’m not sure. Probably just furniture. I like the idea of that. Furniture and shoes.

LD: Just have a nice chair to sit on when you need it…

MF: Yeah, exactly. [laughs] A very nice chair.

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HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE

June 24, 2016

Starring: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rachel House
Directed By: Taika Waititi

Last year New Zealand director Taika Waititi breathed life into the vampire genre with his brilliant What We Do in the Shadows, my favorite comedy of 2015. The director this week turns again to his home turf to even more success for the quirky tale of Ricky Baker in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Wilderpeople is an unconventional spin on the tried-and-true old mentor meeting his younger match that manages to be action packed, unpredictable and heartfelt without veering into the saccharine territory oft trod by coming of age stories. Not only has Waititi matched my expectations based on his Shadows and “Flight of the Conchords” work but he’s significantly upped my excitement for his next project–Thor: Ragnarok (as if that was even possible!)

Julian Dennison stars as a ‘real bad egg’ called Ricky Baker, an orphan from the city who’s been to his share of foster homes. Child services drops him at a remote farm in the New Zealand bush kept by the sweet Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and bearded grump Hec (Sam Neill). Bella invites Ricky to dub them Auntie and Uncle, though Ricky and Hec are less than keen. When the welcoming Bella passes away leaving Ricky under Hec’s care, his new country life looks about to be ripped from under him again by child services. Naturally Ricky flees to the wilderness with Hec following along. They quickly become a pair of outlaws–everyone believing Hec a kidnapper–and infamous for evading a country-wide manhunt.

As Ricky Baker, newcomer Julian Dennison delivers a star-making performance. He is the perfect age for this little adventure of Waititi’s. A foster child who’s been passed around with a long list of ‘offenses’ (which child service agents will rattle off at the drop of a hat to hilarious effect), Baker is on the verge of puberty and of actually buying into his own bad reputation but is still very much malleable. There’s glimpses of Ricky posturing his ”gangsta” image between his wardrobe or his Scarface references but the brilliance of Dennison is watching the child that he actually is come to the surface. Dennison’s vulnerability is exposed when faced with the prospect of being separated from his most stable home to date. Meanwhile, his curiosity and eagerness to learn the bush life chip away at his city-kid exterior and the fact that he’s wont to spout haikus only makes him all the more endearing. There are a million layers to Ricky Baker and Dennison plays them all with great heart.

This isn’t at all to belittle the terrific support Dennison receives from his adult cast. It’s been 23 since Sam Neill begrudgingly led some kids through Jurassic Park and the years and the beard have only hardened his ornery exterior to perfection. His soft center is tougher to wear down to, but Ricky is game for the challenge. And there aren’t any dinosaurs that Neill needs to evade, but as the formidable Paula from Child services, Rachel House is an absolute scene stealer with dreams of being the Terminator. Rounding out these guys is an appearance from frequent Waititi collaborator Rhys Darby used to wacky effect as Psycho Sam.

Despite some real live threats in the bush and some choice language from kids and adults alike (“Like hell!” abounds), I can’t help but feel that Hunt for the Wilderpeople might be a perfect family film. Shot in beautiful locations, it’s hilarious without being malicious, populated with quirky characters forming genuine human bonds and I can’t stress enough the joy I derived from Dennison’s honest performance. Add to all that an action packed finale and you’ve got A Summer Movie to compete with the biggest of blockbusters. As Uncle Hec says, truly “Majestical.”

*****5 Stars

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CAROL

November 20, 2015

Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy

At the outset of Todd Haynes’s latest film Carol, two women meet up in a restaurant in 1950s New York City before they are interrupted by a good natured young man. He ultimately escorts the stylish younger lady off to a party and then we drift back in time. It’s a simple start to a beautifully crafted romantic drama which spends the rest of its runtime loading up this and many other minute interactions with infinite complexity. Working from Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking novel The Price of Salt, director Haynes (of 2002’s lauded Far From Heaven) once again showcases the 1950s as the backdrop for simmering social tensions and stellar work by his lead actresses.

As with everything in Haynes’s gorgeous film, the beginning of Carol and Therese’s relationship is sold in loaded small talk. Carol Aird (Blanchett), looking every bit the glamorous fifties socialite, inquires after Christmas gift suggestions from shopgirl Therese (Mara, saddled with a management-enforced goofy Santa hat). Carol eventually settles on a train set, providing Therese with all her relevant contact info to ship her order. She then sashays away with a compliment to the Santa hat. To the outside shopper, this was just a cordial transaction between two ladies but the dialogue sold through Mara and Blanchett’s eyes screams of a mutual attraction. Not to mention the lingering shots of Carol’s perfectly manicured hands that hint at a world struggling photographer Therese can only aspire to be part of. Conveniently Carol forgets a pair of gloves at Therese’s counter, offering Therese an excuse with which to follow up with this intriguing customer. Under the guise of gratitude, Carol is enabled to take Therese to lunch and from there they’re off and running. Or rather roadtripping.

It’s fitting that a trainset and a roadtrip are at the crux of Therese and Carol’s encounters with one another because Haynes’s film is so much about these women in transitions. It’s unclear what exactly Carol sees in Therese at first except that Carol knows where her desires lie at this point in her life (a past girlfriend in the form of Sarah Paulson’s Abby remains Carol’s strongest bond besides her young daughter) and she will soon be officially divorced from her husband. Her world’s seemingly coming apart and she’s trying to grasp onto something new. Meanwhile Mara is simply heartbreaking as the younger Therese. Navigating this time period, Therese doesn’t even know how to articulate what she wants from Carol or why. A stunning Mara, who won Best Actress with this film at this year’s Cannes festival, is magnetic as her quiet turmoil eventually spills over into a teary outburst before Therese can reform into something stronger.

The leading ladies are capably supported by their would-be male counterparts who are at a loss as to what to do with these women. Kyle Chandler as Harge, Carol’s ex-husband-to-be, launches an attack of sorts on Carol’s ‘morality’ with his legal team in a move that smacks more of desperation than maliciousness. Meanwhile, Therese fends off the over eager advances of Richard (Jake Lacy) and her peers with indifference. To add to it all, Haynes is in his element with period production design along with costume designer Sandy Powell (coming off this year’s triumphant work on Cinderella) and the result is an all around marvelous drama to behold.

*****5 Stars

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WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS

July 21, 2015

Starring: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonny Brugh, Cori Gonzalez­Macuer
Directed By: Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi

What We Do in the Shadows was released here back in February and still remains my favorite comedy of 2015. From the makers of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows is a mockumentary from New Zealand which sees the vampire genre through the eyes of four decidedly uncool flatmates who are also undead. If the thought of yet another vampire film has you reaching for your crucifix, I would implore you to hold off just for these 85 minutes. Despite its slight runtime, Shadows manages to cleverly hit upon all the classic vampire tropes in new and hilarious ways. Rather than Interview with the Vampire, we get interviews with some vampires by way of Christopher Guest or “The Office”.

Taika Waititi is our main vampire, Viago, a friendly fop of only 379 who likes to keep the flat neat even while draining victims of their blood. To start off, he calls a flat meeting where he and ex­torture­master Vladislav (Clement) can confront their youngest roomie Deacon (Brugh, playing 183 years old) about his lax approach to dish duty. Fourth roommate, Petyr, a Nosferatu­like creature who lives in a stone tomb in the basement declines his invite to the meeting. It’s a brilliant intro to the dynamics of this most unusual household before the ‘film crew’ are able to go further into each character’s origins, heartaches and peculiar hobbies. Their routine of hitting up Wellington, NZ nightspots and scouting for potential victims is broken up when one of those potentials is accidentally turned into a new vampire Nick (Gonzalez­Macuer). Nick brings with him a mortal BFF Stu, a deadpan company IT guy, who charms the household into not eating him by simply being cooler and showing the vamps how the internet works. Meanwhile Nick flies around town trying pick up lines like “I’m Twilight” blowing their cover and generally–and fortunately for the viewers – stirring up trouble while blowing their cover.

The film culminates at the Unholy Masquerade where all the communities of supernatural Wellington beings convene. It’s a brilliant finale which allows the filmmakers to expand their lens from vampires to zombies, goblins and werewolves, causing one to wonder what’s going on in all those other shadows over there?? Rhys Darby in particular has a standout bit part as the leader of the werewolves who are just doing their best to keep calm. The comedy works on pretty much every level and was a welcome return to the sensibilities that I loved so much in “Flight of the Conchords”.

*****5 Stars

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SNOWPIERCER

June 30, 2014

Starring: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer and Ed Harris Directed By: Joon-ho Bong

Hoards of filthy apocalypse survivors line up to be counted and doled out their daily glob of protein under hostile guard. Two small children are ripped from their parents and a father loses an arm in the most torturously imaginative way possible for throwing a shoe. Welcome to Snowpiercer.

Or rather the tail section of Snowpiercer, the massive ark-like train that rattles through the frozen wasteland of 2031 Earth in Joon-ho Bong’s wildly inventive adaptation of French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige. By turns hilarious, repulsive and heart-wrenching, Snowpiercer is the ride this summer needs.

The front of the Snowpiercer, we learn, is inhabited by the smaller, richer class, rather like a hellish horizontal Titanic. It’s the front where Chris Evans’s Curtis aims to lead a rebellion to with the help of Jamie Bell as Edgar and elderly mastermind Gilliam, played by John Hurt.

Tilda Swinton rounds out this strong cast as the villainous Mason who early on deigns to visit the tail-dwellers to remind them of their proper place. Mason is a cinematic joy every moment she’s on screen, really laying the groundwork for the type of people running the train and rallying the audience to Evans’s side. Swinton has a ball as Mason who genuinely sees nothing wrong with The Order of the train and she chews the scenery with relish (and grotesque false teeth).

When the rebellion is up and running in earnest, director Bong has a flawless grasp on pacing the big action confrontations with the smaller marvels of exploring a train literally encompassing all life on Earth. The battle set pieces themselves escalate as though the audience is along for a really satisfying video game, with all the pitfalls of slicing through armies of minions only to have the level shift before you, revealing a surprise big boss. I recommend seeing this film in a packed house for the sheer number of Oh Shit! Moments this film packs in.

Finally though, not enough can be said of Evans’s performance here. Likely in the beginning of this rebellion to have been involved for physical strength, his Curtis attempts to resist leadership at every turn. And yet the more he loses as he progresses through the train, the more his will is honed and Evans’s eyes gradually give way to a man who has nothing to lose. A third act speech regarding Curtis’s early days on Snowpiercer is devastating and classically told without flashbacks. It’s all Evans’s reading of some truly nightmarish details, not unlike the Indianopolis speech in Jaws. I’d put money on this film having the single most repulsive sentence you’ll hear on screen this year. Incidentally, after 2007’s Sunshine and last year’s role in The Iceman, Evans is increasingly becoming my goto for the anti-summer blockbuster when he’s not Avenging. When he puts down Cap’s shield, audiences really need to pay more attention.

*****5 Stars

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AUTHOR'S NOTE

Posts featured above were originally published where I regularly contribute over on MediaMikes.com

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