Friday, April 30, 2010

'Oceans' Review

Read my take on Disneynature's stunning, if choppy, new movie, "Oceans," another title in what I feel is becoming a strong year for documentaries.

My review is now online at CLICK HERE.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Supernatural Synergy

Celebrated writer, director and playwright Conor McPherson and his fellow Irishman, the ever-accomplished actor Ciarán Hinds, dish on their new collaboration, the horror-meets-drama film The Eclipse, and the benefits of the professional partnership they've forged.

By R. Kurt Osenlund

Iben Hjejle and Hinds in a scene from The Eclipse

Conor McPherson and Ciarán Hinds have the easy, informal rapport of old friends. Sitting across from the prolific Irish playwright/filmmaker and the ubiquitous Irish character actor, both of whom breezed through Philadelphia in February to promote their new film, The Eclipse, it's as easy to envision them clanging together pints at some folksy pub as it is to picture them running through the scenes of their latest project. A low-key, romantic character study with a supernatural spin, The Eclipse, which recently won the Irish Film & Television Award for Best Film, marks the third collaboration between the writer/director and performer, who previously joined forces for the 2007 Broadway run of McPherson's widely acclaimed play The Seafarer, and his 2009 London production of The Birds. As McPherson tells it, the pair's stage work established the obvious comfort level, which made for a smooth working environment on set.

“When you're rehearsing a play and working on the same things every day, over and over, you develop a deep understanding of an actor's work and how you can communicate” says the red-headed, Dublin-born 38-year-old, who doesn't exhibit a hint of the egotism that might develop in someone else after being dubbed “the finest dramatist of his generation” by both the London Telegraph and The New York Times. “When Ciarán and I were making [The Eclipse], we had already covered a lot of ground together, which made it quite easy."

“If you have a choice to say yes or no to a project, it's usually about the people you might do it with and whether there's something inherent in the writing that you believe in,” adds Hinds, the stern-looking, but surprisingly mild-mannered thesp whom film audiences know from his solid supporting turns in such titles as Road to Perdition, Munich and There Will Be Blood. “After reading a thin outline of Conor's script, I really had no hesitation and was just thrilled that he wanted to work with me again. I wasn't quite sure what the film would be, but there was an air and an atmosphere emanating from it, and I knew Conor's writing would fill in the gaps.”


Surely Hinds was also attracted to his part in The Eclipse, which McPherson adapted and expanded from the short story Table Manners by friend and fellow playwright Billy Roche. The movie gives viewers the rare opportunity to see Hinds, 57, in a leading role, casting him as Michael Farr, a teacher and father of two quietly mourning his wife, who's been dead for two years. A resident of Cobh, a seaport town in the County Cork region of Ireland, Michael is also an aspiring writer who volunteers at Cobh's annual international literary festival, which in the film draws in authors like the pompous Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn) and the lovely Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle). Serving as the driver for both authors, Michael finds himself inadvertently fighting for the affections of Lena, a writer of books on ghosts and hauntings who ends up being the only person Michael can confide in about what's really bugging him – terrifying visits from spirits.

Aside from Hinds's finely understated performance (which earned him the Best Actor prize at last year's Tribeca Film Festival), what's so deceptively impressive about The Eclipse is how one could essentially remove all of the supernatural elements and still be left with a rather air-tight drama – an intimate little chronicle of a simple man with complex feelings who comes to terms with his grief while making a new connection. That said, the bumps in the night, which are expertly, sparingly distributed for maximum effect, do serve the film considerably well, widening not just the appeal, but the emotional resonance.

“It was a challenge,” McPherson says of introducing the horror component, which didn't appear in Roche's original text. “I really wanted the audience to be frightened so they could share that feeling with Michael. He's genuinely freaked out by what's happening, and we realize what he's going through, but he still has to have normal conversations and keep his life together. I think it takes the audience deep into his character – they go on this private journey with him because of the shocks.”

Hinds in a scene from The Eclipse

McPherson and Hinds share similar views on both the character of Michael and supernatural phenomena. McPherson sees his protagonist as “an everyman” and “a picture of the human condition,” while Hinds, who clearly put great consideration into the role, thinks of him as “a practical man” most at ease when doing “simple, practical things like washing the dishes.” As for ghosts, McPherson says, “I think I do believe in them. I definitely believe people see things. If someone claimed to have seen something, I'd want to know what it was like – I'd be intrigued rather than dismissive.” Adds Hinds, “I don't disbelieve in [ghosts] at all. I think we have certain senses that aren't fully developed, and can detect certain energies that manifest themselves from time to time.”

Throughout a roughly 30-minute interview, there's really nothing about which McPherson and Hinds aren't on the same page, and McPherson, who even speaks in the same low, tranquil voice as his leading man, doesn't take the pair's symbiosis lightly. “Bringing something to life and to fruition is such a hard thing to do,” McPherson says. “So, when you find collaborators who understand and trust what you're doing, and who you enjoy working with, it just feels very natural to want to continue to do that.”

“Natural” is also the word McPherson uses to describe his transition from stage to screen, a graceful, seemingly effortless swap of mediums if ever there was one. When asked why he first felt compelled to try his hand at movies, McPherson replies, “Well, why does anyone want to do anything, really? Something in me just –”

“You had an outrageous thought,” Hinds playfully interjects, finishing his director's sentence. Here's hoping there are plenty more outrageous thoughts where that came from.

The Eclipse is now playing in theaters and is also available via OnDemand, Amazon and Xbox Live.
This article was originally published in the May 2010 issue of
ICON magazine and has been reprinted with permission.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

'The Girl on the Train' Review

It's time to read my take on "The Girl on the Train," the latest from André Téchiné. The review is now online at CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Friday, April 16, 2010

'Kick-Ass' Review

Sorry, Roger Ebert, but I'm with the consensus that "Kick-Ass" kicks ass.

Read my review of Matthew Vaughn's ultra-violent comic book adaptation, now online at CLICK HERE.

Video Break with Annette Bening

Annette Bening has two very attractive films coming out this year: Rodrigo Garcia's "Mother and Child" and Lisa Cholodenko's "The Kids Are All Right." One can only assume that one of these roles may just lead to Ms. Bening's fourth Oscar nomination, and one can only bloody his knees in prayer that Hilary Swank, who also has a baity role in "Betty Anne Waters," doesn't again rob one of our greatest actresses of the recognition she deserves. Here are peeks at "Child" and "Kids" :

Friday, April 9, 2010

'Clash of the Titans' Review

Release the criticisms!!

Read my review of Frenchman Louis Letterier's faintly fun but generally disappointing remake of "Clash of the Titans," now online at CLICK HERE.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Moving Pictures

In the documentary The Art of the Steal, Philadelphia filmmaker Don Argott chronicles the controversy surrounding the world-renowned Barnes Foundation art collection, which is set to be transplanted to Philly's downtown area.
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Unless some kind of miracle presents itself, the $25 billion collection of Post-Impressionist and early Modern art long housed at the world-famous Barnes Foundation in Lower Merion, Pa. will be moved to a new site along Philadelphia's Ben Franklin Parkway by 2012. The relocation comes to the grievous dismay of a who's who of art connoisseurs and former students of the foundation, and it certainly doesn't mesh with the wishes of founder and collector Dr. Albert C. Barnes, whose will states that the art never be moved or even loaned, and that the foundation always remain an educational institution.

According to the highly involved and involving documentary The Art of the Steal, which charts the epic, in-depth history of the Barnes and the messy struggle over the control of its incredible art, the movement of the collection is the result of a complex conspiracy – a cloak-and-dagger act of power- and money-driven thievery involving seemingly upstanding organizations like The Pew Charitable Trusts and The Annenberg Foundation, and, to a lesser but still instrumental degree, politicians like former Philly mayor John Street and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.

However much of the film is factual, it presents one convincing and provocative case, and its director, Don Argott (Rock School), turns a relatively weak-sounding central argument (“Will a man's will be broken?”) into a fascinating, sophisticated and, at times, downright infuriating look at the not-so-beautiful side of the art world, and a group of very un-Hollywood underdogs (the won't-back-down-without-a-fight former students) who likely won't be coming out on top. The volume of data Argott yielded is considerable, as is his roster of interview subjects, which also includes such standouts as John Anderson, author of “Art Held Hostage: The Battle over the Barnes Foundation,” and Richard Glanton, a polarizing figure and former president of the Barnes.

Best of all, The Art of the Steal is staged like a paranoid thriller, its visual, aural and narrative design chugging along with the pulse-quickening momentum of a good detective yarn.

Argott, who developed the film with his producer partner, Sheena Joyce, under the pair's own 9.14 Pictures, says he walked into this project knowing he might make a few enemies. In a recent interview, the 37-year-old Philadelphian discusses what it was like to cast a shameful cloud over his hometown, who the real star of the movie is, the highlights of what he included and the disappointments over what he didn't.

Don Argott

R. Kurt Osenlund: How interested were you in fine art before taking on this project?
Don Argott: Fine art? I'm a huge Salvador Dali fan, but in terms of the kind of work that's at the Barnes Foundation, that's not necessarily my cup of tea.

R.K.O.: There's an extraordinary amount of information in this film. How long did the research process take?
D.A.: It was kind of concurrent with making the film. It wasn't like there was a research part and then we started. I mean, we did a lot of research prior to shooting, but once we got underway in production, we continued with the research. Certainly we wanted to be as prepared as possible for the people we were interviewing, so we'd do extensive amounts of research on them, but it was pretty concurrent with us doing the film. Once we'd dive into certain aspects of the story, we'd learn a lot from a particular interview, and that would take us in another direction. So it was a very organic process in terms of the research.

R.K.O.: What was the most fascinating part of that process?
D.A.: The Glanton era is, to me, really where the story gets very interesting. So much, probably, because Richard is such an amazing character who has a big ego, as well as his own feelings about the Barnes Foundation and what he felt was the best thing for it. I think that era marked the beginning of the end, really, and it showed how much of a circus the whole story would become. There are so many amazing things that happened in that era.

R.K.O.: Who is your favorite character in the film? Glanton?
D.A.: Albert Barnes. Absolutely. It's interesting because, when we started, we really felt that we were going to be making a mostly historical documentary, highlighting what had happened at the foundation for the past 50, 60 years. It wasn't until we got into the editing room and started crafting it that Albert Barnes emerged as our character. It was a revelation because, at that point, we found that he's who you want to root for, not the Friends of the Barnes, necessarily. Albert Barnes wrote the script – the script is his will, and we basically tried to highlight the things that were important to him, and to see the film through his eyes. And hopefully we succeeded in doing that.

R.K.O.: How difficult was it to get all of your interviewees to comment, and who was the most difficult?
D.A.: Everybody was pretty open to participating. I would say Glanton was probably the hardest to get – he needed a little convincing. His tenure [at the Barnes] was a pretty inflammatory time, and he got a lot of the brunt and blame for a lot of the things that happened subsequent to him leaving. Everybody else was pretty easy to get – the people that we did interview.

R.K.O.: Of the individuals who declined comment, like chairman of the Barnes Foundation Board of Trustees Bernard Watson and Pew Charitable Trusts president and CEO Rebecca Rimel, who were you most disappointed about not being able to interview?
D.A.: All of them, frankly. The Barnes Foundation was quite difficult. First and foremost, not being able to shoot inside the gallery was the most disappointing thing for me as a filmmaker – not being able to bring our cameras in there and shoot it the way we wanted to shoot it. And certainly anybody from the Barnes Foundation would have been amazing to talk to, to be able to ask some of the difficult questions that I think are still floating out there. It's disappointing, and then the frustrating part is we've heard the film referred to as being “one-sided.” Well, how can it be two-sided if we can only get one side to talk to us?

Albert Barnes

R.K.O.: Of the villains, so to speak, who you did interview, such as, say, Gov. Ed Rendell, did you get the sense they knew they were doing something wrong?
D.A.: I wouldn't categorize Ed Rendell and [former Pa. attorney general] Mike Fisher as villains, honestly. I think they just have a different point of view of this thing, and they show you what the film could have been a little bit more of, frankly. Specifically, with Rendell, I don't think he thought he did anything wrong. I think to him this is politics as usual, this is how things happen.

R.K.O.: Eventually, when Rendell started discussing the benefits of moving the art downtown, I surely began to see the logic in his point of view, after having sympathized with the Friends of the Barnes. Did you intend to create those kind of conflicted feelings in the viewer?
D.A.: Yeah, absolutely, and frankly, I wish the film had more of that. I don't think there's a question about whether [the Barnes art] would be great for the city of Philadelphia. But then, what you have to come back to is, it kind of is in the city of Philadelphia. If you're from New York, or Europe, you know, there's no Merion International Airport. You're going to fly into Philadelphia to see the collection. You're probably going to go to the Art Museum and other places in the city, and then go out to Merion to see the Barnes Foundation. And that's what's important: it's not impossible to get into. It's not as accessible as a lot of people would like it to be, but I think that plays into the idea in our culture of how people don't have to look for anything anymore. The Barnes requires a little bit of effort, but that doesn't mean it should be totally dismantled and reimagined as something else.

R.K.O.: The film basically villainizes Philadelphia – the city in which you live. Did you have any trepidations about that?
D.A.: Yes and no. When you set out to make a film, you kind of can't worry about those things. There's that section in the film about fear, about how you can't criticize these people because of what they're capable of doing. What kind of a world is it when we can't criticize people who should be criticized for doing something we feel is wrong? As bad as the city of Philadelphia comes across, I love it here, I love this city. And the Pew [Charitable Trusts] and the Annenberg Foundation, they do a lot of great things, and I'm not saying they don't. But I do think it's difficult when people feel like they can't criticize them because they do so many amazing things. Once we committed to making the film, we had to do it the way we felt was best to get the information across, and not worry about who we were going to upset in the process.

R.K.O.: The clincher, for me, was when the layers really started to peel away and the sheer depth of the whole conspiracy aspect really started to reveal itself. When did you know you wanted to not just present this conspiracy, but also design the film as a sort of conspiratorial thriller?
D.A.: I think it's the best structural way to present the information. Everything in filmmaking is figuring out when to give the audience the information. So with a story like this, where there's so much information, and there's one thing leading to another and then another, it's just the right way to present it. I didn't appreciate it until audiences started to respond, saying the film plays like a whodunit. I was certainly conscious of it in terms of putting the film together, but you always wonder if the masses are going to see the same thing you see. I think [the conspiracy angle] has helped us to break outside of the documentary/art world crowd.

A former student of the Barnes protests the move.

R.K.O.: There are a lot of bold statements made in the film by interviewees. To cite a few: “The single most important cultural monument of the 20th century,” “The greatest act of cultural violence since World War II,” and “The scandal of the art world in modern America.” Do you believe all of these statements to be true, or did you find it's not a matter of believing, that it's simply fact?
D.A.: I think it's somewhere in the middle. Part of the way we make documentaries is we purposely don't have narrators. There's no imposing voice of what we want you to feel. The people we chose to interview for the film, the people who made those statements, are those who are intimately involved in as many aspects of the story as possible. We didn't want people who were just on the fringes and kind of had an opinion about it, we wanted people like [Los Angles Times art critic] Christopher Knight, who's been writing about [the Barnes] for years. People like [NAACP Chairman of the Board] Julian Bond, who knew Albert Barnes when he was a child. They are pretty bold statements, and I certainly agree with them, but it's not really for me to make that judgment call.

R.K.O.: What was the most rewarding experience for you during the process of making the film?
D.A.: I gotta go with the standing ovation we got at the Toronto International Film Festival. There were all these little victories leading up to that (finishing the film, getting it into Toronto), but there's so much anticipation with that first screening. It's your first time putting your baby out there to the world, and you don't know how people are going to react to it – if they're going to respond to it, if they're going to think it's interesting or boring. And at that first screening, once the credits came on, people stood up and cheered. I was like, “Jesus!” I had no idea that it would elicit that kind of reaction. That one singular moment was a huge victory for me – and it took place on my birthday, Sept. 14, so it had even more significance.

R.K.O.: Apart from telling the story, what do you think or hope this movie will accomplish? Is it possible for the decision to move the Barnes art to be reversed?
D.A.: You know, I don't know. People have asked me that, and I always say that was never the intention to make the movie. There was no hidden agenda in making the movie of trying to stop the move from happening. I'd be lying if I told you that it wouldn't make me feel good if the move wasn't happening as a result of the film, but that's certainly not the intention. And to think that the film has any hope of stopping this kind of snowball rolling down a hill is a pretty lofty thing to wish for. But what's been cool in doing all these festivals and showing it to audiences is it opens up a dialogue, and I think it's an important dialogue to have no matter what happens. People finally get to know the story, and know what went on, and people who are on the other side of it, who didn't want to talk when we were making the film, are going to be forced to answer some hard questions. And, frankly, they're questions I want to know the answers to.

*This article was published in the April 2010 issue of ICON magazine. It has been reprinted with permission.

Friday, April 2, 2010

'How to Train Your Dragon' Review

I was carried away by this high-flying kids' flick, but I'm also taken aback by how extremely well it's been received. Read more in my review, now online at CLICK HERE.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

'The Fruit is Ripe,' Indeed

In light of "At the Movies" being axed, and the increasingly popular opinion that the death knell of film criticism has grown deafeningly loud, my hero A.O. Scott offers a brilliant essay on the essence of movie reviewing. READ IT.

And speaking of heroes, surely you've read Esquire writer Chris Jones' wonderful piece on Roger Ebert by now. No? GET ON IT.

Re-Release the Kraken, Please

I'm going to pretend that after all that torturous build-up, there's another cut of "Clash of the Titans" on its way in which we can actually see and enjoy the reveal of the big, bad beast for more than, like, five hyperactive seconds. Thank the gods for still images: