Celebrity, Movies, Oscar Race

Best Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander talks ‘The Danish Girl’

0 Comments 28 January 2016

Alicia Vikander is 'The Danish Woman'

Here is what Vikander told me when I interviewed her for The Hollywood Reporter:

It was wonderful to have Gerda’s art, her personality came through. She was successful in her own time, experiencing that struggle any artist undergoes trying to find their own voice and be true to it. Other people will start to appreciate the work once you find your own voice. Gerda started to become very successful when she found her muse in Lily [Eddie Redmayne’s transgender artist]. It’s pivotal in the beginning with Gerda starting to paint Lily — both of them go on the journey of allowing Lily to step forward and see her true self. Gerda goes on a journey, too. With transgender people, and the loved ones or friends of transgender, you realize that every single story is different. People forget that the wife was on a transition as big as her partner. They were a couple going thru a big change together. I was privileged that my emotions, that are my tools, were employed to portray such an extraordinary woman, the pain and tough road that she also travelled. Gerda always knew that the most important thing was that the person she loved became what she wanted. That sort of unconditional love is inspiring.

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Female-Driven Films Profit, So Why Aren’t More Being Made?

0 Comments 26 January 2016

Kaiti Hsu for "Variety"

Kaiti Hsu for “Variety

“It’s good business to cast strong women in lead movie roles. Last summer’s opening weekend was a master class on femi-nomics when “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Pitch Perfect 2” faced off on May 15 — and both films came out ahead.

“Mad Max: Fury Road,” directed by George Miller, starred Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, a rebel opposite Tom Hardy’s Max. No distressed damsel, the character with her own story arc was so tough the choice ignited a backlash that the franchise had gone fanatically feminist. As for “Pitch Perfect 2,” the sequel directed by co-star Elizabeth Banks featured Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson and Hailee Steinfeld in a femme-friendly musical comedy.

By the numbers, “Mad Max” cost an estimated $150 million to make. Opening weekend reaped $44 million, with worldwide grosses at $375 million and $153 domestically. Meanwhile, “Pitch Perfect 2” cost an estimated $29 million to make, opened to a $70 million weekend, grossed $285 million worldwide and $183 million domestic. Both films had strong female stars but represented very different genres — and the more female-focused of the two had the better return on investment.

More recently, Emily Blunt proved her box office chops in “Sicario,” in which she stars as an FBI agent who gets a crash course in the drug war, with Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro as her dubious mentors. Lionsgate Entertainment opened the $30 million thriller on Sept. 18 in platform release in six venues with a whopping $65,000 per-theater average.

“The numbers speak for themselves. Period. Worldwide grosses for ‘Pitch Perfect 2’ and ‘Cinderella’ were over $800 million. Clearly women aren’t the only ones going to see these movies,” says Academy member Peggy Rajski, associate arts professor/head of producing, NYU Graduate Film Program.

Looking back in 2015, whether we love or love-to-hate “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the female-directed (Sam Taylor-Johnson), female-led (Dakota Johnson) literary adaptation of the bondage bestseller had a benchmark year. On an estimated $40 million budget, the movie grabbed a worldwide gross of $570 million, with a $94 million opening weekend.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” is a sexy potboiler that could not be more different from “Mad Max,” “Pitch Perfect 2,” “Cinderella” or “Sicario.” In short, the house of female-driven cinema has many, many rooms — most of them as yet unexplored. Meanwhile, two novel-based, female-driven sequels are already in development: “Fifty Shades Darker” is in the script stage and slated for 2017, while “Fifty Shades Freed” has been announced for a 2018 release.

The massive success of “Fifty Shades of Grey” reflects the way in which the movie industry has put bias before good business practices. The book industry has long-known that women are among their most avid readers with the household purchase power behind them. It’s not news that the “Twilight Saga” was an established literary franchise long before it made Kristen Stewart famous and, in four films, grossed over a billion dollars.

“The Hunger Games” trilogy, stretched to four movies, made Jennifer Lawrence a major star by keeping true to the novels’ winning female-driven recipe. With the final installment, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2” opening on Nov. 20 in time for the Thanksgiving sweep, the franchise has grossed Lionsgate $2.2 billion so far.

Beyond the event movies, female-driven comedies are on the rise. Both Melissa McCarthy’s “Spy” (worldwide $236 million) and Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck” (worldwide $138 million) were R-rated summer hits. Amy Poehler and Tina Fey hope to capture Christmas with the upcoming “Sisters.”

It comes as no surprise that given the opportunity, female-driven films connect with audiences. Rajski raises the question: “Over half the world’s population is female. Why wouldn’t you target that audience more aggressively?”

The gender gap is bad business: as Oscar winner Meryl Streep pointed out in 2012: “Why? Why? Why? Don’t they want the money?” Her question echoes three years later, begging for a shareholders’ revolt. Female-driven movies make money. In an era when movies are beset by competition from quality television, video games and alternative entertainment, the industry can’t afford to be biased.

{This story first appeared in the October 06, 2015 issue of Variety.)

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Celebrity, Movies

Best Actor Nominee Bryan Cranston Talks ‘Trumbo’

0 Comments 24 January 2016

Period Piece: Cranston as blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo

Period Piece: Cranston as blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo

Here is what Cranston told me when I interviewed him for The Hollywood Reporter:

“If you’re playing a character who is nonfictional, there is an added respon­sibility: Lyndon Johnson, say, or Dalton Trumbo.

There is a plethora of source material, and Trumbo’s two daughters, Nikola and Mitzi, are still alive, and even though they were children at the time, I would ask them a bunch of questions.

For instance, an earlier iteration had Trumbo tell his kids to hop in the car, and he takes them for ice cream. Nikola and Mitzi giggled — that was Cleo, their mom, especially during the blacklist years. Cleo clearly was the emotional foundation and kept the fires burning at home.

As much of a vulnerable, noble battle that Trumbo was embroiled in, there was also some selfishness. We had really honest exchanges about how irritable and angry and impatient he could be. It is important to know that the families of these blacklisted writers and directors paid a price and suffered as much as the men themselves.”

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The Curious Case of the Missing Women in Film Criticism

0 Comments 19 January 2016

Jeanne Phan for Variety

Jeanne Phan for Variety

Film criticism’s demise has been eulogized by endless film festival panelists — mostly male, mostly white. Yet, that waning power still goes largely unshared with women (and people of color).

“Film criticism is in the exact same position as latenight talkshow hosts,” says B. Ruby Rich, UC Santa Cruz professor of film and digital media. “The hiring of Stephanie Zacharek at Time is positive. Manohla Dargis reviews for the New York Times and Ann Hornaday is at the Washington Post. And, yet, female critics who barely got a toe-hold anyway are often the last hired, first fired.”

And there has been a decided brain drain among the few, the strong that once had industry stature. Where have the heavyweight professional critics Janet Maslin, Carrie Rickey, Caryn James, Leah Rozen, Eleanor Ringel, Lisa Schwarzbaum, Susan Wloszczyna, Claudia Puig, Christy Lemire, Lisa Kennedy and Katherine Monk gone, once they took the buyout or got shifted from their perch? Most are still writing, but their perspectives are harder to find as they navigate the passage into the digital seas and, in many cases, the loss of salary and benefits.

Martha Lauzen, executive director, Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, has been tracking the profession for years. “Because men make up the vast majority of critics — 78% of the top critics appearing on the Rotten Tomatoes website in spring 2013 were male — films with male directors and/or writers receive greater exposure from critics,” she says.

Melissa Silverstein, founder, website Women and Hollywood, says, “We need women and people of color’s opinions on movies on all topics. However, it is vitally important that we have more women’s voices reviewing and commenting on women’s stories and on women directors because women have a different perspective than men. Not better, not worse, just different. We have our own lens in how we see the world and that makes our perspective vital.”

“Women have a different perspective
than men. Not better, not worse, just different. We have our own lens in how we see the world and that makes our perspective vital.” Melissa Silverstein

Director Karyn Kusama, (“Girlfight”) says, “To me it’s the question of female directors, writers, cinematographers, designers, editors, actors and critics. If you have substantially fewer of them in the world, then we’re missing a crucial human perspective, and the world suffers for it.”

Another problem is ingrained bias, conscious or not.

Clem Bastow, culture writer at Guardian Australia, says, “The critical response to ‘The Intern’ was fascinating. There’s a subset of male critics that clearly see Nancy Meyers as code for chick flick and react with according bile. What’s very interesting, though, is that I think female critics, working in an industry that is coded as very male, if not macho, often feel the need to go hard on certain films for women, presumably because they worry that they’ll be dismissed, critically speaking, if they praise a film like ‘The Intern,’ as though they’re only reviewing it favorably because they’re women.”

Rickey, long-time Philadelphia Inquirer critic currently at truthdig.com, says, “The lion’s share of the daily and weekly reviewers is male. Are they sexist? I think not. But are they more enthusiastic about female characters seen from a male perspective, i.e. Todd Haynes’ ‘Carol?’ Possibly.”

According to the Gender at the Movies study of top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, men account for 91% of those writing for movie/entertainment magazines and websites such as Entertainment Weekly; 90% of those writing for trade publications and websites; 80% of critics writing for general interest magazines and sites such as Time and Salon; 72% of those writing for newspaper sites; and 70% of critics writing for radio outlets and sites such as NPR.

There is no evidence that gender equity is improving within the profession. According to Lauzen, “In 2013, 78% of the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes were male and 22% were female. I repeated the study at the beginning of 2015 and the numbers were the same.”

Despite the increased awareness, a reversal of the trend is not imminent.

“Unless they get the system of shaming to work against studios, agents, distributors and critics I don’t believe there will be any solution from enhanced information,” Rich says.

“Until somebody is willing to bankroll a lot of women directors, until someone is willing to payroll a critic, change will not happen,” Lauzen says.

So what keeps the industry from calling out critics on their white male majority?

“People who live in glass houses have to be very careful about casting stones,” Lauzen says. “Every corner of the film industry lacks diversity, from the executive suites, to the behind-the-scenes creative community, to those working on screen. The seamlessness of this largely closed system is astounding.”

[This article first appeared in Variety]


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Books, Movies

Busted: Drug-War Drama “Sicario” Strikes me as Warm MIlk after Reading “The Cartel,” watching “Narcos”

0 Comments 11 September 2015

There Will Be Blood for Emily Blunt in "Sicario"

There Will Be Blood for Emily Blunt in “Sicario”

Thanks Don Winslow. (Said with the cadence of ‘Thanks Obama.’) You ruined Sicario for me. Your fantastic, devilishly researched novel The Cartel that James Ellroy called “The War and Peace of dopewar books.” Even before El Chapo escaped jail and the Mexican government scapegoated four policemen, you changed the entire way that I looked at the so-called war on drugs. To paraphrase “I’ve looked at drugs from both sides now,” and by using multiple narratives you made the case that the cartels aren’t something run by Mexican families south of Laredo, but an intricate web of government complicity on both sides of the border where our guys often choose what they consider to be the least of all evil drug lords in a policy that, like the War in Vietnam, has become a lose-lose proposition.

Don — may I call you Don? — by writing a book with multiple narratives, that gives humanity to everyone from the journalists in Juarez to the mistress of the El Chapo of your narrative to a child soldier born in the states and trained to become a sicario of soul-evaporating brutality, as well as American law enforcement, you created a rich and complex narrative. It’s a tale of one border with two very different sides that are as interrelated as brothers, codependent and estranged. Watching Sicariothe movie that stars Emily Blunt as a naive, or as Hollywood says, “idealistic” FBI agent, I kept wondering why she hadn’t read your book — or at least, given the grotesquely violent set pieces she heads into with her Kevlar vest and her eyes open, why she had so little clue about the invasive tentacled tumor that the cartels have become on both sides of the border crossings that they control to Midas-size profits.

For those who read my work, you’ll know that I’m all about the female-driven narrative, but Blunt’s wide-eyed and slightly lip-glossed agent is a false construct. To root for her, and her desire to fight crime by the books, is to sit on the side of American willful ignorance. And that’s not my preferred seat.

What I love about Sicario are the visceral set pieces. But when G-worman Blunt crosses the border in a plane with a mysterious federal agent (a charmingly no-bullshit Josh Brolin) and a twitchy overdressed Latino on special assignment from no branch of the U.S. government that has a payroll (Benicio Del Toro), I missed the complexity of The Cartel. Because his Juarez, not the Mexican drug jungle of the movie, had a culture of books and journalists and community. It was a real place raped and dismembered by the drug trade, a collusion of greed and violence and the American dream for escape through white powder.

The Juarez of Sicario is all backdrop for an American vision. Additionally, thanks to The Cartel, I know that the duality the movie sets up between the good federales and the corrupt local police is bullshit — the federal police are just playing on a different team, because there isn’t just one drug kingpin but many.

Sicario will shock, and Brolin and Del Toro give it grit, Blunt (as always) gives her best but, like Jessica Rabbit, her problem is that she was just drawn that way and can’t escape the sketch. But not only does it come in the wake of The Cartel, and not everybody is reading 600-page books however brilliant these days, but it also follows Netflix’s Narcos, the serial character study of Colombian drug king Pablo Escobar that I watched in great gulps until the final downward spiral. And, if you want to read a fantastic female-driven narrative of a legendary female drug chieftain, reach for the riveting Queen of the South by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Telemundo adapted that novel in Spanish in the wildly popular telenovela La Reina Del Sur from Telemundo.

And, Don, I don’t want to leave out the sultry but intensely lonely survivalist drug queen played by Salma Hayek in Oliver Stone’s adaptation of your novel Savages. She certainly deserves her own book — but I know you are busy, busy.

So that is my long answer as to why, while Sicario will shock some audiences (and the lovely man sitting next to me at the Toronto International Film Festival screening), it lacks authenticity. While it has the stinking dismembered bodies to give it street cred, it goes down like warm milk compared to the reality: a world where we Americans, in general, are willfully misunderstanding our co-dependent relationship with our sister to the south. As someone who grew up on the border in San Diego, and has fond memories of family visits to Tijuana and Ensenada, where life seemed so much more vibrant than the suburbs where I lived, this is a narrative I find infinitely affecting.

Like Vietnam, the War on Drugs is unwinnable — but we have to understand what its true nature is — and how many people on both sides of the border have invested their political and law enforcement careers on it. Read the headlines — and learn to read between the headlines. Follow @DonWinslow. Drug kingpin El Chapo escapes his high security prison. The Mexican government arrests four policemen who take the fall. But this is a dance and the drug cartels are paying the band with briefcases of cash. This echoes the refrain of Narcos: do you want silver or do you want lead — bribes or death. In that environment, there is no law. if you were given that choice, what would your response be? A dead with the devil or death? Think on that.

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