Friday, February 08, 2019

A brief story about Albert Finney, oral sex, Jack J. Valenti, and me

In Charlie Bubbles (1968), the only movie the late, great Albert Finney ever directed, Finney affectingly plays an author who, for a goodly portion of the film, is on a road trip with his adoring secretary, played by a very young, pre-Sterile Cuckoo Liza Minnelli. (She’s pretty terrific, by the way.) There is a scene where it’s fairly clear, though not explicitly depicted, that because he’s too enfeebled by ennui or just plain exhausted, she scoots down between his legs in a hotel room bed to fellate him. That’s one of the reasons why Universal had to release Charlie Bubbles through a subsidiary distributor — the studio couldn't get a production code seal for it.
Something similar happened the same year with Michael Winner's I'll Never Forget What's'isname, a movie that has a scene in which it’s heavily implied that Oliver Reed performs cunnilingus on Carol White. The minor controversies sparked by both films are amusingly detailed in Jack Vizzard's 1971 memoir See No Evil: Life Inside a Hollywood Censor —  a book, not incidentally, that I cited as a reference in the long-delayed master’s thesis I wrote more than a decade ago for my MA degree at the University of Houston.

Oddly enough, both Charlie Bubbles and I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname played for months on a double bill at the Gentilly-Orleans, an art house in my hometown of New Orleans, during my senior year of high school. And I viewed the double bill multiple times — not because of the risqué scenes (though, I must admit, they weren't exactly a deterrent) — but because, for reasons I still don't fully understand, I felt extremely simpatico with the alienated characters played by Finney and Reed. (Yeah, I was a strange kid.)

What I had no way of knowing at the time is that both films provided early headaches for Jack J. Valenti, who took over as head of the MPAA in 1966 — and wound up replacing the Production Code with the vastly more flexible MPAA Ratings System in November 1968.

Now I teach at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication at University of Houston. And the world keeps spinning in its greased grooves.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

R.I.P. Al Reinert -- Co-scripter of Apollo 13, director of For All Mankind and An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story

Very sad to pass on some bad news: Al Reinert, the former Houston Chronicle crime beat reporter and Texas Monthly feature writer who earned Academy Award nominations for directing the Apollo space mission documentary For All Mankind (1989) and co-scripting Ron Howard’s fact-based drama Apollo 13 (1995), passed away at age 71 on the morning of New Year’s Eve at his home in Wimberly, Texas. 

At the time of his death, he was preparing another interstellar feature: Above It All, a documentary about the International Space Station. But he also made an impressive impact back here on earth, with his remarkable 2013 documentary An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story.

Back in 1990, I interviewed Reinert about For All Mankind, which earned the top jury and audience documentary awards at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival — and which Reinert was inspired to construct, without any formal training as a filmmaker, after serendipitously discovering vast quantities of NASA archival footage.

I figured, hey, we could make this movie real cheap and simple,” he told me nearly 30 years ago. “I mean, the government’s spent all this money to shoot the film, so there’ll be nothing to it. It’s like, we thought we had discovered a goldmine.”

Of course, it wasn’t nearly as simple as that. And the finished product proved to be something far more substantial than a found-footage collage. Indeed, even viewers who watched every televised detail of the epochal Apollo space program of the 1960s and ‘70s found themselves amazed and engrossed by the out-of-this-world spectacle that Reinert artfully assembled.

For the benefit of those who tuned in late: For All Mankind offers a single, composite narrative culled from NASA archival footage of nine 1968-72 lunar missions. Audiences accustomed to thinking of astronauts as white-bread bland were (and still are) delighted by the unexpected hilarity: Frat-house horseplay in the spacecraft, exhilarating joyrides on the lunar surface. (One astronaut bursts into song: “While strolling on the moon one dayyyyy…”) But the movie is more than fun and games: Reinert balanced the hijinks with images that, despite their familiarity, had (and still have) an undiminished ability to astonish. And those images were underscored with haunting music by Brian Eno, and enthralling interviews with Apollo astronauts.

Reinert, a self-described fortysomething “ex-hippie” at the time of our 1990 conversation, admitted that he “never was much of a space buff” before stumbling across the NASA film-clip treasure trove more than a decade earlier. At that time, he was researching a Texas Monthly article about the 10th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

“But I didn't cover space, I wasn't particularly interested in space,” he said. “In fact, the reason I did my first space story when I did was because nothing was going on in space. I went to NASA after Apollo, and before the space shuttle, when NASA was sort of in limbo. And that’s what intrigued me about NASA at the time: Like, hey, what are all these people doing down there?”

His timing was impeccable.

“I met my first astronauts when they weren’t busy, and they had time to talk. It was years after they’d gone to the moon, and they weren't being hounded by interviewers like they were when they first came back, when they really had nothing to say. And when everybody — including me — was completely convinced that they were boring.

“When I hit ‘em, eight years later, not only had all this percolated a lot, and they had a lot of things to say — when I hit ‘em, nobody had asked them anything about this in years. So I dragged my tape recorder down there, and I’d just sit around for hours with these guys. Nobody would interrupt us, and they had nothing better to do.”

Reinert accumulated over 80 hours of taped interviews, in which the Apollo astronauts spoke of their in-flight impressions, their on-the-moon memories, and their post-mission dreams. Among his favorite anecdotes: ''Ken Mattingly [of the Apollo 12 mission] went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey eight times in the six months before he blasted off, just to get himself psyched up.”

On a hunch, Reinert visited the NASA film and video archive, to view footage of an incident described by one of the astronauts. The underworked archivists were more than willing to find the footage Reinert requested.

"I looked at it, and I said, ‘Hey, that's great!’ And they said, ‘Yeah? Well, we got a lot more, you know.’”

Lots and lots more, as it turned out. The footage was freely available to anyone -- TV news directors, documentary filmmakers, anyone -- willing to pay the fee for 16mm or videotape copies. But hardly anybody had taken the time to view as much of it, over extended periods, as Reinert did.

“NASA really has very little to say about it, Reinert said. “Anybody can walk in there and order footage. I mean, people can use it in porno movies. In fact, they have used it in porno movies.

 “The trick is, knowing what you want. You can’t just walk in and say, oh, I want to order 2,000 hours’ worth of film. Because that will cost you hundreds of millions of dollars. The trick is knowing what you want out of those 2,000 hours.”

Reinert made his first visit to the NASA archives “two or three years before the shuttle really got going,” and made repeated visits during the next few years, “driving down there whenever I had nothing else to do.”

“And I found myself thinking, ‘Why has this never been seen on the big screen? Why haven’t I seen this movie?’ And I just stupidly thought — well, it was the Judy Garland syndrome of, ‘Hey, let's put on a show.’ Only with me, it was, ‘Hey, I can make this! I'm a writer — so how hard can this be?’”

Actually, the hardest part — harder than blowing up the scratchy 16mm copies to clean 35mm prints, harder even than coaxing money from investors — was creating the illusion of a continuous narrative.

“Because, essentially, it was random film,” Reinert said. “It was never designed to be cut together. I mean, like, in the movie, we’ll cut from Apollo 13 straight to Apollo 14 to Apollo 16, all in one scene.

“Like the bathroom scene — that came from an astronaut’s description of going to the bathroom in space. I thought, ‘That's funny!’ But, OK, then the task was to go find pictures of it. In the film, the scene consists of three pictures, one of which is printed backwards — and it’s cut in the middle to the picture of the guys putting on their gasmasks.”

It’s a funny image, Reinert says, “but it's really a test of the emergency oxygen system.”

I had another welcome opportunity for an extended chat with Reinert in 2013, this time at the SXSW Film Festival, where An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story — his stirring documentary about the wrongful conviction and ultimate exoneration of a Texas man accused of brutally killing his wife in 1986 — was voted the audience award in the Documentary Spotlight division.

Again, for latecomers: Morton, then gainfully employed as an Austin grocery store inventory manager, was convicted (mostly on the basis of circumstantial evidence) of beating his wife Christine to death in their home — allegedly in front of their 3-year old son.

Mind you, the youngster told an investigator that his father was not home at the time of the slaying —  and that someone else, described by the child as “a monster,” really killed his mom. But this evidently meant little to then-Williamson County district attorney Ken Anderson. The prosecutor never gave a transcript of the child’s interview to Bill Allison, Morton’s defense lawyer. Nor did he turn over other evidence that might have persuaded the jury not to render a guilty verdict during Morton’s 1987 trial.

Thanks to the efforts of Houston attorney John Raley and members of the New York-based Innocence Project, Morton finally was freed from prison in 2011 after DNA testing exonerated him —and, not incidentally, implicated Bastrop, Texas dishwasher Mark Alan Norwood, who was convicted of Christine Morton’s murder in March 2013. Norwood received his guilty sentence just a few days after An Unreal Dream had its SXSW premiere — which was attended by Reinert and Morton.

Some highlights of my conversation with Reinert nine months after SXSW, and one month before An Unreal Dream premiered on CNN:

At what point did the Michael Morton case pop up on your radar as a potential subject for a documentary?

Pretty much around the time Michael got released from prison. I had a couple of friends who had told me about this story. And while I was living in Los Angeles at the time, I was able to watch him on the Internet. I’d already known a little bit about the case – but, really, it didn’t seem all that different to me. I mean, he’s not the only person who’s been wrongly convicted and then exonerated with DNA. It’s just that I had a friend who knew John Raley, and told me this was an especially interesting case, and I should be paying attention to it. 

So I saw Michael on the day he was released from prison. And I saw him on camera talking for the very first time – he was interviewed on TV that day, and we even have a little bit of that in the film. And right away, I thought this is not your average guy. This is an interesting guy. He’s got a certain charisma to him. And I kind of wanted to know more. So about a month later, I flew to Houston to meet John Raley, and had lunch with him, and started to learn more about this story. And the story kept getting more interesting the more I learned about it. 

The remarkable thing about Michael Morton – this comes through in your film, and when you meet him in person – is that he seems so remarkably composed and equanimous for someone who spent more than two decades in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He comes across as someone who is so – well, there’s no other word for it – forgiving. 

He does. And it is remarkable. I know I couldn’t do it. Even if I could say the words, I couldn’t pull it off like he does. He’s very genuine about it. I think he came to terms with it while he was still in prison. And I know he gives a lot of credit to his Christian faith. I mean, he doesn’t talk a lot about Christ or Jesus that much. So it’s almost like a Zen kind of a thing. But I think he really did become a different person while behind bars. 

What about you? Did you find yourself getting angry while you were researching this case? 

Oh, sure. All of us who worked on the film were angry. Because a lot of this was still going on during the production. You had Ken Anderson basically blaming the system instead of himself. And the more we learned about it, the more everybody but Michael got angry. 

Largely because of the injustice he endured, the Texas legislature passed in May 2013 the Michael Morton Act, which requires prosecutors to give defense attorneys any evidence relevant to their clients’ cases. 

Yeah, I know – it’s been one astonishment after another with this case. To think that a Tea Party legislature could unanimously pass a reform bill that’s one of the strongest in the country – it’s just amazing. I don’t know how to account for it, other than the fact that a lot of these Tea Party types listened to Michael and believed his story. And it moved them. I know he lobbied for it pretty hard. It wasn’t like he was off in the sidelines while this bill that was named for him was floating around the capital. 

When did you film the interviews for An Unreal Dream

Most of the main interviews we did over Memorial Day weekend [in 2012]. That was our first weekend of shooting, really. And here’s the thing: We went in search of an old-fashioned kind of courtroom, because we wanted to put Michael in a courtroom that had that kind of To Kill a Mockingbird feel to it. And we scouted about a dozen courtrooms in Texas looking for one that looked right. And it turned out that the best-looking one of all was the one in Georgetown — where the original trial had actually happened. 

We did not go there first. But we were fortunate, in that that courthouse is now a museum, as opposed to a working courthouse. Which meant the courtroom was available to rent. But you could only do that when the museum wasn’t open. And on Memorial Day weekend, they were closed for three days. So we were able to take over the courthouse, and shoot in there. That’s where we filmed Michael and John Raley and [defense lawyer] Bill Allison and the two jurors. Probably the heart of the movie was filmed that very first weekend. 

Right there where it all happened.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Happy 123rd Birthday to Cinema!

On December 28, 1895, cinema in projected form was presented for the first time to a paying audience by two French brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumiere (pictured above), owners of a photographic studio in Lyons. They went to Paris to demonstrate their cinématographe -- the name they'd given their combination camera and projector -- by showcasing short films they had shot with their hand-cranked innovation.

According to legend: At the Grand Café at 14 Boulevard des Capucines, a man stood outside the building all day on December 28, handing out programs to passers-by. But cold weather kept many people from stopping. As a result, only 33 tickets were sold for the first show.

When the lights went down that evening in a makeshift theater in the basement of the Grand Café, a white screen was lit up with a photographic projection showing the doors of the Lumiere factory in Lyon. Without warning, the factory doors were flung open, releasing a stream of workers... and, wonder of wonders, everything moved. The audience was stunned.

This first film was entitled La sortie de l'usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory). Ten more short scenes followed, each reel roughly 17 meters in length, including Baby's Dinner (kinda-sorta the first home movie by proud parents, later echoed by Spike Lee in Lumiere & Company) and The Sprinkler Sprinkled (arguably the first slapstick comedy, involving a man, his garden hose and a practical joker).

Within a week, with no advertising but word of mouth, more than 2,000 spectators visited the Grand Café each day, each paying the admission price of one franc. The crowds were so huge, police had to be called in to maintain order. The age of cinema had begun. Vive le cinema.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Favourite is the early favorite for Houston Film Critics Society Awards

This just in: The Houston Film Critics Society — the venerable organization that counts yours truly as a founding member — has announced nominations for the 12th annual HFCS movie awards. Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite leads the pack with seven nominations. Close behind: Black Panther and If Beale Street Could Talk, each with six nods, including Best Picture; and A Star is Born and Vice, each with five nominations, including Best Picture. Other Best Picture contenders are BlackKklansman, Eighth Grade, First Reformed, Green Book, Hereditary and Roma.

Winners will be announced Jan. 3, 2019 during an awards program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.  The event, which kicks off at 7 pm, will be open to the public at no charge. No, really. Free admission. Honest. You can reserve your tickets here.

And here is a full list of nominees:

Best Picture

A Star is Born, Black Panther, BlackKklansman, Eighth Grade, If Beale Street Could Talk, The Favourite, First Reformed, Green Book, Hereditary, Roma, Vice

Best Director

Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born; Alfonso Cuaron, Roma; Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk; Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite; Adam McKay, Vice

Best Actor

Christian Bale, Vice; Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born; Ethan Hawke, First Reformed; Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody; Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

Best Actress

Glenn Close, The Wife; Toni Collette, Hereditary; Olivia Colman, The Favourite; Lady Gaga, A Star is Born; Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Best Supporting Actor

Mahershala Ali, Green Book; Timothee Chalamet, Beautiful Boy; Adam Driver, BlackKklansman; Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?; Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther

Best Supporting Actress

Amy Adams, Vice; Claire Foy, First Man; Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk; Emma Stone, The Favourite; Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
Best Screenplay

Bo Burnham, Eighth Grade; Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara, The Favourite; Paul Schrader, First Reformed; Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk; Adam McKay, Vice

Best Cinematography

Rachel Morrison, Black Panther; Linus Sandgren, First Man; Robbie Ryan, The Favourite; James Laxton, If Beale Street Could Talk; Alfonso Cuaron, Roma

Best Animated Film

Incredibles 2, Isle of Dogs, Mirai, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Best Original Score

Ludwig Göransson, Black Panther; Justin Hurwitz, First Man; Nicholas Britell, If Beale Street Could Talk; Alexandre Desplat, Isle of Dogs; Thom Yorke, Suspiria

Best Original Song

“All the Stars,” Black Panther; “Ashes,” Deadpool 2; “Hearts Beat Loud,” Hearts Beat Loud; “Revelation,” Boy Erased; “Shallow,” A Star is Born

Best Foreign Language Film

Burning, Border, Cold War, Roma, Shoplifters

Best Documentary Feature

Free Solo, Minding the Gap, RBG, Three Identical Strangers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Texas Independent Film Award

1985, An American in Texas, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, Support the Girls, Tejano

Visual Effects

Black Panther, First Man, Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Best Poster

BlacKkKlansman (two), Mandy, Suspiria (two)

Best Worst Film of the Year

The 5:17 to Paris, The Happytime Murders, Life Itself, Peppermint, Venom

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Confession: I like Love, Actually

This is the time of the year when some bizarre form of snarky group-think manifests itself, and a lot of people start trash Tweeting about Love, Actually. So I feel compelled to reprint my original 2003 review of the film — which, actually, I quite liked.  

Richard Curtis, the screenwriter of Notting Hill and Four Weddings and Funeral, graduates to multi-hyphenate status with Love, Actually, and it's altogether appropriate to grant him a passing grade for his directorial debut. An affectingly seriocomic crazy-quilt of overlapping love stories in and around London, Curtis’ hugely enjoyable comedy-drama strikes a delicate balance between silliness and seriousness, sentiment and sardonic wit, even as it warns that not every love story ends happily ever after.

It’s a given, of course, that if we're dealing with a scenario contrived by Curtis, Hugh Grant must figure into the mix. Sure enough, the nimbly self-effacing farceur is first among equals in the ensemble cast, gracefully playing a newly elected, vaguely Tony Blair-ish prime minister who's conveniently unattached as he moves into No. 10 Downing Street. He's scarcely through the front door before he's distracted by Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), a chipper household staffer who's all the more delectable for not being supermodel-svelte.

Truth to tell, there's a bit of meat on her bones. And while she wears it well, she’s more than a little self-conscious, thanks to a churlish ex-boyfriend who made pointed reference to “thighs the size of tree trunks” before his departure.

The PM, savoring the pleasure of her company, graciously offers to punish the bounder: “You know, being prime minister, I could just have him killed.” (Not for the first time in his career, Grant seizes upon a mildly amusing line and, with perfect-pitch timing, makes it sound flat-out hilarious.) Natalie – flashing just a hint of a smile – responds: “Thank you, sir. I'll think about it.”

Elsewhere amid the entangled plotlines, other romance-in-the-workplace stories proceed apace. Harry (Alan Rickman) is happily married to Karen (Emma Thompson) – who just happens to be the sister of the newly elected Prime Minister – but he can't help responding to the none-too-subtle blandishments of Mia (Heike Makatsch), his aggressively adoring secretary. Jamie (Colin Firth), a jilted thriller writer, flees his unfaithful girlfriend to complete a novel at his villa in the south of France, where, when he's not plotting some character's untimely demise, he falls in love – slowly, sweetly -- with Aurelia (Lucia Moniz), his Portuguese housekeeper. That she can't speak much English, and he can't speak any Portuguese, is at worst a minor impediment to the blossoming romance.

Not all storylines are created equal. The ironically shy and formal interplay between two body doubles (Martin Freeman, Joanna Page) for stars in a sexy melodrama never amounts to anything more than a lame running gag. Laura Linney is pleasingly plucky as a transplanted American who pines for a hunky office co-worker, but she's undone by a plot device – i.e., a choking family tie – that's introduced far too late in the proceedings. A romantic triangle involving Keira Knightley, Chiwetel Ejiofer and Andrew Lincoln is uncomfortably closer to a stalker story. And while Liam Neeson hits all the right emotional notes as a recently widowed stepfather who offers romantic advice to his lovestruck 11-year-old stepson (Thomas Sangster), neither he nor Sangster can do enough to encourage a rooting interest in either of their characters.

On the other hand, Kris Marshall is uproarious as an unlucky-in-love doofus who suspects (or, more precisely, hopes) that his Brit accent will be catnip to the ladies in the nether realms of Wisconsin. (“I am Colin, God of Sex. I'm just on the wrong continent, that's all.”) And Bill Nighy (Still Crazy) is tremendously funny as he more or less unites the disparate elements of Love, Actually as Billy Mack, a burnt-out rock star who shamelessly attempts to re-ignite his stardom by doing a sappily Christmas-themed version of a golden oldie.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Coming soon to HBO: Icebox

From my 9.13.18 Variety review: “It’s difficult for a film to feel timelier than Icebox, writer-director Daniel Sawka’s precisely detailed and arrestingly spare drama about a 12-year-old Honduran boy whose desperate flight from gang violence in his homeland leads to his arrest near the U.S.-Mexican border, and subsequent incarceration in one of the several chain-link-fence cages at an immigrant detention facility…

“Anthony Gonzalez, who recently voiced the lead character in the animated feature Coco, rises to the challenge of being on-screen almost every minute as Oscar, the young protagonist forced to more or less fly solo while maneuvering through the daunting gauntlet of the immigration system. Evincing an unforced naturalism that recalls Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows, he provides a compelling point of view for a hard-knock coming-of-age story that traces an arduous journey from desperation to resignation.”

Icebox — which I reviewed at the Toronto Film Festival — will debut Dec. 7 on HBO. You can read the rest of my review here.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Perry King rides tall in The Divide

Veteran actor Perry King likes to joke that, after decades of work in film, theater and television, he’s achieved just enough fame to be a familiar face — but perhaps not quite a household name.

“Almost always,” he says, “what I get in public is, people come up to me and say, ‘I know you, what's your name?’ I’ll say, ‘Perry King,’ and they’ll say, ‘That’s it!’ Like I took a wild stab, and just happened to hit it.”

Don’t misunderstand: King is merely offering an observation, not issuing a complaint. At the ripe young age of 70, he can look back at a career abounding with enviable highlights: Co-starring opposite fellow up-and-comers Sylvester Stallone and Henry Winkler in The Lords of Flatbush (1974); playing major roles in movies as diverse as Mandingo (1975), A Different Story (1978), Switch (1991) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004); impressively portraying the attention-grabbing role of  Col. Nathan R. Jessep during the original Broadway run of A Few Good Men; and appearing in well-regarded TV series and miniseries like Captains and Kings (1976), Aspen (1977), The Last Convertible (1979), The Hasty Heart (the 1983 drama for which he received a Golden Globe nomination); Riptide (1984-86), Melrose Place (1995), and Big Love (2010).

But here’s the thing: King isn’t looking back. Rather, he’s looking forward. In The Divide, his debut effort as a feature film director, he gives what arguably is his all-time best screen performance as Sam Kincaid, a Northern California rancher who, during the drought of 1976, struggles to remember what is important — and transcend what he cannot forget — as he is gradually diminished by Alzheimer’s Disease.

On the other side of the camera, King the director (working in concert with screenwriter Jana Brown) has fashioned an uncommonly compelling and emotionally rich drama, and surrounded King the actor with a sterling supporting cast: Bryan Kaplan as Luke Higgins, Kincaid’s hired hand, a man yearning for his own shot at redemption; Sara Arrington (of Amazon Prime’s Bosch) as Sarah, Kincaid’s estranged daughter, who’s reluctant to admit her feelings toward Sam or Luke; Luke Colembero as C.J., Sarah’s son, who desperately needs a grandfather and a father figure; and Levi Kreis (who earned a 2010 Tony Award for playing Jerry Lee Lewis in the original Broadway production of Million Dollar Quartet) as Tom Cutler, a deceptively charismatic fellow with a score to settle with Sam.

Last spring, while wearing my hat as senior writer for Cowboys & Indians magazine, I had the opportunity to talk with King about The Divide which kicks off its theatrical run Friday in Los Angeles after the film's premiere at WorldFest/Houston. We chatted again a few weeks later in L.A. at the storied Dan Tana's Restaurant in L.A. (where the above photo was taken). And before you ask: No, actually, I picked up the tab, which I always try to do when I dine with a talented indie filmmaker.

You can read my Cowboys & Indians interview with Perry King here. And here is a trailer for The Divide.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Ryan Gosling: From Blade Runner 2049 to Apollo 11

Last year, I ranked Ryan Gosling’s Top 10 screen performances for Variety. This weekend, I realized I would have to add his excellent portrayal of astronaut Neil Armstrong to any list of his all-time best. So I figured, well, since First Man focuses on Armstrong’s Apollo 11 mission... a Top 11 list was in order.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Long before Venom, Tom Hardy established himself as a chameleon

In a shameless attempt to gravy-train on the smash-hit Venom, I ranked Tom Hardy’s Top 10 film performances for Variety. No, I must admit, Venom itself isn’t on the list. But you can see which films did make the cut here. (I did mention this had something tangentially to do to with Venom, right?)

Remembering Scott Wilson (1942-2018)

At the 2006 Denver Film Festival, it was my privilege to host an onstage Q&A with Scott Wilson, the exceptionally versatile and talented character actor who passed away Saturday at age 76. And I would like to share my indelible memory of something that happened that evening.

Wilson was in Denver to receive a well-deserved lifetime achievement award, and as often happens when a festival bestows such an honor, our program was preceded by a montage of clips illustrating the honoree’s performances in notable films. In Wilson’s case, there were clips from In the Heat of the Night, In Cold Blood, The Great Gatsby, The Ninth Configuration — and Monster, the 2003 drama in which Charlize Theron gave an Oscar-winning performance as serial killer Aileen Wuornos, and Wilson made every second count during his brief but brilliant turn as her final victim. (Ironically, Wilson also was on view at the Denver Fest that year as a “retired” serial killer in the darkly comical slasher-movie burlesque Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon.)

As the clips were screened for the audience, Wilson and I stood in the back of the theater, waiting for our cue to walk to an area in front of the screen and face the crowd. We had met earlier that day, and enjoyed each other’s company during a lengthy conversation about his career. (He seemed especially happy, and just a tad surprised, when I told him how much I loved his performance in Krzysztof Zanussi’s A Year of the Quiet Sun, a 1984 drama that has never gotten the attention it deserves, even after Roger Ebert aptly designated it a “Great Movie” in 2003.) And so, as we stood there in the darkness, it felt only natural to rest our arms on each other’s shoulders, as new acquaintances preparing for a joint venture.

But when the clip from Monster began, I couldn’t help noticing that his arm started to tremble.

At first, I simply assumed that he was experiencing some pre-performance jitters, or a touch of stage fright. (You might be surprised to know how many times I have noticed such nervousness in actors and actresses. Something very similar happened several years earlier when I greeted Warren Oates before a small press reception for Stripes in Dallas; when he spotted me there, just a few hours after I had interviewed him on the location of a movie he was shooting in Big D, he walked over, greeted me warmly, and said, “I’m glad to see somebody I know here.” His arm also was shaking as he placed it on my shoulders.) The longer the scene continued — and if you’ve ever seen Monster, you know how excruciating it is — the trembling accelerated, and his breathing sounded forced. I actually found myself holding Wilson tighter, for fear he might swoon.

Of course, he didn’t, and probably I was foolish to think that he would. But, then again, maybe not.

Here’s the thing: Up to that moment, I had never really considered what it must feel like to watch yourself on the verge of being killed — and spending your final moments begging for your life. Yes, of course, it’s acting. But if you’re a truly great actor — which I think Scott Wilson most certainly was — and you thoroughly immerse yourself in the character you’re playing, to the point where, however fleetingly, you actually become that character, what is it like afterwards when you see yourself die? Especially when you see that death on a literally larger-than-life screen?

I often say that, even though a person may die, he or she remains forever immortal on screen. Scott Wilson had already guaranteed a kind of immortality for himself before the Denver Festival Q&A. (During which, not incidentally, Wilson was funny and gracious and forthcoming, and unabashedly grateful for the lifetime achievement honor.) He went on to attract a new generation of admirers with his portrayal of Herschel Greene in the popular cable series The Walking Dead — when I called him a few years back while he was at a fan convention, he sounded very much like a man who had won the lottery while he described viewer reaction to his character — and he continued to make potent impacts in TV and film roles large and small. (Most recently, he was ferociously convincing as a murderously mean SOB opposite Christian Bale and Wes Studi during a late scene in Hostiles.) He will long be remembered for the many characters he portrayed. 

But I admit: I will remember him best for the moment we shared at the Denver Film Festival over a decade ago, and which now I have shared with you.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Coming soon: Megan Griffiths' Sadie

Sometimes I get impatient while waiting for the theatrical release of a remarkable film I’ve seen and reviewed at a film festival: I can barely wait for other people whose opinions I respect and trust to see it as well, so they, too, can spread the good word. More important, I want everyone — friends, colleagues, students, total strangers — to share the experience of discovering something special, preferably as a communal experience in a movie theater.

Which is why I am happy to report that Sadie, one of the very best films I caught at SXSW 2018 last March, is going to open Oct. 12 in New York and Los Angeles before, I hope, rolling out nationwide. It’s the latest feature from writer-director Megan Griffiths, an indie filmmaker I’ve been keeping an eye on ever since I saw her arresting human trafficking drama Eden (currently available, and well worth your attention, on Amazon Prime) at SXSW 2012, and later enjoyed her criminally under-rated Lucky Them (2013), a dramedy showcasing a perfectly cast Toni Collette as a rock journalist oddly coupled with Thomas Haden Church’s nouveau riche amateur documentarian. I had high expectations walking into Sadie. Those expectations were, to put it mildly, surpassed. 

As I wrote in my Variety review:

 “The eponymous protagonist at the chilly heart of Sadie is a troubled 13-year-old girl who is driven to extremes by her unyielding notions about what constitutes loyalty. Of course, Sadie — rivetingly played with tamped-down intensity by newcomer Sophia Mitri Schloss — would no doubt dispute that description, if only because it implies she’s not in full control of her actions at every moment. She’d have you know that if anyone or anything is doing any driving, well, she’s the one at the wheel. Equal parts coming-of-age story and slow-burn thriller, writer-director Megan Griffiths’ quietly absorbing and methodically disquieting drama is a genuine rarity: a sympathetic portrait of a budding sociopath.”

You can read the rest of my Variety review here. And you can view a trailer for Sadie here

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Honoring Claude Lanzmann: Remembering Shoah

As a tribute to French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, who passed away Thursday at age 92, I am offering my original 1986 review of his monumental masterwork, Shoah.

After 9 ½ hours of Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's exhaustive and exhausting oral history of the Holocaust, we’re left with unforgettable moments.

Like the moment when a farmer who tilled his fields near the Treblinka death camp recalls the screams of Jewish prisoners: “At first, it was unbearable. Then we got used to it.'” Or the moment when Simon Srebnik, a survivor of the genocidal campaign at Chelmno, returns for a reunion with villagers who profess to be happy about his survival. “Why do they think this all happened to the Jews?” Lanzmann asks the villagers through an interpreter. “Because they were the richest!'” a villager replies. Srebnik winces.

There's the moment when Abraham Bomba, a barber who cut the hair of women bound for the Treblinka gas chamber, breaks down during Lanzmann's inquiries. Lanzmann is persistent: He must know what happened when Bomba’s friend, a fellow barber, realized his wife and sister were among the prisoners about to be gassed. “Don't make me go on, please,” Bomba implores Lanzmann. But Lanzmann is quietly, implacably firm: “We must go on.” So Bomba tries to describe a scene almost too agonizing for mere words.

Later, there’s a moment when Franz Suchomal, former SS Unterscharfuhrer at Treblinka, vigorously sings a tune taught to Jewish prisoners at his death camp. He finishes the song, then tells Lanzmann: “No Jew knows that song today.” Suchomal smiles as he speaks.

Henrik Gawkowski doesn't smile as he remembers driving the train that brought whole boxcars of Jews to Treblinka. He talks of hearing the moans and shrieks over the sound of his locomotive. He talks of remaining almost constantly drunk to deaden his senses. He talks of trying to warn his disembarking passengers that they were not going to work details, that they were about to be processed by a killing machine. He traces a line across his neck with his index finger. The moment is terrifying.

Such moments are separated by many long minutes and hours during Shoah. (The title is a Hebrew word, meaning “annihilation.”) But even though the film is punishingly long and deliberately repetitious, I have no idea where I would begin to cut this astonishing epic. Lanzmann's ambition is nothing if not daunting: Without resorting to documentary footage or period photographs, he wants to re-create and re-examine the Holocaust by presenting it through the words of survivors, witnesses, perpetrators and not-so-innocent bystanders. His approach is remarkably effective, more often than not, and his interviews — some of them recorded with hidden video cameras — are chillingly enlightening.

He juxtaposes the words with jarring images. The lush green fields we see were once the site of mass graves described by death camp survivors. The camera sweeps us down a long country road, forcing us to retrace the route taken by Jews on their way to destruction at Auschwitz. And repeatedly, insistently, there are the trains: belching steam, rattling along tracks, relentlessly moving toward the end of the line.

The device is poetic, but the interviews are prosaic. Lanzmann doesn't want to deal in euphemisms or generalizations. He has the patience to ask specific questions: How big were the crematoriums? How many people died each day in the Warsaw ghetto? Exactly how did the German government pay for the “resettlement” of Jews? (A low-level Nazi era bureaucrat recalls buying one-way tickets —at excursion-rate prices — with money confiscated from Jews when they were arrested. (That’s right, the victims paid for their own trips to the gas chamber.) What was the life expectancy of a Jew who arrived at Treblinka? (Usually, four hours.) How did SS commanders dispose of so many bodies?

And most important of all: Why? Why did the Polish underground refuse to give weapons to the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto? Why did the Allies ignore the pleas of Jewish leaders to launch a special campaign against the Holocaust? Why did people in Germany and Poland deliberately ignore the obvious evidence of the monstrous crimes being committed at the death camps? Why did this all happen to the Jews?

Many of the survivors have moved beyond grief, have numbed themselves so they can live with the guilt of living while so many others died. (“If you could lick my heart,” a survivor tells Lanzmann, “it would poison you.”) Other participants in this tragedy have their own reasons for forgetting. But Lanzmann, who spent more than a decade on Shoah, will not forget. And he will not let you forget. His film is a masterwork, difficult to endure but indelibly illuminating.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

50 Years Ago: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

I was 15, going on 16, and it happened during my summer break as a student at St. Aloysius High School in New Orleans. Since the previous September, I’d been reviewing movies for the school paper, The Aloysian. (My first review: In the Heat of the Night, a movie that forever changed how I looked at and thought about movies.) The vice-principal evidently was impressed: He recommended me to Joseph Larose, the entertainment editor of the city's weekly Catholic newspaper, The Clarion Herald, as someone who could occasionally fill in as a second-string film critic.

And so, on the morning of Wednesday, June 5, 1968, when the issue officially dated June 6 started popping up in people's mailboxes throughout the city, I could see the very first review I ever wrote for a professional publication -- a thumbs-up appraisal of Wild in the Streets. This should have been the happiest day of my life.

But, of course, it wasn't: I woke up to news that Robert F. Kennedy was barely clinging to life after being shot in Los Angeles. And then, alas, the next day was worse.

I love film. And I will be happy to celebrate on Tuesday the 50th anniversary of my career as a film critic. But I must admit: My gratitude for what happened  — and for what continues to happen, as I continue to write about what I love  — remains inextricably entwined with regret for what might have been. Maybe that’s why I take to heart these words from my favorite filmmaker, Francois Truffaut: “For me, cinema is not a sad imitation of life. It is an improvement on life.”

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A tribute to Vittorio Taviani: My 1987 review of Good Morning, Babylon

Note: To honor Vittorio Taviani, who passed away this weekend, I am posting my original review of Good Morning, Babylon  my favorite of the many films he co-directed with his brother, Paolo Taviani  which I first saw at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival.  

There is a kind of immortality one obtains only through art. And that is what Paolo and Vittorio Taviani lovingly celebrate in Good Morning, Babylon, their richly textured, radiantly photographed fable of Old World tradition and New World innovation.

The film follows two young brothers from their Tuscan village, where their family works at restoring the splendor of time-ravaged cathedrals, to the Hollywood of 1916, where D.W. Griffith is inventing the syntax of the first great 20th-century art form, cinema.

Griffith, played as an avuncular visionary by Charles Dance, becomes a father figure for Nicola (Vincent Spano) and Andrea (Joaquim De Almeida), and invites them to bring their artistic legacy to his most ambitious epic, Intolerance. The stonemasons eagerly accept, and wind up constructing eight huge elephants as temple decorations in the silent classic's lavish Babylon sequence. Not coincidentally, the elephants are large-scale replicas of designs they carved for a cathedral back in their home village.

The Tavianis, heretofore best known for their folk tales about Italian peasantry (Padre Padrone, Night of the Shooting Stars), doubtless see much of themselves in Nicola and Andrea. Like the young immigrants, the Tavianis are inseparable collaborators who were raised in a rural Tuscan village, and who grew up to accept cinema as their means of artistic expression and spiritual self-preservation.

Perhaps because of these strong autobiographical links, and most definitely because of the Tavianis' great love for film, Good Morning, Babylon is highly romanticized in its rendering of its lead characters, and in its depiction of early Hollywood as a golden-lit wonderland. The actors, technicians and directors are seen as exuberant pioneers, intoxicated with the knowledge they are doing and making things no one ever has before. For them, filmmaking is at once a daunting adventure, a raucous ritual, and a means of joining total strangers as lovers and comrades on and off the set.

After decades of movies that have taken a far less generous attitude toward the Hollywood dream factory, Good Morning, Babylon comes as a refreshing, reinvigorating change. It reminds us of a time marked by innocence and idealism, and of the reasons why many of us fell in love with movies in the first place. Throughout the film, a mood of ingenuous optimism is beautifully sustained — musical, almost, in its intensity.

The performances are perfectly attuned to the unaffected sincerity of the Tavianis’ celebration. A good thing, too. With a misplaced touch of irony, or a self-conscious emphasis on the wrong line, the whole illusion would be shattered. Dance risks audience ridicule when, as Griffith, he joyfully exclaims, “I love moviemaking!” But even if you smile at the character’s unabashed enthusiasm, you won't laugh.

Vincent Spano and Joaquim De Almeida offer virile, vibrant performances as Nicola and Andrea. They are defiantly proud men, particularly when their worth is challenged by snide studio executives. (“We are the sons of the sons of the sons of Michelangelo and Leonardo! Whose sons are you?”) But they can be comically endearing in their exasperation at bad fortune. At one low point on the road to Hollywood, Andrea snaps at Nicola. “I'd die of pity if I saw somebody like you and me!”

Greta Scacchi and Desiree Becker are utterly charming as bit players who fall in love with the Tuscan immigrants, despite their initial resolve to date only directors or producers. In one of the movie's sweetest scenes, each brother offers his sweetheart a firefly he has captured. Then, as a comic counterpoint, the brothers, not quite fully fluent in English, try their hand at love letters — using flowery phrases such as “You are as beautiful as a snowy mountain!” — that become a running gag all over the studio backlot.

Occasionally, the Tavianis reveal their own awkwardness at working in another language. Some of the English dialogue sounds affected and overly precise, like a too-literal translation. (English subtitles are provided for Italian-language scenes.) At other times, the measured pacing and the gorgeous landscapes, familiar from the Tavianis’ Italian films, seem distractingly inappropriate for this particular story.

In the end, though, the relatively minor flaws of Good Morning, Babylon are easily overlooked. The final scene, where Nicola and Andrea make a valiant attempt to literally immortalize themselves through their new art, achieves a deeply affecting, bittersweet poignancy. It is an altogether fitting conclusion for a movie that pays such eloquent tribute to the magic of moviemaking.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Gone but not forgotten: Selena

Twenty-three years ago today, Texas-born Mexican-American singer-songwriter Selena Quintanilla -- a budding superstar poised to make a major breakthrough with first English-language album -- was taken from us all too soon at age 23. Here is a link to a 1996 Los Angeles Times story I wrote after visiting the San Antonio set of Selena -- the biopic that Gregory Nava intended as a tribute to the fallen star. Even though, as Nava admitted to me at the time, "this is a movie I wish I wasn't making." And here is Selena herself, live and in concert -- her last concert -- at the Houston Astrodome.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Force is only sporadically with The Director and the Jedi

From my 3.12.18 Variety review: “One can easily discern an informative and affecting documentary short — maybe 20 or 30 minutes long — embedded amid the ungainly sprawl that is The Director and the Jedi, a SXSW Film Festival world premiere offering set for wide release March 27 as a bonus behind-the-scenes feature on the home-video release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. As its title might indicate, the film works best whenever director Anthony Wonke narrows his focus to concentrate on the complex working relationship between Rian Johnson, the rising young filmmaker who dove into the deep end of the pool by accepting the challenge of writing and directing Episode VIII of the Star Wars franchise, and Mark Hamill, AKA Luke Skywalker, who remained a good soldier, despite serious misgivings, even after being told his iconic character would be a battlefield casualty in Johnson’s scenario.” You can read the rest of my Variety review here.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Sorry, Neil Young fans: Paradox sucks

From my 3.15.18 Varietyreview: “Think of it as a piece of anti-nostalgia. Paradox, a waste of time made bearable only by its brevity, plays like a bad acid flashback from the 1970s, a time when similarly self-conscious trippy pastiches of rock music and genre conventions proliferated on the midnight-movie circuit. Think of Zachariah or Rainbow Bridge, no matter how hard you’ve tried to forget them, and you’ll have some idea what awaits you here. And if you’ve never seen those films, well, consider yourself fortunate. You might do well to keep your lucky streak going.

Paradox now is available for streaming on Netflix. You can read the rest of my Variety review here.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Jason Isaacs talks about The Death of Stalin, the Orange Oompa Loompa in the White House, and the sheer joy of playing someone who has run out of them to give

Long before he was cast as the casually terrifying Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov in The Death of Stalin, the critically acclaimed, shockingly funny black comedy directed and co-written by Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, HBO’s Veep), Jason Isaacs already had quite a few rogues on his resume. Chief among his credits: Col. William Tavington, the sadistic British officer who makes life miserable for Mel Gibson’s reluctant Revolutionary War hero in The Patriot; a demented researcher at a dubious rehabilitation clinic in A Cure for Wellness; and, of course, the dreaded Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movie franchise.

But in Iannucci’s film, which expands its slow-rollout run into Houston, Nashville and other markets today, Isaacs dials the intimidation level up to 11 — while clearly having the time of his life.

His Zhokov struts into a maelstrom of shifting loyalties, competing power plays and ever-increasing paranoia that erupts in 1953 Moscow following the demise of Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), the Communist leader who ruled and nearly ruined his country with a whim of iron while demanding, and receiving, sycophantic support for his reign of terror. The Russian tyrant’s sudden death generates fear and loathing — and, in some cases, unbridled ambition — among a Soviet Central Committee that includes the malleable deputy general secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Machiavellian secret police commander Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale); anxious foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin); and the improbably savvy (or perhaps just plain lucky) Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi). Zhokov looms large above them all, with all the sneering authority and brass-balled confidence of a kingmaker who controls every situation — and, not incidentally, commands the Red Army.

Be forewarned: The Death of Stalin is a brutally hilarious comedy about an unstable despot who inspired adoration even from those he exploited and oppressed, and the movie doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the atrocities committed in his name by his loyal lackeys. But don’t let that keep you away. “As Stanley Kubrick did with Dr. Strangelove,” critic Bilge Ebiri wrote in The Village Voice, “Iannucci has built a satire not by twisting the truth but by nudging reality just a few inches further in the direction it was already going. It should not be incumbent on people of good sense to hold their laughter in the face of such absurd evil. If anything, laughter should be a requirement — because only in well-observed ridicule can we sometimes find a power strong enough to put such monsters in their places. And make no mistake about it: These are monsters, not ghosts. The Death of Stalin might be set in 1953, but you don’t have to look hard at it to see today.

Isaacs phoned me a few days ago to talk about The Death of Stalin, the movie’s surprisingly compelling contemporary relevance, and the sheer joy that comes from portraying a character who always is absolutely certain — with ample justification — he is the smartest and scariest guy in the room. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

How much did you know about this period in Russian history before you signed on to play Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov?

It was unknown to me. I didn’t know anything about Stalin — and I certainly was shocked to find out how much of the film is true. I’ve seen audiences fall out of their seats laughing — and it is incredibly funny, albeit the comedy comes from tension and terror — but so many of the insane episodes in the film happened. Stalin did make them all sit and watch cowboy films all night long. And the orchestra did have to record [a symphony performance] three times for him. His son did lose a whole hockey team. And when he woke up after they thought he was dead and pointed at a strange painting, they did try to interpret his gesture for hours. And he did lie in a puddle of his own urine for days because they were too frightened to get a doctor — in case they got the wrong doctor, and he came back to life and killed them for it.

Years ago, I talked to Malcolm McDowell about his portrayal of H.G. Wells in Time After Time. In that movie, Welles was depicted as painfully shy around women. But when McDowell picked up a biography to do research, one of the first things he read was that Wells really was a notorious rake. So he figured, well, he’d better toss the book aside and just play what was in the script. Did you do much research about Zhukov?

Well, if you talk to Andrea Riceborough, who plays Svetlana Stalin, she’d say she read a giant weighty tome, this book called Stalin’s Daughter, and then looked in various other tomes. Me?  I glanced at a Wikipedia page — and what became clear instantly was that Zhukov was the only person that could speak the truth to Stalin. The only person who wasn’t in any way fearful. And that was reflected in the script. And then, most usefully to me, I saw a photo of him. I noted this man standing like a peacock puffing out his giant chest, on which he wore 10,000 medals, and I thought, “Who does that?” And apparently he was one of the first people ever to do that, and then it was a fashion picked up by Idi Amin and various other people. And I thought, “OK, I know everything I needed to know. This is a man without whom a coup is not going to take place.” So, whereas everyone else in the story was still terrified of Stalin’s size, of his shadow, Zhukov is a guy who knows that they’re all after [his approval]. Without the Red Army, no one can be in charge. And that was all I needed.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers…

Well, Stalin dies. I think it’s safe to say that for a start.

True enough. It’s kind of like Death of Salesman — you know where that one is going, too. But there’s a scene in Death of Stalin where you’re suddenly really scary. And then, when you see how much you’re terrifying someone, you let them know you’re kidding. And the poor guy is so relieved, you can’t help thinking he might pass out anyway. When you read a scene like that in a script, do you find yourself thinking how much fun it will be to play?

Well, funny enough, that’s the one moment that I remember from the entire shooting that I came up with. Everything else — look, I know the film feels and looks improvised. And when we’ve done stuff with the media and Q&A’s, as we’re doing at the moment in cinemas, people always ask, “How much of it was improvised?” The answer is, none of it. It was all incredibly tightly scripted. But that bit, I came up with. There was just something about playing this character, and about this plot. It’s cheap therapy for anybody who’s a people pleaser to be someone who doesn’t give a flying fuck what anyone else thinks of him, because they hold all the cards. It’s a very juicy thing to do.

Of course, it’s kind-sorta ironic that this movie is coming out at a time when there have been, ahem, questions about what nefarious connections Russia’s current leader might have with the current U.S. President.

What’s really ironic about this is that [Death of Stalin] was written and shot a long time before Trump was even a candidate. But other people have made other connections. Since it’s been out there, I was at a screening where somebody came out of the audience and said to Armando, “Thank you for telling our story.” And it turned out they were from Zimbabwe. They saw it as about Mugabe, and the climate of terror around Mugabe, and what the cult of personality had done to that country.

And in fact, when we were shooting, Brexit happened. I had the day off to go and take part in the commemoration of The Battle of the Somme — and I met David Cameron, the British Prime Minister who had just resigned because of the Brexit vote. He asked me what I was doing and I said a film about the scrabbling for power in the absence of Stalin. And he said, “Sounds like my daily life in Downing Street.”

So there are all kinds of shadows. With the Orange Oompa Loompa in the White House, nowhere was that more obvious than during that extraordinary cabinet meeting that he held where cameras went around and everyone had to pay homage to him in the most cringe-worthy way. But in fact, it could be any situation where the cult of personality and the strength of one character means that everybody else loses their moral compass.

Can you see a day in the not so distant future when someone makes a black comedy about Donald Trump?

The problem with Trump is that he’s beyond satire. He is his own satirist, Donald Trump. The whole thing is some strange kind of Andy Kaufman performance art with monumentally cataclysmic consequences. At the time of Stalin, people lived in utter terror. Because let’s not forget, and the film doesn’t forget, that he sent tens of millions of people to their deaths. But the one thing people had to save their sanity was jokes. And people would circulate joke books about Stalin. Even as they slept full clothed facing the possibility that they’d be spirited away in the middle of the night and shipped off to a gulag. Thankfully, we’re not quite there yet with Trump.

Death was so arbitrary at that time that the slightest joke, even a bad joke, could do you in. Stalin was delusional, narcissistic to an extraordinary degree. Nobody was safe anywhere. In fact, only Zhukov was. The parallels of course to the White House, and the turnover of staff, are extraordinary. They might not get sent to a gulag and shot, but they’re sent out into the media wilderness. Which I suppose is worse for half of them.

Have you ever worked with a director you thought was as mercurial and dictatorial as Stalin?

Oh, God yeah. I’m not so professionally suicidal as to tell you who I’m talking about — but yeah, I’ve worked with some crazy despots. With directors, you see, we’re all parts of their train sets. And they can be as benign as they want, or they can be monstrous. And I’ve worked with all types.

Is it at all difficult being in a situation where you’re playing a character who spooks the hell out of just about every other character? Does that affect how you interact with the other members of the cast?

No, because I was surrounded by heroes of mine. Comedy gods. The hardest thing about doing that film was to decide who to sit next to at lunch. I’m a massive fan of all of them, and I was desperate to talk to Jeffery Tambor about The Larry Sanders Show, and Michael Palin about Monty Python, and then Steve Buscemi about everything he's ever done. The thing is, everybody is so great at their job, and from so many different disciplines. The lead in the film in many ways is Lavrentiy Beria, played by Simon Russell Beale, who’s a massive superstar of the theater in Britain, but unknown to film audiences. And I’ve seen almost everything he’s done — he’s played the lead in all the Shakespeare plays and all the Russian plays — and I knew he was hilariously funny. The whole experience of making the film was embarrassingly enjoyable.

Of course, this isn’t the first time you’ve played an unpleasant character. Do you ever encounter people in public who confuse you with the roles you’ve played? Like, after all those nasty things your character did in The Patriot — did total strangers walk up to you on the street and spit at you?

[Laughs] You know what, I’ll tell you what’s odd — and I still don’t understand it to this day. I’ve been doing this job for a very, very long time. And I’ve found that they may do that when you’re on television, but they don’t do it when you're in films. They confuse you with television characters all the time. I have a friend who was in a show and got beaten up on the subway in England, on the tube, because his character had stolen someone’s purse. With me, instead, they come up and they say, “So sorry, don't take this the wrong way, but I really hated you in The Patriot.” Or, “I was scared of you in Harry Potter.” But they never confuse me for the characters. It doesn’t happen. People love the bad guys. They love to hate, they like the fact that they get riled up.

Finally, you’re a native of Liverpool. How do you think that prepared you for your career? What do you think growing up there gave you?

What did it give? Well, first of all, everybody in Liverpool is a standup comedian — even though only three percent of them are funny. Everybody is always trying to entertain. Literally everybody. You get into a taxi at Lime Street Station, and it starts, and it never switches off until you leave. So, it’s a culture down there, and there are certain cities that are always like that.

And the other thing, I suppose, is it inadvertently gave me is ability to do accents. Because I used to talk like [a Liverpudlian] until I was a teenager. But you can’t really survive as an actor if that’s your accent, so you’ve got to learn to do other voices. So I learned early on. We moved to London when I was a kid, and I was incredibly self-conscious of my accent. So, overnight I went from sounding like a Beatle to sounding like Ray Winstone. Then I went to university, and they all sounded like Hugh Grant. And so did I in a couple of days. And I’m speaking to you from New York, but I’m currently working in Los Angeles shooting a film. I’m playing an American, and I do the accent all day. And I find myself at night in a restaurant, and I’m halfway through a conversation with someone before I think, “Shit! This isn’t my voice!” That’s when I go, “OK, I’m talking like myself again.” But the fact that I came from Liverpool made me very mobile when it comes to dialects.

Really, I’m unbelievably well paid to put on makeup and do silly voices. It’s stunning to me. But I’m glad — because I’ve got no other skills.