Inside Llewyn Davis: Q&A With Actor Oscar Isaac
By Ron Gordner, DC Film Society Member
The following Q&A took place November 5 at the AMC Georgetown Theatre after a preview screening of Inside Llewyn Davis.†Oscar Isaac, who plays the title character and also sings in the film, was present to discuss the film; the discussion was moderated by Jen Chaney, writer and film critic at the Washington Post. Inside Llewyn Davis is directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. It captures the folk music scene in 1961 and the beat generation in New York clubs. Oscar Isaac plays a self-absorbed struggling musician and singer who plays in coffee houses. He sponges off friends such as Jean (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Jim (Justin Timberlake) who are also folk singers. The movie is a bit of a road film to Chicago and back and involves his personal journey to living with himself and his art also. A cat also plays a recurring theme.
Jen Chaney: I just want to introduce Oscar Isaac who has been in some films like Drive, and The Legacy but think you will agree that this film gives him a leading role and one he will be remembered for this break-out role. The real Llewyn Davis: Oscar Isaac (applause). How did this story start and how did you get involved.
Oscar Isaac: Well, the Coen Brothers have made some of my favorite movies so Iíve been interested for some time to work them. In high school I had a poster of Millerís Crossing and liked their films. I was also interested in music at the time. I was in a band for a long time, and I got into acting but also was developing my playing and singing so when this role came along it just lined up well with what I was doing in my life.
Jen Chaney: You said you were interested in music. At what age did you begin to play the guitar?
Oscar Isaac: I was about 13 or 14 years old. It was just serendipity working out playing with this film. There was a small film in New York and a guy playing an extra at the bar in this small film. On the breaks he would pick up the guitar between takes and play like Travis in the film and he said he had worked with Dave Van Ronk. I didnít know how to do this folk style before so that really helped me prepare for this film. So I loosely auditioned for the movie based on the playing of musician Dave Van Ronk. This guy really invited me over to his play and played the old tunes on his guitar and some old records by Van Ronk that were really cool. He said to me how long have you played the guitar. I said, about 20 years. He said, No you owned it 20 years but have only really played it about 6 months. He was right. It was a completely different style than I had been playing.
Jen Chaney: It sounds like fate. You said you auditioned, so what was that like for this role?
Oscar Isaac: The casting director called me in and I read a couple scenes for her. She said I needed to record the song Hang Me, so I did about 30 takes and picked one of the videos. I sent it into the Coens and they were interested and I had to learn three more songs. About a month later I got a call that I had gotten the part.
Jen Chaney: As I understand it, much of the film was recorded live?
Oscar Isaac: Yes, itís a bit of a conscience movie, because everything was recorded live. There was no play back or clip tracks done. I think they probably had tracks in the background somewhere, but luckily everything worked out live and the tempo stayed the same, so we were able to do the whole thing as it happened.
Jen Chaney: From the viewpoint of an actor, is that better for you or does it increase the pressure on you to perform better?
Oscar Isaac: Regardless how I felt about it, it seemed essential to the movie. They are long songs, but donít move the plot along and are not total expressions of him. It is a window into the man. Itís cathartic and maybe the only time he really opens up. If the playbacks were running and I was just mouthing the words, it would all fall apart. So I knew from the beginning it would be live and I really wanted it that way.
Jen Chaney: And what about the acting takes, did they do a lot?
Oscar Isaac: They really donít do many takes. Itís interesting because Joel said, "Well if you are looking at take #27 how do you really remember what take #4 was like? You would lose cohesion. We only did about four or five setups per day and maybe four or five takes on each setup.
Jen Chaney: Tell us about working with the Coen Brothers. You said they were your favorite filmmakers, so how was it to work with them?
Oscar Isaac: Yeah, at first I was terrified. They are really relaxed. The thing that made me nervous the first week is that they donít compliment you. Iím used to directorís saying, "Great job," or "love it babe," etc., which really doesnít help because then you expect it all the time which is nerve racking when you donít hear it. They donít give anyone approval, so it takes that variable out of the equation. You donít need their approbation or look for their approval. They just say, "Ahem, yeah, great" and move on. So no one has any neuroses, they just do their jobs. A complete lack of vanity but they are quick to laugh.
Jen Chaney: So how do the Coen Brothers work as one unit as a director or as a team, or does one do one thing and the other does another area?
Oscar Isaac: Well itís two geniuses or intelligent, instinctive individuals making the same movie. They donít really talk to you or each other a lot. Sometimes one will come up and say something and then the other say something similar or just yes.
Jen Chaney: I want to ask about working with Carey Mulligan because she is not very nice to you most of the film. How did you work together to get that emotion? What do you think that Llewyn sees in Jean since she is so angry?
Oscar Isaac: You discuss that and work it out with the other actor(s). I think Llewyn sees that sheís beautiful, talented, a good singer. I think he likes her fire and the fact that she is breathing (laughter).
Jen Chaney: Iím going to put you on the spot a little. Except for this film what is your favorite Coen Brothersí movie(s)?
Oscar Isaac: I think Raising Arizona because it was the first one I saw and it really blew my mind. It was so funny, but still weird and sad in many ways. But I have watched all their films multiple times.
Jen Chaney: Speaking of music. Did you listen to a lot of folk music when you were growing up?
Oscar Isaac: Yeah, a lot of Bob Dylan and obviously later Simon and Garfunkel and Cat Stevens. I wasnít aware of the pre-Dylan artists, so this film opened me up to a whole new group of artists like Reverend Jerry Davis from the South, Dave Van Ronk, Karen Dalton. Many of them didnít make much money but heard college kids were getting into their music again. They started playing again in New York and college towns.
Audience Question: How did you manage your eye contact in the scenes where you are singing to one person?
Oscar Isaac: It is different and can be difficult, but working with [T Bone]Burnett he said just play like you are in the moment, playing for yourself. So thatís what I did. Now that also could be part of the characterís problem that he is just playing for himself. So I just pretended I was playing on a couch and playing to the one or two people there listening and hoped they liked it.
Audience Question: The conventional wisdom is to never work with children or animals. What was it like to work with the cats?
Oscar Isaac: Extremely trying because Iím not really a cat person. I went to the hospital once because of a cat bite, so I was somewhat hesitant when I was told you will have five cats assigned to you and you have to take them into the subway. It wasnít fun. Itís very hard to train cats, at least the cats we had. I actually had one that was more sedated (laughter) Ö no, no his personality was sedated. But that one was sometimes a little too dead, so we would have to use the one that was more squirrelly and that seemed to be the one that was tied to me more. So there were times he wanted to get away since he was angrier being tied to me. We also had a cat wrangler whose job was just to agitate them I think.
Audience Question: Was the film shot sequentially? How long was the filming?
Oscar Isaac: It was not shot sequentially, but it was a quick shoot. It took about six or seven weeks.
Audience Question: Can you detail the sequences shot? Was the location taken into the equation?
Oscar Isaac: It was all over the place. The first shooting was in Queens with my sister. The first performances didnít happen until about half way through the entire shoot. The trip to Chicago was done sequentially because of the location shooting with John Goodman and Garett Hedlund and with a green screen. We also had to run around a lot to find good locations because it was a particularly warm winter and hard to find areas where the leaves and locale looked correct.
Inside Llewyn Davis is scheduled to open in the DC area on December 20.
Philomena: A Conversation with Steve Coogan
By Annette Graham, DC Film Society Member
A screening of Philomena was held at AMC's Georgetown Theater on November 4. Co-writer, producer, and actor in the film, Steve Coogan, was present to take questions about the film. The DC Film Society's director Michael Kyrioglou moderated.
Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013) is based on Martin Sixsmith's 2009 non-fiction book "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee" and stars Judi Dench. You can read a short article by Martin Sixsmith here.
Michael Kyrioglou: Welcome to Washington. I'd like to introduce to you Steve Coogan. [Loud, sustained applause]. That's the longest applause we've had in a Q&A screening.
Michael Kyrioglou: You are involved in many aspects in this film as a co-writer, producer, actor. How did this story come to you, how did you get involved?
Steve Coogan: I was in New York making a film, a big studio film. I was looking for projects in England, mostly comedy, which has been my career for the last 25 years. I was looking for something different, something with a bit more substance and I came across this story in an English newspaper online. I found it really moving and I wanted to tell that story. I had a production company which does my TV programs in the UK, generally comedy dramas and wondered if I could make a film. What attracted me wasn't just the tragedy, I wanted to tell a story about this lady. There is a photograph of Martin Sixsmith who had written the book, and he wrote the article in the newspaper as well. The photograph had Martin and Philomena sitting next to each other and both were laughing. It struck me as odd that they were both laughing considering the tragic nature of the story. I thought I could tell a story about it. I optioned the book.
Michael Kyrioglou: Did you initially want to be involved in the writing of it?
Steve Coogan: No I didn't. I wanted to produce it. I had a take on how I would do it. I felt connected with the material, being half Irish myself and raised Roman Catholic and Philomena is the same age as my mother. It resonated with me, the photograph of Martin and Philomena together. He's such an intellectual, liberal, sort of cynic and she's a working class Irish retired nurse. And I thought they were such an odd couple and I thought there would be a potential for comedy that would help lift the story. Although I wanted to tell the story, whenever I told people about it they said it sounded incredibly depressing. So I thought I could use comedy within the drama to lift people up and not make it too turgid and depressing.
Michael Kyrioglou: It's interesting that the photograph was the doorway in, and also gives you the tone that you created within the movie, to tell a serious story and not diminish it. With your background in comedy...
Steve Coogan: Also it's the fact that lots of movies these days tend to be delineated: you have a serious movie, a drama, a comedy that's dumb or a studio movie with lots of robots. I don't see why you can't have a movie that's serious, about something and still be enjoyable. To me, it's a natural thing. If you go to a funeral, people are often laughing, telling stories about people that are gone. People want to find the humor in sad situations. To me it's not contrived. That's how real life works.
Michael Kyrioglou: Did you and Judi Dench spend time with Martin and Philomena?
Steve Coogan: Yes we did. I spent a lot of time writing the script. I spent time with Philomena, the real Philomena, asking her questions and making notes. I spoke to Martin at length about the story. The big difference from his book is that his book is about the missing boy Anthony who ends up here in Washington. But I wanted to tell the story of Philomena and Martin and put Martin--the author, the journalist--into the story. He thought that was odd, but I said that's the way it should work. It's about the search. Much of the script was from interviews I gave. For example, when I spoke to Philomena I asked if she forgives these people for what they did. And she said, "Yes I do." I found that startling. Her daughter Jane was with her and she immediately said, "I don't." I thought that was interesting and thought I'd put those two things in the movie. Similarly, Martin he told me he felt wounded when he was fired, as you see at the beginning of the film. All those things were put into the movie. Philomena met Judi Dench and they got on very well. Stephen Frears was nervous about Judi meeting the real Philomena. But I was keen that they did. I thought there was a nervousness that would throw Judi off course. But Philomena is such a lively outgoing humorous woman I knew they would get on very well. It was a good thing that they did meet.
Audience Question: In some other movies you've made such as Twenty Four Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy, the narrator speaks to the camera. Does that give you another access in telling the story?
Steve Coogan: What I learned to do is make a virtue out of a problem. If there's a problem in telling the story, you make that part of the solution, you go with the problem rather than against it. In this, the bare bones of the story were sad, I wanted to make a story that lifted people up somehow. I thought if Martin could learn something from Philomena basically. He thinks he is saving her but she saves him. There's a film called Missing with Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemon, I really like, made about 30 years ago. That film is about two people looking for someone who is missing and they never find him. But it's a fantastic film, it's compelling, and it's metaphor for life, it's all about the journey, not the destination, etc. I knew it would work.
Michael Kyrioglou: Did you ever consider not having Martin as a character in the film?
Steve Coogan: I looked into the story of Michael Hess which is the bulk of Martin's book. But to me, If you're looking for something, if you have a story about this guy the mystery is gone. I wanted to see through their eyes and have Michael be distant and out of reach. The idea of having the footage throughout, that was always there from the outset, having these glimpses of him throughout the film, but unseen by our two protagonists, only by the audience, and even then, the audience doesn't know the story, he's beyond reach. That was a theme, a motif which I wanted to use throughout the film, which is things being obscure, seen through windows, not clear, they're just beyond reach. Just as Anthony/Michael is just beyond Philomena's reach.
Audience Question: Did the church ever apologize?
Steve Coogan: In Ireland this is a private issue, the Magdalene Laundries. The government in fact did apologize recently. But the church itself hasn't as an institution, apologized, probably for legal reasons. There are a lot of people who are contrite within the church. It's important that this film is not a polemic attack on religion. That's very important to me. However much the finger is pointed at the way the church behaved as an institution, I didn't want to get into that whole thing with benefit of hindsight, admonishing people for things that they did a long time ago. That's indefensible. But it's important to me that I dignified people of simple faith within the film. Philomena does that.
Audience Question: Did you find anything unexpected or surprising during the research process?
Steve Coogan: Life imitates art, imitates life in the process of making this film. For example, when I met Philomena, I sat down with her in Martin's house. Martin showed us some footage of Anthony when he was 3 years old, which she'd never seen. I couldn't believe he hadn't shown it to her. She had seen a lot of stuff but she hadn't seen this. She sat next to me and grabbed my hand while watching it and starting crying and said, "I did love him." So I put that in the movie. In the movie she does it to Martin, but in reality she did it to me. So that was strange. I retraced Martin's steps, I went to the actual places where this happened. It stopped being a laundry a long time ago. But there were still some nuns there. And I had a look around with my writing partner; being journalistic, I visited the grave and looked around. I had a very uncomfortable conversation with the head of the order there who admonished me for not knocking on the door and asking permission to look around. I pointed out that I'd called a few days before and asked if she would cooperate and she said she wouldn't. She said, "I know, I don't want to." So I said, "Then why would I knock on the door asking for your permission?" I told her this film is not going to be an attack on the church. It is about recognizing the mistakes of the past and saying sorry. I said that is what this film is about; I said that my parents are Roman Catholics, this is not an attack on religion. One thing that did surprise me which is the perfect metaphor for the film that did make me angry. There was a scene which we cut out but I was looking around the grounds and did see that the graves of the nuns were perfectly well kept. In the film you see me searching through the brambles. That was me--I searched through the brambles and I asked where they [graves] were because I couldn't find them. They were all overgrown with weeds. And I thought, "If you can look after these graves why can't you look after those?" To me that was a perfect metaphor for the way the church as an institution has behaved. It's not a very nice way to behave but It's understandable, the idea of let sleeping dogs lie, let's sweep it under the carpet and just make it go away. That's not how you deal with problems.
Audience Question: Why did church agree to bury him there?
Steve Coogan: Because he paid them $2,000. That's why we left that out. It seemed to be too much heartlessness, it was like a caricature. But they said we don't normally do this but they would give him special permission if you make a donation.
Audience: But because he was gay?
Steve Coogan: For all the problems with the church, I don't believe they would have. The graveyard was ecclesiastical, for people who worked in the church. They didn't want to make an exception, but he paid them some money. The fact that he was gay, we touch on that, he was a closet gay because he was in Republican circles, late 80s's when it was a loaded issue. I could have gone into that, but when you make a film you have to choose the story you want to tell. If you try to tell too many parts of the story it becomes unwieldly. I want people to go home after 95 minutes. [Audience cheers].
Audience Question: Regarding the records and the bonfire, were they lying to both Philomena and to her son about not having information to give?
Steve Coogan: They weren't lying in saying that they didn't have the information because they did burn them, so they were telling the truth. We know there was a fire, there's anectodal evidence. I can't say journalistically for certain but there's a lot of anectodal evidence. In fact, that part of the story came because Michael Hess visited Roscrae with his partner who is still alive. We were told by his surviving partner that they went to the local pub and the landlord said, "They had a huge bonfire, everyone around here knows that. And they burned all the records." Because people began to question the whole philosophy, the whole approach. So there was this defensive siege mentality which makes total sense because that is how an institution behaves, hunker down and close ranks. It's totally true that when she went back they said all the records are gone but we do still have the contract you signed saying you can't have your baby back. That's true. That wasn't invented. There's a certain artistic license but that's true.
Audience Question: What was your biggest challenge in making film?
Steve Coogan: The biggest challenge in making this film was writing the film. Once we had written the script, making it was just a logistical thing. Once we had the right people, Steven [Frears] and Judi [Dench], then it all came together. The hardest thing was to make a film with a lot of negativity and construct the narrative so people feel lifted up somehow at the end. That was the hardest thing, how to construct it. Despite the sadness, I wanted people to leave the cinema feeling inspired by Philomena's behavior in light of what happened to her, rather than dwelling on the anger and the tragedy.
Audience Question: Was Anthony's father ever found or identified?
Steve Coogan: No, he wasn't found. In Ireland, everyone knows someone who knows someone else. I think it's almost certain that if he is traced that he would still be around. It's unlikely. But that's still a mystery.
Audience Question: What happened to the adoptive parents?
Steve Coogan: They have died. But Mary, his sister, is still around. We told all the people we were writing the film and exchanged letters where they said okay, we won't stand in your way. We observed the proper procedure and protocol with those people who are still with us and changed certain people's names if they wanted that. And sometimes for legal reasons we change people's names.
Michael Kyrioglou: You have done a lot of comedy. How has this affected you in light of other projects you will do?
Steve Coogan: Straight after this movie I did a broad comedy movie in the UK, where it's just laughs, no room for too much subtext. A bit of subtlety but not too much. It's about gags. It was good to just get funny. For me, it's been liberating because I made a decision, after doing this for 25 years and having been advised, you should do this, you should do that and none of it ever turning into anything. I went to Hollywood and did bit parts in big studio movies, it was fun but it ultimately bored me. I decided to do something I wanted to do something I believed in and see if it worked out. That's what this film is. So more often, I'll listen to myself.
Philomena opened in DC on November 27.
The 57th BFI London Film Festival
By James McCaskill and Ron Gordner, DC Film Society Members
Historic London is the ideal city to host one of the best regional film festivals. You are spoilt for choice when the famed theatre district, two thousand years of history and hundreds of outstanding film compete for your attention. This year the BFI London Film Festival (October 9-20, 2013) included 235 feature films and 134 short films from 57 countries to show in various categories: Love, Debate, Dare, Laugh, Thrill, Cult, Journey, Sonic and Family. Taking place in October, this festival has become a culling of many of the best films from earlier festivals that have not yet played in London cineplexes. Itís amazing how many small movie theaters and large cineplexes are within a few kilometers of Leicester Square. The British movie fans are a determined lot, standing in the rain for hours to watch the stars walk the Red Carpet.
Like most film festivals the London Film Festival presents a variety of awards. This year's winners are: Best Film award went to Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida. This award celebrates the most original, intelligent and distinctive film making. Philip French, the jury president said, "The jury greatly admired Ida, the first film made in his native Poland by a director who came to prominence while living in Britain. We were deeply moved by a courageous film that handles with subtlety and insight, a painfully controversial historical situation - the German occupation and the Holocaust."
Best British Newcomer: Jonathan Asser's screenplay of Starred Up for his uncompromising debut film that focuses on the practice of placing violent young offenders prematurely in adult prison. "Starred Up is an original story told with an individual and authentic voice, at once moving, provocative and always gripping." The screenplay was strong enough to attract high quality film making talent and actors. Jury president Amanda Posey said, "The whole jury felt that Jonathan Asser brought a fresh resonance and surprising perspective to a classic conflict."
The award to the director of the most original and imaginative feature debut film went to Anthony Chen for Ilo Ilo. In making this presentation the jury president Elizabeth Karisen said, "The startling assured direction and screenwriting of the winning film surprised us all. Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo also chose a domestic canvas, but the imaginative and innovative voice of this filmmaker elevated the film technically and narratively, and made us wonder at the fragile nature of family life in this modern Singapore family."
A scene from Ilo Ilo
Ilo Ilo focuses on a once-comfortable but now financially struggling Singapore middle-class family through the eyes of Teresa, a live-in Filipina maid. She forms a unique bond with a rambunctious boy, Jiale, but that bond suffers as the family's finances unravel in the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
Best documentary award went to My Fathers, My Mother and Me, a portrait of Friedrichshof, the largest commune in Europe, founded by the Viennese Actionist Otto Muhl in 1970s and the devastating emotional effects on its residents.
Must See films
Elaine Stretch: Shoot Me (Chiemi Karasawa, USA, 2013). The life of Elaine Stretch, the venerable Broadway and cabaret star is examined in this oft times humorous, touching and revealing documentary. I had a chance to interview Chiemi Karasawa and asked how this project started. The director said that she and Elaine had the same hairdresser, Piet, who arranged for them to meet. The film is scheduled for DC release in February. Everyone rise! and be entertained by this revealing documentary of the star who made The Ladies Who Lunch her signature song.
Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland/ Denmark, 2013). Director of the British films Last Resort and My Summer of Love, Pawlikowski returns to his homeland of Poland to film this stunning black and white tale of a young orphaned girl Anna, a noviate at a nunnery, who is summoned by her distant aunt for a visit. The middle-aged aunt Wanda is a tough liberal who has lived through many political and social changes in Poland and wants her niece to experience all life has to offer. The public and personal rights of Church, state, sensual, and individual goals are questioned against faith. The film has won many awards at film festivals including this yearís BFIís Best Film.
Kill Your Darlings (John Krokidas, USA, 2013). The film recently opened in the DC Metro area. John Krokidas has assembled a star cast to recreate a true story from the Beat Generation when a murder took place. Daniel Radcliffe plays Allen Ginsberg, Dane Dehaan is classmate Lucien Carr, Ben Foster is the young William S. Burroughs, Jack Huston is Jack Kerouac, and Michael C. Hall is Carrís estranged older friend David Kammerer. Students at Columbia University soon experience the wild jazz clubs and Harlem to compete with their studies. See the Q&A from this festival in the November Storyboard.
Like Father, Like Son (Soshite Chichi Ni Naru, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2013). Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. It's seems strange that Japan decided to submit The Great Passage as their foreign language nominee instead of this film which has won many accolades. Masterful filmmaker Kore-eda (Maborosi, I Wish, Nobody Knows) this time tells the story of two families that learn several years later that their sons were switched at birth at the hospital. Observations about the social class, economic, and family values of each family are nuanced and questions about what is important in parenting a child are addressed. Hollywood plans to make an American remake. We think this should have been Japanís nominee and that it would have made the final 5 nominees.
Long Way Home (Eve Donus Sarikamis 1915, Alphan Eseli, Turkey, 2013). In Eastern Anatolia, Turkey in 1915 a refugee mother and daughter and their guide are trying to cross the snowbound mountains. They are soon set upon by deserting Ottoman soldiers and other stragglers trying to flee the oncoming Russian soldiers. Nature becomes a character as well in this well-photographed harrowing survival tale.
The Past (Asghar Farhadi, France/Iran, 2013). Farhadiís film A Separation won the best foreign language Oscar in 2011. This film takes place in Paris where a French wife (Benenice Bejo) wishes to divorce her Iranian husband to marry her new boyfriend Tahar Rahim, but their daughter has reservations. Another well-crafted screenplay of a familyís travails as the couple and their children must sort out their futures. The film was not selected by France, but by Iran as foreign language Oscar entry this year. The film should open in the DC Metro area in late December 2013 or early January 2014 and will be shown in the AFI's EU Film Festival on December 8.
Philomena (Stephen Frears, UK/France, 2013). The film opened in the DC area on November 27. It is based on the best-selling book by Martin Sixsmith about Philomena Lee, a young Irish girl sent to the nunneries in the 1950s when she becomes pregnant. Sixsmith is a journalist who helps the aged Philomena try to find her son Anthony 50 years after his birth. The encounter includes a trip to Washington, DC. Judi Dench provides a wonderfully heart-felt portrayal of the older Philomena and may be remembered at Oscar time. See also the Q&A above with Steve Coogan.
Starred Up (David Mackenzie, UK, 2013). Eric (Jack O'Connell) has grown up in a variety of government institutions and now, as an older and incorrigible teenager, finds himself in an adult facility. His early years have made him leery of everyone; he attacks rather than listens to others. To complicate matters, the rough side of the prison is controlled by his father, Nev, played by the Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn who terrified audiences with his role in 'Animal Kingdom'. Eric's therapist (Rupert Friend) whose backstory adds an extra dimension to the relationship, is driven to lead Eric away from a future of further incarcerations. Mackenzie (Young Adam) used the technique of filming in sequence to bring tension and rawness to the screen. Eric has to navigate the intricacies of prison life to survive. Who will he and the audience trust: father, therapist or no one? When we talked briefly with Festival Director Clare Stewart after the first public screening, she said, "When I saw this film I knew it was amazing and that we had to have it".
Tracks (John Curran, Australia/UK, 2013). Mia Wasikowska shows her versatility as an actress as she brilliantly plays the quietly intelligent Robyn Davidson who trekked 2,700 km across the blistering hot Australian desert with only four camels and a dog. (She has another film in the festival: Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive (UK, 2012). At the Director's Roundtable Curran had this to say about the film: "The landscape of the Outback is an ever changing character. Each day you had to travel to the middle of nowhere with a large crew and frantically shoot to make use of every bit of sunlight. Mia had to suffer in this process as she had to have make-up and wardrobe changes very quickly and get ready for the next scene without time to rehearse." The director's comments will be in a future Storyboard when the film is screened in the DC area.
Walesa. Man of Hope (Walesa. Czlowiek Z Nadriei, Andrzej Wajda, Poland, 2013). Few men define a political era the way that Lech Walesa and the Solidarity Movement do. The actions of a simple electrician and the workers at the Gdansk shipyard helped bring about the downfall of the Iron Curtain. Walesa and millions of workers in their redefinition of religious symbols ended the post-World War 2 political reality of Europe. We see citizen actions in numerous actions like Arab Spring, Burma, Turkey, Brazil are changing the political landscape. Walesa's concluding words in his address to the US Congress foreshadowed these events, "Now others jump fences and tear down the walls. They do it because freedom is a human right." Walesa is the AFI's European Union festival Opening Night film.
Floating Skyscrapers (Plynace Wiezowce, Tomasz Wasilewski, Poland, 2013). Kuba is an accomplished swimmer who lives with his mother and has a steady girlfriend. He meets Michal another handsome youth on the swim team and has some strange stirrings. Described by some as the first LGBT Polish film it won first prize in the East of West competition this year at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic.
Eastern Boys (Robin Campillo, France, 2013). A strange mix of Russian, Ukranian and Eastern European immigrant youth frequent the Paris Gard du Nord station daily. A middle-aged French man tries to pick up one of the older youth but has a surprise later knocking at his door. A strange mix of thriller and drama which is loosely based on a real incident. Winner of this yearís Venice Horizonís Best Film Award.
Gloria (Sebastian Lelio, Chile/Spain, 2012). Middle-aged Gloria, played to perfection by Paulina Garcia, seeks refuge from the fears of growing old in disco. Her nightly forays result in what starts as a one night stand with retired naval officer Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez) but develops into much more. Rodolfo has secrets that might wreck this relationship. The film has a disco soundtrack that augments the storyline. Gloria treats the aging process with dignity and respect and Paulina Garcia turns in a superb performance that should garner acting awards. This film will open here soon.
Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (Nicholas Wrathall, USA, 2013). One thing you can say about Gore Vidal: he wasn't shy. He was known for his political insight and acerbic wit which entertained and educated a sizable portion of the population. Through interviews and well selected file footage, director Wrathall brings Vidal's life and works to a new audience.
Here Be Dragons (Mark Cousins, UK, 2013). A remarkable essayist film shot on a small camera on a five day trip to Albania and edited in five more days later. Cousins travels through parts of Albania and presents a travelerís impression of the land, the society, and the people including Albanian film history. Also check out his earlier films 2013 The Story of Children in Film and his opus 15-hour The Story of Film: An Odyssey.
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, USA, 2013). The Coen brothers bring their special touch and insight to a film that has the feel of a documentary. A struggling folk singer tries make it in the Greenwich Village scene of 1961. As in O Brother, Where Art Thou? the brothers make use of music to define a particular time and place. The film's music producer T Bone Burnett chooses songs such as '500 Miles', 'Hang Me, Oh Hang Me', 'The Death of Queen Jane' among others to evoke the feeling of that era. This film opens here in December.
The Invisible Woman (Ralph Fiennes, UK, 2013). Charles Dickens may have used elements from his life in his famed novels but there is one part that he kept hidden from most people: his decades-long affair with Nelly Ternan. The film, based on the very readable biography by Claire Tomalin (eight biographies to her credit including Jane Austin, Thomas Hardy, and the award winning Samuel Pepys: the Unequaled Self), stars Ralph Fiennes as Dickens, Felicity Jones (Nelly Ternan), Kristin Scott Thomas (as Felicity's mother, Frances Ternan), and Joanna Scanlan as the much put upon Catherine Dickens. Catherine didn't know that Dickens had abandoned her until she read the newspaper notice that he no longer resided with her.
Cast members and others involved in the film at the London Film Festival: Actor Ilan Eshkeri, producer Gabrielle Tana, actors Joanna Scanlan, Tom Hollander, Clare Stewart, author Claire Tomalin, actor Ralph Fiennes and screenwriter Abi Morgan. Photo by Stuart C. Wilson from the BFI London Film Festival website.
Dickens met 18 year old Nelly, a budding actress, when he was at the height of his fame. We can thank Claire Tomalin for her diligent efforts in tracking down what few historic records there are although four years of Nelly living in France are a total blank. It is known that Nelly relocated to France after Dickens died and that she spoke excellent French. Fiennes does a very nuanced job in not only bringing Dickens and the book to the screen but also the gender politics of the 19th Century. The film will screen at the AFI's European Union Film Festival in December.
Me, Myself and Mum (Les Garcons et Guillaume, A Table, Guillaume Gallienne, France, 2013). The Cannes festival audience fell for this film based on the comedy act of director/star Gullaume Gallienne. Gallienne's flamboyant performance of a young man whom all consider as a girl, and his icy aristocratic mother raises this most entertaining coming of age film.
Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock, USA/UK, 2013). Take one determined Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and an over protected author of Mary Poppins (Emma Thompson) and you have a conflict that makes a very entertaining film. P L Travers is determined to protect her creation from the grubby hands of Hollywood. A elderly cantankerous British spinster, P L Travers has for twenty years fought off all attempts to make her creation into a film. It is a wonder that the much loved film was ever made. She obstinately vetoed most everything that Walt and his team, writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and song writers The Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak) in an effort to sink the project. Travers' backstory reveals why she is so determined to save Mary Poppins. Tom Hanks' performance is considered a certain Best Supporting Actor nomination. All the actors give strong performance. The film had its World Premier at the London festival and will open soon in the DC area.
Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard, UK, 2013). Selfish Giant takes its title from an Oscar Wilde story but has no other connection other than the difficulty a youngster has shifting from childhood to adolescence. What works best in this film is the young actor who plays the central character, Conner Chapman. Director Barnard shifts from the innovative film The Arbor to the straight forward storytelling in this film. To help out their impoverished families, Conner and his pal Swifty (Shaun Thomas) go into the scrap metal business and are forced to begin making adult decisions.
Violette (Martin Provost, France, 2013). Emmanuelle Devos is extraordinary as French poet Violette Luduc in post-World War II's new universe including feminism, sexual and intellectual freedom. She is in love with the famous and successful writer Simone de Beauvoir (played by Sandrine Kimberlain) but writes poetry about female yearning and anatomy that shocks much of French society. Beautiful cinematography by Yves Cape and directed by Provost who also did the wonderful Seraphine.
Bad Hair (Pelo Malo, Mariana Rondon, Venezuela, 2013). Junior is a nine-year old attractive boy with curley hair but has an obsession with wanting to straighten his hair. His grandmother is his only support. His mother and others see this as an affront and treat it with many homophobic comments and actions. Maybe he just wants to have straight hair. The Golden Seashell best film winner at this yearís San Sebastian Film Festival.
Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, France/Belgium/Spain, 2013). The acclaimed Golden Palm winner at Cannes and also Best Actresses for Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulous as young women who fall in love and the arc of their relationship. This film has opened in Washington, DC.
Great Passage (Fune O Amu, Yuya Ishii, Japan, 2013). Japan's Foreign Language Oscar nomination explores the world of nerds. In Yuya Ishii first big budget film what could be more nerdy than writing a dictionary? With a set that's essentially a warren walled by research books, the timid clerk chosen to lead the project slowly grows (14 years - is that slow enough?) into a self-assured leader.
Labor Day (Jason Reitman, USA, 2013). Kate Winslet's strong performance lifts this flawed script to film award levels. This reworking of the Copenhagen Syndrome has excellent performances from Josh Brolin and newcomer Gattlin Griffith as well. The teenage son, Griffith, provides a different level of growth from that of Adele, Griffith's reclusive mother. That divergent growth is what provides the energy in this film.
May in the Summer (Cherien Dabis, Qatar/Lebanon/US/Jordan, 2013). Writer/director Dabis also acts in this comedy drama about a Christian-Arab-American and her two sisters returning to Jordan to marry her Muslim boyfriend. Cultural and family crises abound. Her mother is played by Hiam Abbas. Many may remember the directorís other film Amreeka which played locally in 2009.
Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, France/Cambodia, 2013). Panh earlier also had a documentary The Killing Machine in 2003 about dictator Phil Potís Cambodian regime. This documentary blends archival footage with animated miniature clay characters to portray what happened in Cambodia under his cruel regime.
The Rocket (Kim Mordaunt, Australia/Laos/Thailand, 2013). By turns comical and poignant, Mordaunt's beautifully shot film brings another dimension in revealing the resilient life in Laos. Ahlo seemed to be cursed, he was the surviving twin in a culture that believes that twins are cursed - one is good and the other evil but when only one is a live birth which is the evil one? In the family's journey to the village of Paradise, a misnamed place if ever there was one, can this assumed evil one save the family? The film had one screening already at the National Geographic Society in DC.
Suzanne (Katell Quillevere, France/Belgium, 2013). This is a documentary-like feature film of a widowed lorry driver and his two daughters from when they are very young to adults and the paths they followed. Suzanne as a teen gets involved with young hoods and drugs which affect most of her life. Younger sister Maria leads a more normal path and remains close to her father.
Time In Quchi (Shu Jia Zuo Ye, Chang Tso, China/Taiwan, 2013). Another well-crafted Taiwanese dramatic film about city children and their adventures visiting country relatives. Young teen Bao and his kid sister Seaweed visit grandpa in rural Quchi as their parents decide if they will divorce. Childhood sensitivity and a sense of place is strongly demonstrated. The director said his recent divorce made him dedicate the film to his own son.
So Young (Zhi Woman Zhong Jiang Shi Qu De Qingchun, Vicki Zhao, China, 2013). Chinese star Vicki Zhao directs her first film. Zheng Wei arrives at a Chinese Polytechnic College and tries to find true love after picking a studious student to be her lover. It is based on the novel by Xin Yiwu that starts with a young girlís fantasies and dreams about love until she graduates to adulthood. This has become one of the top box-office films recently in China.
There are several with historic roots that might be worth your viewing. Good Ol' Freda (Ryan White, US, 2013) has got to be on the short list for Beatles fans. If you were a member of the Beatles fan club then you heard from Freda Kelly. After 50 years she tells her story about her work as the loyal secretary who was with the Beatles for the long haul. She was with them for their entire career. Why did she agree to let Ryan White tell her story and to bring out her vast collection of memorabilia? The birth of her grandson made it important for Good Ol' Freda go on the historic record. For stories you never heard about the Liverpool mop tops, see this film.
Few people knew that Paraguay had a Queen but Eliza Lynch, Queen of Paraguay (Alan Gilsenan, Ireland, 2013) reveals the life of this 19th Century County Cork, Ireland born who became not only Queen of Paraguay but the most famous woman in South America. The film is enhanced by the acting of Maria Doyle Kennedy (with roles in The General, The Tudors and Downtown Abbey). A romance with Francisco Solano Lopez, son of the President of Paraguay began in Paris and lasted the rest of their lives. Never married, they had seven children, she stuck with him through the horrors of the War of 1864, his death on the battlefield and ended up alone back in Paris in 1886. This fascinating lady's biography gives us a look at South America in the Nineteenth Century.
Rags and Tatters (Ahmad Abdalla, Egypt, 2013). While interviewing the director we were told that this film was based on real events. When the Arab Spring hit Egypt the doors of the prisons were thrown open and people who had been imprisoned for years were released. "I trust the people of Cairo," the director said. "True stories, true events are the backbone of this film." There is no dialogue in this film, no speaking parts. "Every scene presents the events that take part either before or after spoken dialogue, and through the images and the character dynamics everything can be figured out in a simple and smooth way. No character is named." Sufi chants and songs are heard because the lead spends time at the cemetery. The director said in London, "We intentionally use defects and disadvantages of cheap digital cameras to create a new visual style of storytelling that carries us to a time and place that's not conventional."
To learn more about the 57th BFI London Film Festival, visit the website.
Calendar of Events
American Film Institute Silver Theater
The AFI's main event this month is the 26th European Union Film Showcase, December 5-22. (See the story above).
The "Holiday Classics" series runs from December 6-24. Titles include Miracle on 34th Street, Holiday Affair, Scrooged, White Christmas, A Christmas Carol (1951), A Christmas Carol (1938), It's a Wonderful Life, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Die Hard and The Lion in Winter.
Other special events at the AFI include Mary Poppins, The Birds, The Wizard of Oz and The Searchers with Glenn Frankel, author of "The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend" in person. Donald Sosin will provide music accompaniment for The Freshman (Sam Taylor, 1925) starring Harold Lloyd. Three documentaries: When I Walk (Jason DaSilva, 2013) is a documentary about the filmmaker's diagnosis of multiple sclerosis; Lenny Cooke (Ben and Joshua Safdie, 2013) is a documentary about a high school basketball player; At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, 2013) is a documentary about the university.
Freer Gallery of Art
Three Indian films will be shown in December, all related to the exhibit "Yoga: The Art of Transformation." On December 8 at 2:00pm is a restored print of Devi (The Goddess, Satyajit Ray, 1960), starring Sharmila Tagore and set in rural Bengal in 1860. On December 13 at 7:00pm is Shadow Kill (Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 2002), about an aging hangman, set in southern Kerala. On December 15 at 2:00pm is The Ritual (Girish Kasaravalli, 1977), an award winning film about a child widow who becomes excommunicated from her village.
National Gallery of Art
On December 1 at 2:00pm is an illustrated lecture by Agnieszka Holland "Viewing History Through the Filmmaker's Lens." Following the lecture, at 3:30pm is the Washington premiere of Burning Bush (2013), Agnieszka Holland's three-part HBO miniseries about the revolutionary reaction to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1969.
"Realite Tales: Young French Cinema" is a series of recent documentaries from France. On December 7 at 2:00pm is Au Bord du Monde (Claus Drexel, 2012); on December 7 at 4:00pm is Bovines (Emmanuel Gras, 2011); on December 8 at 4:30pm is Braddock, America (Jean-Loic Portron and Gabriella Kessler, 2013); on December 14 at 2:00pm is Time of Thanksgiving (Dominique Marchais, 2010); on December 14 at 4:30pm is Entree du Personnel (Manuela Fresil, 2011); and on December 15 at 4:30pm is Swandown (Andrew Cotting, 2012).
A special event in December is Becoming Traviata (Philippe Beziat, 2012) about the creation of an opera shown on December 22 and 29 at 2:00pm. Jean-Luc Goddard's Contempt (1963) is on December 22 at 4:30pm and December 28 at 2:30pm.
National Museum of African Art
On December 7 at 2:00pm is Punk in Africa (2011), a documentary about the punk movement in South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Producer Jeffrey Brown will answer questions after the screening.
Museum of American History
As part of the Smithsonian Holiday Festival is The Polar Express in 3D on December 7-24 and 26-31 starting at 11:00am and shown through the day.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
On December 11 at 6:30pm is Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) as part of the exhibit "Landscape in Passing."
Washington Jewish Community Center
On December 10 at 7:30pm is Sleeping with the Fishes (Nicole Gomez Fisher, 2013), a comedy about a Latina-Jewish woman. The filmmaker and producer will be present. On December 17 at 7:30pm is "Israel: A Home Movie" (Eliav Lilti, 2012), a collection of home movies from the 1930s through the 1970s. Note location: Adas Israel, 2850 Quebec Street, NW. On December 24 at 7:30pm is My Best Holidays (Phillipe Lellouche, 2012) about a family's summer vacation in Brittany in July of 1976.
"Wagner Revisited" is a film series commemorating the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner's birth. On December 2 at 6:30pm is Ludwig-Requiem for a Virgin King (Hans-JŁrgen Syberberg, 1972) with Harry Baer as Ludwig, patron of Wagner. On December 9 at 6:30pm is The Flying Dutchman (Joachim Herz, 1964) a film of the opera made in East Germany. On December 16 at 6:30pm is Ludwig II (Helmut Kšutner, 1955) with O.W. Fischer as Ludwig II and Paul Bildt as Richard Wagner. On December 21 at 2:00pm is Ludwig (Luchino Visconti, 1972) with Helmut Berger as Ludwig and Romy Schneider as Empress Elisabeth of Austria.
On December 9 at 7:00pm is the restored La bella et la bÍte (Beauty and the Beast, Jean Cocteau, 1946).
The Embassy of France participates with the National Gallery of Art's "Realitť Tales: Young French Cinema" (see above). The opening night film is The Virgin, the Copts and Me on December 5 at 7:00pm. Directed by French-Egyptian filmmaker Namir Abdel Messeeh, the film, set in Cairo, investigates the phenomenon of miraculous Virgin Mary apparitions in Egypt's Coptic Christian community.
The Japan Information and Culture Center
On December 17 at 6:30pm is Shinobi (Ten Shimoyama, 2005), set during the Tokugawa Shogunate. There will be a live martial arts demonstration after the film.
The National Theatre
A series of Joan Crawford films concludes with Flamingo Road (Michael Curtiz, 1949) on December 2 at 6:30pm.
Two holiday films are It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra) on December 9 at 6:30pm and White Christmas on December 16 at 6:30pm.
Arlington Arts and Artisphere
On December 6 at 7:30pm is The Muslims Are Coming!, a documentary about a band of Muslim-American comedians as they visit big cities, small towns and rural villages to combat Islamophobia. The director/producer team Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah will host a Q&A after the film. On December 8 at 2:00pm is a documentary World Fair: Picturing Tomorrow, a short documentary about the 1939 New York World's Fair. Director Amanda Murray will be present to discuss the film.
On December 11 at noon is a lecture "The Collaboration: Hollywoodís Pact with Hitler" Author Ben Urwand discusses the Hollywood studios' agreement not to make films that attacked the Nazis or condemned Germany's persection of Jews. At 2:00pm Ben Urwand will introduce a screening of The Mortal Storm (Frank Borzage, 1940), one of the few directly anti-Nazi Hollywood films released before the US entry into WWII. Jimmy Stewart stars.
Interamerican Development Bank
On December 11 at 6:30pm is The Human Scale--Bringing Cities to Life (Andreas M. Dalsgaard, 2012) about a Danish architect and urban planner. A panel discussion follows.
This month's Greek film, The Tree and the Swing (Maria Douza, 2013), is on December 4 at 8:00pm. The "Czech Lions" film for December is Alois Nebel (TomŠs LunŠk), based on a graphic novel, shown on December 11 at 8:00pm; the French Cinematheque film is Haute Cuisine (Christian Vincent, 2012) on December 18 at 8:00pm.
On December 4 at 7:00pm is The Red Shoes (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948).
Anacostia Community Museum
On December 12 at 10:30am is Courting Justice (2010), about seven South African women judges in South Africa. Filmmaker Ruth Cowan will introduce the film and host a discussion.
The Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital
"Tough Dames in Satin Slips" is a film and discussion series exploring the history of sex and violence in the movies, censorship and the ratings system. Movie critic Nell Minow and journalist Margaret Talbot present gems of the pre-Code cinema. On December 6 at 7:00pm is Heat Lightning (1934) starring Aline MacMahon and Ann Dvorak as sisters running a gas station/cafe in the Mojave desert. On December 13 at 7:00pm is The Public Enemy (William Wellman, 1931) starring James Cagney.
On December 3 at 7:00pm is Getting to the Good (Nķbia Santana, 2008), a documentary about the daily violence and neglect of children living on the streets of Brasilia. Q&A afterward with Heloisa Maira, a consultant on the film. On December 10 at 7:00pm is Just About Love? (Lola Doillon, 2007). Q&A with the audience after the screening.
On December 11 at 1:00pm is Funny Girl (William Wyler, 1968) starring Barbra Streisland.
University of Maryland, Hoff Theater
On December 5 at 5:30pm is "An Evening with Ann Hornaday." Film critic for The Washington Post, Ann Hornaday will talk and take questions. On December 6 at 4:00pm is The Gleaners and I (AgnŤs Varda, 2000), a documentary about gleaners. Both events are open to the public.
On December 10 at 6:45pm is Istanbul Unveiled (Serif Yenen), a documentary about the city, its architecture and unique sites.
Busboys and Poets
On December 1 at 5:00pm is Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity (Shakti Butler). At the 14th and V location.
"Reel Women" is a weekend of films about women from Mexico and Spain; films are shown December 11, 13, 14, and 15. Titles include She Doesn't Want to Sleep Alone ((Natalia Beristain, 2012) from Mexico with the filmmaker present for discussion, Chrysalis (Paula Ortiz, 2011) from Spain, with a panel discussion following; Maria Candelaria (Emilio FernŠndez, 1944) from Mexico; Perdida ((Viviana GarcŪa Besnť, 2011) from Mexico; Nora's Will (Mariana Chenillo, 2010) from Mexico; and The Plague (Neus Ballķs, 2013) from Spain. See the website for more information.