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A Chat with Lisa Cholodenko, director of “The Kids Are All Right”

Lisa Cholodenko isn’t a household name as writer/directors go, but that may change somewhat after her latest film, “The Kids Are All Right,” which was released smack in the middle of the summer, and came out on DVD and Blu-ray last week. The movie features three of our greatest actors – Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo – doing some of the most astute work of their careers. Expect the movie to snag some Oscar nominations for one or more of the trio, and if there’s any justice, Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg will be nominated for Best Original Screenplay as well.

The movie is blisteringly funny while at the same time painfully honest. It tells the story of a lesbian couple (Bening and Moore) who’ve been together for 20 years and raised two children (played Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) who are now at an age when they’re interested in meeting their sperm donor (Ruffalo). Human comedy ensues with unexpected results. “The Kids Are All Right” is one of the best movies of the year, and Cholodenko, whose previous films include “High Art” and “Laurel Canyon,” is a huge factor in its success. Now you might be thinking that a movie about two lesbians and their kids isn’t exactly what you’re looking for. If so, you’re exactly the person who should see this film, because it’ll change your ideas of what makes a family in this day and age. And it will make you laugh – loud and hard.

Cholodenko took some time out to talk to Bullz-Eye on the occasion of the film’s home video release and after some introductory chit-chat we discussed the lesbian right, gay porn, and new meanings for the word “tribe.”

Bullz-Eye: “The Kids are All Right” was like this oasis of reason in an ocean of CGI and fart jokes this past summer. Do you get frustrated when you look around see the types of movies that rake in the big bucks these days?

Lisa Cholodenko: I wish we would kind of go back to the time where there were more interesting, idiosyncratic human kinds of comedies and dramas, and not such the kind of broad and farcical, box office driven fare, but that’s where we are right now, so, I just accept it, and I’m glad that there’s space for films like this.

BE: Well, so am I. There was some fairly vocal criticism of the film from the most unlikely of places – the lesbian community. Where do you think that kind of outrage comes from and, outside of raising awareness for the film itself, does that kind of anger serve any worthwhile purpose for a thoughtful movie like this?

LC: I keep referring to them as the lesbian right (chuckling), and I think that in any kind of group there’s going to be a contingent of people that are more extreme in their views of things, and more politicized and so, I think there’s room for everybody, and I don’t have a problem with that. It’s gets a little tedious speaking to it – not to you – but when I’ve heard it in Q & A’s and stuff, but I’m sympathetic. There’ve obviously been no great representations of lesbians in cinema, or certainly there hasn’t been in a long time, and it’s kind of an old school doctrinaire, “Oh of course the lesbian goes off with a man.” But if you look at the film with any kind of care, it’s really not about that at all.

BE: No, no, it isn’t.

LC: She really goes off with her partner. So it gets a little knee-jerky and tedious for me, but I’m sympathetic that there’s no representation, and with starvation sometimes you get a lot of mixed feelings.

BE: Well, here’s a weird question, and you gotta help me out here, because it was the one thing in the whole movie that baffled me. Lesbian couples watching gay male porn to get in the mood. Is this common? Is this something that I’m just totally unaware of?

LC: You know, I don’t know because I’m not a social scientist. I just thought, you know, different strokes for different folks, and it’s always fascinating to find out what people do to turn it on. Stuart [Blumberg, co-writer of the movie] and I stumbled on that idea, and wrote a scene, and laughed and I said, “No, it’s too risqué,” and he said, “No it’s not. It’s funny. It’s great.”

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“It’s amazing how much a person can cry”

It’s a Monday morning, so a lot of you probably feel like crying anyway. Now, thanks to Pajiba’s Harry Hanrahan, you could let the crying expert, Ms. Julianne Moore do it for you. It doesn’t matter whether the flick is great, bad, or indifferent, she never fails to be effective.

The crying hall of fame has just too members in my view and, oddly enough, both of them are named “Moore.”

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Press Conference for “Schmucks”

For those of us who enjoy contemplating the historical and political currents that run through film history, it’s tempting to look at the latest comedy from director Jay Roach (“Austin Powers,” “Meet the Parents,” “Recount”) as a possible reflection of American discomfort at the brutal nature of business and the growing disparities between the wealthy and the increasingly lumpen middle-class. However, when you’re talking about a movie that ends with a confrontation between a good idiot (Steve Carell) who designs amazing dioramas using dead mice and an evil idiot (Zach Galifianakis) with the power of mind control, but only over other idiots, that may be taking things a little seriously.

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Opening this Friday, “Dinner for Schmucks” borrows its premise and some of its plot from Frances Veber’s 1998 “The Dinner Game.” Paul Rudd co-stars as Barry, a rising L.A. executive who finds that entering his company’s upper echelon will mean participating in a competitive Dinner for Winners. All the guests are to bring an extraordinary person who has been unrecognized by society — in other words, a dithering idiot. The winner of the nasty game is the one whose guest is the most amusingly stupid.

Barry is initially appalled by the idea and assures Julie (Stephanie Szostak), his horrified art curator girlfriend, he’ll have nothing to do with it. On the other hand, he needs to pay for his Porsche and his absurdly large apartment at West Hollywood’s Sunset Tower Hotel (in real life, you’d need a billionaire’s wealth to afford that). It’s a choice between being nice and being unemployed and in debt. Then the fates seem to reward him when, driving through a quainted-up version of Westwood Village, he nearly runs over Tim Wagner (Carell), a clueless IRS employee and ultra-naive artist committed to his “mousterpieces.” Wagner, of course, turns out to be a goodhearted type whose attempts to help his new friend backfire in increasingly absurd ways. Fortunately, most of them are funny, particularly thanks to some outstanding and often completely unhinged supporting performances from Zach Galifianakis and Jemaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords” as an absurdly pretentious and untalented, but hugely successful, artist on the make for Barry’s increasingly angry girlfriend and all other attractive women on the planet.

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“Dinner for Schmucks” isn’t going to electrify cinephiles or become a staple of screenwriting seminars, but a couple of weeks back it had proven itself to be a very effective laugh-getting machine at a West L.A. screening. Therefore, full of a free breakfast, a selection of journos were in a pretty good mood for a morning press conference at the Beverly Hilton with a number of funny and/or talented people, including stars Carell and Rudd, supporting bad guys Bruce Greenwood (“Star Trek“) and Ron Livingston (“Office Space“) as well as director Roach and writers David Guion and Michael Handelman, who are about to become directors themselves with the film version of the BBC comedy, “Cruise of the Gods.”

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Midweek movie news of the world

I’m getting a very, very late start tonight/this morning so let’s see how efficient and brief I can be. Also, we’ll see how many utterly huge stories I’ll miss.

Mark Ruffalo in *  I suppose the big news today is that it really appears as if there’s already an Edward Norton replacement after his departure as the Hulk from “The Avengers” was egregiously mishandled by Marvel’s Kevin Feige. The choice appears to not be Joaquin Phoenix but the first-rate, not nearly famous enough Mark Ruffalo. He is the deceptively low-key actor I’ve been rooting for since catching him in “You Can Count On Me” back in 2000. (It was my favorite movie of that year and also made me a life-long fan of Laura Linney.) Ruffalo is currently in the year’s probable indie-smash, “The Kids Are Alright.” As sussed out from various reports by Kevin Jagernauth of the Playlist, it appears he’s still in some pretty serious negotiations that are not yet really anything like a done deal. He’s a shrewd choice for Marvel and this would be a good way to salvage a thoroughly unfortunate situation.

* Joaquin Phoenix might not be the Hulk, but the probable mockumentary (or not) about him made by his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, has been picked up by Magnolia. I’m not looking forward to the already infamous “Cleveland steamer” scene. Just FYI, much as I admire John Waters, “Pink Flamingos” is on my short “never see” list, but that infamous final scene is a lot worse, I suppose. I get ill just thinking about it.

* The fascinating outlandish career of arthouse poet turned stoner-action-comedy specialist David Gordon Green may take another fascinating turn if he really does remake Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” — which, I somehow managed to sit through some fifteen years or so back despite my squeamish/scaredy cat ways, because, among other reasons, it’s so freaking beautiful. Also, I’ve always had the hots for Jessica Harper.

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* If you want to know who the best, most essential, and most thoughtfully cinephilish bloggers and blogs are, check out the terrific blogroll from the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Congrats to my old bloggy compadres Dennis Cozzalio, Kimberly Lindbergs, Farran Smith Nehme, and Greg Ferrera, among others, for making the prestigious list.

* Nathaniel Rogers didn’t get a mention, though he certainly deserves it. The openly actresexual blogger did, however, get a very nice interview with his idol, Julianne Moore, who I kind of idolize myself. More congratulations are in order.

* I suspect that those old Steve Reeves Hercules movies will wind up being a lot more watchable than whatever Brett Ratner makes of the mythical strongman. I’m sure he can’t top the Disney animated film, even if it wasn’t the greatest of the studio’s nineties animation output. Cue the “do you like to watch gladiator movies”  jokes.

* If you’re wondering why the post two posts below this one has no video, here’s why. Somebody let me know if there’s a new version up, since the whole thing is a bit of a legalish technicality.

* Note to my friend, Zayne: Yeah, I missed this reconstruction of a lost ultra-obscure exploitation gangster film tonight about kidnapping the Pope (and asking for a $1.00 from every Catholic in the world — though  these days I doubt they’d pony up). I’m therefore bummed.

* Alison Nastasi has an interesting response to a fairly thoughtful rant by Dustin Rowles on the controversy around the new cover art for the remake of another film on my probably never-see list, “I Spit On Your Grave.” The poster is obviously in horrible taste, but isn’t that kind of the point?

* Now that a fourth tape is out, I wonder if Mel Gibson will get the message and give up the drunk dialing.

* I’m confused. If the planned film with Jeremy Piven and Thomas Jane is in any way actually closely modeled on John Cassavettes’ “Husbands,’” as director Mark Pellington seems to say, then I don’t think it should be called a “thriller.”

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It’s a villain vs. vampires, and some predators vs. an airbender

Things are crazy for me this weekend, so forgive me if I cross the line between succinct and downright terse, and I make no typo-free or anti-cliche guarantee either. Even so, this is an unusually interesting box office weekend, though inevitably a far less lucrative one than last weekend’s holiday free-for-all.

The major new entry that just might hit the #1 spot is the PG-rated 3-D animated comedy, “Despicable Me.” Though not every film geek loves this movie about a James Bond-style super-baddie redeemed by instant parenthood — veteran animation critic Charles Solomon was particularly cool to it on the L.A. area public radio show, FilmWeek — it’s being noted for having a bit of a more of a Looney Tunes/Spy vs. Spy vibe than your typical family animation and is getting solidly good reviews.  Indeed, the only thing that looks bad about this film is that it’s come out only two weeks after all-but-univerally praised and hugely successful “Toy Story 3,” but then Pixar exists in a world of its own anyhow, where a perfectly entertaining little movie like “Cars” somehow becomes the “bad” one.

Jolly Carl DiOrio at THR is predicting a $30-35 million weekend. Since “Despicable Me, helmed by two first time French directors, is from a new animation division from beleaguered Universal, every little of good luck is badly needed right now. Jolly Carl says that all the suspense will be over the holding power of last week’s huge winner, “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” which has already passed the $200 million mark. It’s all up to the Twi-hards now.

The other major new release is “Predators.” Produced by Robert Rodriguez and directed by Nimrod Antal, it’s an attempt to revivify the old action/monster franchise with a straight-forward multi-star action plot largely lifted from one of the most frequently borrowed of all horror/suspense premises, “The Most Dangerous Game,” which even spawned an episode of “Gilligan’s Island.” This version has been getting relatively good reviews for a movie which is decidedly not critic’s bait and it appears to be very much in the spirit of the effective, if not wildly brilliant, original. It’s Rotten Tomatoes stock has lowered considerably over the last 24 hours or so, however.

Preying on “Predators” is the widely unloved yet successful family action picture from M. Night Shyamalan and Paramount, “The Last Airbender.” This weekend will be an interesting test to see if there’s any effect from all that critical hate and a lowish Cinemascore result which has to have translated into some poor word of mouth, at least among adults. In any case, “Predators” should almost certainly emerge victorious in terms of profits considering that the frugal and innovative Rodriguez has kept the budget to an extremely reasonable $38 million — a minuscule budget for an effects-heavy action film based on long-running franchise. The production budget of “Airbender,” we are told is nearly four times as much. Jolly Carl says the R-rated action-monster picture should earn $20-25 million.

On the limited release front, the movie getting all the attention this week is the highly lauded dramatic comedy from Focus Features with a title borrowed from the Who, “The Kids Are Alright.” Even considering the no-longer-terribly-edgy subject matter (gay women raising children), this movie stars two of the best and most famous actresses of our day in Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, it’s a little sad this is considered a “small” film, but then I keep writing stuff like that.  Welcome to 2010.

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A Single Man

Renowned fashion designer Tom Ford must have been chomping at the bit to make his jump into feature films, but he was smart to hold out for the right project, because it’s hard to imagine a directorial debut more perfect than “A Single Man.” Based on the novel of the same name by Christopher Isherwood, the film take place over the course of a single day as middle-aged college professor George Falconer (Colin Firth) contemplates suicide following the death of his longtime partner, who was killed in a car accident eight months prior. George spends the day reminiscing about the past, putting his affairs in order, and even enjoying a dinner date with his childhood friend (Julianne Moore) without anyone the wiser, but when one of his students (Nicholas Hoult) takes a sudden interest in his well-being, George begins to rethink his fatal plan.

Admittedly, not a whole lot happens over the course of the film’s 99-minute runtime, but it’s so visually stunning that the anemic plot isn’t a big problem. With Ford’s background in fashion, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the ‘60s-era costumes and production design are flawless, but Eduard Grau’s cinematography is the real treat, transforming the movie into a perfume ad come to life that beautifies the style and sophistication of the period. Colin Firth also delivers a career-best performance as a broken man struggling to get through the day without falling apart in front of his friends and colleagues, and Moore and Hoult offer ample support in limited roles. Though the movie does drag a bit during its final act, “A Single Man” is a poignant drama about love and loss that will serve as the perfect calling card should Ford decide to quit his day job and focus on filmmaking.

Click to buy “A Single Man”

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Red Carpet Chatter: Mike Nichols Gets His AFI Lifetime Achievement Award

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Born in 1931 in what was very soon to become Hitler’s Germany, young Michael Peschkowsky was living in Manhattan by 1939. It was great luck both for the future Mike Nichols and for the country that accepted him.

Nichols is, of course, one of the most respected directors in Hollywood, and for good reason. He’s the original, craftsmanlike, and emotionally astute directorial voice responsible for such sixties and seventies classics as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,”  “Carnal Knowledge” and, of course, “The Graduate” (the source of his only directorial Oscar so far) as well as such eighties, nineties, and oughts successes as “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “The Birdcage,” and “Closer.” Even if some of the later films are not on the same level of quality as his earlier films — and several, especially his 1988 box office hit, “Working Girl,” stray into mediocrity — it’s still one of the most impressive and diverse careers of any living director in Hollywood.

That’s just on the big screen. On television, Nichols has rebounded in the eyes of many critics, directing two of the most acclaimed television productions of the last decade, 2001′s “Wit” with Emma Thompson, and the outstanding 2005 miniseries adaptation of Tony Kushner’s brilliant and mammoth epic play, “Angels in America.” With his 80th birthday just a year and a half away, he’s still working hard with two thrillers movies planned, including an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low” currently being rewritten by the decidedly counter-intuitive choice of Chris Rock.

Before he directed his first foot of film, Mike Nichols was a noted theater director. That in itself is not so unusual a root for directors to travel. What is different is that, before he was a noted theater director, he was half of one of the most influential comedy teams in show business history, Nichols and May. (His comedy partner, Elaine May, went on to become an important, if less commercially successful, writer and director in her own right.)

Still, from the moment he directed his first major play, Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” Nichols mostly abandoned performing. Today, his highly regarded early work is mostly known only to fairly hardcore comedy aficionados.

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A trailer for a Sunday morning/afternoon: “The Kids Are All Right”

It’s a little sad that what appears to be a really entertaining social comedy with two genuine superstars, a leading man who deserves to be one, and another possible emerging young superstar or two is considered an “indie” flick. Anyhow, “The Kids Are All Right” brings us staid and affluent same-sex parents Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. They find their peace interrupted when Mark Ruffalo turns up as the fun-loving, ne’er do well biological father of their teenage children, played by Mia Wasikowska of ”Alice in Wonderland” and Josh Hutcherson of “The Bridge to Terabithia” and the upcoming “Red Dawn” remake.

Except for the lesbian part and the artificial insemination part, this could easily have been an “A” Paramount production in 1951 with, say, Jean Arthur and Rosalind Russell as the two mommies, Robert Mitchum as the bio-dad, and Liz Taylor and maybe Dean Stockwell as the kids. Oh, well.

A big h/t to Dustin Knowles of Pajiba. And, yeah, if I was going to have two mommies, Ms. Bening and Ms. Moore would work for me, too.

Also, of course, this isn’t the first movie with this title, give or take and “L” and a space.

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“How to Train Your Dragon” wins the box office race; “Hot Tub Time Machine” is all wet compared to “Alice”

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Yes, no gigantic surprises as the combination of family appeal, outstanding reviews, good word of mouth, the 3-D inflationary spiral, and a sufficient number of theaters in which to milk it, made for a solid opening for the weekend’s most high profile new release. To be specific, as per Box Office Mojo‘s handy dandy weekend chart, the 3-D animated “How to Train Your Dragon,” netted an estimate of $43.3 million for Dreamworks/Paramount and enjoyed the highest per-screen average of any film released this week on more than one screen, and it was on 4,055 of them. It’s a result not far from what was expected earlier.

Some may find this a slightly below-par opening. True to form in the ever-spinning world of Hollywood PR, some executive for a rival studio complimented the film but told Nikki Finke it tracked badly — and some day I’m going to learn exactly what that means — because it “lacked comedy,” which confuses me deeply. I mean, the trailer made me laugh. I guess he means it lacked a poop-eating joke or something. Anyhow, Ms. Finke is quite correct that, given the good word of mouth and the coming school holidays it should enjoy “good multiples.”

Meanwhile, Anthony D’Alessandro, Anne Thompson’s resident box office guru, has this to add:

While some box office analysts are crying foul that this figure reps a paltry opening weekend, particularly for a 3D film saddled with an estimated $165-million budget, these claims overlook the fact that animation films are a different breed at the box office than run-of-the-mill features.  Toons have longer legs, making anywhere from 30-35% of their total domestic haul in their opening weekend, whereas the average bow reps 50%.

In other words, do not cry for the filmmakers or Dreamworks. They’re going to do fine.

And, though their film is out of the top spot, neither should you shed a tear for Disney or Tim Burton even if “Alice in Wonderland” is out of the #1 spot. They had a terrific three week run at the top spot and this week’s second place estimate of $17.3 million is not too shabby either.

John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Lizzy Caplan, and Clarke Duke suffer past shock in On the other hand, the melancholy clowns of “Hot Tub Time Machine” led by John Cusack, Rob Cordry, the always hilarious Craig Robinson, and Clarke Duke, could perhaps benefit from a bit of sympathy. The comedy from MGM, currently on the auctioneer’s block, earned an estimated $13.65 million.

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Now, if we could only get the dragon into the hot tub…

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We’re getting off to a late start on this week’s box office preview, but it’s not like there’s a huge amount of suspense over what movie will rule the box office this early Spring weekend. Still, it’s not all skittles and beer out there.

America’s theater owners have decided to do a solid for the home entertainment business by trying to take advantage of the current 3-D mania by raising already inflated ticket prices during a still very rough economy/”jobless recovery.” I’m betting that whatever gains the owners see from this will be short term — especially as 3-D films become common as dirt with 3-D retrofits lowering the perception of quality — but that’s a rant for another day. However, one more thing, can someone explain to me how all the major chains increasing their prices over the same weekend doesn’t sound suspiciously like collusion, and if I’m right, how that can be legal?

In any case, the movie which will be generating a rude surprise at the box office for families nationwide is Paramount/Dreamworks digitally animated family fantasy-comedy, “How to Train Your Dragon.” The Hollywood Reporter‘s Greg Kilday is reporting that interest is increasing and as much as $40 million seems possible. Especially considering those extra inflated ticket prices and we know that once the family is at the box office, it’s far too late to turn back, I wouldn’t it expect it to go higher. Moreover, it sounds like people will be getting a dandy movie for their (too much) money. The reviews for this one are darn near Pixar-esque — in other words hugely positive — at least in terms of the Rotten Tomatoes numbers and when that many critics like a mass audience film, believe it not, most people will like it too.

With all due huge respect to Roger Ebert, who is predicting the film will come in at #2 based on his site traffic  (he gave it only the mildest possible positive review and unlike others was not wowed by its 3-D either, it appears), this seems like the closest thing there is to surefire hit. Moreover, my spies in the family world tell me child interest has been high for weeks.

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Still, I wouldn’t bet against a healthy showing for the film Mr. Ebert expects to be top new release this week, “Hot Tub Time Machine.” My spies in the middle-aged-overgrown-child-world (primarily: me, myself, I) tell me that interest in this raunchy but (I’m hoping) clever farce with a strong comedy cast and a instantly get-able premise has also been high for some time.

On the other hand, while some may be whispering of a coup along the lines of “The Hangover, my gut tells me it’s simply not the same kind of film and I don’t see this having the same kind of wide appeal. For all its guy-humor, “The Hangover” was a surprisingly sweet-tempered and almost low-key film by modern comedy standards, “Hot Tub Time Machine” seems to be more in the “Harold & Kumar” range of low-comedy that works for (relatively) high IQs. Anyhow, the film benefits from probably better than average reviews for this kind of comedy (62% “Fresh”).  Kilday is talking in the high teens. I suspect it’ll do well and perhaps more than that, but not shockingly so.

In any case, it generated the best RT pull quote I’ve seen in awhile, courtesy of A.O. Scott, who finds an undercurrent of melancholy amidst the low comedy:

It’s fun, it’s sad, and it’s kind of sad that it’s so much fun.

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