Hidden Netflix Gems – Walking and Talking

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down. 

Writer-director Nicole Holofcener has been compared to the legendary Woody Allen because of her strong command of character and dialogue, not to mention the fact that her films tend to revolve around brainy people having trouble with their relationships, both romantic and familial. The comparison is apt and certainly not without foundation – Holofcener is the stepdaughter of Allen’s late producer Charles H. Joffe, and she found her first film industry work on Allen films such as Hannah and Her Sisters, on which she was an apprentice editor. However, despite their shared propensity for talky comedic dramas about New Yorkers who are sometimes a bit too smart for their own good, Holofcener’s films display a sensibility that is uniquely hers, as channeled through her favorite actor, Catherine Keener, who has appeared in all four of her films thus far.

Holofcener’s debut feature, Walking and Talking, takes a warm and insightful look at the mixed feelings of Amelia (Keener), a woman in her mid-30s whose longtime best friend, Laura (Anne Heche), is getting married. The news sends Amelia into a sort of “biological clock” crisis in which she confronts her conflicting desires to settle down and find happiness the way other women her age seem to be doing, while still wanting the relative freedom and ease of a single life. As she attempts to navigate this difficulty, she receives advice and moral support from Laura, her fiancée, Frank (Todd Field), and Amelia’s former lover and good friend, Andrew (Liev Schreiber), as well as a therapist (Joseph Siravo). Though she has been ambivalent at best about the prospect up until now, she finally decides to begin dating Bill (Kevin Corrigan), a video store clerk who has been flirting with her for some time now.

Walking and Talking is at its best in its portrayal of this courtship, with Amelia gradually realizing that the man who she has previously considered to be beneath her (she calls him “The Ugly Guy” when speaking of him to Laura and others) just might be a much better match for her than she thought, and in its portrayal of the friendship between Amelia and Andrew. It’s so rare in life to maintain a close, caring friendship with a former lover, but it does happen and, in my experience, it happens very much the way it is shown here. Their scenes together are especially warm and funny, but above all it is the dynamic between Amelia and Bill that makes this film rise above the average comedy. Far from being simply a geek or loser, as Amelia originally sees him, Bill is much smarter, funnier and deeper than she (or we, the audience) first assume; in fact, Amelia comes to realize that he just might be too good for her. Like Bill, Walking and Talking is much more than the sum of its parts, and well worth a look.

  

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Interview with Please Give Writer-Director Nicole Holofcener

After studying film at Columbia University, writer-director Nicole Holofcener made her first feature, Walking and Talking, in 1996, and she has been going strong ever since, directing feature films such as Lovely & Amazing, Friends with Money and Please Give, as well as working in television, for acclaimed series such as Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, Bored to Death and Parks and Recreation. I had a chance to speak briefly with Holofcener on the occasion of Columbia’s panel on women filmmakers.

Ezra Stead: There is a striking realism and intimacy to your films, going back to the first one, Walking and Talking, and I know a lot of material is taken from your own life or that of your friends. Is your apparent muse, Catherine Keener, generally playing the Nicole Holofcener alter-ego, or is your own personality spread out more among all your characters?

Nicole Holofcener: I guess I could say she has been my muse, but in a couple of movies she has not played the “me” character. She certainly does play me well, and all the characters, I suppose, are a part of me, and even if that character she’s playing is based on someone else, there’s still pieces of me. She has been a muse, definitely.

ES: I read somewhere, in another interview with you, where you said your friends say, “Don’t say that around Nicole, it’ll be in a movie.”

NH: I know, just one friend in particular; she’s very nervous [laughs]. If somebody has shame, I suppose they don’t want to be revealed. Most people’s shame is not very interesting or theatrical, so don’t worry I’m not gonna write about it. Whatever you’re doing that you’re embarrassed about, I don’t care [laughs].

ES: So in general, your films are fairly autobiographical, or was Walking and Talking more that way?

NH: No, they all are. I mean, none of them are real, none of them come from things that really happened; I suppose there are moments that really happened and lines that really happened, but most of it is made up but, I would say, based on me and my experiences, and my friends.

ES: What future projects are you working on now, if you can tell us?

NH: I’d love to tell you. I’m so glad I have that, thank god, it’s so hard when there isn’t one. Yeah, I’m in pre-pre-production for a movie that I wrote that Fox Searchlight has been making, and I start shooting in August, I think. I hope.

ES: Untitled, so far?

NH: It is. Not fun. I’m not good at titling things. The only title I really like, that seems correct, is Friends with Money, and that’s what I wrote when I first started writing it, you know, this is gonna be about “friends with money,” it was easy. This one has Julia Louis-Dreyfus in it, and James Gandolfini, so I’m happy to publicize my next movie.

ES: I also read that you were involved at one point in directing the Seth Rogen / Joseph Gordon-Levitt film 50/50. Is that you’re still interested in pursuing – directing features written by other people?

NH: I’m still gonna direct 50/50 [laughs]. It’s something I am very interested in, and I’m sad that I didn’t get to direct it, but it was family stuff, and that’s okay, it turned out well. I liked the movie.

ES: But you are interested in directing someone else’s script?

NH: Yes, if I fall in love with it. I really want to, have to, fall in love with it. Yes, please send me things. Send me good things [laughs].

ES: You’ve directed a lot of TV as well. What are some of the differences in TV vs. feature film directing?

NH: There’s not much difference. The television shows that I’ve worked on have all been single camera. It feels like I’m working on a little film. It differs from show to show. A show like Enlightened, I feel like I’m working on a movie; a show like Parks and Recreation, I’m at a party. I mean, it’s different. I guess, to some extent, working on a television show is easier because it’s not my problem, in the end – I didn’t write it, I didn’t create it – and for the same reason, it makes me more anxious because I have someone else that I wanna please, besides myself, and I really only work on shows that I respect and am proud to have my name on, so I really do wanna please the writer, and the creator. Other than that, they’re pretty similar.

ES: So you think that, when and if you end up directing someone else’s script, it’ll be similar to that?

NH: I hope so, yeah. I hope that I have that relationship where I turn to the writer and say, “You happy with that? Is that how you saw it?” That’s a real collaboration.

  

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Columbia University Film Fest Presents Panel on Women Filmmakers

Last night, the Film Society of Lincoln Center in Manhattan presented a panel entitled “What Glass Ceiling: The Remarkable Success of Columbia’s Women Filmmakers,” as part of the Columbia University Film Festival‘s 25th anniversary this week. Introduced by Columbia’s Film Department Chair Ira Deutchman, the panel was moderated by film director and Columbia Film faculty member Bette Gordon, and featured acclaimed filmmakers Shari Springer Berman, Cherien Dabis, Lisa Cholodenko and Nicole Holofcener.

Gordon began the panel by proudly proclaiming the fact that Columbia has “produced more women directors than any other film school today,” but lamented that in spite of this, “the film world is predominantly white and male.” She then turned things over to the four filmmakers to discuss the challenges they faced in getting their own first features made. Berman joked that “only half my answers are valid [because] I actually work with a partner who’s male,” her husband and co-director Robert Pulcini, whom she met while they were both attending Columbia. Dabis spoke about the extra difficulties of finding financing for her first feature, Amreeka, which “was not just about women, it was about Middle Eastern women.” Cholodenko’s advice for aspiring first-time filmmakers was to “have your intention in place, articulate it and stick to it,” while Holofcener told an unhappy tale of how she and her first agent parted ways. “After a while,” she said, “he sent me a Xerox bill, and I knew that was the end of my agent.”

When asked about how they went from their initial success to their second features, Dabis, who is currently in this particular process, said, “It’s never going to be easy, and when you accept that, it is what it is, and you just sort of keep going.” Cholodenko echoed this sentiment by adding, “If you have the stomach for that, then you’ll make it, and if it turns you off, then you should maybe find another profession.” The conversation then turned to the work of creating believable characters and situations with which an audience can relate. Cholodenko offered this secondhand advice: “Someone said to me once, ‘Just write it until it breaks your own heart.’” Holofcener responded the question of how much description she uses in her scripts, as opposed to dialogue, by saying, “I hate reading scripts that tell me about the character in the description of the character,” as opposed to dramatizing it through action.

As the discussion moved on to casting and working with actors, Holofcener spoke about her close working relationship with Catherine Keener, who has appeared in all of her features. “Just looking at me,” Holofcener said, “helps her access what I need from her … It’s a very intuitive connection. If she’s crying in a scene, I’m crying.” Berman spoke about the importance of casting the right actor for any given part: “I really believe that if you cast the wrong person, there’s little you can do to save the film.” Holofcener added to this by addressing the pressure felt from studios to cast a star: “One time, I did buckle and … offered this actor the part, and I had this sinking feeling … and she passed,” she said with a sigh of relief.

The panel wrapped up by addressing the topic of its title: the idea of “women filmmakers,” a moniker that Cholodenko said she doesn’t feel is “particularly modern.” “If it has to be modified, it’s like a handicap,” she expounded, while Dabis said that “because it is that much more difficult … I’m proud to be doing it.” “The statistics [of women in the industry vs. men] are horrible,” Cholodenko continued, “but I don’t think it’s going to go backwards, to where there’s this invisible other gender with no representation.” As to why Columbia seems to be a breeding ground for female filmmakers, Cholodenko said, “The energy there is really … what’s the word?” “Feminine?” Holofcener offered. “No, it’s not,” Cholodenko responded, “it’s androgynous. You go there and you don’t feel like it’s a boy’s club.” With a new semester of Columbia’s Film program beginning in the fall, we’re sure to see many distinguished filmmakers, both male and female, ascending from its ranks in the coming years. The panel can be viewed in its entirety here.

  

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No box office surprises: “A Nightmare on Elm Street” tops the charts; “Furry Vengeance” bites it

A Nightmare on Elm StreetI’m going to keep in short and snappy, especially since things have worked pretty much they way they looked to way back on Thursday night. So, yes, as expected, the critically dissed remake/reboot of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” did scarily well for Warners, earning an estimated $32.2 million or so as detailed by Box Office Mojo. At the #2 and #3 spot are the leggy successes of the moment, Paramount/Dreamworks “How to Train Your Dragon” and Fox’s “Date Night.” They earned estimates of $10.8 and $7.6 million respectively.

In other news…Oh, for a universe where someone not named Frank Miller made “The Spirit” and cast Brendan Fraser in the part he was born to play as Will Eisner’s affable-but-tough Denny Colt.  In that universe the accomplished actor wouldn’t have to take parts in apparently horrid comedies like Summit Entertainment’s “Furry Vengeance,” which climbed all the way up form 0% on Rotten Tomatoes earlier to a rocking 02% here on Sunday nigh because of a positive review from voice-in-the-wilderness Chris Hewitt. Still, the other 48 RT critics apparently spoke for the majority of filmgoers. The comedy earned a fairly pitiful estimated $6.5 million on its opening weekend to hit the #5 spot, despite plenty of publicity and screens for a wide release family film.

In the world of limited releases, the top per-screen earner was the extremely well-reviewed comedy-drama from critical favorite Nicole Holofcener and star Catherine Keener, “Please Give,” which earned a rocking estimated $25,600 or so for Sony Classics on five art-house screens over the weekend. Among other indie films doing notable business was the offbeat comic documentary, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” which earned an estimated $182,000 on 20 screens. “Harry Brown” starring Michael Caine also debuted strongly, earning an estimate $180,000 on 19 screens for Samuel Goldwyn, who is doing very well for a mogul whose been dead since 1974.

Michael Caine is

  

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Weekend box office preview: It’s a “Nightmare” all around

So, we have just two major releases this week and while one is hard-edged remake of a franchise-spawning eighties horror hit and the other is a purported family film, to me all signs this weekend in terms of major new releases (and one tiny release) scream: “Be afraid, be very afraid.” For the most part, the critics aren’t disagreeing.

For starters, we have “A Nightmare on Elm Street” which brings us Jackie Earle Haley in the role made famous by Robert Englund — the child-murderer of everyone’s dreams with the specially augmented fingers, Freddy Kruger. Now, as someone who is such a wuss that he was unable to get past the first twenty minutes or so of the original on VHS — that Wes Craven guy really knows how to scare people — I’m not really one to judge. However, the critics are thoroughly unimpressed with the new version directed by another music video alum, Samuel Bayer, granting it a dismal 11% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing.

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Still, even if the original version is regarded as something of a classic today by critics, this movie has “critic proof” written all over it. Indeed, jolly Carl DiOrio, assures us that it’s “tracking” very well and will top the box office with “as much as” $30 million for Warner Brothers. He also gets a bit less jolly in his video this week and actually complains about the use of the word “reboot” to describe films like “Nightmare.” Well, considering that you’re starting over an existing franchise as if the original had never happened, I’m not sure what you’re supposed to call it. It’s not only a remake.

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