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A roundtable chat with director Stephen Frears of “Tamara Drewe”

Stephen Frears on location for Anyone who thinks that the only interesting directors are the ones with obvious personal styles needs to take a long, hard long at the filmography of Stephen Frears. Something of a contemporary, English throwback to such versatile craftsmen of pre-auteur theory Hollywood as William Wyler, George Stevens, Robert Wise, and Michael Curtiz, the Cambridge-educated Frears began his career neck deep in the English New Wave cinema of the 1960s as an assistant director on Karel Riesz’s “Morgan!,” and Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 surreal youth revolt drama, “If…” Later moving on to directing for the BBC, his second theatrical feature, 1984′s “The Hit,” was mostly ignored despite an all-star cast, but did gain a cult following of which I am a proud member. Frears’ follow up collaboration with writer Hanif Kureishi, a then-bold cross-racial same-sex romance, “My Beautiful Laundrette,” co-starred a young Daniel Day Lewis and got more immediate results. It was a hit in arthouses on both sides of the Atlantic and helped make Lewis a star; it also paved the way for Frears’ smashing mainstream Hollywood debut, 1988′s Oscar-winning “Dangerous Liaisons.”

Since then, Frears has enjoyed success both here in the U.S. and at home in England with numerous BAFTAs and films as diverse as “High Fidelity” and “The Grifters” — for which he was nominated for an Oscar — as well as the ultra-English “The Queen” and “Mrs. Henderson Presents.” He’s dealt with modern-day cowboys (1998′s “The Hi-Lo Country”), English fascism (2000′s “Liam”), the monarchy (2006′s “The Queen”), and the illegal trade of human organs (2002′s “Dirty Pretty Things”). When George Clooney decided he wanted to try a live television remake of “Fail Safe” back in 2000, Frears handled the chore to no shortage of acclaim.

Frear’s latest, “Tamara Drewe,” has fared reasonably well with critics on the whole, though not so much with this particular longtime admirer. An adaptation of a graphic novel originally serialized in England’s The Guardian by cartoonist and children’s book author Posy Simmonds, the tale is a comic, modern-day homage to Thomas Hardy’s tragic 1874 novel, Far From the Madding Crowd starring Gemma Arterton as a formerly large nosed “ugly duckling” whose swannish post-operative return to her family’s estate sparks chaos at a writer’s retreat in ultra-picturesque rural England.

Apparently taking the casualness of California fully to heart, the 69-year-old Frears, who bears some resemblance to the late Rodney Dangerfield, arrived unshaven and in a t-shirt that had seen better days. If the “just rolled out of bed” look was disconcerting, however, we needn’t have worried. Frears was in good spirits and clearly enjoys sharing his views with the press.

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A roundtable chat with Luke Evans and Dominic Cooper

Tamara Drewe,” the latest from the brilliantly versatile non-auteur directing genius Stephen Frears, is a relationship comedy with tragic overtones based on Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel of the same name, in turn inspired by Thomas Hardy’s 18th century novel, Far From the Madding Crowd. The film pits three not-quite-alpha males against each other for the attention of its mercurial and not always lovable title character, played by the beautiful Gemma Arterton. Two of them, fast rising up-and-comers Luke Evans and Dominic Cooper, were set to meet at L.A.’s Four Seasons with a dozen or so entertainment journalists.

It was therefore more than a little bit amusing when the two fictionally competitive actors entered wearing near identical high-end v-neck fashion undershirts and tight-fitting low-rise pants. It was an apparent complete coincidence or perhaps not so random given the popularity of this ultra-casual look among today’s mod set. In any case, Cooper compared their combined look to “a boy band.”

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Dominic Cooper made his first big splash in Alan Bennett’s Tony winning, “The History Boys,” starring in both the London and Broadway productions in 2004 and 2005. His film career, however, goes as far back as a bit part in another adaptation of a British graphic novel: the Hughes Brothers’ 2001 version of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s “From Hell.” Other key parts include a memorable role as disreputable Peter Saarsgard’s business partner/buddy in “An Education” and the lovestruck movie fiance to former real-life girlfriend Amanda Seyfried in “Mamma Mia!” Notable upcoming roles include playing the part of Howard Stark (Tony’s future dad) in the largely World War II-set “Captain America: The First Avenger.” In “Tamara Drewe,” Cooper plays self-involved rock drummer Ben Sergeant of the band Swipe, with whom the gorgeous protagonist dallies for large portions of the film.

With a background in such musicals as “Avenue Q” and the “remixed” “Rent” on the London stage, Luke Evans, who plays all-around good guy and potential once-and-future Tamara Drewe paramour Andy Cobb, has found his way into a number of big budget films, including playing Apollo in “Clash of the Titans” and an upcoming role as no-less than Zeus in Tarsem Singh’s “Immortals.” He also recently completed the role of Aramis in Paul W.S. Anderson’s 3-D version of the oft-filmed “The Three Musketeers.”

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A roundtable chat with Gemma Arterton of “Tamara Drewe”

There’s no getting around it. Gemma Arterton is extremely attractive and also striking, and even more so in person. That’s especially so if you’ve found yourself seated right next to her at a roundtable with about 11 or 12 other writers and the prior two males you’ve sat next to at that table (no names) seemed as if they might have recently rolled out of bed and thrown on a gallon of expensive aftershave/cologne. The utterly tasteful Ms. Arterton, however, was appropriately dressed and scented, though she did remove her huge and apparently uncomfortable pumps to reveal perfectly painted toenails.

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Tamara Drewe,” a romantic farce with tragic overtones that opened this week for its initial run in four theaters in L.A. and New York, stars Arterton as an autobiographical newspaper columnist whose recent plastic surgery has transformed her from large-nosed semi-ugly duckling to tiny-nosed brunette bombshell. It’s a comedy with tragic overtones drawn from the the graphic novel of the same name by cartoonist Posy Simmonds, which is itself a sort of homage to Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd.” The film was directed by Stephen Frears, a director noted for tremendous versatility who confuses us critics by changing his style with just about every film. His output has ranged from from such recently enjoyable, grandma-friendly arthouse fare as “The Queen” and “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” to low down tales of crime and skullduggery like my personal favorite, 1984′s “The Hit.”

I was not blown away by much about this particular movie, however, including parts of Arterton’s performance, but that’s me. It has fared reasonably well over at Rotten Tomatoes and may well please other fans of this sort of English countryside comedy, which I usually enjoy myself. Ms. Arterton has also generated good reviews in “The Disappearance of Alice Creed,” as well as co-starring in “Clash of the Titans,” “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” and as Strawberry Fields in “Quantum of Solace” alongside Daniel Craig’s 007, forever tagging herself with the sobriquet “Bond girl.” Still, at 24, she has a maturity and self-possession about her that, at the very least, makes her more of a Bond woman. Or maybe it’s just that she’s tall.

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Weekend box office: Can a horsey biopic or a darkly premised romcom disconnect “The Social Network”?

Personally, I would think that, if only because of the eternal fascination of tween girls for all things equine, “Secretariat,” about the seventies triple-crown winner, would be the more likely film to unseat the early Oscar favorite from writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher, “The Social Network.” However, jolly Carl DiOrio (whose background music on his video has become distractingly un-jolly) thinks not, while L.A. Times box office guru Ben Fritz projects a possible $15 million photo-finish between it and “Life As We Know It,” a poorly reviewed rom-com with a bizarre and unlikely premise — Kathryn Heigel and Josh Duhamel hate each other but are somehow saddled with the custody of their dead best friends’ children without their prior consent and, naturally, fall in comedic love.

Kathryn Heigl and Josh Duhamel experience

For its part, “Secretariat” is getting decent, but not too excited reviews. From Randall Wallace, a director with a style that is both big “c” and small “c” conservative and written by Mike Rich of “Finding Forrester” and “Radio,” the tone is definitely old school and inspirational. There’s an audience for that. Perhaps reading more than is there because of Wallace’s past films, Andrew O’Hehir of Salon both praised and damned the film politically, only to be slammed in turn by a liberal of a less snarky nature, Roger Ebert, who writes that “Secretariat was not a Christian.”

On the other hand, the week’s other new release, “My Soul to Take” marks the return of Wes Craven to the slasher horror genre after five years with a 3-D entry that DiOrio thinks has a shot at “the mid-teen millions.” The movie is being sequestered from critics and sure sounds like a retread of past dead teenager films. On the other hand, even as a squeamish guy who will never, ever see his “Last House on the Left” or “The Hills Have Eyes,” I’ve always admired Craven — I’ve been able to make it through a few of his films — and he was nice to me and some other geeks when I met him as a teenager. I won’t be mad if it does better than expected.

Zach Galifianakis in In limited release are far more movies than I have time to talk about tonight adequately, but I’ll mention a few anyway.  “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” is actually not such a limited release, as its being opening in 742 theater nationwide. It a dramedy featuring the underrated Zach Galifianakis from the team that made the highly acclaimed indie dramas “Sugar” and “Half-Nelson,” that is dividing critics to some extent, with my colleague Jason Zingale being not too impressed.

We also have some potential Oscar material with the young John Lennon biopic “Nowhere Boy” and potential retching material with the remake of the ultra-controversial grindhouse torturific horror rape-revenge legend, “I Spit On Your Grave” (also on my “never, ever see list”). “It’s a Wonderful Afterlife” is an Anglo-Indian production being touted as a combination of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Shaun of the Dead.” Finally, I wish I could say better things than I did in my review of the latest from my favorite non-auteur living director, Stephen Frears, “Tamara Drewe” but ex-Bond-girl star Gemma Aterton is definitely worth a look.

Gemma Aterton in

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A chat with Alex Gibney

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There’s no doubt that Alex Gibney is on a historic roll as a documentarian. Within only a few years, he’s been involved with probably the largest number of popular and influential documentaries of any single human being not named Michael Moore. Those works would include the outstanding “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and the equally strong, and Oscar winning, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” about American use of torture in the “war on terror.” Gibney has also made his share of more historically themed documentaries, including “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.” He was also involved as a producer in two of the other most important and controversial documentaries of recent years, the Iraq-war expose, “No End in Sight” and “Who Killed the Electric Car?”

If Gibney’s past output is hugely impressive, however, his upcoming list of films is dizzying. At the recently wrapped Tribeca Film Festival in New York, he premiered as a “work in progress,” a new and apparently very revealing, look at former New York state governor, attorney general, and Wall Street watchdog Eliot Spitzer and the sex scandal that drove him from office. He also has a segment in the upcoming film version of the super-hot bestseller, Freakonomics, as well as new films about two very different cultural legends: bicyclist Lance Armstrong and author/super-hippie Ken Kesey of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Merry Pranksters fame.

There’s also the recently completed “My Trip to Al-Qaeda” and the film Gibney was promoting at his publicist’s L.A. office one recent afternoon, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.” It’s a work of amazing journalistic detail that also works very hard to be lively and accessible.

Jack Abramoff is

 

Even if I felt that Gibney didn’t quite master that “accessible and lively” aspect too consistently this time around, his “Casino Jack” reviews so far have been great overall. He’s certainly a filmmaker to be reckoned with and one with an outstanding body of work behind him and much, much more to come. Not my idea of a lazy person.

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