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Tag Archives: James Franco
In his four-out-of-five-star MSN Movies review, Glenn Kenny notes how “… it’s my pleasure to report that not only does ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ not suck, but is in fact very nearly close to completely awesome, and is the best sci-fi blockbuster of the summer, in a walk, even.” Glenn’s cogently argued and incisive review is well worth reading, but if you’re still unsure about giving “Rise” a chance, let me give a slightly less evolved set of responses to try and convince you that yeah, what looks like a star-free CGI-heavy desperate return to a better-forgotten franchise is, in fact, the surprise of the summer, gripping and smart, with special effects that are truly special.
1) Finally, we can Blame the Apocalypse Directly on James Franco
Sure, we’ve all felt James Franco represents the end of days, but “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is the first time it’s been less of a vibe — “Every time James Franco is on ‘General Hospital,’ it feels like the finale of human achievement …” — and more of a cause-effect thing. In all seriousness, the human characters in “Rise” aren’t especially well-developed … and bluntly, they don’t need to be. This is a movie that knows it’s a B-movie, and, as such, shoots for an ‘A’ grade in that regard.
2) The Effects are That Amazing
Yes, every review is raving about Andy Serkis’ work as the lead ape, Caesar, and there are plenty of news pieces about how there are no real apes in the movie at all, how it’s all CGI. And yes, there are a few overly-ambitious all-CGI shots where the modern moviegoing problem where you feel like you’re suddenly flying through a screensaver is in effect. But, really, this is a movie that doesn’t just move the needle on effects but, rather, like “Terminator 2″ or “The Matrix” moves the needle on special effects while using those new technologies to tell a story that would be impossible to tell any other way.
3) There Are Nods to the Past, but a Gaze Locked on the Present Moment
When you go back to a franchise that began, uh, 42 years ago on the silver screen — and surely that can’t be right, but it is, and one that goes back nearly 50 years to the original novel — that’s had other re-makes and spin-offs and breakfast cereals, there’s a danger of getting too hung up on mentioning history at the expense of the present-tense movie. But the screenwriters (Rickl Jaffa and Amanda Silver, with what may in fact be more than a little help from a previous unproduced version of the script by Scott Frank) manage to avoid the nostalgia trap in favor of telling the story they want to tell in the here-and-now, even while putting in some blink-and-you’ll-miss-them side notes that, yes, also work as part of the broader movie.
4) It’s an Awesome Prison Film
Director Rupert Wyatt’s first film, “The Escapist,” is a great film that no one in America saw due to a complicated DVD-deal that made the film only available at one dying video chain. It starred Brian Cox as a British prisoner eager to escape from prison to help his dying daughter … and wound up being great preparation for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which evokes classic prison films like “A Prophet” and “Straight Time” as Caesar is thrown into a ‘shelter’ (run by Cox, hilariously) and plots and plans an ascent to alpha status with his enhanced brain.
5) It is Far Smarter, and Far Meaner, than it Has to Be
There are a couple of great what-the-what moments here — and while you have to get past the nitpicker’s lament that cops and troops with guns could wipe out super-smart apes (to which I say – Could they? Do we know this? and if not, what do I pay taxes for?), there’s plenty to like in the action scenes. There’s a nice amount of smarts here — there’s one scene which involves Caesar doing a quick recap of 20th century political philosophy that’s a little scary — and the fact that “Rise of …” seems like it has no obligation to shoot for a particularly ‘happy’ ending is also a sign of guts and brains.
(Did we miss any top-of-the-list lower-primate logic in favor of a trip to see “Rise of …”?)
In “Your Highness,” James Franco and Danny McBride play rival princes on a quest to save a kingdom — with stops along the way for nudity, weed jokes, foul language and comedy. It’s a parody of ’80s fantasy-action films, but that also means the people in it have to be able to do fantasy-action. When I spoke with Franco and McBride, I asked Franco how specifically he trained for “Your Highness.” He spoke with serious intent: “I read all of Shakespeare every day while riding a horse and practicing (with) my sword while I held the book.” And the horse, I asked — what did it read? Franco broke into a smile: “The horse was a dumb animal, and did not read.”
All kidding aside, I asked Danny McBride if he worked hard to prepare for the action, or if he stayed inept for comedy purposes. “David (Gordon) Green, the director — I went to one or two days with sword training, and he quickly pulled me out of it,” he said. “He was like, ‘I don’t want you to have any training: I want you to look pathetic and terrible.’ He yanked me from the sword training. I was happy about that, because I am very lazy and swords are very heavy. That’s tiring, swinging a sword around. It’s not cool. I feel like I would be more of an archer.” Franco, with his greater action experience, noted, “I warned you that it would not be a lot of fun.” McBride, for his part, merely added, “Crossbows are light.”
But while McBride gets to flail and fail, Franco has to look assured as the film’s “hero,” so I asked him how hard is it to keep a straight face, to be the guy who takes everything seriously no matter what else is happening? “It’s not that hard, actually,” he said. “I like being the straight man every once in a while. I think of it as a Zen comedy, where if you do it, if you really commit to it, you’re helping the overall thing and actually can achieve some subtle comedy.” McBride, nodding as he mocked himself, chimed in: “Zen comedy. I like that, that’s good. That’s intelligent.”
“Your Highness” owes a lot to ’80s fantasy epics, a genre Franco admitted a youthful fondness for: “When I was younger, I loved ‘The Dark Crystal‘ and I loved ‘The NeverEnding Story‘ and the original ‘Clash of the Titans.’ I don’t think I’ll ever get over those. They do look very different to me now, but they still have a lot of their nostalgic charm.” As for McBride, “I was a fan of all those films and things like ‘Beastmaster‘ and ‘Troll‘ and ‘Excalibur.’ Granted, you watch those movies again and they don’t quite capture the imagination the way they did when you were a kid, but they still have a very big place in my heart. I still enjoy going back and visiting them.”
“Your Highness” doesn’t lack for special effects and production values — even if all the high art is in the service of low comedy. I asked Franco and McBride at what point on-set were they looking around at mechanical birds and wizardry and naked minotaurs and saying, “I can’t believe we’re getting away with this?” Franco laughed: “I guess we said that pretty much every day. Whatever popped up, I wasn’t very surprised by, because David Gordon Green was directing. That means that pretty much anything goes. I’m not really supposed to talk about it, but we did have the first minotaur erection ever captured on film.”
McBride, laughing, confirmed that milestone in the art. “It’s a landmark in modern cinema.”
How cold was it at the Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday in Santa Monica? It was so cold, I joked, that you couldn’t feel Harvey Weinstein stab you in the back. After a two-year experiment in holding the Spirit Awards in downtown Los Angeles, the awards returned to their traditional location on the beach at Santa Monica last Saturday. What the ceremony gained in metaphorical heat, though, it lost in literal temperature, with chilly winds whipping off the ocean fast.
But plenty of the attendees had the warm glow of victory to comfort them, including Best Cinematography winner Matthew Libatique of “Black Swan.” Libatique had a certain cocksure charm — he said of the Spirit Award “This is my Academy Award” and joked about “200 million dollars worldwide” — and yet still spoke with sincerity when I asked him if he felt the award was a vindication for shooting on film over video. “I honestly think this digital-versus-film thing is blown out of proportion,” he said. “Digital’s just another choice, so I never look at it this way, and I don’t want to get into a philosophy of ‘film is better than digital’ or ‘digital is better than film.’ The one thing is, digital has allowed a lot of people who wouldn’t normally make films to make films, so that’s cool with me. I’m just happy; it’s hard to make a thriller, man.”
James Franco — on the eve of his hosting the Academy Awards — was bundled up and beaming when he met the press in the wake of his victory for Best Actor for “127 Hours” to face questions about his hosting duties the next night for the Academy Awards alongside Anne Hathaway. “The Oscars … are a thing,” he said. “They’ve been going on for 83 years. I’m kind of joining a bigger apparatus, so it’s gonna be pretty familiar in some ways. They’re allowing us to be relaxed. They’re not stretching us into some mold where we don’t fit.”
Asked about the difference between acting in an independent film and a big-budget enterprise, Franco delivered an answer that only he could: “As some people in this tent might know, I just did some different parts on ‘General Hospital’ … and before I did that, I thought, ‘Am I going to have to act differently? Am I going to have to act like I’m on a soap opera? And what does that even mean?’ And when I got there, I realized that I didn’t have to act any differently: My job is to act as realistically in the parameters of this world as possible. The acting, at its core, is kind of the same whether you’re on a soap opera, an independent film or a big-budget film; it’s just that the context around you changes, and each project has its own reality.”
Meanwhile, “The King’s Speech” director Tom Hooper — winning for Best Foreign Film — was living his own soap opera, facing the prospect of his film being re-released, cut to meet a PG-13 rating. Hooper was getting ready to see the altered cut on Monday — but, I had to ask, was he at all happy about the idea of his film being recut? “Until I see it I can’t tell,” he said. “I’m certainly unhappy with kids being unable to see it here, especially because it touches on so many issues to do with childhood — (namely) please don’t carry the trauma of childhood through your adult life. In other countries — in the U.K., in Canada — I’ve had wonderful e-mails from 8-year-olds, 9-year-olds seeing the movie and being moved by it.”
His voice — that voice, known worldwide for managing the very neat 21st-century trick of being both iconic and laconic — crackled down the phone lines from Manhattan as I spoke with Harrison Ford about his new role playing news veteran Mike Pomeroy opposite Rachel McAdams’ rookie producer Becky Fuller in “Morning Glory.” Directed by Notting Hill’s Roger Michell, “Morning Glory” is a comedy — and, not coincidentally, Harrison Ford’s work as an old-school anchor is clearly the most fun he’s had in a part in years. I asked him if he enjoyed himself during all of the comedy we see on-screen. “Oh, it’s a hoot,” he said. “It’s great; it’s really fun. It’s more than fun — it’s the best job in the world.”
Ford’s vain, irritated and hard-nosed newsman Pomeroy is plunged into hosting a morning program thanks to contractual obligations and would-be producer Fuller’s unrelenting capacity to never say die. But Pomeroy’s got a few surprises that make him more than just a growl and a scowl. I asked Ford about his character’s penchant for bright socks: Was that, for but one example, a character-building touch in the script? “Oh, they’re not all in the script,” he said. “The socks were a notion I had that we should think that they’re something that we don’t know about this guy who appears to be so much of one thing. It was a kind of thing that was a hint there was another side.”
And when Ford talks about building a character, it’s in the kind of stable, steady language you’d expect from Hollywood’s most notable carpenter turned star: “I read the script. I see what the utility of the character is to the story overall. I see what opportunities I have for development of the character in various scenes. I try to understand the structure of the film and what’s required to help tell the story. And then I create a character out of that stuff. My ambition is really invested in trying to serve the story through that character.”
Still, I asked, when preparing to play a newsman, did Ford watch, say, the nightly news with a more attentive eye? “I don’t think so,” he said. “I think I had an appropriate understanding of the process and a very well-written script. What I didn’t want to do was imitate somebody else doing the news. I wanted to create a specific character, and that depended on really creating the character first and understanding how he might do the news, how he might behave as an anchor.”
And at the same time, things can change significantly for the actor in the time between preproduction preparation and the finished film. According to Ford, everything, for him, can change in the moment when filming: “I think it’s always a question of getting the ingredients prepared and adjusting to taste: ‘A pinch more of this; a little bit less of that; oh look, it might need some of this; look, somebody has already brought this flavor into the room.’ It’s a constant process of adjustment and massaging the material.”
In “127 Hours,” James Franco plays Aron Ralston, the hiker who, infamously, found his hand trapped by a fallen boulder in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park and, driven to desperate measures, cut his own arm free to escape. Normally, I’d want to ask an actor who spends so much time on-screen alone about process, or acting, or the differences between solo monologue and two-character scenes — and yet, sitting down with Franco to talk about the film, all I can ask him is the specifics of the effects rig they used to create the illusion his hand was trapped. “It was on a set, but they built the set in a very interesting way,” he says. “They used a scanner … (it was an) absolute replica. When we went to the real place, it looked the exact same. The boulder — we needed different kinds of boulders for various things, but the main one was kept in place by a steel rod, and then they built a space for my arm to go. Then it was like a handgrip, so I could just rest it there when I needed to. I didn’t have to worry that it was going to slump down; I didn’t have to be conscious of holding it in place the whole time. I just put it there. It was a handgrip. Even if I wanted to, I don’t think they would have allowed me to really tie myself in there.”
And while Franco never had to truly share Ralston’s predicament, he did feel like he shared plenty with the man whose story he had to portray. “Aron is a bit goofy, in the best way,” he says. “He has a goofy sense of humor. I guess some people would say I do — I don’t know. At least tangentially, I feel like I can relate to a lot of things. He was at Intel; I grew up with my father in Palo Alto. My father worked in Silicon Valley, so I was around all that stuff. As a high school student I worked in some of those companies as an intern. Aron loves the band Phish, and actually the shirt he’s wearing is a Phish shirt. I wouldn’t say I was a Phishhead like Aron, but when I was at UCLA, I went and saw Phish at Pauley Pavilion.” I joke that during the ’90s, seeing Phish was mandatory with UCLA tuition. Franco laughed. “Is that right? I didn’t realize it was cliché. It was a great show. ”
Of course, much of the film is just Franco — and much of Franco’s role involves him being tired, dirty and hungry. Did he, I clumsily ask, stay awake, go without water, deny himself food? Did he “method it up?” Franco laughed at the phrase, and the question: “Yeah, well, no. As a young actor, I ‘methoded-it-up’ quite a bit, and in some places where I think maybe it was unnecessary. But it might have taught me extremes that I was capable of as an actor, and I think every actor — at least, every actor that tries to push him or herself — does strange things. You want to do things that will make you close to that situation or be able to perform what happened to Aron in an authentic way. But you also don’t want to do things that are going to debilitate you as a performer. So depriving myself of water would only just make me really uncomfortable and not perform at my best. But other things, like doing a 20-minute take where Danny asks me, he says, ‘OK, this is where the character tries to pull himself out with brute strength. Do anything that you can: Yank, pull, bash yourself against the rock, kick it, knee it, anything and everything, and don’t stop.’ To do that for 20 minutes, that’s real. Those are real bruises; that’s real exhaustion after 20 minutes. That’s a real pounding headache because I’m so exhausted. So in that sense, we were method-ing the f— out of it.”
Looking like Morrissey’s older, smarter, nicer brother, director Danny Boyle is animated and affable when he talks about the challenges of making “127 Hours,” a much smaller-scale film than his Oscar-winning creation, “Slumdog Millionaire.” I ask Boyle if it was important, in crafting and telling the story, to keep an eye on the wattage of Aron Ralston’s halo — which is to say, making sure Ralston stayed human and real. Boyle explains his challenges: “I found a way the story was perceived on superficial levels to be incorrect, really. It’s particularly prevalent in America that he’s often looked at as a superhero. You read the story really closely, what he did was superhuman. So it’s that idea that we can turn a person, an individual into an extraordinary example to everyone of something that’s impossible for everyone else: a superhero to lead us all, to inspire us all. The story’s much more inspiring because he isn’t that, I think.”
Boyle also had the challenge of depicting Ralston’s ultimate fate without either skimping on the real labor and agony of the event … or splashing blood around like one of the “Saw” films. “I didn’t want it to be a splatterfest or gross-out, or anything like that,” he says, “but nor was I going to let it be trivialized by anybody — the studio, anybody — who’d try to reduce it, because I thought it’s crucial that you understand that it’s a journey in itself, this 40-odd minutes that it took him, and you have to go through that really to appreciate the power of what drove him to do it. The courage and the resources are not just drawn out of individual super-heroism. It’s drawn out of a collective thing somehow, and his need to get back to people. He doesn’t cut it off so that he can just go to another part of the canyon and go climbing again. He doesn’t do it just to live.”
Finally, Boyle talks about the challenges of filming and long days when he couldn’t even be on-set, working with a small-scale budget: “The stuff that emerges in the end feels appropriate to Aron’s limitations. You can’t tell this with luxury. I always thought that we wouldn’t have gotten a lot of money for it, but I thought even if you could get a lot of money for it, that would be wrong to tell it in that way. You’ve got to have restriction. We got plenty of money for it; it’s a lot of money, anyway. I thought you have to tell it circumspectly — financially. All we could use ‘Slumdog’ for was permission to make the film, really. They were never going to give us a huge amount of money, because they always thought — and rightly, I understand why, and we still haven’t sold many tickets, incidentally — that it’s going to be a difficult film to get people to go and voluntarily give up their time for.” “127 Hours” is currently in limited release.
“127 Hours” is a great example of the dramatic film based on the well-known true tale where the success of the execution is not measured in depicting what happened — for we all know that — but, rather, in how. We know the Titanic sank; James Cameron’s task and tack was to drape that inescapable fact in romance and melodrama. We know the Zodiac killer was never caught; David Fincher’s task and tack was to turn that unscratched itch of historical fact into a maddening fever of symbolism and metaphor. And in Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours,” we know that hiker Aron Ralston (James Franco) will, on a solo trip through Utah’s Canyonlands, have his arm trapped by a shifting boulder and after more than five days of isolation without food or water, will cut his own arm from his body to get free.
This is not letting the cat out of the bag. Ralston’s story made national news, and he himself is doing publicity for “127 Hours.” Even releasing studio Fox Searchlight doesn’t expect Ralston’s story to surprise you. Danny Boyle’s task and tack is to show us Ralston’s mental process and physical struggles leading up to that decision, and the way the director — best-known for “Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “28 Days Later” — approaches that is sure to be the most-discussed, and most heatedly argued, thing about “127 Hours.” Does Boyle’s fervid, busy direction echo the way Ralston’s mind was free even as his body was trapped? Or is it style over substance, bustling ornamentation ladled over a pure tale that doesn’t need such frippery?
And this question is echoed in the balance Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy also have to take with Ralston’s plight. Too much gore and bloody excess in the tale and it’s like one of the “Saw” films took an Outward Bound course; too easy on the blood and bone and Ralston’s saga is in danger of looking like a walk in the (national) park. Boyle and Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Full Monty”) do their best to convey but never wallow in the tale’s conclusion, aided in no small part by James Franco’s excellent performance as Ralston, a confident, competent, daredevil outdoorsman whose easy, breezy charm has a thin, sharpened edge under it.
When Ralston guides two more casual hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) to his favorite shortcuts and secret places in the park before his mishap, he is both showing them the way and showing off. When Ralston’s plight becomes dire, Franco’s wit and charm turn mordant and grim even as they flash and flare, like a blade turning in the grip of the wielder. And when the time comes for Ralston to do what must be done — even as Boyle pulls tricks like an X-ray shot of a knife hitting bone as a sound-effects sccccrrrrape razes every nerve in your body — it is, nonetheless, Franco who must make you believe it. And he does.
In truth, the gleam on some of Boyle’s inventions — flashbacks, flash-forwards, hallucinations, close-ups and other whiz-bang gimcracks — have dimmed slightly in contemplation after the film. During the film, however, they clutched at me with an iron grip, and considering how many films fumble clumsily at your attention, the attentions of an overly manipulative director may be preferable to no attentions at all. And the end of the film, like those of “Never Let Me Go” and “The Town,” is so overly spelled-out and on the nose that it’s a depressing reminder of how nowadays, great-to-good directors must feel they have to underline and highlight climactic moments out of a fear they’ll have less-than-great audiences.
Unlike the similar-seeming “Into the Wild,” “127 Hours” is ultimately a rewarding film — not only because Ralston’s tale has a happy ending, and not only Ralston’s story hinges on a random twist of fate as opposed to “Into the Wild”‘s slow-motion suicide. The movie works as well as it does when Franco conveys to us how Ralston, immobile, went on a journey through his life and thoughts, through his options and decisions — where he not only came out the other side and survived, but came out the other side deeply changed. “127 Hours” may be occasionally overdirected, but it’s never under-felt. While some of Boyle’s decisions may be questioned in the cool contemplation after the film’s hot immediacy, there’s no doubting he makes the Ralston’s story lively — and that, more importantly, Franco’s work goes a long way toward making Ralston’s story live.