A Disgraced Interrogator Gambles On Redemption In ‘The Card Counter’

by Justin Chang

The signature Paul Schrader image is of a lonely middle-aged man nursing a glass of booze and writing in his diary, pouring out all his dark thoughts and guilty secrets. In the 1992 film Light Sleeper, it was a drug dealer having a midlife crisis. In the more recent First Reformedit was a minister radicalized by the threat of climate change.

Schrader likes to burrow deep inside these men and their tortured souls, but there’s an amusing randomness to the way he assigns his characters their respective issues. His absorbing new picture, The Card Counter, is no exception: It stars Oscar Isaac as a professional gambler who used to be a military man stationed at Abu Ghraib.

We don’t know all this right at the start. Isaac’s character goes by William Tell, a silly gambler’s pseudonym. When we first meet William, he explains that he spent years in prison for some unspecified crime. It was behind bars that William learned how to count cards. Now he spends his days hopping from casino to casino, playing blackjack and poker and doing just well enough to beat the house without cleaning it out. At night he returns to his motel room, writes in his diary and tries to keep his demons at bay.

Early on, William meets a gambling agent named La Linda, played by a delightful Tiffany Haddish, who wants him to join the big leagues. Haddish and Isaac have a sly chemistry that goes from flirtatious to sizzling in no time, even though William initially rebuffs La Linda’s professional overtures.

Eventually Schrader brings William’s past to light, through a series of encounters that seem contrived at first but gradually bring the story’s central conflict into focus. At a casino one night, William spies Maj. John Gordo, played by Willem Dafoe. Gordo was his former superior years ago at Abu Ghraib and taught him everything he knows about torturing and interrogating suspects. But while William was later court-martialed and went to prison, Gordo got away scot-free and now works as a private security contractor.

That same night, William meets a college dropout named Cirk, played by Tye Sheridan, whose dad was also trained by Gordo; he was dishonorably discharged and eventually killed himself. Now Cirk wants revenge against Gordo and asks William to help him.

Schrader drops in a few harrowing flashbacks to Abu Ghraib, tearing a hole in the movie’s calm, steady surface. We see prisoners being abused and interrogated in images filmed with a heavily distorting wide-angle lens — a visual abomination as well as a moral one. It’s likely no coincidence that The Card Counter is being released so close to the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Schrader can be bluntly didactic when it suits him, but here he’s sincerely inviting the audience to reflect on the legacy of Sept. 11, including the crimes that Americans have committed in the name of justice.

William, who’s trying to distance himself from his past, wants no part of Cirk’s plan and tries to dissuade him from following through. He takes the kid under his wing, letting him tag along on his casino tour. He also takes La Linda up on her invitation to join her stable, hoping to make enough on the poker circuit to help Cirk out financially and get him back in school. But that’s easier said than done. As in so many of Schrader’s films, dating back even to his script for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, a violent end seems inevitable, no matter how much our hero tries to avoid it.

This is a superb role for Isaac, who brings his usual sly, soulful magnetism to the role of a man who plots every move with suave precision. William is always crisply dressed in a shirt, tie and leather jacket. When he moves into a new motel room, he covers every piece of furniture with plain white sheets, as if he were trying to impose extreme order on the extreme disorder of his past. But in Isaac’s dark, haunted gaze we see a history of trauma that can’t be purged so easily. Once young Cirk enters the picture, William sees a chance to make further amends for his sins and do some good in the world.

That world seems awfully drab in The Card Counter, a nondescript suburban wasteland that time seems to have forgotten. The America that William gave so much of his life to serve doesn’t look so beautiful. But there’s one exception, when La Linda takes William out one night to visit the illuminated Missouri Botanical Garden, flooding the screen with vibrant colors that accentuate the actors’ dazzling rapport. As grim as things can get in Schrader’s movies, he’s also a romantic at heart, someone who sees in love the possibility of both risk and redemption.

‘Jupiter’s Legacy’ Decodes The Superhero Genre Without Subverting It

by Glen Weldon

You’d be forgiven for wondering how Netflix’s Jupiter’s Legacy compares to other recent entries in the glut of “Wait, what if superheroes … but, you know, realistic?” content currently swamping streaming services. (To be fair, this “realistic superheroes” business is something we comics readers have been slogging through for decades; the rest of the culture’s just catching up. Welcome, pull up a chair; here’s a rag to wipe those supervillain entrails off the seatback before you sit down.)

So here’s a cheat sheet. Netflix’s Jupiter’s Legacy is …

  • Less cynical and empty than Amazon’s The Boys
  • Less bright and blood-flecked than Amazon’s Invincible
  • Less weird and imaginative than Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy
  • Less funny and idiosyncratic than HBO Max’s Doom Patrol
  • Less dark and dour than HBO Max’s Titans
  • Less innovative and intriguing than Disney+’s WandaVision
  • Less dutiful and disappointing than Disney+’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
  • Less thoughtful and substantive than HBO’s Watchmen
  • Less formulaic and procedural than the various CW super-shows (which I include here only out of a sense of completism, not because they’re aiming for the same kind of performative faux-realism that drive most of these other series).

It’s unfair to make these comparisons, sure. But it’s also inevitable, given the crowded landscape of superheroes on TV right now. And in every one of those comparisons, Jupiter’s Legacy doesn’t necessarily come up short (it’s far better than The Boys, especially), but it does come up derivative. 

Makes sense: “Derivative” is a word that got slapped on the comics series it’s based on, by writer Mark Millar and artist Frank Quitely, which kicked off in 2013. Millar and Quitely would likely prefer the term “homage,” of course, and after all, the superhero genre is by nature nostalgic and (too-)deeply self-referential. So the fact that so many story elements, and more than a few images, of Jupiter’s Legacy (comics and Netflix series both) echo those found in the 1996 DC Comics mini-series Kingdom Come is something more than coincidental and less than legally actionable.


Showrunner Steven S. DeKnight and his writers’ room have carved out only a thin, much more grounded slice of the comic’s sprawling multi-generational saga, but they’ve retained certain elements of family tragedy and Wagnerian recursiveness, wherein the sins of the father get passed to the son. They’ve also, smartly, retained the multiple-timeline structure of the comic as a whole, though they’ve pared it down and stretched it out over these eight episodes, clearly hoping for a multi-season pickup.

Readers of the comics will likely grow impatient at how little of the overall saga is dealt with here, but this review is aimed at those coming to the series fresh, who will find more than enough in this season to satisfy — it’s a whole story that hints at what’s to come without slighting what’s happening now.

The now in question switches between two eras. In 1929, immediately before and after the stock market crash, brothers Walter (Ben Daniels) and Sheldon (Josh Duhamel) are the sons of a successful steel magnate. Walter’s the diligent numbers guy, Sheldon’s the glad-handing optimist. Sheldon’s rich, smarmy friend George (Matt Lanter) is going full Gatsby, and muckraking reporter Grace (Leslie Bibb) runs afoul of Walter and Sheldon following a family tragedy.

Sheldon becomes beset by visions that will put him and several other characters on a path to their superhero origin story. Be warned: The series doles this bit out even more slowly than the comic — settle in for seven episodes’ worth of Duhamel clutching his head and shouting while trippy images flash by, hinting at his ultimate destiny.

In the present day, Sheldon is the all-powerful hero The Utopian, who is married to Grace, now known as Lady Liberty. Walter is now the telepathic hero Brainwave, and George is … nowhere to be seen.

The series has fun playing with the disconnect between the two timelines — characters from the 1930s story are either missing, or drastically transformed, in the present day, and while later episodes connect some of the dots, many of the most substantial changes are left to be depicted in future seasons.

The present-day timeline instead focuses on the generational rift between heroes of Sheldon and Grace’s generation and those of their children. There’s the brooding Brandon (Andrew Horton) who strives to live up to his father’s impossible example, and the rebellious Chloe (Elena Kampouris), who rejects a life of noble self-sacrifice and neoprene bodysuits for a hedonistic modeling career.

At issue: Sheldon’s refusal to acknowledge that the world has changed, and that the strict superhero code (no killing, no politics, etc.) that he lives by — and forces others to live by — may be obsolete, now that supervillains have escalated from bank robbery to mass slaughter. Younger heroes, including many of Brandon’s friends, feel compelled to protect themselves and the world around them through the use of deadly force.

Clearly it’s a fraught cultural moment to have fantasy characters who can fly and zap folk with eye-lasers deal with that particular all-too-real real-world issue; several scenes land far differently than they were originally intended.

But unlike other entries in the superhero genre, Jupiter’s Legacy is prepared to deal overtly, even explicitly, with something that films like Man of Steel and shows like The Boys too simply and reflexively subvert: The superhero ideal itself. 

The notion that an all-powerful being would act with restraint and choose only to lead by example is what separates superheroes from action heroes. Superheroes have codes; that’s the contract, the inescapable genre convention, the self-applied restriction that tellers of superhero tales impose upon their characters; navigating those strictures forces storytellers to get creative. Or at least, it should. The minute you do what so many many “gritty, realistic” superhero shows and movies do — dispense with that moral code, or pervert it, or attempt to argue it out of existence by portraying a villain so heinous and a world so fallen that murder is the only option, you’re not telling a superhero story anymore. You haven’t interrogated or inverted or interpolated the genre, and you certainly haven’t deconstructed it. You’ve abandoned it.

Say this much for Jupiter’s Legacy — it’s not content to wave the concept of a moral code away, or nihilistically reject it. It instead makes its central theme the need to inspect it, unpack it, and truly and honestly grapple with it. 

Which is not to say it doesn’t stack the deck by portraying a fallen modern world not worth saving — it does do that, usually through the lens of Sheldon’s daughter Chloe, who throws herself into a world of drugs, alcohol, sex and general narcissistic monstrousness. The show attempts to explain her sullen self-destructiveness as a reaction to her father’s unrealistic ideals, but in execution, her scenes prove cliche-ridden and bluntly repetitious. It’s one of several examples where the show’s choice to focus on and pad out one small part of the comic’s overall tale results in leaden pacing.

But even though it takes seven full episodes for the characters in the 1930s timeline to get to the (almost literal) fireworks factory of their superhero origin, it’s hard to argue that it isn’t worth all that extra time, as Duhamel, Bibb, Lanter and especially Daniels have a great time with the period setting. (There are two other actors who get brought into the superhero fold in this timeline, but they 1. aren’t allotted nearly enough screentime to really register and 2. represent spoilers.)

The period details of the 1930s timeline (Lanter was made to wear a waistcoat; Daniels’ pencil-thin mustache should win its own Hairstyle and Makeup Emmy), and the brewing conflict between the younger selves of Sheldon and Walter can’t help but make those scenes much more intriguing to watch than those set in the modern day. 

The ultimate effect is a lot like watching the 2009 film Julie and Julia, in that sense. If you imagine that Julia Child could fly and shoot lasers out of her eye-holes. 

And, really, who’s to say she couldn’t, after all?

CorrectionMay 7, 2021

An earlier version of this story identified Chloe as Walter’s daughter. She is Sheldon’s daughter.

Cinerama Dome Among ArcLight, Pacific Theaters To Close Due To Pandemic Losses

by Bob Mondello

ArcLight Cinemas and Pacific Theaters said late Monday they are ceasing operations, closing all of their roughly 300 screens mostly found in California.

None has inspired more distress among Hollywood notables than the Cinerama Dome on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard.

“After shutting our doors more than a year ago,” the company said in a statement, “today we must share the difficult and sad news that Pacific will not be reopening its ArcLight Cinemas and Pacific Theaters locations.”

“This was not the outcome anyone wanted,” the statement continues, “but despite a huge effort that exhausted all potential options, the company does not have a viable way forward.”

The Cinerama Dome’s concrete geodesic dome was built to house the wide, curved screen required for single-lens Cinerama. It opened in 1963 with the premiere of Stanley Kramer’s extravagantly wide-screen comedy It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World — with its swinging hook-and-ladder finale.

The Dome has since hosted dozens of Hollywood premieres, including Shrek 2, for which it was painted green and fitted out with tubular ears. It has also figured in movies and television shows including Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.

Hollywood Reacts to Arclight News

And its closing prompted an outpouring of sentiment from Hollywood notables.

“I’m so sad,” tweeted actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. “I remember going to the Cinerama Dome to see Star Trek IV with my dad when I was little. So many memories since then.”

“Sad. HAIR opened in the Cinerama Dome,” tweeted Treat Williams, who starred in that musical.

And Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson wrote on Twitter: “Well this sucks. Every single person who worked at the Arclight loved movies, and you felt it. Sending love to every usher, manager and projectionist who rocked that blue shirt and made it such a special place.”

Long among the highest-grossing theaters in America, according to Deadline, the Dome and Arclight Cinemas are now the latest casualty of a pandemic that has kept many of the world’s cinemas closed for more than a year.

Emerald Fennell’s ‘Promising Young Woman’ Doesn’t Let Anyone Off The Hook

by Sam Briger

In the dark comedy Promising Young Woman, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) works at a coffee shop by day, and hunts sexual predators by night. She goes to bars, pretends to be falling down drunk — and then confronts the men who try to take advantage of her.

Cassie is avenging the death of her best friend, who, the movie implies, has died by suicide after being raped at medical school. Writer and director Emerald Fennell says the film was inspired, in part, by the messages other movies send about alcohol and consent.

When I was growing up — and I think still probably it’s the case now — in movies, getting women drunk to sleep with them, filling up their drink more than you’d fill your own, waiting at the end of the night to see who’s drunk at the club, girls waking up not knowing who’s in bed next to them — it was just comedy fodder,” Fennell says. “We live in a culture where this sort of stuff is normalized.”

Fennell got her start in television as an actor, then worked as the showrunner for the second season ofKilling Eve. Promising Young Woman is the first film she’s directed. The movie has been nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Fennell describes the film as “a kind of fantasy — with wish-fulfillment,” but also as something “much darker and, I hope, more honest than that.”

“I always wanted to make a film, I think, that people would really enjoy and emotionally connect to and find gripping and romantic and all of those things, but [that’s] also not a film that lets anyone off the hook,” she says. “That’s a really interesting position for a filmmaker: to make an audience feel that they’re in familiar territory when they’re not.” 

Interview highlights

On the film’s depictions of sexual assault, especially as it relates to alcohol 

In Britain at the moment, the most incredible thing is happening, which is that women and girls are writing about their experiences [with sexual assault] at schools. Honestly, the volume, the sheer volume of these stories shows just how commonplace this stuff is. There’s nothing in this film that isn’t — and regrettably — incredibly normal and certainly was when I was growing up. And I think for anyone who thinks that these things weren’t horribly common, I think, probably never went to a party or a nightclub, or is kidding themselves.

On the character of Cassie

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM– MARCH 08: Emerald Fennell poses at the Ham Yard Hotel for the 2021 Critics Choice Awards on March 8, 2021 in London England. (Photo by Colomba Giacomini via Getty Images)

This is a film about a woman who is trying to find a way forward in a very grief-stricken and angry way. And part of her journey, part of her means of coping is to present herself as incredibly functioning. Like a lot of addicts, I think, she is somewhat addicted to these nighttime excursions, which make her feel kind of fleetingly better. During the day, she wears a lot of pink. Her hair is always immaculate. Her nails are perfect — kind of whimsical pastels. She’s weaponized her femininity, not just in a kind of aggressive way, but as a defense. Like, she knows that people won’t ask too many questions of her if she hides in plain sight like this. 

On why she wanted Cassie’s act of revenge to be scaring men rather than committing acts of violence

I think part of the film for me was taking a genre that I really love, which is the revenge thriller, and seeing if I could … use that structure, which we’re all so familiar with, but do something unexpected with it — and most importantly, do something that felt feasible to me and female, because I think so often in these kinds of films, and particularly when it pertains to violence, it is not feasible that a woman commits acts of violence against men in the night. It’s not a fair thing to expect. And I think this film is very clear about what happens if you were to try. I really started it by thinking: if I was going to go on a journey like this, what could I do? And if I couldn’t shoot a gun and I’m too unfit to kind of wrestle someone, what could I do to effect some kind of change or to punish people or frighten them? I could do what she does, which is scare them.

Anything that gives you that laugh/gasp, sort of, “No! Oh god. Yes!” Is just always going to be such a fun space to be in.

Emerald Fennell

On whether she sees a similarity between Killing Eve and Promising Young Woman, in terms of how they subvert expectations

I think, certainly, this sense of wickedness is something that it shares. Anything that gives you that laugh/gasp, sort of, “No! Oh god. Yes!” Is just always going to be such a fun space to be in. Absolutely, they’re both twists on genres, but I would say they’re both kind of quite different genres, and I’m always kind of quite careful not to make comparisons, just because I think also we do tend to make comparisons between female-led projects much more, just generally all of us as a kind of society. I do think of them as quite markedly different, but certainly, I think, they do share some sort of sense of macabre wickedness and a subversion of the feminine.

On portraying Camilla Parker Bowles in the latest season of The Crown

I definitely don’t think of her as a villain. I think that increasingly what we’re realizing — and certainly on the show — is that anything that touches the royal family, anything that is part of that is so profoundly strange. It’s not like any other world. It’s not like any other family. The circumstances are just completely extraordinary. So that’s kind of the thing that was always interesting to me about Camilla, was that she’s actually very, very private. The Camilla that I was playing, there’s almost no footage, no photographs of her. … She was head girl of her school. She was incredibly popular. Everyone who’s met her from the research says she’s incredibly funny and kind and good fun, and I was just so interested in what happens to that kind of person when they get sucked into this world and then their biography is written for them by other people. I’m certainly not saying that having affairs is a good thing, but a lot of people do it, and it takes more than one person to do it, too. I went at it, to be honest, very much as a fiction. It’s just an amazingly genius drama.

Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Lara Jean Says Goodbye In ‘To All The Boys: Always And Forever’

by Linda Holmes, Kiana Fitzgerald, and E. Alex Jung


In 2018, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was a breakout hit for Netflix. Based on Jenny Han’s novel, it followed Lara Jean Covey through the adventure of falling in love with one Peter Kavinsky. A sequel followed in 2020 and now, it’s time for the finale, which finds Lara Jean and Peter dealing with the complication of graduating and heading off to college.

The audio was produced by Candice Lim and edited by Jessica Reedy.

Director Shaka King’s Journey From ‘Newlyweeds’ To ‘The Black Messiah’

by Andrew Limbong

As the current chairman of the Black Panther Party Cubs, Fred Hampton, Jr. was guarded when he heard a studio wanted to make a movie about his late father, Fred Hampton. With good reason, too. The elder Hampton was the fiery and charismatic chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. The FBI had its eye on him through a program called COINTELPRO, where they would infiltrate groups like the Black Panthers and use information to launch disinformation smear campaigns.

Hampton was in the midst of corralling disparate, multi-racial groups under the banner of the Rainbow Coalition. The idea was to organize these groups to fight poverty and police brutality. Then, Chicago police shot and killed Hampton and another member of the Black Panther Party in an early morning raid. In an interview, Hampton, Jr. pointed out others have tried to make this movie without coming correct — no knowledge or respect for the legacy of Hampton and the Illinois Black Panther party. “Legacy,” he said, “is more important than our life.”

This is what director Shaka King was thinking about when he signed on to make Judas and the Black Messiah, the new movie about the life of Fred Hampton through the eyes of William O’Neal — the man who infiltrated the Black Panthers on behalf of the FBI. The pitch he got from the movie’s co-writers, Kenny and Keith Lucas, was a movie about Hampton and O’Neal that was like Martin Scorsese’s gangster film, The Departed, but set inside the world of COINTELPRO. It didn’t take much beyond that. “I was like, I see it. I’m done. I’m in,” said King. 

The result is a tense, thrilling movie that draws as much from The Talented Mr. Ripleyas it does The Departed, packaging Hampton’s radical politics beneath a sheen of high budget movie making. Dominique Fishback, who plays Hampton’s partner Deborah Johnson (now Akua Njeri), says she trusted King with Hampton’s legacy. “His confidence and ability to make an authentic story, but not at the cost of somebody’s life,” she said helped her feel more comfortable to make the acting choices she made. 

This big, complex movie with stakes bigger than any one person’s life is a big jump from King’s first movie, 2013’s Newlyweeds. That movie tells the story of a young couple in Brooklyn who smoke a lot of weed. It’s tender and funny, hitting the same notes as movies from other indie darling directors such as Joe Swanberg or the Duplass brothers. And it got decent buzz when it went around the festival circuit. The Film Independent Spirit Awards gave King the Someone to Watch Award, which came with a $25,000 grant.

But after that initial fanfare, King struggled to find buyers for the movie. “I was so depressed after making Newlyweeds,” he said. It was a movie starring two Black actors who no one knew. “And at that time, that was deemed worthless,” said King.

2013 wasn’t that long ago. But it was before what a friend of King’s ironically dubbed the Black Excellence Industrial Complex, when movie studios realized you could make a lot of money releasing films by and starring Black people — Selma, Moonlight, Black Panther and so on. The experience with Newlyweeds burnt King out on the idea of making another feature film. “I stopped caring,” he said. 

Judas and the Black Messiah producer, Charles D. King (no relation), didn’t know that about director Shaka King. As the head of Macro, which produces movies and TV shows by people of color including Judas, Charles King is possibly one of the biggest names in the Black Excellence Industrial Complex. From his perch as producer, he’s seen young directors struggle with getting the momentum going for a second movie — particularly women and people of color. So he wasn’t surprised King felt the same way. 

“It was before the #Oscarssowhite moment of 2015,” said King. “A lot’s happened since then. There’s much more of an openness and I think an understanding of the business opportunity there.”

After Newlyweeds, what tethered director King to the idea of moviemaking was a kind of silly, kind of outrageous idea he had rolling around in his head for a short satire, titled Mulignans, after the Italian slur for Black people that used to be heard frequently on the streets of Brooklyn. In it, King and two other actors play three Black guys who talk like they’re out of the Italian mobster movies King has such a fondness for. It was slightly inspired by his time growing up in a mostly Black part of Brooklyn, before going to school in South Brooklyn. There, he noticed that everyone — the Irish kids, the Greek kids, the Jewish kids, the Asian kids — all talked like the Italian kids. 

“And those kids were hilarious,” said King. “They were profane, they were quick witted — we weren’t friends — but I could appreciate their sense of humor.”

The movie has the spirit and feel of hanging out with your friends while it concisely makes points about gender politics, race and gentrification. It reminded King of the sheer fun of making something just to see if you can. “That movie saved me,” he said. “It saved me.”

King brought that energy to the challenge of making Judas and the Black Messiah, a movie about a Black radical anti-capitalist, within the very capitalist world of Hollywood. “I’m completely aware of the myriad of contradictions that exist not only to try and make a movie like this, but me just wanting to have the kind of career I want to have, and the politics that I have and all of those co-existing,” he said. 

Fred Hampton, Jr. was a consultant for the movie and on set during production. When I spoke with him, he said he was only just now able to watch the movie through the eyes of a regular audience member. He liked it well enough, though he wished they could’ve gotten some more of the politics in there. Then he smiled and said, “a revolutionary is never satisfied.”

Nina Gregory edited this story.

Justin Timberlake Hopes ‘Palmer’ Will ‘Open Eyes, And Open Ears, And Open Hearts’

by Scott Simon

Justin Timberlake (left) and Ryder Allen star as Eddie and Sam in the new movie Palmer on Apple TV+.
Apple TV+

In the new film Palmer, Justin Timberlake plays Eddie, a former high school football star who comes back to his Louisiana hometown after more than a decade in prison. As he pieces together his new life, Eddie moves in with his grandmother and befriends her young neighbor, a boy named Sam.

Sam is funny and spirited, and is confident in his love of dolls and tea parties. When Sam’s mom disappears — as she often does — Eddie steps up.

“I grew up in the rural South as a young boy,” says Timberlake. “And I found myself relating to both of our lead characters — you know, being a young boy and being interested in the arts. And on the other hand, I found myself really relating to a guy like Eddie. … I knew guys like that growing up that were football gods or basketball gods in our hometown and then school ends and there’s this transition and they kind of don’t know exactly what to do with themselves.”

Interview Highlights

On casting Ryder Allen, the child who plays Sam

Believe it or not, this is Ryder’s first film. … Sometimes the naivete to a situation can give moments of genius, because there was something completely untrained about him, but also he just had an intuition. In the chemistry reads, we would play certain scenes out … and then I would just keep talking. I would just keep going. Coming from stage and having experience on shows like SNL and things like that, you know, you develop a level of improvisation that we wanted to try out on all the kids and Ryder … would just literally stay in character and keep playing. …

When you get an exchange like that between two actors … you start to feel like you’re just watching people; you’re not watching actors, you’re watching people. And that’s essentially what you want out of anything you’re doing on film.

On the message he hopes people take away from the film

We have to have open eyes, and open ears, and open hearts. … I don’t feel like I have an authority to tell people what to think or feel, but I guess I hope that the theme of acceptance comes shining through in this movie. … This boy is 8 years old and he likes what he likes and he shouldn’t be bullied for that, he should be accepted … supported and uplifted for that. … Really loving yourself and being able to see people in the world … for who they are and accept that, and love that — it has to come from within. Hopefully that’s what we accomplished with with my character, with Eddie. That finding that self-love can kind of lead you in that direction, it can be your compass.

On the criticism that he has appropriated black music

To be honest, I don’t know that I have an authority to respond to that. I can only tell you that where I grew up outside of Memphis, Tenn., … my mother introduced me to … so much beautiful art. She was that type of mother. I grew up listening to all types of music and, you know, the music that I write comes from an honest place of my favorite influences — and it’s as simple as that for me. … 

All I can do is be true to my influence, because I think any musician, or artist, or actor, or director will tell you that we are a product of our influences, you know? I’ve met directors who say … “When I saw that movie in a theater, I wanted to make a movie like that.” And I felt that way. … I’ve responded in my childhood to certain songs like that, “Gosh, I want to write a song like that one day.” … I think you have to be true to your influence and then make your music your own — or your performance your own, or your movies your own.

Sophia Boyd and Melissa Gray produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Polish Thriller ‘Spoor’ Is A Pulpy Murder Story — And A Utopian Fable

by John Powers

During the Cold War, the movies we saw from the Eastern bloc were steeped in politics. They critiqued, more or less obliquely, life under communism. More than 30 years later, the Berlin Wall is long gone, but the films from Eastern Europe haven’t lost their political edge. These days, they’re critical of post-communist societies that remain harsh and oppressive.

This criticism takes audaciously radical form in Spoor, a fiercely offbeat Polish thriller whose heroine is unlike any woman you typically see onscreen. Based on the terrific novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by the 2018 Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk, it was directed by the celebrated filmmaker Agnieszka Holland along with her daughter, Kasia Adamik. The result is a film that’s strange, darkly funny and powerful. Imagine a pulpy murder story that’s also a utopian fable about feminism, social justice and ecology.

Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka stars as Janina Duszejko, a retired engineer who lives in the mountainous countryside of southwest Poland along with her two dogs. Devoted to astrology and the poetry of William Blake, Janina is an instinctive defender of the weak who is especially tormented by the suffering of animals.

Janina despises the culture that leads men to abuse women and to gleefully shoot deer, wild boar, pheasants and rabbits. When she complains about poachers killing game out of season, the police treat her like a crazy old bat. When she complains about it to the village priest, he tells her it’s blasphemy to care so much about animals.

Soon mysterious things start happening. Janina’s dogs disappear. Then she and a loner named Matoga discover the murdered body of the loathsome neighbor she calls Big Foot. As the police investigation proceeds, Janina spends her time with a small community of outsiders — including a police cyber-guy who has seizures, an innocent young woman forced to work at a brothel, and a visiting Czech entomologist who’s studying one of the local beetles. Meanwhile, more corpses start appearing, but there are no human footsteps surrounding the dead bodies, only animal footprints. Could these wild creatures possibly have done it?

If all of this sounds a tad delirious, it is — deliberately so. Rather like Taxi Driver, which showed us an infernal New York City that reflected Travis Bickle’s psyche, Spoor gives us rural Poland as it feels to Janina. Working with more stylistic panache than ever before, Holland does a superb job of heightening everything — the majesty of the mist-swaddled countryside, the thrillingly magical visitation of wild animals, the spiritual corruption of those in power.

And in Mandat-Grabka’s riveting performance, Janina dives deep into her own volcanic nature. Fueled by visions and moral rage, she lives with fearless intensity, whether teaching English to schoolchildren, yelling at the cops, flirting with the entomologist, or sobbing over a wild boar that’s been shot and simply left to die. In an earlier time, her weirdness might’ve gotten her thought of as a witch.

Janina’s rebelliousness is clearly understood by Tokarczuk and Holland, who both know what it is to refuse to go along with those in power. Now 72, Holland left Poland 40 years ago after her films were harshly censored by the Communist Party, beginning a remarkable career in the West that includes everything from Holocaust films to Henry James adaptations to episodes of The Wire. Despite her Nobel, Tokarczuk is hugely controversial in her home country for speaking out against the current Polish government run by the nativist, overtly authoritarian Law and Justice Party.

Although Spoor has one foot in classic noir, it steers clear of that genre’s attraction to defeat and destruction. Even as she plunges into the darkness, Janina won’t let herself be trapped there. Living her politics, she risks her life to fight what she thinks is a culture of death. Building to an ending worthy of a fairy tale, Spoor makes you feel just how monstrous human beings can be, yet it also suggests that fighting against cruelty can bring you back into the light.

‘Soul’ Is A Jazzy, Joyful Celebration Of Life

by Linda Holmes, Stephen Thompson, Aisha Harris and Glen Weldon

ALL THAT JAZZ – In Pixar Animation Studios’ upcoming feature film “Soul,” Joe Gardner is a middle-school band teacher whose true passion is playing jazz. A single unexpected step sends him to the cosmic realms where he finds the “You Seminar”—a fantastical place where Joe is forced to think again about what it truly means to have soul. Jamie Foxx was tapped to voice Joe. Directed by Academy Award® winner Pete Docter (“Inside Out,” “Up”), co-directed by Kemp Powers and produced by Academy Award® nominee Dana Murray (Pixar short “Lou”), “Soul” will debut exclusively on Disney+ (where Disney+ is available) on December 25, 2020. © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

In Disney and Pixar’s Soul, a jazz musician voiced by Jamie Foxx falls down a manhole and finds himself teetering between life and the afterlife. He winds up on a New York adventure with a wandering soul, voiced by Tina Fey, who needs help getting ready to be reborn on Earth.

The audio was produced by Will Jarvis and edited by Jessica Reedy. 

‘Jingle Jangle’ Director David E. Talbert Calls Film ‘A Love Letter To My Childhood’

by Michel Martin and Janaya Williams

JINGLE JANGLE: A CHRISTMAS JOURNEY (2020) Forest Whitaker as Jeronicus Jangle. NETFLIX

Whimsical, larger-than-life movie protagonists — Ebenezer Scrooge, Caractacus Potts, Mary Poppins, Willy Wonka — kindled filmmaker David E. Talbert’s imagination as a kid.

Now, Talbert wants to add to what he calls the cinematic “Mount Rushmore” of eccentric characters. His new Netflix Christmas musical Jingle Jangle tells the story of Jeronicus Jangle, a brilliant inventor and toymaker played by Forest Whitaker.

David E. Talbert

“It’s really a love letter to my childhood,” Talbert said of his movie in an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered. “All the joy and the most fun times were all wrapped up in my childhood, so why wouldn’t I want to revisit it?”

Full of bright colors, a snowball fight set to Afrobeat music, and original songs by John Legend and Philip Lawrence, Jingle Jangle brims with joy, despite the film’s unhappy backstory.

Jeronicus is down on his luck after his betrayal by a once-trusted apprentice. But when his granddaughter visits, the two join forces to right past wrongs, and — in true holiday film form — find real meaning in family and relationship.

“I could have never expected that as much would be going on in the world,” said Talbert, “but I think it came at a time when the world just needed a collective opportunity to exhale, and be given permission to sing again and love again and heal again.”

The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On the visual aesthetic of Jingle Jangle he’s described as “Afro-Victorian”

The costume designer, Michael Wilkinson, put these amazing Victorian patterns together. And my wife, who’s a producer, said, “Well, there’s something missing,” and came up with the idea of mixing African patterns with Victorian style. So Michael Wilkinson then flew to Ghana, flew to Nigeria, and got authentic patterns and it was so wonderful.

The lady who plays Joanne Jangle, Jeronicus’ wife, she is from Ghana. And when they brought her her wardrobe, she started crying. … She says, “David, these are the patterns from my country.”

On getting emotional when Forest Whitaker’s character takes flight in the movie

When Forest Whitaker was flying, it was very emotional for me because I had never seen a Black man flying in a film before. You know, there were superheroes and all those things, yes, but a kind of person that I said, Well, I could be that person. And when I saw him flying, it was like me seeing myself. It was like me seeing this idea, taking flight.

You want it to be received critically as a filmmaker, but as a father, I want to be able to inspire my son. And then as a grown man myself, I want to be inspired. And that’s what the whole idea of flight in this film did for me.

On casting Forest Whitaker in the singing role of Jeronicus Jangle

Forest is of course, this towering man, this bigger-than-life actor who steps in and takes on these roles with such grounding and gravitas and power. But I also know Forest is a father, and there are nuances and things that no one has yet tapped into or even asked him to tap into in this treasure trove of being a daddy.

I didn’t know he went to school to train as an opera singer — that’s what he trained in college. So he just had to dust off that training and rediscover that instrument, and he did. And it was masterful.

On his approach to creating the film

What entertains me, what brings a smile to my face and what may break my heart, what may warm my heart — I put all of that DNA into the script and I allow myself to go on this rollercoaster ride of emotion. And then if that ride is a joyful or eventful enough ride for me as a writer and reading it, then I say, OK, well, then maybe it will be that same kind of experience for the viewer.

Janaya Williams and William Troop produced and edited the audio version of this interview. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.