Oscar Isaac may be the luckiest actor in Hollywood right now — and he knows it. After breakout roles in Robin Hood and Drive, he’s double-stepped it up the escalator of success and now finds himself headlining Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film by a couple of his heroes, the Coen brothers. Of course, it also helps that Isaac is precociously talented. Not only can the Juilliard graduate turn from flamboyant royal villain to dimwitted ex-con on a dime, he’s also an accomplished musician, which happens to be how he got the gig. Isaac plays the titular hero, a kind-of-but-not-really riff on Dave Van Ronk who stumbles Job-like through the Greenwich Village folk revival of the ’60s, desperately clinging to his artistic pride, his ambitions, and a cat, all while looking for the next place to sleep. It’s surprisingly soulful, ruthlessly wry, and a worthy addition to the Coens' playlist.
In fact, Inside Llewyn Davis has many remarkable features — despite losing none of the usual edge, it might be one of the Coens' gentlest films yet — but paramount among them are the long, intimate takes of Isaac playing soulful folk songs. In contrast to the usual chopped-up manner of recording a musical performance for a film, Isaac actually sang his songs in toto over long takes; and unlike Russell Crowe in his much-maligned turn in Les MisÚrables, Isaac can hold his own against Justin Timberlake. No, seriously, check it out: It’s a handy skill to have as he’s sent into the fray of Oscar campaigns. Given that the Coens long ago switched from being perpetual outsiders to perennial Oscar favorites, it feels like Isaac’s got a shot at a (well-deserved) nomination. I talked to him as he embarked on his publicity rounds.
Alexander Payne's Nebraska is Will Forte's sardonic, hushed, black-and-white Back to the Future. In the film, the former Saturday Night Live player stars as David, an aimless townie who indulges his dad, Woody, by traveling from Montana to Nebraska to claim a $1 million sweepstakes prize. Along the way, they stop by Woody's hometown only to find the past catching up with them. David becomes an observer as his father unearths old relationships, forgotten quarrels, and regrets he'd rather not confront. And, as if afraid of the butterfly effect, David rarely intervenes, steering Woody as best he can through each complicated encounter. It's a time-travel movie without the actual time travel.
Nebraska is a far cry from Forte's previous work. And he knows it — from the get-go the actor questioned his ability to tackle the role. Forte had the balls to dance around naked with celery in his butt for MacGruber, but sparring with Hollywood veteran Bruce Dern in a realistic character piece? A different beast. Here, we talk to Forte about the performances he loves and taking a bold dramatic step.
A big part of your early career was spent writing comedy, but did you aspire to perform?
Alexander Payne is batting 1.000: From Citizen Ruth to Election to About Schmidt to Sideways to The Descendants, the director has crafted one wickedly funny, deceptively heartfelt, and totally crushing gem after another. I mean, Warren Schmidt’s last letter to Ngudu alone (“I’m weak. And I’m a failure. There’s just no getting around it") is the colossus. Sprinkle in some Thomas Haden Church doing fleeing-from-enraged-cuckolded-husband full-frontal and Chris Klein rebuffing detractors with a simple “but bruh bruh, I was in Election,” and you’ve got one inimitable, very necessary career. His latest, Nebraska — featuring a career-capping turn from the sly Hollywood vet Bruce Dern, as a muddled old man attempting to cash in a bogus Publishers Clearing House million-dollar prize, alongside a son (Will Forte) still hoping for that bonding moment — is a sharp, at times hilarious, at times heartbreaking piece of filmmaking. In other words: It is triumphantly Payne-ian.
The screenwriter of Nebraska is Bob Nelson, and this is his first produced feature. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have some life experience of which to speak, including brushes with Chris Rock, Joel McHale, The Magic Hour, and — [airhorn] [airhorn] [airhorn] — Bill Goddamn Nye the Science Guy. Ahead of this week’s release of Nebraska, we caught up with Nelson.
You may have never heard of the Bass Brothers. But you've heard the Bass Brothers. Before Jimmy Iovine, before Dr. Dre, it was Michigan's Jeff and Mark Bass who were flipping their shit over the sounds of a young kid from Detroit named Marshall Mathers. In the early days, the production duo's studio on 8 Mile Road was like a second home for Eminem. And it was there that they recorded The Slim Shady EP, which would eventually make its way to Dre and Iovine and land Eminem his record deal. They'd continue to work with Em for years, producing all but three tracks on The Slim Shady LP, some of the more twisted ends of The Marshall Mathers LP, and — drum roll, drum roll, drum roll — "Lose Yourself." With this week's release of The Marshall Mathers LP 2, we got Jeff Bass on the phone to talk about the good old days.
How'd you meet Eminem?
My brother was listening to the radio, what today is our 95.5. It was a DJ we knew named Lisa Lisa. He called and asked her who that was, freestyling. She said, that’s Marshall Mathers. He said, “Is there any way we can get in touch with him?” She gives him the number. My brother called. And at three o’clock in the morning [Eminem] came to the studio, with a bunch of little dudes who turned out to be D12. That’s how it began. We didn’t know him, and he didn’t know us. He took a leap of faith at three in the morning.
It's hard to watch Fox's Sleepy Hollow (which returns tonight on Fox after a brief World Series break) without wondering how it wound up being this solid. An eerie, mystery-laden network drama so soon after CBS burned us with Under the Dome, which happens to film in the same town? Recurring shots of George Washington in the Revolutionary War? Time travel, fish-out-of-water setups, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Yes, yes, yes till infinity. Somehow it's one the biggest hits of the season, and somehow it feels like it deserves to be.
The series comes from three veterans — Underworld director Len Wiseman, Transformers and Star Trek writers Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman — and one complete IMDb newb. The latter is Phillip Iscove, a 33-year-old Toronto native who, before coming up with the show that would get a second-season order just three episodes in, toiled for seven years as an assistant at United Talent Agency. Grantland spoke to Iscove about pitching Sleepy Hollow to two of Hollywood's supreme geek-writers/producers, moony Tumblr fans, and the privilege of making a cable-style 13-episode season for network TV.
Usually when you interview actors face-to-face, there’s a little game being played: They try to remain calm, cool, and contained while you politely and objectively discuss the movie at hand. But the whole time you’re looking for subtle tells that betray who this person really is. Something to help your line of questioning or just get to know the human behind the hype and the image. Matthew McConaughey blows that out of the water.
When I enter his hotel suite brushed with nonthreatening pastels, McConaughey is literally on the edge of his seat practically yelling at College GameDay, thrilled his beloved Longhorns have pounded the Sooners. We’re instantly talking about the epic NLCS Game 1 between the Cardinals and Dodgers, and the publicist has to remind us we’re here to discuss Dallas Buyers Club. So much for cool and contained: McConaughey is an ICBM of chest-thumping energy and deliberate eye contact. His face still bears gaunt traces of the nearly 50 pounds he lost to play Ron Woodroof, a hard-partying, homophobic Texas electrician who contracted AIDS in the early '80s when it was still considered the “gay” disease. Given 30 days to live, Ron did what any red-blooded American entrepreneur would do: He partnered with a transvestite hooker (a nicely glam-rock Jared Leto) to smuggle alternative treatments, flaunting the DEA and FDA in the process — and living another seven years.
Last night Kanye West sat down with Jimmy Kimmel for a fence-mending interview, although "interview" is probably the wrong word. In an interview it's customary for both parties to talk, whereas Wednesday's show quickly became a Kan-o-logue; Kanye wore fringed moccasins, but figuratively speaking he had his black Timbs all on Kimmel's couch from the beginning. I'm pretty sure the only words Kimmel uttered during the second Kanye segment were "And we're back."
West and Kimmel were ostensibly resolving a disagreement that started back in September, when Kimmel aired a video in which a petulant, milkshake-sipping child reenacts some of the more quotable moments of a lengthy, impassioned talk West had with the BBC's Zane Lowe. After the sketch aired, Kanye took to Twitter, accusing Kimmel of (a) trivializing "THE FIRST PIECE OF HONEST MEDIA IN YEARS," and (b) looking like beloved children's entertainer SpongeBob SquarePants.
Generally speaking, when one celebrity is apparently using Meme Generator to insult another celebrity, that's a clue you're not witnessing cultural discourse at its most high-flown level. But the Kanye-Kimmel beef was about something real. When Kanye expresses honest frustration in an interview and the online gossip-matrix categorizes said interview as a "crazy rant," that's a value judgment. The Lowe interview that started all this is not the last words of Dutch Schultz; whether or not you agree with Kanye's assertions, nothing he's saying is particularly hard to understand. "I do think that somewhere in you, you want people to understand where you're coming from, is that true?" Kimmel asked West, as if there's anyone in the world who aims to be misunderstood.
While putting together my piece on the end of Eastbound & Down, I had phone and e-mail exchanges with a bunch of smart, funny people. Most of the stuff ended up in the piece. Here's some of it that didn't.
David Gordon Green
Before David Gordon Green was a pensive indie auteur turned studio comedy technician turned "guy who does whatever the hell he wants" (next up: a movie with Nicolas Cage!), he was living on the same dorm floor as Danny McBride and Jody Hill. According to Hill, back at the North Carolina School of the Arts, "David Green, he could quote release dates of movies from like 1980 on. It freaked me out a little bit."
You know how we’re all supposed to be sophisticated enough not to confuse an actor with his or her role? Yes, they may have a type they’ve mastered, but in real life, they’re totally different. But some actors, you just can’t buy it. I’m pretty sure Jack Nicholson really does flash that fiendish grin at pretty ladies — I mean, ask Jennifer Lawrence. And Harrison Ford, you just know he’s that grumpy. Which is why, when given the chance to sit with Sam Rockwell for an interview, I was kind of — no, definitely — intimidated.
Here’s the thing: I like Sam Rockwell. But when I look at his filmography, from Confessions of a Dangerous Mind to Matchstick Men to Seven Psychopaths, I can’t help but imagine an overly friendly fire starter with little swirly-things where his irises should be. I mean, he even brings a touch of his specially bottled crazy to a coming-of-age comedy like The Way Way Back. But I was wrong. Rockwell was laid-back and laconic, popping pistachios while his dog nuzzled my hands. At worst, he looked like he’d stepped out of a modern-day Five Easy Pieces. Overall we had a very fun conversation about his latest film, A Single Shot (a dramatic change of pace); the art of mastering accents, and why Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur is drastically underrated.
When he first showed up, Justin Vernon was Bon Iver, and Bon Iver was Justin Vernon. At this point, though — between work with Kanye West, Gayngs, and even the Eau Claire Memorial Jazz I Ensemble — it's easier to understand that Bon Iver is just one of the ever-restless Vernon's manifold musical iterations. That's a list highlighted by Volcano Choir, a collaboration between Vernon and his post-rock idols, Collections of Colonies of Bees. Ahead of this week's release of Repave, the second Volcano Choir album, Grantland caught up with Justin.
Tom Lennon and Ben Garant may be the luckiest beings on planet Earth. They’ve gone from being two of the comedy wunderkinds behind The State to basic-cable cult gods with Reno: 911! to insanely-well-paid writer-directors whose movies have pulled in $1.4 billion. They even wrote a book about it — How to Write Movies for Fun and Profit — both one of the funniest and most useful books about Hollywood and screenwriting ever. Now, with Hell Baby, a bizarre, twisted, and self-consciously ridiculous riff on the horror genre that premieres September 6 after a run at Sundance, they get to be indie auteurs, too. They call it their most personal film.
OK, fine: They readily acknowledge Hell Baby is “blithering nonsense” while promising it’s pure, 100 percent unfiltered them: Reno fans, this movie’s for you. I recently sat down to talk to them about their inevitable Hell Baby Oscar campaign, writing the new Baywatch movie, and where to get the best po’boys in New Orleans.
Adam Goldberg showed up at Little Dom's in Los Feliz on time, wearing a white V-neck T-shirt and carrying a largish video-camera bag. His face was narrower and more angular than it looks onscreen and he appeared to have gotten a haircut earlier that same day; there were still small flecks of cut hair sticking to his ears. We sat in the Dino Stamatopolous booth; Goldberg ordered and drank an entire bottle of sparkling water and was deeply apologetic to our waiter about not ordering anything else, as if this transgression would otherwise haunt him for days.
Goldberg began acting professionally in the early '90s, after dropping out of Sarah Lawrence. He's still best known for the roles he played in two iconic '90s films — Private Mellish in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, and Mike Newhouse, the "I wanna dance" guy from Dazed and Confused, each doomed in his own way. Unless you count his appearance as a Semitic superhero in the "Jewxploitation" satire The Hebrew Hammer — to which a sequel, pitting the Hammer against Hitler, the "Jewish Joker," is currently being crowdfunded — he has never really been handed a breakthrough leading-man moment to maximize or bungle. In another, more uptight age, he might have been a sex symbol.
Recently, he has taken a couple of short rides on series television; earlier this year, in Mary Harron's Lifetime movie Anna Nicole, he played Anna Nicole Smith's manager Howard K. Stern, and seemed to be the only person in the cast who understood that he was in a comedy. He has also spent the last few years working on a range of smaller, weirder, more personal projects. He's about to start directing his fourth film, No Way Jose; Strangers' Morning, a new album of neurotic space-pop songs by his more-or-less-one-man-band the Goldberg Sisters, goes on sale this week. And over the course of the last year or so he became one of the first acknowledged auteurs in the world of Vine, an enthrallingly useless iPhone video-looping app that Goldberg has used to produce a series of funny, occasionally proudly Lynchian, surprisingly complex six-second films about an anxiety-prone, obsessive character named Adam Goldberg. It's the perfect medium for an actor who knows a thing or two about making the most of brief moments.
It’s understandable if you’ve never heard of the Wrens — the New Jersey indie-rock band hasn’t put out a new record since 2003’s The Meadowlands, and nothing in the Wrens’ discography has registered on the mainstream radar. But if you have heard of the Wrens, you probably love them. They’re just that kind of band — even a shred of knowledge requires a level of investigation that essentially denotes positive interest. And if you’re a Wrens fan, you’re also a very patient person: It took seven long years for The Meadowlands to arrive after 1996’s Secaucus became a cult favorite — the period was marked by record-label fights that threatened to cripple the band — but for many it was worth the wait, cinching the Wrens’ status as excellent purveyors of uplifting rock songs that generously dole out raggedly harmonized choruses and climactic guitar crescendos. A year before Arcade Fire released Funeral, the Wrens were synonymous with the sort of emotionally overpowering indie rock that can make closet-size rock clubs feel like Madison Square Garden.
The Meadowlands was acclaimed in its time (Magnet declared it the best album of 2003) and in retrospect (Pitchfork included it among the best records of the ’00s), but the Wrens have faded a bit even in the underground rock press, as the follow-up has wound up taking even longer to come out. If the Wrens have a franchise, it involves eternally delayed albums — the group acknowledges as much on their website, where the tagline is “Keeping folks waiting since 1989!” But with the 10th anniversary of The Meadowlands coming up in September, there are encouraging signs that the Wrens are finally ready to release new music. Guitarist Charles Bissell has been tweeting about the band’s progress on the record, which is now in the mixing stage. Signs appear to be pointing toward a 2014 release.
I want to be a fly on the wall when whatever future authoritative critic at Film Comment sits down to write the definitive director bio of David Gordon Green. What strange facial contortions will she/he make as her/his brain tries to fathom Green, the guy who gave us both Eastbound & Down and George Washington; what synaptic gymnastics will reconcile Snow Angels and Your Highness? It will probably look something like this. If you only know Green from Pineapple Express, you have to remember the shock many critics felt, not only that a promising art-house director was making a stoner movie but that he seemed to relish every aspect of it. It was as if a young Terrence Malick had put down Days of Heaven to make Porky’s.
Now after his share of tokes from the studio comedy bong, Green has returned to his art-film roots with Prince Avalanche — but again frustrating any expectations you might dare to have. No one knew he was making it, and when Avalanche arrived at Sundance, it wasn’t just another mildly amusing indie comedy that litters the slopes of Park City. Instead, Green somehow fused those broad comedy inclinations with his eye for visual poetry; suddenly, you could make Paul Rudd and Waiting for Godot references all in one breath. Again, it felt kind of like this. After debuting in limited release last weekend, Prince Avalanche expands to more cities this weekend (and is available on VOD and iTunes as well), and it's a refreshingly oblique breath of air in a summer of blockbuster flops. So we sat down with Green to talk about what art films can learn from stoner movies, his solution for this summer’s big budget woes, and how awesome it was to work with The Rage Cage (Nicolas) on his upcoming film Joe, which will premiere at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
Next Tuesday, Superchunk will release its 10th studio album, I Hate Music. The record arrives with relative quickness after 2010’s “comeback” LP, Majesty Shredding, which ended a nine-year hiatus for the beloved indie institution. During the break, guitarist Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance built the record label they founded in 1989 to put out Superchunk records into one of the top independents in the music business. Today, Merge Records is home to Arcade Fire, Spoon, She & Him, the Mountain Goats, and many other great bands. But, thankfully, McCaughan and Ballance (along with guitarist Jim Wilbur and drummer Jon Wurster) still find time to assemble the sort of perfectly constructed, three-minute punk-pop songs that made records like 1991’s No Pocky for Kitty and ’94’s Foolish classics of passionate, no-frills, golden-era indie rock.
As Majesty previously demonstrated, I Hate Music shows that Superchunk can still make this kind of music as well as anyone. Last month, Grantland called up McCaughan to talk about the album, his most hated indie trends, and why Superchunk never broke up.