Posted on July 29, 2021 at 5:10 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to alcohol and drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: The movie includes a murder investigation and imprisonment, abuse
Diversity Issues: Some themes of class and nationality differences and cultures
Date Released to Theaters: July 23, 2021
Date Released to DVD: October 25, 2021

Copyright 2021 Focus Features
Even the best of intentions from the most talented people can sometimes go haywire, and “Stillwater” is a good example of a bad movie despite its sincerity and the powerful gifts of the people behind it. When the best performance in a Matt Damon movie comes from a little girl who barely speaks English, you know so many things have gone wrong that even the two Oscar-winners cannot find a way to make it work.

I’m not even sure what this movie is about. The story is clear, though. Oklahoma construction worker Bill Baker (Damon) regularly travels to France to see his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), who is serving a nine-year sentence for murder in Marseille. She insists she is innocent. Five years into her sentence, she learns of a possible clue to locating the real killer. When her lawyer says that there is no point in trying to re-open the case based on hearsay, Bill lies to Allison, telling her the lawyer is working on it, while he tries to find the killer himself. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because of its relation to the case of Amanda Knox, who spent four years in an Italian prison for the murder of her roommate until she was exonerated by the higher court.

The storyline, though, is not enough to sustain the film, careening awkwardly from Bill’s redemption following years of neglecting Allison as he struggled with substance abuse to the lukewarm, not-thrilling thriller and the zero-chemistry romance. The nearly 2 1/2 hour running time gave me plenty of room to consider whether the movie was trying to make some deeper statement about America, with Bill clearly coming from an economically depressed red state, representing America’s failures and sense of lost promise and Allison as the younger generation, rejecting her roots.

Leads Damon, Breslin, and Camille Cottin as Verginie, a single mother who becomes Bill’s translator, friend, and romantic partner have so little sense of connection to each other they seem to be performing via Zoom. It is like they are acting in three different movies. Indeed, the movie itself feels like three different movies and none of them work. In the last half hour, as the movie goes from not very good to are-you-kidding bad, they may have been trying to make a point about guilt and the consequences of bad choices. If so, it is un-earned and the worst kind of manipulative, the kind that has so little respect for the audience that it is more than a disappointment; it feels like an insult. At one point, we see a brief scene from Virginie’s performance in an avant-garde play, followed by a pointless scene where she tries to get Bill to talk to her about what he has just watched. I’d rather watch that entire play — in French — than see this movie again.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong language, violence, references to murder, sexual references and situations, and references to substance abuse and parental neglect.

Family discussion: What do you think of what we see of the French prison system and its differences from the US? How does Bill feel after his final discussion with Allison? Should they have told each other the truth?

If you like this, try: “Missing”

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Interview: Writer/Director Tom McCarthy of the Adam Sandler Fantasy “The Cobbler”

Posted on March 12, 2015 at 10:00 am

I am a huge fan of writer/director Tom McCarthy (Win Win, “The Station Agent,” The Visitor), and was delighted to get a chance to talk to him about his new film, co-written with Paul Sado, “The Cobbler.”  It is a gentle fantasy starring Adam Sandler as a shoemaker who discovers his father’s old machine for sewing shoes has magical properties.  If he tries on the shoes repaired with that machine, he takes on the appearance of the shoe’s owners.  The film co-stars Dustin Hoffman, Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”), and Ellen Barkin.  It opens in theaters, and on VOD and iTunes March 13, 2015.

As an actor and as a writer, you have to use your imagination to step into the shoes of different characters all the time.  Is that what inspired this idea?

Probably a little bit. It didn’t dawn on me till later in the making of it.  It was probably as we started to rehearse with the actors that we realized realize it was something actors are very used to doing. Initially it was just the idea that you don’t know a man until you walk a mile in his shoes. There was something about that that sounds really compelling. The idea of exploring the interesting world of the Cobbler and the Shoe Repair Man as a way of exploring that idea.

The title, “The Cobbler,” has a fairy tale quality, very different from your earlier films. When you are creating a fantasy film, how do you work out all of the internal rules to keep it consistent and organic?

Paul and I really wrestled with what it meant, what we could do what we couldn’t do. We felt like, okay, there are definite limits to this. We had to keep double-checking to make sure we were not breaking any of our own rules.  We tried to keep it as simple as possible, what exactly Adam was allowed to do and what he wasn’t allowed to do, what he could control and what he couldn’t control. And like all superheroes, we figure his power would increase as he begin to master it as he got better at it.  But there certainly are stages when he is exploring it and having fun with it and in some cases abusing it and then ultimately using it for good.

What made you decide to try fantasy?

You are searching for new things, new things to challenge you at different ways and you are looking to have fun and you are looking to explore. I don’t ever profess to be limited to one particular school of filmmaking or any type of storytelling.  It’s always what sort of tickles me in the moment when I think of something exciting and challenging and “The Cobbler” was all those things for me.

“The Cobbler” was not the movie I was planning on making, I was planning on making “Spotlight,” the movie I am editing now.  Spotlight got pushed back because we couldn’t get it together in time. Paul and I had really been working on “The Cobbler” for a long time. So we just had the idea to just get together and bang ideas around.  Just the energy of collaboration and the synergy that it brings about is just really exciting and cool. Paul and I are old friends and we really connect so it was a good time.

Copyright The Cobbler 2015
Copyright The Cobbler 2015

It is quite a challenge for actors to have to not just play their own character but Adam Sandler’s character as well. 

Sometimes we just have to work on keeping it straight as we were in the moment. And then beyond that, when you have an actor like Dustin, it is really just little tweaks here and there reminding him of maybe what was too much, not enough or too much depending on where he was in the scene. All these people had a pretty good sense of how they were going to approach Adam. They weren’t just trying to mimic him. They were trying to get the essence of what Adam might be in their body. And it was really a little bit of modulation on everybody but not much. It was kind of just making sure that the story held together and that the audience could keep track of who is who at any particular time.

Your cast included some actors who are very trained and experienced and others who were not.  What did you think about as you were casting the film?

I’m always just trying to find what actor I think would best connect with the role.  Some secondary considerations are where the actor comes from and what their work ethic is like and how they approach material ultimately especially in a film like this where you are building an ensemble. But mostly it is who is right and then we work backwards from there. Some people are classically trained and some aren’t trained at all, some are connected, some come from  comedy and stand ups, some came out of rap, so people are coming from all kinds of places.  I think that adds a really nice texture to the movie. I think one thing I’m very proud of with this film is that it really represents New York in a very authentic way. I think it gets the culture, especially the Lower East Side. I think we did a good job of capturing that.

And if you could pick out one pair of size 10 1/2 shoes and be him for a day, who would you pick?

That’s a really good question. I think it would be kind of cool to check out Putin. I want to see what that guy does, walk around the Kremlin and see what is going on in that place. My feeling is Kruten doesn’t have a 10.5, though, I think he is a little guy, he is probably got like an 8 or something.

I liked the way you kept the origin of the magical shoe repair machine a little bit mysterious, even though you had the flashback with the men all speaking Yiddish as they came up with a plan to stop the neighborhood bully.

I didn’t understand a word of the Yiddish when I was filming it but it was really fun to listen to that language. They speak it so beautifully and it was nice to be around for a couple of days. But I think ultimately with that opening sequence , it’s a little nod to Max’s heritage and that period going back to a generation that would have been Jewish immigrants from mostly Eastern Europe who at that time were kind of flowing to the lower East Side and making that their home.  What Paul and I were playing with is this idea that all these sorts of different shop owners and tradesmen were being kind of run out by a slumlord/landlord who is raising rent and forcing them which of course is what we ended up dealing with later in the movie with Ellen Barkin.  Every generation has their own problems and if we would listen to our grandparents we would find out that there a lot of the same problems, just different looks. And so we thought that it is a cool way to see all the tradesmen coming to the cobbler asking for help and sort of setting up the motif. And for me also it was a little nod to a time when being a tradesman was a really respected position in society, as it should be. I think is really wonderful when you have talented craftsmen and tradesmen and I hope we never lose track of that, we don’t become one big mall. It is good to go shopping and deal with one person who fixes your shoes or works on your clothes or does whatever that is they are doing.  It is a nice way to do business.


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Win Win

Posted on August 22, 2011 at 8:00 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, teen smoking, offscreen drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Offscreen violence, tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 25, 2011
Date Released to DVD: August 22, 2011 ASIN: B0057LOEGS

Writer-director Tom McCarthy gives us stories of the families we choose.  In “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor” the main characters were loners who found themselves unexpectedly drawn into caring for people who were very far outside their usual circles.  In this, McCarthy gives us a man who already has a loving, stable family and a best friend (“The Station Agent’s” Bobby Cannavale) and is under enormous stress trying to take care of everyone.  But he, too ends up meeting someone who at first seems a threat, then a burden, and then, somehow, family.

Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a lawyer with a solo practice that is not bringing in the money he needs for repairs at the office and at home.  Most of his clients are indigent but Leo, a man in the early stages of dementia (“Rocky’s” Burt Young), has a comfortable bank account.  In a guardianship proceeding, Mike impulsively has himself appointed as guardian so that he can get the fee.  Then he puts Leo in an assisted living facility, contrary to his assurances at the hearing that he would keep Leo in his own home.

Mike did not know that Leo had any relatives.  But a teenage grandson who has never seen Leo turns up.  His name is Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer).  He has dyed blonde hair and he smokes.  His mother, Leo’s daughter, is in rehab and he has come to stay with Leo.  Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) reluctantly take him in.  Mike coaches the high school wrestling team part-time.  Kyle turns out to be an exceptional wrestler.  He begins to work out with the team.

There is a wonderful decency, naturalism, and humanity to this story, thanks to a sensitive script and superb performances.  Ryan and Giamatti have the rhythms of a long-married couple, with a real sense of established teamwork, and appreciation.  Her “what is that?” expression and his “it’s okay and under control” gesture to her are eloquent in conveying their depth of trust and understanding.  The look on Mike’s face when he wishes Kyle luck in keeping his secrets reflects more than a decade of seeing her ability to get the truth out of anyone.  And yet Mike himself is keeping bigger and bigger secrets from Jackie.  He thought it would not hurt anyone.  But there really isn’t any such thing as win-win.  Someone always pays a price.




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Interview: Tom McCarthy and Alex Shaffer of ‘Win Win’

Posted on March 23, 2011 at 8:00 am

Copyright Searchlight 2011

Tom McCarthy has appeared as an actor in movies like “Duplicity” and “Baby Mama” but he is now better known for his writing and directing the acclaimed films “The Station Agent,” the Oscar-winning “Spotlight,” and “The Visitor.”  His film “Win Win,” stars newcomer Alex Shaffer as a teenage wrestling champ who ends up staying with a lawyer/coach played by Paul Giamatti when his grandfather, who is in the early stages of dementia, is placed by Giamatti’s character into a nursing home.  I spoke to both of them about wrestling, writing, what it feels like to be good at both, and doing whatever it takes.

I don’t know much about wrestling so I was surprised by how fast you moved.

TM: Especially the lighter weights.  They are really exciting. The lighter weights it’s just wicked to watch.  That match that I went to at your school – even the refs couldn’t keep up.

AS: Over 130 or 140 it’s more about strength.

One of the key moments in the film has Paul Giamatti’s character asking your character, Kyle, what it feels like to be that good at something.  Kyle says it feels like being in control.  Is that how it feels?

AS: For Kyle, for me it just feels good to be that good.  It’s a very comforting feeling.

TM: That would have been a good answer for Kyle, too.

What makes you feel that good?

TM: I like being immersed in work.  I like it when I’m in a sweet spot in the work.  When I’m writing I have a ritual or a regimen and I get really lost in it, get out of my own head and follow an idea, or a story, or a character.  I really like being in that space.

What was the beginning of the idea of this movie for you?

TM: I have this mental folder that I drop things into and when they feel like they’re of the same world I start to put together the movie.  It certainly was the wrestling at the beginning.  I called Joe , my co-writer, and said, “Have you ever seen a movie about high school wrestling?”  We started to joke about our own bad experiences and then talked about the good ones, the world in general, how unique a world it was, looking back on it 20 years later.

And the other idea was about where we are in society, the title, “Win Win,” like “Oh, you can have a mortgage and pay nothing and a car and put no money down” and we all believed it for a while.  Oh, that’s great, why wouldn’t you do that!  It will cost nothing!  The other idea that aligned with that thought was that we are polarized in society.  The bad bankers did bad things – but those people are our neighbors.  We ride the train, the bus with them.  They’re not bad people; they just made some bad choices.

So wrestling with that part of our human condition – we all have that aptitude, to so surprisingly and sometimes shockingly bad things in certain scenarios.  Mike is confronted with that and that I felt very interested in.  It’s not enough to say, “I have a family, I have a good job, I’m a good person.”  That is not an excuse or a guarantee.  That I found interesting.

Alex, you went from doing something that you knew very well and were very good at to something that was completely new to you, and you were surrounded by some of the most experienced and talented actors in movies.  What was that like for you?

AS: I wasn’t nervous because it was something I didn’t care about that much.  Sorry, Tom!  Halfways, no more like one-third of the way through, I began to think, “I really want to do good.  I like this guy, I don’t want to ruin the movie for him.”

TM: I think that’s a good way to go into it!  I think that’s a problem for a lot of actors who go into an audition wanting it so badly, they sabotage themselves because they’re so anxious.  I think when I stopped caring about acting quite so much, when I got more involved in writing and directing, either I’m right for it or not, I started getting more jobs.

How did you like being a blonde for the filming?

AS: I was a blonde before the filming.

TM: He came to us like that!

AS: It wasn’t my idea for the movie.  Our team before we wrestled Phillipsburg, not every year but when the team’s good, we want to psych them out, so that year the whole team bleached our hair blonde.

I thought it was very funny that Amy Ryan’s character Jackie called you Eminem.

TM: We got a studio note about that: “Emeneim, isn’t he a little bit past now?”  I don’t think Jackie’s cutting edge!   And besides, now he won the Grammy!

AS: He’s amazing!  He will never be gone!

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