News Column

The Philadelphia Inquirer On Movies column

September 1, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 01--In Closed Circuit, Rebecca Hall goes down a rabbit hole: secret courts, clandestine government agencies, surveillance, spying. The British thriller, in which she and Eric Bana are on the case of a suspected terrorist charged in a London bombing, is one of those ripped-from-the-headines affairs.

"At the time, I thought it was on-point and topical, but it seems to be getting more so every day," says Hall, who plays a special advocate appointed to a closed courtroom trial, there to weigh the interests of the accused against those of the state.

"We were addressing something which was controversial in itself, and needed to have more of a public discussion in England, which is the notion of closed court proceedings," says Hall.

"It contravenes a lot of basic human-rights laws and is antithetical to the notion of a fair trial, because we're talking about cases where the defendant has no sense of what the evidence is against him . . . which is shocking, if one really thinks about what the British justice system is predicated on. But also necessary, perhaps.

". . . That's the debate we're all having now, which is essentially the tension between civil liberties and national security, and how much the two bash up against each other."

Closed Circuit, which opened Wednesday, also stars Jim Broadbent, Ciaran Hinds, and Julia Stiles. Its title works as a reference to the security cameras omnipresent in London's streets and buildings, and to the secret trials. In researching her role, Hall met with special advocates and barristers involved in controversial cases.

"One of the things I found genuinely interesting was how many of them are actually against the thing that they do," she notes. "But there was the idea of, 'If it's going to happen, I'd rather it was me doing it, so at least I can try and give whoever goes up on trial a fair go.' "

Last year, Hall went straight from shooting Closed Circuit to Iron Man 3 (she's Maya Hansen, the scientist in league with Guy Pearce's lab-coated villain) to Patrice Leconte's A Promise, with Alan Rickman and Richard Madden. The "very European" A Promise will screen at the Toronto International Film Festival next week. She just finished work on Transcendence, a mysterious sci-fi suspenser involving artificial intelligence, with Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman. It's slated for spring.

And in December, the Vicky of Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona will take the Broadway stage in a revival of Sophie Treadwell's 1928 drama Machinal.

"It's a still very arresting piece of drama," she says. "It has hardly ever been performed, and, to some extent, has been written out of history . . . . It's about a woman who is oppressed by everything around her . . . and who gradually loses her mind, basically. Really jolly."

Fake blood, real emotions. A few days before Brie Larson began work on Short Term 12, about a supervisor in a home for at-risk teens, the actress dined with the guy playing her boyfriend and coworker, John Gallagher Jr.

The two had never met, and it was crucial to the film -- shooting in just 20 days on a proverbial shoestring -- that they project a sense of familiarity and intimacy.

"John was leaving to meet me at the restaurant," Larson recalls, "and there was an envelope on his doorstep addressed to both of us, along with a note that said, 'Do not open until you're at dinner.' "

The envelope was from Destin Daniel Cretton, the film's writer/director.

"We opened it at the table, and inside was a note from Destin as well as another small envelope that had conversation starters. Most of them, I found out much later, were questions that came up for Destin when he was in his 20s and was working at a Short Term 12-like facility. And then some of them were specific to our characters, Grace and Mason. By the end of this dinner, we had figured out a lot."

Winner of both the grand jury and audience awards at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Short Term 12 -- which opened Friday at the Ritz Five -- is a showcase for Larson, who has been acting professionally since she was 8; she is 24 now. She has supporting roles in two other new releases, The Spectacular Now (she's the "perfect" girlfriend who dumps the lead, played by Miles Teller) and in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's soon-coming Don Jon (she's the can't-stop-texting younger sister).

But Larson carries Short Term 12. Her Grace has to manage teens who are victims of incest and sexual abuse, who have drug dependencies and arrest sheets -- and at the same time, she has her own issues, her own crises. In one harrowing scene, there's an attempted suicide, a kid on the floor, shards of glass and blood.

"The difficult part for me isn't getting into a scene, it's getting out of it," Larson says on the phone from Los Angeles. "Decompressing at the end of the day was very important to me, and the only scene that I really had to focus on my decompressing, more than other days, was that scene, when [someone] tries to hurt himself . . . . I have a very difficult time, personally, with blood, and even though my brain could rationalize that what we were doing was not real, that red fake blood just set me off.

"I just was in a daze as I drove home," she says, laughing. "But it was nothing that a plate of cheesy pasta couldn't fix."

Swanberg of "Drinking Buddies" on men, women, beer. "Narcissism. Can men and women be friends? What constitutes cheating?" Those were a few of the things on Joe Swanberg's mind when he set out to make Drinking Buddies. He also wanted to celebrate a passion: beer. Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson's characters work at a Chicago brewery (the real Revolution Brewing). Other breweries get a plug here and there, via a T-shirt, a cap.

"Craft beer is at its trendy tipping point right now," says Swanberg, in town recently and finding a Yards Jefferson Tavern Ale to his liking at a lunch interview. "And I know what that feels like -- to love something and then see it get popular and feel a little ownership over it."

Wilde and Johnson play colleagues and pals. Each has a significant other (Ron Livingston, Anna Kendrick), but in the film -- which opened Friday at the Ritz Bourse -- the lines between friendship, flirtation, and an all-out affair get blurry indeed.

"It's depressing to me to think that 50 percent of the population is shut off to me, as potential friendships," Swanberg says. "And anybody who feels that way -- that men and women can't be friends -- it's just a bad attitude to approach the world with.

"But it's also complicated. It is inherently a different kind of friendship than a friendship with a guy. I've found in my own experience it's much more intimate, the things that are mutual grounds to have conversations about are more emotion-based, which opens the door for intimacy in a different way."

Swanberg, a prolific indie director who can cite Phillip Roth, Mike Nichols, sports culture, the poet Tony Hoagland, and the genius of the first 20 minutes of Ishtar practically in the same breath, goes on: "I value my relationship with my wife, and I value the specialness of it. And it's tough to feel like I may possibly be taking away from that by sharing things with another woman outside of that relationship . . . . My feeling is, the only way to do it is either for there not to be sexual attraction, or if there is, to acknowledge it, really stare it in the face, and get over it. Which is also tricky."

In Drinking Buddies, Swanberg paints that picture.

"You know, what is it like to walk right up to the line? But I feel like at the end, hopefully, I've given this sense that they can get over it. They've gotten close enough to see what their relationship might look like, and that they actually value the friendship more than they value the possibility of a relationship."

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629, srea@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Steven_Rea. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.inquirer.com/onmovies

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