Bill Siegel, producer of the Emmy-winning documentary “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” has died at the age of 55.
“Bill was an erudite, passionate and intelligent activist and independent thinker as well as being a gifted filmmaker and cherished friend,” read a statement from Kartemquin Films, which announced his death on Tuesday.
“He has been a valued member of the Kartemquin community since he first worked as a researcher on ‘Hoop Dreams.’ We will miss him greatly,” the statement added.
Siegel’s career in documentaries spans more than 20 years and was highlighted by “Trials of Muhammad Ali,” which premiered at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival and aired on PBS’ “Independent Lens.” The series followed the late boxer’s struggles outside the ring as he converted to Islam, changed his name and fought to overturn the prison sentence he received for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War.
Siegel also received an Oscar nomination as a producer on the 2003 documentary “The Weather Underground,” a film that explored the history of The Weathermen, a left-wing terrorist organization that planned multiple bombings through the 1970s.
Prior to his death, Siegel was working on a new documentary that traced the history of the United States Information Agency and the creation of the U.S. government’s internationally broadcast radio station Voice of America, which is regarded by some as a form of propaganda. Siegel is succeeded by his former wife, Lauren, and his children, Johanna and Louis.
It doesn’t seem right that South Korea has never been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but director Lee Chang-dong and actor Steven Yeun are not the types to raise a fuss about it. “I’m not sure how interested Academy members are in Korean film at this point, but I also think it isn’t too far out of their view,” Lee said mildly, despite the fact that his slowly simmering drama “Burning” is trying to end that streak of futility. “With everything, the most difficult part is opening the first door.”
Yeun, who’s watched his country of birth get shut out from the vantage point of the U.S., where he’s lived since the age of 4, added, “I don’t know why Korea hasn’t been nominated. I don’t know if it’s timing or overthinking. I know that Korea sometimes would submit the film that isn’t gonna get nominated over the one that probably had the best shot of being nominated — namely, every Lee Chang-dong film that’s ever been made, in my opinion.” Lee did represent the country twice before, with “Oasis” in 2002 and “Secret Sunshine” in 2007, but he’s only one of a large crop of acclaimed South Korean directors who’ve been ignored by the Academy. (This seems to be part of a curious institutional disregard for Asian cinema.)
But “Burning” comes to the race riding plenty of acclaim. While the film was shut out by this year’s Cannes Film Festival jury, which gave the top prize to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters,” it was not only the best reviewed movie at this year’s festival, scoring a 3.8 average (out of a possible 4.0) in Screen Daily’s critics’ poll, it was the best reviewed movie in the history of Cannes — or, at least, the 21-year history of the poll, where its score beat the previous champ, Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann.” (That one didn’t win anything from the jury, either.)
A very loose adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning,” the film is a character study that turns into a love triangle that turns into a tense mystery; it’s a measured and placid film until, very suddenly, it isn’t.
Ah-in Yoo plays Jongsu, a shy aspiring writer from a rural town who becomes besotted with Haemi (Jeon Jong Seo), a free-spirited but mysterious young woman he knew as a child. But Haemi takes a trip to Africa and comes back with Ben (Yeun), a casually cocky city dweller with a perfect look, a perfect Porsche, a perfect apartment and, Ben confesses one night, a habit of occasionally burning down greenhouses for the thrill of it.
But is he telling the truth? In the story and the movie, the audience doesn’t know if Ben burns down the occasional greenhouse or if he only talks about it–or if he actually does something much worse.
“I was very interested in that small piece of mystery in the story,” said Lee through an interpreter. “I thought I could expand that small mystery into a larger sense of mystery about the world we live in and the lives we lead.”
The film is lyrical and languid but also increasingly tense and puzzling, with moments–notably a topless sunset dance to Miles Davis by Hae-mi — that TheWrap’s Ben Croll called “the most accomplished displays of cinematic poetry since…’The Tree of Life.’” But at its heart, the director insisted, is darkness and anger. “I wanted to do a project on rage,” he said. “These days, not just in Korea but all over the world, people seem enraged for one reason or another, regardless of nationality, religion or class.”
Yeun felt that way, too — and in the past, he’d turned to the work of director Lee to help him understand it. “I saw [1999’s] ‘Peppermint Candy,’ and it explained the inexplicable rage you feel as a Korean man that you can’t explain to yourself,” he said. “Especially as an emigrant with no context for why you would feel that way. My home life was great. Why was I feeling this angst and rage? And I realized it’s just inherited trauma from generations. I was able to contextualize it through that film.”
But the actor found that the character of Ben spoke to him for different reasons as well. “I think all three of these characters explore loneliness in their own ways, and I know that feeling,” he said. “I know what it means to be cosmopolitan, because I’ve been able to traverse through these two cultures. And the thing that you realize is that neither side wants to accept you fully, for whatever reason. You can be angry and go to war against that, or you can accept that that’s actually life. We are people with no country. We’re all alone, but we’re all together because we’re all alone. That was something that I identified with about Ben that was interesting.”
Yeun came to “Burning” almost a decade after hitting it big as former pizza delivery boy Glenn Rhee on six seasons of “The Walking Dead.” After being killed in the opening episode of Season 7 in 2016, he worked with Korean director Bong Joon-ho on the 2017 Cannes entry “Okja,” which directly led to his new film.
“I was in London, sleepless at 3 a.m., not knowing what to do, and all of a sudden I got a phone call from director Bong,” he said. “He was like, ‘You gotta call me right back — director Lee Chang-dong wants to talk to you.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ Apparently, director Lee had been made aware of this interview I did in Korea for ‘Okja,’ where they asked me who I wanted to work with and I said Lee Chang-dong. I didn’t ever think anything would happen, but then I got the phone call, and then I got the script, and now here I am talking about the film we made. It’s really insane.”
Making his first movie in the Korean language was trickier than Yeun anticipated, even though he’d spoken it at home growing up. But the defining aspect of his character was not his impeccable style of speaking — it was his air of mystery, his ability to simultaneously come across as a cultured young man and a potentially cold-blooded killer.
“Steven and I talked a lot about this character, but we never really came to a conclusion on whether Ben is actually a serial killer or if he’s just a nice, young, rich man,” said Lee. “For this movie, we really had to maintain the ambiguity of this character until the very end. So after each scene we talked about all the details in order to maintain that ambiguity. But for an actor, ambiguity isn’t enough for them to act. For every detail they need inner emotional motivation.”
So Lee told Yeun to work out for himself whether Ben was harmless, or an occasional pyromaniac — or, as Jongsu begins to suspect after Haemi disappears, whether his talk of burning down greenhouses is simply a metaphor for something darker and deadlier. “As an actor, I think it helps to know the truth of that,” he said. “And that’s the grace that director Lee gave me. He said, ‘You’re the only one that will know, and you’ve got to make that choice for yourself.’ And nobody knows but me.”
Jongsu’s slowly simmering resentment and anger toward Ben gradually builds toward a shocking, sudden climax — but just as Lee wants viewers to question the nature of the storytelling, he wants them to also wonder whether they can trust what they see on screen.
“I wanted the audience to feel as if they’re actually there, but at the same time look at it from an outsider’s perspective,” he said. “That scene may not be part of reality. In the movie, as soon as Jongsu starts writing his novel, you see the perspectives change. So the last scene might just be a scene from the novel he’s writing.”
As for Yeun, he’s not about to reveal what he thinks really happens. And he’s not about to attribute his roles in this film and in Okjato a master plan to work with Korean masters on the heels of his “Walking Dead” exit. “When I got the opportunity to work with director Bong and director Lee, it wasn’t me going, ‘I want to try a Korean film,’” he said. “It was more like, these two auteurs are willing to give me a shot. I’ll go anywhere to get that shot.
“I don’t have an objective,” he added. “I’m just trying to go with it, whatever it is. But I will say that I think the industry and America still perceive me through the lens of ‘The Walking Dead,’ because it’s such a powerful force. And I’m ready and willing to continue to make strides for people to see me differently.”
And if one of those strides puts him in the first Korean film to land an Oscar nomination? “It would be cool,” he said with a small grin. “I really would love for the Western world to get a real good download of director Lee and his work. Because he’s been telling it like it is for a while.”
You can read the rest of the Foreign Language issue of TheWrap magazine here.
South Korea has never received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film and never even been shortlisted in the category, despite 29 previous entries and an abundance of world-class filmmakers. The country, which is in the race this year with Lee Chang-dong’s acclaimed “Burning,” is one of the more striking examples of a country whose filmmakers have been unable to land an Oscar nomination despite sustained critical praise.
But it is far from the only country in that boat. And the further east you go, the more the Academy’s foreign-language voters seem to have difficulty with foreign cinema.
Over the last 20 years, more than half the nominations that have gone to countries in Asia have been for Middle Eastern countries like Iran, Israel and Palestine. If you focus on East Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia, the picture is sobering: Two nominations and one win for Japan, one nomination each for Cambodia, China, India, Nepal and Taiwan and nothing for Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Laos, Mongolia, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.
The grim total: 20 years, 17 countries, 228 submissions and just seven nominations, during a period when Europe had 59 nominations and North America, a continent with only two eligible countries in Canada and Mexico, had nine.
The list of esteemed international auteurs who’ve been bypassed by Oscar voters in that time includes South Korea’s Kim Ki-duk (“Pieta”) and Bong Joon-ho (“Mother”), Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Nobody Knows”), Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien (“The Assassin and Flowers of Shanghai”), Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai (“The Grandmaster”, which was shortlisted but not nominated) and Johnnie To (“Life Without Principle”), China’s Chen Kaige (“Caught in the Web”) and Zhang Yimou (“The Flowers of War”) and Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul (“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”).
You might be able to blame part of this on the curious submissions made by Asian countries, which often seem to play politics or try to second-guess Oscar voters in their choices. And Asian representation in the Academy itself has been woefully small over the years, with an estimated 250 members in 2016, augmented by a substantial number who’ve been invited to join since then. Even so, the 8,000 current members likely include fewer than 500 Asian Oscar voters.
And there’s more to it than that. “European films are just a lot more comfortable for the voters,” said one Academy member who has attended many of the members’ screenings. “Unless it’s something like ‘The Grandmaster’ or ‘Departures’ [a 2008 Japanese film which gave that country its only win], voters just never seem to connect to Asian cinema.”
As voting nears its conclusion in this year’s race, though, two films seem to have a strong shot of landing on the shortlist and being nominated: “Shoplifters,” Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winner from this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and “Burning,” which didn’t win any awards from the Cannes jury but set a new record as the best-reviewed film in the history of Screen Daily’s Cannes critics poll.
The foreign-language shortlist, which will consist of nine films, will be announced on Monday, Dec. 17.
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What’s more, it was even reported that star Ben Affleck had at one point left the project, but he’s here in the first look for the film (though sadly his back tattoo is absent from the teaser).
Affleck stars with Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garret Hedlund and Pedro Pascal in a story of a group of former Special Forces operatives who reunite to plan a heist of a drug lord’s stash of money in South America, but do so for themselves rather than on behalf of their country.
“You guys need to own the fact that we do not have the flag on our shoulders,” Affleck says in the film. “You cannot go back to your normal life after tonight.”
Directed by J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call,” “All Is Lost,” “A Most Violent Year”) and written by Mark Boal (“The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) the film plays on some of the economic hardships and income inequality experienced by some of America’s veterans.
“You’ve been shot five times for your country, you can’t even afford to send your kids to college,” Isaac’s character says in the trailer. “If we accomplished half of what we accomplished in any other profession, we’d be set for life.”
“Triple Frontier” debuts on Netflix and in select theaters in March 2019. Watch the first trailer, which debuted during NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” above.
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With the Motion Picture Academy scrambling for a new host of the Oscars’ February telecast, Philadelphia Flyers fans on Twitter are asking, why not Gritty?
Less than 48 hours after accepting the Oscars hosting gig, Kevin Hart dropped out after old homophobic tweets from him surfaced on the internet. That put the Academy in quite a pickle.
Since Gritty’s debut earlier this year, the new mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers has been embraced as an internet meme and American treasure despite — or perhaps because of — his googly eyes and creepy, hairy appearance. Even as the Flyers languish near the bottom of the NHL Eastern Conference standings, Gritty has made this season a memorable one for fans with his antics, including dumping a boy who wanted to fight him on the ice into the penalty box.
Gritty hosting the Oscars would just be Gritty trashing the stage with a sledgehammer and throwing all the envelopes with the winners into the air and then running away with all the statues and I am HERE FOR IT
And with ratings for the Academy Awards dropping and reports that there are very few Hollywood stars interested in hosting, Philly sees an opportunity to make Oscar night a little less gold and a little more orange.
It’s hard to imagine who would want to jump in and take this often thankless job. Many film critics and Oscars fans online have thrown out suggestions, bur here are some of the tweets in support of Gritty.
people who should host the oscars: -d’arcy carden and ted danson -the dog from widows -the entire cast of ocean’s 8, trading off thru the night -gritty -the ghost of carrie fisher -my mom -sandra oh and andy samburg -the fab 5 but ONLY if antoni is wearing a little life t-shirt
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