I’m somewhat surprised to say that Charles Shyer’s Alfie (Paramount, 10.22), a remake of the 1966 Michael Caine original, is a sure hit, a likely Oscar contender and (did I forget to say this?) a very fine film — touching, truthful, emotionally supple. The Oscar part of the equation certainly includes a Best Actor nomination for Jude Law. His performance as a smoothly charming womanizer (a limousine driver in present-day Manhattan) is more shaded and varied than Caine’s, and gets deeper and more affecting as it moves along. Alfie has loads of big-studio gloss and panache, but it pays off inwardly with obvious skill and finesse. Coming from the director of the schmaltzy Baby Boom, Father of the Bride and I Love Trouble, Alfie feels like some kind of life-change movie. The old Shyer movies (which he co-wrote with former wife Nancy) were massage-y and conventional in their audience-pleasing ambitions. Alfie obviously intends to please also, but it does so in a much more measured and subtle fashion and without copping out with a feel-good ending (which Shyer was pressured to deliver by Paramount production executives). It’s one of the best confections of its kind I’ve ever seen. After the failure of Affair of the Necklace, Shyer knew it was do-or-die time…and he did. Hail to the script (by Shyer and Elaine Pope), photography (Ashley Rowe), editing (Padraic McKinley), production design (Sophie Becher) and original music (Mick Jagger, John Powell and David A. Stewart).
The column is supposed to be completed and up on Wednesdays and Friday mornings, and today (10.1) it’s not. Again. My work load has tripled since Hollywood Elsewhere launched in August, and I haven’t figured how to work faster or better. I’ve been trying to wash and dry some clothes this week, and it’s taken me three or four days so far — they’re still down in the laundry room. The column will be up around noon.
The satirical audacity of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, man…wow. Love their humor, irreverence, anti-Hollywood sentiments and general smart-assed coolness, etc. And I love those strings.
Those fishing-line marionette wires, I mean, in their new film Team America: World Police. Holding up the cast and doing the heavy emoting all through it, and nobody (least of all cinematographer Bill Pope) making the slightest effort to obscure the basic mechanics.
With any imaginable dreamscape fully creatable and ripe for CG-manifestation these days, there’s something at least moderately cool about a movie starring actor dolls held up by invisible hovering humans. It’s such a Being John Malkovich thing, and with such authority.
Last Monday afternoon (9.27) I saw a 20-minute reel from Team America: World Police (Paramount, 10.15)…the same thing that journos were shown during the Toronto Film Festival.
It looks…well, pretty good. Pope (Spider-Man 2, all three Matrix movies) has given this political-satirical puppet show a handsome, carefully rendered lighting scheme and shot it in widescreen (2.35 to 1).
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Of course, Matt-and-Trey movies are essentially internal affairs. They’re selling wit, attitude and politically incorrect goadings. The feature version of Team America, which I presume will start to be screened within a week or so, seems to have this in spades…although some of the more outrageous bits (as I’ve heard them described, at least) weren’t on the tape.
The plot involves a low-grade Jerry Bruckheimer-by-way-of-Barbara Broccoli team of square-jawed jerkwads called Team America trying to stop North Korean leader Kim Jong Il from selling weapons of mass destruction to Muslim fundamentalist terrorists.
There’s an affair of some intensity happening between a blonde commando-intelligence female and a dopily earnest action hero named Gary, a stage actor who’s brought into the team so he can infiltrate an Islamic terrorist cell so…you know, I don’t think anybody wants to read about a parody plot.
We’ve all digested the proposition that team America isn’t a leftie satire but some kind of neutral equal-opportunity offender. It nonetheless seems to have a penchant for leftie-celebrity bashing. It rags on Michael Moore, Sean Penn, Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn, etc., and alludes to their character by making them members of FAG — i.e., the Film Actors Guild.
“We diss on people like actors, who get on a soapbox and say, ‘Let me tell you how it works in Iraq,’ cause they don’t know fucking shit,” Stone told the New York Post‘s Megan Lehmann.
Of course they don’t. Sean Penn went to Iraq and he doesn’t know a thing. The lefties who’ve spoken out against the war are complete ignoramuses. Any liberal-leaning actor who reads up on current affairs and tries to make a political speech should be pulled off the podium and slapped around. They’re all a bunch of elitist, out-of-touch, Mercedes-driving weenies.
But then Matt and Trey are proclaimed Republicans, so what do you expect?
Here’s Parker with another observation from the Dennis Miller handbook: Team America “is about the main characters going through a journey of what it’s like to be an American, to be the only country that has to deal with stuff, but then gets bitched at for dealing with it.”
Yeah…guldurn it! Standing up like men and dealing with the threat of domestic terrorism by invading Iraq, the absolute mother of all terrorist-embracing Islamic ….well, not really.
“The whole idea of positioning our movie as this important cultural event that people are going to be mad about is just a joke — it’s a puppet movie,” Stone told Lehmann.
“Before there even was any political environment, we wanted to make a big Bruckheimer action movie with puppets,” Parker added. “The original idea was to make a big disaster film like Armageddon with puppets. Super funny, right?”
Oh, how I long for The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Oh, how I long for that long-gone, far-away realm in which bleak noir-type movies with fall-winter color schemes and hard-boiled criminal characters played by name actors used to turn up every so often.
Maybe I can help a little bit. It seems like every time I bitch about this or that great `70s movie not being on DVD, somebody at some DVD distribution company pulls the trigger two or three weeks later. So let’s see…
We all know the basics — directed by Peter Yates, based on the George V. Higgins novel, and starring Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Steven Keats, James Tolkan, et. al.
Eddie Coyle is one of the great all-time Boston movies. Every actor in this thing reeks of blue-collar or criminal-class attitude, and they all have that pale doughy-faced Irishman look that comes from too much cold weather and cruddy food and too many boilermakers. The bleak downbeat mood of this film combines with the grayish colors and general down-at-the-heels atmosphere to produce a kind of gloomy beauty that stays with you.
Mitchum’s performance as Coyle, an aging small-time criminal looking for a scheme to trade his way out of a long prison term, is one of his best ever. It’s part of the pantheon along with Out of the Past, Macao, The Locket and Night of the Hunter.
There are elements of light and darkness in Friday Night Lights (Universal, 10.8), the new football movie from director Peter Berg. But it’s the light that stays with you. The light of desire, glory and struggle combined with a plain but stirring look at the residents of an ordinary Texas middle-class town.
It’s got more of a moody, funky quality than the last great football movie, Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday, and it’s got a muddier look (grainy and worn and a bit brownish), but, like Stone’s film, this is a movie with a rock-solid value system that you can’t help but agree with and admire.
The theme of Any Given Sunday, as summed up a climactic locker-room speech by coach Tony D’Amato(Al Pacino), is “life is inches.” Every inch of yardage has to be fought for with your life, and it all adds up. It’s not easy, it can be a real bitch…but that’s what it takes to win.
The theme of Friday Night Lights, as summed up by coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) on the night of the Big Final Game, is “be perfect.” Football isn’t about the score board, but about being able to look in the mirror and into the faces of your friends and loved ones and say, “I gave everything I had…I held back nothing.”
This is a beautiful life philosophy, but tell that to the woman who was walking in front of me as everyone was leaving a screening at the Mann Chinese a week or two ago.
The ending of Fright Night Lights is in keeping with Billy Bob’s philosophy, but it doesn’t exactly conclude in a typical blaze-of-glory explosion. I guess the woman in front of me wanted that good old “we’re number one!” feeling at the finish, because she said very loudly to her date, “It sucks!”
Well, she sucks. She wanted what she wanted, but she didn’t get what the movie had to say….or refused to let it in. I hate people like this. “We have to win all the time….winners!…gold medal! …king of the hill!” Obnoxious creeps.
Be concentrated and resourceful and push yourself as hard as you can, and if you win the prize, great….but if you don’t, don’t quit, keep coming and have a cup of green tea every so often.
In other words, Berg and his co-screenwriter, David Aaron Cohen, aren’t peddling the same-old same-old. And yet they explore the eternal fundamentals that the playing of good football always tends to teach.
Based on H.G. Bissinger’s 1990 best-seller, Lights tells the true story of a triumphant 1988 season played by the Odessa Permian Panthers, a high-school team based in (you’ve already heard this, right?) Odessa, Texas.
The slightly grungy digital widescreen photography is by Tobias Schliessler. The oerfect-or-close-to-it editing is by David Rosenbloom and Colby Parker Jr.
Thornton is first-rate (when is ever not?), but he looks a bit fuller of body and face than usual, and I’m wondering if he went on a cheeseburger and fries diet so as to look more rural or something.
The football player performances — Lucas Black (the kid in Sling Blade), Derek Luke, Jay Hernandez, Garret Hedlund have the leads — feel non-actor-ish, which is one of the highest compliments there is, in my book.
Set of Steak Knives
“I need you to clear something up for me (and a lot of others out there I’m guessing.) How is the new Mike Nichols film Closer pronounced? Is it ‘closer’ as in getting more intimate or is it ‘clozer’ in the Glengarry Glen Ross that-guy-is-a-closer kind of way? I always assumed it was the intimate way but then I saw Natalie Portman on The Daily Show and she said it the second way.
“You’re the man with titles, and I’ve learned this the hard way (I lost a DVD to you over the whole I Heart Huckabees thing. Help us all out so we don’t sound stupid.” — Matthew Morettini
Wells to Morrettini: Nathalie Portman wasn’t supposed to let the cat out of the bag this early, but the real plot of Closer — it’s set in the take-no-prisoners world of London real estate, and was once referred to in Screen International as “son of Glengarry” — should tell you how to pronounce it. “Always be closing,” as the saying goes. No, seriously… it’s the emotional pronounciation. You probably mis-heard Portman.
“I saw Kevin Spacey’s Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea the other night. It wasn’t a final cut — it was shown at one of those test screenings — but looks pretty much done and it was…ecch.
“It didn’t know what it wanted to be — edgy biopic, sitcom, drama, musical…? Spacey tried to make it play avant-garde, but it covered the same old territory of other entertainer biopics, including a mundane sequence where the hippie-ish Bobby Darin goes to find himself, blah blah.
“It took some risks, but Spacey’s just too old to play Darin. I think Darin was 37 when he died and Spacey is… what, 45 or so? It was a little creepy when Spacey went in to kiss Kate Bosworth, who’s barely drinking age. I liked the musical numbers, but that’s my inner gay guy talking and he’s rather biased.” — Dezhda Mountz
Sideways and Youth
I think Laurence Price’s claim that no under-25s are going to enjoy Alexander Payne’s Sideways is a rash generalization, but I also acknowledge the truth of it.
“I’m 23, and when I rattle off names like Paul Giamatti or Thomas Haden Church to my friends they respond with blank stares. I may not have seen everything these actors have been in, but I know some of their films, and these lead to more blank looks. (Well, maybe for the exception of the god-awful Planet of the Apes remake with Giamatti or George of the Jungle with Church.)
“You can blame MTV for the trend if you want, but I would point to a more insidious influence over what my generation was raised to like: our parents. Thankfully mine raised me on To Kill a Mockingbird, Ben-Hur and the like. Sure there were some duds that I saw as a kid that I liked then but can’t stomach now, but overall I was blessed to learn what good cinema was, even if I didn’t fully appreciate it.
“And yet some of my friends can’t watch dramas without falling asleep and have only patience for Ben Stiller for the zillionth time in a year. (I like a few of his movies, but I wish he’d go away now). Their parents let the TV stay on throughout the day, never questioning if this practice was a good one (or did they and not admit it?).
“Also I blame the lack of book-reading among my peers. They were not encouraged to do so when they were younger, and few do with any regularity. I read more books than I watched TV as a kid. I’ll make damned sure my kids are raised the same way too.
“When I took a girl on a first date to Election back when I was 17, it was just a suggestion based on buzz I’d read on Ain’t It Cool, but I was thoroughly entertained. (Although my date wasn’t especially enthused.) I watched About Schmidt and enjoyed it, and I’m pretty sure I’m the only one in my age group that I know that would admit that.
“I was interested in Sideways from the time I heard Alexander Payne was involved, so put me down as one under-25 who will see it. Plus I’ll be dragging at least one other under-25 to it with me. And I’m betting I at least will enjoy it based on the talent. What more can I say?” — Daniel Revill
Nikke Finke reports in her latest L.A. Weekly column that CBS, NBC and ABC all refused Fahrenheit 9/11 DVD advertising during any news programming segments. The three networks “said explicitly they were reluctant because of the closeness of the release to the election.” Finke’s conclusion: “So here is Big Media doing yet another favor for Dubya.”
A Love Song for Bobby Long, which will close out the Hollywood Film Festival on 10.17, won’t be distributed by Screen Gems, which financed/produced, but Lions Gate Films, which recently acquired it. The 119-minute film was reportedly dubbed “Bobby Way Too Long” by critics after it showed at the Venice Film Festival. A relationship drama about the history between a daughter (Scarlett Johansson) and her recently-deceased mother (Debra Kara Unger), it will hit screens sometime in December. Directed and written by Shaine Gabel, it costars John Travolta as Unger’s alcoholic ex-lover.
Couldn’t agree more with Newsweek‘s “singled out” salute to I Heart Huckabees costar Mark Wahlberg (page 58, 10.4 issue) for his hyper-drive performance as a fireman answering the call of a four-alarm spiritual quest inside his own head. “Who knew Wahlberg could be so funny?,” the David Ansen item asks. “He’s an unhousebroken hoot.”
Two stand-out elements in Jake Brooks’ New York Observer piece about David O. Russell’s friendship with Columbia professor and Tibetan scholar Robert Thurman, “the primary inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character in the audacious and philosophically dense I Heart Huckabees (10.1). One, a decision by Brooks’ editor to put the film-title word “Heart” in brackets. (Hello…?) And two, this comment from Russell: “A monk once said, ‘If you’re not laughing, you’re not in on the joke.’ That’s why, to me, it’s not contradictory to have comedy together with these [mystical, meditative, what’s-it-all-about?] questions. Investigating what you are is an absurd proposition.”
“I played a part in a movie, wore cowboy duds and galloped down the road,” writes Bob Dylan in Newsweek‘s excerpt from his forthcoming autobiography, “Chronicles, Volume One” (Simon and Schuster). He’s talking about his performance as “Alias” in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (’73), for which there was “not much required” and about which “I was probably naive,” the poet-troubador writes. But here’s the real drill-bit excerpt, printed on the lower right side of page 56: “Sometime in the past I’d written and performed songs that were most original and most influential, and I didn’t know if I ever would again and I didn’t care.” Dylan said the same thing more profoundly in a song from Nashville Skyline: “Once I held mountains in the palm of my hand/and rivers that ran through every day/I must have been mad/I never what I had/until I threw it all away.”
MCN columnist David Poland’s recent take on the presumed potency of Mike Nichols’ potentially Oscar-worthy Closer (Columbia, 12.3) has been, I have to admit, one of his more astute calls. The fact that it’s said to play “a little cold” is an indication, he believes, that producers of other presumed Oscar-calibre films are a bit scared of it. “When people start lining up to smear a film this early, that film has some power,” he wrote earlier this week. “And that is why bad buzz can be a good sign.” My own view is that the Patrick Marber play it’s based upon is a little bit cold (i.e., it reads that way), but it’s also a devastating, well-cut diamond. The Godfather, Part II is a little bit cold also, but if Francis Coppola had warmed it up he would have totally screwed it up.
Will “security moms” be watching the first Presidential Debate on Thursday evening? Or have they pretty much made up their minds at this stage? The reason Bush is said to be leading in the polls right now is that these hinterland-residing, marginally educated swing voters (i.e., family women who are deeply concerned about domestic terrorism) believe Dubya will be studlier and more sheriff-y in preventing the next 9.11. But of course, if a perverse determination had been made by a sitting U.S. President to try and deliberately provoke another terrorist assault in the wake of the 9.11 attacks, it’s hard to imagine how this could have been done more effectively than by way of Bush’s Iraqi War policy. Is there any Middle East watcher anywhere who doesn’t believe that anti-American hatred levels over there are much higher now than they were before 9.11? And yet the security moms are inclined to re-elect Bush because he makes them feel safer. Got it. Couple this with the general tendency of swing voters to vote for a Presidential candidate based on “Dating Game” standards (does he seem like a nice guy? would you want to have a beer with him?), and all I want to do is go out and have a few beers myself. Make that several.
Correction on that earlier item about the authors of the new Rob Reiner-authorized script of Rumor Has it, the currently rolling not-really-a-Graduate sequel with Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Costner, Mark Ruffalo and Shirley Maclaine. The revisions on a recent draft are credited to Reiner, Andy Scheinman and Adam Scheinman. (I wrote earlier that actor Andy Scheinman was “apparently” a co-writer.) Valerie Breiman is also credited as a co-writer.
An extra-deluxe DVD package containing the 251-minute extended version DVD of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, due 12.14, will be sold with “a special set of specially-tanned leather restraining straps, two pairs of Clockwork Orange-style eyelid inhibitors, and a large bottle of generic eye drops,” according to an alleged copy of a forthcoming New Line Home Entertainment press release. The non-extra-deluxe package will have a suggested retail price of about $40.
Peter Chelsom’s Shall We Dance? (Miramax, 10.15) is not a Richard Gere-Jennifer Lopez romance-on-a-dance-floor movie. It’s a Chelsom-esque ensemble piece a la Hear My Song. It’s Gere, Stanley Tucci, Lisa Ann Walter, The Station Agent‘s Bobby Cannavale, Anita Gillette, Richard Jenkins…they’re all in it together. Lopez plays an intriguing but essentially support-level character for the first hour…no character deepening, no romantic intrigues with Gere, nothing. Then she and Gere start paying attention to each other at the start of the second hour…but they don’t become the movie. (Was her screen time reduced, as it was in Jersey Girl, when Miramax realized that her Bennifer-generated negatives were going through the roof?) Gere’s performance as an estate lawyer nursing a secret passion for after-dark ballroom dancing is assured and charismatic, and he gives off genuine dignity and delight when he dances — you can see it really turns him on. Tucci is a total live wire as Gere’s fellow office worker who’s also a nocturnal ballroomer. He’s so good you wish he had more scenes. (He did, actually, but they had to be sacrificed.) Pic was shot in Winnipeg, and Manitoba-native Len Cariou played Richard Gere’s boss, but his entire role ended up on the cutting room floor….too bad.