Paddy Considine‘s Tyrannosaur led the winners at the just-concluded Moet British Independent Film Award ceremony, taking trophies for Best Film, Best Debut Director (i.e., Considine) and — this wams my heart — Best Actress for HE’s own Olivia Colman. Wells to indifferent American moviegoers who couldn’t be bothered to see Tyrannosaur during its brief theatrical exposure: how do you feel now?
Screenwriter and film critic F.X. Feeney has written an eloquent but unusually blunt piece about the late George Hickenlooper, with whom Feeney collaborated on The Big Brass Ring, a political drama starring William Hurt. The article, in the L.A. Review of Books, appears 13 months after Hickenlooper’s death in Denver on 10.30.10.
George Hickenlooper (r.) and Kevin Spacey (l.) during filming of Casino Jack.
Whenever a collaborator of a deceased filmmaker writes a recollection piece about him/her, the tone is always admiring and warmly affectionate, and often swoony. This is not one of those, and yet Feeney is clear about the fact that he liked and admired Hickenlooper…after a fashion.
“In a world disordered by attention deficits in most people, George was (to steal a joke from Susan Sontag) afflicted with Attention Surplus Disorder,” Feeney writes. “When you had his attention, you had his whole attention.
“On the other hand when he was off and running toward some goal in which you didn’t figure, or (far more painfully) from which he’d decided to cut you loose without your consent, Good Luck. His whole attention was Elsewhere, and if you tried to pin him to some earlier agreement, you risked a solemn explosion: ‘You can’t hold me to that!!’ No explanation offered, ever, but the implication was clear. Who drives, decides: Hello, 911? Make that two stretchers.
“George and I were frank with each other. We had to be, to function. Everything I’m saying about him here I’ve either said to his face or knew it was taken for granted. Had chance gone the other way, and were he weaving memories of me into a character in his next film — for that would have been his method of bidding me good-bye — I’m confident he would have created just as loving and ambivalent a puzzle over my own odd dividedness as I’m posing here over his.
“Although he despised violence, George reveled in turbulence. Despite one very bad moment in late spring, when it came time to shoot Big Brass in the summer of 1998, he provided a chair for me next to his on the set and involved me in all of the day-to-day storytelling decisions, even delegating me to discuss options in depth with the actors. In the annals of writer-director relations, this was uniquely generous.
“And yet — typically — he was also using me diabolically as a ready fall guy if the need arose. On day three of the shoot, he asked me to represent him at a hastily arranged meeting between the producers and our cinematographer, Kramer Morgenthau. There was a fear we were falling behind schedule. I thought my purpose was simply to show up, listen in on the discussion, and report to George what was said. This was na√Øve.
“It was quickly apparent from the physical circle we formed that (whatever our intention) we were in effect ganging up on Kramer, which was absurd and unfair. George had cleverly seen to it that the many fingers of blame for the falling-behind-schedule were pointing everywhere but at himself. This was high gamesmanship. Even as I stood there feeling like a stooge and a fool, I had to admire his mastery of these politics — but our jeopardized schedule was a question of directorial dynamics and in fairness to our superb cameraman, it was George’s problem to solve.
“When I said as much to George, he blew up: ‘I feel completely betrayed by that remark!’
“‘You can’t be ‘betrayed’ by a ‘remark,’ George. Not when I’m the one making it, to your face.’
“‘Then I feel betrayed by you!!!’
“‘I’m not betraying you George, I’m opposing you. There’s a difference.’
“He looked startled. I thought I was in for another blast but he softened, and laughed. ‘That’s a great line! Can we use that?’
“‘We can try.’ I was cackling with relief. Argument over! But George was in earnest about the line: ‘We have to use that!” The man was all about use. He had a mischievous spirit, and opportunity was his copilot. What made George so particularly magnetic and productive were precisely the contradictions that could drive you so crazy at intimate range. It’s never ‘speaking ill of the dead’ to show how a raw thirst for power shapes the soul of a person who is basically putting so many other people to work.”
N.Y. Post film critic Lou Lumenick has read David Denby‘s controversial early review of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which Sony’s Andre Caraco is hugely pissed about because it’s appearing eight days before the embargo date) and has offered a summary:
“As for Denby’s review, which apparently won’t go up online until tomorrow morning, I’d characterize it as positive to mixed, though he begins with a pull quote that Sony’s marketing department and awards spin doctors will find useful: ‘You can’t take your eyes off Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander…’
“He concludes by stopping short of a money notice: ‘This is a bleak but mesmerizing piece of filmmaking; it offers a glancing, chilled view of a world in which brief moments of loyalty flicker between repeated acts of betrayal.’
“Denby has problems with the source novel: ‘At heart, of course, the material is pulpy and sensational…There are certainly lurid moments, but I wouldn’t say that Fincher exploits the material.'”
Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy has posted what appears to be the first formal review from a NY-LA veteran of Jason Reitman‘s Young Adult (Paramount, 12.9 limited, 12.16 wide) as compared to those drive-by riffs (including my own) posted after that New Beverly early-bird screening on 11.1.
“A tart, abrasive character study of a seriously messed up writer who pens a twisted new episode to her own life, the pungent Young Adult feels like a chapter in what by rights should be a longer film or novel” McCarthy begins. “As if deliberately setting out to make something less warm and friendly than his genial first three features, Jason Reitman reunites here with his Juno cohort Diablo Cody on a smartly observed, well acted but narrowly conceived story about a deluded author of teen novels who plots to win back her high school boyfriend, who’s now a happily married dad.
“Deftly done in every respect, this Paramount release, which oddly bypassed the fall festival circuit, is much closer in feel to an indie-style film than to a major studio production, making it a curious choice for a Christmas launch.
“Directed with acute insight by Reitman with heightened attention to the way people behave when they’re alone, Young Adult is good as far as it goes, but it feels more like a snapshot that a full canvas, a weekend jaunt rather than a real journey.
I had four significant comments: (a) “[It’s] very ballsy, very well written, very brazen and uncompromising — a leap forward for Reitman and Cody both”; (b) “Patton Oswalt, portraying a blunt-spoken, half-crippled fat guy who befriends Charlize Theron’s neurotic writer character, is now a Best Supporting Actor contender…definitely:; (c) “A kind of Jason Voorhees horror film about a raging blind woman, about egotism, myopia and the absolute mania of the self, it’s darkly funny during the first two-thirds to 75%, and sometimes hilarious”; (d) “”As I thought about it [later] I began to realize it’s more than just a character study or a black comedy, but a cautionary tale about a kind of egoistic Kardashian-like malignancy afoot in the culture right now.”
I knew there was something, no offense, that I didn’t like about Robert Downey, Jr. And it wasn’t just those franchise films he’s been making since ’08 (Iron Man, Sherlock Holmes, Avengers) and those would-be tentpolers (like that Perry Mason project) he’s developing. I hate the Holmes brand and that whole corporate steampunk CG bandwagon asthetic, but people with no taste feel otherwise so what can I do?
In any event Downey has appeared in a pair of subversive comedies within the last three years, Tropic Thunder and Due Date, so it’s not like he’s entirely abandoned the indie-ish attitude and acting career he had as the costar of Zodiac, Good Night and Good Luck, Two Girls and a Guy, A Scanner Darkly and Natural Born Killers . He’s getting there, but he hasn’t gone full-sellout.
What bothers me is the vibe Downey has been putting out since the first Sherlock Holmes flick — the vibe of a slick salesman, a marketer, a corporate guy. Which fits in with those reports that he’s become a Republican. With all those Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows posters all over the place and memories still vivid of that feeling of being poisoned as I watched the first Holmes film, I started to wonder just who Downey is these days, deep down, and whether the corporate franchise thing is a phase or a keeper or what.
The basic story, as everyone knows, is that Downey went through a gradual metamorphosis after his long drug-abuse period (’96 to ’01) that had included arrests, prison, rehab and several relapses.
His big switchover to franchise movies has been more or less orchestrated by his producer-wife of six years, Susan Levin, an exec vp production at Silver Pictures (i.e., Joel Silver‘s long-established production company on the Warner Bros. lot). In November 2009 he told Esquire‘s Scott Raab that he credits Susan with helping him kick substance abuse for good. “There’s no understanding for me of the bigger picture in real time in a hands-on way without her,” he said. “Because it was the perfect, perfect, perfect matching of personalities and gifts.” Robert and Susan are reportedly expecting their first child in February 2012.
In 2009 Downey conveyed his politically rightward drift to N.Y. Times reporter David Carr. “I have a really interesting political point of view, and it’s not always something I say too loud at dinner tables here, but you can’t go from a $2,000-a-night suite at La Mirage to a penitentiary and really understand it and come out a liberal. You can’t. I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone else, but it was very, very, very educational for me and has informed my proclivities and politics ever since.”
So yesterday I talked to a guy who knew Downey way back when. I asked if Downey is a totally converted Republican these days, right down to the bone marrow, or is he just playing the part and making spirit-numbing CG flicks because he wants to get rich? Here’s part of what he said:
“Downey has always been for sale,” he says. “It’s just that nobody was buying before. Right now I don’t think he has any sense of value outside of the products he’s creating and selling. He’s become a merchandiser and a marketer rather than an actor. There were no high bidders before. That’s why he did whatever was there.
“And then in ’03 he meets Susan Levin, who works for Joel Silver, and she says if you want to make money, you have to clean up and stay straight, which he needed to do, and I’ll get you into Joel Silver’s world. And Downey took the deal. He knows who Silver is and what those Sherlock Holmes films are about, and he decided to take that deal when he married Levin and let her steer him into projects.”
This is a second-hand story but this guy says that sometime after The Soloist tanked, Susan Downey was overheard saying “that’s the last art film I let Robert do.”
“His values are pure Republican values.” the guy says. “He’s a serious materialist. He loves the great clothes, the beautiful house, the cool cars. He’s a ‘protect the rich’ guy. Why should the rich have to pay for this or that? The people who have it should keep it, and the people who don’t have it shouldn’t complain. And the one he looks up to the most and has been his philosophical guide is Mel Gibson. The Gibson thing is key. Mel Gibson over the years, and who he is and that way of looking at the world.”
As Roger Friedman reported in 2003, Downey was able to return to movies only after Gibson, who’d been a close friend to Downey since they starred together in Air America (’90), paid Downey’s insurance bond for his appearance in The Singing Detective (’03).
“Downey has looked up to Gibson as an older brother and authority figure and mentor for a long time…Mel said this, Mel said that…all through the ’90s and the aughts,” the guy says. “They shared [the late] Ed Limato as an agent. I ask you, how can you be that close to Mel Gibson for 20 years and not share some of his values? Of all the people Downey was close to Mel was by far the most politically inclined and vocal…he was a kind of guru.
“So they’ve been close all through the last 20 years despite Air America having been a failure, both commercially and critically. Usually people sort of run away from people with whom they’ve made a bomb with, but not here.
“Downey is in the factory business now, the manufacturing business. It’s a different business than being an actor. He’s in the cartoon business. He’s being successful in cartoons. And the way it works is, you keep doing those movies until people get sick of you and those movies are not available anymore. Bruce Willis did these movies in the ’90s until it ran out for him. He kept doing them when he could do them. This is what Downey is doing now. As long as there are offers, and the calendar has slots to fill, you just say ‘what is the deal?’ and ‘what are the dates?'”
Sony’s exec vp publicity Andre Caraco has issued a letter to critics that admonishes New Yorker critic David Denby (and by extension his editors) for ignoring Sony’s strict review embargo policy concerning David Fincher‘s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo — i.e., no reviews before 12.13. Denby’s review, says Caraco, will appear tomorrow morning, on 12.5, which Caraco calls “completely unacceptable.”
The thrust of Caraco’s letter is a warning to critics that Denby’s “violation” in no way constitutes a green light for everyone to break ranks and post their own reviews tomorrow morning, or before 12.13. The cat is not out of the bag, security is still being maintained, etc.
Caraco states that “we have been speaking directly with The New Yorker about this matter and expect to take measures to ensure this kind of violation does not occur again.” What does that mean? A Sony blacklisting of Denby?
If there are no further violations Denby’s review, be it positive or negative or mezzo-mezzo, will set the tone of the conversation about Fincher’s film for the next week.
Dragon Tattoo was screened last Monday for the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review and to a select group of Los Angeles-based Fincher fanboys. It was then shown to a small group of critics and columnists (including myself) last Friday morning at Sony’s L.A. lot.
“By allowing critics to see films early, at different times, embargo dates level the playing field and enable reviews to run within the films’ primary release window, when audiences are most interested,” Caraco states. “As a matter of principle, the New Yorker‘s breach violates a trust and undermines a system designed to help journalists do their job and serve their readers.”
This is a curious event in that Denby and fellow New Yorker critic Anthony Lane are almost always bringing up the rear, review-wise. As far as I’m aware the New Yorker refuses to publish in fluid digital time, sticking to a policy of refreshing material only when the new print edition appears on Monday morning. And so Lane and Denby’s pieces rarely appear concurrent with a film’s release — they usually follow a film’s opening by three or five days and sometimes as long as a week or so later.
When was the last time a New Yorker review appeared a full week ahead of an embargo date and over two weeks ahead of a film’s nation release? I’m assuming this has happened on occasion over the last two or three decades, but I haven’t done the research. I’m tempted to write that the last time a New Yorker review caused this much of a stir was when Pauline Kael‘s early-bird piece on Robert Altman‘s Nashville (“The funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen”) came out many weeks if not months ahead of its opening.
In my book Shame director Steve McQueen has been inspected and identified to a fare-thee-well by New Yorker critic Anthony Lane. I would go so far as to say that for readers of Lane’s 12.5 review, which first appeared six days ago, the McQueen mystique is no more. He will continue to create and make films and whatnot, but from this point on he has no clothes.
“McQueen, a Brit who attended art schools and worked in visual installation before turning to feature films, was lauded for Hunger (2008), and rightly so, although even that movie, about an I.R.A. hunger-striker” — played by Shame‘s Michael Fassbender — “was imperilled by the coolness of its own gaze. The wall of a jail cell, smeared with excrement as an act of protest, was filmed with such compositional care that it became, in effect, a work of abstract art, allowing us to forget what it actually was: human waste, applied with human rage, and surely unbearable to the human nose.
“McQueen could hardly be hipper, yet he remains, to an extent, an old-fashioned aesthete, drawn to extreme behavior in his characters not because of any trials of spirit that they undergo but because he is challenging himself to unleash the wildest material that he, wielding his camera, can then possess and tame.
“The result is pure and pitiless, and, in the case of Shame, oddly disapproving. The film has an NC-17 rating, and it will prompt the customary gasps of outrage, but no viewer, however prim, could be harsher on the uncontrollable Brandon than the director is. At no point is the philanderer permitted to look as if he might be enjoying himself, and Fassbender, who was, frankly, much sexier and more devilish in X-Men: First Class, is required to spend much of his time staring with blank intensity into the middle distance.
“Whether Brandon is ashamed, as the movie’s title proposes, is open to debate; he looks merely shattered to me, roped to his own runaway habits, and although he does have one discernible rush of self-loathing: cramming his carnal detritus into garbage sacks, all you can think is, How charmingly retro! A guy who still buys porno magazines!
“Later, in one tidal wave of a night, he comes on to a woman in a bar, gets hoofed in the face by her boyfriend, swings by a gay club for a brief encounter (any port in a storm), and then rounds off the evening with a nice warm threesome. His companions, in that climactic bout, are played by DeeDee Luxe and Calamity Chang, two names that made me happier than anything else in the film.
“No such joy for Brandon; while his body is enmeshed with theirs, his face is trapped in a desperate rictus, as if he were nearing the loudest sneeze of his life, and what McQueen treasures here is the sullen aftermath, with the drained lecher sitting and crying beside the rotting piers of a wharf. And that’s what happens to naughty little boys.”
Here’s hoping that Paddy Considine‘s Tyrannosaur — easily the most critically respected commercial dud of 2011, at least in the U.S. — receives some love tonight at the Moet British Independent Film Awards, which happens tonight at London’s Old Billingsgate. (Chris Dalrmple says the live stream will be on lovefilm.com) At the very least Tyranny‘s Olivia Colman needs to win for Best Actress…right?
Tyrannosaur is up for Best Film, Best Director (Considine), Best Debut Director, Best Actress (Colman), Best Actor (Peter Mullan), Best Supporting Actor (Eddie Marsan) and…is that it? I heard somewhere that it was nominated for seven. Whatever.